One Great Problem

The Point:  Without Christ we are condemned forever.

The Unrighteousness of All People:  Romans 3:9-20.

[9]  What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, [10]  as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; [11]  no one understands; no one seeks for God. [12]  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." [13]  "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." [14]  "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." [15]  "Their feet are swift to shed blood; [16]  in their paths are ruin and misery, [17]  and the way of peace they have not known." [18]  "There is no fear of God before their eyes." [19]  Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. [20]  For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

The whole human race.  Paul is approaching the end of his lengthy argument, and asks himself how to wrap it all up, how to rest his case: What then? He has exposed in succession the blatant unrighteousness of much of the ancient Gentile world [1:18-32), the hypocritical righteousness of moralizers [2:1-16], and the confident self-righteousness of Jewish people, whose anomaly is that they boast of God’s law but break it [2:17-3:8]. So now he arraigns and condemns the whole human race. This fact of the universal bondage of sin and guilt Paul goes on to support from Scripture. He supplies a series of seven Old Testament quotations, the first probably from Ecclesiastes, then five from the Psalms and one from Isaiah, all of which bear witness in different ways to human unrighteousness. Three features of this grim biblical picture in 3:10-18 stand out. First, it declares the ungodliness of sin. Scripture identifies the essence of sin as ungodliness. God’s complaint is that we do not really seek Him at all, making His glory our supreme concern, that we have not set Him before us, that there is no room for him in our thoughts, and that we do not love Him with all our powers. Sin is the revolt of the self against God, the dethronement of God with a view to the enthronement of oneself. Ultimately, sin is self-deification, the reckless determination to occupy the throne which belongs to God alone. Secondly, these Old Testament verses teaches the pervasiveness of sin. For sin affects every part of our human constitution, every faculty and function, including our mind, emotions, sexuality, conscience and will. In verses 13-17 there is a deliberate listing of different parts of the body. These bodily limbs and organs were created and given us so that through them we might serve people and glorify God. Instead, they are used to harm people and in rebellion against God. Thirdly, the Old Testament quotations teach the universality of sin, both negatively and positively. Negatively, none is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God … no one does good, not even one. Positively, all have turned aside. The repetition hammers home the point. The purpose of verse 19 is clear: every mouth is stopped, every excuse silenced, and the whole world, having been found guilty, is liable to God’s judgment. There is nothing to wait for but the pronouncement and execution of the sentence. This is the point to which the apostle has been relentlessly moving. The idolatrous and immoral Gentiles are without excuse [1:20]. All critical moralists, whether Jews or Gentiles, equally have no excuse [2:1]. The special status of the Jews does not exonerate them. In fact, all the inhabitants of the whole world [3:19], without any exception, are inexcusable before God. And by now the reason is plain. It is because all have known something of God and of morality (through Scripture in the case of the Jews, through nature in the case of the Gentiles), but all have disregarded and even stifled their knowledge in order to go their own way. So all are guilty and condemned before God. Therefore, Paul concludes, by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight [3:20]. The reason the law cannot justify sinners is precisely that its function is to expose and to condemn their sin [3:20]. And the reason the law condemns us is that we break it.  [Stott, pp. 99-105].

The Righteousness of God:  Romans 3:21-26.

[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.  [ESV]

“All human beings, of every race and rank, of every creed and culture, Jews and Gentiles, the immoral and the moralizing, the religious and the irreligious, are without any exception sinful, guilty, inexcusable and speechless before God. That was the terrible human predicament described in Romans 1:18-3:20. There was no ray of light, no flicker of hope, no prospect of rescue. But now, Paul suddenly breaks in, God Himself has intervened. Now seems to have a threefold reference – logical (the developing argument), chronological (the present time) and eschatological (the new age has arrived). After the long dark night the sun has risen, a new day has dawned, and the world is flooded with light. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested [21]. It is a fresh revelation, focusing on Christ and His cross, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it in their partial foretellings and foreshadowings. So then, over against the unrighteousness of some and the self-righteousness of others, Paul sets the righteousness of God. Over against God’s wrath resting on evil-doers [1:18; 2:5; 3:5], he sets God’s grace to sinners who believe. Over against judgment, he sets justification. God’s righteousness revealed in Christ’s cross.  Verses 21-26 are six tightly packed verses, which are at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Its key expression is the righteousness of God, which occurs in 1:17. The righteousness of God in both verses [1:17; 3:21] stresses the saving initiative which God has taken to give sinners a righteous status in His sight. Both speak of His righteousness as being ‘revealed’ or ‘made known’. Both indicate its newness by declaring that it is made known either in the gospel [1:17] or apart from the law [3:21]. Yet both represent it as a fulfilment of Old Testament Scripture, which shows that it was not a divine afterthought. And both state that it is available to us through faith. The only significant difference between these two texts lies in the tense of their main verbs. According to 3:21 a righteousness from God has been manifested, a perfect tense which must refer to the historical death of Christ and its abiding consequences, whereas in 1:17 the righteousness of God is being revealed (a present tense) in the gospel, which presumably means whenever it is preached. In 3:22 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. The second novelty in these verses is that now for the first time the righteousness of God is identified with justification: and are justified by his grace as a gift [24]. The righteousness of (or ‘from’) 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. In 3:24-26, Paul teaches three basic truths about justification. 1. The source of our justification: God and His grace. We are justified freely by 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. So the first move was God the Father’s, and our justification is by his grace as a gift, His absolutely free and utterly undeserved favor. Grace is God loving, God stooping, God coming to the rescue, God giving Himself generously in and through Jesus Christ. 2. The ground of our justification: Christ and His cross.  How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising His righteousness or condoning their unrighteousness? That is our question. God’s answer is the cross. Without the cross the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and therefore impossible. The only reason God justifies the ungodly [4:5] is that Christ died for the ungodly [5:6]. 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 [24]. Secondly, God put forward as a propitiation by his blood [25]. Thirdly, this was done to show God’s righteousness … [25], so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus [26]. 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. Redemption 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’. 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. In consequence of this purchase, we now belong to Him. The second key term is propitiation. 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. To propitiate somebody means to placate their anger. Propitiation is 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. In ourselves, we cannot placate the righteous anger of God. We have no means whatever by which to do so. But God in His underserved love has done for us what we could never do by ourselves: God put forward (Christ) as a propitiation by his blood [25] shed on the cross. The third key term 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: to show God’s righteousness [25] … to show his righteousness at the present time [26]. God left unpunished the sins of former generations, 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, indeed to show his righteousness, and simultaneously be the one who is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus [26]. Both justice (the divine attribute) and justification (the divine activity) would be impossible without the cross. 3. The means of our justification: faith.  Three times in 3:21-26 Paul underlines the necessity of faith: through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe [22]; to be received by faith [25]; and God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus [26]. Indeed, justification is ‘by faith alone’, sola fide, one of the great watchwords of the Reformation. 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. Faith is the eye that looks to Christ, the hand that receives His free gift, the mouth that drinks the living water. Justification (its source God and His grace, its ground Christ and His cross, and its means faith alone, altogether apart from works) 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 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. No compromising mishmash is possible. We are obliged to choose. Emil Brunner illustrated it vividly in terms of the difference between ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’. The really ‘decisive question’, he wrote, is ‘the direction of the movement’. Non-Christian systems think of ‘the self-movement of man’ towards God. Luther called speculation ‘climbing up to the majesty on high’. Similarly, mysticism imagines that the human spirit can ‘soar aloft towards God’. So does moralism. So does philosophy. Very similar is ‘the self-confident optimism of all non-Christian religion’. None of these has seen or felt the gulf which yawns between the holy God and sinful, guilty human beings. Only when we have glimpsed this do we grasp the necessity of what the gospel proclaims, namely, ‘the self-movement of God’, His free initiative of grace, His ‘descent’, His amazing ‘act of condescension’. To stand on the rim of the abyss, to despair utterly of ever crossing over, this is the indispensable ‘antechamber of faith’.”  [Stott, pp. 108-118].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Paul uses seven Old Testament quotations to describe human unrighteousness. What three features of human unrighteousness does Stott list? How does Stott define sin? What is the function of the law?

2.         Paul often uses But now to indicate a significant change in relationships, events, etc. What change is Paul describing in 3:21? Meditate on what this change means to you personally.

3.         Over against the universality of sin, Paul sets forth the righteousness of God. What is the righteousness of God? Paul identifies this righteousness with justification. What is justification? What three basic truths does Paul teach about justification? Why is the Cross essential for the doctrine of justification?


Romans, Thomas Schreiner, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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