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But NOW……Justification by Faith
By David A. DePra
Now we know that whatever things the law says, it says to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Rom 3:19-28)
But NOW….! But NOW what? "But now the righteousness of God without (independent of) the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets -- even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe."
The words, "BUT NOW…," denote a change. A huge change. Paul tells us what that change was. He says that under the law, "the whole world was guilty before God." Thus, no one could be declared righteous, indeed, all were shown to be totally UNrighteous. The law of God absolutely buried each one of us – exposing us as dead sinners.
Out of this seemingly hopeless situation emerge the words, "BUT NOW." These words proclaim that God has not left us in this condition. He has provided the means by which we can be made righteous. How? "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
This is the great Truth of justification by faith. It is the Truth of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, It is the gospel – the good news of salvation. It states that we can be saved, "by grace through faith."
God’s moral and legal justification of those who embrace Christ is possible because Jesus Christ paid the price, through His death, for every sin ever committed. Thus, this means that the sin issue is settled forever. Notice, however, that it is settled, not on the basis of anything about ME, but upon the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Thus, justification means – that in Christ -- I am as forgiven, right now, as I will ever be. It means God’s forgiveness of me is as finished, and complete, and irrevocable, as is the death of Jesus which won it.
Now notice: Justification means that I am, in Christ, more than just a person whose sins are forgiven. Rather, I am a FORGIVEN PERSON. Do you see the difference? God has done all the forgiving He is going to do – it is for ALL sin. If I am in Christ, I am a completely forgiven and redeemed person. I am JUSTIFIED – declared righteous by God.
This passage of scripture is one of the most important in the Bible. As mentioned, in it we find the great Truth of justification by faith. Indeed, in it we find the fundament of the gospel. If we would come to grasp the Truth in this passage, it would provide a framework for so much else in scripture.
Justification by Faith
A central Truth of Christianity is justification by faith alone. What this means is that I am justified – declared righteous – by God through my faith in Christ ALONE. My works have nothing to do with it whatsoever.
Now, lest we misunderstand, we need to see that our faith isn’t what justifies us. No. The redemptive work of Christ justifies us. By faith we embrace what He has done. Thus, we are justified by Christ through faith.
Neither is our faith a "righteous act" by which we are deemed justified, as if our faith meets some requirement for righteousness that our works could not meet. Far from it. For if our faith was a "righteous act," then IT would be merit. But it is not. In fact, rather than be merit, if our faith is real, it is the outcome of seeing we have no merit. Faith is simply our surrender to the reality that we have nothing to offer God, and is our embracing of the reality that He gives us everything we need for salvation through His grace in Jesus Christ.
Faith is necessary for salvation because despite the fact that we can do nothing to save ourselves, or even to initiate the process, there is one thing we can and must do – once God initiates our calling to Christ. Do you know what that one thing is? SURRENDER.
If we have nothing else, we have a free will. Even as people who are, "dead in sins and trespasses," we have a will. And if we have a free will in any measure, we have the power to surrender that will to God – once God shows us the Truth about our condition without Christ. And that is exactly what it means to give our lives to Christ. We surrender our will – ourselves – to God as dead sinners. That is faith.
Faith that does not equal surrender is not faith. Indeed, to say I believe that Jesus is my Savior, and that He is my only hope as a sinner, and then refuse to surrender to Him, is not faith. It is, in fact, the very definition of UNBELIEF. Faith always results in surrender. If it does not, it is dead religion.
So now we can see why there is no MERIT to having faith. Indeed, this is precisely why Paul says, "Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith." Because real faith only comes from the realization that I have no merit, and nothing I can do but surrender myself to God, all boasting is excluded. I can take no credit for simply surrendering myself as a sinner into the hands of One who saves me solely by His grace.
Imputation and Impartation
Justification by faith is a one time, all at once, event. I can never again be UNjustified, and there is nothing I must do to, "maintain" my justification. Christianity is not a series of "booster shots" to keep justified. Once justified, I am a forever justified, forgiven person.
Some people have likened justification to an accounting entry. When I place my faith in Christ, God puts all of His righteousness to my account, and all of my sin to Christ’s account. All of this, as Paul says in Romans, is done completely independent from my works. My works do not add or subtract anything to this, and can never, from that point, add or subtract. I am made righteous because of the finished work of Christ alone. I simply embrace this reality by faith.
Here we see IMPUTATION. Imputation means that God attributes to Christ my sin, and attributes to me all of the benefits of Christ’s death. In effect, I am declared righteous because I have renounced sin and embraced Christ.
Justification by faith, of course, speaks first to the LEGAL aspect of our salvation. God declares me righteous because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. This immediately becomes a done deal. But it is right here that too often we stop. There is more to justification than a legal imputation to us of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Think about it: If all God did was declare me righteous – due to the death of Christ – this would actually do NOTHING to change me. I would potentially be a reprobate, but declared righteous. As you can see, there is something wrong with this picture?
Now, don’t misunderstand. God does justify the unrighteous. That is the whole point of, "justification by faith." We have no merits to present to God before we are justified by faith. But if God were to declare us righteous ONLY IN THE LEGAL sense, without providing the means by which we could be MADE righteous, He would actually be sanctioning sin. It really would come to that. And this could never be.
God does not play tricks on Himself. He does not declare people righteous, and then slink off into heaven and mutter under His breath, "But I know that you are still the same sinner as before." No. We are not the same as before. Paul says, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." (II Cor. 5:17)
Justification by faith is NOT, in and of itself, salvation. No. Why? Because a declaration that I am righteous does not impart to me LIFE. God merely, "reclassifying" me as righteous on the basis of what Christ has done, may set me free from the wages of sin, but it does not set me free from the power of sin. Indeed, it does not set me free from sin itself. Thus, we are beginning to see that there is more to justification than the very important legal aspect of it.
The Bible says that, in Christ, I am a born again, new creature. All of these things, salvation, life eternal, born again, and a new creature, aren’t simply poetic names and terms God "calls" me – they are what I NOW AM THROUGH CHRIST. Therefore, as basic and foundational as justification by faith is – and we dare not minimize it – it is really only the beginning.
Justification by faith carries the provision for REAL righteousness. In other words, yes, God LEGALLY IMPUTES to me the righteous of Christ, once for all, and without any strings attached, solely on the basis of my faith in Christ. But this IMPUTATION of legal righteousness is only moral, and truthful, and right, if God does something even more wonderful: God IMPARTS to me the very life of Jesus Christ. In other words, God declares us to be righteous because He imparts to us the righteous life of His Son through the Holy Spirit.
Justification happens all at once when we believe. It is not a gradual event. In the instant that we believe, God both IMPUTES to us the righteousness of Christ, and likewise IMPARTS to us the life of His Son. We are then born again. But there IS a process involved once we are born again. We must GROW – the life with which we are IMPARTED must come to be made manifest in our works, character, and attitudes. We must grow in grace and holiness. This process is SANCTIFICATION.
SANCTIFICATION – our growth in the holiness and righteousness of Christ -- is only possible because of JUSTIFICATION. But it would never be possible if all there was to justification was LEGAL imputation. Why? Because legal imputation gives us no means by which to grow as a new creation in Christ. Only if we have been imparted with the life of Christ – with His very righteous nature – do we have the means by which we can grow through the process of sanctification.
Can we see the difference here? A legal declaration changes no one. It does not give me a new nature. It does not make me to be born again. Only if I am imparted with the very life of Christ is it possible for real change to occur.
Paul the apostle said that unless we have the life of Christ within us we are as much reprobates as ever! He says:
Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves. Don’t you know that unless Jesus Christ is in you, you are reprobates? (2 Cor. 13:5)
To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: (Col 1:27)
Notice Paul’s words, "Christ IN YOU." This is the only kind of Christianity the Bible knows anything about. Christianity is not a religion. It is not a new life style. It is CHRIST IN US. We are actually ONE with Christ if we have surrendered ourselves to Him by faith.
Paul cements this reality to the Corinthians in plain language:
But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Cor. 1:30-31)
This is not mere poetic rhetoric. We have wisdom, righteousness, are sanctified, and have redemption – ONLY BECAUSE WE HAVE CHRIST. We are IN HIM – and He is all those things. Again – we are ONE with Christ.
Here we see that Redemption is not simply a matter of God acting upon us and declaring us righteous. It is much more. Redemption is God giving us Himself and making us one with Himself through His Son. Yes, we are justified – declared righteous by faith. All the righteousness of Christ is IMPUTED to us. But God likewise IMPARTS to us the very life of His Son – His very RIGHTEOUS life. This is Christianity.
Spiritual growth is sanctification. It is the righteousness of Christ, which we received at conversion, being made manifest in and through us. It is all the result of Christ in us, and our surrender to Him by faith.
We are all born, "in Adam." Right now, every person on the planet is either, "in Adam," or, "in Christ." In Adam, all die. In Christ, all are made alive. (I Cor. 15:22) Thus, one way to describe our need for Christ is to say that we need a way to be delivered OUT of Adam, and INTO Christ.
There is only ONE way that God has provided: The Cross delivers us, through death, out of Adam. And the resurrection raises us up in Christ. Salvation is not possible unless I first come to the Cross and surrender, "my Adam." Then I am crucified with Christ. I am then raised with Christ to newness of life.
Notice how Paul describes this reality, and how it surpasses anything which a merely legal justification could provide:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
Paul is talking, not about IMPUTATION here. He is talking about IMPARTATION – which is the result of UNION WITH CHRIST. Christ tasted death for every man. But through our union with Him in His death and resurrection, we are actually set free from sin, and raised to newness of life. He is the Vine and we are the branches – not as a legal declaration only, but as a living reality.
The Purpose of God’s Law
In the passage above, Paul tells us the purpose of God’s law. We need to see this purpose so that we can understand why justification by faith is necessary. He says that the purpose of God’s law is, "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." In effect, God’s law is intended to show us to be helpless sinners.
However, this is not what some of us have assumed is the purpose of the law. Some of us have thought that God gave His law so that we would have a standard of righteousness to keep – and by doing so, be approved of by God.
But wait. Aren’t we supposed to keep God’s law? Isn’t the law, "holy, just, and good?" Absolutely. There is everything right and good about the law. The law IS holy, just, and good. But the problem is, I’m not. So every time I stand and face the law, I am shown to be unholy, unjust, and bad! Indeed, if I really understood it, the more I try to keep God’s law, the more I fall short – for I can never be perfect enough for God through law-keeping.
So what is the solution to this? To just sin? Are we to say, "Well, God already tells me that I cannot keep His law. So why bother trying?"
No. If I have surrendered to Christ, I am going to try to keep God’s law. What do we think, that we should try NOT to keep it? Nonsense. Christians are to live lives of holiness and obedience. This is ALWAYS the outcome of faith in Jesus Christ.
The point is this: We should try to keep the law, but not as the MEANS by which we are saved, keep saved, or maintain the grace of God. Rather, our intentions to obey God should be the OUTCOME of our faith in the finished work of Christ.
A born again Christian sins. But a born again Christian does not WANT TO sin. Get that. Perhaps our flesh, at times, wants to sin. There is always going to be the possibility of an appeal to our flesh. But someone who has given their life to Christ – the real person; the new man in Christ – he does not WANT TO sin. Christian growth is a process wherein our desire to WANT TO obey God becomes more and more dominant, and the appeals to the flesh less dominant.
Paul says, "Are we to continue in sin because grace abounds? God forbid. How can we, who are dead to sin, live any longer in sin? (Romans 6:1-2) Clearly, if I am born again, I will sin. But I won’t use the fact that grace abounds as a license to sin. Why? Because I am dead to sin through the new birth.
So Christians are to try to keep God’s law. But always with the understanding that our obedience earns us NOTHING, and our failures do not condemn us. Our works have nothing to do with God’s declaration that we are righteous. That is why Paul said, "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe."
Paul was saying that justification by faith – God’s declaration of us as righteous – has nothing to do with our works. This righteousness – which is ours only by faith -- is said to be a chasm apart from any of our works under the law. Indeed, Paul will go on to show that works and obedience are the OUTCOME of having been justified by faith – never the MEANS by which we are justified.
If you actually believe you can keep the law of God, or that you do keep it, you are deceived. Paul himself said that he desired to keep the law of God. But he lamented over the fact that there were nevertheless many things he wanted to do, but could not, and many things he wanted to stop doing, but did. Yet despite it all, he proclaimed that none of his failures had anything to do with the righteousness of Christ which was his by faith.
Paul’s message of grace stated that none of his obedience enhanced the grace of God. But nether did any of his sin take away from it. The grace of God is based solely on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Our faith must stand upon this fact.
The purpose of God’s law is to reveal to us His righteousness, as it would be lived by a perfect human being. As such, it immediately shows us to be sinners. The good news is – that at this point – the great BUT NOW comes in! In other words, when we finally reach the place where we see we are dead sinners, we will see that God offers us a way which is completely independent of our works: Grace through Jesus Christ.
Once we place our faith in Christ, we are instantly justified by faith. As we have seen, this means that, first, we are immediately declared righteous by God. Case closed forever. But secondly, we are born anew. We then have the very life of Christ within – His righteous life through the power of the Holy Spirit. We will then spend the rest of our lives growing in grace and holiness through the process of sanctification. *
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