Last night, we began to look at Romans 3:21-31. Today, I’d like to continue in that passage to the end of the chapter.
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:21-31, KJV)
Justified By His Blood
In Romans 8, Paul provides a short list of actions which God has taken to redeem his people. He says:
We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, KJV)
According to Paul in that passage, those who love God and were foreknown by God, were also predestined, called, justified, and glorified.
By predestined, he means that God has sovereignly planned and appointed the ultimate destiny or destination of his people. The book of Ephesians tells us that even “before the foundation of the world,” God “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph 1:4-5). He chose us out of the sinful family of Adam to be his adopted children for all eternity.
Next, Paul says that we are called by God. It stands to reason that God would not leave his adopted children in a state of bondage to sin. At a time of his choosing, he draws us to himself by his Spirit. He makes us alive. He gives us a new heart. Paul went as far as to say, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2Co 5:17). It’s a substantial transformation from the inside out.
Third on his list, Paul says that we are justified. Justification is the subject addressed in Romans 3. Before we dig into the text, however, let me provide a systematic foundation beginning with a definition (which I probably should have done last night).
What is justification? Justification is when God legally declares us innocent or righteous. Imagine that we are standing in a courtroom before a judge. We are positively guilty. The evidence is stacked against us. But just when we think the judge is about to slam his gavel and sentence us to death, he says, “I declare that you are not guilty. You’re free to go.” That’s justification.
The question becomes, why did the judge declare us innocent? We’re far from innocent at least in relationship to God. Paul said, “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Ro 3:19). Every one of us broke the law. We’re guilty. So how could a just God ever declare us innocent or righteous?
The short answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus is perfectly righteous. He is totally innocent. Furthermore, he was willing to leave the glory of heaven, come to this earth, overcome every temptation, live in complete obedience to the law, and take upon himself the penalty for our crimes. In Romans 5, Paul says:
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. (Romans 5:6-11, KJV)
It was not possible for God to unilaterally forgive sins by simply ignoring them. If he were to let criminals go free without punishment, then he would be a corrupt judge. But God is not corrupt. He is just. He demands that justice is served, and lawbreakers are punished. What is the just punishment for sin? “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul said (Ro 6:23).
But what if there was an innocent man, a righteous man who had committed no crime? And what if that man was willing to sacrifice himself to appease the judge? What if he was willing to suffer the punishment belonging to the guilty? Legally, justice would be served, and the truly guilty parties would go free.
Jesus did just that. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1).
Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. (Romans 8:33-34, KJV)
When Jesus died on the cross, and God’s wrath was poured out on him, he was carrying our sins as his own. To the Corinthians, Paul said, “For [God] hath made [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2Co 5:21). In Romans 6, Paul asked, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Ro 6:3). We died with him on the cross because he was representing us.
The Robe of Righteousness
There’s just one last detail to be worked out in the process of justification. So the judge has been appeased because our crimes have been paid for, but he still needs to declare us free. We need to enter the courtroom, have our shackles removed, and hear the judge say, “Not guilty.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “eternal justification.” Some believe that God declared his people righteous even before the foundation of the world. In his foresight, he knew those for whom Christ would die, so he pronounced their justification even before creation. His people have always been justified even while they were still dead in their sin.
While I agree that God decreed those whom he would justify before the foundation of the world, I do not believe anyone is actually justified until after he is called and born again by God’s Spirit. According to the order Paul presents in Romans 8, we are justified only after we are predestined and called. Plus, Paul makes the case here in Romans as well as Galatians that we are justified by faith.
Our sins were laid on Christ at the cross. But God cannot deem us personally justified until the righteousness of Christ is laid on us. Remember that we don’t have any righteousness of our own. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Ro 3:10).
I love the imagery which Isaiah used. He said, “For [the Lord] hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). It was Isaiah who also said, “Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). So Christ put on our filthy rags when he went to the cross. The question is, at what point do we put on his robe of righteousness?
I find it hard to believe that we were already wearing robes of righteousness when Christ died. Again, Paul said, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8). In Ephesians 2, Paul teaches that we are “dead in trespasses and sins” until we are “quickened … together with Christ” (Eph 2:1; 5). He goes on to say, “By grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). Here in Romans 3, he says, “The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Ro 3:22).
Abraham Believed God
Of course, Paul’s primary example for proving that our justification comes through faith is Abraham. Listen as I read the beginning of Romans 4:
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only [that is, the Jews], or upon the uncircumcision also [or the Gentiles]? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.
Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:1-16, KJV)
Let me reiterate three points that Paul makes in that chapter.
1) Abraham was not considered righteous until he believed.
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Ro 4:3). Paul then repeats himself, “His faith is counted for righteousness” (Ro 4:5). Then, he says, “He might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also” (Ro 4:11).
Clearly, Abraham was justified by faith. God declared Abraham righteous only after Abraham be believed and trusted in him. Furthermore, Abraham is the forefather of everyone who is justified in God’s sight. He is “the father of all them that believe” (Ro 4:11).
2) Abraham was not considered righteous because of his works.
According to Paul who quotes David, “God imputeth righteousness without works” (Ro 4:6). In the case of Abraham, in particular, he says, “How was [righteousness] then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision” (Ro 4:10).
In other words, Abraham received God’s righteousness through faith even before he was circumcised. Before he was obeying any aspects of the law such as circumcision, he believed God. The point that Paul is making is that no one can be justified by what we do. We are justified when we believe in what God does.
3) Abraham’s faith was the result of God’s grace.
“Therefore,” Paul says, “it is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Ro 4:16).
Last evening, I told you about the gentleman who suggested that faith is essentially the same as works. In his mind, faith requires the sinner’s participation, so faith (that is, believing, trusting) is a work of man. Imagine a piece of paper with two columns drawn on it. The first column contains the word, grace. The second column contains the word, works. This man puts faith in the works column.
Paul, on the other hand, does not. “It is of faith [meaning our justification], that it might be by grace” (Ro 4:16). Faith belongs in the grace column. Why? First, our faith is a “gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). It is the result of God’s sovereign, gracious work. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him … And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (Jn 6:44-45).
Second, faith regarding justification is the exact opposite of works. One who thinks he can be justified by works assumes that he’ll become righteous by his own merits. But the one with faith says, “Lord, I have no righteousness. I have nothing to offer but filthy rags. But I also believe you when you say that Christ died for my sins.”
What did Jesus say? “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28) Stop working. Stop trying to achieve something you can’t possibly achieve. Turn to Christ in faith. Faith is not a work; it is resting in the finished work of the Savior.
So our justification comes through faith. The first part of our justification happened at the cross when our sins were laid on Christ. The second part happens when Christ’s righteousness is laid on us. Technically, justification is that moment when God the Judge says, “You are innocent.” When does that happen? According to Paul in Romans 5, “Being justified by faith [just as Abraham was], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ro 5:1).
Justified Freely By His Grace
With that foundation laid, let’s look at the remainder of this passage in Romans 3. Verse 23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace” (Ro 3:23-24).
The term “come short” means to be last or inferior. Those who argue against the total depravity of man are usually not evaluating mankind’s condition from God’s perspective. They look around and say, “People aren’t that bad.” But the fact is, someone who is guilty at all is altogether guilty. There is no such thing as “not that bad.” “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas 2:10). Guilty is guilty.
The good news, however, is that God justifies us freely by his grace. The guilty person stands before him, and he says, “Not guilty.” They don’t deserve it. They can’t earn it. But God in his mercy has provided a way for them to be justified apart from works. In Galatians, Paul says, “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal 2:21).
Paul’s language here clearly expresses the unmerited nature of the righteousness which God gives to his people, and is made even clearer in what he says next.
The Redemption That Is In Christ
“Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Ro 3:24-25). So our justification is by Christ and his death. It stands to reason. Our utter sinfulness made it impossible for us to elevate ourselves to the holy, perfect standard of God. Elsewhere, Paul says that we were once “servants [or slaves] of sin” (Ro 6:17). It was necessary that Christ redeems us from our slavemaster.
The Bible uses several words to describe our salvation (“redemption” being one of them). Others include justification, forgiveness, adoption, and reconciliation. For the purpose of clarity, let me make a distinction between these terms.
In justification, as I’ve said, we stand before God as guilty, but he declares us innocent. In forgiveness, we owe a debt, but God says the debt is canceled. In adoption, we are illegitimate children, but God makes us his sons and daughters. In reconciliation, enemies of God become his friends. In redemption, slaves are set free.
During the first century, slavery was big business in the Roman Empire. Millions of slaves were bought and sold year after year. So Paul is using a familiar analogy here. The Romans understood what it meant to redeem someone. If you wanted to grant someone freedom, you had to buy that person. You had to pay the going rate before you could give him a written certificate of freedom.
In the case of sinners, the price is incredibly steep. “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). To be clear, we all begin as slaves of sin. Jesus said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (Jn 8:34). According to Romans 8, all of the creation is in the “bondage of corruption” (Ro 8:21). Sin is our master, and the price which he demands for us is death. Either we pay it, or someone else does. Regardless, sin demands death.
Paul says, “God hath set [Jesus] forth to be a propitiation” (Ro 3:25). That word “propitiation” means appeasement or satisfaction. The death of Christ satisfied God and his requirement for our sin. Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all,” and God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf (1Ti 2:6).
Unlike the typical slaves of the Roman Empire, our master requires a price that can’t be paid with any amount of money. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg combined could not afford to pay the price of redemption.
Peter said, “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold … But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1Pe 1:18-19). Why blood? Again, “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Without death, without blood, there can be no redemption of sinners.
In the Old Testament, the blood of animal after animal was offered on the altars to make atonement for sin. During the annual Passover, the Jewish historian, Josephus, estimated that more than two million lambs were sacrificed in only two days. He described how the blood flowed from the temple like a red river down the hill into the Kidron Valley below. But for all that blood, not one person was redeemed from death and hell.
The problem with an animal sacrifice is that it’s not sufficient. The slave of sin is worth far more than all the dead sheep in the world. Attempting to redeem a sinner with the blood of goats and bulls is like trying to trade your Nissan Versa for a brand new Ashton Martin. There’s a significant value gap between the two.
But Christ, the Beloved Son of God, the only righteous, sinless man to ever exist—he is worth infinitely more than all the sinners in the world. Furthermore, he was willing to not only leave his glory in heaven but also subject himself to the wrath of God against sin all while being mocked and tormented by the same vile people he came to save.
Most importantly, he was successful to the end. He overcame all temptation during his life. He maintained his sinlessness. And his pure, innocent blood was able to pay for our freedom. We owed a debt that only God could afford, and he paid it with his own blood.
Just and the Justifier
Let’s not overlook that small phrase stuck in the middle of this verse. Paul says, “Through faith in his blood” (Ro 3:25). It is one thing for Christ to shed his blood for sinners; it’s another for God to personally, individually apply the saving benefits of that blood to sinners. Through his gift of faith, God is justifying his elect people one by one. He calls us, draws us to himself, and he says to us, “Because of what Christ has done on your behalf, I now declare you righteous.”
Notice what Paul says next:
To declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26, KJV)
By offering his Son, God has demonstrated his righteousness. As Peter said, “The Lord … is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2Pe 3:9). God was willing to withhold his just wrath so that (1) Christ could redeem us and (2) we could be justified.
By the way, the word “remission” is not the best translation in this case. This verse could be translated, “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over [that’s the word] former sins.” Put another way, God temporarily overlooked our sins until a time when he would justify us. Think of the way in which he waited patiently for Noah to build the ark. His judgment was coming, but he waited long enough for Noah to complete the ark so that he and his family could be spared.
In the end, Paul says that Christ’s death was “to declare … at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). Two important ideas are being conveyed here. First, God has maintained his just nature. By allowing his Son to die in our place, justice has been served. Second, he has made us just through faith.
It’s important that we never separate these two aspects of our justification.
Step #1: Christ put on our filthy rags.
Step #2: We put on—better yet, he puts on us his robe of righteousness.
Christ redeemed us through his blood, and we are declared righteous when we come to him in faith. God is the “justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” just as he was the justifier of Abraham who “believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Ro 3:26; 4:3).
The Law of Faith
Once again, Paul’s primary argument in this chapter is that we cannot be justified by our works. We cannot become righteous by keeping the law because we can’t keep the law. You can imagine how some of the works-minded people might have responded. So Paul ends the chapter by saying:
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision [or the Jews] by faith, and uncircumcision [the Gentiles] through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:27-31, KJV)
Salvation by grace through faith does not undermine God’s law. In fact, it underscores its importance. It shows that death is the penalty for breaking the law. It reveals to us our true nature and sinfulness, driving us to the Savior. Perhaps most relevant to Paul’s point, God’s grace and his gift of faith are what make us capable of obeying the law.
In Romans 8, Paul says:
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4, KJV)
When God promised a new covenant through Ezekiel, he said:
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26-27, KJV)
The new covenant of grace was not intended to destroy the law. Paul is not promoting Antinomianism. After Israel failed to keep the law time and time again, God finally said, “I’m going to take matters into my own hands. You’ll never keep the law on your own. You’ll never be righteous on your own. So I’ll put my Spirit within you, causing you to walk in my statutes and obey my commandments.”
Most importantly, he sent his Holy Son to die so that he could remain just as he forgives us. By Christ’s righteousness, God is able to justify us through faith. And because we are justified, the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us.
In closing of our worship this morning, let’s pray.
Our Merciful, Heavenly Father, we have so much to thank you for. We thank you for the glory of your gospel, for the death of your Son. We thank you for giving us life and the righteousness of Christ. We thank you for justifying us through your precious gift of faith. We thank you for your Word which clarifies all of these vital truths. Help us to better understand what we’ve read. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Preached at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church (Chula, GA) on May 28, 2017.