March 23, 2014

Justified by Faith

Passage: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Service Type:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

Does the end justify the means? Does a noble goal justify the methodology for reaching that goal? Think about the question of the testing of all manner of things designed for human good on animals. We might say testing is justified for the development of life saving medication; for the crafting of perfume not so much. In speaking of justification we are asking if there is any extenuating reason for this action, any valid explanation that would legitimate doing it. On the one hand we might find legitimate reason. On the other hand, many of the things we offer as justification are nothing more than the shabby self-serving rationalisation. Is the pleasantness of the odour we emit justification for using animals as proverbial “guinea pigs”?

In everyday discourse we use the word "justification" in both senses. Every day we say, "My justification for driving through the red light is that I had in the car with me a man who had just had a heart attack and needed to get to the hospital as quickly as possible." This is a legitimate reason for driving through the red light. Every day we also use the word "justification" for the shabbiest, self-serving rationalisation. "I drove through the red light because I’m late for church and I’m the minister. (Or, I needed to get home to see the opening face-off of the hockey game.)

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith,” wrote the Apostle Paul. What is meant by justification? When scripture uses the word "justification" it has neither of these meanings in mind. Justification, in scripture, has nothing to do with explanations of any sort, whether genuine reasons or shabby rationalisations. When the apostle Paul insists that God justifies the ungodly he doesn’t mean that God provides an explanation, be it ever so sound, for my ungodliness; neither does he mean that God offers or entertains a shabby rationalisation for my ungodliness. When he says that God justifies the ungodly he means that God puts in the right with himself men and women who are now in the wrong with him. The one Greek word, dikaiosune, is commonly translated both "justification" and "righteousness.” If we want to avoid being misled by modern English meanings we should always understand "justification" or "justify" in terms of "righteous" or "righteousness." To say that we are justified, then, is to say that we are put in the right with God, made right with God. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ sets people in the right with God.

1. No doubt some people are puzzled at such a pronouncement. “Put right?,” some may ask, “I didn’t know that I was in the wrong or that I needed to patch things up with God.” The Apostle goes on to say that as we are set right with God (justified) we have peace with God. Again a person may seem puzzled—I don’t have anything against God, where does this need for peace come from?

Paul says more things heard as troubling to people in our era that is ever so focussed on the importance of self-esteem. Speaking of Jesus’ giving his life for us he writes: “now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” Talk of the wrath of God makes many uneasy; some regard this as way too harsh, an idea belonging to primitive warmongering eras. There seems to be this belief that if we expunge harsh words from our vocabulary all harshness will disappear. Last year a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee wanted to add the contemporary hymn "In Christ Alone" to their new hymnbook. But only under one condition: they wanted to remove and rewrite the line "the wrath of God was satisfied." The authors of hymn refused to grant permission and the committee rejected the hymn.

The point of scripture isn’t about us having something against God. The point is the converse: what has God against us? As soon as we look at the parables of Jesus, for example, we have to be startled at the theme of judgement which looms so large in so many of them. Think of the parables of the wheat and the tares, the drag-net, the ten maidens, the sheep and the goats, the merciless servant, plus so many more. The elemental issue isn’t our assessment of God; it’s his assessment of us. His assessment is that we are defiant and disobedient; we are inexcusably defiant and disobedient. He finds our defiance and disobedience intolerable. His opposition to evil and our sin constitutes his wrath.

But—and this is the most crucial "but" in the world—God opposes us only for our good. He doesn’t oppose us out of petulance or injured pride. His enmity has nothing to do with irritability. To be sure, scripture speaks of his wrath as often as it speaks of his love. God’s wrath, unlike ours, is void of any tinge of personal malice. God is entirely free from personal animosity or vindictiveness; indeed, he is sustained simultaneously with undiminished love for the offender. God’s wrath is his love burning hot.

No doubt you have witnessed something like this. An indifferent student arrives in class without her homework assignment done—again. (Maybe you have been this student). The teacher explodes and now student and teacher are locked in combat. Finally, the student, says to her teacher, "I don’t see why you are upset. If I fail this course it won’t be any skin off your nose. It’s my future that’s at stake, not yours." And then we discover what sends the teacher into orbit; in front of him is a student of much ability and much promise with a rich future before her, and all of this she was foolishly frittering away. She thought he shouldn’t be upset since the future she was frittering was hers. But that’s exactly why he was upset: her life was dribbling away, and only his anger had any chance of jolting her awake.

Remember that God`s anger is not like ours; he does not fly off the handle. But one of the reasons God does oppose us in our sinfulness is because he can see the great potential and possibility for the life he has given us. Some need to be jolted awake.

2. The gospel message is that in Christ God sets the believer right with himself by faith and such standing opens the wonders of relationship with God. I invite you to think with me further on this wonder that we have peace with God.

Our text tells us that we are "justified by faith." We are set right with God through our faith in the Righteous One whom he has give us, Christ Jesus our Lord. He is that Son who is ever rightly related to the Father. To entrust ourselves to him and cast ourselves upon him; to abandon ourselves to him and remain bound to him—all of this is what is meant by "faith"—is to find that when the Father looks upon the Son he sees us included in the Son, so closely are we identified with the Son. As we cling to him in faith his righteousness clothes us; his standing with the Father is reckoned to be our standing. Intimacy with the Righteous One renders us "in the right" too.

We must be careful here not to falsify this truth by psychologising it. We mustn’t reduce peace with God to peace of mind, peace of heart, innermost tranquillity. When a Jew like Paul speaks of peace he thinks first of shalom. Shalom is peace not in the sense of "peace in here" but "peace out there"; peace not in the sense of what I’m feeling but in the sense of what has happened; peace not in the sense of inner contentment but the disappearance of outer enmity. To look for "peace in here" before there is "peace out there" is to pursue an illusion, an unreality.

On the other hand, once "peace out there" has been established, "peace in here" follows naturally and normally. When you have offended a loved one and there is something between you that needs to be cleared up intimacy is diminished; the joys of easy conversation that typically flood the household become difficult. The apostle maintains that as we are set right with God peace with God is established, enmity between God and us ceases, intimacy thrives. When the issue between you and your beloved has been cleared up, it is then that things can be restored, built back up. God has cleared away the blockage; intimacy with him can thrive. The standing in Christ that secures our peace with God leads to a peace of heart that passes all understanding.

3. Sometimes believers feel uncertain at this point. The Evangelist Billy Graham was fond of asking his crusade audiences the question, if you died tonight would you be certain that you would go to heaven. Many hesitate because it seems like we would be claiming a lot for ourselves. It may even seem presumptuous. We have no control over what happens when we die, so how could we say anything with certainty?

Paul went on to say that out of this right standing with God is the blessing of hope; “and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Hope, for Christians, is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. We who are honorary Israelites recognize the landmarks that identify God’s faithfulness to his people. One such landmark is Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt and her passage through the Red Sea and the gift and claim of the Ten Words given at Sinai.

Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the promised land. Another is the renewal of God’s covenant promise to his people and their renewal of their promises to him as God met with his people in the person of David and the person of the prophets. Another landmark is God’s bringing his people back from exile in Babylon and his joining with them in the celebration of their homecoming.

The most noteworthy landmark of God’s faithfulness to his people, however, and the one that towers over all others, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here God fulfilled his promise to his Son. And the promise now fulfilled to the Son continues to spill over onto all whom the Son summons, over onto all who cling to the Son in faith. God has promised to renew the entire cosmos in Christ. The raising of the Nazarene from the dead is the first instalment of this and its guarantee as well. Therefore the raising of Jesus Christ is the crowning landmark of God’s faithfulness.

Our hope and confidence for a future rests in Jesus Christ; in the certainty of who he is and his love for us.

4. Lent is time when we think about choosing some spiritual discipline to engage. I invite you to reflect on the spiritual disciplines you don’t choose. What is the spiritual discipline in your life that you did not choose? It is a situation that has come into your life. You didn’t want it, and you don’t want it now. If it was in your power you would remove it. But there it is. And it is painful, and it is rocking you. You don’t understand what God would be doing through that trial. You don’t see how that could fit together with a good and loving God’s purpose for your life, and yet here it is.

Paul describes them this way: “but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” So your spiritual discipline that you didn’t choose is going to be different from someone else’s. But they have this in common: they test our faith; they knock us off balance.

We read the story of the children of Israel who grumbled about lack of water and in essence said; “way to go God, you sure are making life miserable for us!” In Psalm 45:8, the Psalmist reflecting on this story of grumbling counsels the people, “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah.’ It isn’t easy to turn away from the hardening that seems so natural in the face of the spiritual discipline we did not choose

Do you find Paul’s claim that we “boast in suffering” a little bracing? Please note that Paul never says we make light of suffering as if the suffering were something to boast about. Rather we boast in our suffering. The believer’s boast is in our hope of sharing the glory of God; God’s promised future never changes. We also know that such things can produce endurance and then a character of endurance. I am not saying that one has to suffer to have character; but suffering is no barrier to producing character. Hope does not disappoint us.

I leave you with a prayer for such moments. Lord, give me the faith to believe that you are a really good spiritual director; give hope that you’re not done with me yet; and grant me overcoming love.