“Ruthless, barbaric, and depraved.” This is a healthy reaction to the reading of Herod’s decision to kill all of the male children in Bethlehem who were age 2 and younger (Matt. 2:16). He was angry about the news of the birth of Christ and was seeking to destroy him.
But the event prompts another reaction when considering a few questions. What if Herod had succeeded and killed Jesus at the age of 2? Would this affect our salvation and standing before God? What’s the difference if Jesus lived 2 years or 33?
If Jesus would have died at 2 years of age then it would directly change things for us. Chief among these changes is the reality of our justification.
Justification is the glorious doctrine that sinners are declared righteous before God. It is an instantaneous declarative act whereby God says that one who is guilty of sin is declared to be perfect in his sight based upon the merit of another, namely our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:18-5:1).
Is this just semantics?
Someone might object claiming this is just a matter of semantics. Certainly, justification is being declared righteous. But this comes from the death of Christ, what difference does it make if this death happened after 30-plus years or within the first 2?
It is far more than semantics. God’s requirement for us is absolute perfection. Failing to meet this standard is sin (Rom. 3:23). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Jesus comes to be our substitute. Immediately we think of this when we think of Christ dying for us on the cross (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus, the lamb of God, offered himself in our place to take away our sin (John 1:29). He endures and satisfies God’s wrath in order to take away the guilt we incurred by our sin.
What does this have to do with justification?
Where is the basis for God declaring a sinner to be just (or righteous)? Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). His obedience to the Law of God was in order to acquire or earn righteousness for his people. He was born under the law (Gal. 4:4) in order to fulfill all righteousness (Mt. 3:15). If Jesus would have been killed at the age of 2—before living a life of obedience to God’s law—then there would not be righteousness to credit to our account. In other words, Jesus had to live a life of obedience before his death could mean anything. As R. C. Sproul says, “He had to acquire, if you will, merit at the bar of justice. Without his life of sinless obedience, Jesus’ atonement would have had no value at all. We need to see the crucial significance of this truth; we need to see that not only did Jesus die for us, he lived for us.” Without Christ’s full and perfect obedience to the Law of God, his death would simply remove our guilt but not secure our righteousness. We would be in a similar state to Adam in the Garden, without guilt but also without earned righteousness.
Without Christ’s full and perfect obedience to the Law of God, his death would simply remove our guilt but not secure our righteousness. We would be in a similar state to Adam in the Garden, without guilt but also without earned righteousness.
On the other hand, with the perfect life of obedience culminating in Christ’s death, we have our guilt removed and are credited with Jesus’s perfect earned and everlasting righteousness (Rom. 4:5; 5:1; 2 Cor. 5:21). Think about this truth: we get Christ’s righteousness! By grace, through faith, Jesus’s perfection is credited or charged to our account. By Jesus’s doing and dying for us we stand accepted, eternally righteous without the possibility of being condemned. We are united to Christ in a legal union, owning his deed to righteousness. It’s as if his righteousness is eternally stitched to our souls. And this did not come cheaply, he earned it with his obedience.
I usually don’t enjoy engaging in hypotheticals. But, in this case, it helps us to see the beauty of Christ’s work, especially the necessity of his imputed righteousness. You and I needed a substitute who not only died for us but also lived for us. Praise God we have just the Savior we need!