In a merit-based religion human pride is inevitable. So also is human despair.

Either we think we are ‘good enough’ to ‘go to heaven’, and end up in pride. Or we think we will never be ‘good enough’ and end up in despair. In the first there is the constant need to be ‘good enough’, to keep up to the mark, to maintain the standard. In the second there is a devastating hopelessness that gives up even trying.

Both of these fail to understand the gospel righteousness of which the gospel speaks. Both of these fail to understand grace. Both of these fail to understand the redemptive significance of the death of Jesus Christ.

Both are equally self-centred. Everything depends on self – our present relationship with God, and our future destiny.

But the gospel releases us from this fatal focus on self, this fatal and faulty perception that it all depends on us. Indeed, the gospel outlaws such focus on self. It exposes it as the core expression of human sinfulness.

So Paul asks a question and gives us the answer:

‘Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law’ (Romans 3:27, 28).

In Philippians 3:4 - 8, Paul reflects on his pre-Christian mindset. He lists the personal points of merit in which he had then gloried: his circumcision, his national and tribal heritage, his pure Hebrew ancestry, his Pharisaic regard for God’s law, his religious zeal, his perceived obedience. These were his glory, these were his confidence, these were his boast. But, he says, having met Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road, he has ceased to boast about any of these. In fact, he says, he counts them loss; he considers them of no more worth than dung.

All he wants to know, all he now glories in, is Jesus Christ, and his righteousness.

Jesus in Luke 18:9 - 14, similarly, spoke of a man who boasted of his own perceived religious credit. A man who stood in the presence of God and said:

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

That tax-collector, standing in the same temple, in the presence of the same God, was aware of his own unworthiness. But he did not do the opposite of boasting: he did not despair. He did not think

‘What’s the use. I can never be good enough. I’ll just give up on God and faith and let whatever comes come.’

His prayer, while acknowledging his sinfulness, also expressed faith in God as the God of mercy:

‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Jesus commented on these two men and their mindsets:

‘I tell you that this man,’ (the tax-collector) ‘went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’

The gospel of justification by faith, of the gift of ‘righteousness apart from law’, of grace, excludes boasting.

Since we are legally acquitted (justified) apart from observing the law (28) then there is nothing that we have done, are doing or ever will do, that we can boast about. Nothing we have done, are doing, or will ever do makes any contribution to our legal acquittal. Nothing about us gives us any legal right to brag in the presence of God or in the presence of others. Bragging about our religious credentials is prohibited by the gospel. In fact, bragging about our religious achievements, about the things that we assume give us credit in God's presence, means that we have not begun to understand the real meaning of gospel righteousness.

In God’s grand plan, set in place before the beginning of time, it is all about Jesus, God’s Son. He is our righteousness (1Corinthians 1:30).

So Paul says: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’ (1Corinthians 1:31).

© Rosemary Bardsley 2019