Justification – Part 1
How can God save sinners and still be just? (Romans 3:21-26)
The law thoroughly demonstrated mankind’s failure to be righteous. Even with a law spelling out what was right and what was wrong, men still could not stay righteous. But now in this present age, God shows His justice in saving mankind which is not dependent on perfect law-keeping. This is not an abandonment of the law. It is the Law itself that gives testimony to God’s plan of salvation (Acts 26:22; Habakkuk 2:4; Isaiah 53:11; Daniel 9:24). Paul will prove this as we get into Romans 4.
There is a strong tendency in people to go to extremes. If God’s righteousness is shown apart from the law, it is assumed that law is not involved at all. Yet, the Law testified that Jesus would uphold the law (Isaiah 42:21). Therefore, the law is involved, but not in a way that the Jews had assumed.
The core question Paul addresses is how can God remain just while bringing justification to sinners. It is a sticky problem because any arbitrary method of justifying man would be sinful (Proverbs 17:15). The key is that this justification is based on faith in Jesus. Faith is available to everyone equally. Justification is offered to all and it is granted to all who believe (Philippians 3:9). It cannot be based on perfect law-keeping since everyone sins.
Because people cannot keep God’s law perfectly, we all come short of gaining honor or praise from God (The same Greek word, doxa, is used in John 5:44; 7:18; 12:43). Being justified because of God’s grace and not because of a debt owed by perfect law-keeping, salvation becomes a privilege and not a right. It was done freely; that is, it wasn’t purchased or owed. The point Paul is driving home is that God did not have to save men; men did not deserve it or have a right to it. God chose to pay the redemption price to buy us back from the enemy (Acts 20:28; I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).
Paul makes a play on words. God used Jesus’ sacrifice as a public display of His righteousness (I Peter 1:20-21). This gift was not a secret matter but done in the open so all could see. What God accomplished was a propitiation through Jesus' blood. The word “propitiation” (hilasterion) refers to the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:5). It translates a Hebrew word for a cover or concealing. God in His mercy publically covered over men’s sins with the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 13:12; I John 1:7). Again Paul emphasizes that access to this gift is by faith on the part of men.
God is demonstrating his righteousness because He is passing over the past sins of men through His forbearance. The sins past are those committed prior to Jesus’ death, not the individual sins before coming to God (Acts 17:30; Hebrews 9:15-18). Again, the emphasis is that man did not cause his justification. Thus God demonstrates today what was not seen in the past (Isaiah 49:8; II Corinthians 6:2). By saving men who have faith in Jesus, God retains His integrity; He did not cheat His own system (Acts 13:38-39).
- What does the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” refer to?
- Because man did not cause their salvation, does that mean God expects men to do nothing to receive His gift? What is one thing already mentioned by Paul?
- Because God passed over past sins, does that mean sin isn’t that big of a deal to God?
Justification by a law of faith means equality (Romans 3:27-31)
Boasting in one’s own accomplishments is prevented because God justifies based on a law with faith at its core instead of perfect keeping of the law (Galatians 2:16; 3:22-21; Ephesians 2:8-10). Notice the contrast is between a law of works and a law of faith. It is not between law and faith or even between faith and works as so many conclude. There is a law of faith, a command that must be followed, and it is a work (John 6:29; 3:36). But faith is something people can do, unlike perfect law-keeping (Jeremiah 9:23-24; I Corinthians 1:29-31).
Faith, therefore, becomes the key to justification by God and not perfect law-keeping. No effort of ours to keep God’s laws will earn us salvation because we all fail at keeping the law.
Paul’s conclusion must be true because God is the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles. Such is what has always been taught (Genesis 17:5; 22:18; Psalms 2:8; Isaiah 11:10-12; Galatians 3:8). The Gentiles cannot obtain justification without law and the Jews cannot obtain justification with law. But both can obtain justification through the law of faith (Ephesians 2:13-14). One means justifies all people.
This naturally leads to the question of whether any law is needed at all. For sure, there are many who read Paul’s arguments and conclude that salvation has nothing to do with works of the law. Yet, Paul is emphatic that law is not made void by his arguments by justification through the faith (the article is in the Greek text before faith, but not before law). In fact, the opposite is true: Paul’s arguments establish the need for law.
A Deeper Understanding:
Some note that there is a subtle difference between the Jews being justified by God by (Greek: ek) faith and the Gentiles through (Greek: dia) faith in Romans 3:30. For example, some claim there is different salvations for the Jews and the Gentiles.
As most commentators point out, ek and dia are synonyms – very similar to the relationship of "by" and "through" in English. In this context, ek denotes a cause or source for God's justification, which is faith. Dia explains that justification came by reason of or on account of faith.
If there is a difference that should be noted, it is the fact that the first faith has no article and the second faith does. The article on the second faith emphasizes that it is the same faith mentioned before. That is why Paul said there is one God who justifies. One God justifies the Jews and the Gentiles in the same way – through faith (Ephesians 4:1-6; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:10-11).
- Since we are justified by faith and not deeds of the law, does this mean we don’t have to follow the laws of God?
- Are works required? (Romans 2:7; II Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians 2:10; I Timothy 2:10; 5:10; 6:18; II Timothy 3:17; Titus 2:7,14; 3:8; Hebrews 10:24).
- Can you really claim to have faith without works? (James 2:14-26).
- Review Paul’s arguments up to this point. How has Paul established the need for law?