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.”
Consider the NET’s 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.” 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.”
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 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. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 200.
 Schreiner, Romans, 203, footnote 5, citing A. Schlatter, Romans, Trans. S.S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995) 104.
 Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250–1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 216.