Justification of the Sinner Romans 1-5
In early sixteenth-century Europe, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546) struggled night and day with a soul-wrenching dilemma: How might he, a sinner, stand forgiven before a God who is perfectly holy? Or, as the apostle Paul might say, How can God be at once just and the justifier of wicked men? (Rom. 3:26). Clearly, no man can attain God’s perfect standard of righteousness. Therefore, is it not necessary for God to choose between His justice and His mercy—to compromise one or the other—in His dealings with men?
Luther found the answer to that most awful dilemma in the blessed gospel that Paul explicated so carefully in his letter to the Romans. In Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, he later identified Romans as “the true masterpiece of the New Testament, and the very purest Gospel.”1 From Luther’s struggle came the Reformation that changed the face of Europe. But that was neither the first nor the last time that the world was transformed by the message of that epistle. Indeed, Fredric Godet, in his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, observed that “when the Epistle…appeared for the first time, it was to the Church a word in season. Every time that in the course of the ages it has recovered the place of honor which belongs to it, it has inaugurated a new era.”2 This epistle deserves such a place of honor because it addresses the dilemma of Luther’s struggle: How can a sinner become right with a holy God? There can be no more important question; and there is no place where that issue is addressed as directly, as thoroughly, or as authoritatively as in the book of Romans.
Introduction to The Epistle (1:1-17)
This is the longest introduction in all of Paul’s epistles and is vital to the argument of the book. In many ways, it is a standard Pauline introduction. But it is distinct in that it concludes with the marvelous battle cry of 1:16-17, which concisely summarize the content of the epistle.
In 1:16, Paul declaimed that he had no fear that the good news concerning Christ would ever fail, because it is the mighty power (strength, ability, inherent capacity) of God (who is omnipotent) unto salvation for everyone—Jew or Gentile—who believes in (entrusts the eternal safekeeping of his or her soul/spirit to) the finished work of Christ.
The apostle then declared in 1:17 that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God [is] revealed from faith to faith.” This righteousness encompasses that which characterizes God, as well as that which God bestows upon the believer. The gospel reveals how God can bestow genuine righteousness upon a sinner and thus accept that sinner without compromising His own perfectly righteous character.
But the gospel accomplishes its work only as men believe God’s promises “from faith to faith.” Every stage of spiritual progress, historically (from the Old Testament era to the New) and personally (from spiritual rebirth to maturity), is accomplished by trusting the revealed promises of God.
Paul vindicated this pronouncement by appealing to one of his favorite texts: Habakkuk 2:4. It has been said that Moses gave the Law in 613 precepts; David reduced those to eleven salient principles (Ps. 15:2-5), Isaiah to six (Isa. 11:2), Micah to three (Mic. 6:8), and the Lord Jesus to two (Mk. 12:29-31). But Paul appealed to the passage in which Habakkuk subsumed the entire Mosaic code under one all consuming moral principle: “the just shall live by his faith.” This is Old Testament truth, and the apostle was anxious to affirm that the gospel he preached was entirely consistent with—indeed, born of— that principle.
The Diagnosis: All Are Condemned (1:18–3:20)
There is, perhaps, no Scripture more entirely counter-intuitive to modern Western culture than this section of Romans. With irrefutable logic, Paul demonstrated that all men are under the condemnation of sin (3:9). They are guilty (3:19) and without excuse (1:20). This is not a happy message; but it is a necessary one to bring men to repentance. As Jesus said, “They that are well have no need of the physician” (Mk. 2:17). Paul understood that if men are to be brought to faith, they must first be persuaded that they are hopelessly lost.
Those Without the Scriptures. There are two distinct focuses in Paul’s argument in this section. First he addressed those without access to special revelation (i.e., the Scriptures). These people often suppose that because they have no access to Scripture, they cannot be justly condemned. But Paul’s assessment was very different. He contended that on two distinct counts, even these people stand condemned before a holy God. Their crime is not ignorance but rebellion.
In the very order of things, all rational human beings are confronted with two channels of truth concerning God. Though these are limited, they are sufficient to render a man guilty before the Lord. The first channel is creation, the physical universe (1:1820). “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (1:20).
The majesty of the physical world powerfully, perpetually, and irrefutably demonstrates two truths to all rational beings: (1) There is a God sufficiently powerful to have crafted the cosmos (“his eternal power”), and (2) this God deserves man’s worship (His “Godhead”). The Greek here means “God-likeness”—that He is “God-like” and not simply man blown big. In the words of Isaac Watts, an eighteenth-century minister and hymn writer,
Nature with open volume stands,
To spread her Maker’s praise abroad,
And every labor of His hands
Shows something worthy of a God.3
The second channel of revelation available to all men is the testimony of God in the moral universe (2:1-16)—the witness of a conscience that assaults us when we act wickedly and commends us when we do good. This is an internal witness, and it demonstrates that the God who placed His law in our hearts (2:15) will hold us accountable for our wickedness.
On the basis of this twofold witness (creation and conscience), all men are declared to be “without excuse” (1:20; 2:1). It is a mistake to conceive of this twofold witness as a faint whisper, discernible only to the most perceptive. According to these chapters, God is, as it were, constantly yelling at the top of His voice at the lost individual. Thus individuals are assaulted from without by the testimony of the created order and from within by the voice of conscience. To be lost is to defy this twofold witness concerning God. Those who reject this witness by rejecting the truth “hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). As men persist in rebelling against the revelation God has given them in the natural order of things, He gives them up (1:24, 26, 28), and their situation becomes ever more hopeless. This is not a happy diagnosis; but it is God’s diagnosis.
Those With the Scriptures. Paul’s second focus (2:17—3:8) was on those who have been given the Scriptures. He referred explicitly to the Jewish people and rebuked them for giving only lip service to obedience to the law (2:21-23), for making their boast in the law (2:23), and for trusting in the ritual of circumcision (2:25-29). The apostle demonstrated that even those who belong to a nation privileged to possess the Scriptures need a heart cleansed by the Spirit of God (2:29). In a sweeping appeal to several Old Testament texts, Paul concluded where he began, insisting that “both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles]…are all under sin” (3:9), that the whole world is guilty before God (3:19), and that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified” (3:20).
The Cure: Justification by Faith (3:21–5:21)
It is in this section where Luther’s dilemma was most directly addressed. Paul had already affirmed that justification is not accomplished by “the deeds of the law” (3:20). In the magisterial passages of 3:21 through 5:21, he defined precisely how justification is accomplished and vindicated his proposition by appealing to the clear teaching of the Old Testament. Justification is a forensic, or judicial, term that takes us into a court of law. The verb means “to declare or pronounce as righteous.” On the one hand, it declares a person not liable for punishment; on the other, it entitles him to all the rights and privileges due those who have kept the law. Thus it is a verdict of complete acquittal and removes all possibility of condemnation.
This term has been the focus of great controversy, and much mischief has come from misconstruing it to mean “to make righteous” rather than “to declare righteous.” To make righteous suggests that a person is saved only as he actually attains a certain measure of righteousness by performing prescribed rituals or doing good works. J. I. Packer, in his Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, insisted that there is no lexical ground for the view that justify means, or connotes as part of its meaning, “make righteous” (by subjective spiritual renewal).4 Good works are the result of justification (Jas. 2:14-26). And it is dangerous and heretical to regard those good works as the ground of justification.
How, then, can a holy God simply declare a sinner to be righteous? Paul most succinctly articulated the answer in 3:24: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” That is the “good news”—the blessed gospel. Jesus’ death was sufficient to satisfy the Father’s wrath and wash away the sins of any person. There is nothing you can do to get right with God. But if you will simply trust the finished cross-work of Jesus Christ, you will be bought back from the marketplace of sin (redeemed) and united with Christ. The Bible says that when we believe, we are placed “in Christ.” (See also Ephesians 1:67.) On that basis, you will stand justified, pronounced righteous by God—simply because in Christ, you are righteous.
God is not a book-juggler; He is a bookkeeper. That is, He does not cover His eyes and assign righteousness to a person who has no claim on it. Rather, He places righteousness in the account of the person to whom it belongs. If you have been born again, He sees you in His Son; and the righteousness that belongs to Jesus has become your birthright.
In Romans 4, Paul demonstrated that the doctrine of justification by faith is an Old Testament concept; both Abraham (4:1-5) and David (4:6-8) were justified by faith. Further, Abraham’s faith was accounted to him for righteousness before he was circumcised (4:9-12) and after he had demonstrated the reality of that faith (4:13-25). Then, in chapter 5, Paul celebrated the marvelous blessings that God bestows on the individual who has been justified by Christ’s blood and who can thus anticipate being “saved by his life” (5:10).
The argument is complete and compelling. In giving His Son and providing a way for sinners to be accepted in Him, God has devised a marvelous plan in which He is both just and the justifier of the one who believes. Jesus is full of grace and truth. The dilemma is solved: Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.