Paul, Part 3: Justification
The main theme of Romans is the justification of sinners. Justification is the way in which God accepts a sinful human being and sets them in a place of right-standing through Yeshua. The relationship between justification, faith, and following the Torah (God's commands) is sometimes misunderstood, so let's look at Romans and see what Paul is really saying.
In Hebrew, the word "sin" comes from the root word chata, which means "to miss," mainly in regard to missing a goal. It is an archery term, and it evokes the image of an archer shooting an arrow at his target. The target which man aims at is the commandments of God, and sin is a failure to hit that target. All of mankind has failed to obey the commandments of God, Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 2:1-3, 12; 3:9-10, 23). The commandments of God are revealed in the Torah. Torah is a Hebrew word which means "teaching" or "instruction," and is most often referred to as "the Law." It includes the first five books of the Bible, which contain God's instructions for His people. Even though God has a special relationship with His people Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6) because of the covenant He made with them at Mt. Sinai, God has made His existence known to all the nations of the earth so that they may choose to either obey His commandments or to follow their own desires (Romans 2:14-16). Therefore, since neither Jew nor Gentile has been able to perfectly walk in the ways of God, we are all bound by the punishment which the Torah has mandated for one who misses the target: death (Deuteronomy 11:26-28, 30:19, Ezekiel 18:4, Romans 6:23).
So how does the archer correct his sin? He examines himself to see where his form was incorrect, and adjusts accordingly so that he is able to hit the mark, "For not the hearers of the Torah are just before God, but the doers of the Torah shall be justified" (Romans 2:13). Although this is true, Paul also tells us that no amount of human work or effort will ever bring a person into a place of right-standing before God (Romans 3:19-20). When a person gazes into the mirror of God's Torah, he sees who he really is: a sinner in need of a savior.
Because of the fact that nobody is able to live perfectly in God's sight, it was His plan to provide a way for everyone who believes in Him to receive justification: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known" (Romans 3:21). In what way is this righteousness apart from the Torah? The Torah was never meant to be something people strove to keep in order to receive salvation, but rather it outlines the way a person is to conduct themself in order to live a life pleasing to God. This desire to please God is not the same as attempting to receive justification. Justification is the method by which our sin is atoned for and not counted against us, as Yeshua has borne the penalty for our sin, which is death. Once we are justified and our past ledger of sin is cancelled (Colossians 2:14), we are free to serve God the way He wants us to serve Him: with clean hands and a pure heart (James 4:7-8, 1 Peter 2:16). The righteousness of God that is apart from the Torah is Yeshua (Jesus). Our justification does not come through observing the commandments perfectly, since we are unable to do so. God has provided a source of righteousness independent of Torah, but not contrary to it. This source is Yeshua's sacrifice (Romans 3:25-26). Yeshua atones for our transgressions through His death and resurrection when we believe in Him (John 3:16).
Paul uses the story of Abraham to illustrate the point that justification is granted as a gift outside of attempts to merit salvation: "For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'" (Romans 4:3). Abraham believed that God would provide a son for him even though he was old, and both he and his wife were past the age of raising a child. Abraham could not trust in his own efforts to provide a son for himself, since he was physically incapable of doing so. But he believed that somehow, God would bring His promise to pass. In the same way, we are counted as righteous when we believe that although our own efforts are incapable of gaining any sort of right-standing before God, He has made the way for us through the sacrifice of His Son, Yeshua. In keeping with the belief of our father Abraham, however, we must follow up our belief with action.
Although it is true that we are counted as righteous when we believe in Yeshua, this is not a belief that is merely held in the mind, for even the demons believe in the authority of God and the power of His Son (Matthew 8:29, James 2:19). To believe in the sacrificial work of Yeshua is not marked by a mental acceptance of the fact that Yeshua paid the penalty of our sins. On the contrary, we show that we truly believe in Him when we repent and submit our will to the authority of God, allowing the work of Yeshua to take its full effect in our lives (John 15:10). Our sins are covered when we repent, but this does not mean that we have a license to continue living in our sinful ways (Romans 6:2).
An interesting perspective on faith arises when we closely examine Romans 3:22. Most often, this verse is translated to say that the righteousness of God is through "faith in Yeshua." However, because of the ambiguity of the Greek word which is used, an alternative translation of the phrase is "faithfulness of Yeshua;" that is, the righteousness of God is through Yeshua's faithfulness. Yeshua is the Lord our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6), and it is He who showed complete faithfulness to the Father (John 5:30, Hebrews 3:6). It was He who first showed faithfulness to the Father in giving up Himself as an atonement for our sins, and it is through His faithfulness that we are set free.
Paul echoes the words of the prophet when he tells us that "the righteous shall live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17). The ones who are considered righteous in the sight of God are those who walk in faithfulness. Just as Yeshua was faithful in laying down His life, so too we are called to lay down our life and follow Him (1 John 3:16, Matthew 16:24). When God judges mankind and renders to each one according to his deeds, He will judge based on our faithfulness to Yeshua (Matthew 16:27). The ones who are considered righteous in the sight of God are those who walk in faithfulness, just as Yeshua walked in faithfulness to God, obeying His every command.
So what does all of this say about the Torah? Some have asserted that since our righteousness is through faith in Yeshua, obedience to God's commandments is no longer necessary. But Paul himself, after explaining that both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are justified by faith, says, "Do we then nullify the Torah through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Torah" (Romans 3:31). The Torah is not abrogated either by the work of Yeshua or by the faith that we have in accepting this work. Just as all of mankind has a debt of sin prior to believing in Yeshua, so too after acceptance and belief in Him, the next step is to allow God to change our hearts and begin the process of writing His commandments on our hearts: "For when Gentiles who do not have the Torah do instinctively the things of the Torah, these, not having the Torah, are a Torah to themselves, in that they show the work of the Torah written in their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15). Abraham's circumcision is not what God credited to him as righteousness, but his belief is what inspired him to obey the commandment in the first place. For this reason his circumcision was regarded as "a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Romans 4:11). In the same way, when we put our faith in Yeshua, we are inspired to obey Him and do what is pleasing in His sight (Romans 1:5). We do not obey Him because we feel we can earn our salvation by doing so, but as the natural expression of our love for Him and the circumcision of our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6-8, Jeremiah 31:33). If justification is the act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, thus making one right with God, then redemption is the price paid for purchasing that justification. The idea of redemption is best illustrated in the purchasing of a slave. Yeshua redeemed us from slavery to sin (Romans 6:1-4). His death and resurrection frees man from the realm of darkness and brings us into His Kingdom of Light. Now we are free people, but not free to continue to sin (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16, 1 John 3:9). Our liberty from slavery in Egypt (the kingdom of darkness) makes the way for us to become slaves in the Kingdom of God (Exodus 3:12).
What is the verdict on justification? According to Paul, all men are unrighteous and unable to stand pure before God, and are thus worthy of eternal punishment. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, are expected to live up to a certain level of morality, which is described in the Torah, God's commandments. Because there is not a single righteous person who never sins, we are all under the curse of the Torah. This curse is not the Torah itself, but is the curse which rests on the person who disobeys the Torah. But Yeshua bore that curse for us, being faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross so that He may become righteousness to anyone who will believe. This is not an inert mental belief, but is alive and active. Those who believe in Yeshua will submit their lives to Him, for this is the very reason He came (John 17:3).
Since Yeshua has set us free from the penalty of our sin, we are free to serve Him without fear of eternal wrath. Justification cannot be achieved through obedience to the Torah, but the Torah is not abolished because of faith. On the contrary, it is only in faith that the Torah can truly be lived out. Just as Abraham believed God and then proceeded to obey His commands, so too we must first come to believe in Yeshua and recognize our own inability to save ourselves before we can begin to live out the commandments in a way which is pleasing to God. The reason God sent His Son is not so that we will continue to transgress the Torah as we previously have, but so that we will be given new life through the power of the Spirit to walk in the path that God has ordained for those who will choose to serve Him.