I suppose that the holiday season is as good as any to unpack an issue that has been weighing heavily on me for some time. We hear a lot about “fake news” these days, but I have to tell you that I’m much more concerned about fake news in the church.
At the core of the most precious body of doctrine (Christian teaching) which we possess is the doctrine of justification by faith. In fact, Martin Luther said it unequivocally: “Justification is the article by which the church stands and falls (justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).” And I would like to be unequivocally clear on this point: if you don’t have justification by faith, you don’t have Christianity. There is no gospel without justification by faith. And, just to be crystal clear: we’re talking about justification by faith alone.
What does it mean? Well, that’s why I highlighted that word “alone.” When we speak of justification, we’re referring to a person’s right standing with God. So you can see why this doctrinal point matters tremendously. The gospel of Jesus Christ announces the way – and the only way – by which a sinner can come into right standing with a perfectly holy God.
So, “justification by faith” means that faith – and faith alone – is the only instrument by which a person can lay hold of the righteousness of Christ. The perfect righteousness of Christ is the ground of our justification and is imputed (credited) to us when we trust in Jesus alone for salvation. The Father then declares us righteous in His sight, enabling us to inherit eternal life. This is accomplished entirely apart from any works which we perform. (If you’re not thoroughly familiar with the term “justification by faith,” I would encourage you to read this paragraph again. And perhaps again.)
I’m being very intentional with every word today because these are matters of life and death. I often hear people speaking about “accepting Christ,” and I want to address this. There is a sense in which we accept Christ. I’ll quote John 1:12-13 here: But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. So, yes, we receive Christ. But look carefully at everything in that passage. Our receiving Christ is not just a matter of a decision that we make. In fact, look very carefully. The text explicitly says that we – in human strength – can’t even make that decision: nor of the will of man. That’s a powerful declaration. John is saying, and Jesus will expand on this in John 3, that our being “born again” is an act of God.
That is why I much prefer to speak of trusting in Christ. That phrase more accurately encompasses the totality of what it means for a person to have saving faith in Jesus. It is not just “accepting,” but it is completely relying upon Christ’s righteousness – and not my own. I think you will agree with me that “trusting” is a much stronger word – and more doctrinally precise – than “accepting,” because I can accept something without being completely committed to it. Think about that. A lot of Americans “accept” the results of a presidential election (this statement has nothing to do with 2020, so please don’t get distracted by that) while wishing that the outcome had been different. My “acceptance” may or may not be accompanied by, “I’m all in.” I think you see the point I’m making: when it comes to matters of saving faith, we want to understand and articulate things as correctly as we can. That’s why I don’t urge children to “invite Jesus into your heart.” Is that notion completely erroneous? No. But, there are many ways to express a gospel invitation which are much closer to the actual words – and in fact the doctrines – which we find in the Scriptures.
And here’s my overarching concern, and the reason for my blog posting today: I think we’ve gotten very careless with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Now, let’s take all of this one step further. Because here’s why it matters: when we move away from justification by faith, we likely don’t even realize it. In fact, we’ve probably bought into a cheap substitute for the gospel, while never even realizing that we left the gospel behind. So what I’d like to do, with the remaining strength in my fingers, is to lay out for you three common gospel deviations. May the Holy Spirit add His conviction to this warning if I’m on base at all …
1. I know that I’m a Christian, so it doesn’t matter how I live.
We might call this liberalism. Or we might call it licentiousness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace.” But, whatever we call it, it stinks. Let me tell you what’s wrong with this mindset, in a nutshell: it’s an attempt at justification without sanctification. But the Bible is clear (Romans 8:29): For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son … Predestined is a strong word, and the believer’s holiness is predestined – it’s as good as done (see also Verse 30). Sanctification always follows justification. Let me say it like this: God loves us where we are, but He doesn’t leave us where we are! A person who is truly converted to Christ is being transformed into the likeness of our Savior. Period. Of course it matters how we live. THE EYES OF THIS PERSON ARE NOT ON CHRIST.
2. I know that I’m a Christian because I feel it in my heart.
Again, this may be only a subtle move off-center. Why do I say that? Because there is a sense in which you and I can expect an “internal” assurance of our salvation (Romans 8:16): The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God … But that promise is not the Lord’s urging of us to rely on a feeling! In fact, we’re going to need much more than a feeling just to get through the rest of the things we’re told to expect in that same chapter, like weakness and suffering. If we only look within for assurance, we can’t possibly be looking at the finished work of Christ on the cross. And we must never allow any subjective experience to override in significance the objective reality of what Jesus has accomplished for us. THE EYES OF THIS PERSON ARE NOT ON CHRIST.
3.I know that I’m a Christian because I’m doing the right things.
We might call this legalism. We might call it moralism. We might even call it the gospel of self-help. Just to be candid, there’s a lot of this nonsense on the radio in our neck of the woods. In fact, I’ve even heard some Baptists around here proudly announce that they don’t need to concern themselves with the doctrines of the Reformation. Well, here’s my response to that: I don’t care if you ever quote Luther or Calvin or Zwingli, but you better make sure that you’re feeding your people the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Because, if you’re not, you’re leading them straight to hell. It seems like Romans 8 has been powerful as I’ve explored today’s subject, so I’ll point there one more time (Romans 8:3-4): For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Simply put: there is not enough “good behavior” in the world by which we will ever be able to justify ourselves! THE EYES OF THIS PERSON ARE NOT ON CHRIST.
I hope you see that each one of these phony “gospels” fails the test. Not one of them is really trusting in Jesus, and in Jesus alone. Friends, these false gospels are everywhere. Literally, everywhere.
Let’s face it. Fake good news is bad news. I hope you’ll pray with me that God will revive the real gospel in our day, and in our midst!