The most urgent, burning question that can ever be asked is the question: How can sinful man be right with God?
So decadent has become our age that arrogant man would say, “No, the most important question is: Is there a God to be right with?” To that question, I simply respond, in the name of the living God revealed in the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ, that God is, that He must be worshipped, and that you have not.
The most burning question for you is: How shall you be right with the living God? Does that question mean anything to you?
It is that question which the gospel of Christ alone can answer-answer in such a way as to quiet your disturbed and grief and sin-stricken conscience; answer in such a way as to awaken your and my conscience should they be carnally quiet and undisturbed by sin; or answer in such a way as to give them comfort if the Lord has stirred our soul in the knowledge of sin. Whether your life is relatively young and brief, or old and long, there is no more urgent and burning question: How shall I be right with God?
It was exactly this question which haunted the soul of Martin Luther. The answer which God gave him in the gospel was the spark of the glorious reformation of God’s church.
We will be celebrating, October 31, the Reformation of the church which began in 1517–a reformation in which God delivered His church from the tyranny of man-made traditions into the liberty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was tormented with the question: How can a sinful man be righteous before God? His professors in the Romish church tried to soothe his troubled and pained conscience with the salve of Roman Catholicism, which became as salt to his wounds. They told him to appeal to the merits of the saints. They pointed him to the intercession of the virgin Mary. They taught him that works would merit righteousness and that a life of self-beating would turn God’s smile upon him. Finally, in exasperation, not knowing what to do with Luther, his Romish confessor told him to find a Bible and to read that. It was then, as Luther read and poured over the pages of the Scriptures, especially the book of Romans and the Psalms, that the light of the Holy Spirit, sent by the pure grace of God, opened his eyes to the gospel. We are made righteous before God only, absolutely only, through the blood and death of Jesus Christ once given upon Calvary’s cross, which blessing we are assured of in our deepest heart by the gift of faith.
Do you know the gospel?
Personal justification: how I am personally made right with God through the work of Christ received by faith.
The word “justification,” found in the Bible, means simply “to be innocent or right before God.” It means that you may go down to your house today with all of your sins forgiven; that you may go down to your house credited with perfect standing before the law of God and in the court of heaven. The Bible teaches us that this justification is eternal, for God had said in Numbers 23:21 that “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel.” That is, eternally God purposed that His people would be righteous before Him in the work of Jesus Christ. So we read, in Revelation 13:8, that Jesus Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
Still more. The Bible tells us that justification took place at the cross, for then the earth gave witness and heaven recorded the cry of Jesus Christ: “It is finished.” Not, “I am finished!” but “It is finished.” The sin, the guilt, and the payment for sin for My people is finished. Our justification, still more, according to the Scriptures, will be finally and universally declared in the last day when God shall say, “Come, ye righteous, enter into the kingdom of thy Lord.” All of this is true.
But justification, to be made right with God, is something that is very personal and is something right now. It is the act of God that really occurs in the experience of the believer. The Belgic Confession, one of the creeds or statements of belief of the Reformed churches, says in Article 22 that God gives us the attainment of the true knowledge of this mystery, namely the satisfaction of Christ, for all my sins. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to give me to know, by the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, that His righteousness is mine and that I am absolved of all my sins before the face of God. This is what the Lord Jesus Christ is teaching in the well-known parable of the Pharisee and the publican who came up to the temple to pray. “Two men,” said Jesus in Luke 18 beginning at verse 10, “went up to the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, the other a publican.” Concerning the publican, the Lord finished His parable by saying: “This man went down to his house justified.” That is, this man, by the wonderful love and grace of God experienced personally that he was right with God, that there was not one speck of sin which would be accredited to him but that in the work of his Savior and Redeemer, he now stood innocent before the face of God.
Do you know that? This is the gospel of which we are not ashamed. Herein is revealed the power and the grace of God. This is the gospel which we publish without any hesitation. This is the only thing that will ever matter in your life. The gospel’s truth is this: God has justified His own who were ungodly and sinners. He has done this through Jesus Christ. And He gives them to know this in the way of a true faith in Jesus Christ.
You must answer this question: How can I be right with God?
I was referring a moment ago to the parable of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the temple to pray. The publican, a mere tax collector, a despised man in his day, went down to his house knowing that he was indeed acquitted before God. In the parable, Jesus teaches us that this publican, by the grace of God, knew three things about himself. How was it that he was brought to know his acceptance before God? God brought him first to understand three things about himself. And you and I will experience the joy of justification only in the way of a Spirit-brought and heart-felt conviction of these three things.
First, the publican knew he was created by and accountable to God. Notice what the Lord says: “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” And, although these two men were poles apart in their hearts, one being a Pharisee (a stone of pride) and the other a publican (having, by the grace of God, a new heart of faith); nevertheless both came up in the outward confession that God is Creator, that God must be worshipped, and that man is accountable to this God. The publican, then, came up with a certain knowledge, first of all, that he was created by God, that he was accountable to God. Is this the confession that you make?
In Genesis 1 we read, “In the beginning God….” God who existed before He created, independent of His creatures; God who is self-sufficient in Himself and self-sustaining from all eternity; this God created the heavens and the earth. He created man, breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, making man accountable to God. The whole Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures throb with this fundamental truth: man is created by God and man is answerable to God. This much the publican knew, and this much he was acknowledging by appearing in the temple: he was God’s creature, accountable to the living and the true God. All that he does (coming up to the temple and then beating his breast and crying out for mercy) shows that he was very conscious that he was not an animal merely answerable to base instincts and appetites. This man was not an evolutionist. He did not believe that his origins were a pool of slime or a big bang so that he could simply bemoan himself this way: “Oh, evolutionary ladder. Too bad I haven’t shed my animal instincts for the betterment of mankind. Oh, pool of slime from which I originated, I’m just a product of natural chance and I’m grieved by some of the things I do.” No, no, no! He knew the truth about himself. And this is the truth: I am created by God and I am solely and inescapably answerable to God.
Do you understand that?
Now the Pharisee, as I said, no doubt would nod his head in agreement and say, “Yes, indeed, man is created by God and is answerable to Him.” But, though confessing it with his mouth, he denied it with his heart. And in reality his thoughts of God and his accountability to God were far from his mind. Oh, for a moment in the temple, he nodded assent. But then it was back to his life, gaining the uppermost seat in the synagogue and being a god unto himself. Back to standing at the street corner to advance himself in the eyes of men. The thoughts of the living God to whom he must give answer? Well, that did not mean a practical thing to him.
But the publican? The publican’s distress was exactly not in his relationships to men, not in the struggles that he encountered in attaining his dreams and advancement among men. But the issue in his soul was this: his relationship to God and his sin. For he knew this much (and he knew it because God had written it in his heart), “I am made by God. I am answerable to God. And I have sinned against this God.” This was the first self-knowledge which was so essential for his coming to the truth of the gospel of the free grace of God and righteousness in Jesus Christ. When God, according to His own election, works within the heart of a sinner, then He makes that sinner understand one thing very clearly in the light of His Word. And that is this: I am created by God; I am accountable to God; I must answer for what I have done to the living God.
But this publican knew more. He knew he was personally guilty for breaking the law of God. He was a sinner. Notice what the Lord says: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me thesinner.” Now, how does he identify himself? What was the simple fact of his self-knowledge? What did he know about himself? He seeks an audience in prayer with the God of heaven and earth and he stands before that God to identify himself. And how does he identify himself? The sinner! In his own eyes he was given to see what the heart of stone in the Pharisee would not see. He was given to see that of himself before God he was guilty of violating the holy law of God and was a sinner in the sight of God. The words which Jesus put in his mouth are: sinner.
This means “to miss the mark.” A man aims his rifle at the bull’s eye. And his shot goes wide. An archer pulls back his bowstring and lets fly an arrow at the shoulder of the deer. But it glances off the back. It missed the mark. What is the mark for you and for me? There is only one and it is altogether right and good: the glory of God as outlined in the Ten Commandments. The publican is saying that when he looks at himself he sees himself in his nature, in his practice, in his thoughts, in his life, in everything that he is of himself, as a mark-misser, as one who has missed the good law of God, who has violated that law repeatedly. My whole identity is seen in terms of one who is guilty of missing the standard that God has set down as only being right and true.
In terms of the first table of the law, the first four commandments, it means that from the dawn of our existence we are, in every day and in every week and in every year and in every thought, relationship, circumstance, and in all of our life, to sanctify the Lord God. We are to worship Him. We are to worship Him aright. We are to honor His name and never take it in vain. We are to keep and hallow the Sabbath day. But I have broken that repeatedly. I am a sinner.
It means, in terms of the second table of the law, that in every moment of my life, in every disposition and attitude and deed, I must obey authority, love my neighbor, keep my heart clean and pure, honor other people’s property, sanctify the truth, and give my heart wholly to God in contentment.
Now this publican knew that he was a sinner before God. God, be merciful to me, not a sinner. He took no comfort in the fact that his problem was shared by his fellow man. He found no comfort in the fact that his position was shared by the whole human race which was, of course, true. But it was to him as if there were only two in the whole universe: God and the sinner. And the conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is the only way to experience the blessing of the forgiveness of sins, was that he identified himself as a sinner in the sight of God. The fact that you stand amidst the vast aggregate of humanity from Adam to the last person alive makes no difference. This man’s knowledge was: the God to whom I am answerable, before this God I am a sinner.
Now, I say to you, whether you are old or young, whether you have heard it a hundred times or a thousand times, or for the first time, how shall a man be right with God? You will never know the answer until you are given to see yourself as wrong with God, as a sinner. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” We have made our own standards and our own marks. And we have made a God of our own will. That is man’s problem, his sin for which he is answerable.
Do you see that that constitutes you as a sinner before the living God? That your very disposition is inclined wholly and in every direction away from the mark that God has set in His law? The man who went down to his house justified was a man who knew: 1) I am not a product of evolution. I am answerable to God. 2) I am a sinner who has sinned before this God.
But I said that he knew three things about himself. He knew himself as one liable to the wrath of God. Look at what Jesus said again: This publican would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven but smote his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Why did he smite his breast? It is found in that word which is translated “merciful.” Literally he says, “God, be propitiated to me.” That is, “Lord, turn away Thy wrath from me through the sacrifice of another which endures that wrath in my stead.” He is asking for appeasement. He is saying: Not only am I accountable to God; not only am I a sinner before God; but I am liable and naked in the presence of God’s holy wrath. Be placated toward me. I am a sinner of myself, standing before Thee in all the naked ugliness of my sin. I deserve, O God, and I have provoked nothing but Thy pure and holy and righteous anger, the burning of Thy holiness against sin. Take away that wrath and punishment from me.
I know that it is not popular in our day to speak of the wrath of God against sin and against impenitent sinners. But, you see, the soul that knows forgiveness of sin, knows also that it deserves the wrath of God for sins. John the Baptist cried to the religious leaders: Flee the wrath to come. The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we were the children of wrath even as others. Again in Ephesians 5 we read that for these things, that is for murder and coveting and adultery, cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. The gospel is the only answer to the question: How can sinners who deserve the wrath of God be received into the favor of God? That is Paul’s argument in Romans 1, beginning at verse 16. If you read that, you will find that the apostle, after he announces his confidence in the gospel – that he is not ashamed of the gospel – and after he speaks of the wonderful blessing of righteousness to be found in the gospel, he goes on to say: It all makes sense because the wrath of God is revealed against the ungodliness of men. He goes on in chapters 1-3 to speak of guilt and wrath and indignation and anger and judgment. We would say, “But, Paul, I thought you were going to expound the gospel. I would expect in the opening chapters of the book of Romans you would fill it with the honeyed words of love and mercy and grace.” No! Because, until you are given to understand your liability and your openness to the wrath of God, the gospel can be nothing to you. He is not a Christ of convenience. He is not there to use as you want and to soothe you so that you can remain in impenitence. He is the Christ who was in all the justice and grace of God delivered up to the wrath that we deserved. And this publican, who was given to know personally his righteousness with God, knew that of himself he deserved the wrath of God for his sins.
Those who are brought to know that they have been made righteous in Jesus Christ in the presence of God are given self-knowledge of three things: I am accountable to God; I am a sinner before God; I deserve the wrath of God for my sins.
Do you know those things?
Be sure to listen next week as we will continue and explain the wonder of what it is to be personally justified before God.
Let us pray.
Father, we praise Thee for Thy Word. We pray that, by the Holy Spirit, Thou wilt write the truth upon our own hearts that we are accountable to Thee, that we are sinners before Thee, that we deserve Thy wrath, in order that the gospel of Thy Son might lead us to the truth that in the work of Christ we are made righteous. In His name, Amen.