God Plays No Favorites
April 5, 1992
Every good teacher knows that the first law of learning is repetition. Say it, then say it again, then in case they didn’t get it, say it again. Say it loudly, whisper it softly, say it plainly, say it in English, then say it in Spanish. Whatever it takes, say it over and over and over again, until they finally get it. Then say it one more time, just to make certain they really “get it.”
Why is repetition so important? Because any new idea must be repeated at least three times: Once to hear it, once to understand it, and once to remember it. As all teachers know, if you want your students to forget your words, say it only once! Only the bright ones with good memories will get it the first time around.
The more times you repeat an idea, the better the chances that everyone will remember it.
Something like that is what is happening at the end of Romans 3. In our text Paul is repeating himself. Rather than introducing radically new thoughts, these verses repeat and re-state the basic truth he just explained in the previous paragraph.
Does that make them unimportant? Not any more than the words of a teacher who patiently explains the Monroe Doctrine for the fourth time to her 7th grade class. Like any good teacher, Paul wants to be sure—absolutely, positively, no-questions-asked sure—that his readers understand exactly what he is talking about.
Three Final Questions
Paul’s subject is justification—how sinful men gain a right standing with God. In the preceding verses he has explained seven key facts about the righteousness we need. It is …
Apart from works
For sinners only
Based on the grace of God
Provided by the death of Christ
A demonstration of God’s justice.
Having explained the doctrine of justification, he now explores three implications of this teaching. We might preface each implication with the words, “If this is true, then …” The implications come in the form of questions:
“Where, then, is boasting?” (27)
“Is God the God of the Jews only?” (29)
“Do we nullify the law by this faith?” (31)
Each question explores a different, vital implication of justification by faith. Taken together, they provide both clarification and repetition of the basic truth—that God justifies believing sinners simply and only on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ.
What, then, are the implications of justification by faith?
I. Boasting Excluded
Paul begins with a question: “Where, then, is boasting?” In other words, if men are justified by faith alone, who gets the credit for your salvation? This is a crucial question, because it focuses attention on the Prime Mover in salvation. Does salvation begin with man, or does it begin with God? The answer is clear. It begins with God alone. If salvation is truly a work of God’s grace, then it must of necessity begin with him. “Salvation is of the Lord.”
Why is this important? If salvation begins with man, then he has something to boast about. He can say, “I had a hand in my own salvation. I went to church, I kept the rules, I played the game, I lived by a strict moral code. God did his part, but I did my part, and together we made sure I was going to heaven.” It doesn’t work that way. When you get to heaven, you’ll discover the truth of that old gospel hymn—”Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe.” We’ll owe him everything for our salvation; he will owe us nothing.
I like the way J.B. Phillips renders these two verses: “What happens now to human achievement? There is no more room for it. Why? Because failure to keep the law has killed it? Not at all, but because the whole matter is now on a different plane—believing instead of achieving.” That’s a nice phrase, isn’t it? “Believing instead of achieving.” He’s right. That’s exactly what Paul is saying. Because of Jesus Christ, our salvation has been lifted to an entirely new plane. No longer do we have to achieve anything. We simply have to believe that Jesus has achieved salvation for us. When we believe that he achieved, we are saved.
A Tale of Two Chairs
Let’s imagine that there are two chairs in the middle of an empty room. One chair is labeled “Do” and the other chair is labeled “Done.” Those two chairs represent the two kinds of religion in the world. Every religion is either a “Do” religion or a “Done” religion.
The “Do” religions are based on the notion that in order to please God you have to do something: Pray, join a church, give money, be good, keep a list of dos and don’ts, go to Mass, offer a sacrifice, make a pilgrimage, wear certain clothing, go to the temple twice a year, follow the Ten Commandments, and so on. Although these religions may seem to be very different on the outside, they all teach that salvation is “earned” by the things you do. In various degrees, and in various ways, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism are all “Do” religions. So is Monmonism. So is Russellism (the Jehovah’s Vitnesses).
In fact, every religion in the world is a “Do” religion, except one. Christianity is a “Done” religion. We could diagram it this way:
All other religions Christianity
Why is Christianity a “Done” religion? Because Jesus Christ did everything necessary for our salvation when he died on the cross. Nothing more needs to be added; nothing more could be added. His death is fully sufficient for the sins of the entire world.
Let’s make another little diagram that makes the difference plain.
“How can I be saved?”
“Do this and live” “It is finished”
“Try harder and you’ll make it” “Stop trying and start trusting”
Earned A gift
Work to gain it Free for the asking
Now let me ask you one simple question: Where are you sitting right now? On the “Do” chair or on the “Done” chair? Everyone in the world is sitting in one of those two chairs. Either you are trying to save yourself by your good works or you are trusting in Jesus Christ alone. It’s either “Do” or “Done.”
When Martin Luther translated Romans 3:28 he was roundly criticized for adding the word “alone” to the text: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from observing the law.” But Martin Luther was right. That’s exactly what Paul meant. Salvation is by faith alone, wholly apart from human works of any kind.
Why is that important?
It eliminates human pride.
It makes salvation available to anyone who believes.
The Living Bible puts verse 28 this way: “So it is that we are saved by faith in Christ and not by the good things we do.” Thank God, it is true. Salvation comes by simple faith in Jesus—plus nothing and minus nothing. Those who transfer their trust to the Son of God are saved immediately and forever.
That’s the first implication of justification by faith.
II. Distinctions Rejected
This is the answer to the question, Who can qualify for this salvation? Is it only for the Jews or is it also for the Gentiles? “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, of Gentiles, too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Paul’s logic is impeccable. Since there is only one God (This was the moral heart of Judaism. Even his most implacable opponents would agree with this assertion.), there can be only one way of salvation.
Here is a tremendous truth to ponder. One God … one way of salvation. Don’t let anyone tell you that God has two ways of salvation. Salvation has always been by grace through faith. It’s the same in every dispensation—Old Testament, New Testament, under the law, before the law, after the law. Salvation is always by grace through faith. It is never through works. No one has ever been saved by good works; no one will ever be saved that way. It’s faith alone—first, last and always.
God has no step-children. He doesn’t have children who come into his family in different ways—everyone comes by faith. No one comes by works. That means everyone stands on an equal basis with God in the area of salvation. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Everyone must come the same way—Jew, Gentile, American, Asian, German, Ethiopian, Pakistani, Bolivian.
A Religion Big Enough For the Whole World
That means that Christianity is the only true world religion. It is a universal religion—suited for all people everywhere in every situation. No culture or country is excluded. Since salvation is by faith, anyone can believe and be saved. This is the end of narrow nationalism in religion. The God we serve has a heart as big as the entire world. He’s not a Jewish God or an American God. He’s a God for the whole human race.
It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, or what language you speak, or what country you come from, or how you dress or wear your hair. If you know Jesus Christ, you can look up to the heavens and say, “You, O Lord, are my God, too.”
The 700 Club
While I was flipping through the channels this week, I happened to catch a 15-second clip from “The 700 Club.” Pat Robertson was interviewing Senator Phil Gramm on the budget deficit. “Why can’t we get this deficit under control?” asked Pat. Senator Gramm smiled and answered, “It’s like going to heaven, Pat. Everyone says they want to go to heaven, but most people aren’t willing to do what it takes to get there.” He’s right, of course, as long as you keep in mind that “what it takes” to go to heaven is much different from the common conception. What does God require of those who want to go to heaven? The message is simple: “Stop trying and start trusting.” Anyone who meets that simple requirement can go to heaven.
That’s the second great implication: There are no racial or cultural distinctions in the matter of salvation. Since salvation is by faith alone, anyone can be saved.
Now we come to the third and final implication.
III. The Law Established
Do we, then, nullify the law by this same faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Here’s the connection. If salvation is by faith and not by keeping the law, does that not make the law null and void? Or in other words, why bother with the Ten Commandments?
“God forbid!” is Paul’s energetic reply. Nothing in his teaching is meant to say that the law has no value. It has enormous value … but not as a means of salvation. You aren’t saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about them and live any way you like.
But what does Paul mean when he says that his teaching “upholds” or “establishes” the law? He means that his doctrine puts the law of God in its proper place. When all things are seen correctly, the law is fully established and honored … but not as a means of salvation. The Living Bible says, “If we are saved by faith, does that mean we no longer need to obey God’s laws? Just the opposite! In fact, only when we trust Jesus can we truly obey him.” That paraphrase hints at one part of the answer.
Justification by faith upholds the law in at least four ways:
1. The law shows us our sin. Without God’s law, we would go our merry way, never knowing what God demands of us. We wouldn’t know how to live, what moral code to follow, or how to please the Lord day by day. But the law shows us not only what God wants; it also shows us how far short we fall of meeting God’s demands. Every time we break the law, our sinfulness is confirmed all over again.
2. The law shows us our need for Christ. Galatians 3:24 says the law is a schoolmaster who leads us to Christ by showing us we can never please God on our own. Every time we fail, we are reminded that unless a supernatural change takes places within us, we will always fall short of what God wants from us.
3. The law was fulfilled by Christ. Only one Person has ever kept God’s law perfectly. In his sinless life and in his sacrificial death Jesus fulfilled the righteous demands of the law on our behalf. When we trust Christ, his obedience is credited to our account. He did the obeying and we get the credit! We did the disobeying and he took the blame! That’s the wonder of the gospel.
4. The law is fulfilled in us by the power of the Spirit. Paul will develop this point more fully in Romans 8. For the moment, let’s simply note that when we trust Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, and it is by his indwelling power that we are supernaturally changed and enabled to please God day by day.
The Simple Gospel, Simply Stated
Warren Wiersbe sums up the basic message of this passage in a wonderfully clear statement:
If salvation is through the Law, then men can boast; but the principle of faith makes it impos-sible for men to boast. The swimmer, when he is saved from drowning, does not brag because he trusted the lifeguard. What else could he do? When a believing sinner is justified by faith, he cannot boast of his faith, but he can boast in a wonderful Savior. (Romans, p. 40)
Here is the gospel message in three sentences:
What God demands, we don’t have.
What we don’t have, Jesus has provided.
What Jesus has provided, we receive by faith.
Two Abiding Implications
Let’s wrap this study up with two summary statements:
1. God has designed our salvation so that he alone gets the glory!
What would heaven be like if you had to earn your way there? It would be like going to one of those $100-per-plate political dinners where people stand around bragging about how much they gave to help their man win the election. “I gave $5,000.” “So what? I gave $10,000.” “Big deal. I gave $50,000.” “Move out of the way, pipsqueak. I own this guy. He’s got $300,000 of my money.” And so it goes.
Heaven would be just like that if you had to earn you way there. “I was chairman of the elder board.” “I made tapes for blind people.” “I gave a million dollars to world missions.” “I helped old ladies across the street.” “I changed dressings for burn victims.” As good as those things are, they will not help forgive even one sin. As good as they are, they will not save you or help save you.
Wouldn’t it be horrible to spend eternity listening to people brag about what they did to earn their salvation? Heaven would not be heaven in that case. Someone would put his arm around Jesus and say, “You and me, Jesus, we did it. You died on the cross and I baked the cookies.”
Thank God, it’s not like that. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the full price for your salvation. It doesn’t matter whether you baked the cookies or not. Jesus paid the price all by himself. Entrance into heaven is limited to those who trust Jesus Christ—and him alone—for their salvation.
That’s why God alone gets the glory in your salvation. Jesus did all the work when he died on the cross.
2. God’s intention in our salvation is to lead us to humility and love, not to arrogance and pride.
If you ever visit the Holy Land, one of the sites you will visit is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a very small entrance. In fact, it’s so small that you have to duck down low to get inside. The entrance is deliberately made so low because several centuries ago the local bigshots liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church.
The same is true of salvation. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse. Until you do, you’ll never be saved.
Since you don’t deserve heaven, the only proper response to God’s offer of salvation is to say, “Thank you, Lord God, for what Jesus did for me.” Gratitude, not arrogance, is the language of heaven.