WORDS OF SALVATION
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002
STUDY FIVE: JUSTIFICATION/RIGHTEOUSNESS
We humans are obsessed with justifying ourselves. We defend our own rightness and excuse our lack of it. We hate to be considered in the wrong. We treasure our lists of 'brownie points', thinking that by them we merit recognition or reward. We automatically relate to God, our Judge, on a good works/performance basis.
The Bible rejects this mindset as the way of the flesh, our way, as opposed to the way of the Spirit, God's way. It contains a group of words, sharing a common Greek root, which translate as'to declare righteous', 'righteousness', 'to justify', 'justification', 'justice'and'just'. Their primary application is legal, not moral. They are the language of the law courts; in the Bible they describe our legal standing in the presence of God.
Romans 3:20-31 explains the significance of justification/righteousness:
No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law (3:20).
No matter how we try to keep the law our performance will never obtain for us the declaration 'not guilty' in the presence of God. He cannot acquit us on the basis of our own performance because our performance always fails. Similarly 3:21 & 28 tell us that righteousness/justification is 'apart from law' and 'apart from observing the law'. In the Gospel God declares us righteous apart from our keeping the law.
It is a righteousness from God (3:21,22; 1:17).
When we try to be justified/declared righteous by keeping God's law, we see justification/righteousness as having its source in ourselves. When we think that by our own performance we can earn it, our standing in his presence will be constantly under threat of our failure to keep God's law. There is no guarantee in such self-focused justification/righteousness.
In Gospel justification/righteousness no such threat hangs over us, because it is a legal acquittal in the presence of God that depends not on us but on him. It comes from him. Because it is not relative to our performance, it is absolute and guaranteed (Romans 4:16).
It a righteousness/justification that has been made known (3:21).
Every human effort to find union and acceptance with our god or gods is performance based. World religions, false cults, our own misuse of Scripture, all testify to this. Our idea is that we, by our effort, must get ourselves right with God: Gospel righteousness/justification, cutting right across our idea, is something that God has made known. He tells us that this is in fact the message of the Law and the Prophets (3:21).
Gospel righteousness/justification comes through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22).
In the previous study faith was identified as knowing, trusting, and being committed to, Jesus Christ. It this faith in Jesus Christ, which is essentially a return to the one true God, and always a gift of God, which is followed by the declaration that we are right with God. 'Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness' (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6); in the same way faith in Jesus Christ brings upon us the 'blessing of Abraham' by which we are declared right with God irrespective of our performance (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:1-4:7).
Gospel righteousness/justification is to all who believe. There is no difference ... (3:22).
Here the Bible teaches that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ stands equally acquitted, equally in the right with God. There are no degrees of righteousness/justification. Because our legal standing as right in the presence of God does not depend on our performance but on his pronouncement, it is the same for all who believe. There is no difference. (See also 3:29,30)
Reinforcing this Paul wrote: 'for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (3:23). We 'have all sinned' (past tense) and are thereby disqualified in the court of heaven; in addition we 'all fall short' (present continuous tense), and are thereby constantly disqualified in the presence of our Judge. Not one of us merits God's acquittal. We are all equally condemned, equally in need of this alien righteousness.
We are all 'justified freely by his grace' (3:24).
Justification/righteousness is something we cannot earn, merit or deserve with obedience or good works. It is free. It is independent. It is absolute. It does not vary with our variability, becoming greater when we are 'good' and lesser when we are 'bad'. It is unconditional. It is fixed. All of this is because it is by God's grace. Sheer unqualified, undeserved gift. This is God's will, God's purpose, God's pleasure (Ephesians 1:5,9,11): that out of his boundless, overflowing love he gives to us that which we don't deserve, that which we could never merit or maintain by our own goodness. By this grace we are justified freely.
This justification/righteousness is through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (3:24,25).
What Jesus did on the cross was the one thing, the only thing, necessary to enable God to acquit us and declare us righteous. He died as our substitute, bearing all the legal punishment and condemnation due to us because of our sin. By dying for us (in our place) Jesus Christ redeemed us (set us free) from the curse of the law which holds all of us alienated from God and accountable and unacceptable to God (Galatians 3:1-14). This action of Christ on the cross to obtain our justification/righteousness was fixed in the purpose of our God before the world began (1 Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 13:8). It is rock solid. It cannot be moved. It cannot be reduced by our failures.
Because Gospel righteousness/justification depends on the death of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf it demonstrates God's justice (3:25b-26).
How can God acquit the guilty and remain just? How can he accept us, whom his word condemns, and remain faithful to that word? God here teaches us that because Jesus died in our place God's just verdict on our sin has been carried out. Justice has been upheld. Our sin has been paid for, punished to the full. So complete and finished is this act of Jesus Christ in taking our place that God reckons his death to be our death (Romans 6:2-11; Galatians 2:17-21; Colossians 2:12,20; 3:3).
Gospel righteousness/justification excludes boasting (3:27-28).
Because gospel righteousness is grounded and fixed in the action and obedience of Jesus Christ and has no relation to our actions and obedience, because it is grounded and fixed in the purpose of God, because it is by sheer undeserved, unmerited grace, it excludes and outlaws boasting. We contribute nothing. Nothing we do gains it. Nothing we do maintains it. None of us can say 'I am right with God because I ... .'. None of us is permitted to say 'I am more acceptable to God than you are because I ... ' There can be no boasting. Every believer is acceptable in the court of heaven because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. All equally acquitted. All declared righteous.
Gospel righteousness/justification upholds God's law (3:31).
Lest some respond to justification by thinking that law is redundant Paul states that, rather than nullifying the law, justification by faith upholds the law. Living, Jesus fully met the law's demand for righteousness. Dying, he fully bore the law's penalty on all unrighteousness. In both he affirmed the true significance and relevance of God's law.
This then is justification/righteousness: that we stand today in the presence of God and are pronounced 'not guilty', declared 'right with God'.
- It comes not from our performance, but from God's pronouncement.
- It comes not from our goodness, but as a gift of God's grace.
- It depends not on our doing but on Christ's dying.
- It cannot fluctuate because of our fickleness and failures, but stands fast because of God's faithfulness.
- It is not, and never will be, our own, but is always a gift, a declaration, given to us but alien to us, his righteousness, counted as ours.