Romans, 3:20-21 Grace

By Stephen Reeves

Paul begins the book of Romans proclaiming that he is an “apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures.” This gospel was the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” But who needs to be saved? Who is lost? Paul argues from 1:18-3:19 that both Jew and Gentile are without excuse for their sin and the whole world is brought under judgment of God. How then can one be saved or justified before God? One has to be justified or made righteous or else he faces the wrath of God (1:18). Starting from 3:20, we begin to look at Paul’s discussion of the basis of man’s justification.

Could one be justified by the law? Paul says no, “Because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (v. 20a). Why is this the case? “For through the law cometh the knowledge of sin” (20b). The law could only make man aware of sin, defining it and stating its consequences. This was established in 3:9-10. All were guilty and any system of keeping the law perfectly could not justify the sinner. It could only justify the one who has kept it perfectly (2:13). It has been noted that the definite article “the” (e.g., the law) is not in the Greek text of this verse. Thus, while the context is referring to the law of Moses, it applies to any law t. system that doesn’t provide the redemption that is in Christ. The law required two basic things: (1) that you keep all of it (Gal. 3:10, 12), and (2) if you transgressed it, you had to pay the penalty which was death (Rom. 6:23). After you had sinned, there was no amount of law keeping that would atone for the sin! Since both Jew and Gentile were lawbreakers (2:12-15), they were helpless to justify themselves before God on the basis of their life. The sinner cannot redeem himself or atone for his own sins!

“But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been revealed” (21a). The phrase “apart from” (“without” KJV) means “not on the basis of.” The righteousness of God (the means of making one righteous which comes from God) is not based on a law or system of justification derived from perfect obedience. It is error to make a play on the word “without” and say that this righteousness of God is without (doesn’t contain any) law that needs to be obeyed. At this point Paul is discussing the basis of justifying the sinner; not by perfect law keeping, but by faith in Jesus Christ. The very nature of this faith requires obedience (1:5; 16:26, “obedience of faith”). This means of justification was foretold (witnessed) “by the law and the prophets” (cf. 1:2-3). The Old Testament pointed to Christ and he was its end purpose or goal (10:4).

“The righteousness of God” is “through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction” (v. 22). “Through faith” indicates the means through which this righteousness is given to the sinner. He must have faith in Jesus. The KJV translates here the “faith of Jesus.” One might derive from that the idea of a “personal faith” of Jesus. But the Greek is the same as in Mark 11:22 where it speaks of “faith in God.” This is not God’s “faith” or “believing” any more than verse 22 speaking of Jesus’ “faith.” Both passages are addressing the need to believe in God and in Jesus. This means of justification would be the same for the Jew and the Gentile alike. The reason for this is given in the following verse. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (23). Paul did not say that all have to sin. This is not a proof text for the false doctrine of total depravity or original sin. If this doctrine were true, Paul spent much needless effort in the first two and a half chapters arguing for the case that “all are under sin”! The “all” of verse 23 are all who are accountable to God’s law. These are they who are able to perceive “through the things that are made” (1:20) God’s power and divinity. They are able to know that it is wrong to “steal,” “commit adultery,” and “transgress the law” (2:21-23).

Now all those under the gospel are “being freely justified by his grace” (24). This justification is free because it cannot be merited or earned. It is of grace (a gift) because God is not in debt to the sinner. It is through (Greek: dia, by the means of) “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (24b). This justification will come then by means of a buying back (redemption) or paying the price (death) for sin. This redemption is in Christ Jesus because it was he “who God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood” (25a). Only the blood (death) of Jesus could atone for man’s sin (Heb. 10:4-14). Remember that under a law system of justification one had to keep the law perfectly to be justified or there would be death to pay. Since all had sinned, that left only death as a means to satisfy the law. Christ died to make that payment for sin. Not for any of his own, for he never sinned (Heb. 4:15), but for those of the world (1 John 2:2). However, this propitiation for sins is not unconditional for Paul says that one receives it “through faith.”

Paul states that this justification, which is based on the sacrificial death of Christ, is manifested to show God’s “righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God” (25b). This was also done to show God’s “righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus” (26). Here we see the satisfaction of two characteristics of God. God is merciful and doesn’t want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Rom. 2:4, 7). However, God is just, and can’t overlook sin. He can’t demand that his will be observed and then ignore the violations of that will and the consequences which he has placed on sin.

How then can God “pass over” and forgive the sins of the faithful who lived before the revelation of the gospel? On the basis of law? No, because men like Abraham, Moses, and David sinned and couldn’t be justified by law (v. 20). Yet, through repentance and faithfulness to God they were forgiven (4:1-10). God forgave these sins on the basis of the sacrificial death of his Son. He could justly (properly, in accordance to his character) justify them because it was his purpose to redeem these sins in Christ Jesus (1 Pet. 1:18-20). The writer of Hebrews also states that Jesus’ death took place “for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). This forgiveness, however, was not unconditional. It was required of those before the gospel dispensation to be faithfully obedient to God. Note in Hebrews 11 that by faith Abel “offered,” Enoch was “well pleasing,” Noah “prepared an ark,” Abraham “obeyed” and “offered,” Moses “endured” and “kept the passover,” and many others were obedient by faith. Their obedience of faith did not merit forgiveness, rather it was the condition of their being forgiven. Christ’s death paid the penalty for Noah’s sins, but Noah “became heir of the righteousness” by faithfully doing the will of God (Heb. 11:7). Having addressed those who lived prior to the gospel dispensation, Paul now turns to “this present season.” Today God is “just and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.”

“Where then is the glorying? It is excluded” (27a). There can be no glorying or boasting on man’s part because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! If they are to be justified, it will be on the basis of grace (redemption through Christ’s blood) and not on human merit. “By what manner of law?” (27b). Here Paul is asking by what means, system, rule, or principle (law) is glorying ruled out. Is it by a “law of works? Nay: but by a law of faith” (27c). The “law of works” here is a system of justification based on perfect observance of the law. If one had kept the law perfectly, then he could “glory” but not toward God (Rom. 4:2-4). This system of justification would not exclude boasting, it would include it. But all have sinned, so that leaves only the “law of faith” by which one can be justified. This “law of faith” is the system of justification based on faith in Jesus Christ and his blood (atonement for our sins). If one can only be saved on the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, then he has no room to boast.

Paul then concludes with what he had introduced in v. 21. “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (28). Paul is contrasting these two systems of justification. The justification which is by faith is separate and apart (“without,” KJV) from that which comes by perfect keeping of the law (whether the law of Moses or any law). Since none can be justified by the latter, then it can only come “by faith.” It is error to read into this text “faith only.” Paul is not contrasting faith only with obedience of faith (1:5)! He is not contrasting faith only with gospel works (Eph. 2:10). He is not saying that this faith contains no law or rules that need to be obeyed. This would contradict his earlier statement in 2:7-11. There Paul states that God will punish those who “obey not the truth” and will reward “every man that worketh good.” The reward will not be based on human merit, but on God’s grace.

In verses 29-30 Paul adds another argument for justification by faith in Jesus separate from justification by “works of the law.” He states, “Or is God the God of the Jews only: is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yea, of Gen-tiles also: if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith” (29-30). Again, while the definite article “the” (i.e. the law) in the Greek is omitted, in context Paul is speaking of the law of Moses. If the Jewish sinner could find justification in the law (which was given to the Jew and not the Gentile), then God would be a God of the Jew only. However, since all have sinned, the God of all has chosen to save all through faith in Jesus Christ.

“Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish the law” (31). The definite article is again missing in the Greek before the word “law.” If Paul is speaking of “the law” of Moses, in what sense does he “establish” it? It can’t be for justification. Such would contradict all that is said. If he was speaking of the law of Moses, he has established its purpose in showing the need to be justified by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:19-25). However, it seems more in keeping with the context to consider the verse without the article: “Do we then make law of none effect through faith?” That is, will this “faith in Jesus” negate the need for law (rules of right and wrong)? No, he says, we establish the need for law. The gospel contains law, rules, things we “must” do. But in the gospel, law has its proper place. It is kept as a condition of saving faith (Jas. 2:14, 17, 21-24).


Having exegeted this text, consider with me some observations concerning grace and law, faith and works. Much error is being taught concerning these biblical topics, and passages such as this are perverted to uphold false doctrine. Those who follow Calvinistic or “faith only” doctrine pit “grace” against “law” and “faith” against “works.” But God’s grace has law for, “the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us . . .” (Tit. 2:11, 12). Thus God’s grace has instructions, requirements, law, and things we must do. In 1 Corinthians 9:21 Paul said he was under “law to Christ.” The Hebrew writer states that Jesus became the “author of eternal salvation” to “all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9). James says that we are to “fulfill the royal law” and that we will be “judged by a law of liberty” (James 2:8, 12). Jesus said, “Not everyone that sayeth unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). To this James adds that a saving faith in Jesus Christ requires that we do the “works” which God has given us to do. Read chapters one and two of that book. He states that, “faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself ” (2:17). Abraham obeyed (“wrought his works,” ASV) by faith and “by works was faith made perfect” (2:22).

The problem the “faith only” and “grace only” advocates have is that they confuse the basis of salvation with conditionality. Justification today is based on “grace through faith” in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8, 9). The condition which God has placed on that “faith” is obedience to his Son. But, one may object and say that this allows for boasting! Not true! Jesus said, “when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). Jesus is saying that we must do all that is commanded, but in doing that we have not merited salvation from our sins. Salvation can only come through the redemption found in Christ Jesus, through faith in his blood. May the love of God constrain us to walk by faith, seeking to do all that he bids us, and to give him thanks for his grace and mercy in sending his Son to die for our sins.

Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 2
February 15, 1996