Why Justification by Faith Alone?

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This past Friday was the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Saturday was All Saints Day, and so we celebrate both today. You might ask why we celebrate one, the other, or both. Well, the two days are historically united. They go together. Martin Luther chose the eve of All Saints Day to begin his public dispute. The date had symbolic relevance. He wanted to talk about what it means to be a saint and, really, how one is saved. Because of the power and success of the Reformation, the two days continue to be united in their theme. We are today celebrating the work of those Christians who have gone before us to proclaim the gospel and to bear witness to the power of Christ unto salvation to all who believe, including the Reformers. We celebrate both days because we believe that both days, rightly understood, proclaim the power of that gospel and the glory of God as He has been at work in history.

The Protestant Reformation dealt with lots of issues, but the main one, the only real bottom line, was the doctrine of justification. How a man is made right with God, and subsequently how he becomes a saint, are both answered by this doctrine. Protestants make their stand on this issue because the Bible makes its stand there too. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Justification by faith alone is a central and essential teaching of our faith because it points us back to Jesus, the cross of Christ as the exclusive ground for our acceptance by God. This truth underlies all other teachings on salvation, the church, and Christian living. John Calvin called it a lynchpin upon which all else turned. Martin Luther said it was the article of a standing or falling church. This is true, as we said, because it directly informs our understanding of God in Christ— not only Who He is, but How He works. It tells us how we can know Him.

But I wonder, do we still believe this doctrine is all that important or interesting or does it strike us as a little passé? It is probably true that some pastors have overcooked this topic. They parse every question and sub-question in order to show how their tradition has a unique and essential interpretation. Others spend all their time arguing that their opponents cannot be Christians. All in all, what ought to be a dynamic and powerful teaching on God’s power and grace turns into a graduate school course in abstract theology. The prime rib becomes beef jerky. And this is a great tragedy.

You see, justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. No it is a means to explaining several other things, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the redemption of sinners, the doctrine of the church, the role of the moral law in the life of believers, and even the end times. The point is not to dot all our I’s and cross our T’s, but to see that God is here, really here, and that He works directly and immediately in order to bring about His purposes. Justification by faith alone is a call to believe.

In order to give us a right perspective here, I’d like to spend a few weeks in chapter 3 of the book of Romans. This is the lectionary text for Reformation Sunday, but it is also a nice summary statement of Paul’s overall doctrine of justification, and it sets the ground for the rest of what he has to say. There are three basic points. These are: the universality of human guilt, the role of God’s own justice in our salvation, and the universality of humility which is called for as a response to this salvation.

The Universality of Human Guilt

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. (Rom. 3:19-20)

The book of Romans takes a specific pastoral question, how Jews and Gentiles ought to coexist within the new Christian community, and shows how the answer to that also explains the rest of salvation. The “law” in context is the law of Moses, but Paul does not limit its relevance to Jewish concerns but rather focuses on the universality of guilt as such. He presumes that those “without the law” are also guilty, because they do acts which their consciences condemn (Rom. 1:32, 2:12). But Paul then adds that the Jews are also guilty because possessing the law only makes the situation worse. “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). The presence of the law brings “the knowledge of sin.”

The law brings guilt. It would surely have been otherwise in a world without sin, but none of us will ever live that kind of world. As it is, whenever we hear “Thou shalt not,” there is an inward tendency in us to immediately try do it or at least to question and press the boundaries. Later on in Romans Paul says, “sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me an evil desire… when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” (Rom. 7:8,9). When the law appears, the first thing we do is fight it.

We will have much more to say about this point next week, but for now I just want you to look in the mirror. How do you respond to being told no, to being told that you cannot do something? You don’t like it, do you? No one does. And the chief reason that we do not like being told not to do something is that we do not like having to submit to authority. The best way to prove that we are in charge is to break that rule and prove that we can do it and that we can get away with it. That’s what sin is. It’s an attempt to show God that we can do what we want to do. And this is our guilt. Every time we chafe under the law, our hearts betray us, and our true selves show up.

Paul’s intention in making this argument is to level the playing field between Jew and Gentile. He is saying that the Jews share this rebellious desire with the Gentiles and that, therefore, “all the world may become guilty before God.” This remains true to this day. While we do not have the same sort of questions regarding the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church, we do still have guilty sinners who judge others. And so the message of the law continues to be relevant to us today. Don’t we still look at our neighbors and say, “Boy, he’s messed up,” or, “Well sure, I have my problems, but at least they aren’t as bad as his!”? Don’t we always manage to explain why our sins are typical, understandable, and not really that big of a deal, while the other guy’s sins are the bad ones? Whenever you begin to measure yourself over and against other people, you need the law. In the eyes of God, you are guilty. You deserve punishment. You deserve Hell.

God’s Justice in Our Salvation

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. (Rom. 3:21-22)

Now isn’t this an abrupt change of topic? The “righteousness of God” is revealed—why is that relevant to a discussion of our salvation? Ah, because it is precisely God’s righteousness that is at stake when sinners are not condemned. You see, we are so used to talking about “our” salvation, that we forget why condemnation ever existed in the first place. It is because sin is evil. It is unjust. It ruined the world. And any sort of righteous God who was worth being worshiped had to do something about that. He had to take a stand. He had to judge evil.

That’s what the righteousness of the law is. It’s God’s condemnation of evil. Those who are just are vindicated for doing right, and those who are unjust receive their proper punishment. This is how law is supposed to work, and the bad news is that on these terms we are the bad guys. Since we all sin, we get what we deserve. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The right thing to do is to send us to Hell.

And yet, somehow, God shows His righteousness in a different way. He doesn’t brush over evil or fail to speak the truth. But He still makes a way for us to be forgiven and redeemed that is consistent with His character. He justifies us through the work of His Son, Christ Jesus:

There is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being 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, because 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. (Rom. 3:22-26)

This is a huge passage. It contains multitudes, and we will spend another sermon in the coming weeks unpacking its various statements. For today we will only address the big picture here. God demonstrated His own righteousness in the way that He justified us. He did this by placing the just punishment on Jesus.

That big strange word “propitiation” is very important. While you probably don’t ever hear it anywhere other than in church, you need to know what it means. A propitiation is anything that satisfies wrath. Wrath is not just an intense feeling, but judgment against evil. And so what we mean by this expression is that Jesus did the thing which would have fallen onto sinners, he took the judgment of “evil” and the punishment of death. It was through Christ’s blood that the righteous judgment of God was made manifest. And it was through Christ dying in our place that we can be spared this judgment. We are justified even though, especially though, we don’t deserve it. We are justified because God took the punishment Himself.

This ties into justification by faith alone because nothing else but God dying in our place will do. That means that nothing we can do will do. We must believe that God has done it for us, through His Son, and that is all we can do. Justification by faith alone is not a call to believe in some elaborate doctrine where everything has to be explained in just the right way. It’s a call to believe that God took the punishment for us and that settles the matter. He did this so that He could forgive us and still be just. He did all this so that “He might be the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” This is what we are called to believe.

The Universality of Humility

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. (Rom. 3:27-28)

This third point is also telling and for two reasons. Paul once again levels the playing field. Just as we are all guilty before God in relation to the law, we are all humbled because of the work of Christ. His grace is free to all. There are no conditions other than to believe, and there are no extra works by which we prove ourselves. The whole point is that we cannot prove ourselves but should instead turn to Christ. Anyone who does this is equally accepted by God. This means that no one can boast.

This law against boasting is relevant for forgiven sinners, and in just the same way as the condemnation of the law is relevant. You see, once we finally admit the depths of our sinfulness we immediately try to find self-righteousness through that confession. “Yes, we are sinners, but hey, at least we admit it! At least we’ve got our theology all straightened out!” This is sin too, and it’s a good warning against boastful celebrations of the Reformation. Any sort of taunting of “Go team go!” betrays the very confession we are supposedly making. Just as we are not saved by our works, we are not saved by the works of our favorite theologians and pastors. Neither are we saved by our own theological sophistication or religious precision, no matter what we claim to be saying. If we do not have humility we do not have grace. We do not have the gospel. And so there can be no boasting, neither in our works, nor our understanding of guilt and grace. There can only be a humble gratitude for forgiveness.

The other interesting aspect of this section is how Paul again argues for justification by faith alone. He says that boasting is excluded and “therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart form the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Whatever justification by faith means for Paul, it means that no one gets to boast. The fact that no one gets to boast demonstrates that justification occurs only by faith. Nobody is did a better job than anybody else. No level of moral exertion, hard work, or even good intentions changes the picture. The work was all on God’s side. Ours is to believe.

Conclusion

To celebrate the Protestant Reformation is to celebrate justification by faith alone. Any other kind of Reformation Day would be missing the big picture. And this means that the only way to celebrate Reformation Day is humbly, focusing on the all-sufficient grace of God which saves sinners. It is to celebrate the fact that God and God alone brings about our redemption, and this means that it is God and God alone who is responsible for the lives of His people and the good works that they do. Whatever the saints do, they only do because God works in and through them to do His good pleasure. His grace makes them saints in the first place.

True justice—righteousness— is a reflection of God’s own character, His kingdom, and His rule. Even though we want this and desire it, we also hate it and rebel against it because it speaks the truth about who we are. We are sinners. And so it is only through the righteous work of Christ on the cross and God’s free grace in accepting Him in our place and us in His that we can be saved. God is both just and the justifier. We must believe.

And that belief must lead us to worship. Since God does all the work, we have nothing to boast about. We are all alike condemned and all alike humbled by this grace. And so we should show our grateful response to this by falling down before God and giving Him praise, honor, and glory. Justification by faith alone is really justification by God alone. Let us look to Him alone, and let us pray.

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