Romans Part 3: Righteousness by Faith (Only?)

February 8, 2007

In Part 1 we looked at Paul addressing man’s unrighteousness, and God’s wrath towards that unrighteousness. Then in Part 2 (Rom 2:1-3:18) we saw Paul show that Jews and Gentiles are equally entrenched in that unrighteousness. Paul concluded that part of the argument by stating:

Rom 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Then Paul turned his attention to God’s solution to this seemingly unsolvable problem:

Rom 3:21-24 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. 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. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood

God’s solution is to grant righteousness to all who have faith. He accomplished that through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. We are saved from our sins, not by obeying the Law, but by believing in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Paul explained futher:

Rom 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

This one verse has been center of controversy among believers since 1522. In December of that year, Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament first went to the printing press. Over the next 40 years, over 100,000 copies of that translation were printed, a phenomenal number for that day. The simple fact that the scriptures were being distributed in the common language was controversial enough at the time, but the greatest controversy centered on Luther’s treatment of this one verse. To the literal translation of Romans 3:28, Luther added the German allein (alone), rendering it as:

Rom 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from observing the law. [Luther]

It is understandable why Luther preferred that rendering. By the time he published his translation, he had been publicly embroiled in a controversy over salvation through works in the Catholic church for a number of years. In particular he was opposed to the practice of indulgences, a process whereby a Catholic believer supposedly could obtain absolution for sins he had committed by performing certain acts prescribed by the priest. In 1517 Luther produced his famous 95 theses indicting these and other related practices of the Catholic church. So when translating the New Testament five years later, he made it a point to add the word “alone” to emphasize how wrong those Catholic practices were.

Of course that created trouble with passages like James 2:14-26, especially verse 24:

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

To address that seeming contradiction, Luther moved the book of James to an appendix of his Bible along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, and added the following comment:

Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle, and my reasons follow.

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works 2:24). It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac (2:20); Though in Romans 4:22-22 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15:6. Although it would be possible to “save” the epistle by a gloss giving a correct explanation of justification here ascribed to works, it is impossible to deny that it does refer to Moses’ words in Genesis 15 (which speaks not of Abraham’s works but of his faith, just as Paul makes plain in Romans 4) to Abraham’s works. This fault proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

Luther recognized that his translation of Romans was in direct contradiction to the book of James. His solution to that contradiction was to reject the apostolic authority of the book of James, rather than to question the correctness of his own understanding.

Remember what Peter said about Paul’s writings. He said that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand. And he said that men would distort what Paul wrote, to their own destruction. He also characterized those prone to such distortions as “lawless,” men who cast off restraints and live for their own pleasure.

Now consider the alteration Luther made to Romans 3:28. If we are saved by mere belief (faith alone), apart from any appropriate response, why not just believe in Jesus and continue to sin? What impact would the sin have on our salvation? The doctrine of salvation by faith only has led many people to their own destruction in exactly that way. As we saw in the previous post, Paul himself pointed out the folly of that teaching. Peter also warned about that kind of distortion. And James flatly stated that we are not saved by that kind of faith. It seems that all three writers, two apostles and the brother of the Lord himself, have amply warned us not to fall into the “faith only” trap.

We will still reap what we sow. In Galatians (perhaps his most direct frontal assault on salvation through law), Paul wrote:

Gal 6:7-9 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

It really does matter how we live. To teach otherwise is deception and a mockery of God.

So then, how are we justified? We will pursue that question further in the next post.


  1. Alan,I fear that many people make the mistake of seeing “belief” and “faith” as exactly the same thing. They are quite different in the context of salvation. The devils “believe” and tremble, but they don’t have “faith” in God.Biblical faith, to be genuine, must be inclusive of these three elements. First, it is intellectual. We must know some facts in the same way we know George Washington was the first President of the United States. This is what many people think the Bible is talking about when it talks about “belief”. “Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?” is necessary to believe that fact but believing it is not faith, just as it is not faith to believe a historical fact. Secondly, it is emotional. We hear the facts about Jesus and we are “cut to the heart”, or convicted/convinced, and we embrace the truth. We start to depend on it, to rely on it, to trust Christ. But it is still not faith. Only when the 3rd element is added is it genuine Biblical faith. The third part of the equation is the will. It is volitional. Based upon the acceptance of the facts (“belief), we embrace Christ with our hearts (trust), and then we act. Our will is subservient to His will and we (obey) act on what we believe.That is faith. Obviously, a person who has faith in Christ will want to obey Him. A person who has only given mental assent to the facts about Him may not. And, a person who has even embraced the facts about Jesus and still is unwilling to obey Him does not have faith.Remember Jesus could “see faith”. God can “see the heart”. God does not need to wait for us to act to know if we have true faith, He infinitely knows. Thus Jesus could justifiably save an adulteress Samaritan by a well, a publican in the street, and a thief on a cross. Each of these people had faith in Christ.So, there is not conflict with Paul and James as Luther contended. Both are right. Only the faithful obey and only the obedient are faithful. Works and obedience always come from faith, neither is faith, but are a result of it.Therefore, “faith only” is correct as long as we understand what faith is.Grace and Peace,Royce Ogle

  2. Hi Royce, That is an interesting way of looking at it. I don’t think that is what Luther was saying however. Otherwise he would not have rejected what James said on the subject.

  3. Alan,Great post.I am really enjoying your series on Romans. Your are really bringing new light and insight to my eyes. Thank you brother.

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