The Gift You Can’t Give Yourself

The Point:  Jesus offers you His gift of a right relationship with God.

The Righteousness of God Manifested:  Romans 3:21.

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

[21]  In a passage that is loaded with key theological terms, the phrase righteousness of God stands out. It occurs four times [21,22,25,26], while the related verb “to justify” is found twice [24,26] and the adjective just once [26]. After a section in which the need for this righteousness has been demonstrated in detail [1:18-3:20], Paul is now prepared to explain how the righteousness of God empowers the gospel to mediate salvation to sinful human beings. The passage falls into four parts. In the first, Paul reiterates the revelation of God’s righteousness and relates it to the Old Testament [21].The second section focuses on the way in which all human beings, equal in their sin, have equal access also to God’s righteousness through faith [22-23]. The source of God’s righteousness in the gracious provision of Christ as an atoning sacrifice is the theme of the third part of the passage [24-25a]. Finally, Paul shows how the atonement not only provides for the justification of sinners but also demonstrates the “just-ness” of God throughout the process [25b-26]. In making this last point, we are presuming that righteousness of God which refers in verses 21-22 to the justifying act of God, refers in verses 25-26 to the integrity of God, His always acting in complete accordance with His own character. Paul signals the transition to a new phase of his exposition of the gospel with but now [21]. It marks the shift in Paul’s focus from the old era of sin’s domination to the new era of salvation. This contrast between two eras in salvation history is one of Paul’s most basic theological conceptions, providing the framework for many of his key ideas. Romans 1:18-3:20 has sketched the spiritual state of those who belong to the old era: justly condemned, helpless in the power of sin, powerless to escape God’s wrath. But now God has intervened to inaugurate a new era, and all who respond in faith will be transferred into it from the old era. As the wrath of God dominated the old era [1:18], so the righteousness of God dominates the new. Righteousness of God means the same in 3:21 as in 1:17, the justifying activity of God. From God’s side, this includes his eschatological intervention to vindicate and deliver His people, in fulfillment of His promises. From the human side, it includes the status of acquittal acquired by the person so declared just. In 1:17, Paul asserts that this righteousness of God is constantly revealed through the preaching of the gospel. Here he simply asserts its presence as a dominating force in God’s interaction with humanity. The relationship of this manifestation of God’s righteousness to the Old Testament is indicated in two prepositional phrases that together display the combination of continuity and discontinuity to salvation history that is characteristic of Romans. What does Paul mean by apart from the law? In Romans 2:1-3:20 Paul has made clear that the law has failed to rescue Jews from the power of sin because compliance with its demands to the extent necessary to secure justification has not been – and cannot be – forthcoming. Apart from the law might mean, then, “apart from doing the law”: God’s righteousness is now attained without any contribution from “works of the law.” While this may, indeed, be part of what Paul intends, it is questionable whether it goes far enough; for there is, as Paul will show in chapter 4, nothing really new about this: justification has always been by faith, apart from the law. Furthermore, it is not the manner in which God’s righteousness is received that Paul is talking about here, but the manner in which it is manifested – the divine side of this process by which people are made right with God. This phrase, then, reiterates the salvation-historical shift denoted by but now. In the new era inaugurated by Christ’s death God has acted to deliver and vindicate His people apart from the law. It is not primarily the law as something for humans to do, but the law as a system, as a stage in God’s unfolding plan, that is in view here. Law, then, refers to the Mosaic covenant, that temporary administration set up between God and His people to regulate their lives and reveal their sin until the establishment of the promise in Christ. One aspect of this covenant, of course, is those Jewish ‘identity markers’, such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and food laws. Paul is certainly affirming, then, that the righteousness of God is now being manifested outside the national and religious parameters set by the law. But Paul’s point cannot be confined to this. The reason these identity markers are no longer required is that the covenant of which they were a part has been made obsolete [cf. Heb. 8:7-13]. It is this basic shift in salvation history that Paul alludes to here, and much of his discussion of the law in the rest of this letter is an attempt to explain this apart from the law, while at the same time justifying his assertion that faith establishes the law. But Paul hastens to balance this discontinuity in salvation history with a reminder of its continuity. While God’s justifying activity in the new age takes part outside the confines of the Old Covenant, the Old Testament as a whole anticipates and predicts this new work of God: God’s righteousness is witnessed to by the law and the prophets.

The Righteousness of God through Faith:  Romans 3:22-26.

[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.  [ESV]

[22-26]  In verse 22 Paul resumes his announcement of the gospel by repeating the expression the righteousness of God, and now adds two more truths about it. The first is that it comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction between any human groupings, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. God’s glory could mean His approval or praise, which all have forfeited, but probably refers to His image or glory in which all were made but which all fail to live up to. Of course there are degrees of sinning, and therefore differences, yet nobody even approaches God’s standard. The second novelty in these verses is that now for the first time the righteousness of God is identified with justification: are justified by his grace. The righteousness of God is a combination of His righteous character, His saving initiative and His gift of a righteous standing before Him. It is His just justification of the unjust, His righteous way of “righteoussing” the unrighteous. Justification is a legal or forensic term, belonging to the law courts. Its opposite is condemnation. Both are the pronouncements of a judge. In a Christian context they are the alternative eschatological verdicts which God the judge may pass on judgment day. So when God justifies sinners today, He anticipates His own final judgment by bringing into the present what belongs properly to the last day. Justification is positive, the bestowal of a righteous status, the sinner’s reinstatement in the favor and fellowship of God. To condemn is not merely to punish, but to declare the accused guilty or worthy of punishment; and justification is not merely to remit that punishment, but to declare that punishment cannot be justly inflicted. Paul teaches three basic truths about justification: first its source, where it originates; secondly its ground, on what it rests; and thirdly its means, how it is received.

(1) The Source of our Justification: God and His Grace [24]. Fundamental to the gospel of salvation is the truth that the saving initiative from beginning to end belongs to God the Father. No formulation of the gospel is biblical which removes the initiative from God and attributes it either to us or even to Christ. It is certain that we did not take the initiative, for we were sinful, guilty and condemned, helpless and hopeless. Nor was the initiative taken by Jesus Christ in the sense that He did something which the Father was reluctant or unwilling to do. To be sure, Christ came voluntarily and gave himself freely. Yet He did it in submissive response to the Father’s initiative. So the first move was God the Father’s, and our justification is freely by His grace, His absolutely free and utterly undeserved favor. Grace is God loving, God stopping, God coming to the rescue, God giving Himself generously in and through Jesus Christ.

(2) The Ground of our Justification: Christ and His Cross [24-26]. If God justifies sinners freely by His grace, on what ground does He do so? How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising His righteousness or condoning their unrighteousness? God’s answer is the cross. Without the cross the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and therefore impossible. What God did through the cross, that is, through the death of His Son in our place, Paul explains by three notable expressions. First, God justifies us through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Secondly, God presented His Son as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Thirdly, He did this 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. The key words are redemption, propitiation, and demonstration. All three refer not to what is happening now when the gospel is preached, but to what happened once for all in and through Christ on the cross, his blood being a clear reference to His sacrificial death. Associated with the cross, therefore, there is a redemption of sinners, a propitiation of God’s wrath and a demonstration of His justice. The first word is redemption. It is a commercial term borrowed from the marketplace. In the Old Testament it was used of slaves, who were purchased in order to be set free; they were said to be redeemed. It was also used metaphorically of the people of Israel who were redeemed from captivity first in Egypt, then in Babylon, and restored to their own land. Just so, we were slaves or captives, in bondage to our sin and guilt, and utterly unable to liberate ourselves. But Jesus Christ redeemed us, bought us out of captivity, shedding His blood as the ransom price. He Himself had spoken of His coming to give his life as a ransom for many [Mark 10:45]. In consequence of this purchase, we now belong to Him. The second word is propitiation. To propitiate somebody means to placate his or her anger. In these verses, Paul is describing God’s solution to the human predicament, which is not only sin but God’s wrath upon sin [1:18; 2:5; 3:5]. And where there is divine wrath, there is the need to avert it. Why is a propitiation necessary? Because God’s holy wrath rests on evil. There is nothing unprincipled, unpredictable or uncontrolled about God’s anger; it is aroused by evil alone. Who undertakes to do the propitiating? We cannot placate the righteous anger of God. We have no means whatever by which to do so. But God in His undeserved love has done for us what we could never do by ourselves. God presented Christ as a propitiation by his blood. The love, the idea, the purpose, the initiative, the action and the gift were all God’s. How has the propitiation been accomplished? What is the propitiatory sacrifice? God gave His own Son to die in our place, and in giving His Son He gave Himself [5:8; 8:32]. God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men, and being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, proposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. The third word is demonstration. The cross was a demonstration or public revelation as well as an achievement. It not only accomplished the propitiation of God and the redemption of sinners; it also vindicated the justice of God. In order to understand the form which this demonstration of God’s justice took, we need to note the deliberate contrast which Paul makes between the former sins, which in his divine forbearance he had passed over, and the present time in which God has acted to show his righteousness. It is a contrast between the past and the present, between the divine forbearance which postponed judgment and the divine justice which exacted it, between the leaving unpunished or passing over of former sins (which made God appear unjust) and their punishment on the cross (by which God demonstrated His justice). That is, God left unpunished the sins of former generations, letting the nations go their own way and overlooking their ignorance, not because of any injustice on His part, or with any thought of condoning evil, but in His forbearance, and only because it was His fixed intention in the fullness of time to punish these sins in the death of His Son. This was the only way in which He could both Himself be just and simultaneously be the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Both justice (the divine attribute) and justification (the divine activity) would be impossible without the cross. Through the sin-bearing, substitutionary death of His Son, God has propitiated His own wrath in such a way as to redeem and justify us, and at the same time demonstrate His justice. We can only marvel at the wisdom, holiness, love and mercy of God, and fall down before Him in humble worship.

(3) The Means of our Justification: Faith [22,25,26]. Three times in this paragraph Paul underlines the necessity of faith: through faith in Jesus Christ [22]; propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith [25]; and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus [26]. Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Further, it is vital to affirm that there is nothing meritorious about faith, and that, when we say that salvation is by faith, not by works, we are not substituting one kind of merit (faith) for another (works). Nor is salvation a sort of cooperative enterprise between God and us, in which He contributes the cross and we contribute faith. No, grace is non-contributory, and faith is the opposite of self-regarding. The value of faith is not to be found in itself, but entirely and exclusively in its object, namely Jesus Christ and Him crucified. To say “justification by faith alone” is another way of saying “justification by Christ alone.” Faith is the eye that looks to Him, the hand that receives His free gift, the mouth that drinks the living water. This doctrine of justification is the heart of the gospel and unique to Christianity. No other system, ideology or religion proclaims a free forgiveness and a new life to those who have done nothing to deserve it but a lot to deserve judgment instead. On the contrary, all other systems teach some form of self-salvation through good works of religion, righteousness or philanthropy. Christianity, by contrast, is not in its essence a religion at all; it is a gospel, the gospel, good news that God’s grace has turned away his wrath, that God’s Son has died our death and borne our judgment, that God has mercy on the undeserving, and that there is nothing left for us to do, or even contribute. Faith’s only function is to receive what grace offers. The antithesis between grace and law, mercy and merit, faith and works, God’s salvation and self-salvation, is absolute.

Justified by Faith:  Romans 3:27-28.

[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.  [ESV]

[27-28]  Now in these two verses Paul shows how justification by faith excludes any possibility of boasting. These verses provide further reason for accepting the principle that justification must be by faith with no admixture of works of the law. The question what becomes of our boasting with its answer it is excluded draws an inference from verses 21-26. Boasting, of course, is a sin common to all people – it reflects the pride that is at the root of so much human sinfulness. What is the nature of this boasting? And why is it wrong? Paul’s reason for excluding boasting has to do with a contrast between faith and works – two kinds of human response to God. The root issue here is the pride of accomplishments, the tendency for humans to think that their obedience to the law constituted some kind of claim on God, that Paul rejects. This does not mean, however, that the very doing of the law was wrong because it involved sinful, boastful presumption. There is nothing at all wrong with doing the law, according to Paul. The problem, rather, is when doing the law is regarded as an achievement on the basis of which a relationship with God could be established or maintained. This is wrong because justification can come only by faith since our obedience to the law is never perfect. Paul’s explanation for the exclusion of boasting rests on a contrast between works and faith. What is striking about this contrast is that Paul formulates it with the help of the word law. What is his purpose in using this word here? Here Paul is contrasting two different laws. The word law in verse 27 has a metaphorical sense: principle or rule. Thus Paul’s question would then be: “what rule or system of demands excludes boasting? It is through the rule of faith, the ordinance or demand of God for faith as the basis for justification [28]. Paul’s point is that the narrow focus of most of his fellow Jews on the Mosaic law as the system within which their relationship to God was established gives rise to an implicit “boast” in human achievement. Once it is seen, however, that God’s righteousness comes to people apart from the law, there can be no more cause for any pride in human achievement. In verse 28 Paul explains the law of faith. It is a rule or principle pertaining to faith that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. We hold probably indicates that he assumes that his readers would join him in this assessment. As in 3:20, what is meant by works of the law is not certain kinds of works, or works viewed in a certain light, but anything a person does in obedience to the law. A serious erosion of the full significance of Paul’s gospel occurs if we soften this antithesis; no works, whatever their nature or their motivation, can play any part in making a sinner right with God.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What two ways does Paul use the term, righteousness of God, in these verses? What is the significance of But now [21]? What transition in Paul’s teaching does it signal?

2.         Verses 21-26 contain a host of key theological terms. Give the best definition you can for each of these terms: righteousness, justified, grace, redemption, propitiation, justice, faith.

3.         Verse 27 says that we have no reason to boast. Why? What is the law of faith?

4.         For this week, memorize “Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone.” Spend time thinking about the meaning and significance of each  “alone.” For example, what is the difference is saying that “justification is by grace” and “justification is by grace alone.”


The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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