Are we justified?

But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. (Romans 4:5, CEB)

John Wesley’s sermon “Justification by Faith” takes this verse from Romans as its text.

He begins the sermon with the following statement: “How a sinner may be justified before God, the Lord and Judge of all, is a question of no common importance to every child of man. It contains the foundation of all our hope, inasmuch as while we are at enmity with God, there can be no true peace, no solid joy, either in time or in eternity.”

I’m am struck as I read that first line by what is asserted here. We are in need of justification before God, the judge. We are condemned. We are in need of mercy. All of us. You as well as me. We are sinners before a judge. We are children of man not children of God. We are God’s enemies.

I simply cannot imagine a sermon in any church I’ve ever attended starting out with this assumption or with this plain statement. It would be like a clanging gong in the ears of the hearers. A preaching student who launched into his sermon this way would be critiqued, I imagine, for failing to understand the congregation.

And Wesley does no better speaking to the congregation’s felt needs as the sermon progresses. Indeed, the end of the sermon puts us back in exactly that place where we started.

For he that cometh unto God by this faith, must fix his eye singly on his own wickedness, on this guilt and helplessness, without having the least regard to any supposed good in himself, to any virtue or righteousness whatsoever. He must come as a mere sinner, inwardly and outwardly, self-destroyed and self-condemned, bringing nothing to God but ungodliness only, pleading nothing of his own by sin and misery.

His final exhortation could not be less fitting to our consumer culture and self-esteem oriented psychology.

Thou ungodly one, who hearest or readest these words! thou vile, helpless, miserable sinner!

Just imagine preaching that on Sunday.

I charge thee before God, the Judge of all, go straight unto him, with all thy ungodliness. Take heed thou destroy not thy own soul by pleading thy righteousness, more or less. Go as altogether ungodly, guilty, lost, destroyed, deserving and dropping into hell; and thou shalt then find favour in his sight, and know that he justifieth the ungodly.

Can you imagine Rev. Osteen preaching those words through smiling teeth?

As such thou shalt be brought unto the blood of sprinkling, as an undone, helpless, damned sinner. Thus look unto Jesus! There is the Lamb of God, who taketh away thy sins! Plead thou no works, no righteousness of thine own! no humility, contrition, sincerity! In nowise. That were, in the very deed, to deny the Lord has bought thee.

You nice church ladies are going to hell with your covered dishes if you think your sincerity will save you.

No: Plead thou, singly, the blood of the covenant, the ransom paid for thy proud, stubborn, sinful soul. Who art thou, that now seest and feelst both thine inward and outward ungodliness? Thou art the man! I want thee for my Lord! I challenge thee for a child of God by faith! The Lord hath need of thee.

I believe the words “want” and “need” may have some different shading here than our usage today.

Thou who feelest thou art just fit for hell, art just fit to advance in his glory; the glory of his free grace, justifying the ungodly and him that worketh not. O come quickly! Believe in the Lord the Jesus; and thou, even thou, are reconciled to God.

A stirring ending, to be sure. But by now my cowardly heart has relented or the rocks have brained me into senselessness. I’ve pulled out my copy of Rob Bell to explain how hell is just the projection of a theologically unsteady soul.

I simply cannot put this sermon into any United Methodist Church in which I have ever been in worship. Our Articles of Religion speak of justification, but until I started reading Wesley on my own, I’d never once heard the word or the doctrine preached from any United Methodist pulpit. I confess, I never have preached it so directly as this.

And yet, are our pews not filled with the very people to whom this sermon is directed? Are not our pulpits filled by men and women who pin their salvation on their own good works or good character? In my moments of honesty, do I not hear these words as spoken to me?

Richard Baxter wrote that no preacher was ever saved because he preached. We clergy are no more saved by our good works than any aristocrat or Anglican priest in Wesley’s day. We are — I am — in need of the blood of Christ. I need the righteousness that comes from faith.

Do we fail to preach this doctrine because we have gotten much wiser than Wesley was about the life of the Spirit and the nature of salvation? Or do we fail to preach it because too many of us are not ourselves ready to let go of our own righteousness?

8 thoughts on “Are we justified?

  1. John, maybe we’re just downright cowards. This brings to mind a conversation I had with a colleague (pastor of another denomination) a few months ago. She made the comment that she believed there were a good number of the people sitting in the pews at her church who did not know salvation. She put words to some of my thoughts. While we are too timid to preach words like these there is a great need for our people to hear them, even though they may not want to hear them. O Lord God, give us courage to preach your truth.

    1. Amen, Ed.

      “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have hard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jeuss.” (2 Timothy 1:12-13)

  2. John, if you and Ed are indeed cowards, you need to attend to this quickly. Repent. Now.

    “But the cowards, the unbelievers, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

    John, if this charge of cowardice is true, then John the Revelator lumps you and Ed in with unbelievers, murderers, fornicators, idolaters, liars, and the rest.

    “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Don’t put this off. Deal with it Today.

    As a man of understanding (Proverbs passim), please explain your understanding of why we are afraid to preach like John Wesley (1703–1791). I for one am interested in why you personally are afraid to preach like Wesley, what your experience of the roots of cowardice are. But there’s a problem: John Wesley isn’t best known for self-disclosure, (You would know more about that than me.) So you may want to take a pass on that.

    Or, if you are not a coward and do preach like Wesley, do you have insights into Joel Osteen, Rob Bell, and the nice church ladies that can move us a little past references to consumer culture, self-esteem, smiling teeth, and not believing in hell?

    If we don’t take steps to deal with personal issues like cowardice as quickly as possible, then we risk violating our consciences and shipwrecking our faith.

    1. Your call to repentance is well made. Revelation 21 is an apt text.

      More on my mind as I was writing was 2 Timothy 1:7: “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

      You are correct that I must take steps. Perhaps I wrote this post in secret hope that a Paul would write to me as Timothy, reminding me to “be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

  3. John, as I’m preparing sermons for Advent looking ahead in the texts I run across Mark 1:1-8 for the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Here we find John the baptized preaching from Isaiah, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” How do we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, at Christmas or his return? It is done with confession and repentance. Not necessarily welcome themes for “Christmas time.” But by proclaiming that the way to make ready for the Christ is by repentance and confession. I forces one to do some honest self-searching and facing the truth about ourselves. This is what “Father Wesley” talks about isn’t it? Maybe, just maybe, this is a good place to start in our journey of faithfulness as proclaimers of the good news. Thanks to your post here and this text, I will be making a stand.

    1. Lead on, brother.

      In the words of Isaiah:

      Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’

  4. My pastor growing up transferred in from another denomination, and he was unlike any UM pastor I had heard in my experience, but man did he preach justification faithfully and consistently. And along the way, that congregation grew from about 100 or so to over 600 while he was there.

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