Jeremy Sarber / Preaching Christ crucified

What does justification by faith mean? (Romans chapter 3 explained)

Justification by faith draws the hard line between Christianity and every other religion. It is imperative that we ask, “What does justification by faith mean?”

It is a matter so grave that Charles Spurgeon could say, “Any church which puts in the place of justification by faith in Christ another method of salvation is a harlot church.” The Bible warns, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9).

On May 27-28, 2017, I preached the following expositions of Romans 3 at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church in Chula, Georgia. Line by line, I attempted to follow Paul’s train of thought from condemnation to justification as he teaches what Martin Luther referred to as the “purest Gospel.”

 

Before I read Romans 3, 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)

The obvious 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.”

Paul’s initial proposition and opening statement are that sinners are made righteous and saved through the gospel of Jesus Christ by 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.

We’re all condemned

In Romans 1, he shows the unrighteousness of Gentiles. At the beginning of Romans 2, he shows how moralistic people aren’t any better. They may even 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, 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)

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.

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). 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.

Romans chapter 3 explained

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)

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 jailer asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Ac 16:30).

Only God can justify

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. 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.

The people, however, 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 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).

The religious dividing line

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 evident 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)

Let him be anathema. Let him be set aside for the purpose of destruction. It is 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.

Justified by works?

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). The first thing we learn in this passage is that our justification must be based on a righteousness that doesn’t originate with us, which 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 scheme 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 real source of salvation, 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 (i.e., keeping God’s law to one degree or another) were 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)

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). 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).

Old Testament justification

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 and by keeping his commandments. When Jesus confronted some of the Jews, he said, “Search the scriptures [i.e., 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.

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)

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)

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.

Faith ‘in’ or ‘of’ 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 imputed to us through Christ, it is still his righteousness. Again, “there is none righteous” (Ro 3:10). Sinners have no personal righteousness to claim.

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. 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. 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 “all and upon all them that believe,” or 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 Romans 4, 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 [i.e., 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 our faith in Christ.

Faith is not works

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 are 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. Instead, he’s demonstrating that grace and faith are opposed to 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)

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.

 

Last night, we began to look at Romans 3:21-31. Today, I’d like to continue in that passage to the end of the chapter.

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)

Predestination to justification

In Romans 8, Paul provides a short list of actions which God has taken to redeem his people. He says:

We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

According to Paul in that passage, those who love God and were foreknown by God were also predestined, called, justified, and glorified.

By predestined, he means that God has sovereignly planned and appointed the ultimate destiny or destination of his people. The book of Ephesians tells us that even “before the foundation of the world,” God “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph 1:4-5). He chose us out of the sinful family of Adam to be his adopted children for all eternity.

Next, Paul says that we are called by God. It stands to reason that God would not leave his adopted children in a state of bondage to sin. At a time of his choosing, he draws us to himself by his Spirit. He makes us alive, giving us a new heart. Paul went as far as to say, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2Co 5:17). It’s a substantial transformation from the inside out.

Third, Paul says that we are justified. Justification is the subject addressed in Romans 3. Before we dig into the text, however, let me provide a systematic foundation beginning with a definition, which I probably should have done last night.

What is justification? Justification is when God legally declares us innocent or righteous. Imagine that we are standing in a courtroom before a judge. We are positively guilty. The evidence is stacked against us. Just when we think the judge is about to slam his gavel and sentence us to death, he says, “I declare that you are not guilty. You’re free to go.” That’s justification.

Justified by Jesus

The question becomes, why did the judge declare us innocent? We’re far from innocent in relation to God. Paul said, “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” (Ro 3:19). Every one of us broke the law. We’re guilty. How could a just God ever declare us innocent or righteous?

The short answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus is perfectly righteous. He is totally innocent. Furthermore, he was willing to leave the glory of heaven, come to this earth, overcome every temptation, live in complete obedience to the law, and take upon himself the penalty for our crimes. In Romans 5, Paul says:

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. (Romans 5:6-11)

It was not possible for God to unilaterally forgive sins by merely ignoring them. If he were to let criminals go free without punishment, then he would be a corrupt judge, but God is not corrupt. He is just. He demands that justice is served, and lawbreakers are punished. What is the just punishment for sin? “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul said (Ro 6:23).

What if there was an innocent, righteous man who had committed no crime? What if that man was willing to sacrifice himself to appease the judge? What if he was willing to suffer the punishment belonging to the guilty? Legally, justice would be served, and the truly guilty parties would go free.

Jesus did just that. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1).

Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. (Romans 8:33-34)

When Jesus died on the cross, and God’s wrath was poured out on him, he was carrying our sins as his own. To the Corinthians, Paul said, “For [God] hath made [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2Co 5:21). In Romans 6, Paul asked, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Ro 6:3). We died with him on the cross because he was representing us.

Justified before time?

There’s just one last detail to be worked out in the process of justification. The judge has been appeased because our crimes have been paid for, but he still needs to declare us free. We need to enter the courtroom, have our shackles removed, and hear the judge say, “Not guilty.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the term eternal justification. Some believe that God declared his people righteous even before the foundation of the world. In his foresight, he knew those for whom Christ would die, so he pronounced their justification before creation. His people have always been justified even while they were still dead in their sin.

While I agree that God decreed those whom he would justify before the foundation of the world, I do not believe anyone is actually justified until after he is called and born again by God’s Spirit. According to Paul’s order in Romans 8, we are justified only after we are predestined and called. Plus, Paul makes the case here in Romans as well as Galatians that we are justified by faith.

Our sins were laid on Christ while he was on the cross, but God cannot deem us personally justified until the righteousness of Christ is put on us. Remember that we don’t have any righteousness of our own. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Ro 3:10).

I love the imagery which Isaiah used. He said, “For [the Lord] hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). It was Isaiah who also said, “Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). Christ put on our filthy rags when he went to the cross. The question is, at what point do we put on his robe of righteousness?

I find it hard to believe that we were already wearing robes of righteousness when Christ died. Again, Paul said, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8). In Ephesians 2, Paul teaches that we are “dead in trespasses and sins” until we are “quickened … together with Christ” (Eph 2:1; 5). He goes on to say, “By grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). Here in Romans 3, he says, “The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Ro 3:22).

Abraham’s example of faith

Paul’s primary example for proving that our justification comes through faith is Abraham. Listen as I read the beginning of 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? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying,

Blessed are they
whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only [i.e., the Jews], or upon the uncircumcision also [or the Gentiles]? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.

For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:1-16)

Let me reiterate three points that Paul makes in that chapter.

1) Abraham was not considered righteous until he believed.

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Ro 4:3). Paul then repeats himself, “His faith is counted for righteousness” (Ro 4:5). Then, he says, “He might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also” (Ro 4:11).

Clearly, Abraham was justified by faith. God declared Abraham righteous only after Abraham believed and trusted in him. Furthermore, Abraham is the forefather of everyone who is justified in God’s sight. He is “the father of all them that believe” (Ro 4:11).

2) Abraham was not considered righteous because of his works.

According to Paul who quotes David, “God imputeth righteousness without works” (Ro 4:6). In the case of Abraham, he says, “How was [righteousness] then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision” (Ro 4:10).

In other words, Abraham received God’s righteousness through faith even before he was circumcised. Before he was obeying any aspects of the law such as circumcision, he believed God. The point that Paul is making is that no one can be justified by what we do. We are justified when we believe in what God does.

3) Abraham’s faith was the result of God’s grace.

“Therefore,” Paul says, “it is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Ro 4:16).

Last evening, I told you about the gentleman who suggested that faith is the same as works. In his mind, faith requires the sinner’s participation, so faith (i.e., believing, trusting) is a work of man. Imagine a piece of paper with two columns drawn on it. The first column contains the word grace. The second column contains the word works. This man puts faith in the works column.

Paul, on the other hand, does not. “It is of faith [meaning our justification], that it might be by grace” (Ro 4:16). Faith belongs in the grace column. Why?

First, our faith is a “gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). It is the result of God’s sovereign, gracious work. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him … And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (Jn 6:44-45).

Second, faith regarding justification is the exact opposite of works. One who thinks he can be justified by works assumes that he’ll become righteous by his own merits. The one with faith, however, says, “Lord, I have no righteousness. I have nothing to offer but filthy rags, but I also believe you when you say that Christ died for my sins.”

What did Jesus say? “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28) Stop working. Stop trying to achieve something you can’t possibly achieve. Turn to Christ in faith. Faith is not a work; it is resting in the finished work of the Savior.

Our justification comes through faith. The first part of our justification happened at the cross when our sins were laid on Christ. The second part happens when Christ’s righteousness is laid on us. Technically, justification is that moment when God the Judge says, “You are innocent.” When does that happen? According to Paul in Romans 5, “Being justified by faith [just as Abraham was], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ro 5:1).

Justified by grace

With that foundation laid, let’s look at the remainder of this passage in Romans 3. Verse 23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace” (Ro 3:23-24).

The term come short means to be last or inferior. Those who argue against the total depravity of man are usually not evaluating mankind’s condition from God’s perspective. They look around and say, “People aren’t that bad.” The fact is, someone who is guilty at all is altogether guilty. There is no such thing as “not that bad.” “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas 2:10). Guilty is guilty.

The good news, however, is that God justifies us freely by his grace. The guilty person stands before him, and he says, “Not guilty.” They don’t deserve it. They can’t earn it, but God in his mercy has provided a way for them to be justified apart from works. In Galatians, Paul says, “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal 2:21).

Paul’s language here clearly expresses the unmerited nature of the righteousness which God gives to his people, and is made even more explicit in what he says next. “Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Ro 3:24-25).

Our justification is by Christ and his death. It stands to reason. Our utter sinfulness made it impossible for us to elevate ourselves to the holy, perfect standard of God. Elsewhere, Paul says that we were once “servants [or slaves] of sin” (Ro 6:17). It was necessary that Christ redeem us from our slave master.

The price of redemption

The Bible uses several words to describe our salvation, redemption being one of them. Others include justification, forgiveness, adoption, and reconciliation. For the purpose of clarity, let me make a distinction between these terms.

In justification, as I’ve said, we stand before God as guilty, but he declares us innocent. In forgiveness, we owe a debt, but God says the debt is canceled. In adoption, we are illegitimate children, but God makes us his sons and daughters. In reconciliation, enemies of God become his friends. In redemption, slaves are set free.

During the first century, slavery was big business in the Roman Empire. Millions of slaves were bought and sold year after year. Paul is using a familiar analogy here. The Romans understood what it meant to redeem someone. If you wanted to grant someone freedom, you had to buy that person. You had to pay the going rate before you could give him a written certificate of freedom.

In the case of sinners, the price is incredibly steep. “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). To be clear, we all begin as slaves of sin. Jesus said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (Jn 8:34). According to Romans 8, all of the creation is in the “bondage of corruption” (Ro 8:21). Sin is our master, and the price which he demands is death. Either we pay it, or someone else does. Regardless, sin requires death.

Paul says, “God hath set [Jesus] forth to be a propitiation” (Ro 3:25). That word propitiation means appeasement or satisfaction. The death of Christ satisfied God and his requirement for our sin. Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all,” and God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf (1Ti 2:6).

Unlike the typical slaves of the Roman Empire, our master requires a price that can’t be paid with any amount of money. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg combined could not afford to pay the price of redemption.

Peter said, “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold … But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1Pe 1:18-19). Why blood? Again, “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Without death and blood, there can be no redemption of sinners.

In the Old Testament, the blood of an animal after animal was offered on the altars to make atonement for sin. During the annual Passover, the Jewish historian, Josephus, estimated that more than two million lambs were sacrificed in only two days. He described how the blood flowed from the temple like a red river down the hill into the Kidron Valley below. For all that blood, not one person was redeemed from death and hell.

The problem with an animal sacrifice is that it’s not sufficient. The slave of sin is worth far more than all the dead sheep in the world. Attempting to redeem a sinner with the blood of goats and bulls is like trying to trade your Nissan Versa for a brand new Ashton Martin. There’s a significant value gap between the two.

But Christ, the beloved Son of God, the only righteous, sinless man to ever exist—he is worth infinitely more than all the sinners in the world. Furthermore, he was willing to not only leave his glory in heaven but also subject himself to the wrath of God against sin all while being mocked and tormented by the same vile people he came to save.

Most importantly, he was victorious to the end. He overcame all temptation during his life, maintained his sinlessness, and his pure, innocent blood was able to pay for our freedom. We owed a debt that only God could afford, and he paid it with his own blood.

Let’s not overlook that small phrase stuck in the middle of this verse. Paul says, “Through faith in his blood” (Ro 3:25). It is one thing for Christ to shed his blood for sinners; it’s another for God to personally, individually apply the saving benefits of that blood to sinners. Through his gift of faith, God is justifying his elect people one by one. He calls us, draws us to himself, and he says to us, “Because of what Christ has done on your behalf, I now declare you righteous.”

God withheld his wrath

Notice what Paul says next:

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. (Romans 3:25-26)

By offering his Son, God has demonstrated his righteousness. As Peter said, “The Lord … is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2Pe 3:9). God was willing to withhold his just wrath so that (1) Christ could redeem us and (2) we could be justified.

By the way, the word remission is not the best translation in my opinion. This verse could be translated, “This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” God temporarily overlooked our sins until a time when he would justify us. Think of the way in which he waited patiently for Noah to build the ark. His judgment was coming, but he waited long enough for Noah to complete the ark so that he and his family could be spared.

What does justification by faith mean?

In the end, Paul says that Christ’s death was “to declare … at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). Two important ideas are being conveyed here. First, God has maintained his just nature. By allowing his Son to die in our place, justice has been served. Second, he has made us just through faith.

It’s essential that we never separate these two aspects of our justification. Step one: Christ put on our filthy rags. Step two: We put on—better yet, he puts on us his robe of righteousness.

Christ redeemed us through his blood, and we are declared righteous when we come to him in faith. God is the “justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” just as he was the justifier of Abraham who “believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Ro 3:26; 4:3).

Faith undermines the law?

Once again, Paul’s primary argument in this chapter is that we cannot be justified by our works. We cannot become righteous by keeping the law because we can’t keep the law. You can imagine how some of the work-minded people might have responded, so Paul ends the chapter by saying:

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 [the Jews] by faith, and uncircumcision [the Gentiles] through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:27-31)

Salvation by grace through faith does not undermine God’s law. It underscores its importance by showing that death is the penalty for breaking the law. It reveals to us our true nature and sinfulness, driving us to the Savior. Perhaps most relevant to Paul’s point, God’s grace and the gift of faith are what makes us capable of obeying the law. In Romans 8, Paul says:

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

When God promised a new covenant through Ezekiel, he said:

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

The new covenant of grace was not intended to destroy the law. Paul is not promoting antinomianism or easy believism. After Israel failed to keep the law time and time again, God finally said, “I’m going to take matters into my own hands. You’ll never keep the law on your own. You’ll never be righteous on your own, so I’ll put my Spirit within you, causing you to walk in my statutes and obey my commandments.”

Most importantly, he sent his holy Son to die so that he could remain just as he forgives us. By Christ’s righteousness, God is able to justify us through faith, and because we are justified, the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us.