God Justifies the Unjust

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The problem with seeking justice is how quickly the process reveals our own injustice. We want the world to be the way it should be only to find that we ourselves are not what we should be. We seek things that are “right” just to realize how not right, how un-right, how unrighteous, we are. But here too, seeking justice leads to goodness, because when we seek justice, we will find the One who justifies the unjust.

Despite the fact that we often know what’s right both through Scripture and by our own natural instinct, Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that we all “fall short of the glory of God”—we all are less than what we are supposed to be. But rather than leaving us hopeless, God extends grace to us, offering to make us what we should be through Jesus. “This was to show God’s righteousness,” Paul explains, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”[1]

In other words, in order to be who He is supposed to be, God makes those who bear His image who they are supposed to be.

Through Jesus Christ, we are relieved of the burden of having to prove our goodness, the weight of our rightness resting completely on Him. “For you are saved by grace through faith,” Paul writes in Ephesians, “and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast” (2:8–9). And this is how justice makes us discerning people: when we are no longer troubled with maintaining our own goodness, we can partake of the goodness around us.

“In order to be who He is supposed to be, God makes those who bear His image who they are supposed to be.”

This truth is especially important when you realize, after years of playing the game, that you’ve been playing it wrong—when you realize that what you thought was “natural” is not how the Maker made the game to be played at all. Maybe you’re playing with friends when someone lays a card at an unexpected moment or moves their token in an unusual way. “You can’t do that!” you blurt out before realizing it. “That’s not the way you play the game.”

But what if when you reach for the rule book to show someone that they are wrong, you discover—you literally had no idea— that you are the one playing the wrong way? What happens when you realize that what you thought was a ball is really a button?

Without God’s grace, we will make hapless attempts to justify ourselves and only make things worse. Because we can’t risk being wrong, we can’t apologize or learn from our mistakes. We lock ourselves into conflict, wasting our time, emotion, and energy trying to defend ourselves. We miss a world of good, beautiful things because we are so worried about making ourselves good and beautiful that we don’t have time to see that God has already made us good and beautiful through His Son. And we miss His good gifts because we are too busy trying to earn them.

But when we receive God’s goodness, when we humble ourselves and let go of our pride and fear and our need to boast in our achievements, when we recognize that we could never be what we are supposed to be, it opens up an entirely new way of seeing. We can risk looking into the rule book to learn because we can safely entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. But the only way we can entertain that is if we don’t need to win in the first place. And the only way we can let go of our need to win is if we know that Jesus already won for us. “For indeed, grace is the key to it all,” pastor Tim Keller writes. “It is not our lavish good deeds that procure salvation, but God’s lavish love and mercy. That is why the poor are as acceptable before God as the rich. It is the generosity of God, the freeness of his salvation, that lays the foundation for the society of justice for all.”[2]

Just like that, we can see that everything in this life is a gift. Suddenly we can see goodness all around us. And where it is absent, we feel compelled to cultivate it.

Part of God’s goal in justifying us is to bring us into His larger work of redemption, of making the world good once again. That’s why, immediately after declaring to the Ephesians the free grace of Jesus, Paul continues: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (2:10). By making us just, God removes the weight of our unrighteousness, relieving us from the need to prove ourselves. And because we no longer have to prove our own goodness, we can focus on what He has called us to do: we can focus on being and doing all that’s good.

[1] Romans 3:25–26 (ESV).

[2] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 40.

For Further Reading:

All That’s Good

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