We are dependent on God’s Word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, for all that we know, believe and preach concerning the gospel of God’s saving power in Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds Timothy, ‘from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:15). ‘Salvation’ is a comprehensive term concerning every aspect of God’s gracious action toward sinful humanity, culminating in the wholesomeness of life in the new heavens and new earth. One crucially important element in that salvation concerns the justification of sinners.
Justification is not a human idea which the church or an individual has invented in order to express something of God’s saving activity. It is a truth revealed to us by God himself in the Bible. It is part of God’s saving plan which has been disclosed in the gospel and which is to be proclaimed from the housetops. What is more, as with every other aspect of God’s revealed truth, God’s action in justifying sinners leads us back into the mystery of God and his unfathomable ways. We are left amazed, stunned and humbled, and to all eternity we shall be ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. In his letter to the Romans, Paul cannot but worship and adore as he comes to the close of his presentation of the gospel: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen’ (Romans 11:33-36).
In dealing with the subject of justification, the Bible does not leave us with an unexplained concept or statement of fact. There is definite teaching on this important issue concerning a person’s right standing or status before God. It also draws in other vital elements of the gospel including such concepts as substitution, propitiation and imputation, elements which are either missing or undervalued in some modern treatments of the subject. In other words, there is, very definitely, a biblical doctrine of justification, not merely a biblical concept of justification.1 The Bible not only presents us with the fact that sinners are justified by God’s grace and the results and implications of that legal position, it also tells us how sinners are able to be in this happy situation of being declared righteous by God. Romans chapter five begins with the fact of justification (‘Therefore since we have been justified...’) and then proceeds immediately to consider the resulting blessings (‘we have peace with God...’). But this statement of fact is introduced with the word ‘therefore,’ which is a reminder that it is connected to the previous chapter. There, Paul is at pains to show that we are not justified by our works, but by faith alone. He also explains in chapter three how the righteous God can still remain righteous and at the same time pronounce unrighteous people righteous.
As we survey the biblical evidence for belief in justification by faith alone, the natural place to begin is with the letters of the apostle Paul. We begin with Paul because the special vocabulary associated with justification, which we shall consider in chapter five, is concentrated in his writings and he presents the most complete treatment of the subject. From there we shall proceed in chapter three to look at what the other New Testament authors have to say about this vital doctrine. This will also involve examining the Gospel evidence to see whether the Lord Jesus Christ dealt with justification during his earthly ministry. In chapter four we turn back to the Old Testament and inquire into its teaching on the topic.
In brief, Paul defines justification as God’s declaration that sinners who believe in Christ are fully pardoned, acquitted of all guilt and are in a right legal standing before him, on the basis of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is in his letter to the Romans that Paul gives a detailed presentation of the theme. Paul also considers the subject in his letter to the Galatians. With great passion he warns his converts of the danger of accepting another gospel, a gospel of justification that includes works as well as grace, which is not the gospel. He also alerts the Philippian believers lest they be lead astray on this vital issue (3:2-11). In his correspondence with the Corinthian church, Paul introduces justification as of central importance to the gospel and insists that all boasting should be ‘in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:30-31; 6:11; 2 Corinthians 3:9; 5:19-21; 10:12-18). Finally, when writing to Titus, in one of his great summary statements of the gospel, Paul clearly emphasises justification by faith alone (3:4-8).
Paul presents the truth of justification by faith alone as the crucial and initial element in the sinner’s redemptive relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is not to be confused with reconciliation, restoration, liberation or transformation. Justification is not another word for reconciliation.2 Rather, it is to be seen as providing ‘the logical foundation for reconciliation.’3 Liberation or redemption is part of God’s gracious provision through which he justifies sinners but it is not to be identified with justification. Again, the regeneration, transformation and sanctification of the individual take place in association with justification but these terms are not synonymous with justification.
The essence of Paul’s teaching on the subject is presented in Romans 3:21-26. Leon Morris considers these verses to be ‘possibly the most important single paragraph ever written’.4 All the key theological terms relating to justification are clustered together here, many of them having already been introduced in 1:17ff.
The Open Secret
‘But now’ (3:21) points to the dawn of a new era. Something wonderful has happened. While the phrase could have logical force, referring to the next stage in the argument, it is more likely to be a reference to time. The situation has been drastically altered by the coming of Jesus Christ and by his death on the cross. Paul is picking up the point he started with in 1:16-17 that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. While the wrath of God has been very evident in giving people over to their sinful passions, there is this thrilling disclosure, for all the world to know, that God has decisively intervened to bring people of all nationalities into a right position with himself through Jesus Christ.
Continuity and Discontinuity
‘Apart from law’ (v21) highlights the break with the past. The period before the ‘now’ was the era of the Mosiac covenant, characterised by law. It was a temporary administration made with one nation, Israel, and having laws which kept them apart from others, which highlighted sin but had no power to change the human predicament (cf. Romans 4:13-15). When thinking of the working out of God’s plan of salvation in history, the two great epochs are categorised by Paul in terms of law and faith. The period prior to the coming of Christ is described as a state of confinement under the law (‘held prisoner under law’) and ‘under the supervision of the law’ (Galatians 3:15-4:7). The decisive moment in the history of salvation occurred when ‘faith came’ which means when Christ came who is the object of faith. By using this term ‘faith’ — four times in Galatians 3:23-25 — to describe the coming of the new dispenation, Paul highlights in a startling manner the fact that the people of God are no longer characterised by law but by faith in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 Paul describes the old era as an administration of condemnation and death. It can now be described as the ‘old’ covenant (3:14) because of the one who has established the ‘new covenant’ through the blood of his cross (1 Corinthians 11:25).
‘To which the Law and the Prophets testify’ (3:21) stresses the continuity. The whole Old Testament, Paul is saying, anticipates and points to this new era. In fact, justification through Jesus Christ is not a novel idea, it is what has been in God’s mind from the beginning (cf. Ephesians 1:4-5). Indeed, such men as Abraham and David were justified in this way, as Paul indicates in Romans 4. This shows that when Paul speaks of the ‘coming of faith’ he does not mean that no one had exercised saving faith prior to the coming of Christ. As we saw in the previous paragraph, ‘faith’ in that context describes the new era in God’s saving purposes. The gospel of God’s justifying grace is the fulfilment of what is hinted at in the Mosaic religious system, the history of Israel and the prophetic messages. Now it has come to light and has been made plain (‘it has been made known’) through God’s intervention in Christ.
The righteousness of God
The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 3:21 and 22 recalls 1:17 and 3:5 (NIV’s ‘righteousness from God’ is an unnecessary interpretive rendering that confines the meaning).5 In verses 25 and 26 ‘his righteousness’ is found twice in reference to God. The phrase occurs twice more in Romans 10:3. Nowhere else does Paul use the expression except in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Outside the Pauline literature it occurs in Matthew 6:33, James 1:20 and 2 Peter 1:1 with a meaning different from that of Paul.
What does ‘righteousness of God’ mean in Paul’s letters? A modern influential view sees it as a technical term used in Jewish apocalyptic writings for God’s salvation-creating power: God’s righteousness is his power which creates salvation.6 It is assumed that this understanding would have been familiar to the readers in Rome. This is highly debatable. Judging by the way the term is used elsewhere in the New Testament, it does not appear to be a special term for God’s power, and Paul certainly does not describe righteousness in these terms. It is the gospel, not righteousness, which is the power of God to salvation.7
Another recent way of understanding the phrase is to see it against the Old Testament background as a reference to ‘God’s faithfulness in keeping his promise to Abraham’.8 While there is much to be said for this view, its one serious disadvantage lies in the fact that it does not take into account 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ and the very similar statement in Philippians 3:9, ‘the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith’. It is surely better to treat each occurrence of the phrase in the light of its immediate context, and not discount the possibility that more than one meaning may be attached to it.
Here in Romans 3:21-26 ‘the righteousness of God’ is identified with justification. Verse 26 includes the verb ‘to justify’ as well as the adjective ‘righteous’. God has intervened ‘now’ in Jesus Christ to provide for the justification of sinners. In 3:21-22, as in 1:17 and 10:3, the expression has a fulness of meaning that includes God’s righteous character as seen in his faithfulness to his promises, God’s saving activity intervening to justify his people, and God’s gift of a right legal position before him. In Romans 3:5 and 3:25-26 the context demands that God’s righteous character is in view. The former reference is to God’s righteousness expressed in judgment, while the latter refers to the vindication of God’s righteous character. 2 Corinthians 5:21, on the other hand, can only mean God’s gift of a right legal status before God through Jesus Christ and it is this which lies at the heart of Paul’s teaching on justification.9
Paul expounds justification in chapters four and five of Romans where righteousness is spoken of as God’s gift (5:17) and is reckoned to the believer (4:3-11). Imputation or ‘interchange’, what Luther called ‘the wonderful exchange’, is at the heart of God’s justifying grace. Sin is not reckoned to believers but to Christ and he bears it; the obedience or righteousness of Christ is reckoned to believers so that they are constituted righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Christ is described as our righteousness from God. Again Philippians 3:9, ‘not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but...the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith’, parallels Paul’s statement in Romans 10:3 ‘not knowing the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to the righteousness of God’ (a literal translation). The Philippians passage clearly shows that righteousness is a gift from God (‘the righteousness from God’) and that must be taken into account in any discussion of the term ‘the righteousness of God’. Philippians 3:9 also associates this righteousness with faith in Christ. Incidentally, faith is stressed in Romans 1:17 and that adds weight to the view that the gift element cannot be ignored when interpreting ‘the righteousness of God’ there. These examples would suggest that those who make a big point of distinguishing between ‘righteousness of God’ and ‘righteousness’ in Romans are going beyond the evidence.10
This ‘righteousness of God’ is received ‘through faith of Jesus Christ’ (lit. v22). Paul has already emphasised the place of faith in 1:17 and quotes Habakkuk 2:4, ‘the righteous will live by faith’. ‘Faith and nothing but faith’ is the probable meaning of the literal expression ‘from faith to faith’. The NIV renders it as ‘faith from first to last’. ‘Faith’ is again mentioned in this paragraph in chapter three verses 25 and 26 as well as towards the end of the chapter in verses 28 and 30. The whole of chapter four is given over to the subject of faith as opposed to works. ‘Faith’ characterises the justified person, not ‘works of the law’. This ‘faith’ does not mean ‘faithfulness’ nor does the context encourage the view that ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ should be taken to mean Christ’s faith or faithfulness. Jesus Christ is the object of faith.11
There is no value in faith as such, it is simply the means whereby sinners embrace the one who saves them. Faith is stressed in Ephesians 2:8-9 ‘through faith . . . not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship . . .’ In Galatians 2:15-5:6 so strongly does Paul insist on justification by faith alone that he states, ‘The only thing that counts is faith’ (5:6); and that with the coming of Christ the gospel era can be described as the era of faith: ‘Now that faith has come’ (3:25). It is not works, or Christian graces like love that justify, but Christ who is received by faith. Nevertheless, the apostle is quick to add that the faith which justifies is living, ‘expressing itself in love’ (5:6).
The righteousness of God is universally available
The phrase ‘for everyone who believes’ is not a redundant expression and is to be understood in the light of the sentence that follows, ‘For there is no difference.’ To whom is this ‘righteousness of God’ available? On the one hand it is only available to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, it is available to anyone who has faith in Christ. Jew and Gentile alike have need of it if they are to be justified, because all are in the same sinful position. It is open to any Jew or Gentile.
The universal condition of humanity
What Paul has been arguing in Romans 1:18-3:20 is summarised here in 3:23, ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. It makes no difference whether a nation has the Bible or not, or whether people try to carry out the religious and moral requirements of the law of God or not. All nations and every single person within those nations are in exactly the same position by nature. The verbal form Paul uses, ‘sinned’, suggests that he has in mind what he will later develop in 5:12-2 1. All sinned ‘in Adam’. Adam is the federal head of humanity. He is man’s representative and when he sinned, all humanity sinned in him and all died in him. It is also true that in this state all, whether Jew or Gentile, are actual rebels and are not in a right legal position before God. ‘There is no one righteous no, not one’ (3:10). That is the position of every single person, for all are by nature ‘in Adam’. Moreover, all humanity is continually coming short of the glory of God. It is unable to see and participate in the splendour and stunning grandeur of God.
God’s free grace
Human beings are ‘justified freely by his grace’ (v24). It is amazing to think that the God spoken of here is the one against whom people have rebelled. This is what makes the statement all the more remarkable. ‘Freely’ emphasises the fact that it is a gift. But justification is not merely a free gift. It is a free gift to those who do not deserve it. ‘Grace’ means that it is totally unmerited. God’s undeserved favour is displayed in justifying sinners who actually deserve condemnation. Paul draws attention to the grace of God in salvation many times in his letters. In Ephesians he praises God’s ‘glorious grace’ and ‘the riches of God’s grace’ which have been lavished on believers (1:6-8). He leaves them in no doubt that ‘it is by grace you have been saved’ (2:5, 8). Paul reminds Titus that the ‘grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men’ and that they have been ‘justified by his grace’ (2:11; 3:7).
The costly nature of God’s justifying grace is now introduced with the words ‘through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (v24). Justification is not equated with redemption. What is taught here about redemption has to do with the way by which our justification is made possible. Galatians 3:10-14 also mentions redemption in the context of justification. Redemption means liberation on payment of a price. It implies a situation of imprisonment or slavery. Romans 3:9 states that ‘Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin’. It is a theme which Paul develops in chapter 6 of Romans, when he speaks of ‘the reign of sin’. Not only are all guilty on account of sin but all are enslaved by sin. Human beings are in the realm of sin and under the power of sin. Then, again, in Galatians Paul speaks of being ‘under the law’, ‘under the curse’, ‘in slavery under the basic principles of the world’ and ‘slaves to those who by nature are not gods’ (3:10; 3:23; 4:3,8). Redemption is from all these forms of slavery and is ‘in Christ Jesus’. Christ ‘gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:6).
Romans 3:25 indicates the costly nature of the ransom that purchased deliverance by the use of the phrase ‘in his blood’. Ephesians 1:7 even more closely identifies redemption with the blood of Christ. ‘Blood’ refers to the sacrificial death of Christ. He is the Passover lamb (I Corinthians 5:7). Twice Paul tells the Corinthians that they ‘were bought at a price’ and now belong to the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).
The redemption by Christ involves more than liberation from sin and evil powers. We are liberated from ‘death-row’. Galatians 3:13 speaks of ‘Christ redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’. The curse is nothing other than the wrath of God directed against human sin which the law spotlights. Instead of ‘curse’ Paul uses the word ‘propitiation’ or ‘the turning away of wrath’ in Romans 3:25 (NIV inadequately translates: ‘a sacrifice of atonement’). It is a reminder of his earlier references to the wrath of God and the day of God’s wrath (1:18; 2:5,8).12 Warning people of ‘the coming wrath’ was an integral part of Paul’s preaching (1 Thessalonians 1:10). This wrath concerns God’s vengeance, his just retribution on sinners. It is a punishment which involves being ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’ on that day and experiencing everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9). The staggering truth is now taught that God himself planned and publicly displayed Christ as the means for removing his own wrath. The unmixed wrath of God that will be seen on the day of judgment fell on Jesus Christ. On the cross the curse or punishment which sin deserves was taken by Christ.13 2 Corinthians 5:21 expresses the same truth: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’. This substitutionary sacrifice, this vicarious punishment is for all who have faith (‘through faith’). Such is the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). No wonder Paul glories ‘in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14)!
The tolerance of God
In verse 25 reference is made to God’s forbearance or tolerance: ‘in his forebearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished’. The tolerance of God is yet another item that has been mentioned earlier in 2:4. In the context of chapter three it means more than God’s patience which holds back the day of judgment and wrath so that the final punishment does not fall immediately on sinners (cf. Acts 17:3 Of). It refers to God’s attitude toward believers of the old era, whose sins were not held against them. They were forgiven and accounted righteous in God’s sight even though their sins were not actually dealt with at that time. In 2 Samuel 12:13, for instance, after David’s great sin is exposed by Nathan the prophet, David in repentance confesses, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’. To this Nathan replies, ‘The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die’. The sacrificial system of the old covenant could not in reality atone for sin. God left the sins of his people unpunished until the present time (cf. Hebrews 9:15,26). What the Old Testament sacrifices symbolised, Christ has finally and completely fulfilled in his death.
The vindication of God
‘He did it to demonstrate his justice (righteousness) at the present time, so as to be just (righteous) and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’. Everything about the cross of Jesus vindicates the righteousness of God. God is seen to be righteous in passing over the sins of the righteous in Old Testament times as well as in justifying the ungodly who now believe in Jesus. At the same time God is seen to be true to his promises made with the people of old. Divine justice is satisfied by the death of Christ. Christ has paid the punishment by receiving the wrath of God which sin deserves, in order that guilty sinners, past, present and future, whether Jew or Gentile, who look to God’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, might be forgiven, acquitted and pronounced righteous. With a message like this we can appreciate Paul’s eagerness in wanting to share it with Jews and Gentiles alike, right at the heart of the Roman empire.
Faith not works
From Romans 3:27 to 4:25 Paul expounds the truth of justification by faith alone. Before this can be considered there is a preliminary matter that needs to be settled. It is this: does Paul teach justification by works in Romans 2:5-16? It must be said immediately, that if this were the case, he would be contradicting his main teaching from chapter 3:20 to 5:1. But Paul is not dealing with salvation or the subject of justification at this point. It is the grim, dark picture of the day of wrath and condemnation, when God will judge every single person by his Son Jesus Christ, that is in view. He is not talking of justification but of judgment. It will be a righteous judgment based on works alone. The same is taught by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (12:37; 25:31-46) and by John in the book of Revelation (20:11-15). The righteous, who have been justified by faith, will be seen to be righteous by their works and the unrighteous will be seen to be unrighteous by their works. For the righteous it will mean eternal life, for the unrighteous there will be nothing but the full horror of the wrath of God. On that day of judgment justice will be scrupulously fair for both Jew and Gentile. The mere possession of the law of God by the Jew will not put them in an advantageous position, ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’ (Romans 2:13). That is the only reason for mentioning justification. He is not making any further point from the reference.
It may well be possible in theory for a person to achieve justification by doing God’s revealed will. In our Lord’s case, theory turned to actuality for he was justified on account of his righteous life (1 Timothy 3:16). But as far as the whole human race ‘in Adam’ is concerned, it is impossible. Paul’s further point is that God judges according to standards of which, whether Jew or Gentile, we are all aware. The standard will either be the revealed law of God or the consciousness of right and wrong felt by humanity generally. By those standards all are condemned. No one has ever lived up to their own standards, let alone the perfect standard of God himself revealed in his law and in the life of Jesus. Jew and Gentile are therefore in the same position. All are condemned, all are under the wrath of God and all are in need of salvation. We are all sinners by nature and by practice.
It follows from this that keeping the law of God will not put a human being right before God (Romans 3:27-4:25). Even to belong to the nation specially chosen by God, to be a member of God’s covenant people, carrying out the duties and requirements of the law, does not mean one is necessarily righteous in God’s sight. Seeking to obey the law and, in the case of sinful lapses, religiously observing the provisions of the law to obtain ritual purification and atonement, is not good enough. Doing all these works of the law to the best of one’s ability does not put a person right with God. No one was ever justified by that means.14 There were people who were right with God in the period prior to Christ’s coming, such as Abraham and David, but they were justified not on the basis of belonging to the covenant community or on the basis that they carried out all the covenant obligations. The only way anyone was justified in Old Testament times was by faith in God’s promise. The promise concerns the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is a descendant of Abraham and David ‘according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3; 9:5). It is only by faith in Jesus Christ that Jew and Gentile are acquitted and stand in a right legal position before God. This is what Paul is at pains to show, particularly in Romans and Galatians.
The Spirit is also included in the promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:14). This is because the Spirit is closely associated with Jesus. He is the Spirit of Christ. Those who are justified have the Spirit and Paul speaks of the righteousness of the law being fulfilled in them through the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit is a notable feature of Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 and Galatians 5. The faith that believes is the result of the Spirit’s work and leads a person to do from the heart what is pleasing to God.
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.