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).