After Jesus affirmed to an expert in the law that loving God supremely and loving one’s neighbors selflessly were keys to eternal life (not to earn salvation, but reflecting salvation that already had been given to repentant people), the legal expert asked “And who is my neighbor?” He did this, Luke wrote, because he wanted “to justify himself” (Luke 10:29). The Word here translated justify means to be rendered righteous, to show one to be righteous, or to declare to be righteous. It is clear that this legal expert was hoping for an answer from Jesus that would put him and his actions in a good light and effectively validate him and his current habits and lifestyle. However, on his own, a human being cannot justify himself before God (see Luke 16:15; Rom. 8:33). A person is made righteous only when that individual comes to God on His conditions, humbly repenting of sin and resolving to be a God-follower—a Christ-follower—from that point forward.
Jesus spoke clearly about true justification when He told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-15. The tax collector admitted he was guilty before God and asked the Lord to be merciful to him while the Pharisee self-righteously thanked God he wasn’t an awful sinner. Jesus said of the tax collector, “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
The word for justify appears frequently in Romans—no less than 15 times. Romans 3:24 speaks of being “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In Romans 5:1 Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous [justified] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in verse 9 of the same chapter the apostle wrote, “Much more then, since we have been declared righteous [justified] by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.”
Thus we see that the teaching regarding justification through faith in Christ is deep, rich, and wonderful. It is made wonderful in part because it stands against the backdrop of the futility of human efforts to justify. People cannot justify themselves through excuses, nor can they do so through adherence to the law of Moses (see Acts 13:39; Gal. 2:15-16). The idea of justification, then, is captured in these verses in Romans where, interestingly, the word does not appear: “What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sins’ domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4). Thankfully, God makes us right with Him—He justifies us—when we approach Him on His conditions.
B. Nathaniel Sullivan
Christian educator, Bible teacher, and Editor
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in SundaySchoolZone.com materials are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.