Sunday: The Question of “Justification”

In Galatians 2:15, Paul writes, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (ESV). What point do you think he was making?

Paul’s words need to be understood in their context. In an attempt to win over his fellow Jewish Christians to his position, Paul starts with something they would agree with — the traditional distinction between Jews and Gentiles.


Image © Lars Justinen

Jews were the elect of God, entrusted with His law, and they enjoyed the benefits of the covenant relationship with Him. Gentiles, however, were sinners; God’s law did not restrain their behavior, and they were outside the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12Rom. 2:14). While Gentiles were obviously “sinners,” in verse 16 Paul warns the Jewish Christians that their spiritual privileges do not make them any more acceptable to God, because no one is justified by “works of the law.”

Paul uses the word justified four times in Galatians 2:16-17. What does he mean by “justification”? Consider Exod. 23:7 and Deut. 25:1.

The verb to justify is a key term for Paul. Of the thirty-nine times it occurs in the New Testament, twenty-seven are in Paul’s letters. He uses it eight times in Galatians, including four references in Galatians 2:16-17Justification is a legal term, used in courts of law. It deals with the verdict a judge pronounces when a person is declared innocent of the charges brought against him or her. It is the opposite of condemnation. Additionally, because the words just and righteous come from the same Greek word, for a person “to be justified” means that the person also is counted as “righteous.” Thus, justification involves more than simply pardon or forgiveness; it is the positive declaration that a person is righteous.

For some of the Jewish believers, however, justification also was relational. It revolved around their relationship with God and His covenant. To be “justified” also meant that a person was counted as a faithful member of God’s covenantal community, the family of Abraham.

Read Galatians 2:15-17. What is Paul saying to you here, and how can you apply these words to your own Christian experience?


Sunday: The Question of “Justification” — 15 Comments

  1. Whiles we are justified by faith, we are not saved by faith alone. The faith we have in Jesus can only be proved by our actions. For Christ, is righteous and he bids his followers to be righteous.
    Matthew 5:48 says Be Ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.

    • Boakye

      I have to respectfully and gracefully reject your proposition that "we are not saved by faith alone. The faith we have in Jesus can only be proved by our actions."

      In Luke 7:50 Jesus said to the woman who poured oil on His feet, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Her "works" of oiling His feet was an expression of gratitude for what Jesus had done for her. That did not save her. She was already saved completely and totally before the act. The works did not validate or complete her faith.

      Eph 2:8, 9 reminds us that by grace we have been saved through faith, and that not of ourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest we are inclined to boast.

      Rom 4:1-4 is emphatic when it says that if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

      2 Timothy 1:8, 9 is encouraging. God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.

      Believing that our works have anything to do with our salvation, justification or right standing before God is a fallacy and was the skewed thinking of the Jews who came out of slavery. Deut 6:25 reflects their thinking - "Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us." They thought that righteousness was achieved or substantiated through the works of the law.

      Jesus' teaching exposes that erroneous thinking. John 3:16, 36; John 5:24; John 6:40, 47. Paul, a former Judazing zealot, final got the message of faith and is adamant of the truth of faith without works as the basis, and the only basis for salvation.

      Jesus does not need proof of our faith, He knows our hearts. Any works that emanate from us are from the bursting out of the Spirit of God who dwells in us - the fruit of the Spirit. That's why Gal 5:22-24 contrasts the "works" of the flesh with the "fruit" of the Spirit, not our works.

      Any good works we do, are not really our works, in which we may boast, but as Phil 2:13 states, it is God who works in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

      • Greetings Brethren!

        We have to be careful with the language that we use. It is easy to see why so many of our members are confused, because sometimes we say that we are saved by grace alone, and at other times we say that while are saved by faith, it is not enough to proclaim that we are saved, our works are evidence of Genuine faith.

        I wish to quote this paragraph from our lesson study guide for the Book of James, Fourth Quarter, 2014 (November 3), which is based on James 2:18-20: "The key point is that not just any faith will save. Genuine faith, saving faith, is characterized by good works. Likewise, works are only good works if they spring from faith. Faith and works are inseparable. Like two sides of a coin, one cannot exist without the other. Also like a coin, one side is the head and the other the tail. Faith comes first and then leads the way to corresponding works."

        So, in a sense I agree Boaye's point. If we have faith, it will be seen by our actions in our relationship to God and our fellowmen. This of course, will be manifested by the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The important thing is to realize that the producing of the works, or fruit, is really not us, but Christ living in us.

        The lesson study on James for that day, concludes with this passage: "Paul was not against good works per se. He was against works as a means of salvation....Obedience is possible only through the gift of the Holy Spirit."

        Obedience, then is evidence of us being in a saving relationship with God, having our will in total submission to Christ (crucified) and having him live out his life in us.

    • I have a question regarding this statement. If (as Paul says in Galatians 2:15, 16) we are not justified by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, how can we then conclude that our works have any part in our justification?

      • Hi Fred. The answer is that our works have no part in our justification.

        It's almost as if we sometimes feel that we have been given such an amazing gift from God (salvation and everlasting life) that we can't possibly accept it without doing something to deserve it. This is the mistake Paul talks about extensively. We can't deserve this gift. It's not possible to deserve it. We can only have it by grace.

        It sounds too good to be true but in this case it is true. Praise God.

  2. Ellen G. White says "Justification by faith is to many a mystery.A sinner is justified by God when he repents of his sins. He sees Jesus upon the cross of Calvary. Why all this suffering?The law of Jehovah has been broken. The law of God’s government in heaven and earth has been transgressed, and the penalty of sin is pronounced to be death.But “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. . ." 3SM 193.4

    Paul's says "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God". No exception. Even the ones declared as righteous in the bible. Elijah, Moses included "all have sinned". Standing in front of the mirror of His Law, we really are filthy and badly disfigured. Humanity, in a nutshell, does not meet all the required standard of His Law to be declared righteous. The first man failed.The verdict to all is guilty as charged. But the mystery of justification is : free and discharged from all guilty on account of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

    We are beneficiaries to the promise made to the Church in Philadelphia. "I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name". That door which should have been shut because "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" is now pronounced as the reward for the wages of sin which was death is "[All] justified and made upright and in right standing with God, freely and gratuitously by His grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" because of that "little strength" and the fact that you you did not deny His name. What is it that man must do get this "unmerited favor and mercy"? Nothing but look at Him who says "I am the way, the truth, and the life . . ." Salvation has been brought down from heaven. Salvation is full and free .Jesus paid it all. By Christ's supreme sacrifice, mankind though falling far short of God's glory are made righteous in His sight.

    In closing I fully agree with the author of this lesson in saying for "the Jewish believers, however, justification also was relational. It revolved around their relationship with God and His covenant. To be “justified” also meant that a person was counted as a faithful member of God’s covenantal community, the family of Abraham". The same applies to us this day. Justification is relational. It revolves around our relationship with Christ. To be justified means to be counted as faithful members of God's covenantal community : the family of Christ . The circumcised in heart. ". . .they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus".

  3. The word of God and my encounter with Jesus Christ taught me that I am a sinner that deserved death, and I needed a sinless Savior and Substitute, Jesus Christ, to receive my condemnation on the cross of Calvary, so that I, through faith in Jesus, might receive the free gifts of justification and eternal life. Hallelujah and glory to his name!

    • Fred,
      Yes, the Word of God shows us our need for a Savior - Romans 3:20 says "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." The law reveals our sinfulness. We see how we don't measure up. Some might say that they haven't killed anyone or committed adultery and therefore claim to follow the law, but Jesus reveals that looking at a woman with lust is adultery or being angry at a brother is murder (see Matthew 5:21-28). The law condemns us, but praise be to God we have Jesus who takes our sin and clothes us with His perfect righteousness. That is true justification.

  4. So where does Jesus' words fit in; Mt 12:37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Or 1Cor 3:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

  5. Thanks Fred, the same case with the thief on the cross. Only faith that saved him without works before his death.
    The works/actions are the fruits of our faith.

    • Amen, Egide. The thief had absolutely no time for works. He only had time for faith alone. Jesus' grace alone saved the repentant thief because of his faith in Christ alone. The parable of Jesus of the wedding feast is quite clear that there were both good and bad in that reception hall and the salvation of god via his son Jesus was granted to all both good and bad. Only the one not wearing the wedding garment (Jesus righteousness by faith alone,) was cast out and lost. Nothing is mentioned in that parable about the cast out one's good or bad works----just the fact that he was not wearing the wedding garment---the righteousness of Jesus by faith alone.

  6. Someone who has been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, will have works, but the works will never be the driving element that defines that person's faith walk. The saved will never point to his works as being an integral part of his salvation.

    In Matt 25:34-46 Jesus will point to the redeemed, delineating their works, and they will reply in honest astonishment - when did we do all this? Jesus will point out the exact opposite to the lost and they will reply in amazement - when did we NOT do these things? In other words, to the child of God, works are a natural outpouring of a life hid with Christ in God. They are not even aware of their works. To the lost, they were focusing on the works thinking they were saved, only to sadly find that they were deceived.

    To the saved, they are so focused on Jesus Christ, His sinlessness, His grace, and their unworthiness, that even the thought that they have works, pales into insignificance. They are so grateful for the blood of Christ that has saved them from utter destruction, that they bow before Him in full appreciation of the gift of grace.

    Abraham was already justified by his faith. In the covenant ceremony recorded in Gen 15:12-18, we see that Abraham had no works for his part in being redeemed and justified, no active part in his justification except his faith. He was asleep during the ceremony.

    We have been subtly taught for decades that we have to add something to faith to validate our salvation. God says we are saved by faith and faith alone. Whenever we think there has to be something else we add to the equation, we are in effect listening to the serpent in the garden who is still saying - God did not really say that. We are doubting the plain word of Almighty God.

    We shouldn't have to point to the author of any of the Sabbath School lessons to validate our position. Our position should be validated only by the pure "Thus saith the Lord." I think this matter has been debated in Adventist circles all the way back to 1888, and yet to this day, it is still a point of contention.

    Are we willing to believe and trust the word of God, or are we determined to try to "improve" on God's salvation process by adding our works?

    I know this matter will not be resolved in this SSNET blog back and forth. I pray that the Holy Spirit will convict each of us about what is truth, and that we lay aside our opinions and let the Lord be God and let His word be the final say on truth.

    • Feed, I agree with you. Works are never the means of salvation, just the evidence of being saved. Cheers!

  7. We have seen how Paul refutes the argument of the false apostles concerning the authority of the apostles from the past two lessons. In order that the truth of the Gospel may continue; in order that the Word of God and the righteousness of faith may be kept pure and undefiled, Paul in Gal 2:15-18; states that even we who have kept the law can only be justified through faith. By the works of the law, no one can be justified. Your obedience to the law of God would not save you. Let us say that you could keep the law of God. Written and traditional, oral. It would not save you. This is one of the problems of the Christian group today. All through from Galatians 2:1 “Paul taught justification by faith in Christ Jesus, without the deeds of the Law. He reported this to the disciples at Antioch. Among the disciples were some that had been brought up in the ancient customs of the Jews. These rose against Paul in quick indignation, accusing him of propagating a gospel of lawlessness” and great dissension followed.
    And so Paul is explains about his newfound faith and revelation that is justification, being accepted by God, was based upon his faith in Jesus Christ. And so he despaired of the works of the law seeking now that righteousness which is of faith through Christ. No longer following the traditions of the law. Eating if he so desired a ham sandwich. And he goes on to say, If I try to build again a relationship through the law, that which I destroyed when I came to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, then I would become a transgressor. For through the law, I am dead to the law, that I might live unto God (Gal 2:19).
    When we sin, law would justify that we be prisoned or hanged to death but by the death of Christ we live. Even when you come from jail a changed person as Paul defines, the new spirit that lives in you will bring people close to you and they will forget your past deeds and praise God.
    Paul continues by explaining that, "When they as Jews compare ourselves with the Gentiles, we look pretty good. We have the Law, we have good works. Our rectitude dates from our birth, because the Jewish religion is natural to us. But all this does not make us righteous before God." Peter and the others lived up to the requirements of the Law. They had circumcision, the covenant, the promises, the apostleship. But because of these advantages they were not to think themselves righteous before God. None of these prerogatives spell faith in Christ, which alone can justify a person. We do not mean to imply that the Law is bad. We do not condemn the Law, circumcision, etc., for their failure to justify us. Paul spoke disparagingly of these ordinances, because the false apostles asserted that mankind is saved by them without faith. Paul could not let this assertion stand, for without faith all things are deadly.
    For the sake of argument let us suppose that you could fulfill the Law in the spirit of the first commandment of God: "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart." It would do you no good. A person simply is not justified by the works of the Law.
    The works of the Law, according to Paul, include the whole Law, judicial, ceremonial, moral. Now, if the performance of the moral law cannot justify, how can circumcision justify, when circumcision is part of the ceremonial law?

  8. Here is a difficult conundrum, which is hard to wrap one's mind around!

    Many of us have known this verse by heart almost all of our Christian lives:

    Gal 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

    However, many of us were not consciously aware of the text that preceded that famous statement - Gal 2:19 - For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.

    Nor the verse that follows it: Gal 2: 21 - I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.

    Paul was under the law, but realized that he had to die to the law to be able to live and walk with God in the fullness of the gospel. Dying to the law is recognizing that the law has no power to keep us in our walk with God. So when Paul was "crucified" with Christ, that process involved dying to the law, to obtain Jesus' redemption.

    Paul explained why Jesus had to come to be crucified to redeem us from the law: Gal 4:4, 5 - But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

    And why did we need Jesus? Because the law was weak. Rom 8:3 - For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh.

    Having died to the law, Paul can now have Christ living in him. He can be righteous and have righteousness, because as he says, Gal 2:21 - "if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

    Paul discovered that the Christian walk is not a walk in law, but a walk in the Spirit. Gal 5:16 - I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

    Then he adds in verse 18: Gal 5:18 - But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

    It would appear that he is clearly pointing out that you cannot be led by the Spirit and be under the law at the same time. The two are incompatible.

    His clarion call is for us to reach for the ultimate in Christian living - to live and walk in the Spirit, wherein is the power to live above sin (not in sin). Gal 5:25 - If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

    This gave me a fresh appreciation for Gal 2:20, 21: - I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

    This type of thinking is anathema to us as Adventists, and we vehemently reject the concept. But if the law could not save us, could not keep us from sinning, could not sustain us in our walk with Christ, why would we thing it can keep us after coming to Christ.


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