Exposition of Romans 3:27-28, Doing something differs from receiving something

One of the biggest barriers to fully accepting God’s way of saving us is that it does not involve the performance of actions over which we have control. Both in Jewish and Christian history, there has been a persistent tendency to create systems of works related to salvation. For example, some Christian groups make water baptism or attendance at mass into requirements that must be met to attain salvation.

But God has rejected salvation by works and replaced it with salvation by his gracious gift, which we may receive through faith in Jesus Christ. By this means, even the thief nailed to the cross next to Jesus was able to receive salvation through his faith apart from works (Luke 23:39-43).

(ESV) Romans 3:27-28

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Thomas Schreiner explains the meaning of these two verses: “Since righteousness is based on faith in what God has accomplished in Christ (verses 21-26) and not human works, boasting is ruled out.”[1]

Consider the NETs translation of Rom. 3:27: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded!” The initial word where expresses the Greek adverb pou, an adverb of place. The same adverb occurs in Matt. 2:2 when the wise men from the east asked King Herod, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” They were asking for a place.

This spatial language inspires a model of what Paul is saying. Imagine a sphere whose interior volume represents faith in Jesus Christ as the means of receiving righteousness from God. Any boasting about human effort belongs outside that sphere; human works and their associated boasting have nothing to do with righteousness from God. They are excluded from the sphere of salvation by faith.

Many of us have seen an analogy of this in Sumo wrestling, a sport popular in Japan. The sumo match takes place within a ring 15 feet in diameter. The match is won when one wrestler forces the other out of the ring. In the same way, faith pushes boasting and works right out of the circle of the gospel.

Paul is certainly not attacking the Law of Moses (see 3:31). Instead, he is restating his teaching that righteousness from God is “by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17, NIV).

Romans 3:28 plays an important role in Christian history. Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) was expelled from the Roman Catholic Church in part for his stand in defense of justification before God by faith alone (Latin sola fide). When Luther translated the New Testament into German, he rendered 3:28 with the phrase “faith alone,” and that became one of the rally-slogans for the Protestant Reformation. There were others: “Christ alone” and “grace alone,” for example.

Insofar as these Reformation slogans highlight Christ and faith and grace because of the emphasis the Bible places on them, they serve a constructive spiritual purpose. However, slogans forged in religious conflict can distort the biblical picture as well. It does not take much thought to realize that faith cannot truly be alone without slighting both Christ and grace.

There is another danger: the potential for overemphasis on faith that discourages both love and kindness. Schreiner supports Schlatter who says, “The effect of the glorification of faith, the sola, was disastrous if it meant the truncation of life that separates action from it [i.e. from faith] and leaves behind nothing but faith.”[2] This is exactly the kind of abstract, loveless faith that the apostle James spoke against in James 2:14-26.

But such potential problems pale in comparison to the advances made by the Reformation in helping the people understand God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Historian Stephen Osment describes those the Reformation attempted to enlighten: “Full, unconditional forgiveness of sin and assurance of salvation were utterly foreign concepts to medieval theology and religious practice.”[3]

Paul has reached his conclusion (“we hold” 3:28). Doing something, even actions compliant with the Law of Moses, may result in empty boasting, because no one keeps the law or puts God under obligation. Only by receiving God’s grace — his merciful gift — through faith in Jesus Christ may a person be declared righteous in God’s sight.

Grace and works are different

The idea of working for salvation easily crosses over into other abuses. Martin Luther fought against the sale of indulgences, a paper making a spiritual promise issued in exchange for financial compensation. Luther (Thesis 27) objected to one sales pitch which claimed, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” But God’s blessing, mercy and justice are not for sale!

1. How do we get confused about working to make a grade or get a paycheck and believe similar work is needed to earn salvation? How does this blur the line between cultural ideas and biblical truth?

2. Perhaps the opposite of working for salvation is the complete disregard of salvation either by faith or by works. Who among your non-Christian friends employs such a strategy? What can be done about it?

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9, ESV).

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 200.

[2] Schreiner, Romans, 203, footnote 5, citing A. Schlatter, Romans, Trans. S.S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995) 104.

[3] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 216.

Books: The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith

Roger E. Olson, a church historian and theologian at Baylor University, is conducting an illuminating dialogue on his blog concerning the book The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and he identifies himself as a former evangelical who has now joined the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the issues he raises in his book.[1]

Obviously, Smith has given his book a provocative title. That action appears to imitate the sad and blasphemous trend championed by such enemies of the Bible as Bart Ehrman (with titles like The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus: The story Behind who changed the Bible and why) and atheist Christopher Dawkins (The God Delusion). In saying that, I do not question the Christian faith of the author, just his wisdom.

At least outwardly, Smith wrote this book to attack what he calls biblicism. You probably want to know what he means by that term. I’m sorry you asked, because the answer is way too long. (Smith tends to unload everything in the truck in an apparent attempt to overwhelm the reader or critic.) Rather than giving you a data dump from the book, I will summarize each point in my own words.

Biblicism, according to Smith[2], consists of ten assumptions about the Bible — which I have greatly simplified — including its interpretation and its application:

  • Divine Writing: The words of the Bible are exactly what God wanted to say to us.
  • Total Representation: The Bible alone contains all that God has to say to us.
  • Complete Coverage: The Bible addresses every issue relevant to Christian faith and life.
  • Democratic Perspicuity: Christians can correctly understand the plain meaning of the Bible’s content simply by reading.
  • Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand the Bible is to accept the text’s most obvious literal sense, sometimes considering the original cultural context and sometimes not.
  • Solo Scriptura [a needless variant of the Sola Scriptura phrase (“The Bible alone”) of the Protestant Reformers]: Theology may be derived directly from the biblical text without regard for conclusions reached in church history.
  • Internal Harmony: All of the Bible’s statements about any theological subject may be harmonized.
  • Universal Applicability: What the Bible says to God’s people at any time is universally valid for all Christians, unless later revoked.
  • Inductive Method: Careful study of the entire Bible will allow the reader to discover the correct beliefs and practices.
  • Handbook Model: Using the Bible, the reader can assemble a complete handbook for Christian belief and practice on many subjects, “including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.”[3]

What is Smith’s complaint?

Smith believes the assumptions sketched above — collectively called “biblicism” — are held by as many as one hundred million American Christians.[4] Since he rejects all ten assumptions, Smith is greatly disturbed by that prospect.

Smith identifies the biggest problem with the form of Bible interpretation called biblicism to be “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (chapter 1). Smith says, “The very same Bible — which biblicists insist is perspicuous [clear] and harmonious — gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.”[5] In the remainder of this post, I will abbreviate “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as PIP.

Concerns about Smith’s critique

When I look at the specific way Smith has worded the assumptions that he says amount to biblicism, I find myself in agreement with only one of them, possibly two. So, my biblicism score is low even though my respect for the Bible could not be greater! Here are some other concerns.

First, I consider it disingenuous that Smith hammers evangelical Protestantism for PIP when the same theological diversity can readily be found within the ranks of his new faith, Roman Catholicism. Smith admits as much but buries the admission in the massed chapter notes at the back of the book (page 180, note 9). Smacks a bit of currying favor with his new management!

Second, I am a lot less concerned about PIP than Smith is. When I am reading Douglas Moo’s fine commentary on Romans and he describes ten different views that have been held about some Bible verse through the ages, it does not lead me to run screaming into the night and wailing about disunity. Sorry. As I read the Gospels, there seems to have been a divergence of viewpoints even among the twelve who walked with Jesus. Peter and Paul had some disagreements. Why does this diversity cause Smith such panic?

Third, the use of many quotes from evangelical doctrinal statements and other position papers to establish a baseline of belief seems misguided. It has unfortunately been a longstanding trait of human beings, Christian or not, to oversell their ideas. Reading a long doctrinal statement is often like reading the platform of a political party. Doctrinal statements are not the Bible, and they serve a limited purpose.

Fourth, Smith defines biblicism in such a way that it seems unlikely to fit very many of the people who call themselves evangelicals. I agree with Roger Olson that fundamentalists are Smith’s primary target. Yet Smith speaks as if the definition fits a much larger group of people (“perhaps as many as a hundred million” page 6).

Fifth, I must agree with Smith about the lame idea of using the Bible as a handbook for everything (cooking, exercise, health, cosmology, etc.). Some Christian publishers and bookstores are a scandal in that they offer so much theological junk!

Sixth, I don’t understand why anyone would think the Bible is easy to understand, no matter who said so! Even the Apostle Peter said some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). When I have Peter’s comment on the subject, not even Calvin and Luther can change my mind.

All in all, Smith has made a few cogent points, but I see a swarm of problems. As we work further into the book it will be interesting to see if the magic solution is to allow some higher authority — say, for example, the Roman Catholic Church — to get rid of PIP by telling us the one authoritative interpretation for each Bible passage. No thanks!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011) xiii.

[2] Smith, Impossible, 4–5.

[3] Smith, Impossible, 5.

[4] Smith, Impossible, 6.

[5] Smith, Impossible, 17.

Review of NIV 2011 by Daniel Wallace

In late July, 2011, Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary completed a four-part review of the NIV 2011, the latest major entry in English Bible translations. It is well worth your time to read his views. I forewarn you that when you first land on his blog, Dan’s picture makes him look like a Scottish mullah — however unlikely you find that description. Don’t let that stop you!

In Part 1, Dan provides a brief history of English Bible translation in order to set the NIV 2011 in its historical context. That is a helpful way to begin, especially for those who have no knowledge of trends in the production of such translations. Please don’t be one of those people who think history does not matter, because this field would prove you wrong.

In Part 2, Dan gives his now-familiar spiel on how literal translation is totally inadequate for idioms, and I suppose he does so to forestall those who demand that a translation always be literal. His argument is convincing, though it fails to address the legitimacy of less-than-literal translation in the vast territory outside of idioms.

One key statement says, “The primary focus of the NIV 2011 is an accurate translation (more on this later), and one has to admit that they have accomplished this objective admirably.” Another summary conclusion says: “The scholarship behind the NIV 2011 is probably as good as it gets. And the textual basis [Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic text within the Bible] is both bold and exceptionally accurate.” This is high praise from someone of Wallace’s standing among textual critics.

In Part 3, Dan discusses weaknesses of NIV 2011. The most important finding, in my opinion, is stated this way: “In this instance [1 Tim. 3:2], as in many instances throughout the NIV, I would have preferred that the translators retained a more interpretive-neutral stance as long as the English rendition wasn’t nonsense.”

Wallace offers “husband of one wife,” in 1 Tim. 3:2,  but NIV 2011 has “faithful to his wife.” This translation by NIV 2011 picks a favored interpretation from “a myriad of views.” The translation “husband of one wife” is what Wallace calls “an interpretive-neutral stance,” but the reader who has no skill with New Testament Greek reads the narrower “faithful to his wife” and does not realize that a choice has been made when other viable choices were available. NIV 2011 does not even provide a footnote, which would have been preferable here.

Wallace has some other material you will not want to miss, including a table that compares the NET Bible, NIV 2011, ESV, KJV, RSV, NRSV, RV, ASV and NASB in relation to elegance, accuracy and readability. Fascinating! One thing Dan did not do was to sum up all the scores and see how they stood in relation to each other. Out of a possible 30 points, ESV took the honors with 24, closely trailed by NET Bible and RSV at 23 points and NIV 2011 at 22 points. Remember that I am the one who summed up the points; Dan would probably say that elegance, accuracy and reliability are only three factors among many ways to compare translations. But it was still fun!

In Part 4, Dan puts a nice bow on the package: “As with the handful of other exceptional translations, the NIV 2011 definitely should be one that the well-equipped English-speaking Christian has on his or her shelf, and one that they consult often for spiritual nourishment.”

For what it’s worth, that is my conclusion as well.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.