It is nearly four centuries ago now, that a young professor from the north of Germany went to Rome. He was a man of considerable learning and of versatile mind. Yet he did not go to Rome to survey the remains of antiquity or the treasures of modern art. He went to Rome because he was in trouble about his sins and could find no peace. Having been educated to regard Rome as the center of the Christian world, he thought he would go to the heart of things and see what he could there find. He had reflected somewhat at home, and had talked with other men more advanced than himself, on the thought that the just shall live by faith; but still that thought had never taken hold of him . We read— some of you remember the story quite well— how one day, according to the strange ideas that prevailed and still prevail at Rome, he went climbing up a stairway on his knees, pausing to pray on every step, to see if that would not help him about his sins. Then, as he climbed slowly up, he seemed to hear a voice echoing down the stairway, "The just shall live by faith; the just shall live by faith." And so he left alone his dead works, he arose from his knees and went down the stairway to his home to think about that great saying, "The just shall live by faith."
It is no wonder that with such an experience, and such a nature, Martin Luther should have lived to shake the Christian world with the thought that justification by faith is the great doctrine of Christianity, "the article of a standing or a falling church." It is no wonder that John Wesley, rising up with living earnestness when England was covered with a pall of spiritual death, should have revived the same thought— justification by faith.
Yet it is not true that the doctrine of justification by faith is all of the gospel. It is true that the doctrine of justification by faith is simply one of the several ways by which the gospel takes hold of men. You do not hear anything of that doctrine in the Epistles of John. He has another way of presenting the gospel salvation, namely, that we must love Christ, and be like Him, and obey Him. I think sometimes that Martin Luther made the world somewhat one-sided by his doctrine of justification by faith; that the great mass of the Protestant world are inclined to suppose there is no other way of looking on the gospel. There are very likely some here to-day who would be more imprest by John's way of presenting the matter; but probably the majority would be more imprest by Paul's way, and it is our business to present now this and now that, to present first one side and then the other. So we have here before us to-day Paul's great doctrine of justification by faith, in perhaps one of his most striking statements. "Therefore , being justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
My friends, we talk and hear about these gospel truths, and repeat these Scripture words, and never stop to ask ourselves whether we have a clear idea of what is meant. What does Paul mean when he talks about being justified? There has been a great deal of misapprehension as to his meaning. Martin Luther was all wrong in his early life, because he had been reared up in the idea that a justified man means simply a just man, a good man, and that he could not account himself justified or hope for salvation until he was a thoroughly good man. Now, the Latin word from which we borrow our word "justified" does not mean to make just, and as the Romanists use the Latin, their error is natural. But Paul's Greek word means not to make just, but to regard as just, to treat as just. That is a very important difference—not to make just, but to regard and treat as just. How would God treat you, if you were a righteous man; if you had, through all your life, faithfully performed all your duties, conforming to all your relations to your fellow beings— how would He regard and treat you? He would look upon you with complacency. He would smile on you as one that was in His sight pleasing. He would bless you as long as you lived in this world, and, when you were done with this world, He would delight to take you home to His bosom, in another world, because you would deserve it.
And now as God would treat a man who was just because he deserved it, so the gospel proposes to treat men who are not just and who do not deserve it, if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He will treat them as just, tho they are not just, if they believe in Christ; that is to say, he will look upon them with His favor; He will smile upon them in His love; He will bless them with every good as long as they live, and when they die He will delight to take them home to His own bosom, tho they never deserved it, through His Son, Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means by justification. And when Martin Luther found that out he found peace. This Epistle to the Romans had always stopt his progress when reading the New Testament. He would read, in the Latin version, "For therein is revealed the justice of God," and he felt in his heart that God's justice must condemn him. But now he came to see what was really meant by the righteousness of God, the righteousness which God provides and bestows on the believer in Jesus. A sinful man, an undeserving man, may get God Almighty's forgiveness and favor and love, may be regarded with complacency and delight, tho he does not deserve it, if he believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is justification by faith.
It is one thing to take hold of this matter in the way of doctrinal conception and expression, and of course, God be thanked! it is another thing to receive it in the heart. There are many people who get hold of it all in the heart with trust and peace that never have a correct conception of it as a doctrine. Yet I suppose it is worth while that we should endeavor to see these things clearly. Other things being equal, they will be the holiest and most useful Christians who have the clearest perception of the great facts and truths of the gospel. So I recommend to you that whenever any one tries to explain to you one of these great doctrinal truths, you shall listen with fixt attention and see if you can not get a clearer view of the gospel teachings on that subject, for it will do you good.
Now let us come to the second thought here , viz., being justified by faith. A man might say, if God proposes to deal with those who are not just, as if they were, why does He condition it upon believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why can not God proclaim a universal amnesty at once, and be done with it, to all His sinful, weak children, and treat them all as if they were just, without their believing? I don't think this is hard to see. God does not merely propose to deal with us for the time being as if we were just, but He proposes in the end to make us actually just. It would be an unsatisfactory salvation to a right-minded man if God proposed merely to exempt us from the consequences of our sins and not to deliver us from our sins. You do not want merely to escape punishment for sin without ever becoming good; you want to be righteous and holy, you want to be delivered from sin itself as well as from the consequences of sin. And this gospel, which begins by its proclamation that God is willing to treat men as just, altho they are not just, does not stop there. It proposes to be the means by which God will take hold of men's characters and make them just, make them holy. You may, for the moment, conceive of such a thing as that God should make a proclamation of universal amnesty, and treat all men as if they were just; but that would not make them any better. The gospel is not merely to deliver us from the consequence of sin, but to deliver us from the power of sin. You can conceive of an amnesty as to the consequence of sin, which should extend to persons that will not even believe there is such an amnesty; but you can not see how the gospel is to have any power in delivering us from the dominion of sin, unless we believe the gospel. It can do so only through belief. Therefore it is not possible that a man should be justified without belief. I think it is useful that we should thus try to see that this is not a matter of mere arbitrary appointment on the part of the sovereign Power of the universe, but that the condition is necessary— that it can not be otherwise. "Being justified by faith," it reads; and we can not be justified without faith, because the same gospel is also to take hold of us and make us just.
And now, some one who feels a little freshened interest in this subject, some man who has never got hold of the gospel faith, says to himself: "I wonder if the preacher is going to explain to me what believing is, what faith is. I never heard any one succeed in explaining faith." Well, if you will pardon me, the best explanation of faith I ever heard was given by a negro preacher in Virginia. As the story was told me, one Sunday afternoon, a few years ago, some negroes were lying on the ground together, and one of them spoke and said, "Uncle Reuben, can you explain this: Faith in de Lord, and faith in de debbil?" "To be sure I can. There is two things: in de fust place, faith in de Lord, and then faith in de debbil. Now, in the fust place, fustly, there is faith. What is faith? Why, faith is jes faith. Faith ain't nothing less than faith. Faith ain't nothing more than faith. Faith is jest faith— now I done splain it." Really, that man was right, there is nothing to explain. Faith is as simple a conception as the human mind can have. How, then, can you explain faith? You are neither able to analyze it into parts, nor can you find anything simpler with which to compare it. So also as to some other things, that are perfectly easy and natural in practical exercise , and can not be explained. What is love? Well, I won't go into an elaborate metaphysical definition of love, but if I wanted a child to love me, I should try to exhibit myself in such a character to him and act in such ways that the little child would see in me something to love, and would feel like loving. There would then be no need of an explanation of what love is. Did you ever hear a satisfactory definition of laughter ? If you wanted to make a man laugh, would you attempt to define laughter to him? You might possibly succeed in making a laughable definition; but otherwise definitions won't make a man laugh. You would simply say or do something ludicrous, and he would laugh readily enough if he was so disposed; and if the man be not in a mood for laughing, all your explanations are utterly useless. And so what is faith? There is nothing to explain. Everybody knows what faith is. If you want to induce a man to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you must hold up the Lord to him in His true character, and then, if he is in a mood to believe, he will believe, and if he is disinclined to belief, all your explanations will be fruitless. The practical result may even be obstructed by attempts to explain. What is faith? You know what faith is. Every one knows.
Well, then, a man might say, "If you mean by faith in the Lord the simple idea of believing what the Scripture says concerning Him, the idea of believing its teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ to be true, if that is what faith means, then all of us are believers, all have faith." I am afraid not. I am afraid there are some here who have not faith. Has a man faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who simply does not disbelieve in him? I may not deny that what the gospel says is true, but is that believing? Yonder sits a gentleman; suppose some one should come hastily up the aisle, calling his name, and say, "Your house is afire." The gentleman sits perfectly quiet and looks unconcerned, as people so often do when listening to preaching. The man repeats it: "I say your house is afire." But still he sits in his place. Some one near him says, "You hear what that man says. Do you believe it?" "Yes, I believe it," he carelessly replies, and does not stir. You would all say, "The man is insane, or certainly he does not believe it; for if he did, he would not sit perfectly still and remain perfectly unconcerned." Even so when the preacher speaks of sin and guilt and ruin, of God's wrath and the fire that is not quenched ; or when he stands with joyful face and proclaims to his hearers that for their sin and ruin there is a Savior; and they say they believe , and yet look as if it were of no concern to them at all; then I say they do not believe it— the thing is not possible. They may not disbelieve it; they may not care to make an attempt to overturn it; they may be in a sort of negative mood; but they do not believe it.
With that statement I suppose there are a great many of us who concur and who will at once say, "Often I fear that I do not really believe it. If I did believe it, the gospel would have more power over my heart and more power over my life than it does have. And what, oh, what shall I do?" The preacher has to remind you of that father to whom the Savior came when the disciples had tried in vain to heal his suffering child. Jesus said to him: "All things are possible to him that believeth;" and he replied: "I believe; help thou my unbelief ." That should be your cry: "I believe ; help thou my unbelief." The man would not deny that he believed, and yet felt bound to add that he knew he did not believe as he ought to. Now the comfort is, that He who sees all hearts accepted that man's confessedly imperfect faith, and granted his request. That has often been the preacher's comfort as he uttered the same cry, "I believe; help thou my unbelief"; and God give it as a comfort to you! But do not content yourself with such a state of things, with any such feeble, half-way believing. Nay, let us cherish all that tends to strengthen our faith in the gospel; let us read the Word of God, praying that we may be able to believe; let us say from day to day, as the disciples said: "Lord, increase our faith."
The text proceeds: "Therefore, being justified by faith, let us have peace with God." Instead of the declaration, "We have peace with God," the best authorities for the text make it an exhortation, "Let us have peace with God"; and so the revised version reads. Some critics admit that the documents require us so to read, but say that they can see no propriety in an exhortation at this point— that it seems much more appropriate to understand the apostle as asserting a fact. Yet I think we can see meaning and fitness in the text as corrected: "Being justified by faith, let us have peace with God."
Let us have peace with God, notwithstanding our unworthiness. My friends, we can not have peace with God so long as we cling to the notion that we are going to deserve it. Just there is the difficulty with many of those who are trying to be at peace with God. They have been clinging to the thought that they must first become worthy, and then become reconciled to God; and they will have to see more clearly that they must come to Christ in order that, being reconciled, they may be made good, may become worthy. We may say there are two conceivable ways to have peace with God. It is conceivable to have peace with God through our worthiness, and it is conceivable and also practicable to have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ , tho we be unworthy. Then let us have peace with Him, altho so unworthy, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Again, let us have peace with God, tho we are still sinful and unholy, tho we know we come far short in character and in life of what God's children ought to be. We must be, ought to be, intensely dissatisfied with ourselves; but let us be satisfied with our Savior, and have peace with God through Him; not content with the idea of remaining such as we are, but, seeing that the same gospel which offers us forgiveness and acceptance offers us also a genuine renewal through our Lord Jesus Christ, and promises that finally we shall be made holy, as God is holy, shall indeed be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Let us rejoice in the gracious promise of that perfect life, and, while seeking to be what we ought to be, let us have peace with God. Our sanctification is still sadly imperfect— the best of us well know that , and probably the best of us feel it most deeply; but if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, our justification is perfect. We can never be more justified than we are now justified, tho we shall be more and more made holy as long as we live, and at last made perfectly holy as we pass into the perfect world. My brethren, do think more and talk more of that. It is an intensely practical matter, not only for your comfort but for the strength of your life. If we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, altho we are painfully conscious that we are far from being in character and life what we ought to be, yet , through the perfect justification which we have at once, we shall in the end by His grace be made perfectly holy.
Let us have peace with God, tho we have perpetual conflict with sin. What a singular idea ! Peace with God, and yet conflict, yes, perpetual conflict, with a thousand forms of temptation to sin, temptations springing from spiritual tempters—perpetual conflict, and yet peace with God. Is not that conceivable? Is not that possible? In this conflict we are on the Lord's side; in this conflict the Lord is on our side; and so, tho the battle must be waged against every form of sin, we may have peace with God.
And finally, let us have
peace with God tho He leaves us to suffer a thousand forms of distress
and trial. "Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by
whom also we have had access by faith into this grace wherein we stand;
and let us rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but let
us also rejoice in our tribulations; knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
and patience, proving; and proving, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed,
because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the
Holy Ghost which was given unto us." Surely man may have peace with God,
tho he be left to suffer. For none of these things can separate us from
God's love. Who shall separate us from Christ's love? "For I am persuaded
that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers,
neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth, nor
any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which
is in Christ Jesus our Lord." When we are in trouble, let us take fast
hold upon that great thought, that trouble does not divide us from the
love of God. Yea, God's peace can conquer trouble, and guard us, as in
a fortress, against its assaults. "In nothing be anxious; but in everything,
by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made
known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,
shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus."
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com
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