This is a very important question. In fact, it is one of the most important questions that could be asked. The matter of our relationship with the God of heaven should be of pressing concern to every one of us. We shall all have to do with God eventually, and we would be well advised to have dealings with Him now, whilst He is ready to bless us, rather than have dealings with Him when He sits as Judge.
Those who are right with God are said to be just, or righteous. The question is, however, how is that position achieved? There are only two options to consider; either a person can become right before God by works of some kind, or by faith. We shall think of those alternatives in that order. We should bear in mind two things as we do so. First, that the act whereby a person is reckoned just by God, is called justification, and when that has happened, that person is said to be justified. Second, that the words faith and belief mean the same thing. We turn now to the question as whether a person may be justified by works.
The world is full of religions of one sort or another. Christianity, however, contrary to popular opinion, is not a religion. Religion is the practice of certain works so as to gain favour with God. Christianity is a set of beliefs that centre around God and the Lord Jesus Christ. A person is not a Christian because he performs certain ceremonies, (or gets others to do these things for him), and engages in good works. On the contrary, a person becomes a Christian solely by faith in the Lord Jesus. There is plenty of opportunity after that to engage in good works.
Thirteen centuries before Christ came, God gave to the nation of Israel a set of ceremonies and works to carry out. Unhappily, however, the Israelites were not able to keep to that law of works because they were sinners, as we are. The Scripture puts it like this, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh;” Romans 8:3. Instead of enabling them to please God, the law only showed up their sin and weakness. They discovered that “by the law is the knowledge of sin”, Romans 3:20, and that “the law worketh wrath”, Romans 4:15.
When we were at school, we did experiments in the chemistry lab. The chemistry master knew before the lesson began what the result of the experiment would be, but we had to go through the process to show us what the result was. So with the law given to Israel- God knew full well they would not be able to keep it, but He gave it nonetheless so that the Israelites might come to realise it, and cast themselves as sinners upon the mercy of God.
Religious works have a great attraction for many people. It seems so right to try to please God by doing good things of some sort. After all, the psalmist said to God, “Thou art good and doest good”, Psalm 119:68. so should He not be pleased with our efforts? When we think like that, we are forgetting two things. One, that God demands perfection. He pronounced a curse on anyone in Israel who “continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”, Galatians 3:10. He cannot overlook one sin, but as Judge of all the earth must punish it.
The other thing we forget is that we are corrupted by sin. Everything we do is tainted by what we are, so that the works we may do, however worthy in themselves, or beneficial to others, are the works of sinners, not saints. Furthermore, the longer we continue to try to please God by good works of some kind, the longer we keep ourselves from the true answer to our problem. That answer is found in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of whom we must now speak.
It is important for us to realise who the Lord Jesus is. It is not enough to think of Him simply as a good man, or a fine teacher. The doctrine of Christianity, based as it is on the Bible, goes much further than that. It asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. By which is meant that even though He became a man, and lived and died upon the earth, He is nonetheless equal with God in nature and attributes. The Jews understood perfectly well what He was claiming when He said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work”, John 5:17. Their conclusion was that He was “making Himself equal with God”, John 5:18.
We must be clear about what being the Son of God does not mean. It does not mean that God had relations with Mary, resulting in the birth of Jesus, who then claimed to be the Son of God because of this. We must remember, when we are thinking about God, that He is infinitely higher than we are. When we read about God as Father, and the Lord Jesus as Son, we are not talking on a human level at all, but are talking about Divine Persons. We are expressly told that the one who moved amongst men as Jesus Christ, was with the Father in eternity, 1 John 1:2. He was Son of God before the world was created, (for it was as the Son that He created it, Colossians 1:16), so certainly before Mary was born!
By claiming to be the Son of God, Christ was claiming to share the nature of God, therefore every excellent feature that God has, so does He. But these excellent features include being infinite and eternal, so the Son of God must be infinite and eternal too. This is why He is central to Christianity and the Christian gospel. And this is what makes Christianity so different. It is not a variation on an old theme, but a radical and exciting faith.
We come back now to the question we began with, and which ought to very much concern us. That question is one asked long ago by the patriarch Job, “How should man be just with God”? Job 9:2. The English language comes from different sources, one of which gives us the word ‘just’, and another, the word ‘righteous’. They mean the same thing, namely, that which is in harmony with God who is essentially right. He is right in His thoughts, His deeds, and His demands upon men. A righteous, or just person, is one who is in harmonious relationship with the God who is essentially righteous.
We see then that the standard a man must reach if he is to be in harmony with God, is the standard of perfection. Nothing less than this will satisfy God, for He cannot compromise His principles. Do we really expect God to be satisfied with anything that is less than perfect? Herein lies our difficulty, for the Bible says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”, Romans 3:23. None of us has reached the standard that satisfies the demands His glory makes upon us. No amount of religious works can remedy the situation, for “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”, Isaiah 64:6. If we cannot make ourselves right with God, then who can? We waste our time if we look to mere men to help us, whatever their bold claims. “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him”, Psalm 49:7. We waste our time, also, if we try to make ourselves right before Him by some sort of religious activity.
Our only hope must lie in one who can bridge the gulf between God and His righteousness, and us with our unrighteousness. That person must be sinless, or else He is in the same situation as ourselves. That person must also be in such a relationship with God that what He does satisfies God. There is only one who fulfils these requirements, for “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”, 1 Timothy 2:5. He is the only means whereby we may be right in the sight of God. He is exactly the right person to bring us to God, for as the Son of God He is equal with God, sharing His nature, and as a man He is sinless and pure. Because of the manner of His birth, He is free from the consequences of the sin of Adam the first man. All who are born into the world in the normal way have passed on to them a nature which is sinful. Not so the Lord Jesus, for “in Him is no sin”, 1 John 3:5. As He lived before men, His sinless nature expressed itself in a life of holiness, righteousness and goodness. Even His enemies, who would have loved to find a sin in Him, could not. Those who followed Him closely were conscious of their own sin. For instance, Peter, one of His chief followers, said on one occasion, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord”, Luke 5:8. Later on, however, when he was writing about the life of the Lord Jesus he said, “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth”, 1 Peter 2:22.
There was once a devout Jew known as Saul of Tarsus, who fiercely opposed those who believed in the Lord Jesus and accepted His claims. He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest as many Christians as he could, when something happened which changed his whole way of thinking. He saw a glorious light from heaven, and heard a voice from heaven which said, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest”, Acts 9:5. From that point on, Saul of Tarsus, (who became known later on as the apostle Paul), was convinced that the one Christians believed in, who had been crucified a few years before, was risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Straight away “Saul preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God”, Acts 9:20. It would not be right for God to raise from the dead and elevate to heaven one who had made blasphemous claims. His claims, therefore, cannot have been blasphemous.
It is not enough, however, for Jesus Christ to be the sinless Son of God. This is vital truth, and central to the Christian faith, but something else is needed. To see what this is, we need to think of the matter of justification, the act of God which reckons a person to be right in His sight.
Three important expressions are used in the Scriptures about this subject. They are, “justified by grace”, Romans 3:24; “justified by His blood”, Romans 5:9; and “justified by faith”, Romans 5:1. We shall look at these three concepts in that order.
Justified by grace: This is the state of every true Christian. Grace is favour from God which is undeserved, cannot be earned, and can never be repaid. The word grace sums up God’s attitude to men at the present time. He is ready and willing to bestow on men the very highest blessings. Because we are sinners, we neither deserve that those blessings should be given to us, nor can we earn them. However hard we try we shall never succeed; not only because we shall never reach perfection, but also, and very importantly, because God has expressly stated that justification is not by works. That should be the end of the matter for us. God has said in His word, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight”, Romans 3:20. Not only is it not possible to earn God’s favour, it is not possible for those who are justified to pay God back for it. So rich and abundant are the blessings God bestows, that no-one could ever repay Him for them.
Justified by His blood: In the Old Testament God gave to Israel a system of animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices served to establish clearly in their minds that it was by the death of a suitable victim, and the shedding of its blood, that a right standing with God could be attained. Those sacrifices were only temporary illustrations, however; they were not God’s final mind. When the Lord Jesus began His public ministry, the man appointed to herald His arrival announced, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”, John 1:29. So when we read of being justified by blood, the blood in question is that of the Lord Jesus. As the sinless Son of God, Scripture says that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; that He was buried; and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures”, 1 Corinthians 15:3,4. It is through His blood, given up in death, that a person may be declared just by God. He is prepared to accept the death of Christ as being on our behalf, and justify sinners on that basis. This is not the innocent suffering for the guilty, but rather, the sinless one willingly taking the place of the guilty ones, and accepting the consequences in terms of God’s judgement upon sin.
Justified by faith: Faith may be defined as ‘a firm persuasion based upon hearing the word of God’. When the Word of God, the Bible, is read with an honest and unbiased attitude, and with the sincere desire to know and carry out the will of God, then He is graciously pleased to make that will known. The Bible is self-authenticating, carrying within itself the proof of its own genuineness. The Lord Jesus said, “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself”, John 7:17. Rest assured God is patiently waiting to bless men; to bless you, my reader. He has declared “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart”, Jeremiah 29:13.
Now the expressions ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe’ mean the same thing. A believer in the Christian sense, then, is a person who has arrived at the following position:
He has come to terms with the fact that he is a sinner, and that those sins, if not dealt with in this life, will result in eternal judgement for him as a sinner. “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works…and whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire”, Revelation 20:12,15.
He has realised that the claim by Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, is a genuine claim, and therefore He is both God and man in one person. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”, John 1:1,14.
He has believed the Word of God when it declares that the Lord Jesus is totally sinless. “In Him is no sin”, 1 John 3:5.
He has accepted the testimony of Scripture that the Lord Jesus rose again from the dead on the third day, the sure sign of God’s approval both of His life and His sacrifice. “Jesus our Lord…who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification”, Romans 4:24,25.
It is not enough to believe that this is what Christians believe. Other people’s faith cannot justify us. It must be personal to the individual, who, consciously turning from self and sin, turns to God through Jesus Christ, calling upon God that in His mercy and grace He will justify him on the basis of the death of Christ.
The following are the words of the apostle Peter:
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved”, Acts 4:12.
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