Mike Horton’s TGC21 message, “The Necessity of Justification,” takes a look at Luther’s discovery of the doctrine of justification and the many factors that have affected its understanding, acceptance, or rejection by believers over the years. Correctly understanding and applying the doctrine of justification, Horton argues, is key to another needed reformation, though it does not stand alone. We must recognize the priority of justification while also identifying and rejoicing in the plethora of other gifts we receive in salvation.
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What a privilege to be here. And thank you for coming, especially, to talk about a topic that I know you talk about a lot in your churches. And when you come here, you’re used to hearing about the doctrine of justification. And so even the title is justification again. And I guess that’s part of the point of what I want to talk about here. Yes, justification again, and again and again. And again, because we keep needing to hear it, and evidently, keep adjusting our own thoughts about this great truth, because we just don’t normally believe it. It’s not something that we have as our default setting. I’m Mike Horton, I impersonate a professor at Westminster seminary, California, have been there for 25 years, or something. And it I had the pleasure of being at TGC before but my good friend, Julius Kim, invited me in it was a pleasure to be able to accept the invitation for this time around. Without any further ado, justification, again, I want to focus on, first of all, why it was important than and why it is important now, just as important today, as ever. So let’s start with a little bit of the historical context. And I know that you know, your reformation history, I’m not going to go into the weeds here. But just to sort of set things up, I thought, What is something that we don’t often talk about when it comes to Luthers discovery of the doctrine of justification. And I think that one of the areas where we often make assumptions on both sides, critics of the Reformation and even sometimes defenders of the reformation is we, we think that basically, some profligate monk, wanted to get married and figured out a good theological justification for it. And so the Reformation was really about it kind of antinomian monk out there, rogue, not really caring about what the Church teaches because he wanted to live life, however, he wanted to live it. That description of the Reformation, that caricature of the Reformation, was made in the Counter Reformation. But it has come back with a vengeance, even among some professional historians today, and it’s an odd thesis when you realize you have to really go back in your realize how it was that Martin Luther took those steps, not just to the door of the castle church, to nail his 95 theses, but even later to discover the doctrine of justification in Paul’s letters. The great medieval theologian, Peter Lombard said that the sacraments don’t work if you get a Wicked Priest. The problem was in the late middle age, Middle Ages, there were a lot of wicked priests. There’s this whole phenomenon that arose in many cities across Europe called the wicked priests. What do you do when you can’t find priests in your town or your city? who weren’t wicked? And how do you know how wicked a person has to be in order to not be able to be useful and effectual in ministry? Was my baptism real? Did my Can I really receive the body and blood of Christ from the hands of this Wicked Priest? Many lay people refuse to confess to a priest or to take communion because of that. And the rapacious, obscene and acquisitive worldliness of the clergy just turned people off. Many people were becoming cynical. And for the most sensitive souls a crisis of conscience over whether the church in its present form, in its present condition was more a pirate ship than the ship of Christ was an acute
very deeply felt condition across Europe one writer explains it this way. Here he’s describing the Western CISM in the 14th century in which for a whole century the the church was divided between three Pope’s we don’t often hear about this one but here’s here’s one writers description for nearly a century the church was split into two or three obedience is that excommunicated one another so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one Pope or another. And in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty, which of the contenders had right on his side, the Church no longer offered certainty of salvation. It’s a big claim the Church no longer offered certainty of salvation. She had become questionable in her whole objective form. The true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution.
And that’s not just some wild Protestant description of the period that comes from Pope Benedict. This was a situation really, a century before Martin Luther ever thought about nailing anything to a door. Michel Minow French priest said, Never could less devotion be found in the church front. When someone asked the audience or someone in the audience asked him, What will it take for us to have a reformation in headed members? That was the phrase all over town. We need a reformation in head and members from the top down. What will it take? And he replied, friend, we don’t have the man and I have no great hopes for the church, unless it be planted a new Pope Pius the second lamented Christianity has no head, whom all wish to obey. Neither the pope nor the emperor is rendered his do. There is no reverence, no obedience. The masses regard the Pope and emperor as if they bore false titles, and were mere painted objects. All these comments were made more than 60 years before Martin Luther ever came along. Erasmus at the turn of the century could say, the corruption of the church the degeneracy of the Holy See, are universally admitted. reform has been loudly asked for, and I doubt whether in the whole history of Christianity, the heads of the church have been so grossly worldly as at the present moment.
In his classic the waning Middle Ages, Johan Heitinga, characterize the late medieval era as, quote, a time of profound pessimism and insert insecurity. Nobody knew where the the true gospel could be found. And as Paul Ava’s points out the question, Where can I find the true gospel was inseparable from where can I find the true church? How can I know? Isn’t this what we’re told the Reformation caused? The Reformation brought about this insecurity, the sense of, of not knowing which church was right now for the first time you had, you know, all sorts of different people you had to listen to and you had to sort it out yourself? No, that’s how it was before the Reformation. People didn’t know who to believe they didn’t know whom to follow. And they were fairly sure it wasn’t the Pope. Hans Hildebrand is exactly right when he says there would have been a major religious upheaval in the 16th century, even if Martin Luther had died in the cradle.
Now, there were a lot of challenges to the corruptions there were a lot of reform movements, the brethren of the common life was was a sort of a proto PYtest movement. It was trying to draw lay people together to come together for regular Bible study and prayer, no discussion doctrine or ritual, just discussion of piety. What would Jesus do was the question following the example of Jesus Thomas at campus was one of the founders of this. And Luther was a member, Erasmus was a member. Ignatius Loyola had grown grown up in these schools. So they also had a network of schools. The the only Dutch pope, Pope Adrian was also a member of the Brethren of the common life. You have lots of people who were who were saying we need reformed Savonarola in Italy, Crazy guy. But he was calling for reform, he got everybody to bring out their paintings in their cards and everything and throw them in the bonfire. And then he was thrown in the bonfire. But he had a he had a few years of prosperous years as the head of Florence. You had all kinds of reform movements, about morality, about trying to clean up the church, you know, the way people talk about things today, to clean up the church. Still, today, people were talking about cleaning up the church. Why was Martin Luther different? Why was that reform so different? Why was it not like all the other reforms? Luther himself answered that question by saying,
hopefully, you’ll you’ll remember me because I went after the doctrine. Not the externals, but the heart of the matter. But what’s interesting is we think, Well, that’s the doctrine of justification. It wasn’t yet. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t yet.
Luther, as, as you know, grew up believing that he was saved by grace, after all that he can do. The bumper sticker in the Middle Ages was, was God will not deny His grace to those who do what lies within them. That was had long bumper stickers. God who helps those who help themselves right, which a majority of evangelicals in a survey thought was a Bible quotation. I mean, that’s where we are today. It’s very, very in a very similar situation. God will not deny His grace to those who do what lies within them. And he realized that this was just not possible. Without holiness, no one will see God. Luther took that very seriously. Luther was not an antinomian. On the contrary, Luther took the law more seriously than the Pope did. That’s why he confessed, confessed he wore out about seven confessors a day. He was tortured in his conscience, just love God, stop. It’s beautiful Stop it says his mentor, Augustinian through and through, said Luther, look at the wounds of Christ. Look away from yourself and look to the wounds of Christ. Yes, but if I commit sins, I have to confess my sins. Martin, just love God. Luther said, Just love God. I hate him. And in articulating that, he began to realize he had some issues to work through. But that was because he was working so hard for God to love him. That he was just about to call it all quits. When stop, it’s made him professor of Bible at the new effort University. So he started preaching on Genesis started preaching on Psalms. And whenever he found an angry stern God of wrath and justice, he tried to remember what style puts and taught him look at the wounds of Christ. But Luther had no reason to believe that the wounds of Christ were sufficient for all of the wounds that he felt that he had to bear and he said at this point I, I had never heard in any of my none of my professors had ever talked about this distinction in Romans that are The first three chapters of Romans between the active righteousness of God that condemns and the passive righteousness from God that justifies. And you know what I’m talking about Romans, Romans 123 19, is all the, the arraigning everyone under the law, therefore, by the works of law, no flesh will be justified. That’s the conclusion of that whole argument. And then verse 20, but now, a righteousness from God, not the righteousness of God that condemns, but the righteousness from God that is a free gift and Jesus Christ. No one taught me that I had to get it from St. Paul. And apparently, my teachers had not seen that in Paul either. And so whenever they, whenever I read, righteousness, that word righteousness in the Bible, I hated it. It always meant the active righteousness that will condemn me if I’m not righteous. Luther himself said, they reduced sin as well as righteousness to some very minute motion of the soul. And this tiny motion toward God reached out to God, he’s reaching out to you this, just the slightest step you take towards the Lord. And this tiny motion toward God, of which man is naturally capable, they imagined to be an act of loving God above everything else.
Really, I mean, I can probably keep from stealing my neighbor’s rake. I can I can leave his speedboat to himself, I can probably not lie tomorrow, I can probably there are lots of that, you know, I look at the law. And I say if it’s just on the surface of things, at least before other people, not looking at the heart. Love God above everything. I mean, that is exactly what the law requires. Loving God, above all else, but he thought it was the gospel until he understood the distinction between the law and the Gospel. This is also the reason why there is in the church today such frequent relapse after confessions, Luther says, the people don’t know that they must still be justified, but they are confident that they are already justified. Thus they came to come to ruin by their own sense of security. And the devil doesn’t need to raise a finger. This certainly has nothing else done to establish righteousness by means of works. Now, this is very confused. Luther is not there yet. He’s not at the place where he’ll be. Yet you could tell there that’s a little bit. But he knows that the soul because of the depravity of our nature, the soul does not have the power to love God above everything else. He knows that he recognizes that. And he also recognizes that the whole system of buying indulgences, or just confess say a couple Hail Marys go back to the brothel had absolutely no impact on repentance. People were not repented. They were simply jumping through the hoops in order to get back out there and do it again. It wasn’t antinomianism what drove Luthers Hammer was a fear of God.
The first four of his 95 theses asserted by saying point attenti him OGGY Tay repent. Our Lord Jesus Christ wanted the entire life of the faithful to be penitent Tia. For the word cannot be understood concerning sacramental poen attend to that his confession and satisfaction which is administered by the Ministry of priests. But neither did he intend interior potential poen attend to alone. Indeed, such interior point attend TIA is nothing unless it produces various modifications of the flesh. Therefore, point a punishment for sin remains as long as hatred of self that is true inner potent attend to remains right up to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. People do not know they must still be true. justified, they are confident that they are already justified. Isn’t that interesting that’s out of the gate. That’s the 95 theses. That’s the Luther who, who nailed the 95 theses. He’s not driven by by antinomianism. He doesn’t even really understand the doctrine of justification yet. His concern is that people aren’t taking Gods seriously, including the Pope and the priests. They think they’re justified right now they think they’re in a state of grace, right now, simply because they whispered into a priests ear, or they got a piece of paper that they purchased
from a religious salesman. Regardless of the claims, there was a general universal sentiment that the church they knew was not a haven of Caritas of inward love that was said to be essential for justification. So what do we do?
Luthers initial challenge was not sparked by the doctrine of justification, but by the doctrine of repentance. calling people to true repentance. And that was because he came to understand who God was from Genesis in the Psalms. Before he got to Romans. He came to see the the act of righteousness of God, the attributes of God, the character of God, and it terrified him. And then he got to Romans 320. And the lights came on. But it was really through his sidekick, Mullainathan that Luther came to understand the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. And that was in 1520. Long after the 95 theses, so it’s really about where can I find the real God not? Where can I find a gracious God? But where can I find the real God, whether he’s gracious or not, I need to know who the real God is. Whether he’ll condemn me or justify me, I need to know the truth. Then I heard a very different doctrine, which actually brought me back to the fountainhead namely Christ.
And then he went through the lectures and Galatians. And as they say, everything else is history. But my point is, Luther threaded this Neil he came to a conscious awareness of the justification of the ungodly. later than his initial call for reformation, on the basis of recovering repentance before a holy God. It was confrontation with the real God that drove Luthers hammer in 1517. Okay, how about today now, looking at things today that was then this is now six years ago in Lund, Sweden. At a joint celebration of the Reformation ‘s anniversary with the head of the World Lutheran Federation, Pope Francis, marked the occasion by praising Luther stand against corruption and greed in the church. A classic way of sort of, darned by fate praise. Not allowing Luther his due for going through the doctrine. What Luther himself said he was all about going to the doctrine said, Wow, he really took a great stand against corruption and greed in the church of that day. And then, in May of 2017, in Berlin and a major celebration of the Reformation. The Swiss president of the event said, reformation means courageously seeking what is new and turning away from old familiar customs. So okay, maybe in the Oxford English Dictionary, but not the historical movement we call the Reformation and so In a lot of churches, it’s sort of like in that the back of the hymnal with all of the other historical Creed’s and things that we don’t actually believe anymore it’s more likely to find people embracing and loving this great doctrine in Jakarta and Singapore, and Nairobi and Delhi today than it is in bitten Burg, or Geneva. All we need is a change in substance a change in priority. And a change in our outlook in a divided church. I know I can’t cover all of these in the time allotted, but I’ll cover what I can first of all change in substance of there needs to be a change in substance and I’m so glad for the gospel coalition. As one of the major reasons why today people are talking about this wonderful doctrine again. But a Pew study of the Reformation after 500 years, you may have come across it show that a majority of us Protestants say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Roman Catholic position 52% for justification. Good deeds and faith are required us Protestants are also split on sola scriptura. Again, a slight majority say scripture is not the sole norm for faith and practice. Just 30% of all US Protestants affirm both sola fie de and sola scriptura. Only 44% of us evangelicals affirmed both. Then there were multiple choice questions. Only 65% correctly identify the Reformation as the event in which a split occurred between Roman Catholics and Protestants. And the same number. correctly identify Martin Luther is the person who sparked the Reformation. Only 23% know that Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through grace alone. And 45% erroneously thought that Protestants and Catholics teach the same doctrine of justification. It’s worse in Western Europe. The good news is it’s worse than in Western Europe.
The numbers in the the cradle of the Reformation itself are far worse than in the United States. And many of you are familiar with the work of Christian Smith, who calls the working theology of Americans now from the boomer generation down moralistic therapeutic deism. That C is our default setting. Roger Olson. Our Minion friend says it’s not Arminianism that we have today it’s plagiarism. Don’t call it Arminianism. He said most churches that I’m familiar with in America are preaching play outright plagiarism. And I think he’s, I think he’s right. You know, faith in man confidence in man has never been stronger than it is today, it seems when it comes to the prosperity gospel when it comes to confidence people have in their own abilities, or in governments, in individuals individual’s there are many other challenges that we face, though today. Outside of the pew in the ivory tower of New Testament scholarship, for example. There are almost as many views of justification among some Protestant biblical scholars as there are Protestant biblical scholars. But for many, including many some evangelical scholars, the one view they’re sure can’t be right is the Reformation view. They’re sure that the Reformers misunderstood Paul. Even if dick I O is considered judicial illegal verdict. Then works righteousness is somehow shifted to another word around justification. Righteousness is not a legal status that One has fulfilled the law but just a covenantal relationship. That’s one way of doing it. Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Fitz Meyer is really good on this. He says it. First of all, it’s legal. It’s doesn’t mean to make righteous it means to declare righteous, and it doesn’t mean covenantal relationship, it means you actually have fulfilled everything that the law requires. So you have a Roman Catholic, New Testament scholar, scolding Protestants, for misunderstanding, justification, as Paul teaches it. It’s really remarkable. Sometimes you feel like you’re living in a Salvador Dali painting. Or faith no longer really means trusting in someone else. But faithfulness, allegiance, love. treasuring, as Luther realized when he said that my teachers all said, Just love God above everything else. That’s it. Just love God above everything else. And everything, it’s all okay. Just love God above everything else. And the rest of it will be fine. Or the phrase works of the law doesn’t really mean any in all works. It just means the ceremonial laws. Right now, if you look at all, all of these moves are made by different New Testament scholars today, as if they were new. As if they they were, you know, sort of groundbreaking insights that of course, the Reformers could not have known because they didn’t have current tools of critical scholarship and so forth. If you just go back and read Calvin’s antidote to the Council of Trent, he mentions all of those objections to the doctrine of justification as the reformers were teaching it, or you move the works righteousness to the final judgment. So now there are two justifications, there’s a justification now. But yeah, and that’s all by grace, imputed righteousness of Christ. But we’re gonna move the works righteousness to the end, not sure that that verdict will match the final verdict. And so you have to have a healthy suspicion, a healthy fear that there might be a disconnect between what God says now and what God says
change in substances, and we need a change in priority. For a new reformation, we need to recover the substance. But we also need to follow the reformers in recognizing the priority of justification. Justification is not and of course, it’s not one of those doctrines that you just get at the beginning of the Christian life. And you never need to hear again, let’s just get down the freeway and start focusing on the other things that are really exciting and interesting. You have to keep coming back to this because we don’t believe it. Calvin said, we’re partly we’re partly unbelievers until we die. And so we need the gospel continually preached to us. At the same time, justification isn’t everything. There’s a way of destroying the doctrine of justification by by broadening it to to include everything in anything. If justification is everything, that it’s nothing if justification includes sanctification, and glorification, but there are lots of gifts that we have in salvation other than justification. And we need to focus on those gifts too. We need to rejoice in all that he’s provided. It’s a many faceted problem, too, which he gives a many faceted solution. So justification doesn’t answer every question about what we need. But it answers the most fundamental if justification isn’t true, then nothing else God offers us will we actually be able to receive
there is always hope for the ungodly, including Christians. Always. Psychiatrist Keith ablow joins the chorus of his colleagues Along with sociologists and historians, in a recent online article where he argues this very simple premise, we’re raising a generation of deluded narcissists. They give themselves a starring role in their own life movie. On Facebook, young people can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or 1000s of friends. They can delete unflattering comments they can block anyone who disagrees with them or poke holes pokes holes in their inflated self esteem. They can choose to show the world only flattering sexier, funny photographs of themselves, speak in pithy, short posts and publicly connect to movie stars and professional athletes and musicians they like using Twitter young people can pretend they’re worth following, as though they have real life fans, when all that is really happening is the mutual fanning of false love and false flame. Tragically, narcissism leads to self loathing. false pride, he says can never be sustained. Young people are looking for more highs to define and distinguish themselves. They’re doing anything to distract themselves from the fact that they feel empty inside and unworthy. The bubble will burst Abloh warns watch for an epidemic of depression and suicidality not to mention homicide ality as the real self loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface. And, sadly, this was written 10 years ago, and the epidemic is here. Anyone who says the doctrine of justification is not relevant today. pastorally does not know people certainly doesn’t have teenagers, in church or in the home. People today need this doctrine just as deeply as they ever did. But the problem is, no one has ever realized they need this doctrine. Until they take God seriously. As Luther did. The Word of God does not find a ready audience. It creates it. And it’s time for us to stop apologizing for it. It’s time for us to get out of the way. It’s time for us to have more confidence in that word above all earthly powers. Then in all of our gimmicks, and all of our bells and whistles, and all of our clever quips and quotes and the word does it all. Nothing can drive people outside of themselves, like the gospel. And that still satisfies the deepest need that we suppress. Me quote. Calvin in conclusion here, where he expresses this point poignantly in lyrical summation, and you tell me, this doesn’t just bring SAF to your parched soul. Even this morning. We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus, that it is of Him. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion, if purity in his virginal conception, if gentleness it appears in his birth, for by his birth, he was made like us in all respects, that he might feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion if acquittal in his condemnation, if remeasured remission of the curse in his cross, if satisfaction in his sacrifice, if mortification of the flesh in his tomb, if newness of life in his resurrection.
In short, since restore of every kind of good abounds in Christ, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.