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4. Justification (Romans 3:21—4:25)

II. Justification (cont.)

B.1 Manifestation, or, the Universal Provision of Righteousness (3:21-26)

“There is none righteous, no, not one.”

But now a righteousness from God … has been made known.”

Up to this point the message of the book has been bleak and discouraging. The whole world is by nature corrupt and degenerate. “But now” in verse 21 forms a great divide, introducing something totally new. The form is the intensive form of the adverb. It can be logical (“now as the argument stands”) or temporal (“now, in the present time”). This appears to be a case of designed ambiguity in Paul. He knew of the two meanings, and probably intended both of them to work here.

The glorious news is that God has intervened. In the gospel of salvation through his Son he has provided a faith-righteousness that avails in his sight. Paul adds that the Law and the Prophets attest to this provision of righteousness. The simple fact is that a righteousness is available, and this righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (v. 22).

Verses 23 and 24 provide the balance: all have sinned, and all are justified freely by His grace. The verbal expression “all have sinned” can be taken in one of two ways. One is to take the form as a constantive aorist, meaning “all have committed acts of sin” referring to personal sins. The other way is to take it in conjunction with Romans 5:12 referring to Adam’s sin, thinking more of the unity of the race. The former seems preferable here, in view of the consequence of the sin—”and are coming short” of the glory of God. The falling short need not be equally short for all people; that is not important. The point is that all have missed it, whether by a little or a lot—it is fatal.

But they are being justified2_ftn2 as they believe. Justification is not a process; it means that God declares to be righteous whoever believes in Christ. The act of grace by which God pardons all the believer’s sins and accepts the believer as righteous because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is credited to the believer’s account—this wonderful act is known as justification by faith. Believers do not become righteous through faith—they are declared righteous by God.

The stress of “freely by his grace” cannot be overlooked. Believers are justified “without a cause” or “for no reason”—it is a gift, or as Lenski says, “pure, abounding, astounding grace.” Our justification originates in the loving heart of God.

This justification is through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ. The noun here means a “ransoming away” with the idea of never again coming into the same bondage. The form of the word certainly harmonizes with other teachings on the certainty of salvation.3 The price that Jesus paid for redemption was his outpoured blood (see 1 Pet. 1:18,19)—he paid enough for the sins of the whole world so that faith-righteousness was secured forever.

The way this redemption worked, according to verse 25, is that God set Jesus forth as a propitiation. The term is hilasterion , a word that can function as a noun or an adjective. It is used in Hebrews 9:5 for the “mercy seat,”4 the covering for the ark of the covenant known as the propitiatory, or place of atonement (the place where the High Priest would sprinkle the blood on the day of atonement). There it has the article on it for stress—Jesus is the mercy seat. But the context in Romans sufficiently expresses the means of propitiation as the point (and this is the only place Paul uses the word). So the idea in Romans focuses on the act (but one can hardly ignore its connections to Israel’s mercy seat where the blood was applied). There is some debate about the meaning of the word; but it seems to include both ideas of expiation (the removal of sin) and propitiation (the averting of wrath). Although there was the wrath of God against sin, it was also God in His love who took the initative against it. So the Greek term captures both the idea of appeasement of God’s wrath, and the expiation of sin. By this death there is satisfaction of God’s justice and holiness. The holiness of God is preserved by the need for propitiation; the love of God is revealed by the provision.

According to the following verses God had several reasons for setting forth Jesus to be such a propitiation. (1) God wished to make known his righteousness. In the Old Testament age, that is before Christ died, sin was not finally or ultimately punished once and for all—it was only passed over. Old Testament believers were redeemed in the same way that we are—by grace through faith, based on the blood of Christ (who was slain before the foundation of the world). What they did not know was who was eventually going to pay for these sins, because the sacrifices of animals were repeated. But they knew they were forgiven because God told them they were (Lev. 4:10; 2 Sam. 12:13; Psalms 32, 130, et al). Yet for the payment for these sins God passed over them until they could all be nailed to the cross in the death of the Messiah, the Son of God, once and for all. In Christ the justice of God is completely satisfied. (2) God also wished to make known his justice for us at the present time. And (3) God wished to harmonize his attribute (righteous) and his action (justifying). The only way that God could remain righteous and at the same time declare sinners righteous was for God to come in the flesh and die for the sins of the whole human race. Thus, the demands have been met; the sins have been are paid for; the way is open for grace to be bestowed on all who believe.

C. Harmonization, or, Justification and the Purpose of the Law (3:27-31)

Where then is boasting? It is excluded, shut out. Conduct and achievements cannot procure righteousness, for people are justified without the deeds of the Law. This is a blow to human pride. Nothing that a mere mortal can do will win for him or for her the righteousness needed to cover sin. The only way of appropriating it is through faith in the shed blood of Jesus. This is not a vague hoping against hope; and it is not a superstitious compliance with ritual. It is a specific believing in the person and work of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, relating especially to his atoning work upon the cross. Faith in his blood is what counts, the blood shed for the remission of sin (see Heb. 9:22). The believer is pronounced righteous, received as righteous “by his blood” (Rom. 5:9).

Does this nullify the Law? On the contrary, Paul will show that he is establishing the Law (in its right use of revealing sin). Moreover, he will show that faith upholds the Law. If the Law is properly understood, believed, and obeyed, then the appeal for faith in a sacrificial atonement for sins exposed by the Law would be seen as the heart of the Law. What is new is that the Son of God himself becomes the propitiation. Therefore, anyone who lived under the Law and had faith in the LORD would transfer that faith to Jesus and his blood.

D. Illustration, or, Justification and the Old Testament (4:1-25)

In this chapter Paul looks back to the Old Testament to show that it substantiated the concept that a person could be accepted by God apart from the Law. Recall how Paul affirmed that this truth was “testified to by the Law and the Prophets” in 3:21. Well, this chapter is an explanation of these. The point will be clear that it is faith in the LORD that brings this imputed (credited) righteousness that is available. Just as Israel’s sacrifices were of no benefit to participants who had no faith, so the death of Jesus will be of no benefit to an unbeliever. The theme of believing, of faith, will now be illustrated from the Old Testament.

      1. Abraham’s example (4:1-4)

The passage begins with the conversion of Abraham, recorded in Genesis 15:6. This experience of Abraham, of course, was prior to the Law of Moses by about 600 years. “Abraham believed in Yahweh, and he reckoned it to him, namely righteousness.” That is the way I would translate the Hebrew of the passage citeds here by Paul. The text has the dual emphasis of faith and grace, as Paul says elsewhere, “by grace you are saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Abraham believed the LORD, and went to do what the LORD had told him to do; and for this act of faith, God credited him—gave him—righteousness.

      2. David’s Writings (4:6-8)

The point that Paul makes is that when someone works the wages are not a gift but an obligation; but for the one who trusts in the LORD who justifies the wicked faith is credited as righteousness.

But then Paul adds that David says the “same thing.” David’s point in the cited psalm is much in agreement, but the method of joining the Scriptural citations is a clever rabbinical hermeneutic method known as gezerah shawah—they find passages where a key word is used and show the relation between the passages. The term “reckoned” is used in Genesis 15:6 as well as in Psalm 32:1, 2. In the first case it says that God reckoned righteousness to Abraham who believed; in the latter passage the psalm says that God does not reckon sin against the one who is forgiven. By taking two passages that use the same word, Paul can weave the full argument about justification by faith. The doctrine of justification by faith goes beyond the mere accounting the sinner to be righteous. It includes the idea of forgiveness of sin, or the non-imputation (non reckoning) of sin. Sin involves both omission and commission; therefore, justification signifies that it is as if the person never sinned, and did everything right.

Please pardon a rather simple but I think useful illustration. The Hebrew word to “reckon” has been brought over into modern Hebrew for “computer,” which is no surprise given the obvious link between “reckon, account, credit” and “computer.” We could say, then, that it is as if God calls up our file on the heavenly computer, deletes all the sins that were registered against us, and enters into our account “the righteousness of Christ.”

      3. Faith alone justifies (4:9-12)

But the Jew might respond that Abraham was circumcised (Gen. 17); so do ritual acts come into the picture? Paul answers, “Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 17”—a smashing blow against ritualists. In other words, Abraham’s obedience in circumcision was not the ground of his justification. The patriarch was pronounced righteous before he was circumcised—on the basis of faith. True, the genuineness of his faith was seen in the fact that he followed the call of God and left Ur and went where God directed him. His subsequent circumcision was also an outward seal upon his inward, justifying faith. Faith obeys! But it is the faith that brings justification, not the obedient acts. Outward religious forms and observances, though absolutely necessary as the evidence of saving faith, are nonetheless secondary.

Circumcision was the seal of Abraham’s faith. The expression “seal of circumcision” in verse 11 probably means the “seal which is circumcision.” Circumcision was the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham. A “seal” authenticates and confirms what the covenant claims; and this seal also was symbolic, representing a repudiation of the flesh as it dramatically displayed. Over the generations from Abraham, the seal of circumcision marked out the people in their covenantal relationship, identifying the descendants of Abraham (ideally) as members of a covenant community.5 The aim of circumcision for Abraham’s covenant was not only to identify him as the father of all who were born into the family, but also as the spiritual father of all who believed in the LORD as he did. From that point on the descendants of Abraham were to be known as the “seed of Abraham”; but this expression came to mean three different things: (1) physical descendants, or Israelites who do trace their line back to Abraham; (2) physical descendents or Israelites who also believed in the LORD as Abraham did—so these are the true or full seed of Abraham (see Gal. 3), and (3) true believers who are not physical descendants—Gentiles—for if they believe in the LORD they share the faith of Abraham.

The Abrahamic Covenant with its sign of circumcision, then, pertained to believing Jews who followed the rite because they shared the faith; it did not pertain to unbelievers who simply performed the rite. The rite (of circumcision) without faith is dead ritual; faith without the rite brings salvation, just as faith with the rite does. Abraham is the spiritual father of those who believe, Gentiles who have not circumcised, and Jews who have. But the deciding factor is faith. Jews cannot assume because they are descended from Abraham, or because they were circumcised, that that is sufficient. Neither can Gentiles who have become members of the Church and who have been baptized consider that sufficient to salvation. There must be genuine faith, or there is no salvation at all.

Today, believing Jews are part of the New Covenant, just as believing Gentiles are. And the name for the present body of believers, Jew and Gentile, is the “Church.” But the apostle still makes a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, for there is still a benefit for the Jews who are the natural and spiritual descendants of Abraham (as we shall see later in the book).

      4. The promise comes by faith (4:13-25)

The promises of God are contingent on faith and not dependent on obedience to the Law. Who could attain them by doing the Law? The great promise for Abraham was that he and his descendents would be “heirs of the world”—meaning all the families, the nations of the world. After all, he was the father of nations, and the one through whom blessings would come to all the families of the earth. But for this promise to be valid it must be a promise from God, by grace; it is not an earned estate.

The simple contrast is between the human view of things and God’s view:

Human view (true): faith (means) + grace (basis) = sure promise

Human view (false): works (means) + law (basis) > [wrath]

ends up here unexpectedly

Divine View: sure promise < (based on) grace (alone) + (through) faith

God made the promise to Abraham before the Law was given, the promise that there would be blessing for all the families of the earth. God desired to assure that the promise was on the basis of grace, and the only way that this could work is that the means be by faith and not works. Here is another tremendous support for the doctrine of eternal security if you think it through. The promise precedes the Law; grace precedes faith. Our security begins and ends with God, and is not based upon works.

Abraham believed in the LORD. Or, as verse 18 says, “contrary to hope (in man), in hope (in God) he believed.” All that Abraham did was believe a promise from God—and we know he believed the promise because he went to the land God told him to enter to receive it.6 In the Old Testament faith was in the Word of the LORD, what God had said. But in essence the faith of Abraham is the same as the faith we have today—we just have more content. Abraham’s faith was a resurrection-type faith—he believed the promises of a God who could infuse life into a dead body, a God who calls things that are not as though they are.7 The promise to Abraham of a seed like the stars of the heavens has in the New Testament been first fulfilled8_ftn8 in Jesus—the promised Seed, an unexpected birth, life out of death through resurrection. It is essentially the same faith.

And so Paul finishes the chapter by noting how the words of imputed righteousness were written for us too—who like Abraham believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. This is the kind of faith that brings imputed righteousness, a faith that does not stagger over the power of God to bring life out of death, to fulfill the promises. It is a faith that believes that with God all things are possible, especially our eternal salvation, because it is based on the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, like Abraham, we may struggle at times with understanding it, living up to it, demonstrating it in a consistent life of faith—but we will follow no other way.

The death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings us salvation, not works, and not ritual like circumcision, or in our churches, baptism or the Lord’s Supper. These are not to be minimized; but they themselves do not bring salvation. The death of Christ does. And so on this point verse 25 calls for a closer look. The text says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” The preposition dia, translated “for” in the above translation, is open to several interpretations. (l) The first view is that it is used two ways here: he was delivered because of [retrospectively] … and raised with a view to [prospectively]. The point in this interpretation would be that the result of his resurrection is our justification (as in the hymn, “rising he justified”). The difficulty is that one would expect the same preposition in parallel clauses to have the same meaning and not to be translated differently.

(2) And so a second view is to take them both prospectively (following Denney): he was delivered over “with a view to” making atonement for sins. This is satisfactory as far as the grammar goes, but misses the theological point that justification is an accomplished fact.

(3) The better view is to take them both retrospectively; they would normally be translated “on account of” or “because of.” The verse would then say that Jesus was delivered over to death because of our sins, and was raised because of our justification. The point then is clear: the fact of our justification made necessary the resurrection. Justification is accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ; resurrection is the necessary issue of an accomplished atonement. The resurrection is God’s receipt—it is the Father’s, “Amen,” to Jesus’, “It is finished.” It is heaven’s acceptance of the death of Christ. Without the resurrection from the dead, there is no indication that the death was atoning and justifying. But with the resurrection from the dead, everything that Christ claimed to be doing in His death—including justify sinners who believe—has been accomplished.

Things to Consider

1. How would you explain these significant terms: justification, redemption, propitiation, expiation?

2. What do you think Abraham actually believed when the text says he believed in the LORD? Describe the content of his faith. What exactly does someone today have to believe to be saved (now that we have more revelation)?

3. What is imputed righteousness?

4. What is the relationship between the reality of the covenant relationship and the sign of the covenant? How did this work out in history when people received the sign before the reality?

5. How does the Father in heaven confirm that Jesus’ death was indeed efficacious—i.e., that it did redeem people from their sins?

1 Note: Section “A” was the last lesson; this is not section “B” under the main heading that began the last lesson.

2 The present is durative or iterative in force, the actions, complete in themselves, continue.

3 Some folks do not like to talk about “eternal security” because it smacks of easy believism. But the fact of Scripture is that those who truly believe in the Lord are secure eternally because of the work of Christ. Our salvation is not made secure because we are able to hold on to it, but because he is able to hold us by his grace.

4 The translation “mercy seat” goes back at least to Wycliffe. In the Old Testament it is called “a place of propitiation” and refers to the lid on the box, the ark of the covenant. The ark is described in the Old Testament as God’s “footstool” (Ps. 132), so he sits enthroned above it, not on it (according to the imagery of the sanctuary).

5 The sign was, of course, for men; but in those patriarchal days such a sign for men was a sign for the whole tribe because it was at the heart of procreation.

6 Be careful with the modern rhetoric that is often added to the call for faith. Abram did not “yield himself to the LORD 100%”; he believed in the LORD. If we had to yield 100% in order to be saved, none of us would make it.

7 He and Sarah knew that her body was dead as far as having children was concerned, but he brought life out of that womb--Isaac. And Abraham knew that if he sacrificed Isaac to God (Gen. 22), God was able to fulfill the promises through Isaac anyway.

8 This means it finds its fullest meaning in the birth of the special seed. The basic meaning is that there will be innumerable descendents; but for the blessing to extend to the whole world that seed had to be significant--and Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Son of God--he was and is most significant.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification

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