We start off this lesson on "justification" by noticing something which many people, including some professing Christians, cannot explain. We can observe this problem in "good people" generally, but let's look at a particular example, a man named Cornelius. We read of him in Acts 10:22, where he is described as "a righteous man".
Synonyms: Made accepted, deemed righteous, counted worthy
Greek References: dikaiosis 1347 (Strong) cf 1342-1349
Scripture: Rom 1:16-17, Rom 3:23-28, Rom 5:9,18, Titus 3:7, James 2:24, 1Jn 3:7
Related ideas: Sufficiency, uprightness, faith and obedience, sacrifice
Synopsis: Justification in God’s sight requires sufficient righteousness, sacrifice, suffering, and commitment. Like Cornelius in the Bible, we cannot have this sufficiency, and we cannot be justified, without Jesus Christ.
The people who knew Cornelius said he was a "just" or upright man. But they were not alone in that opinion. God thought so too. The Holy Spirit has already described Cornelius as "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always" (Acts 10:2). When the angel appeared to Cornelius, the angel said, "Cornelius! Your prayers and alms have come up for a memorial before God!" (Acts 10:3-4).
This introduces a problem. If Cornelius was such a righteous man, if he was "just", why did the angel of God then tell him to "Send for Simon Peter who will tell you words whereby you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:13-14)? Can you explain that? Why did Cornelius need to be saved when he was such a good man in the sight of both God and men?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of God. "God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all" (1Jn 1:5). The Bible refers to that as the "glory" of God. God’s glory is absolute, perfect.
The Bible clearly states that even good people like Cornelius do not attain to the glorious light of the absolute righteousness of God. "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God..." (Rom 3:23) That included Cornelius. He was good, he was very very good, but he fell well short of perfection. So he needed to be "saved".
You can easily see that Cornelius did not need to be saved from his goodness. What he needed to be saved from was his shortfall or insufficiency. He fell short of the glory of God, and the consequences of that were horrendous. Again the Bible is clear: "Death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Rom 5:12). That includes Cornelius. He was a good man in so many ways, yet he had sinned, and therefore died. (Of course that does not mean he was dead physically, but spiritually. In other words he had lost eternal life, and was facing eternal death. That's why I used the word horrendous.)
We have asked why a good person needs to be saved. We have answered by showing that for all the goodness there is a shortfall or insufficiency in that goodness. But that answer is not a solution. How can this shortfall be rectified? How can we be seen by God as sufficient without his having to lower his standard? We cannot do it by trying harder. We should try harder (Php 2:12-13), but that won't in itself justify us or make us perfect. How then can we be justified and made right in God’s sight?
There is only one possible way. There has to be Someone else whose righteousness is seen by God as perfect and who, in some way, can have that righteousness imputed to us. But is this possible? And whose would be the sufficiency imputed to us? Well of course as we all know, it is the righteousness of Christ and his willing sacrifice on the cross that allows us to be forgiven and justified (Rom 3:23-26).
"For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Him God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance. Thus God demonstrates his righteousness at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus." Romans 3:23-26