Menu Close

“The Revelation of God’s Righteousness”

Romans 3:21-26
Bob DeGray
July 2, 2017

Key Sentence

Receive righteousness, through Jesus Christ.


I. Righteousness is through faith
II. Righteousness is for sinners
III. Righteousness is by grace
IV. Righteousness is through redemption
V. Righteousness is by atonement
VI. Righteousness is in the present moment


Have you ever cut a lawn that was really too tall or too dense to cut with the lawnmower you had. If you tried to take a whole swath the lawnmower would bog down and stall. So you took a half width, and then on the next pass half of what you just did and half new material. Some parts of Scripture are dense enough that we have to walk through them by half steps. A whole verse is too much, we can only advance a half a verse at a time. Such is Romans 3:21-26

Yet it is a crucially important text in our study of Foundations. I had a chance earlier this year to attend the annual theology conference of the Evangelical Free Church. We looked at how the theological convictions of the Reformation were still important to the church today. Don Carson, who I’ve quoted many times, spoke on the centrality of justification by faith, and gave a great exposition of Romans 3:21-26. I’m going to shamelessly plagiarize him today.

Before we get to Carson let’s listen to a founder of the reformation, Martin Luther, describe his encounter with this text. He writes “I longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.

Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became inexpressibly sweet.” He goes on to say “If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. . . He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.”

We receive righteousness through Jesus Christ. Carson says, Romans 3:21-26 is “the chief point” and the very central place of the Epistle to the Romans and indeed of the whole Bible,” and “one of the foundational texts on . . . justification.”

So let’s read this text. There are so many key words and concepts here that we are going to step through it half a verse at a time. But in the end we’ll know that we receive righteousness through Jesus Christ. Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom 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. 26It 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.

My half step outline of this text goes something like this: “Righteousness is through faith; righteousness is for sinners; righteousness is by grace; righteousness is through redemption; righteousness is by atonement; righteousness is in the present moment; righteousness is through a righteous God.” If that’s the outline, we’d better have some initial handle on what the world righteousness means. This was Luther’s point of confusion. The word group is used seven times in these verses, and it means conformity to both ethical standards and covenant agreements. Holiness and faithfulness, we might say. God is fully righteous, holy and faithful. Man is unrighteous. But God, makes righteous or justifies men. I prefer the made up form ‘righteousify.’ God righteousifys people without compromising his own righteousness by the sacrifice of Christ.

Carson makes five points in preparation for Romans 3:21, but I’ll limit myself to just two. First, “you cannot make sense of 3:21-26 without being deeply captured by 1:18 to 3:20.” The background to today’s text begins in 1:18 “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them.” That’s the same place we started two weeks ago when we studied the foundational doctrine of human depravity, human sinfulness, culminating in Romans 3:9-20. In these two and a half chapters Paul demonstrates that Jew and Gentile alike, all people without exception are guilty before God, guilty of sin. Carson says “you cannot make sense of the following verses until you comfortably absorb 1:18 to 3:20.”

Carson goes on to show how this truth fits in the Bible’s storyline, what I call God’s Big Story, and how it is seen in the Gospels, the ministry of Jesus. Let me let you listen to a bit of his fourth point.

“The church stands or falls on this doctrine. The fundamental question that the Bible asks is, granted our sin, how shall we be right with God? Of course there are all the social and horizontal questions to ask, all the ethical instruction, all the exhortations and voices of praise, the lamentations, the depictions of God, and all the rest. There are apocalyptic expectations of what is to come. There is hope set forth. But at the heart of all of it is the question, How shall we be right with God? And if we get that wrong, we have nothing, nothing. Nothing but moralism and false hope and idolatry.” The Catholic church, the Orthodox church, and the liberal church would not agree with the centrality of this text, that “How shall we be right with God” is central. I’ve spent some time this year thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, and the question they seem to want to focus on is “How shall we be like God?” But I would argue that that’s a follow on question. First you have to answer “How shall I be right with God?”

So, verse 21, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Righteousness is through faith. Paul begins by distinguishing the path to righteousness from the Old Testament law. Carson says “The manifestation of God’s righteousness, of God’s very rightness, is established not in the frame of the law covenant but in another frame apart from the law covenant, but not entirely cut off from the law,” because the law and the prophets testify to it. The relationships between what we call the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, and the dawning of the “now” in the new covenant is established by new events in redemptive history that focus on Christ and His death.”

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. English spoils our understanding here. We use the word faith as a noun but the word believe as a verb. It’s one root in Greek, pistis. Carson suggests we use trust, “this righteousness is given through trust in Jesus Christ to all who trust.” The repetition brings out Paul’s emphasis on ‘all.” Those who are righteous are made righteous by faith. In fact all who are righteous are righteous by faith.

Which leads to our first half-step forward, this righteousness is for sinners, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul is connecting the all of salvation with the all of sin. All have sinned so all must be saved by faith. He has also provided, of course, a simple-to-memorize one sentence summary of Romans 1:18 to 3:20. As we said, you can’t really embrace this good news of righteousness by faith until you’ve embraced the bad news of separation from God by sin. This is why the first sermon I ever preached, and one I’ve repeated several times was Ephesians 2:1-10, “The awfulness of sin, the greatness of salvation.” All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

But all who believe, “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The half step forward is the recognition that righteousness is by grace, which Paul explains, is a gift. Remember, the core question is, as Carson said, “How shall we be right with God?” How shall we be justified, declared right, put right if we are all sinners. It’s not by works, not by the works of the law. Romans 3:20 said “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No, we are justified by grace, freely, as a gift. And this changes everything.

It changed everything for Martin Luther. It may be the key contribution of the Reformation. After centuries of good beginnings, the Catholic Church had descended deeply into works righteousness. You earn salvation by being good, you are justified by faith plus good works, including such things as baptism, communion, confession, acts of contrition, and indulgences. These things had become the requirements for salvation. When the Reformation said “no, it’s by faith alone,” the Catholic Church responded at the Council of Trent. “If any one says that by faith alone the impious is justified; meaning that nothing else is required in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, let him be damned.” “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be damned.”

The Catholic Church still holds to these statements. That’s what the reformation pushes back against. Martin Luther’s first argument with the church was over the sale of indulgences. You paid money to free yourself, or even others, from time in purgatory, the place of paying for sins, after death, before heaven. And indulgences continue today. I was amazed to see recently that the Pope had declared indulgences, forgiveness of sin’s penalty, for attendance at Catholic World Youth Days. Apparently that’s been true for awhile, but a wrinkle Pope Francis’ court added is that you can obtain indulgences simply by following his twitter feed on that day. Remarkable. What Paul says, what the reformation said clearly, what we need to affirm, is that we are justified freely by His grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.”

Alright, half step forward. This righteousness is achieved through redemption. You’re probably familiar with this word. Carson says “at one time it was a commonly used word in connection with pawn shops, for example. You hocked your grandfather’s watch to get a bit of cash then you would go back a little later and redeem it and get the watch back. And it was used at one time a lot more than it is now with respect to mortgages. You redeem a mortgage. But today for most of us it’s a God-talk term.”

In the first century it was a common term, a financial term but frequently tied to the notion of slavery. Roman slavery was different in some ways from the horror of American history. The people were were slaves, they could be beaten or sold, and in that way it was similar. But it was not racial. People of any race in the Roman empire could be slaves or free. And you didn’t become a slave by being kidnapped or captured, except maybe in war. Often you became a slave because you went bankrupt, and there were no bankruptcy laws, so you had to sell yourself to pay the debt. Which leads to the idea that slaves could be redeemed, bought back for a price. “So,” Carson says, “redemption comes to be associated with freedom, with the casting off of chains and slavery. The great redemption in the Old Testament is the redemption of people from Egypt and it becomes the model of the greatest redemption of all, the redemption we have in Christ Jesus. That’s why Peter can insist that we have been redeemed, not by silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ. So this text says we are justified freely by the grace of God through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. He paid the price we couldn’t pay to set us free.

How did he pay the price? Half step forward, verse 25 “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This righteousness comes by atonement. The word in the English Standard Version that I normally use is propitiation, an old word that is only, these days, used in Scripture. Another word commonly used is expiation. But the New International Version says “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of His blood to be received by faith.” Carson says “In expiation the sacrifice cancels sin. In propitiation the sacrifice turns away the wrath of gods or the god.”

The two English words sparked a heated debate in the last century. C. H. Dodd said that this Greek word could not mean propitiation because God was not a God of wrath but of love as evidenced by sending his Son. Christ did not turn aside God’s wrath but simply paid the price of our ransom from sin or from Satan.

A generation later Leon Morris responded, saying that the word in Greek, hilasterion, was always associated with a blood sacrifice that turned aside wrath. He pointed out that “the background of this language is frequently bound up with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 and other places where the blood that was sprinkled before the Lord God Almighty was precisely designed to turn away the wrath of God.” And the context of Romans 3, after all, begins by announcing the wrath of God revealed from heaven. So of course we need propitiation. God does stand against us in wrath, because He is Holy. His wrath is not intrinsic to His personality; it is the result of His perfect holiness which is intrinsic in response to our sinfulness and idolatry.

But, Carson says, “even though we are not attractive so as to win His love and we stand under His wrath. God so loved this damned world that He gave His Son. Now in the cross of Christ, sin is canceled and God’s principled wrath is set aside.” That’s propitiation, the word we see in the English Standard Version. But the New International Version’s “sacrifice of atonement,” is also good, especially with its footnote: “God presented him as the one who would turn away his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood.”

Sixth half step. The second half of verse 25 and verse 26 show his righteousness is in the present moment. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It 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.” He did all of this to demonstrate, not his love, though doubtless it did that, but his righteousness. In His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. Before the “but now” of this paragraph, before the work of Christ, the sins of Old Testament saints were left unpunished. All the punishments we fear from the Old Testament – pestilence, plague and sword, deportation, exile, and all the rest these were human chastisements, but the ultimate punishment was held in abeyance. So Abraham doesn’t go to hell. Moses doesn’t go to hell. Job doesn’t go to hell. Isaiah doesn’t go to hell, in fact, hell isn’t taught about very much.

Carson says “Just as the Old Testament is a bit restrained in talking about the glories to come, so it’s a bit restrained in talking about the horrors to come. As you go from the Old Testament to the New, you don’t go from wrath to grace. Rather as you go from the old covenant to the new, you find that the wrath of God is ratcheted up and the grace of God is ratcheted up, until they clash in the cross. The cross demonstrates the triumph of love. The triumph of justice. Even the triumph of wrath. The sins of Old Testament believers were not punished, because even their sins would finally be punished in the cross of Christ. They receive a pass, as it were, a not guilty, home free, justified on the ground of a sacrifice that had not yet been offered. And we are justified on the ground of that same sacrifice, which now stands behind us. Do you want to see the greatest demonstration of the love of God? Go to the cross. Do you want to see the greatest demonstration of the justice of God? Go to the cross.

God did this to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time. The doctrine of justification insists that God pronounces that verdict on our lives now! You will not be more justified five seconds into eternity than you are now! If you trust Christ Jesus, you have already been justified. That end time verdict has been brought back into time. The justification we receive now by grace through faith is the justification we will receive on the last day.

Finally, seventh and last half step, this righteousness is through a righteous God. It shows his righteousness, his holiness, the justice of his character. 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.” God’s restraint in the past did not fully show his righteousness, but the sacrifice of atonement, the propitiation of Christ’s blood shows that God is serious about sin and that his wrath will be expressed, either against the unbelieving sinner or against his own Son, his own self, on behalf of those who put their faith in him. He is the justifier, the one who puts right those who have faith in Jesus.

So what have we seen? We ought to be in love with the vocabulary of this section. It should not be foreign and theological to us, but these words should be our friends, comforting, strengthening, informing our hearts. They should be sweet to our taste. The righteousness of God has been revealed. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. We’ve all sinned, we fall short of the glory of God, but we are justified by his grace, freely, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. He is the sacrifice that pays for our sins and turns aside God’s wrath, and we receive the benefits of his shed blood by faith. Thus God’s righteousness is revealed. He had been patient with our sins, but at the cross his righteousness was revealed, and in this moment we receive righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Gospel. This is the triumph of the reformation. This is what we celebrate at the table.