Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
“Justification” is law-court terminology. It is a verdict, a judicial finding that is made by the judge. It is a pronouncement that is made in regard to the law. If the judge finds you “justified” (or “righteous”) it means that you have not broken the law but have kept it.
In the Old Testament, God made covenant with the children of Israel. He became their God and they became His people. And He gave His covenant people the law of Moses. Righteousness was spoken of in terms of that law and that covenant. If you kept the law, you were considered “righteous,” which was to say, in good standing with God and with the rest of the covenant community. If you broke the law, well, then there was a problem that needed to be resolved, because it was a break in covenant and the fellowship of the community. So justification has implications regarding God’s covenant and the rest of the community that stands in covenant with Him.
The problem for all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, is that we have all “sinned.” We have all broken God’s law, and that was a big problem that needed to be resolved. For we will all stand before God one day in the final judgment. Who will be justified, receive a favorable verdict, be judged as righteous in that day? In that day, who will be pronounced a law-keeper, a member in good standing with the covenant people of God?
The answer Paul finds in the gospel is that all who believe on the Lord Jesus will be judged “righteous.” The good news about Jesus the Messiah is that we already know what that end time verdict will be. It has already been revealed ahead of time to us through Him: His death is reckoned as our death, and His righteous life is reckoned as ours. So shall it be reckoned on judgment day for all who belong to Him.
In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign that marked out who the covenant people of God were. If you were one of God’s “chosen,” you were circumcised. Without it, you would not be considered a member in good standing. However, in Paul’s day, there were some Jewish Christians who were trying to carry that over into the new covenant we have in Jesus the Messiah: If a gentile believer in Christ wanted to be in good standing with God’s covenant people, then he must be circumcised. That would identify him as one of the “righteous,” the “justified,” who would receive a favorable verdict on the day of judgment.
Against that, Paul rendered an emphatic No! It is not circumcision or Sabbath keeping or any works of the law that indicates who will receive God’s favorable verdict on judgment day. Rather, it is faith in the Lord Jesus that now points us out as God’s covenant people — people of the new covenant God has cut in the blood of Jesus the Messiah — who will stand in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5)
What will the verdict be for us when we stand before God on judgment day? We already know, because it has already been revealed to us in Jesus the Messiah:
Justified — fit for fellowship with God and His people!
Righteous — in right relationship with God and His people!