THE SALVATION OF GOD
21 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: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
27 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. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
— Romans 3:21-31, ESV
I am blessed to not know true terror. I’ve never been a victim of violent crime, although Andrea and I once walked into the middle of a gang shootout in downtown Little Rock. I’ve never seen the horrors of war, except from the comfort of my living room watching movies or documentaries. I’ve never dealt personally with a terminal illness, like other members of my family and churches.
The closest thing to terror I’ve personally experienced was taking a final exam for a church history class in seminary. The test contained only one question, but it was a doozy. How can a person be right with God? The fear factor kicked in when the graduate assistant administering the exam said we had to answer the question by interacting with all of the councils, creeds, and major movements of church history, two thousand years of church history!?
The truth is I was not terrified, because I knew the answer. I did not know it exhaustively, like my learned professor and some of my smarter peers. But I knew it biblically, theologically, personally, savingly. The real terror, and this is the greatest terror known to man, is to not know the answer, or to be clinging to the wrong one.
This is why the book of Romans is so important. It systematically answers life’s greatest questions, assuages death’s greatest threats, and tells us how to be right with God. I would put this particular text on a pedestal. As a matter of fact, I’ll put it on five. You will recognize them as the five pillars of The Great Reformation.
We believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible (ref. 2 Timothy 3:16), meaning every word is perfect and profitable for pursuing the truth about God and mankind. This certainly includes “the Law and the Prophets,” or the Old Testament, and the now fully formed New Testament which teaches “faith in Jesus Christ.” It includes this epistle to the Romans, and this particular text, which Professor Tom Schreiner called “the most important paragraph in the letter.”
“The righteousness of God” is who He is and what He possesses. God is perfect, pure, pristine in every way. There is no wrong in Him and nothing wrong about Him. But “all” of mankind “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, something has to be done to connect wrong-headed and bad-hearted sinners like us with the perfect and righteous God whom we have sinned against and robbed of His glory.
This is where scriptural words like “grace,” God’s unmerited favor, come in, as well as “faith” and “believe,” a noun and verb based on the same word which means complete trust and ongoing obedience. “Jesus Christ” is the greatest name above all other names in the text, the second person of the Trinity and the Savior sent to provide “redemption,” or salvation, through “a propitiation by his blood,” or atoning sacrifice, on the cross of Calvary, as described in the Gospels.
There is one more word which serves to bind all these words together and explain how it works. With it the righteous God claims for His own an unrighteous sinner. It is the word “justified,” where the “just” God becomes the “justifier … of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
God justifies, which is to say, God saves. He settles your sin account for you and wipes it clean. He affords His righteousness to you, so you can be like Him, with Him, for now and eternity. And when God justifies, or saves, He does so by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, for His glory alone.
An eternal and infernal question is, why does God choose so save some and wipe away their sin, but leave others in their lost and condemned state? I do not know why. But I do know how, at least as it pertains to the first part of the question. Saved people “are justified by his grace as a gift.”
Remember Romans 3:10-12. Salvation is not earned by being self-righteous, for righteousness is not in us. Salvation is not based on some wise decision you made because you figured out the plan, because you couldn't. Salvation is not bestowed upon people for being good, because we are not, “not even one.”
People are saved because God chose to give them a gift, based on nothing they ever did, decided, or said, but based solely upon His grace. God made His choice, which the Bible refers to as election, before creation (where were you?). He predestined you (yes, that word is in the Bible, too) to receive the gift. And when the gift arrived, God made you an offer that was too good to refuse. This is why we refer to the Bible’s teaching on salvation as “the doctrines of grace.”
Grace makes the unrighteous righteous. Grace makes the unjustified justified. Grace makes the lost saved. Grace makes the spiritual dead alive. Grace alone saves. And when the box of grace arrives, inside is the gift of faith.
“Faith,” as defined by Scripture, is infinitely deeper than the shallow substitute espoused and expressed by the visible church today. In a error inherited from Pelagius and furthered by Arminius, faith has come to be understood as something man-centered (coming from within man), given to God (give your heart to Jesus!), based on man’s desire and understanding of God’s plan of salvation.
Go back again to Romans 3:9-18, the preceding text and context for our text at hand. We are not good. We are not neutral. We are not able to do the spiritual. We are sinful, depraved, and unable to understand or seek God. Saving faith cannot rise from the inside out. Faith has to be a deposit, a gift, and enabling power, that comes from the outside in.
“Faith” is a saving gift from a sovereign God (ref. Ephesians 2:8; 2 Peter 1:1). It enables one to “believe,” a present active participle, which means faith is not a mere decision man makes for God, it is a transformation God makes in man. Faith creates an attitude of absolute trust that results in actions of active obedience.
Grace is the gifting, faith is the gift, but the true prize is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We catch a glimpse of Him where “the Law and the Prophets bear witness.” The Old Testament is full of pictures of snake killers, sacrificial lambs, suffering servants, and sacred high priests. He comes into full view in the New Testament Gospels, each one ending with Him dying on a cross, buried in a borrowed tomb, and rising again. The good news about Him spreads like wildfire in the book of Acts, and now it comes to Romans for an explanation.
We are saved by the gift of grace alone through the gift of faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone, who is for us “a propitiation by his blood.” Propitiation is symbolized in the Old Covenant “mercy seat,” the place where blood was placed on the Day of Atonement. Propitiation was fulfilled in the New Covenant by Jesus on the cross. With His death and subsequent resurrection, Jesus absorbed God’s wrath, purchased God’s mercy, and gives God’s gift of salvation, transforming a sinner into a saint.
When Jesus told the parable of the tax collector and the sinner (ref. Luke 18:13), what the sinner literally said when he was justified, when he was saved, was “God propitiate me, the sinner.” This is what grace and faith does, it causes you to look to Jesus Christ for mercy, for forgiveness, for righteousness, for justification, for salvation.
You did nothing to be saved, save for sin. God the Father gave salvation to you as a gift, paid for by God the Son, placed on your account by God the Spirit. You did nothing to be saved, but as a saved person, you should do all you can for Christ, giving all the glory to God.
Glory to God Alone
No one can brag of being saved by being good, doing good works, obeying religious rules, or some other such “works of the law.” No one can boast of being saved by being Jewish, or even being a Gentile Christian, if it is in name only. On this we should all agree.
Nor should we brag of walking an aisle, praying a prayer, making a decision for Christ. Decisions are work, by the way, as people get paid all the time for doing nothing more than making decisions. On this some may need to think a bit.
When you are saved, according to Scripture alone, it is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God has saved you for one purpose alone, to give Him glory. When and where saved people give God glory, God saves more people.
When “boasting … is excluded” in your life, when you humbly declare you were “justified by faith apart from works of the law,” other people can begin to see what real grace looks like. When you live out an obedient faith, “uphold[ing] the law,” other people begin to see what real faith looks like. When worship is conducted with word and sacrament, not rock music and reckless manipulation, other people can begin to see the real gospel of Lord Jesus Christ.
When God is glorified in our church and in our lives, salvation begets salvation. We become the means of grace whereby people come to obtain the salvation of God. Then they get into Scripture, revel in grace, practice faith, and follow Christ, soli Deo gloria!