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06.16.13 Paul’s Gospel: Faith and Works, Galatians 2.15-21, Sermon Summary

by on June 17, 2013

In high school I learned that “justification” meant it was “just as if I’d” never sinned. I no longer think that’s the best way to understand this key teaching in Christianity.

Summary Points

  • Justification: a better illustration
  • By faith or by works? Not the right question.
  • Jesus weighs in
  • Justification as a “then and now” reality
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Anyone who’s ever done any word processing knows that “justification” determines how the lines of a text relate to the borders of the page. For example:


Especially since the Reformations of the 16th century, the church has debated the topic of justification around two main texts, one from Paul and one from James. Paul’s comes from the lectionary reading for today and includes this: “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Gal. 2:16) Compare this with James 2:24, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Is one justified by faith, or by works? Where skeptics see this as a contradiction, many Protestants see it as the difference between their Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity. Did Jesus ever talk about justification, and the relationship between faith and works?

One of the many themes in the Gospel of John is the relationships among Jesus, God, God’s mission, and Jesus’ ministry. As a snapshot of John’s theology, consider this passage (Jesus speaking): “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? . . . the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. . . . I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:10-12, see John 10:37-38)

There are three foundational observations to see from this passage. First, the essence of Jesus is union with God. John’s Gospel more than any other presents a Jesus identified with God. Second, Christ’s union with God was public. While the relationship between Jesus with God was personal and intimate, it was not private. Jesus argues that the way he lives his life, evident to all who care to investigate, is the proof of his union with God. Third, those who “believe” are also one with God and are called to a public life resembling Jesus’, of God working through them.

Given this perspective from Jesus, Paul’s teaching on justification becomes clearer. For Paul, baptism is the symbol of faith—where there is faith, there is baptism also. And in his most concentrated teaching on baptism Paul writes, “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11, more on this next week.) In other words, the person with faith has a new life, one shared with God and Christ.

In our passage, the image Paul uses is one of co-crucifixion with Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” The word translated “crucified” here has a completed-and-ongoing sense in the Greek (the language of the New Testament). In other words, just as in baptism, there is a once-in-history event (the crucifixion of Christ) which has an ongoing effect (our crucifixion and Christ’s subsequent living in us).

What could Paul possibly mean by still being crucified? We get some insight from two of his other letters. In Philippians 2:12-13 Paul urges to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” There remains “work” for us to do with regard to our salvation—work that is determined by God’s will, empowered by God (an allusion to the Spirit), and that is offered as in worship (“fear and trembling”).

This worshipful approach to the life of justification is referred in the second passage, Romans 12:1-2, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, . . . Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”

So for Paul, justification has an historical anchor, namely in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Because this is Christ’s personal history and not our own, we are passive in relation to it. We can only receive it, believe it, have faith in relation to it. But justification also has a present and ongoing effect, namely Christ living in us. Because this is our history shared with Christ, we have an active part in it. We can participate in it, partner with it, and work in relation to it. Faith and works are both part of our justification. (With debt to theologian Karl Barth for this conceptualization of “histories.”)

On my computer, I can set the justification to “left and right” so the words are aligned on both the left and right sides. But until I write a sentence long enough to continue to a second line, it looks like left justification. For example:


Justification in the spiritual life is kind of the same. It starts on the left side with Christ’s crucifixion, but until we live into it long enough, “doing the works of the Father” as Jesus would put it, “walking in newness of the baptized life” as Paul would put it, we don’t “see” and experience the full effects of justification. Paul and James are both right on justification, reconciled—it turns out, as all things are—in Christ.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What difference would it make if you went with “only Paul” or “only James” in regards to justification? What difference does the perspective on justification presented here make in your life?
  • Do you consider yourself one with God, crucified with Christ, and living in faith as Christ did, discerning and doing the will and work of God? If not, why not, since this is the proclamation of the New Testament, the gospel?

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