A Commentary by John Stott
These verses may seem difficult in both concept and vocabulary, yet they are fundamental to an understanding of biblical Christianity. For they concern the central issue of religion, which is how to come into a right relationship with God. This is described in two ways. First, it is called being ‘justified before God’ (verse 11). To be ‘justified before God’ is the exact opposite of being condemned by Him. It is to be declared righteous, to be accepted, to stand in His favour and under His smile. Clearly, this is a matter of the first importance. Human beings have an instinctive desire to be in favour with their fellows, friend with friend, children with their parents, an employee with his boss. Similarly, although we are by nature in revolt against God, we still long to be put right with Him.
The second description of a person who finds God is this: ‘he…shall live’ (verses 11, 12) or ‘he shall gain life’ (NEB). The life referred to here is, of course, not physical or biological, but spiritual and eternal, not the life of this age, but the life of the age to come. The simplest definition of eternal life in the Bible comes from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself: ‘this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent (Jn.17:3).
So ‘justification’ means to be in favour with God; ‘eternal life’ means to be in fellowship with God. And the two are closely, indeed indissolubly, related. We cannot be in fellowship with God until we are in favour with Him; and once we are in favour with Him, fellowship with Him is granted to us too.
The question before us now is: *how* can a man enter the favour and fellowship of God? In Paul’s terms, how can a sinner be ‘justified’ and receive ‘eternal life’? These verses give us the answer, plainly and unequivocally. We shall begin by considering the two alternative answers which men have given to our question. Then we shall see how one is false and the other true.
1). The two alternatives (verses 11, 12).
The apostle quotes twice from the Old Testament: *he who through faith is righteous shall live* (verse 11) and *he who does them (that is, the requirements of the law) shall live by them* (verse 12). We must look carefully at these two statements. Both come from Old Testament Scripture, the first from the prophets (Hab. 2:4), the second from the law (Lv. 18:5). Both are therefore the word of the living God. Both say of a certain man that ‘he shall live’. In other words, both promise him eternal life.
Despite these common features, however, the two statements describe a different road to life. The first promises life to the believer, and the second to the doer. The first makes faith the way to salvation, the second, works. The first says that only God can justify (because the whole function of faith is to trust God to do the work), the second implies that we can manage by ourselves.
These are the two alternatives. Which is true? Is a man justified by faith or by works? Do we receive eternal life by believing or by doing? Is salvation entirely and only by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ or do we have some hand in it ourselves? And why does the Bible seem here to confuse the issue and teach both, when they appear to us to be contradictory?