There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. –Romans 3:22-24 (condensed)
In the last study I introduced four doctrines found in Romans 3:21–31:
(1) God has provided a righteousness of his own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves;
(2) this righteousness is by grace;
(3) it is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for his people, redeeming them from their sin, that has made this grace on God’s part possible; and
(4) this righteousness, which God has graciously provided, becomes ours through simple faith. We have already looked at the first of these four doctrines: the righteousness that God has made available to us apart from law. Now we will examine the second doctrine: that this righteousness becomes ours by the grace of God alone, apart from human merit.
That is the meaning of grace, of course. It is God’s favor to us apart from human merit. Indeed, it is favor when we deserve the precise opposite. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written, “There is no more wonderful word than ‘grace.’ It means unmerited favor or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving.… It is not merely a free gift, but a free gift to those who deserve the exact opposite, and it is given to us while we are ‘without hope and without God in the world.’ ”
But how are we to do justice to this great concept today? We have too high an opinion of ourselves even to understand grace, let alone to appreciate it. We speak of it certainly. We sing, “Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—That saved a wretch like me!” But we do not think of ourselves as wretches needing to be saved. Rather, we think of ourselves as quite worthy. One teacher has said, “Amazing grace is no longer amazing to us.” In our view, it is not even grace.
There is No Difference
This is why the idea expressed in Romans 3:23 is inserted at this point. For many years, whenever I came to this verse, I had a feeling that it was somehow in the wrong place. It was not that Romans 3:23 is untrue. Obviously it is, for that is what Romans 1:18–3:20 is all about. What bothered me is that the verse did not seem to belong here. I felt that the words “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” belonged with that earlier section. The verse seemed somehow an intrusion here, because Romans 3:21–31 is not talking about sin but about the way of salvation.
I think differently now, however. And the reason I think differently is that I now understand the connection between this verse and grace. The reason we do not appreciate grace is that we do not really believe Romans 3:23. Or, if we do, we believe it in a far lesser sense than Paul intended.
Let me use a story to explain what I mean. In his classic little book All of Grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon begins with the story of a preacher from the north of England who went to call on a poor woman. He knew that she needed help. So, with money from the church in his hand, he made his way through the poor section of the city to where she lived, climbed the four flights of stairs to her tiny attic apartment, and then knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He went away. The next week he saw the woman in church and told her that he knew of her need and had been trying to help her. “I called at your room the other day, but you were not home,” he said.
“At what time did you call, sir?” she asked.
“Oh, dear,” she answered. “I was home, and I heard you knocking. But I did not answer. I thought it was the man calling for the rent.”
This is a good illustration of grace and of our natural inability to appreciate it. But isn’t it true that, although most of us laugh at this story, we unfortunately also fail to identify with it? In fact, we may even be laughing at the poor woman rather than at the story, because we consider her to be in a quite different situation from ourselves. She was unable to pay the rent. We know people like that. We feel sorry for them. But we think that is not our condition. We can pay. We pay our bills here, and we suppose (even though we may officially deny it) that we will be able to pay something—a down payment even if not the full amount—on our outstanding balance in heaven. So we bar the door, not because we are afraid that God is coming to collect the rent, but because we fear he is coming with grace and we do not want a handout. We do not consider our situation to be desperate.
But, you see, if the first chapters of Romans have meant anything to us, they have shown that spiritually “there is no difference” between us and even the most destitute of persons. As far as God’s requirements are concerned, there is no difference between us and the most desperate or disreputable character in history.
I have in my library a fairly old book entitled Grace and Truth, written by the Scottish preacher W. P. Mackay. Wisely, in my judgment, the first chapter of the book begins with a study of “there is no difference.” I say “wisely,” because, as the author shows, until we know that in God’s sight there is no difference between us and even the wildest profligate, we cannot be saved. Nor can we appreciate the nature and extent of the grace needed to rescue us from our dilemma.
Mackay illustrates this point with an anecdote. Someone was once speaking to a rich English lady, stressing that every human being is a sinner. She replied with some astonishment, “But ladies are not sinners!”
“Then who are?” the person asked her.
“Just young men in their foolish days,” was her reply.
When the person explained the gospel further, insisting that if she was to be saved by Christ, she would have to be saved exactly as her footman needed to be saved—by the unmerited grace of God in Christ’s atonement—she retorted, “Well, then, I will not be saved!” That was her decision, of course, but it was tragic.
If you want to be saved by God, you must approach grace on the basis of Romans 1:18–3:20—on the grounds of your utter ruin in sin—and not on the basis of any supposed merit in yourself.
It is astonishing that we should fail to understand grace, of course, because all human beings have experienced it in a general but nonsaving way, even if they are not saved or have not even the slightest familiarity with Christianity. We have experienced what theologians call “common grace,” the grace that God has shown to the whole of humanity. Jesus spoke of it when he reminded his listeners that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45b).
When Adam and Eve sinned, the race came under judgment. No one deserved anything good. If God had taken Adam and Eve in that moment and cast them into the lake of fire, he would have been entirely just in doing so, and the angels could still have sung with great joy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). Or, if God had spared Adam and Eve, allowing them to increase until there was a great mass of humanity in the world and then had brushed all people aside into everlasting torment, God would still have been just. God does not owe us anything. Consequently, the natural blessings we have are due not to our own righteousness or abilities but to common grace.
Let me try to state this clearly once more. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you are still a recipient of God’s common grace, whether you acknowledge it or not. If you are alive and not in hell at this moment, it is because of God’s common grace. If you are in good health and not wasting away in some ward of hopeless patients in a hospital, it is because of common grace. If you have a home and are not wandering about on city streets, it is because of God’s grace. If you have clothes to wear and food to eat, it is because of God’s grace. The list could be endless. There is no one living who has not been the recipient of God’s common grace in countless ways. So, if you think that it is not by grace but by your merits alone that you possess these blessings, you show your ignorance of spiritual matters and disclose how far you are from God’s kingdom.
But it is not common grace that Paul is referring to in our Romans text, important as common grace is. It is the specific, saving grace of God in salvation, which is not “common” (in the sense that all persons experience it regardless of their relationship to God), but rather is a gift received only by some through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from merit.
This is the point we need chiefly to stress, of course, for it takes us back to the story of the preacher’s visit to the poor woman and reminds us that the reason we do not appreciate grace is that we think we deserve it. We do not deserve it! If we did, it would not be grace. It would be our due, and we have already seen that the only thing rightly due us in our sinful condition is a full outpouring of God’s just wrath and condemnation. So I say again: Grace is apart from good works. Grace is apart from merit. We should be getting this by now, because each of the blessings enumerated in this great chapter of Romans is apart from works, law, or merit—which are only various ways of saying the same thing.
The righteousness of God, which is also from God, is apart from works.
Grace, which is the source of that righteousness, is apart from works.
Redemption, which makes grace possible, is apart from works.
Justification is apart from works.
Salvation from beginning to end is apart from works. In other words, it is free. This must have been the chief idea in Paul’s mind when he wrote these verses, for he emphasizes the matter by repeating it. He says that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24, italics mine).
One of the most substantial works on grace that I have come across is by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and it goes by that title: Grace. In the very first chapter Chafer has a section captioned “Seven Fundamental Facts About Grace.” I am not happy with everything he says in this section, particularly the last two of these points. But I refer to him here because of what he says about grace and demerit:
1. “Grace is not withheld because of demerit” and
2. “Grace cannot be lessened because of demerit.”
These are important points, since they emphasize the bright side of what usually appears to us as undesirable teaching.
Most of us resent the thought of “free” grace. We want to earn our own way, and we resent the suggestion that we are unable to scale the high walls of heaven by our own devices. We must be humbled before we will even give ear to the idea.
But if we have been humbled—if God has humbled us—the doctrine of grace becomes a marvelous encouragement and comfort. It tells us that the grace of God will never be withheld because of anything we may have done, however evil it was, nor will it be lessened because of that or any other evil we may do. The self-righteous person imagines that God scoops grace out of a barrel, giving much to the person who has sinned much and needs much, but giving only a little to the person who has sinned little and needs little. That is one way of wrongly mixing grace with merit. But the person who is conscious of his or her sin often imagines something similar, though opposite in direction. Such people think of God’s withholding grace because of their great sin, or perhaps even putting grace back into his barrel when they sin badly.
Thank God grace is not bestowed on this principle! As Chafer says:
God cannot propose to do less in grace for one who is sinful than he would have done had that one been less sinful. Grace is never exercised by him making up what may be lacking in the life and character of a sinner. In such a case, much sinfulness would call for much grace, and little sinfulness would call for little grace. [Instead] the sin question has been set aside forever, and equal exercise of grace is extended to all who believe. It never falls short of being the measureless saving grace of God. Thus, grace could not be increased, for it is the expression of his infinite love; it could not be diminished, for every limitation that human sin might impose on the action of a righteous God has, through the propitiation of the cross, been dismissed forever.
Grace humbles us, because it teaches that salvation is apart from human merit. At the same time, it encourages us to come to God for the grace we so evidently need. There is no sin too great either to turn God from us or to lessen the abundance of the grace he gives.
That word abundance leads to the final characteristic of grace to be included in this study. It is taught two chapters further on in a verse that became the life text of John Newton: Romans 5:20. Our version reads, “.… But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” But the version Newton knew rendered this, “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” (kjv.)
John Newton was an English clergyman who lived from 1725 to 1807. He had a wide and effective ministry and has been called the second founder of the Church of England. He is best known to us for his hymns.
Newton was raised in a Christian home in which he was taught many great verses of the Bible. But his mother died when he was only six years old, and he was sent to live with a relative who mocked Christianity. One day, at an early age, Newton left home and joined the British Navy as an apprenticed seaman. He was wild and dissolute in those years, and he became exceedingly immoral. He acquired a reputation of being able to swear for two hours without repeating himself. Eventually he deserted the navy off the coast of Africa. Why Africa? In his memoirs he wrote that he went to Africa for one reason only and that was “that I might sin my fill.”
In Africa he fell in with a Portuguese slave trader in whose home he was cruelly treated. This man often went away on slaving expeditions, and when he was gone the power in the home passed to the trader’s African wife, the chief woman of his harem. This woman hated all white men, and she took out her hatred on Newton. He tells us that for months he was forced to grovel in the dirt, eating his food from the ground like a dog and beaten unmercifully if he touched it with his hands. For a time he was actually placed in chains. At last, thin and emaciated, Newton made his way through the jungle, reached the sea, and there attracted a British merchant ship making its way up the coast to England.
The captain of the ship took Newton aboard, thinking that he had ivory to sell. But when he learned that the young man knew something about navigation as a result of his time in the British Navy, he made him ship’s mate. Even then Newton fell into trouble. One day, when the captain was ashore, Newton broke out the ship’s supply of rum and got the crew drunk. He was so drunk himself that when the captain returned and struck him in the head, Newton fell overboard and would have drowned if one of the sailors had not grabbed him and hauled him back on deck in the nick of time.
Near the end of the voyage, as they were approaching Scotland, the ship ran into bad weather and was blown off course. Water poured in, and she began to sink. The young profligate was sent down into the hold to pump water. The storm lasted for days. Newton was terrified, sure that the ship would sink and he would drown. But there in the hold of the ship, as he pumped water, desperately attempting to save his life, the God of grace, whom he had tried to forget but who had never forgotten him, brought to his mind Bible verses he had learned in his home as a child. Newton was convicted of his sin and of God’s righteousness. The way of salvation opened up to him. He was born again and transformed. Later, when the storm had passed and he was again in England, Newton began to study theology and eventually became a distinguished evangelist, preaching even before the queen.
Of this storm William Cowper, the British poet who was a close friend of John Newton’s, wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
And Newton? Newton became a poet as well as a preacher, writing some of our best-known hymns. This former blasphemer wrote:
How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
He is known above all for “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found—
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Newton was a great preacher of grace. And no wonder! He had learned what all who have ever been saved have learned: namely, that grace is from God, apart from human merit. He deserved nothing. But he found grace through the work of Jesus.
About the Author:
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.The article/sermon above was adapted from Dr. James Montgomery Boice. The Boice Commentary Series: Romans Expositions vol. 1: Justification by Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005 (reprinted). Pages 355-362.