Eyes gloss over at the mention of justification. People think it’s intellectual fodder exclusively for pastors and theologians to discuss. “Give me the practical stuff,” the average Christian says. “Show me the parts of the Bible I can use.”
The thing is, the practical stuff is meaningless apart from justification. Christianity itself would be meaningless. What value is any religion that does not offer the means by which sinners can become right with God? What is salvation but God rendering a verdict of not guilty when one stands before him in judgment? “Justification is,” according to John Calvin, “the main hinge on which salvation turns.” Martin Luther adds, “When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen.”
If you need apostolic authority to believe the doctrine of justification carries this much weight, look no further than Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches. Skipping his usual commendations, he offers a brief greeting followed by this passionate repudiation:
I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Galatians 1:6-9)
Paul is dumbfounded either by the speed of the Galatians’ deception or the mere fact they have allowed false brothers to deceive them (Gal 2:4). Perhaps he’s shocked by a combination of the two. Regardless, they are turning away from the true gospel less than a year, maybe two, after first hearing it from the mouth of the great apostle himself (Gal 1:6). To say he is upset is an understatement.
In this passage, we find some of the most forceful language in all of Scripture. Twice Paul writes, “A curse be on him!” (Gal 1:8, 9). Let the one who perverts the gospel be anathema. May he fall under God’s wrath and suffer divine condemnation. Why? He and cohorts have twisted reality to suit their godless agenda. They distort the gospel of Christ, teaching a radical substitute (Gal 1:7). They call it the gospel, but it’s a heteros gospel, a message too different for any sensible person to confuse it with the original (Gal 1:6).
“False brothers,” Paul writes, “infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even a moment, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you” (Gal 2:4, 5).
What kind of teaching motivates Paul to issue these terrifying warnings? What could make him publicly oppose even Peter, an apostle with seniority who physically walked with Christ for three years, for deviating from the truth of the gospel? (Gal 2:14).
We find the answer in this statement: “A person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). By distorting the doctrine of justification, one destroys the gospel and deserves, according to Paul, God’s curse.
Even before we seek to define justification and well before we debate its nuances, we should recognize its significance. Found at the heart of Scripture, it is not a trivial, secondary doctrine of the Bible. Justification is the gospel itself for all practical purposes.