Chinese Theological Review 14

Justification by Faith

Du Fengying

Romans 3: 21-26

Though Paul wrote the Book of Romans as a letter to the Christians in Rome, it is really a letter to all humankind. The gospel it announces, of Jesus Christ's redemption of humanity, is universal, a message for people through the ages. It is not a gospel just for Jews, but for everyone. Paul opened up the walls around Judaism, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ quickly and widely among the gentiles. Gentiles as well as Jews must rely on the grace of God and believe in the redemption in Christ Jesus before they can be acceptable to God. This is because "without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him"(Heb. 11:6).

Why must we believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved? The Bible says: "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Whether you admit it or not, you cannot escape punishment for sin. This is first of all the death of the body. Why can we as humans not escape the power of death? Why can we not live forever? The Bible tells us, "The price of sin is death." Because all have sinned, all must die. Second is the judgement after death. "And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment..." Death in this world is the final end of human beings, but for each one death is only the beginning. The Bible says, "On the day of wrath ... he will repay according to each one's deeds" (Rom. 2:5, 6).

Since ancient times, human beings have sought all kinds of ways to escape the wrath of God, but all to no avail. The Jews thought reliance on the Law would save them, but the Law could not protect them. The Jews were very clear that they had failed in many ways. Without the merciful heart of God, and his tolerant judgment, they would certainly have been destroyed. Paul was a Jew and devoted to the Law, he knew well its role. But under the bonds of the Law, he cried out: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7: 24). The Law cannot rescue a person from the dominion of death. Abide by the Law, but sin is still in control. The Law calls upon people to admit their sin; it also defines sin. When people know what sin is they should be able to do good and keep far from any contact with sin. But humans' corrupt nature becomes sin's opportunity. It acts within, calling people to greed and arrogance and all manner of evil. We could say then that sin lives. Thus the commandment calling people to life becomes the stipulation to death. Paul says, "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom. 7: 19). The things we do are always contrary to our wishes. We intend to do good, but sin dominates us, controls us (our inner desires as well as external influences), and thus whatever we do comes from that evil one. A battle is going on within us and this battle, with our conscience's censure, is more painful than death. Thus Paul's cry: "Wretched man that I am!"

Thus we see that the Law is unable to help people cast off sin. How then could circumcision fend off the wrath of God? Circumcision was a sign of the covenant God made with the Israelites. The Jews believe that this mark of God is tantamount to entering into a hidden refuge. In response to this, Paul pointed out that even circumcision could not protect them from God's wrath. Circumcision is only effective in conjunction with keeping the Law; the Law and circumcision are closely linked. And so circumcision cannot help one evade God's judgment either.

It is in a place like this, at the end of your rope, that you come suddenly to clarity: "Thanks be to God. We rely on our Lord Jesus Christ!" Yes, relying on our Lord, a brand new thing has today entered into human history, and that is God's righteousness. This is a joyous message. The New Testament has supplanted the wrath of God from Old Testament times with the rule of God's present righteousness. God's righteousness is not a righteousness that comes from the Law, it appears "outside the Law". God's righteousness is the righteousness of "faith", it is the righteousness that comes from belief in Jesus Christ. "The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." In the original language, this phrase means given to and descending upon all who believe. Here, "descending upon" refers to something that comes from above and descends upon a person's physical body, possessing and guiding that person. Thus, descending upon all who believe means that because we believe in him, we gain the righteousness that God gives unto us. It is not some sort of quality within ourselves, but an initiative that enters us from God, through which God changes our existence and renews our environment.

In the past God's wrath came down from heaven to pursue humans. Humans were destined for death. Now, because of Christ, righteousness and life have descended upon the heads of all who believe. Because of God's grace, humans now are included in God's own righteousness. Wrath is a kind of external power, using its strength to destroy people. In the same way, God's righteousness is an external power, using its strength to realize redemption and enable people to gain eternal life.

You need only "confess with your lips ... and believe in your heart ... you will be saved." Our faith comes without conditions of any sort. Some may say: "Faith is essential to salvation, without faith, the gospel has no power for a person." I believe that a person's faith is a witness that the gospel is already working its power within him or her; that is the gospel's power, to enable one to believe. When Paul said, "The gospel is the might of God, that will save all who believe," he never thought of assigning to God or to humans required contributions to saving grace. For a person who has accepted Jesus as savior, this is faith that has been called up within him or her by the gospel. Thus, I f we believe, we must be saved, have life and be justified. Therefore, I dare to affirm that in the moment when we believe God has forgiven our sins it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. He causes us to die to sin and live in righteousness. Before, we lived under the Law, and this made us even more subject to it and put us under the rule of sin. Paul said, "The power of sin is the Law." The Law, like sin, belongs to the former age. When Jesus has become our Lord, we are no longer under the Law, but in the midst of grace. And living in the midst of grace, we have "cast off sin." Though we still live "in the flesh", the Spirit of Clod lives within us, enabling us to walk with the Spirit, doing all sorts of good, and to bear the fruits of righteousness.

Yet this word "belief," so easy to write, is very difficult to confess from the heart, because such belief is not of the mind only, but of the soul. This confidence enables us to act out our belief. Many people, because they are unwilling to believe, lose God's vast grace. Some, though they strive to perfect themselves, fall into suffering, wandering towards despair like Nietzsche. Some others think to rely on human strength, wealth and authority, but none of these can enable a person to cast off his or her bonds, only reliance on our Lord can do that. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4: 12). Thanks be to God faith in Christ is the one way to salvation.

"Justification by faith" is the new and living road God opened before us when we were in a place of danger. God's grace covers our sins and makes us children of God, sharing in the abundance of God's grace. We must not only thank God for this, but witness to God in our real lives, that our every action speaks of new life and our actions reflect the grace we have been given.

Nanjing Journal of Theology, No. I (2000), p.15.

The author is pastor of Gangwa Church in Beijing.