Justification by Faith Alone was the cause of the Protestant Reformation of the church in the 16th Lentury, were thousands of Christians lost their lives holding true to this doctrine. It was known by its Latin term “sola fide” and was one the famous 5 Solas of the Reformation. Martin Luther said justification by faith alone was the article on which the church stands or falls. John Calvin said it was the hinge on which everything turns.
J.I. Packer compared it to Atlas, who the Greeks thought upheld the world. He said “[the doctrine of justification] by faith bears a whole world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of God the Saviour. The doctrines of election, of effectual calling, regeneration, and repentance, of adoption, of prayer, of the Church, the ministry, and the sacraments, are all to be interpreted and understood in the light of justification by faith, for this is how the Bible views them…when justification falls, true knowledge of God’s grace in human life falls with it. When Atlas loses his footing, everything that rested on his shoulders collapses too.”
The text in the Bible which best explains the doctrine of justification is in Romans 3, which marks a huge turning point in Paul’s letter. Before we get to that, let’s do a quick summary of the flow of Romans up to this point so we can see how big of a change this really is. After a long introduction in chapter 1, Paul trumpets the gospel when he says in Romans 1:16,17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ” BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”
But before he can unpack what this means, Paul needs to address why we even need the gospel in the first place. What is it about the human race that we need this thing called the gospel? Christians these days talk about “being saved”…being saved from what?
Paul tells us what we need to be saved from in 1:18-3:20. It’s the wrath of God against man’s unrighteousness. You can’t tell someone they need a Savior unless they first believe they are lost, unable to save themselves. This is why Paul goes into an indictment of the human race in these first 3 chapters, bringing all men into condemnation before the Holy throne of God. Romans 1:18-32 teaches us that all philosophies and man-made religions are founded in the rejection of their duty to honor and thank God the Creator. The consequence of this suppression of truth is being given over to sin. In the first half of chapter 2 you see the coming judgment of God on men in general, regardless of whether they have the law (the Jews) or they are without the Law (the Gentiles) because even the Gentiles have the law written naturally on their hearts, their consciences. Everyone, everywhere has some sense of right and wrong. Do you need the Ten Commandments to tell you murder is wrong? How about stealing? Adultery? Paul does all of this to make a point, that is that there is no salvation apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The condemnation of the Jews is continued in the first part of chapter 3. In the first 8 verses Paul starts off with a rapid-fire sequence of questions, going back and forth with an imaginary Jewish opponent. Then in vs. 9-20, Paul sums up the last 2 chapters of teaching on man’s condemnation before God. In this section, Paul accuses both Jews and Gentiles of “being under sin”. And just in case there is any doubt or someone thinks this a new idea Paul has, he now shows them through numerous quotes in the Old Testament that prove we are all unrighteous before God.
Outside of God’s saving grace “none are righteous, not even one.” Because no one is righteous, no one understands the things of God. Since no one understands the things of God, no one seeks after God. Only at the moment God regenerates a person do they begin to seek after Him. They’ve turned aside and can do nothing good in the eyes of God. Their own mouths and actions condemn them. The bottom line. “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” The point of all these OT quotes in chapter 3 is that no one, apart from God’s grace, can stand before the judgment of our Holy God. The mouth of the whole world is stopped and everyone is held accountable and without excuse. John Piper said about the first 3 chapters, “The Law of God has met with the rebellion of man; and the result is condemnation, not justification.”
The first 3 chapters of Romans is nothing but bad news for the human race. At this point an unbeliever hearing this letter read out loud from the beginning should be crying out like the Philippian jailer saying “what must I do to be saved?”
In the next post, we’ll look at the biggest pivot point in the Bible, the heart of the gospel.