If you will please, go with me to Romans 3. Back home, a few of us have been meeting together each week to study the book of Romans, so the subjects and themes of this important book have stayed at the forefront of my mind.
The Just Shall Live By Faith
Before I read, let me briefly summarize what Paul taught in the first two chapters. Romans 1 began with an introduction where Paul summarized both the gospel and his primary argument. The entire letter centers around what Paul says in Romans 1:16-17. Reading from the King James Bible, he says:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:16-17, KJV)
The apparent question on Paul’s mind is, how do we become righteous? Immediately, he proposes that our righteousness must come from God. Not only does he say that our salvation lies in the gospel of Jesus Christ, but he also acknowledges that righteousness itself is of God. Another possible translation is, “For therein is the righteousness from God revealed from faith to faith.”
So Paul’s initial proposition, his opening statement is that sinners are made righteous and saved through the gospel of Jesus Christ on the basis of faith. Quoting Habakkuk 2, he says, “The just [or the righteous] shall live by faith” (Ro 1:17). In other words, the one who is righteous through faith in Christ shall live. Paul then spends the next several chapters proving that point, primarily arguing against those who are inclined to think that they can be deemed righteous before God by their own merits.
Of course, the good news doesn’t mean much unless we first know the bad news. If you want to sink into deep depression, all you have to do is read Romans 1:18-3:20 without reading any further. Paul condemns every last one of us.
In Romans 1, he shows the unrighteousness of Gentiles. At the beginning of Romans 2, he shows how moralistic people aren’t any better. In fact, they may be worse because they have a tendency to judge others without considering their own sinfulness. Then through the first part of Romans 3, he turns his attention to the Jews who are also unrighteous. Finally, just in case he missed anyone, he strings together about ten different Old Testament passages and says:
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre [or grave]; with their tongues they have used 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 have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them 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 there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:10-20, KJV)
Did you catch that last part? God’s law (all of his instructions and commandments) are not a means by which an unrighteous sinner can become righteous. We cannot justify ourselves before God by keeping his law.
Why? While God’s law will show us what righteousness looks like, it will inevitably condemn us at the same time. Paul says, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Ro 3:10). So when the unrighteous person compares himself to God’s perfect law, he’ll always be lacking. We all begin with a deficit from which we can’t recover. James wrote, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas 2:10). Any deficit means that we cannot achieve God’s demand for total and complete righteousness.
The question becomes, how then can sinners be justified before God? What hope can we have if “all the world [is] guilty before God”? (Ro 3:19). In short, Paul’s answer is this: “The righteousness of God [is] revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Ro 1:17). But, of course, that’s only Paul’s summary of the answer.
The full answer begins at Romans 3:21:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:21-31, KJV)
How Should Man Be Just With God?
Job once asked the question, “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2). As he continued to ponder that question, he said, “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse” (Job 9:20). Later, Job’s so-called friend, Bildad, echoed his question by asking, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4).
Over and over again in the New Testament, people asked the same fundamental question. John the Baptist’s disciples asked, “What shall we do then?” (Lk 3:10). The crowds in John 6 asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” (Jn 6:28). The rich young ruler asked, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). The people who heard Peter preach in Acts 2 asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Ac 2:37). The Philippian jailor asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Ac 16:30).
How can sinners ever be declared righteous by God? Anyone who comprehends the holiness of God and the depravity of man knows that personal merit or achievement is out of the question. We cannot be made right with God by our own power or works.
When the people of Judah were threatened by a Babylonian invasion in Jeremiah 42, they told Jeremiah to go to the Lord to find out what they should do. So he did, and God said to him, “Be not afraid of the king of Babylon, of whom ye are afraid; be not afraid of him, saith the Lord: for I am with you to save you, and to deliver you from his hand” (Jer 42:11). The answer was remarkably simple: Trust the Lord. That’s it. Just trust the Lord.
But the people responded to Jeremiah, “Thou speakest falsely” (Jer 43:2). They accused him of lying. Surely, we should do something more than nothing at all. Our lives are at stake here. Perhaps God wants us to fight. Maybe we should run.
“No,” God said, “there’s nothing you can do to save yourselves except trust that I will save you.” Sadly, they took matters into their own hands and fled to Egypt.
The people of Judah represent the mindset of the vast majority of people. What separates true Christianity from every other religion is our answer to Job’s question: “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2). Most of the world believes they can make their own way. Through moralistic attempts to become better people, they can make themselves right with God and earn a place in his eternal kingdom. If their good works outweigh their bad, surely they will enter everlasting paradise.
Job, on the other hand, knew that that was an impossibility. “If I justify myself,” he said, “mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse” (Job 9:20). There is no use denying what Scripture teaches so plainly. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Ro 3:10).
So how does biblical Christianity answer the question? “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Ac 2:37). “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Ac 16:30). “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2).
The answer is faith. The doctrine of justification by faith is what separates Christianity from every other religion. Historically and biblically, it is the dividing line between the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the false gospels of salvation by works. If it’s not already clear just how important this issue is, consider what Paul wrote to the Galatian churches:
I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9, KJV)
Let him be anathema. Let him be set aside for the purpose of destruction. Suffice it to say, it is absolutely vital that we understand this subject from a biblical perspective. How can sinful people become righteous before God? Let’s consider what Paul had to say here in Romans 3.
Without the Law
Having shown us that everyone is guilty before God, Paul shifts gears to focus on the good news. He says, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Ro 3:21). Does that expression sound familiar? It should because that is essentially how Paul began this doctrinal exposition. Again, in Romans 1, he said, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed,” or manifested (Ro 1:17).
Let’s not overlook the obvious, albeit subtle point Paul makes about this righteousness. Never does he refer to your righteousness or our righteousness, but the righteousness of God. The Bible describes our righteousness this way: “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). So the first thing we learn in this passage is that our justification must be based on righteousness that doesn’t originate with us. Of course, that stands to reason given what Paul said previously in this chapter.
Furthermore, the righteousness which we receive comes to us “without the law,” or apart from the law (Ro 3:21). Whether Paul meant the Mosaic law specifically or legalism in general, the point is the same. God’s righteousness is not based on human achievement or works.
Keep in mind that by the first century, legalism was the prevailing theological system even in Israel. By legalism, I’m not talking about a strict adherence to meaningless traditions; I’m referring to a works-based system of salvation. The Jews’ primary spiritual leaders, the Pharisees, believed that only by keeping God’s law could a person be righteous before God.
At one point, Jesus said of the Pharisees, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders…. [they] shut up the kingdom of heaven against men” (Mt 23:4; 13). In other words, they set impossible standards that even they couldn’t keep. All the while, they denied the true source of salvation who is Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees’ misguided views of justification then slipped into the New Testament church. In Acts 15, we see the beginning of it when Judaizers insisted that Gentile believers be circumcised. They said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Ac 15:1). Why circumcision? It was the oldest part of the law. Even Abraham was required to be circumcised. They were convinced that human works (keeping God’s law to one degree or another) was necessary to be justified and saved.
But Paul says, “The righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Ro 3:21). To the Galatians, he wrote:
[We know] that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Galatians 2:16, KJV)
To the Ephesians, he said, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
Why do you suppose the Bible stresses that point so often? I can think of two apparent reasons.
First of all, we can’t save ourselves by keeping the law because we can’t keep the law. Rather than guide us to perfection, the law served to show us our deficiencies. Paul said, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). In other words, the law was like that scary school teacher who carries a ruler, ready to strike the hand of any child who gets out of line. She may teach us what is right, but her primary role is to discipline. Ultimately, she reveals to us that we’re in serious trouble. We need a Savior.
Second, the Bible makes it clear that we are not saved by works because God is not willing to share credit for salvation. From the Old Testament to the New, the message is always the same: “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord” (Ps 3:8).
Witnessed By the Law and the Prophets
Paul continues here by saying that God’s righteousness is “witnessed by the law and the prophets” (Ro 3:21). Before he presents the way in which God’s righteousness is manifested, he establishes that the doctrine of justification by faith is not a new teaching which he pulled out of thin air. As a matter of fact, it is the same doctrine taught by the entirety of the Old Testament.
Again, the Jews were inclined to believe that they could satisfy God by their own righteousness, by keeping his commandments. When Jesus confronted some of the Jews, he said, “Search the scriptures [that is, the Old Testament]; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (Jn 5:39). The Bible wasn’t showing them how to achieve their own righteousness; the Scriptures were pointing them to the Messiah, the only one who could provide the perfect righteousness which God demands.
In fact, Paul uses none other than Abraham as his primary example for justification not by works, but by faith. Flip over to Romans 4:
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? [He quotes from Genesis 15] Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-3, KJV)
The example of Abraham, the forefather of Israel and the first to be circumcised, proves that people are justified in the sight of God not by works or keeping the law, but by faith. The Jews commonly pointed to Abraham in their defense of works-based righteousness. But something vital happened before Abraham was ever circumcised. He believed God. He trusted God’s promises. The book of Hebrews tells us:
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise. (Hebrews 11:8-9, KJV)
While his faith did produce fruit such as obedience to God, Paul makes the point that Abraham was justified because he trusted God. We could even take it one step further and say that Abraham trusted God because God first chose him and called him. “Whom [God] did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified” (Ro 8:30). We see all three aspects in the life of Abraham.
The Old Testament is just as clear about our justification as the New Testament.
By Faith of Jesus Christ
Next, Paul says, “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ” (Ro 3:22). The purpose of this statement is clarification. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, Paul stresses that he is talking about God’s righteousness. Though his righteousness may be applied to us through Christ, it is still his righteousness. Again, “there is none righteous” (Ro 3:10). Sinners have no personal righteousness to claim.
Now we need to pause long enough to address the grammatical elephant in the text. According to the KJV, Paul uses the phrase, “faith of Jesus Christ” (Ro 3:22). Most every other translation, however, of the exact same underlying Greek text translates the phrase, “faith in Jesus Christ.” Why is there a difference, and is it significant?
Believe it or not, quite a few books and scholarly papers have been written on the subject. The problem is that the genitive noun, Jesus, could be either objective or subjective. Either one could be grammatically correct. So the challenge is to interpret which it is by the context of the passage.
If subjective, we’d say “faith of Jesus,” meaning Jesus produces the faith in question. The faith belongs to him. If objective, we’d say “faith in Jesus,” meaning Jesus is the object of our faith. We are putting our trust in him. Since you’re probably not interested in a Greek word study, let me simplify the matter by swapping the word “faith” with its definition.
What does faith mean? It means to believe or trust. Right? If subjective, the verse would say, “The righteousness of God is by the believing (or faithfulness) of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all that believe.” If objective, the verse would say, “The righteousness of God is by believing in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all that believe.”
Interestingly enough, which translation is more accurate doesn’t change the substance of the passage. Both assertions are true. The righteousness of God is manifested through the faith of Christ. In fact, even our faith is actually his faith. “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8). At the same time, God’s righteousness is manifested to—who?—”all and upon all them that believe,” that have faith (Ro 3:22).
As we’ll see, our justification begins with the faithfulness of Christ who “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Php 2:8). I’m getting ahead of myself, but Paul says in verse 24 that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Ro 3:24). Without the perfect obedience and atonement of Christ, we could never be justified before God. When God declares us just, he does so on the sole basis of Christ’s righteousness and his obedience.
Even so, the thrust of Paul’s message in this chapter is how the individual sinner is ultimately justified, and that justification comes through faith. In the next chapter, he says, “To him that worketh not [meaning the one who’s not trying to work his way into heaven], but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly [that is, Christ], his faith is counted for righteousness” (Ro 4:5). He begins Romans 5 by saying, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ro 5:1).
Whether the phrase is translated “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ” doesn’t change anything of significance. Christ was faithful to justify all of God’s elect people, and we are personally justified by faith in Christ.
Upon All Them That Believe
In the latter part of verse 22, Paul says, “Unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference” (Ro 3:22). The provision of salvation is given to everyone who believes.
When preaching in Antioch, Paul said, “By [Christ] all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Ac 13:39). Jesus himself said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn 6:37). Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—there is no distinction between them. Galatians 3 says, “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26).
Just the other day, someone tried to tell me that turning to Christ in faith is a work of man. While I understand the supposed logic that he’s using, biblically speaking, faith is the antithesis of works. Works is a man saying, “I can earn my salvation. By my own efforts, I can do whatever is necessary to achieve a right standing before God.” Faith, on the other hand, is a man saying, “I know I can’t do it. Lord, my life is in your hand. Save me. Please save me.”
Notice the contrast that Paul makes in this chapter. Verse 28, for instance, says, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Ro 3:28). Paul is not arguing grace versus faith and works. Rather, he’s arguing grace and faith versus works.
What is faith but the outworking of God’s grace? According to Galatians 5, it is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Paul told the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13). Faith is not a work of man. It’s the inevitable byproduct of a desperate sinner whom God is drawing to himself.
Jesus said, “Every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:40). He then said:
No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. (John 6:44-47, KJV)
To be clear, genuine, God-given faith is not some shallow self-identification with Christ. Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 7:21). No, genuine faith begins with a profound sense of helplessness. It is self-denial. It is a person who says, “Lord, I deserve hell for my sins against you. Please show me mercy.” Of course, a person can only reach that humble state by the grace of God.
I know that I haven’t made it very far in this passage, but let’s stop right there for now. We’ll pick up where we left off in the morning. In closing, I’ll pray.
Dear Righteous, Heavenly Father, we thank you for your abundant grace. Even though we were dead sinners, you have given us seats with your Son in the heavenly places. You’ve reached into our lives and replaced our stony hearts with living hearts of flesh, causing us to know you and seek you. I humbly ask that you would do the same for anyone exposed to my message tonight if you haven’t already shown them the fulness of your grace. Bless our fellowship this evening and our worship tomorrow. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Preached at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church (Chula, GA) on May 27, 2017.