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Reformation

Justification: How people can be made right with God

Three times in today’s Bible reading Jesus talks about people who misunderstand justification. Justification has to do with the question of, “What does it take for a person to be right with God?” It was the central question of the Reformation. As I said in my sermon series on the Five Solas of the Reformation, the Bible alone tells us that people are made right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone and God alone is glorified in justification. (Note the five solas, the five alones)

In today’s reading from Luke 18:9-14, the Pharisee misunderstood justification in thinking that he could be justified by his righteous behavior. Looking at his behavior, he glorified himself. But the tax collector was justified by grace alone, because of his faith … alone.

In our reading from Luke 18:18-30, the Rich Young Ruler also looked at his behavior, thinking that he would be justified on those grounds. Jesus said that he needed to sell everything he had to give it to the poor and then to follow Him. The young man went away sad because he had a lot. Actually, a lot had him! He wasn’t willing to deny himself, take up his cross daily to follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23) Again, he didn’t understand that justification came through grace alone through faith alone.

In the final instance, the Blind Man wanted to recover his sight. (Luke 18:35-43) When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he responded, “I want to see.” He thought he wanted to see in the physical realm, but Jesus gave him spiritual sight in addition to physical sight. Jesus highlighted that he was saved because of his faith alone. As a result, the man glorified God alone.

The Bible alone tells us about justification. You cannot hear the truth of how people can be right with God anywhere else but the Bible. Not your own thoughts. Not other “holy books”. Not other religions. Only in the Bible will you hear that you can’t earn justification. And that glorifies God alone!

Application

Have you put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for your hope of being right with God? Nothing else but faith in Jesus will give you a right standing with God. It isn’t Jesus plus anything. You can only be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone. It’s a very unfair exchange. We bring sin and Jesus brings holiness. God makes us righteous because of what Jesus did, if we will only put our faith in Jesus.

Because the Bible alone reveals that people can only be justified by grace (unearned favor) alone, through faith (not behavior) alone in Jesus Christ (no other religious leader) alone God alone receives the glor.

That was the heart cry of the Reformation.
And that’s the gospel truth!

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Paul paints a pretty grim picture of fallen mankind in today’s Bible reading. We saw him paint the same picture a few weeks ago in the beginning few chapters of Romans.

He says we were dead. He says we were alienated from God. He says we lived according to our fleshly desires (that’s all we had!). He says we lived according to our enemy’s rules. We were by nature children of wrath. I can’t think of anything he could have missed. There is nothing positive that Paul says about us in our lost, fallen condition. Nothing. And then two of my favorite words….

But God.

While all of these bad things were true of us, God steps in and makes all things new. He makes all things good. He makes all things right so that we might be justified — to have a right standing before Him, not just on judgment day, but today. Jesus served as the final, ultimate, once-for-all atoning sacrifice that made all things right between a holy God and a fallen humanity.

In Romans 5:8, Paul puts it this way. “God shows His love for us us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.”

God made us alive. He raised us up and sat us next to Jesus in the heavenly places so that at some point in the future, he can display the immeasurable riches of His grace through kindness. (Ephesians 2:5-7)

And then in just two verses, Paul drives home the fact that all of this is a miraculous work of God. The only thing we brought to the bargaining table is the sin that made Jesus’ sacrifice necessary.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV)

  • Grace is unmerited favor. He gave it because He wanted to.
  • We have been saved. This is a passive mood in Greek. It happened to us. We didn’t do it to/for ourselves; it happened from outside of us.
  • We have been saved. This is the perfect tense in Greek. Salvation is a done deal. There is nothing left for us to do to complete it.
  • Salvation is through faith and it (the process of salvation) is not of our own doing.
  • Salvation is the gift of God. It’s something given, not earned.
  • Salvation is not of works. Again, we didn’t earn it by doing anything for it. Otherwise, by definition it wouldn’t be grace, it would be “wages“.

SEVEN TIMES IN TWO VERSES!

No one can boast of salvation. Why? Because we were passive in the process when it happened to us from outside of us, not of our own doing, but rather was a gift that we didn’t work for.

Paul highlights the fact that this was a miraculous work of God because He wanted to do it (He wasn’t obligated to do it)!

Application

As they say, “If that doesn’t light your fire, your wood is wet!” How else could anyone respond to such a great salvation that God has given to His kids, but respond in joy and praise!

Spend some time doing that today!

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Romans 3:10-18 Old Testament Cross References
Source: ESV Study Bible

In today’s Bible reading, Paul refers to several Psalms (Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3 which are virtually identical) and Isaiah 59:7-8 to show the Old Testament basis that everyone is under the penalty of sin.

I used my Bible software to do an in-depth word study from Paul’s Greek in Romans and the Hebrew from Psalms and Isaiah. This Bible software is state-of-the-art, the best software you can buy, and it has all kinds of language resources including lexicons, dictionaries, and commentaries from world-class scholars. Let me share with you some astounding revelations from the original languages:

No one is righteous
No one understands
No one seeks for God
Everyone has turned aside from God
No one does good
No one fears God

It is very clear from my in-depth study of the Greek and Hebrew (and any plain reading in an English translation for that matter!) that Paul leaves no exception to those who are under the penalty of sin. Everyone deserves God’s judgment. Every. One. Of. Us.

You may respond, “But I’m a basically good person. I go to church. I sing in the choir. I write big checks and drop them in the offering plate.” Paul says that religious people are no better than nonreligious people when it comes to true righteousness. He paints a very bleak picture of mankind. But Paul is simply quoting from those Old Testament passages.

The theologians of the Reformation attempted to reclaim the Biblical understanding of Justification in asking how people are made right before God. They said that to understand Justification, you have to begin with another central doctrine (teaching) called Total Depravity.

In this doctrine, they said that the Fall of mankind affects every person to the very core of their being. Because that term “total depravity” sounds like it says that we are completely incapable of any good at all, modern theologian, RC Sproul has named this doctrine Radical Corruption (radical comes from the word for root so he says our corruption extends down to our roots). Taking into account what Paul says in Romans 3, the Reformers said that even our will was affected by the Fall; no one seeks for God. We don’t have to look far for sin influence in our lives; John Calvin said our hearts are idol factories. How true!

So if mankind is under the penalty of sin and every one of us is guilty and deserving of God’s wrath, then how in the world are we to be justified — given a right standing — before God? Paul answers that question, “For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Romans 3:28 (CSB)

Paul will continue to develop his thoughts on justification by faith over the next few days’ Bible readings.

Application

So where does that leave us? Let me ask, are you right with God? Would you say that you and God are on good terms? What is the basis of your being on good terms with God? Have you depended on your behavior to be right with God?

Today’s reading is pretty clear. None of us really seeks for God. All of us are affected by a radical corruption that has been passed down through the generations from our original parents.

The only hope of any of us being justified — being on good terms with God — is faith alone.

Have you put your faith in Jesus alone?
Or are you relying on your own good behavior to be on good terms with God?

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Once again, Jesus highlights the importance of relationship over religion. In today’s Bible reading, He drives home His point as He quotes Isaiah.

The Lord said: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service— yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me. Isaiah 29:13 (CSB)

Over and over again throughout His ministry, Jesus highlights passages from the Old Testament (His Bible) that emphasize that He is all about relationship, not religion. In our passage today from Matthew 15, the Pharisees and Scribes ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” (Matthew 15:2 CSB) These religious leaders were all about religion. They were all about rules. They were all about doing the good things and not doing the bad things.

Religion looks good. Moralism looks good. Good behavior looks good. But beneath the good-looking veneer of religion, moralism, and good behavior lies the ugly truth that without a relationship with Jesus Christ, you cannot have a right standing before God. (John 17:3, Matthew 7:21-23)

Five hundred years ago, the Reformers definitively answered the question, “How can a person be justified before God?” or “How can people have a right standing before God?” They said that according to God’s Word, people can only be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. And they said that God alone is glorified in justification.

Notice in that statement, there is no mention of religious rituals. There is no mention of baptism. There is no mention of religious behavior. There is no mention of cleaning up your life first. There is no mention of praying a prayer. There is no mention of anything like that. It is only by being in a relationship with Jesus Christ that anyone has any hope of being right with God. Period.

And that’s why religious people in Jesus’ day — and ours too! — don’t get it. They think it’s up to them to make themselves good enough to be accepted by God. The only problem with that is that no one has ever been good enough to be accepted by God.

as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. Romans 3:10–12 (CSB)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23 (CSB)

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. Galatians 2:21 (CSB)

Application

So what about you? You probably call yourself a Christian, a Believer, a Christ-follower. So? You can call yourself anything you want. You can “self-identify” however you want. But the condition of your heart is what matters.

On what basis do you make a claim to be right with God? If your claim has anything to do with you or your behavior, you probably need to go back to the previous paragraphs and rethink your claim.

Sure, good behavior is important. But if you have a right standing before a Holy, Sovereign God, it is only because of what has been done for you, not by you.

That’s good news! That’s the gospel!

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Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!
He has conquered sin and death!
He has made a way for us to be made right with a Holy God.

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