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What is justification?

Or, How to find peace with God – A sermon by Rod Benson

Romans 4:25-5:2

A lot can happen in three days. On Friday we reflected on what it means to affirm that “Christ died for us.” This morning, as dawn broke over Lithgow, people from various Christian traditions gathered at the old blast furnace, and recalled the story of the empty tomb, and shared the enduring Easter message, joyfully declaring, “Christ has risen! He has risen indeed.”

And now we come to the ministry of the word, and what better text to consider on Easter Day than Romans 4:25, a summary of the good news.

In his book, Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Leyland Ryken recommends reading Romans in two complementary ways: We can read the book through “in a single sweep, missing some of the detail but letting the main flow sink in and elevate the spirit.” We can also read the text with “careful and disciplined study at a slow pace” in order to master the book’s theology.[1]

My sermon this morning follows the latter approach. You may be familiar with sixteenth-century Reformer Martin Luther’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” but this verse appears to suggest that Christians are justified not by faith but by the resurrection!

What exactly do we mean by “justification,” and what does it have to do with the resurrection of Jesus, and the celebration of Easter?

Justification is the opposite of condemnation (the state or condition of being sentenced to punishment for some wrongdoing). In Christian theology, justification is the term used to describe a Christian person’s right legal standing before God, granted on the basis of their faith in Christ and his saving work.

If I am charged with a crime, and stand trial before a judge, and she forms the judgment that the charges are without basis in fact, I am exonerated. I am freed from blame, released from the burden of guilt. I am justified, and free to go about my business unhindered.

Through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, God justifies those who sin. He takes away our guilt. He declares us righteous. He justifies us.

The resurrection achieves many things. It means that we have a powerful Saviour who lives forever, interceding for us, leading us onward and upward to our destiny in the kingdom of the heavens.

The resurrection confirms the identity of Jesus as the unique Son of God – that he was in fact who he claimed to be.

None of the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament came back to life. They all stayed dead, but served as symbols of the awfulness of sin and its terrible consequences in the face of the holy wrath of God, pointing to Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, who died to take away the sins of the world, and who rose again to justify the sinner.

In the time before Jesus, many Jewish people believed that at the Last Day, at the end of history, God would raise everyone who had died (see Dan 12:1-2; cf Jn 11:24).

God brought that day forward when he raised Jesus from the dead, announcing him to be God’s Son (Rom 1:4), Messiah and Lord (Ac 2:36), heir of all things (Heb 1:2), vindicated from all accusations (1 Tim 3:16), and granted all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18).

We are the privileged ones who now live in those extraordinary Last Days, awaiting the return of Jesus in glory and majesty and power to bring about the end of all things.

In raising Jesus from the dead, God inaugurated the “new creation” (Rom 8:18-22), and the whole present creation waits expectantly for the day when it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” – those who, through faith in Christ, already experience the new birth, the new creation, a new way of being.

In raising Jesus from the dead, God also justifies every sinner who has faith in Christ and who subjectively experiences the new birth.

Justification is the objective ground of our salvation; regeneration is its subjective aspect. The resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that the cross delivers redemption from the penalty of our sins: it is nothing less than the ground of our redemption. This is why Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14).

When God justifies us, he does so in response to our faith in his Son, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 3:26, 28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; Rom 8:33-34).

When God justifies us, he “executes his verdict of condemnation against sin on the cross, and then he issues another verdict of justification [for the sinner] in the resurrection.”[2]

When God justifies us, he declares that our sins are forgiven and we are no longer liable to punishment, because Jesus has taken our punishment upon himself through his suffering and death for us.

When God justifies us, he creates a new community, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the reality of the age to come.[3]

Justification, then, is an essential aspect of our redemption, and an amazing truth to be grasped and enjoyed. As Michael Horton notes:

The gospel is not simply that Jesus was crucified and raised, or that these events demonstrate his lordship, but that he ‘was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom 4:25).[4]

It is not the quality of our faith, or our capacity to do good works, or our ability to live a holy life, or even the sincerity and intensity of our convictions that commends us to God. No, it is simply the fact that our faith (that is, our trust) is in Christ, that we reach out to Jesus for rescue, that we look beyond ourselves for redemption.

Why does God single out faith as the essential quality that leads to justification. Why not justification by love, or joy, or contentment, or humility, or remorse, or wisdom? Theologian Wayne Grudem responds to this question by saying that “faith is the one attitude of heart that is the exact opposite of depending on ourselves.”[5]

If it were anything else but faith, or faith in anyone else but Christ, our salvation would be fake and futile, and our justification meaningless, and our condemnation assured, and our eternal destruction imminent.

But because of simple faith, and because of Jesus, our condemnation is gone, our redemption procured, our justification secured, and our destiny assured.

And so, as Hebrews 10:22 reminds us, as justified sinners we may “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” That’s very good news.

On the other hand, justification means nothing to those who refuse to admit that they sin against God, or that their sins against God warrant judgment, or that God even exists to love and pity them.

Yet to everyone, the justification that comes as a result of the Jesus’ resurrection offers a path to freedom from the guilt of sin, rescue from the impending wrath of God, and the beautiful gift of confidence in calling God not only Lord and King, but friend and Father.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Rom 5:1-2, 4:25).

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counsellor?”

 “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom 11:33-36).

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!


Sermon 663 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 27 March 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Leyland Ryken, Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), pp. 417-418.

[2] Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), p. 443.

[3] Ibid., p. 568.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 630.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 730.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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