17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
No one is justified before God by the law (Romans 3:20). There is no way to be made righteous by the law. The law can identify unrighteousness, it can establish the need for righteousness, and it can even display and reveal the nature of God. But the Law cannot change the heart. The heart has been corrupted and is not righteous (Romans 3:1-10). Only through the work of Christ is any person able to be made righteous. Indeed, no work can make the heart of man different or changed (Jer. 13:23). All self-righteous attempts to secure salvation must be cast aside. Our pedigree, religious affiliations, and personal history must be surrendered in favor of Jesus’ righteousness.
There is no one holy. Not one person merits salvation or deserves to be acknowledged as better than another. It does not matter how great a person is in the eyes of the world, “no one is righteous” (Romans 3:10). This truth is the ultimate leveling ground. When a community understands that no merit or effort can establish righteousness and that each individual stands condemned by their own works before a holy God, then there is no basis for hierarchy or preferential treatment. This would be a tremendous community of which to be a part! Consider for a moment what it would be like if your community truly lived in this truth. When someone sins or breaks covenant with someone else, the response to that fracture would be one of healing, not judgment. It would be a community in which everyone could strive to live holy lives without fear of constant condemnation. It would be a community that lifts up those who struggle and carries burdens for one another. This is what the church is supposed to be like.
In order to be redeemed, a person must trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ – that Jesus lived a perfect life, died on the cross taking the punishment of my sin upon Himself, rose again conquering death and giving me life, and ascended into Heaven securing His victory and my future salvation. Paul asserts that we “endeavor to be justified in Christ” (v.17). The term here translated “endeavor” indicates an active pursuit of something. It is the same term used when Jesus says, “seek and you shall find” (Matt. 7:7). A Christian seeks to know God and does so with zeal in the pursuit of His glory. A believer strives to know and be known by Christ. It is for this purpose that we strive to prove our justification is in Him alone! When the adversary or the world tells us that we are sinful, we rest in the reality that Jesus is Savior and our sins have been forgiven in Him. In this way, our “endeavor” is simply an intentional effort to conform our minds to the reality of salvation.
The Judaizers, however, insisted on obedience to the Law in an effort to attain salvation. So the logic follows, assuming the Judaizers are correct, that fellowship with Gentiles as Paul and Barnabas did in Antioch would be an actual sin according to Jewish law and thereby make Christians into sinners. So, Paul asks the question – If our pursuit of Christ reveals that we are sinners according to the law, does that mean Christ is somehow in service to sin (v.17 – paraphrased)? Immediately Paul answers, “Certainly not!” In posing this question, Paul presents a polarity between the Jewish conception of salvation and the truth of Jesus Christ. The Law cannot justify anyone. Trusting in Christ is the only way by which a man can be saved. So, in order to be saved, one must turn from self-righteous attempts of legal perfection and trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Thus, by trusting in Christ, our need for His righteousness is revealed and grace abounds all the more!
Oh, friend, I do wish that you would trust in Jesus’ righteousness to save you. I see you striving to be good on your own. I watch your toil and struggle to know and be known. There is One King who can rescue and redeem. One Lord who can remove your sin and make you clean. Trust in Jesus now and be free.