From all this Paul infers that it is in vain to look for justification by the works of the law, and that it is to be had only by faith, which is the point he has been all along proving, from Rom. 1:17; and which he lays down (Rom. 3:28) as the summary of his discourse, with a quod erat demonstrandum—which was to be demonstrated. We conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law; not by the deeds of the first law of pure innocence, which left no room for repentance, nor the deeds of the law of nature, how highly soever improved, nor the deeds of the ceremonial law (the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin), nor the deeds of the moral law, which are certainly included, for he speaks of that law by which is the knowledge of sin and those works which might be matter of boasting. Man, in his depraved state, under the power of such corruption, could never, by any works of his own, gain acceptance with God; but it must be resolved purely into the free grace of God, given through Jesus Christ to all true believers that receive it as a free gift. If we had never sinned, our obedience to the law would have been our righteousness: “Do this, and live.” But having sinned, and being corrupted, nothing that we can do will atone for our former guilt. It was by their obedience to the moral law that the Pharisees looked for justification, Luke 18:11. Now there are two things from which the apostle here argues: the guiltiness of man, to prove that we cannot be justified by the works of the law, and the glory of God, to prove that we must be justified by faith.
I. He argues from man’s guiltiness, to show the folly of expecting justification by the works of the law. The argument is very plain: we can never be justified and saved by the law that we have broken. A convicted traitor can never come off by pleading the statute of 25 Edward III., for that law discovers his crime and condemns him: indeed, if he had never broken it, he might have been justified by it; but now it is past that he has broken it, and there is no way of coming off but by pleading the act of indemnity, upon which he has surrendered and submitted himself, and humbly and penitently claiming the benefit of it and casting himself upon it. Now concerning the guiltiness of man,
1. He fastens it particularly upon the Jews; for they were the men that made their boast of the law, and set up for justification by it. He had quoted several scriptures out of the Old Testament to show this corruption: Now, says he (Rom. 3:19), this that the law says, it says to those who are under the law; this conviction belongs to the Jews as well as others, for it is written in their law. The Jews boasted of their being under the law, and placed a great deal of confidence in it: “But,” says he, “the law convicts and condemns you—you see it does.” That every mouth may be stopped—that all boasting may be silenced. See the method that God takes both in justifying and condemning: he stops every mouth; those that are justified have their mouths stopped by a humble conviction; those that are condemned have their mouths stopped too, for they shall at last be convinced (Jude 1:15), and sent speechless to hell, Matt. 22:12. All iniquity shall stop her mouth, Ps. 107:42.
2. He extends it in general to all the world: That all the world may become guilty before God. If the world likes in wickedness (1 John 5:19), to be sure it is guilty.—May become guilty; that is, may be proved guilty, liable to punishment, all by nature children of wrath, Eph. 2:3. They must all plead guilty; those that stand most upon their own justification will certainly be cast. Guilty before God is a dreadful word, before an all-seeing God, that is not, nor can be, deceived in his judgment—before a just and righteous judge, who will by no means clear the guilty. All are guilty, and therefore all have need of a righteousness wherein to appear before God. For all have sinned (Rom. 3:23); all are sinners by nature, by practice, and have come short of the glory of God—have failed of that which is the chief end of man. Come short, as the archer comes short of the mark, as the runner comes short of the prize; so come short, as not only not to win, but to be great losers. Come short of the glory of God. (1.) Come short of glorifying God. See Rom. 1:21; They glorified him not as God. Man was placed at the head of the visible creation, actively to glorify that great Creator whom the inferior creatures could glorify only objectively; but man by sin comes short of this, and, instead of glorifying God, dishonours him. It is a very melancholy consideration, to look upon the children of men, who were made to glorify God, and to think how few there are that do it. (2.) Come short of glorying before God. There is no boasting of innocency: if we go about to glory before God, to boast of any thing we are, or have, or do, this will be an everlasting estoppel—that we have all sinned, and this will silence us. We may glory before men, who are short-sighted, and cannot search our hearts,—who are corrupt, as we are, and well enough pleased with sin; but there is no glorying before God, who cannot endure to look upon iniquity. (3.) Come short of being glorified by God. Come short of justification, or acceptance with God, which is glory begun—come short of the holiness or sanctification which is the glorious image of God upon man, and have overthrown all hopes and expectations of being glorified with God in heaven by any righteousness of their own. It is impossible now to get to heaven in the way of spotless innocency. That passage is blocked up. There is a cherub and a flaming sword set to keep that way to the tree of life.
3. Further to drive us off from expecting justification by the law, he ascribes this conviction to the law (Rom. 3:20): For by the law is the knowledge of sin. That law which convicts and condemns us can never justify us. The law is the straight rule, that rectum which is index sui et obliqui—that which points out the right and the wrong; it is the proper use and intendment of the law to open our wound, and therefore not likely to be the remedy. That which is searching is not sanative. Those that would know sin must get the knowledge of the law in its strictness, extent, and spiritual nature. If we compare our own hearts and lives with the rule, we shall discover wherein we have turned aside. Paul makes this use of the law, Rom. 7:9; Therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight. Observe, (1.) No flesh shall be justified, no man, no corrupted man (Gen. 6:3), for that he also is flesh, sinful and depraved; therefore not justified, because we are flesh. The corruption that remains in our nature will for ever obstruct any justification by our own works, which, coming from flesh, must needs taste of the cask, Job 14:4. (2.) Not justified in his sight. He does not deny that justification which was by the deeds of the law in the sight of the church: they were, in their church-estate, as embodied in a polity, a holy people, a nation of priests; but as the conscience stands in relation to God, in his sight, we cannot be justified by the deeds of the law. The apostle refers to Ps. 143:2.
II. He argues from God’s glory to prove that justification must be expected only by faith in Christ’s righteousness. There is no justification by the works of the law. Must guilty man then remain eternally under wrath? Isa. there no hope? Isa. the wound become incurable because of transgression? No, blessed be God, it is not (Rom. 3:21, 22); there is another way laid open for us, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested now under the gospel. Justification may be obtained without the keeping of Moses’s law: and this is called the righteousness of God, righteousness of his ordaining, and providing, and accepting,—righteousness which he confers upon us; as the Christian armour is called the armour of God, Eph. 6:11.
1. Now concerning this righteousness of God observe, (1.) That it is manifested. The gospel-way of justification is a high-way, a plain way, it is laid open for us: the brazen serpent is lifted up upon the pole; we are not left to grope our way in the dark, but it is manifested to us. (2.) It is without the law. Here he obviates the method of the judaizing Christians, who would needs join Christ and Moses together—owning Christ for the Messiah, and yet too fondly retaining the law, keeping up the ceremonies of it, and imposing it upon the Gentile converts: no, says he, it is without the law. The righteousness that Christ hath brought in is a complete righteousness. (3.) Yet it is witnessed by the law and the prophets; that is, there were types, and prophecies, and promises, in the Old Testament, that pointed at this. The law is so far from justifying us that it directs us to another way of justification, points at Christ as our righteousness, to whom bear all the prophets witness. See Acts 10:43. This might recommend it to the Jews, who were so fond of the law and the prophets. (4.) It is by the faith of Jesus Christ, that faith which hath Jesus Christ for its object—an anointed Saviour, so Jesus Christ signifies. Justifying faith respects Christ as a Saviour in all his three anointed offices, as prophet, priest, and king—trusting in him, accepting of him, and adhering to him, in all these. It is by this that we become interested in that righteousness which God has ordained, and which Christ has brought in. (5.) It is to all, and upon all, those that believe. In this expression he inculcates that which he had been often harping upon, that Jews and Gentiles, if they believe, stand upon the same level, and are alike welcome to God through Christ; for there is no difference. Or, it is eis pantas—to all, offered to all in general; the gospel excludes none that do not exclude themselves; but it is epi pantas tous pisteuontas, upon all that believe, not only tendered to them, but put upon them as a crown, as a robe; they are, upon their believing, interested in it, and entitled to all the benefits and privileges of it.
2. But now how is this for God’s glory?
(1.) It is for the glory of his grace (Rom. 3:24): Justified freely by his grace—dorean te autou chariti. It is by his grace, not by the grace wrought in us as the papists say, confounding justification and sanctification, but by the gracious favour of God to us, without any merit in us so much as foreseen. And, to make it the more emphatic, he says it is freely by his grace, to show that it must be understood of grace in the most proper and genuine sense. It is said that Joseph found grace in the sight of his master (Gen. 39:4), but there was a reason; he saw that what he did prospered. There was something in Joseph to invite that grace; but the grace of God communicated to us comes freely, freely; it is free grace, mere mercy; nothing in us to deserve such favours: no, it is all through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. It comes freely to us, but Christ bought it, and paid dearly for it, which yet is so ordered as not to derogate from the honour of free grace. Christ’s purchase is no bar to the freeness of God’s grace; for grace provided and accepted this vicarious satisfaction.
(2.) It is for the glory of his justice and righteousness (Rom. 3:25, 26): Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, etc. Note, [1.] Jesus Christ is the great propitiation, or propitiatory sacrifice, typified by the hilasterion, or mercy-seat, under the law. He is our throne of grace, in and through whom atonement is made for sin, and our persons and performances are accepted of God, 1 John 2:2. He is all in all in our reconciliation, not only the maker, but the matter of it—our priest, our sacrifice, our altar, our all. God was in Christ as in his mercy-seat, reconciling the world unto himself. [2.] God hath set him forth to be so. God, the party offended, makes the first overtures towards a reconciliation, appoints the days-man; proetheto—fore-ordained him to this, in the counsels of his love from eternity, appointed, anointed him to it, qualified him for it, and has exhibited him to a guilty world as their propitiation. See Matt. 3:17; 17:5. [3.] That by faith in his blood we become interested in this propitiation. Christ is the propitiation; there is the healing plaster provided. Faith is the applying of this plaster to the wounded soul. And this faith in the business of justification hath a special regard to the blood of Christ, as that which made the atonement; for such was the divine appointment that without blood there should be no remission, and no blood but his would do it effectually. Here may be an allusion to the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifices under the law, as Exod. 24:8. Faith is the bunch of hyssop, and the blood of Christ is the blood of sprinkling. [4.] That all who by faith are interested in this propitiation have the remission of their sins that are past. It was for this that Christ was set forth to be a propitiation, in order to remission, to which the reprieves of his patience and forbearance were a very encouraging preface. Through the forbearance of God. Divine patience has kept us out of hell, that we might have space to repent, and get to heaven. Some refer the sins that are past to the sins of the Old-Testament saints, which were pardoned for the sake of the atonement which Christ in the fulness of time was to make, which looked backward as well as forward. Past through the forbearance of God. It is owing to the divine forbearance that we were not taken in the very act of sin. Several Greek copies make en te anoche tou Theou—through the forbearance of God, to begin Rom. 3:26; and they denote two precious fruits of Christ’s merit and God’s grace:—Remission: dia ten paresin—for the remission; and reprieves: the forbearance of God. It is owing to the master’s goodness and the dresser’s mediation that barren trees are let alone in the vineyard; and in both God’s righteousness is declared, in that without a mediator and a propitiation he would not only not pardon, but not so much as forbear, not spare a moment; it is owning to Christ that there is ever a sinner on this side hell. [5.] That God does in all this declare his righteousness. This he insists upon with a great deal of emphasis: To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness. It is repeated, as that which has in it something surprising. He declares his righteousness, First, In the propitiation itself. Never was there such a demonstration of the justice and holiness of God as there was in the death of Christ. It appears that he hates sin, when nothing less than the blood of Christ would satisfy for it. Finding sin, though but imputed, upon his own Son, he did not spare him, because he had made himself sin for us, 2 Cor. 5:21. The iniquities of us all being laid upon him, though he was the Son of his love, yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him, Isa. 53:10. Secondly, In the pardon upon that propitiation; so it follows, by way of explication: That he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth. Mercy and truth are so met together, righteousness and peace have so kissed each other, that it is now become not only an act of grace and mercy, but an act of righteousness, in God, to pardon the sins of penitent believers, having accepted the satisfaction that Christ by dying made to his justice for them. It would not comport with his justice to demand the debt of the principal when the surety has paid it and he has accepted that payment in full satisfaction. See 1 John 1:9. He is just, that is, faithful to his word.
(3.) It is for God’s glory; for boasting is thus excluded, Rom. 3:27. God will have the great work of the justification and salvation of sinners carried on from first to last in such a way as to exclude boasting, that no flesh may glory in his presence, 1 Cor. 1:29-31. Now, if justification were by the works of the law, boasting would not be excluded. How should it? If we were saved by our own works, we might put the crown upon our own heads. But the law of faith, that is, the way of justification by faith, doth for ever exclude boasting; for faith is a depending, self-emptying, self-denying grace, and casts every crown before the throne; therefore it is most for God’s glory that thus we should be justified. Observe, He speaks of the law of faith. Believers are not left lawless: faith is a law, it is a working grace, wherever it is in truth; and yet, because it acts in a strict and close dependence upon Jesus Christ, it excludes boasting.
From all this he draws this conclusion (Rom. 3:28): That a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
III. In the close of the chapter he shows the extent of this privilege of justification by faith, and that it is not the peculiar privilege of the Jews, but pertains to the Gentiles also; for he had said (Rom. 3:22) that there is no difference: and as to this, 1. He asserts and proves it (Rom. 3:29): Isa. he the God of the Jews only? He argues from the absurdity of such a supposition. Can it be imagined that a God of infinite love and mercy should limit and confine his favours to that little perverse people of the Jews, leaving all the rest of the children of men in a condition eternally desperate? This would by no means agree with the idea we have of the divine goodness, for his tender mercies are over all his works; therefore it is one God of grace that justifies the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith, that is, both in one and the same way. However the Jews, in favour of themselves, will needs fancy a difference, really there is no more difference than between by and through, that is, no difference at all. 2. He obviates an objection (Rom. 3:31), as if this doctrine did nullify the law, which they knew came from God: “No,” says he, “though we do say that the law will not justify us, yet we do not therefore say that it was given in vain, or is of no use to us; no, we establish the right use of the law, and secure its standing, by fixing it on the right basis. The law is still of use to convince us of what is past, and to direct us for the future; though we cannot be saved by it as a covenant, yet we own it, and submit to it, as a rule in the hand of the Mediator, subordinate to the law of grace; and so are so far from overthrowing that we establish the law.” Let those consider this who deny the obligation of the moral law on believers.