Justification by Faith – Lest We Forget
By: Deji Yesufu
18th century England was the period that inherited full blown Protestant theology and it was also the century that birth the most experimental evangelicalism that Protestantism can boast of in recent history. The 16th century founded Protestantism in Europe and much of the 17th century was used to resolve the religious wars that the Protestant revolution had caused in Europe. 18th century England gave us most of the hymns that we sing in our churches today. I find even Roman Catholic Churches singing some of those songs – I suspect that if they know their roots, they will not touch them with a long poll.
While evangelicalism blossomed in the 18th century, another problem began to rear its head. 16th century Protestantism insisted on the concept of child baptism. They argued that while it did not confer baptismal regeneration on the infant, it however brought the child into the covenant community of God’s people – exposing him or her to the means of grace and most certainly will help the child to know God in adult life. The natural consequence of this theology was that a whole lot of people that grew up in church in the generations that succeeded the reformers, took up Christianity in a nominal manner. They were simply Christians because their parents were Christians.
Two preachers will subsequently challenge this false profession in the minds of the church people of the 18th century. These men were Jonathan Edwards, who had his church and ministry in America; and George Whitefield who was based in England but had an itinerant ministry that transversed the Atlantic Ocean. These two men were ordained ministers of the Presbyterian Church and the Church of England – respectively – and they held to the church’s position that infants ought to be baptized. They however realized that while there was a lot of profession of faith among church people, their way of living was contradicting the tenets of scripture.
To draw the church back to its foundational truth, these men taught their generation the doctrines of justification by faith (alone) and they drew out its implications to their listeners. The result was that Whitefield found the doors of the churches shut against him and he resorted to preaching to men and women in the open fields. Edwards will eventually clash with his own parishioners over the matter of genuine conversion. As he sought to withhold the bread and wine from some parishioners over his suspicion of false conversion on their part, he was sacked from his pastorate. Jonathan Edwards is still regarded as the greatest American religious philosopher of all time – yet, he ended his life in almost ignominy because he insisted that the church he led ought to be biblical in its belief and practice.
Probably one central lesson that proceeded from the 16th century reformation was the fact that evangelical churches needed to be reformed and to also keep reforming. And what will keep these churches on the cutting edge of the reformation was the same doctrine that birth the reformation itself: justification by faith, alone. Now, the problem is usually not with ignorance of the doctrine but the practical outworking of the doctrine. I am convinced that just like it was with 18th century England, our own generation also need to be reminded of what “justification by faith” is, and we particularly need to see its outworking in our lives. The fruit of a belief is true proof of its realities in the lives of its professors. In this essays, I want to attempt a brief definition of justification by faith. In the second part of the essay, I will then proceed to suggest certain fruits that should proceed from a heart that has had these realities in them.
The best definition for “justification by faith” must be provided by the Apostle Paul, whom some suggest invented the doctrine but we would realize later that this is not true since justification by faith is a direct outcome of God’s work in redemptive history. Paul, writing in Romans, said:
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:23-24,28).
Justification is a legal term that speaks of the relationship between a judge and a condemned criminal. The judge in this case is the Judge of the whole earth: God. The legal requirements of this holy Judge are the ten commandments as they are listed in the Old Testament. There is no indication in the whole of the Bible that the ten commandments ceased to be the standard of righteousness that God will judge the whole world. A simple examination of the ten commandments quickly reveals that every human being has broken at least one of God’s laws. And to break one law is to have broken all of God laws (James 2:10). This leaves off the reality that every man is a sinner before a holy God and every one of us stand condemned within his righteous courts – all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glory.
But as the sinner stands condemned in God’s courts, awaiting the righteous wrath of God to fall on him, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, obtained eternal redemption for God’s people. Rather than pour his wrath on the guilty sinner, God sent his wrath on his only begotten Son – who took on the sin of the world. He died and rose again, obtaining salvation for God’s elect. Now, back to the court room. The sinner is condemned. God has passed his righteous judgement: the soul that sins shall die. But Christ comes into the heavenly court room and shows God, the righteous Judge, that he has paid the price for the sins of the condemned sinner. He has taken the wrath of God in the place of the sinner. God’s wrath is now appeased in the redemption that Christ has obtained and God stands righteous in justifying the sinner and declaring him righteous – only by faith in the holy Son of God.
Justification by faith is the judicial pardon that God bestows on sinners who lay faith on Christ alone. They see clearly that their works of righteousness is not sufficient to save them from their sins and so they place their hopes to be saved from the righteous wrath of God on Christ alone. Scripture says of Abraham that he believed God and God counted that faith as righteousness for him (Genesis 15:6). The same Bible says of Abraham, as written by Paul:
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5).
When a man is appointed to do a job, on completing that work what is owed him is his wages – or a kind of debt that his employers is bound by law to pay. Paul is saying here that the grace that comes with redemption is one that is devoid of works – what anyone can do to obtain the approbation of heaven. He is saying that true justifying faith is one that simply trust Jesus Christ for salvation. It is this faith that bestows true righteousness on the saints. Justification by faith says that true righteousness is not by what we do but what we believe. In other words, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved (Acts 16:31).
So, in the great chemistry that leads to a sinners being justified freely by God’s grace, there are two things the sinner must see: he must see his sins and he must experience God’s pardon. I paint this a little more graphically when I argue that it is not exactly correct that Christians do nothing in the whole process of their redemption. It is true that we do nothing but in actual fact, we actually do something. Our redemption is made more real only because we bring our sins to the equation. Remember when Jesus told the Pharisees that they could not appreciate him as a Messiah because they considered themselves righteous (Luke 5:30-32). The Son of Man came to save sinners and only those who bring their sins to the redemptive equation can see the glories of redemption. We are also told in scripture that Angels cannot understand the full realities of redemption (1 Peter 1:12). They do not understand it because they do not have sins. The darkness of our sins, make the glories of redemption even brighter.
Now, one thing we cannot forget in this brief reminder of the blessings of justification by faith is to remind ourselves of our sins. First, the sinner, whom we bring the gospel to, must be made to see his sins. The laws of God must be clearly enumerated before him and he or she must be shown to have broken God’s laws (I strongly recommend the Ray Comfort evangelism model to those who want to know how to do this). Secondly, the saints need to be reminded that we are justified sinners. The only difference between the Christian and the unbeliever is that one has received pardon for his sins by God justifying him freely in Christ Jesus; the other has not.
In the second part of this essay, I will be looking at greater implication of Justification by faith. Suffice to say here that the sinners need to understand the reason why God gave us the option of bringing sin to the redemption equation. It does not only help us to appreciate the realities of our redemption, it also keeps us to be very humble. We realize that even today our sins are still very much with us. We do not try to justify our failing but are quick to repent before God and before the men we fail – if occasion warrants we do this. When evangelicalism begins to take up the toga of perfection, goodness and classism, we begin to lose the picture of where we came from. We were once sinners and through the grace that Christ bestows, today we are justified saints – or better still, justified sinners.