Justification for the Ungodly

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There is no justification by the works of the law

The theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is apparent from the outset, as the apostle’s words are freighted with an undisguised sense of urgency. He gets right to the point because “the point” is just that important. On the heels of his first missionary journey to the churches in Southern Galatia, he learns that some nefarious Judaizers are making waves by preaching “another gospel,” which, of course, was no gospel at all since there is “no other gospel” than the announcement that Jesus has given himself up to die so that sinners might be delivered from sin and death (Gal. 1:4). This is what grips Paul’s mind as he pours out his heart to these beloved congregants. Little else matters except the dogged declaration of how sinners are brought into right standing with God, which, to be sure, is not possible “by works of the law” but is only possible “by faith” (Gal. 2:16). All of which to say, Galatians is a book all about justification. Without a doubt, the same is more than true of the epistle itself.

In what is, for the most part, the keynote of Paul’s letter, the apostle uses the same word for “justified” four times in just two verses (Gal. 2:16–17). Each occurrence carries the weighty image of a court of law where a convicted criminal stands to hear the judge’s exacting verdict. But when the gavel strikes the bench, instead of facing a fate of wasting away behind bars of iron, the criminal is set free. Much to his surprise, he is acquitted. Such is the scene whenever the topic of justification is broached. “Justified,” of course, is a Greek term meaning “to be cleared” or “to be made right” or “to declare righteous.” The point is that you and I are that criminal. We are the ones who rightly deserve whatever punishment is coming for us.

You and I stand before the Judge of Heaven as guilty and good-for-nothing sinners. But before the final pronouncement of condemnation can be given, a Voice echoes in the courtroom, emanating not from the gallery but from your own attorney’s table. It is the voice of your representative, who declares, “Take me instead! ‘On me alone be the guilt’” (1 Sam. 25:24). It’s the voice of your Savior and Substitute, Jesus Christ who through his life, death, and resurrection made justification a possibility. The penalty for your sins was borne by him. He subsumes your sentence on your behalf, which means that you are no longer under the weight of that verdict of condemnation. The Christ of God was crucified as the guilty party so that the guilty might live freely in his grace.

The only hope the criminal has is to receive the word of pardon offered to him through his Substitute who provides this new verdict of acquittal as a gift. This is what makes the gospel “the gospel”: it is the announcement that Someone Else has done everything necessary to secure your right standing with Almighty God. The new verdict of “No Condemnation” resounds in the death and resurrection of Christ alone (Rom. 8:1). Good news, sinner: your right standing is a done deal in Jesus. All that remains is for criminals and sinners to receive this gift of absolution by faith. 

Good news, sinner: your right standing is a done deal in Jesus.

The gospel is good news for you just as you are. It does not demand that you do anything but receive it as true and accept it as a settled verdict given to you for free. That new verdict of “justified” is yours by faith (Gal. 2:16). What’s more, that glorious spectacle of things done at Calvary was done for you. Following the apostle’s example, the gospel of Christ crucified is best understood when it is personalized. “The life I now live in the flesh,” he says, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

After evincing God’s gospel of free justification, Paul proceeds to get into the thick of his doctrinal diatribe to the churches of Galatia in the next few verses (Gal. 2:17–18). Either in anticipation of or in direct opposition to what the Judaizers were saying, Paul poses a question about the very truth that he has just established. If we preach justification by grace through faith in Jesus apart from anything we do but we are still “found to be sinners,” does that mean that Jesus is some sort of “minister of sin”? For the Judaizers, all the talk about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness, all freely given, appeared to be doing nothing in the way of making people “better.”

Their reaction is often our gut reaction, too. If you spend too much time talking about the forgiveness that Jesus offers for free, church folk get fidgety. “Okay, you’re saying it’s free, but it can’t be that free, right? What’s the catch?” And where there is no “catch,” we often make one up. We love to supply the missing “fine print” to the gospel of God that doesn’t have any. What Jesus has done, he has done already. It’s not up for debate, redefinition, or renegotiation. He died for our sins and was resurrected “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This work of God in Christ is appended subjoined by no contingencies nor any “terms and conditions.” Additionally, this work doesn’t suddenly become untrue even if those who believe in it are “found to be sinners.”

What’s the catch?” And where there is no “catch,” we often make one up

There is unequivocally no problem with the message of God’s free justification of the ungodly in and through his Son Jesus Christ. The problem isn’t with the message — it’s with us. We’re the problem. We are sinners to the core of our being. And when by grace through faith we put our trust in Jesus’s work for us, receiving his righteousness as our own, what remains true is that we’re still sinners.

In one very true and very real sense, the word of the gospel declares us justified in the sight of God because of Jesus. But yet in another very true and very real sense, we are still sinners who fail, stumble, and fall incessantly. Faith, you see, brings us into a state of “already but not yet.” God’s good news announces that you are cleared of the penalty of sin since God’s Son already bore that penalty for you on the cross. You are, likewise, free from the power of sin since the Holy Spirit now dwells in you. But even still you are not yet out from under the presence of sin since you are still a creature of this sin-begotten Earth. When Jesus returns, we will finally be free from sin’s presence for good, forever. Until then, however, we live in the already-but-not-yet. We live simul iustus et peccator, that is, “simultaneously justified and sinner.”

What happens if we begin toning down its message by adding a glut of fine print to it since our neighbors are still “found to be sinners”? Well, Paul tells us: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor . . . I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:17–18, 21).

Meddling with the message of forgiveness and justification freely given in and through Christ’s death and resurrection causes us to lose the message entirely. When you add additional qualifications to the proclamation of the gospel you are effectively rebuilding what Jesus died to dismantle. To insist otherwise — to say that justification is a matter of “Jesus-Plus” — is to reconstruct the old edifice of the law that Christ put an end to (Rom. 10:4). Salvation by faith plus works is nothing but the furious effort of man to hang up the veil that our Lord ripped in two (Matt. 27:50–51). Paul ups the ante, though, when he says that changing the gospel in any way is the same as saying that Jesus died for no reason (Gal. 2:21). What’s the point of the cross if we can solve the problem of sin by ourselves? If our efforts and energies are an effective antidote to free us from sin’s presence, then the cross of Christ is pointless. Blending faith and works is the same as saying that what Jesus did wasn’t enough: it’s his grace plus our grit. 

What’s the point of the cross if we can solve the problem of sin by ourselves?

Jesus plus “something else” always results in the focus being given to the “something else.” The Judaizers were adamant that justification was a matter of faith plus circumcision, and unless that law was being kept, the sinner’s claim to justification was no good. All this accomplished, though, was to turn the free gift of the gospel into a wage. Its terms were “You do that, you get this.” This twists the gospel into something that it isn’t, making what God holds out as a gift into something you’re owed because of what you’ve done. In the end, all this does is “nullify the grace of God” (Gal. 2:21; Rom. 4:4; 11:6).

Jesus plus “something else” always results in the focus being given to the “something else.”

Therefore, in order to not ruin the free gift of justification in Jesus’s death and resurrection, we’d do well to reconsider what it means to be “justified.” The courtroom scene is still valid, but it is also so much more than that. “To be justified” is more momentous than a criminal receiving the verdict of “acquitted” — it’s a matter of the dead being raised to life. “For through the law I died to the law,” Paul says, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19–20). Sinners are “dead to the law” as a means of salvation because by faith they’ve been crucified with Christ. He died “under the law,” according to the law, thereby delivering us from the law as a means of being made right with God (a.k.a. justification).

The endeavor to be justified “by works of the law” is a fool’s errand since the law’s standard is perfection. Who’s done that? Who can meet that demand? Only one person in the history of the universe has ever lived a life of unwavering perfection. And when he ascended the cross and gave himself up to die for the world’s sins, he held out his life and death as a free gift for all who believe. Jesus’s crushing death on the cross is our death, the death we deserved for failing to live up to the law. Likewise, his resurrection is our resurrection by which we are raised to “newness of life” by faith alone. Your right standing with God is not just a legal declaration of acquittal, it’s a resurrection. Sinner, enjoy your new life and enjoy your forgiveness.