From the Reformed Quarterly Spring 1988 Bulletin.
No one truly understands the heart of the Christian message who does not understand justification. Martin Luther once said, “It is this which makes true Christians; if justification is lost, all true Christianity is lost.”
In Galatians 2: 15-21, Paul introduces us to this word which is so central to the message of Christianity — indeed central to everything that makes Christianity distinctive.
We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, know that a man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law, no one will be justified. If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not. If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a law breaker. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.
To understand what Paul is trying to tell us, we must ask three questions of this Scripture. First, what does justification mean? Second, how can it happen? Third, what is its result?
WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?
We borrow the legal term justification from the world of the law courts. To justify someone is to pronounce him not guilty, innocent, righteous in the presence of the judge. Its exact opposite is condemnation; to condemn someone is to declare him guilty. Picture, if you will, a man brought into the presence of God, Who is not only his Creator but also his Judge. Man waits for the verdict to be pronounced upon him by the Judge of all the earth, knowing that verdict will determine his final destiny. Justification is such a verdict, and the whole of biblical teaching on the subject links the present-day verdict which God passes upon us now with the verdict that He will pass upon us on that last day.
In the Bible, justification is more than a pardon, acquittal, or forgiveness. It is all of these, but infinitely more. It means that God as our Judge actually accepts us as righteous just as He accepts His only begotten Son as righteous. And when God pronounces the verdict “justified” over us, He is accepting us into His presence as completely righteous.
The amazing transition which biblical justification represents is that of a criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance. It is a verdict not only given by God, but which, once given, is irrevocable. It is the verdict of that last day of judgment brought into the present so that the apostle Paul may say in Romans 1:8, “There is therefore now no more condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” That is, condemnation is something with which we are finished forever if we are justified by God.
HOW CAN JUSTIFICATION OCCUR?
How can God, who is the Judge of all the earth, take guilty sinners like ourselves and accept us as innocent and righteous, welcoming us as He welcomes His only begotten Son?
This question is critical because in Exodus 23, God quite specifically says, “I will not justify the wicked.” And, in Deuteronomy 25, He instructs the judges in Israel that they must justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. Yet, in Romans 4:5, Paul actually speaks of God as the God who justifies the ungodly. How can that happen?
Paul raises two possible answers: either I can earn it or someone else can earn it for me. The first half of verse 16 speaks of being justified by observing the law, and the second half speaks of being justified by faith in Christ.
Now, the first of these two options is certainly what the Jewish teachers espoused. If you wanted to be justified, accepted, acquitted of your sin, and welcomed into the presence of God, then the only possible answer was sheer hard work — observing and keeping the Law of God, principally the Ten Commandments.
There is only one thing wrong with that solution. No one can do it nor has anyone ever done it, with the singular exception of Jesus. Paul himself says in verse 18, “If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I prove that I am a lawbreaker.” That is our nature, our tendency; everything within us turns us toward breaking the law rather than keeping it.
That is the problem with a religion which says to people, “Now all you have to do is keep the Ten Commandments and live by the Sermon on the Mount, and everything will be wonderful.” Any
honest man or woman who attempts this will admit, “Out of the ashes of my failure, I must tell you that I do not need a lecture to tell me how to live, I need a Saviour to prevent me from living the way I naturally do.”
The second answer is that we may be justified by faith in Jesus Christ as the One who lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to the law and died on the cross in my place, bearing my judgment as He suffered God’s punishment against sin.
Many will say, “I don’t really understand why God needs the substitute death of Jesus Christ to bear the judgment of my sins. I forgive other people out of the generosity of my heart, saying, ‘You’re forgiven; I’m sorry you did it. I hope you will not do it again.'”
The mistake they make, however, is believing that God — like us — is a private individual. He is not. He is the Judge and Sustainer of the whole earth and, when we appear before Him, we appear before the Judge of the whole earth. You see, therefore, that it is impossible for God merely to forgive us our sin and acquit us of it simply because He loves us. God may not act as a private individual as it were, but as the One who upholds truth and righteousness and justice because He is a God of infinite holiness, justice, and truth.
What, then, does God do? Paul tells us that He sets forth His only begotten Son so that the judgment and punishment of all our sin may rest upon Him in His perfect obedience to the Father. He bears the judgment that comes from the throne of God. And the deeper mystery is that this Lord Jesus Christ who loved me and gave Himself for me is very God of very God. In His incarnation and His obedience to death, He has stepped down from the throne of judgment, taken our place, and born the judgment of our sin. Therefore, the way for sinners to be justified, Paul tells us, is by the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us.
WHAT IS THE RESULT OF JUSTIFICATION?
In verses 17-21, Paul first deals with a common objection to the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. There were those who suggested that this teaching caused people to be careless about their sin and even encouraged them to sin so that they might be forgiven more.
Paul says that if this is how you regard the results of justification, then obviously you have not understood it. Justification by faith is not a legal myth which doesn’t make any difference to life. Indeed, twice in verses 19-20, Paul says that the gospel of Jesus Christ has meant the difference between death and resurrection to him. When someone receives the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, an old way of life dies and a new life is resurrected.
Herein lies the real glory of a genuine experience of God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not simply my turning over a new leaf; it is not some legal fiction that I have been justified by God. It is a resurrection and a transformation that raises me into a newness of life. This, my friends, is basic Christianity.
The transformation, however, will not make us perfect. At our best, we are still sinners. But the glorious good news is that in you, if you are a justified sinner, there dwells the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. That is the one hope for people like ourselves with all our frailties and all our weaknesses. I am still by nature a law-breaker, but in me there dwells the very Son of God who obeyed and kept the law of God in every detail. And Paul says, “I live now by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. I live, yet not I, it is Christ who lives in me.” And that is what the Christian life is — Christ living out His life, even in a justified sinner. To God be the glory and praise for such a gospel and for such a Saviour.