As most readers will no doubt now be aware, this year has been officially marked as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The significance of 1517 is that it was during that year, on 31 October, that Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther was protesting against what he perceived, in the light of Scripture, to be flagrant abuses practised by the church of his day. And it was also by the light of Scripture that Luther was led over the coming years to grasp, in a quite revolutionary way, that the righteousness of God of which Paul speaks in Romans 1:17 is, in his own words, “that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith.”
This realisation, that the righteousness which God required of sinful people was a righteousness that God himself provided as a free gift, set Luther free: “I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.” As Luther realised, and as Lionel Windsor reminded us in the March issue of Southern Cross, justification stands at the very heart of how we relate to God and is, therefore, a doctrine of the utmost importance for the health and well-being of the church. To quote the other great figure of the European Reformation, John Calvin: if the knowledge of justification by faith “is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”
I want to reflect on just one way in which “the glory of Christ is extinguished” when the knowledge of justification is taken away from God’s people. It’s the issue of boasting. I focus on it because the apostle Paul chooses to focus on it. The key verse is Romans 3:27, where Paul rhetorically asks, “Where then is boasting?”
The immediate context of this statement, the paragraph marked for us in our Bibles as Romans 3:21–26, is probably the most important teaching in the Bible on justification. There we are told that God has now manifested his righteousness apart from the law (v. 21). Paul has been arguing that the world of both Jew and gentile, of everyone without distinction and without exception, is helplessly “under sin” (3:20). That is the conclusion he has reached. So we would expect, would we not, that when God chose to reveal his righteousness in the world that He would reveal it in terms of his “righteous judgment” (Romans 2:5), since that is what we deserve. Indeed, when God’s righteousness is revealed it does come as a righteous judgment. It has to. How could God’s righteousness come to a sinful world like ours and not come in terrifying judgment? But when God’s righteousness is revealed—and this is the miracle of God’s righteousness—it is revealed “apart from the law”. In other words, it is not a righteousness that is tied to our law-keeping, or wretched lack of it. It is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22), the righteousness displayed at the cross of Christ (vv. 24–25). In the death of Jesus Christ God was demonstrating his righteousness in a new way, in a way He had never done previously, when in his forbearance He had continually passed over former sins (v. 25–26).
The implication, of course, is that now, in the death of Jesus, God is showing forbearance no longer. Now sin is receiving its just judgment, now the full weight of God’s righteous anger against sin is being poured out. But — amazing grace! — it is not poured out on the sinful men and women like you and me who deserve this condemnation. No, God takes it upon himself in the person of his crucified Son, the innocent one who, as Paul strikingly says elsewhere, “was made sin” for us (2 Cor 5:21).
By revealing his righteousness in this new way, at one and the same time God both demonstrates that He is righteous (in his judgment of sin), and declares that we are righteous through our faith in Jesus (who was made sin for us). This is what Paul underlines in the very condensed language of Rom 3:26. The same act of righteous judgment that vindicates God, also acquits us of every liability to the judgment we deserve. And so this righteousness, this justification, comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 22, 25, 26), since only in Christ, and not through our pitiful (lack of) obedience to the law, has righteousness been achieved for us.
The apostle Paul grasped this. Luther grasped this. Calvin grasped it. What are the implications if we grasp it? Well, the very first thing that Paul mentions, but which we so often overlook, is that our boasting goes the way of the cross. “Where then is boasting? It is excluded.” (Rom 3:27). Crucifixion was the worst form of exclusion possible; it was a way of casting someone onto the rubbish dump, treating them as refuse not fit to belong to the human race. That, Paul says, is what has now happened to our boasting. It has been cast out, excluded. Why? It is quite simple. We simply have nothing to boast about any more. Of course, if our righteousness comes through our own obedience then we would have something to boast about (Rom 4:2). We only ever boast when we think we have something worth boasting about, something that sets us apart from others, and enables us to stand tall in the presence of God. In Paul’s day, within his own religious context, the source of such a proud boast came from a misuse of the Jewish law (2:17, 20, 23). Given by God to hold up a mirror to the people to show them their need of God’s righteousness in Christ (3:20), they too easily used the law to their own advantage, as a way of asserting the credentials of their own pedigree and performance. But in one fell swoop the cross exposes both the deadly depths of our unrighteousness and the free grace, the giftedness if you like, of God’s righteousness. Where is our boasting now? It is excluded. Why? Because “we consider a person to be justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (3:27)
Where then is boasting? If only we could say, as we look around us, that it is crucified with Christ! The thing that so deeply concerned Paul as he wrote to the church in Rome, was that among God’s people boasting was still very much a part of how they related to each other. Christians displayed a proud judgmentalism in looking down on their fellow believers, actually believing that they were superior to one-another (Rom 14:1-13); they thought in effect that they had something to boast about.
Where might such boasting be found in our own lives and churches? We tend to think of boasting in terms of the bragging and bravado that parades its brilliance in full view. But the boasting of which the Roman believers were guilty was not as blatant as this. The key evidence that their boasting had not yet gone the way of the cross was that their view of themselves was measured against their view of others, and vice-versa. It was not measured against Christ. They were still operating in their relationships as if there was some other standard of measurement other than Christ crucified.
We live in a culture that is basically pretty intolerant of excessive bragging and bravado. But we are clever enough to know that there are other ways to boast of ourselves, or perhaps we should say to boost ourselves, before others; and other ways to assert ourselves at the expense of others. The boastful heart hates nothing more than to leave a conversation and have others think less of it than they did at the start. Indeed, it often matters less to us that we are in the right, and more that we are seen to be in the right. And what is boasting if it is not making sure that others see and hear that we are as good as we think we are? And when they realise that we are not, we find ourselves crestfallen. Boasting is the way in which the proud human heart parades itself. It is desperately difficult to cure. In fact, only the miracle of justification can cure it.
The boasting that dies with Christ is also raised with Christ. In a lovely gospel reversal, just as justification by faith excludes boasting, so it also invites boasting (Rom 5:1–11). But this new boasting, this boasting the other side of Christ’s resurrection, is a boasting in the hope of God’s glory (5:2), it is a boasting in suffering (5:3), it is a boasting in God himself (5:11). And here is the real test of whether justification by faith has taken hold of our lives and churches. It is whether we have died to the world’s values and what it holds so dear. In the world of Paul’s day, the idea of boasting in suffering was absurd. So, of course, was boasting in an unseen hope. What, after all, do you have to show for yourself if your life is marked by weakness, not power, and if the only inheritance that awaits you is in the world to come? The boasting that rises with Christ, as Paul says in Galatians 6:14, is a boasting in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
During this year when we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, here is a question to ask ourselves and our churches: where then is boasting?