I don’t know about you, but I have spent quite a bit of my life dealing with conversations that aren’t always clear at first. Whether this was professors in college teaching things that I hadn’t yet absorbed, or trying to piece together what someone is saying over a spotty voice (or Zoom) connection, not all communication from others sinks in right away (at least, that’s how it is for me).
This works both ways, though. I may have thought that I was pretty clear in what I said, whether in teaching or normal conversation, but communication gaps hit home to me when a friend (a colleague of non-American descent) shared that he only understood about 50% of what was being said in English.
There’s an art to having a genuine conversation in situations like these. It can be a challenge to find the right balance between asking questions (or asking someone to repeat what they just said), and just going along with the flow. I admit to sometimes just nodding and smiling when someone else uses a word that I don’t understand, hoping that the context will give me a clue (and bring the pieces together) before I am obliged to say something that might reveal my ignorance!
In Galatians 2:11-14, we find that the apostle Paul (former persecutor of Christians and traveling missionary) had to rebuke the apostle Peter (brief water-walker and ultimate church-starter), because Peter was disrespecting Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) Christians when other people came to town (and these visitors apparently pressured Peter to avoid Gentiles).
Paul’s words continue in verses 15 and 16:
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of 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 the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Galatians 2:15-16 NIV
It’s probably good to pause and define the word “justified” here, which appears three times in these two verses. (If you just read over that word, hoping that the meaning would become clear later, I don’t blame you!)
- Some people describe justification as making things, “‘just as if I’d’ never sinned”, and that’s probably accurate (and catchy).
- A commentator says, “To be ‘justified’ is to be pronounced legally innocent and ‘in the clear’ by God.” [Boles, p.65]
- Multiple sources point out that words like “righteousness” are from the same Greek word as “justification” [ref. Sproul, etc.].
- The Lookout [see reference below] says, “A judge can decide if a person is righteous in the eyes of the law. In the case of the true gospel, God plays the role of both the one who is just and the one who justifies (Romans 3:26).” God pronounces us righteous, and He is the one who made us righteous.
So, justification is when we get to be righteous before God, thanks to the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus Christ (when He gave up His life on the cross), regardless of what unrighteousness was in our past, and continuing even if we don’t live up to God’s standards perfectly in the present or the future. (A past teacher of mine invested a lot of time into explaining terms like this, so I hope that he’s OK with my definition, here.)
However, I think that it’s important to not only have a definition or examples of the word “justification”. I’d like to also consider why justification is important.
Let’s think of justification in another way: when someone makes a difficult decision (maybe one that is unpopular), we may look at the circumstances and the reasons behind their decision, and say that they were justified in doing so. That is, we believe that the facts confirm that they did the right thing, and that they were correct in their choice, even if not everyone agrees with it. Hold this thought for a moment…
To be clear, doing the right thing is still the right thing to do. God has explained right and wrong to us. As a result, everyone – both those who have separated themselves from God and those who have accepted Jesus’ salvation – should be doing what God says is right. The law of Moses told the Jewish people what God expected of them, and even if the ceremonial laws have been fulfilled through Jesus, the moral laws still reflect God’s nature. In fact, right and wrong were still right and wrong before Moses received the law from God. The revelation at Mount Sinai merely gave the newly-freed Hebrew nation a clear list of many of those things.
However, there’s a difference between whether or not an individual decision of ours is right or wrong, and whether or not we are right before God. God is perfectly holy. He is 100% righteous and good, but when we sin (even once) we are not perfect any more. As a result, our sin-tainted life is incompatible with His sinlessness and His holiness.
So, once we’ve sinned, we are no longer right before God. Doing more good things doesn’t somehow get us back to God. Even though the law of Moses defines many elements of what righteousness looked like, we can’t follow it perfectly, and it can’t save us.
Only faith in Jesus – who gave us His word, His truth (the Truth), His sacrifice, and His salvation – can restore us to justification before God.
So, going back to a previous thought, if we think about coming to God and saying, “I deserve to be part of your family, and I should be in a personal relationship with you, because I’m a pretty good person”, we are not justified in saying so, even if we keep most of the law of Moses (or any other law or set of rules).
However, if we come to God and say, “I accept the salvation that Jesus Christ bought for me, and I trust Him that I can be saved by believing in Him” (see John 3:16-17), then we are justified in saying that. When we accept Jesus, we are right (i.e., correct) in saying that we have been pronounced righteous (i.e., justified) by God.
What’s the opposite of justification by God through faith in Jesus? I think that the error with what the Judaizers (false teachers that the church in Galatia had to deal with) were promoting was that they were saying that Jesus’ message of salvation based on faith wasn’t enough. And, by adding extra rules to what Jesus said, not only were they wrong, but they were also saying that Jesus was wrong. If I could paraphrase, these Judaizers were essentially saying to God, “I believe in Jesus, but I’m going to become a Jewish person and try to earn right standing with you that way, instead of the way that you gave us”. They were not justified in saying this.
Are you experiencing guilt for things that you have done, when you have already been identified as justified – righteous – by God? Be encouraged! The gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t just a blessing of accepting Jesus’ redemption, it is a seal – a deposit (see Ephesians 1:13-14). Justification is not obtained by following a bunch of rules, but by following Jesus, and turning our life over to Him. Yes, we will probably live better lives as we listen to His guidance, but that’s not why are justified.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 8, 2021
- The Lookout, August 8, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Galatians & Ephesians, by Kenneth L. Boles. College Press Publishing Company, © 1993, p.32-60.
- ESV Reformation Study Bible, R.C. Sproul, editor, © 2015 Ligonier Ministries, via BibleGateway.com
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via BibleGateway.com.