This is the fourth in a chain of posts dealing with the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. Each statement is part of the whole to explain the watershed debate of the Protestant Reformation; that is, the doctrine of justification. Sinful man is justified before a holy God as defined in Scripture alone, through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and for the glory of God alone. Because these statements are designed to work together it is difficult (if not impossible) to find a passage of Scripture that deals with one of these statements without addressing several of the others.
This is the nature of the slogan. None of these statements stand alone but work together to answer the question of justification. As in previous posts, there will be some overlapping discussion regarding what we have already said. Yet, this is the beauty of theology! There is no single doctrine that can be lifted out of the cornucopia of biblical truth without upsetting the whole cart. It will serve us well to bear this in mind as we turn our attention to our justification in Jesus Christ alone.
If Sola Scriptura places boundaries on the whole discussion (Scripture is the sole authority and thus will be the only revelation used to understand our justification), Sola Fide describes the means by which we receive justification, and Sola Gratia articulates the cause behind our justification; then Solus Christus provides the agent who accomplished our great salvation.
To put it more simply: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus all answer the question of “how” but in different ways. Sola Fide answers the question: how do we receive justification? Sola Gratia answers the question: how can we receive justification? Solus Christus answers the question: how is justification accomplished? There are many places to turn in our Bibles to find the answer to this question, but I want to answer it from Romans chapter 3.
We should note that from 1:18-3:20 Paul has done a bang-up job of backing all of humanity into a corner. The utter depravity and total inability of all human beings has been firmly established. In 3:21 we see the first ray of light.
Christ the Object of Justifying Faith (vv. 21-22)
“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;”
Justification apart from the Law (v. 21a) – Some try to make this verse say more than it actually does. Paul is not claiming that the gospel in “unhitched” from the Old Testament, but simply that one cannot be justified through the Law of Moses. The Mosaic Covenant was never given as a means of salvation. Mankind has ever and always been saved through faith alone. Our works are certainly enough to condemn us but only our faith in the promise of God’s plan of redemption can save us. The righteous status from God (the same righteousness of God we saw in 1:17) has been manifest/revealed outside of/apart from the Levitical rituals and sacrificial system. This righteousness cannot be earned.
Justification testified by the Law (v. 21b) – This by no means makes the Old Testament Scriptures irrelevant. May it never be! The entirety of Scripture points to this coming good news that the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), lion of Judah (Gen. 49:10), prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15), seed of David (2 Sam. 7), eternal priest (Ps. 110), king of righteousness (Ps. 72), and the spotless lamb of God (Is. 53) has come. The Levitical system cannot justify, but the Old Testament Scriptures boldly testify to this gospel message.
Justification in Christ for all who believe (v. 22) – If all of humanity has but one single problem, then there can only be one single solution. This righteous status, the declaration of pardon, the acquittal of execution is received by all through faith in Christ for all who believe. It is here, for the first time, that Paul states plainly to the Roman believers that Christ is the exclusive object of saving faith.
As we’ve said before, faith is synonymous to trust or belief. For one to place their faith in Christ is to trust Him, to trust His work, to acknowledge that He alone provided atonement for sin. This righteous standing pronounced by God is for any and all who believe. That statement is vitally important because it draws a line of distinction between a universal message and a universal salvation. The gospel is a universal message given without distinction, yet those who are saved are exclusively those who believe. Everyone who believes will be saved (universal message). But only those who believe will be saved (not a universal salvation).
This becomes the driving force for the rest of Paul’s argument. We would do well to stop here and make sure that we are thinking from God’s perspective rather than our own. Paul will explain in the verses to follow that any other means of salvation, justification, or declaration of righteous standing would impugn the nature and character of God to the point where He would no longer be holy, just, or righteous. Pay attention, because this is a very big deal.
Christ the Only Redeemer (vv. 23-24)
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;”
This is a case study of pulling a random verse out of context and thus never really understanding what it says. Most of us are familiar with v. 23. We memorized it in AWANA or Sunday school in an effort to drive home the point that people are sinners in need of a savior. But Paul is speaking to the redeemed, not the reprobate. These verses are dependent upon the phrase those who believe and are used to fully explain the idea that there is no distinction.
Believers are not inherently righteous (v. 23) – As redeemed people, we are those who have sinned and still fall short of the glory of God. The aorist tense “have sinned” (ἥμαρτον) looks at the wholistic picture without comment on the beginning or end of the action. We are sinners. Paul then switches to the present tense “and fall short of the glory of God” (ὑστεροῦνται). Even now as redeemed people of God we do not enjoy the glory of God, the undimmed and uninterrupted fellowship with the Almighty, as Adam once did. This is certainly our certain future hope, but it is not our current reality.
The point is simple: redeemed people are not inherently righteous and thus fully rely upon an alien righteousness. If this is true, then there cannot be any distinction based on ethnicity, geography, or history. We are all equally wretched and equally dependent upon Christ.
Christ our agent of redemption (v. 24) – The context alone should inform us that v. 23 refers to believes, but this verse demands such an interpretation. For we all sinned, and we all fall short, but we are also all justified freely by grace. Our justification or our right standing before God is not earned but is given freely as a gift. By nature, a gift is by grace. This gift of righteous standing is given through/by means of the redemption that is in Christ alone.
That term redemption(ἀπολυτρώσεως) carries the idea of a payment or ransom. It is used in secular Greek to describe the purchasing of slaves in the slave market. This is a pivotal point in our discussion because while we have described man’s need to be justified and how man receives that justification, we have not said much about how that justification can be legally and righteously accomplished. Our sin cannot be ignored and swept under the rug. We have earned the wrath of God and our sin must receive that wrath. If sin is left unpunished, then God is no longer just. The next two verses explain how God did this and why there is salvation in no one else but Jesus Christ.
Christ the Prepared Propitiation (vv. 25-26)
“whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
The pronoun “whom” points back to “Christ Jesus” in v. 24. It was He whom God purposed as a propitiation. Our English Bibles read “displayed publicly” or something similar, but the verb προτίθημι is better translated as "purposed." This term appears only three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:13; 3:25; Eph. 1:9), all by the hand of Paul and all with the idea of purpose rather than public display. The force is not on the public propitiation but rather that God purposed this propitiation from eternity past.
We must come to a good understanding of this term propitiation. This is hardly a common word in our vernacular, but it is an incredibly important term. This term describes a sacrifice which appeases a deity. In other words, God purposed Jesus Christ, God the Son, to be a sacrifice that would appease His wrath. C. E. B. Cranfield captures the idea well when he writes in his commentary “[God] purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they [sinful men] deserved.” Everything that follows explains and applies the benefit of this gracious and righteous sacrifice. Paul gives four clarifying statements regarding Christ as a propitiation.
Received through faith – In the Greek, the phrase through faith comes before in His blood. The editors of the NASB wanted to make clear that man’s faith is not placed in the actual blood of Christ, but in His accomplished work. There is nothing salvific in the blood that flowed through Jesus’ veins. Yet there is life eternal to those who place their trust in what Jesus’ death accomplished. We trust (have faith in) Jesus’ propitiation, His appeasing sacrifice of Himself.
Payment of blood – We know that the wages of sin is death and therefore the wrath of God cannot be appeased without the lifeblood of the offender. The Levitical priests would bring the blood of bulls and goats into the tabernacle and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat (the place of propitiation) as evidence that a life was given. Though the blood of bulls and goats did nothing for the remission of sin (Heb. 10:4), the blood of Jesus Christ proved acceptable. His life was given as a ransom for those who trust in Him (Matt. 20:28). It was necessary for Him to die, to give His lifeblood, in order to appease God’s wrath.
Proof of righteousness – The term demonstration used in the NASB is better rendered as evidence or proof. Christ’s death actually proved that God is inherently righteous. We may not have ever thought of the atonement in such a manner. How does Christ’s death whereby He received the full weight of the Father’s holy wrath prove the Father’s righteousness? Because if Christ did not die for the sins of believers, God would be unjust, unrighteous, and unholy.
For over 4,000 years, God had not punished anyone who believed in the promised one to come. And yet, even those who believed or trusted in God’s promised were in fact sinners who still fell short of His glory. How can we know this to be true and yet maintain that God has always been and will continue to be just? Is God guilty of allowing convicted criminals go free without demanding justice for their crimes? May it never be! God purposed from before the foundations of the earth to exact judgment upon His own Son. This propitiation, this appeasing sacrifice, proves that God never once turned a blind eye to sin. He was patient, not because He ignored sins previously committed, but because He had already purposed and ordained that they would be paid for through Christ’s atonement.
No other sacrifice would do. No other means of forgiveness is possible. Either the sacrifice would not be able to appease the wrath of God (like the blood of bulls and goats) or God would forgive sins without justice being served. Christ is the only answer. Christ’s propitiation is the only way by which wretched men like you and me can be forgiven while at the same time God is still found to be righteous. And this was His plan from the very beginning.
Purposed for righteous justification – In v. 26 Paul repeats this phrase concerning God’s evidence/proof (not demonstration) of His righteousness in order to plainly state the purpose of His plan. The text we read as so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus might be better rendered: so that He might justify righteously the one who has faith in Jesus. In other words, Christ’s propitiation proves that God can maintain His righteous character and nature and at the same time acquit the guilty. Only in Christ is this possible.
This whole discussion is within the context of proving that the gospel message is the power of God purposed for salvation for anyone and everyone who believes (1:16-17). There is nothing worthy in humanity because we are all born God-haters who either spend our days in open rebellion or attempt to earn God’s favor through our acts of piety (1:18-3:20). But God’s declaration of righteousness cannot be earned through deeds but found only by those who trust Jesus’s word and work (3:21-22). Faith in Christ is the exclusive means by which we access His redemption because all believers remain without inherent merit (3:23-22). As such, all believers are declared righteous, acquitted, freely by grace through Christ’s redemption (v. 24). It was necessary for Jesus to die as an appeasing sacrifice because this is the only way God can both acquit guilty men and remain righteous (vv. 25-26). This is the atonement from God’s perspective.
Some time ago I wrote a brief article concerning the object of saving faith. Most Americans believe that faith is important, but nobody seems to know what we should place our faith in. It seems that so long as someone has faith and that their faith is genuine all will work out in the end. But for God to accept anyone other than on the basis of their trust in the sacrifice which He provided in Christ is an impossibility because it would demand that God set aside His righteous standard and make an unholy exception. Solus Christus.
Usually when people confess that salvation is in Christ alone, they look only at man’s inability to save himself. While this is absolutely true, it is only part of the picture, and not even the main point to this statement. The Reformers added this statement to their slogan, not to drive yet another nail in the coffin of man’s inability, but to ensure that no shadow of injustice is spread upon God’s integrity. For God to accept anything other than the death of His Son in payment for sin would be an act of injustice and utter wickedness. Solus Christus.
We are saved from God’s righteous wrath through our faith alone, because of God’s grace alone. But our faith is placed in Christ’s accomplished work alone so that we might sing Hallelujah! What a Savior! In this salvation, God is still found to be righteous as He declares us righteous. Soli Deo Gloria!