The key passage on justification by faith is Romans 3.21-26. Some have even called this the most important paragraph ever written. I donâ€™t know if I would go that far, but I would certainly put it on my short list. I want to give a brief exposition of it—really just touching on the contours of the text in this blog. But I hope that it will open up some discussion.
First, the background that is vital to keep in mind is that Paulâ€™s overarching theological agenda was the vindication of Godâ€™s righteousness. He had been viciously attacked by other â€˜Christiansâ€™ for his stance on the gospel. Essentially, he said that Christians were not under the law, that works added nothing to what Christ had done on the cross, that salvation was a free gift from God. To some, this stance of Paulâ€™s was a theological compromise, designed to get Gentiles â€˜inâ€™ without having to become Jews first. They felt it was a betrayal of what the Old Testament clearly taught. And since the Old Testament was the only Bible that they had at this time, they viewed Paul as heretical and as basing his gospel on thin air rather than on scripture. And most importantly, they thought that Paul was hawking cheap grace—grace that didnâ€™t cost anything because Paul essentially added nothing to faith.
With this background in mind, note what Paul says in Rom 3.21: â€œBut now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed.â€ His opening volley explicitly says that Godâ€™s righteousness was both attested by the Old Testament AND could not be gained through the old covenant.
In verse 22, he claims that this righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (NET Bible translation), and it is accessed by all who believe. God makes no distinction in the matter. God is not partial. If the phrase is legitimately translated â€˜the faithfulness of Jesus Christâ€™ rather than â€˜faith in Jesus Christâ€™ (as most translations have it), then it is saying that the object of our faith is more important than the means. It is also saying, I believe, that Christâ€™s faithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant and to God fulfilled the law, thus freeing us from the lordship of the law.
Verse 23 says that all have sinned and STILL fall short of Godâ€™s glory. Paul uses the past tense to sum up our sinfulness, the present tense to show that we still cannot attain heaven by our own efforts. But the â€˜allâ€™ here is referring back to the â€˜allâ€™ in v 22 I believe. That means that Paul is not commenting on all sinners, but he is saying that all believers are those who have sinned, do believe in Christ, and yet still fall short of Godâ€™s glory. This sets up the major point that Paul will make in the next verse.
Verse 24 starts off with a participle in Greek. It is dependent on the two verbs in verse 23. The idea of verses 22-24 thus is: all believers have sinned and still fall short of perfection. Yet perfection is required to gain heaven. Consequently, the only way they can attain it is by the redemption that Christ has provided. Thus, verses 23 and 24 can be translated â€œall have sinned and fall short of Godâ€™s glory, although they are freely justified by his graceâ€¦â€ The juxtaposition of our continued failure before God in verse 23 and our righteous standing in verse 24 seems to me to be strong affirmation that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Of course, not all interpret the text this way, but even many who do not would end up with the same resultant theological meaning. Especially because of Romans 3.24, I am a Protestant. My justification does not in any way depend on me. It is given â€˜freely,â€™ â€˜by his grace,â€™ â€˜through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,â€™ and is based on faith in the faithful one. It seems to me that Paul could not be much clearer that salvation is a gift from God.
The problem this creates, of course, is that up till this point Paul has not really vindicated Godâ€™s righteousness. He is playing into the hands of his enemies who think he has sold out on the gospel. Paul will begin to answer that question in the next verse.
Romans 3.25 says that God has publicly displayed Christ â€œat his death as the mercy seat, accessible through faithâ€ (NET). This links Godâ€™s justice to the sacrifice of his Son and links that sacrifice to the Mosaic Covenant.
Paul then notes that â€œThis was to demonstrate his righteousness.â€ Essentially, heâ€™s arguing that those who place believers under the law and require of them that they get circumcised, follow the food laws, etc., have actually lowered Godâ€™s standard. Why? Because the Mosaic Covenant was temporary and could not ultimately satisfy Godâ€™s righteous requirements. In this one verse, Paul has argued that only his gospel vindicates Godâ€™s righteousness precisely because in his gospel the payment for our sins—the entire payment for our sins—was made by Christ alone. He is the perfect paschal lamb who has died in the place of sinners. And we cannot add one iota to his finished work.
Paul finishes out this verse by saying, â€œGod in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.â€ I believe that the author of Hebrews got his ideas about Christ as our final sacrifice from Paul. As that author points out, Christ has made the final payment for our sins—a payment that the Old Testament could only point to but not satisfy. Paul says the same thing here.
Then in verse 26, the apostle again accents the vindication of Godâ€™s righteousness: â€œThis was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesusâ€™ faithfulness.â€ The idea is that God is now showing his righteousness through the death of Christ. And his justice is completely upheld because Christ alone could pay for our sins.
In sum, although grace is free it is not at all cheap. It cost God dearly to provide it for us. I believe that when we embrace Christ as our Savior we must come to him without bargaining, without thinking that we have anything to put on the table. Salvation is not a two-way negotiation. It is a unilateral gift that God has given us when we place our trust in Christ.
Now, the question that we need to wrestle with is this: Is it essential to believe that faith alone saves in order to be saved? That is, is it faith in faith that saves? Or is it rather that we must embrace Christ alone as our Savior to be saved? I take it that the latter is the truth. I do believe that faith alone saves us, but whether one consciously holds to sola fide is a different matter. If we put our faith in Christ, and understand that he, as the God-man, was able to offer the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and that God has raised him from the dead, we can be saved. I believe that Paulâ€™s gospel is the clearest articulation of salvation in terms of Godâ€™s justice. But it is not the only way to explain the gospel. Most of the other New Testament writers did not speak of it in the same way. Did they understand it the same way as Paul did? Thatâ€™s difficult to tell. Paul puts an emphasis on the legal issue of our standing before God as judge; James, Matthew, Peter, etc. focus on our organic connection to Christ. Both of these are right, and they are compatible with one another. But some Christian groups emphasize one to the neglect of the other. Hence, confusion, accusations of anathema, and division are the result. How do we balance these two views of salvation? Or, to put it more bluntly, where is grace in our discussion of grace?