God’s Perfect and Unchanging Justice as the Ground of the Gospel
The opening chapter of Galatians warns us that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8). What, then, is the Gospel, and why does God attach such a fearful curse to getting it wrong? The answer begins with the strict and unchanging justice of God.
A Just and Fit Requirement
Created and dependent on God for all things, the minimum we owe God is perfect love and obedience, always. With a single sin, however, Adam failed to meet God’s standard, both for himself and for those he represented, bringing the curse of death upon all people. “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). “One trespass led to condemnation for all men,” for “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:18-19). And while our every sin confirms Adam’s rebellion, condemnation and the curse came on the world through one sin.
Founded on His righteous character, God’s requirement for eternal life has never changed. God doesn’t alter His standard of righteousness because we refuse to obey it any more than a judge changes the speed limit when we get a speeding ticket. Rather, Adam’s sin added the penalty of physical and spiritual death for disobedience to the debt of perfect obedience. Without exception, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are impossible without the perfect satisfaction of God’s justice. God would not be God if He compromised His justice to save a single soul.
God’s righteousness, then, forms the ground of the Gospel and shapes the nature of Christ’s redeeming work. Christ alone, the second Adam, could satisfy the perfect obedience and penalty for sin required by God’s justice. As sinless man He could stand in our place as our substitute, as God He could pay our infinite debt for sin. The best works of fallen people could never meet the perfection required by God’s justice. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).
As God does not change, and as we forever remain His creatures, the loving and reverent submission we owe to God’s authority never changes. Created and sustained by a God of infinite excellence, the greatest commandment remains, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
Thus, from God’s heart of love to the unlovely, Christ met the requirements of God’s justice on our behalf: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Subjecting Himself to God’s law as our substitute, He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Through Christ, then, God’s strict and unchanging justice endures intact while He remains just in justifying the ungodly.
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. 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 (Matthew 5:17-18).
No Other Way (The One and the Many)
“By the one man’s disobedience (Adam) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (Jesus) the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Salvation is through the perfect person and work of Christ, alone. By understanding God’s perfect and unchanging justice, as rooted in His perfect and unchanging character, we see why Christ can claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NAS).
Christ perfectly satisfied divine justice and met the strict and unchanging terms of eternal life as our substitute. Yet, not everyone will reap the benefits of His gracious work, “For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:14NAS). How, then, do the eternal benefits of Christ’s work become ours?
Union with Christ by Faith
God set His love on the elect “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), but the bond of love between Christ and the objects of His love remains incomplete until the believer unites to Christ by faith. In love, saving faith embraces Christ and His righteousness alone for eternal life, forsaking the trust of any possible saving righteousness of our own.
Scripture depicts the union of Christ and believers as a marriage. When a man and a woman legally unite in the bond of love and become one flesh in the sight of God, all that belongs to the bride becomes the possession of the groom, while all that belongs to the groom becomes the possession of the bride. In the same way, faith unites the believer to Christ in the bond of love and the two legally become one flesh in the eyes of God. United to Christ through faith, our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross when He suffered the Father’s infinite wrath for our sin, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The righteousness of Christ that satisfied God’s just requirements for eternal life is legally imputed or credited to the believer. “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Justification by Faith Alone Upholds God’s Perfect Justice
Christ “demonstrated” God’s “righteousness” by paying the penalty for sin on the cross in order that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
The law as a means of justification remains entirely contrary to justification by grace through faith alone, but only because its requirements could only be met by Christ. In this way the standard and requirements of God’s justice remain intact. Thus we read, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).
[Jesus] No Other Way
Therefore, “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16), and “there is salvation in no one else” and “no other name under heaven given among men [Jesus] by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). God’s strict and inflexible justice cannot allow salvation any other way. All distortions and denials of the Gospel, including all religions of works righteousness, stand on the denial of God’s unchanging and perfect justice and Christ’s perfect work to satisfy it. “If righteousness comes through the Law” (i.e., by sinners keeping of the Law), “then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). A false Gospel, then, insults God as righteous and Christ’s perfect and saving work as savior.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:7-9).
And so it is that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Its strict requirements pushed us to Christ, who satisfied its requirements on our behalf, that we might be covered in His righteousness and stand “blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
—Adapted from Craig Biehl, God the Reason: How Infinite Excellence Gives Unbreakable Faith, Carpenter’s Son Publishing, 2015.
Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
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Craig Biehl received his A.B. degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, M.B.A. from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. Craig is the author of The Infinite Merit of Christ: The Glory of Christ’s Obedience in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards; Reading Religious Affections: A Study Guide to Jonathan Edwards’ Classic on the Nature of True Christianity; The Box: Answering the Faith of Unbelief; God the Reason: How Infinite Excellence Gives Unbreakable Faith; and, the Unbreakable Faith online course. Craig and his wife Angelica live in Pennsylvania where they are happily involved in various ministries and most happy to be redeemed in Christ. The Unbreakable Faith online course, as well as Craig’s blog on issues of apologetics, worldview, and various theological topics can be found at http://www.pilgrimsrock.com.