Theme: By Faith Alone
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
Not only did Barnhouse use yesterday’s illustration about the hymnbook, which represented our sin, and showed how our sin was transferred to Jesus Christ in his death on the cross for us, but he expanded it too. For just as the transfer of the hymnbook showed the transfer of our sins to Jesus, where they have been punished, so also is it possible to show the transfer of the righteousness of Jesus Christ to us by a movement in the opposite direction, since a double transfer is involved. The second side of the transfer is presented in Romans 3 in the verse immediately before our text. It says, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v.22). In the following chapter it is explained in the case of David who, we are told, “says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6), and in the case of Abraham who “is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (Rom. 4:11).
Barnhouse used a Bible to show this part of justification, taking it from the hand that represented Jesus Christ and transferring it to us. It is on the basis of this double transaction that God declares the sinner to be justified.
Horatio G. Spafford celebrated the first half of the transaction when he composed these lines:
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!Count Zinzendorf was thinking of the second half when he wrote:Jesus, thy blood and righteousnessMy beauty are my glorious dress;‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,With joy shall I lift up my head.
Thus far, our study of justification has shown that the source of our justification is the grace of God and that the ground of our justification is the work of Christ. The first point is made in Romans 3:24 (“…justified freely by his grace”), and the second point in Romans 3:25 (“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement”). There is one more point that needs to be made, namely, that the channel of our justification is faith. This is taught in verse 25 also (“through faith in his blood”), but references to faith as the means of justification are actually found throughout this section. There are eight occurrences of the word “faith” in verses 21-31.
What is faith? There are many wrong or misleading definitions of faith, like “believing what you know ain’t so” or positive thinking. (“I can because I think I can.”) But we do not need to spend time on those. The best way to define faith is to think of it as having three parts. Some writers have called these “awareness,” “assent,” and “commitment” or “knowledge,” “belief,” and “trust.” In the classical theology of the Reformation and post-Reformation period, they were described by three Latin words: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. The first has to do with content, the second with a believing response to that content, and the third with commitment.
Faith involves content. The first important thing to be said about the faith through which we are justified is that it involves knowledge of the truth of the gospel or what I call content. Faith always has content. Faith without content is not true faith at all.
John Calvin was very strong on this point, because during the Middle Ages an error about faith had developed which almost destroyed the meaning of true faith and with it true Christianity. In the hundreds of years before the Reformation the Church had failed to teach the Bible to its people, and as a result very few people had any real understanding of the gospel. Most of the clergy were ignorant of it also. How, then, were such ignorant people to be saved? The answer given was that it was by an “implicit” faith. That is, it was not necessary for any particular communicant actually to know anything. It was the Church that understood the truth. All that was necessary was that the church-going person trust the church implicitly. All he had to believe was that the church was right and that he would be saved so long as he trusted the church, whatever its actual teachings were.
The situation that developed in the Middle Ages reminds me of a man who was being interviewed by a group of church officers before being taken into membership. They wanted to know what he believed about the gospel, and he replied that he believed what the church believed.
This did not satisfy the officers, so they asked, “What does the church believe?”
“The church believes what I believe,” the man answered.
The committee was getting frustrated, but the officers tried one final time. “And just what do you and the church believe?” they probed.
The man thought for a moment, then answered, “We believe the same thing.”
This is exactly the way faith had come to be understood in the years before the Reformation, and it was this that Calvin attacked. He argued, as did the other reformers, that true faith must rest on a right knowledge of the gospel. Otherwise, he said, it is just pious ignorance. We are not saved by abandoning our minds to some external authority. Rather, we must know what we believe and build on it.
How is genuine faith defined? How does that differ from other ideas people have today about faith?
How are faith and justification related?
Reflection: Review the idea of “implicit faith” and how it worked in the Middle Ages. How does it still exist today?