It's one thing to have a reputable religious pedigree, but another thing altogether to actually know God. The apostle Paul understood the difference, and the book of Romans lays out what it means to be justified before God and accepted into His family. On one hand, Paul acknowledged that the Jews "have been entrusted with the very words of God." (Rom. 3:2) On the other hand, "there is no one righteous, not even one." (3:10) "All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (3:12)
You see, in order to be accepted by God, a person must be perfect. The only alternative is to have a perfect sacrifice for your sin that covers your shameful nakedness before God. The Law condemns, whereas the Gospel saves. Paul wrote, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law." (3:19) That is, those who are not yet recipients of God's grace and forgiveness. It is impossible to be forgiven by doing righteous acts. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." (3:20) This is why "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (Gal. 3:24)
Think of justification as a white robe being placed over your soul. Paul uses the term "righteousness from God" to describe this holy covering. Compare it to the filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) man places over his soul anytime he seeks to be justified before God by his deeds, which are far from perfect. "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Rom. 3:21,22)
Man's problem is simple. We have all fallen short of God's holy standard. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (3:23) There is no way we can bridge the gap, and therefore we need the Lord to do it for us. Thankfully, believers "are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood." (3:24,25) Jesus atoned for our sins and paved the way for us to be reconciled to God. The good news is that God "justifies the man who has faith in Jesus." (3:26) And once you are justified through faith, you are also saved, forgiven, born again and redeemed. It all happens on the front end of a person's relationship with God.
The Law is incapable of saving even one soul, whereas the Gospel definitely has that ability. Think of the Gospel as spiritual dynamite. "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." (3:28) It all depends on what you rely upon for salvation. Are you relying upon the Law, or the Gospel? Are you trusting in your works to save your soul, or the work of the Savior on the cross? The death of Christ provides redemption for souls, and the blood of Jesus washes away sin. This happens through faith in the Redeemer, and not as a result of man trying to earn his way into God's good graces.
A common misconception is that God's people in Old Testament times were saved by the Law, while people today are saved by the Gospel. In reality, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (4:3) The only way anyone has ever been saved and made right with God is through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. "Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people." (Heb. 9:28) You see, "Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance - now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant." (Heb. 9:15) Along with God's people in his day, Abraham was looking forward to the future fulfillment of God's promises; whereas believers today look back to the cross and trust that we are justified on account of the Savior's death for our sins.
So was Abraham justified before the Lord by the commands of God, or the promises of God? The Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to pen the answer to this all-important question. "It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith." (4:13) "The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring." There is no question about it: "Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness." (Rom. 4:9) Only God can credit righteousness to a person's account, and only God can forgive sins and grant a person eternal life in paradise. Scripture clearly teaches that "God will credit righteousness for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. Christ was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification." (4:25)
In a world that often seems upside down, the good news of the Gospel remains the only hope for Catholics, Protestants and every Christian. And this explains why Paul was "not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." (Rom. 1:16)
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