At the end of Romans 11, after Paul has waded through and explained in great detail the working of God in areas of his promises to Abraham, faithfulness to Jews, justification of Jews and Gentiles, and purposes in election, he writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (vv. 33-34).
It’s as if Paul, after explaining the glorious working of God in salvation history, can’t help himself anymore, and he erupts in praise to the wisdom of God. And this after explaining in tedious fashion how God’s Word has not failed in regards to the promises he made to Abraham!
In another of his letters, Paul begins by exclaiming, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” It’s the kind of worship and praise that I think we all hope will pour out from our hearts toward our God. But what provoked it? What was on Paul’s mind that brought about that eruption of praise? Well, he lays it out for us in the rest of the verses in Ephesians 1, as he speaks of God choosing us before the foundation of the world, predestining us for adoption, revealing to us his purpose to unite all things in Christ, sealing us with his Spirit, and on and on.
So, if you’re keeping score, we’ve seen two outbursts of praise from Paul in his letters. One comes from explaining how God’s promises to Abraham aren’t void and diving into Jew and Gentile relations. The other starts with contemplating God’s electing and predestining work, noting that God carries out his purposes as directed by his will.
I think one of the truths this highlights is that a life of delighting in and glorifying the Lord stems in part from a life of pondering our Lord, his work, and his ways. This practice of thinking on something, calling it to mind, working it over in one’s mind, dwelling on it, and even being mentally preoccupied with it is called in Scripture the practice of meditation. When the psalmist, for example, says in Psalm 1 that “his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night,” this is what he’s talking about (Psalm 1:2). He’s thinking about God’s law, calling it to mind again and again, working it over in his mind, dwelling on it, and even being preoccupied with it. And the more he meditates on it, the more he delights in it, and the more he delights in it, the more he meditates on it.
Now, because we see that practice in Paul in other texts, where he meditates and then expresses his delight in the Lord’s glory, wisdom, and ways, it shouldn’t be surprising for us to find that Paul is not content to lay out in Romans 3:21-26 that righteousness is a gift from God, given to us through faith, grounded in the redeeming work of Christ, in a way that justifies us without compromising the justice of God and stop there.
As is his own practice, Paul wants to invite the readers to ponder these things. Dwell on the glory of what God has done in justifying us in this way and bless him for it. Therefore, instead of moving on from this glorious topic that he lays out in 3:21-26, he begins to focus on each of these realities, thinking on and considering the implications of what God has done to redeem us and how God has worked to redeem us. In fact, he contemplates the glories and implications of God’s work in redeeming us in this way in the next few chapters of Romans, inviting us in to meditate on these glorious truths so that our hearts by be moved to delight in, worship, and love our God more. And in our text this morning, he examines specifically the fact that God has chosen to give us his gift of the perfect righteousness of Christ, credited to our account, not on the basis of our good works or great effort, but merely on the basis of faith. That is, Paul stops to consider the glorious implications of God’s wise plan of justifying us on the basis of faith alone, apart from the law.
Therefore, this morning, I want us to ponder the glorious implications of justification by faith alone this morning so that we, like Paul, might be moved to love and worship God more. And the first implication Paul wants us to see is that:
Justification by faith alone eliminates the possibility of boasting.
Paul shows this by asking and answering some questions. He 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 works of the law” (vv. 27-28).
In other words, Paul is saying that one reason God justifies us by faith alone, completely apart from the works of the law (as he notes in v. 28) is because this provides no opportunity for boasting on our part. When we consider justification by faith alone, we should marvel at how gracious God is to us in justifying us by faith alone, apart from any works whatsoever. It doesn’t lay on us a burden that is too great to meet. It doesn’t say to us, “Do!” but merely, “Accept what has been done.” It is a gracious gift that should make us marvel at the kindness and graciousness of our God.
But that’s not the only benefit Paul wants us to see. He also wants us to see that God designed our justification on the basis of faith alone in order that we might not be able to boast but be humbled. That is, it’s not just that we are to revel in the grace of God but also understand that God’s method of saving us was done in part to eliminate any pride on our part.
What this means, then, is that if you or I try to add any thought of our works to the reason why we stand, credited with perfect righteousness before God, we are actually attempting to elevate ourselves, to take some of the praise, glory, and honor that is due God alone for his gracious gift and get credit for ourselves. That is a necessary truth if works provide a basis for boasting. Even if we think of only one percent of our works being factored in to our righteous standing before God, that is an attempt by our hearts to say that we want one percent of the glory and credit that is due God alone. We want to be able to boast a little bit. But God forbids that anyone will be able to boast of his justification. That’s why he designed our justification to take place by faith alone.
But we might respond by saying, “I’d never do that, think that way, or speak that way. I’d never boast about my salvation or want to credit an ounce of my own work for my justification.” However, crediting our work in our salvation and the pride that comes with it not only manifests itself by noting the good that we’ve done but also in refusing to acknowledge the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s work for us and walking around in a state of self-condemnation.
That means that if we walk around in consistent self-condemnation, wallowing in our sin, instead of turning from our sin and delighting in the forgiveness that is ours through the redemptive work of Christ, then we are not only denying the reality of justification by faith alone but actually attempting to take from God the glory that is due him alone. We’re saying, “God, what you’ve done in Christ is not sufficient for me.”
Now, I want us to feel what I’ve said (if this is a struggle we know) as a rebuke. I want to put it in this disgusting category of us trying to steal God’s glory, honor, or credit that is due to him alone because I think we can sometimes think of ourselves, when we begin to struggle with believing the glorious news that we are justified by faith alone in God’s perfect gift of righteousness, as being humble or holy.
And this is what is so dangerous about legalism, believing our justification depends on us doing good or atoning for our own sins through self-condemnation. It feels like holiness, right? It feels like a godly response to recognizing that we have fallen short of the glory of God through our sin. But it’s not holiness. It’s refusing to believe what God says to be true, and consequently it’s refusing to let God alone get glory for our salvation.
And one reason God justifies us by faith alone is so that we might see we have no room for boasting and glory in the goodness of God alone, who is due all honor and glory. So, let our response to the temptation to measure our righteous standing on the basis of our works be to say, “No. I will look to Christ only and boast in him and his sufficiency.” Let us heed the works of Paul from 1 Corinthians 1:30 who reminds us, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
The first implication of justification by faith alone is the glorious reality that it excludes human boasting. Second,
Justification by faith alone allows Jews and Gentiles to be God’s people
After noting that justification by faith alone excludes boasting, Paul writes in verses 29-30, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”
In other words, Paul’s argument is that the one God is going to justify his one, united people (from among Jews and Gentiles) through one way, namely, faith. Since the law (in its written form) was given only to the Jews, then God couldn’t use obedient works of the law to justify all people. It would be effective only for the Jews. But God isn’t the God of Jews only but of all people. Consequently, God justifies people apart from the law, through faith.
The law also served as a dividing line between the Jews and all others. Many of the laws were written in order that as the Jews obeyed them, they formed a barrier or boundary between the Jews and all others. Jews were circumcised, ate certain foods, worshiped in certain places, and observed certain days. If one were to be justified according to the works of the law then one would have to in essence become a Jew first.
But remember that circumcision and Jewishness itself, as Paul taught us in chapter 2, were shadows of greater realities. Abraham’s true descendants are made up of those who have faith, whether they physically descended from Abraham or not. Those who are truly circumcised in their hearts are the circumcised, whether they had been circumcised in their flesh or not.
Therefore, instead of justification coming through the means of all people becoming Jews physically in their practices and customs, God instead justifies all people by faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ alone. This allows the one God to have one people all over the face of the earth who are made up of many tribes, languages, and customs. Thus, justification by faith alone is not only a tremendously gracious reality but one that leads us to be humble, boast in Christ alone, and enjoy fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile by birth.
Justification by faith alone upholds everything the law intended
Paul’s last question that he asks and answers is one that, I believe, at this point makes great sense to ask. Paul writes, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” (v. 30a). And that’s a good question, isn’t it? After all, Paul has not only stressed that we’re justified by faith, but that we’re justified by faith alone, apart from the law. He says in 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Again, he writes in 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” Then again, in 3:28, he writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
If Paul keeps stressing “apart from the law,” “apart from the works of the law,” and not by works of the law, isn’t it reasonable to ask, “Paul, are you just trying to throw aside the law and say that it is no good?” I mean, should we just say that the law is worthless, tear it out of our Bibles, and not mess with it anymore? Should we even preach the law since no human being will be justified by doing the works of the law? Or, once more, to use the words of Paul, ‘Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?”
Interestingly, though the question seems to make complete sense to ask at this point, Paul responds, “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (v. 31). Okay, then, let’s try to answer how in the world being justified by faith apart from the works of the law serves not to overthrow the law but actually to uphold the law. And commentators are basically split between two understandings of the way in which justification by faith alone actually upholds the law, as Paul writes it in this verse, and I’m going to share both of them because they’re both true statements. There’s no doubt that Paul probably means one of the other (though some commentators suggest that Paul intends both), but I’m going to share both because Paul will later in this book and in the book of Galatians explicitly affirm both. So, I think Paul would be pleased with us noting both of these realities.
The first is that justification by faith alone upholds the law because it serves to meet the standard established by the law, namely, perfect righteousness. In a few minutes we’ll sing together a familiar song to us titled “I Boast No More.” And in one verse of that song we’ll sing this line: “The best obedience of my hands dares not appear before Thy throne, but faith can answer Thy demands by pleading what my Lord has done.”
That perfectly states this understanding of how justification by faith alone upholds the law. The law demands perfect obedience, and none of us can give it. That’s why no part will be justified by works of the law. Thus, the author of the song rightly notes, “The best obedience of my hands dares not appear before Thy throne.” The best obedience that we can put forth is simply insufficient. It falls far short of God’s demands of perfect righteousness.
However, the solution is not to overthrow the demands of the law, seeing we can’t meet them, or for God to overthrow his demand of perfect righteousness, noting that same reality. Either of those options would result in a less glorious salvation. Rather, God provided his Son, who took on flesh, was born under the law, and perfectly obeyed the demands of the law on our behalf so that when you and I believe and are justified, God actually credits to us Christ’s perfect righteousness so that the demands of the law (i.e. perfect righteousness in all things) are met for us. Thus, the author writes, “But faith can answer Thy demands by pleading what my Lord has done.” That is, justification by faith alone does not overthrow the demands of the law but is the very means by which the demands of the law are met. Christ’s righteousness given to us by faith says that we fully acknowledge the demands of the law, uphold the reality that they must be met, and plead Christ’s work on our behalf as the means of meeting and upholding the law’s demands.
Moreover, this understanding of justification by faith alone upholding the law serves not only to acknowledge that the demands of the law have been met in Christ but also serve to show that the law in its entirety was always meant to be fulfilled in Jesus and his work. I mean, one of the demands of the law was to go and sacrifice a goat, sprinkling its blood on the altar as a sacrifice for sin. Do we uphold that command in the law by rebuilding the temple, trying to find a descendant of Aaron, and having him offer a goat as a sacrifice for us? Of course not. We uphold that command of the law by acknowledging that this command of Moses was always meant to be fulfilled by the work of Christ. It was a type or shadow that pointed us to a substance to come. We don’t overthrow the law by saying we don’t offer animal sacrifices for sin. We uphold the law by saying that the animal sacrifices were fulfilled in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which the animal sacrifices were prophesying was to come. I think we all see that.
What I want us to see is that all the commands of the law are fulfilled in Christ, whether his life, teaching, death, or resurrection. Everything in the law finds its end in Christ, for he is the substance of all that the law declared, and when our plea is who Christ is and what he has done, we will stand before the Lord in the only righteousness sufficient for entrance into the Lord’s kingdom.
But there is a second way that we uphold, establish, or fulfill the law as we’re justified by faith alone. At the center of the law was love. That’s why Jesus could say in Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
What Jesus was saying is that if you love God and love your neighbor, then you will obey the commands of the law. If you love God, you’ll not want to fashion an idol or worship some other god instead of the one true God. If you love your neighbor, you’ll not want to take his wife for yourself or covet what he has. It would almost feel silly to say to a man who loves his wife dearly and has devoted his life to serving her, “Now, make sure you don’t murder your wife today.” He’d surely respond by saying that murdering his wife is a preposterous thought because he could not murder someone he loves so much. Well, that’s an example of how love leads one to obey the commands of the law. The law does command us not to murder, but love ensures we won’t.
Similarly, when we are justified by faith alone, the Spirit of God comes and changes our hearts so that we have hearts that love God and neighbor. Now, we don’t love perfectly. That’s why we still need to be reminded of God’s commands. But nonetheless, we do love God and our neighbor in a way we simply don’t apart from Christ. And Paul acknowledges that this heart transforming work by the Spirit that happens as one is justified by faith alone actually leads one to obey the Lord’s commands to love God and neighbor. For example, Paul writes in Romans 13:8-10, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this Word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’” Then again, in Galatians 5:14, Paul writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
In other words, the law was always showing the need for a heart that is transformed to love God and neighbor and thus obey God and do good to the neighbor. For the one who is justified by faith alone, he has this heart and thus upholds the very need the law was exposing. Consequently, those justified by faith really do love God and others and want to obey Christ’s commands, thus upholding the essence of the law.
Therefore, justification by faith alone, apart from the works of the law serves to exclude our boasting, unites us as the one people of God, and upholds God’s law. And my prayer is that our response would be to say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” . . . “Blessed be” his name forever, in our worship. What wisdom is displayed in God’s plan and work to justify us by faith alone! Let us give thanks to him now as we come to the table. Amen.