My Dear Friends,
Sitting in a plane travelling at 600 miles an hour at an altitude of 35,000 feet gives you time to think (I am en route home from the States). The focus of my thinking has been “Do” or “Done?” This is the title of an address I will give, God willing, in the coming week at the University. The Christian Union (CICCU) gave me the title and asked me to speak on the Christian way of salvation-is it by “doing,” or is it by trusting in Jesus Christ alone, who has “done” all that we could never do to reconcile us to God and God to us? This may seem very basic, and of course it is. Salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone and is wholly dependent on the grace of God alone. Nothing is more vital than this. Fail to grasp this and you shut yourself out from the great salvation God has provided for his world in his Son.
Perhaps you are already asking why this is the theme of this month’s pastoral letter. The answer is simple: this basic biblical truth that was (in great measure) rediscovered at the Reformation is being denied within (yes, within) the Evangelical and Reformed church. It hardly seems possible that something as basic and fundamental as justification by faith alone is being subtly, and at times not so subtly, undermined by men who espouse Reformed convictions. Their revisionism teaches that God justifies the ungodly, not by faith alone, but by obedient faith, faith demonstrated in good works. It is absolutely true that we cannot be saved without good works. Paul tells the Ephesians that we are created in Christ Jesus “for good works” (2:10). In saying this he is echoing our Lord Jesus himself who said that a good tree necessarily bears good fruit (read Matt.7:16ff). The truth we profess with our lips will be sealed by the transformation of our lives in godliness. To argue, however, that God justifies sinners by obedient faith is to fall into the profound Roman error of confusing, even merging, sanctification with justification.
Few verses teach the biblical doctrine of justification more clearly and simply than Romans 4:5. “To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” There appear to be two motives driving this revisionism. First, it is hard not to conclude that the age-old heresy of Arminianism is rearing its self-exalting presence. There is a congenital reluctance in sinners to accept that we can contribute nothing to our justification before God. It is deeply humbling to hear God’s word declare that by “works of the law no one will be justified.” Nothing we do, even as believers, can bring God’s justifying righteousness to us. To say that we are justified by obedient faith, by faith and the good works that flow from faith is to say that I make some contribution to my righteous standing before God.
Second, this “new perspective” on the gospel denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. If my standing before God is based on my faith and my obedience, there is no need for Christ to cover me with his righteousness. And yet the Bible is absolutely insistent that Christ is our righteousness (read 1 Cor.1.:30). This foundational truth is nowhere more emphasized than in Romans 5:18-19. It is by Christ’s “one act of righteousness” that “justification and life” are brought to sinners. As John Bunyan put it, “My righteousness is in heaven at God’s right hand. My good frames cannot make it any better, my bad frames cannot make it any worse.” This may seem “dangerous doctrine,” an encouragement to licentious living. The truth, however, is the very opposite. Grasping the sheer grace of God imputing to you the very righteousness of his sinless Son, leaves you longing to live to the praise of his glorious grace (enabled by the indwelling, sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit).
Every believer stands before God robed in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith alone in Christ alone we are justified now (Romans 5:1). Our justification does not wait for God to evaluate the worthiness or otherwise of our righteous acts. If it did, we would all be sunk. All Christians need to be reminded in these theologically confusing times of the nature and character of their justification before God. What will enable you and me to stand “bold on that great day,” is not our obedient faith, weak and feeble as it is, but the obedience of Christ imputed by God to our account. It is our Saviour’s obedience and blood alone that hides all our transgressions from view. This may be basic fare for many of you, but it cannot be highlighted and proclaimed too often. By this truth the church stands or falls. It is, said John Calvin, the “main hinge on which true religion turns” and where we depart from the error of Rome.
Yours in Christ our righteousness.