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The familiar words of Isaiah 40:1-2 call to mind the sonorous strains of Handel’s Messiah: “‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ saith your God. ‘Speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her … that her iniquity is pardoned.’” They are also suggestive of the preaching task. In fact, the famous hymn writer, John Newton, preached a series of sermons on the texts of the Messiah to his London parish while Handel’s oratorio was being performed across town. Newton was taking up the charge of Isaiah’s God. As Dr. J. I. Packer explains, comfort “in the old, strong, Bible sense of the word” means to strengthen, encourage, and reassure. That is what the doctrine of justification does when preached from the pulpits – and the live-feeds – of our churches. And how we need comfort and reassurance in these perilous times.
Justification is more than the forgiveness of sins. It is God’s verdict, reckoning Christ’s righteousness to our account, that we are innocent and just. Yet, it is summarily, or by synecdoche (the part for the whole), the forgiveness of sins. The Apostle Paul expresses such, in reliance on the sweet Psalmist of Israel: “David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’” (Rom 4:5-7, cf. Psa 32:1-2) The forgiveness of sins has always been music to the ears.
The Lord Jesus commanded “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47) Christ himself announced his commission “to preach the gospel to the poor … the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) This reference from Isaiah alludes to the recurring year of Jubilee, a release of all debts that typified the remission, or canceling, of the crushing debt of sin.
The Biblical words for “preaching” have the sense of announcing, or heralding – an official proclamation of ambassadors on behalf of a foreign dignitary, or the salutary news of victory from the battlefront. As much as the forgiveness of sins is shorthand for justification, so justification is shorthand for salvation. And Christian preaching, as it should be preaching of the gospel, must substantially involve the preaching of justification.
This does not mean that justification should be the entire content of preaching, or the sole application made from Scripture to the lives of hearers. Contrary to the aspirations cast on the Protestant Reformers by opponents who claimed their teaching would lead to loose living, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571) judge it to be “a most wholesome doctrine”. Article 11, Of the Justification of Man, states in full:
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
Article 12 goes on to assert that good works “are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification.” Thus it is “a most wholesome doctrine”.
But also one, let it be noted, “very full of comfort.” The reference to “The Homily of Justification” is to one of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s own compositions in the first of two officially authorized books of homilies designed to get the Biblical doctrine of the Reformers into the pulpits of all the churches in the land. Why was Cranmer so bent on everyone hearing the doctrine of justification expounded? For the same reason he placed “the comfortable [i.e., comforting] words” after the General Confession in his office for Holy Communion. For the same reason he thrust his martyr’s hand into the fire of persecution after his temporary disloyalty. Because, the doctrine of justification is “very full of comfort.” May the same fortifying truth ring forth in our churches and in our hearts today.
Steven McCarthy is the rector of Christ Church Anglican (South Bend, IN). He earned an M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, PA), and is a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He and his wife are native Michiganders. They have three young children.
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 23.
 Gerald Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: The Latimer Trust, 2009), 72.
 Ibid., 76.
 “A Sermon of the Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ Our Savior from Sin and Death Everlasting in The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches, 24-38, edited by John Griffiths (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859).
 “The Comfortable Words” are Matt 11:28, John 3:16, 1 Tim 1:15, and 1 John 2:1.
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