“…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.”
that a man is not justified
The word “justified” primarily sets forth the idea of to deem, declare or cause to be right. The standard for relating to God is God Himself. God cannot compromise His integrity. As an absolute being, He cannot do anything outside His character, nor can He live with anyone outside His character. Every person on earth, save one, has sinned (Romans 3:10,23). We all fall short of who God is in His righteousness.
Paul uses the word “justified” four times in verses 16 and 17. When we stand in God’s court, our Lawyer must defend us according to the laws of God, the laws that govern God Himself.
The word “justified” connotes the idea of receiving justification (passive voice). Justification is something that God does, not people. We do not earn or deserve justification for something we do.
by the works of the law
God declares people who believe Jesus died for their sins as right as He Himself is right, exclusively by faith, not works. God renders them as right as Himself the moment they place trust in Christ’s death as payment for their sin. God henceforth treats them as judicially right in His eyes. They are right because God resolved His justice at the cross.
but by [through] faith in Jesus Christ,
Paul uses a similar phrase, “by faith,” later in this verse. Faith is the instrument of salvation. There is no inherent merit in faith. The value is in the object of faith.
even we have believed in Christ Jesus,
“Believed” means to be persuaded of, and hence, to place confidence in. When we believe in Christ, we place confidence in or credit Jesus as the only One who can save us from our sins. We entrust our entire eternal future to Christ Jesus. He is worthy of our trust.
that we might be justified
The word “justified” is a causative verb in Greek. When we trust the death of Christ to forgive our sins, God declares or causes us to be as right as He is right forever. Justification is more than a declaration of the negative “not guilty.” It is a declaration of the positive of being as right as God is right.
by [out of] faith in Christ
When we place our trust in Christ, we come to the place of full persuasion that we can trust Him for our eternal future. We rely on His character. Faith in Christ as our object of belief makes our faith valid. There is no validity in faith itself but in the object of what is believed. He is the reason for our confidence. Jesus is entirely believable because of His person and work.
and not by the works of the law;
Even noble keeping of the law cannot make a person measure up to God’s standard because every person has fallen short of God’s righteousness (Romans 3:10,19-24, 28).
for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified
No quantity of keeping the law can bring a person to the point of justification. Three times in this passage, Paul declares that God justifies people by faith, and three times he affirms that God does not justify a person by the works of the law.
God’s own standard of absolute righteousness is the benchmark for us going to Heaven.
Any claim that God causes a person to be as right as He is right by works profanes God’s character. It is a standard far less than God Himself.
Some people think they are on sound footing with God if they keep the ten commandments. The purpose of the law was not to justify us but to show us our need for justification (Galatians 3). God never justified an Old Testament person by offering an animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifices merely illustrated the coming ultimate sacrifice. Neither does God justify anyone by keeping the laws of the Old Testament. The law only teaches us about the knowledge of sin and how it separates us from God.
We cannot go to a dying person and say, “Now you have to do more good works than bad to go to Heaven. You have to keep the ten commandments. Keep the golden rule.” There would be no hope for that person. “I do not have time to keep the golden rule. I only have a few hours of life left to live.” The good news is that Jesus will save poor, lost sinners at any point in their lives. The only way God accepts us is through pure grace.
Salvation is free of charge. God, who is undiminished righteousness, will declare a person who embraces the cross for forgiveness as righteous as He is righteous. This is not something humans can manufacture (Romans 3:10, 23). In the split-second we place our faith in the finished work of the Son of God on the cross, God causes us to be right in His eyes. God declares us to be more than innocent, acquitted, or pardoned. He declares us to be as right as He is. Only God can do that.