Theme: What Is Justification?
This week’s lessons teach us what justification is, and how a proper understanding of grace and faith are necessary for it.
Scripture: Romans 3:22-24
Without an understanding of our need, we cannot really appreciate God’s grace in salvation. Let me illustrate this by a story. In one of his writings about grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon tells about a preacher from the north of England who went to call on a poor woman. He knew that she needed financial help. So with money from the church in his hand, he made his way through the poor section of the city where she lived, found her building, and climbed the four or five flights of stairs to her tiny attic apartment. He knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. Eventually he went away. The next week he saw the woman in church and told her that he knew of her need and had been by to help her, but she was not at home.
“At what time did you call?” she asked.
“About noon,” he said.
“Oh dear,” she replied. “I was home and I heard you knocking. But I did not answer. I thought it was the landlord calling for the rent.”
Spurgeon used that story as an illustration of grace, which it is. The preacher was trying to be gracious to the woman. But the reason I tell it here is to point out that we do not easily identify with the woman, though it is she in her need, rather than the preacher or anyone else, who actually represents our condition. As I told the story, isn’t it true that you most naturally saw yourself in the position of the preacher, climbing the four or five flights of stairs, knocking at the apartment door and then going away? You did not identify with the woman. In fact, you may even have been laughing at her simplicity, which shows that you were thinking of her in a quite different category from yourself. She was unable to pay the rent. We know people like that. We feel sorry for them. But we do not believe that this is our condition. We can pay. We pay here, and we suppose we will be able to pay our proper share of the bills in heaven.
Or to change the interpretation slightly, we bar the door, but we do it for a different reason. We are not afraid that God is coming to collect the rent. On the contrary, we fear that he is coming with grace, and we do not want to be one who accepts a handout. Someone was trying to explain the gospel to an upper crust English lady on one occasion, stressing that every human being is a sinner. She replied with some astonishment, “But ladies are not sinners!”
“Then who are?” the Christian asked her.
“Just young men in their foolish days,” was her answer.
Then the friend explained the gospel further, insisting that if she was to be saved, it would need to be by God’s grace. She would have to be saved exactly as her footman needed to be saved—by the unmerited grace of God justifying her on the basis of Jesus’ atonement. She then retorted, “Well, then, I will not be saved.”
If you are to be justified by the grace of God, which is what this verse is about, then you must begin by understanding that you are in need of salvation and that, if you receive it, it will be entirely by grace. And that means that as far as your standing before God is concerned, there is no difference between you and any other sinner: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
But what exactly is justification? We know it is important since, as I pointed out earlier, Martin Luther called it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. John Calvin called it “the main hinge upon which salvation turns.” It was the chief doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. But what is it exactly? What does justification refer to?
One way to approach the meaning of theological terms is by etymology, that is, by the root meaning of the word or the word’s parts. Unfortunately, that is not only unhelpful in this case; it is misleading. This is because justification is made up of two Latin words: justus, meaning “just,” “fair,” “equitable,” or “proper,” and facio, meaning “to make” or “to do.” In English we use derivatives from the first word in the sphere of law, words like “just,” “justice,” and “justify.” The second word has given us such English words as “factory,” which is a place where things are made, and “manufacture,” which literally means “to make something by hand.”
When we put these meanings together to explain justification, we get something like “to make just or righteous.” But that is where the etymology becomes misleading. For justification does not mean to be made righteous, as if it somehow changed our moral makeup or enabled us to live righteous lives. It actually means to have attained a right standing before the law. And in the case of our salvation that is achieved, not by any change in us, but by the work of Jesus Christ which is credited to us.
How does Spurgeon’s story about the poor woman illustrate grace?
From the lesson, in trying to understand the meaning of “justification” why is the etymology of the word unhelpful?
Reflection: From Spurgeon’s illustration, are there ways in which you have ever viewed yourself more like the minister than the needy woman when it came to needing or receiving God’s grace?