Paul: The Preacher of Justification
Paul: The Preacher of Justification
Romans 3:20-26 ESV
INTRO: “Justified” or “justification” is a legal term, a word that we often use with regard to laws and courts. It is also used in Scripture as a theological term. Too often when we think of this term, we use it very subjectively, to legitimize our actions, whether they are truly right or wrong. Sometimes torture or detention during war time, or excessive force by police officers, may be explained as “justifiable.” Maybe you have seen Netflix and Amazon Prime series’ about people –like Dexter, a normal-looking person who is actually a cold-blooded vigilante who hunts down and kills criminals who escape penalty for their actions; or Marshall Raylan Givens, a law officer who often takes extreme and even illegal measures to combat criminal forces, in a series called Justified. You and I may use this term to say that our ends justify our means—in other words, “I was in the wrong, but you were more wrong, so my actions are justified.”
As we turn to today’s study of Paul’s life, we will consider Paul as a Preacher of Justification. We will be reminded that Paul’s example is one we that should imitate, that our justification in Christ is something to demonstrate, and that Paul’s message is one we should articulate.
BACKGROUND: We are continuing our series today entitled Live Like Paul. If you’ve been with us in recent weeks, you will note how that we have discussed the life of Paul as Persecutor, Christian and Missionary, while we have endeavored to acquaint you with the journey of this hero of the faith and author of much of our New Testament scriptures. We have highlighted how that Paul vigorously pursued, hunted and endorsed the execution of Christians in the early church. While still known as Saul the Pharisee, this man was miraculously saved by God on the Road to Damascus. Despite previously being very religious, he had been very lost, as he vigorously persecuted the infant church, in the generation immediately following Jesus’ death.
In numerous passages, Paul speaks of justification—more than perhaps any other topic in all of his writings. And when you consider that he is responsible for 40% of the books of the New Testament, and 2/3 of its volume, this emphasizes the importance of this topic. I believe that Paul emphasizes justification for at least 2 reason: (1) it is a fundamental principle upon which the Christian life is based; and (2) it is a topic with which Paul was intimately acquainted, and one which is relevant in the life of every believer.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul is addressing those who are “loved by God and called to be saints (Rom 1:7)” Some in the Roman church were seeking to be justified—made legitimate or righteous, given a stamp of approval—by false means. It is clear from chapters 1-3 of Romans that the believers at the church in Rome were being led astray to believe that they could (1) earn their right standing with God through obeying the law of God, and/or (2) that they could rest in good standing with God by their ethnic birthright alone.
TEXT: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 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. (Rom 3:20-26 ESV)
DEFINITIONS: So this is a very “churchy” passage of Scripture, it is meaty, theologically robust, and can be challenging to understand. As we go along today, we will unpack a number of theological concepts, but I want to go ahead and give you a heads up before we dive in.
As we observe the passage above, here are several words that are either repeated, or which are not words that we commonly use in everyday English. These are all legal terms.
Law – the commands of God
Justify – to make righteous
Righteousness – to be in right standing with God
Sin – violating God’s law
Sinner – someone who violates God’s Law
Redemption – payment of a debt, a sort of bail
Propitiation – relieving guiltiness
Faith – trust in God (“Forsaking All I Trust Him”)
Grace – unmerited favor (“God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”)
Let me encourage you to refer back to these definitions, as I repeatedly use these words.
MAIN POINT: Paul was writing auto-biographically to the church in Romans 3. In other words, he had experienced dramatically and firsthand what he was preaching. In this passage, Paul tells us how we are not justified, how we can be justified, and who is justified.
To live like Paul, we must understand justification the way that he understood it. We must imitate, demonstrate, and articulate— We must exclaim our need of help; we must proclaim our reason for hope; and we must claim our responsibility to hype.
We must exclaim our need of help (v. 20) (IMITATE)
Let’s summarize v. 20: “By works… no human being will be justified..., since… sin.” Paul looks at his own life and says, “I am a living, breathing example of the fact that a person cannot earn his right standing (period), because of the guilt of sin.” No sin is justified; there is no legitimate excuse for violating any part of God’s law. Furthermore, no right can undo a wrong. And, even though Paul was a hero of the faith—, a godly spiritual leader and author of Scripture—he had become thoroughly convinced of his need for help, his need for justification.
If anyone could claim justification in God’s sight by their works/deed, Paul was the one:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul said, “if you could earn God’s favor, I would be the first to tell you, because I could have done it.” Paul was a highly educated teacher of Law of God, and he was radically enthusiastic and diligent—“blameless”—in his efforts. Not only that, but if anyone could be ethnically qualified, Paul had that covered too. Paul was born a Jew, circumcised as all Jewish males were, and a card-carrying member of the tribe of Benjamin.
Nevertheless, Paul insists we cannot gain right standing with God by obeying the Law of God; instead, the Law simply reveals our sinfulness. Listen to his words in (Rom 7:14-25 NLT)
“…The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin…. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.”
Even the mighty hero of the faith, Paul the Apostle recognizes how futile, bogus and worthless all of his good deeds were, when it came to being righteous, or having right standing, before God. He needed help; he needed justification, because his status before God was as a sinner.
Recall that in Pastor Jerry’s previous message about Saul’s conversion, the future Apostle was blinded by an appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul was made helpless physically. His status as a Pharisee—a Jewish scholar, teacher, religious leader and bounty hunter for Christians had been an advantage. Now it became a disadvantage, and he had to depend upon the kindness and trust of God’s servants, like Ananias, Barnabas, etc. because the leaders in the early church did not trust him, even as he attempted to join their ranks.
Do you know what is interesting about most believers? If asked what makes us right in God’s sight, we don’t act like we believe that we need help. Our reflexive answers are like:
“I go to church regularly”
“I have read the Bible numerous times, almost daily.”
“I am a sacrificially committed servant in our church.”
“I tithe 10% of my income AND give to missions above that.”
“I curse less and pray more than anyone I work with.”
“I open my home to those in need and host Bible studies weekly.”
“I actually share Jesus with other people every week.”
No doubt, these are all good things. But you know what? These are the obedient, grateful behaviors of someone who recognizes their status as sinners and who humbly submits their lives to God as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). Paul explains in Rom 3:20 that we are utterly helpless to attain God’s favor by our works, and the Apostle tells us later in this same book what we must therefore do…
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
So Paul says, in his letter to the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). To live like Paul, we must exclaim our need of help, and this doesn’t stop once we become saved. We must continually exclaim our need of help, once we are saved, to live in a manner that is God-glorifying and which legitimizes the faith that we embrace. Secondly…
We must proclaim our reason for hope (vv. 21-22, 24-25) (DEMONSTRATE).
Listen to this passage summarized…
“The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction… all… are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Recall that v. 23 said, ALL have sinned, no exceptions. In this passage we see that righteousness, or right standing with God, is available to ALL who believe—and that ALL are justified by His grace as a gift, through Christ Jesus. Who is included in ALL? Everyone, right? All means All. All have sinned, and all have access to right standing with God because of and through Jesus Christ. The opposite is also true; absolutely no one is justified apart from Christ.
Paul says that his reason for hope, just like yours and mine, is through faith in Jesus Christ. And what hope is there outside of Christ? None?! If you are trusting intellectually in your good deeds or your church attendance and giving or your superior knowledge of Scripture or your character or contributions to the Kingdom of God, for justification, to make you righteous before God, you are deceived. You are believing a false gospel, an anti-gospel. And self-justification cannot save you.
Note what Paul says in v. 22, “There is no distinction.” “Stop kidding yourself,” Paul says, you are not better than your brother or sister. You are not more deserving of mercy, forgiveness, God’s grace and blessing than anyone else. It is not by your own merit, whether ethnically or accomplishment-wise, that God views your status as righteous in his sight. Paul says to Jews of his day and to American church goers of our day, “this wasn’t true for me, and it is not true for you.” The only reason for hope of your justification before God is found in Christ.
Listen to what Paul says in his letter to the Corinthian church:
“For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Over and over again Paul reminded the Jewish Christians that they were not more justified than the Gentile Christians. Over and over again he reminded them all that they were sinners saved by grace. Over and over again, you and I have to be reminded of the same thing: Our justification before God is found in Christ alone.
Pastor and scholar R.C. Sproul states that, “the doctrine of justification is what happens when God… makes unrighteous people righteous.” Our word for justification is from the Latin word justificare, which is a combination of 2 words: Justus (meaning righteousness) and facare (meaning to make). And the act which accomplishes this is “propitiation” (Rom 3:25). God justified—or made righteous that which was not righteous—by propitiation, by paying our debt.
As he sought to revolutionize a corrupt doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the key teachings of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation leader, was “sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus”—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. When praised by some students one day as a great teacher, Luther replied, “I am just one beggar, showing other beggars where we can all buy bread.”
Paul, the great hero of the faith was a “beggar,” who needed salvation by God’s grace. You and I are also “beggars” in need of God’s saving grace. As Paul has taught in this passage and in his letter to the Ephesian church (Eph 2:8-9), salvation is available and justification is found, by grace through faith in Christ alone. For those here today considering trusting Christ as your Lord and Savior, or for those who may be realizing that your trust has been misplaced in your own self-justification, let me stress what the grace of God means, and what faith means. This is also critical for every believer to be reminded:
Hold up your hand and spread your five fingers, please: Grace is like the hand of God being extended down from Heaven, offering you and I G-R-A-C-E (on five fingers) “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” Unless and until we exclaim our help and claim our hope in the grace of God, we will remain helpless and hopeless to save ourselves. It is with the hand of faith, F-A-I-T-H (on five fingers) reaching upwards to take the hand of God’s grace, that we can claim justification in Christ and receive a righteous standing before God.
As believers we must be willing to demonstrate, to proclaim our understanding of this great truth, that our hope is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. So we have discussed that to live like Paul means to imitate and to demonstrate; it also means to articulate.
We must claim our responsibility to hype (vv. 25b – 26) (ARTICULATE).
Let me quickly explain that my use of the word “hype” in this point may not be in the way that you have heard it used elsewhere. You see, not only does the word alliterate or rhyme with help and hope, but “hype” means to publicize or promote intensively and extensively.
Paul intensively preached the doctrine of justification, the act of being made righteous before God. Even this morning, I have quoted from 5 different letters of Paul in our short time together, and I did not even come close to exhausting all of his teachings on this doctrine. We have learned today that Paul preached justification because (1) it characterized his personal journey of faith, (2) because he recognized it as a misunderstood doctrine amongst believers, and (3) because he knew that this was the means by which every sinner must come to Christ for salvation. Paul publicized the doctrine of justification intensively and extensively, in the two primary media of his day—public speaking and the written word. He traveled from city to city speaking in the synagogues and public squares on this doctrine, and he wrote letters to every church that he started about this doctrine of justification.
I believe that Scripture makes it clear to us that, to live like Paul—to imitate him as he imitated Christ—means (1) to personalize our understanding of this doctrine, (2) to recognize and not misunderstand how we gain righteousness before God, and (3) to mobilize others to come to God through Christ, by proclaiming this doctrine.
You see, as long as others think that attending church or abiding by a moral code make them right with God—hear me—as long as others think this because that is what we, as believers convey to them, they will be truly lost. It is our responsibility to hype, to articulate the justification found in Jesus Christ.
You cannot articulate something, cannot teach it, unless you know it, truly and accurately. Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is the essence of the gospel, and to omit, confuse, add to or subtract from this truth in any way makes it a false gospel. This is why we must preach this gospel to ourselves and to others. We preach it to ourselves until we know it, believe it and live by it, and we preach it to others, as we claim our responsibility to hype the true gospel of justification to the lost around us. The result is that God is glorified and Christ is made famous throughout the earth.
CONCLUSION: I hope you can see that to live like Paul doesn’t mean to be a hero of the faith, deceiving yourself while accomplishing great things for God’s favor or distinguishing yourself while striving for moral superiority. To live like Paul means to humbly imitate his need of help, to demonstrate his reason for hope, and to articulate his example of hype for the true gospel.
I love this old hymn, In Christ Alone. Will you sing it with me and pay attention to the lyrics?
In Christ alone my hope is found He is my light, my strength, my song this cornerstone, this solid ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace when fears are stilled, when strivings cease My comforter, my all in all here in the love of Christ I stand There in the ground His body lay Light of the world by darkness slain then, bursting forth in glorious day up from the grave He rose again And as He stands in victory sin's curse has lost its grip on me for I am His and He is mine bought with the precious blood of Christ No guilt in life, no fear in death this is the pow'r of Christ in me from life's first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand 'til He returns or calls me home here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand