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Justification in Romans and Hebrews

September 21, 2017

S. M. Baugh

S. M. Baugh
Professor of New Testament

One does not often think of Hebrews when it comes to the doctrine of justification—we normally go right to Paul’s writings. But Hebrews actually contains much teaching that contributes significantly to the broader doctrine of justification by faith alone. There are many ways to show this but I will discuss just one for now by comparing two important passages: one in Romans and one in Hebrews which complement and fill out each other on the issue of justification.

Before going on, it would be helpful to define justification, which is done beautifully in the classic, succinct statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) as follows: “What is justification? Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC QA33). The key elements here are that justification is a single act which God performs when he accepts the believer as righteous by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us independent of our works. Furthermore, the WSC sees imputation of righteousness and forgiveness of sins as two sides of the same divine action in justification, as clearly taught, for example, in Rom 4:5–8. Because forgiveness of sins is part of justification, we have a link between Paul and Hebrews which we can illustrate now.

Romans and Hebrews

The two passages we are going to compare are Rom 3:24–26 and Heb 9:14–15. Both texts are cut out of their contexts—which I don’t generally like to do—but it is necessary here to show how these two places in Scripture interact in important ways. We join both passages in progress:

. . . and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:24–26; ESV)

. . . how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Heb 9:14–15; ESV)

To begin with, Paul reveals in Rom 3:24–25 that he conceives of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as integral to the justification of believers. This comes out clearly when he says that justification was “through” Christ’s redemption. This redemption or ransom was not accomplished by payment of money but through “propitiation by his blood” (v. 25; see also 1 Pet 1:18–19). Yet while Paul speaks often of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, he never explains the details of this high priestly act, which precisely occupies much of the book of Hebrews.

Let’s look more carefully at the two passages to see their interplay. In Rom 3:24–26, Paul speaks explicitly of justification as God’s gift to believers (v. 24). In Heb 9:15 the author does not use the term “gift” like Paul, but the idea is there when he says “those who are called” “receive” (i.e., as a gift) “the promised eternal inheritance,” and an inheritance is a gift by definition (cf. Gal 3:18 and Heb 11:8). Furthermore, elsewhere Hebrews speaks of Noah receiving righteousness as an inheritance by faith in a statement reminiscent of and possibly influenced by Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith (Heb 11:7).

Secondly in both the Romans and Hebrews passages there is reference to redemption of believers through Christ’s offering of blood. This gets at the heart of the gospel and Christ’s work on the cross as our substitutionary mediator. And finally, in both the Romans and Hebrews passages, the gift of God through Christ’s mediation involves the forgiveness of transgressions, reiterating what we saw before: the flip side of justification is remission of sin which Christ came to bring by giving his life as a ransom for many (e.g., Matt 20:28; 1 Tim 2:6) when he “offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14).

There are more connections between Paul’s teachings and Hebrews. But hopefully this shows the harmony of these two great authors of the New Testament on the critical doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.

View entire Justification blog series