God's righteousness, our justification
A sermon on Belgic Confession Articles 22-23 / Galatians 5.1-12
Beloved family of Jesus Christ,
These two articles in our confession are about justification. That is a rather big word, and for most of us, not one that we generally use a whole lot outside of church. It's not quite as foreign as some other biblical terms, but it's still a bit beyond our everyday language. The related verb, justify, is a bit more common, but I suspect that most of our children and perhaps even some of us adults would be a bit unsure how to use it in a sentence.
Justification. It is legal language. To justify someone is the opposite of to condemn. If you are in a courtroom and the judge says, "This man is guilty," the judge has condemned that man. If, on the other hand, the judge says that the man is not guilty, then he has justified him.
That is pretty close to the biblical terminology, although there are some differences between modern conceptions of judgment and the biblical one. In Scripture, the matter of judgment spans the spoken verdict and the resulting act of punishment or vindication. In other words, the judge's role had "follow through." To condemn meant - for example - beating the guilty party, or fining him, or executing him. Correspondingly, to justify someone included setting things right for the innocent party. In the words of the widow in Jesus' parable about the unjust judge, "Avenge me of my adversary." When the judge avenged her, he justified her.
So when we talk about justification in Scripture, then, we are talking about a legal action, a declaration and an event. When it comes to God justifying sinful men, that legal action involves forgiveness; and it involves vindication.
The title of Article 22 describes well where we are going this evening: "Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ." We confess that God reveals His righteousness for our justification. And in that connection, we are going to talk about where we are justified, and then, how we are justified.
1. God reveals His righteousness for our justification. We must ask, first, where are we justified? Because that is Paul's question. He talks about two possibilities. Being justified in the law, or being justified in Christ.
This is a subject that is very big in Paul's letters, especially in Galatians and Romans. These two letters have a great deal of focus upon the matter of Jews and Gentiles, and it is in that context that Paul most often keys in upon justification.
We might wonder why that is. Isn't it always important to talk about how to get rid of guilt? Why is it so particularly important when we are talking about Jews and Gentiles?
These are big questions that could easily involve us in talking about many things too huge to get into this evening. But as we begin, I want to explain just a couple of things to help us get our bearings with regard to Paul and why the matter of Jews and Gentiles leads him to focus upon the subject of justification.
We have noted that justification is legal language. But we must also stress that in the Old Testament, the idea of righteousness - which is a related term in Greek and Hebrew - righteousness very often centers around God and His relationship to His people. Some go so far as to say it is covenantal language. But at any rate, God's righteousness has to do with the commitments that God has made to His people. It has to do with Him being faithful to His words of promise, especially. And His righteousness means that He will vindicate His people and judge the wicked. And throughout the Old Testament, His people are especially seen as Israel.
This is why the issue of Jews and Gentiles is related to justification. Many people were saying that for God to vindicate Gentiles, they had to become Jews. Meaning that they had to keep the law of Moses. In the case of males, they had to be circumcised.
And Paul opposes that. That is what this entire letter to the Galatians is about. He says, "No, the law of Moses is not how God vindicates people. God displays His righteousness in Jesus Christ. And if we say that Gentiles need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, then we are acting like Christ is not enough." In fact, Paul is emphatic. He says to these Gentile Christians in verse 2, "If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing." In other words: Jesus will be no good to you at all. Wow.
The Bible urgently teaches us to find all our hope and life in Jesus Christ. Even the law of Moses, which God gave and was very good, cannot be placed in competition with or alongside of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has revealed His righteousness - He has been faithful to His commitment to His people and vindicated them - and once that has happened, everything else pales, everything else is driven into the shadows.
And that's why our confession rightly affirms the sufficiency of Christ. As the latter part of Article 22's first paragraph says,
For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.
If you follow Hasidic Judaism even today, you may encounter slogans such as "Bring the Messiah." Bring the Messiah. How? Well, by making the world ready for Him - or rather, by making Israel as a people ready for Him. Bring the Messiah.
That sort of mindset has very old and deep roots. Those roots stretch all the way back to Israel in Jesus' day, and perhaps considerably before. The idea is that unless man acts, then God cannot bring the Messiah, because Israel's wickedness is tying His hands. We must get the people to keep the law, so that God will reveal His righteousness, so that God will vindicate His people and judge the wicked. "If we do this, we will bring the Messiah." The revelation of God's righteousness is then tied down to and dependent upon the law of Moses.
Well, as Paul writes the letter to the Galatians, the Messiah has already come. And yet, there is still the idea that the revelation of God's righteousness is somehow tied down to and dependent upon the law of Moses, to the degree that even the Gentiles must keep that law in order to enter into God's righteousness, in order to be God's people, in order to be justified.
And Paul says: "If that is the case, then Jesus is nothing." As he puts it back in chapter 2.21, "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain."
"Christ died in vain." In the words of the Belgic, it is "too gross a blasphemy." It is unthinkable.
You see, what did God do? Did He wait until Israel was all holy, and then send the Messiah?
No, what do we find in Jesus' ministry? We find Him busy casting out demons, all over Galilee and Judea. Casting out evil spirits - from God's own people! That's how righteous and holy Israel was. Israel did not "bring the Messiah."
But God sent His Son to die. And that is why Paul says that if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. If God's salvation, His deliverance, His vindication of His people, could have been revealed by means of Israel keeping the Mosaic law, well then, Christ would not have had to die. His blood was wasted. He died in vain.
But no, that was not the promise. God promised something much more astonishing, back in Isaiah 63.1-6:
Who is this who comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, this One who is glorious in His apparel, traveling in the greatness of His strength? - "I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save." Why is Your apparel red, and Your garments like one who treads in the winepress? "I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with Me. For I have trodden them in My anger, and trampled them in My fury; their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, and I have stained all My robes. For the day of vengeance is in My heart, and the year of My redeemed has come. I looked, but there was no one to help, and I wondered that there was no one to uphold; therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; and My own fury, it sustained Me. I have trodden down the peoples in My anger, made them drunk in My fury, and brought down their strength to the earth."
God reveals His righteousness and salvation when He judges. And He does so by "treading the winepress alone." When did He do that? When did God's own arm bring salvation for Him? Or, to paraphrase Isaiah - where was God up to His knees in blood, without the help of man?
At the cross. That is where God's righteousness is revealed. He does what His people could not help Him with. He acts alone. If righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain.
The death and resurrection of Christ is where God triumphs. It is also where God's people triumph - where they are vindicated - justified. In Christ. God raises His Messiah, and thus those who are in Him share in His justification, in His vindication, in His triumph.
What then of the law? Paul says that those who follow the Mosaic law are in fact trying to be justified by that law, rather than in Christ. And then, in that case, they are fallen away from Christ altogether. As the apostle puts it in verses 4-5:
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law - or, literally, "you who are justified by law" - you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
You will notice that Paul moves from justification that has happened already, to the future: "we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith." What's that all about? Aren't we justified already? Don't we already experience the forgiveness of sins? Isn't justification in Christ?
Yes indeed, but you must remember again that the revelation of God's righteousness involves vindication; it entails God giving a public deliverance to His people. He did that for Christ at the resurrection. And we already share in Christ's resurrection, and therefore we are already justified in that sense.
But the fact still remains that we still live with death, and we still live in the midst of a world that wages war against us. And therefore, we still await our vindication; we still "eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith." Just as God has triumphed in the cross and resurrection, our victory will become completely public and final on that Day, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. On that day, He will again tread the winepress alone; on that day, He Himself will deliver His people - not by suffering, but by judging the nations and by destroying death itself, the last enemy. The righteousness of God is His and His alone to accomplish.
Where then is our justification? Our present justification is in Christ - in His cross and resurrection. And our future vindication is also in Christ, because the future is His. Our justification is in Christ, from first to last.
2. God reveals His righteousness for our justification. Where is our justification? In Christ. Where is God's righteousness revealed? In Christ. This much we have seen. But now we must ask: how are we justified in Christ? Clearly, not by following the law of Moses - a thought that Paul has just abominated to the degree that he says that if a Gentile gets circumcised, he will become alienated from Christ.
The verses we have just read give us the answer. Notice again what Paul writes in verse 5: "For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith." Through the Spirit, by faith. And this is set over against being "estranged from Christ" in verse 4. To put it another way: we are united to Christ, and therefore justified, through the Spirit, by faith.
And that is what our confession says, isn't it? First, it attributes our faith to the Holy Spirit: "We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him."
Through the Holy Spirit, we believe on Christ. Faith isn't just natural to us. It isn't so easy to believe. Most first-century Jews didn't find it so easy to believe that God had come in the flesh, and redeemed them through dying. Most twenty-first century Americans don't find it so easy to believe that God has brought righteousness to a world of evil through His own beloved Son.
No, faith isn't just natural to us. Faith is something that God does, that God must do, if it is to exist at all. Our salvation is from God, from first to last. We didn't bring the Messiah because of how well we kept the law of Moses, and even our faith in the Messiah who has done it all for us - that faith isn't something that we can take the credit for. It is the gift of God; it is something that "the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts."
And then, in explaining the particular role of faith, in the second paragraph of Article 22, the Belgic goes on to say, "However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness."
In other words, when we say that we are justified by faith, we don't mean that somehow our believing itself accomplishes great things. But rather, the great thing has been accomplished in Christ Himself, and our faith is how we embrace Him. No credit goes to ourselves or how great and mighty our faith is - no, how foolish that would be, for if we are honest, I am sure that all of us must admit that our faith is very weak and small.
But God never said that He would save us only if our faith was mighty and something we could lean upon and boast about. No, no, no! That has it all backward. Jesus said that all it takes is a faith the size of a mustard seed. Why? Because it's not faith that does the work; it's God. The gospel is not - contrary to the opinions of some - about the power of positive thinking, no matter how "spiritual" that thinking may be.
I once heard a minister say something like: "It's not so much that faith changes things, but that faith changes us, and we change things." Well, no, that has it almost entirely backward. The reality is that faith is the way we lay hold of the God who changes things. That is the gospel. The gospel is not about us. It is about the righteousness, the faithfulness, of God.
This, then, is our guarantee. If things rest with how much we find ourselves being changed by faith - and indeed, we do find that - we had better! - but if the hope of the world is in the changes that are inside of us, and then the changes that we bring to the world. . . well then, the world doesn't have much hope at all. And neither do we.
No, our hope is in the God who is faithful. Our hope is in the God who treads the winepress alone, whose own arm brings salvation for Him.
That is our faith, that is our hope, that is our justification: the revelation of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ, who has become for us our wisdom, righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, our everything. "We through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith."