If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.
Before I give my commentary on Romans 3-5, I’ll address what I know is often a sticky point for KJV users. Most every modern translation of the Bible uses the phrase “faith in Christ” while the KJV says, “Faith of Christ” (Ro 3:22). But it’s a moot point.
The Greek text says, pisteōs Iēsou Christou (faith Jesus Christ). There is no preposition. Translators have supplied the preposition (“in” or “of”) to complete the sentence in English. They’ve made judgment calls based on the genitive noun, Jesus, as well as the context.
Did Paul mean the faithfulness of Jesus? Did he mean that Jesus is the supplier of our faith? Or was he referring to the faith that we have in Jesus?
It hardly matters because all of these interpretations are supported by the context. Even if we choose to translate the phrase, “faith of Jesus,” the KJV says, “By faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Ro 3:22). According to verse 26, Paul is addressing “him which believeth in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). So the preposition is a moot point.
Let’s move through these chapters piece by piece.
1) Everyone is guilty and condemned before God.
Paul spends half of Romans 1, all of Romans 2, and half of Romans 3 proving that everyone is guilty. Both Jews and Gentiles are condemned before God. He says, “None is righteous, no, not one. … The law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Ro 3:10; 19).
Every person on the planet, past and present, has failed to keep God’s perfect standard. Since he’s not a corrupt judge, he demands that justice is served. We are accountable to the law which we have broken. Therefore, we are unrighteous.
2) No one can justify themselves by keeping the law.
Paul says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Ro 3:20). We can’t justify ourselves by keeping the law because we can’t keep the law. As descendants of Adam, we were born with a deficit.
According to James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas 2:10). We’d have to be born without sin to have a chance at keeping the law to the perfection which God requires. If we don’t keep it to perfection, we are guilty. We are, as Paul said, unrighteous. We are condemned before a just judge.
3) There is still hope because of God’s righteousness.
“But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested” (Ro 3:21). Having delivered the bad news, Paul now gives the good news. Though we are not able to become righteous on our own, God is supplying his righteousness. We’ll see how in just a moment.
For now, notice that Paul is transitioning from the subject of condemnation to justification. He’s explaining how guilty unrighteous people could ever be declared righteous by a just God. What has to take place for the judge to look at a convicted criminal and say, “Not guilty”?
At this point in the text, you’re probably tempted to put your scissors to the page. You would agree that Romans 3:9-20 deals with mankind’s total depravity and utter condemnation before God. But you’d likely toss most of Romans 3:21-4:25 into the “time salvation” category. Why? Does Paul give us a clear reason to do so?
Sound hermeneutics should not begin with a supposition. No matter how logical it seems or how badly we want something to be true, we have to take the Bible at its word. We have to follow the flow, observe the context, and attempt to understand the author’s intent.
Recently, I heard Francis Chan describing an encounter he had with some Jehovah’s Witnesses. As they were discussing Scripture, one of them said to Chan, “See, that’s your problem. You can’t correctly interpret the Bible unless our elders tell you what it means.”
Chan was quick to respond, “No, that’s your problem. No one would come to the conclusions you have by reading the Bible on their own. Someone told you what to believe. You didn’t get it from Scripture.”
I’m mostly paraphrasing the conversation from memory, but that was the gist of it. I’m afraid the same is true for much of what Primitive Baptists assume about time salvation. While there are certain aspects of our salvation that take place in time, we should never separate them from our eternal salvation unless the Bible itself gives us a reason to do so. Paul doesn’t, not here anyhow.
You’d say that there’s a bold distinction to be made between justification by blood and justification by faith. Right? I believe there is a difference. But Paul rolls them together in these chapters as two parts of one plan meant to bring unrighteous sinners from a condemned state to a justified state before God.
For the time being, set aside the implications. Never mind gospel instrumentation, the salvation of infants, the total number of the elect, or any of the other consequences that you have in the back of your mind. For now, let’s focus solely on this text. We’ll address the implications later.
4) God’s righteousness comes to us without works.
Paul says, “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Ro 3:21). He’s already established that no one is righteous nor can anyone become righteous by keeping the law. We began as sinners, and God demands perfection. It stands to reason that works cannot save us. We cannot earn our way into a right standing before God.
5) The Old Testament agrees with the New Testament.
Paul adds this disclaimer: “Although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Ro 3:21). Even the Old Testament teaches what Paul is teaching here. Let’s not overlook the significance of this point.
Any discussion about faith’s role in salvation will inevitably lead a Primitive Baptist to suggest that people in the Old Testament could not believe or have faith in the same gospel as we do today. Paul disagrees. He told the Galatians, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham*” (Gal 3:8).
Despite their lack of full revelation, Old Testament saints did believe the gospel. They didn’t think that they could keep the law and be saved. Rather, they put their trust in God for salvation. They believed what Jonah declared from the belly of the great fish: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jnh 2:9).
6) God’s righteousness comes to those who believe.
“The righteousness of God has been manifested … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Ro 3:21-22). Or if you prefer, “The righteousness of God … is manifested … by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (KJV). Regardless of what preposition we insert between “faith” and “Jesus,” the recipients of God’s righteousness are those who believe.
As you’ve said, Primitive Baptists deny the role of faith in salvation. They believe in a form of hyper-grace where most everyone is saved despite their lack of faith. It carries some of the benefits of universalism without needing to deny the reality of hell.
But I’ll pose to you a question that I’ve asked several ministers along the way: Using the Bible, how do you prove that born-again unbelievers exist? Just give me one example. Show me where Paul or anyone else teaches that God’s elect people can be regenerated without knowing Christ or believing in him?
Furthermore, if you claim that justification by faith has nothing to do with our eternal salvation, then show me the segue in this text. For reasons I’ll explain, some of the assumptions that Primitive Baptists make about salvation by grace don’t hold up to Scripture. For instance, they claim that faith is essentially a work of man, so faith cannot be a part of salvation if we are saved by grace.
But what does Paul say?
7) Justification is the result of God’s free grace.
He continues by saying, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift” (Ro 3:23-24). Ultimately, justification is by God’s grace. It is a free gift. It must be because we are condemned sinners incapable of justifying ourselves.
8) Our unrighteousness was applied to Christ on the cross.
This justification by God’s grace was procured “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Ro 3:24-25).
To borrow a metaphor from Isaiah, Christ put on our “filthy rags” on the cross (Isa 64:6 KJV). “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21). We were the criminals, but Christ suffered our punishment.
Before you say, “See, we are justified before God by Christ’s blood,” I agree. But his death is only half of the equation.
9) Christ’s righteousness is applied to us through faith.
Our justification was procured by Christ, but it is “received by faith. … It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:25-26).
Putting our sins on Christ was step one. Step two involves the righteousness of Christ being put on us. He wore our “filthy rags” on the cross, but faith is the means by which God puts his “robe of righteousness” on us (Isa 64:6; 61:10).
It’s not enough that Christ bore our punishment. The very definition of justification means there is a moment in time when we (the criminals) are paraded into the courtroom, and God (the Judge) says, “Not guilty. I declare you innocent. You are righteous.”
After all, God is the justifier of whom? “The one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). The KJV says, “The justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
10) Faith is the antithesis of works.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:27-28)
Imagine a piece of paper with two columns drawn on it. One column is labeled grace while the other column is labeled works. According to Primitive Baptists, faith belongs in the works column. But according to Paul, faith belongs in the grace column.
Primitive Baptists reason that faith is a work because it requires man’s effort or active participation. But faith is the antithesis of works for multiple reasons.
First, it is a “gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). It is the result of being “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13). To the Philippians, Paul said, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php 2:13).
Second, it is the act of a sinner who is not working for salvation. Rather, he is trusting in Christ for salvation. In Romans 4, Paul says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Ro 4:5). Again, notice that Paul makes a distinction between faith and works.
What did Jesus say? “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). He tells the Jews whom the Pharisees’ had taught a works-based system of righteousness to stop working. Instead, they should simply turn to him in faith, relying on him for their salvation.
Again, I know that you have several questions running through your mind right now. What about infants? What about those who never have an opportunity to hear the gospel and believe? What about those Bible verses that suggest God’s people are from every tribe, language, and people?
We’ll get there, but we can’t start there. Those are relatively obscure questions that should not be the foundation of our theology. We have to start with the plain teachings of Scripture before moving on to matters that the Bible doesn’t make abundantly clear.
11) Abraham was considered righteous when he believed.
Next, Paul offers an example of justification by faith for those Jews in Rome tempted to think that they could be justified by works or keeping the law.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather 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 counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)
You would agree that Abraham as well as every other Old Testament saint was justified by the blood of Jesus Christ. But notice the timing of Abraham’s justification. He wasn’t counted as righteous until he believed. Why is that?
As I said before, there are two parts of our justification. First, Jesus put on our filthy rags. (We call it justification by blood.) Second, we must put on his robe of righteousness. Better yet, it’s God’s Spirit that puts his robe on us. (We call it justification by faith.)
Notice how Paul applies the example of Abraham to us.
12) We, too, are considered righteous when we believe.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:4-5)
Like Abraham, we are counted as righteous or justified when we believe or trust in the one who justifies us.
13) Justification by faith was always God’s plan.
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (Romans 4:13-15)
At the risk of sounding redundant, Paul again makes a contrast between faith and works.
More importantly, he brings us back to where we started. The law condemned us before God. No one is righteous. So Paul is not talking about some entirely unrelated subject in the latter half of Romans 3 then Romans 4. The justification in question is the direct reversal of the condemnation in the first half of Romans 3.
In other words, just as our unrighteousness eternally condemned us, God’s righteousness applied to us through faith eternally justifies us.
14) Faith is the pipeline by which we receive God’s grace.
Lastly, Paul makes the point that our faith is the means by which we personally receive the benefits of God’s saving grace. In Romans 5, he says:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. … God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. … For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-2; 5; 10-11)
It is only after we have been justified by faith that we have peace with God. We access his grace by faith. His love is individually poured into our hearts by his Spirit which produces our faith. We were legally reconciled to God when Christ died, but we do not personally receive reconciliation until we believe.
The language of Romans is clear enough. While there is a distinction between justification by blood and faith, they are two aspects of the same plan of God to make his chosen people righteous.