10 Steps to Holiness[1] Eight: God’s Two Words (Part 1)

Romans 3:23-31

23 …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 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. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. [2]

The Apostle Paul was constantly accused of demeaning, even abandoning Torah, the Law of God. Jewish Christians from the mother church in Jerusalem held seminars in every town where the apostle planted churches to correct Paul’s alleged hyper-grace teaching. The teaching that trusting into Messiah Jesus was the alone instrument of right standing with God was a radical and dangerous thing to Jerusalem’s first para-church organization – the Judaizers for Jesus.

Hadn’t Paul in his very first letter written that compared to the “fruit of the Spirit … “there is no law [3]  (Gal. 5:22-23)? Paul was ultimately arrested in the Jewish temple as a disruptive heretic who preached against Torah. Yet, Paul writes that God’s law is holy and good and that “we uphold the law.” God has given his law and announced his good news, the gospel. The question is: “How do law and gospel, God’s two words, fit together?

To put it another way: if our salvation is by grace alone and our sanctification happens through our union with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, what role – if any – is left for God’s law? Does the gospel abolish the law? Does God’s law have any role to play in the life of the believer and the Church? Growing up in a different kind of church, I often heard teachers say God’s law was no longer in effect because Christ is our law – which sounds great until we realize Jesus lived a perfect law-keeping life. His perfection was defined by the law of God. So, if “Christ is our law” and his perfection was defined by God’s law, then don’t believers still have a relation to the law of God?

Paul’s letter to the congregations of Rome is his defense against charges that he teaches against God’s law and encourages Christians to ignore it. This passage in Romans 3 gives us the opportunity to examine the purpose of the Law of God in the life of the believer. Today, we’ll examine God’s law primarily in relation to our rightness with God (justification). Next week in part two, we’ll examine the law primarily in relation to our increasing reflection of God’s glory – our sanctification, our holiness. If we are to make any progress in holiness, the place from which we must never depart is the gospel of the mercy of God to us in Christ Jesus.


The good first-century Jew believed that his or her INTENTION to obey God’s commandments was sufficient to maintain his covenant relationship with God. [4] They “got in” covenant with God by God’s electing grace that chose the Jews as his special people, but they stayed in covenant through good intentions to strive to keep the Law; they strove for good works so that God would approve of them at the final judgment. They had to keep looking inside themselves to make sure their heart was in the right place.

In response to this idea, Paul has been hammering the fact that THERE IS NO GRACE IN THE LAW.  Dr. Law is NOT compassionate.  He has no “bedside manner.”  Dr. Law sees past your rationalizations.  His diagnosis that you are utterly ungodly and you are going to die.  You cannot “get in” by works of the Law; more importantly, you cannot “stay in” by works of the law, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

The law ALWAYS ACCUSES (as we’ll see next week it has other functions as well) – whether it is written in scripture as10 Commandments, or as Jesus’ restatement of them in the Sermon on the Mount and summarized by our Lord as, “Love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself….” Paul tells us these demands are written on every human heart (Rom. 2:15). Even people that don’t believe in God will struggle with self-accusation and self-hatred just as much as those that do; no one is free of guilt under God’s law.

Against the accusations of God’s law —comes the second of God’s two words: grace. Dr. Grace offers the complete, eternal cure with no strings attached. Dr. Law says you must and shall die; Dr. Grace proclaims you can be cured and live. It is God offering His one-way love. It is what makes the Good News so good. It is the simple statement: Jesus paid it all. And there is not a single “yes, but…” attached to that statement.

When Paul says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known,” he is contrasting this with the earlier declaration: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men …” (Rom. 1:18).[5] Righteousness from God comes without keeping the requirements of the Law.  It is not gained or maintained by legal effort. Yet this righteousness is not contrary to the Mosaic Law or the writings of the Prophets.  So, Paul notes, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.

When God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins he was rejecting their attempts to cover themselves with the fig leaves of their own works and teaching them about being covered in the righteousness of the Promised Seed to come. When God gave Moses the laws of sacrifice, he was teaching his people about the coming work of the Promised Seed. The blood of the innocent had to be sacrificed on behalf of the guilty.

When David sang of being abandoned by God, he was singing of Jesus, his greater Son to come (Ps. 22).  When Jonah was buried under the sea inside a great fish, he was prefiguring Jesus’ burial and resurrection. When Isaiah sang of the suffering servant (Isa. 53), he was bearing witness to our Lord’s work as the substitute for his people. This rightness from God comes (v. 22) by means of trust in Jesus Christ to all [who are] trusting (trans. mine).

Only God can provide what human beings lack from the very moment of their conception!  Before you ever had an opportunity to act out of your sin nature, you were still under God’s condemnation as an imperfect, broken image-bearer. We are justified by his grace as a gift.  God does not MAKE us righteous by turning us into better creatures.  He DECLAIRS us righteous (Deut. 25:1; 1 Ki. 8:32; Isa. 5:23; Rom. 2:13; 3:4; 4:3-25; 5:17); he reckons us righteous.


Principle (24)

We are justified by his grace as a gift.  God does not MAKE us righteous by turning us into perfect creatures.  He DECLAIRS willfully imperfect creatures to be righteous (Deut. 25:1; 1 Ki. 8:32; Isa. 5:23; Rom. 2:13; 3:4; 4:3-25; 5:17); he reckons us righteous. “…it is not only here that we see this truth; nor do these verses necessarily present it in the strongest language. Think rather of Romans 8:1: ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,’ and Romans 5:9, which declares, ‘Since we have now been justified by his blood.…’ ”[6]

The language of Christianity is the language of substitution. It is not primarily the language of morals. Biblical Christianity is about a one-sided rescue, that we didn’t want and certainly didn’t deserve, and he did it anyway. At the cross, Paul says God made Jesus to be sin, who himself knew no sin. Peter says he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.

Now how can this be just? How can God reckon (impute) like this? The answer is in Romans 3:24: gratuitously, or by his grace, through the ransoming of Christ Jesus. It is not arbitrary, it’s not capricious, it’s not unjust for God to do this. If God died for us in Christ, God has every right having satisfied his own justice, by taking it all in our stead, to give us whatever he wants to give us.

In other words, God has the right to save us for free! He’s the one who allowed himself in Christ to be crucified for our sin. He has the right to give us eternal life. Having died in our place, he has a right to reckon to us a righteousness that isn’t really ours. And he does!

Propitiation (25)

There is a wonderful word packed into this section.  We find it in verse 25, propitiation“…Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” It’s a word that ensures us God will NEVER withhold or take back Dr. Grace’s cure! Dr. Grace does not cure us by making up for anything lacking in our character. Grace cannot be increased because it is the expression of God’s infinite love; it cannot be diminished, for every limitation that human sin might impose on the action of a righteous God has, through the propitiation of the cross, been dismissed forever.[7]

When God gave Moses the law, he told him to build a portable temple (tabernacle) to house the Ark of the Covenant and be the focal point of Israel’s worship. The tabernacle was an enclosure of skins that could be easily assembled and disassembled whenever the people camped or marched. Like the temple of Jesus’ day, the tabernacle had an outer chamber called the Holy Place and an inner chamber called the Most Holy Place. The Ark of the Covenant was placed within this inner chamber.

The Ark was a gold-covered wooden box about a yard long, containing the stone tablets of the law that Moses had received on Mount Sinai. This box had a cover called the Mercy Seat, and upon the Mercy Seat, at each end and facing one another, were statues of cherubim (angels) whose wings stretched upward and then forward, almost meeting directly over the Ark. In a symbolic way, God was imagined as dwelling over or between the outstretched wings of the cherubim.[8]

The Ark is a picture of terrible judgment. For when God looked down upon the earth from between the outstretched wings of the cherubim he saw the Law of Moses which each of us has broken. He saw that he must act toward us in judgment. God cannot ignore sin; sin must be punished. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish high priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people’s sins. He entered to make propitiation, the very word that (in Greek) was used to translate “Mercy Seat.”

When the blood was sprinkled, God did not see the law of Moses that we have broken but instead saw the blood of the innocent victim. He saw that punishment has been meted out. Propitiation has been made. And his love went out to save all who came to him, not on the basis of their own righteousness or covenant loyalty, but through faith in that sacrifice.[9]

Jesus tells a beautiful story about this word propitiation in Luke 18:9-14.  It’s a story about two men praying at the Jerusalem temple.  One is a Pharisee, depending upon his Covenant law-keeping: he “got in” the covenant by God’s grace; he “stays in” the covenant by his good intentions and good works that God graciously helps him to perform. The Pharisee stood close to the temple, as physically close to God’s presence as an Israelite could get – alone and apart from others.  He lifted his head toward God and prayed a prayer that acknowledged God’s gracious help.  He thanked God for helping him to perform so many good works.

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Lk. 18:11-12). The Pharisee wasn’t lying!  Compared to the heathens, he was a good a man – an upright citizen, a credit to his community.  He is your neighbor that you call whenever you’re in need because he’s dependable and compassionate.  He loans you tools, helps you fix your broken stuff and watches your house when you’re gone. He loves his wife and kids, is an active member of several charities, never speaks a harsh word to anyone. Your spouse sometimes pokes you in the ribs and asks you, “Why can’t YOU be more like him?” HE is a Godly man. He IS a great guy!

But the other man standing there, the tax collector, was not a model citizen by any stretch.  Most patriotic citizens believed he was a no-good, low-down, money-grubbing, cheating, dirty-dealing scumbag!  He’s never home; he has little regard for his family or neighbors. Not only would he not loan you his tools, he’ll steal yours if you don’t watch him. He taxes charities. He kicks some of that money up the chain of bureaucracy and lines his pockets with the rest.

This comparatively-horrible man prays a prayer to God.  Imagine the audacity of such an openly-immoral man; he thinks HE can address God in his holy temple! He is so disreputable that he stands WAY back from the place where God sits in the Holy of Holies. There was no question that this dirtbag stood under the condemnation of Dr. Law.  He had not missed perfection by an inch; he missed by miles. He had no good intentions – not one! His heart had never been in the right place.

Jesus says, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be mercy-seated to me, a sinner!’” Now, here’s the twist in the ending.  The scumbag goes home declared righteous. Jesus says, “14 I tell you, this man went down to his house declared righteous, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Ah, I get it now,” we say.  “The Pharisee merely APPEARED to be righteous, but he was really a bad guy.  He was two-faced.  He was a hypocrite. He really DID commit adultery and just SAID that he hadn’t. And the tax collector may have done some bad things, but his intentions were good like the prostitute with the heart of gold.

NO!  Dr. Law’s diagnosis of BOTH men was exactly the same.  They were both ungodly.  They were both deserving of God’s wrath, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The first word of Jesus’ story is “God” and the very last word of the story is “sinner.”

The difference between these two men was that the tax collector cried out to be mercy-seated, propitiated.  This tax collector knew God and knew himself as a sinner, the starting point of all true religion. He also knew the heart of the gospel; he understood propitiation. He knew that between the presence of the Holy God, who looked down in judgment upon the law that he had broken, and himself the blood of the sacrificial victim had to be sprinkled. And this meant that he was not actually pleading for mercy—though the prayer sounds like it—but was coming to God on the basis of the mercy already provided by God through the sacrifice. He was saying, “Treat me on the basis of the blood sprinkled upon the Mercy Seat.”[10]

Jesus’ story tells us that HE IS THE MERCY SEAT.  He is the cure of Dr. Grace.  God’s one-way love is the only cure for Dr. Law’s diagnosis. Do you know that no matter what sin you may have committed, if (by the grace of God) you turn to Jesus, God will not be ashamed to be called your God (Hebrews 11:16) and Jesus will not be ashamed to call you his brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11)? God’s holy, just, and good Law can no longer condemn you.

THAT is good news! And that good news is always and only the basis for your holiness.


[1] This series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016).

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 3:23–31.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ga 5:22–23, emphasis added.

[4] For a treatment of good intentions as a marker of covenant status, see: Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp. 157–82.

[5] Boice, 341.

[6] Id., 342.

[7] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace (Chicago: The Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1939), pp. 4, 5.

[8] Boice, 375–376.

[9] Id., 376

[10] Boice, 378.