The Reformation Gospel

October 27, 2002 / No. 3121

Dear Radio Friends,

Justification by faith alone is the foundation of our life as children of God. In the Middle Ages this truth was obscured by the church of Rome. Salvation was made to depend upon obedience to an elaborate set of rules prescribed by the church. God opened the eyes of a monk named Martin Luther to see, in the book of Galatians and the book of Romans, that men are justified not by works but through faith in Jesus Christ.

Luther was not an emancipator. Luther does not belong to the list of the world’s great men who founded freedom upon the inherent rights of men. On the contrary, Luther proclaimed liberty not on the rights of man, but upon a right conferred by God. Luther proclaimed true freedom. On the basis of the authority of God’s Word, Luther declared that we are made free from sin and condemnation, on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross, which assurance we receive through faith and which is given to us entirely freely by the grace of God. Luther declared that the believer is made righteous in Jesus Christ alone, and not on the basis of any work that the believer could do (or that anyone else could do for him).

This is the glorious Reformation gospel. We celebrate it today with thankfulness to God. When Luther declared this gospel, he was not inventing something new. He was proclaiming the truth taught especially by the inspired apostle Paul, as I said, in the books of Galatians and Romans in the Bible. An example of that is found in Romans 4:7, 8. There we read, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”

The apostle Paul is proclaiming the glorious truth of justification by faith alone. He is proclaiming the truth that our standing before God is not based upon any work that we have performed; that it is based solely upon the work that Jesus once performed for us upon the cross; that this work of Jesus is imputed, that is, reckoned by God to be ours; and that we are assured of this through faith alone. That is the Reformation gospel.

…our standing before God is not based upon 
any work that we have performed.

Now you notice with me in the passage that I quoted to you, Romans 4:7, 8, that the Word of God emphasizes our condition before God as being the condition of a lost sinner, a lost sinner who cannot recover himself. The apostle Paul there limits himself to two words to describe the truth about those who stand before God. As we stand before God, all that can be said about us is that we are lawless and we are sinners. That is the only thing that can be said of any man in any country in any age; any woman in any culture in any age; boy or girl; every human being ever. Of themselves they are lawless and they are sinners. They are lost before God and they cannot of themselves recover themselves before God. We are undone and guilty before God. We are lawless.

That word in the Scripture brings out the truth that fundamentally we have been created to stand before God’s holy demands – that God is holy and right. But we, who are fallen in sin through Adam and with a sinful nature, stand before God as lawless, as those who have broken His law, as those who have failed to keep the requirements of God’s holy and just law, and who have a deep resentment against that law. We stand in rebellion to God’s requirements.

Our age is one in which supposedly everyone is free to do as he wants, he is free to do his own thing. No one should tell another human being what to do. And this idea infects the church, causing the love of God to grow very cold. But our age is simply mouthing the deepest belief of the human heart. That deepest belief is rebellion against God – that God does not have the right to tell me what to do. We hate and oppose Him as the holy God. That is our problem. We are lawless. Our problem is not just that we are sick. Our problem is not that we have been given a bad example. The problem is not that there are many bad things that we pick up on. No, the problem is much deeper than that. You are a lawless sinner by nature. You are one who would attack God’s right to tell you what you must do and be. You are lawless.

Then the apostle says, not only are we of ourselves, as we stand before God, lawless, but we are sinners. “Blessed is the man whose lawlessness is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” That word “sin” in the Bible means to miss the mark. The word looks at it this way, that we have been created by God to have one goal, namely, to aim at His glory – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Love God! That is the great and good goal for which we were created. But we fail to aim at that

…we have been created by God to have one goal, namely, to aim at His glory.

goal. Not that we try to do that but, rather, that we make a different goal. We despise aiming at the glory of God in everything we do. Instead we place our own pride as the bulls-eye, and we have a love-affair with ourselves. In stubbornness we turn away from the goal of aiming at God and His glory and we aim deliberately at our own glory, our own pride, and the praise of man, so that, by nature, you and all men are lawless and sinners. This is God’s judgment. Let the world be still before Him. This is God’s Word, the God who made all, whose Word cannot be contradicted. Our problem is that we are lawless sinners. Where does that leave us, especially of ourselves as we would appear before the judgment of God? That means that we are all of ourselves in an awful position.

It is said that modern man today cannot connect with this. It is said that we need a religion or gospel which will not emphasize man’s guilt before God because man cannot understand that. We must emphasize, instead, how God is there to help man. Today, we are told that legal concepts are non-existent. Our penal institutions, our prisons and state penitentiaries, are not considered punitive, that is, to punish the wrong, but remedial, to re-educate. No one, they say, will listen to the church if we talk of man’s problem as sin and guilt and judgment and condemnation. No, we are told, man wants to learn about relationships. He wants to know how to improve on the horizontal level, his relationships on earth. He is not concerned about the vertical level with God. So we have to alter the gospel to meet those needs.

The response of God’s Word today is this. If our generation has so drifted from the reality of the holy God and our guilt before Him and has so drifted into the morass of individualism and “me-ism,” nevertheless, the church must continue to proclaim the gospel. Your problem is that you appear in the court of God as a guilty, lawless sinner who will be condemned to eternal hell of yourself. That is reality.

Of ourselves, the wrath of God would abide upon us for every word, every thought, and every deed not in harmony with the law of God. When the Holy Spirit comes with His Word and pricks our heart, then we confess it, as did Luther and all the saints of God – as did David, “I have sinned against Thee, I am guilty. How shall I ever appear before God?” The awful truth is that of ourselves we are apart from God and that He, in His holiness, would stand over us in His wrath as those who have offended Him.

Do we know today what sin is? In the church (supposedly we ought to know what sin is there) do we console ourselves, saying, “Well, everyone sins. A little sin now and then in all of us. We haven’t been as good as we should have been, but, then again, we haven’t been as bad as somebody else.” Do we say, “Well, I’m a Christian, and sin is not all that serious in my life, thoughts, and conduct. I do not really worry too much about the fact that by nature I’m filled with jealousy, envy, hatred, gossip, lust, greed, pride. That’s just the way it is. Let’s not get too upset about these things.” We get accustomed to sin.

I would point out to you from the Word of God that sin is to be apart from God; that to be lawless is to be worthy of the judgments of God. It means that you are worthy of eternal damnation. And do not think about that theoretically or abstractly. You must see your own sin. You must see that you do not have any right before God; that you are a debtor and a pauper before God; that of yourself you are worthy of eternal death.

But, you see, here is where the gospel is the glorious good news in Jesus Christ. The apostle says, “Blessed are they whose lawlessness is forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity. Blessed is the man whose sin God forgives and to whom is given the righteousness of another – the righteousness of Jesus Christ.”

Blessed is the man who is forgiven. That word “forgiveness” means to be sent away. The idea is that our sins are sent away, so that they cannot come back and be laid to our account. Those sins are lifted from us so that they cannot come back. Those sins are paid for in the blood of Jesus Christ.

Then the apostle goes on to tie all of this into the grace of justification. Justification, in the Bible, is a word that means that we are made to be just or righteous in the sight of God. When God does that, first of all by grace, not by any merit of ours, and based upon His own eternal love, He does not impute our sins to us. He does not mark those sins down, even though they are ours, to our account. But He marks them down to the account of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was made to be sin for us, says the Bible in II Corinthians 5:21.

What does that mean? That means that God, by grace, took the sins of His chosen people and put them down upon the name of Jesus Christ, so that Christ became responsible for them, to make a payment for them. So God does not impute our sins to us. Rather, He imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. That means that He takes now the obedience of His Son, Christ, who bore our sins upon the cross and paid for those sins – Christ, who in our place obeyed the law of God – God takes that perfect righteousness of Christ and He puts it down on our account so that we are not left empty before God. We are made eternally rich before God. The righteousness of Christ is legally conferred by God to be my own so that my sins have been paid for in His blood. And His perfect obedience is credited by God to my account. And God does this entirely by grace.

Now, can you imagine anything greater than that – to hear in the gospel and to embrace with believing heart that your sins are forgiven? God does not see them. He sees them paid in the blood of His Son. And you are now accounted to be innocent in His sight, righteous, as if you had never sinned. God sees you in Christ as forgiven and righteous through faith.

Can there be a greater gospel than that? Is there a better word that is possible for human ears to hear or human hearts to possess? What a wonderful gospel.

And God gives us this assurance through faith. Faith, the gift of God.

God sees you in Christ as forgiven 
and righteous through faith.

What is faith? Faith is not something airy, iffy, and mystical. Faith is a work of God whereby God unites me to His Son Jesus Christ. God assures me that I belong to Jesus Christ. Through faith I receive the assurance of this gospel that God put my sins upon Jesus and put Jesus’ obedience upon me. I receive that assurance through faith. I am justified through faith alone.

You see, we are not made right with God through the works of the law, that is, by our observing of the law of God or by human works. It is not the common notion, “Well, I’ve been a pretty good guy. God ought to take me. I mean, I’m not as bad as somebody else. After all, if we live a pretty decent life and donate to charities and are good citizens of this country, we ought to go to heaven, shouldn’t we?” That is the proud lie of the devil in your heart. That is saying that you deserve salvation on the basis of who you are or what you did. The gospel says that that is a false hope and that it will land you in hell. You do not get right with God on the basis of your achievements, but only by grace through Jesus Christ, through a righteousness imputed to you through what Jesus did for us by grace alone.

That is the gospel. And a glorious gospel is the gospel of justification by faith, the Reformation gospel. That is why the apostle begins by saying, “Blessed is the man whom the Lord pardons. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Blessed is the man to whom God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” That word “blessed” – there is great thrill in that word, a great joy of expression. It comes from a heart that is overwhelmed with salvation. Oh, the blessedness!

Do you experience that? Do you taste it? Do you know this? Do you know not only your sin, not only see yourself as a miserable sinner in the sight of God, but, by grace, do you also know the wonder of the love of God, that God took away that sin and that through Jesus Christ He has made you righteous in His sight?

Then our souls are at liberty. That is freedom. That is emancipation. Emancipation is to be found in knowing what God thinks of me, not what man thinks of me, not what another human being thinks about me, but what God thinks about me. God, by grace, has justified me. And if God has justified me, who is it that can condemn me? If Christ has died and has risen again and ascended to the right hand of God, who can condemn me? The child of God, then, is not simply a person who is hoping for the possibility that with all of his efforts and minimizing of his failures he might be good enough finally to get God’s favor and to end up in heaven. That is not a child of God! But a child of God is one who knows his sin and, by grace through faith, has received the word of justification. He does not depend in the slightest measure on his own works for salvation. But he knows that it is of God. And then he gets up and lives out of one motive: to thank and to please God, to walk in the freedom of obedience to God, to walk in all of God’s ways and to bring glory to His name.

Oh, what blessedness! We have peace with God. We have access to God. We know that in all of our tribulations and trials God is for us. We know that we have everything if we have the forgiveness of our sins and if we are righteous in Jesus. We have everything, we are heirs of glory. The Reformation gospel is the only word that should be heard, the only good news in this world. There is no other good news. If there are other words that you pin your hope upon, that you try to use to make you happy, and it is not this word of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a vain dream. And it will land you in hell.

This is the gospel. There is no other good news. It is to be found in what God has done through His Son Jesus Christ. God has given His Son Jesus Christ to take the place of those sinners whom He loved and to bear their sins and to wash those sins forever gone and to give to us a perfect obedience and righteousness in Christ. Now our hearts sing with joy and our lives show our thankfulness to God.

Then we say to each other, “Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, His child and forever I am.” Then we say, “Not the labor of my hands could fulfill Thy law’s demands. Could my tears forever flow, could my prayers forever go; these for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.” What a glorious gospel.

May God preserve this gospel, preserve it in our hearts, the glorious Reformation gospel.

Let us pray.

Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. We pray that Thou wilt apply it now today to our hearts and that we may possess the blessedness of justification by faith alone and not by the deeds of the law. To Thee be the praise and the glory now and forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.