In 2017, many churches celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant reformation. Martin Luther’s rebuff of the Catholic Church’s teachings resulted in the great catch phrase of the Reformation: Justification by faith alone apart from works. It was actually not a new concept, but I think one that had been buried under centuries of practices and teachings that obscured it. It seemed to be easier to emphasize our own self-effort in trying to please God and gain some measure of self-righteousness than simply to depend on “faith”. And yet that is exactly what the New Testament taught and it is especially clear in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In fact, it was the whole reason Paul wrote this letter: to explain and clarify this great principle of justification by faith.
We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And 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 2:16, 20)
Let me make sure we are clear here. Paul is saying that the path to being righteous, guilt-free, saved is not through self-effort, working to earn God’s acceptance, being “good enough”, trying to live a good life or performing religious works. It is only through having faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection. He refers to the “works of the law” because that is how the Jews thought they could please God. We have the same thing today, don’t we? People who think they are living “holy” lives, who feel they are exceptionally righteous because of how good they are and who feel superior to the rest of us. Surely God must accept them because of their goodness. Those people are sadly mistaken. Our slavish obedience to rules does not make us more acceptable to God. We are all on the same footing with God when it comes to our salvation and our righteousness. It is all by faith in Christ to whom we all have equal access.
Christ’s death killed the requirements of the law. So if Paul’s claim is correct, that he was crucified with Christ, then he is also dead to the requirements of the law. In Christ, he can live, truly live, to God. Going forward, any life he has, any opportunity to be in relationship with God, can only be possible by living in faith and by allowing Jesus to fully and completely live in him. This is true of us also. We have been crucified in Christ. Isn’t this what Jesus said in John about abiding in Him or Paul said about having the mind of Christ or setting our mind on things above? All these encouragements amount to the same thing: Letting Jesus Himself live in and through us instead of trying to live by self-effort and self-righteousness; trying to live a life of independence and self-reliance. Being crucified with him is not some morbid, sad, self-abasement attitude, it is joyful; it is an opportunity to live fully the life we were meant to have; it is laying down all the baggage we carry through life – the “oughts” and “shoulds” – that strangle the life right out of us. Being dead to law, to self-effort, means that law no longer has a voice in my life. It means it has been silenced and cannot call me back.
In Romans, Paul says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33-34)
There is no one who can bring a charge against me. That even includes me, in my self-talk. Since God has, indeed, justified me then who am I to accept condemnation, judgment, or guilt from any quarter. How is that possible? After all, I sin. I screw up. Why would I not charge myself with that sin and extract some kind of remorse or penance? Because while I may still have further to go in my journey of Christian maturity, it is carried out in the context of a condemnation-free relationship with the Father. My journey is already bathed in the prayers of Jesus for me. So, do I go about with head slung low and kicking myself? No, how about if I take a moment to regroup, refocus and restart walking toward glory. That is what justification does. It allows me to walk in peace with God in this life, without fear. This is what Paul says in vs 20, “I live my life faith in the Son of God who loves me…” The reality of Christ’s death is a life free to be lived in His love. So I can’t say things like, “I am too bad. I’m never going to have an impact. It’s too late. I’ve screwed up too much.” Those thoughts are now out of bounds. My life now is bounded by two realities: “I have been crucified…”, therefore I am dead to the demands of law and self-effort and self-reliance. And “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me…”, thus making a full and fulfilling life possible.
How about you? Are you ready to give up a life of self-effort and instead live by faith in the One who loves you?