Justification by Faith
July 23rd, 1972 @ 8:15 AM
JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-23-72 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Justification by Faith. This is the watchword of the letter of Paul to the churches in Galatia, and it is the text and the theme of the deliberately thought-out and written letter of the apostle to the church at Rome.
The letter to the churches in Galatia was written in a white heat. Paul is greatly disturbed, and he vehemently and vigorously writes these six chapters to the churches in Galatia, the churches that were founded upon his first missionary journey. The Book of Romans was written after much thought and deliberation. The apostle is calm, and the letter to Rome is like a theological treatise. But this letter to the churches of Galatia is like a thunderbolt. It is like a fire- brand. It burns. The theme, justification by faith—that we are saved by trusting Christ and not by the works of the law, not by keeping precepts and observing commandments, but we are saved by trusting Jesus, and we are saved alone and only in that—this is the theme of the letter to the Galatians and the letter to the church at Rome.
Now we are going to read from the second chapter of the Book of Galatians. The first three sermons have been on the first chapter. We now come to the second chapter. And when he says, “Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also” [Galatians 2:1], this refers to the Jerusalem conference which was called in the holy city to consider whether a man could be saved just by trusting the Lord, or whether also he had to add to that faith and trust certain rituals, and ceremonies, and obediences to commandments [Acts 15].
So when he says, “fourteen years after,” that is fourteen years after his conversion, after Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road [Acts 9:1-18]—why Paul went up to Jerusalem, and this is the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts—to counsel there with Barnabas. And he took a Greek with him. His name is Titus [Galatians 2:1]. This is a man who was saved directly out of his heathenism, and paganism, and idolatry. He was saved directly out of it into the faith of Christ:
And I went up by revelation—
that is, he went up at the express will and commandment of the Lord Christ—
and I communicated with them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles…
But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek—
a heathen idolater who had accepted Jesus—
neither Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:
And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage…
But we gave place to them in subjection, no, not for an hour . . .
Then when James, and Cephas—
and John, who seemed to be pillars,
perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship;
that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the Jews…
Now when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed…
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,
even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law:
for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified . . .
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
Just the feeling of those verses that I have read out of the second chapter of this letter to the churches in Galatia—just the feeling of them—portrays for us the inward, burning, fire in the heart and soul of the apostle as he defends his gospel—the gospel that he received by revelation from Jesus Christ [Galatians 1:11-12]—that we are saved by faith alone, by trusting Christ alone, and not by the observance of rituals or the obedience to commandments [Galatians 2:16]. And the energy of Paul was poured into that defense.
I can almost say that the theme of his own life is Ephesians 2: 8-9, “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast,” lest any man should say, “I did it.” But it is altogether of the mercy and grace and love of God. And Paul defends that gospel that he says he received from Christ. He defends it with every ounce of his energy and every drop of blood in his veins.
He is so committed to its defense that he refuses to allow even the sharp edge of a wedge to enter into the churches that would anywise pull them away from that gospel. And he is courageous in it, and bold! He says here, “When we went up to Jerusalem” [Galatians 2:1] in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts—for to consider this matter of whether one could be saved just by trusting in the Lord [Acts 15:6]— he says, “there were false brethren brought in unawares, to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour” [Galatians 2:4-5].
Then he says of those three great pillars in the church there in Jerusalem: James, the Lord’s brother and the pastor of the church; and Simon Peter, the chief of the apostles; and John, the beloved, whom Jesus loved; he says, “When they saw what had been committed to me and to Barnabas, they gave us the right hands of fellowship; and agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, while they went to the Jews” [Galatians 2:9].
Then, third, he says, “When Peter was come to Antioch; I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” [Galatians 2:11]. For Simon Peter was getting back into that old, Ebionitic heresy, that in order to be a convert to Christ, you must not only believe in the Lord, but you must also observe all of the Talmudic rituals of the Jew.
Then it is that Paul says “that a man is not justified by the works of the law—by keeping commandments, and rituals, and ceremonies—but by the faith of Jesus Christ” [Galatians 2:16]. “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” [Galatians 2:21]. Ah! What a courageous man he was. There was nothing of the lukewarm, one-way; one religion is just as good as another. There’s nothing of compromise in this apostle Paul, whatsoever!
Had it been a lesser man—had it been like most of us—why, when such a confrontation had risen, we would doubtless have gone out to get a drink of water, or we would have gone somewhere to sip a cup of tea, or we would have been in a corner somewhere babbling some piece of gossip, but not the apostle Paul. With iron in his soul, he stands and confronts even Simon Peter himself [Galatians 2:11].
How does Paul do that? Does he have a certificate of authority from some senate, or from some hierarchy, or from some church council or convention? No! He does it under the weight and under the burden of the truth of the revelation of God Almighty Himself [Galatians 1:11-12]. And there never has been a great exponent of the truth of God but who has not had that same spirit; that what he said, and the message that he delivered was not as a spokesman from some authoritarian council or from an assembly of men, but that he was a prophet sent from God to deliver God’s message [Galatians 1:12].
Ah! You see that just all the time in the lives of God’s true emissaries and servants. When Amos came to Bethel, there to deliver the prophetic message of the Lord, he was accosted by Amaziah, the prelate and high priest of Jeroboam II. And Amaziah sent to Jeroboam and said, “You have got to hush the mouth of that man Amos, for the land cannot bear his words” [Amos 7:10]. And Jeroboam said, “Well, you hush him up.”
So Amaziah came before [Amos] to hush up the prophet of God, and said to him, “You ignorant country farmer, you herdsman of a flock of sheep, you go back to Tekoa in Judea where you came from, and there you preach, but not here, for this is the king’s chapel and this is the king’s court” [Amos 7:13].
And Amos replied to Amaziah, “It is true that I am no prophet, neither am I the son of a prophet.” That is, he was not a man of the schools. He was not a graduate of the seminary:
It is true that I am no prophet, neither am I the son of a prophet;
but I was an herdsman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit:
but the Lord God took me from following the flock and said unto me, Go prophesy unto My people Israel.”
Then he added, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” [Amos 3:8].
That is the spirit of Athanasius as he stood before Arius. That is the spirit of Savonarola as he stood before the Roman prelate. That is the spirit of Martin Luther, when he stood before the Diet of Worms. That is the spirit of John Knox, when he stood in the presence of Mary, queen of Scots. That was the spirit of Obadiah Holmes, when in Massachusetts he stood before Governor Winthrop. This is the spirit of the true prophet and man of God. His credentials are not from men, but he speaks from the burden of the truth laid on his soul from heaven itself.
Now why is it that the prophet—that the apostle, that this man of God, this emissary from the courts of heaven—why is it that he has to defend so seriously and vigorously the truth of the Lord as it is revealed in Christ Jesus? Now, why? Why is it that the gospel of justification by faith is so difficult to receive?
Well, there are three answers to that. One: it is persistently the gospel of works, of self-merit and self-righteousness; the antithetical gospel to that of justification by faith—justification by faith, the gospel Paul is preaching, and the gospel of justification by works, by self-merit and self-righteousness. Why is it that the gospel of self-merit and self-righteousness, why is it that it is so persistent and so attractive?
The first answer lies in that it appeals to our human nature. No matter how you allay that spirit of self-merit, and self-virtue, and self-esteem, and self-righteousness—no matter how you allay it— it’s hydro-headed, it rises again and again. It does so in our own hearts, and it certainly does so in the theological world.
Somehow it pleases us. It is attractive to us that we do it, that it is by virtue of our merit and our worth that we are saved. And we work to that end. It seems to be a part of our fallen human nature, just to try to save ourselves. And the effort of it has been a characteristic that is universal of mankind. And sometimes it goes to unusual extremes and degrees.
Let me read you a little article that I cut out of the daily newspaper. Listen to it:
A mother of seven children burned herself at the stake in the hope of becoming a saint, police reported Wednesday. Officers said that Angelina Borson, 48, piled up straw and soaked it and herself with gasoline. Then she tied and gagged herself and set fire to the straw. “I shall die,” she said in a note, “like Joann of Ark, and my soul will be received in the kingdom of heaven.” Mrs. Borson, afflicted with cancer, got up every night at her farm home to pray. She read the Bible constantly and became convinced her illness stemmed from her sins—her family sin. Relatives said apparently she hoped that by dying in a terrible fashion, her sins would be atoned.
That is a characteristic of our fallen human nature. Somehow we feel we must do something ourselves in order that we might be saved, that our sins might be forgiven. We must atone ourselves for our transgressions and our iniquities.
A second reason why that gospel of self-righteousness is persistent and hard to allay: second, it sounds plausible. It sounds plausible even for the minister to stand up in the pulpit and to plea for self-righteousness. Why, that’s the way to encourage virtue, and rectitude, obedience, and godliness. We ought to work at it. We ought to give ourselves to it. And if we fail in it, we shall be certainly lost and damned. It sounds plausible for us to seek to do good in order to save ourselves.
And a third thing about that gospel: it is the one common denominator of all the false religions of the world. However the religions of the world may differ in a thousand other things, they all have this one thing in common; that they seek by works to find salvation. Why, some of these idolaters, worshipping images, will mutilate themselves. They will mortify the flesh. They will go on long pilgrimages. They will abstain from this and that. They will find self-infliction a delight. They have fasts. They count beads. They observe days, and ceremonies, and rituals, and rites. They are endless in their efforts to achieve merit and righteousness. That is the one common denominator of all false religions. They all follow in that way.
All right, let’s look now at true gospel and what Paul is saying. Why is it—why is it—that the gospel of self-merit, of self-righteousness, of our trying to save ourselves by our good works, why is it that that is a denial of the gospel of the grace of the Son of God? Why is it? All right, there are three reasons for that.
The first one: when we try to save ourselves by our own righteousness, immediately we deny—we turn away from—the mercy and the goodness of God. No longer are we seeking to be saved by the mercies of the Lord [Titus 3:5], but we are seeking to save ourselves in our own righteousness. Now may I illustrate that in a court of law?
When a man appears before the bar, before the court, and that man is righteous, and he’s not guilty, he has done no wrong, and if the judge were say to him, “The court will be merciful to you,” why, the man would be insulted. “What do you mean this court is to be merciful to me? I’m not asking for mercy. I have done no wrong. All I want this court to do is to give me my rights. All I want from this court is justice, for I am innocent.” When a man throws himself upon the mercies of the court that means that he is guilty, and he is asking the judge to be lenient, and to be forgiving, and to be merciful.
Now that is the exact thing with us before God. If a man can stand before God and say, “Lord God, all I want is justice. I want my rights, for I am an innocent man, and I’ve never done wrong, and I’ve never transgressed, and I’m not a sinner. I stand before the court of Almighty God asking that I be judged according to my merit, and my work, and my virtue, and my goodness, and my righteousness.” Fine, fine; if a man can stand before God and say, “There’s no sin in my life. There are no dark thoughts in my heart. I have walked in perfect virtue and rectitude all the days of my existence.” If a man can stand before God and say that, then the Lord has no other choice but to give you the justice you deserve. Walk into the kingdom of heaven. You are perfect and deserve it.
But what about us who are sinners and know it? We are confessed transgressors, and realize it. What are we going to do? The only way Paul says that we can be saved is to cast ourselves upon the mercies of God. We are saved by grace, by the unmerited favor of God [Ephesians 2:8-9]. We’re saved by the love, and the forgiveness, and the mercy of the Lord. Now that is the gospel of justification by faith [Galatians 2:16]. “Lord, remember me, a lost sinner, a dying man. Lord, be merciful to me and be good to me. Remember me.” That’s the gospel of justification by faith [Romans 5:1].
How in the earth is it, how could it be that any man can come before God and plead his own self-righteousness, his own personal merit? How could he do it? Why, in the presence of the Lord God, the Scriptures say that the heavens are not pure [Job 15:15], and even the angels are charged with folly [Job 4:18]—the great, high and perfect God, and I, a man made out of the dust of the ground. The gospel of justification by faith is always this, that I cast myself, Lord, upon Thy kind heart. May God be merciful to me, a sinner [Luke 18:13-14].
All right, second: the gospel of justification by faith means that as sinners, we don’t ask for justice. We ask for mercy, for forgiveness. Second: if a man can be saved by self-merit and self-righteousness, there is no reason for, there is no explanation for, there is no excuse for the atoning death of Christ; the death of our Lord is superfluous, it is beside the point. If you can save yourself in keeping any ritual, or any ceremony, or obeying any commandment—if you can save yourself, the death of Christ has no meaning. It is unnecessary.
I want you to look at how Paul will say that. “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come from the law, then Christ is dead in vain” [Galatians 2:21]. I want you to look at two words he used there, “I do not,” translated, “frustrate”—atheteō. Actually it means to nullify, to regard as useless. And then, “then Christ is dead in vain”—dōrean, without cause—groundlessly. It is an adverb in the Greek. “Then Christ is dead in vain. . .”—dōrean, an adverb. It has no pertinency. It is without cause and without reason [Galatians 2:21].
If I can save myself, if I could atone for my sins, if I can stand before God in self-merit—commend myself as somebody pure, and holy, and without blemish and sin—if I can do that, then there’s no reason for the death of Christ. I don’t need His blood to wash my sins away. And I don’t need Him to intercede for me or to be my great Mediator, and Pleader, and Advocate. I can do it myself. There’s no need for Christ at all; none at all [Galatians 2:21].
Third and last: if I can save myself, if I’m justified by my good works; that is, if I’m declared righteous in the presence of God by what I am able to do, I hush up, I seal up, I shut up all the hallelujahs of heaven. For, without exception, without exception, when you turn to the Apocalypse, to the Revelation, and there read those paeans of praise and glory to God, all of them are alike: “Unto Him,” unto Christ Jesus, “unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and made us kings and priests unto God, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever” [Revelation 1:5-6].
Or again, in the fifth chapter of the Revelation: “Worthy is the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb to open the book and to break,” to loose, “the seals thereof; for Thou was slain, and by Thy blood hast Thou redeemed us unto God out of every family, and tribe, and nation under the sun” [Revelation 5:9]. These are the songs of heaven, and if I can save myself, then I’ve got to change the song and hymn of praise. I have to sing it like this: “Unto me, and my virtue, and worth, am I here. And all glory and praise to me, that I did it myself, I made it.”
There will not be a syllable of that in heaven. “Unto Him who washed us, and redeemed us unto Himself by His blood” [Revelation 5:9]. Sometimes we sing that in our hymns down here in this world:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain.
He washed it white as snow.
[“Jesus Paid It All,” Elvina M. Hall, 1865]
Now I want to close with a sentence, an observation: the further a man gets away from God, the more is he proud of himself. You listen to a rogue pray and you’d think he’s the best man in the world. The further he gets away from God, the more he thinks of himself and the prouder he is of himself. But the nearer a man gets to God, the more he feels unworthy, abjectly so. “Woe is me! for I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Woe is me!” [Isaiah 6:5].
Or as in the close of the Book of Job, the forty-second—the last chapter of Job, Job had been defending his integrity for forty-one chapters, but when He saw the Lord, he says, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee: Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” [Job 42:5-6]. That is justification by faith and not by the works of the law; casting ourselves upon the goodness and the mercy of God [Galatians 2:16].
Have you done that? Come before the Lord, “Lord, I am an acknowledged sinner. God knows it and I know it, but Jesus died for sinners. That means He died for me [1 Corinthians 15:3]. And in His grace and mercy and His love and invitation [Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:8; Titus 2:5], I am accepting—for me, personally—I am accepting the grace and love that reaches down, even to my soul and my heart.” Have you done that? That’s what it is to be saved, to be redeemed [1 Peter 1:18-19], to be washed [1 Corinthians 6:11], to be made a child of God [John 1:12].
Would you do that today? In the balcony round, you; on this lower floor, you; in a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, to accept Jesus as your Savior, to trust in His love and grace for you, would you come? Would you do it now? Maybe a family you, having already done it, to come and to pray with us, to put your heart and life and home and family with us; maybe a couple you, or just somebody one you: “Here I am, pastor, and here I come.” Make the decision now in your heart, and when we stand up to sing, stand up coming down one of those stairways out of the balcony, or walking into the aisle and here to the front, “I make it now.” Do it, while we stand and while we sing.