As a Small Groups Pastor of a local church there are three topics that I encounter most when interacting with Christians: grace, faith, and justification. They are essential topics that every Christian learns about, wrestles with, and tries to live out. Growing as a Christian leads to improved understanding of these three topics and should result in living them out better and better. As I continue my series of soteriology blog posts, I hope to give you a biblical description of each of these topics and point you to some ways you can live out grace, faith, and justification in your life.
Grace, Faith, and Justification
Photo Credit: Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”
We have been given a gift we don’t deserve.
A. In Grace, God Punishes Jesus, Not Us
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he talks about grace in the third chapter saying,
Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight [literally “declares us righteous”]. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past. (Romans 3:24–25, NLT) 1
Let’s take each part of this verse and examine grace.
1. God Takes Initiative
Paul tells us that God “in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight” (v. 24) and “God presented Jesus” (v. 25). It’s clear that God takes the initiative to provide grace to us. This is something he does for us, and it is not something we have caused.
2. God Was Supposed to Punish Us
There was a death penalty that needed to be paid for our sins (v. 24) otherwise God would have to punish us for our sins. That’s why we had the Old Testament sacrificial system described in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. That sacrificial system was set out by God so that the penalty for our sins could be paid through the sacrifice of animals. However, this was temporary because an animal cannot fully take the place of a human. Only a perfect person who did not deserve death for his own sins-Jesus-could fully take our place. .
3. God Chose Jesus to Pay for Our Sins
While the Old Testament used animals as a temporary sacrifice to “pay the penalty” for the sins of humans, in the New Testament Jesus paid for those sins once for all people. Paul tells us that Christians are “right in God’s sight” through “Christ Jesus” (v. 24). This was accomplished by Jesus being a “sacrifice for sin” (v. 25). 2
Jesus told us that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, also see Matt 20:28). The word for “ransom” here the Greek word, “lutron” which was a common word used in first century papyri documents to describe the money used to purchase a slave’s freedom (Robertson, Word Pictures, on Rom 2:24, this is a great reference to have for the serious Bible student). Jesus gave himself as that “ransom” so that he could offer “a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). In this way, Jesus “himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world” (1 John 2:2).
4. God Allows Us To Be Righteous through Faith
Faith is what makes people righteous. What do I mean by “righteous”? Righteous in God’s eyes means that our sins have been paid for, that we have fellowship with God, and that we have been set free from the power of sin in our lives. I’ll explain this more later in this blog post.
Paul shared, “People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life” (v. 25). It’s by faith that people are made righteous.
B. In Grace, God Puts the Holy Spirit in Us and Saves Us
In his letter to Titus, Paul also talks about grace saying,
But—When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. (Titus 3:4–7)
One of my favorite professors at Dallas Theological Seminary observes, “No one in the New Testament defends God’s grace more than the apostle Paul” (J. Scott Horrell, From the Ground Up, p. 29). From the book of Romans to the book of Titus, Paul expounds grace!
1. God Takes the Initiative, Again
Similar to Romans 3:24-25 above, here in Titus we see God taking the initiative to show grace.
God took the initiative when he “revealed his kindness and love” (v. 4), “saved us . . . because of his mercy” (v. 5), “washed away our sins” (v. 6), and gave “us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit” (v. 5) in which he “generously poured out the Spirit” (v. 6).
This all was done because of his grace (v. 7)!
In other words, God didn’t have to do any of that. In fact, we don’t deserve any of it. But God took the initiative to provide grace to us so that we can be saved.
2. God’s Attributes Show His Grace
Paul says that God has “kindness” (v. 4), love (v. 4; also see Romans 2:4), and “mercy” (v. 5; also see Psalm 109:26; Ephesians 2:4; and 1 Peter 1:3). Isn’t it wonderful that God’s attributes show his love and grace towards us? I appreciate Warren Wiersbe’s words on grace, “God in His mercy doesn’t give us what we do deserve but in His grace gives us what we don’t deserve. Praise the Lord!” (The Delights and Disciplines of Bible Study, p. 191).
3. God Doesn’t Save Us Because of What We’ve Done
In NT Wright’s commentary on this passage, Paul for Everyone: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, he writes, “God’s action is Jesus Christ is not a reward for good work already done. It’s an act of free kindness and loving goodness” (p. 160). That’s grace! Paul makes it clear that God “saved us not because of the righteous things we have done” (v. 5). Paul said elsewhere that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago” (Romans 3:20–21). To the believers in Ephesus Paul wrote, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
4. God Saves Us by His Grace
It is God’s undeserved kindness-his grace-that saves us. “Because of his grace he declared us righteous” (v. 7). This gift of grace is discussed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “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. . . So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 3:24; 5:21).
We accept God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ
One of the best passages that describes faith is in Ephesians 2. Let’s take a look at it together.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:8–10)
I’d also like to share the New American Standard Version of Ephesians 2:8
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. 3
These verses in Ephesians are some of the most quoted verses in all of the New Testament. Let’s take a look at their significance in three parts.
A. God’s Grace Allows for Our Faith
If it wasn’t for God’s “grace” we would not be able to accept the “gift of God” (v. 8). God provided the opportunity for us to be saved through faith, and that was God’s grace. Paul wrote a few verses earlier that “even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” (Ephesians 2:5). If it were not for God’s grace then there would be no opportunity for us to be saved by faith.
B. Our Salvation Is through Faith
I like the New American Standard Bible’s translation of Ephesians 2:8, “You have been saved through faith” (v. 8). Theologian Charles Ryrie says, “Salvation is always through faith, not because of faith (Eph 2:8). Faith is the channel through which we receive God’s gift of eternal life; it is not the cause” (Basic Theology, p. 377). I appreciate Harold Hoehner’s words, “Faith is not a ‘work.’ It does not merit salvation; it is only the means by which one accepts God’s free salvation” (Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, p. 624).
C. Faith Is a Theme of the New Testament
A quick survey shows that faith is a foundational part of the New Testament. For example, John wrote, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes [has faith] in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Peter taught, “And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see” (1 Peter 1:5). Also see John 3:36; 5:24; Romans 3:22, 25, 27; 4:5; 10:9; and Galatians 2:16.
As we look at these verses it becomes clear that faith (or belief) is the how we are saved. The apostles John, Paul, and Peter all teach about it in their writings. It certainly was something they wanted their readers to understand and it is something that we should apply today.
D. Faith Is the Theme of My Christian Life
Faith is what I have in God. I love God and believe that Jesus died for my sins. He is Lord over my life. That’s what faith is. Does it mean that I have all the answers? Does it mean that I always understand what God allows to happen? Does it mean nothing bad will ever happen to me? Of course not. But, by faith I put my trust in God for my salvation, and I commit to follow him.
“Faith is not a feeling we manufacture. It’s a confidence we have that God tells the truth and that truth is in His Word. The people of God who read the Bible daily and meditate on what they read will grow in faith and learn to trust God” (Wiersbe, Delights and Disciplines of Bible Study, p. 95).
We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ
A. In Galatians, Abraham Was Justified (declared righteous) by Faith
In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia he writes about Abraham and about how Abraham was justified (declared righteous) by faith.
In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous [justified] because of his faith.” The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)
One of the reasons I like to use the NLT is that it removes some of the “Christianese” language that is harder to understand. These are words such as “propitiation,” “sanctification,” and “justification.” When we come to verses such as Galatians 3:6-9, that word “justification” is also removed, but the concept is described. Please allow me to explain.
1. By faith, Abraham believed God, and God declared him righteous (justified).
Paul writes that “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous [justification] because of his faith” (Gal 3:6). This was a direct quote from Gen 15:6 and it was also quoted by Paul in Romans 4:3 as well by James in James 2:23.
2. By faith, We believe God, and God declares us righteous (justified).
Like Abraham, we are declared by God as righteous when we put our faith in God (Gal 3:8). While Abraham was the father of the Israelite nation and God revealed himself to the nation of Israel (Exodus through Deuteronomy), that has allowed Gentiles to enjoy the saving faith too. Paul says, “The Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith” (v. 8). God told Abraham “all the nations will be blessed through you” (Gal 3:8; which Paul quotes from Gen 12:3; 18:18). All who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing as Abraham: righteousness (justification).
B. In Other New Testament Books, Believers Are Justified by Faith
Multiple passages in the New Testament show us that all believers are justified by faith. For instance, Paul told the believers in Rome, “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Romans 1:17). Likewise, Paul reminded the Corinthians, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Also see Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:22, 25, 26, 28; 4:5; and Galatians 2:16.
I hope that you can see that this concept–justified by faith–is not something just casually mentioned in the New Testament. It is woven within the fabric of the New Testament and should be something we cling to as Christians.
IV. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. Seek opportunities to practice grace.
If you are like me, you don’t have a shortage of instances in your life when you can practice grace. When other people make mistakes, say things that hurt you, or don’t fulfill their commitments to you, you have an opportunity to practice grace. When those opportunities come, extend grace. Show people love and appreciation even when they have made mistakes, hurt you, or let you down. Yes, it will be hard, and won’t be natural. But, God has shown you grace, and you should show grace to others.
B. The best thing to do with a gift is to share it with others.
Grace, faith, and justification result in the gift of salvation from God. We didn’t earn it and we didn’t deserve it. Therefore, we should be compelled to share this gift with others. Don’t share it by standing at a street corner preaching at strangers walking by, but instead by allowing grace, faith, and justification to become part of your everyday conversations. A gift, this good, can’t be kept secret, and the best thing to do with it is share it with others.