How can a man be right with God? Have you ever asked that question? I realize that today men would say that that is not an important question. They would say, “You should ask, Is there a God?” So far has our generation fallen.
There is a God. God simply declares that He is. And He makes Himself known in His Word, the Bible. Before Him you stand and to Him you must give an answer.
No, the important question is not “Is there a God?” but “How can you be right with this God?” There is only one answer. As there is only one important question in your life, so there is only one answer to that important question. The answer is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can be made right with God only upon the basis of the work of another—the work of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, the work that Christ performed in the place of all those given to Him of His heavenly Father’s gracious election, the work in which He has constituted them to be righteous, and then that work of Christ received by faith (faith being a gift of God whereby we are united to Christ and we believe in Christ and by a true and living faith we receive Christ and all of His benefits to us). We know that on the basis of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, we are right with God, we are accepted in the beloved (Eph. 1:7). Or, Titus 3:5: “He [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us … that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” The gospel is the only answer to life’s most important question: How can I be right with God? Only on the basis of the work of Christ received by faith.
We can put it this way: The gospel is the truth of justification by faith alone. Justification (a biblical word: justify) has to do with my standing before God. How do I stand legally before Him? Does He look at me as innocent, or does He look at me as guilty? I know that of myself He can only see me as guilty, for I have violated His law. How can I be made right with Him? How can He declare me innocent? God does that only on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is the gospel. That is the good news of Jesus Christ.
Again, God gives us faith whereby we receive that great benefit. We know that we are accepted in Him. So we may say with the apostle Paul (II Tim. 1:12), “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” The blessed gospel!
If you listened to our program last week, you will remember that we were calling Protestant churches to recover and to take a firm stand on this gospel. For the wonderment (not just a wonderment, but a sad thing) is this, that within Protestant churches today there is the denial of this biblical gospel. Protestant churches are those churches that owe their existence to the grace of God through the great Reformation of the church.
On October 31 we celebrate not Halloween, not a pagan festival, not the superstitious nonsense of ghosts and goblins, but, as Christians, we celebrate a great work of God in the church. That great work is when He brought the church back to the gospel. Martin Luther, October 31, 1517, nailed 95 statements of belief to the church door in Wittenberg. In these statements, or theses, he called the church to return to the gospel, for the church of his day was teaching that a man is made righteous by his own works, and by the works of the church, and by all types of activities that he would perform, that these are the things that would save his soul if he did enough of them. Luther returned to the gospel and said that we are made accepted of God upon the basis of the work of another, the Lord Jesus Christ; that we love Him by faith; and that we are to live out of Him by faith. We are to do good works, we are to do all those things that are pleasing to God. But we are to do them out of one motive: thankfulness. Not because we think that by doing them we are going to earn something and make God our debtor, but we are going to do those things because we love Him and express our thanks for the free grace of justification in Christ.
Now I say to you again that this gospel is being lost today, being lost in Protestant churches, being lost through the teaching that it is not just Christ, but also the good works of the believer, that affects his standing with God. There is a denial of the complete work of Jesus Christ. There is the teaching that one is justified by faith and works and that our works add to our righteousness before God. All of these things the Reformation and the Protestant churches have historically repudiated. Yet they are gaining acceptance so readily by many.
Why is that so? I believe it is so for this reason, at least from an outward point of view. There is an emphasis in Protestant and evangelical circles more and more on the horizontal rather than on the vertical. The burning question that is being posed by many churches is not this: How can the sinner be right with God? But the burning question that many churches are all enamored with is: How can I be right in my relationships to my fellow men? One does not picture the modern-day church worshiper going up to God’s house on the Lord’s day with the question of the psalmist in Psalm 15: “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord?” or the question of Isaiah: “Who shall dwell with devouring fire?” But we picture the modern churchgoer going up to the Lord’s house on the Sabbath day with the question: “How will I learn to cope, how will I learn to relate?” The focus is on the horizontal.
And the result is that the impression is left that there is but a half step between God and man—the vertical. The church is being told today that modern man cannot understand legal concepts of punishment and justice and being accountable to God and God’s wrath against sin. The church is being told that the generation in which we live is concerned only with horizontal dilemmas: AIDS, addictions, abuse. If anybody is going to listen to us, we must address those issues as being the primary issues of a man’s soul. We must not declare that the primary issue of a man’s soul is always fundamentally: How do I stand with God?
Now, do not misunderstand me. We certainly believe from the Word of God that the preaching of God’s Word and the teaching of the church must be practical, personal, and applied to our lives. We must not have the truths of God’s Word left in a glass case with nobody touching them. But what must be the dominant impression of the teaching of the church? What must be the dominant impression in the preaching of the gospel? There can be only one: It must be the holy, glorious God and the wonder of reconciliation with Him through Jesus Christ. That must be the dominant emphasis and the impression left with men.
There is much preaching in Christian circles today which is not that. There is, rather, the steady diet of moralisms. Instead of energizing God’s people with the declaration of what God has done and the declaration of who God is and the wonder of being reconciled to Jesus Christ, there is the attempt to energize God’s people with moralisms and with emphasizing first their life toward others, not first their life toward God. The gospel is not: Do this and you will live. But the gospel is this: This is what Christ has done, now live!
But there is another reason why Protestantism needs to lay fast hold on the gospel today. That reason is to be found in our own sinful nature. It is always true that man, by nature, seeks to earn with God. The theology of works is inbred, so to speak; we come by it naturally. What I am saying is that there is a spiritual problem that we always confront. When the teaching of justification by faith and by works is embraced, then it is a spiritual problem, because always, by nature, man wants to base his relationship to God upon his own merits.
What was the devil’s inner conviction? We read of that in Isaiah 14: “I will ascend and be God.” What was Cain’s offering? He was saying, “I will pay for my sin.” What was Peter’s notion when he said to the Lord, “Not so, Lord. This be far from thee,” when the Lord was saying to him that He must go to the cross? Peter’s notion was this: “Lord, step aside. I’ll help on this issue. I’ll do something.” The relationship between the Creator God and the creature can never be a relationship of merit. It can only be a relationship of grace.
But fallen man, as we are fallen in Adam, hates that, because we are proud and it is too much to be told that we are nothing and that we can do nothing and that we deserve nothing and that all that we can do is further damn ourselves. We do not want to hear that. God’s grace must bend our knee in humility!
Let us hear God’s Word today. It is not simply that you cannot merit with God, that you cannot earn with God, that you cannot obtain His favor. You cannot do that. The gospel is this: He is God. What are you going to bring to Him? You can bring to Him only that which He has given to you. Our relationship to God cannot be based upon merit. It can only be based upon grace.
But still there are others who say, “Well, if you say that our righteousness with God is based only upon the work of Christ and not based upon anything that we have done, then are you not creating an excuse to the Christian to live an immoral life?” That was the objection that was hurled at the apostle Paul and which he contemplated and anticipated in Romans 6. The apostle Paul had set down beautifully the doctrines of justification by faith alone, that we are righteous in Christ alone. But then, in chapter 6 of Romans, he anticipates the objection that is going to be brought: “What shall we say then,” we read, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” They were saying, “Paul, if our standing with God now and forever is not based upon any work that we do or any ceremony that is performed for us or any pedigree of our past or any merit of our own, then may we not conclude from this that it is not only permissible to live in sin but, indeed, this can only enhance the grace of God?” And the apostle responds with those words: “God forbid!” So, in Romans 6 we are taught that a holy life must follow from a justified life.
But the point is this. By nature man cannot conceive of doing good for any other reason than to earn by it. We are always asking the question: “You want me to do that? Why? What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it?” And it is exactly here that the gospel so wonderfully cuts across the grain of the human nature and teaches a true godly ethic—that the motivation for doing good is not merit but only gratitude to God for what He has done. The desire and the impulse to do good is rooted in the knowledge of God and what He has done for me in Christ. So we affirm and we gloriously confess that the motivation of a saved child of God to do good is only thankfulness for the grace of God to him. It is not, and may not be, that I think I am going to earn something with God. If you do something because you think you are going to make God your debtor and then you can come before God and say, “Well, Lord, you got me here pretty much through Christ. But look over here. Look at the things I did. These are my trophies in my heavenly display case.” If that is the way you think, then you have sinned horribly against God. And all the deeds that you do thinking you are going to merit with God are sin, nothing but sin.
There is one motivation for good deeds. Those good deeds can only be performed in thankfulness. I could bring many different verses of Scripture to prove this to you. Instead of that, I am going to ask this question: “How do you read the Bible? What is the starting point that you take?” You must read Scripture from one point of view: God’s sovereign grace and the total depravity of the sinner. Romans 11:36: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all thins: to whom be glory for ever.” There is the Bible’s theme: God glorious, God all-sufficient. Man is made out of dust, he is a sinner, he is damned in Adam and he is doubly damned in his own works. God’s glory!
You must read the Bible, every verse of the Bible, in that light. When you do, then you will see very clearly that the only reason for performing a good deed must be thankfulness to God. In the words of the psalmist in Psalm 116, “What shall I render to Jehovah for all of his benefits toward me?” We do it all out of thankfulness.
Understand, then, that the gospel declares that the child of God who has been made righteous in Christ must do good works. If you are not living in good works, and if you are not repentant and believing in Jesus Christ, then do not boast about salvation. But, you see, the “must” for the good works is not a must of earning and merit; it is a must of the debt of thankfulness that I must pay to my God. How thankful I must be.
Let us hold on to the biblical gospel. Let us maintain that gospel. Let us truly be heirs of the Reformation. Let us hold on to that gospel by knowing it. More and more spiritual apathy infects the church, and doctrine is down-played and given a bad name. We must know the gospel. Therefore, we must turn our hearts to the understanding of that gospel. We must understand that gospel in all of its truth. We must know what stands against the gospel and we must be ready to defend the gospel.
Not only must we maintain the gospel and recover the gospel in our age by knowing it, but we must preach that gospel. God has thought about how the gospel shall be maintained by the church. If God has given to the church such a precious gift, the gospel, and if God knows how readily that gift can be squandered, do you not think that God would leave some instruction in His church as to how the church is going to preserve this treasure? Do you think He left it up to us to figure out the way of preserving this treasure? No, God gave us the means. What are those means? Preaching of the gospel (II Cor. 5:19, 20): “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. (Now, therefore, we beseech you) be ye reconciled to God.” We preach Christ crucified. Through this man is preached unto you (Acts 13) the justification by faith.
There must be the preaching of the gospel. That is the way the gospel is preserved in the church. We live in a day of “gospel bands,” of “gospel clowns,” of circuses and plays, thinking that all of these things are going to maintain the gospel in the church. God has determined how the gospel will be maintained. It will be maintained through the declaration, the preaching, of His Word.
We must maintain the gospel by defending it. We must, like the apostle Paul, be set for the defense of the gospel. That means that we must have creeds. Creeds are not adding to the Bible. Creeds are the confession of the church concerning the truth of the Bible, often concerning the errors that come against the truth of the Bible. By holding on to those creeds we defend also the truth of the gospel.
Finally, we must maintain the gospel by living in its comfort. Only those who experience the power of the gospel in their hearts will demand that it be preached and maintained in the church.
If you do not experience this wonder that you have been made righteous with God, you will not know what all the fuss is about. But when your own heart knows that you could stand for a moment before God upon absolutely no other basis than what Christ has done, and when this is all your joy and all your hope, then you too will want the biblical gospel to be taught in your generation. For you will say, “I can’t live without this gospel. But in this gospel I can live! I have comfort.”
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we come to Thee in our prayer to thank Thee for the gospel and to pray that the church today might heed Thy call to maintain and defend it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.