October 27, 2019, Justification by Faith? What Kind of Crazy Talk Is That? – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000159
There is a great song out recently titled Modern Jesus, by Portugal. the Man. I love the song, but the lyrics of the song are deadly. So that would be a good beginning for the sermon. Here is the chorus:
Don’t pray for us
We don’t need no modern Jesus
To roll with us
The only rule we need is never
The only faith we have is faith in us
The topic of this sermon is the doctrine we call Justification by Faith. It is one of our most important doctrines. You could say that it started the Protestant reformation. When Luther began teaching justification by faith, it was a radical idea, so radical that even Luther found it too hot to handle. And we Protestants who made this doctrine our motto, have found it a bit too hot to handle. Justification by Faith is the doctrine that we are not justified by the good things we do but instead we are justified because we have faith in Jesus to have mercy on us. This is the doctrine specifically rejected by John Gourley in the song I quoted above. This doctrine also seems to be the main point of the parable we just read:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
The doctrine is so important and also so difficult to really get, that I want to look at that word “justified” more closely. It is a legal term, one that we are all familiar with, and in a legal context it really means “acquitted”. It is the point at the end of a trial where the jury finds the defendant not guilty and the judge bangs his gavel and it is all over. You the prisoner are released and free to go with nothing standing against you. Perhaps some of you have been arrested and stood trial for something or other? I won’t ask for a show of hands. I haven’t yet, but it is easy to imagine a little of what it must feel like to be such a person in that situation. Your life is about to go in one of two directions: prison or freedom. What relief you would feel in getting freedom!
But the Greek word is better than that. It doesn’t just mean acquitted. Notice that the jury in a court trial always says “I find the defendant not guilty.” He never says “I find the defendant innocent.” The way a human court has to operate, with the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution presenting evidence for and against the defendant, things are never perfectly clear. It is never 100% certain that the defendant is innocent. At a trial the judge always tells the jury that they can only find the defendant guilty if there is no reasonable doubt about his guilt. If there is even the shadow of a reasonable doubt about his guilt, the jury has to acquit him. If you can say “Yes, that sounds bad but it might have happened this other way” then you have to acquit him. Only if all twelve people on the jury are as sure as they can be about his guilt can they find him guilty. He might be guilty in fact, but if it hasn’t been proven as well as humanly possible, then we let him off. Sure some guilty people get away with things, but the system is set up this way to make sure that no innocent people are punished for what they didn’t do. We hold a person “innocent until proven guilty” and that means we bias the trial in the defendant’s favor. It means that we try so hard to not punish the innocent that sometimes the price is that a guilty person gets away with his crime.
Now if that seems unfair, consider the alternative. There are countries where a person is guilty until proven innocent. Imagine living there and being arrested for something. You would know almost for sure that you would go to prison unless you could prove you didn’t do it, and you can see how that might be impossible. In that sort of system, almost no guilty person gets away with anything but the cost is that a lot of innocent people are punished. So we chose the more merciful way to judge people. A judge will say “not guilty” because your guilt has not been proven, not because your innocence has been proven.
But in this parable, God goes one further. The word we translate justified means more exactly “make righteous” or “make innocent”. God, the Judge of all the earth, finds you innocent. Now that is a shocking thing for Him to say, and for a good reason. God is the omniscient judge. He knows perfectly well whether or not you did it. There is no “proving beyond a reasonable doubt”. He knows. And He pronounces you innocent anyway. That poor sinner in the parable was actually guilty. He just stood there before the Judge and the Judge said, “How do you plead?” and he said “Guilty”, and then the Judge said “I find the defendant innocent.”
Now what kind of crazy is that? It is the opposite of what we expect. It is scandalous. If a human judge did that we would want him fired. And not long ago a judge in California did something very similar and the outraged voters recalled him from his office. Human judges are not allowed to behave like God; they have to decide on the basis of the facts. But apparently God can ignore the facts and decide what he wants to decide and Jesus thought that was a good thing. But it gets worse.
What reason does God give for finding a person innocent when He knows perfect well that they are guilty, when they even confess and ask for mercy? Usually, the answer is that the criminal had faith and God counts our faith as righteousness, as innocence. But that is no answer, at least not one that makes any sense. What good is faith in God when you’ve killed someone? It doesn’t bring the victim back to life. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense. Imagine a murderer standing up at the beginning of a human trial and saying, “Judge, I am as guilty as sin, but I have faith in your mercy” and the Judge saying, “Oh, OK then. That’s good enough for me. You are free to go.” Is this what Justification by Faith looks like? No wonder some people like John Gourley are skeptical.
Now I do believe it is true that God counts our faith as righteousness, but it is not so easy as we make it out to be. In the parable, the Pharisee had faith in himself. “I thank you God that I am not like other men. I am a good guy.” And so God found him guilty. But the sinner had faith in God’s mercy and that makes all the difference to God. But why? There has just got to be more going on here. There are at least two really important differences between the way God judges and the way a man judges – besides the whole omniscience thing – two differences that take out some of the craziness.
One difference between God’s verdict and man’s verdict is power. When a human judge finds a defendant not guilty, he has the full power of the government behind him; and that means he has the power to clear the man’s official record. But the judge doesn’t have the power to change the man. The defendant is still who he was. If it turns out he is actually a bad guy, then he leaves the court a free man to follow his bad guy inclinations, free to commit some new crime. But when God finds a defendant innocent, He has the power of the Creator. And you know how powerful the Creator of all things is. When God says something, He speaks the word of power. He says “let there be light” and out of nothing at all, light pops into existence. When He finds you innocent, then out of nothing at all righteousness pops into existence. That sinner, whom God knew full well was as guilty as sin, got the mercy he had faith in and left the court a different person. John says he was born again. Paul says he became a new creation. In other words, all he had to do was ask. All he had to do was ask for mercy and he got it and way way more. He was in fact no longer a criminal. So that makes Justification by Faith a little less crazy.
But there is more. Who had the faith in that parable? Well, of course, it was the sinner. You can’t ask for mercy when you know you are guilty unless you think there is at least a little chance you can get it. That is faith in the mercy of the judge, though not the confident, I-have-no-doubt kind of faith we are sometimes told we have to have. It is mustard seed faith. But the parable is talking about a more important faith. The Judge of the Universe pronounces the criminal innocent because the Judge has faith in the sinner. The Judge knew that the criminal had changed and would change and would not disappoint Him because the Judge knew that His word, Innocent, never returns empty; it always accomplishes the purpose He intends it to accomplish.
In a human court, all you have to say is “Not guilty” and the whole system of justice comes in on your side. But in God’s court, all you have to say is “Guilty” and the Judge Himself comes in on your side. He likes it when you tell the truth. You can’t have faith both in God and in yourself. Either you will distrust the one and depend on the other or you will depend on the one and distrust the other. If you have faith in yourself, then the prayer of your heart will be “thank you that I am better than that other guy over there.” If you have faith in God, then the prayer in your heart is “have mercy on me”.
Now here is the point of the sermon. If you are here, it is probably because you have faith in Jesus. Sometimes you feel that your faith is strong, and sometimes you feel your faith is weak, but it absolutely does not matter whether you have weak faith or strong faith. What matters is that God has faith in you. Right now God is looking at you and what He says is, “Hey, kid, I love you. Go out into the world with strength and courage to love and serve me with gladness and singleness of heart. I believe in you kid.”