32605 A small step in time
"The just shall live by faith; the just shall live by faith."
“Therefore being justified by faith, let us have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ."
It is nearly four centuries ago now, that a young professor from the north of Germany went to Rome. He was a man of considerable learning and of versatile mind. Yet he did not go to Rome to survey the remains of antiquity or the treasures of modern art. He went to Rome because he was in trouble about his sins and could find no peace. Having been educated to regard Rome as the centre of the Christian world, he thought he would go to the heart of things and see what he could there find. He had reflected somewhat at home, and had talked with other men more advanced than himself, on the thought that the just shall live by faith; but still that thought had never taken hold of him.
We read, and some of us have done it as some of you remember the story quite well on how one day Luther, according to the ideas that prevailed and still prevail at Rome, climbing up a stairway on his knees, pausing to pray on every step, to see if that would not help him about his sins. Then, as he climbed slowly up, he seemed to hear a voice echoing down the stairway, saying, "The just shall live by faith." And so he left alone his dead works, he arose from his knees and went down the stairway to his home to think about those words.
It is no wonder that with such an experience, and such a nature, Luther should have lived to shake the Christian world with the thought that justification by faith is the great doctrine of Christianity, "the article of a standing or a falling church." It is no wonder that John Wesley, rising up with living earnestness when England was covered with a pall of spiritual death, should have revived the same thought of justification by faith. Yet it is not true that the doctrine of justification by faith is the entire gospel. It is true that the doctrine of justification by faith is simply one of the several ways by which the gospel takes hold of men. You do not hear anything of that doctrine in the Epistles of John. He has another way of presenting the gospel salvation, namely, that we must love Christ, and be like Him, and obey Him. I think sometimes that Luther made the world somewhat one-sided by his doctrine of justification by faith; that the great mass of the Protestant world are inclined to suppose there is no other way of looking on the gospel.
There are very likely some here to-day who would be more impress by way the matter was presented; but probably the majority would be more impress by Paul's way, and it is our business to present now this and now that, to present first one side and then the other. So we have here before us to-day Paul's great doctrine of justification by faith, in perhaps one of his most striking statements. "Therefore, being justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." We talk and hear about these gospel truths, and repeat these Scripture words, and never stop to ask ourselves whether we have a clear idea of what is meant. What does Paul mean when he talks about being justified? There has been a great deal of misapprehension as to his meaning. Was Luther all wrong in his early life, because he had been reared up in the idea that a justified man means simply a just man, a good man, and that he could not account himself justified or hope for salvation until he was a thoroughly good man?
Now, the Latin word from which we borrow our word "justified" does not mean to make just, and as the Romanists use the Latin, their error is natural. But Paul's Greek word means not to make just, but to regard as just, to treat as just. That is a very important difference, not to make just, but to regard and treat as just. How would God treat you, if you were a righteous man; if you had, through all your life, faithfully performed all your duties, conforming to all your relations to your fellow beings, how would He regard and treat you? He would look upon you with complacency. He would smile on you as one that was in His sight pleasing. He would bless you as long as you lived in this world, and, when you were done with this world, He would delight to take you home to His bosom, in another world, because you would deserve it.
Now as God would treat a man who was just because he deserved it, so the gospel proposes to treat men who are not just and who do not deserve it, if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He will treat them as just, to they are not just, if they believe in Christ; that is to say, he will look upon them with His favour; He will smile upon them in His love; He will bless them with every good as long as they live, and when they die He will delight to take them home to His own bosom, they never deserved it, through His Son, Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means by justification. And when Luther found that out he found peace. This Epistle to the Romans had always stopped his progress when reading the New Testament. He would read, in the Latin version, "For therein is revealed the justice of God," and he felt in his heart that God's justice must condemn him. But now he came to see what was really meant by the righteousness of God, the righteousness which God provides and bestows on the believer in Jesus. A sinful man, an undeserving man, may get God Almighty's forgiveness and favour and love, may be regarded with complacency and delight, although he does not deserve it, if he believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is justification by faith.
It is one thing to take hold of this matter in the way of doctrinal conception and expression, and of course, God be thanked! It is another thing to receive it in the heart. Many people who get hold of it all in the heart with trust and peace never have a correct conception of it as a doctrine. Yet I suppose it is worthwhile that we should endeavour to see these things clearly. All things being equal, they will be the holiest and most useful Christians who have the clearest perception of the great facts and truths of the gospel. Now let us come to another thought here, being justified by faith.
A man might say if God proposes to deal with those who are not just, as if they were why does He condition it upon believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why cannot God proclaim a universal amnesty at once, and be done with it, to all His sinful, weak children, and treat them all as if they were just, without their believing? I don't think this is hard to see. God does not merely propose to deal with us for the time being as if we were just, but He proposes in the end to make us actually just. It would be an unsatisfactory salvation to a right-minded man if God proposed merely to exempt us from the consequences of our sins and not to deliver us from our sins. You do not want merely to escape punishment for sin without ever becoming good; you want to be righteous and holy, you want to be delivered from sin itself as well as from the consequences of sin. In addition, this gospel, which begins by its proclamation that God, is willing to treat men as just, although they are not just, does not stop there.
It proposes to be the means by which God will take hold of men's characters and make them just, make them holy. You may, for the moment, conceive of such a thing as that God should make a proclamation of universal amnesty, and treat all men as if they were just; but that would not make them any better. The gospel is not merely to deliver us from the consequence of sin, but to deliver us from the power of sin. You can conceive of an amnesty as to the consequence of sin, which should extend to persons that will not even believe there is such an amnesty; but you cannot see how the gospel is to have any power in delivering us from the dominion of sin, unless we believe the gospel. It can do so only through belief in God and Jesus Christ.