Credited as Righteous: In Defense of Justification Sola Fide

 

“By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” (Anon, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, IX)

In these few, glorious sentences, a second-century Christian writer expresses amazement that God would save sinners such as we through the atonement of His Son. Echoing the awe recorded by the Apostles in Holy Scripture, this anonymous author seeks to describe that great, even sweet and unsearchable exchange of the Gospel, and his words rightly have the tone of a doxology. To doxology, from the Greek word for glory, is precisely where the Gospel should lead redeemed sinners. It is indeed the best of news that our holy God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things, stepped down into His creation through the Son in order to take upon Himself the just penalty for our sins and reconcile us to God, and He applies this redemption to us by His Spirit and guarantees that we will dwell in worshipful communion with Him forever; “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV). God’s glory is the ultimate purpose for all His works, and nowhere is God’s glory more clearly seen to fallen sons of Adam than in His free, gracious redemption of undeserving rebels such as we are (c.f. Ephesians 2:1-9).

However, because we are rebellious sinners at heart, bent toward evil, we must take special care not to let our worldly thinking steal even an iota of that glory of God in redemption by giving an occasion for our own boasting. We must be careful to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name,” lest we be as Job’s miserable comforters of whom God said, “For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Psalm 29:2, Job 42:8, respectively). When it comes to the particulars of redemption, it is all too easy for us to “[exchange] the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). God will not give His glory to another, and yet glory is the one thing that sinners want to steal from Him (c.f. Isaiah 48:11). This is the heart of all our idolatry. If our doctrines about God’s works, including His gracious work of redemption, are expressed in a way that minimizes (or fails to maximize) the eternal glorification of Himself in all His works, then we ought to question whether our doctrines speak rightly about God or are influenced by our own inclination toward idolatry. It is my argument that the Protestant formulation of how God justifies sinners by faith alone (Sola Fide) is consistent with the teaching of Scripture and does not diminish God’s eternal purpose to glorify Himself in all His works.

Defining Sola Fide—What is it not?

To understand the necessity for a precise formulation of the doctrine of justification, it is helpful to understand the traditional Roman Catholic position. How can a sinner be justified in God’s sight? The answer to this question, along with the definitions of the words, has divided Catholics and Protestants for roughly 500 years. What is the Catholic doctrine of justification against which the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide stands irreconcilable?

As to what justification is and does, the official catechism, echoing the teaching of the Council of Trent (1547 A.D.), teaches: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man,” and, “It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from nos. 1989, 1992). So, the Catholic doctrine of justification encapsulates the sinner’s initial change in standing before God, and the various aspects of his sanctification, including his transformation into an inwardly just (righteous) individual.

As to the basis or ground of justification, the same catechism also states, “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from no. 1992). The emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the basis upon which men are justified is encouraging. Complicating the matter, however, this ground of justification is said to have been accomplished for all men, including both the elect and the reprobate.

How then does this universal ground of justification interact with the result of a limited number of justified sinners? In other words, how is a sinner justified before God? The same catechism elaborates, “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith,” and “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part, it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, from nos. 1992, 1993). In working together with God (synergism) toward justification, man responds to God’s grace in faith and is baptized. It should be observed that this doctrinal expression does not merely link God’s grace, faith, and baptism as necessary or inevitable elements of salvation, but it mixes them together under the biblical term “justification.” The way this doctrine is expressed will certainly influence not only how the Catholic understands the Scripture but also how he understands his own standing before God. Can man truly stand justified before God through a synergistic mixing of faith plus works as a response to God’s grace? The protest of the Protestant is that such a system steals God’s glory from salvation.

Defining Sola Fide—What is it?

Arguably one of the clearest and most concise confessional expressions of the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was penned by the assembly of divines at Westminster Chapel in 1647: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone” (WLC 70).

As to what justification is and does, this definition explains it as an act (a judicial act) of God that results in the pardoning of sins and the accepting of these pardoned sinners as righteous in His sight. Rather than encompassing the whole of salvation (sanctification, etc.), this doctrine is very limited in scope. Justification is a one-time declaration of God resulting in a change of standing before Him. This declaration of God points most emphatically to the basis upon which it is made: Christ’s atonement.

This definition is careful to limit its description of the ground of justification to the work of Christ. It specifically details the two aspects of Christ’s work upon which justification rests: His perfect obedience and His full satisfaction of God’s righteous law. A. A. Hodge comments on this imputed righteousness: “Our sins are said to have been laid upon Christ (Isa. liii. 6, 12; Gal. iii. 13; Heb. ix; 28; 1 Pet. ii. 24), because their guilt was so charged to his account that they were justly punished in him. In like manner, Christ’s righteousness is imputed or its rewardableness is so credited to the believer that all the covenanted honours and rewards of a perfect righteousness henceforth rightly belong to him. Rom. iv. 4-8; 2 Cor. v. 19-21.”[1] Furthermore, Christ’s position as the ground of justification is exclusive, which is why the catechism’s definition explicitly denies “anything wrought in them, or done by them” (WLC 70). Christ alone is savior of sinners, and his atoning sacrifice is sufficient to save them.

As to how one is so justified before God, this Protestant definition is further distinguished from the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine. Justification is described as an “act of God’s free grace unto sinners,” and so it is a monergistic work of God on behalf of sinners. God alone is at work in justification. It is not a cooperative work between God and man. As Paul writes, “It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33b). As noted previously, justification is a judicial act of God. This means God acts as a judge, and that his act of justifying a sinner is a legal decision. Calvin writes, “Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.”[2] If there is a cooperation in justification, then, it is between God and Christ. God, the divine judge hears the intercession of Christ, and based on Christ’s righteousness, He “reckons” the sinner as righteous (just).

Justification is also described in the catechism’s definition as being “received by faith alone.” Faith is not the basis of justification, but rather the instrument that receives it. On this subject, Calvin writes, “For the reasoning is similar: namely, that faith, even though of itself it is of no worth or price, can justify us by bringing Christ, just as a pot crammed with money makes a man rich.”[3]  So the sinner is justified by faith alone, ultimately because the object of that faith is Christ, whose atoning sacrifice is sufficient to save them. God, the judge, freely pardons the sinner’s sin and imputes Christ’s righteousness to Him because of Christ’s work on his behalf.

Laying the Foundation—Sola Scriptura

Someone may object that the Roman Catholic Church has a long and rich tradition of teaching differently on the matters of justification, faith and works, etc. For the argument in defense of Sola Fide to be compelling, that is to transcend mere human preference or authority, the argument must be built on a foundation that is greater than creaturely authority. Unless we have the Creator’s word of assurance that we are saved by faith alone, as opposed to a mixture of faith and works, then we have no warrant to insist or even hold to the doctrine of Sola Fide. Without God’s word on the matter, we are left with mere assertions built upon a creaturely foundation of human authority. An essential distinction at the heart of the Reformation is that between what is by nature of God and what is by nature of His creatures. This distinction is illustrated in what is called the formal principle of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura.

While a doctrine or tradition may have a longstanding history in the church’s teaching and practice, this historical adherence is not a sufficient ground to bind men’s consciences. As Jesus taught in the great commission, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” the church of God is called by God to exhort men to obey God (Matthew 28:20). Unless justification sola fide can be firmly established from Scripture, the church cannot declare this doctrine to be from God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). The Scriptures are breathed out by God (who is, by nature, divine), and thus are profitable for teaching, etc. The purpose of these profitable Scriptures being breathed out by God is so that the man of God would be made complete (“competent,” NIV) and equipped for every good work. If faith, repentance, baptism, and the like are all good works, then the Scriptures are sufficient for infallibly communicating these doctrines because of their nature as divine (“breathed out by God”). It is on this divinely inspired foundation of Scripture alone that a compelling, God-honoring, and conscience-binding argument for or against justification sola fide can be built.

Demonstrating Sola Fide—Old Testament Roots

Given the Protestant’s foundational principle of the sufficiency of Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, the only way to demonstrate or prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone is to turn to the Scriptures themselves. In the previously defined doctrine of justification, the Protestant position uses language that emphatically insists that justification is a judicial act of God. This contrasts with the Roman Catholic position, which uses language that stresses justification as an inward transformation. The idea of justification as a term occupying the semantic domain of a judge’s act in a courtroom is present within the word’s usage in the Scriptures. Before tackling Paul’s key New Testament argument for justification by faith alone, a look at the Old Testament usage of the Hebrew and Greek words for “justification” will help to provide the scriptural background for Paul and other New Testament writers’ usage of this term.

In his study of the doctrine of justification, James White points out that there is a link (via translation) between the Old Testament’s Hebrew and the Septuagint’s Greek word typically translated into English as “just” or “righteous.”[4] This Greek word (dikaion) used throughout the Septuagint to translate the original Hebrew (tzaddiq) is significant to explore because this is the same word that Paul uses to establish His doctrine of justification in Romans and elsewhere. Drawing on this translational link, Mark Seifrid compares the Old Testament teaching about justifying the ungodly with Paul’s argument about Abraham’s justification, “God alone justifies the ungodly—an act that he expressly forbids human beings (Exod. 23:7; Prov. 17:15; 24:24–25; Isa. 5:23; cf. Mark 2:7b: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”). Yet, as God, he acts in this very manner…”[5] Here, Seifrid refers to key examples of justification in the Old Testament that demonstrate certain patterns of use. These contextual patterns shed light on Paul’s understanding of such words as “just” and “justify.” In Exodus 23:7, God lays down the principle to not pervert justice so as not to punish the innocent, most especially by putting him to death. His reason is, “for I will not justify the wicked” (NET).  Literally, “I will not make righteous [i.e., deem righteous, justify, pronounce innocent] a guilty person.”[6] Whatever “justify” or “make righteous” may mean here, it does not make sense to mean “renewal of the inner man” as the Roman Catholic Catechism defines the doctrine of justification (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1989). In fact, the use of “justify” in this verse sounds much more like that described in the Protestant definition, that God “accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight” (WLC 70). The legal declaration of a righteous judge will reflect God’s standard by not perverting justice, because God will not accept or account a wicked person as not wicked in His sight.

Likewise, Proverbs 17:15 repeats the judicial principle laid out in Exodus 23: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” It is a perversion of justice to declare a wicked person to be just (not wicked). It is beyond the range of possibilities for this verse to teach that a man could transform a wicked person into a righteous person. This same principle is presented in Proverbs 24:24-25. In Isaiah 5:23, the prophet pronounces a woe upon those “who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” Again, it is clear that the usage of the Old Testament word for justify (or acquit) carries the meaning of a judge’s pronouncement that one is just, not the meaning of a renewal of the inner man.

But if Paul is arguing that the wicked are justified by faith, and if the meaning of “justify” carries over from the Old Testament usage, then is not God acting wickedly just as He said not to do in the aforementioned verses? Commenting on the Exodus 23:7 passage, James White writes: “God is saying He will not declare a wicked man to be righteous, for such would be a perversion of justice. God does not do this in justification by faith, either: Christ’s substitutionary death is the sole basis of his declaration.”[7] When God determined for His own glory to justify sinners, He did not simply decide to be nice and relax His moral standard (which would make Him unjust), He forged a way through the atoning blood of His own Son: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Demonstrating Sola Fide—Paul’s Case to the Romans

With this background of the Old Testament’s usage of justification, Paul’s case for justification by faith alone in Romans falls into place. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul incontrovertibly establishes that all men, both Jews and Gentiles, are sinners and therefore justly fallen under God’s condemnation. By the time he gets to 3:19-20, his case against all mankind is so solid that he concludes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20a). Again, following Old Testament precedent, “will be justified” is rightly understood “will be accounted righteous.” Because all men are sinners, and no one is truly righteous, God will not count them righteous based on their attempt to live righteously. To do so would be for God to commit injustice. But this is not good news at all. Everyone is under God’s wrath, and there is nothing that can be done about it.[8] Paul has successfully made a straight path in the wilderness, paving the way for the Good News to be proclaimed beginning in the next verses.

Now that every mouth has been shut, Paul proclaims the Gospel of justification in God’s sight by faith alone. Now, he says that God’s righteousness has been revealed, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). Paul describes this righteousness that is through faith as the revealed “righteousness of God” (3:21). Murray suggests that this righteousness revealed in Christ is to be understood as a “God-righteousness” that finds its origin in God, is pleasing to God, and is effectual to save the elect.[9] This “God-righteousness” is through faith in Jesus Christ, and it is for all who believe. Faith is the instrument, and Christ is the basis.

In verse 24, Paul comes to the high point of his presentation of the Gospel. He says that those sinners who are justified, “are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24). First he says that God justifies by His grace. There is nothing that men have done to earn this justification, but rather justification is one of the “gracious dispensations” of God, one of His “(undeserved) gifts to men.”[10] Perhaps it seems redundant, but justification is not only by God’s grace, it is so as a gift (“justified freely,” NET). Justification is both undeserved and freely given by God. The basis upon which all this rests is Christ’s redemption and nothing else. In the following verse, Paul hones in on that redemption in Christ, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25a). Again, there is lacking any notion of mixing faith with works to participate in or cooperate with God in His accomplishment of our justification.

F. Bruce summarizes Paul’s careful use of language in verses 24 and 25 by stating, “Paul has thus pressed into service the language of the law-court (‘justified’), the slave-market (‘redemption’) and the altar (‘expiation’, ‘atoning sacrifice’) in the attempt to do justice to the fullness of  God’s gracious act in Christ.”[11]So in this incredibly short space, Paul argues for how man may be accounted righteous before God (Romans 3:24), how man has been redeemed from slavery to sin in Christ (3:24), and how man is reconciled to God through the satisfaction of God’s demands in the work of Christ (3:25). All these elements work together, according to verse 26, so that God, “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

Finally, the reader of Paul’s epistle can begin to see how it is that the same God who declares it an abomination to justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15) can justify the one who has faith apart from any prior conformity to God’s law within the individual (“apart from works of the law,” 3:28). God forgives sins and counts righteous solely on the ground of Christ’s atonement, and this gift of God can only be received by trusting in Christ alone for what He has done. Paul illustrates this principle citing two prominent Old Testament witnesses, Abraham and David. In the case of Abraham, “[he] believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3b, citing Genesis 15:6). Considering Paul has labored for three full chapters to establish the legal context of mankind before God, it is not surprising that the language of this citation also reflects God’s judicial act of justifying Abraham apart from a basis of Abraham’s works. Paul also appeals to David’s own writing where he concludes, “‘blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin’” (Romans 4:8, citing Psalm 32:2). As he presents the principle at work in these examples, Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5 NET). In other words, if ungodly sinners are going to be declared righteous by God, then it will be through faith and not through works. Otherwise, justification would be earned and not a gift.

Defending Sola Fide—The doers of the law will be justified

Rejecting justification by faith alone, Richard White argues for the Roman Catholic position, “This faith is not opposed to good works but includes them, for it is only ‘the doers of the law who will be justified’ (Rom. 2:13).”[12] [13] According to Mr. White, Paul is laying down a principle according to which we must join good works with faith in order to be justified before God.

But how can this be Paul’s true intention here? If by this statement in 2:13, Paul is communicating justification by faith plus or involving works, then he would be setting himself up for self contradiction in later chapters, as is most clearly illustrated in 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…” (3:20a).[14] Paul is not here establishing a doctrine of justification by faith plus works, but rather teaching the Jews in his audience that simply having God’s law will not save them. This line of reasoning is echoed by F. F. Bruce, who writes, “The course of his argument goes on to indicate that, while one who was a ‘doer’ of the law would be justified, yet, since no-one does it perfectly, there is no justification that way.”[15]Walking through Paul’s flow of argument in the first chapters of Romans will further shed light on the “doers of the law” statement in Romans 2:13.

Throughout Romans 1, Paul establishes the universal sinfulness of man, explaining and appealing to “…all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18b). In chapter 2, he focuses on the Jews to demonstrate that even they are not righteous in God’s sight simply becuase they possess God’s Law.[16] The arguments of both chapters reach their climax in chapter 3:9-20, where Paul lays out a relentless succession of Old Testament quotations proving that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20).

Thus, by demonstrating that all men seeking to justify themselves are unrighteous in God’s sight, Paul prepares the way for the Gospel of justification by faith apart from works. This preparation is “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19b). James White comments on the effects of this stopping of every mouth, “As long as the mouth is left open, the gospel cannot be proclaimed, for it only has meaning for those whose mouth has been closed in utter and complete agreement with God on the matter of sin and its judgment.”[17] Quite simply, if doing the law is the standard by which man is judged, then no one will be justified. Paul lays all this out to point his audience to “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” since Christ is the only one who may truly be described as a “doer of the law” (Romans 3:22a).

Practicing Sola Fide—What difference does it make?

The single greatest practical implication of this doctrine of justification by faith alone is made explicit by Paul himself, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Because our trust is not in our own works or ability to cooperate with God, but rather in “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” we can have confidence both for this life and for that which is to come (Hebrews 12:2). Knowing that we are justified in God’s sight, not by our own works but by faith alone in Christ’s work alone for God’s glory alone, we are freed up to live our lives for God, for true faith will never remain alone. As David wrote, “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2). Truly, the Christian is blessed, and with this happy lot, he may live out his life endeavoring after new obedience, rejoicing and shouting for joy in confidence of God’s love in Christ as David concludes, “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalms 32:11).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anon. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. Edited by Philip Schaff. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I. electronic ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, originally 1885. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iii.i.html. (accessed November 23, 2016).

Bauer, W., Arndt, W., Gingrich, F.W., and Danker, F.W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Second ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Bruce, F. F. Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Hendriksen, William. Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Baker New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1981.

Hodge, Archibald Alexander. A Commentary on The Confession of Faith. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869.

Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Seifrid, Mark A. “Romans” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. 2007. pages 607-694.

Silva, Moisés, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. 2nd; Accordance electronic ed., version 1.3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

White, James R. The God Who Justifies. Kindle ed. Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2001.

White, Richard A. “Justification as Divine Sonship: Is ‘Faith Alone’ Justifiable?” in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Edited by Scott Hahn and Leon Suprenant. Kindle ed. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 1998. pages 94-112.


[1] Hodge, A., A Commentary on The Confession of Faith, page 251.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.3.

[3] ibid., 3.11.7.

[4] White writes: “In Hebrew,  צַרּיק, and very importantly in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which was the Bible of the New Testament church), known as the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX), δίκαὶον” (White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 92).

[5] Seifrid, “Romans”, page 623.

[6] Moises Silva, on “righteous” and “justify” in Exodus 23:7. Silva’s full comments are, “The legal aspect is esp. clear from a passage such as Exod 23:7, where God warns the Israelites not to execute ‘the innocent and the righteous’ (נָקִי וְצַדִּיק, LXX ἀθῶον καὶ δίκαιον), an admonition reinforced by the words, ‘for I will not acquit the guilty’ (‏לֹא־אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע, lit., ‘I will not make righteous [i.e., deem righteous, justify, pronounce innocent] a guilty person’; the noun רָשָׁע H8401 describes someone who has transgressed the law or is guilty of a crime; it can also refer more generally to a wicked or impious person)” (NIDNTTE, s.v. “ Δ,” 1:727).

[7] White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 77.

[8] William Hendriksen accurately summarizes the consequence of man’s position before God as a sinner in His sight: “Only one conclusion is possible therefore. His condition is one of thorough hopelessness and despair. And the law, with its demand of nothing less than moral and spiritual perfection (cf. Lev. 19:2), a state to which man, in his own power, can never attain, creates in him a dreadful, mortifying sense of sin; hence, a presentiment of doom, total and everlasting” (Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, page 125).

[9] Speaking of Paul’s first mention of this righteousness (Romans 1:17), Murray writes, “Yet it is so intimately related  to God that it is a righteousness of divine property and characterized by divine qualities. It is a ‘God-righteousness’. Because it is such, God is its author; it is a righteousness that must elicit the divine approval; it is a righteousness that meets all the demands of his justice and therefore avails before God. But the particular emphasis rests upon its divine property and is therefore contrasted not only with human unrighteousness but with human righteousness” (Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, pages 30-31).

[10] BAGD, page 877.

[11] Bruce, F. F. Romans, page 113.

[12] White, R., “Justification”, 108.

[13] Richard White provides an elaborated explanation of the meaning of justification and the relationship between works and faith in becoming justified that is helpful for better understanding the Roman Catholic perspective: “First, the gift of divine sonship which is justification is a real participation in Christ’s sonship and the life of the Trinity. Thus, we are not only declared sons and daughters of God, but are actually made such, in our very being. Second, justification is totally gratuitous. We cannot earn God’s justifying grace any more than a child can earn his birth. And finally, once the child is born, he is expected to grow in maturity, and what he does actually affects his standing in the family. This holds true for our standing in God’s family too. So through grace we not only have faith but do good works in love. This is not ‘works righteousness’ (the idea that we can earn our salvation) or justification by faith alone (the Protestant view), but ‘faith working in love’” (White, R., “Justification”, page 96, emphasis added).

[14] John Murray addresses this apparent contradiction, and provides a helpful corrective: “It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters…The burden of this verse is that not the hearers or mere possessors of the law will be justified before God but that in terms of the law the criterion is doing, not hearing” (Murray, John, The Epistle to the Romans, page 71).

[15] Bruce, F. F. Romans, page 96.

[16] Paul seems to devote this specific line of argumentation to the Jews because of their historical and theological background as the national people of God in the Old Covenant. They were “entrusted with the oracles of God,” and were prone to “boast in the law” as though they indeed found righteousness before God through the keeping of that Law (Romans 3:2, 2:23, respectively). Paul’s use of the phrase “the Jew first and also the Greek” seems especially placed to show that not only the Gentiles, but even the Jewish people are in sin and under God’s wrath apart from Christ; this phrase is taken up by Paul in the sentences immediately preceding the “doers of the law” passage in Romans 2:13 (c.f. 2:9, 2:10).

[17] White, J., The God Who Justifies, page 48.


Written by Todd Whitford
For Dr. Stephen Anderson’s Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies
Reformed Theological Seminary
December 1, 2016