The Implications of Justification (Part 1)

Romans 3:27-31

Tom Pennington  •  April 3, 2016
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Turn with me to Romans 3 as we continue our journey through Paul's wonderful letter to the churches there in Rome. In this letter, which is really far more doctrinal than, in its form and format, than his other letters, Paul is summarizing for the Roman believers the gospel that he preached. So after opening the letter in the first 17 verses of chapter 1, in the first major section, Paul explains the gospel. That it is, in fact, justification by faith alone. That is the gospel.

That section, that first real major section of the letter, runs from chapter 1 verse 18 through the end of chapter 4. He begins by explaining our need for the gospel, our utter lack of personal righteousness, beginning in chapter 1 verse 18, running through chapter 3 verse 20. And then, in the paragraph in which we find ourselves, in chapter 3 verse 21, all the way through the end of chapter 3, Paul explains God's gift of imputed righteousness.

Having shown us our need for righteousness in the first three chapters, in the second half of chapter 3 he shows us how God gives that righteousness to us, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In verses 21 to 26 Paul explains justification. We looked at that in great detail. It really is the heart of this letter. He explains to us how we are made right with God through the work of Christ embraced by faith alone, given to us by grace, the grace of God.

Now this morning we come to the next section. We begin to study the rest of chapter 3 and we see in this section the implications of justification, beginning in verse 27 and running down through verse 31. Let's read it together, Romans 3 beginning in verse 27.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Now, the first question we need to answer is, why are these verses here? What purpose do these verses serve? You'll notice at the beginning of verse 27 the second word in is that little English word then. That is the normal Greek word we find throughout the New Testament that is often translated therefore. Paul is now going to explain to us the logical implications of what he has been teaching about justification. Now, from a purely literary standpoint these verses, let's just admit it, seem both unnecessary and somewhat redundant. I mean after all, these are themes Paul has already addressed. If we were writing this letter, I should speak for myself I guess, if I were writing this letter I think I would have finished the paragraph at the end of verse 26 and then I would have taken up the theme that he does in chapter 4 verse 1.

But neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit is primarily interested in being literary. They are far more interested in being clear. On further, more careful, study we discover that these verses, which at first glance appear somewhat superfluous, are, in fact, essential and Paul's reasoning is brilliant. You see, Paul was not content simply to explain the gospel positively in verses 21 to 26. But because getting the gospel right is so important, and because the message of the gospel is so contrary to our way of thinking, Paul wanted to make sure that we truly understood. And so in these verses he identifies for us three crucial implications of justification by faith alone. Paul will return to these implications later in this letter, as we will see as we make our way through it, but understand these verses as containing essentially cross-checks to make sure that we properly understand God's way of salvation.

So as we study these verses over the next couple of weeks I encourage you to use them as a kind of test. Do you truly understand the biblical gospel? Do you truly understand justification by faith alone? Nothing is more important than that. And these verses provide us with three implications, three consequences, three crosschecks to make sure that we really understand.

Let's look at them together. The first crucial implication of a proper understanding of justification by faith alone is that it excludes all human boasting. It excludes all human boasting. Look at verse 27. "Where therefore is boasting?" Paul uses the word boasting 10 times in his letters. Often he uses it positively of boasting in the Lord or of boasting in Christ and the cross of Christ. But when he uses it negatively, as he does here, he is referring to sinful pride and boasting in one's self, in one's own status, in one's own merits, in one's own accomplishments.

Now, already in this letter we've been exposed to the fact that the Jews were consumed with an ethnic and national pride because of their unique relationship to God. Back in chapter 2 verse 17 Paul says, "you boast in God." But that's not what is in view here in chapter 3 verse 27. The boasting that Paul means here is the boasting of a sinner before God about his own merits, his own deeds, his own accomplishments. And this is so important because this is insidious in every human heart. By nature, we are all quickly filled with spiritual pride and boasting.

Let me just give you a few examples of the ways in which we are tempted to spiritual pride by nature. First of all, many people are tempted to be proud of their morality because they think of themselves as basically doing what is good. If you want a picture of that, turn to Luke, Luke 18. Our Lord gives us a powerful picture of this kind of spiritual pride over morality in a parable He told, Luke 18:9. He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt. Here's spiritual pride and boasting on display. Verse 10, "'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.'" Watch the Pharisee. Verse 11, "'The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself, "God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers,"'" and then he looks down and over, and to himself he prays, "'"and that I'm not like that guy, that tax collector, over there. I fast twice a week."'" By the way, that was way more than the Old Testament demanded. Best we can figure, the Old Testament believer was only demanded to fast one time a year, on the Day of Atonement. But this guy says, "'"I fast twice a week."'" A hundred times a year. And he goes on to say, in addition to that, "'"I pay tithes of all that I get."'" Remember, Jesus told us the Pharisees tithed their herbs, their salt and pepper, if you will. And he's taking pride in who he is, what he's not and what he is, what he does. Jesus gives us the punch line at the end of this story. Verse 14, He says, "'the tax collector went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself before God will be exalted.'" Spiritual pride in its most evident form.

If you want to see another Pharisee and his spiritual boasting and pride, turn to Philippians 3. This is the Apostle Paul. This isn't a parable; this was how Paul thought. Verse 4, he said, "before Christ I had confidence in my flesh. I was proud of who I was and what I had attained." Notice where he put his pride. He says in verse 5, "circumcised the eighth day." Paul was proud of his religious ritual. A lot of people are proud of their religious rituals, their baptism or their confirmation or their bar mitzvah or whatever it might be. He goes on to say, "I was of the nation of Israel." Paul was proud of his ethnic background, of his belonging to the people of God. He says, "I was of the tribe of Benjamin." Benjamin was one of two tribes that stayed faithful to God. Paul was proud of his spiritual heritage. He says, "I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews." In other words, his family was uninfluenced by the Hellenization of the Greek culture. Instead, they remained in traditional lifestyles, traditional Jewish lifestyles. And Paul was proud of that. He says, "I was a Pharisee." He was proud of his religious association and affiliation. He was connected to the right group. He was proud, notice, of his zeal, "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church." Paul says, "I was proud of my zeal for God." And then he says, "as to the external requirements of the Law," he says I was, "found blameless." Paul was proud of his external righteousness.

But notice the change that happens to Paul, verse 7, "whatever things I used to think of as assets," all those things that I was proud of, "those things I now think of as liabilities, I've counted them as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things," watch this, "and count them but skubalon," the Greek word. It's the most polite way in Greek to say excrement. He says, all of that is like excrement to me now compared to knowing Jesus Christ and having His righteousness, verse 9, not my own. But Paul used to boast in all of those things. A lot of people boast in their morality, Like Paul, like the Pharisee in Jesus' story. But you know what Paul says about all of that? Remember in chapter 3, he says, "'There is none who does good, not even one.'"

Other people boast, not in their morality, but in their knowledge. They know the truth. You remember, we met them back in Romans 2. The Jewish people, verse 17, "relied upon the Law." They knew God's law. They were teachers of the law. Verse 20, "having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth." They were proud of their knowledge. There are a lot of people proud of their biblical knowledge. They can tell you what the tenth toe on the beast means. They can tell you where to find something in Scripture. They can answer all the Sunday school questions and beyond. They know how to dot every theological i and cross every theological t. And they're proud about it. Apart from Christ, what does Paul say about that knowledge? In chapter 3 of Romans and verse 11, he says, "'There is none who understands.'" You don't get it. You may have knowledge accumulated in your head, but you don't really, you don't really get it.

Other people find pride and boast in their spirituality. That is, their spiritual feelings. Many people, honestly, can't say they do a lot of good (and boy is this prevalent in our culture), so instead, they take pride in their spiritual feelings. They feel good about themselves and God. Talk to them and they, you know, they talk to God and we have a good thing going and He understands me and He kind of leaves me alone and I do what I want and He gives me blessings and I have these warm spiritual feelings. But those often deceive. Spurgeon encountered those same problems in his era and this is what he said, "If you rely upon what you feel you shall as certainly perish as if you trust in what you do." Those spiritual feelings can be deceptive. In chapter 3 verse 11 Paul says, "'There is none who seeks for God.'" You're not really seeking for God.

Another place that we can mistakenly put our spiritual pride and boasting is in faith itself. In, supposedly, the act of believing. You see, unfortunately, professing evangelicals can mistake the role of faith in salvation. We can begin to think that instead of demanding perfect righteousness from us, God decided to settle for something less, that God accepts our faith in place of the righteousness He demands. But that assigns way too much to the role of faith. Faith is simply the means, the channel through which we receive God's gift of salvation. Lloyd Jones puts it this way, "It is not faith that saves us. What saves us is the Lord Jesus Christ and His perfect work. This is the righteousness that saves. The righteousness is entirely Christ's. We simply embrace it through faith."

So those are just a few things, a few examples of things, in which we are tempted to boast. But in light of the gospel, go back to Romans 3. In light of the gospel, and in light of the reality of justification by faith alone, Paul asks this question in verse 27, "Where then is all such boasting? It is excluded." The word excluded, in English, is a kind of weak word, but not in Greek. The Greek word is a very strong word. The only other place this word is used in the New Testament as in Galatians 4:17 where it's translated "to shut out." That's the idea. When this word is used in a literal sense it means to slam the door on someone, to lock them out. Paul says that in the gospel he preached, justification by faith alone, God intentionally slams the door on all human boasting. God will not let the sinner take any credit whatsoever.

Now why is this important? Because it's right that God alone be glorified. Right? Because it's right, because He is the only one in the universe who deserves glory, therefore, God seeks His own glory and refuses to share it with anyone else. Not because God is selfish, He's a very generous person, but because it's right. And God can only do what is right. Therefore, we read in Isaiah 48:11, "'For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.'" Again and again, God says, I'm not sharing my glory. Why? Because it's not right. So when it came to the plan for our salvation, one of God's greatest concerns was to save us in such a way as to destroy all opportunity for human pride and boasting. So that He alone would be glorified.

Let me show you how important this is to God, turn to 1 Corinthians. First Corinthians 1:18, Paul talks about the message of the cross, that it's foolishness to the Greeks. It is, he goes on to say, it's a stumbling block for the Jews. But notice verse 24, "to those who are the called," that's a description of those God effectually calls to Himself through the gospel, those He draws to Himself, "to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ," and the message of the cross is, "the power of God and the wisdom of God." Verse 26, "For consider your calling brethren." Literally, what he's saying here is consider whom God called, whom God drew to Himself. He's talking about election, he's talking about the effectual call, and he says, "there were not many." Now notice, he does say "not many," thankfully, but he's making a point here, "there were not many wise." In other words, God didn't call through the gospel to Himself many of the world's intelligentsia, many of the highbrow academic types. There are some, but not many. "Not many mighty." Not many of the world's powerful are Christians. God didn't call "many noble." Not many of those blue blooded aristocrats, the nobility of the earth, are called.

Instead, here's where we are, "but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised," this is us, "God has chosen, the things that are not." In other words, God has chosen the nothings and the nobodies. For the most part, that's who we are. Why? "So that He may nullify the things that are," and here was His ultimate goal, verse 29, "so that no flesh may boast before God." God has chosen and called those whom He's called and chosen. For the most part, He's chosen the weak and the base and the despised, the nothings and the nobodies. Why? So that no human being can ever boast in God's presence. Verse 30, "by His doing you are in Christ Jesus," even those who are the wise and the mighty and the noble, "by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that," here it is, "just as it is written, 'Let him who boasts, boast'" where? "'In the Lord.'"

Turn over to Ephesians 2. Paul makes the same point here in Ephesians 2 in two of the most familiar verses in the Bible. Verse 8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works." Now, why did God do it this way? Why through grace? Why through faith? Why can we not work to earn our salvation? Here's why, "so that," here was God's purpose, here's why He saved us, the way He saved us, "so that no one may boast."

Now go back to Romans 3. This is why, in Romans 3, Paul says a true understanding of the gospel shuts out all human boasting entirely. Verse 27, "What then of boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law faith." Now, there is a lot of debate about what Paul means there in the second half of 27. There are two basic options. The first option is that both of those statements, the law of works and the law of faith, refer to the Law of Moses. The law of works, they would say, refers to a misunderstanding of the Mosaic Law that assumes a person can be justified based on their obedience to it. The law of faith, in this understanding, refers to a legitimate understanding of the Mosaic Law that points to the Redeemer, faith in the Redeemer. Now, this first option is possible. And it's clearly what Paul talks about at the end of Romans 9, the beginning of Romans 10; we'll see when we get there.

But I don't think that's what he's talking about here. I think here in chapter 3 I lean toward the second option and the most common understanding of this passage because it fits better in the flow of the context, as we'll see when we get to verse 31. And here's the meaning with this second option. Paul uses the word law here in verse 27 not in the specific sense of the Law of Moses, but in the general sense of a principle, a way of working, a system. He is contrasting two different principles, or two different systems, of seeking to be justified. The law of works refers to the system or the principle of trying to be justified by human effort. Notice what Paul asked about that, is boasting excluded by a principle or a system of works? He immediately answers what? No, only the law of faith silences boasting. That is, the principle or the system of being justified through faith in Christ. Human boasting is only silenced by the message of justification through faith alone in Christ alone because we contribute absolutely nothing. If I contribute anything to my salvation, then what do I have grounds for? Pride and boasting.

Verse 28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." There is one of Paul's most definitive statements in Romans, really in all of his letters, about the way of salvation. Look at it carefully. "For we maintain." Literally, we reckon, we come to this logical conclusion. And by we Paul probably meant himself and all believers. This is a common theological conclusion that true believers come to. Look at verse 28 again. "For we maintain that a man." That's a general word. Any man. Any person. "We maintain that a person is justified," is declared right with God, "by faith." And then notice the contrast, "apart from," that is, completely independent of, "works of the Law."

Now, in English there's a definite article before the word Law but in Greek there is no definite article. Literally, it's, "works of law." So Paul meant here, clearly, to make faith the opposite of all human works and obedience to every kind of law. He sets faith contrary to every other approach, every human work. That's why when Martin Luther was translating the New Testament into German he came to verse 28 and he translated it like this, "So we hold the person is justified without works of the law through faith alone."

Now, of course, the Roman Catholic Church completely rejected his translation of verse 28. They, in fact, presented four arguments against an understanding of Romans 3:28 that says justification is by faith alone. Let me briefly touch on them and answer them for you. Here's what they would say. They would say, wait a minute, the word alone does not appear in the Greek text of verse 28. And on that point they'd be right. In his translation, Luther probably should not have included the word alone. But, he was not distorting the meaning of the passage. That is what Paul intends to communicate. Clearly, as we'll see, Paul meant to teach in this verse that justification is contrary to all human work. Therefore, it must be by faith and faith only.

Secondly, the Catholic Church argues that justification by faith alone was a novel interpretation that was inconsistent with historic biblical interpretation. In other words, the reformers invented faith alone, that's not what anybody before them believed. And that's simply not true. Several of the early church fathers understood that justification was by faith alone. They weren't always theologically precise, but at times they were. And in fact, several of the early church fathers, I'm talking about the 300's A.D., even use the Latin expression sola fide, faith alone, to describe what they believe the Scriptures taught hundreds of years before the reformers used that expression. Early church fathers like Origen and Ambrosiaster.

Let me give you a couple of examples, I have a number in my notes, let me give you a couple, in the interest of time. Let's take Jerome, one of the great figures the Catholic Church points to. Jerome lived in the 300's, listen to what he wrote, "When an ungodly man is converted, God justifies him through faith alone." He used the Latin expression sola fide. "Not on account of good works which he possessed not." Ambrose, also who lived in the 300's, wrote this, "Without the works of the law, to an ungodly man believing in Christ his faith is imputed for righteousness as also it was to Abraham. How then can the Jews imagine that through the works of the law they are justified when they see that Abraham was justified not by the works of the law, but by faith alone." Sola fide. "There is no need therefore of the law since through sola fide an ungodly man is justified with God." Those are just two examples. I've several others in my notes and there are a number of others that are not in my notes. So although the church fathers were not always clear in their theological understanding. At times they absolutely were because they went through the Scriptures and they understood that justification was by faith alone.

Another way that the Roman Catholic Church sought and still seeks to undermine Paul's clear teaching and meaning in chapter 3 verse 28 is they argue that the expression "the works of the Law" should be redefined. They argue, that's not speaking of all human effort, but rather it's speaking very specifically of keeping the Old Testament ceremonial law or of keeping the Old Testament moral law without a reliance on the Spirit or grace or not from the heart. But this can't be what Paul means, because in the immediate context, verse 28 of chapter 3, Paul excludes which human works? Every human work that is a ground for boasting.

Now, you tell me, what human work is there that isn't a ground for pride and boasting? There is none. And in the larger context, Paul excludes every conceivable kind of human work. If you go back to chapter 3 verse 20 he talks about obedience to the Old Testament Law. That doesn't get you justified. In chapter 4 verse 2 he talks about general obedience to God, Abraham's obedience before the Mosaic Law; that doesn't justify. And in chapter 4 verse 5 he uses a comprehensive expression meaning works of every kind won't get you justified. So this argument doesn't stand to reason either.

A final way that the Roman Catholic Church tries to argue against an understanding of Romans 3:28 that says that justification is by faith alone, is that they argue that James 2:24 directly contradicts it. Now, look at Romans 3:28 again. "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Now turn over to James 2, James 2, and look at verse 24. "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." Roman Catholic apologists love that verse. And they say, see, the only place in the Bible where "faith alone" occurs, it says "not by faith alone."

Now, what is the explanation here? Well, let's look at this text. First of all, let's make sure we've got the theme of the paragraph in which this verse occurs. The theme is clear, look at verse 14, "faith without works is useless and can't save." Verse 20, "faith without works is useless." Verse 26, "faith without works is dead." So James is not contrasting faith and works for one's justification. Instead, he is contrasting a living faith and a dead faith. This was meant to be a serious warning for all of those who claim to be a Christian. There are two kinds of faith. There's a real living faith that saves and there is a deceiving dead faith that damns. As John Calvin put it, "The question with James is not how men attain righteousness before God, but how they prove to others that they are justified."

Now again, let me give you the context, a little summary of what James is teaching here. In verses 14 to 19, we have an autopsy of dead faith. You want to know what dead faith looks like? James says, if you could do an autopsy of dead, non-saving faith, you would find three conditions. You would find, in verses 14 to 17, an empty profession of faith. And in verse 18 you would find a consistent pattern of excuses as to why there is no obedience. And then in verse 19 you would find a biblical orthodoxy without fear. That's what dead faith looks like. 


But in verses 20 to 26, James paints a portrait of living faith. And he uses two Old Testament examples, Abraham and Rahab. Let's look at the first one, Abraham, verses 21 to 24. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Now, at face value verse 24 seems to conflict with what we saw in Romans 3:28. How do you resolve this apparent contradiction? Well, Paul and James are addressing two different problems. Paul is fighting against a works based system of gaining justification. James, on the other hand, is battling antinomianism by those who already claim to be justified. The key to understanding this passage is verse 21, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" What's that a reference to? Clearly, Genesis 22, the events there of his willingness to offer Isaac to the Lord. But when does the Scripture say Abraham was first justified? Genesis 15:6. And, in fact, James quotes it here, "'Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'" Paul quotes the same passage.

So understand this, Genesis 15, when we're told Abraham was justified before God, is at least 30 years before the offering of Isaac in chapter 22. God had already declared Abraham to be righteous, to be justified in the forensic sense that Paul means in Romans, at least 30 years before Abraham offered up Isaac. So offering Isaac then was simply a test of the faith that he already had for at least 30 years. What was the point James is making then in verse 21? Abraham had already been justified. James knew that, he quotes Genesis 15. James meant that Abraham's obedience 30 years later in offering Isaac showed that he had been justified, that his faith was real living faith, not dead faith. So James and Paul don't contradict each other. As John Calvin writes, "It is therefore faith alone which justifies and yet the faith which justifies is not alone. It is followed, if it's real faith, it's followed by obedience to God."

Now, with that understanding, go back to Romans 3 and let me draw two applications very briefly, two applications of verse 28. The first is a doctrinal application. Listen carefully. If any presentation or conception of the gospel allows even the smallest place for human boasting, it is not the true gospel. This takes all kinds of forms. It can take the, sort of, popular form where a lot of people you talk to say, well, yeah, it's going to be ok for me at the judgment because my good works are going to outweigh my bad works. They have cause for boasting because they have good works that they're counting on to get them into heaven. That's not the true gospel.

You have the cults like the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses who have their own works contributing. That's not the true gospel. You have liberalism, salvation by following the ethics of Jesus. It's not the true gospel. You have the Roman Catholic Church which says, there's grace yes and there's faith yes, but they're not alone. We add our spirit-enabled, grace-enabled works and that's part of what makes us acceptable to God - including our baptism. It's not the true gospel. It gives grounds for boasting. Many of the Churches of Christ around us teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. It's not the true gospel.

Listen, the Judaizers of Galatians believe everything that you and I believe except they added circumcision and they added keeping the law. And Paul says in Galatians 1, that made it another gospel. It made it a perverted, damning gospel. The true gospel slams the door completely on all human boasting. If you hear somebody teaching a gospel that allows any grounds for human pride, it's not the gospel.

There's also a personal application here. Let me just ask you pointedly, do you still boast in anything but Christ? Do you boast in something you are or something you've done, some work, some ritual, some heritage, maybe your spiritual legacy, the parents that you have, maybe your church attendance, your Scripture reading, your biblical knowledge? Do you take pride in your works, your baptism, or some other human activity or some other spiritual enterprise? Do you still cling to any shred of self-righteousness? If you are still boasting in anything but Christ, you don't understand the true gospel and you are not yet a true Christian. Here's how Paul puts it in Galatians 6:14, "May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Let's pray together. Father, thank You for the clarity of Your word. Thank You for the true gospel which levels human pride to the dust. Thank You for the reminder that we have nothing, we are nothing that makes us acceptable to You. Our only hope is Christ. Our only hope is His righteousness, what He did. Thank You, O God, that You acted in such a way as to destroy all human boasting so that not one of us who truly know You can ever boast in anything but You.

Father, for those of us who are in Christ, remind us of this. Help us to guard the gospel, to love the gospel. Father, I pray for those who may be here this morning who still have some pride, some boast, in something they are, in something they've done, may they run from that false gospel to boast in You alone. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.