As If You Had Never Sinned
As If You Had Never Sinned
In the years that I practised as a barrister I noticed that, for many people, appearing in a court of law is a terrifying experience – even if they are only appearing as a witness. Being a litigant, a person involved in the lawsuit, or a defendant in a criminal trial is an even more nerve-racking event. I saw the relief when a defendant was acquitted or a litigant was declared by a judge to be ‘in the right’.
In the legal system of Ancient Israel, a dispute put both parties at risk of the judgment of the court. The court’s process had a redemptive role; the judge was meant to help the party in the right to correct the wrong. At the end of the case, one party would be declared righteous and the other in the wrong. Successful performance of this function meant ‘justice’ had been done. The Hebrew word for righteous is tsaddiq, which some versions of the Bible translate as ‘innocent’ or ‘just’ – one whose status is right. This is the Old Testament background to being ‘justified’.
The child’s definition of justified is ‘just as if I’d’ never sinned. Jesus died for our sins. When you put your faith in him you were justified. You were acquitted. You are declared righteous in his sight. Sin no longer separates you from God. You can live in a right relationship with him and with others. This is ‘justification’.
Rumours of justificationPsalm 86:1-10
David experienced the blessing of being justified by faith and being a child of God. He says, ‘Pay attention, God, to my prayer; bend down and listen to my cry for help’ (v.6, MSG). Like a parent lovingly bending down so that a child can whisper in their ear, God listens to the prayers of his children: ‘In the day of my trouble I will call to you, for you will answer me’ (v.7).
David did not have the benefit of living under the new covenant. He lived before the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. However, in one sense, the cross is not limited by time. It was effective for those who lived before Jesus, for example for Abraham and David. Indeed, Paul highlights how David had known the wonderful blessings of God’s forgiveness and restoration (Romans 4:6–8; Psalm 32:1–2a).
In some way, Paul is saying David experienced ‘justification by faith’ even though the means by which it was accomplished had not yet occurred.
First, he understood God’s love. He knew that the Lord is ‘abounding in love to all who call to [him]’ (Psalm 86:5b).
Second, he knew that God was merciful and forgiving. ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord… You are forgiving and good… listen to my cry for mercy’ (vv.3a,5a,6b).
Third, although he knew that he did not deserve forgiveness and mercy – he had not earned it – he had the faith to believe that God would save him through his faith in him: ‘You are my God; save your servant who trusts in you’ (v.2b).
In other words, David understood all the elements that make up justification by faith, except for one. The one missing piece was the death of Jesus for our sins.
Lord, thank you for your amazing love for me. Thank you that you save those who put their trust in you.
Celebration of justificationRomans 4:1-15
How can we, deeply flawed human beings, be ‘in the right’ before God? How can you be ‘justified’ in his sight? Is this something you simply have to work hard at all your life and hope for the best?
‘No’, says Paul. Something astonishing happened as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Now you can receive this justification as a free gift. You receive it, not by working really hard, but by an act of faith (vv.1–5).
One of the questions frequently asked on Alpha is: ‘If Jesus died for our sins, what happens to those who lived before Jesus?’
Paul knows that he has to deal with the case of Abraham. His opponents might have argued that Abraham was justified as a result of his good works, giving him something to boast about (v.2). Paul points out that the Scriptures declare, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (v.3, Genesis 15:6). This phrase, Paul argues, implies a gift rather than something earned (Romans 4:5).
‘If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it… that… is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift’ (vv.4–5, MSG).
Paul’s opponents might argue that this gift is only available for Jews (the circumcised). But Paul points out that circumcision came later on for Abraham (Genesis 17) and therefore, the blessing of justification by faith is for both the circumcised (the Jews) and the uncircumcised (the rest of human kind) (Romans 4:9–10).
Circumcision was not the cause of justification. Rather it was a seal. Abraham ‘underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had done long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with himself, an act of God he had embraced with his whole life’ (vv.10–11, MSG).
The story of Abraham makes clear that his being counted righteous was not on the basis of works, circumcision or law, but by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. If Abraham was justified by faith, he is the father of all who have faith (including those who have not been circumcised, vv.11–12).
The cross is effective throughout all time. Through what Jesus did on the cross, those who had never heard about him but put their trust in God were justified by their faith.
Do you need to understand all this in order to be justified by faith? Not at all. Justification is by faith, so you don’t even need a correct understanding of justification by faith to be justified by faith; you simply need faith. ‘This is why the fulfilment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift’ (v.16, MSG).
Father, thank you so much for this amazing truth that I am justified and acquitted through the death of Jesus for me, and by faith in him. Help me to understand this truth more deeply and to explain it more clearly, so that many more know the great blessings of justification by faith.
Communities of justificationAmos 5:1-27
God is not interested in how ‘religious’ you are. He is far more concerned about integrity, justice and righteousness. Without that religiosity is sheer hypocrisy. He says:
‘I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice – oceans of it.
I want fairness – rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want’ (vv.21–24, MSG).
A central outworking of justification by faith is that God’s people respond by acting with righteousness and justice. John Calvin once said, ‘It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.’ Our natural response to what God has done for us should be to act in line with his will.
Righteousness and justice have a central role in this passage and in the whole book of Amos. God wants justice for the poor. God speaks through the prophet Amos:
‘Because you run roughshod over the poor
and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I know precisely the extent of your violations,
the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.
Justice is a lost cause’ (vv.10–13, MSG).
God will not allow human injustice to continue for ever. He will intervene and bring about his justice. God hates injustice.
Issues of justice such as rescuing people from bonded labour or other forms of slavery, fighting against the trafficking of people for sex, racism and other forms of injustice, should be high on our agenda. They certainly seem to be high on God’s agenda: ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (v.24).
Lord, thank you that faith alone justifies, but that faith should never be alone. Help me to live out my faith by acting righteously and seeking justice for all.
‘Guard my life.’
There are terrible atrocities happening around the world and hazards of every kind. Even trying to follow Nicky on a bicycle, as he weaves his way (at great speed) through the streets of London, can be very alarming. ‘Guard our lives’ is a comforting prayer.
Verse of the Day
‘Pay attention, God, to my prayer; bend down and listen to my cry for help’ (Psalm 86:6, MSG).
John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote Canon 11 (1547) http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/calvin_trentantidote.html
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.