By Faith Alone

Romans 3-5

October 29, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

I still remember when I learned to justify my margins.

It happened many years ago, in the early days of the computer revolution, when we purchased some new computers for the church office. Back then, long before cell phones and even before the Internet, a big, boxy desktop computer seemed like a magic machine. I took every chance I could get to sit down and see what I could make those computers do.

I discovered you could do some amazing things. You could make boxes and squares, or you could draw a diagram and put it anywhere you wanted on the page. You could pick out your font and make it larger or smaller with the click of a button. For those of us raised on an IBM Selectric typewriter with interchangeable font balls, it seemed miraculous.

If the right-hand edge is straight, the margin is justified

Along the way I learned how to justify my margins. Some of you will smile at hearing such a trivial piece of information, but to me it was a big discovery.

Justified margins is what you have when the computer arranges the letters in such a way that all the lines of text end up at the same place. That means the right margin is straight all the way down the page. There’s an easy way to put it.  Simply run your eye down the right side of a page:

—If the right-hand edge is straight, the margin is justified.
—If the right-hand edge is crooked, it isn’t.

It’s simple, really. To justify margins means to make them straight. If they are crooked, they are unjustified.

Made Straight with God

Now take that same concept and transfer it over to the Bible, and you will discover something very helpful. To justify something means to make it straight. If it is left crooked, it is unjustified. When someone asks, “How can I be justified?” they are really asking, “How can I be made straight with God?”

How can I be made straight with God?

This year Reformation Sunday falls on October 30. It is always celebrated in Protestant churches on the Sunday closest to October 31, the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, striking the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who struggled to find acceptance with God. Day after day in his cloistered room, he would pray and seek God and try to find peace in his soul. But the harder he tried, the more he despaired because he knew the greatness of his sin. He went to Mass, did penance, crawled on his knees up the holy stairs in Rome, kept every decree of his religion, and still he found no peace.

Until one day he read in the Bible, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Then he saw that a right standing with God is not based on merit or good works but wholly on what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross. Luther put his trust in Christ alone for his salvation, and the Reformation was born.

Sola Fide!

As the message spread across Europe, men began to write it on placards and on walls where everyone could read it. The great truth of the Reformation finally came down to two Latin words—Sola Fide, by faith alone. It was written everywhere.

How can I be justified? Sola Fide! By Faith Alone!
How can I be made right with God? Sola Fide! By Faith Alone!

The Cornerstone of Christianity

Keep these three words together in your mind: Just, Justify, Justification. They all come from the same root word in Greek. To justify means to “declare righteous.” Justification is the act of being righteous in God’s eyes. Just is what you are when you’ve been declared righteous by God. To say it another way, to be justified means you are no longer crooked in the eyes of the Lord.

The doctrine of justification is central to our faith. Martin Luther called it “the cornerstone of Christianity.” J.I. Packer said, “A church that lapses from justification by faith can scarcely be called Christian.” It is the doctrine that answers the question, “How can a man be made right with God?”

God justifies with the ungodly!

When you turn to the New Testament, you find that the Greek words for Justification, Justify, Just and Righteousness (which comes from the same Greek root) are used over 100 times. Nobody can read the New Testament and miss this concept. We can see this clearly in Romans 4:5,

“To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

The shock is always in the first part of the verse. It is not to the man who works, not to the religious man, not to the church member, but to the man who trusts God who justifies the wicked. This is the heart of evangelical Christianity, that our God justifies the wicked. Many people won’t come to Christ because they think they aren’t good enough. They feel they are too lost in sin. They are lost in sexual sin, lost in addiction to alcohol and drugs, to anger or bitterness, lost in a terrible, destructive way of life.

Someone may say, “You don’t know how I have been living.” No, I don’t, but God is not in the business of justifying the good. He is in the business of justifying the bad. He doesn’t justify the righteous. God justifies the wicked while they are still wicked. He justifies the sinner while he is still a sinner. God never said to anybody, “Clean up your act and then I’ll save you. Get yourself in better shape and then I’ll forgive your sins.” No, no, no! Maybe we in the church have said that. Maybe in our relationships we have unconsciously said that to lost people. Maybe we have told them they are too dirty to be saved. But God never said that. God says, “Run to the cross, embrace Jesus Christ, trust in him, and you will be justified even while you are still in a wicked state.”

The Verdict: “Not Guilty”

What does it mean to be justified? It helps to know that Paul is borrowing a term from the courtroom that refers to the final verdict in a trial. It’s what happens when the jury has returned and the judge says, “Have you reached a verdict?” and the foreman says, “Yes we have.”  The judge says, “What is your verdict?” and the foreman replies, “We the jury find the defendant not guilty.”

No guilt, no penalty, no condemnation

To justify someone means to find them “Not Guilty.” But it means more than that. If someone is “Not Guilty,” they are declared to be innocent of the charges brought against them. When you justify a person, you declare publicly that they are not guilty and are in fact innocent in the eyes of the law.

If you are justified, it means that in the record books by your name there are no black marks. If you are justified, it means your record is clear and clean. It means the charges are dropped. There is no guilt, no penalty, no condemnation. Every demand of the law has been met in full.

Go to the Head of the Class

Here’s a definition that will help us. Justification is the act of God whereby he declares that when a sinner believes in Jesus, that sinner is righteous in the eyes of God. Note four things about justification from Romans 3-5. It is . . .

  1. Based on God’s grace (Romans 3:24).
  2. Grounded in the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9).
  3. Not according to our works (Romans 4:5).
  4. Through faith (Romans 3:28).

Sometimes people talk about justification and forgiveness as if they were the same thing. They are not. It is true that they happen at the same time and are inseparable. No one is forgiven who is not also justified. No one is justified who is not also forgiven. But they are not identical.

What’s on your “permanent record” in heaven?

Forgiveness is the subtraction of that which is sinful from your record.
Justification is the addition of that which is righteous to your record.

Let’s suppose that I have obtained a copy of your transcript with your “official” grades. No, not your high school grades. I’m thinking of something more serious than that. Somehow I have gotten a copy of your “permanent record” from the “Principal’s Office” in heaven. Unfortunately, the news is not good. Your grade in every course is the same:

Seeking God — F
Doing Good — F
Obeying God — F
Keeping the Law — F
Being Perfect — F

Not a pretty picture. How would you like it if we changed your grades? I’ve got some good news to share with you. The valedictorian of the class is quite willing to switch grades. His name is Jesus Christ, and He made an A in each class. Here is your final grade from God:

God’s Honor Roll — A

The lesson is simple. If God gave you a report card on your life without Jesus Christ, it would be covered with black marks for all the sins you have committed. Indeed, God gives you and the whole human race an F. You flunk every test. But when you come to Jesus, your F is washed away and your sins are gone forever.

You are not half-justified and half-condemned

What grade would God give you? You get the grade Christ earned because he finished his course at the top of the class. You don’t squeak by with God. You make the honor roll. You go to the head of the class. Why? Because you are so good? No. Left to yourself you would still flunk every course. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you get an A because you are united with Him.

The same righteousness that once required that you get an F now requires that you get an A. You are not half-justified and half-condemned. You are not partially forgiven and partially punished. You are altogether forgiven. Your record is wiped clean. You are declared righteous in the eyes of God. That’s what justification is all about.

Do Versus Done

You can see why this changed Martin Luther’s life. It was this doctrine of Justification by faith alone that sparked the Protestant Reformation. It is the central doctrine of our faith and the one doctrine that sets Christianity apart from the religions of the world.

Religion is spelled with two letters: D-O. Religion is a list of things people think they must do to be accepted by God—go to church, give money, keep the Ten Commandments, be baptized, pray every day, and do good works. The list is endless. It’s always   Do . . . Do . . . Do. If you want to go to heaven, you must do something and keep on doing it until the day you die.

You can never do enough!

Christianity is spelled with four letters—D-O-N-E. Christianity is not based on what we do but upon what Jesus Christ has already done. If you want to go to heaven, you don’t have to do anything; you simply trust in what Jesus Christ has already done for you.

That’s the whole difference—Do versus Done. Either you do it yourself, or you believe that Jesus Christ has already done it for you.

What Justification Means

Here are three important personal implications of this truth for the believer. If you are justified, then . . .

  1. 1. Your standing with God couldn’t be improved because God sees you in Christ. When God looks at you, he sees his Son. Therefore, your standing before God could not be better. Through faith, you are united with Jesus Christ and his righteousness covers you both. When God looks at you he doesn’t see your sin; he sees the righteousness of his own Son.
He is holy; therefore you are holy!
  1. 2. Your salvation is secure and certain because it rests on what Jesus did for you. This is the great truth of eternal security. Justification means that you are righteous in the eyes of God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

He is right; therefore you are right.
He is holy; therefore you are holy.
He is accepted by God; therefore you are accepted by God.
He is seated in heaven; therefore you are seated in heaven with him.

3. Your salvation is secure because it does not rest on you in any way, shape or form. It doesn’t rest on your works because you are justified by faith. But it doesn’t even rest on your faith because your salvation is based not on your faith but on what Jesus Christ did on the cross.

As if we’d been there for 10,000 years

In the words of Jack Wyrtzen, because you have believed in Jesus Christ, you are as sure of heaven as if you had already been there for 10,000 years.

  1. 3. You can have a healthy self-image because God has justified you through the Lord Jesus Christ. You don’t have to try justifying yourself. God has already justified you. You don’t have to clean up your act so that God will accept you. He has already accepted you on the basis of what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Nothing you can do or could ever do can add to the value of the death of Jesus Christ. It is fully sufficient.

A familiar hymn says it this way:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

O Lamb of God, I come!

You come to God just as you are. It’s the only way you can ever come to God.  You come because of the blood of Christ. You come because he bids you to come. That’s what saving faith is all about. It is coming to Jesus Christ just the way you are.

Who Will Condemn Me?

A few chapters later in the book of Romans, Paul comes to a triumphant conclusion about the security of those who are in Jesus Christ. This is how he puts it:

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:33-34).

Will my enemies condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will my friends condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will the demons condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will Satan himself condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will Jesus turn against me? No, he died for me.

Jesus will not condemn me

Will my conscience condemn me and guilt overwhelm me? Maybe on earth but not in heaven. Up there the record is clear forever. I’m justified. I am declared righteous in the eyes of God. I am acceptable to him because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Wholly apart from my works.
Only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Best of all . . . God is not confused by my confusion. He does not doubt because I doubt. He is fully satisfied with Jesus.  Because I have put my faith in Jesus, God is satisfied with me. I’m justified.

Ruth Bell Graham

Ruth Bell Graham, the late wife of Billy Graham, wrote a wonderful book entitled It’s My Turn. In one of her chapters she quotes from her journal, on a day when she was burdened with many cares and she felt totally inadequate as a mother and wife. These are her words:

I am a weak, lazy, indifferent character; casual when I should be concerned, concerned when I should be carefree; self-indulgent, hypocritical, begging God to help me when I am hardly willing to lift a finger for myself; quarrelsome where I should be silent, silent where I should be outspoken; vacillating, easily distracted and sidetracked.

Thou knowest how soon my mind
from Heavenly things to earthly
is drawn aside.
How oft I fail and fall.

I have found tremendous comfort in this old hymn:

Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded,
Sick and sore;
Jesus, waiting, stands to help you,
Full of mercy, love and power . . .

Let not conscience bid you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
Joseph Hart

“What would I do,” wrote Chalmers, “if God did not justify the ungodly?”
And “What would I do,” said Thomas Boston of Scotland, “but for the imputed righteousness?”

There it is.  All that I am not, He is; all that I am and should not be, He forgives and covers.  (pp. 104-105)

Here is the doctrine of justification in one simple question: “What would I do if God did not justify the ungodly?” Ask yourself that question. What would you do? Where would you go? Where would you be if God were not willing to justify the ungodly?

God is not confused by my confusion

The answer is, you would be where Martin Luther was—crawling on your knees, praying desperately to God, sinking ever deeper under the crushing load of unforgiven sin. The Protestant Reformation is all about the great truth that God does indeed justify the ungodly. And he does it by faith alone.

Let me put it to you directly. Where do you stand with God today? Are you straight with him or is your life still one big crooked mess? Have you been justified by faith alone?

Let your mind pause to consider the phrase Ruth Bell Graham quoted from that old hymn: “All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of Him.” Think of it. The only requirement is that you admit you need Jesus. Do you need him? If the answer is yes, then come to Jesus and you will discover he will take you just the way you are.

Our Father, we thank you that you can straighten that which is crooked and make right that which has gone wrong. Some of us have struggled under such a load of guilt for so many years that we hardly believe that anyone—even you!—could ever take it away. Grant us faith to believe your word, and in believing, to find rest for our souls. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?