What Does it Mean to be Justified by Grace?

R.C. Bell once wrote, “If you get Romans, then God gets you.” This sentiment hints at the power that the Lord works through the masterpiece of Paul’s most prominent epistle. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that no letter has impacted Christian doctrine more within the last 500. It was during his study of Romans that Martin Luther was inspired by a fresh understanding of salvation, grace, and faith, creating the catalyst for the Reformation Movement. Yet, what does it mean to be justified by grace? Within Romans, Paul answers that question by putting a microscope to the gospel as he meticulously lays out every nuance of God’s work of salvation.

He begins by informing us that grace has been received with a purpose:

“Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”—Romans 1:5

This is one of the thesis statements of Romans: God gives us grace, to receive by faith, the natural outworking of which is obedience. Yet, God doesn’t save us for the sake of saving us; it is for “the sake of his name among all the nations.” Paul emphasizes this in 3:26 when he says God saves us “to show his righteousness.” So, whatever occurs in our justification, it results in the praise of God’s name. We will come back to this later.

But first, what is justification and why is it needed? This word has its roots in legal terminology. When a judge gives a sentence of condemnation for a crime, the perpetrator may attempt to justify his actions by giving excuses or proclaiming his past honorable deeds. He tries to “make things right” in order to receive a sentence of innocence instead of guilt. The problem is that excuses don’t nullify wicked deeds (every person in prison could justify their actions because they were raised in a harsh environment, got a tough break, etc.), nor does past virtue keep us from current crimes (try getting out of a ticket by explaining to the officer you paid your taxes). Once the sentence is given, the punishment is often carried out.

This brings us to humanity’s plight: we are under the sentence of God’s wrathful judgment due to our wickedness. Paul makes this abundantly clear within the first two chapters of the epistle:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”—1:18

“Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”—1:32

“We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?”— 2:2-3

“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his work”— 2:5-6

“On that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”—2:16

Paul’s conclusion is that all of humanity is under the condemnation of God’s judgment because of sin:

“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.”—3:9

We now know the problem, but what is the solution? How can we “make things right” and be justified? In other words, how can we escape the wrath and judgment of God? As we begin reading chapter two it seems we discover the solution:

“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”—2:13

So, if I keep the law and do good, then I can make things right and escape God’s judgment. The law in this context is specifically referencing the Law of Moses (although there is another law we will reference in a moment). This seems like a reasonable conclusion until you read 3:19-20:

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Paul’s point is this: you can’t be justified by the law because the law only condemns, it doesn’t save. Even if you kept the law from this point forward, it still wouldn’t undue the deeds of your past. He points this out in Galatians 3 as well.

Yet, maybe there is another solution. You keep reading and see that:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”—Romans 2:14-15

To sum up this solution: if I live a good life and have a good conscience, I can escape judgment. If I just do enough good things, then God will have to save me. This is justification through a different kind of law—the law of conscience. This is the prevailing view of many in the world. Recently I watched an interview in which the reporter took to the streets and asked, “Do you deserve to go to heaven?” The answer of most was “yes.” Their reasoning was that they were “good people” who hadn’t committed any major crimes. The problem with this solution is that Paul already showed that humanity doesn’t live by this innate ethic; we reject the knowledge of God and instead live for lies and lust (1:18-ff). We feel guilt because we do bad things. We even have a phrase as a witness to how often we fail: to err is human. This solution is bound to fail as well.

But, if we can’t be justified by keeping the law or following our conscience, how can we possibly hope to be saved? Impending doom is imminent. God’s judgment is coming, without anything to stop it—until God steps in Himself.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe—3:21-11

It is God who provides the means by which we are saved: the giving of His son as a “propitiation” (that which satisfies God’s judgment and wrath) for our sins (3:25). What motivates this movement of God’s hand? Grace.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”—Romans 3:23-24

It is God’s “unmerited favor” that saves us. He gives us what we couldn’t possibly deserve or earn, acting in abundant, steadfast love to save us from his judgment and wrath. Yet, how do we access the saving benefits of God’s grace through Jesus? We were already told at the beginning of the letter: “The righteous will live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). We are saved by grace, through faith (Eph. 2:8). This is what it means to be justified by grace.

The reality is that God is the one that “makes things right” and saves us from his sentence of wrath. This then brings us back to why salvation is “for the sake of His name” and to “declare his righteousness”: because the only one worthy of praise in this entire rescue mission is God (3:27). Grace is the fuel of praise. When we truly recognize what God has done in Jesus Christ, to save us from His judgment, the only reasonable response is worship.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”—Romans 7:25

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