All men long to be justified. That is, all men long to be in the right, to be vindicated. In our sin we seek this vindication in various ways and from different sources. We need approval. We need to know that we are accepted by someone. So we look to certain people to tell us that we are approved and accepted. It may be parents, friends, co-workers, or a myriad of other people. Whatever they tell us to do or we perceive that they want us to do, we will strive to do whatever it takes to gain their acceptance; to hear from them, “Well done.”
This longing for justification or righteousness is woven into the fabric of who we are as images of God. God created us as his images to be “in the right” with him. We were created to be a part of his family; to love what he loves, hate what he hates, and to share his agenda. As we would participate in the Divine Family culture, working in love together with the Father, Son, and Spirit, we would hear from the Father, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Vindication.
But sin has caused us to seek our justification from other sources and in perverted ways. We still want justification from God, but we want it on our terms. We set up ways to be justified by God that are contrary to what he has revealed. Instead of submitting to what God has revealed in Christ Jesus, we have a better way to order our relationship with God and, consequently, with one another and the world around us. We have a way of justification of which God will surely approve.
These ways of justification take on many forms. There is that classic form with which many of us are probably familiar: merit-based justification. If our good works outweigh our bad works, then God will count us as his children. If we can go through the right motions, do the proper religious things, we will appease God and he will have to accept us.
Merit-based justification is one way people try to be justified by God, but this is not the only form that works righteousness (that is, justification by works) takes. Works righteousness is the establishment of any way of seeking vindication from God that runs contrary to and refuses to submit to what God has revealed. Works righteousness says, “I know better than God how to order my life and the world around me. I like my way better than his.” Works righteousness says, “All I need is to know right doctrines, but I don’t have to worry about loving my brothers.” Works righteousness says, “I can be sexually immoral and still be vindicated by God because I prayed the sinner’s prayer and have been baptized.” Works righteousness says, “I am right with God even though I haven’t forgiven my brothers.”
What is perverted about works righteousness as it appears in these ways is that it uses the word “grace” to cover its tracks. My life can be lived in total opposition to God’s revealed will, but God is gracious. “Grace” becomes a way to set up our own way of being righteous in rebellion against God.
In contrast to works righteousness is faith righteousness. Faith righteousness seeks vindication from God by fully submitting to what God has revealed. The righteousness which is by faith says, “Whatever God reveals will shape my thinking and the way I live my life.” If God says that forgiveness of my sins and right standing with him is in Christ alone, then I submit to that and know that I am accepted by God in Christ alone. If God says that I need to love my brothers, then I will strive to love my brothers. If God says to keep myself from sexual immorality, then I will strive to keep myself from sexual immorality. If God says, “Forgive,” then I will forgive. Faith righteousness accepts and submits to whatever God has revealed and pledges full allegiance to the Divine Family. The righteousness by faith is the faith that accepts God’s righteousness in total: forgiveness of sins and right standing in Christ alone as well as being in line with God’s agenda for my life.
We all long to be justified. But there is only one right way to be in the right: the righteousness by faith revealed in Christ Jesus.