Sermon on Romans 3:27-31 – "The Narrow Road of Faith"

Sermon on Romans 3:27-31 – “The Narrow Road of Faith”
Preached on June 3, 2018 at Emmanuel PCA, Franklin NC.
Sermonaudio link:
[Rom 3:27-31 ESV] 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.
Driving in the mountains of Western North Carolina can be a challenging undertaking. Often the roads are windy, narrow, and steep. It seems to me that the roadbuilders a century ago must not have heard in this wilderness the voice of one crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths STRAIGHT.” But this is not to blame them, for it would literally require the “moving of mountains” to make straight paths in Appalachia.
On these mountain roads you may find that there is a cliff (or a creek or some other natural obstacle) on the right side of the road. And so you do your best to avoid driving near it. You might even move over a little bit towards the center of the road, for falling off the right side of the road is a dangerous proposition.
On other occasions you may find that there is a cliff (or some other natural obstacle) on the left side of the road. And a cliff on the left side of the road is equally as dangerous as a cliff on the right side of the road! And so you do your best to avoid it. You might even shift your driving a little bit to the shoulder just so you don’t come too close to the cliff, for falling off the left side of the road is a dangerous proposition. And falling off the left side of the road is just as bad as falling off the right side of the road.
While sometimes there is a cliff on the right and other times a cliff on the left, occasionally when driving in the mountains you come to a place where there are cliffs on both sides of the road. I’ve seen such a place in Western Colorado. It is a place called the million-dollar highway (which has its name either because of the million-dollar views along its length, or because it cost a million dollars per mile to build). And it runs North of the town of Durango and on up to Ouray passing by the beautiful and imposing Uncompahgre Peak. And on one section (at least) of the million dollar highway the road rides along a ridgeline of a mountain and so there are cliffs both on the right and on the left. In such a case as this it is equally as important to avoid falling off in one direction as it is in the other. There you must follow the narrow road, avoiding the cliff on the right and the cliff on the left. You must follow the narrow road.
In our sermon text today there is a situation much like this ridgeline scenario on the million dollar highway. In the Christian life we must avoid the twin evils, the cliffs of legalism and antinomianism. One must stay on the narrow road of faith.
Paul has just explained the Gospel in the previous section in his letter to the Romans. After explaining that all men are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, he recounts with great joy the Gospel of God’s grace; salvation not by works but given to man as a gift from God mediated through faith. The righteousness of God, he tells us, has been manifested apart from the law and is given through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Paul continues that same note in our current passage. The Gospel is for all who believe. He explains here that the Gospel is not only for the Jews but also the Gentiles. And this is important for the church at Rome to whom he is writing because it is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. God will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Christianity is not a national religion; it is worldwide. While in the ancient days each nation had its own gods, and while in more modern ages various regions of our planet have their prominent religions, Christianity is everywhere. The spread of Christianity is great evidence of its truth. Not merely the spread itself—which certainly is impressive—but also that Christianity spread as it was predicted; that the Gentiles will be grafted in. In so doing, the Gospel expands beyond all national, ethnic, and political boundaries.
In discussions over Christian doctrine the question often comes up as to what the New Testament means by “All” or “the world.” When God is said to save the whole world, what does this mean? In today’s passage when Paul says “one is justified by faith apart from the law” he means “ALL who are justified are justified by faith apart from the law.” And then he qualifies, he explaines, what he means by ALL—both Jew and Gentile. This, in many places in the New Testament, is what is meant by ALL. ALL does not mean a universalism of salvation to each and every person, but a expansion and extension of God’s covenant to bring in the Gentiles. The Jews were the people of God; now God’s people come from ALL nations.
And this Gospel is the great doctrine of salvation by faith that overthrows any thoughts of the legalism of salvation by works. The Gospel is shown to be good news because while we who are sinners cannot of ourselves satisfy God’s demand for holiness, He has sent his son Jesus Christ to justify us. Thus salvation is not of man but of God. What a relief! What a joy!
But in following this doctrine of faith, we have a narrow road. On the one side is the cliff of legalism and on the other is the cliff of anitnomianism. In saying that salvation is a gift of God, manifested apart from the Law, Paul rejects the idea of Legalism. But if one goes too far in avoiding the cliff of legalism, they risk falling off the cliff of antinomianism. Thus, despite salvation apart from the Law, Paul says “we uphold the law.”
How are we to understand this language? What is the right way to understand the upholding of the law? Or, what is the purpose of the law?
In understanding the purposes of the law it is important that we avoid the cliffs of both legalism and antinomianism. We must walk the narrow road of faith between these two errors.
I. Legalism.
First is the cliff of legalism.
A. Definition
Legalism is a term that is very often misused. Some will say it is legalism if you favor the existence of a single law in society or desire any pious practice in your life. It is said to be legalistic if you support no-smoking zones, or oppose drunkenness, or exercise regularly, or attend church every Sunday. Legalism becomes a catch-all term for libertines who do not want a single constraint on their lives. Legalism, for some, means simply “things that I do not like to be told to do.”
Let us then properly define legalism.
Legalism truly is the false idea that one must act in a certain way in order to achieve salvation; legalism is works righteousness. It is legal-ism because it is law-ism. It is the false teaching that obeying the laws will save you.
This is certainly a cliff we must avoid. We are not saved by our works. We are not made righteous by our works. To say that we are is legalism. And, if nothing else, Paul’s letter to the Romans is a treatise on salvation by grace through faith, full of opposition to legalism.
Though we reject the legalism of works righteousness—or at least we should—we often fail to live up to what we believe and teach. That is, even though we know we are saved by God’s grace through faith, as sinful men we easily fall into the temptation to want to contribute something to our salvation. But our contributions prove to be filthy rags; not contributions at all. We need the pure spotless lamb of Jesus Christ. God is impressed by Christ, not by us.
Opposition to the works righteousness of legalism is a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation. And it is a strongly emphasized point in the New Testament. And so we rightly seek to combat this tendency of wanting to contribute to our salvation; a tendency which is sinful as it discounts Christ’s effective saving work. The legalist implies that Christ is not good enough; that he needs to add something to Christ’s work.
Paul’s opposition to legalism is clear when he says “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That is why he can say here, as he does also in Ephesians, that our boasting is excluded. There is no boasting because salvation is a gift from God. We are justified by the grace of God which we receive through the faith we have because of the Holy Spirit working in us.
Anyone who boasts in himself proves that he does not know the Gospel, for you have nothing to do with it. The Gospel is of Christ. It is of God. It is not of you. I cannot boast in myself for I am a wretched sinner. Paul’s opposition to boasting destroys any view of salvation that allows man to contribute. The works, penance, and merit approach of the Roman Catholic Church is ruled out because works, penance, and merit would provide man with a reason to boast. The decision-theology of Arminianism is ruled out, for if the difference between those who are saved and those who are not saved is based on their own decision to come to faith, then there would be a reason to boast.
Thus we cannot boast of our own holiness leading to salvation, nor can we boast of our own choice in choosing to have faith in God. Boasting is excluded.
The true Gospel allows for no boasting in ourselves. Thus Paul says in 2ndCorinthians “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (2 Cor. 10:17)
Legalism is ruled out because we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
But many people in their zeal to avoid the cliff of legalism shift their driving so far away from its cliff that they fall off the cliff on the other side of the road; the cliff of antinomianism.
So opposed (and rightly so) to the false doctrine of salvation by works, the antinomian looks upon the law as an enemy of sorts. He is opposed to all law.
And so it is of great important that we avoid also the cliff of antinomianism. If legalism is an often misused or misunderstood term, antinomianism is a term rarely used or understood at all. To be an antinomian is to be entirely opposed to the law. It is from the Greek “anti” meaning “against” and “nomos” meaning “law.” The antinomian is anti-nomos, a person who opposes the law. Those who advocate antinomianism advocate lawlessness.
Though Paul warns against antinomian attitudes, there are many through history and still today who have fallen into the error. And, in one sense, it is hard to imagine that we’ve gotten to the this place. That is, the Old Testament is full of God’s law. The Psalmist says that we are to delight in the Law of the Lord. And Jesus tells us that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17)
So why is their opposition to the law? It is—for one— caused by an overemphasis on the rejection of legalism. Overcorrecting to avoid the one cliff some run the risk of the other. Of course, it is also because there is sin. People do not like the law telling them what to do. Nevermind that it is God’s law, and only He knows what is truly best for us. Some have taken the opportunity of salvation by faith to go out and live profligate, recklessly extravagant lives; living according to their own laws for their lives rather than God’s laws.
There is a long history of opposition to antinomianism in the church. Martin Luther wrote against the view a number of times including once in an open letter titled “Against the Antinomians.”
Controversies related to antinomianism rose in the Massachusetts bay Colony in the 17thcentury and in Scotland in the early 18thcentury. And they continue today.
One variant today of antinomianism is found in a movement called “Hyper-Grace.” The hyper-grace movement teaches falsely thatall sin, past, present, and future, has already been forgiven, so there is no need for a believer to ever confess it. Advocates of hyper-grace so oppose God’s law in its application to our lives that they believe even the 10 commandments are no longer applicable. I recommend that you avoid any church, book, or conference under the “hyper-grace” umbrella.
Paul rejects all forms of antinomianism not only in our passage today from Romans 3, but also in Romans 6.
He writes there: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
This is the perversion of antinomianism—giving man license to sin, or even advocating sin so that grace may abound. Really this is a tempting view for sinful man. Man is tempted to take Jesus but keep his sins. But this is not an option. You must either take Jesus or remain in sin; not both! You are either a slave to Christ or a slave to the world; not both!
So what is this narrow road of faith that avoids both of the deadly cliffs of legalism and antinomianism? What is the proper use of the law?
The law in the Christian faith is neither to be elevated so high as to make the following of it be necessary for salvation, nor is the law to be valued so low that it is ignored entirely.
Rather, the law serves its purpose. The law has, in Reformed theology, three purposes, but none of these three are the works righteousness of legalism. The three valid purposes of the law are to convict man of being a sinner, to restrain evil in society, and to guide Christians into good works.
To say it another way, the law shows us our sin, makes evildoers think twice before committing a crime, and it teaches us how we should live. These functions have been called a mirror, a curb, and a guide. The law functions as a mirror when it shows us our sins. It functions as a curb when it keeps someone from committing some sin or crime, and it functions as a guide when it teaches us the way of righteousness.
So let us not say the law is useless. And let us not ignore the law. While we are not saved by the law but by faith, we yet uphold the law for all its proper purposes. We delight in the Biblical law, for it is the very law of God.
In talking about the proper use of the law, there may be some who are interested in the question of “Theonomy.” This is a movement without Reformed and Presbyterian circles, primarily in the last 50 years. It has been at the center of lots of a debate. Although Theonomists vary among themselves they generally have strong views in upholding God’s law. Naturally they are quite opposed to the anti-nomianism who are against God’s laws. Although I do not follow some of the more extreme suggestions of the Theonomists as far as implementing Old Testament Law in society today, certainly their have been benefits gained from their focus on the law. For one, a greater appreciation and respect for the law of God has—and should—strengthen our focus on keeping the Sabbath Day holy as God commanded for us.
But what about today?
There are still people who say (or at least think) “I will break this or that Biblical Law, and it is OK because Christ will forgive me anyways.” This is the wrong attitude to take. It is antinomianism.
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law.
Because there is a cliff one side of the road should we drive off the other side of the road? By no means! Just because we are not justified by means of the law does not mean the law is without its uses. We uphold the law, not for our justification but for its valid purposes.
Paul says “we uphold the law” to counteract anyone who might think the law can be discarded now that Christ has come. Paul is an ANTI – Antinomian. That is, he is against those who are against the law. Or, to say it another way, Paul is supporter of the law. He is a supporter of the law not in that it can save a man, for it cannot, but in that it has its positive purposes.
Let’s now extend our analogy of the double-cliffed highway. There is the cliff of legalism on one side and the cliff of antinomianism on the other. But let us also add that we are traveling by horse and carriage like the oldtimers who first built these mountain roads. And the horse pulling our carriage has a name. It’s name is “Faith.”
Faith leads the way down the path of salvation. It is not you that is pulling cart. It is not your work, your effort that is making the carriage travel up the road. But it is God’s grace through Faith that brings you to your destination.
And to continue the analogy further, the carriage that you are on—like works—follows behind the horse named faith. Good works follow faith. The carriage does not pull itself up the road! The carriage does not guide itself to the destination. Works neither save us (as in legalism) nor are they something to be ignored (as in antinomianism) but they are to follow from faith. And we know that they are good works when they are in accord with the law.
While trusting in God for our salvation through Jesus Christ, let us, like Paul, seek to “uphold the law.” Teach your children (and yourself) not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Strive to live each day according to the laws God has given us in his Holy Word. Like the Psalmist, let us delight in the law of the Lord.
If you are using the excuse that God has saved your through faith in Jesus Christ in order for you to then go and do as you want; to go out and sin. Then, stop! The liberty we have in Christ is not license to sin. The liberty we have in Christ is freedom from the punishments of sin. It is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. To the person that thinks there sin is no big deal they must be reminded of all of the warnings God gives in the Scriptures. You need conviction of sin! Then, only when one is convicted of sin can they truly apprehend the Gospel. For God came to save sinners! And if you refuse to believe you are sinning—with the result that you sin openly thinking it no big deal—then you do not know the Gospel, and you cannot know of the peace of God until you know of the seriousness of sin.
Let us thank God for the faith he has given us to avoid the cliffs of legalism and anti-nomianism. Let us thank Him that He has provided the way. And we pray that he will keep us straight along that path.