In a previous study, I started to unfold Paul’s teachings on the subject of justification, recorded in Romans 3:19-5:21. In (3:19-31), he explains its meaning, as it relates to the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In (4:1-25), he gives an example of it in the testimony of Abraham. In (5:1-11), he describes the experience of it after sinners have been regenerated by the Spirit of God. In (5:12-21), he returns to an explanation of it, only this time making reference to the covenant headship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Having already given my thoughts on Paul’s teachings in (3:19-31), I would like to follow up on the meaning of justification by exploring how the term is used throughout the Word of God. I believe the term can be classified under two headings—those scriptures which speak of self-justification, and the others which refer to God-justification.
We have, for instance, an indication of this distinction in Romans 8:33: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.” This, of course, is speaking about God-justification—it is God that justifies the sinner. In contrast to God-justification, other scriptures refer to a sinner attempting to justify himself, which I designate ‘self-justification’.
Now, let us keep in mind the basic meaning of the term. Justification means, “to make right”. If, for instance, someone accuses you of doing something wrong, you may try to justify yourself—that is, you may try to vindicate your words, or your actions, showing how right you were to say or to do those things. And of course, the one accusing you of wrongdoing may reply, “Stop trying to justify yourself!” That’s all this term means—“to make right”—stop trying to make yourself right, or to vindicate your words or actions. The term is frequently used in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, particularly with reference to a sinner’s relationship TO, or WITH, God.
Those who are in relationship TO God are under the authority of the covenant of works, and therefore dead in their trespasses and sins, and under the wrath and condemnation of their Maker—these people are in the business of self-justification; they are attempting to make themselves right with God.
Those, on the other hand, who are in relationship WITH God are under the authority of the covenant of grace, and therefore having been born again, are made alive unto God through the Lord Jesus Christ, pardoned from their sins and delivered from God’s wrath and condemnation—these people are recipients of God-justification; they have been made right with Him based on the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Next week we will consider what the scriptures have to say about God justifying sinners under the covenant of grace. This week, I want to look at what the scriptures say concerning the self-justification of sinners under the covenant of works. I believe the biblical references may be arrange under two headings, First, The Need For Justification; Second, The Impossibility Of Self-Justification.
I. The Need For Justification.
Every transgressor of God’s law stands in need of being made right with his/her Maker and Lawgiver. Is this not the central purpose of religion, whatever the denomination or creed? Select a religion, and it will have a system whereby men and women can atone for their sins and find favor with God. This is true even for the more abstract religions, such as Buddhism.
Now, Bildad the Shuhite, one of Job’s friends, spoke to him about the need for justification before a righteous God, his words recorded in Job 25:4-6: “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight. How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?” Every person is brought into the world under the headship of Adam, our first parent. Adam, being made in the image of God, meaning he was a spirit being (a soul being), and, being made in the likeness of God, meaning he was created in righteousness and true holiness, was put into relationship with God on the basis of a covenant. This covenant God made with him before any other person of the human race was brought into existence, including Eve. Under this covenant, God inscribed upon his soul a righteous law, requiring of him perfect obedience. The transgression of this law is called sin, and the consequence of sin is death. Under this covenant, Adam was also appointed the head of the human race, insomuch that his sin and consequent judgment would be judicially imputed and spiritually imparted to his posterity. Henceforth, all of us are brought into the world conceived in sin and shaped in iniquity, and therefore Bildad asks the question, “How then can man be justified with God? How can he be clean (or righteous) that is born of a woman?” Or, how can a sinner make himself/herself right with God? How can he/she atone for his/her sins?
We find a similar statement made by King David in Psalm 51:4,5. Having transgressed God’s law by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then murdering her husband, David was eventually brought by the Holy Spirit to godly sorrow and repentance, wherein he testified to the Lord—“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” God is righteous and just to execute judgment upon the sinner, which is why David says God is justified, or vindicated, or proven to be right, when He pronounces and executes judgment. The sinner, on the other hand, stands guilty and condemned before the righteous Judge, having no excuse for his/her transgressions against the Lord. God is justified, for He is righteous; the sinner is condemned, because he/she is a transgressor of God’s holy law.
Again, King David petitioned the Lord in Psalm 143:1,2: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness. And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” That is, there are no provisions under the terms and promises of the covenant of works whereby a sinner may justify himself/herself before God. The terms of the covenant of works are perfect obedience to the heart law; its promise is certain death for the transgression of that law and violation of the covenant. David, understanding this dilemma, petitions the Lord to have mercy upon him, not on the basis of the covenant of works, for under that covenant “shall no man living be justified”, but rather, to have mercy upon him on the basis of His faithfulness and righteousness, according to the covenant of grace wherein Christ alone, by His redemptive work, atones for sin and is made the sinner’s righteousness.
My dear friends, whether a sinner is justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus or left to himself/herself in sin, do not these scriptures underscore the need for all sinners to be justified before a righteous God? Well, this is the first thing we may gather from the scriptures with reference to “justification”—there is a need for it. But second, let us also learn from the Word of God,
II. The Impossibility Of Self-Justification.
A person cannot make himself/herself right with God who is under the authority of the covenant of works, and under the curse of the law due to original and personal transgressions. As I mentioned earlier, there are no provisions given under the terms and promises of this covenant for self-justification. Henceforth, Paul wrote in Romans 3:20: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight:” There is a two-fold law inscribed upon the human heart, to love God supremely and to love one’s neighbor as him/herself. It is the responsibility of every person under the authority of the covenant of works to perfectly obey this law. The consequence of transgressing it is death, together with the wrath and condemnation of God. The only way to escape God’s wrath and condemnation is if he/she is justified, or made right, with God. And you see, Paul’s point, in Romans 3:20, is that once a person is guilty of transgressing God’s law, he/she is made subject to its curse, and cannot recover himself/herself, or vindicate himself/herself, or make himself/herself right with God, on the basis of obeying law he/she has transgressed. Sin is a debt, and that debt must be paid in order to satisfy the justice of God and appease His wrath. That debt cannot be paid out of the impoverishment of the sinner, for that is all the sinner has before God—nothing. The sinner is without righteousness, and cannot in that condition gain righteousness through his/her good works. To press this point home, the Apostle repeats it in the twenty-eighth verse—“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deed of the law.” And if this were to not clear enough, Paul repeats it again in the fourth chapter, the second verse, using Abraham as the example—“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.”
Now, the same teaching Paul gives to the churches scattered through Galatia, for in his letter to them he wrote—Galatians 2:16: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” The Apostle, of course, is speaking not only of the impossibility of self-justification, under the authority of the covenant of works, but also of the certainty of God-justification, under the authority of the covenant of grace. With reference to self-justification, he asserts that a person is not justified, or made right with God, by obeying the law inscribed upon the heart, for no one will be justified, or made right with God, on the basis of earning favor with God by doing good works according to the law. However, with reference to God-justification, he tells us that a person is justified, or made right with God, by the faith of Jesus Christ, which means that the only point of access to God is through the redemptive work of Christ. The Apostle repeats this teaching in the third chapter, the eleventh verse—”But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” That is, no sinner who is under the authority of the covenant of works can make himself/herself right with God by obeying the law inscribed upon the heart, is quit evident, or apparent—for the only way a sinner can be justified, or made right with God, is by the faith of Jesus Christ, or by the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ, for this word faith with reference to Christ involves the whole work of Christ in redemptive grace.
Now, there came into the churches of Galatia false teachers who were insisting that a sinner who is saved by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus must maintain favor with God by observing the Mosaic covenant and obeying its laws. This was a form of legal-sanctification, or what modern false teachers call progressive-sanctification. The idea is, once a sinner is born again, he/she is given the ability to keep God’s laws, which is his/her duty to do so in order to grow in holiness and maintain favor with God—the more a person keeps the law, the more he/she advances or grows in holiness. This idea was denounced by the Apostle Paul, who in the fifth chapter of his letter wrote—Galatians 5:4: ”Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” That is, if a sinner who has been born again is attempting to maintain favor with God by obeying the law, whether it be the law inscribed upon the heart under the covenant of works, or the law given to the children of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, then he/she is making void the obedience of Christ to these laws. What is the point of Christ keeping these laws and earning for His people righteousness, if His people are required to keep it themselves after they have been born again? Of course, the argument used by those who subscribe to progressive-sanctification is this—they say that whereas the unregenerate are justified by the righteousness of Christ without one’s obedience to the law, yet regenerate sinners are sanctified by the righteousness of Christ through one’s obedience to the law. So, whereas justification is without the deeds of the law, sanctification is with the deeds of the law; although you cannot ATTAIN justification by keeping the law, yet you must MAINTAIN sanctification by keeping it. Now you see, this is a perversion of justification and sanctification. The justifying grace which makes an unregenerate sinner right with God is the same justifying grace which keeps the regenerate sinner right with God. At no point are regenerate sinners to displace the obedience of Christ and His righteousness, with their own obedience and their righteousness. The regenerate sinner is delivered from the authority of the covenant of works and is therefore no longer responsible for keeping the heart law under that covenant. Christ has perfectly obeyed that law on behalf of the regenerate sinner, and therefore, having been delivered from the covenant of works and heart law, he/she is brought experientially under the authority of the covenant of grace and is blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, among which is the justifying grace of Christ. The regenerate sinner walks in sanctification according to the righteousness of Christ, depending upon His obedience to the heart law, rather than attempting to walk in his/her own obedience to the heart law, or worst, obedience to the Mosaic law, for I remind you, only the Jewish people as a nation were subject to the Mosaic covenant and its laws, and therefore anyone attempting to come under it today is wresting the truth from the scriptures. My dear brethren, do not attempt to maintain favor with God by the means of self-justification, disguised ever so well in the deceptive garb of progressive-sanctification. God favors you only and always upon the basis of His justifying grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus!
Let me say something about Paul’s expression, “fallen from grace”. This is not a reference to losing one’s salvation, as if God will justify the sinner today, but will unjustly him tomorrow if the sinner doesn’t keep up his end of the deal. Rather, it is speaking of babes in Christ—those who have been born again—but who ignorantly tread under foot the grace of God in Christ by attempting to maintain favor with God on the basis of their own obedience and righteousness to the law. My dear friends, legal-sanctification, otherwise called progressive-sanctification, is a false notion, as I have been explaining, and we condemn it with the Apostle Paul. If you are attempting to maintain favor with God, after you have been freely justified by the redemption (including the righteousness) that is in Christ Jesus, then you are dethroning Christ as your Lord and Redeemer and treading under your feet the gospel of Christ. You see, my dear friends, the depraved heart is always looking for a way to justify itself with God. That is true of unregenerate sinners as well as regenerate sinners. The unregenerate sinner does it in order to ATTAIN favor with God; the regenerate sinner does it in order to MAINTAIN favor with God. But both are rooted in the impossibility of self-justification.
Need I say many Christians are ensnared by legal and progressive sanctification? The Lord knows I once embraced this false teaching, but by His grace I was delivered, now praying He will enable me to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made me free, not to be entangled again with the yoke of legal-bondage. Peter too, you may remember, together with Barnabas, were deluded by such things. When Peter came to Antioch, Paul withstood him to the face, rebuking him before everyone, because he was to be blamed. Peter insisted that regenerate sinners must maintain favor with God by obeying the Mosaic law, but Paul told him he did not walk uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. And that is an indictment against every man and woman today who is seeking to maintain favor with God through legal and progressive sanctification. May I encourage you to read with care and self-examination Paul’s account of this matter in Galatians 2?
Self-justification, whether it be that of the unregenerate sinner attempting to ATTAIN favor with God under the covenant of works, or that of the regenerate sinner striving to MAINTAIN favor with God under the covenant of grace, always manifests itself in that Pharisee who stood in the temple and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” That, my brethren, is the epitome of self-justification and self-righteousness, whether it be found in a believer or an unbeliever. But, those who are God-justified—freely justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus—they are like the publican, standing afar off, not lifting up so much as his eyes unto heaven, smiting on his chest and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said of these two men, “I tell you, this publican went down to his house justified (God-justified) rather than the other (self-justified): for everyone that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18)
Do you see? When you know YOURSELF to be the chiefest of sinners, then you are truly at the place of God-justification and God-sanctification. But when you know your NEIGHBOR to be the chiefest of sinners, then my friend you are busy at the work of self-justification and self-sanctification. When you know YOURSELF to be the chiefest of sinners, then Christ alone is sufficient for your need as His righteousness makes you right in the sight of God. “Ah,” but the legalists say, “You aren’t giving the believer anything to do!” Exactly, my dear friend! That’s the point. When the sinner has something to do; something wherewith he might justify himself; he’s in the wrong place. God does all the doing, freely, through the redemption in Christ! The question is, has He done the doing for you? If so, then stop doing what’s already done by Him. Trust on Christ and His righteousness alone, and He will set you free (as God is my witness, He will set you free), shedding the light of His countenance upon your soul and speaking peace to your heart!
Jared Smith served twenty years as pastor of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in Kensington (London, England). He now serves as an Evangelist in the Philippines, preaching the gospel, organizing churches and training gospel preachers.