The Gospel of the righteousness of God. Romans 3:21-26
In the preface to his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther describes this letter as “purest Gospel.” He goes on to say, “It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.” This kind of thinking is in stark contrast to the way the Christian church in the US has evangelized unbelievers: often the gospel is seen to be something you believe in order to get into heaven and then you move on. For many, the gospel is not something to be meditated on, but a life vest to be stowed away under your seat just in case you need it. But for the most part, the gospel has no practical import in the lives of many professing Christians.
However, as Luther observed, the gospel is not something to be cast aside and saved for later. It is the life-bread of the soul. It is not something we learn and then move on – it is something to which we must keep coming back again and again. The fact of the matter is that the gospel has tremendous practical implications and it is simply impossible to hold on to those implications and live them out in our daily walk unless we maintain a firm hold on the content and meaning of the gospel.
Nowhere is the gospel printed in bolder letters than in the paragraph in front of us. Here we have its essence distilled. If you want to know what the gospel is, here it is. It comes to us through the vocabulary of the OT (hence, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it”): righteousness of God, faith, grace, sin, propitiation, blood. And I think it is necessary for us to understand what exactly is meant by each one of these words in order for us to properly understand the apostle’s argument here. So as we move through the text this morning together, we are going to hang our thoughts on these great words and phrases: righteousness of God (21-22), faith in Christ (22-24), sin (23), grace (24), and redemption and propitiation by the blood of Christ (25).
The righteousness of God: Salvation's Author
The gospel is the gospel of the righteousness of God: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (21-22). If you remember back to our message on 1:16-17, we defined (following John Stott) God’s righteousness to be his “just justification of the unjust.” In the OT, God’s righteousness is often parallel (though not, I think, identical) to God’s saving activity. Well, here we see how God is rescuing and saving his people. He saves them by bestowing upon them his righteousness, by giving them a righteous status, by declaring them to be righteous. And he does this is a way that magnifies rather than undermines his own righteous character.
To see that this is the case, all one needs to do is to look for the thing that makes God’s righteousness necessary. What is it? Well, it is the unrighteousness of man: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). And then in the previous verses, Paul had concluded, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified [declared righteous] in his sight, since though the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). In other words, because we are unrighteous we cannot be declared righteous. And this is a problem since God is righteous. How can a man be justified before God? How then can sinful man have fellowship with God? This is an eternally serious and weighty question.
It is very important that we see this link in the previous chapters between man’s unrighteousness and the impossibility to be justified by works. When Paul inserts God’s righteousness as the solution to this predicament, he is telling us that this is how this problem is solved. The way unrighteous men and women come to be justified and declared right before God is through the righteousness of God.
The rest of this paragraph tells us how God’s righteousness has come to bear on this particular problem. The apostle will tell us how God’s righteousness is appropriated – how it comes to be applied to us personally – why it could happen this way, and how this accords with God’s just character.
But before we look at those aspects of the apostle’s argument, we need to pause and reflect on the fact that the solution to man’s preeminent problem is not something he is or does. This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Ephesians 2:4. You could say that Romans 1:18-3:20 is summarized in Eph. 2:1-3. In each case, as soon as the apostle has described man’s sinful and hopeless state in sin, he goes on to say the solution is God himself. So, in Eph. 2:4, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us” (KJV) is the solution to man’s death in sin. And here, in Romans 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” is the solution to man’s condemnation on account of sin.
This is wonderful because when man tries to fix things often all he does is just mess things up even more. Even with all the technological advancements, we have only found more destructive ways to tear each other apart. The UN, which was supposed to be the answer to war and injustice in the world, has not kept genocide and oppression and war from breaking out again and again. We find ways to justify our inhumanity to man, whether through abortion or racism or greed or any number of other ways.
Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to find solutions to problems in this world. We should try to alleviate suffering and evil whenever and however we can. And there has been much good done in this world by brave and sacrificial men and women. The point I am trying to make is that no solution to evil man can come up with has even shown itself to be very permanent. And when we are talking about the fundamental problem of mankind, our basic sinfulness and rebellion against God, it is certain that man is not going to be the source of its solution. God must be. “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The fact that God has stepped in to save us from ourselves and his own just wrath is breathtakingly amazing. Or at least it should be. Why should God have to save us? If we think he must, it is only because we have an over-inflated view of ourselves. God doesn’t owe anything to us, especially since we have forsaken him in order to worship other things. We are sinful and he is holy. We should not dare believe it if not God’s own word had not revealed it to us.
One more thing: the fact that God has stepped in to save us means that the salvation he offers is certain to save. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God though [Jesus]” (Heb. 7:25). Think about it: any religion that offers salvation through your works and worth automatically makes assurance of salvation impossible. For how could we ever be sure we were good enough, that we had done enough? But the fact that God has stepped in to save us and has taken the burden of sin-created consequences upon himself means that we can have a sure hope of salvation. We can rest in the righteousness of God.
The question, then, is: how do we do that? That brings us to the next few verses.
Faith in Christ: Salvation's Means
God’s righteousness is clearly not given to all. The Bible does not teach universal salvation. So the question is, how do come to be the recipients of the righteousness of God? Paul now answers that question in verse 22: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.” He comes back to this again and again. In verse 25, the apostle says that the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ for us is “to be received by faith.” In verse 26, he describes God as “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The point is that the righteousness of God – that saving act of God by which we become legally righteous before him – is received by faith. Those who are justified are those who have faith and those who are not justified are those who refuse to believe on the name of the Son of God. This is the reason that “whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn. 3:18). Again, as Paul put it to the Galatians, “we also have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
What is Paul referring to here by “faith”? First of all, we should note that this is not just generic “faith” he is describing. This is not, for example, faith in oneself. It is not faith that things will turn out right. It is not an overall optimistic attitude. Nor is it faith in the spiritual for faith in a generic ‘god.’ Rather, this is very specifically faith in Christ Jesus. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
And when we talk about faith in Jesus, we are not talking about a Jesus who is the reflection of our own wishes. This is the Jesus who was revealed in history, the Son of God who came into this world through the womb of a virgin, who walked its dusty roads in Judea and Galilee, who was betrayed and crucified and rose again. The gospel is based on history. You cannot divorce the two. The faith of which the apostle is speaking here is faith in that Person who lived among us and died for us. This is what the apostle meant when he wrote that “now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (21). How was it manifested? It was manifested and revealed and made known in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the faith that justifies. Do you believe in this Jesus? If you do, then the Bible says that you are saved and justified and accepted before God.
But what is faith? Faith is not simply an intellectual assent to certain propositions, although it is not less than that. If faith doesn’t go further than that, it is no better than the dead faith of James 2. Rather, faith is in addition trust in Jesus Christ. It is banking your life on him. It is receiving him as your Lord and your Savior and living your life in light of that reality. That is why, in the NT, faith is almost always paired with repentance, turning from sin. You simply can’t truly believe on Christ in the biblical sense of the word, and not turn from your sin. You cannot truly receive him as your Lord and go on living as if you called the shots. If you are trusting in Christ, then your life is characterized by conversion from sin to God. In the NT, conversion is described in terms of those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
And faith is not looking at yourself. It is looking away from yourself. We don’t have faith in our faith. We have faith in Christ. We look to him as the source of our salvation.
We are saved by faith no matter how small or how great that faith is. It is true that we can grow in our faith. But we must remember that we are not saved by the amount of our faith but by the object of our faith. Our Lord often characterized his own apostles as “little-faiths.” And yet he nowhere suggested (with the exception of Judas, who ended up proving that his faith wasn’t real) that their small faith undermined their place in the age to come. Thus, the way to deal with the fear of false faith is not so much to examine our own faith but to look constantly at Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Why does God choose to save people by faith, you may ask? Well, it is not because faith stands in for the righteousness of God. In other words, we are not saved because our faith makes us worthy of God’s acceptance. God could have saved us apart from faith, because, as we shall see, the basis of our justification is nothing we have done but what Christ has done for us. Rather, God chooses to save us by faith because it is by faith that God is seen by us to be glorious in his grace and salvation. And in being seen as such, he is not only glorified, but we are directed to the only one who can truly save and satisfy our sin-weary souls. As John Piper is wont to put it, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” but the only way we could ever be satisfied in God is by faith. It would simply be impossible to delight in God apart from trust in his Son. We are saved by faith because it serves the interests of the glory of God and the good of our souls.
Sin: Salvation's Need
Though the apostle has spent almost 3 chapters developing the fact of universal sinfulness, he comes back to it once again in verses 22b-23: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The point is that as regards sin, no one stands above anyone else. Jew and Gentile, you and I, are all under God’s just judgment. Therefore we must all be saved in the same way, and that way is the way of faith. It is not like some people can be saved by their works because they are better than the rest, but everyone else has to be saved by faith. No, we must all be saved by resting, not upon our own works, but upon the worth of Jesus Christ alone. And that means that we must be saved by looking outside of ourselves to Another, to Christ.
When Paul says that we have come short of the glory of God, he wants to remind us of what he had already said in chapter 1, namely, that our fundamental sin is idolatry. We worship and serve the creature (namely, ourselves) rather than the Creator. We do not glorify God or gives thanks to him, and this is the primary reason we are separated from God and why we end up messing up every other relationship through selfish acts and words. For once we enthrone ourselves, we cannot love either God or our neighbor. It is the root of all human misery and the reason why we must all be saved. Though we have tried to be God, we have only demonstrated that we are not. We cannot save ourselves; God must save us.
Grace: Salvation's Cost (to us)
By our sin we have not only become indebted to God, but we have become indebted to him with a debt that we cannot pay. Salvation therefore cannot come to us by way of us paying for it. We cannot merit God’s favor. Thank God, then, that salvation comes solely and completely by grace: “and are justified by his grace as a gift” (24). I think it is important to note that this is a continuation of verse 23: “all have sinned . . . and are justified by his grace.” Justification and salvation do not come to the righteous but to sinners. Our Lord still calls sinners – those who have fallen and are broken and so completely hopeless that they do not know where to turn – it is precisely this type of person that our Lord calls to come to him.
Yet we have to continually fight against this mentality that we need to earn God’s favor. Even as believers in the doctrine of salvation by grace, we can easily slip into thinking that God is just waiting for us to mess up in order to bring the hammer down on us. Grace reminds us that we have to stop relating to God as if he were keeping a list of our failures and accomplishments. But God does not love you because you first loved him. You love him because he first loved you. He relates to you from eternity to the present only on the basis of grace. If you belong to Christ, if you trust in him, then today is a day of grace for you. Tomorrow will be a day of grace as well. And the next day and the next, on to the day when God completes his work of grace in you (Phil. 1:6).
There is a line in a prayer in the book Valley of Vision that struck me recently as profound. In one of the prayers, the author writes, “my trials have been fewer than my sins.” I know that is true of me. I suspect it is true of you as well. And why is that? It is because God relates to us on the basis of grace, not works. And the trials God does allow to enter into our lives, no matter how painful, are not there to punish us but to grow us and to draw us closer to himself who is the truest source of rest for our souls. We should not interpret the events of our lives on the basis of works but in light of God’s grace toward us. God will not withdraw his favor and his love from his children. Truly, his steadfast love endures forever.
Redemption and Propitiation: Salvation's Cost (to God)
We now come to what I consider to be two of the most important verses in this crucial paragraph: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (24-25a). One might have asked at this point, “Okay, Paul says that God’s righteousness rescues us by justifying us by grace through faith. What I don’t see is how God can possibly do that? How can a holy God declare people who are actually sinful to be righteous? Wouldn’t that make God unrighteous? On what just basis does God remain righteous while making righteous the unrighteous?”
To see that this is what Paul is getting at here, note how the apostle ends this paragraph (25b-26). He basically says that God has done what he has done in verses 24-25a is to show that he is just. He has forgiven sins and shown forbearance: one what basis could he do this?
Paul answers that question here. The basis upon which God can justify the ungodly is the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. We must remember here what Paul said back in verse 21. We must interpret the meaning of these words in light of their OT background. The word “redemption” harks back to the Exodus from Egypt by which God delivered his people from slavery and bondage, and then to the blood sacrifices of the OT liturgy that took away the guilt of sin. The word “propitiation” was the word used in the law for the lid that covered the ark of the covenant, the “mercy seat,” the place where the blood from the animal sacrifice was sprinkled on the day of atonement (see Lev. 16) so that God’s holy wrath was appeased and his favor secured for the nation of Israel.
Now we know, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, that those animal sacrifices never actually took away sin. There is just no real correspondence between the guilt of the person who sinned and the animal that took their place. Rather, the point is that in the 1500 years of the law, God was building a vocabulary by which we could understand and interpret what took place on the cross.
What did take place? This: on the cross Jesus became the one who redeems us from the bondage of sin and the one who, by God’s own purpose, appeases his holy wrath against us on account of our sin. In God’s moral universe, all sin must be punished. But if we are to be saved, it cannot be punished in us. How then can God remain consistent with his holiness? He does so by substituting his Son in our place. Out of love, God sent his Son, and out of love the Son came to stand in our place and to absorb God’s wrath again our own sin. Because of what Jesus has done, we can be free from the claims of sin upon us and declared righteous in God’s sight.
So you see it is not about being good enough or doing enough to counterbalance the bad we have done. For Christ has already undone all the bad we have done by purging our sin and expiating it upon the cross. Salvation is by faith in Christ because he is the one who redeems us from our sins, and it is by grace alone because Christ has accomplished salvation for us from first to last. We don’t give part of our sin to him to expiate – he takes all of it and purges it completely.
Now, the question before us is this: if this is true and all your sins can be completely forgiven by believing in Christ Jesus, then why not believe on him right now? God will not go back on his word. If you trust in his Son you will be certainly saved. It is the very best news in the world, for it is the offer of eternal life by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Will you not come to him right now by faith and be saved?
On the other hand, if we are already believers in Christ, let us hold firm to the gospel daily. Let God’s grace in Christ form the basis of our hope and our identity in this life. Let it inform the way we look at our trials and the way we enjoy our blessings. Let it flavor every aspect of our life. Let us be gospel-centered. And let us share the gospel with those who are yet outside the community of the saved. This is not news to hide, it is news to share for all who will listen.