Boasting is endemic to the human race. We see it everywhere. A tailback runs through the line for a touchdown and immediately thumps his chest, pumps his arms, and does his own attention-getting dance to celebrate his accomplishment. A politician talks about all of the legislation that passed because he signed on to it (never mind that dozens of others co-sponsored the same legislation!). A little child holds up a stick man drawing with the claim that his picture is better than everyone else’s picture.
I think we’ve learned to tolerate boasting even though it likely annoys each of us to some degree—that is, of course, unless it is our personal boast. It’s pride when anyone else boasts. But it’s calling due attention to a significant accomplishment when we do the same. However we parse it, we all face struggles with boasting because we all want to think that we have done something worthy of admiration.
We may actually find room to boast about many things in life: education, finances, family, work, service. There may be things in each of these areas worthy of genuine admiration by others. Please understand, I’m not recommending boasting since all that we have and all that we accomplish comes ultimately by the grace of God. Yet from a purely human perspective, we may have reasons for boasting from time to time.
While that can be true in many areas of life, there is one area that there is never a reason to boast. The Apostle Paul understood this. Certainly, there were people that admired the Apostle’s courage, wisdom, labors, and leadership. Some would have thought it appropriate for him to do a little bragging about all he had accomplished since he had done things that no others before him had done. Some of his opponents certainly did their best to boast about their accomplishments. Yet he knew better. Rather than boasting, in an effort to bolster his image with the Galatians who had been down on him, he told them, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (6:14). I only want to brag on Jesus Christ and Him crucified! I have no ground for boasting for what I have received has come through the grace of Another.
I think it is likely that most all of us know this; we realize that salvation is all of grace and so we have no reason to boast except in the cross of Christ. Yet, because of the natural leanings of the flesh, we may subtly slip into a little boasting or self-adulation or self-dependence. A battle rages within our minds: a battle of self-dependence and reliance on the flesh. Assurance often ebbs and flows as goes this battle. Some are never truly justified because they will not give up reliance on self for salvation.
It’s at just this area that we find Paul returning again in Romans. He has already uncovered the horror of pride that would keep us from Christ. We find it in suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (1:18), in professing ourselves to be wise (1:22), in exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshiping the creature instead (1:25), in the insolence, arrogance, and boastfulness of the flesh (1:30). It is shown in condemning others for their sin while failing to come to terms with our own (2:1-3). We see it as well in the boasts of our religious practices, knowledge, and perceived spirituality (2:12-24). Yet all of this boasting proves destructive. Justification by faith in Christ excludes every form of boasting. God alone receives the praise as the initiator, provider, and completer of our salvation. How do we see this worked out in our text?
Keep in mind where Paul has taken us. He has made clear the universal sinfulness of humanity. None are righteous; none understand; none even seek for God (3:10-11). We all stand condemned and silenced by the Law as transgressors deserving the divine judgment declared against us (3:19-20). But God has done something about our impossible situation. Apart from the efforts of the flesh in conforming to the demands of the Law, God has revealed His righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). He did not just announce the arrival of Christ as a good example of how to obey the Law; much, much more, He sent Jesus Christ to redeem us from the curse of the Law (3:24). God’s Son took on Himself our sin, and consequently, through His bloody death at the cross, propitiated God, turning away His wrath so that He might receive us as His children (3:25). Through Jesus Christ’s death on our behalf, God was found to be just in declaring sinners to be righteous through faith in Christ alone. (3:25-26).
Now, that brings us back to the age-old problem. We want to depend on self and consequently, stroke ourselves with a little boasting. Our flesh battles against relying wholly on Christ. We want a little credit for our salvation. God can have most of the credit! We don’t mind sharing a bit with Him. But we want a small stake in bragging rights concerning our salvation.
But what Paul has done is to show us that nothing we do can meet the Law’s demands or turn away God’s wrath or reconcile us to God. Nothing—absolutely nothing! The Law shuts our mouths from boasting or claiming self-justification. That’s why it is essential that we utilize the Law in our gospel discussions. Only when the Law does its work of silencing self-dependence, will a sinner look to Christ alone in the gospel.
“Where then is boasting?” Paul’s question assumes that the natural propensity in all of us is to claim credit for what God alone can do. We don’t want to be thought of as helpless and impotent before God. It’s a difficult admission for our pride to declare, “I have nothing to offer God; I’m helpless, sinful, and deserving God’s deepest wrath. I have nothing to cling to but Christ crucified for me.”
John Stott has pointed out, “Boasting is the language of our fallen self-centeredness” [Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 119]. Boasting vents self-centeredness; it publicizes our pride. If we can get credit for our justification then we have reached the pinnacle of success. All other things that we accomplish are temporal. Our business, educational, and even family accomplishments are temporal. But if we can lay claim to having a part in our salvation then we can boast that we have done something that will last forever.
But Paul asks, “Where then is boasting?” Take a look at what God has done through Christ. See how God sent His Son to satisfy His own eternal justice—you didn’t do that. See how Christ bore your sins before the awful wrath of God—you didn’t do that. See how Christ’s propitiatory death turned away the wrath of God—you didn’t do that. See how Christ’s obedience to the Law and His atoning death justified us—you didn’t do that. Where then is boasting? Ligon Duncan is right. “If you understand the way God saves, there’s no room left for self-congratulation. There’s no room left for self-commendation” [www.fpcjackson.org, Romans 3:27-31, “Faith: The Instrument by Which We Receive the Righteousness of God,” p. 3].
Paul answers his question regarding the place for boasting, “It is excluded.” The word means that it all boasting has been “shut out.” Any baseball player knows that if your team has been “shut out” then you have nothing to brag about! The theological passive voice implies that because of all that God has done through Christ, every point of boasting, self-congratulation, or self-commendation, God has taken away.
For us to boast about anything, we must have either a perceived reason for the boast or a genuine basis or ground for boasting. If Bill Gates or Warren Buffet boast that they are two of the richest men in the world then it is not an empty boast. They have the ground for boasting proved by their stock holdings and bank accounts. If Tiger Woods boasts that he is the best golfer on the tour he has the green jackets, trophies, and awards to prove his boast. On the other hand, some have perceptions that lead to their boasts. When you see a sign at a local restaurant that declares, “The World’s Best Hamburger,” we realize that there is no firm basis for making such a statement. Yet it is the perception of the restaurant so they make their claim. So whether by perception or by genuine ground, boasts are made. Some reason is offered for boasting.
But when it comes to our justification—the declaration by God that through Christ sinners are now righteous before Him—all ground for boasting is “excluded.” Why is that the case? Why will God not share a little bit of the credit with us? After all, we did make a decision for Christ, didn’t we? How far would God have gotten without our cooperation in all of this?
This is where perception rather than a true ground for boasting creates some problems. Here is why. We’re told, “By grace you have been saved…For by grace are you saved through faith” (Eph. 2:5, 8) and “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11) and “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Grace points to the work of God alone; it is God’s action on our behalf—or better, God’s saving and sanctifying action on our behalf. If we can lay claim to some merit before God then we nullify grace. Grace is never God and me doing some saving action. So, if we nullify grace by laying claim to some part of our salvation then we also exclude God. God does not share His glory with us! Paul explained that God has so worked in choosing us through electing grace before the foundation of the world, “so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:29). He further explained, “But by His doing are you in Christ Jesus,” God’s doing; not your doing (1 Cor. 1:30). And the reason is clear, “So that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord”” (1 Cor. 1:31). Boasting is excluded!
Then, if we have no ground for boasting because of our works of righteousness then how are we saved? “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.” Man naturally assumes that his works are the means to justification. “Works” are the system or principle by which men think they can achieve salvation. Just check out any other world religion. You will find some type of works-righteousness required for whatever they consider to be salvation. You also see this in the cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Man assumes, “If it’s to be it’s up to me,” even with regard to salvation. But if we do something to merit salvation then we have a legitimate ground to boast before God. So, Paul asks, by what kind of law or what kind of principle does this transaction of justification take place? “Law” in this case is used in a more generic sense rather than referring to the Mosaic Law. It can be translated as “principle” (NIV) or “rule,” implying a “system of demands” [Doug Moo, NICNT: Romans, 249]. Luther translates it as “principle” to make this clarification [Works, 25:251]. What kind of demands must be met for justification to take place? “Of works?” Paul asks. Is there some kind of principle of works, whether following the Mosaic Law or some other form of law that God requires in order to justify you? If that were the case then it would not be salvation by grace as a free gift of God; rather it would be something earned, and therefore, something that we could boast about. Paul illustrates this in the next chapter, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (4:2). Instead, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:3-4). If salvation is on the basis of works, even if only a few works, then it cannot be by grace but instead, it is earned in the same way that we earn a paycheck at our jobs.
But what Paul has labored to show us is that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” It is only with regard to and by the means of this principle of faith or “law of faith” that we are justified before God. “Faith” is the antithesis of “works” in this regard. The “law” or principle of faith contrasts with the human principle of works for salvation. It allows nothing of human achievement or human ability or human merit for justification. Now, what does he mean by “law of faith”? John Chrysostom, the early church father explained: “What is the principle of faith? This is salvation by grace” [Gerald Bray, editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, VI, 103]. Paul uses a play on words [Moo, 249-250] by the term “law.” That is clear when we see that “faith” is never regarded as a work of righteousness. Rather faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). One is not saved because he works up enough faith to merit salvation. He is saved by the grace of God that enables the sinner to believe. Augustine put it like this. The principle of works says, “Do what I command.” But the principle of faith says to the Lord, “Give what You command” [quoted by Luther, Works, 26:251]. In other words, I am bankrupt, helpless, and unable to do what You have commanded, so I rely upon You alone Lord. Follow Me! Yes, Lord, but I can only do so by You giving me grace to follow. Obey Me as My disciple. Yes, Lord, that’s what I desire but I can only do so by the grace that You provide. Live for Me. Yes, Lord, but I look to You for grace to do so because I have no power to do this on my own. That’s what faith does.
Ligon Duncan offered a good perspective on faith that I think is worth repeating for our benefit.
Yes, faith is something that we do. It’s an act that we do as humans. But, as an act it is in its essence essentially focused not on us and not on our works, it’s focused on someone else. Faith is focused on another. In this case, God. Faith doesn’t look to what we do. It looks to what God does. Faith doesn’t put trust in ourselves, it puts trust in God. Faith doesn’t try and find strength from within, to stand before God as righteous, faith renounces our righteousness as filthy rags and looks to the righteousness of another, Jesus Christ [Duncan, p. 6].
Consider how faith is viewed in the Bible. (1) Saving faith is never viewed as a work (1:16-17). Saving faith is distinguished as faith that relies wholly upon God’s provision for justification through Christ alone. It is true that some people have faith in themselves—but that, by no means, is the kind of faith Paul refers to. That is human effort and human reliance with no saving virtue.
(2) Faith is “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29), and as such, one cannot boast about having saving faith while another does not. The faith to believe the gospel comes as a gift of God’s grace.
(3) Faith stands in contrast to works. That’s the whole point that Paul keeps driving home in this chapter and into the next two chapters. Justification takes place “by faith apart from works of the Law.” Though James demonstrates that “faith without works is dead,” he refers to the nature of saving faith bearing the fruit of works. Faith produces works. Works give evidence that faith is genuine (cf. James 2). Yet to aspire toward justification on the basis of works is folly since God never justifies by works. And it is a good thing that He doesn’t! Our works would never be enough to satisfy the divine justice. We could never work enough to remove the guilt of our sin.
(4) Faith cannot be a work because faith renounces self, renounces any personal merit before God, and turns from reliance on one’s ability to save himself. Faith declares, “I can do nothing to save myself; I can offer nothing to merit God’s forgiveness; I have nothing within me that is good and deserving of salvation.”
(5) Faith relies upon Christ alone for salvation. This means that faith looks outside of oneself for justification. Works does just the opposite: it looks within for justification.
(6) God never calls faith a work of righteousness or self-righteousness. Rather, as Paul explains, it is the principle or rule or system by which God grants to the believer what Christ has secured through His death and resurrection. It is the channel or means or conduit through which the divine provision of justification is received.
Paul summarizes his message in verse 28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” This leaves no other options for salvation. There are not several ways to “climb the mountain” to God. “We maintain” translates a word that means we reckon or we consider. It’s more intensive with the present tense showing that this is no fleeting idea or passing fancy of a particular age but rather that it is always true. It has always been and will always be that that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Let’s think about this verse a bit more.
When Wayne Herring preached his last sermon this past Sunday at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, he told me that one thing that he wanted to make sure before he left was that everyone was clear on the doctrine of justification. So before he preached his closing sermon he gave a fifteen minute reminder of justification. It’s not that the church had never heard of justification before! They had heard it preached quite often. But the doctrine is so essential to everything that is Christian, he wanted to review it one more time before his pastoral duties passed to another.
It is that important! So, though we’ve been looking at it the past few weeks, Paul brings it back up in this text; so we will do the same in our present study. Notice what we understand about justification in this context.
(1) No one will be justified by the works of the Law (3:20). God’s demand for perfect righteousness far outstrips human ability. And His demand for justice toward every transgression leaves us helpless to remove the guilt of our sin. So it is not our obedience that justifies us. It is the work of Christ on our behalf that God accepts as the grounds of our justification.
(2) God is the one who justifies sinners who believe in Christ. Paul calls it, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Verse 28 utilizes a “divine passive” to further express this truth that it is God that justifies.
(3) Justification is “a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). As a gift of God’s grace then it is not through our efforts or due to our persuading God to give it. By pure sovereign grace, God gives justification as a gift.
(4) Justification takes place on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work. We don’t do the work; it is Christ alone. For God to justify even one sinner required that His justice be satisfied on behalf of that sinner, it required that His wrath be averted from that sinner, and it required the sinner’s deliverance from bondage to his sin. Christ did all of that for us through His bloody death at the cross (3:24-25).
(5) Justification is no secret act; God demonstrated His eternal justice in justifying sinners by the public death of His Son on our behalf (3:26).
(6) Justification is only applied by faith (3:28). The sinner responds to the provision of God in the gospel through faith. Faith, as we noted earlier, involves self-renunciation on one hand, and reliance on Christ alone on the other. So we do not look within for our justification; we look outside ourselves to Christ crucified for us [I was helped in thinking through on this by Ligon Duncan’s exposition, pp. 4-5].
One of the great “solas” of the Reformation is sola fide or faith alone. Luther, following Origen, Chrysostom, Basil, Aquinas, and others, clarified what was meant by faith in Christ by adding “alone.” Doug Moo points out that this “brings out the true sense intended by Paul,” adding, “A serious erosion of the full significance of Paul’s gospel occurs if we soften this antithesis; no works, whatever their nature or their motivation, can play any part in making a sinner right with God” [250-251]. That’s the meaning of verse 28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith [alone] apart from works of the Law.” The reason that word alone was added was due to the confusion generated by Catholicism. A Catholic would agree that we are justified by faith—but he doesn’t stop there. He adds merits and works to this justification so that what Christ has done is not enough. Yet in our day, it’s not just Catholics that do this. Baptists do it too (e.g., “If you will just come down this aisle you will be saved”); so do other mainline denominations—not necessarily in their confessions but in the practical way that they work it out in their preaching and teaching. We must not waffle at this point. If we think that something must be added to what Christ has done then we do not consider Him a sufficient Savior nor do we consider His work to be effective. Faith casts aside everything but Christ and His sufficiency for justification.
The problem that each of us face from time to time is falling back into reliance on the flesh. As soon as we do, legalism claims a stake in our lives, assurance fades, we scramble to make Scripture compatible with our experience, joy is sapped, and peace is robbed. So this text is not just for those among us who have yet to trust in Christ. It’s for every believer, too. Here is the call to rest in Christ alone.
“But my sin is a problem!” Yes, it is a struggle that you face but not for your justification. God is not gauging your performance to decide if He will finally justify you. He looks only to the sufficient death of His Son on your behalf. That’s where you must look as well.
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