We are continuing with our series entitled “Retracing Wesley” as we study together the Bible’s messages that Methodists consider very important.
John Wesley preached his sermon (#5) “Justification by Faith” based upon Romans Chapter 4, the letter Paul wrote which was his industrial strength theology:
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. Romans 4:1-5(NLT)
The idea of “justification” is a pivotal doctrine to the Christian faith. Literally the word means “forgiveness of sins”. Wesley thought it was so central to our faith that he tried in his sermon to answer some very critical and foundational questions, such as:
· What does justification mean?
· Who (or what kind of person) can be justified?
· What are the terms (or conditions) to being justified?
In explaining these Wesley helped us understand that justification means we are “put-right” or “returned to right relationship” with God by faith, which is …a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for ‘my’ sins, that he loved ‘me,’ and gave himself for ‘me.’
So, the main issue centers around the facts that humans were created in a state of innocence, but fell from that state into sin, or rebellion against God’s will, and therefore, having been warned beforehand by God, justly received the punishment of death. They were in need of someone to rescue them – a savior…because without the relationship for which they were created, there could be no peace or joy in human existence.
This condition did not hold only to Adam and Eve; every offspring of this first couple also chose rebellion. Isaiah said we are all like sheep, gone astray, doing our own thing…unmindful of the Shepherd’s will. Paul simply said all have sinned, falling short of God’s glory.
This narrative is completely, exclusively Christian. While most of the world’s religions have a central or leading figure, only Christianity deals with the sin problem being addressed with grace.
For instance, atheism, a growing religion claims there is no sin problem; morality is a matter of what you wish to make of it.
Most eastern religions (Hindu, Buddhist) shy away from sin at most, labeling so called “good” or “bad” as simply karma – the weight, either positively or negatively distant from inner harmony. God is viewed extensively in these disciplines (if at all) as somewhat incidental compared to how diligently you work at creating harmony among nature and living beings.
And then there are 1.6 billion Muslims, adherents of Islam, who understand mankind’s sin nature, and the issue of evil, however they view God as an angry legalist who requires rigid obedience to ritual which will be rewarded if you don’t mess up. This “god” rather enjoys annihilating every infidel.
Christianity alone sees the atoning death of Jesus Christ as not only the effective remitter of the cost of salvation from human sin, but also the provider of the grace to become the children of God who then may love as God loves.
At this point most Christians are nodding their heads in agreement:
· Sin is bad --- check!
· Christ dying for us is good --- check!
· Justification – forgiveness of sins is wonderful --- got it!
· Salvation means heaven --- yup!
Then we get sticky with the question that begins a lot of arguments:
The arguments in all of Christendom the past two millennia have been many, often, and sometimes bloody. But generally they come down on two sides – antinomianism and Pharisaism or, grace and works.
This is the ancient train of thought which says there is nothing wrong with whatever I do, because God has already forgiven me; I can live exactly as I want to, and I still get to go to heaven. Unitarian Universalists have this belief.
On the right side of the line is where Pharisees dwell, the legalists among us who count every nickel and dime to make sure the tithe is met (on the gross, not the net). Their idea of grace is that you’d better earn it! You’d better not dance, drink, smoke or cuss, because, even if God isn’t watching, they are, and they’ll rat you out in their prayers tonight.
As you can see on the chart, the cross rests somewhere between these two spurious thoughts. On the one hand, if no obedience was necessary, meaning the antinomians were correct, then Jesus would never have said he did not come to discard the law, but to perfect it.
On the other hand, if the legalist Pharisees were right, and to be right with God could be achieved by perfectly following the life of Christ, doing good works and no bad stuff, then Jesus would never have come to die – his cross would have been unnecessary!
And, as you can also see on the chart, Wesley, ever the man of the middle way, stands near the foot of the cross, where pardon became possible for the human condition of sin.
The word “pardon” is exceedingly useful, even critical to understanding how one becomes justified. There is a difference in court between exoneration, and pardon. To be exonerated is to be declared innocent…never guilty; to be pardoned is to be released in spite of being guilty.
Exoneration is innocence recognized; pardon is guilt forgiven. There isn’t a single person living or dead who can be exonerated of sin; we can only be pardoned. And pardon is what precedes justification.
To be pardoned, have our sins forgiven by God, scripture says we must come to God in faith by Christ. This is a matter of understanding two things about yourself:
1. It is necessary – the legalists are wrong; you cannot do enough good stuff for a lifetime or 10 lifetimes to get your sin forgiven.
2. Confession – that the antinomian universalists are wrong; the way you live is important, and therefore you’re guilty.
The apostle James put it this way:
How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? James 2:20(NLT)
Both James and Paul are pointing to what John Wesley would call the middle way – a marriage of grace, (God’s willingness to forgive sin), and works (living a life of obedience, doing good deeds); this is justification’s greatest reality: we are saved to serve, forgiven to forgive, and loved in order to love.
Justification by faith – simple and profoundly overwhelming, that God can not only love someone like me, but truly forgive and forget my sin.
A STORY THAT MOVES US TO JUSTIFICATION
No one could really say why he ran away. Or perhaps he didn’t, but was kicked out of his home by his father for something foolish that he said or did. Either way, Paco found himself wandering the streets of Madrid, Spain with hopes of entering into a profession that would most likely get him killed – bullfighting. Those who train under a mentor have a good chance of surviving this profession, but Paco’s memory of his mistakes and guilt over what happened blindly drove him to this one way street to suicide.
But that was the last thing his father wanted, which is why he tried something desperate which he desperately hoped would work. There was little to no chance that he would be able to find Paco by wandering the streets of Madrid, so instead he put an advertisement in the local newspaper El Liberal. The advertisement read,
Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.
Paco is such a common name in Spain that when the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day at noon there were 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers…and waiting for the forgiveness they never thought was possible!
I want you to place yourself in the position of Paco right now. No matter how old or young you may be, every one of us has experienced Paco’s dilemma – estrangement from the father.
How does that feel?
Is there an emptiness in your life?
Is there a longing to have that hole in the heart satisfied with the presence of your loving Heavenly Father?
You cannot be exonerated – your sin is a matter of record.
But you can be pardoned, forgiven, and adopted by faith if you’ll only take one step towards home.
 Isaiah 53:6
 Romans 3:23
 U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Romans 10:9-10