Declared “Not guilty!”

"When a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness."

How can I stand righteous before my Creator when I appear before him on Judgement Day? Will he declare me righteous and welcome me into Heaven? Or will he pronounce judgement on me, declaring me guilty of breaking his law, and consign me to everlasting damnation in Hell?

Evidently, for the thinking mind, such questions are pregnant with significance and meaning. Our eternal destiny is at stake, yet most people do not seem to be overtly concerned about the after-life: they continue living just as if they are going to stay here permanently. It is, to say the least, sad that a person can be so preoccupied with innumerable trifles consequently neglect the all-encompassing question of his relationship with his own Maker.

Are you concerned about your relationship with God? What do you know about your eternal destiny?

But, as a matter of fact, religious people are not particularly worried about judgement. They seem to assume that they have already settle the question; compared with the ungodly and worldly-minded people, they are certainly better off. If any will reach heaven, certainly they are the ones who will make it. They are the ones who recite their prayers, who maintain a regular attendance at the church of their upbringing, maybe even are acquainted with some Bible truths, give to charitable institutions and do their utmost to abstain from gross wickedness and immorality so prevalent in their society. They reason that God will surely take all their efforts into account and would be obliged to recompense them by granting them eternal life.

The Bible contradicts such reasoning, plausible as it may seem. Let me mention just one objection that the Apostle Paul raises in the passage quoted above. Eternal life, according the the Bible, is a gracious gift of God, given freely. (See Romans 6:23, "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.") Now, if eternal life could be obtained by working for it, then it could not legitimately be designated as a "gift"! In such a case, "payment" or "wages" would be mere appropiate. When I get my paycheck at every month's end, after having laboured to earn my living, I certainly do not expect my employer to attach a slip of paper to my check, stating: "This is my gift to you." Such gestures are unthinkable.

Well, now, how do you evaluate your religious performance? Do you still consider your good works as the ground of your acceptance before God? Do you think that God will declare you "not guilty," fit for heaven, because you were a fairly moral person? If so, the way is not yet open for you to recieve God's good gift of righteousness and eternal life (Romans 5:17; 6:23).

A gift is recieved in a spirit of humble yet joyful gratitude: "Thank you, I don't deserve this. You are so kind and generous." But your salary is recieved with a sense self-congratulation, knowing that you have earned it by your own efforts. You may justly say, "I deserve this money, because I worked hard for it." Which one of these two attitudes describe your own? Naturally, you cannot express both of them at the same time: gifts and wages are two different concepts. Humility and pride are antithetical; they cannot dwell together.

Let us take a closer look at the second sentence quoted at the beginning: "To the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness."

God justifies the man who does not work! This statement is so bizarre to our way of thinking that we simply refuse to believe what is says. We are used to think that God accepts the man who does good works, but this Bible quotation presents us with a totally different way of acceptance before God. Either we are grievously decieved or else the Bible is in error.

At first sight, this statement gives us the impression that Paul is denigrating good works. If so, such a proposition is both absurd (for it is always commendable to do good and not evil), and also contradictory to other numerous passages in the Bible itself. But Paul is not attacking the intrinsic value of good works, but the wrong purpose for which they are performed. Elsewhere the same apostle discusses the right use of good works, and indeed he lays great stress on obedience to the Law, that is, in loving God and our neighbour. Here, he is simply stating that good works do not justify you before God. There's nothing wrong with laughter, but not during a funeral; automobiles are useful, but not to fly with; hammers and pliers are good tools, but not to present them for dinner. Works are certainly good, but not to earn your way to heaven by their performance.

Paul proceeds further, declaring that it is the man who does not work that is justified. There is no option here: you don't have two methods to be made right with God. Only one way has been provided. He who continues to amend and reform himself religiously in order to earn merit before God cannot be justified by God. He who comes to God to be clothed with perfect righteousness must draw near empty-handed. As the hymn goes, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross Icling."

If the statement about works is surprising, then the next statement may sound even more astounding. "God...justifies the wicked." How can this be? Since God is a just Judge, he can only justify the righteous, and must condemn the wicked!

Praise be to God, he who is our Judge is also a loving Saviour. If God had to deal with us as a Judge only, no shadow of hope would remain for us, because the Bible declares (and we, if we are honest with ourselves, know for sure) that, "There is no one righteous, not even one." God could not count anyone righteous, simply because no-one is righteous. On the contrary, he will be constrained to pronounce us guilty and punish us accordingly because "all have sinned."

Yet God, in his infinite wisdom, has found a way to justify the wicked. Our justification (right standing before God) is intimately bound to Christ's life, his death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection. His sacrifice on Calvary solves the dilemma as to how can God be just and at the same time the justifier of those that believe in Jesus his only-begotten Son.

The important point for the moment is that God justifies the wicked. It is very easy for anyone to misinterpret this statement and twist its meaning in order to encourage godless behaviour. "Since God justifes the wicked, why bother? Let us rather continue to enjoy a life of sin." That conclusion is to absurd to deserve a comment.

But that same statement does offer comfort to people who are conscious of their own failures and shortcomings. "I have broken God's holy law. I have sinned. I know my guilt and wickedness. I am in danger of eternal damnation. But, thank God, he can justify worthless individuals like me." Such a person is not far from the kingdom of heaven.

At this point, religious folk sadly deviate from God's way of salvation. They do not consider themselves too bad. They may admit of committing a mistake intermittently because of human weakness. But certainly they won't allow you or anyone else to label them as "wicked," as the Bible does indiscriminately. They find their security in comparing themselves with their neighbours; they do not judge themselves by the law of God. Their self-concept does not tally with God's evaluation of them. And since they do not consider themselves sick, they feel no need of coming to the Great Physician. They think they can deal with their superficial bruises and the common cold themselves. And since they are essentially clean (in their opinion), they do not flee to Christ for cleansing in his shed blood. And since they feel no heavy burden of sin, they find it extremely difficult to seek God's mercy; they can make up for their "little mistakes" by doing good works.

Let it be known therefore, that God does not justify any man because of his works. Only the wicked are justified before him. And if you desire to be healed of sin, thoroughly cleaned and pardoned - you must come to Christ just as you are: worthless and helpless. Christ forgave Mary Magdalene; he cannot deal with the self-righteous Pharisee expect tear off his hypocritical mask.

How then can a sinner be justified before God? What should the sinner do?

In a sense, he should do nothing. It is God who justifies the wicked. Man cannot justify himself.

But looking at the matter from another perspective, man must do something; for God justifes certain people and ultimately condemns others. What is it that distinguishes between the two groups? The Bible informs us that "FAITH" is the means of justification. "To the man God...his faith is credited as righteousness."

We must be careful to grasp this concept biblically. Faith (or believing) in God implies, first of all, distrust in yourself and your own religious performance. The man who continues to depend on his own merit (or in any other creature's good works for that matter) as a means or an aid to his own justification cannot simultaneously believe in God and his merciful provision. The patient who puts his faith in a surgeon to cure him, cannot at the same time attempt to heal himself in his own inadequate ways. All the surgeon needs in order the fulfil his work is a sick, sleeping patient stretched out before him. Similarly, the criminal who continues to plead innocentor who insists that he can amend for his crime, cannot at the same time put his faith in the President and plead mercy.

Secondly, faith should be exercised in God, not in anything else. It is a confident trust in the Creator who pledges to declare "not guilty" his rebellious creatures if they turn back to him. When you fall sick, you would not apply to the barrister, for he is unable and indeed incompetent to heal you. If you want to buy groceries, you don't go to the butcher's. If you want to find a right relationship with God, do not trust in the church, or in religion, or in charitable donations, or in prayer and other religious disciplines. None of these things can justify you. All Christians will tell you, "We cannot save you, but our Lord can. He justified all of us himself." Believe in God. Accept his promise as true: he said that he justifies the wicked who trusts in him. Rely on him with all your heart. "Lord God, I am a worthless, guilty sinner. I deserve your wrath and punishment. I can do nothing to clear myself of this record. But you are a merciful and powerful God. I turn to you, and humbly plead your grace. Only in you do I trust." Such is the attitude of faith.

But thirdly, there is one aspect of faith that I dare not ignore. What is the relationship between faith and sin and righteousness? Foolish man so misinterpret the biblical teaching of justification by faith, thinking that it is an easy solution from the burden of sin, and indeed, a license for sinful living. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Faith is an expression of hatred and loathsomeness towards sin, and the sincere desire to conduct yourself righteously and soberly in this present evil world. God knows the motives of the heart: it is not difficult for him to distinguish between genuine faith and its counterfeits. He will never justify the man who intends to continue in his old dishonourable ways. You cannot ask to be cleansed and at the same time want to remain filthy. You cannot ask for pardon in order to continue to break God's law. Repentance, that is, a hatred and forsaking of sin, is always included in true faith.