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Christ Alone, Part 1

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What is the relationship between faith and works in the justification of the believer? Our works can never save us. Yet by faith, believers in Christ are justified before God. How can this be? How can God declare an unjust person just? In this message entitled “Christ Alone,” Dr. Sproul shows us the relationship works has to the justification of the believer.

From the series: God Alone

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    Saved Through Christ Alone

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    By Christ Alone

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    Christ Alone

Saved Through Christ Alone

Once we understand that Jesus Christ alone mediates salvation (1 Tim. 2:5), we are immediately confronted with the issue of the extent of His mediatorial office. Simply put, does the Savior mediate salvation for all people who will ever live or is His work of mediation limited to certain individuals? The question is a pressing one because we know that Adam plunged the entire human race into sin and misery (Rom. 5:12–21). If Adam’s fall had an effect on all people, does the work of the last Adam, Jesus Christ, save everyone?

The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this issue in question and answer 20, using today’s passage and others to remind us that the salvific benefits of Jesus’ atonement are limited to a particular people. As Jesus tells us in John 3:36, only those who believe in Him receive eternal life; those who do not obey Him remain under God’s wrath. There is a close connection between belief and obedience in this verse, which indicates that although we must distinguish between belief and obedience when it comes to our justification (Gal. 2:15–16), we may never separate them when we speak of the Christian life. Our works do not in any sense earn us a right standing with the Father, but only the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which we receive by faith alone (2 Cor. 5:21). Still, faith immediately proves itself by obedience to our Savior, and if we have no obedience, we lack saving faith (James 2:14–26).

Since Jesus Himself commands us to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14–15), even placing our faith in the Lord is an act of obedience, although not in the sense that it earns our salvation. We do not work faith in ourselves — it is the gift of God, and all who have been given this gift inevitably exercise it unto salvation. Thus, the Lord alone gets the glory for our redemption (Eph. 2:8–10).

John Calvin comments, “If it be the office of Christ to save what was lost, they who reject the salvation offered in him are justly suffered to remain in death.” Scripture teaches universalism when it comes to humanity’s fallenness, but it does not teach universalism regarding salvation. Redemption is limited to those who are in Christ — those who rest on Him alone for salvation and prove this faith by putting His words into practice (1 Cor. 15:22).

By Christ Alone

In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding the doctrine of justification. Many now say that the centuries-long division between Protestants and Roman Catholics no longer matters. Some groups have even produced lengthy documents asserting that Roman Catholics and Protestants agree on justification.

At this point it must be noted that Roman Catholics have never denied that justification is by faith. Since the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, Rome has said that faith is the foundation and the root of justification. For Rome, if there is no faith there is no justification.

However, it is not faith alone that justifies a person in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, it is faith plus works. In the Roman system, a person cannot be justified unless he has some actual, personal righteousness. Faith lays hold of the grace of Christ, but this grace must be completed through human cooperation. Human beings must cooperate with the grace of Christ and do good works, which in turn produce personal righteousness. A person is then accepted by God based partly on his own righteousness — one that results from a combination of grace and good works.

However, this is not the teaching of Scripture. The only righteousness that can justify us is the perfect righteousness of Christ that is not infused into our nature but declared to us by imputation. Thus, the only ground of our justification is the perfect obedience that Jesus rendered to the Father. This is taught in places like today’s passage that calls Jesus “our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Other passages emphatically state that no one will ever be justified by the good works of the Law even if these works are “combined” with faith (Gal. 3:11).

We use the phrase “justification by faith alone” in order to preserve the truth that only the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us is sufficient to render us acceptable in God’s sight. When we deny that justification is by faith alone, we deny that Christ has accomplished redemption for us. And, if we deny Him, we deny also His Father (John 5:23b).

Christ Alone

Joel Beeke

Reformed theology affirms that Scripture and its teaching on grace and faith emphasize that salvation is solus Christus, "by Christ alone"—that is, Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12). B.B. Warfield wrote, "The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Savior on whom it rests."

The centrality of Christ is the foundation of the Protestant faith. Martin Luther said that Jesus Christ is the "center and circumference of the Bible"—meaning that who He is and what He did in His death and resurrection is the fundamental content of Scripture. Ulrich Zwingli said, "Christ is the Head of all believers who are His body and without Him the body is dead."

Without Christ, we can do nothing; in Him, we can do all things (John 15:5; Phil. 4:13). Christ alone can bring salvation. Paul makes plain in Romans 1–2 that though there is a self-manifestation of God outside of His saving work in Christ, no amount of natural theology can unite God and man. Union with Christ is the only way of salvation.

We urgently need to hear solus Christus in our day of pluralistic theology. Many people today question the belief that salvation is only by faith in Christ. As Carl Braaten says, they "are returning to a form of the old bankrupt nineteenth-century Christological approach of Protestant liberalism and calling it ‘new,' when it is actually scarcely more than a shallow Jesusology." The end result is that today, many people—as H. R. Niebuhr famously said of liberalism—proclaim and worship "a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Our Reformed forebears, drawing on a perspective traceable all the way back to the fourth-century writer Eusebius of Caesarea, found it helpful to think about Christ as a Prophet, Priest, and King. The 1689 London Baptist Confession, for instance, puts it this way: "Christ, and Christ alone, is fitted to be mediator between God and man. He is the prophet, priest and king of the church of God" (8.9). Let us look more closely at these three offices.

Christ the Prophet

Christ is the Prophet whom we need to instruct us in the things of God so as to heal our blindness and ignorance. The Heidelberg Catechism calls Him "our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption" (A. 31). "The Lord thy God," Moses declared in Deuteronomy 18:15, "will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken" (KJV). He is God's Son, and God demands that we listen to Him (Matt. 17:5).

As the Prophet, Jesus is the only One who can reveal what God has been purposing in history "since the world began" and who can teach and make manifest the real meaning of the "scriptures of the prophets" (the Old Testament; see Rom. 16:25–26). We can expect to make progress in the Christian life only as we heed His instruction and teaching.

Christ the Priest

Christ is also Priest—our sorely needed High Priest, who, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, "by the sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and makes continual intercession with the Father for us" (A. 31). In the words of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, "because of our estrangement from God and the imperfection of our services at best, we need his priestly office to reconcile us to God and render us acceptable to him" (8.10).

Salvation is only in Jesus Christ because there are two conditions that, no matter how hard we try, we can never meet. Yet, they must be done if we are to be saved. The first is to satisfy the justice of God through obedience to the law. The second is to pay the price of our sins. We cannot do either, but Christ did both perfectly. Romans 5:19 says, "By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." Romans 5:10 says, "When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son." There is no other way to come into the presence of God than through Christ alone.

Jesus' sacrifice took place once only, but He still continues as our great High Priest, the One through whom all acceptable prayer and praise are made to God. In heavenly places, He remains our constant Intercessor and Advocate (Rom. 8:34; 1 John 2:1). Little wonder, then, that Paul calls for glory to be given to God "through Jesus Christ for ever" (Rom. 16:27). We can grow in our enjoyment of access to God only by a deepening reliance on Him as our Sacrifice and Intercessor.

Christ the King

Finally, Christ is the King, ruling over all things. Over His church He reigns by means of His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:30–33). He sovereignly gives repentance to the impenitent and bestows forgiveness on the guilty (Acts 5:31). Christ is "our eternal King who governs us by His word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the enjoyment of that salvation, He has purchased for us" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A. 31). As the royal Heir of the new creation, He will lead us into a kingdom of eternal light and love.

As such, we can agree with John Calvin when he says, "We may patiently pass through this life with its misery, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other troubles—content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph." We can grow in the Christian life only as we live obediently under Christ's rule and by His power.

If you are a child of God, Christ in His threefold office as Prophet, Priest, and King will mean everything to you. Do you love solus Christus? Do you love Him in His person, offices, natures, and benefits? Is He your Prophet to teach you; your Priest to sacrifice for, intercede for, and bless you; and your King to rule and guide you?

After a rousing performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini is said to have told the orchestra: "I am nothing. You are nothing. Beethoven is everything." If Toscanini could say that about a brilliant but dead composer, how much more should Christians say that about the living Savior, who, with respect to our salvation, is the composer, musician, and even the beautiful music itself.

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