Justification by Faith in Romans 1-5

The Apostle Paul is probably the greatest champion for Christ in the history of the world. He went from being one of the largest persecutors of the Christian faith to its largest figure in Ancient Israel. Some people would argue that the book that has made the most impact is the Book of Romans. The book of Romans contains the greatest source of theology found in any one book of the New Testament, ranging from justification by faith, the Christians assurance of salvation, election and predestination; even giving us instruction in how to live our daily lives.

We must always remember that the book of Romans was written for an intended audience back in the first century. Moo suggests, “With the large majority of modern scholars, therefore, we conclude that Paul’s audience in Romans includes both Gentile and Jewish Christians, with Gentile Christians in the majority.”[1] Paul had never met the people to whom he was writing the book to, around 56 to 57 AD, but he had longed to visit with them (Rom 1:13). He wrote Romans while he was in Corinth, planning a trip to Spain.

So for us reading the book two thousand years after it was originally written, we have to be cautious of how we read it. There are two major paradigms for reading this book, the reformation perspective and the new perspective. Respectively, the reformation approach focuses on individual salvation, while the new perspective focuses more on a group salvation or more narrative approach to its understanding.

In the book of Romans Paul makes a clear point that the only way a person can be justified before God is by faith, while condemning that justification requires any works of the Law. So we will examine a little more closely Paul’s words on the righteousness of God and the justification that we can only obtain through faith in chapters one through five in Romans.

Paul in his letter to the Romans wasted no time in telling them what his central theme of the whole letter will be, by stating

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.””[2]

In verse sixteen Paul lays out the gospel as he knows it to be true. However, when we read verse seventeen he starts to expound on the gospel and how one obtains the righteousness of God. First of all the way society understands righteousness now and the way it was understood two thousand years ago is different, especially the Hebrew understanding of the term. Morris says, “With us it is an ethical virtue, as it was for the Greeks generally. But among the Hebrews righteousness was first and foremost a legal standing. The righteous were those who secured the verdict when they stood before God.”[3] So righteousness (dikaiosynē) literally means “to be put right with”.

What is the righteousness from God that has been revealed? Paul uses the same type of terminology in (3:21-24) that clearly refers to Jesus as being the righteousness from God. Morris makes this point even more clearly, “We are not to understand the righteousness of God as an abstract quality or even as a general divine activity. It is preeminently to be seen in the atoning work of Christ; to overlook this is to miss a central thrust of Romans.”[4] Even though the phrase justified by faith is never mentioned here it is strongly implied by the phrase “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” It also helps for us to understand the that words righteousness and justification share the same root in Greek. (dikaio) that is used over sixty times in the book of Romans alone.

Paul goes on to quote Habakkuk 2:4 “The righteous shall live by faith.” Moo rightly asks,

“Is he emphasizing that righteous people should live by faith (NIV; NASB; KJV)? Or is he asserting that it is only the person who is righteous by faith will attain life (NRSV; TEV; REB)? The syntax can go either way, but we think that the argument of the letter, in which Paul again and again asserts that a person is righteous (or justified) only by faith, favors this second reading”[5]

There are some commentators like John MacArthur[6] who believe that this verse refers to the way we will live our lives. One thing is made clear throughout this passage that there is no righteousness apart from faith. With the context of the gospel and all the changes that occur in a believer, Paul could be referring to both aspects of living by faith. Because in Romans 6:11 Paul states, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” [7] He is informing us that we will keep on living being made dead to sin and only finding our lives in Christ. R.C. Sproul sums up verses sixteen and seventeen, “You can trust him with your life, and that is the theme of the epistle—the just shall live by faith—and from that vantage point, Paul opens up the depths and the riches of the whole gospel for the people of God.”[8]

Paul then moves directly into the wrath of God and the depravity of man with 1:18-3:20. He takes the time to show us that the actions men are taking not pleasing to God; chapter 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. “[9] is a great example of that truth. The word wrath (orgē) means either anger or punishment, it is used thirty six times in the New Testament and twelve of those times are in Romans. He is making a clear statement that there will be a punishment for the world. MacArthur believes, “Asebia (ungodliness) and adikia (unrighteousness) are synonyms…Ungodliness unavoidably leads to unrighteousness.”[10] The word for unrighteousness (11) is used twenty five times in the New Testament; however, it has also been translated wrongdoing (4), iniquity/iniquities (3), evil, dishonest and falsehood, wickedness, injustice, wrong and wicked.

In today’s culture so many people want to say that truth is relative. So when we read that “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” what is the truth Paul is referring to? Most all commentators agree that the truth here is referring to the “true knowledge of God.”[11] Sproul suggest, “This is not the truth we learn through the Bible. We suppress that too, but here Paul is writing of a truth that is known about God apart from the Bible, a knowledge of God that makes God manifest.”[12] Paul goes on to explain in verses nineteen and twenty that as we have lived the world, the world itself testifies to God and his glory. Paul informs us that the “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived…so they are without excuse.”[13] The phrase “have been clearly perceived” is made up of two words in the Greek, (noeō), which means “consider well; imagine”; and (kathoraō) which means “learn about.” This is what we commonly call natural revelation.

Paul also points out that we are without excuse (anapologētos) literally “inexcusable.” Morris points out, “But Paul’s first point is that his ignorance is culpable. God has given a revelation in nature but people have closed their eyes to it. How then could they possibly see? But it is their own fault that they do not. They are without excuse.”[14] Through this line of argument we understand that there is no escaping God’s revelation of himself, and we have no way of justifying the things we do because we know there is a God.

He continues his argument from chapter one verse twenty-one all the way through chapter three verse twenty, showing that all people are sinners. Right in the middle of his argument he stops and yells at the Jews who would hear this letter (2:17-29). Paul here condemns his fellow Jews because they would boast of having the Law, but would not keep it. So Paul tells them, “5 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.”[15] Telling his listeners that they have removed themselves from fellowship with God, if they break the Law. Verse twenty-nine brings home the point that a man is a Jew by the circumcision of the heart and not only the flesh. Paul elsewhere points out the value of circumcision, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”[16]

So throughout chapter two Paul is showing man all the ways man chooses to behave before God. He slightly shifts gears from the beginning of chapter three through verse eight, using a form of rhetoric. He begins asking should we sin more that God’s grace may abound. He says emphatically that we should not. He picks up in verse nine that none are righteous. In 3:10 he makes sure to leave no point of confusion when he says, “None is righteous, no, not one;”[17] Paul continues to speak about how men do not even care of righteousness for the next eight verses. In verse nineteen, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God”[18] Paul begins to really bring home his point, because he knew the Jews were going to start referring to themselves and the law. Calvin points out,

“Leaving the Gentiles, he distinctly addresses his words to the Jews; for he had much more difficult work in subduing them, because they, though no less destitute of true righteousness than the Gentiles, yet covered themselves with the cloak of God’s covenant, as though it was sufficient holiness to them to have been separated from the rest of the world by the election of God.”[19]

While Moo includes this point, “By proving from the Old Testament, then, that Jews are condemned, Paul feels it legitimate to extend that verdict to all people.”[20]

Verse nineteen sets us up for the verses that follow starting in verse twenty. Verse twenty is the first time we see definitively that no works of the law will save us. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” [21] The law is useful for many things but it can and never will be able to bring salvation. On the value of the law Morris says,

“To have this law is one of the high privileges of Israel (9:4); the law is meant for life (7:10), it is holy (7:12), spiritual (7:14), and good (7:16); it is a source of instruction (2:18) and of truth (2:20). People will be judged by it (2:12), which leads to the thought that it is important to obey it (2:13, 25-27; 10:5”[22]

What does the Apostle Paul have in mind when he says “through the law comes knowledge of sin”? The word he uses here in the Greek for knowledge (epignōsis) can also mean recognition. So a better understanding of this verse could be, “through the law comes the recognition of sin.” By now we are beginning to understand that we are helpless, all the law has done was show us how bad we really are. Sproul’s transition to verse twenty-one is classic.

“Those three letters, b-u-t, are the difference between heaven and hell. Finally, after this relentless indictment that we have had to endure, we are coming to where Paul finally says, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed” (v.21). It is time for the gospel. We have listened to the bad news so that we might hear the goodness of the good news, which we will begin to examine next.”[23]

The words of the twenty-first and twenty-second verse of chapter three have to be some of the most joyous in all the Bible. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:” [24] Just to refresh our understanding, righteousness (dikaiosynē) means “be put right with”. The word used here can also be translated justice. According to verse twenty-one God’s justice has been manifested (phaneroō) or “made known” apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets tell us its coming.

Paul continues to deepen our understanding of the justice that has been made known, as soon as he mentions the name of Jesus. Okay so now we have seen this righteousness, but how do we grab hold of it? Harrison explains,

“God’s righteousness becomes operative in human life “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement is more explicit than the initial mention of faith in connection with the gospel (1:16, 17), since it specifies the necessary object of faith, even Jesus Christ.”[25]

In answering our question we obtain this righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ. Now that we have answered that question we raise another, what does he mean by there is no distinction? Most all commentators agree that all sinners are on equal footing, “The ethical moralist and the sexual voyeur both fall short. Paul reduces the best that any man can do to zero. There is no distinction.[26] Some also believe that it perfectly ties into the next verse where we are told that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (v.23) According to Morris,

“This clear statement of universal sinfulness is basic to Paul’s understanding of the human predicament and also of the salvation Christ brought. Were it not for our sin there would have been no need for Christ’s redemptive activity; because of our sin there is no possibility of our achieving salvation by our own efforts.”[27]

Following what Morris has said we run headlong into verse twenty-four, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”[28] When he speaks of us being justified he refers to the righteousness we have received through our faith in Jesus. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us that “it is by grace that we have been saved, being God’s gift and not of ourselves that no man may boast.” (my paraphrase). Similar language of his grace (charis) and gift should help us to appreciate the fact there is nothing we can do. How then are we to understand our redemption that is in Jesus Christ? Redemption “had its origin in the release of prisoners of war on payment of a price (the “ransom”)”[29] After taking a closer look at this verse we can infer that we have been “declared right before God as a gift because Jesus Christ has paid the cost.

As we start to come to grips with the fact that Jesus has paid a cost for us verse twenty-five in ESV Bible says he was “put forward as a propitiation” while the NIV Bible says, “presented his a sacrifice of atonement”; it all has to do with the Greek word for propitiation (hiastērion) which either mean “means of forgiveness”, or “place of forgiveness”. The term is found in the LXX referring to the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. Referring to the sacrifice made once a year, Christ has become our “means of forgiveness” in his one act he is capable to justify all men (5:18). The word in verse twenty-five for blood is (haima), can also be understood as death; killing; die as sacrifice; or vaginal bleeding. The word haima is used 97 times in the New Testament and of those 96 are translated as blood.

In forming our own translation and understanding from the Greek for these two verses so far, they could very well read like this, “declared right before God as a gift, because Jesus has paid the cost, whom God made a means of forgiveness by his death, to be received by faith.”

In hearing and understanding all of this some will still ask “How is God able to be just an and the justifier of verse twenty-six?” God waited until his chosen time to send his Son into the world. Seeing as how God is holy he is incapable of being in the presence of sin. So the sin must be paid for, but as depraved humans we are unable to meet that qualification. Jesus Christ became that payment for us (2 Cor. 5:21) appeasing God’s need for payment and paying the price for us.

Moving forward verse twenty-eight boldly proclaims what we have been talking about all along that there is no justification unless it comes by faith. It reads, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”[30] Morris suggests, “Justification is brought about in the same way for all, by faith. We can do nothing to merit it, and the insistence on faith emphasizes that we simply receive it as God’s good gift.”[31] In Paul’s own fashion he goes on to ask the Jews if God is God of everyone or just Jews. And the response he expects is of everyone, he then goes on to argue that if God is the God of all then he will justify everyone by faith.

In chapter four Paul goes back to the Old Testament and Abraham to show his readers that justification by faith is not a new concept it is how God had been justifying people from the beginning. Paul uses the example of Abraham because the Jewish people wanted to say he was made righteous through circumcision. But he refuses to allow that, because in 4:10 he asks how was his righteousness credited to him before or after his circumcision? Paul solidifies his argument with verse eleven,

“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well”[32]

Paul begins to tighten up his thoughts on being justified by faith in chapter five. In verse one he begins to explain some of the benefits we receive. He tells us we now have peace which could also be understood as tranquility with God. Throughout this letter some of the most used words are faith, righteousness, and law. Paul would constantly contrast the law which he would also at times refer to as works. However, he has made it very clear that the only way obtain a right standing before God is through faith and nothing of our own doing.

There is only one thing in this world that will ever get you to heaven and that is faith in Jesus Christ (John 14:6). We can do no work, or ever be obedient enough to pay the price of redemption. So we must place our faith in Jesus Christ as our savior or be like those in the very first chapter and allow ourselves to be given over to our evil desires.

Bibliography

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids,, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Harrison, Everett F. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary-Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981.

Hughes, R.Kent. Romans: Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 1991 .

MacArthur, John F. Romans 1-8 (The MacArthur New Testament commentary). Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1991.

Moo, Douglas J. The NIV Application Commentary- Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Edermans, 1988.

Phillips, John. Exploring Romans: An Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2002.

Piper, John. The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

Sproul, R.C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

—. St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary-Romans. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009.

Wright, N.T. Paul. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.


[1] Moo, Douglas J. The NIV Application Commentary- Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000)21.

[2] The Holy Bible : New International Version, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), Ro 1:16–17.

[3] Morris, Leon. The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids: Edermans, 1988)101.

[4] Ibid, 102-103

[5] Moo, Romans, 52

[6] MacArthur, John F. Romans 1-8 (The MacArthur New Testament commentary).( Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1991)57.

[7] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 6:11.

[8] Sproul, R.C., St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary-Romans. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009)35.

[9] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 1:18.

[10] MacArthur, Romans, 66-67

[11] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentary on Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005) 69.

[12] Sproul, Romans, 39

[13] ESV, Romans 1:20

[14] Morris, Romans, 83

[15] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 2:25.

[16] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ga 5:6.

[17] ESV Bible, Roman 3:10

[18] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:19.

[19] Calvin, Romans, 129

[20] Moo, Romans, 113.

[21] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:20.

[22] Morris, Romans, 144.

[23] Sproul, Romans, 95.

[24] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:21–22.

[25] Harrison, Everett F. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary-Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981) 41.

[26] R. Kent Hughes, Romans : Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991), 83.

[27] Morris, Romans, 177.

[28] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:24.

[29] Morris, Romans, 179.

[30] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:28.

[31] Morris, Romans, 187.

[32] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 4:11.

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