Week of March 15, 2020

The Point:  Jesus made it possible for us to be righteous before God.

The Righteousness of God:  Romans 3:20-28.

[20] For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. [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.   [ESV]

“[20] What does Paul means by” by works of the law? The traditional understanding of works of the law is that Paul is referring to good works of righteousness and philanthropy, done in obedience to the law, and regarded by the Jews as the meritorious ground on which God accepted them. The reason the law cannot justify sinners is precisely that its function is to expose and to condemn their sin. And the reason the law condemns us is that we break it. We should see verse 20 as the climax of Paul’s argument not just against Jewish self-confidence, but against every attempt at self-salvation. For, Paul continues, through the law comes knowledge of sin. That is, what the law brings is the knowledge of sin, not the forgiveness of sin. In conclusion, how should we respond to Paul’s devastating exposure of universal sin and guilt, as we read it at the end of the twentieth century? We should not try to evade it by changing the subject and talking instead of the need for self-esteem, or by blaming our behavior on our genes, nurturing, education or society. It is an essential part of our dignity as human beings that, however much we may have been affected by negative influences, we are not their helpless victims, but rather responsible for our conduct. Our first response to Paul’s indictment, then, should be to make it as certain as we possibly can that we have ourselves accepted this divine diagnosis of our human condition as true, and that we have fled from the just judgment of God on our sins to the only refuge there is, namely Jesus Christ who died for our sins. For we have no merit to plead and no excuse to make. We too stand before God speechless and condemned. Only then shall we be ready to hear the great But now of verse 21, as Paul begins to explain how God has intervened through Christ and his cross for our salvation. Secondly, these chapters challenge us to share Christ with others. We cannot monopolize the good news. All around us are men and women who know enough of God’s glory and holiness to make their rejection of him inexcusable. They too, like us, stand condemned. Their knowledge, their religion and their righteousness cannot save them. Only Christ can. Their mouth is closed in guilt; let our mouth be opened in testimony!

God’s righteousness revealed in Christ’s cross [3:21-26]. 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). 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. Verses 21-26 are six tightly packed verses, which have been called the center and heart of the whole main section of the letter. Its key expression is the righteousness of God, which occurred earlier in 1:17. Both verses stress 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 a righteousness from God is being revealed (a present tense) in the gospel, which presumably means whenever it is preached. 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. Moreover, it is offered to all because it is needed by all. There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in this respect, as Paul has been arguing in 1:18 – 3:20, or between any other human groupings, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [23]. 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: and are justified by his grace [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. 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 and pardon do not have the same meaning. Pardon is negative, the remission of a penalty or debt; justification is positive, the bestowal of a righteous status, the sinner’s reinstatement in the favor and fellowship of God. If justification is not pardon, neither is it sanctification. To justify is to declare or pronounce righteous, not to make righteous. Baptized Christians have both died to sin (so that they cannot possibly live in it any longer) and risen to a new life in Christ. Put a little differently, justification (a new status) and regeneration (a new heart), although not identical, are simultaneous. Every justified believer has also been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and so put on the road to progressive holiness. In verses 24-26, 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. We are justified by his grace as a gift [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. 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? That is our question. God’s answer is the cross. No expression in Romans is more startling than the statement that God justifies the ungodly [4:5]. Although it does not occur until the next chapter, it will help us to follow Paul’s reasoning if we take it now. How can God justify the wicked? In the Old Testament he repeatedly told the Israelite judges that they must justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. But of course! An innocent person must be declared innocent, and a guilty person guilty. What more elementary principle of justice could be enunciated? God declared of himself, I will not acquit the wicked [Ex. 23:7]. But of course! We say again. God would not dream of doing such a thing. Then how on earth can Paul affirm that God does what he forbids others to do; that he does what he says he will himself never do; that he does it habitually, and that he even designates himself the God who justifies the ungodly? It is preposterous! How can the righteous God act unrighteously, and so overthrow the moral order, turning it upside down? It is unbelievable! Or rather it would be, if it were not for the cross of Christ. Without the cross the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and therefore impossible. The only reason God justifies the ungodly is that Christ died for the ungodly [5:6]. Because he shed his blood in a sacrificial death for us sinners, God is able justly to justify the unjust. What God did through the cross, that is, through the death of his Son in our place, Paul explains by three notable expressions. 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. This is a commercial term borrowed from the marketplace, as ‘justification’ is a legal term borrowed from the lawcourt. 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 or ‘ransom-rescue’, we now belong to him. Propitiation. Many Christian people are embarrassed and even shocked by this word because to ‘propitiate’ somebody means to placate his or her anger, and it seems to them as unworthy concept of God to suppose that he gets angry and needs to be appeased. 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. We should not be shy of using the word ‘propitiation’ in relation to the cross, any more than we should drop the word ‘wrath’ in relation to God. Instead, we should struggle to reclaim and reinstate this language by showing that the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions. The need, the author and the nature of the Christian propitiation are all different. First, the need. Why is 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. Second, the author. Who undertakes to do the propitiating? The pagan answer is that we do. We have offended the gods; so we must appease them. The Christian answer, by contrast, is that 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 sacrifice of atonement. The love, the idea, the purpose, the initiative, the action and the gift were all God’s. Thirdly, the nature. How has the propitiation been accomplished? What is the propitiatory sacrifice? The pagan answer is that we have to bribe the gods. The Old Testament sacrificial system was entirely different, since it was recognized that God himself has ‘given’ the sacrifices to his people to make atonement. And this is clear beyond doubt in the Christian propitiation, for God gave his own Son to die in our place, and in giving his Son he gave himself [5:8; 8:32]. In sum, it would be hard to exaggerate the differences between the pagan and the Christian views of propitiation. In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to the Christian revelation, God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself. This is the righteous basis on which the righteous God can ‘righteous’ the unrighteous without compromising his righteousness. 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 his righteousness. 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 sins committed beforehand’ or previously, which ‘in his forbearance he had left … unpunished’ [25b], and ‘the present time’ in which God has acted ‘to demonstrate his justice’ [26a]. 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 fulness 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 ‘demonstrate his justice’, and simultaneously be ‘the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ [26b]. Both justice (the divine attribute) and justification (the divine activity) would be impossible without the cross. Here, then, are the three technical terms which Paul uses to explain what God has done in and through Christ’s cross. He has redeemed his people. He has propitiated his wrath. He has demonstrated his justice. Indeed, these three achievements belong together. 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. The cross should be enough to break the hardest heart, and melt the iciest. We have considered that the source of our justification is God’s grace and its ground Christ’s cross. Now we turn to the means by which we are justified.
  3. The means of our justification: faith. Three times in this paragraph Paul underlines the necessity of faith: through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe [22]; by his blood, to be received by faith [25]; and God 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. Faith is the eye that looks to him, the hand that receives his free gift, the mouth that drinks the living water. 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 underserving, 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.

What becomes of our boasting [27-28]? Paul now re-opens his ‘diatribe’, which he continued throughout chapter 2 and which was clearly articulated in the four questions of 3:1-8. These related to his indictment that all human beings are under the judgment of God and that Jews are not shielded from it. Now he anticipates a fresh set of Jewish questions, related this time not to judgment but to justification, and in particular to justification by faith only. The Jews were immensely proud of their privileged status as the chosen people of God. They imagined that they were heaven’s protected favorites, which is why Paul characterized them as ‘relying’ on their possession of the law and ‘bragging’ about their relationship to God [2:17,23]. But these external privileges were not the only object of Jewish boasting. Jewish people were also proud of their personal righteousness. Boastfulness was not limited to the Jews, however. The Gentile world also was insolent, haughty, boastful [1:30]. In fact, all human beings are inveterate boasters. Boasting is the language of our fallen self-centeredness. But in those who have been justified by faith, boasting is altogether excluded. This is not on the principle of ‘observing the law’, which might give grounds for boasting, ‘but on that of faith’ [27], which attributes salvation entirely to Christ and so eliminated all boasting. For our Christian conviction is that a sinner is justified by faith, indeed by faith alone, apart from works of the law. Whether these ‘works of the law’, which Paul has in mind, are ceremonial (observing rules for diet and the sabbath) or moral (obeying God’s commandments), they cannot gain the favor or forgiveness of God. For salvation is ‘not by works, so that no-one can boast’ [Eph. 2:9]. It is only by faith in Christ, which is why we should boast in him, not in ourselves. There is, indeed, something fundamentally anomalous about Christians who boast in themselves, as there is something essentially authentic, appropriate and attractive about their boasting in Christ. All boasting is excluded except boasting in Christ. Praising, not boasting, is the characteristic activity of justified believers, and will be throughout eternity. So ‘let him who boasts boast in the Lord’, and ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ [1 Cor. 1:31; Gal. 6:14].”  [Stott, pp. 102-120].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are works of the law? What is the function of the law? How do you personally answer Stott’s question: “how should we respond to Paul’s devastating exposure of universal sin and guilt” in today’s world?
  2. Leon Morris calls Romans 3:21-26 “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written” [p. 173]. Why would Morris write that? What is the meaning and significance of Paul’s But now? Spend time this week thinking about the importance of those two words for your life.
  3. What does Paul mean by the righteousness of God? Where was it manifested? Explain the three key terms in these verses: redemption, propitiation, justification.
  4. What three basic truths about justification does Paul teach in verses 24-26? How would you explain the meaning of justification to a unbeliever?


The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, InterVarsity.

Romans, Thomas Schreiner, ECNT, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, InterVarsity.

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