BY PASTOR GARETH on September 26, 2017
‘Justification’ is a word often used in the Bible to describe what Jesus does for us and to us in his sacrificial atoning death and resurrection. It is a legal term used to describe someone who is “in the right”; that is, they have been tested and found innocent. You and I know that in God’s eyes we are anything but innocent. We are guilty of sins against God and one another. Under the Old Testament Law, there were sacrifices available to atone for one’s sins against God and one another (described in great detail in books like Leviticus). But these sacrifices were incomplete, and, as the Bible tells us, only a shadow of the one true sacrifice to come: Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death and resurrection places us back into a right relationship to God – a relationship broken when our ancestors first rebelled against God at the beginning of time (see Genesis 3) – and as such adds a slightly different dimension of being “in the right”. In the New Testament, our “being right” (or righteousness) is about being in a right relationship to God, not just about being “found innocent” because of what Jesus did. There is, as theologians call it, a “forensic” sense to this righteousness – that is, we are legally declared innocent in the court of God’s law because of Jesus perfect obedience and sacrificial death – but it is ultimately about our relationship to God as his children.
This is what the early church had to wrestle through when it was trying to grapple with the implications of Jesus’ life and death for the Gentiles (that is, anyone who did not have God’s law). Paul and Peter had a confrontation in Antioch over this as we reflected in this past Sunday’s message on the Spirit of Righteousness; a confrontation that had implications for the church in Galatia as well. Many early Jewish Christians were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish Messiah who would save the Jewish people, but weren’t quite sure what to do with the Gentiles: do we make them adhere to the ceremonial and dietary laws like circumcision, Sabbath observance, or refraining from eating certain foods? Do we continue such practices ourselves but allow them to join “as they are”? Do we all together abandon that former way of life and seek our identity in Christ alone? Certainly these latter 2 questions were way outside the comfort zone of most typical Jews of Paul’s day. Hence, we have Peter “withdrawing” and “separating” himself from the Gentile Christians at Antioch when the more conservative Jewish believers came to visit. Paul accosts peter publicly for this, and in the end is “in the right” (See Acts 11-15).
The core issue there, as it is even for us today, is what is it that truly makes us righteous in God’s sight. Yes, we believe that Jesus died the death that we deserve and lived the perfect life of obedience that we could not live, therefore putting us back into a right relationship with God (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 18 is really good on this point). But how is that righteousness evidenced in our day-to-day living as followers of Jesus? For the Jews in Paul’s day, it was about observing God’s Law. For Paul, it is so much more than this.
For Paul, the evidence of our righteousness before God is not adherence to the Law, but life in Christ. The problem is not an obedience problem but an identity problem. It is not about what we do that shows we are in a right relationship to God, but who we are. On this point, Paul provides the most powerful and telling description of the Holy Spirit’s work in us as believers: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, NIV 2011). It is not about acting in such-and-such a way, but about surrender of the will to Christ (Cf. Romans 12:1-2).
Humanly speaking, we like to create all these boundaries that set us apart from one another and help us to feel like we’re doing something right or special – but Jesus pushes against this. He knows we cannot live lives of perfect obedience under our own strength. That’s why he lives in us through the power of his Holy Spirit. The moment we start placing boundaries around what we can or cannot, should or should not do, and look to those things as evidence of God’s work in us, we have ceased to rely on Christ for our identity. We “rebuild what [we] destroyed” (Gal. 2:18) and are again relying on external things to show we are in right relationship to God.
As those who “live by the Spirit” of righteousness, let us be reminded that it is our identity in Christ that sets us right with God. Therefore, “let us keep in step with the Spirit” of righteousness, not by observing certain external acts of obedience, but by fully embracing the reality of “Christ lives in me”.
Do you allow yourself to be defined by externals, or by Christ alone?
How might fully embracing the truth of Galatians 2:20 change how you live?