SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE
Romans 3: 21-31
The Bible is not much a set of disconnected stories, each with a little lesson on how to live our live but the Bible actually comprises a single story that tells us
what’s wrong with the humankind in the world;
what God has done to put it right in Jesus Christ; and then as a result
How history is going to turn out in the end.
In Romans 1-4, Paul is summarizing the story of the Bible and here in chapter three, the last half of chapter three and the beginning of chapter 4 we probably have Paul’s best most essential summary of what he thinks the bible is all about and what this salvation is that God has done to put the world right.
This might be the most important passage in Romans. Some scholars say the most important in the whole Bible.
Martin Luther said that Romans 3:21–26 is “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.”
Leon Morris says it “is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”
If we look at the reformation movement: It is the heart of the Reformation—the central truth, Martin Luther believed that the church had corrupted it.
One of the five Solas of the Reformation was the statement that we are saved by faith alone—sola fide. These words declared that salvation does not come from looking at our own works of righteousness, but from looking outside ourselves to another, to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This statement grew out of a desire to return to the Scriptures and to the teachings of the early church fathers, a cry to reform the church and restore biblical orthodoxy.
While some may cling to sola fide merely to uphold tradition, we should cling to it because it harmony or accords with God’s Word. It speaks to minds and hearts throughout history because it deals with one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: How can a person be right with God?
Verse 20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin”.
At the root of the human condition is a struggle for righteousness and identity. We long for a sense of acceptance, approval, security, and significance—because we were designed by God to find these things in him. But sin has separated us from God and created in us a deep sense of alienation.
Speaking of the Jewish people in his own day, Paul writes, “They did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own” (Rom.10:3). We all do the same thing.
Paul has spent nearly two chapters explaining why the law is an insufficient answer to the universal human problem of sin. And the law is basically what every religion puts forward. Every religion puts forward some lists - some laws - of things to do and say, “Do these things, and if you do them well enough, you will live.” That’s the way even our culture and some churches teach us. But why is it that the works of the law cannot save us?
First, the works of the law can’t save you because God doesn’t grade on a curve. He demands absolute perfection because he is absolutely perfect and holy. If you understand the Bible, you know that it only takes one sin to send us to hell.
The second problem with the law and this is what Paul really focuses on today: Our sin leaves us legally guilty before God, and no amount of good works can repair the damage we’ve done.
Imagine someone broke into your house and destroyed some of your most valuable stuff, and they get caught, and when they stand before the judge they begin to argue about how committed they have been to social work and otherwise a good person. You’d say, “That is great! But that doesn’t restore what they have destroyed of my valuable stuff.”
Suppose you invite me over for breakfast one morning and offer me an egg omelet. As you begin to cook, I smell a rotten aroma coming from the kitchen. What’s that awful smell? Oh, it’s just a rotten egg. But don’t worry; I'm going to add a few good eggs that will cancel out the rottenness. Do you think I would eat your omelet? I don’t think so. Why? Because goodness doesn’t cancel rottenness but rottenness ruins goodness. The same is true that we can’t be good enough to cancel out the rotten effect of our own sins.
Sin violates—destroys—God’s glory in the universe, and overturns his justice.
Verse 20 says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin”. The law shows us, in vs. 23, that “For all (Jew and Gentile alike) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". The works of the law cannot justified us but all the law can do is show us how messed up (broken, sinful and awful) our hearts are but cannot save us.
The law is like railway tracks: it can point us in the right direction to go, but it is powerless to move us along the tracks.
Let’s not just think of it in terms of formal religion, by the way. All people have a way of justifying themselves.
I read this thing about Sydney Pollack, who was a film director, producer and actor and who died in 2008. There was an article published about him shortly before he died. Though he was sick and dying, he couldn’t stop working. Even when his family begged him to stop because it was shortening his life, he refused. The article said, “Movie tycoon, Sydney Pollack, says that although the grueling [demanding] film movie making process is wearing him down he can’t justify his existence if he stops. And he said, ‘Every time I finish another picture I feel I have earned my stay, for another year or so.’” We all say here’s how I earn my stay.
I also heard about a writer whose career was not going anywhere. Nobody was reading his work and he questioned his purpose in life. But then he said, “Then I look at my two little girls and I know that my existence is justified.” They justify my existence.
There are a lot of parents who believe their existence is justified by enabling their children to become happy and successful. But you need them to succeed so that you will be validated. Their getting in trouble or doing poorly, on the other hand, is a deep overwhelming blow to your identity. Oftentimes, our passion for our children’s success is utterly selfish; it’s not about the kids, it’s about us and our justification and our righteousness.
Perhaps you can think of many more. Think of anything that gives you a sense of being “good enough” or better than others.
So my friends let me ask you this: what do you count on to give you a sense of “personal credibility” (validity, acceptance, good standing)? Your answer to that question will often reveal something in which you will find righteousness.
2. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD
But the gospel changes all of that. See what he says:
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested (revealed) apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction (We’re all sinners, you see) 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift (some translation say ‘freely’) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation [a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God against sinners] by his blood to be receive by faith, this was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins.
God is righteously angry with us because of our sin. We deserve his wrath. We deserve condemnation. We deserve to be sentenced to hell. But God in his grace sent Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sin. Paul says about Jesus, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (3:25).
God is a just God. He could not simply turn the other way. His justice had to be satisfied. Therefore, God put Christ forward (he sent him to die on the cross) in order to demonstrate his righteousness (or justice) and through that we can be justified or declared righteous.
This is pictured in the OT process of sacrifice: Once a year each believing family would bring a lamb: a perfect, unblemished lamb and they would lay it on the altar and place their hand. In that moment, they were justified. Because the lamb was held responsible for sin before God and they walked out free. This is what Jesus fulfilled on the cross.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And on the cross, the sins of the entire human race were laid on Jesus’ head. Martin Luther said:
All the prophets foresaw that on the cross Jesus became the greatest murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer that there ever was. Our most merciful Father sent his only Son into the world and said to him: Jesus, you will become Peter the denier; you will become Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; you will become David that adulterer; you will become Adam, that sinner which did eat the fruit in Paradise…
He is saying you will become:
The husband who has neglected or abused his family.
You will become the drug addict
The teenage girl lying to her parents
The hypocrite living a double-life
The proud, the selfish, indifferent
He became those things and died for us so that we could be blameless of them. So that when I lay my hand on him, my sin becomes his. As the scripture says, “He became sin for us who knew no sin”. At the cross, God’s justice was satisfied (his righteousness was upheld).
It’s because for God to be righteous, sin had to be punished.
It’s because forgiveness, real forgiveness, always requires a price to be paid.
This is what “Propitiation” (or, atoning sacrifice) meant, that God poured out on Jesus the righteous anger he had toward us.
The cross was not just Jesus showing us God’s love. It was also a place where God’s justice was satisfied. The cross is the place we see the justice and the love of God met together.
And what Jesus offers you, by the way, is more than forgiveness. It is justification. Forgiveness says, “You may go, you have been released from your penalty." Justification says, "I want you to stay; you are welcome to all my love and presence.”
Justification is the sense of approval and belonging that every person desires.
Justification is more than having our sins forgiven.
It means that in God’s eyes, we are given Jesus’ perfect record.
It’s not that I become righteous enough that God declares me righteous but while I am still sinful, ungodly and enemy of God; God declares me righteous because of what Jesus has done for me.
In the gospel, because Jesus’ righteousness is credited – imputed – to us, we are declared justified.
That is what Martin Luther called “passive righteousness”. It is the biblical truth that God has not only forgiven our sin, but also credited to us Jesus’ positive righteousness. Verses 21-22 say “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22).
We must cling to the gospel promise that God is pleased with us because he is pleased with Jesus. Our righteousness is in Christ. Verse 26 says, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus".
Because of Jesus’ death, God is able to remain just and, at the same time, be the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.
The good news is that all of this comes, not from us doing anything, but simply by faith.
3. BY FAITH ALONE
From verse 22 to 30, we see that faith is the key to receiving the righteousness of God or to be justified.
Verse 22: The righteousness of God through faith;
Verse 25: a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith;
Verse 26: he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus
Verse 28: For we hold (conclude) that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law;
Verse 30: since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Faith is the means which God chose by which the righteousness of God becomes ours. Faith is the instrument by which we receive the righteousness of Christ. It is through faith alone: sola fide.
Have you wondered why the Bible repeatedly emphasizes faith as the means by which we receive justification? Why not love, or some other righteous character? It is because
faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us.’ (J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?)
In other words, we are justified by faith alone, and not by love, because God intends to make it crystal clear that he does the decisive saving outside of us, and that the person and work of Christ are the sole ground of our acceptance with God.
Works are excluded as the basis of salvation or righteousness – otherwise people could boast about what they have done. Verse 27 says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.”
In chapter 4, Paul gives an example of both Abraham and David, that they also were justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1–8). Verses 2 and 3 say, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”
Therefore there is nothing we can boast about, rather it makes us humble to obey the law and delight in it and to love Him more and more.
As Paul writes in verse 3, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
The gospel doesn’t take us away from the law. It creates in us a desire to fulfill it. The Law drives us to grace, but grace drives us back to the Law. The law drives us in desperation to grace, but an experience of grace drives us in devotion back to the Law. Having been justified by grace through faith, we now desire to please the God who saved us. And we learn to do that from the Law.
When we misunderstand the relationship between law and gospel, it leads to two opposite but equally destructive errors: legalism and license.
Legalists continue to live under the law, believing that God’s approval is somehow dependent on their right conduct.
Licentious people dismiss the law, believing that since they are “under grace”, God’s rule doesn’t matter much.
To avoid these pitfalls, we must understand the biblical relationship between law and gospel. In a nutshell, here is how God designed it to work: the law drives us to the gospel and the gospel frees us to obey the law.
Romans 10:4 say, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”. In other words, the end, the goal, the point of the law is to drive us to Jesus. When we really “get” what this verse is saying, we begin to see that every command in Scripture points us in some way to Jesus, who fulfills that command for us and in us. He is our righteousness. We no longer need to construct our own. And that gospel or good news makes me uphold the law, not as a duty but as a delight.
In conclusion, let me ask you this: Are you justified by God’s grace through the work of Christ, which you have received by faith?
If not, you simply need to recognize that you are a sinner with an enormous pile of sins against your name. Only Jesus can pay the penalty for all your sin and he can credit his righteousness to your account just by believing in Him – Yes my friend, by faith alone not by anything else.