Can I Trust that God Accepts Me? (Study of Romans, Part 3: Romans 3:21–5:21)

Note: How do we find joy, hope, and peace in our lives? The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about that. He teaches that we do it by having more faith, hope, and love. In the 3rd part of this study, we consider, can I trust and believe that God accepts me? This is the 3rd of an 8 part study of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Key Thought: We can grow in joy, peace, and hope by learning to see and trust that God accepts us.

Introduction to the Virtue of Faith
What will govern how we feel? How we see. How we perceive reality is how we will feel. If we perceive that we will have opportunities and successes, then we will feel hope. If we perceive that we will have no opportunities or successes, then we will not feel hope. If we see people as basically against us, it will be harder to feel love for them. If we see people as made to connect with us, then we will find it easier to love them.

When it comes to people, there is an element of faith in our relationship. I can’t literally “see,” for example, the love my wife has for me. However, in her greetings, her actions, and her talks with me, I can “see” it, in a manner of speaking, with my eyes.

With God, the element of faith is greater. We can’t see Him face to face. We can’t see with our eyes that He is present with us. We may not see that He loves us.

So, how do we find a way to “see” Him? We develop faith. Faith is the virtue or excellence of the soul that enables us to see God. It is what we read in Hebrews, Moses “persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).

Faith sees God and trusts that He is who He says He is, will act in accordance with who He is, and will do what He says He will do. Faith is what enables us to receive the righteousness from God that we could not have on our own. “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).

Now, Paul was writing to the Roman Christians. He believed they already had this righteousness from God. They did not need to receive it. But they needed to learn to see it better and more clearly. That’s one of the big reasons he wrote this letter. It was not enough for them to simply believe once and be done with it. Faith is a virtue or character trait that needed to be developed. They needed to learn to see God more and more clearly. That was how they were going to return to joy, peace, and hope in their lives lives. So, it is for us as well.

In particular, Paul describes two things that we to “see” by faith that will enable us to experience joy, peace, and hope: justification and sanctification. We will consider justification in this post and sanctification in the next one.

Part 1 – Justification (Romans 3:21–5:21)
The Meaning of “to Justify”
Paul uses a word that is slightly difficult to translate to explain what God has done for us. It is a little bit of work to understand this word, but once you do, the wonder of what God has done in Jesus really opens up.

Paul writes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “All have sinned . . . but are justified freely by His grace” (Rom. 3:23 and 24). What does he mean by “being justified”?

“To justify” means “to declare righteous.” When you justify someone, you declare that they have done what is right. You don’t make them just or righteous. You say that they are. That is justification. The opposite of “to justify” is “to condemn.” So, if there is no condemnation, then there is justification (see Rom. 8:1).

One way to help someone understand this is to ask, can you justify God? To some people that seems strange. But, if “to justify” means “to declare righteous,” then you can certainly declare God to be righteous. Not only that, you should justify Him! That’s what the Bible says. Luke 7:29 tells us that the tax collectors and sinners justified God. How? They said He was right in saying they should repent. The Pharisees did not justify God. They said God was wrong when He told them to repent. Indeed, we can almost say that to be justified by God you must first justify God, but that’s just something to think about.

How God Justifies Us
Once we grasp the meaning of the word, we have a problem. How can God justify us? We are wicked and sinful. For God to say that we are righteous would seem to be a lie. Paul calls God the God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). How can that be? It would seem like we should be condemned, not justified. It would seem that God is lying. How can He justify ungodly people? That is, how can He say that wicked, murderous, adulterous, immoral people are righteous?

God can justify us because God does not declare us righteous in ourselves. He declares us righteous because of what Jesus has done in His life and death and resurrection. Note well, “we are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). We are justified as a gift, but it is a gift because Jesus has paid.

Paul is aware of this tension. He indicates that there was a question of how God could be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). How can God do it? He sent Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. He took the wrath that the law demanded so that we would not have to experience it. Jesus was a true substitute.

How do we get what Jesus did for us applied to our account? We accept it as a gift by faith. We see the gift and say that we want it. “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22).

Paul goes back to the Old Testament to shows that this is true. Abraham was justified by faith. David was forgiven freely by faith (Romans 4:1–8). Forgiveness is a close synonym to being justified. It’s just a slightly different angle. Anyone who is justified is also forgiven of anything in the past. That’s the way that God has always done it. Adam brought in condemnation, but Jesus brought in justification (Romans 5:12–21). Where sin abounded; grace superabounded (Romans 5:20, see the original Greek).

The Result of Being Justified
And what is the result of all this? We have peace with God. It is a fact that God’s wrath is turned away. This is the foundation of our peace. Our conscience may condemn us, but justification tells us that God loves us, is for us, and forgives us.

By faith, we can have a sense of God’s love that transcends all our circumstances. As Paul put it so powerfully, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). If we can truly perceive this by exercising the virtue of faith, then it will produce joy, peace, and hope.

I have had this experience innumerable times. I remember one time not too long ago that I was experiencing some real losses in my life. But then I read Romans 5:1, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I realized that I could have received the wrath of God, but God justified me instead through Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. This is the most important thing. Everything else is just gravy. That is a foundation for joy, peace, and hope, no matter what happens. The better we can see this through the eyes of faith, the more we will feel joy, peace, and hope. Paul wrote at the end of his letter, “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me . . .” (Romans 15:14-15). Reminding ourselves of these things daily, hourly, and moment by moment will also grow our faith. It will enable us to have a foundation that is completely secure in the instabilities of this life. That’s the virtue of faith.

But that’s not the only thing we need to see by faith. We need to see that God is transforming us into something absolutely glorious. That’s what we will consider in the next section.

Outline to Construct Your Own Teaching on Romans 3:21–5:21

  1. What is the meaning of the word “to justify?” Do a careful study.
  2. Why is it such a problem to say God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)?
  3. How is it that God is able to declare ungodly people righteous?
  4. How do we get the righteousness of God applied to us?
  5. What is the concrete result of being justified?
  6. How do we experience and perceive better the results of being justified?

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you understand what it means to be justified by faith and not by works?
  2. Have you been justified by faith in Jesus Christ?
  3. How are you doing at believing in your justification?
  4. What could you do to help you “see” it better?

The Unity of the Evangelical Protestant Church on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone

There’s no question that the variety of churches can be a bit dizzying. How did we get so many denominations? It’s a long story!

What’s easy to miss is the amazing unity that exists on the most important doctrines of the faith. There is a surprising amount of unity on what the Bible teaches about who God is, who man is, what his problem is, and how he comes to eternal salvation.

One of the key points of agreement is in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. What this means is that whatever we have done or however much we have failed, God forgives us and accepts us a free gift received by faith alone without any of our obedience, merits, or works. We also teach that good works are the fruit of this justification, but we always emphasize that our free acceptance is the root and the good works are fruit of that acceptance.

Here are a few examples from some of the historic documents of evangelical churches for your edification:

Wesleyan: We believe that justification is the judicial act of God whereby a person is accounted righteous, granted full pardon of all sin, delivered from guilt, completely released from the penalty of sins committed, by the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith alone, not on the basis of works.

Augsburg (Lutheran): Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. . . . Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works (Art. 20). Continue reading “The Unity of the Evangelical Protestant Church on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone”

Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith

The goal of grace is to re-engage humanity in service to the glory of God and the life of the human community. To do this, the human pride that seeks to make ourselves or our nations the center of the universe must be shattered. This requires a humble acceptance of God’s verdict and our sinfulness and a reception of His offer of security, love, and forgiveness. This acceptance frees us from the burden of anxiety and so releases us for the adventure of love.

Here we consider this same event from God’s perspective. God offers power and grace, sanctification and justification, as the solution to human pride and misery. From God’s standpoint, the gifts given to faith are justification and sanctification. This is grace shown to man and power working in man. It is forgiveness and transformation, a new status and a new character. God forgives, and He transforms. For Niebuhr, it is important to see that God does both, and that these are two distinct gifts.

When someone believes in Christ, they achieve a perfect righteousness. However, this righteousness is not theirs internally. It is only theirs by imputation. “The Christ who is apprehended by faith, i.e., to whom the soul is obedient in principle, ‘imputes’ his righteousness to it. It is not an actual possession except ‘by faith’” (The Nature & Destiny of Man, 2.103). “Impute” means to consider, to think, to reckon. God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours, so that God sees us as if we had never sinned nor been a sinner, indeed, as if we had accomplished what Christ Himself did. Continue reading “Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith”

Why Do Good Works? 8 Ways Good Works Are Consistent with God’s Free Acceptance

500 years ago next Tuesday, the Reformation began with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on door of the church at Wittenburg.

Luther had gained crystal clarity on this amazing truth: human beings stand condemned and guilty before a holy God, but God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. The proclamation of this truth changed the world.

But not everyone agreed with Luther. Many people said, “no” to the Reformation. One of the central objection to the Reformation was and is, “why do good works?”

If we are accepted by God as a free gift, then why should we do good works at all?

Before I answer this question, let’s note that this was the same type of objection the Apostle Paul received. “Do we then nullify the law through faith? Not at all! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, see also Romans 6:1ff.).

I think it’s right to say, if we never get this objection to our teaching, then we should examine ourselves. Are we really teaching free grace like Paul?

On the other side, if people who get our teaching don’t respond with a “may it never be!” then we probably haven’t taught the necessity of good works very well either.

Luther’s fundamental answer to the objection was that acceptance with God isn’t based on our works, but the God who accepts us also produces good works in us by the same faith that receives the gift of salvation.

He wrote: “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus, good works come out of faith” (Commentary on Romans, [Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976], xv).

Luther goes on to say in a very memorable passage: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man” (Ibid., xvii).

Ways Protestants Think of Good Works
I want to suggest 8 different ways that Protestants (those who follow the Reformation) think about good works. These different perspectives all express the same truth: works are necessary as a result of salvation but not to obtain salvation. If one of the 8 ways, helps you, hang onto it. If one of them doesn’t, just keep going to the next one.

1. Root and Fruit: The most common is the idea of faith as the root and good works as the fruit (see Mt. 7:16–20). The Methodist Articles capture this very nicely: “Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit” (Article 10).

2. Two Gifts: When we accept Jesus for salvation, we don’t receive merely one gift, forgiveness. We also receive the gift of transformation. Protestants often call these two gifts justification and sanctification. It’s important to note that we can’t accept one without the other. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith says: “the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2).

3. Dying to sin: We can think of the life of fallen human beings as a life that is alive to sin. People are committed to themselves and their own way of solving their problems. When we come to Jesus Christ, we die to this way of life. We nail it to the cross, so to speak. That’s how the Apostle answered the question, should we continue in sin? in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1–2).

4. Alive to God: The flip side of the previous image is that we are alive to God. We do good works because we are now alive to God. Becoming a Christian is about a new life. The Wesleyan Church describes the way that Protestants think about this new life:

We believe that regeneration, or the new birth, is that work of the Holy Spirit whereby, when one truly repents and believes, one’s moral nature is given a distinctively spiritual life with the capacity for love and obedience. This new life is received by faith in Jesus Christ, it enables the pardoned sinner to serve God with the will and affections of the heart, and by it the regenerate are delivered from the power of sin which reigns over all the unregenerate. (Article 12)

5. Union with Jesus Christ: When we come to Jesus in faith or ask Him into our heart, we are united to Jesus Christ. Jesus compares our relationship to Him as branches to a vine. If we are united to Him, we will bear fruit and do good works. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We will do good works because we are connected to Christ who is the source of good works.

6. Slavery and freedom: The Apostle Paul uses this imagery to explain our lives before and after receiving God’s free acceptance. Before we were connected to Jesus, we were slaves to idols and sin. We let all sorts of things govern our lives. Coming to Christ is about being set free. We are now connected to the only one who can give us true freedom. Good works are simple the free life of living to God: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22, see vv. 14–23).

7. The Presence of the Holy Spirit: Another way of thinking about good works is that they are the work of the Holy Spirit. Every believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes us new. The Southern Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way: “At the moment of regeneration [the Holy Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church” (II.C., see 1 Cor. 12:3, 13).

8. A Psychological Connection: Protestants at various times have explained ways in which faith is connected to good works by psychological necessity. One explanation that I have found helpful is that of Reinhold Niebuhr. He says that as long as we are filled with anxiety about our identity, security, and position, we are not freed to love. Faith in the Gospel releases us from this anxiety and thus opens up the way to love. He writes: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love.”

When you understand this multi-faceted way of seeing salvation, it becomes rather obvious why the Protestant answer to, “Then, good works don’t matter,” is, “may it never be!”

Common Questions About This Perspective
Whenever I teach our “root and fruit” theology, people ask several different questions about it. So, I’d like to address these. Maybe you’re thinking of one of them. If you have others, let me know in the comments section.

1. Does that mean that someone who has no fruit is not a Christian?
Yes. You can’t have Christ and not be changed. A good tree will produce good fruit. If we don’t see any change in our lives, any increased love of God, any desire to follow His commands, or any affection for the brothers and sisters in Christ, we should question whether we really believe in Jesus in our hearts.

2. Will we ever be without sin in this life?
No. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:1).

It’s a realistic goal for believers to be freed form the dominion or domination of sin in our lives. It’s flat out wrong to think that we will ever be free from the presence of sin in this life. There will always be a part of us in this life that will lead us to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:25).

3. If we continue to sin in this life, then how can we know that we are producing good fruit?
Short answer: progress and growth. If life is present, growth will occur. Don’t look so much at the day to day. Look at the months. How far have you come? Sometime this can be difficult to see.

One Pastor told me a story about his life. He was not converted in college, and, by his own admission, he was a jerk. Time went on, and he lost contact with many people who were in his life during that time. Then, he became a Christian. Years later, he reconnected with many of his old friends on Facebook. They got reacquainted with him, and their big question was: “What happened? You were such a jerk!” He answered, “Jesus.”

As the days go by, believers will see progress in Christ. It’s probably more evident than we think.

4. How should we evaluate other people’s relationship with Jesus?
Cautiously. Some would say not at all, but we are called to help one another and build one another up. In order to serve a person well, you need to know where they are. Jesus warns us against judging and tells us we will know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:1–5, 16–20).

One reason we need to be cautious is that outward behavior can be misleading. Someone who has a natural self-discipline can change a lot of outward behaviors without much inward change. Someone without that personality trait will have a much harder time. It’s remarkably easy to clean the outside of the cup and have the inside of the cup be filthy.

Here’s a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis when he was asked, “Are there any unmistakable outward signs in a person surrendered to God? Would he be cantankerous? Would he smoke?”

I think of the advertisements for White Smiles Tooth Paste, saying that it is the best on the market. If this is true, it would follow that:

(1) Anyone who starts using it will have better teeth;

(2) Anyone using it has better teeth than he would have if he weren’t using it.

But you can’t test it in the case of one who has naturally bad teeth and uses it, and compare him with [someone] who has never used tooth paste at all.

Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian. and how much more likable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.

The best context for helping others is love, relationship, and careful listening. This will enable us to judge righteous judgment and not one according to mere appearance (John 7:24).

5. If growth is an organic process, should we work hard to produce fruit and good works?
Yes. The Bible is filled with images of the Christian life that involve strenuous effort: a worker, a soldier, a runner, a farmer, and so on. Paul says plainly, “Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

We always need to remember in working hard, though, that we are totally dependent on God’s power working in us both to will and to do. This calls for prayer, an attitude of dependence, and communion with Him.

In addition, mere hard work is not the most effective way to produce change.

6. So, what is the most effective way to produce change?
If you want to see better fruit, give attention to the roots. We need to strengthen our faith.

Outward behaviors are just part of the equation. Most of the change needs to be with our mindset and emotions. This is something that occurs internally. Most of the Christian life is about replacing a sinful mindset with one that is governed by faith. This is a long process. It involves becoming acquainted with ourselves, confessing our sins, meditating on Scripture, worship, and lots of conversations with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, all with a strong sense of dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Final Encouragement
The heart of this message is not to discourage anyone. Good works are attainable for anyone. All we need to do is to be connected to Christ. We don’t need to settle for our old ways of life, the same old patterns that harm ourselves and our families. We will always have something in us that we struggle with, but we can experience substantial change and transformation through the power of Christ.

And that’s the good news of the Reformation. There is grace for forgiveness and grace for change. Jesus is available, as Augustus Toplady, penned as the “double cure”: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure” (from his hymn “Rock of Ages”).

10 Ways the Church Needs to Reform, if the Simple Gospel Is Central

At the heart of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. This means that, though human beings stand guilty and condemned, God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. Closely related is the fact that God also transforms those who are justified to make them more like Jesus (often called sanctification).

This is the simple Gospel that was emphasized and put back at the center of the church by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.

This is what had first place in the New Testament Church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

It’s still easy for us to make other things of secondary, tertiary, or no importance central. I still struggle to keep the simple Gospel central. For a long time in my ministry, I did a terrible job of it. Even when I preached the simple Gospel, my actions often said that other things were just as important or more important.

When I left New Covenant Presbyterian in Spearfish in 2015, I preached from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. I explained ten things that I had tried to do, ten reforms that I had tried to make that were based on making the simple gospel central. I said, whatever else I had done, this was my vision and what I had wanted to do.

A man in the church came over to me afterwards and said, “You need to make that the first sermon you preach at your next church.” I changed what I was preaching on based on his advice.

And this is still my vision. This Sunday, I’m preaching on the Reformation. It’s on justification by faith alone. I’m going to share 10 reforms I think the church needs to make, if the simple gospel is central to her life.

  1. If the simple gospel is central, then it gives us an outward focus. The people outside the church are not that different from us. They are just one act of faith away from being fundamentally where we are.
  2. If the simple gospel is central, then all that is necessary to be a member of the church is to embrace the simple gospel. We can’t make entrance into the church higher than entering into the kingdom of God. This is what captivated me in Presbyterian history. Presbyterians aren’t perfect, but they have historically understood this.
  3. If the simple gospel is central, then we cannot let other preferences or other truths crowd it out. If other doctrines, ethical principles, church principles, or anything else gets talked about more than the simple gospel, people will believe what you talk about is the most central. We should not do that.
  4. If the simple gospel is central, then everything we do must be formatted around it. We cannot say one thing & then show another. We can’t say Christ’s love is free and then not care whether or not people can find our building. We can’t say Christ is hospitable but then be inhospitable.
  5. If the simple gospel is central, there is unity of believers in the local church. We may be at different levels in our spiritual journey or knowledge, but we all sit down around the table and let Jesus wash our feet. That gives us a powerful unity.
  6. If the simple gospel is central, then the church is composed of a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds at a variety of different levels. Each should be valued as a believer in Christ. Thus, the worship and the sermons should be designed to include everybody and give them all sense of being part of the people of God.
  7. If the simple gospel is central, then we will value children in our church because the simple gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp and embrace.
  8. If the simple gospel is central, there is a unity with all believers. It is no longer just about the believers in our church, it is about believers everywhere because we all believe together that which we value most.
  9. If the simple gospel is central, then we can and should work together with all churches who preach this simple gospel. We share a basic unity that transcends other differences.
  10. If the simple gospel is central, then this is what we need most in order to grow. We must preach the gospel to ourselves when we see our sin, when we need guidance, when we are struggling with our circumstances, and when we are struggling with people. What does Paul write to the churches? The Gospel.

The Reformation was about clarifying the Gospel and bringing it back to the center of the church. This is not a completed act. It is not a pristine period in history. It is a continual call to make Christ and Him crucified the center of our lives, churches, and hearts.