Justification is Free, by God’s Grace, through Christ’s Redemption
Romans 3:24 ‘And are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’
Some sentences are packed with meaning and this is a prime example. These words are a forceful explanation of what the wonderful truth of God’s justification is all about. Virtually every word in the sentence is important, even the word ‘and’ that begins the text, ‘and’ linking justification with the universality and guilt of sin that Paul has set out in the famous previous verse. We are unrighteous sinners in the sight of God. There seems to be no hope for us, yet Paul says ‘and,’ not ‘but.’ Never stop with man’s depravity for that leads to despair. Depravity must be joined to the offer of the extraordinary grace of God that freely justifies every favoured sinner who believes. You might have come here today as low as you’ve ever been in your life, feeling your sin and guilt, conscious you have sinned against much blessing and knowledge, thinking that there can be no hope for you. God has brought you here to hear these words: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23, 24). Let’s examine these words . . .
1. JUSTIFICATION IS FREE
To justify does not mean to make someone righteous; it is not about changing the actual substance and character of a person. It is not that. It means to declare that someone now has a new status, a righteous status. It is a forensic and legal term. A criminal is accused of a wrong-doing. The magistrate hears the evidence, takes every factor into consideration, the provocation of the event and so on, and comes to the conclusion that he will find him not guilty, that he will declare him to be righteous as far as this case and this particular charge is concerned. He is not making him a good man; he is not changing his personality. He is removing him from the status of being the accused to a sinner being declared innocent. He is the same person leaving court as the one who walked to the court that morning, but what has changed is this, he no longer carries the guilt of what he was said to have done.
Of course with us the situation is different. It is not that we are alleged to have done wrong things; we’ve done them, many of them, really bad things, but we have come to God in our guilt and shame and acknowledged that to him. ‘Here I am Lord, guilty in my eyes let alone in your sight. I have erred and strayed from your ways like a lost sheep. I have not done the things I ought to have done and I have done the things I shouldn’t have done. There is no health in me. Have mercy, Lord; O Lord, forgive. Pardon me freely. Wash me, cleanse me, declare me to be righteous. Justify me, Almighty God. I confess my sins to you and your word says, “If we confess our sins you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The publican in the Temple cried to you, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and Jesus said that the man walked out of the building justified. May I leave this building justified today! The dying thief asked Jesus to remember him when he came in his kingdom. “Remember me O Lord,” I pray today. There are millions in need of you now, praying to you now. You are in charge of the galaxies of space and you satisfy the needs of every living thing. Please hear little sinful me and declare me to be righteous. While on others you are casting the garment of the righteousness of Christ do not pass me by. Naked, I come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace. Justify me, Saviour.’ So you pray like that, in your own words, and persist in praying. You will not let him go away; you keep speaking to him until he blesses you with his justification.
It is free, the apostle says. We are justified freely. We do not pay something or give something to be justified. We do not do anything to be justified. It is a free act of God which we simply receive. There is no barter, and no exchange. It is not that we offer something to God and he then checks it out and sees if it passes muster and then responds by declaring us righteous. It is nothing like that. There is nothing in our hands that we bring to the God who justifies to get imputed righteousness. Do we read that the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost took an offering and because of that they received forgiveness for crucifying the Son of God? Were they told to fast and to crawl around the Temple seven times on their hands and knees? No. Did the Ethiopian do something to receive pardon, or Lydia to have her heart opened by God? Or there was the Philippian woman possessed with a spirit of divination; what was she asked to do to be delivered? Nothing at all. Or the Philippian jailer? He was asked not to do something, not to harm himself, and that is all. Paul insists that this word from God about a justification that changes our status for ever and declares us to be righteous is given without money and without price.
Is there a religious ceremony that obtains an alien righteousness? Does baptism get it? No. The dying thief was not baptized and yet that day he went to paradise. Does speaking in tongues get it? No. Paul says categorically that not all Christians were given the gift of speaking in a language they didn’t know. Do the hands of a bishop on your head give you free justification? No, they do not, because many who were once confirmed have long given up any desire to believe in God. You can give all your gifts to the poor and give your body to be burned and yet be a nothing, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth.
This justification is received just one way – by trusting in God. It is not given to those who have faith in faith. No free-floating faith has ever justified anyone. As I often tell you, ‘Your faith didn’t die for you. It didn’t bear your sin and guilt. It didn’t rise again on the third day.’ In what, in whom are you believing? Our text ends with the words ‘by Christ Jesus,’ by what he is, and by what he has done for those who trust in him. You accept him as the Son of God and his finished work as the Lamb of God. You believe that that work of his was adequate, more than that, that it was super-abundant, once for always, final and all-sufficient for the whole of eternity. Let no one deceive you about this. To be justified freely by God, to be declared righteous and know that all your sins have been forgiven – past sins, present sins and future sins – you must believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. All your hopes now as well as in the future and even when you finally stand before him as your Judge – they are focused on our Saviour’s life and his death and resurrection. He is your all sufficient hope. So there is a free justification.
2. JUSTIFICATION IS BY GOD’S GRACE
The God who declares righteous a gathering of men and women as numerous as the sands on the seashore, all of them being justified and all of them heading for transformation into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ, this God has done something remarkable. He has given over-and-above. He has given in spite of. He has given his own dearly beloved Son on behalf of men and women who were his enemies, who showed their enmity by crucifying his Son. They deserved condemnation in the pit, but he gave them absolutely freely the righteousness of his Son, and he loved them as he loved his Son and will share heaven with them as he shares it with his Son. That is the grace of God. You can define grace as God’s unmerited favour. It certainly is that, but it is far more. It is omnipotence loving the most evil people in the world who repent and trust in the Lord Jesus. God’s grace has reached out to the vile and unthankful, to the uninterested and bored, to the shameful and the callous, to the cruel and proud, and this grace of God has drawn such men and women in repentance to the Lord. Let me give you three examples of grace that caused John Newton to append to it the adjective ‘amazing.’
(1) The parable of the labourers told by the Lord Jesus.
It’s harvest time and the landowner goes to the farm gate and he hires a group of men to work for him that day, from eight o’clock to four o’clock for sixty pounds. He hires a few more at midday, and then at 3 o’clock a few layabouts say to one another, ‘Fancy an hour of work?’ ‘O.K.’ and then they get up and go and ask the boss if they can do some work for him. He adds them to his labourers and so for one hour they work at the harvest. Then at four o’clock they all clock off for the day and to each one he gives sixty pounds, the same wage whether they have worked eight hours or one. The layabouts get the same money as those who have put in a full day’s work. These men who worked all day in the sun complain, ‘It’s not fair that they get the same as us.’ ‘But,’ he says, ‘didn’t you agree to work eight hours for sixty pounds?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then take your money and go. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?’ (Matt. 20:15). He was not being mean to those who had worked all day. It was a fair wage. He was being generous to those who had only worked one hour.
That is grace. The Gentiles had worshipped idols and followed the philosophies of men for centuries but when they trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation they went to the same glory that repentant Jews received who’d kept God’s commandments throughout their lives. The converted Jews had done nothing perfectly. All they had done needed cleansing and forgiveness even as everything the Gentiles had done needed mercy. Mercy alone takes us to glory. That is the grace of God.
There is the New York serial killer David Berkowitz (who was nicknamed Son of Sam) who shot dead six strangers and was convicted of their murders in 1977. In prison he came to understand the Jesus Christ had become the Lamb of God and that even the worst sinners may find complete forgiveness by Jesus’ sacrifice. He put his trust in our Lord and since then he has lived a changed life in prison. His website is full of his faith in the Saviour. He has changed his nickname now to Son of Hope. Some Christians can grumble, ‘He doesn’t deserve to go to heaven.’ They even say, ‘He ought to fry in hell for what he did.’ By such words they show that they don’t understand God’s grace. They think grace is what they deserve for living a religious life, and so grace is not amazing to them. Think of it, that today a murderer, David Berkowitz, is seated in the heavenlies in Jesus Christ with all his sins forgiven, while people who have lived entirely proper lives but have never seen that they need to be pardoned and redeemed and adopted into the family of God are as lost as lost can be, and that they are going to hell. That is God’s amazing grace.
(2) The parable of the prodigal son told by Jesus Christ.
Two brothers, one behaving as badly as a son can behave, compelling his father to give him his inheritance and immediately leaving home and spending the lot on wine, women and song. The other boy stays at home and helps his father run the farm. Then, finally, friendless and famished, the younger son comes to himself and thinks of his father and the possibility of getting a job back on the old farm. He goes home to the most loving fatherly welcome that you can imagine, not to a curt acceptance and a job digging ditches and shovelling dung while living in the servants’ quarters. No he returns to receive immediately all the insignia of sonship, and to be restored to the home and all the privileges of being this landowner’s beloved son. The wretched boy is given exactly the same status as his older brother, the son who had stayed home and been as good as gold, working for his father faithfully year after year, whom the father had taken for granted. The proper older boy is unimpressed at his father’s grace to his wretched brother. He was thinking like many of you. We would never do that. We would say, ‘You can’t be too careful. Look what once he did. He could do it again. Put him on probation. Let him come back, but as a labourer, and then if he proves himself over the next ten years he can be given a few privileges of sonship once again.’ It is nothing like that. The welcome is spontaneous and full-hearted. The father’s love is utterly sincere. The status of sonship is his from the moment his father says, ‘Put the ring of sonship on his finger and the sandals of sonship on his feet.’ That is grace. From now on he eats with his father and lives with his father and receives all the blessings of having this man as his loving father.
(3) The salvation by Jesus Christ of the dying thief.
How would you imagine a man had once behaved if he confessed that being crucified was a fair punishment for what he’d done in his life? You’d think that he must have been a very wicked man indeed and done the most unspeakable things. He was getting what he deserved. The prophet Zechariah’s congregation heard his preaching that God would turn to those who turned to him. We are told that they said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do’ (Zech. 1:6). What men sow is what they’ll also reap. The dying thief had sown murder and cruelty, and he reaped condemnation and crucifixion.
I am speaking, of course, of the criminal who was crucified alongside our Lord, the criminal who turned to his companion, the other condemned criminal who had been shouting angrily at the Lord Jesus, ‘Don’t you fear God? We deserve what we are getting, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he called to Christ asking him, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). He simply asked that in the whole administration of his eternal kingdom that Jesus wouldn’t forget him. He believed that Jesus was coming again, and that he was coming as a King, no longer as a condemned, humiliated, mocked man, and that he would know all those who had said a word of trust and repentance to him and also remember those who had hardened their hearts against him. Here was the omniscient king of the universe. What new faith this wicked man focused in Christ, at the eleventh hour! If only he had seen this years earlier!
What did Jesus say? Did he tell him that he must first go to purgatory for a thousand years and have all his guilt and shame purged out of him and that Jesus would encourage masses and prayers for his soul to be said for him which would shorten his time in that place of purgation? No, he did not. Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That is, heaven, being where Jesus was. After his years of terrible evils he simply came to see his own wickedness and shame and called on King Jesus to show pity to him, and the answer was not, ‘I won’t forget you.’ No. ‘You will this day be welcomed by me into Paradise.’ It all happened that day; he breakfasted in prison that morning; he hung with Jesus on the cross that noon, and by midnight he was with Jesus in paradise – it all happened that day. He was condemned by man that morning; he was punished by man that midday but that night God received him into glory with Jesus . . . ‘that where I am there you will be also.’ That is grace abounding to the chief of sinners, amazing grace, from the guttermost to the uttermost, and it is all through the Lord Jesus’ great achievements. It is that grace that justifies freely evil and hypocritical men and women like ourselves. Then there is hope for you today! So justification is free and it through God’s grace, and again . . .
3. JUSTIFICATION IS THROUGH CHRIST’S REDEMPTION
This is the first time that this word ‘redemption’ is found in this letter. It is in the New Testament only twice before our text, both appearances in the Gospel of Luke, so this is just the third time it’s found in the New Testament. For us it is very much a religious word, for example we find it prominently in book titles such as Redemption Accomplished and Applied – the great little book written by John Murray,1 or in our hymns, ‘Redemption, O wonderful story, glad tidings for you and for me.’ But there is also a secular use. Men speak of redeeming something that’s been pawned, or of redeeming a bond. There is the popular usage when describing a soccer player and his loss of form. For example, sports writers were grumbling about the inadequate play of the English striker, Wayne Rooney, but he had a better game the second time England played in the 2014 World Cup. He even scored a goal, so then those journalists wrote that ‘Rooney redeemed himself with his display.’ I am saying that in the first century when this letter was written this word was exclusively found in such non-religious contexts. It was spoken by ordinary people in their ordinary everyday lives. So it was eagerly seized by the apostles as suitable in explaining the Christian gospel to inquirers.
How did the ordinary man who walked the streets of Rome use the word? Of prisoners who had been taken captive in a battle who needed to be freed by their families. A ransom had to be paid and then they were redeemed by that price. The captives were released. They would be in chains for ever unless the price was paid. Then the word was also used of setting slaves free. Their masters might set them free, or well-wishers would pay a price for their liberty, or they might save and pay for their redemption. The end result was that they were redeemed from their slavery. It is interesting to note that the New Testament writers used a more elaborate form of the word than the common word for ransom, an unusual and a distinctive word selected to emphasise that our redemption through Jesus Christ the Son of God was no ordinary redemption, not merely one ransom paid among many that got freedom for the captive. Christ’s great redemption was different in the extraordinary price paid and in the vast numbers that were redeemed. So the very word for a redemption price was elaborated in the Greek from lytrosis to apolytrosis, and I am saying that that word that’s before us in our text was invented by Paul and the New Testament writers as a good, distinctive word describing the great ransom paid by our Lord. ‘It came by Jesus Christ’ says Paul in the last words of our text.
What is it saying about our new status before God? I think that a good way into understanding this is to consider the dialogue in John 8. Jesus is speaking to some Jews and he tells them, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ That last word ‘free’ really riled his audience. ‘Free? . . . Free?’ They turned on Jesus and they said, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ Then there came the devastating reply of the Lord Jesus, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34, 36).
Surely you all understand this, how men and women can become slaves to alcohol, and to drugs, and then to pornography, and to food, and to nicotine, and to gambling, and to spending money and running up a large debt, and to television, and even to such a simple matter as their tempers. A man’s outbursts can hurt his whole family. He is sorry and he vows to control it, but there is a provocation a few months later when he explodes in rage. Do you see that that man, just like the other addicts, isn’t free? As far as this passion is concerned he is a slave. So it is also with unbelief. Our town abounds in its number of slaves to unbelief. They do what unbelief tells them. They ignore Jesus Christ, his Word, his Spirit, his day, and his people. That sinful attitude is simply too strong for them. Everyone knows how to overcome a bad habit for a time. It’s not easy, but it can be done. But all our wrong attitudes to God and to others and to ourselves so that we change and love the living God mightily and we love our neighbour as ourselves and we don’t do evil – we can’t do it. It’s utterly impossible. We are told quite categorically, ‘they that are in the flesh cannot please God’ (Rom. 8:8). It is impossible because men are enslaved to their own pleasures. Again, ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14). He cannot understand the things of Jesus Christ because his sin obfuscates his thinking. In other words he can’t think straight. He can’t think truly. He can’t break free. To sin in thought and attitude and word and deed is to have become the slave of sin.
Our only hope lies in this, in the loving desire of God to free us from the bondage of sin. Our strong enemy won’t let us go, but God will pay the price of our deliverance. We can ask the Son of God why he left heaven and came to this world where all mankind are slaves of sin. He is anxious for us all to know and he spells it out in words of one syllable, ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). How did he do this? Paul gives the Galatians the reply, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”‘ (Gal. 3:13). He bore the curse that rested on us since the fall of our father Adam. He suffered in our stead. He took what was coming to us. He bore the curse that sinners incurred, and this is paying the price. This was an act of redemption. Paul tells the Ephesians, ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7).
The redemption has been completed. It was perfectly and completely accomplished. Every last penny was paid. The debt was totally discharged. Nothing is outstanding. Nothing more needs to be paid. Christ has shed his blood and the Father is satisfied. There are only two parties to the transaction. What Jesus did and how the Father responded. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is relevant. All your feelings and thoughts and actions can neither detract from that redemption nor add to it. It has all been completed once and for all by Jesus Christ. That is why he cried, ‘It is finished!’ Redemption has been accomplished by the Son of God.
4. THE IMPLICATIONS OF BEING JUSTIFIED BY CHRIST’S REDEMPTION
i] To those of you who are not yet Christians the implications are clear. Your sin is a very serious matter. It sets you in opposition to God. You are on a broad road with all the other slaves of sin and that road has a destination. It leads to a precipice. It is the edge of the bottomless pit and every day thousands and thousands of slaves walk up to the edge and find there is no return and over they go, and down and down they fall into hell. There is absolutely no escape from that destruction if you continue as you are. The Lord Jesus tells us that very plainly in the Sermon on the Mount. You are hopelessly and irrevocably lost, but you have been brought here today by the grace of God to hear of the one way that you can be declared righteous and escape that condemnation.
I speak as the servant of the Word of the Lord, and as a servant of the Lord of the Word, in order to tell you what God has revealed to us in his Word. A ransom price has been found; a ransom has been provided; a ransom has been paid that you may be redeemed from the horror of that slavish walk through life that leads to the lake of fire. That ransom was very costly; it was an enormous price, the death of the wonderful and beautiful and wise and holy Son of God, Jesus Christ. How reluctant the Father must have been to pay such a price to justify and redeem sick sinners, some of whom cried out, ‘Crucify him!’ and mocked Jesus in his torment. Yet God loved us so much that he did not spare his only Son from that accursed death that by him we might go at last to heaven.
What are you thinking? You must think. Let us do a check list. Tick some boxes. Think! Are you redeemed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you been justified freely by God’s grace? Are all your hopes of everlasting life in Jesus Christ only, in his cross alone? Do you plead simply the name of Jesus Christ for God to save you? What do you say? There is nothing automatic about redemption. Christ had died, but you may still end up in the bottomless pit. Don’t think that God has any obligation to redeem you, or that at any time in the future you may think you will be closer to God than you are today, and that then you will feel like doing what you are reluctant to do today, turn from your sin in repentance and entrust in the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ. You may be closer to God now than you will ever be in all your future years of time, until you are standing on the edge facing damnation. Deal with God while he may be found, and he can be found here and now where we gather in his name and he is offering himself to be your Lord and Saviour. He is pleading with you to be justified by grace. He is beseeching you to be covered by Christ’s great redemption. Do not delay. Do not listen to Satan’s weasel words that you are too young, that you are too unprepared, that you are not convinced enough, that you are not ready. The moment you know you are a sinner, then that moment you need a Saviour, and the only Saviour is the Lord Jesus Christ. Take him as he is offered to you in the gospel. Take him now – it is the opening of all the doors of your life to Jesus to be your Lord from this time onwards.
ii] To those of you who are Christians let me read to you some words of Peter. ‘Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Pet. 1:17-19). There are those opponents of a free justification, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, who warn us that such a doctrine will lead to license and antinomianism. ‘If Jesus has paid the penalty for all our sins, past, present and future, and we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and are going to heaven, then that encourages men to give God’s grace plenty of scope by continuing in sin so that grace may abound.’ But Peter here tells us what is to be the tenor and character of our lives if we have been redeemed from our empty traditions with the blood of Christ. ‘Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.’ In other words, all those who are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus, live their lives conscious they are pilgrims, that they are on the move, that they are heading home to their Father in glory. We are so like those millions of refugees from the conflicts of Africa and the Middle East, living in camps and under canvas. We are living far from home but we are sure that that heavenly home is our destination. We shall soon meet there.
I met an old friend this week, a former W.E.C. missionary in Japan whose wife died last year and I had not seen him to sympathize. ‘You’ve lost your wife,’ I said, ‘and I am sorry.’ ‘Oh no,’ he said to me quite strongly, ‘No. I’ve not lost her.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said again, ‘I was misinformed. I thought you had.’ ‘I haven’t lost her,’ he said, ‘she is with the Lord in the real world. Ours is just a fantasy world full of shadows. She is in the true world and I will be joining her.’ He had learned about living his life as a stranger.
‘Live here in reverent fear,’ said Peter. You might have expected something like, ‘Live here in joy because of your free justification and redemption.’ No. Peter is drawing their attention to the total miracle of a free justification and the redemption of Christ. Our sin had brought us into a hopeless position. How could we ever expect to be delivered from it? You remember the psalmist in Psalm 49 reflecting on how little can money buy the things you really need. The rich man is also on that broad road leading to the bottomless pit. He may be driving along in his Cadillac but he is going to end in destruction like everyone else. In this psalm we read, ‘No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough’ (Psa. 49:7, 8).
What’s the going price that will pay for the complete forgiveness of a person’s sins? What is the price of entry into heaven? What is the price of obtaining likeness to the Son of God for evermore? A half a million? A million? Ten million? For just one person. What would a man give for the redemption of his wife, or his daughter, or son? What must he pay as a ransom price to deliver them from the dominion of sin? The psalmist is right: ‘The ransom for life is costly; no payment is ever enough.’ It is more than you could afford.
He came! The Son of God came, not to be served but to serve us; he fulfilled all righteousness for us, and died even the death of the cross for us. What a cost! So we are called to live lives of reverent fear knowing that we were redeemed at such a price. Remember how Joseph lived his life a long way from home as a stranger in a strange country and in reverent fear of God. That awareness and that spirit kept him. It was the mark of his redemption. He said to his temptress, ‘How can I do such wickedness and sin against the Lord?’ Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.
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