[Matthew 5:17-20] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Justification and Sanctification
I. THE JUSTIFIED MAN
Who will be justified in the eyes of God? Who will be counted, reckoned, righteous by God? If you go to court, having been charged with a crime, if the prosecutor fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty, then the judge reckons you righteous, counts you innocent – gives you an innocent verdict.
In Scripture, ‘justify’, ‘justified’, ‘justification’ – these are the same word as ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’. To be justified is to be counted, reckoned, declared righteous by God.
What man is reckoned or counted righteous by God our Judge who sees and knows all things, whatsoever a man has done, said, thought, and felt? There is no reasonable doubt with God. God, according to His Law, reckons the righteous righteous and condemns the guilty.
Psalm 15 puts it like this: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right” [Psalm 15:1-2]. God reckons as righteous the man who fulfills His Law without error or blame.
That man is who? That man is Jesus. Only Jesus. As Jesus said of Himself in today’s Gospel, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” [Matthew 5:17]. Jesus fulfilled all of God’s Word and all of God’s Law. Not an iota or a dot can pass from God’s Law – it must be accomplished. The man who has done that is Jesus, the Son of God who became man.
Jesus is the man who is declared righteous by God. Jesus, having died on the cross, having been obedient even unto death [Philippians 2:8], is then raised by the Father as God’s way of declaring Him innocent, righteous. The resurrection was God’s verdict – “this one whom you killed, He is the righteous one”.
And, brothers and sisters, the Son of God didn’t become man to do this for Himself. Jesus is every man’s man. Jesus became man to fulfill God’s Law and be reckoned righteous as a man for the sake of man. In man’s place. For man’s sake. To gain this verdict for sinners.
He is man’s representative. Man’s stand-in. Or, if this helps, when the Son of God became man, He became team captain. He joined man’s team. In a competition, even if one man scores all the winning points, the whole team shares the victory.
Jesus has fulfilled the whole Law and Word of God for this team that He has joined. He won the victory – He gained that righteous verdict – all who join with Him share that victory.
He has done it. How do you have it? You have it by faith. The one who believes in Him has acquired it, all He has done. I don’t understand that – but it is what Scripture tells us.
This whole thing we call “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone” – the one who believes what Jesus has done for him is reckoned as righteous – not by your works, and not because your faith is worthy, but because of what Jesus has done for you.
II. THE JUDGMENT OF THE LAW
Those who would rather be justified – counted righteous by God – on account of their own righteousness, or their own growth in the Lord, or their own keeping of God’s commandments, are deceiving themselves.
God’s commandments don’t just speak to our actions or choices but to our thoughts and intentions and feeling and desires: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” [Matthew 5:21-22]
The anger is there. And the words are there, even under your breath and in your mind’s silent ranting. God created the mind and breath, and emotion and desire, and judges them.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Matthew 5:27-28]
Those of you who want to stand before God based on your own righteousness should listen to how the Law works. The Law says, “The one who does them shall live by them” [Galatians 3:12]. Therefore, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” [Galatians 3:10].
No one will be counted righteous by keeping the Law mostly or in part: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” [James 2:10]. It must all be accomplished.
In fact, the Law was never given to you for you to justify yourself by it, but to make you know your sin: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” [Romans 3:20]
III. JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
Scripture teaches plainly: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” [Galatians 3:11]. This is how it’s always been: “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” [Galatians 3:6; Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6]
How can God count righteous those who are actually guilty sinners? Because Jesus, as man for man, both fulfilled all the Law’s commands – He was pure in heart, thought, eyes, tongue, and action – and suffered all the Law demands for the debt of sin. Jesus obeyed God perfectly. And Jesus suffered God’s justice fully for sin [Romans 3:25-26].
Cursed is everyone who doesn’t abide by the Law – but “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” [Galatians 3:10,13]. Jesus, who obeyed, paid the price for disobedience to free the disobedient.
“For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Jesus became your sin on the cross, and, there, the eternal death penalty for your sin has been paid.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:6-8]
“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed – justified – from everything from which you could not be freed – justified – by the law of Moses.” [Acts 13:38-39] (Here, “freed” is the word “justified”, i.e. “counted righteous”, in the original Greek.)
“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ – And it’s the same for you – not works, not your own righteousness – you are justified through faith in Jesus – “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” – and ‘justified’ means ‘forgiven’ – just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” [Romans 4:3-8]
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” [Romans 3:28]
God counting the sinner righteous through faith in Jesus is not man’s way – man hates it – but it is God’s work: “Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” [John 6:29]
And for you it means peace with God: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:1]
Man’s heart will object: “Well, if the sinner is counted righteous by what Jesus has done, then I guess we should just go on sinning, right?!”
Scripture already answers this objection with a clear “Of course not.” Being freely loved and forgiven by God does not inspire us to sin all the more or to continue doing what displeases Him. Instead, being loved by Him causes us to have love for Him [1 John 4:19] – and His free forgiveness of our sins is the very thing that generates a new and obedient heart within us [Ezekiel 36:26; Colossians 2:11-14].
We read in Romans 6 today: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…… We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin…… For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” [Romans 6:1-11]
Baptism united you to Jesus’ death on the cross. His death for your sin is also the death of your sin. Your old sinful nature was put to death in Him on the cross – “our old self was crucified with Him”. You are now dead to sin and alive to God. Since we’ve died to sin, let’s no longer walk in it.
Jesus’ cross for you is a two-fold gift: (1) Justification, by which you are reckoned righteous to God; and (2) Sanctification, by which Jesus’ death and resurrection is working in you to put sin to death and to raise up a new man who does good works.
Justification is full, complete, all-at-once and all-the-time. Sanctification, a holy life, is bit by bit, day by day, as the Lord’s work grows up more and more in you. In justification, Jesus has fulfilled God’s Law on your behalf. In sanctification, Jesus is fulfilling God’s Law within you – shaping you and conforming you to it.
That second part, sanctification, is no less the work of God and depends upon, and grows from, justification. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:8-10].
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]. You are reckoned righteous now by faith. The final end – the full gift – is that, in the end, you will be righteous altogether, no longer a sinner - on the Last Day, at the resurrection of your body. Then the work that Jesus has begun in you now will be brought to completion.
Meanwhile, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” [Galatians 5:25]; “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” [Philippians 2:13].
Who will be justified in the eyes of God? The sinner who has faith in Jesus. You are counted righteous through faith in the only righteous man. This is the Gospel. This the bedrock of our whole faith. With justification by faith, there is salvation. With justification by faith, there is also sanctification – a holy life, even for sinners. + Amen +
Summary from the Lutheran Confessions(The Book of Concord)
Augsburg IV. Of Justification – “Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”
Augsburg VI. Of New Obedience – “Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.”
The Smalcald Articles – Article I, the First and Chief Article – “That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25. And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6. Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [ freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f
Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.”