A Just Man Named Joseph

“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man…” ~Matthew 1:19


When Martin Luther began to ask the Lord,

“How is a person justified in your sight?” he knew the importance of that question. The answer would determine his eternal destiny. Luther believed in heaven, and he believed in hell. He wanted to go to heaven, but he did not know how. So, he asked the Lord, and God gave Him the answer.

“The just shall live by faith!” (Romans 1:17).

Luther came to understand that the doctrine of justification by faith is the central article upon which the church stands or falls. “This doctrine [of justification by faith] is the head, and the cornerstone.

It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour….”

If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.

That is the importance of this doctrine.

Despite its importance, Luther suspected that the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be short lived.

He was right, for today, once again, the world is enamored with being saved by good works.

In this one area of religion, Muslims unite with Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhist, Free Masons, many Arminians, and Secular Humanist to teach that salvation is based upon a person’s good works, outweighing their bad deeds.

So, the doctrine of Sola Fide [fee-day] touches the very heart and soul of the gospel itself.

John Calvin agreed with Martin Luther.

Calvin said that the doctrine of justification by faith was the hinge upon which everything else turned.

For this generation, Dr. J. I. Packer likened the doctrine of justification by faith alone to Atlas, in Greek mythology, whose task it was to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

The doctrine of Sola Fide holds up all other biblical doctrines.

The question the doctrine of justification seeks to answer is this: “How can an unjust and sinful person be found righteous in the sight of a God who is perfect?”

The Psalmist asked rhetorically, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psa. 130:3).

God is just and holy. Justice and holiness demand the penalty of sin be honored. The penalty for sin is death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Wages is what we earn. We deserve death, both physical and eternal.

However, while God is holy and just, He is also loving and merciful. In His mercy, God has found a way to uphold justice while showing grace to the guilty. God has found a way to justify sinners. Let the angels sing, and let the hearts of mortals have hope.

“Christ receiveth sinful men,
even me with all my sin.”

But how is that possible?

The simple answer is given in Romans 1:17. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

But who are the just?

Simply stated, the just are those who have been declared righteous by God. Individuals are declared righteous in the sight of God the moment a person believes in heaven’s gracious provision for the forgiveness of sin, by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Paul writes that God is “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

Notice, the gospel text does not say that God unilaterally declares forgiveness to everyone in the world. That is called Universalism, and it is not a Biblical doctrine, however attractive the concept might be to the human heart. The Bible teaches that people will either go to heaven, or, be eternally separated from God. Judas went to his own place, the Bible says, and every person has their own place to go to in eternity.

What is your place?

Where is your ultimate destiny?

The doctrine of justification does teach that divine mercy is extended to individuals, but it is only given to those who believe in Jesus (John 1:12).

God is a forgiving God. He is also a holy and just God. God does not look at sin through His fingers, for then He would not fully see the whole guilt of the person before him.  Some sins would be obscured. When God looks at you and me, He sees everything about us, internally and externally. Nothing is hidden from Him. But then, as God looks at elect individuals before the Bar of Divine Justice, something amazing takes place.

The angels who are watching and listening are astonished when they hear God say, “I declare you justified! You are free to go.” The Bible says that God justifies sinners! He declares them righteous in the eyes of the law. He does that without compromising justice, or, His own character.

Now there is something very important here.

No person can justify themselves before God.

Nor can others justify a person.

Not even the Church can justify a person.

This does not mean that people do not try to justify their actions. Adam and Eve tried to explain to God why they ate the forbidden fruit. Adam shifted blame to Eve, who shifted blame to the serpent, who had no one left to accuse.

After World War II ended, at his trail in Nuremburg, Germany (1945-46), Reich Marshal Herman Goering gave a vigorous defense as to why the Nazis plunged the world into war, and murdered millions in death camps.

In May 2017, the comedian Kathy Griffin held up a bloody and battered image of the decapitated head of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. She justified her action in the name of humor. And so it is that individuals do that which is despicable, and morally wrong, and then they try to justify the evil that has been done.

Moreover, people want others to justify, to approve, of their evil behavior, and to say they are right in what they have done.

Ultimately, it is God, and God alone, who is the justifier. Only God can pronounce the final verdict. One day, each one of us will stand to give an account for the things we have done and said.  In that day, God will say to individuals, “Depart from me ye that are workers of iniquity.”

Or, God will say, “You are justified in my sight! Welcome to my heaven, your home.”

The basis of our justification will not be our good works, but our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

The Bible says, it is

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; 6 Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

There is something else. The Protestant Reformers of the 16th century believed justification was forensic. This term is often used in a criminal system. The term forensic has to do with a pronouncement, in the area of Law, based upon evidence being presented in a logical manner.

Borrowing from the courts, theologians contend that God can legally pronounce a sinner righteous, because they have fulfilled what God has required of them.

What does the Law of God demand?

What penalty are the guilty to pay?

The answer is, “DEATH!”

The soul that sins must die.

The penalty for sin was established in the Garden of Eden.

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

Come with me now, in the imagination of your mind, to a court room setting.

On the bench sits The Honorable Judge, the Righteous One.

At the table for the defense sits the accused, with his attorney.

At another table sits the leading prosecutor. His name is Lucifer, and he has two well-known associates called, Law, and Conscience.

The Law stands to charge the defendant with breaking one or more provisions of the Moral Law of God, the Ten Commandments.

The Conscience stands to condemn the defendant by pointing out how he has hardened his conscience against truth, mercy, and righteousness.

Lucifer stands to insist the penalty of the Law be paid in full.

He is willing to help the Court, and immediately take the defendant with him to an eternal prison in a bottomless pit.

“He is guilty, Your Magistrate,” says the Accuser.  

The Honorable Judge commands the defendant to arise.

“How do you plead?”

The defendant hangs his head in shame. He knows the threefold witnesses against him are correct.

He has broken the Moral Law of God.

He has violated his conscience.

The charge of Satan is with merit.

The Defendant speaks.

“Your Honor, I plead guilty.”

With a look of sadness, but firm determination, the Honorable Judge speaks to the Defendant.  “Because you are guilty, I sentence you to the full penalty of the Law. You must die the death of the wicked.”

The gavel comes down. Holy Angels move to take the Defendant away. There are cheers and celebration to be heard from the three prosecutors. They are jubilant. The court is about to be dismissed.

Suddenly, the Defense Attorney for the Defendant catches the eye of the Honorable Judge.

“Silence in the court room!” demands the Judge.

“Silence once more!”

The Defense Attorney, whose name is Jesus Christ, has a question.

“Your Honor, does the Law allow for a substitute to bear the penalty of the guilty Defendant?”

There is a moment of astonishing silence as the implication sets in. The Defense Attorney is willing to take the place of the Guilty One. The Defense Attorney is willing to die in his place, and bear the full penalty of the Law.

The Honorable Judge speaks.

“The divine Law does allow for a substitute to stand for another. Is that your personal intention?

Do you want to die for the Guilty One?”

“Yes, Your Honor, I do.”

There is a dramatic pause. The three prosecutors are astonished. The Defendant himself is amazed.

“Can it be that someone who is innocent would die for him, and pay the penalty the Law demanded?

The Honorable Judge speaks.

“Let the thing be done. You are sentenced to death by Crucifixion. Your blood will be shed.

Take the Defense Attorney into custody, and carry out the execution in the fulness of time, as the Court has decreed.”

And that is what happened.

On Friday, on the 14th of Nisan, in the Jewish calendar, 3,793 years after creation (Friday, April 3, AD 33), at a place called Calvary, the Innocent was offered as a substitute for the guilty.

After six hours on the cross, Jesus Christ took a final breath and cried out, “Telelestai, it is finished.”

Then, He dismissed His spirit.

A great work of redemption was accomplished.

But wait, that is not the end of the narrative, for Jesus did not say,

“I am finished!” but, “It is finished.!”

Jesus did say,

“The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (Luke 24:7).

And Jesus did rise again.

“Up from the grave He arose,

With a mighty triumph over His foes.

He arose victorious from the dark domain,

And He lives forever with His saints to reign!

He arose!

He arose!

Hallelujah, Christ arose!”

Because of this, let us return now to the courtroom, for Satan has found a way to bring the Defendant back to level new charges against him.

The Honorable Judge hears the new accusations, and tells the Defendant to arise.

“How do you plead to these new charges?”

“Not guilty, your honor. All my transgressions have been atoned for, past, present, and future by Jesus Christ.

His redemptive work has been accepted by Your Honor. My debt is paid in full. That is my defense.”

The Honorable Judge does not need to hear any more.

Picking up the Divine gavel, the Honorable Judge declares the accursed justified in the eyes of the Law.

Bang, comes down the gavel.

“Case dismissed. This man is just in the eyes of the Law, for the punishment of another has been imputed, or charged to his account.”

Do you understand?

When a person believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior, they are declared legally just before the bar of Divine Justice.

God is justified in declaring a person legally righteous in His sight, because the penalty has been satisfied.

Every person is sinful by choice, and by nature. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Rom. 3:23).

The good news of the gospel, the glory of the gospel, is that God pronounces people just, while they are still a sinner.

It is that declaring someone just, who, in themselves is not just, which creates so much controversy, especially with the Catholic Church.

The Reformers were accused of creating a legal fiction by saying that God justifies the guilty.

“How can it be right to justify the ungodly?”

The Biblical answer reaches back across the ages, to the time of Abraham, when God made certain promises to the patriarch.

The Bible says that Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness. “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

In matchless grace, God counted to Abraham a righteousness he did not have in himself. Abraham’s faith did not atone for his sins. His faith did not make him righteous.  Rather, the reason God counted Abraham righteous, the reason why God counts anyone righteous, is because of the work of Christ at Calvary, whereby Christ atoned for the sins of those who are to be the heirs of salvation.

As the angel told Matthew, Jesus shall save His people from their sins.

In summary, the fundamental question is this:

“On what basis does God declare a person righteous?”

“Does God declare a person righteous on the basis of their own merit?”

The answer is, “No.”

“Does God declare a person righteous based on the merit of Christ?”

The answer is, “Yes.”

The Reformers argued that the only ground for justification is Christ.

“To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

I commend to you the principle of Sola Fide, or justification by faith alone.

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