“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
“I live a good life, so I’m sure that I will get into heaven when I die.”
“A loving God wouldn’t throw me into hell. I’m a good person. I love my neighbour and I always give to charity.”
“I might have done bad stuff in my life, but when I get to the gates of heaven, my good actions will outweigh the bad.”
I have no doubt that you’ve heard people make statements like these. Many people think that, if there is a God and a heaven, being ‘a good person’ is enough to pass through the pearly gates. These are misconceptions, however. In the passage from Galatians above, Paul is determined to clear up similar misconceptions and misunderstandings about how to be ‘justified’. Being ‘justified’ means being considered righteous by God, that is, being free of sin. Many people over the centuries have believed that the way to be free of sin, to be considered righteous, to be justified, is to live a good life. The Pharisees in the New Testament believed that to be justified one simply had to obey all the rules and laws ordained by God. Many people today believe that justification comes through being nice. All of these ideas suggest that it is possible for a person to be justified “by works,” by actions that they can take in their own lives.
Paul is absolutely clear, however, that this is not the case. He states this firmly in this passage: “a person is not justified by the works of the law”; “we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law”; “by the works of the law no one will be justified.” You might say that he leaves little wriggle room! If we are all fallen sinners (which we are), living in a fallen world (which we do), no matter how hard we try, we will never be righteous in God’s eyes. We can strive for perfection but we will never get there.
If Paul is clear that we cannot be justified through our own actions, he is also absolutely clear about how we can be justified: “a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ“; “we … have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ.” Justification comes from having faith in Jesus. This does not simply mean believing that he existed, or even believing that he is the Son of God. This means that we believe he is the Son of God AND that he died for us AND seeking to serve him in all that we do. In other words, it means inviting him into our lives and asking him to transform us, take our bodies as living sacrifices, and use us to build his kingdom where we live. The only way that we can be free of sin is to accept Jesus as our saviour, since through faith in him we die to sin; when he died on the cross he took all of our sin away from us and took our punishment. We are justified through his death and resurrection.
If we wish to be counted righteous by God, to be justified, and to be certain that we possess eternal life, it is not enough just to be a good person, or to live a good life, or even to follow the letter of God’s law. The only way to be certain of our destiny is to place our lives completely in the hands of Christ.