The greatest problem facing this world is that the Creator of the universe has sentenced every human being to everlasting condemnation because we have all committed treason against him by giving the allegiance of our greatest affections to other things and not to him.
We have exchanged the pleasures of our Creator for the pleasures of creation (Romans 1:23). There is none righteous. No not one (Romans 3:10). The natural human mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. And no one in this treasonous state can please God (Romans 8:7–9). We are all rebellious and ruined.
Therefore, all of mankind are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, because we suppress the truth in our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). The whole creation has been subjected to futility because of our sin and groans under the bondage to corruption (Romans 8:20–21). The book of nature, the human conscience, and the word of God make this clear, so that every mouth is stopped and the whole world is accountable before God (Romans 1:20–21; 2:14–15; 3:19).
A great and final day of wrath is coming on the world (Matthew 3:7; Romans 2:5; Colossians 3:6; Revelation 6:17).
The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9).
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31)
Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? (Psalm 90:11)
This, I say again, with as much absoluteness and seriousness and sorrow as I can see and feel from God’s word: The greatest problem facing this world is that the Creator of the universe has sentenced every human being to everlasting condemnation, because we have all committed treason against him by giving the allegiance of our greatest affections to other things and not to him.
“All the infinite goodness of the Creator works without pause for us forever.”
Human Rebellion, Divine Solution
And from this rebellion on our part, and this holy wrath on God’s part, flow all the errors, all the ugliness, and all the miseries of this world. This means that every subject and every issue at Bethlehem College & Seminary, and every relationship in your life, and the life of this city and this world is distorted by this double reality: human rebellion and divine wrath. Their ruinous fingerprints are everywhere.
This means that the reversal of this rebellion and this wrath — wherever it could happen — would be personally, relationally, academically, socially, politically, pervasively, and globally relevant everywhere all the time.
This also means that, if you knew how the reversal of human rebellion and divine wrath could be brought about, and you spent your life savoring and showing the causes and effects of that reversal, you would have joined the greatest purpose in the universe. You would not have wasted your life. How could it be a waste to show the world the solution to its greatest problem, and how that solution affects everything?
And you do know!
God has acted in Jesus Christ to bring about this solution. And we are focusing today on one central, glorious, inexpressibly amazing stand-on-your-head-with-joy aspect of that solution: The justification of the ungodly by faith alone in Jesus Christ
God Is for You
In Romans 8:31, we see one of the most magnificent pictures of the reversal of the wrath of God.
“What then shall we say to these things?” — these things that have gone before in Romans 8, indeed in Romans 1–8. What is the great upshot of it all?
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” There is the reversal and one of its effects: God is for us and not in wrath against us. All his infinite power, all his infinite wisdom, all the infinite goodness of the Creator working without pause forever for us. And of course, for us does not mean for our harm or misery or evil. It means for our holiness and happiness, our goodness and our gladness. As much good and as much gladness — as much purity and as much pleasure — as an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God can do and be for you. The infinite God for you — and not against you — bodes happiness beyond your wildest imagination.
And from this reality that God is for us, Paul draws out one result at the end of verse 31: “Who can be against us?” What’s the answer to that question? No one. Really? Look at verse 36: “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” So, what does he mean when he says, “No one can be against you”?
God Intends Good
He means, what they intend for evil God intends for good (Genesis 50:20). When they slaughter you like sheep, they serve you. You are not just a conqueror at that moment. You are more than a conqueror (verse 37). Nobody can ruin you. Nobody can destroy you. Nobody can keep you from the greatest joy. Nobody can successfully be against you because the infinite, good, wise, all-controlling God is for you.
Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The proof that God is for us, and will not hold back any omnipotent effort to bring us into the enjoyment of all things, is that he did not hold back the giving of his Son for us. For us!
Romans 8:33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” What’s the answer? No one. Really? Jesus died under false charges. Paul was arrested and tried under false charges. Satan shoots his flaming arrows of accusation against us all day. And the Christian faith is spoken against everywhere.
God Declares You Innocent
So what does Paul mean? He means no charge against God’s elect will stick. Not one. All the enemies of the cross on earth and all the demons in hell may hurl their accusations against you. And none of them — not one — sticks.
Why? Romans 8:33b: “It is God who justifies.” Finally, here we are. Justification! What is it? The scene is the courtroom of heaven. There is a defendant — you. And you are guilty, ungodly, rebellious. And there is a prosecuting attorney with many witnesses against you. And their accusations are flying. You feel them. They are true. You remember them. And there is the judge — God.
“If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”
And in that courtroom, none of those true and legitimate accusations are allowed to stand. They are all being overruled — all of them. The most petty and the most grotesque. For one reason: The judge has declared that you are innocent — not guilty The judge has declared you a law-keeper — not a law-breaker. You are justified. Even though in yourself you are none of those things. “It is God who justifies.”
Romans 8:34: “Who is to condemn?” Answer: No one. How can this verdict stand in this courtroom of perfect justice? No condemnation for the guilty? How can this be? Paul answers (verse 34b): “Christ Jesus is the one who died.” Look back to verse 3:
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.
But he had no sin. Paul just said he was in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” When Jesus died, God condemned the sin of all who are in him. He did it in the flesh of Jesus.
Who is to condemn? No one. Why? “Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
So the basis — the foundation — of God’s justification — declaring us not guilty, not a law-breaker but a law-keeper — is the death of Christ, which he holds before the Father in perpetual intercession.
Live in Paradise
And it follows then in verse 35 that there is no separation from the love of Christ — ever. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Nothing. This is the great reversal of wrath. God is for us and not against us. He is one hundred percent for us. Totally for us.
Who can bring a charge against us? No one. Who can condemn us? No one. What can separate us from Christ? Nothing.
Because God justified us. Christ died for us. Love keeps us.
Since God is for us, then no accusation, no condemnation, no separation. Martin Luther had said, “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy” (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 315) And when he saw this truth — really saw it — he said, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, 11).
I wonder if you live in this paradise? Study in this paradise? Sleep in this paradise?
“The only kind of faith that counts for justification is the kind that produces love, that bears the fruit of love. ”
Justified by Faith Alone
So now, at last, we ask the question: How do you get into this position where God is one hundred percent for you, and never, in the slightest, against you? Where there is no accusation that sticks, no condemnation that holds, and, therefore, no separation forever? How does one come to be in the courtroom of heaven as a sinner and yet justified? The answer of the New Testament is by faith alone. Follow me through a sequence of passages that make this clear.
Apart from Works of the Law
Let’s start with Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (If you want to dig into what the New Perspective on Paul — which is not new anymore and is fading away — made out of the phrase “works of the law” I recommend the short Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm.) I take “works of the law” to mean all efforts at law-keeping. This implies, as Luther translated it, that “one is justified by faith alone.” But it doesn’t say that explicitly, so let’s keep looking.
A Righteousness Not Our Own
Consider Philippians 3:9. Paul says his aim is to be found
in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [or we could say “that comes from law-keeping”], but that [righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
So again, Paul denies and affirms. He denies that the righteousness he needs in the presence of God is “my own that comes from law-keeping.” And he affirms that the righteousness he needs is found only “in Christ” — in union with Christ. It is “that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” So, again, “not from law-keeping, but from faith” implies faith alone.
All or Nothing
But it gets even clearer in Galatians. Look at Galatians 2:21:
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
So, the righteousness we need for justification in the presence of God is not “through the law.” But might this not mean, not mainly through the law? And perhaps just a little bit of law-keeping is required for God to be one hundred percent for us? Maybe, say, just circumcision? Now see Paul’s radical answer in Galatians 5:1–3
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision [one little effort at law-keeping], Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:1–3)
This is simply astonishing. If you choose to rely just a little bit on law-keeping as a way of getting justified — as a way of getting into the position where God is one hundred percent for you — then Christ will be of no advantage to you. Paul says, if you want to go the route of justification by any law-keeping, you must go the route of justification by total law-keeping — perfection. Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
There are two ways of justification: the way of law-keeping, which requires your perfection, and the way of faith, which depends on Christ’s perfection. These two paths into the position where God is one hundred percent for you are so distinct that they cannot be mixed.
If you are trusting Christ for a righteous standing where God is one hundred percent for you, you cannot mix into that way of justification one ounce of effort to establish your own righteousness. And if you are seeking to establish your own righteousness — your own record of virtue — as your entrance into the position where God is one hundred percent for you, you cannot mix in the slightest faith in Christ as your all-sufficient righteousness. It is one or the other. Law-keeping to establish my righteousness, or faith alone to rest in Christ for righteousness.
“Love, the fruit of faith, is the necessary confirmation that we have faith and are alive.”
One last question: What is the nature of this faith which unites us to Christ for justification? It is a receiving of Christ for who he really is — the beautiful, supreme, all-satisfying treasure that he is as our divine Substitute and Sovereign. This is why genuine faith always transforms the heart and life.
James saw in his day those who were treating “faith alone” as a doctrine that claimed you could be justified by faith which produced no good works. And he said No to such faith. He said it is dead: “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). It is like a body with no breath (2:26). It is like an energy with no effect (2:20), no completion (2:22). If there is justifying faith, it has works (2:17). So, he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). The works will come from faith.
Paul would affirm all of this because he said in Galatians 5:6, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The only kind of faith that counts for justification is the kind that produces love, that bears the fruit of love. The faith which alone justifies is never alone, but always yielding transforming fruit. So, when James says these controversial words, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24), I take him to mean not by faith which is alone, but which shows itself by works.
Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14).
So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. Love, the fruit of faith, is the necessary confirmation that we have faith and are alive. We won’t enter heaven until we have it. There is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Essential to the Christian life and necessary for final salvation is the killing of sin (Romans 8:13) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Mortification of sin, sanctification in holiness. But what makes that possible and pleasing to God? We put sin to death and we pursue holiness from a justified position where God is one hundred percent for us — already — by faith alone.
Because if we try to put sin to death and to pursue holiness from a position where we are not fully accepted, not fully forgiven, not fully righteous in Christ, and where God is not one hundred percent for us, then we will be putting sin to death and pursuing holiness as a means of getting into a position where God is one hundred percent for us. And that is the Galatian heresy.
Therefore, we are justified — we are put in a position where God is one hundred percent for us — by faith alone. A position in Christ where no accusation sticks, no condemnation holds, and no separation ever comes. Brothers and sisters, we have been shown the solution to the world’s greatest problem. We have entered paradise. We have stood on our head for joy. And everything has changed. Savor it. Show it to the world. And you will not have wasted your life.
Martin Luther didn’t stand alone 500 years ago. Nor does he stand alone today.
To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we invite you to join us on a 31-day journey, beginning October 1, just 5–7 minutes each day, to meet the many heroes of the Reformation.