Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Faith that Justifies: Romans 4:17-25

The apostle has been exploring the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  He has explained that everyone needs to be justified since we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God: our unrighteousness has exposed us to God’s just wrath.  He then unfolded for us the gospel of the grace of God, how that because of what Christ did on the cross in our place and in our stead, we are able to be freely justified and forgiven when we trust in Jesus alone as our Lord and Savior.  And he has argued that this gospel is not something he and the other apostles have invented, but that it is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.  Christianity does not add anything to the Jewish religion; it completes it.  

But this leads naturally to the question: if faith is so important, what is it?  What does justifying faith look like?

Paul answers this question by looking again to Abraham.  This makes sense, because Abraham is the father of all who believe, who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).  This makes it clear that the faith that justifies is a faith that looks like Abraham’s faith.

We see this point made again at the end of the chapter.  After the apostle spends several verses describing Abraham’s faith, he says this: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (4:22).  In other words, because Abraham had this kind of faith, he was justified.  But then Paul goes on to apply this to his readers (and, by extension, to us): “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.  It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (23-25).  If you would be justified, you must have Abraham’s faith.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences due to salvation history.  It is true that, as our Savior put it to his interlocutors, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad” (Jn. 8:56).  Yet it is also true that he didn’t see everything that we have seen in the fulness of the coming of Christ on earth.  Yes, it is true that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal. 3:8).  So in some sense Abraham had the gospel.  And he believed the gospel, and believing he was saved.  That is the continuity between his faith and ours.  But there is also discontinuity because Abraham clearly didn’t see all the contours of the gospel as it was revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We see more clearly.  And because of that, it is not enough for us simply to believe that God will show mercy to us in some generic fashion, but that he will show mercy to us in Christ.  Faith in the promise of God today means faith in Christ.  That is the point of verses 23-25.

In other words, this passage tells us that it matters how and what you believe.  It matters because without this faith, you are yet in your sins and exposed to the holy and just wrath of Almighty God.  Now I know to say that is offensive in our day, because we are constantly told (1) you can’t know what is ultimate truth, and (2) you shouldn’t force your belief on anyone else.  But neither of these claims will hold up to scrutiny.  For if you hold (1), then aren’t you claiming to know something about ultimate truth – namely, that there is no ultimate truth?  But if that’s not true, then what’s the point?  And if you hold (2), why would you argue with me that I shouldn’t force my belief on you?  Isn’t that what you are doing?  For isn’t it your belief that you shouldn’t force your beliefs on others – which is what you are trying to convince me to embrace?

Now it is true that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on others, if that means using physical force to buttress a certain worldview.  God forbid that we should ever return to the days when Christians imprisoned others (including Christians!) that didn’t agree with them on a particular theological point.  But it is not wrong to use persuasion to convince someone else to embrace what you believe to be true – in fact, it is loving, if that truth is connected to issues of eternal life.  And the gospel is tied to issues of eternal life.  

The point is that it is infinitely important that we embrace Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the gospel – as the God-man who died for our sins, who was raised again and ascended to heaven, and who did this for the sake of our sins so that we might be forgiven and justified and accepted into the family of God and given eternal life.  And the way we embrace Christ is by faith.  So the question once again is, what is this faith that embraces Christ and with him justification from our sins and eternal life?  The answer comes to us in verses 17-25.

But before we take a more detailed look at the passage, I want to point out that the overall object of faith in every generation is God’s promise.  Abraham believed in the promise of God to him and was justified.  As we believe in God’s promise to us in the gospel we too will be saved.  And I think it is important for us to see that the object of justifying faith is a promise by God to keep not a project for man to do.  What we are called to believe in order to be saved is not a list of things to fulfill, but rather we are called to look to the saving acts of God for us.  The promise is God-oriented, not man-oriented.  It is based on grace, not works (cf. ver. 16).  We have to beware of the perennial temptation of turning the gospel into a self-help manual with God thrown in.  

Another aspect of the promise that is important to note is the fact that the promise is generally future-oriented.  When God gave the promise to Abraham, it was completely in the future.  And even after he had been given Isaac, there were elements of the promise that awaited fulfillment (Heb. 11:13).  Now, even though the key element of the gospel promise must cause us to cast our eyes back to the cross and the empty tomb, yet even the atonement points us toward the future.  In particular, it points us toward resurrection and the new heavens and new earth.  This is important because we will become easily disoriented if we think that by believing everything gets better.  We must yet await the fulness of the promise.  In the meantime, we might be called to see some hard things and to endure some hard things.  That was certainly the case with Abraham, and it should not surprise us when it is the case with us as well.

But what about the promise does saving faith perceive?  The text points us to three realities about this kind of justifying faith.

Saving faith is a persevering confidence in the power of God behind the promise.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, precisely because of the way God is described in verse 17.  There, he is portrayed as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  That is, the God who is the object of faith is the God of creation and resurrection.  This was especially relevant to Abraham because in order to believe in God’s promise he had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist, and that he could give life to the dead.  

Abraham certainly had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist because when the promise came that he would have a son and through him a family that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, none of this existed.  This promise came to a relatively old man and to a woman who was barren.  Yet Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise, even though humanly speaking there was no hope that it could happen.  Note the apostle’s description of Abraham’s faith in verse 18: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should be the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”  I love that: “against hope he believed in hope.”  When everything around him told him that there was no chance it could happen, Abraham persevered and trusted that God would fulfill his promise.

Also, Abraham certainly had to believe that God could give life to the dead.  Now you might be thinking of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.  And you would not be wrong to think that because the author of Hebrews explicitly draws this connection in his portrayal of the patriarch’s faith: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19).  Abraham had such faith in the promise of God that he knew that nothing, not even death, could prevent it from taking place.

But there is another reason Abraham needed to believe that God could give life to the dead.  This is given in verse 19: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”  Here Abraham’s body is described as being “dead.”  In order for the promise to be fulfilled, this dead body had to be made alive again.  One-hundred-year-old men and ninety-year-old women don’t have children.  But Abraham was confident that God could do this since he had promised it.  For he is the God who can take what does not now exist and bring it into existence, and can take dead bodies and make them new again.

We need to reiterate the fact that this is not faith in ourselves.  This is faith in the God who is outside of us and who acts for us.  One of the tragedies of 19th century religious thought is that it gave birth to this attempt to make God immanent by replacing faith in the God who is revealed in Scripture with religious sentiment and faith in human progress.  We are living with the sad consequences of this kind of thinking in the present day.  What we need is not faith in ourselves, but faith in the God who is outside of us; not a God who is dependent upon us but a God upon whom we are dependent.  This was the faith of Abraham.  It may not be popular today, but it is the only kind of faith that God recognizes.  And it is the only kind of faith that will hold up against despair – which will remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.  

My friends, we need to remind ourselves often of the power of God.  Think about the stars: our sun is a medium sized star, yet one of its solar flares can carry up to the same amount of power of many trillions of nuclear weapons exploding all at once.  That is inconceivable power – and yet God spoke stars like our sun into existence by his powerfully creative word.  There is no one who is powerful like God.  In our day with all our technological innovations we sometimes forget that we are mere creatures of the dust.  If we allow our arrogance to minimize the importance of faith and trust in the God of the Bible, we are the losers, not God.

But what’s really amazing about all this is that this is power for us.  God didn’t just reveal himself to Abraham as omnipotent in the abstract.  He revealed himself powerful in the behalf of Abraham (cf. 2 Chron. 16:9).  I love how the prophet Isaiah describes God in his mighty fortieth chapter: “Do you not know?  Do you not hear?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (21-23).  And he goes on like this.  But here’s the amazing thing: at the very end of this chapter, we read this: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (28-31).  The God who created the stars is the same God who works for those who trust in him, for to wait on the Lord is to trust in him and to believe in his word of promise.

God’s power is still operative for his people today.  The supreme act of God’s power of course is found in the resurrection of Christ from the dead: it was by this, remember, that he was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).  But what is so tremendously hopeful about that exercise of God’s power is that it is the precursor to our own resurrection.  As Paul puts it later in this epistle: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

Moreover, it is the power of God that raises us up from a death in sin.  In fact, it is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, so that it touches not only our bodies but our souls as well.  As the apostle puts it to the Ephesians, he wants them to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20).  Again, it is a mistake to think of regeneration and new birth purely in terms of its human response in conversion.  It takes the mighty power of God to rescue us from our sins.  But the implication from this fact is very comforting: the God who began this good work in us will not stop to complete it until the day when Christ returns and presents us before his Father with unceasing joy (cf. Phil. 1:6; Jude 24).

Again we are reminded that God’s power is operative all throughout our lives.  We are kept by God’s power through faith (1 Pet. 1:5), and it is God’s power which is perfected even in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  It is God’s power which makes the preaching of his word effective (Eph. 3:7; Rom. 1:16). 

I think the Christian life in many respects is like the condition of the Israelites with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them.  People don’t walk on water, and untrained civilians don’t defeat the world’s best army.  There seemed no way out.  But then God did the unexpected and unimaginable: he parted the waves of the Red Sea and allowed his people to pass through.  They didn’t do anything; as Moses put it, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today” (Exod. 14:19).  The Christian life is like that; it is about being still and knowing that God is God and watching him work salvation for you.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have nothing to do.  God works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).  But we need to understand that trust in God is not trust in ourselves, that we can do a better job, or be better people.  Rather, it is trust in the God who acts for those who trust in him, who wait for his power to work for them.

In my description of Abraham’s faith, I noted that it is persevering faith.  I say this because that is the only way to make sense of this passage.  If you know the OT narrative well, it seems strange at first that Paul would say that Abraham didn’t weaken or waver in his faith (Rom. 4:19-20).  He most certainly did on occasion!  The whole fiasco with Hagar and Ishmael was the result of a wanton lack of faith on both Abraham and Sarah’s part.  Or witness the multiple times Abraham lied about his relationship to his own wife in order to save his skin!  How then can the apostle say that Abraham never wavered? 

He can say this because he is describing the overall direction of Abraham’s life of faith.  Though there were times he stumbled through momentary unbelief, yet there was never a time where he wavered in the sense of losing all faith in the God of promise.  He always recovered.  In other words, Abraham persevered in his faith.  

In the same way, we can expect God’s people to have times of doubt and times when momentary unbelief seems to win the day.  But the power of God that gives us faith will keep us in faith.  With the recent well-publicized cases of apostacy of several sometime popular Christian leaders, we need to remember this.  If they were truly saved, they will return to the fold of faith.  But if they do not, it is not evidence that God’s power is insufficient to keep his people but rather that they were never saved to begin with (1 Jn. 2:19).

Saving faith is a full persuasion in the word of God that defines the promise.

Note the emphasis on God’s word to Abraham: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (20-21).  This points to the second observation I want to make about Abraham’s faith: it was faith in the truth of God’s word which was spoken to him.

Now to Abraham, this meant dreams and visions – and sometimes a visit from angels (and perhaps even the preincarnate Christ).  For us, it means the Bible.  What was said to Abraham, is written to us.  Justifying faith is faith in the promise of God – but the promise is inextricably connected to the word of God and for us the word of God is inextricably connected to the written Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

We can sometimes forget just how much of a blessing is the word of God in the Bible.  I was reminded of this not long ago when reading 1 Sam. 3:21, which reads, “And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.”  How does God appear and reveal himself to us?  He does so by his word, by the word of the prophets, words which are recorded for us in the pages of the Bible.  Do we value it like that?

My friends, without the word of God firmly recorded in the Bible, we are left with our own words.  If the Scriptures are just the words of men and no more, there is nothing to hope in and nothing to hope for.  Faith is not just faith in some generic God or faith in some generic hope that things will turn out well for us in the end.  Rather, the faith that justifies is faith in the sure word of promise which for us is recorded in the Scriptures.  

This is faith in all of God’s word.  Abraham didn’t just believe in some of God’s promise; he believed all of it.  Like the apostle Paul himself, who was able to say, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14-15).  Do we also believe everything laid down in the Bible?

Note also that this is how Abraham glorified God: he gave glory to God by believing in his word, by “being fully persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform.”  We can talk all day long about being “God-centered,” but you simply can’t be God-centered unless you are also Scripture-centered.  God is glorified when we take him at his word, even when that word seems hopelessly remote or impossible of fulfillment.  This is hard because we all want to be in control.  We want to know what is going to happen next.  We want to be able to see the end before then end comes.  But that is not how we glorify God.  We glorify God when we give up control over our own lives and leave them completely in the hands of God, trusting in his good and gracious providence.

It seems to me that this is why we are so prone to unbelief.  We are not prone to unbelief most often because of a lack of evidence, though that is the excuse that many give.  We are prone to unbelief because the alternative is letting go of self-sovereignty and we don’t want to do that.  However, when we do, God is glorified because now he is truly at the center of our lives.  What might be surprising, however, is that the walk of faith is also far more fulfilling and joyful than thinking that we are the captain of our fate (which is a mirage anyway).

Saving faith is humble trust in the gospel of God in the promise.

The word of God in the promise directs us to the mercy of God – to God the Father who delivered up his Son, and to the Son who was delivered up for us.  This faith involves three elements: (1) that I need to be saved, (2) that I cannot save myself, and (3) that God saves sinners.

The last two verses in our text (24-25) highlight the fact that our salvation is wholly outside of ourselves and entirely a work of God in Christ, just as Abraham could not of himself fulfill the promise of God to him.  “It [righteousness] will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  For the forgiveness of our sins and justification are fruits, not of our doing, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Of course we must believe, and this is something that we do, but we must also remember that faith is not the righteousness that justifies but the means by which we receive the righteousness that justifies, the hand that receives the free gift.  The call to have a faith like Abraham’s is not a call to make ourselves better, but a call to trust in the God who through Christ makes us perfect and brings us into fellowship with him entirely upon the basis of grace.  It is a call to look away from ourselves and to the God who saves.

What kind of effect should this have on us?  What kind of people will we be when we with Abraham trust in the God of promise?  I think it will create in us the following attitudes.

First, as people who have confidence in the power of God, we will be increasingly freed from despair and more and more defined by hope.  And this hope does not shame us in the end (Rom. 5:5).  It will increasingly bring freedom from slavery to circumstances.  I think it is interesting that in verse 19, the text says that Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”[1]  True faith does not stop us from considering our circumstances.  But it also does not enslave us to them.  Faith sees that God is over all and that the wind and the waves do not have the final word, but the one who can calm them with a single word does.  Faith brings boldness and courage in the face of fear.  One thinks of the three Hebrew children who refused to bow to Babylon’s idol.  That is what faith in the power of our sovereign God can do.

Second, it will bring our lives more and more in conformity to the will of God for us in his word.  It will produce the peaceable fruit of holiness in our lives.  For it is impossible to bind ourselves in faith to the promise of God in his word and not also bind ourselves to the precepts of God in his word.  Faith and obedience go together.  There is no such thing, Biblically speaking, as a life of faith that consistently produces the poisonous fruit of unholiness.  It is not without reason that the word for “faith” in Scripture can also be translated “faithfulness.”

Finally, it will beget joy in the mercy of God that we enjoy through faith.  Faith apprehends the gift of God and brings it home to us so that we really enjoy it.  Now it is true that we don’t enjoy it as we ought.  We are too often filled with doubts and fears.  Thank God that we are not saved by the amount of our faith but by the object of our faith.  But those who believe cannot but be hopeful and hope is always pregnant with joyful confidence.  One thinks of that description in Hebrews of “our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6).

May God make it true of all of us, more and more.

[1] There is a textual question here, as some manuscripts include the word “not” – so that Abraham “considered not his own body now dead, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (KJV).  This doesn’t change the overall meaning of the paragraph or the point that the apostle is making.  If this is the correct reading (though it seems that external evidence favors the omission of the word “not”), it would just be saying that Abraham did not allow his external circumstances overwhelm his faith.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Not by Law but by Faith – Romans 4:13-16

We begin this section of chapter 4 with a new word that the apostle introduces to us, the word promise.  Thankfully, we are not left to wonder what this promise is; we are told that it is the promise that “Abraham should be the heir of the world” (13).  The only problem is that nowhere in the OT is it explicitly stated that Abraham was promised to inherit the world.  So what is Paul getting at here?  What does he mean by this?

Well, there are a couple of clues in the text itself.  When Paul does quote the OT in this regard, he quotes Gen. 15:6 (in verses 3 and 22) and 17:5 (in verse 17).  In Genesis 15, remember that God promises Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.  The Lord is so insistent that Abraham believe this that he backs up his promise with an oath.  He is serious about this.  In fact, he is so serious that he kept reminding Abraham of this fact again and again throughout his life.  In chapter 17, at least 13 years after the events of chapter 15, God comes back to him and establishes the covenant of circumcision with him, changes his name from Abram [“exalted father”] to Abraham [“father of a multitude”], and says, “I have made you a father of many nations.”  It is probably with reference to this latter promise that Paul is saying that Abraham was the heir of the world.  If Abraham is the father of many nations, then it is a small interpretive jump to arrive at “heir of the world.”  

This is in fact how the rest of the OT interprets this promise.  For the Messiah, who would ultimately bring the Abrahamic blessing to the world, is addressed by God in Psalm 2 in the words, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (ver. 8).  Or consider again the Messianic prophesy of Isa. 2:2-4.  “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it, and many people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’  For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  The Abrahamic blessing was never intended to be confined merely to the nation of Israel; it was eventually to envelope all the world.

It comes back to that basic promise in Gen. 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Remember that Paul himself quotes this in Gal. 3:16 and refers it to Christ.  Christ will bring the blessing of Abraham to all the world.  That is what the apostle is referring to here in Rom. 4:13.

And this is what Paul is getting at when he comes back again and again to the fact that Abraham is the father of Jew and Gentile, of the circumcised and the uncircumcised.  Paul is saying that the promises made to Abraham come to permeate the world by the means of faith.

Saved by faith, not by Law-Keeping

The apostle is of course continuing the argument begun at the beginning of chapter 4.  He is arguing that we are justified and forgiven and made right with God on the basis of what Christ has done for us, and that this new status of forgiveness and acceptance with God is received, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith and grace.  In verses 1-8, he argues, on the basis of the example of Abraham, that we are not justified by works but by faith.  Salvation is not a matter of merit but of grace.  Then, in verses 9-12, he argues that we are not justified by circumcision.  Now, in the text we are looking at this morning (13-16), he is arguing that we are not justified on the basis of law keeping.  

In some sense, this is very closely connected to what he has already said in verses 1-8.  In both places the apostle is telling us that we cannot be justified by our works, by our doing.  But there is a difference, and the difference is that the standard being referenced in verses 13 and following is specifically the Law of Moses.  The apostle’s argument is along the lines of that in verses 9-12: just as Abraham was not justified by circumcision, since circumcision was given many years after Abraham was justified by faith, even so Abraham was not justified by the Law of Moses, since it was given (as Paul reminds us in Gal. 3:17) 430 years after the promise to Abraham was made.   And that promise was ratified on the basis of faith, not works.

However, Paul’s argument goes further in the following verses.  He explains why we cannot be justified on the basis of works.  Now you might be thinking – “Wait a minute, I thought Paul already did that in chapters 1-3!”  And you would be right.  He has already made the case that sin is universal and that we cannot by our works undo the damage done.  We must be saved through the atonement accomplished by Christ and receive this atonement on the basis of faith.  However, the reality is that we need to be convinced of this fact over and over again.

But more than that, history teaches us that despite this fact of universal sin and total depravity, people tend to think that we can do something about it.  And the Law of Moses was the perfect place that many of Paul contemporaries gravitated toward as God’s answer to our sin.  They thought that here was something given to us by God that we could use to straighten ourselves out.  If you kept the Law faithfully, you would be saved.  That is what Paul is responding to here.

Now this is very relevant in our day as well.  Because there are a lot of people who think of the NT in the same way that Paul’s contemporaries thought of the OT.  They think that if we just obey God’s word in the Bible, then we will be saved.  The focus is not one of trusting in what Christ has done for them, but of what they are doing for Christ, and that is the basis of their hope of salvation.  You can turn the NT into law if you are not careful.  The passage before us speaks to this mindset just as much as it does the mindset focused solely on the Law of Moses.

What then does the apostle say?  He explains in verse 14 why it is that the promise cannot come by the Law of Moses: “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”  Hear what is being said: if inheriting the promise comes through law-keeping, then faith is useless and the promise is unattainable.  In other words, Paul is saying that there is no salvation by works of the law.  But that is not all he says: in the next verse he tells us why there is no salvation by law-keeping.  

“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (15).  This verse is very important in understanding what the apostle is getting at here.  There are two questions we should ask of the text at this point.  The first is: Why can the law not save?  Answer: because the law does not bring salvation, it brings wrath.  The second question is: Why does the law bring wrath?  Paul’s answer: because the law does not produce obedience, it produces sin.  “Where there is no law there is no transgression.”

Now someone might disagree with me here and say that what the apostle is really saying in this last phrase is not that the law does produces sin, but rather that it defines it.  Therefore, what the text says is that without the law there would be no sin (since it would not be defined and therefore would not exist), and without sin there would be no wrath, and that is why the law cannot save.

Well, there is truth in that, but I don’t think that’s the point here.  Law does define sin.  But remember that Paul is referring to the Law of Moses here.  That’s important because in the next chapter he tells us that sin was already in the world before the law of Moses was given (5:13), so it can’t be that the function of the Mosaic Law here is that it defines sin.  Sin did not necessarily become sin because of the Mosaic Law.  It was already there.

Moreover, saying that the law defines sin doesn’t explain why the law brings wrath.  The defining nature of the law by itself is not a reason that the law cannot save.  In fact, some might argue that this is the reason the law can save: it tells us what not to do so that we can do the right thing and earn God’s favor.  But that of course would be to turn Paul’s argument on its head.

What does it do then?  Well, later in chapter 5, the apostle tells us: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass” (5:20).  To say that the law increases the trespass is another way of saying that the law produces sin.  This is the reason the law cannot save: when it meets rebel hearts – and apart from grace all our hearts are rebel hearts (that’s the point of chapters 1-3) – the law does not inspire obedience, it produces sin.  Paul will elucidate this very point further in chapter 7.  We’ve already touched on that, so I won’t linger on that point.

To summarize the apostle’s argument then, he is saying that we cannot inherit the Abrahamic blessing (be saved) by keeping the Law of Moses but only by the righteousness that comes through faith.  This is another way of saying that we cannot be justified by our works or by our obedience, but only by faith alone.  And the reason we cannot be justified by obedience to the Law is because the Law cannot save.  And the reason the Law cannot save is because it produces sin, not obedience, and sin is always punished by God’s righteous and holy wrath.

Now at this point a couple of questions come to my mind.  One is: what does this say about our hearts apart from grace?  I ask this question because the way Paul connects God’s law and our sin implies that our hearts are hostile to God’s law apart from grace.  And thinking through this is important because it shows us just how dependent upon God’s grace we really are.  And we need to see that, because unless we do we will never depend upon God’s grace as we are meant to do.  

The second question is: what does this say about the role of God’s law in the life of a believer?  Because if the law produces sin, should it have any role in the life of someone who is saved?  My answer is yes, but let’s look at each question in turn, starting with the first.

What this text says about our hearts apart from grace

What it says is that we cannot obey God’s law by nature apart from grace.  This is because God’s law does  not inspire obedience but sin.  Now that doesn’t mean that unsaved people can’t be nice or do good things or tell the truth or abstain from sexual sin and so on.  What I mean by this is that people who are unsaved will not and cannot submit themselves to the authority of God over their life.  You can do a lot of the things God’s word tells you to do and abstain from a lot of the things God’s word tells you to abstain from, but if you retain the right to decide the direction of your life and your choices, then you are not submitted to God and you are not saved.  And that is the problem with all of us apart from God’s grace.

Now some people get nervous here because they think that if we cannot obey God’s law then we are not obligated to obey God’s law.  But this principle of “ought always implies can” is nowhere taught in the Bible.  Let me give you an illustration of the opposite of that principle.  

Do you remember the story of the slave who owed 10,000 talents?  It is related for us in Matthew 18:21-35.  Let me ask you this: was that slave able to pay his debt?  The answer is obvious: he was not able to pay his debt.  Saying that a slave could pay that kind of debt is like saying a person making minimum wage could pay off a multi-billion-dollar debt.  It’s not going to happen.  In fact, the text says that “he could not pay” (25).  Did you hear that?  Could not.  He was not able to pay his debt.  But here’s the point I want to make: did his inability to pay the debt release him from the obligation to pay the debt?  It did not.  Ought does not always imply can.

We are responsible to obey God’s law regardless of whether we are saved or not.  But the Bible says that if we are not saved we can’t obey it.  This is what the apostle is getting at when he says, “where there is no law there is no transgression.”  Law produces transgression in sinful people, which we all are.  The can’t doesn’t relieve us of the ought.  But neither does the ought imply that we can.

Listen to what the apostle will say in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (2-3).  Notice that Paul says that the law could not do something.  What is that, and why is that?  Well, the why is given to us at the beginning of verse 3: “weakened by the flesh.”  There is something wrong with us, and Paul describes it by “flesh.”  “Flesh” is what we are apart from the life-giving influence of the Spirit of God.  

But what is it that the law could not do?  Paul goes on to write: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (3-4).  That is to say, the law could not create the fulfillment of its requirements in us; it could not create obedience in us.  It was unable to do that because of sin and sinful flesh, what we are apart from grace and the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit of God.  What Paul is getting at is that the law can order you around all day long, but its commands will never create the obedience they call for, and the reason is because we are in the flesh, we are dead in sin.

Paul goes on, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (5).  If you are in the flesh, you are not going to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, but on the things of the flesh.  How then could such a person be saved?  Only be becoming a person “in the Spirit.”  But this does not come by law.  It comes totally in a gift of grace.

“For to set the mind of the flesh is death, but to set the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (6-8).  I want you to hear that word cannot in verses 7 and 8.  This is not something that St. Augustine or John Calvin invented.  This is the apostle Paul saying that an unsaved person is not able to submit to God’s law or please God.  Why does the law not save?  Because an unsaved person is not able to obey God’s law or please God through obedience.

Now again, does this release them from the obligation to obey God’s law?  The answer is of course, no.  And the reason is that this inability to obey God’s law comes from within the person.  God does not hold us down and force us to disobey.  We willingly disobey.  We intentionally disobey.  We knowingly disobey.  But this does not take away from the fact that in the exercise of our will and mind and heart, we are hopelessly enslaved to our sin, and unless God rescues us by a sovereign act of grace, we will be forever lost.

And this means that we need to depend, not on our works, not on our obedience, but on the grace of God.  There is no hope for any of us apart from the grace of God in the giving of his Son to die for us and in the giving of his Spirit to make us men and women of the Spirit.  And we not only are to depend upon him for the initial giving of life and righteousness, but also for every step that we take toward heaven.  You are not kept by your own efforts.  Rather, you are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed” (1 Pet. 1:5, KJV).

And praise God for that, because this means that our salvation is secure.  This is what the apostle goes on to say in verse 16: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring – not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the faith of us all.”  The promise of salvation is guaranteed to all who believe, precisely because it is depends on faith and grace rather than law-keeping.  If my obedience to God’s law were the standard by which I marked my path to heaven, I could have no confidence that I was going to make it there.  But since I am saved only on the basis of grace because of what Christ has done for me, now I can rejoice in the hope of eternal life.

What this text says about the role of the Law in the life of a believer

The last issue we want to deal with is this: if it is true that the law provokes sin, not obedience, what role does it play in the lives of the saved?  Now here is a crucial distinction.  The law of God, whether that is found in the Law of Moses, or the commands of the New Testament gospels and epistles, is the rule by which we are to live.  But we don’t obey the law to earn God’s favor to be saved (which is impossible, as we’ve been arguing); we obey the law to please God because we are already saved.  We don’t obey the law to make God love us, we obey it because God already loves us. 

Obedience is very important, and nothing we have said undermines that.  Because the NT says that even though you are not saved by obedience to the law, yet when God saves us, he begins to make us holy people.  Sanctification begins when we are born again and justified.  Holiness is not the basis of our salvation, but it is the evidence of it.  So if you have no desire to be holy, then you have no evidence that you are truly saved.  

Moreover, when we are saved, we are given new desires and affections.  We are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).  To have no longing for heaven and Christ and holiness is just to show that you were never saved.  If you are content with living in and loving the darkness, then you have never come to the light.  Those who are born of God see the kingdom of God, they do not remain in darkness (Jn. 3:3-5).  If your ears are not delighted to hear the gospel, and if your feet do not long to run in obedience to God’s commands, then you are yet dead in your sins.

All of us ought to want to be more and more holy.  Because if we are saved, we will love Christ, and how can we love Christ and yet love what he hates?  Listen, there is nothing freeing about staying in our sins.  There is nothing really desirable about letting that vice remain in our lives.  Let us be rid of our sins, let us crucify them and mortify them and turn from them with all the might of grace that God gives to us.  

To conclude: don’t let the Law (whether NT or OT) turn you away from depending upon God’s grace to you in Christ.  Trust in Christ and depend upon him for your life and salvation.  And trusting in him, live for him – not to gain his favor, but because by grace we already have his favor.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Illustrating the Doctrine of Justification by Faith – Romans 4:1-8

Why Romans 4 is important

As we enter into a new chapter, we note that the subject has not changed.  The apostle is continuing with the theme of justification, although now his concern is to do what he has already hinted at (at 3:21 for example) – to ground the exposition of the doctrine explicitly in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  He now points to Abraham the father of the Jewish nation and David the greatest of all the Jewish kings as examples of men who were justified by faith apart from works. The reason for adducing their examples is obvious.  If the father of the Jewish people and the “friend of God” par excellence (Jam. 2:23; Isa. 41:8) was justified by faith then would it not follow that all who follow in his footsteps are also justified by faith?  And if King David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), was also justified by faith, then why should we think that there is any other way of becoming right with God?

But there are other reasons why I think the apostle is staying on this topic.  As we have already pointed out, this is a very central doctrine and the key to the entire epistle and the gospel.  It should have the same place in the church today – Luther called it the article of the standing or falling church.  And it should have the same place in our lives.  If Paul spends eight chapters in his definitive exposition of the gospel stating, defending, and drawing out the implications of justification by faith alone, then we need to understand the reasons why he placed such great emphasis on it.  So let me give you three reasons why I believe Paul placed this great emphasis upon this doctrine.

The glory of God is at stake

First, he did so because the glory of God is at stake.  We saw that in our last study in Romans 3:27-28.  There, Paul writes, “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 the works of the law.”  In this chapter, he picks up the theme again in verse 2: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”  And then in verse 20, he describes Abraham’s faith in this way: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”  You see that emphasis throughout.  Paul is concerned that boasting is excluded and that the glory is given to God.  According to Paul, this happens when people are justified by faith and not by works.  Those who are justified by faith do not cling to their righteousness but to the righteousness of God, and therefore have nothing to boast about. 

Thus this doctrine is important because it is inextricably connected to the glory of God which is the most important thing in the universe.  All that exists, exists in order to show the glory of God.  Every spiritual blessing which we receive is given in order to demonstrate the glory of God.  And our enjoyment of every blessing depends on this fact of the glory of God, for every blessing is in some sense a partaking of God’s glory (cf. John 17; Eph. 3:10; Rom. 5:1-2).

So, in other words, justification by faith alone was not important to Paul primarily because he was in love with the doctrine but because he was in love with the God of the doctrine.  Paul longed to see the glory and honor of God displayed.  So, if the doctrine of justification by faith is boring to us, we need to ask ourselves whether we in fact care about the glory of God.  In any case, we need to ask ourselves how much of a role this motive plays in our hearts when it comes to defending this truth.  Do we defend it because we want others to see how clever we are, or do we defend it because we want others to see how great God is?

The true happiness of man is at stake

Another reason this truth is so important is because the way of justification by faith alone is the only way men and women can become reconciled to God, and therefore it is the only way to true blessedness.  The apostle sounds this note in verses 6-8 where we read three times the word “blessed” or “happy.” 

“David,” the apostle explains, “also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (6). In the Psalm that he is quoting, David portrays his condition when he still had unconfessed sin in his life: “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.  For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:2-4).  That is, unconfessed sin had an effect even upon his physical body.  Though it is not always the case, yet sometimes symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and fear can have their root problem in sin that has been hidden.  In such cases, confession is the way out: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (5).  David knew that his good works did not counterbalance his wrong deeds.  The only way to freedom from guilt and despair is to confess the sin or sins to the Lord and to fall on his mercy and free forgiveness.  Grace is the foundation of blessing.

But there is more to the blessing of free justification than a good conscience now.  Paul was happy because he had his eye on the future.  In chapter 5, he tells us why the Christian can rejoice: “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” (5:1-2).  We can rejoice because, as justified people, we are at peace with God and therefore have access to him through Christ.  This access is also the guarantee that one day we shall have complete access to God when we partake and see the glory of God in the eternal state.  This was what the Puritans called the Beatific Vision and it is what made Paul rejoice.  But again, this blessed rests upon the foundation of justification by faith alone.  So it is essential.

The foundation of sanctification is at stake

There is yet another reason that might not be so apparent at first.  The holiness of the Christian depends upon justification by faith.  There are two ways you can approach this doctrine.  You can approach it as a sinner who wants to be free from the burden of sin or you can approach it as a slave to sin who only wants another excuse for his sin.  For those who come to it in the latter way, Paul has stern words: “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2).  Those who twist this doctrine into an excuse for their sin, wrest it, as Peter says, to their own destruction.

Rather, those who truly believe that God justifies those who trust in Jesus alone ought to be holy persons.  Notice that Paul says this in Romans 6:7, “For one who has died has been set free [justified] from sin.”  If you are dead to sin, it is because you have already been justified.  Why is this?

The reason lies in the fact that we cannot live in relation to God apart from being reconciled to him; and this happens only when we are justified.  Further, the life of sanctification must be lived in the attitude of dependence and trust upon God.  This is because “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jam. 4:6).  Believing that your works are the reason God accepts you does not lead you to trust in God; instead it will lead to self-dependence and arrogance and pride.  That is why it is so crucial to believe in Jesus alone for your standing before God.  That alone leads to humble trust, and to those who have such an attitude, God gives his Spirit and grace.

That was Paul’ whole argument in the latter part of his epistle to the Galatians.  He had established the true doctrine of justification over again the Judaizers who wanted to bring in the observance of the law as something essential to salvation.  But then he administered the fatal blow to their position by undermining their main objection to the grace of God by noting that sanctification only comes through the Spirit and the Spirit is given to those who believe.  Paul’s whole argument is that only those who believe the true doctrine will live holy lives.

What does Paul mean by “faith counted as righteousness”?

Let’s now look at the text.  First of all, let’s notice that Paul has introduced some new terms into the discussion but he is still talking about justification by faith.  Because in verse 2 he says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”  And in verse 5 he writes, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, he faith is counted as righteousness.”

But the new term he introduces is the word “counts” which is also translated by the words “impute” and “reckon” in the KJV.  He uses the term 11 times in this chapter.  It is obviously important to Paul as he explicates the doctrine in term of the example of Abraham.  What does he mean by this?

We do know one thing.  It is clearly another way of saying that we are justified by faith.  The connection with the previous chapter demands this.  Paul had there given that magnificent statement of the doctrine.  Now he defends it from the OT from the fact that Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness.  This argument does not make any sense unless counting faith for righteousness and justification by faith are basically the same thing.

Now then, what does the apostle mean?  Some have tried to make the case that when Paul says that faith is imputed as righteousness, he is equating faith with the righteousness.  So then what Paul is saying is that our faith is what makes us righteous.  

I don’t think that is the correct interpretation.  Rather, what Paul means when he says that faith is counted as righteousness is that when a person trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior, God looks at that person as also being righteous because of what Christ has done for them.  When we say that God imputes righteousness, what we mean is that God puts it to the believer’s account (the terms carries both legal and monetary connotations), so that he considers the believer in Christ as possessing the righteousness of God.  That he counts faith as righteousness simply means that this transfer happens when we believe in Jesus.

Let me give you four reasons why I believe this is the correct interpretation over against the idea that faith itself is the righteousness.

First of all, the instrumental role of faith in our justification demands it.  We have already noted that this chapter is an extension of the argument begun in chapter 3 and that Paul is now defending what he had previously defined.  In chapter 3, Paul says that we are justified by faith, that we become partakers of the righteousness of God by faith.  There faith is obviously instrumental.  It is through (not on account of) faith as a means that we become right before God (see 3:22, 25).

Second, the righteousness that is imputed, counted, and reckoned to us is specifically called the righteousness of God (3:21,22).  How you can call faith the righteousness of God is beyond me.  So when the apostle says that faith is counted as righteousness he must mean not that faith is the righteousness but that it is the means by which this righteousness is appropriated.

Note what Paul says in 10:10: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (KJV).  The righteousness is the same as that mentioned in verse 6, “the righteousness of faith” (KJV) which is also the same righteousness in verse 3, “the righteousness of God.”  So, in some sense, righteousness which is imputed is both a faith-righteousness and a God-righteousness.  But it is not a faith-righteousness in the same sense that it is a God-righteousness.  For, as Paul says, man believes unto righteousness; similarly, man confesses unto salvation.  Just as confession is not salvation, but leads to it, even so faith is not righteousness but leads to it.  The righteousness of justification is the righteousness of God in the sense that God is the origin of it; it is the righteousness of faith in the sense that it is through faith in Christ that we become the possessors of it.[1]

Third, if faith were our righteousness, this would make a work out of faith.  For then we would be able to boast in our faith as the reason for which we were saved.  But this makes nonsense out of all the texts that contrast faith and works and say that we are saved by grace.  On the other hand, if faith is simply the hand by which we receive God’s righteousness, then faith is no longer a ground of boasting.

Fourth, though Paul never explicitly says it, I think we are justified in saying that the righteousness of God which we receive is not our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ.  As John Stott argues, “on at least three occasions Paul comes so close to this picture [being clothed in Christ’s righteousness] that I for one believe it is biblically permissible to use it.”[2]  He then goes on to point to 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 1:30, and Phil. 3:9.  In 2 Cor. 5:21, the apostle says that God made Christ to be sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.  In 1 Cor. 1:30 he says that Christ is made for us (among other things) righteousness.  And in Phil. 3:9, Paul writes that he wants to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  It is a righteousness that comes to us, not one that emanates from us.  And it comes to us in a way that it is inextricably tied to Christ and what he has done for us, and therefore is justly called the righteousness of Christ.

To recap, when Paul says that faith is counted as righteousness, he means that when God imputes faith as righteousness, he means that we are justified by faith in Christ and that it is on the basis of what Christ has done for us that we receive, not our own, but the righteousness of God.  

Perhaps an illustration might help us grasp this concept. Remember Onesimus, the slave of Philemon?  He had run away from his master, evidently after having stolen some money from him, and had come to Rome.  But as God’s providence would have it, he met Paul and became a converted man.  Paul sent him back to Philemon with a letter and in it Paul asks him to forgive Onesimus.  In the course of the letter, Paul brings up the matter of stolen property and writes on the behalf of Onesimus, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge[3] that to my account.  I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philem. 18-19).  This is what we mean by imputation.  It means God putting the righteousness of God to your account when you believe because Jesus has already paid the price with his blood.

Let’s see now how the apostle develops this thought in the first eight verses.


In these verses Paul demonstrates the compatibility of the OT with his teaching that sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from works.  He appeals therefore to Abraham the greatest patriarch of all.  Beginning in verse 1[4], he asks, “What then shall we say was gained[5] by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?”  In other words, how did Abraham find favor in the eyes of God?  Many of Paul’s contemporaries would have pointed to Abraham’s obedience as the key reason he found favor with God.  The apostle takes up this premise in verse 2, when he writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”

What is Paul saying here?  He is explicitly denying that Abraham had anything to boast about and therefore he could not be justified by his works.  He supports this with the following verse.  Verse 3 says, “For what does the Scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’”  Gen. 15:6, which the apostle quotes here, makes it clear that it was the patriarch’s faith, not his works, that was imputed to him as righteousness.  Remember that the apostle is illustrating the principle of 3:27-28 with the example of Abraham.  Surely if anyone had a reason to boast in their obedience, it was Abraham.  But not even Abraham could boast for he had no works sufficient for his justification before God.  Even he had to be justified by faith apart from works.

In verse 4, the apostle shows why it is that counting faith for righteousness (as opposed to justification by works) is the only way to exclude boasting.  Verse 4 says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”  In other words, if you work to earn a wage, then when that wage or reward is given to you, you can rightfully say, “I earned this.”  Salvation then is not a matter of grace, but becomes a matter of debt and a ground for boasting.

Verse 5 gives the other side of the coin: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”  Here the apostle unpacks for us what he means by having faith counted as righteousness – or, alternatively, what he means by justification by faith alone.  The people for whom this is true are described negatively and positively.  Negatively in the words “the one who does not work” and positively in the words “believes in him who justifies the ungodly.”  Now there are three things in this verse that point to the fact that we are justified by faith alone, wholly apart from works.

First in the words, “to the one who does not work.”  This makes it clear that works have no part in our justification.  Justification is not a process of moral change that makes us fit for the kingdom of heaven.  Justification happens in an instant, at the very beginning of the Christian’s life, so that there is no time to clean up our act.  Good works are necessary, but they do not provide the foundation of one’s relationship with God.  Justified people work from a right standing with God, not in order to get a right standing with God.

Second, in the words, “but believes in him who justifies the ungodly.”  The word “ungodly” is very important here.  Not only do our works never come into consideration in the matter of our justification, the people who are justified are described as ungodly.  Or, to put it another way, though our good works do not come into consideration, our bad works do.  How can this be?  How can God justify such people?  The reason is because “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).  This also means that our faith cannot be considered as a good work.  Though we are justified by faith, though faith is counted for righteousness, yet even in the act of faith, we are still considered “ungodly.”  Faith is not the righteousness imputed and adds nothing to it.  

Finally, in the words, “his faith is counted as righteousness.”  As John Piper has noted, this does not say anything about the works springing from faith, but simply says that faith itself is counted as righteousness.  We are justified by faith alone.  God imputes the righteousness of his Son to those who, leaving the rags of their self-righteousness behind, cling in faith-dependence upon Jesus.

In verses 6-8, the apostle buttresses his account by appealing to the experience of King David.  Notice that here the imputation of righteousness is parallel with the non-imputation of sin.  Though justification is not only the forgiveness of sins (as some unfortunately reduce it to), yet it does necessarily involve it.  There is no acceptance with God apart from the forgiveness of our sins, purely by grace and apart from works.  There is a double act in our justification: the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness, the erasing of our debt and the addition of a positive balance to our account, the righteousness of God.  Truly such people are blessed.


I don’t know where you stand this morning, how you are burdened with sin – whether with the guilt of sin or with power of sin or both.  Or maybe you don’t care about sin at all.  But regardless of where you fall, this text has something to say to people in each of these categories.  

To those of you who are burdened with the guilt of your sins and failures: you know you are a sinner before God and that God is righteous and you don’t know how in the world God cold accept you and forgive you.  This text tells you how this can happen.  For those who do not work but who believe in the one who justifies the ungodly, as ungodly, they are given a righteousness that gives them peace with God and access into his presence.

To those of you who are struggling with sin’s dominance in your life, remember that God imparts his Spirit not on the basis of works but on the basis of grace.  The foundation of your sanctification is your justification.  The temptation is to think that because we have failed therefore there is no hope, and then to give up fighting sin.  But God is not waiting to strike you down or strike you off because you have failed – if you are in Christ your standing with him is not in jeopardy.  So keep fighting your sins, not out of fear but out of your security in the gracious love of your Father who accepts you completely in Jesus Christ.

To those of you who do not care – what can we say?  You do not care about your own soul.  You are among those whom Paul describes in Romans 10 – “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  They needed to be saved, and so do you.  Unless you are willing to submit yourself to the righteousness of God by faith in Christ, you are lost.  Awake sinner, and come to Christ!

May God bless these words to each of us.  Amen.

[1] See John Murray, Romans (NICNT), p. 359.
[2] John Stott, Romans (BST), p. 128.
[3] The word ellogeo is synonymous with logizomai.
[4] Again, I want to point out that in my own exposition of this text, I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of it.
[5] “Gained” in the Greek: “The dominant thought in this usage is that of being granted a favored standing before someone who has the power to withhold or bestow the favor he chooses.” From The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, p. 323.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Applying the doctrine of justification by faith: Romans 3:27-31

The doctrines of the Bible, its teaching, are the word of God.  They are true and are worthy to be held for no other reason than that.  They are revealed to us by God through men inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it would be insane for us to refuse to believe what God has himself made known to us.  And it seems reasonable to assume that God has not revealed inconsequential truths to us.  Deut. 29:29 is relevant here: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  God has given us his word so that we may do something with it, namely, obey it and put it into practice in our lives.

For that reason, when we look at the unfolding of the gospel in Romans 3, we should not think that this is unimportant or irrelevant.  However, there are right ways of holding doctrine and there are wrong ways of holding doctrine.  What the apostle does here shows us how doctrine of justification by faith ought to work in the life of a believer.  

He shows us, for example, that this doctrine does not just dangle on its own.  It ought to have a profound affect upon the way we think and live.  If we hold this truth as something merely interesting on a theoretical level, then we have failed to see the gospel for what it truly is.  The problem is that a lot of people see this sharp dichotomy between doctrine and practice.  But the apostle would have abhorred all such categories.  The foundation for Biblical practical living is the doctrine the theology of the Bible.  This ought to have a profound impact upon the ways we face each day and interact with others.  As we move through the passage, we will consider some more concrete ways we should do this, but for now I just want to make this observation.  Doctrine implies holiness of life.  This is the point of the opening words of the text: “What then?”

So what specifically is Paul doing here?  Having elaborated the doctrine of justification by faith, he now draws three inferences from it.  The inferences are that (1) justification by faith promotes humility by excluding boasting, (2) it promotes missions by removing distinctions, and (3) it promotes holiness by upholding the law. 

These issues were of particular concern in Paul’s day, especially in terms of the interaction between the church and the Jewish community.  Remember that Paul generally began his evangelistic efforts in the synagogue.  And moreover, he defines the gospel in this very letter as that which has Jewish priority: it is the gospel “to the Jews first.”  They are God’s historic covenant people.  So it is not merely a matter of missional convenience to address their concerns; it was a matter of theological fidelity to do so.  And so the apostle wants his Jewish family to see that the gospel does not invalidate faithfulness to God’s own word in the law.  That is essentially what he is doing here; there is nothing in the gospel which is fundamentally contrary to the law of God.  Indeed, the law is upheld by the very gospel that Paul proclaims.

Let’s consider each implication in turn.

The gospel promotes humility by excluding boasting

“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” (27-28).  We might not normally think of the OT in terms of the prohibition of boasting, but the emphasis in it on the dangers of pride, which is everywhere, especially in the wisdom literature, illustrates the fact that what Paul is doing here is showing that the tendency of the gospel message is not in a different direction from the OT.  “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar” (Ps. 139:6).  Of the seven abominations that Solomon mentions in Proverbs 6, “haughty eyes” are first on the list (Prov. 6:16-17).  And then there is that great word in the prophesy of Isaiah: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15).  So here we see that the message of the gospel is in keeping with this emphasis in OT.  The two are compatible in terms of this spirit of humility which is promoted in both.

Now it’s probable that Paul’s main reason here in pointing this out is to undermine the pretense for pride in some of his Jewish brethren, who looked on the Gentiles with disdain.  Apparently some Jews found a reason for boasting in the law, by interpreting it as a law of works.  That is, they saw the law as a way to merit the favor of God by their law-keeping.  Of course, if you have merited the favor of God, then that means that you are better than those who haven’t, and that gives you a ground for boasting.  The apostle will come back to this in 4:1-5.  There he will say that Abraham didn’t having anything to boast about since he was justified by faith and not by works: “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” (4:4-5).

This emphasis on works-righteousness therefore put the law-keeper at odds with the requirement for humility before God.  But the apostle says that the gospel undermines this.  Why?  Because the gospel is not a law of works but a law of faith (or “principle of faith”: here I think the apostle is using the word law metaphorically in terms of a principle).  Though Paul’s Jewish brethren thought they were keeping the law by opposing the gospel, the apostle shows that actually the gospel preserves the very spirit of the OT better than themselves.

In opposition to works-righteousness or salvation by merit, the gospel tells us that we can only be make right, not by looking to ourselves but by looking away from ourselves to Christ.  We are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Thus there is no room for boasting in yourself.  For you can’t boast in yourself if you are not looking at yourself or trusting in yourself.  

The emphasis here upon humility and the exclusion of boasting is important for a number of reasons.  For one thing, it’s just the truth about who we are and what we can do.  To fail to humble ourselves before God is to live in a delusion.  We do not receive salvation because we earned it; we receive it as beggars. In fact, the way God saves people underlines the fact that he alone is the one who ought to receive the glory (1 Cor. 1:26-31). We need to be reminded of this because this is not just a Jewish problem, it’s a human problem.  As John Stott puts it, “all human beings are inveterate boasters.  Boasting is the language of our fallen self-centeredness.”  Paul had already written to the Christians in Corinth who loved to boast in their wisdom, “For who sees anything different in you?  What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).  Every boast is a denial of grace and a brick in our own Tower of Babel of pride and achievement.  Better to knock it down than to have God humble us: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

Another reason this is important is because the reason we exist is to glorify God.  But we cannot live lives that glorify God if we are boasting about ourselves: these are incompatible modes of living.  Either you live for the glory of God or you live for yourself; you cannot do both.  This is the point of the Isaiah passage we referred to earlier.  God dwells in two places: he dwells in the high and lofty place and he dwells with those who are lowly and contrite.  In other words, God does not dwell with those who worship themselves.  Rather, God seeks those who worship him (Jn. 4:24).  

And this leads us to a third reason.  If God made you to worship him, it is futile to seek true fulfillment in any other way.  In other words, if you want to be truly happy, don’t live for yourself; worship God.  Now this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of people out there who are perfectly content without God.  I don’t deny that there are.  However, to use C. S. Lewis’ analogy, it is also possible to be perfectly content making mud pies in the slums because you don’t have any idea what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  In fact, however, we know by experience that the best way to become a miserable person is to become fixated on yourself.  I like the way John Piper put it once: to worship yourself is like going to the Alps and then locking yourself in a room full of mirrors.  Everyone knows what it means to be “taken out of yourself,” to experience something transcendent as the way to experience something truly delightful and wonderful.  But the one who transcends every category of wonder and beauty and power and wisdom is God himself.  Everything else that we worship can only be a faint image of the God who made it.  If we refuse to worship him, we are only robbing ourselves of the purest and best and lasting joy.  And it is the reason idolatry is not only wicked, but pathetic and heartbreaking.

Pride is dangerous because it is the root of so many evils.  It is the root of selfishness because it puts oneself before others.  It is the root of unforgiveness because it blinds us to our own need for mercy.  It the root of lust and covetousness because it makes us think that we deserve better than what we have.  It is the root of anger because we fail to see that the people who annoy us are less important than people themselves.  And on and on.

This means that if we kill boasting, we will inevitably become better people: more forgiving, more sacrificial, more loving, more longsuffering, and more contented.  Isn’t this the kind of person you want to become?  The only path to it is the path of humility.

And the gospel is the only sure path to humility.  Again, I want to point out that I’m not saying there aren’t humble people out there who don’t believe the gospel.  We should expect that there would be since all men and women are made in the image of God whether they are saved or not.  However, I do want to point out that secularism, which is the clearest alternative to the gospel here in the West, gives you no reason to be humble (despite protests to the contrary).  For secularism has no place for the grace and mercy of God.  The only salvation it knows is a salvation that man bestows upon himself.  And that being the case, the secular mind has every reason to boast and pride.  Secularism has no argument against despising those who are different than yourself.  Secularism gives no reason to show grace to those who are not in its tribe.  The gospel, on the other hand, says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” whether that neighbor is a conservation or liberal, white or black, Christian or non, your spouse or your enemy.  Why?  Because we are saved by a love that we didn’t deserve and which we received, not by merit, but by faith alone.

But that’s not the only inference the apostle draws out.  

The gospel promotes missions by removing distinctions

“Or is God the God of the Jews only?  Is he not of the Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one – who will justify the circumcision by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-30).  Another emphasis in the OT is the emphasis on the world-wide extent of the blessing of Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).  However, the Jewish exclusivism that plagued Paul’s nation lost sight of this facet of the blessing of Abraham.  Salvation is not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles since God is the God of both.  Unlike the false gods of the nations, the God of Israel is not just a tribal deity, but the God of the whole earth.

However, when Paul says that God is the God of the Jews and Gentiles, I think what he is saying is that God is the God who saves Gentiles as well as Jews.  Yes, God is the God of all men in terms of creation.  But sometimes when God says to people, “I am your God,” what he means is that he is for them in a saving way.  This, surely, is the point of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33), and what lies behind Rev. 21:3, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”  So the apostle is arguing here that God saves Jew and Gentile.  This is, of course, in complete agreement with the message of the OT.

The apostle is saying that the gospel proves that God saves both Jew and Gentile because salvation – justification – is not a matter of law-keeping but rather a matter of faith.  By wrongly emphasizing the law – both its ceremonial and moral aspects – the Jews had made salvation a matter for Jews only.  The only way to be saved was to be part of the people of God which they defined solely in terms of belonging to Israel and that meant obeying the law of Moses.  However, in doing so they actually ended up running contrary to the actual teaching of both the law and the prophets.  Salvation, even in the OT, is not seen as only for Israel but for all the nations.  The gospel, on the other hand, maintains this balanced perspective.

Salvation is available for all because justification is not offered to us on the basis of law-keeping but on the basis of faith.  Neither Jew nor Gentile could keep the law as the basis of acceptance with God.  But faith opens a door through which all may go in.

And this means that the gospel is a gospel for all the world.  The word for “Gentiles” is the word for “nations.”  The gospel is a gospel for the nations (cf. Matt. 29:18-20).  Of course, it begins with those around us here at home.  We ought to be a light so that those around us can see the gospel in our lives and hear it from our lips.  But we don’t stop there: we go on to help those who are bringing the gospel into all the world and to take it there ourselves if God so allows us to go.  The gospel is not something for us to hold on to; it is something for us to share and if we are unwilling to do that, it means that we have missed something very fundamental to the gospel.

There is another way to look at this as well.  To believe the gospel means that we do not see our particular tribe to more favored than others in terms of our worthiness before God.  It means that we do not look down on others or maintain a posture of superiority.  For God is not the God of the Jews only, but also of everyone else.  We are not saved because our upbringing was better than someone else’s.  We are not saved because of our education.  We are not saved because we aren’t as bad as the next person.  Justification by faith rules that out completely.  To accept this doctrine means that we accept the fact that we cannot save ourselves, that we are not good enough.  That cuts out racism, and it cuts out snobbery of any kind.  It makes us approachable and empathetic people.  That is to say, it makes us more like our Savior.

Now I’m not saying that a Christian can’t be a patriot or love his country.  I’m not saying that a Christian can’t appreciate aspects of his heritage and culture and upbringing.  But what I am saying is that if we have truly embraced the gospel, we don’t make these things barriers for bringing the gospel to others or welcoming others into our lives.  Rather, we follow our Savior by welcoming the outcasts and the marginalized and loving them with the love of our Savior – who loves us with a love that is both infinitely to be desired and yet complete undeserved.

This brings us to our final point.

The gospel promotes holiness by upholding the law

Finally, the apostle concludes by saying, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law” (31).  Now the first question here is, what does Paul mean by “the law”?  Because a lot of people read that and just think Paul is talking about the boundary markers like circumcision and the like, which distinguished Jew from Gentile.  However, as Tom Schreiner points out, “law” in Paul regularly refers to the commands of the Mosaic institution.  Though some of these are boundary markers, most of them have to do with living before a holy God and which are applicable to Gentile as well as Jew.  The argument against the gospel would have been that it led to antinomianism and licentiousness.  For if we are saved simply by faith, what need have we for holiness before God?

Paul answers by saying that “we uphold the law.”  What does he mean by that?  How does the gospel uphold the law?  Though Paul does not give a complete answer here, I believe he does address this later on, especially in chapters 6-8, and this indicates what the apostle meant.

First, he surely meant that faith in Christ incompatible with a life in sin.  This is certainly what he is getting at in Romans 6.  Faith upholds the law by enabling the Christian to live under the grace of God which empowers us to truly fight the sin in our hearts.  Faith empowers obedience.  Faith is not an excuse for sin but the freedom to truly fight it for the first time.  We need to remember that the apostles didn’t just preach faith, but faith and repentance, for you cannot have one without the other.

The irony is that the law itself gives no power for obedience.  Faith actually gives us the power to be law-keepers: not in the sense of keeping the law for the purpose of meriting God’s favor out of fear, but for keeping it for the purpose of pleasing the One who saved us out of love.  Faith upholds the law; the law can’t uphold itself.

Another way that faith upholds the law is by pointing us to the one who fulfills the law in every jot and tittle (Mt. 5:17-18).  Yes, there are aspects of the law that no longer apply, but the reason they don’t apply is because they are fulfilled in Christ.  For example, we don’t sacrifice goats because Christ is our sacrifice.  In this way, the law is not abolished but fulfilled.

He also fulfilled God’s moral law by expiating the sin that brought the just wrath of God against us (Rom. 3:25-26).  God’s law has thus not been done away; it has received notice it deserves, being fulfilled by Christ for us and by the Holy Spirit in us.

So let me ask you: has the doctrine of justification by faith made a difference in your life?  Has it made a difference in your relationships?  Recently, I had the privilege to officiate at Jacob and Stephanie’s wedding, and this is one of the things I said to them: “Let the gospel transform your marriage into one in which forgiveness is freely given and received.  To believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of grace alone and not to have a gentle and forbearing and longsuffering and forgiving spirit is a shocking contradiction.  To not extend forgiveness to our spouse is to forget that we were purged from our sins.  So preach the gospel to yourselves, preach it to each other, live it out, and you will find a pleasure in your marriage that is unattainable outside of fellowship with Christ.  Let the fragrance of the gospel sweeten your marriage and your love for each other.”  Indeed, let the fragrance of the gospel sweeten every aspect of our lives and adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things (Tit. 2:10).

The Faith that Justifies: Romans 4:17-25

The apostle has been exploring the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  He has explained that everyone needs t...