Justification by faith is God’s means of salvation—to “exclude boasting”

An important passage for the doctrine of justification by faith is Romans 3:21–27.

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—

[22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

[23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

[24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

[25] whom 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.

[26] It 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.

[27] Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

[28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

There is a relationship here between 1) justification by faith, and 2) boasting. The necessity of the first makes for the exclusion of the second.

In order to better understand this relationship we must first grasp the meaning of the word “boasting” in the intensely competitive social context of the Roman Empire. Robert Jewett says that “it is ordinarily overlooked that Rome is the boasting champion of the ancient world, filled with honorific monuments and celebrations of imperial glory.”[1]

In the social context of the Roman world, honor competition and boasting were as common as breathing. Scholars have a name for this honor-shame dynamic: “challenge and riposte”.

U.K. theologian John M. G. Barclay, author of Paul and the Gift, explains the intense rivalry and  widespread practice of “boasting” in the social world of Apostle Paul:

Paul lived in a face-to-face society where self-advertisement [boasting], rivalry, and public competition were a perpetual cause of tension in every day life. …

As recent research has emphasized, almost all social relations and Paul’s cultural context were both ordered and threatened by the competition for honor. In the absence of “objective” measures of quality (such as educational qualifications), a person’s worth was heavily dependent on his public reputation, a “dignity” energetically claimed and fiercely defended. The pursuit or defense of honor was, many ancient commentators claimed, the chief motivating force for action: “by nature we yearn and hunger for honor, and once we have glimpsed, as it were, some part of its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and suffer in order to secure it” (Cicero, Tusc. 2.24.58). …

And challenge was, indeed, the very essence of this culture. Honor was derived from comparison, from placing oneself (or being placed by others) higher on some hierarchical scale, in which one person’s superiority means that another is comparatively demeaned. This made honor ever the subject of contest: indeed, the ordeal or test was the very arena in which honor was proved. In this environment, every claim to honor [boast] was a real or potential provocation, and every challenge required an active riposte. Honor was a precious but unstable commodity, requiring active promotion [boasting] and persistent demonstration in a court of opinion that continually looked on with a critical eye.[2]

So what does Paul mean when he says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27)? Two considerations:

  1. The commonplace social dynamic of boasting in the Roman world—normally considered honorable—is in reality, to be “excluded”. Curiously, this word “excluded” comes from the Greek word ἐκκλείω (ekkleiō), which means “to be shut out”. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used—Gal 4:17. It is a shame term. Why? Because to be excluded is shameful. The irony is plain: The default social practice of making honor claims (boasting)—is actually shameful from God’s perspective!
  2. When Paul asks, “Then what becomes of our boasting?”, is he referring only to ‘we Jews’ who make honor claims (who are boasting) about the “works of the law” (Rom 3:28)? Or is Paul referring to the broader category of ‘we humans’? I believe the context demands that Paul cannot be only referring to Jews, because the preceding verses, Rom 3:21–26, clearly speak with universal intent. I like how Barclay puts it: “His point is to exclude from God’s reckoning not only one but any form of symbolic capital that might be taken to constitute a source of worth before God”.[3]

Ok, so justification by faith means no boasting. But what’s the point? Community!

Yes, justification by faith means that boasting is excluded—what not to do. But there is also an enormously positive intent in Paul’s overall message. Paul has in mind the social community of the church, the body of Christ. Keeping in mind Rome‘s default culture of honor competition, envy, and boasting, we turn again to Barclay, whose insights concerning Paul’s letter to the Romans harmonize with Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

The assembly of believers forms a new community of opinion, constituted by the gift to the unworthy. Within this community there arises, of course, an alternative system of worth, a new form of “symbolic capital”: here, some are to be honored as teachers of the word (6:6) and others given responsibility as “spiritual people” … insofar as they are attuned to the Spirit. But—and this is the second characteristic of Paul’s social strategy—the hallmark of this alternative system of value is that it is specifically directed against rivalry; the greatest honor is for those who work against the competitive spirit of honor itself. As we have seen nearly all of the characteristics catalogued as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23) are directed toward the construction of community, from love downwards. … What counts among believers, according to Paul, is precisely the antithesis to arrogance and competition.[4]

The only kind of rivalry that is acceptable in the Christian community is to “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). This “antithesis to arrogance”—this against-rivalry-ethic—is also plain in Romans 12:14–19.

Conclusion: By understanding the honor-shame dynamic of “challenge and riposte” and the prominence of “boasting” in the Roman Empire, we better grasp the doctrine of justification by faith. It is God’s means of salvation—to “exclude boasting”—which, in turn, leads to the creation of a loving community that abides in Christ, in unity, against rivalry.

1. Robert Jewett: Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 295–6.
2. John M. G. Barclay: Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 433-4.
3. Ibid., 484.
4. Ibid., 435.

One thought on “Justification by faith is God’s means of salvation—to “exclude boasting”

  1. Mitch Gingrich Reply

    A bestowed honor, by definition, excludes all manner of boasting and competition for honor.

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