Held Accountable to God under the Law

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“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.

“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. For there is no distinction: 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, 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. 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.

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:19-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

No slogan summarizes Reformation theology as well as the one drawn from our text: Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was the motto upon which all the doctrines and beliefs of the Reformation stood. It was the very fortification and foundation upon which nearly half of the Western world at that time staked their lives and, indeed, upon which many lost their lives. Justification mattered so deeply. It was a matter of life and death. Heaven and Hell. The chief article of our faith. It must be preached and taught that way.

Especially today.

Because today it seems irrelevant. Few care about or discuss or even preach justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is seen as a nitpicking, dull, divisive dogma that went out of style with the advent of megachurches and religious subjectivism. Simply put, the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is immaterial to American Christianity since many believers seem more concerned about having a better life now than following the doctrines of the Christian faith.

Sadly, it does not occur to people today that they might be justified, or even need to be justified before God, much less to consider how they might be justified. So the Romans Paul was addressing and all whom Luther was addressing in the 16th century, do not seem to be the same people we encounter today, the same people who purchase Joel Osteen’s book by the millions to find out how to live their best life now, or who hang on Oprah’s every word about how you can “be the change” you need to have a better life. In modern American Christianity, there is nothing at all about justification, unless you include self-justification.

What does it mean to be justified? It means to “to be put right,” “to be lined up straight.” Think of a newspaper, magazine, or even a Bible, where the text of each column or page lines up precisely on both the left and right margins. The text is justified, set straight, put right. For a person to be justified it means that they are put right with God. They are set straight and nothing in the person’s life—as far as the judgment of God is concerned—is out of place. They are justified in His sight.

In the days of Jesus’ earthly life, people understood the need to be justified before God. “Justification” was the foremost concern of the Jewish people. All too aware that their lives were not right (not where it counted in the eyes of an all-seeing and holy God), they did everything to put themselves right, to “justify” themselves. Some, like the Pharisees, added their own “traditions,” hundreds of rules and regulations to make sure they could keep God’s law.

In saying, “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 accountable to God,” the apostle proceeds to his logical conclusion by what we might call an argument “from the greater to the lesser.” Paul reasons: If even God’s chosen people, with all their advantages, have no inherent or earned righteousness, then certainly no one else can have any either.

Paul makes an important point regarding the law, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight.” No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by doing law works of any kind. It makes no difference which legal pattern people may choose to be under, whether it be Gentiles following the natural knowledge written in their hearts or Jews observing the Mosaic code. Neither group has any righteousness to offer at God’s bar of justice.

In fact, Paul goes even further when he declares that providing righteousness for people is not the law’s real function. It serves quite another purpose. He writes “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law’s most notable function is to lead to an awareness of sin.

Here’s our dilemma: We are all held accountable to God under the law. The standard is perfection. But not one of us can keep it perfectly as the law requires. We are all law-breaking sinners. Sinners cannot provide the righteousness a holy God justly requires. We can try, but never get there. Acquiring such righteousness is possible only by the grace of a loving God, who gives righteousness freely as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. This exchange whereby God takes away the guilt of our sins and credits us with the righteousness of Christ is called justification.

How is one justified? “One is justified by faith apart from works of law.” The standard is perfection. Perfection never comes from law because it is a mirror of those who are imperfect and a lot worse in every way. Faith however brings perfection—the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus for all who believe.

Faith, in the sense of trust and confidence in God’s promise, is the channel  through which righteousness comes to the believer. Or, to use a slightly different picture, faith is the hand that receives this righteousness from God.

Righteousness comes in only one way, and it comes in the same way to all: by faith. When Paul says, “to all who believe,” he is not limiting the scope of God’s righteousness, as though it is intended only for some and not for others. Paul stated earlier that God shows no favoritism in dealing with sinners. Those who are disobedient (which is everyone, Jew and Gentle alike) are under His wrath. But that same impartiality also shows itself when God deals with people in grace and mercy. In that aspect of God’s dealing “there is no difference” as well.

How can he say that? On what does he base his statement? By inspiration the apostle supplies the rationale for his bold assertion: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift.”

God justifies (declares people righteous) “by His grace as a gift.” Because no person has any merit to bring, justification must come as a gift. Being declared just is something that is done to or for the sinner. It’s not something he does for himself. Therefore, receiving justification as a gift is the only way justification works—and that’s also the way it always works.

When Paul says that all are justified, we need to be careful, however, not to understand him, as though he were saying that all will be saved. That would be the false teaching of universalism. Natural man, wicked sinner that he is, retains the power to resist God’s grace. In their stubborn unbelief, many people unfortunately refuse to accept Christ’s merit, and they will be lost for their unbelief.

This has far-reaching implications. Think of what it implies for you personally. If all sinners are justified, then surely you are too—despite all the sins and shortcomings that Satan argues should disqualify you. Because “there is no difference,” God assures you that His grace is for all, including you.

Objective justification has great significance also for our outreach and evangelism efforts. If all have been justified, then there is no one to whom you cannot go with the Gospel’s good news. You can tell anyone and everyone, “Your sins are forgiven by Christ’s substitutionary death. He has earned a robe of righteousness for you. It’s there for you. Accept it; believe it.

God’s motive for justifying sinners is mercy; His method is redemption, a word that means to buy back, especially from slavery or debt or captivity. The purchase price is greater than one can raise on his own. Somebody on the outside must step in and help if there is to be rescue. And that is exactly what God did! He provided “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

God is a holy God who can’t just wink at sins and dismiss the sinner’s many infractions as if they didn’t matter. Sinners must be held accountable to God under the law. God, in His Word, is clear and direct on that matter: “The wages of sin is death.” Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Sin carries a heavy price that had to be paid—and it was! God sent His very own Son to be the substitute to die in our place. Christ became true man so that He might shed His blood as a sacrifice and die the sinner’s death, or as Paul puts it, “who God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”

The apostle’s terminology here reflects the activity God had directed Israel to observe annually on the great Day of Atonement. God commanded this festival as a graphic reminder of Israel’s need to confess its sins, be sprinkled with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, and then symbolically transfer those sins to a scapegoat that was driven out in the wilderness, bearing away the sins of the people. God’s intent was to remind Israel of its need for a Savior and to strengthen in them a longing for the promised Messiah, the Redeemer, who would do for them literally what was being enacted symbolically: shedding His blood for the propitiation, for the forgiveness of His people’s sins.

In Christ, justice has been served. Without compromising His integrity as a just and holy God, the Father shows kindness to redeemed sinners, whose guilt has been pardoned and whose debt has been paid. In Christ, God can see the sinner as just and holy. In Christ, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone.

Here is the Good News of the Gospel, the Good News of Paul to Jew and Gentile alike, the Good News of Martin Luther to sinners who must be justified before the Almighty Judge. God Himself was in Christ, not as a judge but as a Servant, accomplishing the work of putting us right. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, God had come to us as a loving Father making us justified by faith in what He has accomplished on our behalf through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, His Son.

Paul says, “One is justified by faith in what God has done for us, apart from works of the law.” So it is that the religions of the world labor with half the truth. All seem to know the human life needs to be put right. The Buddhist tries to make it so through ascetic living, the Muslim by rigorous adherence to Shariah law, the Jew by obeying Torah Law, the Mormon by a legalistic sub-culture and the fundamentalists and charismatics and papists by doing this, not doing that, having this gift and exercising it this way and that, and so on and so on. All know the human life needs to be put right. None seem to know how this can happen apart from works of their own laws, from their own new and improved techniques.

It seems the Law is written on our hearts by nature and we crave the hidden techniques for self-enhancing, self-justification. But the Gospel of being freely justified by grace is totally foreign to us. This is why it must be preached, why someone must declare: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” There is no other way.

The quest for being right has never left us through all our modern, technological developments. Still the answer remains unchanged, too. We can be right, only apart from the works of law. It is for Christ’s sake, not because our failure is trivial and does not matter, but because Jesus has dealt with it once and for all bearing our sins in His body and nailing them to the tree of the Cross. God dealt with our sins so we could be justified while yet sinners. And justification is through faith, by believing in Jesus Christ who was held accountable to God under the law for the sins of the world—your sins, my sins.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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