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Children of an Awesome God

You Own a Certificate of Acquittal

Erwin W. Lutzer | November 30, 2008

Selected highlights from this sermon

Justification is not simply the forgiveness of our sins. Being justified means that we have been given the righteousness of Christ. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, God declares us to be just as righteous as He is.

This righteousness is not something that we work to attain. It’s freely given by God to those who trust in Christ. And once that is done, no one can take it away from us, and we will be welcomed into heaven as if we were Christ Himself.

You may be here today as a Buddhist, as a Muslim, as a Catholic, or as a Protestant of whatever variety. No matter who you are, all of us together need to appreciate the struggle of Martin Luther.

When Luther entered the Erfurt Monastery in Germany way back in the 16th century, he did it in order to save his soul. Luther was troubled with what is known in German as anfechtungen, that is, a sense of existential despair, and a feeling of alienation from God, and guilt and depression, and he wanted to find peace and security in his relationship with the Almighty. He took advantage of all of the graces that the church had to offer in medieval times—the disciplines of the church. He fasted sometimes so often and so long that some of his fellow monks thought that he might die because of hunger. He slept on a stone cold floor without blankets to mortify the flesh. And then he took advantage of all of the sacraments that the church had to offer. There was the sacrament of confession, which brought some solace to him at times. In fact, he would jog his memory so that he would know what to confess, and most assuredly with the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins he would begin to remember his sins, so that they could be confessed.

One time he confessed his sins for six hours until his confessor, Stauphits was so exasperated that he said, “Luther, the next time you come, let it be for some serious sin like murder or immorality, but not all these little peccadilloes, not all these little sins.” But Luther was a better theologian than his contemporaries. He understood that the issue was not whether the sin was big or little, but whether or not it had been confessed and forgiven, because he rightly understood that one little smidgeon of sin would keep you out of heaven if it were not taken care of, but he reached an impasse. Think of it. Sins, in order to be forgiven had to be confessed. In order for them to be confessed they had to be remembered, but if they were not remembered they were not confessed, and if they were not confessed they were not forgiven. Furthermore, how did he know whether or not he had confessed them all? There are some things he did that maybe he thought weren’t sin but God thought that it was sin. But it was even worse. He discovered that his whole nature was corrupt. It was something like mopping up the floor with a faucet running. Tomorrow was another day with new sins, new confession, endlessly—the tortuous root to justification, to holiness and it had such an uncertain ending, and the challenges became unbearable.

Luther knew, as our contemporaries do not. He understood that nobody gets to heaven unless he’s as perfect as God. In fact, because that is true, you don’t get to heaven unless you are as perfect as God. Some of you wives can now turn to your husbands and say, “You are in trouble.” You can do that right now. Luther understood that. The question was how to attain it.

In the year 1511 he came to the Wittenberg University to teach philosophy, but his conscience would not be silenced. He could find no peace. Two years later he began to lecture on the book of Psalms, and he came across Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “Well,” says Luther, “it seems as if Jesus Christ himself suffered some alienation from God (anfechtungen), but why did he do it?” The light began to dawn. “He did it for me. He took my place.”

Wow! He got to the book of Romans and discovered that in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed and he said that was the phrase that troubled him. If God weren’t so righteous it would be easier to appease Him. How do you appease a righteous God? “Love God?” Luther said, “I hate Him. No matter how much you do you’re never sure that you’ve pleased Him.”

But then he discovered something else, that there is righteousness that is an attribute of God (that is, of course, our challenge) but he also discovered that in the Bible there is a form of righteousness which God gives to those who believe and trust Christ, and he said when he began to understand that righteousness was not something he had to attain but something that he would freely receive, and that if he believed in Christ, Christ’s righteousness would be credited to him, he said it was as if he had been reborn and went through the gates of Paradise. There was now hope for sinners like him and sinners like you and me.

Why am I preaching this message, which I think is on one of my favorite topics? And why is it that I believe that it’s going to be transforming in the lives of everyone who is willing to hear it? There are a couple of reasons. The first is so that you might understand justification by faith and its implications in terms of your own mind and heart and emotions. But there’s also another reason and that is that you might be brought to the assurance of faith—the full realization that Jesus paid your debt and you are free from the condemnation of God. Everyone who is listening, if you desire to (you teenagers, I’m including you. I’m including everyone), you can indeed come to the full assurance of faith. It is transforming. It’s a truth that I never leave. I think of it every single day, and with that introduction let’s turn to Romans 8, and this is a continuation of our series, Children of an Awesome God.

If you were here last time you’ll know that in verse 31 (and by the way, if you did miss last time, be sure to get the series, because in context it will help you to understand where we have been and where we are going), but you’ll notice in verse 31 it says, “What shall we say to these things. If God be for us, who can be against us?” And we stress that if God is for you, nobody of any significance can be against you. Oh, they can kill you, even in this life, but do not fear those who kill the body, because after that, there’s nothing they can do, Jesus said, but rather fear the one who could destroy both soul and body in hell. So if God is for us, who can be against us?

Now Paul continues with this series of questioning, and he goes on and he says in verse 33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” Oh, I love this. By the way, notice that word “elect.” It’s a perfectly good word—God’s elect. That’s why it’s important to understand the sweep of what is being written here in the book of Romans because the elect referred to those who were foreknown, those who were chosen by God.

If you are here today as a believer, don’t ever think of yourself in terrible terms. You are God’s elect. What a wonderful thing to think that he chose you, and you revel in the fact that you are elect and you are somebody, because God made you into somebody. The answer to a bad self-image is not self-esteem. It isn’t thinking that somehow I can think of how wonderful and valuable I am. No, no, no, no! What happens is this: When we understand what God has done for us, unworthy though we are, it enhances our sense of well-being. I mean, imagine being a member of God’s elect. And if you are here today, and you don’t know whether you are a member of God’s elect, that’s why it’s so important that you listen to this message even to the very end because I’m going to tell you how you can find out if you are a member of God’s elect.

Well, let’s look at the text: “Who can bring a charge against God’s elect?” Who is going to tell God that there’s a sinner here that is unworthy of going to heaven? Who is it that is going to lay that charge at your doorstep? Well, your conscience might, because your conscience tells you how terrible you really are, and your conscience may even be right from that standpoint. Your conscience can certainly do it. That’s why some of you can’t sleep. I’m speaking to some of you who struggle with alcoholism and you know how terrible you really are down deep and how deceptive you are, and I can say that about others who are addicted to various things. The human heart in all of us is deceitful and desperately wicked. It can certainly bring a charge against God’s elect.

Other people can do it, and they may even do it legitimately because remember we’re speaking about our relationship with God—not our relationship with others, because there may be those who have things against you and you need to deal with those, because you need to not only think of your relationship with God but others as well. But they can bring a charge against you and say that God has rejected you, because think of what you’ve done. And then, of course, there’s the devil. The Bible says that he accuses the saints during the day and during the night. While you sleep and while you are awake he’s constantly accusing you: “Oh, you call yourself a Christian. Just look at your life. Do you know what you did last night? It really looks like Jesus, doesn’t it?” And he keeps telling you that your sins are too big, that you’ve committed them too many times, and you love them too much. “God hates you and has rejected you.” That’s what the devil says, and he brings a charge against God’s elect. Wow!

But what happens is Paul says, “It is God (don’t you just love this?) who justifies.” It there anyone greater than God? Is there somebody who can say, “Well, you know there’s a judge that God is accountable to,” or “There’s going to be some fact discovered about you that nobody knows and God is going to look down from heaven and say, ‘Oh, I gave a wrong verdict because I just missed it. There was something that I overlooked. There was a technicality that I did not take into account.’” Is that going to happen? No, because God is going to justify, and if God has justified, who will bring a charge against God’s elect? Who is out there to discredit the verdict of God?

Now what does that word justification mean? It is God who justifies. Does it mean just forgiveness of sins? Of course, it means forgiveness of sins, but so much more. Imagine if it only meant forgiveness of sins then, you know, you’d confess your sins like Luther. You’d confess them today. You’d confess them tomorrow, and then you’d discover that you have to confess them again, and you never know really where you stand with God. It varies day by day. No, there’s something else that’s going on here. The Bible says that when we trust Christ as Savior, it is not just that our sins are taken care of, but that you are credited positively with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, so that the holiness that Jesus has is credited to your account so that you are as righteous as God by declaration of God. Imagine what that means!

It means that, of course, when you die you are welcomed into heaven as if you are Jesus because you are “clothed in his righteousness,” to use an expression. That’s what the Bible means in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when it says, “For God made him who didn’t know any sin (namely Jesus—he was sinless), God declared him to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God.” Imagine this. Listen carefully. Jesus got what He didn’t deserve, namely our sin, and we get what we don’t deserve, namely His righteousness. What an exchange, and God says, “I have justified you. I have declared you to be as perfect as I myself am.”

It’s a legal term—justification. You go into a court and you have a traffic fine to pay and you don’t have any money. You’re a teenager and no teenager has money, at least not for long, and your father goes with you and he pays the fine. Are you guilty? Well, yes, on one level you are. As far as the court is concerned you are acquitted, but the Bible says that justification is more than that. You’re not only acquitted because somebody paid for you, but also because you have been credited with the righteousness of this person. Justification by faith—just as if I’d never sinned—that’s the half of it. The other half is you have lived a life of perfect righteousness, complete obedience to God, because somebody else did it for you. So who will lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God that justifies.

What about this righteousness of God, this acquittal of God? First of all, obviously it has to be a free gift. Think it through. The Bible says it’s the gift of righteousness. Why does it have to be free? It’s because it’s the kind of righteousness of which you and I have none. We can’t contribute to it. We can’t make it better. We can’t make it any worse because of our behavior. It is the righteousness of God, and it is given to all those who believe, and that’s why God doesn’t find it harder to save a big sinner than a lesser one. Why? It’s because they need the same righteousness, and when they trust Christ they receive the same righteousness. If the truth were known, some of you listening to this message today have done some very terrible, terrible things. In some instances, only you know about them. You’ve been hiding them from others—crimes, but the issue is not the greatness of your sin. It’s the wonder of the righteousness that Christ credited to you.

I love to use this illustration because it’s true and it illustrates this so beautifully. Remember I’ve told you previously about a rapist who wrote to me from jail. He listens to our broadcasts and he wrote and asked if he too could be forgiven and receive Christ. We all want to say, “Well, you deserve to burn in hell,” and then we remind ourselves that we ought to burn too. So I wrote back and said, “There are two roads. One road is messy and ugly with all kind of ruts that go into the ditch. It is a crooked, ugly sight. The other road is very well traveled, but if you have an eighteen-inch blanket of snow covering both of the roads you can’t tell the difference. And in the very same way, you who have messed up your life and you’ve messed up the lives of others permanently in some sense; you can also receive the blanket or righteousness. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be read as crimson, they shall be as wool.’” It’s a free gift. You don’t create the snow from heaven, do you? All that you can do is to say, “I’m entirely helpless. You have to give me the righteousness that I need. Obviously it’s a free gift.”

But now we get to the thing that I’ve been praying that we will all understand, because this is mind-boggling. It is not just that this righteousness is free but it covers us past, present and future. How many of your sins were future when Jesus Christ died? Obviously all of them because you and I weren’t alive when Jesus died on the cross, so he anticipated all of our sins. Now let me ask you another question. How many times do you have to be justified by God? How many times do you have to be declared righteous? You say, “Well, every time you sin.” No, no, no, no! Then you wouldn’t know where you stood with God. When you trust Christ as Savior, God declares you to be as righteous as Christ is, and He acquits you of all of your sin in one bundle. He takes it all away. The Bible says in Hebrews 10, “By one offering he perfected forever those who are sanctified.” By one offering. God says, “I have to just get rid of the whole legal entanglement that exists between me and human beings, and when they trust Christ as Savior I simply wipe it away and credit to them Jesus Christ’s righteousness and they are mine forever.” Praise God. {applause] Thank you. If that didn’t ring your bell, your clapper is broken, my friend.

Now let me ask you a question: Today we’re thinking theologically, but I’ll tell you why, because I want your life changed. Wimpy theology—wimpy Christians! Strong theology—strong Christians! Amen? I think you should clap again. [applause]

Let me ask you something: Was Martin Luther saved back there in the monastery when he confessed his sins six hours at a time? No, of course not! There are millions of people who are going to be in churches today, in synagogues and mosques and other places, who are going to be confessing their sins, and when they are finished, they have no idea where they stand really with God. Tomorrow is going to be another day, and they have no assurance that they belong to Him forever because tomorrow is another day to sin, and they don’t know where they are at, and they are not converted.

You see, confession is not the way into the Christian life. The way into the Christian life is for you to receive the fact that Jesus died for sinners. He died in your place, and when you receive Him as Savior, God equips you and declares you to be righteous, and gives you the gift of righteousness when you trust Christ as Savior. Now after that we do confess our sins, absolutely, but we confess them not to be justified again. We confess them because it is a discipline that God puts upon us so that we will walk with Him in obedience, and there has to be deep repentance on the part of us as Christians, but it does not affect the basic fundamental legal status of our relationship with God. God has acquitted us, and God has said, “Your condemnation for sin is wiped away.”

You know one of the first doctrines that Luther dropped after he understood this was purgatory, because you see purgatory was based on this notion that nobody dies righteous enough to go to heaven. Maybe a few do and we call them saints, but most people aren’t righteous enough, but if they are purged long enough in the fires of purgatory, and all the sin is burned away, then they will be able to go to heaven. But Luther said, “If the righteousness of God is credited to me right now because I’ve believed in Jesus, I can go from this life to the next without a break in consciousness.” There’s no need for purgatory because Jesus paid it all, and all to Him I owe. [applause].

And so, you see, in one act He justifies us. Twenty-four hours a day God says you need the righteousness of Jesus Christ if you are to be My child. Twenty-four hours a day Jesus supplies what God demands—the righteousness of Christ. So, you see, it is a free gift. It covers all sin—past, present and future. It frees us from God’s condemnation. Now, God may discipline us, but the anger of God towards sin was taken out on Christ. It would be double jeopardy for God now to bring up those issues and to punish us in the way that Jesus was punished, because He bore it, and therefore it was really an exposition of Romans 8:1 that says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” You know, that’s really good news for sinners. How many of you are sinners, by the way? Could I see your hands, please? How many of you have two broken arms? Could I see your hands? [laughter] I’ll tell you, if you didn’t raise your hand, you just sinned. You lied. That’s good news for sinners. There is now therefore no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.

Now you say, “Well, on what basis can God do this? Why can God do this?” Well, Paul goes on to say, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect. It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” Some people think that it’s a reference to Christ, but would Christ condemn? No! But is there anybody else out there who would condemn? No! Why? Because Jesus is the one who died, and more than that, He was raised and He is at the right hand of God who indeed intercedes for us. So there you go, devil. There you go, Wormwood—Screwtape. Listen to that, eh? [applause] That’s why I quote this so often. “Disquiet of soul! Be gone, Satan, for is written, ‘Who shall lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? Christ died, yeah rather is risen again.’”

You see, the reason that God can acquit us is because Jesus died. I’ve explained before that God couldn’t allow bygones to simply be bygones. God couldn’t simply pretend that nothing happened. He had to provide a way for us in which His holiness would be totally preserved, not like Allah who simply forgives. But God needed to make sure that someone paid for sin because the soul that sins, it will die. And so God needed someone to pay, and God says, “The only one that can do it is Myself. I’m going to do it in the person of Jesus, and the Trinity is going to come into play, and God, the Son, is going to die for God, the Father, in our place and take our just condemnation and our sin, and He’s going to take the hit for us.” And so that’s what the text says. “It is Christ who died.” He is going to take my place and God will remain impeccably righteous and just, and yet the justifier of those who believe on Jesus. And then he goes on to say, “He is raised again.” Why is the resurrection so important? It is not the basis of our forgiveness and acquittal. It is the cross that is, but the resurrection was absolutely important, because it was proof of the fact that Jesus was who He claimed to be and did what he claimed to do, namely to bear our sin. And so, because death and hell are two of our enemies, Jesus triumphantly was raised from the dead to prove His total victory over death and hell, and to prove that He indeed is the very God and a redeeming God. And so the Bible says that Jesus was raised again, and He sat down in heaven. He’s at the right hand of God, the Father, the text says.

Now, you know in the Old Testament the priest could go into the Holy of Holies only one day a year, and when he would go into the Holy of Holies the Bible says it was always with blood that he would lay on the altar, because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. And so that’s what the high priest did. Now someday you ought to read Hebrews 9. It says that there is a tabernacle in heaven, and that the one on earth was a faint replica of the tabernacle in heaven, and it says that when Jesus died He entered into that tabernacle, not with the blood of bulls and of goats, but with His own blood, and this was done before He sat down at the right hand of God, the Father. He entered there with His own blood, and there is everlasting proof of redemption accomplished. The saved have been purchased. God’s people have been guaranteed that they will find their way home because the blood of Jesus is even there in heaven, in the heavenly sanctuary. That’s what it says in Hebrews 9 as proof of the fact that redemption is totally finished, or else He couldn’t have sat down. That’s why the priests in the Old Testament were not allowed to sit down when they were on an eight-hour shift. It is because you could only sit down when your work was done, and until redemption was totally accomplished, it is then that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, the Father, where He sits today saying, “It is finished. It is done. There’s nothing more left to do to redeem those who will trust me as Savior.”

Now, the thing is that it’s not only there but it says He makes intercession for us. He is constantly there as a reminder that the benefits that He purchased in His death and resurrection are there for us to be guaranteed and to receive, and those benefits will take us all the way to heaven safely to our heavenly home, and “doubts, fears, many dangers, toils and snares,” as it says in that hymn, “Amazing Grace,” “will lead me all the way home.” And Jesus is there as the guarantee that indeed that is going to happen.

Now, how do we summarize all this and bring it down, and why should your life be changed? First of all, do you notice that the security of the believer is really guaranteed? When you think it through, it is God who leads us to salvation and grants us the ability to believe in Christ, and those who do believe are the ones who God is committed to, to take all the way home to heaven.

If you are here today and you say, “I don’t have that kind of security; I don’t have that sense of assurance,” let me speak with you very, very candidly. Pretend that we are having a cup of tea together in my study, and it’s just us talking, so if you can, look into my eyes and I’ll try to look into yours too, though I have more than one person whose eyes I need to look into.

First of all, number one, I speak to those of you who have trusted Christ as Savior, but you can’t get your mind around this. You lack assurance because you say, “It is too good to be true, and if I could believe these promises, then I’d know indeed that I was secure,” because the promises are the guarantee. What you need to do is to ask God to show you the truth of these promises so that you are deeply rooted in the fact that “who shall lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” If you fit into that category, God is the one who has vindicated you. Who is going to disrupt and undo the work that He has done? There is nobody out there who is able to do it.

Then I speak to those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior. You’re not sure if you have, and you may not have at all, or even though you prayed a prayer or you made a decision, the fact is that it didn’t take root and it was not transforming. It was a prayer that you prayed because somebody asked you to pray it. Maybe it was as a child or it was a decision that you made, and you thought, “Well, maybe I should add Jesus to the other things that I trust.” Well, you have a different kind of a problem, but here’s the good news. Do you see yourself as an absolute helpless sinner who cannot attain to the righteousness of God, who must receive it as a free gift from Jesus alone because He’s the only one qualified to give it to you, and it’s only His righteousness that God accepts? As long as you’re thinking, “Well, you know I belong to another religion, and that’s okay too,” you’re missing the point. The other religion may have good teaching, but what the other religion doesn’t have is a Savior able to save you from your sins, so remember that. [applause]
At this point, you don’t need good teaching, however beneficial it may be in a different context. What you need is somebody to deal with your sin, who is able to, and Jesus is the only one out there who is able to do that. There is nobody else out there, and so what you need to do is to realize that you need to give up all dependence upon who you are in terms of your abilities, in terms of your gifting, in terms of your accomplishment, in terms of your beliefs in other good teachings, and you must say, “I receive Christ as my Savior.” That’s how you can find out whether or not you are a member of the elect, because God grants you that ability, and if you have the smallest desire in your heart to trust Christ as Savior I urge you to, and if you’re not sure if you’ve done it in the past, now say, “I am doing it understanding what I’m doing because I need a Savior,” and you trust Him alone.

There’s something else, and that is that self-condemnation must be confronted with a declaration of God. Who is it that lays a charge against God’s elect? You see, if we look within and we see our sins and we see our failures, and we become absorbed with them and we have this terrible, terrible opinion of ourselves, and it’s because we don’t believe God’s word and we don’t know where to turn, what we do is we turn to what God has done for us in Jesus and we affirm the fact that “Who is he who condemns? Christ is the one who died.” How can Satan possibly stand against that? It is our faith in Him, and that, by the way is why we know that God loves us.

I think of a man, for example, in Scotland that I read about who had a terrible accident when he was a teenager. He broke his neck and was in bed forty years, and yet he’s a firm believer. Somebody said to him, “How do you know that God loves you?” That’s the way we treat people today. We go to people like that in the hospital and we say, “God loves you,” and their point is, “What do you mean he loves me? Here’s everybody else running around and they’ve got two good legs, and they’re living, and look it. I’m lying here. I’ve lost my job. I’ve got this problem. I mean, that really registers. If God loves me, where in the world is the love?”

My friend, how do we answer that? We answer like the man lying in bed for forty years does. He says, “When I begin to doubt the love of God I go back to this: ‘He who spared not his own son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also not freely give us all things, and who shall lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies,” You always return to the cross as the greatest proof that God loves, God cares, God saves, and that is your hope, and if you trust Christ, it will take you all the way to heaven. [applause]

The terrors of law and of God,
With me can have nothing to do.
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hides all of my sins from you.
My name on the palms of his hands,
Eternity cannot erase.
Forever there it stands,
The mark of indelible grace.

That, my friend, is the Gospel. Will you believe it? Will you trust it? Will you acknowledge it? Will you live by it? And when you are in despair and in depression, will you do as I do? Will you point to this text and remind yourself that nobody can bring a charge against God’s elect? Nobody can condemn. God justifies. Jesus died. Jesus is in heaven as proof, and I belong to him forever.

Join me as we pray.

Now, Father, apart from the work of Your Spirit, what I’ve said is just words. Who is going to convince the person who comes here today, satisfied with himself, that he needs a Savior? Only Your Spirit will. Who is going to give hope to the addict who has come here today, feeling that he has so disappointed you that You are mad at him? Who is going to transform their lives? Who is going to show to the woman who is with us who is self-assured, who is convinced that she doesn’t need a Savior? Who is going to overcome all of that? Father, we just acknowledge that You shut us up to total helplessness. Only You can, but would You now? Would You draw people to Yourself?

If you are here today and you are a believer, would you say, “Lord Jesus, thank You for saving me. Thank You for the assurance that I have that I belong to You.”

If you are not sure that you are a believer, would you at this moment say, “God, today, I receive your Son as my Savior. I trust Him. I believe that He died in my place and took my condemnation that I so richly deserved.” Would you tell Him that you trust Him as yours? Tell Him right there.

If you are listening by radio or the Internet, or you’ve joined us here in the sanctuary at Moody Church, would you right now receive Christ as Savior? And so, why won’t you? Why do you struggle? What are you waiting for?

Father, save those who have listened to Your Word today. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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