God Demonstrates His Righteousness

Text: Romans 3:21-26

We’ve been discussing justification by faith these last few weeks, with a special emphasis on Romans chapter 3. Last week we set up the “problem” with a discussion of sin and the role of the law in revealing sin. This week we move to the next component, which is really the central component, the justice of God. As we will see, the righteousness of God which is revealed in justification is both His righteousness and the righteousness by which we are declared righteous. The two are the same in Christ so that God may be righteous in declaring His people righteous, the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Our justification is also God’s justification, as in it He demonstrates His righteousness.


This word righteousness is very important in the book of Romans, and right in the first chapter we read that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). But as obviously important and central as this word “righteousness” is, its meaning has been the source of considerable controversy. To begin, you should know that the English words “righteous” and “justice” are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. Furthermore, the term “justification” shares this same root, and so “justification” can also be translated “vindication” or “rectification.” While each of these terms has slightly different connotations and emphases, they all come together in the biblical word for righteousness. Continue reading

Why Justification by Faith Alone?

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This past Friday was the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Saturday was All Saints Day, and so we celebrate both today. You might ask why we celebrate one, the other, or both. Well, the two days are historically united. They go together. Martin Luther chose the eve of All Saints Day to begin his public dispute. The date had symbolic relevance. He wanted to talk about what it means to be a saint and, really, how one is saved. Because of the power and success of the Reformation, the two days continue to be united in their theme. We are today celebrating the work of those Christians who have gone before us to proclaim the gospel and to bear witness to the power of Christ unto salvation to all who believe, including the Reformers. We celebrate both days because we believe that both days, rightly understood, proclaim the power of that gospel and the glory of God as He has been at work in history.

The Protestant Reformation dealt with lots of issues, but the main one, the only real bottom line, was the doctrine of justification. How a man is made right with God, and subsequently how he becomes a saint, are both answered by this doctrine. Protestants make their stand on this issue because the Bible makes its stand there too. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Justification by faith alone is a central and essential teaching of our faith because it points us back to Jesus, the cross of Christ as the exclusive ground for our acceptance by God. This truth underlies all other teachings on salvation, the church, and Christian living. John Calvin called it a lynchpin upon which all else turned. Martin Luther said it was the article of a standing or falling church. This is true, as we said, because it directly informs our understanding of God in Christ— not only Who He is, but How He works. It tells us how we can know Him.

But I wonder, do we still believe this doctrine is all that important or interesting or does it strike us as a little passé? It is probably true that some pastors have overcooked this topic. They parse every question and sub-question in order to show how their tradition has a unique and essential interpretation. Others spend all their time arguing that their opponents cannot be Christians. All in all, what ought to be a dynamic and powerful teaching on God’s power and grace turns into a graduate school course in abstract theology. The prime rib becomes beef jerky. And this is a great tragedy.

You see, justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. No it is a means to explaining several other things, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the redemption of sinners, the doctrine of the church, the role of the moral law in the life of believers, and even the end times. The point is not to dot all our I’s and cross our T’s, but to see that God is here, really here, and that He works directly and immediately in order to bring about His purposes. Justification by faith alone is a call to believe. Continue reading

Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. Continue reading

Mastering the Flesh Apart from the Law

The Apostle Paul writes in the Epistle to the Colossians:

Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,”  which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men?  These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body,but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

~Col. 2:20-23

The way in which Christians are “not under the law” is one of those famous disputes in New Testament studies, but this passage seems to make at least one thing clear, you do not gain mastery over the flesh by adherence to regulations and restrictions concerning temporal things. Neither eating, nor not eating in itself has any bearing on your spirit.

Continue reading

On Being a Radical Christian

Radical_cvr:Mechanical FileThis David Platt video was going around yesterday, and it gave me a chance to hear his basic message. Some friends had asked me about his latest book Radical, which I haven’t read. Also at about this same time Matthew Lee Anderson’s article “Here Come the Radicals” was posted at Christianity Today. I won’t pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of these various pastors and writers, but I do think I understand their general message and methodology. They argue that Jesus calls us to a total commitment, not just a pick and choose program, and that we must be willing to sacrifice our lives and lifestyles, being open to the new changes that God will make. We must get comfortable with God making us uncomfortable.

There is certainly a lot of good to be said for this, particularly when you compare Platt with other megachurch pastors. He’s certainly a relief when set against Joel Osteen. At the same time, I’m not sure that Platt is really doing anything all that new. I grew up in a revivalistic Baptist church, and each year we had conferences which sounded a lot like Platt. They weren’t as young of course. Our guys were more polyester with big hair. But still, the message was that you could not rely on your culture, your family, or even your going to church to save you. Instead you must have an intense interior experience and relationship with God, and only this “true,” “real,” and “authentic” sort of faith would qualify as trusting Christ. The intensity and sincerity of your faith was the focal point for personal assurance. One of them’s favorite line was, “Do you know that you know that you know?” There was also the catchy, “99% sure is 100% lost.” Platt and co. strike me as a brainier version of the same thing, and the central objection I have to the “radical” emphasis is that they confuse faith with commitment. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas Carols- Vom Himmel Hoch

lossy-page1-220px-Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tifI think it’s about time for a bona fide Reformation Christmas hymn.  “Vom Himmel Hoch” was written by Martin Luther in 1539 and has been translated into English by Catherine Winkworth under the title “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”  (The Trinity Hymnal lists Winkworth as the translator but then uses the later modification by Winfred Douglas titled “From Heaven High I Come to You”).  As a general rule, if Catherine Winkworth liked it, it’s good.  Additionally, Luther tunes are always solid, and this one is classic Luther.  The final bar sounds very similar to the end of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and the whole thing is very easy to pick up.  The tune was made more famous by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote five more ornate variations for the organ in his Christmas Oratario and Magnificat.  Bach’s are fantastic listening, but the plainer earlier version is the one for congregational use.

But watch out friends, there are a whopping fifteen stanzas to this song!  That’s far too stout for most Americans these days, and so they tend to shorten it to five or six (which is still more than most can handle).  Of course, the jolliest among the faithful should demand to sing the entire song, but as that other Reformer John Calvin once said, “Good luck.”  It will work best if you play it at a brisk tempo or even split it up. Continue reading

The Actual Culture War

So there definitely is a culture war.  It doesn’t take much reading through academic literature and the press to see that discussions of reason and revelation, faith and science, social freedoms, public morality, and sexual identity all attract attention and all cut to the deepest convictions and principles of American society.  And it doesn’t take long to see that America is unsettled on those convictions and principles.  The problem is that this culture war is often pretty mixed up, with participants shooting themselves in the foot as often as anything else.

They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  This is true.  People learn a couple of talking points and a few intellectual formulas, and suddenly they think they have profound weaponry for social regeneration.  One example is a billboard on Interstate 55 here in Jackson.  It’s advertising a school which, I’m told, actually does do a good job at placing students into colleges and preparing them for high-paying jobs.  Still, the sign’s faux intellectualism is unnerving.  It advertises that the school will “Teach you how to think, not what to think.”  Now that certainly sounds pious.  This school, unique among all others, will avoid brainwashing its students with socio-political bias and will instead impart to them a view-from-nowhere objectivity that will allow these students to discover the best world and life for each of them, as they freely realize it on their own, with no intrusion from the principalities and powers.

Obviously that’s ridiculous.   Continue reading