“To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
How a sinner may be justified before God is a question of importance to every man, for there can be no true peace or secure joy while we are enemies of God, either in time or in eternity. Yet how little has this important question been understood! What confused ideas many have had about it!
In order to do justice to the vast importance of the subject, I will try to show: first, what the basis of the doctrine of justification is; second,
what justification is; third, who the justified are; and fourth, on what terms they are justified.
I. What Is the Basis of the Doctrine of Justification?
Man was made in the image of God, holy as He that created him is holy. As God is love, so man, living in love, lived in God, and God in him. He was pure, as God is pure, from every spot of sin. He knew no evil, but was inwardly and outwardly sinless. He “loved the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and soul, and strength.”
To this upright and perfect man, God gave a perfect law, to which He required perfect obedience. No allowance was made for falling short, for man was equal to the task.
To the law of love written in man’s heart, God added a law: “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden;” connecting to it the penalty, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”
This was the state of man in Paradise. By the free love of God, he was holy and happy: He knew, loved, and enjoyed God. He was to continue in this life of love forever, if he continued to obey God in all things; but, if he disobeyed, he was to forfeit all of it. “In that day,” said God, “thou shalt surely die.”
Man did disobey God. He ate of the tree which God had forbidden. In that day he was condemned by the righteous judgment of God. The penalty of which he was warned began to occur. The moment he tasted that fruit, he died. His soul died and was separated from God, without whom the soul has no life. Likewise his body became mortal, so that death took hold of it. And being dead in spirit, dead to God, dead in sin, he rushed on toward eternal death; to the destruction both of body and soul in the fire which is never to be quenched.
Therefore “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin. And so death passed upon all men,” through him who was the father and representative of us all. Therefore, all are dead, dead to God, dead in sin, living in a mortal body soon to disintegrate, and under the penalty of eternal death. For as, “by one man’s disobedience,” all “were made sinners;” so, “judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Romans 5:19, etc.).
We were in this state along with all of mankind, when “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.” He was made Man, another Head of mankind, a second Representative of the whole human race. As such “He bore our griefs,” “the Lord laying upon Him the iniquities of us all.” He was “wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.” “He made His soul an offering for sin:” He poured out His blood for sinners. He has redeemed me and all mankind; having made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
Because the Son of God has “tasted death for every man,” God has now “reconciled the world to himself, not imputing to them their” former “trespasses.” And so, “as by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification.” So that, for the sake of His Son’s suffering for us, God now guarantees, on only one condition (which He also enables us to meet), to cancel the punishment due for our sins, to reinstate us in His favor, and to restore our dead souls to spiritual life, giving us the assurance of eternal life.
This is the basis of the whole doctrine of justification. By the sin of the first Adam, who was not only the father, but also the representative of us all, we all fell from God’s favor; as the Apostle expresses it, “judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” Yet, by the sacrifice for sin made by the Second Adam, as the Representative of us all, God is so far reconciled to all the world, that He has given them a new covenant. And when its condition is fulfilled, “there is no more condemnation,” but “we are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.”
II. What Is Justification?
It is evident that justification is not being made actually just and righteous. This is sanctification; which is to some extent the direct result of justification, but nevertheless a gift of God distinct from it. The one implies what God does for us through His Son; the other, what He works in us by His Spirit. Although some rare instances may be found where the term justification is used in a sense which includes sanctification, ordinarily the two terms are distinguished from one another in Scripture.
Least of all does justification imply that God is deceived in those whom He justifies; that He thinks them to be what they are not; or that He counts them to be otherwise than they actually are. It does not imply that God judges us contrary to reality; that He considers us to be better than we really are, or believes us to be righteous when we are unrighteous. Certainly not. The judgment of God is always according to truth. It can never be consistent with His unerring wisdom to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, just because someone else is. In this way, he can no more confuse me with Christ than with David or Abraham. Let anyone, to whom God has given understanding, consider this without prejudice; and he will see that this idea of justification is not consistent with reason or Scripture.
The plain scriptural concept of justification is the forgiveness of sins. It is that act of God the Father by which, for the sake of the propitiation made by the blood of His Son, He “showeth forth His righteousness (or mercy) by the remission of the sins that are past.” This is the natural explanation of it given by St. Paul throughout this whole epistle. He explains it himself, both in this chapter and in the one following. “Blessed are they,” he says in the next verses, “whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered: Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” To him that is justified or forgiven, God “will not impute sin” to his condemnation. All his past sins, in thought, word, and deed, are covered, are blotted out, and will no longer be remembered against him. God will not inflict on that sinner what he deserved to suffer, because the Son has suffered for him. From the time we are “reconciled to God,” He loves, blesses, and watches over us, even as if we had never sinned.
III. Who Is Justified?
Then who are the ones that are justified? The Apostle tells us specifically, the ungodly. He justifies the ungodly alone. It is only sinners that need pardon: It is sin alone which can be forgiven. Forgiveness, then, refers to sin, and to nothing else. It is our iniquity which he “remembers no more.”
This seems to be ignored by those who argue that a man must be holy before he can be justified. The idea is impossible, for where there is no love for God there is no holiness, and there is no love for God except that which comes from a sense of His love for us. It is not a saint but a sinner that is forgiven, even while considered a sinner. God does not justify those that are holy already, but unholy. On what condition He does this will be considered shortly. But whatever it is, it cannot be holiness. To assert this is to say that the Lamb of God takes away only those sins which were taken away already.
The sinner’s heart is inevitably, essentially evil, until the love of God is poured out there. And while the tree is corrupt, so are the fruits; “for an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” If the objection is raised, “But a man, before he is justified, may feed the hungry, or clothe the naked; and these are good works;” the answer is easy: he may do these even before he is justified; and these are, in one sense, “good works;” they are beneficial to men. But they are not necessarily good in themselves, or good in the sight of God. All truly good works follow justification; and are good and “acceptable to God in Christ” because they come from a true and living faith.
Perhaps those who doubt this have not properly considered the reason given here as to why no works done before justification can be truly good. The reasoning is this: no works are good, which are not done as God has commanded them: but no works done before justification are done as God has commanded them to be done: therefore, no works done before justification are good. The first proposition is obviously true; and the second, that no works done before justification are done as God has commanded them to be done, will appear equally obvious. We need only to consider that God has commanded that all our works be done in love, in that love to God which produces love to all mankind. But none of our works can be done in this love while the love of the Father is not in us; and this love cannot be in us until we receive the “Spirit of adoption, crying in our hearts, Abba, Father.” If, therefore, God does not justify the ungodly, and him that (in this sense) “worketh not,” then no person can be justified.
IV. On What Terms Is One Justified?
On what terms, then, is one justified? On one alone, which is faith. “He that believes is not condemned.” “For the righteousness (or mercy) of God is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: — Whom God has set forth for a propitiation, through faith in His blood; that He might be just, and” (consistently with His justice) “the Justifier of him that believes in Jesus:” “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law;” without previous obedience to the moral law, which he could not perform until now. We know that St. Paul refers to the moral law here because he says, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: Yea, we establish the law.” What law do we establish by faith? Not the ceremonial law of Moses. Instead, the great, unchangeable law of love, the holy love for God and our neighbor.
Faith, in general, is a divine, supernatural evidence or conviction “of things not seen,” not discoverable by our bodily senses. Justifying faith implies not only a divine conviction that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself;” but a sure confidence that Christ died for my sins, that He loved me, and gave himself for me. At whatever time a sinner believes in this way, God justifies that ungodly one. God, for the sake of His Son, pardons him who had in him, until then, no good thing. God had given him repentance before; but that repentance was neither more nor less than a deep sense of the lack of all good, and the presence of all evil. And whatever good he has or does from that hour when he first believes in God through Christ, faith brings. This is the fruit of faith. First the tree is good, and then the fruit is good also.
But we must be careful that we do not stop walking with God because of a wavering faith. Peter, coming to Christ on the water, was in danger of drowning because he failed to trust. So we, if we begin to doubt, may sink into the bottomless pit of hell-fire. Therefore, have a definite faith, not only that the death of Christ is available for all the world, but that He has made a full and sufficient sacrifice for you, a perfect cleansing of your sins, so that you may say that Christ loved you, and gave himself for you. This is to make Christ your own and to apply His merits to yourself.
By affirming that this faith is the condition of justification, I mean, first, that there is no justification without it. “He that believeth not is condemned already;” and as long as he does not believe, that condemnation cannot be removed, but “the wrath of God abides on him.” Just as “there is no other name given under heaven,” other than Jesus, no other merit by which a condemned sinner can ever be saved from the guilt of sin; so also there is no other way of obtaining a share in His merit than by faith in His name. Whatever virtues (so called) a man may have, whatever good works (so called) he may do, they are of no benefit; for he is still a child of wrath until he believes in Jesus.
Faith, therefore, is the only necessary condition. This is the second point to be observed; that the very moment God gives faith (for it is the gift of God) to the “ungodly” that “worketh not,” that “faith is counted to him for righteousness.” He has no righteousness at all before this, not even negative righteousness, or innocence. But “faith is imputed to him for righteousness,” the very moment he believes. It is not that God thinks him to be what he is not. Rather, as “He made Christ to be sin for us,” that is, treated Him as a sinner, punishing Him for our sins; so He counts us righteous, from the time we believe in Him: that is, He does not punish us for our sins; He treats us as though we were guiltless and righteous.
Surely any difficulty in accepting this doctrine, that “faith is the only condition of justification,” must come from not understanding it. We mean this, that it is the only thing without which no one is justified; the only thing that is absolutely necessary for pardon. If a man has everything else without faith, he still cannot be justified; but, if he lacks everything else and yet has faith, he must be justified. Suppose that a sinner of any kind, in a full sense of his total ungodliness, of his utter inability to think, speak, or do good, and his absolute fitness for hell-fire; throws himself completely on the mercy of God in Christ (which he cannot do but by the grace of God). Who can doubt that he is forgiven in that moment? Who will say that any more is necessary before that sinner can be justified? Now, if there ever were one such instance (and have there not been millions?), it clearly follows that faith is, in the above sense, the only condition of justification.
It is not proper for poor, guilty, sinful worms, who receive whatever blessings they enjoy from grace, out of mere favor, to ask God the reasons for His conduct. It is not proper for us to call Him into question asking, “Why did You make faith the only condition of justification? Why did You decree, ‘He that believeth, and he only, shall be saved’?” However, we may humbly imagine that one reason God set this condition of justification was to take pride from man. It was to a great extent because of man’s temptation to pride, when the tempter said, “Ye shall be as gods,” that Adam fell, and brought sin and death into the world. It was an example of wisdom worthy of God, to set a condition of reconciliation for Adam and his descendants which would effectively humble them. Such is faith. For he that comes to God by this faith must come as a mere sinner, inwardly and outwardly, self-destroyed and self-condemned, bringing nothing to God but ungodliness, offering nothing of his own but sin and misery. So it is that he can look to Jesus as the whole and only propitiation for his sins. Only in this way can he receive the “righteousness which is of God by faith.”
You ungodly one, who hears or reads these words! You vile, helpless, miserable sinner! I charge you before God, the Judge of all, go straight to Him, with all your ungodliness. Be careful that you do not destroy your own soul by claiming any righteousness of your own. Go as completely ungodly, guilty, lost, destroyed, deserving and dropping into hell; and then you will find favor in His sight, and know that He justifies the ungodly. As such you will be brought to the blood of sprinkling, as a helpless, damned sinner. Look to Jesus! There is the Lamb of God, who takes away your sins! Claim no works, no righteousness of your own! That would be to deny the Lord that bought you. Claim only the blood, the ransom paid for your proud, stubborn, sinful soul. Who are you, that now sees and feels both your inward and outward ungodliness? You are the one! I challenge you to be a child of God by faith! You who feel you are perfectly fit for hell are perfectly fit to advance His glory; the glory of His free grace, justifying the ungodly and him that “worketh not.” Come quickly! Believe in the Lord Jesus; and you, even you, will be reconciled.
This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.