By grace alone - the two men at the temple. Jesus said the one went boom justified. The scandal of grace.
Jesus taught that only by possessing a perfect righteousness could one enter into the kingdom of heaven. Mathew 5:20,48 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Either way we look at the question the problem remains: How can God be just while justifying sinners? this is the question of the reformation. Remember the misery Martin Luther experienced as a monk trying to attain a righteousness greater than the scribes and pharisees.
Luther found his answer as he studied the book of Romans. The book of Romans is basically an extended sermon, in which the apostle Paul unpacks for his readers that phrase in the prophets, “The Just Shall Live By Faith
The Problem “Faith Alone” Addresses
The problem the gospel of faith alone addresses is the problem of our unrighteousness before a holy and righteous God. The problem is that the more of God that is revealed to us, the more righteous He is revealed to be and the more unrighteous we are revealed to be. The first chapters of Romans teaches that we do this in different ways.
Some of us turn away from God in irreligion and immorality. That’s Romans 1. His eternal power and divine nature is clearly revealed in creation, and though he created us with His moral law written into our conscience, we suppressed the truth about God in our unrighteousness. We exchanged the truth about our Creator God and worshipped the things of our hands. In our rebellion, we upended the moral order God intended to serve the autonomy and primacy of human passion. So some of us turn away from God in irreligion and immorality.
Yet others of us turn away from God in religion and morality. That’s Romans 2. We judge others, though we do the same things. We trust in our own righteousness and boast how good we are. We judge humanity on a curve and since we are the ones giving out the gold stars, guess who gets the most? Yep!
The problem is that God’s does not judge our righteousness on a curve, but according to a standard: his own righteousness. And according to his standard, this is how he judges mankind: Romans 3:10 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” And so here is the problem that “Faith Alone” addresses: the unrighteousness of mankind before a perfectly righteous God. How can man be right with God?
Now I know some of you are probably thinking - why can’t God just lower His standard. He makes the rules after all. Couldn’t He accept a lower lever of righteousness and grade us on a curve? Please understand why that answer is sen more horrific. It may help you to understand that the word “righteousness” in Greek, the original language of the Bible, is the same word and closely related to the concept of justice. So if we ask God to lower the standard of righteousness, we are actually asking Him to lower his standard of justice. Though this always sounds good when applied to ourselves, it’s not a good thing. To illustrate just think over the past few weeks, all of the sexual assault charges that have been made against public figures. Now imagine that we were to say, you know, the standard that would require powerful people to keep their hands to themselves and treat people with respect and dignity just seems to be too hard for them to keep, so you know let’s lower the standards. Listen, any standard lower than perfect justice, is injustice. And so the problem ‘faith alone” addresses is that the justice of God, meaning the just character of God, requires God to act justly toward any violation of his justice, which means for us that all of us, from least to greater stand condemned before a holy God.
The Possession “Faith Alone” Accepts
So what is the gospel’s answer to this problem? The answer to the problem of our unrighteousness, is that we may secure a possession of a righteousness that is not our own.
Rom. 3:21 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.
Here is the answer - the righteousness of God, God’s own perfect righteousness, He makes available to the sinner to be received by faith. Luther called this an “alien” righteousness - not that Jesus was an alien, but that we as sinners are saved by an external righteousness, a righteousness not belonging to ourselves, but to another, here referred to as “the righteousness of God.” There are a few aspects to this righteousness that Paul unpacks for us.
- Sinners are declared righteous as a gift of God’s grace
For there is no distinction: 23 for fall 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,
This is grace alone that we spoke of last week. We are justified by his grace as a gift. Now that word “justified” was at the centre of one of the big controversies of the reformation. The reason is that the Latin word that was used in the translation the church used was actually a mistranslation of the word, so that they took it to mean that a sinner is “made righteous”. Now, to be fair, we do believe that God makes us righteous in Christ, through the process of sanctification whereby the believer by the working the God’s spirit in our lives become more and more Christlike. Yet the word here used at this point in the book of Romans, means to count or declare righteous. And that order is very important, that we are declared righteous by an act of God in Christ, as a complete gift of God’s grace. Remember last week? The one who cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord for I am a sinner,” that man, rather than the other, went home justified. The declaration has been made.
How do we know from context that Paul is speaking of a counting or a legal declaration of righteousness? Because that’s immediately where he goes in defending faith alone in chapter four:
Rom. 4:1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
Rom. 4:7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
And so yes, God declares the sinner righteous as a gift of grace, but doesn’t that undermine justice. If a judge walked around calling guilty people, he’d lose his job.
- Sinners are declared righteous through a transaction done on our behalf
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood
There are some huge words here, but this is the transaction that is done on our behalf. Listen, we’re getting into the inner workings of the engine here, its really important stuff to know, but thank God that God’s grace is what saves, not our total understanding of all these words. But sometimes its important to understand the workings of the car so we use it appropriateately. We are declared righteous “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” There are two words here, redemption and propitiation. - the word redemption is similar to the word ransom, it is the price paid to set a servant free, and the propitiation is an offering made to satisfy a moral or legal debt owed to another. That’s the transaction done on our behalf by Jesus Christ. He is our redemption - the price paid to secure our freedom, and he is our propitiation, the offering made to satisfy a moral or legal debt owed.
it is through this mysterious transaction, Christ the Holy one suffering, dying, rising again, that God’s justice is appeased. The very wrath of God’s justice against uprightousness is pour out upon a substitute, and having been completely spent, justice is served even as God determines no longer to hold our sins against us. In this way God is both able to preserve justice, even while justifying - declaring sinners righteous.
And so sinners are declared righteous as a gift of God’s grace, through a transaction done on our behalf. By grace alone, but how? How is this gift credited to our account? The last words of verse 25: “to be received by faith”.
The Proclamation “Faith Alone” Announces
Rom. 3:27 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.
The proclamation faith alone announces is that this gift is to be received solely by faith. Verse 28 became one of the most disputed verses in the reformation because when Luther translated the Bible into German for the regular people to read, he understood exactly what Paul was teaching here, and to make it so clear that no one would mistake Paul’s point, he added the word “alone” to verse 28. Now before we look at the pushback Luther experienced on this, let’s make sure we understand Paul carefully.
Rom. 4:1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
First is the scriptural point, it is not just that Abraham is not justified by works alone, so that he adds faith to his works, but that before Abraham adds any works to his belief, he is justified.
4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.
Second, is the semantic point, if you work for something, it is not called a gift, but is called a wage. Therefore, if salvation is indeed a gift, it is not something that can be worked for.
5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: Rom. 4:7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Third, that David spoke of the blessing of one who is counted righteous, apart from works. So if there are no works, then only faith remains. Only faith. Faith alone. That’s the proclamation Faith alone announces, salvation is a gift to be received solely by faith.
The Praise That Faith Alone Produces
Go back to those words of David’s in Psalm 32. In fact let’s read the whole Psalm.
Psa. 32:1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. Psa. 32:3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Psa. 32:5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Psa. 32:6 Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah
Psa. 32:8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Psa. 32:10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
This is the Psalm of a man who has experienced the relief of having the guilt of his sins removed, the fellowship of his God restored, and the passion of his salvation rekindled. This experience of forgiveness, of being declared righteous, is transforming. Jesus said, he who is forgiven much, loves much. Give me 20 men and women who have personally experience salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and give me twenty others who are trying to appease God’s standard through their own righteousness, and I’ll show you 20 passionate saints, and 20 miserable sinners.