Justification: Will You Stand or Fall?

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. Perhaps some of you have heard that before. I want to take it a step further and say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not only the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, it is the doctrine on which every person stands or falls. I say this because the core issue in view when considering justification is, without a doubt, a question of supreme importance: how does a sinner come into a right and reconciled standing with a holy God?

As you can imagine, throughout the history of the Church many theologians and scholars have tried to answer this question, and because of this, the doctrine of justification quickly became one of the most debated points of theology. Examples abound: St. Augustine and the humanist Pelagius, Martin Luther and the scholar Erasmus, the Reformers and the Roman Catholics, or more currently, the recent controversy brought about by N.T. Wright and his New Perspective on Paul.

Though this has been debated throughout the ages, the Bible is quite clear on the answer: we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

The Problem

I want to begin in Deuteronomy 6 to see the problem.

After God gave His law to the people Israel a second time as they were on the banks of the Jordan River, Moses told them in Deut. 6:25, “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.” Moses knew the law represented a perfect Lawgiver and that just as God is righteous, so would Israel be if they kept it. But we know what happened don’t we? Israel not only didn’t keep the law, they rejected the law. They refused to obey God and went their own way. They therefore have a problem, they need a perfect righteousness to be accepted in God’s sight, but they don’t have it. And as our own hearts have shown us, Israel’s problem is not only Israel’s problem, it’s man’s problem. Ever since the fall we refuse to honor God as God in our lives and go our own way. Because of this we lack a righteousness that would put us in right standing with God.

So what are we to do? What can we do?

The Answer

To answer this problem as we ought to I want to turn to the Bible to see four passages that give the remedy.

a) Genesis 15:5-6

“And God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

In context when we come to Genesis 15 we find ourselves in the middle of God unfolding His promise to Abraham. Abraham doubts God, thinks his servant will be his heir, God corrects him and continues to make His promise plain. Even though Abraham is old, God says he will be the father of a multitude and the nations will be blessed through him. The significance of this moment in 15:6 is that it clearly shows Abraham looking to the promise of God by faith, and then shows God counting that faith to Abraham as righteousness. This word ‘counted’ in English is the Hebrew word ‘chashav’ which is important because this word is a legal term used other times in the Old Testament when legal declarations were made. That God uses it to ‘count’ Abraham as righteous signifies that God made a legal, binding, and unchanging declaration about who Abraham was not because of what he did, but because of his faith in the promise. So we have the beginning of the unfolding of justification by faith alone.

b) Romans 4:1-5

It just so happens that Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 a few times in his letters. One of those moments is Romans 4:1-5, where he says “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”

In this portion of Romans 4 Paul in v1-3 points out that Abraham was indeed justified by faith and not by works of any kind. But in v4-5 and throughout the rest of chapter Paul states that this was not just a pattern present in Abraham’s life, it’s a pattern present for all men as well. Just as Abraham was not able to boast before God for any of his works, so too no man is able to boast before God for any works. And just as God counted Abraham as righteous by faith then, so too God will count (or legally declare) any man righteous by faith now if that faith in is His Son Jesus who justifies the ungodly, or saves sinners by His perfect work. This solves our Deut. 6:25 problem, and shows that we can be given a perfect righteousness before God through faith. But it doesn’t answer the question of how that righteousness is given to us and it doesn’t tell us what the source of that righteousness is. To see that we must move onto our next passage.

c) 2 Corinthians 5:19-21

“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So what is the source of the righteousness in our justification? Jesus Christ is the source. In 2 Cor. 5:19-21 we see the glories of Jesus’ reconciling righteousness. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. How did God do this? By not imputing our sins to us and imputing them to Jesus as well as imputing the righteousness of Jesus to us, which reconciles us to God. This is a double imputation and a great exchange. Jesus, who never sinned receives our sin, and we who never had any righteousness receives His righteousness. So how are given a righteousness through faith?

John Calvin comments on this passage saying, “How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offenses but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God’s judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ’s righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own.”

So, see that in this double imputation God does not just remove our sin and leave an empty void in us. He removes our sin and fills us with Christ’s righteousness at the moment of salvation (by grace through faith) and, as John Fesko says, “right then and there the believer, like Abraham, is counted righteous.”

 d) Romans 4:23-25

“But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

This last reference is an important one, because too many people only speak of justification in terms of the cross and not the resurrection. Paul makes this point in this passage quoting Genesis 15:6 again saying the words “it was counted to him” were not only for Abraham, they’re for us as well. Then Paul goes on to speak of our faith in “Jesus…who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Paul is saying when Jesus rose from the grave, the resurrection was proof that the Father had accepted Jesus’ payment for sin and placed Jesus back into the His full favor. Since faith unites us to Christ, in both His death and resurrection, God’s approval of Christ results in God’s approval of all who are united to Christ. Therefore as Jesus was validated by His resurrection, so are all those united to Christ by faith, which means the final Day of Judgment to come has already been settled for the believer. So our justification not only involves our past and our present, it involved our future as well. In this sense Jesus was “raised for our justification.”

Remember, on this doctrine every man who has lived, is living, and who will live stands or falls before our holy God. Will you stand? Or will you fall?


Church Membership is Not Shallow Recreation

I believe membership in our church is no small matter.
Church members, just as a body, are reflections and extensions of who the church is.  Therefore no church should take membership lightly, rather it should be a slow but steady process to equip the saints for the work of ministry among the community God has placed us.
A helpful parallel comes into view when thinking about the importance of church membership, marriage.
In a marriage ceremony a man and a woman both enter the ceremony as separate entities and leave as two people in “union.” They do this “publicly” before God and the Church so that the Church can hold them accountable for their promises made.  A similar principle applies to the importance of church membership. “Just as a couple profess their love before God and the church so too a person stands before God and the church to profess faith in Christ and commitment to His Body.” (J.V. Fesko) But, just as there is more to a marriage than public vows to one another, so too church membership is more than a mere public profession of faith and commitment to the community.
When a person joins a Christian church that person is not only telling the world that they are a Christian, but they are telling the church leadership they are willing to submit to their spiritual oversight and guidance.  To come back to the marriage parallel, the man who attends a church but never joins is like a man living with a woman and never committing to her through marriage.  People who do this think they are leaving themselves free of “responsibility” by never completely committing to someone else.  This is sinful. It is a cop-out. Should we think any differently about church membership?  The person who attends church and never joins is doing a similarly tragic thing.  They may think they’re keeping themselves free from responsibility but what they don’t see is that they’re cutting themselves off from the very things God has intended to communicate His grace toward them – the local church.
Don’t hear me saying what I’m not.
Most people take time to find a spouse, for others a spouse comes quickly. Most people take time to find a church they can give their lives to, but for some it doesn’t take much time at all. Just as the end goal of a relationship should be marriage, not shallow recreation, so too the end goal of church visiting is membership. In this sense it is the destination that matters more than the journey.

John V. Fesko: Christ, the End of All Scripture

“This is what I desire to instill in my students: A passion to proclaim Christ and him crucified in word and deed and to serve the church to the glory of Christ.” 
J. V. Fesko

Dr. John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was ordained as a church planter in 1998 and was installed as a pastor in 2003, thus serving in pastoral ministry for over ten years. He has also taught systematic theology for Reformed Theological Seminary for over ten years as a part-time professor. He has served on two committees appointed by the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. His present research interests include the integration of biblical and systematic theology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology.

I first met Dr. Fesko while I was in seminary at RTS Atlanta where he was my systematics professor.  Currently he is the Academic Dean at Westminster Seminary California, as well as the Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology.  Dr. Fesko has written numerous books, written many articles, taught many classes, and preached a lot of sermons (genevaopc.org).

Dr. Fesko was not only one of my seminary professors, he was my first seminary professor and this fact has shaped me more than I know.  Prior to Dr. Fesko’s influence I had never heard any doctrine developed throughout the whole of the Bible like he does.  It was stunning to see and gripping to watch.  I instantly fell in love with the grand, big, large themes of the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  But Dr. Fesko revealed to us through his classes that Scripture has one, overall, grand theme – Christ.  He is the end which all of Scripture longs to take us.  Dr. Fesko taught me this, and I try to teach it to my congregation every week.  Praise God for him indeed.