The One Question

October 31, 1999 / No. 2965

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg, Germany. That was one of the greatest events in history. It shook the world. And it still echoes down through the ages. No, Luther was not committing an act of vandalism. He was announcing his desire to debate with the Roman Catholic Church one basic question, a question which had been burning in his soul, and the answer to which he had found in the Scriptures. The question was this: How can a man be right with God?

The Romish church answered that question with the word “works.” Although, like today, one would not then have been able to get the Romish church to answer with that much candor, nevertheless, that was their answer. A man is made right with God by, they said, worshiping relics or by receiving papal absolution or by purchasing indulgences or by the repeated sacrifice of the mass or by appealing to the virgin Mary and to saints in order that some of the merits of the saints might be theirs. All of these answers equal one word: works. A man is right before God by his own works or by the works of saints or of the virgin Mary or of the pope.

Luther had been given that answer. But he went on an agonizing quest for peace of conscience before God. He vainly applied these various remedies which were offered to him in the church. But they could give his soul no peace. He found at last the answer in the holy Scriptures. It was while he was studying Romans 1:17. There we read: “The just shall live by faith.” And the truth of justification by faith in Jesus Christ dawned upon his soul. What is that truth? It is this truth: Through the work of Jesus Christ we are forgiven our sins and are made right with God, and we receive the knowledge of this great benefit through faith, faith which is the divine gift of God as He creates it in the soul.

To the question, “How is a man made right with the holy God? How can a sinner be right with Him?” the answer of the Bible is: “Jesus Christ is our righteousness.” That is, the perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross saves. His work on behalf of those who were given to Him of His heavenly Father, His work upon the cross, made all of His people right with heaven, cleared them before the throne of God, made them forgiven and innocent in the sight of God. And the righteousness of Christ is imputed. That word “imputed,” as it is used in Romans 4 and other places in the Bible, means “legally to reckon to the account of another.” In God’s sight, in a legal way, the righteousness that Christ has is reckoned, given over, to my account. And I receive that benefit through faith. By faith in Jesus Christ I know that His righteousness has been freely imputed (reckoned) to my account, and that on the basis of His work I am right with God. We read in Romans 5:1, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

God gave Martin Luther on that day to understand in his heart the gospel. That gospel can be summed in many ways. It is summed in a beautiful way in the hymn which goes like this: “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress; Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed, with joy shall I lift up my head.”

Do you know personally the answer to the only question, to the one and only question that matters? That question is this: How can you be right with God? How can a man be just with the living God? Is that the question which God puts down into the bottom of your soul? The question before which all other things pale in significance? The question that you ask and for which you simply must have an answer today?

Are you asking the right questions in your spiritual life? The one that must come first if you are to know anything at all, the most important question that must come to you today is not, What about tomorrow – will I be happy, married, will I overcome my burden, will I be successful, will I grow up, will I be liked? Those are not the important questions. You cannot know the answer to any question until you know the answer to this question: How can I, a sinner, be right with God?

God’s Word directs us to the first and to the fundamental, basic question. The Word of God teaches us what our questions ought to be and what ought to be the first question: How can I be right with the holy God? That is the only thing that matters. And it is only God’s Word that can give you the answer to that question.

Today, many are saying that this is not the most important question. And, besides, they are saying, the answer to that question is not very difficult anyway. How can a man be right with God? Well, the Roman Catholic Church still says that Martin Luther misunderstood them. They never said works. They would say that a man is right before God by Jesus Christ and works. Not faith only in Jesus Christ, but faith also in the works of the church and other various works as well.

Evangelicals, mainstream Christians, say that the answer to the question, How can a man be right with the holy God, is as simple as A-B-C. Your act of faith, your decision to accept Christ, is the way you personally are made OK with God. Their answer is not human works, but human will. The human will, unassisted by the grace of God, the human will all of itself because, they say, God would not want to impose anything upon that human will; the human will all by itself is able to accept Jesus Christ. And by that action of the human will one is made right with God. So now it is not works but it is will.

But that is not the Scriptures. The Scriptures proclaim that neither human works nor human will can save. They cannot make you right with God. God must do so by His grace. We read in Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth (the word runneth here refers to the person who works, who tries energetically somehow to get on God’s good side), but of God that sheweth mercy.” Oh, there is a way to be right with God. There is a sure and only way. It is in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ given to us by grace alone and received by faith, a faith which is not a human something, a faith which is a divine something placed within our heart, whereby we receive and believe in Jesus Christ.

This question: How can a man be right with God? has always been the only important question.

In the book of Job, chapter 9, verses 1 and 2 we find that Job asked the question. This is very significant because the book of Job most likely is the oldest book in the Bible, written during the time when Abraham lived. Job, in the midst of his trials, asked the question: “Then Job answered (that is, he answered his friends) and said, I know it is so of a truth: but how should man be just with God?” You see, he is asking there the right question. He shows that he has a good understanding of things that are going on round about him. He shows that he understands his life in everything that is happening to him.

After all, the questions that one asks in his heart of hearts show where a person is at. The questions you ask show whether the reality of your life is understood or whether you are confused and upside-down and out of it. Job’s question reveals that he was aware in his soul of the reality of the holy God who made him, and of his own sinfulness and depravity. He was aware of reality. The reality is God and his own sins.

His question reveals that for Job there were only two issues in his life: God, glorious and holy; and himself, a sinner fallen and filthy, fallen from God and by nature one who had transgressed God’s holy law.

In chapter 9, Job is answering his friend Bildad, one of the three friends who came to Job to help him analyze why God had sent into Job’s life such severe and heartrending tragedy. In chapter 8 Bildad had rebuked Job and had made the point that God never perverts judgment. We read in Job 8:3, “Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice?” Surely, Bildad said to Job, God will not cast away a perfect man. Bildad would insinuate that Job’s trials were due to some unconfessed sin in Job’s life and that God had visited him in punishment.

Job responds, “I know it is so of a truth. I know that God is just in all of His ways. I know that the wicked shall never prosper. I believe that. I submit to that. But, Bildad, how should a man be right with God? That is, you are telling me that a man’s works determine God’s favor and acceptance. Not so! Sinful man of himself can make himself right with God? How can that be? If God would lay to our charge the offenses that we have committed, we have nothing to answer.” He goes on in verse 3: “If he will contend with him, he cannot answer him one of a thousand.” And again, in verses 30, 31: “If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; Yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me.” That is, “No matter how clean I may make myself in my own eyes, God sees my heart. And God knows that in that heart I am a filthy sinner and that every sin exists within my thoughts.” How should a man be right with God? How can a man present himself before God? How can a man be accepted of God? How can a man live with the holy God, have fellowship and communion with the only true God? That is the question.

And that is the question to which we simply must have an answer. Those made aware by Jesus Christ of these two realities: God and themselves as a sinner, ask the question, How can I be right with God? Other questions are brushed aside for the time being. I cannot see my way through any other questions in life until I have this first settled in my soul once and forever. The question, again, is not, “How shall I stand before men and women? What do other people think about me? Do other people like me? Why is this happening to me? What is the reason for this and that in my life?” All of those questions you must put on hold. You cannot know the right answer to those questions until you understand the answer to this question. The one question of life is laid to your heart: How can you be right with God?

There are many who would oppose this and say, “Wait! That’s not the most important question. Here we are in a world of confusion. Death, pain, injustice, war, poverty. We’ve got all kinds of questions, questions about politics, economy. We’ve got questions of immense importance. We need date-line television and we need to grapple with all of these questions and now you are saying to us, as Christians, that the first question (and all other questions are insignificance in its light) is How shall I stand before the holy God? Well, wait a minute, Christian,” they would say to us. “Let’s back up. We think we ought to ask the question, Is there a God to be right with?” So arrogant would they be.

There are others who say, “Christian, if you want to be of benefit around here in this world, then don’t try to push the question: How can a man be right with God? No, we want you to preach to us on this urgent question: How shall a man be right with – his fellow man, his family, his marriage? Mankind should be your focus, Christianity! Mankind, community, and society. How insulting to say that that question of mankind must pale in significance before the fundamental question of how a soul could ever stand righteous before God!”

And so we live in a world (both of unbelief and also, sadly, much of the church) which is saying, We are man; we have enlightenment; we are able to ask profound questions. And the profound question is not the one which you are putting to us.

But the gospel declares, God in His Word declares, that this is the question. All other questions have no significance, no answer, until this question is answered in the bottom of your soul: How shall I be right with God? That is the question you are going to have to face. You cannot avoid it.

Some questions which trouble you today may never become an issue. What if all of the “what ifs” do not come to pass? Many questions once bothered us and troubled us, nagging questions that we needed to have an answer to. Now we look back and we wonder why we were ever filled with worry about it at all. But not this question: How shall I be right with God? You face this question, and you must have an answer sooner or later. We pass through this world, we have no control over it. Our times are in God’s hands, says the psalmist in Psalm 31. Whether you like it or not, whether you think of it or not, you are going out of this world. And you will stand before God. You will stand before this question of Job: God and me. Ecclesiasties 12:7, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, II Corinthians 5. You may try to flee away. You may try to avoid God. You may try to travel through countries and you may read widely through much literature and you may study philosophy and religion and cults. You can traverse the world from east to west and back again. But you cannot escape. This question comes back to you. You may try to blot it out. Our nature tries to brush it off. But it cannot be done. We are here today and we are gone tomorrow. What is your life? says the book of James, even a vapor. Life is uncertain. This is the first question: How shall my soul be right with God?

Everything depends upon that question and the answer to it. Here is the greatest and most ultimate thing. Only an eternity is sufficient to show us how great and wonderful this is. The great and ultimate thing is to know God and to know Him through Jesus Christ. The great and ultimate thing is to have one’s sins forgiven in the blood of the Savior. And that, because of the grace and the love of God only, because God is God, who would be so merciful to me.

That is the greatest of all things. There is nothing greater. Having that, I have all things.

Jesus warned us of the folly of the man who drowned himself in worldly things and pleasures and neglected how his own soul stood before God. Jesus said, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee.” Who can know what awaits? Maybe illness, old-age, disappointments, economic depression. How can you prepare for those possibilities? There is only one way. Knowing that God is for me! The apostle Paul could say when he was surrounded by troubles and trials and temptation, “I triumph always through Jesus Christ. I am persuaded that there is nothing that shall separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ.” Now, how could he say that? How could he know that, no matter what came to him, nothing could ever separate him or pull him away from his Savior Jesus Christ? How could he say that? Would we answer, “because Paul was of a positive frame of mind. He was an eternal optimist”? Oh no! The answer is found in the same chapter, where he makes the boast ( Rom. 8): “Whom God called he also justified. He that spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all. How shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather, that is risen again.” Paul is saying, “I can face anything that comes, because I know that God is just and that He has justified me in His Son.”

How can a person who does not believe the gospel by God’s grace stand up in this world? He cannot. How are you going to stand up to illness, to sorrow, bereavement, death, disappointment? And you must face God. What does it matter if you have all the protection that money can buy: insurance, medicine, and the law to protect you? It cannot keep back (none of those things can keep back) the penalty that your sins deserve. There is no question more important than this one. Life depends on it. In God’s name, and in this world of delusion where everyone is asking the wrong questions, questions which will lead you astray, in God’s name, hear. Forget every problem, and face this question: Are you ready to meet God? How will you stand before His holy presence? That is the only question.

And there is only one answer: In Jesus Christ, who actually paid for sin and satisfied for the wrath that I deserved and who, of grace, works in my heart faith whereby I believe and now whereby I desire to live to Him.

Let us pray.

Father, bless Thy Word to our hearts. Deliver us from delusion and place our souls this day before the only question: How shall I be right with Thee? Give our souls to rejoice in the only answer: Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.