The Fundamental Principle of Justification

Titus 3:1-7

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson gives exposition of the active role of grace in salvation.

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[Prayer] Our heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the great truth that by the grace of our great God in heaven we stand justified by faith with a righteousness that is acceptable to Thee. We praise Thee for the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ gained through the work which he has accomplished by himself, and we thank Thee for all of the blessings of life that are attached to this relationship that we now enjoy with Thee. Give us wisdom and give us guidance. Give us illumination as we think again tonight of the doctrine of justification by grace. We pray Thy blessing also upon the hour that follows. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[Message] Our subject for tonight is “The Fundamental Principle of Justification,” and as Scripture reading, I want to read Titus chapter 3 verse 1 through verse 7. I want you to notice particularly the expression that occurs in the seventh verse. Titus chapter 3 verse 1 through verse 7. The apostle writes,

“Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Now we have been trying to make these specific points. First of all, we commented upon and tried to make the point that the doctrine of justification by grace is a very relevant doctrine. In fact, it is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, because all else is preparatory and foundation to justification by faith. We said the incarnation, the life of our Lord, the atoning work of death, burial and resurrection was in order that there might be ground upon which God might justify men in grace. So, justification is the central doctrine, and the other aspects of the Lord’s person and work are fundamental and have that aim in view.

The Formula of Concord, the Lutheran doctrinal statement, says, “The chief article in the entire Christian doctrine is justification by faith, without which no poor conscience can have any firm consolation or can truly know the riches of the grace of Christ,” and the Formula continues, “As Dr. Luther also has written, if this only article remains pure on the battlefield, the Christian church also remains pure, and in goodly harmony without any sects, but if it does not remain pure, it is not possible that any error or fanatical spirit can be resisted.”

So it is evident that Mr. Luther thought that this was the fundamental, central doctrine of the Christian faith, and if we do not understand it, then we are prey to any other form of spiritual error. Another contemporary theologian has said the doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas. It bears the whole world on its shoulders; the entire evangelical knowledge of God the Savior.

The second thing that we tried to make plain in the second message was the legal character of justification by grace. We pointed out that the Greek word, dikaioo, that word means “to declare righteous.” Not “to be made righteous,” but to declare righteous. So that when we read in the Bible, we are declared righteous, or when we read we are justified, it means we have been declared righteous by God.

Because, you see, if we were to say that we are just before God, the natural question that would arise is, but we are still sinners. And Luther himself said that we are at the same time just and a sinner. And the legal character of this doctrine helps us to understand how it is true that we are both just and a sinner at the same time. Our legal standing before God is that of a justified person, but we still are here on the earth with the sin principle in our members, and the work of sanctification is going on in which God, through the Spirit is delivering us through the sin which we have.

Then the third thing that I tried to make plain, and it took me two times to make it plain, and I said I did such a poor job on the first one, and I meant that, and we’re eliminating that tape, incidentally [laughter]. We tried to point out – I don’t often do that, but I did it this time [more laughter] – the ground of justification is the imputation of God’s righteousness to the elect.

We talked about three forms of imputation. The imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind; and the imputation of the sin of the elect to Christ, so he dies as the curse; and then, the most important imputation for us is the imputation of the righteous of God to the elect, as the apostle said in Romans 3:24, “Being justified by his grace freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” God’s sovereign activity made possible by the Lord Jesus Christ is his imputing of righteousness, the righteousness of God to those who believe in the Lord Jesus.

Now that is grace. That is sheer unalloyed, unmerited grace, because, we do not deserve to have this standing before God. That’s what we mean when we talk about sola gratia or “by grace alone.” This is something that is done outside of ourselves. As the old theologians who all wrote in Latin said, it is extra nos – that is, it is outside of us. It is something accomplished by the Lord Jesus and reckoned to us by God through the instrumentality of faith.

We have a very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal for today concerning the Episcopalians and the split in their ranks. And if you read through that article carefully, one of the problems that exists in the church is the fact that no true understanding of what marks or makes a Christian, and what makes a pagan. In fact, in the article itself, the more conservative element, there was a statement to the effect that God has made us all, or we are all the children of God. But the apostle added, of course, we are all the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Not everybody is a Christian.

Luther said, about those who rejected this doctrine of the imputation of righteousness, that they’re either Jews or Turks, papists or heretics. Now that was Luther’s very dramatic and bold way of putting it. But, it certainly does stress the fact that the thing that distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian is the possession of the righteousness of God imputed to him by grace, so that he stands through faith righteous before God.

Now in this message, I want to turn to the fundamental principle of justification by grace. And it is grace that is the fundamental principle. I’m not talking about the proper name, grace, but the fundamental principle. Now, my daughter is named Grace. I used to say to all our friends, since we had a course in grace at the theological seminary, that she was the first girl every named after a theological course, but I’m speaking here of the principle of grace. That is the fundamental principle of justification.

What is grace? Well, some have tried to explain what it is by the use of an acrostic. It is spelled G-R-A-C-E, at least down South, and that stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Well that does express the fact that the reason why we have the blessing of justification is because of what Christ has done.

Someone else has paraphrased the fundamental principle of grace as “God doing something for us.” Well, that’s true. If you look at Webster, he defines it something like this: the unmerited love and favor of God toward man. And that, I think, is a good definition. The unmerited love and favor of God toward – perhaps if you wish, but you’re saying the same thing, anyway in unmerited – could add the adjective, undeserving man, if you like. That’s grace.

Dogmaticians, or theologians, when they speak of justification by grace, often speak of the causes of justification. And they have tried in their attempt to be analytical, that is, to explain all of the fine points of justification – I think that is a good idea, incidentally; I think we all should, ultimately, know the fine points of this doctrine – I guess I should not say, incidentally, because that is something that really we all ultimately should strive for. But the dogmaticians have said that divine grace is the internal, inciting cause of justification. Meaning by that, that the cause of justification begins in the heart of God, so that divine grace is the inciting cause of justification. I won’t cite the Latin for you. I’m sure that won’t be enlightening for you.

And then they have said that Jesus Christ is the inciting external or meritorious cause. It is God, who in his heart, determines to act graciously toward men, but it is the objective work toward the Lord Jesus that is the inciting external and meritorious cause of justification: what Christ has done.

And then thirdly, the gospel, the message concerning the Lord Jesus, is the instrumental cause of justification from the divine side. In other words, the grace that thinks out the plan and which leads to the objective work of Christ, through the preaching of the word, from the divine standpoint, gathers men to the standing of righteous before him. Now, the next week, we will talk about the instrumental cause from the human side, but we will leave that for next week.

Now tonight, what I would like to do with our time is to discuss the subject logically, if I’m able — that assumes I can be logical, you understand, and you’ll have to judge that for yourself — theologically and scripturally. So first of all now, we want to discuss the logical defense of grace in justification, or of justification by grace.

I think if you will think for just a moment about the doctrine of salvation, you will realize that there are only three possible plans by which men might be saved. For example, we could think of a plan by which man would be saved through the activity of man alone. In other words, by the works of men. Or, to put it another way, thinking of the principle, he could be saved by legal activity; that is, the carrying out of legal requirements. So, we could be saved, theoretically, by man; that is, by ourselves, by ourselves alone.

Now we could also think of a second plan, and the second plan would be that we are to be saved by man and God. That is, we are to do part of our saving work and God is to do the rest. God is to do the saving work, but we are to supply free will, for example. In other words, we are saved by God and the activity of man. Or, we’re saved by law, the activity of man, and grace, the activity of God.

Or third, and this is the only other alternative, it seems to me, we could be saved by God alone. In that case, we would be saved by grace alone.

Now, if we are to be saved by our own works, alone, or by the works of man plus the work of God, then it seems to me that there are two questions that are unanswerable. Now, I’ve put three up here, but they are somewhat related and I’ll leave it that way. If by law-works – if we are saved by law-works – then how many law-works must we do? I can think of writing a testimony to the Geritol company, for example. The Geritol company, incidentally, used to talk about iron-poor blood. As I remember, they have dropped that, and now you can be sure to have a happy marriage if your wife or your husband takes Geritol every day. That’s what I’m recommending now in marital counseling [loud laughter]. Geritol.

Now let’s suppose for just a moment that I write in a testimonial to the Geritol company something like this. “Dear sirs, I want to say to say to you that I was having a very unhappy marriage until I happened to look on the TV screen a few months ago and notice your continuing advertisement of Geritol. I went out a bought a bottle, and I have been taking Geritol, and I want you to know that as a result of my taking of Geritol, plus a little bit of extract of something else that my grandmother recommended, I want you to know that I am enjoying the fruits of a very happy marriage.”

Well now, the Geritol company could not use that testimonial. They cold not use that testimonial because of the addition of the words, “plus a little bit of extract that my grandmother recommended.” Because you see, you could never know whether it was the Geritol or that little bit of extract which grandmother recommended was responsible for it. Now we know, of course, it would be grandmother’s extract that would be more valuable than Geritol, but they would not accept that.

The point is you see that if there is any mixture, than we can never really be sure. And so if we are to be saved by law-works, we could say, how many law-works are necessary? Or, if we are saved by law-works, then who is the Savior? So, you can see, just thinking through this logically, in the light of the fact that the Scriptures and human experience make it very plain that we cannot save ourselves, you cannot have a salvation by law-works.

Furthermore, if I may turn quickly to C, if we are to be saved by law-works, could there ever be any assurance of salvation? If, for example, we start out on the legal way of justification, which ideally means to live perfectly, how could we ever know that we are saved? This, incidentally, is why a great section of the Christian, professing churches, or church, is unsure of salvation, because, deep down within their doctrine is the view that men are saved not only by what Christ did, but either what we must do by way of sacramental obedience to the requirements of the church, or of the exercise of free will.

And as I said, right in the beginning, the errors, the illegitimate offspring of legalism are: the Roman Catholic system and the Arminian doctrine which is found in many of our Protestant churches. So, you can see, then, that if we are to be justified by law-works, just logically there can be no assurance because we can never be sure that we have done enough.

Now, the Bible of course, makes it plain that we should have assurance. The Bible says, “We know that we have passed from death to life.” Or, “These things are written that you might know that to you that believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might know that you have eternal life.” It’s not a vain confidence to know that we have eternal life. But if you’re to be saved through law-works, then you’re a prey to what someone has called the theology of doubt. And the theology of doubt is not simply Roman Catholic, it is also Protestantism when Arminianism is the prevailing system of theology.

Second, the theological defense of grace in justification. We say that a person is justified sola gratia. We mean by that, a person is justified by grace alone. Remember, we are talking about, when we’re talking about justification, we’re talking about the gospel of five onlys: by Scripture alone, by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone, to God alone be the glory. So, if we will remember the principle of justification by grace alone, we will see that that is the explanation of the following statements.

Now I have put capital A under Roman II as: Grace is Necessary Because of Human Sin and Guilt. I don’t have to go over that again with this audience. I’m sure you know that the Bible says, “For all have sinned.” Now last time, you’ll remember I said that referred to all believers have sinned and fall short of the glory of God in the context of Romans 3:23. But, if the apostle says, all believers have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, it surely has it’s application to all men. So it is fair to say, then, that the Bible teaches, and it teaches this in many texts, that all have sinned and therefore come short of the glory of God.

We also read in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. So we have, then, the apostle saying that all men are sinners. All men are under the condemnation of death. And in fact, Paul says in Romans chapter 8 verses 7 and 8 that they that are in the flesh cannot please God. So he has said then that we are sinners, we are therefore guilty, we are under divine condemnation, we cannot please God.

Now he says a lot more than this, of course. He says we’re blind, we cannot understand the word of God. So you can see that it is absolutely essential that grace be manifested and exercised toward us by God if we are to be saved. Justification by grace is a necessary thing because of human sin.

B. Grace is Necessary Because of the Fact of Christ’s Death. I’d like for you to turn with me to Galatians chapter 2 verse 21. This text is important, very important in this particular part of the study. Galatians 2:21. The apostle says,

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died needlessly.”

Christ died needlessly. Now what he means by this is, if it is true we could be justified by law-works, then the death of Christ is a death that took place in vain. Why did he die?

All legal formulas, all attempts to have men do something – whether it be to exercise their free will or whether it be to put themselves under a sacramental system – all of these legal formulas are competitors of Jesus Christ. The apostle says, “If righteousness comes through the law.” Now, he has in mind the Mosaic law, but the legal principle is characteristic of that law. If righteousness comes through the legal principle, then Christ died in vain. A works righteousness, we’ve said, is the illegitimate son of legalism. You cannot have work-righteousness.

If it is true that a man cold be justified by what he does, then why did Christ die? The Greek text here says here he died dorean. He died in vain, or he died for nothing, as the word is sometimes rendered. He died without a cause, as that same adverb is rendered in John 15:25: “They hated him without a cause.”

If a man could be justified by what he does, then the death of Jesus Christ cannot possibly be explained. In other words, the grace-faith way would be superfluous if Jesus Christ, if his death is not the basis of our justification.

One of the modern theologians has said, “God would be guilty of throwing himself away if a man could be justified by what he does.” Another commentator has said, concerning this text that “It would be an act of extravagance if law-righteousness would make a man acceptable before God.” If a person could attain to salvation by doing, why then it would be an act of purposeless extravagance for God to allow the second person of the Trinity to suffer on a cross and die.

Dr. Chafer used to say at the seminary, “It would be the greatest blunder in the history of the universe if Jesus Christ died on the cross so that man could be justified by what he does.” If you just think for a moment, you will see that the fact of Christ’s death as the Messiah, as the Son of God, under the judgment of sin immediately makes superfluous all means of justification by what we do.

These two ways, incidentally, of being justified by works and justified by grace correspond to the two epochs of Paul’s life: before he might Christ, when he was so anxious to try to find merit before God by keeping the law of Moses; and then afterwards when he counted all of that but refuse since he had now come to know Jesus Christ and had now grounded his assurance of salvation upon the justification that was a gift to him through grace. So we have law-works righteousness on the one hand, we have grace, faith, righteousness on the other, and these two cannot possibly mix.

Now some people like to say, in their preaching of this, that faith, a grace-faith- righteousness really makes it a human way after all. But faith is no human way, because faith is, first of all, a gift from God. And secondly, when faith takes place, it is totally disinterested in itself. And it is only interested in the object fact of Christ’s sacrifice and what he has done for us. So, faith is the means by which we hang upon what someone else has done for our salvation. Now we’ll talk about that next week.

Third, grace is necessary for assurance. Now I’d like for you to turn to Galatians chapter 4 and verse 16, because I think that we have something here that is important. Romans chapter 4 and verse 16. Now this text, I think, is rather significant, and let’s take a look at what the apostle says. He’s arguing justification by grace, of course, and he says, “For this reason, it is by faith that it might be according to grace in order that the promise may be certain to all of the descendants, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham who is the father of us all.”

Now let’s take a look at this little diagram in which I have first of all taken a look at this matter from the standpoint of man, then we’ll take a look at it from the standpoint of the reasoning of God. He says now, notice, “It is of faith that it might be according to grace that the promise might be sure.”

Now looking at it from man’s standpoint, the true way to God and the true way to certainty and assurance of salvation is the exercise of faith which is a gracious method and leads us to certainty of salvation. It is by faith that it might be according to grace to the end that the promise might be sure. After all, we all want to be sure of our salvation. The false way, the way of the pagan, the way of the unbeliever, the way of all who reject the revelation of God in the Scripture is, it is by works that it might be according to law, human merit, doing something for acceptance before God, to the end that – we could put, uncertainty, here – but actually the Scripture says that the law works wrath. Because not only does it work uncertainty – we could never be sure if we’re trying to be justified by what we do, but as a matter of fact, we are not only justified and have uncertainty, but we wind up under the wrath of God still.

Now, looking at it from God’s standpoint, you can see that it’s the reverse. Because God has as his aim that we might be sure that we have eternal life. But how can we be sure that we have life? We can only be sure if the salvation is a grace salvation; that is, not based that we are to do. Because, if we are to do something, we’ll fail. Any Christian knows that if he has to do something to gain his salvation, he’s sure to fail, because the thing the Holy Spirit reveals to all of us before we’re saved is that we are great sinners. Isn’t that right?

Isn’t it true that the thing that has made it possible for you to see your need is the revelation of your sin? So God said, in effect, as he reasoned through it – you’ll notice I’m speaking humanly, anthropologically not theologically – but God desiring that we should be certain of our salvation knew that the salvation we possessed had to be according to grace. But how can it possibly be according to grace if we are to receive something, except that that reception be through faith – given by God.

So, looking at from God’s standpoint, he said I want it to be sure. There’s justification. It therefore has to be by grace, and if it is to be by grace, then it must come to men through faith, which is not a work. It is simply the hand of the heart receiving the gift from God – and even the faith is given by God. Now that’s what I call eternal security, because that is the purpose of God. It is as Paul says, “For this reason, it is by faith (looking at it from the human standpoint) faith given by God, receiving, that it might be in accordance with grace (we could never earn anything) in order that the promise might be certain to all the seed.” That’s what we mean, then, when we say, sola gratia – by faith alone.

That’s a magnificent text that the apostle wrote. It has on its face the sense of and the disposition of inspiration.

Now finally in Roman II, capital D, Grace is Necessary Because or For God’s Glory. Now God is a very jealous God. Scriptures tell us that he will not give his glory to anyone else. We look among men who are jealous like this, that the glory be theirs, as being arrogant and conceited. But in the case of God, it is all completely justified.

In fact, if he did not demand all of the glory, he would not be true to his nature. He could not say and be true and be honest, he could not be a holy God if he said, we’ll I’ll take 98% of the glory and parcel out two percent. That would be a lie. Only he deserves glory.

That’s why, incidentally, when we read that we glorify God, we really did something on our own that glorified God. We’re rather to think that he did something through us, and it’s gracious on his part to say that it is ours, but it’s ours only in the sense that we are the instrumentality for that he has done. So when we glorify him, he really takes pleasure in himself through the instrumentality of us who are Christians. So if you glorify God and take a great deal of pride in it, you don’t understand this God we have. He will not give his glory to anybody else.

That’s why the saints, when we get to heaven, they’ll receive all their crowns, and they’ll turn around and throw them at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. Incidentally, we’ll all do that just automatically when we get to heaven. Now we like to keep a little bit for ourselves down here, but up there, we will understand.

So, all of this whole plan of salvation, from unconditional election through foreknowledge, calling, justification, to glorification, the whole thing is designed to glorify God. That’s why Paul says in Romans chapter 11 and verse 36, after he has spoken about the plan of salvation and how it applied to the Nation Israel and then the Gentiles, and how it ultimately is to be concluded in his kingdom, he says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.” Sole deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.

Now finally – there’s a chance I may finish on time tonight. Roman III. The Scriptural Defense of Grace in Justification. I’d like for you to simply turn to Romans chapter 3 verse 24, and just notice a couple of expressions we’ve already read in a couple of our previous studies. And these texts that I have here, Romans 3:24, Acts 15:11 and Titus 3:7 emphasize sola gratia. In Romans 3:24 we read, “Being justified as a gift” – again dorean, translated in Galatians “needlessly;” in 2 Thessalonians 3:8 “for nothing.” And again – it’s translated there also again “without paying for it.” And translated also in the Authorized Version in John 15:25, “without a cause.”

So, he says, “Being justified without a cause.” That is, without a cause in us; not without a cause in God, because Christ, remember, is the meritorious, external, inciting cause. But as far as we’re concerned, we’re justified without a cause in us. That means that there’s no self worth in any of us that demands that God save us. That’s a figment of the imagination of the psychologists of the present day.

God does not save us because he thinks we’re great. He doesn’t save us because he thinks we’re so good. He doesn’t save us because we have such dignity, the dignity of man. He saves us because he loves, and he saves us because of what he is going to do for us – not what’s there – but what he’s going to do for us. Should never talk about the dignity of man or the worth of individuals, as if God is required because of the worth of the individual to give Jesus Christ for them. That is ridiculous. It’s the a result of not attending the theology class at Believers Chapel [laughter].

Now notice also, it says [Johnson laughs] – I don’t want to take any of the glory to myself – it’s because it hasn’t been revealed yet through the Holy Spirit. Being justified is a gift by his grace. Now notice, this is the means. Now since we have grace, and that expresses a principle, what we are saying here is that the means is the principle of grace. That is the fundamental principle of justification: it is by grace; not because of anything in us. Now it is through the redemption in Christ, as we see in the words following.

Turn with me to Acts chapter 15 and verse 11 where we have the same thing. This time, in a little more of a polemical atmosphere, because you’ll remember the situation in Acts chapter 15. Some men had come down from Judea. They began teaching the brethren, unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.

When they started preaching like that in the assembly, Paul and Barnabas got vibrations. And we read, “When Paul and Barnabas had great dissention and debate with them.” Isn’t it interesting how in the early church, they didn’t mind fighting over biblical doctrine. There’s nothing wrong with that. If we do not fight over biblical doctrine, the whole church is swept into apostasy. We do need a few Pauls and a few Barnabases to stand up at critical times in the history of the church and stand for a particular doctrine. Were it not for Paul and Barnabas and others, why it is likely that the whole early church would have become entangled in legalism, and we would have nothing more than the Judaism of the Old Testament.

So, they had great dissention and debate with them. These men were not sentimental, namby-pamby, milky, effeminate, spineless, molly-coddling, jelly fishing [laughter] apostles and servants of the Lord. They weren’t insipidly pretty, either. When these men taught this doctrine of justification by works, by sacramental activity, there was an explosion in Antioch. That is exactly what is mean there. There was an explosion.

We say, Paul, I can imagine the people right then saying, Paul is just stubborn. One must not judge. Jesus said one must not judge, but Paul and Barnabas are judging. They didn’t believe in this kind of luuuv [laughter] that we believe in. [Sustained laughter] You know, Vernon McGee says he’s tired of “sloppy agape.” [Loud laughter] And I really do believe he’s right. It’s sad, but we have entirely too much of that in the Christian church today.

Listen, when they had trouble, they went finally down to Jerusalem, and there they had a conference, and finally, the Apostle Peter, who also was not a wishy-washy apostle, and finally Peter stood up and we read in verse 11, “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” In other words, it is through grace, through the fundamental principle of grace – not through any human activity – that we are saved. The apostle affirms it.

We hear a lot about the Apostles’ Creed. Did you notice the plural? We believe – this has just as much right to be called the Apostle’s Creed as that 2nd Century document, which is generally a true document, which we repeat so often in our churches. Grace is the power by which God saves because we are dead, and we need divine activity to bring us to life that we may repent and believe the truth of the gospel.

And finally Titus 3 verse 7. We’ve already read that. “That being justified by grace we might be heirs according to eternal life.”

So, the fundamental principle of justification is grace: God doing something for us, God’s riches at Christ’s expense, the unmerited love and favor of God for undeserving men. It is that that lies at the heart of the work of God that brings us to faith and through which we become endowed with the gift of righteousness of God that enables us to stand before a holy God. Isn’t that great? To know that we can stand before a holy God in the righteousness of God and have him completely satisfied. That is tremendous and a blessing we shall throughout all eternity enjoy. Let’s close in a word of prayer.

[Prayer] Father, we are grateful to Thee for justification by grace. How wonderful it is to know that Thou hast moved in our hearts from ages past in unconditional election, and then through time and through our own experience, Thou has brought us into the possession of that that was the subject of the contemplation of the eternal Trinity: a righteousness that is acceptable with Thee. We praise Thee, we worship Thy name. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.