JUSTIFICATION IS THE ISSUE FIRST IMPORTANCE
As Aaron mentioned last week, this will be the final shot I get to preach to the church that has been my home for almost three years now. This will be the longest time I have ever remained at one church and God has done so much in my life through doing life with you all and serving with The Line. I could take the time up here just to tell everything Jesus has done for me while at The Line, but I won’t this morning.
Last week I spent time praying over what God would have me preach. Nothing was clear. On Monday I continued to pray, “what would you have me preach in my final sermon?” The Spirit provided clarity pretty quickly – preach in your final sermon what is of first importance. So that’s what I’m gonna do.
In these five short verses Paul touches on so many major issues that we consider so important for our lives. He deals with how we try to live our lives, how we ought to live our lives, how we are tempted to view God, how God views us, and how we might actually be happy! All of these are important to most, if not all of us in this room. At some level, we want to know if we are living meaningful lives. At some level we want to know if we are “good people.” And we want – we want so much – to be happy. We want joy! So if these are important to you, then this text is important to you and it has much to say. However, Paul does not necessarily deal with each of them directly. He deals with the foundation. We can think of them then as rooms in a house. Each room is vital to make house complete, but if the foundation is faulty, the house will collapse. So we can say the foundation is of first importance to the house and all its rooms. For Paul the foundation is this: Justification. The text is saying that the core issue for our lives, the issue of first importance for you and me is justification.
As we work through this passage we’re are going to see two points. The first is that you and I have a major problem – we can’t justify ourselves by our works. The second is that there’s only one solution – to trust in the One whose work does justify us. Before getting to these points, it’s necessary first to define justification biblically.
On its own, justification means, “right standing.” The way we use the term justify or justification most today is in the realm of psychology. It has to do with trying to explain or defend wrong actions. Another term is rationalization. A friend told me a story of a four year-old who threw rocks at his younger sister. When his parents asked why he did it, he said “the evil things inside of me said ‘I have a good idea!’” He was only four and that was a more brilliant response than I could ever come up with even now in all my wisdom and experience. What was he trying to do? He was trying to justify his actions to put himself back in a position of “right standing” with his parents.
But the Bible speaks of justification on much different terms. First, justification is applied to our relationship with God so it deals with right standing before God. Second, it’s a legal term, a term that’s used in law courts. So it’s as if we are in the law court of God with him as the Judge. Third, justification comes only by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Fourth, justification has a double meaning. Negatively it means being declared not guilty for your sins. It means Christ’s work has pardoned you from the punishment of your sins and they are forgiven. Positively it means Christ’s righteousness is given to you and you are accepted, approved, and loved by God.
Another way that’s helpful to of justification is as the opposite of condemnation. Condemnation means that you are declared guilty, that you deserve punishment and that you receive it because of your sins. You are rejected, disapproved and hated by God. In Scripture, when it comes to standing before God there is either one or the other. You are either justified or condemned. You can’t be both. Two implications should be drawn from this:
He’s not ambivalent
The first implication is that there’s no neutrality, no ambivalence with God. Your life matters to God and He’s not just twiddling his thumbs with lack of care or concern or involvement. He does not just sit back and let you live your life. He created you and you reflect his image on earth. He knows the numbers of hairs on your head. Each and every one of us will go before God and give an account to our Judge for the lives we’ve lived He will know it all. You matter immensely to Him whether or not He matters to you at all. So God isn’t ambivalent.
He’s all in
The second implication is that God is all-in with his judgment of our lives. There is fullness with both justification and condemnation. You are either fully justified or fully condemned. You are either fully accepted or fully rejected. There’s no in-between. God does not accept you with conditions nor does he condemn with them. He doesn’t look at you and say, “well, I’m just not sure about that one…” There are no reservations in God’s decisions, even if you have reservations about Him and say, “well, I’m just not sure about God.”
THE MAJOR PROBLEM
Okay, with justification defined we can get back to the two points this passage makes. The first is that we have a major problem: We can’t justify ourselves by our works. The passage deals with this by providing a test case. In 4:1 we are introduced to Abraham. Paul has spent quite some time developing his case for justification because it is the core of the gospel message for him. In fact, he began all the way back in 1:18 and will go all the way through chapter 8 striving for a clear, robust understandable meaning of justification. Where we are at is crucial for his argument. This is the first time he’s brought someone from the history of Israel into the argument. A good question to ask then is, “Why Abraham?” Well he mentions here in v. 1 that Abraham is “our forefather according to the flesh and again the one who is “father of us all” in v. 16. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, a ragtag mix of converts to Christianity who came from a variety of backgrounds that were both Jewish and non-Jewish in origin. In any case, all can trace their ancestry back to him. In a very real sense, if what Paul has argued doesn’t work when applied to Abraham, it doesn’t work at all for any of us. That’s why he brings him in here.
Paul says in v. 2, “for if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about.” Now when Paul talks about “works” he is referring to the works of the Jewish Law, which was established after Abraham lived. One scholar says that “The Jewish people looked up to Abraham as the primary example of the pious Jew who kept the law even before it was given.” The Law permeated every aspect of Jewish life and they believed that Abraham upheld it well enough to be justified by God. In other words, Abraham’s actions made him a good person. He would be a guy that we could even look up to today with our own standards of goodness and say “he lived a good life” or “I respect him” or “He’s a good person.” So, according to how we view goodness today, how does Abraham measure up? Was he a really “good man”? Let’s look at this from a number of angles.
Some of us might define a “good person” by their wealth, or we may at least say that that person has “the good life.” Abraham was wealthy and smart business man. Genesis 13:2 tells us he was “very rich” and by the accounts that follow, he’d probably be up there with Bill Gates if he were alive today. At the same time he didn’t horde his wealth. He was willing to give the most plush land to his nephew and he even gave a tenth of all he had to Melchizedek, meaning he tithed to the church!
If we don’t define goodness by just wealth, what about family? Some of us think a good person is one who loves his or her family. Abraham loved his wife and was committed to her, even when she couldn’t bear children, which was a big deal back then. He took her advice, even when it wasn’t the best, and he sought to protect her. When his son Isaac was born, we learn that Abraham loved him deeply. Not only that, but Abraham made sure to take care of his entire “household” which was at least 320 people.
If goodness isn’t just defined by wealth and family, what about leadership? In Genesis 14 we learn that not only was he wealthy and a family man, he was also a warrior where he took 318 men from his household and fought to rescue his nephew Lot. He won the only battle we know he fought. He was a skillful warrior and tactician who led them well. So if wealth, family, and leadership don’t make him good, what about his religion? Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that Abraham was willing to leave everything he knew in order to do what God told him to do and receive what God promised. Passages like this and others make a very strong case that Abraham was obedient to God and listened to what God wanted for his life. So to sum it all this up, Abraham is basically is Bill Gates, Bill Cosby, Maximus, and Billy Graham all rolled up into one person. You get the sense that he could make that elusive perfect cup of coffee Aaron preached about last week and that he could even give Chuck Norris a run for his money. So then we hear the words of Paul, “for if Abraham is justified by works, he has something to boast about?” Based on what we’ve seen it seems like Abraham had something to boast about? He had to be a good person, right?
If that isn’t clear, let me provide another example. Perhaps the best contemporary example we have is Mother Teresa. Saying her name immediately causes reverence and respect. She was world famous without trying to be world famous, successful to the point of receiving a Nobel Peace Prize without trying to receive recognition from anyone, sacrificial beyond our understanding as she served in the slums of Calcutta for decades. Should 2000 years pass, her name will still be written in books much like Abraham’s is here. What about her? Are not her works her boast? It seems so easy for us to say yes. If there is anyone who is good it’s her. She deserves to be justified by God and accepted by him based off of all she’s done.
Now here’s where the crucial question is asked: How do you measure up to Abraham? How do you measure up to Mother Teresa? We look at lives like this and can’t help but compare ourselves. They are such high standards of what we think a good person is and it’s easy to feel guilty, but that only lasts for a little bit, doesn’t it? What do we do? We throw up our hands and say, “Well, I’m no Mother Teresa.” So are we admitting that we aren’t good people? No, because what comes out in the same breath? “…but I’m still a good person.” How do you come to that conclusion? Could it be that instead of comparing yourself to Mother Teresa, you compare yourself to the homeless alcoholic you pass on the street, the Muammar Gaddafi’s of the world, the abusive mom or the coach who takes advantage of young boys he’s been entrusted to protect? Could it be because you say “I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’m sure not like those people.” You live as though you might not have done anything like Mother Teresa to boast about, but you sure as heck have done some small things to boast about which keep you out of the company of “those people” and thus puts you in the company of “good people,” justified before God. Or are you?
Look at what Paul says again, “for if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about but…” but what? But not before God. Here’s the crux of the problem. If we look closely at what Paul is saying here we see that even Mother Teresa can’t be Mother Teresa and Abraham can’t be Abraham! In reality Mother Teresa could never be the woman we think she is nor could Abraham be the man the Jews thought he was.
The problem is we’ve mixed up that psychological definition of justification with the biblical one. We compare ourselves with others and try to find a way to justify ourselves before them and think that will work before God. The biblical definition clearly shows that neither Abraham, nor Mother Teresa, nor we can do this before God. That’s Paul’s point in these first two verses. Abraham’s works can’t justify him before God and therefore neither can ours. This is our major problem. So what can we do? Can we do anything? Paul begins to show the solution in verse 3 to show in fact that Abraham was justified, just not in the way we think as he quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
THE ONLY SOLUTION
Now we come to the second point where we see that there’s only one solution. Paul gives us the solution through contrast in vv. 4-5. He moves to build off what he means by v. 3 by focusing on this word “counted.” This is language of the marketplace and here he is giving two situations.
First, look at v. 4. What does he say? Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due.” He says if you work you get compensated. It’s as simple as that. He recognizes the transactional nature of work. It’s not a gift to get paid to do your work. On payday you’re not looking at your check saying, “What??? What’s this??? I’m getting paid???” You don’t start balling, crying “What a gift! What generosity!” The term “counted” means something credited to your account for what you are owed. It’s looking at your bank account and seeing the direct deposit go through for teaching the past couple weeks. You get the idea. In short, Paul is talking about someone who is a productive laborer. What do I mean by a productive laborer? Well it is simply someone who is a productive member of society, somebody who contributes to the maintenance and building up of society and in turn gets compensated in some fashion. This is common sense to us. This is how we are raised. Nearly everything we do when being raised reinforces the notion of being a productive laborer. And this is tied to our boasting. So parents boast of their baby before she can even boast in herself. “Potty trained already! Smartest child in the world!” Then, as kids get older it’s report cards that boast you can produce at the next level of school. Then in high school it’s extra-curricular activities combined with your report card that boast you can cut it in college. Then in college it’s all these that boast you can make it in the “real world.” All the while you develop a morality that says “I’m a good person because I’m a productive laborer.” This is reinforced so much in our lives that it seems like the logical next step to apply it to God. We think, “God – here is what I’ve done. Here is the job I held, here are the friends I had, here is how I volunteered, here is what I created. Here is how I stayed out of trouble and yeah, here’s how I got in trouble, but it’s not that bad because I’m still a productive laborer. I’m a good person. Therefore, God, give me what you owe me.” Sure, God is loving and accepting, but does that mean God is in your debt? Does God really owe you his love and his acceptance, based on what you’ve done? If so, what kind of God is that? An employer? Who would want a God like that? Some of you believe this with your friends, that if you do enough for them they owe you their love. For some of you it’s the same way with your parents. How does it feel? It sucks. It’s painful. It’s draining. It’s such a burden, isn’t it? We don’t even want parents or friends like that, why would we ever want to have a relationship with a God like that? Thankfully that is not the God of the Bible. Paul shows us another way.
In v. 5 Paul writes, “And to the one who does not work.” Did you catch that? DOES NOT WORK. Perhaps this isn’t as shocking given what we’ve already seen in v. 4. But it still serves to emphasize what he’s said already. He goes on, “And to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly his faith is counted as righteousness.” The best way to illustrate this is to look at a particular episode in the life of Jesus. Mark, a writer of one of the four gospels, writes of a time when Jesus was at home preaching. By this time Jesus was famous for both his preaching and his healing, so the place was packed to the point that nobody could enter through the door. Up comes a paralytic being carried on a bed by his four top dudes. They see it’s too packed, but they are so determined to bring their friend to Jesus that they go on the roof, removing a part of it so they could lower him down. Imagine being the person lowered from the roof and being set before Jesus. The entire crowd is looking at you. You have no place to go and even more serious is the fact that you are incapable of going anywhere. You’re looking up at him and the whole crowed is looking down at you. What do you want Jesus to do in that moment? I know what I would want. “Heal me Jesus! Make me walk!” But what happens? Jesus looks at him and his friends, sees their faith, and says “My son, your sins are forgiven.” For us this might not seem like a big deal. They just seem like words. Anybody can say that. For us we say, “Everyone sins…it’s no big deal.” Jesus acknowledges the ease of saying it, but fact is, sin is a huge deal. It’s against God’s law, a punishable offense against the sinless, perfect, holy God where just one sin deserves his wrath. It’s easy to say, “your sins are forgiven,” but only God can truly accomplish that. It’s such a crazy thing to say that some Jewish leaders in the room began to question him. Jesus then, knowing the magnitude of what he said and knowing the hearts of those who questioned him, challenges them. Do you not believe I have the authority to both say and do this? He tells them, “so that you know I have the authority on earth to forgive sins…” then he looks at the paralytic and says to him “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” Mark says that the paralytic who just moments before needed to be carried on a bid rose immediately, carried his own bed and obeyed Jesus.
What’s the point? The point is that you’re not a productive laborer before your employer God who can earn your justification. Rather, you’re like this man, a paralytic lawbreaker before your holy God who deserves condemnation! It means you’re in no position to do the work necessary to be made right with God. You’re paralyzed before Him, meaning you have no ability to do anything. And you’re a lawbreaker meaning you rebel against Him and never want to do anything. Moreover, even if you do have the ability, you don’t want to do the work and even if you wanted to do the work, you don’t have the ability. In other words, it’s impossible. We all are, as Paul puts it, “ungodly.” So how then are you and I justified?
Let’s look at this story more closely. Notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t immediately heal the man physically. He healed the man’s sinful life by forgiving his sins. The man was a lawbreaker against God and needed forgiveness or he would be punished. Contrary to the thoughts of others and perhaps your thoughts, this was the man’s primary need. He didn’t primarily need food or shelter and he didn’t even need to be healed physically. He needed to have his sins forgiven because they separated him forever from God. And though much has changed over 2000 years, this primary need has remained the same. It doesn’t matter when or where you grew up. It doesn’t matter how many opportunities you had for success growing up. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done with your life up to now – your need is the same as this man’s. Maslow was dead wrong. The most fundamental issue in your life is being justified by God. Jesus knew this so while the man, his friends, and everyone around him may have expected physical healing, Jesus instead decided to first meet his most basic need – the forgiveness of his sins.
I got an e-mail this week from a friend in his early 60s who’s not a Christian, but has been searching for at least 8 years which was when I first started getting to know him. I asked him how this journey is going and he wrote back, “I think the best news I’ve received in recent years…is that we must accept God on his terms and not our own. This makes sense to me more than anything ‘man made.’” This is such an important insight. We don’t see the paralytic’s response, but in the very least we don’t see him say, “What? You’re just gonna forgive my sins? I thought you were a healer, a miracle worker. I got jipped Jesus.” We don’t see that. This means the man accepted Jesus on Jesus’ terms, not his own. Are you willing to accept God on his terms and not your own?
You might still ask, “What are God’s terms? Isn’t his standard high? But what does Paul say? “And to the one who does not work, but trust Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” How does God justify the ungodly? He lays it out plainly later on when he writes, “For if while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Christ didn’t die for nothing or nobody. He died for you. Paul also spells it out earlier when he writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22b-25). You hear that? Justification comes by grace as a gift through faith! Do you see what God’s terms are? Trust. You know what your only job is? Trust. The good news is that God doesn’t want your righteousness, just your trust in His Son’s righteousness and it will be given to you. Paul is surrounding our passage with these beautiful words to show that Christ has done all the work already. It’s finished. It’s only by faith in the good work of Jesus Christ on the Cross that we are justified. Try, try, try as you might to stand, to walk, to run, to dance before God to show off all you can do and see that you don’t even have the ability to move your big toe. You’re paralyzed. He just wants your trust. And then ask, really ask, even if you could do something, anything, would it really be for God at all? You’re a lawbreaker. He just wants your trust. Justification is “by his grace as a gift.” We deserve nothing but punishment, but he forgives us completely; we deserve nothing but rejection, but he accepts us fully, without reservations. We are unrighteous, but we are declared “righteous” because we have been given Christ’s righteousness. That’s such unfathomable, rich, abundant grace. That’s justification.
TRUST IN THE JUSTIFYER
So we’ve have a major problem in that it’s impossible to justify ourselves by our own works. Yet we also know the only solution is to trust in Christ’s work to justify us. This is the heart of the gospel. It’s the issue of first importance. Some of you today need to stop trying to be productive laborers, running the futile race in this world that may seem to get you countless places, but nowhere with God. Open your eyes and see that you’re just a paralyzed lawbreaker laying there before the Cross and trust in Him who justifies the ungodly.
And still there are some of you that have forgotten this truth. You still think sometimes that you have to earn God’s acceptance. You sometimes believe the lie that you are condemned by God when you do wrong. You sometimes think you’ve ruined your relationship with God by what you’ve done or not done. You sometimes think God’s commitment to you wavers depending on what you do. Remember that you matter to God infinitely more than He matters to you. He is all in with you in a way that you can never be with Him. You need to remember this gift of grace you’ve received. You need to pull it out from the corner you hid it in, wipe the dust off and grip on to it with all your might, remembering what Christ has done for you. You can do nothing more. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You can’t ruin Christ’s work because it’s finished forever. You’re fully accepted. You’re fully approved. You’re fully loved by God. You’re justified and just as you have no power to make that happen, you have no power to destroy it either. Trust in Christ and receive the news of your justification with joy just as Paul writes, quoting David who’s so happy in the truth of his justification:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”