Here is the first half of the sermon I preached on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Precious Cross.
16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. 17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.
Justification is a concept that is discussed a great deal by Protestants, somewhat less by Catholics, and virtually never be we Orthodox Christians. But it is an important biblical teaching, and we dare not be ignorant about what it is and how it is obtained.
One of the rallying cries of Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers was “justification by faith alone.” This is one teaching that nearly all Protestants, and certainly 100% of evangelicals, agree on. But before we discuss how justification can be obtained, let us first make sure we understand what it is.
Justification means the act or process of being made justified, or being made right before God. As we all know, the Bible teaches that our sin make us unrighteous before God and separates us from him. Justification reverses this and restores our relationship with God. For most Protestants, justification is a static event. It happens once in our lives; it is a one-time event that occurs at a single point in time, and it can never be reversed. It happens when a person believes in Christ, acknowledging that Christ is Lord and Savior, and trusting in Christ alone for salvation. When a person is justified, he is declared by God to be “not guilty” henceforth and forever more, regardless of what he does after the point when he is justified.
Now there is certainly some biblical support for such a position. The most famous instance occurs in St. Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans. In both of these epistles, St. Paul quotes a verse originally found in Genesis, which says “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” To those who believe that justification is a static event, this verse is hands-down proof for their position. But as we’ll see in a moment, justification is not static, but dynamic; it is a process that lasts a whole lifetime.
It is important to know what justification is, but it is equally important to know how it is obtained. St. Paul clearly states in today’s passage and elsewhere that justification is not obtained by following the Law of Moses. This teaching was radically opposed to what the Jews of his day—and many Christians, too—believed. Justification comes through faith in Jesus Christ. But it is not by faith alone. St. James says this very clearly in his epistle: “You see then, my brothers, that a man is not justified by faith alone, but by works.” Note that this is the only place in all of Scripture where the phrase “faith alone” is used. Nowhere does the Bible tell us that we are justified by faith alone.
And lest someone say that St. Paul believed one thing and St. James another, listen to what St. Paul wrote to the Romans (in the epistle that most Protestants consider to be the “justification by faith alone” manifesto): “God will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor and immortality.” What is more, our Lord Jesus himself said “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” So when we read the New Testament as a whole, we see that while we most certainly must believe in Christ to be justified, we are not justified by faith alone. Our faith must be accompanied by works. Otherwise, it isn’t really faith.
At the most fundamental level, our justification doesn’t even come from our faith. It comes from the faith of Christ himself. For the Greek text of verse 16, when literally translated into English, reads, “A man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” (Every English translation botches this except for the King James Version...which is not surprising, since most English translations have been done by Protestants!) Ultimately, it is the faith of Christ—his belief, his trust, and his obedience to the Father—that justifies us. Without Christ’s own faith in his Father and the Father’s plan for the world, we could not be justified. Our faith in Christ just makes us able to reap the benefits brought about by Christ’s faith.
Finally, we read in verse 17, “if we seek to be justified by Christ”…in the English translations anyway. The Greek literally translates as “If we seek to be justified in Christ.” This single word “in” (rather than “by”) makes a big difference. For justification is not merely legal, but actual; it is brought about by our real, personal union with Christ in his glorified human nature.