|This is part 3 and the last of a series begun here and continued here. At the end of Monday's entry, we were seeing that Scripture says the justification of a sinner is utterly impossible on purely legal grounds.|
ow, then, can we be justified? How can God declare guilty sinners righteous without lowering or compromising His own righteous standard?
The answer lies in the work of Christ on our behalf. In Galatians 4:4, the apostle states that Jesus Christ was born "under the law." Obviously, this does not mean merely that Jesus was born Jewish. It means that He was under the law in the Pauline sense, obligated to fulfill the law perfectly as a means of justification.
In this same context, in the span of two verses, Paul twice employs the phrase "under the law." There is a clear logical connection between the last phrase in verse 4 and the first phrase in verse 5: Christ was "made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.
We've already said that the law cannot be a means of righteousness for sinners. But Christ was no sinner. He lived impeccably "under the law." Hebrews 4:15 tells us He "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." He fulfilled the law perfectly, to the letter. First Peter 2:22 says He "did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth." Hebrews 7:26 says He is "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens." Thus His flawless obedience to the law earned the perfect merit that is necessary to please God.
If Christ was perfectly sinless, then He did not deserve to die. As one "under the law," He would have been subject to the curse of the law if He had violated even one command, but of course He did notHe could not, because He is God. He fulfilled every aspect of the law to the letterto the jot and tittle.
Yet He did die. More than that, He suffered the full wrath of God on the cross. Why? Scripture tells us the guilt of our sin was imputed to Him, and Christ paid the price for it. Consequently, the merit of His perfect obedience can be imputed to our account. That is the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21: God "hath made [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
His death takes care of our guilt, and His perfect life supplies us with all the merit we need to be acceptable to God. That is how God overcame the two great obstacles to our justification. And as Paul says in Romans 3:26, that is how God can remain just, and justify those who believe in Jesus. Christ has personally paid the penalty for their sin, and He has personally obtained a perfect righteousness on their behalf. So He can justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).
Scripture teaches no other means of justification. This is at the core of all gospel truth. As early as Genesis 15:6, Scripture teaches that Abraham was justified by an imputed righteousness. Anytime any sinner is redeemed in Scripture, it is by an imputed righteousness, not a righteousness that is somehow earned or achieved by the sinner for his own redemption.
Romans 4:6-7 says David also knew the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. In fact, this is the whole point Paul is making in Romans 4: Justification has always been by faith, not by works, and through a righteousness that is imputed to the believer. Abraham understood the doctrine of justification that way. David knew the same truth. So from the beginning of Scripture to the end, we are taught that the only merit God accepts is a merit that is imputed to our account. He never pronounces us righteous because of our own works of righteousness.
On the contrary, God says all our righteousnesses are fatally flawed. They are of no more value to God than filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). But that is how God sees our worksno matter how good they are by human standards. They are unacceptable, filthy, to God.
That is why our obedience can never be good enough. That is why those who hang their hope of heaven on their own good works only doom themselves.
How Deadly is Legalism?
All of this should make it very clear that the legalism Paul condemned as "another gospel" is a brand of legalism that seeks to ground our justification in personal obedience rather than the imputed righteousness of Christ. How deadly is such legalism? The apostle Paul suggested it was precisely what caused the majority of Israel to reject Christ: "They being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God" (Rom. 10:3). Turning aside from the perfect righteousness of Christ (which would have been imputed to them by faith), they opted instead for an imperfect righteousness of their own. They mistakenly assumed, like most people today, that the best they could do would be good enough for God.
Here is the good news of the gospel: for everyone who believes, Christ's blood counts as payment for all our sins, and His fulfillment of the law counts as all the merit we need. Romans 10:4 therefore says, "Christ is the end [Gk., telos, "the thing aimed at"] of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." Christ is the fulfillment of everything the law intended. In Christ, the ultimate goal of the lawa perfect righteousnessis made available to every believer. His righteousness is imputed to us by faith, and that is why God accepts us in Christ and for Christ's sake.
To the apostle Paul himself, this truth had deeply personal implications. He had labored his whole life as a legalistic Pharisee trying to establish his own righteousness by the law. He described his efforts in Philippians 3:4-8:
If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ . . .
What was so important to Paul about dumping all his own righteousness? Why did he count a whole lifetime of good works as mere rubbish? Because he knew it was flawed. And he knew that in Christ he would be the recipient of a perfect righteousness. Notice verse 9: " . . . and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."
Any righteousness other than the imputed righteousness of Christ is mere legalism. It is incapable of saving anyone. More than that, it is an affront to Godas if we were to offer him soiled rags and expect Him to applaud us for doing so. That kind of legalism is spiritually fatal.
How Is Christian Obedience Different from Legalism?
It has become fashionable in some circles to pin the label of legalism on any teaching that stresses obedience to Christ. At the beginning of this series I quoted someone who stated that "the whole difference between legalism and true Christianity" is sewn up in the issue of whether we view obedience as a duty.
Biblically, there is no basis for such thinking. The Christian is still obligated to obey God, even though we know our obedience in no sense provides grounds for our justification. That is precisely why our obedience should be motivated primarily by gratitude and love for the Lord. We are free from the threat of eternal condemnation (Rom. 8:1). We are free from the law of sin and death (v. 2), and empowered by God's grace both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). We have every reason to obey joyfullyand no true Christian will ever think of obedience as something optional.
We are not under law, but under grace. Far from being a manifesto for antinomianism or a authorization for licentious behavior, that important truth teaches us that both our justification and our obedience must properly be grounded in Christ and what He has done for us, rather than in ourselves and what we do for God.
The doctrine of justification by faith therefore provides the highest, purest incentive for Christian obedience. As Paul wrote to the Romans, the mercies God displays in our justification provide all the reason we need to yield ourselves to Him as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Freed from the penalty of the lawloosed from the threat of condemnation for our disobediencewe are thus empowered by grace to surrender to God in a way we were powerless to do as unbelievers. And that is why the Christian life is continually portayed in Scripture as a life of obedience.