“That can’t be right”, I thought to myself as I flipped back and forth between two verses in my Bible. I was locked in a life-or-death study of the book of Romans in an attempt to determine whether there was any chance that the too-good-to-be-true message of grace I had recently heard was biblical, or was, in fact, too good to be true.
I was only three chapters in but I had already been on a rollercoaster ride of hope and fear. To be honest, so far the ride was long on fear and short on hope. Chapter one told me that the righteous would live by faith, but then immediately followed up with the pronouncement that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness and, in case I wasn’t clear on what unrighteousness was, a detailed list of sins was included.
Chapter two started off with a bang by saying that no one was in a position to pass judgment on anyone else in regards to the aforementioned list of sins, because we are all equally guilty. Paul then warned that we would be foolish to think that we would escape the judgment of God by presuming on his kindness, because his kindness was intended to lead us to repentance; but that, instead, because of our hard and impenitent hearts, we were simply storing up wrath for ourselves. My rollercoaster plunged downhill.
The bad news continued. Paul said that we would be rewarded according to our works and that for those who obeyed unrighteousness rather than righteousness there would be wrath and fury. Glory and honor were reserved only for those whose works were good. Then came verse 13 of chapter 2, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
“Oh well,” I sighed as I highlighted the verse, “so much for the good news.” This was the same old bad news I had always been taught in church: ‘If you want to get to heaven, knowing what’s right isn’t going to get you there; you have to DO what’s right.’ I was never quite clear on how much good was enough good, but I knew myself pretty well, and no matter how hard I tried, I was sure my goodness didn’t stack up. Probably everyone else I knew from church would make it, but, I was going to be conspicuously absent.
“Poor Bonne,” my friends would say, shaking their heads sadly, “she had us all fooled!”
Disheartened, I read on through the rest of chapter two where Paul made it clear that, regardless of whether you were a Gentile without the law or a Jew with the law, everyone knew the difference between right and wrong and would be held accountable for their obedience, or lack thereof.
I continued through the harsh, extremely unflattering description of mankind found in the beginning of chapter three, with the stated purpose of stopping every mouth and holding the whole world accountable to God. And then I saw verse 20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In confusion, I began flipping back and forth between that verse and chapter 2 verse 13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
“Wait…What?” I thought, “So, nobody is going to be saved?! One verse says you have to be a doer of the law to be justified, but the other verse says no one will be justified by keeping the law. What the heck? Everyone is going to be conspicuously absent? That can’t be right!”
I kept reading, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.”
Ever so slowly the words began to sort themselves out in my mind. In order to be justified one must keep the law, but no one has kept the law, we have all fallen short (as previously described in all of Romans 1-3 to that point) ; SO, if anyone is going to be saved it would have to be apart from their own keeping of the law; SO, God, to demonstrate his righteousness (not ours), provided that salvation by putting forward his own son as an offering for our sin, to satisfy or appease his wrath toward us, which we have earned and deserved, SO that, by simply putting our faith in Jesus and his sacrifice for us, we are justified-not by our keeping of the law, because we can’t-but as a gift of grace. All who believe are given credit for the righteousness of God by placing their faith in Jesus Christ!
I sat in stunned silence. I will never forget the profound sense of awe and amazement I experienced when the meaning of those two seemingly contradictory verses became clear. Only doers of the law will be justified; but because we can’t ‘do’ the law, no one will be justified in that way. The only thing the law does for us is to give us a knowledge of our sin. Jesus is the only Doer of the law and by faith in his doing we are credited with his perfect obedience and we are justified on that basis alone.
In that glorious moment I knew, the too-good-to-be-true message of grace was indeed biblical and undeniably, beautifully true!