What then becomes of our boasting? —Romans 3:27
God says that our lives lack all justification. What right do we have to be here, breathing God’s air, eating God’s food, tramping on God’s earth? And our own hearts give out the same negative verdict. Deep in our hearts every day is a drama of justification – either free justification in Christ relaxing us or earned self-justification making us insecure. Every one of us can probably tell a story of how we’ve gone through life trying to prove ourselves in one way after another, and even in success finding that it doesn’t mean to us what we’d hoped. Arthur Miller, in his play “After the Fall,” has one of the main characters say this:
Look at my life. A life, after all, is evidence. You know, more and more I think that for many years I looked at life like a case at law, a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise or powerful or whatever. But underlying it all, I see now, was a presumption that I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation where I would be justified, or even condemned – a verdict, anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day, and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself- this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. Which, of course, is another way of saying – despair.
If you don’t believe in God, where else is there to go? But all of us understand what Miller is talking about – the courtroom drama going on and on in our hearts over whether we’re justified or condemned as brave, smart, all the rest. We think about this. We feel it deeply. “Am I proving myself?” And naturally, we can never admit we’re wrong, with so much at stake. So when the gospel talks about justification, God is speaking deeply into our hearts. He’s saying, “Let me establish your worth, your okayness, your validity. I sent Jesus into this world of self-justification. He lived the only life that deserves read credit. He died a death weighed down with the shame of other people. He was raised again as living proof that his life and death really count with me. And I’m offering him to you as your own. Receive him with the empty hands of faith, and that’s all I need to declare your life worth living.” That’s what we’ve been learning in Romans 3:21-26.
Now this new paragraph surprises me. This isn’t what I expect. After just telling us how God found a way to justify us without lowering his own standards, after telling us that God found a way for his conscience to be happy about us, where might Paul go next? What might you expect as his follow-up? I’d expect Paul to start praising God. He does over in chapter 11, after explaining how God’s hand guides human history. He breaks out in praise then. But here, after what some believe is the greatest paragraph ever written about God, Paul doesn’t go kaboom with a fourth-of-July explosion of worship fireworks. What does he do? He warns us against boasting. He has just told us about the triumph of God at the cross, and now he tells us that our boasting has no place. Why? Because with every new breakthrough in spiritual understanding also comes a temptation to boast. We read verses 21-26 about justification by faith, it was once theoretical, now it starts making sense and moving our hearts with power, we’re humbled that God is both just and our justifier through the cross – and as soon as that truth starts sinking in, we feel pretty good about ourselves for finally getting it. That’s why verses 27-31 are here – our spiritual pride.
Maybe you know The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It’s a fictitious collection of memos written by a senior devil to a junior devil who is tempting a Christian man living in England during World War II. At one point the senior devil writes to the junior devil,
Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility – will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of the attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this for too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.
We all understand that, don’t we? With every new discovery of God’s grace our hearts also generate new feelings of self-admiration. That’s when we need to laugh at ourselves and admire all the more the grace of God to proud people like you and me.
But boasting is more than a Christian problem. It’s a human problem. It’s the noise God has to shut down in our heads, so that we can start hearing him. Remember verse 19: “. . . so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The primary barrier between us and God is our pride – not our big, spectacular sins but our proud excuses about all our sins. For example, Romans 1 showed us people living for the moment and doing whatever they feel like doing. They’ve proudly shut God out, even though deep down they know he’s there. Romans 2 showed us other people with a strict moral code and high standards of behavior. They’ve proudly put themselves above following their own rules. Romans 2 also showed us people with Bibles in their hands. They’re proudly sure that they’re qualified to tell everybody else how to live. The whole human race is infested with pride. Romans 3:18 sums it up: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Is Nashville, Tennessee, trembling before God this morning? Then Romans chapter 3 showed us God. How does God respond to proud people like us? He comes down, is born humbly in Bethlehem, grows up as an egoless nobody, and dies an unjust, horrible death without one word complaint. What then becomes of our boasting?
There’s another reason why Paul confronts boasting here in verses 27-31. He’s going somewhere in the book of Romans. The gospel creates community. That’s where Paul is going. Everything he says is moving toward chapters 12-16 and how we live the gospel out together in community. It isn’t just gospel-awakened individuals there in the climactic section of the book but a gospel-centered community. Grace brings us together. Pride tears us apart. So here we are back in chapter 3, we’re still resonating with verses 21-26, we’re still at the foot of the cross, but Paul doesn’t take one more step, he doesn’t let us move a muscle, before showing us a land mine that’s never far away, even from our experience of the cross. That land mine is spiritual pride. It’s why Paul now deconstructs boasting and superiority and aloofness and self-importance and all the rest. He does so by asking four questions.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. —Romans 3:27
We can never say to God, “You owe me. Give me what I deserve.” That’s boasting. And God himself has excluded all boasting. How? There are two ways to relate to God. One way is our way, the pay-as-you-go plan, earning our own righteousness and entitlements. And as long as we think we’re out ahead, we boast. The other way to relate to God is God’s way, the free debit card of righteousness. Christ has filled an account in God’s bank with his merit, and God gives this card to us, no annual fee, we receive it with the empty hands of faith, and we relate to God on a new basis from then on. We draw on Christ to pay our debts for us moment by moment. He himself and he alone opens all doors for us every step of the way. That is God’s way. It includes gratitude and humility and meekness and relaxedness and happiness and laughter and depth of purpose, and it excludes boasting. Jonathan Edwards taught us that humility reveals God working in our hearts:
All gracious affections that are a sweet odor to Christ and that fill the soul of the Christian with a heavenly sweetness and fragrance are broken-hearted affections . . . . [A Christian’s] joy, even when it is unspeakable and full of glory is a humble, broken-hearted joy and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit and more like a little child and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior.
The gospel humbles us. Our self-image changes. What impresses a Christian is not how much he loves God but how little he loves God compared with how much God loves him. A Christian isn’t satisfied with himself, but he’s stunned by Christ. In fact, he sees no act of obedience to Christ as beneath his dignity. Boasting has been excluded. And if you’re not a Christian but you’re thinking about it, here’s the only price ultimately you’ll pay to follow Christ. You’ll have to lose your pride. Is that too much to ask, to have the Lord Jesus Christ, and on terms of grace?
By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. —Romans 3:27-28
Paul helps us think it through. What is it about the gospel that excludes boasting? By what principle or law or logic is a non-boasting mentality sustained? After all, this is a whole new way of thinking. We need a strong gospel to help us. The best way to get at these verses is to quote how J. B. Phillips paraphrases them:
What happens now to human pride of 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.
What does Paul understand about us? That the law doesn’t just beat us down; it also puffs us up – at least, initially. The problem with performance-based Christianity – that’s what Paul means by “works” – the problem is not that it makes us feel like failures; it can make us feel successful, and proud of it. “I have obeyed. I’ve done my bit. I’m no slacker. What about you?” That’s why Paul goes out of his way now to insist on justification by faith alone. Not justification by faith plus works but apart from works.
One day a man came to Jesus for help. The Lord said to him, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). If you want God, you probably know enough about yourself to be scared. Jesus says to you today, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, “Yes, you have reasons to be scared. But I am all the help you will ever need to the furthest extent. Trust me. It’s all I ask. If you’ll trust me, I promise to take care of everything forever.” And we say, “You mean I bring nothing but my need?” And he says, “Nothing but your need. Just bring it to me.” And we say, “You’re not asking me to put up some obedience first, to show good faith?” And he says, “Exactly.” And we say, “My works can’t enhance my position with you?” And he says, “No. I’ve already obeyed for you, in your place.” And we say, “But what if I go on and sin? Doesn’t that put me back to square one?” And he says, “You’re already proven to me you can sin. Don’t you think I took that into account? ‘It is finished,’ remember? I don’t need your help. You’re coming to me for my help. I am your everything. Will you believe that?”
That’s the conversation we need to have with him in our hearts. It’s freeing. Some Christians get all tied up in knots because they trust the Lord some, but they complicate it by adding in their own works and their own rules and their own smallness. They’re constantly struggling with “Can I do this?” and “Is it okay to do that?” We all want to be conscientious. But the Lord has put the whole matter on another plane. It’s about Christ. Christianity is not basically ethics; it’s faith. This is why Augustine could say, “Love God, and do as you please.” Grace provides all the motivation we need to obey. That bedrock of the okayness you long to feel firmly under your feet comes from Christ alone and you receive it by faith alone. Christ has done everything for us. We now enter in with a total Yes to the total Christ. That is faith. And God says it’s enough.
Paul takes another stab at it with a third question – this one a little surprising. He looks at justification and culture:
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. —Romans 3:29-30
Do you see what Paul is doing? He takes a central truth of the Bible, that there is only one true God, and what does he do with it? He uses it to prove that nobody owns God, that God can’t be limited to one culture, not even to the Jewish people he chose so long ago. One God, one justification for all alike. Paul is not saying that anyone can have God, whatever they think or believe. He’s talking about justification by faith in Christ. If he were living today, Paul might say it this way: “Do you believe there is only one God, one true religion, and Jesus is the only way to God? Good. Then do you see all that human diversity out there in the spread of global Christianity and all those different people coming to Christ and being received by Christ just as they are? Do you see how perfect that is? One Savior for diverse people with all their differences and no one dominant culture? It has to be by faith alone!”
If you have a hard time believing that there’s only one way to God, maybe this verse will help. The Bible is showing you here that the gospel is both exclusive – Christ alone – but also inclusive at the same time. Christ is all anyone needs to be kosher with God. They can be who they are in their background and language and culture and dress and music and so forth. It’s other religions that end up imposing some human culture on outsiders. There’s no way, for example, to be a good Muslim without conforming to Arab culture. Islamic religion and Arab culture are joined together. That religion is built with human barriers. But gospel community is unified by a spirit of faith in Jesus Christ deep in the heart. The externals of human diversity are valued, because they magnify his perfect adequacy for everyone. Is that kind of exclusivity really so bad?
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold the law. —Romans 3:31
Paul’s final point is simple. If being good enough doesn’t win you justification with God, why be good at all? The message of justification by faith alone is obviously so radical, does it undermine God’s law? Should we fear the influence of the gospel? Is it the end of civilization as we know it? No. It’s the only way we get traction to obey God’s law. Remember a few weeks ago as put these two sentences together: “God loves me,” and “I obey God.” And we saw there are two ways to join those sentences. First, “God loves me, because I obey God.” Second, “God loves me; therefore I obey God.” The first might sound good, and it can certainly feel virtuous, but it ends up subverting the law, because weak sinners like us will always start looking for loopholes. The second way of thinking – “God loves me; therefore I obey God” – that is the gospel. The love of God is the only creative force for good in all the world, and it can change anyone. Legalism is morally worthless. Grace is morally powerful. Christ wins your heart by loving you first. And then he calls your heart to love him back.
If you are not a Christian believer, you’ve met arrogant Christians. They were arrogant not because the gospel made them that way but because they were fighting the gospel in their hearts. You’ve seen today that the gospel excludes boasting and demands humility. As the old hymn says, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.” What about you? If you value humility, and you do, then why push away the greatest source of humility the world has ever known – Jesus Christ crucified for you?