Reading Time: 5 mins

God’s Gift of Justification

Reading Time: 5 mins

The notion that your goodness is “good enough” to make you right with God is a lie straight from the father of lies himself.

Through the course of four chapters in his letter to the Galatian congregations, Paul refuses to pull any of his punches. He remains committed to expertly and efficiently exposing the lies and denouncing every creed put forward by the Jewish legalists in their effort to keep the Galatians in bondage. Of course, Paul hasn’t left the Galatians off the hook either since they were the “foolish ones” who had entertained fraudulent teaching in the first place, allowing all manner of deceptive doctrines to spread from church to church like a virus. The “gospel” of the Judaizers, to use Paul’s analogy, was like a dash of leaven that “leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:7–9). Leaven, of course, is a chemical agent that makes dough soft, light, and gummy, and a little bit goes a long way. The smallest dash of yeast starts a bevy of chemical reactions that fundamentally alter your ingredients. Similarly, the smallest dose of false teaching quickly circulates, corrupting every listening ear and every unwitting mind.

This analogy is instructive for several reasons since it reminds us that false doctrine is not only a viral force but also a subtle one. Adding a leavening agent like yeast to your dough doesn’t immediately produce noticeable effects. However, if you wait a few hours (sometimes overnight), it becomes glaringly obvious that a change has taken place. This is how it is within the church, too. Mankind’s trumped up and corrosive “gospel” isn’t always noticeable, at first. False teachers don’t often come right out and tell you that what they’re teaching is false. Counterfeit truth is rarely lit up with neon lights that say “Knockoff!” However, the imperceptibility of fraudulent doctrine belies the tragedy that always follows on its heels. In Chapter 5 of Paul’s epistle, he comments on some of the disasters that follow the acceptance of this lie:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).

Paul begins this paragraph with the verbal equivalent of pounding his fist on a desk. “Look here and listen up!” he exclaims, hoping to garner the Galatians’ undivided attention as he unfurls the lethal repercussions of a ritualistic and mechanistic religion. In doing so, he returns to the point of controversy that started this whole ruckus in the first place, namely, circumcision. According to the Judaizers, no one could be saved or justified without first and foremost following the laws of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5), which the apostle lumps under the umbrella of “circumcision.” By invoking the rite of “circumcision,” Paul refers to the whole gambit of man’s schemes by which he hopes to be made right with the God of heaven and earn his favor. Embracing this concept, however, proves more than faulty. It’s fatal. Indeed, as Paul says, adherents of this legalistic mode of justification end up falling away from grace entirely (Gal. 5:4), which is a provocative phrase that pictures a ship running aground. 

False doctrine is not only a viral force but also a subtle one.

A works-based faith inevitably leads to a shipwrecked faith because (1) it enlists the individual as the sole keeper of the full scope of the Mosaic code. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision,” Paul writes, “that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). Living by the law binds one to observe every regulation and follow every command down to the letter. And failure at one point means failing the whole thing. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it,” Jesus’s brother writes (James 2:10). Endeavoring to keep the law, therefore, is not like pursuing a letter grade is on an exam. God’s law is not a sliding scale of religious performance. Rather, keeping the law is a pass-or-fail arrangement, only in this case, it’s life or death. 

Furthermore, a legalistic religion shipwrecks believers because (2) it severs the believer from Christ himself (Gal. 5:4). Despite its religious-sounding vocabulary, any endeavor to be justified by the law does nothing but reject Jesus. Concluding that you have the ability to make yourself right with God the Father is tantamount to stiff-arming God’s Son and turning him into a valueless commodity (Gal. 5:2). If you and I can put ourselves into a right standing with God the Father, why do we need the Son? Why did Jesus need to die at all? What’s the point of the cross?

Paul’s staggering cross-examination of legalism helps us recognize the severity of a religion that attempts to collapse faith and works in the matter of one’s justification. In the end, though, no matter how spiritual it might sound, the notion that your goodness is “good enough” to make you right with God is a lie straight from the father of lies himself. This conviction is not divine in the slightest (Gal. 4:8). “To imagine that circumcision is effective,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “is to hug a delusion” (260). Accordingly, those Jewish legalists were propagating a religion of fiction, which stated that sinners not only had the obligation but also possessed the potential to “keep the whole law” and, therefore, accomplish their justification on their own. Despite how much of Jesus they sprinkled onto their sermons, their message was categorically “anti-Jesus.” Indeed, the Judaizers had perverted the gospel to such a degree that they had reduced the work of Christ on the cross to nothing more than the “jumper cables” that activated one’s “religious engines.” Christ got one’s spiritual motor revving, and then it was up to the individual to keep the motor running. 

The endgame of works-based religion is a faith that is independent of Jesus, which is why Paul was so adamant that true Christian religion is not rooted in the work of Christians but in the work of Christ. “For in Christ Jesus,” he says, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). It is Jesus who died to save you and who rose again to justify you. It is Jesus who stepped down from heaven to set you free from the clutches of sin and death. It is Jesus “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Our justification is accomplished solely through his work of death and resurrection (Gal. 2:16). This is the only way anyone can be made right with God. Indeed, the gospel is not an announcement of God-given “jumper cables.” It’s the good news that he has given you an entirely new engine, that is a new heart. God in Christ does not swoop down to merely restart the religious motors of a bunch of faulty people. He comes down to bring dead sinners back to life — and he accomplishes that by becoming their sin, dying their deaths, and rising again for them “on the third day.”

The message of justification by faith, therefore, isn’t one that helps the “slightly flawed” get a little bit better.

The Judaizers were undermining this message through their insistence that the Galatians themselves were responsible for their right standing with God, thereby robbing the church of its assurance in and through Christ. In response, Paul puts them on the receiving ends of some of the fiercest words in recorded Scripture (Gal. 5:12). Even still, the problem of religious legalism persists, with confusion and frustration often following on the heels of the proclamation of Jesus’s free justification for sinners. The legalist in everyone’s heart gets so worked up about what this message might make sinners do that we end up stopping short of what the message actually does. Believers are so nervous that grace is going to be confused for a “license to sin” that they end up rendering it useless by adding their own set of qualifiers, provisions, and stipulations to the end of its announcement. In so doing, we reveal just how little we trust God’s Spirit to do his work. 

By grace through faith, you have been made alive and filled with the Holy Spirit of God. The “good works” we do are a byproduct of his ministry in us and on us. They are the fruit of the right standing we have been freely given. “Good works” don’t come from compulsion or coercion but from gratitude, that is from “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Anything we might do for God is always preceded by a deep regard for what he has done for us. Consequently, the deeper our union with the Spirit of God, the more we will understand just how wretched and desperate we are — and the more we understand how wretched we are, the more we will respond with hearts that are grateful for the gift of salvation that Jesus gives us, which is nothing less than a verdict of acquittal and the bestowal of righteousness to us. The message of justification by faith, therefore, isn’t one that helps the “slightly flawed” get a little bit better. Rather, it is a message that announces that the most reprehensible sinners are rescued from the brink of eternal condemnation because of what the Christ of God has already accomplished for them.