“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24
We were created, in the image of God, to reflect God’s own love. And, according to the creation story that is meant to illuminate our lives, God gave one prohibition. “Thou shall not eat of the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” This tree was a sign that God’s love is not forced. We are free to live in God’s grace and share in God’s work of cultivating and creating. This tree symbolized our freedom. And what happened? Well, we (not just “they,” but “we”) disobeyed God. We ate of the tree and noticed, suddenly, that we were naked – exposed, vulnerable, fearful. We had fallen. Death entered our minds, our hearts, and our world.
This story is the backdrop for the doctrine of justification, our theme for the day. This is an important theological word for understanding who we are in relationship with God. The Apostle Paul explains it this way: By the sin of the first Adam, who represents us all, “we” all fell short of the life and love of God. Instead of freedom, we found ourselves bound by the likes of greed, envy, anger, and lust. We became immobilized by the fear, focused on self-protection, and on building ourselves up. We traded the truth for a lie. And over it all hung the cloud of death – the cause great of our deep fear. That is the condition that sparks the need for some remedy, some hope.
So, what does it mean to be justified? Getting technical, justification is not being “made just” and “good.” The theological term for this is “sanctification.” We will get to that, but for now we can say that sanctification is the fruit of justification. They do go together, but they are distinct gifts. Justification implies what God does FOR us through Christ; sanctification describes what God works IN us by the Holy Spirit, transforming us into those who are able, once again, to reflect God’s love and live by the virtues of true holiness – the virtues of humility, patience, kindness, temperance, and others that illuminate the very character of God. But again, that’s sanctification. In this series, we will hear a lot more about that.
Using these human ways to talk about the divine, justification, as it comes to us in scripture, is pardon or forgiveness, rooted in compassion, and God’s ability to see what is going on deep within. Its opposite is condemnation and imprisonment. It is a legal term describing acquittal, or “wiping the slate clean.” In scripture, this word is used to show that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and thus “are now justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24). And, later in the same letter, we read: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...trhough whom we have gained access by faith in this grace in which we now stand.” (Romans 5:1).
The next question before us is this: Who are those justified? The answer goes against our conventional wisdom and shows how God’s ways are different from the ways of the world. We assume that it is the innocent who go free. We also tend to assume that the guilty need to make amends before they (we) are set free. This is even argued in scripture, with James affirming that we are justified by works and not faith alone. Many even today, from parents to teachers to bosses, proclaim that we must be “sanctified” – that is, good – before we can be “justified” or “set free” or “advanced” or “welcomed to the table.” Conventional wisdom calls for restitution and good works before such blessings are given. In other words, it is to be earned.
From the dominant perspective in the scriptures, and at the core of our doctrine as a church, we proclaim something very different. Who does God justify? The answer is clear. God justifies the “ungodly.” (Romans 4:5). Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost.” He uses the image of a physician who comes for the sick, not those who are healthy. Christ comes to those “in whom no good dwells, who are full of pride, anger, and love of the world – all the genuine fruits of that ‘carnal mind’ which are the enemy of God.” He looks upon the heart and knows what is possible for us as those created in the image of God. Through Christ, the second Adam who represents us before God, God responds first with mercy.
So, how do we come to receive this gift? How do we come to know this gift and live by its blessings? The answer is “faith.” To give a deeply theological and biblical definition, faith is a divine, supernatural conviction given by God (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a deep trust in the heart, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and not counting our sins against us.” (II Corinthians 5:19). It is a divinely given, and deeply personal, trust and confidence that Christ not only dies for the sins of the whole world, but also for “me.” God loves “me” and gave himself for “me,” and opens up to “me” the way of life and love.
Apart from this love, we are lost in the fear of living and the dread of death. We are, to share a key scripture, “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:11f). The very moment God gives faith (and it is a gift of God), faith is “counted as righteousness.” We are welcomed into relationship with God and the way of life is opened up to us. We are restored to a “right” relationship and “are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” That’s justification.
This may sound strange that God would receive us so easily, that the condition would not include some work by us, some attempt to prove ourselves worthy. It is true that we were created to live in God’s love, but we can’t do this until this love is in us. God first loves us; then we can love (I John 4:19). This gifts comes before we “do” anything. To try to justify ourselves is to bring down God to our level and try to make God conform to our understanding and conditions for love. Our efforts only dim the light to the glory to which we are called.
So, as we are led to this recognition that we can’t save ourselves, that’s when we are able to turn to the One who has the power to take away the sin of the world. Don’t try to justify yourself or claim good works. Don’t even try to be humble, contrite, or sincere, as cause for God to bless you. Plead only the blood (the life) that was given for you and is given to you, the ransom paid for your proud, stubborn, sinful soul. Plead only for mercy. Come quickly! Put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who reveals this gift and indeed reconciles us to God. Amen.