How God Saves Sinners: Coming to Grips with Justification by Faith

Galatians 2:15-21

June 10, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

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I’d like to begin this message with a statement of the problem we all face. When I use the phrase “we all,” I’m referring to the entire human race. There is a problem so fundamental that it is at the root of all the other problems we have. Stated in one sentence, it goes like this: God is righteous and we are not. There are many other ways to say it but they all end up in the same place:

God is holy and we are not.

God is pure and we are not.

God is perfect and we are not.

God is just and we are not.

God is perfect love and we are not.

God is always good and we are not.

This is our human predicament. Something is wrong between us and God, and deep in our hearts we know this is true. If you doubt my words, pick up the morning paper and read about new killing in the Middle East, about children kidnapped and then abused, about leaders convicted of bribery, fraud, and perjury, and about yet another school shooting. Something has gone badly wrong in the world, and even if we don’t know what it is, we know things aren’t the way they ought to be.

The Execution of Timothy McVeigh

I am writing these words less than two hours after Timothy McVeigh was executed for the brutal murder of 168 people when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. Do we need any further proof that something has gone wrong in the universe? I suppose the easy answer is to suggest that Timothy McVeigh is somehow different from the rest of us, that he fits into a different category because all of us know with something approaching moral certainty that we would never do what he did. But we should not rush too soon to acquit ourselves. Playing the “I would never do that” game is dangerous business. Who can say what they might or might not do under a particular set of circumstances? I willingly grant that what Timothy McVeigh did was a heinous crime and that he truly deserved the punishment he received this morning. I am glad that he confessed to the crime so that we will not hear endless speculation that somehow they killed the wrong man. No, this time they got the right man.

But the larger point remains open for discussion. A few days ago Newsweek magazine offered a cover story on the roots of evil, using the McVeigh case as a take-off point. How is it that an intelligent man from a stable family should end up committing such a horrific crime? This time we can’t blame video games or Satan worship or any of the other popular explanations. Was he “crazy?” No, apparently not in any clinical sense. Was he demon-possessed? It’s hard to spot any of the usual markers that would lead us to that conclusion. No doubt in McVeigh’s case, it was a combination of factors, including an incredible distrust of the government fueled by some sort of inner rage that led to the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. The danger in studying the particulars too closely is that it may lead us to conclude that Timothy McVeigh is “special” in a negative sense, that he is some sort of human aberration, a toxic DNA that would be better removed from the body politic. But to think of him that way is to make two mistakes. First, we dehumanize a man made in God’s image. He becomes less than the rest of us and therefore, one supposes, easier to kill. Second, we end up putting ourselves in a better and higher category. Put simply, we aren’t like Timothy McVeigh, period. But that conclusion runs counter to the biblical teaching that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that the heart is deceitful, wicked, tricky, and impossible to fully know. The greatest deceit is always self-deceit. We trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not as bad as we are. And the easiest way to do that is to compare ourselves with someone who is (in our judgment) a far worse sinner. This morning, Timothy McVeigh seems to be an easy target.

The Great Chasm

All of that may seem like a digression, and perhaps it is in the sense that I just got through watching the various broadcasts from Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mr. McVeigh exited this life and met his Creator. The drama of his death (and our inability to understand his actions) graphically illustrates the human predicament. We live in a universe where fanatics in the Middle East tape bombs to their chests, walk into shopping malls, and blow themselves up. It’s not that much different in America. Or Nepal. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Something has gone wrong between us and God. Because he is holy and we are not, there is a vast chasm between us. God is on one side and the whole human race is on the other side. You could call that chasm a mountain or a wall and the effect would be the same. Our sin has truly and profoundly and utterly separated us from God. Everything God is, we are not. What we are, God is not. Instead of harmony, there is friction. Instead of friendship, there is enmity. By nature the whole human race is under judgment from God and separated from him because of our sin.

If you doubt the truth of what I have said, take a good look at the person in the mirror. Study the image you see looking back at you. What about the man or woman in the mirror? Are you holy, righteous and pure? Are you perfect in all your ways? Are you without sin in all you do? If you are honest, you must admit the answer is no.

What is to be done about the great gulf that stands between us and God? On our own there are many things we can try to do. We can try to bridge the gap by religion or by self-effort or by good works or by acts of charity or by extraordinary personal sacrifice. We may hope against hope that the gap between us and God isn’t so big after all and that in the end, our good works will get us to heaven. If so, we are in for a rude awakening.

As for Timothy McVeigh, he called himself an agnostic, proclaiming, “If I am going to hell, I’m gonna have a lot of company.” He also said that if there is an afterlife, he would “improvise, adapt and overcome.” I do not care to speculate about the eternal destinies of those who have already died, but it is worth noting that the time to “improvise, adapt and overcome” is while you are still alive. You’ve waited too late if you wait until you are dead.

The Good News of the gospel is this: God has taken it upon himself to do something about the “gap” that stands between himself and all humanity. What we could not do, he did in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The story of how he did this is wrapped up in a technical theological term called justification. That’s what our text is all about. It tells how God took the initiative to save guilty sinners.

I. Justification Defined 15-16

“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:15-16).

Martin Luther called justification the chief doctrine of the Christian faith. It is so important that if you do not understand this doctrine, you really don’t understand Christianity at all. You could be right about many other doctrines—such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Second Coming of Christ, but if you are wrong on this doctrine, you are wrong at the very center of the Christian faith and no amount of being right elsewhere can make up for being wrong at the center. Luther also said that justification by faith alone is so important that we must believe it, teach it to others, and “beat it into their heads continually.” I hope to do that (gently!) in this sermon.

Galatians 2:16 is one of the most important verses in the New Testament. If you read it slowly and carefully, you will discover that several words are repeated. Paul mentions “faith” three times, “justified” three times, and “law” three times. In fact, this verse, which is packed with dense theological truth, actually says the same thing three times. Paul repeats himself so we won’t miss the basic truth. He wants to make one point and one point only: We are made right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ and that apart from good works of any kind.

The word “justify” means to “declare righteous.” It refers to a verdict from the judge that allows a defendant to go free. It means that the defendant is declared not guilty, innocent of all charges, and there is no record against him in the eyes of the law. If you are justified, your record is clean and clear and you are free to go. To be justified is the opposite of being condemned. If you apply that truth in the spiritual realm, it looks like this: Justification is that act of God whereby he acquits guilty sinners (that is, he declares them innocent), on the basis of the death of Christ. This gift of justification is received solely on the basis of faith wholly apart from good works of any kind. Justified sinners are thus pardoned, acquitted, set free, accepted by God, and treated as righteous.

Perhaps an illustration will help. A few days ago Timothy McVeigh filed two appeals. He was seeking a “stay of execution,” also called a reprieve. That simply meant he asked the judge for more time to consider the FBI papers that were turned over at the last minute. His lawyers believed those papers contained evidence implicating others in the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh’s real goal was not simply a “stay of execution” or a reprieve. He wanted his sentence reduced or commuted from death by injection to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. His lawyers never argued that he was not guilty or that any of the new documents would establish his innocence. They weren’t asking that his sentence be overturned. They simply wanted the execution delayed so that his sentence might be reduced later. Both appeals were denied, which is why McVeigh died earlier today.

Now compare that to justification. When God justifies a sinner, he doesn’t simply delay his punishment. And he doesn’t reduce his punishment. When God justifies a sinner, he removes the punishment altogether. That is why Romans 8:1 says there is “no condemnation” for those who are in Christ Jesus. Justification means the sinner is declared “not guilty” in the eyes of God because God credits (accounts or imputes) to him the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s a pure miracle of God’s grace. Guilty sinners are forgiven, pardoned, and declared righteous while they are still guilty, on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross. And this amazing gift comes to anyone who will receive it by faith without trying to work for it.

A. Not by the Law

Verse 16 three times says that we are not justified by the works of the law. That means there is nothing we can do to save ourselves or help save ourselves. The Judaizers did not believe this. They proclaimed that salvation is hard work. You’ve got to work at it all your life if you want to go to heaven when you die. You’ve got to keep the law, especially the law about circumcision, in order to be saved. Their list also included the Ten Commandments. And it logically would have to include all the other commands of the law. If you keep one, you’ve got to keep them all. Once you’ve started down the law-keeping road, it’s too late to start picking and choosing which commands you’re going to obey.

In the last few days our high school and college students have been rushing to make sure they finished all their work by the end of the semester. I can remember many times when I came to the last week of the semester with a ton of stuff to do. There were quizzes to take, homework assignments to make up, papers to write, and books to read, not to mention cramming for the final exam. And you know you have to do it if you want to pass the course and graduate on time. But it’s easy under pressure to say to yourself, “The teacher doesn’t mean it. She’ll let me slide by even if I only make up part of my homework, skip one of my papers, do half of my quizzes, read one of the five books, and take half the final exam.”

Lots of people approach God with the same attitude. They think to themselves, “He doesn’t really mean it.” They hope that when they die, God will look at them and say, “You were a real rascal. But you can come in anyway.” They hope they can do just enough to convince God to take them to heaven. Generally, that strategy doesn’t work with your English Lit teacher. And it never works with God. He really means what he says.

This false hope of going to heaven by our good works is the religion of the man on the street. It’s flattering to feel that you contribute something to your own salvation. Just try harder and you’ll make it in the end. As John Stott points out, this fearful delusion is a lie of the devil. It can’t be done. In the end the gap between us and God is too great. At best we can only keep part of the law part of the time. No one keeps all the law all the time.

God demands perfection. That’s a shocking thought. Because we live in an imperfect world, the very idea of perfection is hard to grasp. If you ask people, “Do you have to be perfect to go to heaven?” most will answer no. But the answer is yes. God is perfect and he will not allow imperfect people to join him in heaven. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be perfect from the moment of birth till the moment of death with no failure at all in between. God’s standard is absolute perfection in thought, word and deed 100% of the time. That means we are left with only two options if we want to go to heaven:

1) We’ve got to be perfect ourselves.

2) We’ve got to find someone who can be perfect in our place.

Since we’ve all blown #1 years ago, the only thing left for us is #2. But someone might say, “I can’t change the past but I can be perfect from here on out. Won’t that be enough?” First of all, you couldn’t do it even if you tried, but if you could it wouldn’t work. Future obedience cannot overcome past disobedience. You can never do enough in the future to cover what you did in the past.

The result of living by the law is guaranteed frustration. The harder we try, the more we fail.

B. But by Faith in Christ

At this point we encounter the section option: Christ was perfect in our place. He succeeded where we failed. He obeyed where we disobeyed. He was perfect where we sinned repeatedly. He completely kept God’s law and fulfilled all its demands. Therefore, he is able to die as a perfect substitute, in our place, taking our punishment, bearing our sins, dying the death we should have died. When we trust him as Savior, God declares us righteous, justified, pardoned, and forgiven.

Salvation is a free gift of God received by simple faith. This is a humbling doctrine because it declares that there is nothing I can do to save myself. As long as I cling to the idea that I must contribute to my own salvation, there is no hope for me at all. Verse 16 repeats this three times so we won’t miss it. Salvation comes to those who stop trying and start trusting in Jesus Christ. Paul says, “We, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus.” Can you say that?

II. Justification Defended 17-19

“If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God” (Galatians 2:17-19).

In verse 19 Paul offers a simple contrast that explains the heart of biblical salvation.

A. Dead to the Law

If ever a man tried to be saved by keeping the law, it was Paul. Philippians 3 tells us how hard he worked to earn God’s favor. He was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” a trained Pharisee, a learned doctor of the law, and a man zealous to keep every commandment so that he might earn God’s favor. He was far beyond his contemporaries in terms of outward obedience. If salvation came by keeping the rules, Paul had it made. He was going to heaven for sure. Then he met Christ and everything changed. Once Christ transformed his life, he looked back at his self-righteous law keeping and concluded that it was dung compared with the joy of knowing Christ personally. All those things he tried to do to commend himself to God utterly failed. They failed not because they were bad but because they could not change his heart. Outward obedience can never change human nature. Paul needed something the law could not provide—he needed a new heart. The law put him to death in the sense that it left him utterly condemned and guilty in the eyes of God. It proved him to be a sinner but it could not provide new life.

There is a sense in which all of us must eventually admit that we are truly “pathetic losers.” After I mentioned that last Sunday, I heard from many people who felt liberated by that perspective. One man told me he was struggling with a cocaine addiction. Many others spoke of their personal weaknesses. It’s healthy to admit your sins, especially if that admission drives you to the cross of Christ for forgiveness.

B. Alive to God

What the law could not do, Christ has done for us. Rule keeping produces guilt and leaves us dead in the road. But when Christ enters, we find new life. To be alive to God means that we no longer live for self but instead we live for God’s glory. Once you come to Christ, you’re a brand-new person. You can never go back to the old person you used to be. You can try, but you won’t like it. You won’t be happy. You won’t be satisfied.

A verse from an old hymn explains the difference between the law and the gospel:

Do this and live, the law commands,

But gives me neither feet nor hands.

A better word the gospel brings,

Bids me fly and gives me wings.

The law demands but gives me no power to obey. When Christ enters, he “bids me fly and gives and me wings.”

III. Justification Applied 20-21

The closing verses of our text show us the difference Christ makes to those who believe in him.

A. We live by Faith 20

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This is one of the most famous and most loved verses in the Bible. Galatians 2:20 has been set to music in a popular contemporary chorus. Despite its popularity, most commentators remark on the difficulty of explaining exactly what it means. The words are clear and simple but the meaning is not easy to set forth. When Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ,” what does he mean? He doesn’t mean that he was literally crucified when Christ was crucified. He wasn’t even in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. But if it’s not a literal crucifixion, what is it?

I think the meaning is something like this. When we come to Christ by faith, we are joined with him in a supernatural spiritual union that is so strong and so real that what happened to Christ 2000 years ago also happened to us. We might say it this way:

When Christ died, I died.

When Christ arose, I arose.

We died with Christ when he died.

We live because Christ lives in us.

We live by faith in Jesus alone.

I freely admit that there is a mystical side to this that is hard to put in words. Those who know Christ personally understand what it means to say that “Christ lives in me” even if we can’t fully explain it to anyone else. This is both a positional truth (what he did, he did for us so that we can say that we also died and rose from the dead) and an ongoing spiritual reality (our old “self” is gone and a new “self” has been created by the entrance of Jesus Christ into our lives).

John Calvin has a helpful word at this point. As long as Christ is outside of us, all that he has done for the human race is of no value to us. It is not enough to say, “I attend Calvary Memorial Church” or “I love to sing the hymns” or even “Pastor Ray baptized me personally.” It’s not enough to say, “I believe that there was a person named Jesus who lived and died 2000 years ago.” But is he dwelling in you? Does he live in you? We experience Christ in us only as we commit ourselves to him as Lord and Savior.

In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (1/17/98) Judy Zmerold writes:

Three-year-old Katie was taken to her pediatrician during a recent bout with the flu. As the doctor examined her ears, he asked, “Will I find Big Bird in here?”

Apprehensively, Katie replied, “No.”

Then, before examining her throat, he asked, “Will I find the Cookie Monster in here?”

Again, “No.”

Finally, listening to her heart, he asked, “Will I find Barney in here?”

With innocent conviction, she looked him directly in the eye and said, “No, Jesus is in my heart. Barney is on my underwear.”

Let me put the matter this way: It doesn’t matter who is on your underwear so long as Jesus is in your heart. A Christian is a person in whom Christ now lives. If we opened your heart today, would we find Jesus Christ there?

B. We depend on Grace 21

“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).

Our text ends with a solemn reminder of the issue at stake in this discussion. If we are saved by works, then Christ died in vain. If a man can save himself, then he doesn’t need Jesus.

Salvation by works is a criminal doctrine.

It robs God of his glory.

It renders the death of Christ meaningless.

It steals the gospel from lost sinners.

It dooms and damns those who believe this doctrine.

The only thing we provide in our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary. We bring the sin, Christ brings everything else.

Let’s wrap up this message with five summary statements.

1) There is no way to be saved outside of Christ.

2) There is no way to receive salvation except through simple faith in Christ.

3) Nothing we do contributes in the least to our salvation.

4) When we come to Christ, he transforms us from the inside out.

5) We now live by faith and depend on grace.

Could Timothy McVeigh Be in Heaven Today?

Let’s go back to Timothy McVeigh one final time. His last recorded statement on spiritual matters affirmed both his agnosticism and his general disdain for the biblical teaching about the afterlife. If he is in hell at this moment, he is no longer an agnostic. But there is another side of the story. The grace of God is far greater than his sin. Let us suppose that in the last hours of his life he sincerely and wholeheartedly realized his sin and cried out to God in Jesus’ name for mercy and forgiveness. If he did that, then he is in heaven at this very moment. If that is not true, then there is no hope for any of us. Something in us instinctively resists that conclusion because we like to think of ourselves as better than Timothy McVeigh. But we’re all in the same boat. Our sins may be different in degree and in kind, but they are sins nonetheless. We stand in just as great a need of the mercy of God as Timothy McVeigh ever did. The wonder of the gospel is not that Timothy McVeigh could be saved; it’s that any of us could be saved.

Many people try to earn God’s favor, thinking it is noble. But it is not noble, it is evil and wrong. To approach God on the basis of your good works is to say, “You made a big mistake when you sent your Son to the cross. I don’t need him. I can do it myself.” Either you save yourself or Christ saves you through grace. Either you are saved because you deserve it or God saves you even though you don’t deserve it.

Are we saved by what we do or by what Christ has done for us? Thanks be to God, we do not have to wonder about the answer.

Christ is all we need for salvation.

Christ is all we need for the Christian life.

Christ is all we need at the moment of death.

Christ is all we need, now and forever. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?