Thursday, November 16, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Introduction to Galatians

Address 2
The Gospel of Justification

Last week I began our exposition of Galatians by asking what it is that makes an evangelical Christian, i.e., one who receives the Gospel as Good News from God. I suggested that there are several key characteristics: being an evangelical Christian involves accepting the Gospel as the mere or simple truth that needs no added extras; it involves a mental knowing of God’s word and promise, even though this is a kind of knowledge different from what you learn in class; being an evangelical Christian has moral implications because the tree of faith will naturally produce good fruit; and it is necessarily missionary, making the believer want to share his faith with others near and far.

In this description of the evangelical believer, I neglected one huge historical fact: that the first Protestant Reformers understood the heart of the Gospel to involve justification by faith. The Anglican Articles of Religion put it this way:

“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”  (Article XI)

Justification by faith is necessary to understand how the characteristics of an evangelical Christian hold together. Justification by faith is the “mere” truth; it is the core knowledge grasped; it is the inner seed that produces moral fruit and drives one to evangelism.

Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, went so far as to say that justification by faith is “the article on which the Church stands or falls.” By this he meant that if the Church was not preaching and teaching justification by faith, it was endangering people’s souls, and such a church had to be opposed and reformed. This was the primary issue that has separated Roman Catholics and Protestants over the centuries, and I hope that some day our branches of the Church may come together again in agreement about this central issue of the Gospel.

The main problem today about justification by faith is the fact that many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, not to mention the millions of non-Christians, have lost their understanding of this simple yet crucial doctrine. There are, of course, many Christians who live by faith without being able to express it verbally. But there are many others who call themselves Christians but do not know the assurance that comes simply from trusting Jesus, knowing that we are right with God simply for His sake.
 
The Justification of God

Today I would like to present to you a basic teaching on justification from two directions: the justification of God’s perfection and holiness, and the justification of our souls and lives before him. Let me employ an analogy from the subject of accounting. As I was looking through the new books that arrived for our library, I saw box upon box of books about “Principles of Accounting.” I hope you business students – and others for that matter – will learn accounting very thoroughly and well. I am not an accountant, but I do know this basic principle: An accountant has to make his figures add up perfectly. It does not matter whether an accountant’s totals are “off” by a billion shillings or one shilling. Either way, the accounts are bad and unacceptable. It is possible that the one shilling discrepancy may mask two errors, both involving billions that will endanger the business.

One characteristic of God’s justice is its perfection. After all, he is the inventor of numbers. He made 2+2=4, as well as E=mc2. His account books are perfect, not just for mathematical laws but for moral and spiritual laws as well. When he opens the heavenly books, it will be in the role of that great Master who has the largest business imaginable, running the Universe. We human beings tend to think of God’s lordship as we think of human rule. I read in your newspaper yesterday the following line: “MPs want the Government to grant a general amnesty to corrupt leaders to enhance ethics and integrity,” i.e., they think there will be less graft if guilty people get off free from their past crimes. In our country too, our President thinks it is enough to say “sorry” for his corruption and not have to pay for it.

Our God is not like this. He is holy. The Lord God may appear in images of heaven as an earthly ruler in his splendor, but in one respect he is totally different. In his court, there is no stain of evil, no injustice, before him. All his angels are pure through and through, and all his saints are clothed in robes bleached perfectly white. God’s Otherness, his transcendence, his refusal to dwell with any but those who are holy like him, makes his justice both a comfort and a problem.

God’s holy justice is a comfort because who would want to spend eternity with a king whom you could not always trust, who was sometimes winking to his courtiers when they stole from the bank or abused one of their servants. Who would want to spend eternity with Zeus, the Greek god, who hurled thunderbolts out of envy or raped women because he was feeling lusty.

No, the Lord God of the Bible is no Zeus. He is not made in our image. We are made in his. He wants us to be holy as he is holy, to be just as he is just, to be perfect as he is perfect. And this is the problem. Because we are not. No one is. Not the wisest king, not the saintliest Mother Teresa. We have sinned, again and again and again, and every one of these sins are noted in his account book with a red blotch. Our life’s business is going bankrupt, “drowned in red ink.” And even if we could stop adding errors in the book (which we cannot), we could never erase one of the red marks that will cause the final reckoning to fail. So God’s perfection is also a huge problem: because we cannot attain it. We cannot be justified in God’s sight, and God will not justify anyone less perfect and less holy than he is himself.
 
The Justification of Our Souls

Having spoken of God’s justification, let me know speak of our own justification. We Americans have a phrase: “How do you justify your existence?” I suppose most of us spend our lives not thinking about why we do what we do, what motivates us, what makes our inner gears tick like a clock. Nevertheless there is a hidden reason that moves us from moment to moment and day to day, which constitutes our self-justification.

To understand how we justify ourselves, let me ask this question: do you believe you have a soul? Some materialists in our day think that human beings are just giant machines or super-computers, but normal people, even materialists when they think like normal people, know deep down that they have a soul. And if you have a soul, then there must be some difference between you and your soul, just as if you have a body, there must be some difference between you and your body.

Are you with me so far? If you have a soul that is not simply identical with you, then it follows that you are accountable for that soul. Jesus told a story about a man who was so rich he tore down all his barns and built larger barns. Then he sat down in his easy chair and planned his retirement, saying to himself: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19-20). You see, he knew he had a soul, but he acted as if he owned it and could do with it what he pleased. But he was wrong, dead wrong, for God said to him: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Maybe none of you will ever be as rich and proud as this man, but the fact remains, each of you is accountable for your own soul as he was. You are responsible to justify your existence, and whether you know it or not, you spend your time and talent seeking to do so. To justify your existence, to account for your soul, you must constantly ask yourself “why” questions. Let me ask you students: Why are you here? “Because I worked hard in school and passed my A-level exams.” But why should you get ahead? “Because I am intelligent and hard-working and my family is expecting much of me.” But why should people be promoted because of their intelligence and diligence, and why should some families get ahead and others get behind? “Because that’s the only fair way.” Why is that fair? Did you invent your own intelligence? “Well no, but I used it.” Did you do this yourself, or were you fortunate because you were the older son or daughter and did not have a wasting disease, or get hit by a car along the road? Why should you be here, and not someone else?

If one keeps pushing back questions like this, you finally come up against the basic question of existence: why do I exist, and why am I here on this earth? Most people, of course, do not face these questions directly. The basic question of justice is usually filtered through our traditions, our culture. We just do what our family does, what our peers do, what our society, yes even what our religion, says is right. But behind it all, we are motivated by the hidden agenda: how can I justify my existence?
 
St. Paul and Justification

Now if there was ever a man who wrestled through the twin questions of the justification of God’s ways and the justification of his own existence, it was St. Paul. It is from St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that Christians, specifically evangelical Christians, have come to see that the question of justification is the central question of life and of religion.

I am not going to try to answer this question in the few moments we have left. I am going to ask you to read and think along with St. Paul as he writes to his congregation in Galatia. In this short letter, we shall begin to get answers to the most important questions of life, as he put it, how “[God] himself is righteous and [how] he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.

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