God’s Justifying Grace


Romans 3:21–31 (NRSV) Righteousness through Faith

21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Doctors begin by diagnosing the problem.  So Paul begins his explanation of justification by faith with the diagnosis:  “No one is righteous, not even one.”  (Rom. 3:10), quoting from Ps. 14:1-3.  And he concludes, “For everyone has sinned, we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”  (Rom. 3:23)   Paul has spent the better part of ch. 1-3 defining the problem of sin in detail.  He has also identified several ineffective ways in which humanity has tried to gain a right standing with God.   His conclusion is that while everyone has a natural inclination to sin – a sin nature.  Not everyone has the same consciousness of sin.  The Law only succeeds in making us conscious of sin, but by itself the Law cannot save us.  So what is to be done about our sin?  How can we be made right with God?

It is in this passage (Rom. 3:21-31) that Paul declares that all are justified freely by God’s grace (3:24).  Grace is God’s unmerited, undeserved favor.  The grace that is offered to us as a promise, becomes a reality when we respond in faith.  We cannot earn God’s grace through good works.  It is accomplished by the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ upon the cross.  “Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight.  He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”  (Rom. 3:24)

Here Paul is expressing what we call God’s justifying grace.  John Wesley saw God’s work of grace in salvation in three ways:  prevenient grace (the grace that comes before salvation), justifying grace (the grace that brings us to a right relationship with God), and sanctifying grace (the grace that restores in us the image of a holy God).

Justification is the work of God the Holy Spirit that God accomplishes in us by grace through faith at the moment of conversion.  Robert Lyon defines justification in this way, “The act of God in bringing sinners into a new covenant relationship with himself through the forgiveness of sins.  Along with…”regeneration” and reconciliation,” it relates to a basic aspect of conversion.” (Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988)

When I teach about justification in my confirmation classes, I use a simple definition.  Justification is “just as if I have never sinned.”  In other words, in the work of justification, God removes from us the guilt of our sin.  Salvation is based on the justifying work of Christ upon the cross.  He took the punishment for our sins upon the cross, and not only our sins, but the sins of the whole world for all time.  He paid the debt once for all.

To be justified is to be made right with God.  In the process of salvation this means that we are freed from both the guilt and the punishment that we deserved as a result of our sins.  And in addition we receive new life in Christ (regeneration).

Wesley pointed out that this forgiveness was only possible as a result of Christ’s death on the cross.  Christ’s atoning work is the climax of God’s love for humanity.  “For this is how God loved the world:  He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16 NLT)

Justification is a relative change, that is, it is a change in our relationship with God.  Before we are saved, we are at odds with God over sin.  But now repentant sinners, as a result of Christ’s saving work, are considered by God as free from guilt and punishment for past sins.







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