At this 500th anniversary of the Reformation we come to one of the main pillars, if not the pillar, of that Reformation: justification by faith alone, in Christ alone.
Martin Luther wrote, ‘When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen’. He declared, ‘This is the chief article from which all other doctrines have flowed’. He argued, ‘It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves and defends the church of God; and, without it, the church of God cannot exist for one hour’.
John Calvin said the same. He called it ‘the hinge on which religion turns’. Justification can be defined as ‘God’s act of remitting the sins of guilty people, and accounting them righteous, freely by his grace through their faith in Christ, not because of their own works but because of the representative law-keeping and redemption of Jesus Christ on their behalf, Romans 3:22-26’ (New Concise Bible Dictionary; IVP, Leicester).
Growing up in a Catholic family in rural Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, I was baptised as a baby into the Catholic faith, but the very fact that I was just a baby meant that I had no understanding or knowledge of what was happening.
As I grew up, I remember going to confession and communion and then receiving confirmation when I was twelve. I have very clear memories of going into the confessional box and confessing my sins before the priest, who, as he saw it, gave me absolution. He removed the punishment for my sins by giving me prayers to say as an act of contrition.
However, each time I left the confessional box, I still had that cloud hanging over me, and I knew that my confession and my prayers, in and of themselves, were insufficient to bring me into a covenant relationship with the one, true, living God, the giver and sustainer of life. I was still in my sin and still under God’s condemnation and therefore, separated from him (Psalm 51:4).
As a family, we prayed together on a very regular basis. The rosary was recited every night and we attended mass every Sunday. I had an understanding of God, of Jesus and his death on the cross and resurrection; and had a limited knowledge of the Holy Spirit. If acts of religion make people righteous, then I was doing well.
However, as Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, states in Philippians 3:7-11: ‘But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
‘I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
‘I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead’.
As I grew older, the belief I had in my own ability to save myself grew weaker, to the point where, one evening in January 1991, I found myself alone on my knees in a house in Belfast confessing my sins before God.
I cried out to God that, in and of myself, I had no righteousness and could never earn my way to heaven, nor rely on others to help me do so. I accepted Jesus as my Saviour, and placed my trust fully in his finished work on the cross: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus Christ bore the punishment for my sin in his body on the cross of Calvary. Christ, by his death, satisfied God’s wrath and, by it, redeemed his church, of which I am but one member. ‘It is finished’ is the sixth of Christ’s seven sayings on the cross. Only three words, but so full of meaning; the Scriptures had been fulfilled.
The Son completed the Father’s will. He had lived a sin-free life, yet became sin for me. No more sacrifices were required. The Father demonstrated his acceptance of the Son’s death for the remission of sins, by raising him from the dead on the third day. The tomb is empty, proof that the righteousness of Jesus Christ was acceptable to the Father.
I am very thankful to God for the faith that he has given me, so that I can believe and be saved. As a result of God’s saving grace in my life, I too have been raised from death to life and clothed with the righteousness of Christ. When God looks at me now, he does not see my righteousness, which is as filthy rags, but he sees the righteousness of Christ. Amazing! Amazing!
Assurance of salvation
I often thank God in my prayers for the certainty of my salvation; it is rooted not in me but in Christ. If my salvation was in any way down to me, then I would still be in the position I was in growing up as a child, and in early adulthood, never having assurance of sins forgiven, never knowing if I was free of God’s wrath.
I did not know where I would spend eternity. I had no assurance of heaven. However, I know now that in Christ my inheritance is secure and, when my time on this earth is done, I will spend the rest of eternity in heaven, and all because of the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s tree. Augustus M. Toplady composed this wonderful hymn:
‘Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee’.
The gospel says that, when those who have been made alive by God turn from their own works, which can only condemn them, and instead by faith embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour, God declares their sins to have been punished at Calvary and imputes the righteousness of Christ to their account (Boice, J. M., Foundations of the Christian faith; IVP, Illinois).
May we be faithful witnesses to God’s grace in our lives and continue to proclaim that ‘salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
Damian Coll is married to Heather and they have two grown-up daughters. He is a member of Moira Baptist Church, Northern Ireland. This article first appeared in the April-May 2017 edition of abcinsight (magazine of The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland; www.baptistsinireland.org), and is used here by kind permission.