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United at Justification

Last Friday I was privileged to speak at a pre-conference pastors’ luncheon at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in the Memphis area. St. Andrews will be holding a conference this summer on the topic of Justification with Dr. Tom Nettles as the speaker. Wayne Herring and Doug Barcroft, pastors at St. Andrews, have become burdened about the lack of understanding of the basic gospel in evangelical churches, and believe that Justification is the appropriate point for unity among Protestants. I have been encouraged just to meet these two fellow pastors. I think they are entirely right that evangelicals in America are in real danger of completely losing the objective gospel and that proper ecumenism among Protestants can be accomplished by rallying around the basic truths of the gospel like justification. This central gospel is our core message anyway, so unity here will be significant.

The meeting itself was very encouraging. About 50 pastors attended. I know we had various sorts of Presbyterians (PCA, PCUSA, ARP), an Assembly of God pastor and several Southern Baptist pastors. Other denominations may have been represented as well. Wayne and Doug were clear about the fact that we held denominational distinctives which were important to us and there was no need to minimize those. Our unity is in the core gospel. The spirit of the gathering was deeply encouraging. My task was to speak to this gathering on the importance of Justification. Many things could be addressed (and I am sure Dr. Nettles will cover them!), but I chose to simply speak to the basic issue. Here is a brief outline of my remarks:
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Bildad’s question in Job 25:4- “How then can man be right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure?”

Justification- how can guilty sinners be restored to favor with a righteous God

This is no merely academic exercise. This concerns how people can be saved! Brothers, as those charged to watch over souls and to act as messengers of God, we dare not be flimsy or uncertain here. The eternal fate of our people depends on this!

From our definition several questions arise in our current context, several points at which key presuppositions of this classical definition are under attack or are overlooked.
1. We are guilty sinners- not merely errant children, we are guilty before God
2. We are out of favor with God, thus we are under the wrath of God
3. God as righteous must punish our sin- He cannot just overlook our sin

These are weighty issues, but for the brief time we have here I will take up one text which addresses each of these issues- Romans 3. We must be clear about the biblical witness of these issues or we will not properly grasp the gospel. Our debates on justification will be mere academic exercise with no real meaning.

Rom 3:9-20- The reality of sin, the totality of our depravity

Until we face the depth of the desperation of our condition we will lack power in our preaching, earnestness is our exhortation. We must feel the weight of our condemnation

Self-centered prosperity preaching cannot withstand the withering blast of this doctrine. All of a sudden we will not be able to bear a message that is all about us, because we are caught in sin. We need to hear of something or Someone outside of ourselves.

Jesus said he who is forgiven much loves much. Perhaps our self-centered,
apathetic condition in the church is due to a failure to consider how bad off we
are and thus a failure to realize just how much we have been forgiven.

Rom 3:19-20; 1:18; 2:6- The reality of God’s wrath against sin

We need God to rescue us from God. If we soft pedal the wrath of God we will never feel the glorious beauty of the gospel. This is what really brings home the glory of our rescue.

Understanding this issue is what will awaken true worship. If we understand this we will not need more gimmicks and hype to “get the people going” for worship. Worship, because it is an expression of love, arises in response to truth.

Rom 3:21-26- An alien righteousness from outside of us, provided to us.

We need to understand that the problem with the gospel is not, “How could God condemn anyone?”, but rather, “How can a holy God forgive any sinful person?” This is particularly true in light of passages like these:
Exodus 23:7- “I will not acquit the guilty”
Proverbs 17:15- “He who justifies the wicked…[is] an abomination to the LORD.”
Justification explains how this happens.

Practical results of this doctrine:
1. No room for boasting (3:27-31)- Glory in this doctrine which destroys your pride! Gloat not in your understanding of this doctrine. The doctrine itself undercuts our pride.

2.Peace with God (5:1)- God is now for us! We are freed from the burden of perfectionism (language from Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation).

3. Celebration (5:2)- The gospel is the source of true worship.

4. No condemnation! (8:1)- Oh, how I need this truth- and how often.
“My Sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought-
My sin not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord Praise the Lord O my soul”

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A more complete exposition of this text can be heard here.

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