In the hymn “Rock of Ages,” Augustus Toplady wonderfully pictures what it means to come to Christ. At one point he writes, “Nothing in my hand I bring / simply to the cross I cling.” In a more modern hymn, Charitie Lees Bancroft writes,
Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea;
a great High Priest, whose name is Love,
who ever lives and pleads for me.
These are wonderful lyrics, which give expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Both hymns are sung fairly regularly in our church, and each time they are sung I have to wonder whether we are singing them with understanding.
Job asked a most important question: “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2) Stated another way, the psalmist asked, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). There is no more important question than this. How do you answer?
If you answer any way other than “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone,” then you are have not believed the gospel. That is, you cannot stand. The false prophets of Jeremiah’s day promised peace when there was none (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11), and there is an ever-present danger of assuming that we are at peace with God when, in fact, we are not.
There are two approaches to salvation: human achievement or divine accomplishment. The latter is what we mean by “justification by faith alone.”
For many—particularly in church circles such as our own—this may appear to be a given, but I would suggest that we often obscure this gospel truth. We tend towards legalism. Though we deny it verbally, there can be a subtle emphasis on righteousness within, from or provided by us rather than a righteousness from outside of us. This can have several devastating results.
In some cases, it results in smug self-righteousness. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14), the Pharisee smugly prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” The humbler tax collector “went down to his house justified rather than” the Pharisee, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In other instances, this self-righteous tendency leads to presumptuous self-confidence. Paul recalled such an attitude in his own life prior to conversion. In his letter to the Philippians, he writes, “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” He once considered these to be hallmarks of his standing before God, and it was only when he had a real encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ that he realised the futility of these things.
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
In the lives of others, the subtle emphasis on self-righteousness results in joyless introspection. There was a woman in the church in which I was raised who had one of the most beautiful singing voices I have ever heard. She once told me that, at one time, she never used to sing. The reason, she said, was because she always battled with assurance. The problem was that she was so inwardly focused that she could never find joyful assurance. When she finally grasped the truth of justification by faith alone, and realised that her assurance was in Christ and not in herself, her joy broke forth in song.
Consider how we can pervert the gospel—even as we profess to affirm justification by faith alone. If we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of believing that justification comes by faith plus baptism, or church attendance, or church membership. To be sure, baptism, church attendance and church membership are important aspects of the Christian life, but none of those things secures a right standing before God.
On the other hand, we can practically affirm the gospel of faith plus sanctification. That is, we can fall into the trap of believing that our growth in grace somehow adds to our standing before God. Similarly, we sometimes are tempted to believe that works or wilful effort somehow makes us more accepted to God than faith alone. These are temptations that we must resist!
We stand before God for one reason only: because Jesus stands (sits!) before God on our behalf—and, by faith alone, we embrace this. That is, we believe that Jesus stands in our place. This is the gospel—the good news of what God has done for believing sinners in Christ Jesus.
We need to be grounded in justification by faith. It is, as someone has said, “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” It is also the doctrine by which the Christian stands or falls. Paul understood this, and so he wrote passionately about this doctrine in the book of Romans.
In this study, I wish to briefly examine Romans 3:19–25 and consider some of the practical considerations that we need to know as those justified by faith alone. From 1:16 until this point, Paul has argued that all—Jew and Gentile—are guilty and therefore under God’s wrath. No self-justification will suffice. In our text, he sets forth at least at least five the essentials of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Righteousness We Cannot Deliver
In vv. 19–20, Paul shows that God demands a righteousness that we cannot possibly deliver. He writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
The terms “righteous” as it is used in relation to our standing before God describes that which is straight, upright, or innocent. It speaks of actions and attitudes that conform to a set standard—God’s standard (as defined in His revealed law).
The term “justified” speaks of one’s actions and attitudes being “judged” or “reckoned” as pleasing to God. When this is true, it can be said that the individual is “justified”—declared righteous.
We should note that to be justified—to be declared righteous—means more than simply being declared innocent. When he was created, Adam was innocent (never having sinned) but he not righteous—at least not as we are defining the term. Because he had never sinned, he had no need to be declared righteous. There was no sin from which he needed to be saved by faith—at least not initially. To be justified necessarily implies that we have fallen short of the standard, which was not true of Adam in the garden.
Paul has argued through his letter that no one can please God. No one can be accepted by God through obedience to the law—simply because no man can fully obey the law. The damning evidence of this is provided in vv. 9–18:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
“Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practised deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
We stand condemned. We should stand speechless (v. 19). Only our Advocate can speak on our behalf. God defines the righteousness He demands—and we certainly can neither deliver nor develop it.
God’s law reveals God’s character. Consider, for example, the Ten Commandments. The basis of the commandments (Exodus 20:3–17) is set forth in the preamble of vv. 1–2: “And God spoke all these words, saying: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’” The law was defined by who God was (“I am”) and what He did (“who brought”).
This is why our only hope is a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves. God’s standard is defined by God’s character, and since our character falls infinitely short of God’s, our only hope is if the God who defines the law provides the necessary righteousness to satisfy that law. That is why theologians speak of “alien” or “imputed” righteousness: It is a righteousness that comes entirely from outside of ourselves.
So, how will we come to this realisation? As someone has said, we must first pierce people with the sharp needle of the law before we bind them up with the scarlet thread of the gospel. Paul highlighted the proper relationship between law and grace when he wrote,
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
If we will be saved (justified) then we must look away from ourselves. When the children of Israel suffered God’s wrath in the form of poisonous serpents in the wilderness (Numbers 21), Moses—at God’s instruction—crafted a bronze serpent on a pole. Anyone who looked at the serpent rather than at themselves or those around them, were spared. Those who did not look to the serpent died. In the New Testament, Jesus used this event as an illustration of what it means to be justified: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). In order to be saved (having come to realise our damnation according to the law), we must look away from ourselves and others and look to Christ alone.
We should note that this applies equally to those already justified. Having been justified, we cannot now look to ourselves. We must keep our eyes firmly fixed on our Saviour. John 3:16 says that “whoever believes in [Christ] should not perish but have everlasting life.” The Greek tense could rightly be rendered, “whoever is believing in Christ shall not perish.” Our faith in Christ, by which we are initially saved, is an enduring faith. If we have believed in Christ initially, we must continue to believe in Him. On your best day as well as on your worst day, you are accepted in Christ alone.
Righteousness We Do Not Deserve
Second, we learn from Paul that God declares righteousness that we do not possibly deserve. He writes,
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Because all have sinned, no one can possibly claim to deserve the righteousness that God gives. That is why we are said to be “justified freely” (v. 24). Justification is not something that we earn; it is a gift given to us by God. Until we grasp this, we will never truly believe on Christ.
Paul speaks twice of “the righteousness of God.” Some translations speak of “the righteousness from God.” This rendering highlights the fact that righteousness comes from God; it is a gift given by God to those whom He justifies. Indeed, the gospel is God’s gospel (see 1:1–5).
While the law reveals to us our fallen condition and therefore our need for a Saviour, the righteousness of which Paul speaks comes “apart from the law.” That is, we are not responsible to deliver this righteousness. It is not a responsibility of law-keeping and therefore is not from us.
Interestingly, this righteousness was “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” The gospel was always the plan. It was never the case that righteousness was attainable under the old covenant by obedience to the law, but that it is only attainable by faith under the new covenant. Even under the old covenant—“the Law and the Prophets”—righteousness was a gift from God. Justification by faith alone is not a new revelation.
While the doctrine of justification by faith alone was evident under the old covenant, it is certainly clearer under the new.
Paul now makes it clear that “the righteousness of God” is given “through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” The means by which God graciously grants us righteousness is “faith in Jesus Christ.” And this is true of anyone who will receive that righteousness, “for there is no difference.” Contextually, there is no difference between Jew or Gentile. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Jews were openly exposed to God’s righteous standard; the Gentiles were not. That exposure, however, ultimately made “no difference.” Jews found it as impossible to meet the standard as Gentiles did. Righteousness, then, could only be granted graciously by God through faith in Jesus Christ. No one deserves it. It really is a gift. It really is God’s gift to undeserving, dead, disobedient, depraved, damned sinners.
But why must this faith be “in Jesus Christ”? The answer is because He alone has the righteousness we need. “For He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was Jesus Christ in whom God was well-pleased (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Even Pontius Pilate could find no fault with Jesus (John 19:6). Where we failed to meet God’s standard, Jesus succeeded. He alone has the ability to give us what we cannot attain ourselves.
Galatians 2:20 speaks of “the faith of the Son of God” (KJV). While most modern translations render this phrase “faith in the Son of God,” the older translation carries a subtle implication. As Leon Morris puts it,
“Faith in Jesus Christ” is certainly in mind. But there would be no place for the exercise of this faith if it were not for “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” and for “God’s faithfulness shown in Jesus Christ.” The right standing God gives is connected with His faithfulness and that of Christ, and it certainly is linked with the faith of believers in Christ.
Because Jesus was faithful we can have full faith in Him. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus Christ traces His lineage back to Adam, whom the text calls “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Adam was God’s son in by creation, though he fell through sin. I find it interesting that immediately after speaking of Adam as “the son of God,” who disobeyed God in paradise, Luke immediately shifts focus in chapter 4 to the Son of God in the wilderness, who was likewise tempted by the serpent, but without sin. The Son of God succeeded where the son of God had failed. And therefore faith in Him is well-grounded.
Christ merited enough righteousness for all whom He represented. Paul writes a little later,
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
He completely met the standard of God’s law, and can therefore, in every sense of the term, be called “righteous.” God gives the righteousness of Christ to believing sinners. With Paul, believers can speak of “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9).
But exactly what does it mean to have “faith” in Jesus Christ? Saving faith has three essential elements to it.
First, there is knowledge about content. There are certain facts that must be grasped. After all, faith has an object. These facts relate to our Creator (the God who sets the standard), our condition (the fact that we have fallen short of that standard) and our Christ (who has met the standard on our behalf). We must know these facts as they are stated in holy Scripture.
Second, however, we must intellectually assent to these facts. That is, we must agree with God regarding the facts about our Creator, our condition and our Christ. We must affirm that what God says is really true.
There is a vital third element, however. The first two elements—knowledge and assent—are important, but insufficient. Once we know and affirm the facts, we must move to the element of trust. That is, we must affirm that the facts are true not merely in general, but specifically of us. Personal trust and reliance on Christ is called for. You must affirm that you have fallen short of God’s standard, that you need a Saviour, and that the only Saviour available to you is Jesus Christ. You must depend on Him alone with everything you have (including your affections) and cry with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 8:9–14).
We must always be growing in our conviction that a right standing before God is completely undeserved; it is a gift. In fact, the reality of this should strike us more the longer we stand! The longer we are saved, the more we will feel the weight of our sin, and the more we will look to Christ to lift that weight.
Martin Luther once wrote to his young friend Melanchthon, “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” Luther was not saying that believers can live in sin, but that no sin that the believer commits is stronger than the grace of God.
As we sin, we ought to feel the very real weight of our very real sin, but if we have exercised faith in God, we should at the same time be assured, by looking to Him, that our faith is secure by the grace of God. We are “dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). God’s grace and love are able to overcome any sin of which we might be guilty.
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Righteousness without which We Are Damned
Third, according to vv. 24–25a, God delivers a righteousness without which we are damned. Paul writes that believers are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness.”
Justification by faith alone is no mere legal fiction. That is, God does not simply ignore the believer’s sin and pretend like it never happened. An actual transaction has taken place. God can declare the believing sinner to be righteous because God’s righteous demands have been satisfied.
When Satan tempts you to despair, and tells you of the guilt within, what do you do? Bancroft gives the biblical answer: “Upward I look and see Him there, who made an end to all my sin.” Because of Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection, our sin can be made an end of. We can be justified.
It is important, if seemingly obvious, to remember that God’s declaration is grounded in a historical event. God’s righteous wrath was satisfied when God put His Son to death.
In our experience as a church, a believer’s baptism is a joyous experience. When believers go through the waters, we rejoice with them. It is commonplace in our church to applaud when a believer has been baptised and is climbing out of the pool. Family members come to witness the event. Photographs are taken. Congratulations are sometimes offered.
I have often wondered how Jesus felt at His baptism. I would suspect, though I suppose I cannot prove it, that His baptism was perhaps one of the saddest moments of His life. When He submitted to baptism, He was identifying with sinners. For the sinless and eternal Son of God to identify with sinful, mortal men must have been a sobering experience.
The term “redemption” refers to a buying back; specifically, to a purchase in marketplace. In the sacrifice of Christ, God’s demanded price was paid in full and accepted!
You see, someone has to pay the penalty. The choice is really quite simple: It will either be you or Jesus? Do you see Him as dying in your place? In the Levitical priesthood system, the person bringing a sacrifice would usually lay his hand on the animal to be sacrificed, thereby identifying with it and signifying that it was taking his guilt. Similarly, we must by faith lay our hands on Christ, believing that He has taken our punishment, if we will be redeemed by God. Do you see that Christ has taken God’s wrath for you? If not, ask God to help you see! “My little children, these things I write to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation of our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).
To experience God’s declaration, you need His grace to enable you to express your declaration of allegiance. Seek Him! Ask Him! Knock and it will be opened! “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).
Righteousness that Cannot Be Denied
In vv. 25b–26, we learn that God demonstrated a (His) righteousness, which cannot be denied. The apostle speaks of the fact that “in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Salvation by grace alone is not salvation by fiat. That is, God does not simply declare the sinner justified out of nothing; rather, it is by a faith that is secure that God’s justice has been satisfied. These verses assure us that this is so.
Again, contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, justification by faith alone is not “legal fiction.” Justification by faith alone is based on the reality that God’s righteous demands have been satisfied. This is not a plan that man could have devised; nor is it one that he would have devised if he could have. Nevertheless, it is true. The work of Jesus Christ undeniably satisfies God’s justice and therefore it justifies God. The result is that our justification is justified!
Therefore, when Satan tempts you to despair, look upward to Christ who has secured your justification by satisfying God’s wrath. “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. . . . Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:10–11, 13). Through Christ, “we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). While Satan may yet stand as accuser, he can only accuse us to ourselves, and not to God, for by satisfying God’s wrath, Jesus Christ cast the accuser down (Revelation 12:10–11).
God’s righteousness has been satisfied. Believing sinners are therefore justified—and God is glorified.
Righteousness that We Dare Not Disregard
Finally, let us understand that God declares His righteousness, which we dare not disregard. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (vv. 27–28). There is no other way, and we dare not pretend that there is. What will you do with Jesus?
It makes all the difference to how you will one day stand before God. By grace alone, place your faith in Jesus—alone.