As I’ve mentioned over and over and over, the book of Romans is the most theologically complete book of the Bible. It’s the most comprehensive presentation of the Good News, explaining what Jesus did. If you want descriptions of what Jesus did, then you go to the Gospels. But in order to truly understand why he did what he did, what exactly he accomplished for us, and how that affects us today, then you need to turn to the epistles, especially the book of Romans.
Here’s a question that occurred to me: Paul’s given a pretty good explanation of what happened at the cross and how we get saved in yesterday’s passage, the latter part of chapter three. Why does he go on? Why is there a need for chapters four and five, where he delves even deeper into soteriology—the ins and outs of our salvation?
Obviously he (under the inspiration of the Spirit) believed that we need further instruction and persuasion on this, and here’s my theory as to why: The Good News of Christ is not only counterintuitive, it runs completely counter to our prideful sinful nature. The natural person—apart from the illumination of the Spirit—looks at the Good News and rejects it as too simple or leading to Antinomianism. Of course it can’t be that simple. Of course we’re going to have to add something to what Jesus did. So Paul spends the next chapter or so just laying out his argument that it really is that simple, that we really are brought into a right relationship with God, that we’re declared righteous in his sight—simply by believing in Jesus and receiving him as Lord and Savior.
Among his audience, the people who’d have the most trouble accepting this paradigm of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone would undoubtedly be the Jews. They'd had it drilled into them from infancy the primacy of the Law of Moses, that it’d be virtually impossible for someone to be right before God unless they were following it, and this would seem to be contradicting all that. So he brings up two examples to bolster his case.
First, he presents for our consideration the Father of the Jewish people, Abraham. How was he declared righteous before God? On what was his relationship before God based? Was it his lifestyle, his pattern of obedience? I know—it was his circumcision!!! A lot of Jews believed this pretty much punched your ticket into Heaven.
Was he justified by works? You might be a little confused by a phrase in vs. 2: If he was justified by works, then “he had something to boast about—but not before God.” What’s he talking about? Well, if he couldn’t boast before God, then before whom could he boast?” The best answer I’ve heard to this is that our works can “justify” us before men, but not before God. This seems to be as good a time as any to talk about the term “justify.”
The Bible uses it in two very different senses. It can use it in the sense of “be declared righteous or not guilty,” and it’s a legal term referring in this context to God’s courtroom. He’s the Judge of every man, woman, and child who’s ever lived, along with everything else in creation. He gives out reward and punishment based on what we do, based on how our performance conforms to his perfect standards. Of course, as Paul has been hammering over and over and over, none of us will be justified (declared righteous or not guilty) in his court based on our performance. The only way we can ever be justified is by faith in Christ.
But there’s another sense that the Bible uses “justify,” and this is in the sense of “vindication.” The simplest definition I’ve ever heard of vindication is to be proven right about something. You claim to be following God, however imperfectly. This is the same word the Gospel writer uses when he quotes Jesus as saying that “wisdom is proved right by all her children.” He doesn’t mean that wisdom is declared not guilty in God’s court. That’s why it’s translated the way it is--“being proven right.”
Before God, the only way we’re ever going to be declared righteous is by faith. But the people around us can’t see our hearts. They can’t see our faith itself, only the actions that our faith leads to. They can’t see our faith in Christ, but they can how we love people in Jesus’ name. Or in Abraham’s case, people around him could see his trust in God by his actions.
There’s some more we need to examine in this passage, so we’ll examine it more tomorrow. In the meantime, focus on this truth: You’re justified before God by faith alone, but you prove your faith before people by how you act.
Lord Jesus, I’ve trusted you for my salvation, and I trust in you alone for salvation and everything else. You alone are worthy of absolute trust. By your grace, I want to show that.