Over 60,000 subscribers
Justified by Faith
In the years that I practised as a barrister I noticed that for many people appearing in court is a terrifying experience – even if they are only appearing as a witness. Being a litigant or a defendant can be an even more nerve-racking event. I often witnessed the relief when a defendant was acquitted or a litigant was declared by a judge to be ‘in the right’.
In the legal system of Ancient Israel a dispute put both parties at risk of the judgment of the court. The court’s process had a redemptive role; the judge was meant to help the party in the right to correct the wrong. At the end of the case, one party would be declared righteous and one in the wrong. Successful performance of this function meant ‘justice’ had been done. The Hebrew word is tsaddiq, which some versions of the Bible translate as ‘innocent’ – one whose status is right. This is the Old Testament background to justification.
We are now at the very heart of Paul’s message in the New Testament. He is unfolding the gospel. Yesterday we saw what it meant to receive the righteousness of God. Today’s passages tell us something about what it means to be ‘justified by faith’.
The children’s definition of justified is ‘just as if I’d’ never sinned. Jesus died for our sins. If we put our faith in him then we are justified. We are acquitted. We are declared righteous in his sight. Sin no longer separates us from God. We can live in a right relationship with him and with others.
1. Rumours of justificationPsalm 86:1-10
David experienced the blessing of being justified by faith and being a child of God. Like a parent lovingly bending down so that a child can whisper in their ear, God listens to the prayers of his children. David says, ‘Pay attention, God, to my prayer; bend down and listen to my cry for help’ (v.6, MSG).
David did not have the benefit of living under the new covenant. He lived before the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He did not have the advantage of being able to read the book of Romans to help him understand the amazing doctrines of justification by faith and the righteousness of God.
However, in one sense, the cross operates outside of time. It was effective for those who lived before Jesus – for Abraham and David.
Indeed, in our New Testament passage for today Paul quotes David in the psalms in support of his argument: ‘David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed are those whose sin the Lord will never count against them” ’ (Romans 4:6–8; Psalm 32:1–2a).
In some way, Paul is saying David understood justification by faith even though the means by which it was accomplished had not yet occurred. We see something of his understanding in this psalm.
First, he understood God’s love. He knew that the Lord is ‘abounding in love to all who call to [him]’ (86:5b).
Second, he knew that God was merciful and forgiving. ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord … You are forgiving and good … listen to my cry for mercy’ (vv.3a,5a,6b).
Third, although he knew that he did not deserve forgiveness and mercy – he had not earned it – he had the faith to believe that God would save him through his faith in him: ‘You are my God; save your servant who trusts in you’ (v.2b).
In other words, David understood all the elements that make up justification by faith, except for one. The one missing piece was the death of Jesus for our sins.
Lord, thank you for your amazing love for all humankind. Thank you for your mercy and forgiveness. Thank you that you save those who put their trust in you.
2. Celebration of justificationRomans 4:1-15
How can we, sinful human beings, be ‘in the right’ before God? How can we be ‘justified’ in his sight? Is this something we simply have to work hard at all our lives and hope for the best?
‘No’, says Paul. Something amazing happened as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Now we can receive this justification as a free gift. We receive it, not by working really hard, but by an act of faith.
In fact, of course, God knew what was going to happen in advance. Therefore, this gift was given to those who had faith even before Jesus did what made it possible.
One of the questions frequently asked on Alpha is: ‘If Jesus died for our sins, what happens to those who lived before Jesus?’
Paul, in expounding the doctrine of justification by faith, knows that he has to deal with the case of Abraham. His opponents might have argued that Abraham was justified as a result of his good works, giving him something to boast about (v.2). Paul points out that the Scriptures declare, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (v.3, Genesis 15:6). This phrase, Paul argues, implies a gift rather than something earned (Romans 4:5).
‘If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it – you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked – well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift’ (vv.4–5, MSG).
Paul’s opponents might argue that this gift is only available for Jews (the circumcised). But Paul points out that circumcision came later on (Genesis 17) and therefore, the blessing of justification by faith is for both the circumcised (the Jews) and the uncircumcised (the rest of human kind): ‘Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!’ (Romans 4:9–10)
Circumcision was not the cause of justification. Rather it was a seal. The Greek word for seal means not merely an attestation, but also a means of closing, so that the document could not be opened without breaching the seal. ‘Now think: Was that declaration made before or after he was marked by the covenant rite of circumcision? That’s right, before he was marked. That means that he underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had done long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with himself, an act of God he had embraced with his whole life’ (vv.10–11, MSG).
The story of Abraham makes clear that his being counted righteous was not on the basis of works, circumcision or law, but by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. If Abraham was justified by faith, he is the father of all who have faith (including those who have not been circumcised, vv.11–12).
The cross is effective throughout all time. Through what Jesus did on the cross, those who had never heard about him but put their trust in God were justified by their faith. Justification is not by works (v.2). Nor is it by the correct understanding of justification by faith (which those who had lived before Jesus clearly did not have). It is simply ‘by faith’. ‘This is why the fulfilment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift’ (v.16, MSG).
Lord, thank you for the power and effect of the death of Jesus for us. Thank you that we are justified by faith in him. Thank you that the moment we put our faith in Jesus it is just as if we had never sinned; we enter into a right relationship with you.
3. Communities of justificationAmos 5:1-27
God is not interested in how ‘religious’ we are. He is concerned about justice and righteousness. He says:
‘I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice – oceans of it.
I want fairness – rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want’ (vv.21–24, MSG).
A central outworking of justification by faith is that God’s people act with righteousness and justice. Righteousness and justice have a central role in this passage and in the whole book of Amos. God says, ‘Woe to you who turn justice to vinegar and stomp righteousness into the mud’ (v.7, MSG). God hates injustice. He wants justice for the poor. God speaks through the prophet Amos:
‘Here it is, bluntly spoken:
Because you run roughshod over the poor
and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I know precisely the extent of your violations,
the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.
Justice is a lost cause’ (vv.10–13, MSG).
Amos is saying that human injustice will bring about God’s justice. God hates injustice. He calls upon his people to ‘maintain justice in the courts’ (v.15). His concern for justice and righteousness is summed up in verse 24: ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’
We see in this passage that justice had great importance in the Old Testament – especially for the poor and weak, who could not maintain themselves in the social order apart from the justice of the court.
Issues of justice such as rescuing people from bonded labour or other forms of slavery, fighting against the trafficking of people for sex, and other forms of injustice, should be high on our agenda. They certainly seem to be high on God’s agenda.
Father, thank you so much for this amazing truth that we are justified and acquitted through the death of Jesus for us, and by faith in him. Help us to understand this truth more deeply and to expound it more clearly, so that many more will come to know the great blessings that Abraham, David, the apostle Paul, and all those who put their trust in you, experience – the blessing of justification by faith.
‘Guard my life’.
There are terrible atrocities happening around the world and hazards of every kind. Even trying to follow Nicky on a bicycle, as he weaves his way (at great speed) through the streets of London, can be alarming. ‘Guard our lives’ is a comforting prayer.