There’s an important word in this passage, which occurs three times in v16, once in v17 and once in the original in v21. And it's been said that, “Nobody has understood the Christian faith who doesn't understand this word”. What is this word? The word is justified and in these verses the Apostle Paul unfolds the wonderful truth of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Now that can sound like a bit of a mouthful so what is this great truth of justification by faith in Christ alone? It's the good news that sinful men and women, in other words me and you, may be brought into acceptance with God, not because of their works, but through a simple act of trust in Jesus Christ. V16:
...we know that a person is not justified [or counted righteous] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ... (v16)
The word justification is a legal term and is actually the opposite of condemnation. To condemn is to declare somebody guilty; to justify is to declare him or her not guilty. In the Bible the word refers to God’s act of unmerited favour by which he puts a sinner right with himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him, but accepting him and treating him as righteous. Just as if I’d never sinned.
Martin Luther, one of the great reformers, described justification by faith as the ‘most principal and special article of Christian doctrine’, for it is this doctrine ‘which makes true Christians indeed’. He added: ‘if the article of justification by faith be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost. Justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone is the truth of the gospel…Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually’.
Let me ask you a question. What's mankind’s greatest need? Is it food and clothing? Is it housing? Is it education? Is it, for some, winning the World Cup? What's your friend’s greatest need? What's your colleague’s greatest need? What's your pupil’s greatest need? What's your patient’s greatest need? Is it exam success or good health? No. People’s greatest need is acceptance with God or justification. And it was encouraging to hear the former Brazil right back say so on the radio this morning and to discover that Neymar, the gifted Brazilian star of this World Cup, is now a believer. You see God is holy and righteous and we are not. Our sin, our living without reference to God separates us from God and there's nothing we can do by ourselves to be put right with God. Romans 3:10&23: “ There is no-one righteous, no, not one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Human beings are under the judgment or just sentence of God and are banished from his presence. As 2 Corinthians 6:14 puts it: For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? And Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death”, eternal death, eternal separation from God, eternal punishment in hell.
Therefore what's the most urgent question facing mankind? It's the one asked in the book of Job 25:4: How then can man be in the right before God? Or how can a sinner be justified?
So let’s now look at the answer and with God’s help beat this great truth of justification by faith in Jesus alone into our heads. So
First, A PERSON IS NOT JUSTIFIED BY OBSERVING THE LAW BUT THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST v15-16
Let me ask you two more questions. One, what can you contribute to your own salvation? Well the answer is nothing. Yes we're rescued for good works but we're not rescued by good works. Second, how many good people will there be in heaven? Well again the answer is none. Jesus said only God is good. Only those who've been forgiven, only those who've been justified through faith in Christ will be in heaven. Look at v15&16:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (v15-16)
Three times v16 tells us that no-one is justified by observing the law and three times it emphasises the indispensable requirement of placing your faith in Christ. Paul isn't depreciating the law itself, he clearly maintained that God's law is holy, righteous and good (Ro 7:12). He's arguing against an illegitimate use of the law that made the observance of that law the grounds of acceptance with God. So Paul makes it absolutely clear and beats it into our heads that we're not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. Yet many people today are either not clear or confused about this fundamental point. The Galatians were being confused by false teaching on this and last week we saw that even Peter and Barnabas were led astray by the circumcision group - the Judaizers, who were teaching Jesus plus. So Paul opposed Peter to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.
The Judaizers’ belief was that of justification by works of the law. They professed to believe in Jesus, but wanted everyone to follow Moses as well. They'd say: “The only way to be justified is sheer hard work. You have to work at it. The work you have to do is the works of the law.” In other words, you must do everything the law commands and refrain from everything the law forbids. So most importantly you must keep the Ten Commandments. But as well as the moral law you must also observe the ceremonial law. You must be circumcised and join the Jewish Church. You must take your religion seriously by reading the Scriptures daily and attending church services. You must fast, pray and tithe your income. And if you do all these things, and do not fail in any of them, God will accept you. You'll be justified by the works of the law.
You'll probably recognise that religion. It's the religion of many in the world today. I remember a former youth leader here video recording people who were travelling on a train’s answer to the question – how do you get to heaven? Almost all said by being good, by living a good life and helping others. All over the world being justified by the works of the law is the fundamental principle of every religious and moral system there is except for New Testament Christianity.
But it's false. It's a lie. It's a delusion. It's the biggest lie of the Father of lies – the devil. Nobody has ever been justified by the works of the law and nobody ever will be, because nobody, apart from Jesus Christ, has ever perfectly kept the law and nobody ever will. We can't strictly adhere to the demands of the law. We are sinful, fallen human beings. When we examine our hearts, our thoughts and our motives we'll find that we've broken all God’s laws. For example, Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Mt 5:21-22)
As v16 states, ‘by works of the law no-one will be justified’. So how can we be justified? Look again at v16. Only through faith in Jesus Christ. Have you put your faith in Christ Jesus that you may be justified? If not why not do so today? But, some of you ask, how is it that we can be justified through faith in Christ? Well according to the Bible Jesus Christ came, fully man and fully God, to live and to die.In his life his obedience to the law was perfect. In his death he suffered for our disobedience. On earth he lived the only life of sinless obedience to the law which has ever been lived. On the cross he died for our law breaking, since the penalty for disobedience to the law was death.
All that's required of us to be justified, therefore, is to admit our sin and helplessness, to repent of our years of selfishness, of putting ourselves first and of our self-righteousness, and to put our whole trust and confidence in Jesus to save us. Listen to Paul writing in Romans 3&5:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight... But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, to be received by faith...Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 3.20-24, 5.1-2)
Do you have faith in Jesus? If you do you are justified, you have peace with God and eternal life. Rejoice in hope of the glory of God! When you're asked are you a Christian? Are you tempted to say Yes but not a very good one? Well remember - Christ is your righteousness. Do you feel more acceptable to God in a week when you've read your Bible, gone to church and told someone about Christ? Again remember - Christ is your righteousness. A righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Through faith in Christ we're put right with God to spend time and eternity in his favour and service. No longer slaves but sons, free to serve.
“A man is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” It's true. Paul knows it personally too. V16 continues So we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. And it's a universal truth backed up by the OT – such as Psalm 32: because by works of the law no one will be justified.” The word for no-one means all mankind without exception. None can be justified by works of the law; all must be justified through faith in Christ. We're to tell that truth to all. Why not tweet it or facebook it today to your followers and friends? And if you don't know what twitter and facebook are just talk to them!
Secondly, PAUL’S DEFENCE OF JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH v17-21
People challenged this great truth in Paul’s day and they still do. V17:
But if, in our endeavour to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (v17)
So to put it another way one challenge was and is this: ‘If God justifies bad people, what’s the point of being good? Can’t we do as we like and live as we please?’
Paul’s response is unequivocal. ‘Absolutely not! Or ‘God forbid!’. In v18 he goes on to deny the allegation that he was guilty of making Christ the agent or author of men’s sins. On the contrary, For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. It's our fault not Christ’s. Also v17 says: ‘we are justified in Christ’. Our justification takes place when we’re united to Christ by faith and when we’re united to Christ we become a new creation and begin living a new life. If we're justified in Christ our standing before God has changed and we ourselves are changed. Paul describes it in terms of a death and resurrection. Through union with Christ we share in Christ’s death and resurrection. Look at v19: For through the law I died to the law (meaning the law’s demand of death was satisfied in the death of Christ), not so that I might sin but, “so that I might live for God”. And v20: “I have been crucified with Christ” (meaning through being united to Christ in his sin bearing death, my sinful past has been blotted out) and so now, “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”.
A Christian who is justified in Christ is not free to sin but free to serve, to live for God, to live a new life by faith in the Son of God. You've been crucified with Christ and now you live. Your old life is finished and you have risen to new life, a new life you live through faith in Christ. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” In one sense it's Christ who lives this new life in you. And if he’s living in you he gives you new desires: to be like him, to live for God, to live a holy life, to live according to God’s standards, to love God and your neighbour. Now this side of heaven you will still fail, you will still sin but if you’re in Christ you won’t want to, you'll want to obey Christ. Galatians 5:17 says there’ll be a conflict within us:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (v17)
But if you’re a Christian your life will have changed: Christ gave himself for you and Christ lives in you. Do you know that change even though you still struggle with sin?
Finally look at v21:
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (v21)
Paul here overthrows the argument of those who challenge justification by faith in Christ alone. Their argument, says Paul, undermines the Christian faith totally. If justification is by works, if we can earn our salvation by our own efforts then Christ died for nothing! If salvation is by works, it is not by grace. But Christianity is Christ. The Christian faith is the faith of Christ crucified. The Christian gospel is the gospel of the grace of God. If we try to win our way to God and to heaven then we're refusing to let God be gracious and we're telling Christ that he needn't have bothered to die. Does anyone here this morning believe you're the master of your own destiny and can save yourself? If so you're saying that the grace of God and the death of Christ are redundant. Why not instead accept that your greatest need is justification or acceptance with God and that justification is not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ alone who loved you and gave himself for you.
So in conclusion what's our response to the truth of the gospel?
When Paul saw the truth of the gospel being diluted his response as someone who had trusted Christ alone was to courageously speak the truth and to defend the truth of the gospel. What is your response?
Have you been saved by the grace of God? Or are you trusting in yourself for salvation or in Christ alone? If you're not trusting in Christ alone for salvation put your faith in him so that you may be justified through faith in Christ.
Are you trying to mix law and grace? Salvation is not faith in Christ plus something; it is by faith in Christ alone.
If you've been saved by grace are you rejoicing in the fact that you are justified by faith in Christ? Are you walking in the liberty of grace – free in Christ to enjoy, serve and obey him and to live for him in the power of the Spirit?