In the Bible, the central characteristic of God is that he is holy, which means ‘set apart’ from everything he has made. All his other attributes are reflections of his holiness so that his love is holy love, his grace is a holy grace, and his wrath against sin is holy wrath. Because God is holy, he is rightly angry with everything that rebels against his character. Though we may feel ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ before God, the Bible’s unfolding story begins with the fact of human rebellion in Paradise and the judgment of the curse. God warned Adam in Paradise, “…in the day that you eat of [the fruit] you shall surely die” (Genesis 2.17); thus, spiritual death is the inheritance of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve. Though we are alive physically, we are said to be “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2.1–2). We are not spiritually sick; we are spiritually dead.
The need for atonement, or payment for sin, is based on God’s holiness and on universal human sinfulness. We don’t have the spiritual life we need to obey God and, even if we did, we cannot pay for our past sins which stand as a barrier between our souls and God. The gospel is that God provided the atonement—a sacrifice that satisfies his wrath against sin—through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. What we are unable to do, Christ has done for us. Through his death on the cross in our place he has atoned for our sins; through his resurrection from the dead he possesses that life we need.
Justification, then, supplies our need. When we trust in Christ’s atonement, not trusting in ourselves and our abilities but only in his grace, God freely forgives us (for God to justify a person means he declares a person to be righteous in his sight) and he grants to us the spiritual life that makes us alive and able to do what he commands.
Psalm 143 is important in this regard since it is a key text from the Old Testament that undergirds the New Testament idea of our need for “righteousness” as a free gift from God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death:
“Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143.2).Many people have the mistaken notion that the Old Testament taught ‘salvation by keeping the law’ and the New Testament teaches ‘salvation by grace.’ No! Both the Old Testament and New Testament are clear that, because of God’s holiness and human sin, salvation has always been by grace through faith in an atonement that only God can provide. The New Testament is clearer on the Person who provided that atonement but it is not clearer on the fact that only God can save people. When David said, “No one living is righteous before you” he was simply stating what is found in other places in the Old Testament—human beings have no ability to restore themselves to God apart from the Person and work of the Divine-Human Redeemer. Only God can make people righteous.
The gospel of Christ is written throughout the book God has given us, not only in some New Testament passages—its most basic elements are found wherever human inability and divine power are brought together.