In his great text on the doctrine of justification, Paul notes that it is acquired only by faith — “the righteousness of God [is] through faith in Jesus Christ.” He will reiterate the necessity of faith several times in this passage:
- God displayed Jesus Christ “publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (v. 25)
- “…so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26)
- “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (v. 28)
In fact, as Martin Luther translated verse 28, he wanted to distinguish what he believed that verse was teaching from the teaching of the Roman Catholic church that he rendered the middle part of the verse, “a man is justified by faith alone…” (my emphasis).
That emphasis points to the primary difference between Roman Catholicism and the teaching of the Reformers. Catholicism does affirm the necessity of faith by saying that one must believe in Christ to be saved, but that faith is not sufficient for salvation so it must be augmented by the righteous deeds of the believer in order to be justified. (Of course, Paul’s first three chapters of Romans affirm the inability of any man to be saved by his own righteousness; see his conclusion in 3:19-20.)
R. C. Sproul helpfully summarizes the doctrine of Roman Catholicism regarding the role of faith:
“Rome believes that a person cannot be justified apart from Christ, but neither can anyone be justified apart from his or her own righteousness…the righteousness that becomes the ground of someone’s justification is not the righteousness by which Christ himself obeyed the things of God; it is instead a righteousness that inheres within the believer. Unless or until true righteousness inheres within someone, God will not declare that person just.” [Preaching the Cross, 94-5.]
He’s right. To say that one is saved by faith is to say that one regards all his own works as empty, sinful, and vain and that he is utterly unable to save himself and he is wholly dependent on Christ’s work on the cross alone to save him. Faith is not only necessary for salvation, but it is sufficient for salvation (and justification). One must have faith to be declared righteous, and if he has faith, he is immediately justified.
Is this important and essential? As Leon Morris has noted, Romans 3:21-26 is not only an essential paragraph in the book of Romans, it “is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” Why is justification so very important? Again, Sproul offers a helpful answer:
According to the Roman view, a believer’s destiny is determined by the purity of his heart at the time of death. Even if the believer does not die in a state of impenitent mortal sin, there may be impurities on the soul, necessitating purgatory until the impurities are cleansed.
All of this is presented in the most recent Roman Catholic catechism. It states that if a believer has any impurities on his or her soul at the time of death, the believer will go to purgatory. The soul of the believer may be in purgatory for only a week if he or she is near to sainthood, but more likely the believer will remain there for several hundred years — perhaps even two million, three million, or four million years — until, in that place of purging, the believer is so cleansed from impurities that finally, when God looks at him or her, he sees an inherent righteousness.
Is that good news? It is actually the worst possible news we can hear. If someone told me that the only way I could get into the kingdom of heaven and be adopted into the family of God is to get rid of all the impurities in my soul, I would despair. So let me tell you what the good news is. I despair of my righteousness; I acknowledge my sin. I put my trust in Christ and Christ alone. And the good news is that at the very instant I do, all that Jesus is, and all that Jesus has, is mine, and for the rest of my days he has me covered. The Father looks beyond my impurities and all my sin, and he sees the cloak of the righteousness of Jesus. For that reason, I am justified not for today, not for this week, not until I commit another sin, bur for eternity. Is there any better news than that in the whole world?
Beloved, explaining the doctrine of justification by faith alone is really a simple matter. The doctrine is not difficult. In fact, the doctrine was always easy to teach to my seminary students. They understood it. Still, I warned them to be careful, because although they may grasp it in the head, it’s another matter completely to grasp it in the bloodstream. That is why we must have the doctrine of justification by faith alone preached over and over and over. At the front door of the church the enemy lies in wait to whisper in our ears as we walk across that threshold: ‘You have to make sure. Your merits count. Righteousness has got to be inherent, so you are going to lost your justification the next time you break the law.’ When I hear that, I rebuke him with the words of the apostle Paul: “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’ (Rom. 8:33-34). It is God who justifies. It is God who redeems the ungodly. Don’t move from that truth, no matter what comes. [Preaching the Cross, 100-1.]