Does justification still matter? The answer must be a resounding yes. Nothing matters more than justification by Christ alone through faith alone. If justification by faith seems obvious to you, then it is because of Luther. But we must not presume on his legacy.
Many attempts have been made to move the center ground of Christianity elsewhere. But the fact remains that the biggest problem facing humanity is God’s justice. God is committed to judging sin. And that means he is committed to judging my sin. This is our biggest problem because that means an eternity excluded from the glory of God.
This is Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18–3:20. Step by step Paul establishes that all are guilty. Romans 2:5 says, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” He reaches his conclusion in Romans 3:20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Christianity brings many blessings. It is right that Christians be involved in the pursuit of neighborhood renewal and social justice. But if one day God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, if in the meantime we are storing up God’s wrath against ourselves, if no one can be declared righteous through his or her own righteousness, then every person on earth faces a massive problem: God’s judgment. And this problem dwarfs all the other problems we face. Nothing matters more than justification.
This is why Luther described justification as “the summary of Christian doctrine” and “the article by which the church stands or falls.”
But it is not just at a doctrinal or ecclesial level that it matters. It is a deeply personal doctrine. Every time I sin, I create a reason to doubt my acceptance by God, and I question my future with God. But day after day the doctrine of justification speaks peace to my soul.
This is especially true of imputed righteousness. If justification describes a process of change, as Catholicism teaches, albeit one initiated by grace, then every setback throws my future into doubt. But if I am made right with God through the finished work of Christ, then nothing can un-finish that reality. I can have assurance, even in the face of my sin.
Paul brings his argument for justification by faith in Romans 1–4 to a climax in 4:25: “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” What does he say next? What is the consequence of our justification? Paul continues: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1–2). Justification is the reminder that we have peace with God and the hope of glory. And we need that reminder not just on the day of our conversion, but day after day.
The people of this world are on a mission: a mission to prove themselves. Perhaps the biggest reason why people are too busy is that they are trying to prove themselves. Busyness has become a mark of honor in our culture. Take an expression like “I’m a very busy man.” What does it mean in our culture? It does not mean “My life’s out of control.” It means “I’m a very important person—you should show me some respect.” The result is a level of overwork that is damaging our health and our homes.
We do not need the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation to speak to people of justification. Every day you will meet people who are trying to prove themselves. Some are trying to prove themselves to God. Many are trying to prove themselves to others to establish their own identity. All these futile attempts at self-justification are stretching people to the breaking point.
Into this frenzy Jesus says, “Come to me… and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). We have good news for our busy culture. Proving yourself is just another term for justifying your- self. And we have good news of justification by grace.
If you are busy trying to prove yourself, then you will always be busy. You will never get the job done—because you cannot prove yourself. You will be like a dog chasing its tail. Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The job is done. The task is complete. There is full atonement. There is nothing left for you to do.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 242, says that later Lutherans coined this slogan and that Luther had said, “If that article stands, the church stands; if it falls, the church fails” (Martin Luther, exposition of Ps. 130:4).
Content taken from Why the Reformation Still Matters by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves, ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.