Justification for the ungodly.
Galatians, Part 4: The good news is that your right standing with God is a done deal in Jesus.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
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. In his preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, J. P. Fallowes asserts that Paul’s letter “is a one subject epistle: a one-stringed harp, which the Apostle touches with exquisite variations” (vii). The note that the apostle keeps striking, of course, is “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5, 14), with the epistle serving, essentially, as Paul’s “Variations on a Theme of How the Ungodly are Made Right with God,” which makes for a more than adequate subtitle to the book. Charles Bridges, a 19th-century English preacher, comments that “Luther’s Commentary on Galatians exhibits the most full and enlivening display of the grand doctrine of justification probably ever given to the Church” (45). 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.
To press the apostle Paul’s point even further, we should note that the convicted criminal standing in that courtroom has zero ability to put himself into a more favorable position. He is thoroughly guilty; that is certain. And no amount of deal-making or promise-keeping can make his impending verdict go away. 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. Renowned Anglican theologian John R. W. Stott declares:
“Justification” . . . 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 . . . All that is required of us to be justified, therefore, is to acknowledge our sin and helplessness, to repent of our years of self-assertion and self-righteousness, and to put our whole trust and confidence in Jesus Christ to save us. (60, 62)
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). “In the righteousness of faith,” comments the esteemed Augustinian monk turned reformer Martin Luther, “we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God” (xii). “Faith,” attests Scottish preacher Horatius Bonar, “does not come to Calvary to do anything. It comes to see the glorious spectacle of all things done” (116). 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). Luther, elsewhere, puts it this way:
Read with great emphasis these words, “me,” “for me,” and accustom yourself to accept and apply to yourself this “me” with certain faith. The words our, us, for us, ought to be written in golden letters — the man who does not believe them is not a Christian. (Works, 26.176)
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.” Paul’s congregations were still filled with sinners even after he preached “his gospel” to them. Obviously, there must be something wrong with Paul’s message. There must be something he was leaving out. So ran the so-called logic of the Judaizers.
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.”
If we are “found to be sinners” even after the gospel of free justification in Jesus is preached to us, the answer isn’t to change the message by loading it up with “fine print.” This is what the Judaizers were doing. They saw how folks were “found to be sinners,” so they set about to change the message of the gospel, which is the same thing as saying there is a problem with the message of the gospel itself. 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.”
Changing the message of the gospel because folks are “found to be sinners” is an ignorant denial of this reality as well as a bloated confidence in our ability to be “good.” It’s the foolish notion that we can wipe out sin’s presence and merit God’s favor by what we “do.” What happens once we start tinkering with the gospel? 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.
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). Indeed, the whole nature of the gift is ruined once we attempt to make it “at least a little expensive,” to borrow from Gerhard Forde:
When the sola gratia does not seem to work to our satisfaction, the temptation is always to retreat and make it not quite sola. When we get nervous about “cheap grace” the remedy seems to be to make it at least a little expensive — bargain basement, maybe, but at least not cheap. But then the battle is lost. When confronted by the perpetual crisis of God’s liberality we must simply forge right ahead and become even more radical about the sola. Grace is indeed not cheap. It is free! But the radicalization must be carried out precisely in the preaching. Grace full and free must always be preached so that it kills and makes alive. If it is cheapened to coddle the old Adam, that is indeed bad enough. But if one tries subsequently to remedy the cheapness by making it expensive, that is [an] absolute disaster. (168)
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.
Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness: or, How Shall Man Be Just With God? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1993).
Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry; with an Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1850).
Gerhard O. Forde, “Preaching the Sacraments,” Justification Is for Preaching: Essays by Oswald Bayer, Gerhard O. Forde, and Others, edited by Virgil Thompson (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2012).
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, translated by Erasmus Middleton, edited by John Prince Fallowes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979).
Martin Luther, Works: The American Edition, Vols. 1–55, edited by J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehman (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007).
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).