A Commentary by John Stott
The second alternative Paul calls ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’. Jesus Christ came into the world to live and to die. In His life His obedience to the law was perfect. In His death He suffered for our disobedience. On earth He lived the only life of sinless obedience to the law which has ever been lived. On the cross He died for our law-breaking, since the penalty for disobedience to the law was death. All that is required of us to be justified, therefore, is to acknowledge our sin and helplessness, to repent of our years of self-assertion and self-righteousness, and to put our whole trust and confidence in Jesus Christ to save us.
‘Faith in Jesus Christ’, then, is not intellectual conviction only, but personal commitment. The expression in the middle of verse 16 is (literally) ‘we have believed *into (eis)* Christ Jesus’. It is an act of committal, not just assenting to the fact that Jesus lived and died, but running to Him for refuge and calling on Him for mercy.
These, then, are theoretically the two alternative means of justification: ‘by works of the law’ and ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’. And three times over Paul tells us that God’s way is the second, not the first. His emphatic triple statement in verse 16 is intended to leave us in no doubt about this matter, and (as Luther often said) to ‘beat it into our heads’. Not that the repetition is exact and monotonous, however, for there is an ascending scale of emphasis – first general, then personal, and finally universal.
*The first statement is general* (verse 16a). We ‘know that *a man* is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’. Paul has nobody special in mind here; he is deliberately vague. Just ‘a man’, any man, any woman. Further, he says, ‘We know’. He does not offer a tentative opinion, but a dogmatic assertion. He has spent much of the first two chapters of the Epistle defending his apostolic authority; now he lends the full weight of his authority to this statement. He has dared to claim that his gospel was ‘not man’s gospel’ (1:11). This being the case, his exposition of the gospel in verse 16 is not man’s, but God’s. Moreover, the plural ‘*we* know’ means in the context that the apostle Peter and Paul both know it, that they are united in their conviction about the nature of the gospel.
*The second statement is personal* (verse 16b). Not only do we ourselves…know’, but ‘even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ’. That is, our certainty about the gospel is more than intellectual; we have proved it personally in our own experience. This is an important addition. It shows that Paul is propounding a doctrine which he has himself put to the test. ‘We know it,’ he says, ‘and we have ourselves believed in Christ, in order to prove it.’
*The third statement is universal* (verse 16c). The theological principle and the personal experience are now confirmed by Scripture. The apostle quotes the categorical statement of Psalm 143:2 (as he does again in Rom. 3:20): ‘because by works of the law shall no one be justified.’ The Greek expression is even more striking than the English. It refers to ‘all flesh’, mankind without exception. What-ever our religious upbringing, educational background, social status or racial origin, the way of salvation is the same. None can be justified by works of the law; all flesh must be justified through faith in Christ.
It would be hard to find a more forceful statement of the doctrine of justification than this. It is insisted upon by the two leading apostles (‘we know’), confirmed by their own experience (‘we have believed’), and endorsed by the sacred Scriptures of he Old Testament (‘by works of the law shall no one be justified’). With this threefold guarantee we should accept the biblical doctrine of justification and not let our natural self-righteousness keep us from faith in Christ.