Two of the strongest exhortations to the importance of having good doctrine are sandwiched into some of Scripture’s richest references to evangelism. In 2 Timothy 4:2-5, Paul reminds Timothy: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.” He says to “convince, rebuke, exhort,” and then he adds, “with all longsuffering and teaching.” Then, just before the apostle exhorts him to “do the work of an evangelist,” he warns, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (italics added in both verses). Perhaps “the time will come” was a reference to such a time as this. The “sound doctrine” of justification by faith sandwiched in these verses has been deemed by many as being unnecessary for Christian consumption.
But, if we are serious about reaching this world with the gospel, we must truly understand the sound doctrine of justification by faith, because that is the straight edge that exposes crookedness. Nothing reveals error like the question “How is a man justified in the sight of God?” Or, to put it in layman’s terms, “How does a man find peace with God?”
“If we are serious about reaching this world with the gospel, we must truly understand the sound doctrine of justification by faith.”
Nothing More Than a Pardoned Criminal
Error will tell you that he must “do” something. The cults and the great man-made religions have built their doctrines on this cracked and faulty foundation. But truth says that a man can only be saved by grace though faith, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Unregenerate man is as helpless as the thief who was pinned to the cross next to Jesus. His only hope to be saved was to call upon the mercy of God in Christ. The Word was near him, and so he merely had to reach out in faith. His suffering couldn’t atone for his sin. He couldn’t “do” anything. And yet, in a moment of time, he was justified in the sight of a holy God, all through faith (see Luke 23:43). J. C. Ryle said, “Tried by the perfect standard of God’s Law the best of Christians is nothing better than a justified sinner, a pardoned criminal.”
This was the essence of Martin Luther’s revelation of Romans 1:17 (“The just shall live by faith.”), and it hammered a firm wedge between Holy Scripture and the error of Roman Catholicism. Every Christian needs the same revelation because its implications will allow him or her to enjoy peace with God.
The Antidote to Justification by Works
We live in a day when men sin at the speed of light. One click of a mouse, and unspeakable images are eagerly consumed by sin’s insatiable appetite. The pigsty is the sinner’s banquet hall, but when he comes to himself, his once quieted conscience begins to whisper accusations of guilt. He is woefully repentant, becomes pious, but has no faith in Christ. And so, in time, he is drawn back to the slavery of sin. He is taken captive by the devil to do his will (see 2 Timothy 2:26). He knows that he is in transgression, but he lacks the necessary understanding to overcome sin’s power.
So what is it that will help him? What is it that will remove his ignorance and make him forever give up trying to justify himself by doing something? What will make him seek justification by faith apart from works? It is the moral Law of God. Listen to Charles Spurgeon:
The Law increases the sinfulness of sin, by removing all excuse of ignorance. Until men know the Law, their crimes have at least a palliation of partial ignorance, but when the code of rules is spread before them, their offenses become greater, since they are committed against light and knowledge. He who sins against conscience shall be condemned; of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy who despises the voice of Jehovah, defies his sacred sovereignty, and willfully tramples on his commands. The more light the greater guilt—the Law affords that light, and so causes us to become double offenders. Oh, ye nations of the earth who have heard the Law of Jehovah, your sin is increased, and your offence abounds.1
The “schoolmaster” gives the ignorant sinner understanding as to the true nature of sin and, in so doing, makes his transgression abound. Because he trusted in his own goodness, he thought that Heaven was just a small step for man. It’s his inheritance by virtue of his righteousness. The Law shows him that that step is far more than a great leap for mankind. It is an impassable chasm, far wider than the widest part of the Grand Canyon.
The schoolmaster of the Law teaches him that the only inheritance due to him is wrath. We cannot adequately speak of the doctrine of justification without reference to divine justice. Jonathan Edwards said, “The necessity of Christ’s satisfaction to divine justice is, as it were, the center and hinge of all doctrines of pure revelation. Other doctrines are of little importance comparatively except as they have respect to this.”
The Work of the Law
The Law makes the criminal look to Jesus. It creates a fearful storm and pushes him toward the great rocks of eternal justice, yet its end purpose is to steer him toward the lighthouse of Calvary.2 The darker the storm, the more attractive the light of the Savior is. The Law terrifies. The gospel comforts.
“The Law nails us to the cross, and those nails leave us incapable of holding anything. We are empty-handed as we look to God for mercy.”
The Law nails us to the cross, and those nails leave us incapable of holding anything. We are empty-handed as we look to God for mercy. Nothing in my hands I bring…simply to Thy cross I am nailed. The wrath of a holy Law leaves us with no alternative but to trust alone in the righteousness which is by faith, apart from works.
Listen again to the Prince of Preachers as he further shows how to bring a blind sinner to justification by faith:
A man, when the Spirit of God is bringing him to Christ, discovers that his past life has been marred badly, by serious offences against the Law of God. Before the Spirit of God comes into our soul, we are like being in a room in the dark: we cannot see in it. We cannot discover the cobwebs, the spiders, the foul and loathsome things that may be lurking there. But when the Spirit of God comes streaming into the soul, the man is astonished to find that he is what he is, and especially if he sits down and opens the book of the Law, and, in the light of the divine Spirit, reads that perfect Law, and compares with it his own imperfect heart and life. He will then grow sick of himself, even to loathing and, sometimes, despair. Take but one command. Perhaps there are some here who will say, “I know I have been very chaste all my life, for the command says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and I have never broken it; I am clean there.” Ay, but now hear Christ explain the command, “He that looks upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Now, then, who amongst us can say that we have not done that? Who is there upon earth, if that be the meaning of the command, who can say, “I am innocent?” If the Law of God, as we are told by Scripture, has to deal, not with our outward actions alone, but with our words, and with our thoughts, and with our imaginations—if it is so exceeding broad that it applies to the most secret part of a man, then who of us can plead guiltless before the throne? No, dear brethren, this must be understood by you, and by me, before we can be justified, that we are full of sin.3
Rest in Faith
We are saved by faith in Jesus, yet it is a great error to think that it is faith that saves us. It is merely the glove by which the tender hand of God is extended to guilty criminals. One moment we were condemned by the Law, exposed, nailed naked to the cross, shamed, forever to be lost, without understanding, without hope, and without God. But in an instant, we were justified through faith in Christ’s atoning blood. We were saved, washed, cleansed, and made pure, perfect, holy, just, and good. He did this by imputing the righteousness of Christ to us. In one legal act, we were justified and granted a perfect and “everlasting righteousness” (see Daniel 9:24). Again, we were made all these things (justified) the instant we trusted in the atoning blood of the Savior alone, and a lifetime of works won’t add one iota to our justification.
“When the enemy points out the greatness of our sin, we point him to the greatness of the Savior.”
That’s incredibly good news for the Christian because that means we can enter into the “rest” of faith. We need no longer labor to find peace with God because the blood of the Savior cleanses our guilt-ridden conscience from any accusing voice. We have—and we can enjoy—peace with God.
However, in the midst of this peace with God, sin still wars in our members. Even though we no longer seek after its delights, sin seeks after us. If we do fall into its grip, we have the strong consolation that we are justified by faith alone apart from works. It was grace that cleansed us, and it is grace that keeps us clean. Upon faith in the Savior, we were justified by God, and through faith in Him, any stain that sin may bring is instantly washed away. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is at that moment that the sweet doctrine of justification by faith alone is most precious.
A lack of understanding on this issue is perhaps why so many professing Christians are continually wounded in their battle with sin. They are not rooted in the sound doctrine of justification by faith. They are therefore blown about by every wind of doctrine. They haven’t truly entered into the rest of faith. When we do, we begin to enjoy peace with God. It is liberating. It is a shield of faith behind which we stand. When the enemy points out the greatness of our sin, we point him to the greatness of the Savior—to the unspeakable gift of the grace of God in Christ, of justification by faith apart from works.
- Delivered on Sabbath Morning, August 26, 1855, by the REV. C. H. Spurgeon at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark.
- “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24)
- Delivered on Lord’s Day Evening, April 28th, 1867, by the REV. C. H. Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington.