This morning in Bible study a few of us were looking at Galatians 2. Obviously, as we go further in Galatians, we need a good working definition of justification, and we went after that.
The Greek word justify is just the word righteous used as a verb. Thus to justify is to make righteous.
Really, though, that doesn’t answer any questions. What’s righteousness?
Some say that righteousness is simply right standing with God, and it has nothing to do with what we do. The apostle John, however, has made it clear that’s impossible:
Little, children, let no one deceive you; he that practices righteousness is righteous just as [Christ] is righteous. He that practices sin is of the devil. (1 Jn. 3:7-8)
Can that be said any more clearly?
On the other hand, it is clear that the only righteousness God wants is his righteousness. Isaiah 64:6 says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Paul says that the problem of the Jews was that they were ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own (Rom. 10:3).
So how does all this apply to us?
No Confidence in the Flesh
I feel like Paul explains it well in Philippians 3:
We are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. (v. 3)
Paul then explains that if anyone was going to have confidence in the flesh, he could. He was a Jew, a pharisee, and concerning the righteousness of the Law, “found blameless.”
Things can’t get much better than that for a follower of God, can they?
But look what Paul’s righteousness got for him. He was a murderer. He was an enemy of God, persecuting God’s Son. Jesus told a story of tenants that were stealing a king’s field, hoarding its profits so greedily that they were willing to drive off his servants and kill his son. Paul, “found blameless” in the righteousness of the Law, was one of those tenants.
Our own righteousness is worthless.
So what did Paul do about it?
He doesn’t leave us wondering. He goes on to explain it …
I count all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.
There is one thing Paul pursued; it was knowing Christ.
This is the one and only route to righteousness. We’ll never work ourselves into righteousness. There is not some other law better than the Mosaic Law that will give us righteousness. Paul says that if there were a law that could have given life, then righteousness would come by the law. He says this because there is no law whatsoever that will give life and produce righteousness.
Does this mean that we can’t do righteousness?
Of course not! Only those who do righteousness are righteous as Christ is righteous, says John.
So how do we do it?
We know Christ! We actively and avidly pursue Christ!
So It’s Not by Works?
Let’s talk about works.
Our life is about works. James says they’re necessary to be justified (2:24), and Paul says that we’re to be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14) and careful to maintain them (Tit. 3:8).
Someone gave a great example in our Bible study today. Jesus told the story of a Levite who was in the synagogue giving thanks that he wasn’t like the tax collector who was in there with him. The Levite believed he was righteous, while the tax collector was unrighteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, dared not even look up to heaven. He hung his head, beat his breast, and asked for mercy from God.
Jesus finishes the story by telling us that the tax collector went back to his house justified—made righteous—and not the other.
But let me add one twist to the story …
There is a difference between the tax collector that’s in the synagogue, head bowed to God, crying out for mercy, and the tax collector that’s sitting at home, counting his coins, and not pursuing God.
Zaccheus was a tax collector. I tell you that there was a difference between Zaccheus before he went up in the tree to see Christ and Zaccheus when he came down from the tree having glimpsed the living Word of God.
Zaccheus the day before was a cheat. He did not have salvation. Zaccheus after he saw Christ repented for his cheating, determined to return what he had stolen and more. He was transformed by knowing Jesus Christ.
And Jesus Christ said, “Today salvation has come to this man’s house.”
Our righteousness must come from Christ. We must pursue him.
If we pursue Christ you will see good actions. Those who pursue the knowledge of Christ are those who count everything else but dung. Their desire is for Jesus. They set aside all else. They repent for their wickedness, and they repay those that they have wronged.
There is not a law for righteousness, but there is a Christ to know who produces righteousness; real, tangible righteousness that can be seen and experienced.
Oh, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law could not do [make me “perform what is good” – Rom. 7:18], God did. By sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit … For if you walk according to the flesh, you must die; but if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the flesh, then you will live. (Rom. 7:24-8:4; 8:12-13)
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared beforehand for us to do. (Eph. 2:10)