Taken from Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry in Robert Godfrey’s chapter titled “Faith Formed by Love or Faith alone?
The true biblical doctrine of justification by faith has to be formulated with great precision and care to teach both the glorious free justification that we have in Christ and its fruit in holiness. True doctrine is like walking a tight rope. One can fall off the right rope of justification in two directions: the antinomian direction and the neonomian direction. Both the antinomian and the neonomian miss the biblical doctrine of justification.
As Paul vindicated himself from the charge of antinomianism, so he warned the Roman church against neonomianism. He refuted the teaching of his opponents, which seemed to be saying that Gentiles could be right with God only if they would become Jews and keep the law of Moses. Paul’s opponents taught that the gospel was the good news that Gentiles at long last could become Jews and enter into the inheritance of the preferred status of Jews, but Paul insisted that this was not the gospel.
Paul readily acknowledged that Jews enjoyed certain priorities and privileges in redemptive history (Rom 1:16; 3:1-2). He went on to argue, however, that in a fundamental sense Jews and Gentiles were in exactly the same situation before God. Paul stressed that point in part to refute his critics, who were constantly teaching superiority of Judaism and insisting that Gentiles needed to become Jews.
In contrast, Paul declared that Jews and Gentiles were in the same situation. They both have law and they both were obligated to live by it. Obviously, the Jews had the law in the Torah, but Paul belabored the point in Romans to make clear that Gentiles also know at least something of the holy will of God. The Gentiles know the truth (1:18, 25), they possess knowledge of God (1:19, 28), and they have derived understanding from creation (1:20) or from nature (1:26). Gentiles know the righteous decree of God (1:32), and indeed they have the law written in their hearts (2:14-15).
…His [Paul’s] basic point was simply this: the Jews have the law, the Gentiles have the law, and they are all obligated to live according to the law that they have. He went on to conclude that everyone would be judged according to the law that they had, in terms of how their lives measured up to the law.
In his discussion in Romans 2, Paul recognized that those who broke the law would be judged by it and that those who kept the law would be vindicated by it. Some interpreters get so lost in the forest looking for trees that they actually seem to think that Paul was arguing that some people could keep the law and be vindicated by it. Unless Paul lost his mind somewhere between Romans 1 and Romans 3 he could not be saying that. In Romans he repeatedly taught the universality of human sin and destituteness (1:18, 20, 28-29; 2:12). Paul summarized all that he had been teaching in Romans 1-3: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23 ESV). Paul did not add a footnote to this statement: “Except those who actually keep the law and therefore are vindicated by it.” It is a violation of logic, clear thinking, theology, and exegesis not to allow Paul’s conclusion in Romans 3 to determine what he is arguing in Romans 2. In Romans 2, Paul spoke hypothetically about being vindicated by the law. Certainly, anyone who kept the law would be vindicated by the law. Certainly, anyone who kept the law would be vindicated by it, but could anyone keep the law? The conclusion in Romans 3 was crystal clear–no one could: “None is righteous…no one seeks for God…no one does good” (3:10-12 ESV). All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Paul concluded: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:23 ESV).
Is the law good? Of course it is (7:12). By its very goodness, however, the law shows sinners their sin and inability to be righteous. By contrast, the gospel, as Paul taught in Romans 1-3, is this: sinners who do not and cannot have a righteousness of their own can find righteousness in another: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (3:21 ESV). The good news is t hat God has provided a righteousness of his own apart from the law and all of its demands.
Is the “righteousness of God” that is “apart from law” really apart from the whole law? Is the “law” (3:21) equivalent to the “works of the law” (3:20, 28)? Many clever interpreters, from the ancient church period until the twentieth century, argue that the “law” and “works of the law” here in Paul are just part of the law. These works of the law are the ceremonial requirements of the law, such as circumcision, dietary laws, or special holidays. These interpreters argue that no one can be justified by those ceremonial works of the law, but they say that one can be justified by the moral law. They deny that Paul was talking about the moral law when he rejected works of the law. They ignore in their interpretation the comprehensive character of 3:21 and the contrast Paul repeatedly drew between faith and law (3:27-4:6). For Paul, works of the la and the law are indeed synonymous in Romans 3, but the works of the law are the moral works of the law as well as every other kind. Calvin demonstrated this very effectively in Institutes 3.11.20. Jonathan Edwards also argues that case brilliantly and convincingly in his treatise “Justification by Faith Alone.” Paul has argued that God will judge our works by the law to determine whether they are good, acceptable, and deserving of reward (4:2). The contrast Paul made in 3:27-31 is between a righteousness that comes by the law and a righteousness that comes from Christ and is received by faith alone. Paul really could not be clearer. Paul indeed taught that faith stands alone in receiving justification from the work of Christ (3:24-26). Justification is not received or maintained by any kind of working, any kind of moral improvement, or any kind of sanctifying development.
Calvin believes that Paul used Abraham as an example to press justification by faith alone. For Paul, Abraham was the father of the faithful. Abraham believed both before he was circumcised and after he was circumcised, so the was the father of the uncircumcised and of the circumcised. He was the father of all Christians, whether Jews and Gentile. Therefore, what is true of Abraham is true of all Christians. The truth about Abraham is that he had nothing about which to boast. Abraham could not boast because he was justified by faith alone: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3 ESV). Faith was foundational for Abraham.
Paul made clear at the beginning of Romans 4 that the justification of Abraham was the justification of the “ungodly” (4:5 ESV) or “wicked” (NIV). Calvin presses the question: Where do we read in Scripture that Abraham believed that it was reckoned to him as righteousness? Obviously Paul was citing Genesis 15, but, Calvin notes, Abraham had become a follower of God in Genesis 12. Abraham had long been a faithful believer before the statement in Genesis 15: “Even though the life of the patriarch [Abraham] was spiritual and well-nigh angelic, he did not have sufficient merit of works to acquire righteousness before God” (Institutes 3.11.14). It was Abraham the faithful, Abraham the obedient, Abraham the godly, whom Paul called wicked. No matter how much progress Abraham made in godliness he could not stand in the judgement. He needed to be a believer. His righteousness was to be found in the faith that rest in Christ’s righteousness. That was Paul’s argument.
Paul made this point even more clearly in quoting from Psalm 32. David there referred to God’s people as godly (32:6), righteous (32:11), and trusting (32:10). Who are the godly, the righteous, the trusting? They are the ones blessed by having their transgressions forgiven and their sins covered (32:1-2). This David, as God’s servant, as the man after God’s own heart, and as an Israelite who was called forgiven, godly, righteous, and trusting, still had to plead with God: “Enter not into judgement with your servant, /for no one living is righteous before you” (143:2 ESV). Abraham in the best of his service and David in the best of his service had to plead with God not to judge them for their continuing failure in sin and wickedness, and David and Abraham looked away from themselves to rest in the righteousness that comes from God in Jesus Christ. (280-284)