The Ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus
The Gospel accounts begin with the activity of John the Baptist. The time of fulfilment begins with John who is the end-time messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:17,76; 3:4). His preaching and baptism were startlingly revolutionary. He was calling his own people to repent and be baptised. John’s challenge came to those who prided themselves on being God’s people, having the law and being in a right relationship with God. They were the clean people over against the unclean Gentile sinners who did not even possess the law, never mind keep it. Calling such people to repent and be baptised emphasised the point that Paul was to make later, that Jews as well as Gentiles were unclean sinners who were unfit for God’s presence and to be members of God’s kingdom. Whereas the kingdom or rule of God was once associated with national Israel in the land of promise, it is now to be re-established and associated with the coming of the Messiah. In this way John ‘preached the good news to them’ and prepared for Jesus the Christ (Luke 3:18).
Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and associated himself with it. He also saw himself as the ‘Servant’ of Isaiah’s prophecy, who had come to seek and to save the lost, to give his life a ransom for many, by being ‘numbered with the transgressors’ (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12). Like John, Jesus clashed with those who thought themselves to be in a right position before God through birth and law-keeping, and he very pointedly declared that he had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). Like the prophets before them, both John and Jesus preached to their own people of sin and the need for a heart religion. The privileged status of the Jews as the people of God, appointed to bring light to the nations, could not be appealed to as the ground for acceptance by God and membership of the re-established kingdom. To be right with God and members of this kingdom they must repent and believe the gospel. This is nothing other than a revolution, involving a new spiritual birth (John 3:1-8).
The Pharisees and scribes, who were the upholders of the law, had to be shown that even they were sinners and that no amount of law-keeping could put them in a right legal position before God. Neither was the appeal to their natural birth, which automatically made them children of Abraham and members of the old covenant community, acceptable for entrance into the kingdom (Luke 3:8; John 8:33-47). Entry into God’s kingdom and a right legal position before him meant that scribes and Pharisees, as well as tax collectors and ‘sinners’, must see their need and sinfulness. The law was there to emphasise human sinfulness and to direct people to put their trust in the promise contained in the law. This is why Jesus was so hard on the teachers of the law and those who prided themselves on keeping the law. He sought to root out all hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Even the best of people are sinners by nature and by practice. Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘you are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts’ (Luke 16:15). A true recognition of the sinfulness of the human heart and a looking to God’s promised Messiah, the offspring of Abraham and David, is the only way to be justified. The new covenant, hinted at by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:6 and prophesied by Jeremiah 31:31-34 emphasises a heart religion, where all know the Lord and the forgiveness of sins.
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich man represents the religiously self-sufficient who have not appreciated the thrust of what Moses and the Prophets were saying. Lazarus represents the humble poor, like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, who believe and belong to the true children of Abraham (Luke 16:19-31; cf. John 5:45-46). Again, Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in direct reply to those ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else’ (Luke 18:9). The tax collector may well have been as materially rich as the Pharisee, but unlike the Pharisee who boasted of his religious observances, he recognised his own sin and need and looked to the Lord for mercy. This is the one who ‘went home justified before God’ (v. 14).
In the above example Luke has recorded a statement of Jesus which actually uses the word ‘justified’. What is implicit in much of Jesus’ teaching is here made explicit. God justifies, not the so-called righteous who have no awareness of sin and need, but the ungodly, the sinners, who look only to the grace of God. It is Luke, in his second volume, who also includes a reference to justification by faith alone, when he presents an early example of Paul’s preaching. As he comes to the climax of his message Paul proclaims the superiority of the gospel to the law. ‘Through him (Jesus) everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses’ (Acts 13:39). While the Mosaic law could never justify from anything, a perfect justification is provided by Jesus Christ to all who believe in him.1 Peter also insists, at the special church assembly in Jerusalem, that ‘faith accomplishes what the law cannot do’. He closes by showing that Jew and Gentile are in need of the same grace of God, ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’ (Acts 15:7-11).
While the ethical element, in the sense of doing what is right according to God’s will, is often present in Matthew’s use of ‘righteousness’ and ‘righteous’, this is not the whole story.2 ‘Righteousness’ can be described as a gospel righteousness. It is a righteousness associated with entering and submitting to God’s rule and for which one will be persecuted. It includes ‘not merely ethics, narrowly conceived, but believing Jesus and welcoming him as Messiah’.3 This righteousness focuses on Jesus who said to those in bondage to legalism, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:25-30). He came not only to set an example but ‘to inaugurate the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes’4 (3:15 ‘to fulfil all righteousness’), ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ (20:2 8) and to inaugurate the new covenant in his blood (26:28).
The fallen state of humanity in sin is assumed when Jesus says ‘if you then though you are evil know how to give good gifts . . .’ The call, therefore, is to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33; 7:11). Later, Jesus speaks of John the Baptist as coming ‘in the way of righteousness’ or as the NW interprets it, ‘to show you the way of righteousness’ (21:32). Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the realm of God’s saving power whereas the religious leaders, such as the chief priests and Pharisees, remain unrepentant and unbelieving.
The first of the Beatitudes demonstrates that the kingdom belongs to those who are ‘poor in spirit’ (5:3). Those in this ‘blessed’ or privileged position have come to the end of themselves. They are not necessarily financially poor but they are like David, ‘poor and needy’, and are looking to the Lord alone to save them (cf. Ps. 34:6; 40:17). ‘There is no more perfect statement of the doctrine of justification by faith only than this Beatitude’ writes Lloyd-Jones in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.5
The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, is not radical enough (Matthew 5:20). They do ‘acts of righteousness’ (6:1; lit. ‘righteousnesses’) to be seen by men. They have a self-centred piety in which there is deliberate self-conscious hypocrisy. Jesus castigates them with these damning words: ‘on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness’ (23:28).
Those who have received God’s righteousness and entered God’s kingdom ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (5:6). In other words, they yearn not only for personal righteousness of life, but that God’s kingdom of righteousness might come, and that his will might be done on earth. This is a theme picked up in 2 Peter 3:13 as the apostle looks forward to a new heaven and earth ‘the home of righteousness’. The ‘sons of the kingdom’ in contrast to ‘the sons of the evil one’ will ‘shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:38, 43; cf. Daniel 12:3). No hypocrisy will be seen in these righteous ones on that day when God separates the sheep from the goats. It will not be a case of looking to their good works to save them. The question which the righteous ones ask makes it clear that they did not do good works in order to be accepted. They showed from their hearts their love for Christ by loving his people (25:37-40). Righteousness is therefore a gift from God of a right legal standing before him, associated with Jesus and God’s will.
After Jesus emphasises the need of new birth in John 3:1-10 (cf. 1:13), our attention is immediately drawn to the love of God in Christ (3:11-18). Eternal life comes through looking to the heavenly Man crucified in the place of sinners. John comments that only those who believe in God’s Son have life. To believe on the Son means no condemnation. On the other hand, not to believe means that one is already condemned. ‘Whoever believes is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son’ (John 3:18). This is the verdict, and the condemnation includes the wrath of God remaining upon that person (John 3:36). The same truth is reiterated in John S where we are told that the one who receives God’s word through Jesus has eternal life ‘and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life’ (vv. 22-24). This means that they are in a right legal position before God here and now through faith in Christ. The future judgment is not ignored as the following verses in John 5 indicate. It will ratify what is already a reality (vv. 25-30).
All this reminds us of Paul’s statement that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Justification is a verdict in the present that a person is not guilty and will not receive punishment. While Luke presents the positive side in Jesus’ teaching on justification (‘he went home justified’), John records discourses which focus on the negative side of the same truth (‘not condemned’ and ‘will not be condemned’).
John 16:7-11 use terminology that is important to the subject of justification, namely, ‘sin, righteousness and judgment’. All three terms, it will be noted, are to be understood in relation to Jesus Christ: ‘because men do not believe in me’; ‘because I am going to the Father’; ‘the prince of this world now stands condemned’ as a result of the cross (cf. 12:31-33). It is, of course, a notoriously difficult passage to interpret and it is not impossible that more than one meaning is intended. The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is given as a result of Jesus’ departure and he will convict the world of sinful human beings, seduced by the devil, of its guilt which is spelt out in terms of its sin, its righteousness and its judgment. It is because the world does not believe in Jesus, who calls people to repent of their sin and believe, that the Spirit convicts the world of its sin and need.
Again, the Spirit convicts the world of its false and hopelessly inadequate righteousness. It was in the name of righteousness that Jesus was crucified. Because Jesus was going to the Father via the cross, thus marking him out as ‘the Righteous One’, the Spirit convicts even the religious, moral world of its unacceptable and useless righteousness. The righteousness that counts is that of our Advocate who is now with the Father, Jesus Christ and his atoning death (cf. I John 2:1-2). The Spirit also convicts the world of its false judgment. The world in its devilish blindness condemned Jesus. Because the ruler of the world, the devil, stands condemned as a result of the triumph of the cross, the Spirit convicts the world of its unrighteous judgment and that, in following the devil, it also stands condemned.6
Although John does not deal directly with justification in his letters, there are some verses which are important to the subject. In his first letter he deals extensively with the subject of sin. First of all he stresses the sinfulness of all, even of Christians (1 John 1:8-10; 2:1). We are all sinners by nature and practice. Christians can be commanded not to sin (2:1) because they are born of God, have God’s nature and are no longer in the same sinful state (3:4-9; cf. Romans 6:2). Nevertheless, because they are still sinners the atoning death of Christ (‘the blood of Jesus’) carries on its purifying effect in those who are truly living in fellowship with God (1:5-7). Specific sins need to be individually confessed and again, God is ‘faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1:9; cf. Psalm 143:1-2).
Is the word ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ merely another term for ‘faithful’ in 1 John 1:9? While some have argued this, there is no good reason for treating it as a synonym.7 The phrase is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 32:4, ‘A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.’ We must allow each word to have its individual meaning. ‘Righteous’ forms a contrast with ‘unrighteousness’ at the end of the sentence. Others understand ‘righteous’ as a reference to God’s saving action in forgiving.8 But this does not take account of the fact that God also punishes sinners. Here ‘righteous’ or ‘just’ emphasises the moral nature of God’s forgiveness. ‘Faithful’ reminds us that God is true to the promises of the new covenant in forgiving sins. ‘Righteous’, on the other hand, refers to the fact that God’s forgiveness is not at the expense of his justice in punishing sin. God has said that he will by no means clear the guilty: ‘he does not leave the guilty unpunished’ (Exodus 34:7). How then can God forgive and not punish sinners?
Forgiveness, in the Bible, cannot be divorced from its teaching on justification. It cannot be glibly said that it is in God’s nature to forgive. It is also in God’s nature to punish sin. Sin must be punished for God to be true to his righteous nature revealed in his law. Yet God has gone on record to forgive sin and purify the unrighteous (Micah 7:18-20). How can God deal with sin and yet forgive and make it possible for the sinner to be righteous? The only moral ground on which God could ever do such a thing is ‘the blood of Jesus’. The love of God provides for the covering of the wrath of God in addition to the purification of our sins. ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). Paul expresses the same truth in Romans 3:25-26. This is the way God can be both just and the justifier of guilty sinners who look to Jesus Christ, the righteous one, who paid the penalty due.
This subject is considered again in 1 John 2:1-2 where law-court language is in the background. Jesus Christ is ‘the Righteous One’, who ‘speaks to the Father in our defence’. John is fond of calling attention to Jesus as the righteous one (cf. 2:29; 3:7). In Jesus there is no sin (3:5); that is why he is righteous. The Son of God who lived in this world ‘in the flesh’ is in a right legal position before God on the basis of a life lived in conformity to God’s will. This is one qualification for Jesus acting as our Advocate. The other is his action in turning away God’s wrath with respect to our sins through his sacrificial death (v. 2). On the basis of his own righteous life culminating in the righteous action associated with his death he is able to plead the cause of those he represents in the heavenly court-room (cf. Job 16:19). ‘Jesus is supremely able to ask for that righteousness to be extended to all God’s children who are in fellowship with him.’9 The grounds of acquittal, forgiveness and of a right legal standing before God for all who belong to Jesus are, in other words, Jesus’ blood and righteousness. As a result of God’s love in Christ, God is no longer their judge but their Father (3:1-2). Adoption into God’s family and membership of the covenant community are results of justification.
The epistle to the Hebrews warns of the reality of the divine punishment and its justness (2:2; endikos means ‘based on what is right, just, deserved’; cf. Romans 3:8). The retribution is deserved. Those who despise the gospel are heading for eternal judgment and the curse of God (6:2, 4-8). They have no part in that kingdom which is unshakeable (12:25-29). The wrath of God is something to fear (10:26-31). Yet God is also revealed as gracious (2:9) in that his Son became the man Jesus in order that he might die to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17).10 This was the culmination of a life of obedience in which he delighted to do the will of God (5:8-9; 10:5-10). His love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness (1:9) ‘was the essential preliminary to his atoning death on the cross’.11
Melchizedek is portrayed as the type of the messianic priest-king, the king of righteousness and peace (7:2; cf. Psalm 72:2-7). To these two aspects of Christ’s character the prophets bear witness. Messiah is ‘the prince of peace’ (Isaiah 9:6) and ‘the righteous Branch’ whose name is ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-16). All this is fundamental to the gospel, which the writer to the Hebrews describes as the message or teaching about righteousness (lit. ‘the word of righteousness 5:13). Christ our righteousness is set over against the dead works from which we need to repent (6:1) and to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus (9:14).
Another crucial ingredient of the Gospel is ‘faith in God’ (6:1). This positive disposition of faith toward God balances the negative renunciation of dead works. It is only through the blood of Jesus, the new and living way, that we are able to draw near to God (10:19-22). Those who have a right legal standing before God live by faith (10:37-39) and many examples from the Old Testament are given for encouragement (11:1-12:2) including Abel, who was a righteous man, and Noah who ‘became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith’ (11:4,7). Clearly this righteousness is not the result of human works but is given by God to those who believe. This message about righteousness is nothing other than Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone, or to put it in the words of a 20th century French commentator on Hebrews: ‘the first Christian instruction involves initiation into justification by faith’.12 It is on this firm basis that the letter goes on to encourage Christians to ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (10:24).
I Peter 3:18 says something similar to what we found in 1 John and Hebrews: ‘For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’. Peter has Isaiah 53:11 very much in mind, where the righteousness of the Servant is contrasted with the sinfulness of those for whom he suffered. Reconciliation is, of course, the main point of the verse, ‘to bring you to God’. However, justification is the necessary foundation of reconciliation. The reference to ‘unrighteous’ is a reminder to the reconciled of their previous position before God. They are now among the righteous (cf. 3:12 and 4:18). In order for them to be in this new legal position before God and hence to be no longer alienated from God, Christ, the righteous one, suffered on behalf of the unrighteous. Earlier in 1:2 and 1:19, the blood of Christ is mentioned, while in 2:22, Peter refers to Christ’s spotless life, using Isaiah 53:9, before moving on in verse 24 to speak of his bearing ‘our sins in his body on the tree’. Christ is both their righteous representative and substitute. It is in this way, on account of his righteous life and atoning death, that these formerly unrighteous people now have a right status before God and are reconciled to him. They go on to live for righteousness (2:24).
In the book of Revelation John describes justification by using two very different pictorial forms. First, justification is symbolized by several references to white garments or robes (3:4-5; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13-14). In the Old Testament, Isaiah likens the righteous deeds of Israel to dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6) and yet at the beginning of his book there is the promise that ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’ (1:18). In Zechariah’s prophecy, Joshua the high priest is given clean rich robes instead of his filthy ones (3:3-5). His filthy clothes represent the guilt of himself and the people which God removes (cf. vv. 1, 4, 9). This typifies what God will do through his servant, the Branch (v. 8; cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15). In chapter 13:1 Zechariah also promises that in that day ‘a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity’. All this provides the background to this theme of the white robes in Revelation. The Laodiceans were spiritually naked and needed to purchase white robes to cover their shame (Rev. 3:18). On the other hand, the redeemed stand before God arrayed in robes that have been washed and whitened in the blood of the Lamb (7:13-15). What a powerful image, crimson blood producing white clothes! They are clothed in the righteousness of Christ which is associated with his sacrificial death.
The other picture of justification that John gives in Revelation is in chapter 12. Actually a number of Old Testament associations are brought together in this chapter that bear upon the subject. The reference to Satan the accuser of the brothers reminds us of the book of Job, particularly the heavenly court scene in the first two chapters. In Zechariah 3:1-10, besides the exchange of filthy for clean robes, there is the scene of the heavenly court where Satan acts to accuse Joshua the representative of God’s people. The picture we have in Revelation 12:7-12 is of the adversary, Satan, as a kind of public prosecutor. The war in heaven is ‘not military but moral and legal’.13 Satan represents justice and there is a moral conflict in heaven. Military might cannot remove him, for as long as there are sinners to be accused he has a legitimate case. Michael is ‘the defending barrister’, but he is not the one who gains the legal victory. The victory belongs to Christ through his death at Calvary. Sinners are justified on the grounds of Christ’s work alone.
This survey of the New Testament evidence has already included references from Genesis to Malachi but it is now necessary to consider in more detail the general thrust and important verses of the Old Testament relating to justification.
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.