Text: Romans 3:27-28
We come to the conclusion of our survey of justification in Romans 3. We’ve talked about the guilt of the law and the propitiation found in Christ, and now we come to the conclusion of it all, that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” But what we need to notice is that this conclusion is itself supported by the observation that boasting is excluded. That means Paul’s argument runs like this: No one can boast because everyone’s guilt was atoned for in the same way and by the same person, by the death of Jesus the messiah. That can only then mean that we are justified by faith alone. In short, penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone are two sides of the same coin. They both imply the other, and they both mean that we must be humble and dependent upon God. The shorthand which Paul comes up with to explain this relationship is what he calls “the law of faith.”
The Law of Faith is Established
Now this expression, “the law of faith,” is a sort of play on words. Paul is using it to trump the other law, the law of works. He’s basically saying, “If you want a law, here’s one for you, the law of faith.” This is the same “law” that he says is “established” in vs. 31. So there are two laws, a law of works and a low of faith, and the law of faith overrules and disproves the law of works. And the law of faith excludes, it prohibits, boasting on the part of any human. So, the law of faith is “Thou shalt not boast.”
Boasting is a problem in the New Testament. Paul attacks boasters here in Romans, and he addresses this problem in chapters two, three, and four, and then he circles around again and warns the Gentiles not to fall into the same trap of boasting in chapter 11, particularly 11:20. This problem of boasting also comes up in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘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.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
This parable is important because it shows that it was possible to exalt yourself, even as you are participating in a religion of penance and sacrifice. Notice what the Pharisee boasts about—fasting and tithes. He’s bragging about how good he is at giving up worldly things! And this is still possible today. We can turn a strict and supposedly humiliating religion into a point of pride. But the law of faith excludes this kind of boasting just as much as it does outright Pelagianism.
I used that word, and so we should talk about it for a moment. Pelagianism is a heresy named after an early church heretic named Pelagius. He denied that man was a sinner by nature, and he denied that man necessarily needed grace in order to overcome sin. There’s much debate over the precise nature of what he taught and how he explained it all, but the idea of Pelagianism is clear enough. It means human self-perfection or self-salvation without any outside assistance.
But you know there have been very few actual Pelagians in history. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pelagius himself turned out to not quite have been the genuine article. No, instead what you usually find are semi-Pelagians. These are people who say, “Oh yes, I need grace. I need help. But once I have that, then it is still up to me what to do with that grace.” Sometimes you hear the parable, “God helps those who help themselves.” That is not a parable from the Bible, you must know. No, it reflects this semi-Pelagian mindset of man working with grace in order to produce his own outcome.
And so what’s the problem with semi-Pelagianism? I’ve heard it argued that probably the majority of Christians in world history have been semi-Pelagian. A lot of famous preachers and theologians over the ages have been as well. Why is this is a big deal? The answer is that semi-Pelagianism still contradicts the law of faith. Remember that Pharisee. If you had asked him if could do good works without divine grace, he would have immediately said “No, way!” But once he had that grace, or at least when he thought he had that grace, he was able to turn it into a new system of works by which he could say that he was doing such a nice job and much better than that other man over there, the sinner. Using a religious system that was all about the need for sacrifice and giving up one’s own possessions, he still found a way to exalt himself. Luke 18:9 says that he trusted in himself. And in doing that he missed the whole point and contradicted the religion which he claimed to hold. Semi-Pelagianism allows you to boast, and so it breaks the law of faith.
What the Law of Faith Proves
The law of faith is “No boasting,” and Paul says that it proves that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. That’s an interesting sort of argument. No one can boast, and so therefore justification is by faith alone. Paul reaches this sort of conclusion by considering the logic behind the law of faith. If we cannot boast, then that must mean something else, something more basic. It must mean that we are accounted righteous in the sight of God by faith and not by works.
Paul goes on to unpack this argument in Romans chapter 4:
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”
You can see the reasoning. If justification came by works, then it would be like wages paid to a worker. It would not be grace but debt. By contrast, the Old Testament itself taught that it was faith which counted as righteousness. Through faith our sins are forgiven, and being forgiven, they are not held against us. We cannot boast because we had the sins, and they were taken away due to nothing that we did but only God’s mercy. And that is what we are supposed to believe.
Now at this point, the contrast is clear in the text. Works, wages, law, and debt are all on the one side, and on the other are God’s grace, forgiveness, and faith. But what keeps faith from being a work? Don’t you “have to believe”? And so, isn’t that something you do, a very small work perhaps but a work nonetheless?
This is a reasonable question, and it is certainly understandable given the current state of teaching on this subject in the church. But the answer is no. Faith is not a work. It’s really like this. You get to heaven and St. Peter asked you to write out your answer to why you should get into heaven. And just like all good school children do before every test, you bow your head in prayer. Only your prayer goes like this, “Dear God, there is no way I am going to get this right. I need you to save me.” We could use a Biblical story to get at the same point. God tells Abraham that he’s going to give him a son. Abraham looks at himself. He’s almost 100 years old. “As good as dead,” Paul puts it (Rom. 4:19). And Abraham looks at his wife Sarah, and she’s long past the time to have kids. But there is God saying that He will give them a son. And so Abraham says, “Um… ok.”
You see faith is trust. It is believing God. God makes His promise through His covenant, and He sends His son to keep that promise. Faith is believing that that works. It’s believing that that’s enough. It’s saying, “Ok, I trust you God.” The content of one’s faith is important, to be sure, but even a weak and confused faith will do the trick. At the bottom of it all, faith is not a work or the right set of ideas or even an articulation of those ideas. It is believing that He will do what He said He will do and not doubting that promise or getting tired of waiting on it or panicking and looking for other solutions. Faith is relying on God and not finding anything in yourself of which you could boast. I don’t think it is wrong at all to say that faith is the sane thing as obeying the law of faith. It’s turning from anything about yourself and trusting only in God’s work in Christ.
And this is what we mean by justification by faith alone. Faith is opposed to all works, all boasting, and all self-exaltation. In this context, faith must be alone or not there at all, because adding works to faith means that there is some level of doubt which you are attempting to satisfy with additions to God’s promise.
A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. In the next chapter, those works are compared to wages, and faith is said to be opposite of that. And in Romans chapter 10 Paul says the “the righteousness which is of the law” is found in “doing” while the “righteousness of faith” is in believing. And so “faith alone” is simply a synonym for “faith not works.” Paul explains this in Ephesians 2:8-8 writing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” And there we see the problem of boasting again. If faith were not a gift of God, then it might be a ground for boasting. But even it is of grace, and so all glory goes to God alone. Whatever you could possibly boast about, that thing is excluded by the law of faith. And this must mean that we are justified wholly by God. Therefore the law of faith teaches that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.
We have said before the justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. This is true. Justification by faith is a foundational principle which supports a number of other truths which we must proclaim. Justification by faith alone means that God does the saving, not us. Therefore God must get the glory and not us. It also means that we cannot boast, since we are all equal on the most basic level in God’s sight. It means the law of faith.
And the law of faith is what Paul then goes on to build upon in order to explain sanctification or holy living. Holiness of life is not in tension with justification by faith alone, it is founded on it! We can go out and be as rigorously moral and seriously pious as possible and not be self-righteous and not boast about ourselves over others. And this is exactly what Paul says we must do. We must consider ourselves dead and our lives enslaved to the demands of God. We must do what He says and not what we want to do. And yet in this fidelity, we are not legalists at all but rather free and humble men. Justification by faith alone establishes the law.
You see the gospel is about both forgiveness of sins and a new restored holy creation. We are to be both rigorously moral and pious, more holy than we are accustomed to challenging ourselves with, and yet we are also supposed to be humble, liberated, and joyful people. We are to have an extremely high moral standard and yet we do are not to judge others. And the only way that these things hold together consistently is because we are justified by faith alone because of the death of Christ on our behalf. God set all things right through His Son, and so we establish the law, the law of faith. Let us pray.