The Reformers found this doctrine of justification in many places in the Bible, but recognized that Paul presented it with particular clarity in his letter to the Romans. While Romans contains profound and occasionally difficult matters, the main line of Paul’s message is clear and straightforward. We can see its simplicity by highlighting the main elements of his teaching:
None is righteous, no, not one. (3:10)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (3:23)
By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight. (3:20)
The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (3:21–22)
[We 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. (3:24–25)
What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. (3:27)
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (4:4–5)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his [Abraham’s] offspring. (4:16)
No distrust made him [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (4:20–21)
Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (5:1–2)
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (5:8)
If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift of grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (5:15)
Paul’s doctrine of justification shows clearly (1) that all humans are sinners, helpless to save themselves; (2) that only the perfect work of Jesus saves sinners; (3) that only faith—not works at all—receives the saving effect of Jesus’ work; (4) that God in Christ receives all the glory for justification; (5) that this justification brings peace to the heart and mind of the believer.
In the midst of our celebrations of the Reformation, let us not lose the crucial and simple center: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. … For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:19–21). This message is the gospel that the whole world needs. It is also the message that every church and every Christian heart needs. Let us celebrate and teach it clearly and faithfully this year and every year.