By Johnny Stringer
To be justified is to be pronounced not guilty. In Romans 3:19-4:8, Paul contrasts two methods of justification: (1) justification by faith and (2) justification by law.
Justification By Faith
Justification by faith involves not a dead faith (Jas. 2:17-26), but faith which moves us to obey God (Gal. 5:6; Rom. 1:5; 16:25-26). By faith we recognize God’s law as our standard, and we submit ourselves to his law (Matt. 7:21; 1 John 3:4).
Yet, perfect law-keeping is not required, for God has provided that people who exercise faith in him may be forgiven of their violations of his law. When we are forgiven, it is as though we had not sinned; we are considered not guilty. Forgiveness is contingent on our having the faith to obey certain conditions (Acts 2:38; 8:22). Inasmuch as these conditions include repentance, we cannot persist impenitently in violating God’s law and be forgiven.
Because we have been guilty of violating God’s law, we do not deserve to stand justified in his sight. Hence, our salvation is by grace; we have not earned it by our works (Eph. 2:9). Meeting God’s conditions to have our sins forgiven does not cause us to deserve forgiveness, but by his grace God will grant forgiveness if we have the faith to meet these non-meritorious conditions.
Justification by Law
As we have discussed in previous articles, justification by mere law (no grace, just law) would necessitate keeping God’s law perfectly. Obviously, if there were no grace to forgive sin, the only way to be justified (declared not guilty) would be never to commit a sin. Justification by mere law, therefore, would involve earning justification by our works. Our work of perfectly keeping God’s law – living sinlessly would cause us to deserve justification; hence, we could boast (Rom. 3:27, 4:2).
In our text, when Paul refutes the idea of being justified by works, he is not saying that it is unnecessary to submit to God’s law and obey God’s conditions for forgiveness of our sins. This would contradict plain passages which teach the necessity of obedience (Heb. 5:9; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Matt. 7:21). When we read of “works” in Romans 3 and 4, we must remember the kind of works under discussion in the context: the works of perfect law-keeping. As we demonstrated in previous articles, this is the work Paul has been showing not to be the means of our justification.
If we were justified by the works of perfect law-keeping, we could boast, for our justification would be earned and grace would not be needed; but since we are justified by faith rather than by earning it, boasting is excluded (3:27). Abraham could have boasted if he had lived sinlessly so as to be justified strictly by his own perfect life (4:2). The one who “worketh” (keeps God’s law perfectly) earns his reward so that it is a thing owed him; he does not receive it by grace (4:4). The one who “worketh not” (does not perfectly keep God’s law), but exercises an obedient faith, is justified although his works are not perfect and therefore not sufficient to justify him (4:5).
Remember, the word works must be defined by the context. In James 2:24, where James says we are justified by works rather than by faith only, he is talking about a different kind of works – not perfect law-keeping which earns justification, but non-meritorious obedience resulting from faith.
There are two conceivable ways men could be justified: (1) keep God’s law perfectly and thus be justified by virtue of a sinless life; (2) be forgiven of our violations of God’s law and thus be justified despite the sins in our fives. Inasmuch as we fail to keep divine law perfectly, we must depend on being forgiven of our sins. We can be forgiven by God’s marvelous grace if we exercise an obedient faith in our Lord. Praise God!
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 10, p. 294
May 19, 1988