6. Justification by Grace Alone

Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. ROMANS 3:23-24

To start at the beginning, let me ask right off whether this chapter title, “Justification by Grace Alone,” seems exactly right to you? If I had called it “Salvation by Grace Alone,” the title of the last chapter, there would be no problem. We all know (or should know) that people are saved by God’s grace only; it is what Ephesians 2 says clearly. Again, there would be no difficulty if I had called the chapter “Justification by Faith Alone.” We know that phrase. It was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther having called it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.

But “Justification by Grace Alone”? Is that really right? Isn’t it a confusion of terms?

The answer is that it is right, because it is only another way of saying what we are also saying by the other two statements. Salvation by grace alone, justification by grace alone, and justification by

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faith alone are really only three ways of stating the same great doctrine.

A full statement of the doctrine would be: “Justification by the grace of God alone received by faith alone, which is salvation.”

Justification is an act of God as judge by which he declares us to be in a right standing before him so far as his justice is concerned. We are not just in ourselves. So the only way in which we can be declared to be in a right standing before God is on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, he bearing our judgment, and by the application of Christ’s righteousness to us by God’s grace. This grace is received through the channel of human faith, but it is nevertheless by grace. It is the work of God, as we saw in our study of Ephesians chapter 1.

Justification by Grace

The text for this study is Romans 3:22-24, which says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” This is the only place in this chapter where the word grace occurs, but it is important, if for no other reason than because it is the first theological treatment of grace in the New Testament.

I pointed out earlier that the word grace is not mentioned at all in Matthew or Mark, once in Luke, and only three times in John. It occurs eleven times in Acts, but these passages are not theological. So Romans is the first New Testament book to consider the word theologically, and this is the first theological treatment of the word in Romans. Grace occurs before this only in 1:5 and 7. In Romans there are twenty-one occurrences in all.

These verses are going to tell us how we are saved. But I want you to note that they begin by telling us that we need saving.

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For a long time, whenever I came to Romans 3:23, I had the feeling that this verse was somehow in the wrong place. I did not think that Romans 3:23 was not true. Obviously it is. That is what chapters 1 and 2 and the first half of chapter 3 are about. They teach us that all have fallen short of God’s standard. Even worse, we have rebelled against it and are moving off in the opposite direction as fast as possible. It was not that. It was rather that I felt that verse 23 really belonged in that earlier section, perhaps at the end of chapter 1 or in the first part of chapter 3. It seemed to me to have somehow gotten into the wrong place in this later section of the chapter, which talks about salvation.

It is not in the wrong place, of course; I see that now. And the reason is that without it we will not really understand or appreciate God’s grace.

In one of his writings about grace Charles Haddon Spurgeon tells about a preacher from the north of England who went to call on a poor woman. He knew that she needed financial help. So with money from the church in his hand, he made his way through the poor section of the city where she lived, found her building, and climbed the four or five flights of stairs to her tiny attic apartment. He knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. Eventually he went away.

The next week he saw the woman in church and told her that he knew of her need and had been by to help her, but she was not at home.

“At what time did you call?” she asked.

“About noon,” he said.

“Oh dear,” she replied. “I was home and heard you knocking. But I did not answer. I thought it was the landlord calling for the rent.”

Spurgeon used that story as an illustration of grace, which it is. The preacher was trying to be gracious to the woman. But the reason I tell it here is to point out that we do not easily identify

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with the woman, though it is she in her need, rather than the preacher or anyone else, who actually represents our condition. As I told the story, isn’t it true that you most naturally saw yourself in the position of the preacher, climbing the four or five flights of stairs, knocking at the apartment door and then going away? You did not identify with the woman. In fact, you may even have been laughing at her simplicity, which shows that you were thinking of her in a quite different category from yourself. She was unable to pay the rent. We know people like that. We feel sorry for them. But we do not believe that this is our condition. We can pay. We pay here, and we suppose we will be able to pay our proper share of the bills in heaven.

Or to change the interpretation slightly, we bar the door, but we do it for a different reason. We are not afraid that God is coming to collect the rent. On the contrary, we fear that he is coming with grace, and we do not want to be one who accepts a handout.

Someone was trying to explain the gospel to an upper-crust English lady on one occasion, stressing that every human being is a sinner. She replied with some astonishment, “But ladies are not sinners!”

“Then who are?” the Christian asked her.

“Just young men in their foolish days,” was her answer.

Then the friend explained the gospel further, insisting that if she was to be saved, it would need to be by God’s grace. She would have to be saved exactly as her footman needed to be saved — by the unmerited grace of God justifying her on the basis of Jesus’ atonement.

She retorted, “Well, then, I will not be saved.”

If you are to be justified by the grace of God, which is what this verse is about, then you must begin by understanding that you are in need of salvation and that, if you receive it, it will be entirely by grace. And that means that as far as your standing

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before God is concerned, there is no difference between you and any other sinner: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Is Etymology Helpful?

But what exactly is justification? We know it is important since, as I pointed out earlier, Martin Luther called it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. John Calvin called it “the main hinge” upon which salvation turns. It was the chief doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. But what is it exactly? What does justification refer to?

One way to approach the meaning of theological terms is by etymology, that is, by the root meaning of the word or the word’s parts. Unfortunately, that is not only unhelpful in this case, it is misleading. This is because justification is made up of two Latin words: justus, meaning “just,” “fair,” “equitable,” or “proper,” and facio, meaning “to make” or “to do.” In English we use derivatives from the first word in the sphere of law, words like just, justice, and justify. The second word has given us such English words as factory, a place where things are made, and manufacture, which literally means “to make something by hand.”

When we put these meanings together to explain justification, we get something like “to make just or righteous.” But that is where the etymology becomes misleading. For justification does not mean “to be made righteous,” as if it somehow changed our moral makeup or enabled us to live righteous lives. It actually means to have attained a right standing before the law. And in the case of our salvation, that is achieved, not by any change in us, but by the work of Jesus Christ, which is credited to us.

We can understand this by imagining that someone is brought before a judge owing a lot of money. He is about to

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suffer an adverse judgment in which his property will be forfeited. (In ancient times the individual could have been sold into slavery for debt.) But now a benefactor enters the judge’s courtroom. “How much does my friend owe?” the new arrival asks.

“$350,000,” says the judge.

“I’ll pay that debt,” says the friend. So it is done. The debt is paid, the papers are signed, and the judge dismisses the case. The defendant is now in a right standing before the law. He did not pay the debt himself, but it has been paid, and that is all the law requires. The man who was on trial is free to go. In the same way, Jesus pays our debt and so gives us a right standing before the bar of God.

Another way of saying this is to point out that justification is the opposite of condemnation. When a judge condemns a criminal, perhaps to prison, he is not turning the man into a criminal. He is only declaring in an official setting that the prisoner does not stand in a right relationship to the law and must therefore suffer the law’s penalty. In the same way, justification does not mean that a sinner is somehow turned into one who is not a sinner, only that the sinner now stands in a right relationship to the law, and there is therefore now no penalty for that one. It is as Romans 8:1 states: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

But there is even more to justification than this. Justification is a two-part transaction. The first part is our sin being placed on Jesus Christ and being punished there, so that we do not have to be punished for it. The second part consists of his righteousness being placed to our account, so that we appear before God in his righteousness.

One of the great influences on my early life and ministry was Donald Grey Barnhouse, a former pastor of the church in Philadelphia I still serve. When Barnhouse was about fifteen years old, he heard the testimony of a man who had been a narcotics addict but who had been delivered from that life and had become

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a Christian minister. Barnhouse approached him and asked about his experience of Christ because he believed that the preacher had something he did not have, and the man gave him an object lesson that led to Barnhouse’s conversion.

The man took Barnhouse’s left hand, turned it palm upward, and then said intently, “This hand represents your sin. The weight of it is upon you. God hates sin, and his wrath must bear down against sin. Therefore, his wrath is bearing down upon you, and you have no peace in your heart or life.” It was a telling statement, and Barnhouse knew it was true.

Then he took the young man’s other hand and said, “This hand represents the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior. There is no sin upon him, and the Father must love him, because he is without spot or blemish. He is the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased.” There were Donald’s two hands, the one weighted down by the large book, and the other empty. Again he knew it was true. He had the sin, Jesus had none.

Then the older teacher put his hand under Barnhouse’s left hand and turned it over so that the book now came down upon the hand that earlier had been empty. He put the left hand back, it’s burden now transferred to the hand that stood for Jesus. He said, “This is what happened when the Lord Jesus Christ took your place on the cross. He was the Lamb of God, bearing away the sin of the world.”

While the hymnbook representing Barnhouse’s sin still rested upon the hand representing Jesus Christ, the preacher turned to his Bible and began to read verses that taught what he had illustrated:

First, 1 Peter 2:23-24: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.”

Then, Isaiah 53:4-6, the verses to which Peter was referring:

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Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

The preacher stopped reading and addressed the young man directly. “Whose sins were laid on Jesus?” he asked.

“Our sins,” he replied.

“Whose sins does that mean?” the preacher probed.

“Our sins,” came the same answer.

“Yes, but whose sins are those?”

“Well, everybody’s sins — your sins, my sins . . .”

The older man interrupted and caught the words almost before they were out of Barnhouse’s mouth. “My sins; yes, that’s it,” he said. “That’s what I want. Say it again.”

Barnhouse obeyed. “My sins,” he repeated.

The preacher then went back to Isaiah 53:6. He put the hymnbook back on Barnhouse’s left hand and pressed down upon it as he read, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” The pressure was strong. But then he turned the book and hand over once again, so that the burden was transferred to the hand that represented Jesus Christ, and he continued his reading: “and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Barnhouse understood it then, and he never forgot it. In fact, he used that same illustration to teach many others about justification and lead them to the Savior.

He expanded it, too. For just as the transfer of the hymnbook showed the transfer of our sins to Jesus, where they have been punished, so also is it possible to show the transfer of the

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righteousness of Jesus Christ to us by a movement in the opposite direction, since a double transfer is involved.

The second side of the transfer is presented in Romans 3 in the verse immediately before our text. It says, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v.22). In the following chapter it is explained in the case of David who, we are told, “says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:6), and in the case of Abraham who “is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (Romans 4:11).

Horatio G. Spafford celebrated the first half of the transaction when he composed these lines:

My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought,

My sin — not in part, but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord,

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Count von Zinzendorf was thinking of the second half when he wrote:

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

By Faith Alone

Thus far, our study of justification has shown that the source of our justification is the grace of God and that the ground of our justification is the work of Christ. The first point is made in Romans 3:24 (“justified freely by his grace”), the second point in

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Romans 3:25 (“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement”). There is one more point that needs to be made, namely, the channel of our justification is faith. This is taught in verse 25 also (“through faith in his blood”), but references to faith as the means of justification are actually found throughout this section. There are eight occurrences of the word faith in verses 21-31.

What is faith? There are many wrong or misleading definitions of faith, like “believing what you know ain’t so” or positive thinking (“I can because I think I can”). But we do not need to spend time on those. The best way to define faith is to think of it as having three parts. Some writers have called these “awareness, assent, and commitment” or “knowledge, belief, and trust.” In the classical theology of the Reformation and post-Reformation period, they were described by three Latin words: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. The first has to do with content, the second with a believing response to that content, the third with commitment.

1. Faith involves content.

The first important thing to be said about the faith through which we are justified is that it involves knowledge of the truth of the gospel or what I call content. Faith always has content. Faith without content is not true faith at all.

John Calvin was very strong on this point because during the Middle Ages an error about faith had developed that almost destroyed the meaning of true faith and with it true Christianity. In the hundreds of years before the Reformation the church had failed to teach the Bible to its people, and as a result very few people had any real understanding of the gospel. Most of the clergy were ignorant of it also. How, then, were such ignorant people to be saved? The answer given was that it was by an “implicit” faith. That is, it was not necessary for any particular communicant actually to know anything. It was the church that

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understood the truth. All that was necessary was that the church-going person trust the church implicitly. All he had to believe was that the church was right and that he would be saved so long as he trusted the church, whatever its actual teachings were.

The situation that developed in the Middle Ages reminds me of a man who was being interviewed by a group of church officers before being taken into membership. They wanted to know what he believed about the gospel, and he replied that he believed what the church believed.

This did not satisfy the officers. So they asked, “What does the church believe?”

“The church believes what I believe,” the man answered.

The committee was getting frustrated, but the officers tried one final time. “And just what do you and the church believe?” they probed.

The man thought for a moment, then answered, “We believe the same thing.”

This is exactly the way faith had come to be understood in the years before the Reformation, and it was this that Calvin attacked. He argued, as did the other reformers, that true faith must rest on a right knowledge of the gospel. Otherwise, he said, it is just pious ignorance. We are not saved by abandoning our mind to some external authority. Rather, we must know what we believe and build on it.

2. Faith involves assent to the Bible’s teaching.

It is easy to understand why this is a necessary second part of true faith, for we can see at once that it is possible to understand something and yet not believe it personally. When I was a student at Harvard University studying English literature, I had a number of professors who understood the central doctrines of Christianity better than a majority of ministers. Doctrines such as the nature of God, the deity of Christ, the blood atonement,

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sin, repentance, and faith pervade English literature, and the professors who were teaching in the department had mastered the doctrines in order to understand the literature. But they didn’t believe them. They regarded them as an historical curiosity, on the same level as the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, alchemy, the medieval theory of bodily humors, or any other such thing.

So faith is more than merely understanding the Bible’s doctrines. It also requires assent to those doctrines, which is why the Reformation and post-Reformation theologians added the word assensus to notitia. Notitia is like our word notice. It involves information only. Assensus adds the idea of assenting to it. It means saying, “I believe this is true.”

This step is also more than just cold intellectual assent, at least for most people. This is because the truths believed are not abstract truths that hardly concern us, like some mathematical proof or the calculation of the position of a star in astronomy. They concern the nature and work of God and his great love for us, which he has demonstrated by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for our salvation.

He saw me ruined in the fall

And loved me not withstanding all;

He saved me from my lost estate:

His loving kindness, oh, how great!

Nobody can really believe that and not be moved by it, at least in some way. When John Wesley reached this point in his spiritual pilgrimage, as he did in responding to the reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Romans in that famous meeting in the chapel in Aldersgate Street in London, he described his experience by saying that his heart was “strangely warmed.” It was the point at which his spirit assented to the truths of the gospel that he had understood, but only intellectually understood, for years.

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3. Faith involves commitment.

The last part of faith is commitment to the one who loved us and died for us. It is of critical importance simply because it is possible to understand these truths, believe they are true, and yet pull back from the necessary commitment that will actually enlist us as one of Christ’s followers. There are people who teach that it is possible to be a Christian, to be saved by faith, and yet not be committed to Jesus in this way. The answer to this error is to point to the devil, who knows the doctrines of the gospel and believes they are true, but who certainly had not committed himself to follow Christ.

James was speaking of this false faith, contrasting it with true faith, when he wrote that the devils also “believe” but “shudder” (James 2:19).

Which leads me to the best of all illustrations of faith, the way in which a young man and a young woman meet, fall in love, and get married. The first stages of their courtship correspond to the first element in faith, which has to do with content. That is, they are getting to know one another to try to see if the other person is the kind of person to whom they would like to be married. The second stage is what we call falling in love. It corresponds to assent, especially the warming of the heart. We think very highly of this stage, and rightly so. But even it does not constitute a marriage. The marriage takes place only when the couple stand before the minister and exchange their vows, thus formalizing their commitment to one another.

So also in salvation. Jesus makes his commitment to us. He says, “I, Jesus, take thee, sinner, to be my true disciple and bride; and I do promise and covenant, before God the Father and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful Savior and Lord, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for all eternity.”

And the time comes when we look up into his face and say,

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“I sinner, take thee, Jesus, to be my Savior and Lord; and I do promise and covenant, before God and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful disciple, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for all eternity.” Then God the Father, not an earthly minister, pronounces the marriage, and you or I become the bride of Jesus Christ forever.

Have you made that commitment? If not, this is the place to do it. I have written a great deal about grace. But wonderful as grace is, it will do you no good until by faith you become a follower of Jesus Christ. In this study I have talked about justification. But justification is by the grace of God through faith. You must commit yourself to Jesus.

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