Justification By Grace Alone - Part 5

Theme: The Need for Belief and Commitment

This week’s lessons teach us what justification is, and how a proper understanding of grace and faith are necessary for it.

Scripture: Romans 3:22-24

Faith involves assent to the Bible's teaching. It is easy to understand why this is a necessary second part of true faith, for we can see at once that it is possible to understand something and yet not believe it personally. When I was a student at Harvard University studying English literature, I had a number of professors who understood the central doctrines of Christianity better than a majority of ministers. Doctrines such as the nature of God, the deity of Christ, the blood atonement, sin, repentance, and faith pervade English literature, and the professors who were teaching in the department had mastered the doctrines in order to understand the literature. But they didn't believe them. They regarded them as an historical curiosity, on the same level as the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, alchemy, the medieval theory of bodily humors, or any other such thing.

So faith is more than merely understanding the Bible's doctrines. It also requires assent to those doctrines, which is why the Reformation and post-Reformation theologians added the word assensus to notitia. Notitia is like our word “notice.” It involves information only. Assensus adds the idea of assenting to it. It means, “I believe this is true.”

This step also needs to be more than just cold intellectual assent. This is because the truths believed are not abstract truths that hardly concern us, like some mathematical proof or the calculation of the position of a star in astronomy. They concern the nature and work of God and his great love for us, which he has demonstrated by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for our salvation.

He saw me ruined in the fall
And loved me not withstanding all;
He saved me from my lost estate.
His loving kindness, oh, how great!

Nobody can really believe that and not be moved by it, at least in some way. When John Wesley reached this point in his spiritual pilgrimage, as he did in responding to the reading of Martin Luther's preface to Romans at that famous meeting in the chapel on Aldersgate Street in London, he described his experience by saying that his heart was “strangely warmed.” It was the point at which his spirit assented to the truths of the gospel that he had understood, but only intellectually understood for years.

Faith involves commitment. The last part of faith is commitment to the one who loved us and died for us. It is of critical importance simply because it is possible to understand these truths, believe they are true, and yet pull back from the necessary commitment that will actually enlist us as one of Christ's followers. There are people who teach that it is possible to be a Christian, to be saved by faith, and yet not be committed to Jesus in this way. The answer to this error is to point to the devil, who knows the doctrines of the gospel and believes they are true, but who has certainly not committed himself to follow Christ. James was speaking of this false faith, contrasting it with true faith, when he wrote that the devils also “believe” but “shudder” (James 2:19).

Which leads me to the best of all illustrations of faith, the way in which a young man and a young woman meet, fall in love, and get married. The first stages of their courtship correspond to the first element in faith, which has to do with content. That is, they are getting to know one another to try to see if the other person is the kind of person to whom they would like to be married. The second stage is what we call falling in love. It corresponds to assent, especially the warming of the heart. We think very highly of this stage, and rightly so. But even it does not constitute a marriage. The marriage takes place only when the couple stand before the minister and exchange their vows, thus formalizing their commitment to one another.

So also in salvation. Jesus makes his commitment to us. He says, “I, Jesus, take thee, sinner, to be my true disciple and bride; and I do promise and covenant, before God the Father and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful Savior and Lord; in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for all eternity.”

And the time comes when we look up into his face and say, “I, sinner, take thee, Jesus, to be my Savior and Lord, and I do promise and covenant, before God and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful disciple, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for all eternity.” Then God the Father, not an earthly minister, pronounces the marriage, and you or I become the bride of Jesus Christ forever.

Have you made that commitment? If not, this is the place to do it. I have written a great deal about grace. But wonderful as grace is, it will do you no good until by faith you become a follower of Jesus Christ. In this study I have talked about justification. But justification is by the grace of God through faith. You must commit yourself to Jesus.

Study Questions:

  1. Why is it not enough to simply have the first two elements of faith (content and belief)? Why is the third element of commitment necessary?
  2. From the lesson, how does the illustration of marriage correspond to the three elements of saving faith?

For Further Study: For a clear and concise understanding of the doctrine of justification, see Steve Fernandez’s small book, Free Justification: The Glorification of Christ in the Justification of a Sinner (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2008).

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