But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.—Romans 3:21-26
In a previous article titled In Need of Grace, we discussed our need of God’s amazing grace. We started by discussing this passage:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.”—Romans 1:16-17
Along with a longer initial passage in Romans (2:1-3:20) we then discussed Paul’s careful development of his argument that any and all of our human efforts are insufficient to bring us into relationship with God.
Think of a bookshelf. Let’s regard Romans 1:16-17 as one bookend. In between that bookend, and the other bookend, the first verse of our passage in this article, we discussed last’s week’s passage, which helped us to see that we are in dire need of Jesus Christ. We are in dire need of his Cross. Without God’s grace we are sunk.
Now, let’s consider the other bookend, the first verse of our passage:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.—Romans 3:21
Paul begins this verse, and of course our entire passage (verses 21-26) with the words, But now. But now indicates a turning point. We are moving from a discussion of how we are In Need of Grace to find a solution—Grace Alone.
Our first article, “In Need of Grace” talked about the problem—it was all bad news. The first two words of our passage—But now—introduce the fact that we’re going to talk about the flip side—now we’re talking about the good news.
You remember the old saying “Now you’re talking!” That’s what we’re talking about this week—Grace Alone.
These six verses of our passage (Romans 3:21-26) are the very heart and core of the book of Romans. In fact, they are one of those places in the Bible which provide the gospel in a nutshell. These verses just might be among the most important in the entire Bible.
In verse 21 Paul begins;
But now—having concluded that we are all in deep do-do, how do we get out of our predicament? Paul has led us to the absolute, concrete conclusions that we are, without a doubt, unrighteous. How can we become righteous? Paul explains God’s plan to make you and me righteous.
Here’s a huge dilemma. How can he cleanse and wash us from all of the mud and swill and gunk of the cesspool where we have existed, without getting dirty himself? How can God extricate us, how can he get us out of our mess, clean us up, and dress us up in white robes of righteousness without contaminating his own holy garments?
How can God save us from our unholy mess without either compromising his own holiness or condoning our imperfect, less-than-holy condition? How can God be just and at the same time justify us?
Verse 21 says he does it according to a plan which even the Old Testament—the Law and the Prophets—spoke about. How does he do it? With a righteousness apart from the law. This righteousness has nothing whatsoever to do with observances, ceremonies, rituals or performance of rules and regulations. This righteousness comes from the grace of God.
Let’s take a look at verse 22. This righteousness from God comes through faith to all who believe in Jesus Christ. This means that the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. He is the focus and foundation of our faith. That’s what it means to be Christ-centered.
This faith is all about belief. This faith is about belief in Jesus Christ, belief that he alone is capable, belief that his work on the Cross is sufficient for all our needs. He doesn’t need any help. Specifically—he doesn’t need our help. We must believe that he and he alone can save us, on his own. There is no partnership involved here. This is an entirely one-sided event, that’s why I often reiterate, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.
In verse 23, Paul again summarizes our need. All of us have sinned. No one of us is able to commend ourselves, or be commended before God, on the basis of our goodness because we are sullied and marred by sin.
You might say, “Fine, but I think I am better than lots of other sinners.” Okay, let’s stop just a moment. We are now considering the “I may be bad, but I’m not nearly as bad as lots of other people” argument.
Think of two men who are attempting to jump across the Grand Canyon. One is 21 years of age, an athlete, in training for the long jump for the next Olympics. The other is 65 years of age, a couch potato, in training for retirement.
They both take a long run (perhaps “running” would not accurately describe the exertion of the 65 year-old) and take off from one side, “sailing” through the air toward the other side. “Sailing” toward the other side, regardless of their athletic abilities or lack thereof, would of course not accurately describe the end result of their efforts.
Both fail, don’t they? It would be silly for the would-be Olympian to look back at the couch potato and feel superior, as they both head for a crash landing on the floor of the Grand Canyon. So you are bad, but not nearly as bad as lots of other people? So what?
Verse 24 tells us that God, by his grace, picks us up as we attempt to jump the Grand Canyon. In the person of Jesus Christ, he rescues us in mid-air, and by his Grace Alone makes sure that we are deposited safe and sound on the other side above the depths to which we would descend apart from his intervention.
God justifies us. He aligns us. He declares us righteous, even though our efforts would never propel us across the great divide that separates us from him. Justification is an accounting term, a construction term, and it’s a legal term. Justification refers to something, or in this case, someone, who is out of whack, out of kilter and does not line up with a benchmark or yardstick.
Every month many of us are reminded that our finances are in need of justification. Our bank statement arrives and tells us how much (or how little) we have in our checking account. What the bank says we have and the record we have kept in our checkbook are often two different amounts. So the two amounts must be justified. Via the act of justification, something or someone is made right.
By God’s grace, we are, as verse 24 says, justified freely.
What does “freely” mean? Freely means, in human terms, that the love God has for us has no cause we can identify or humanly comprehend. There is no human motive to which we can relate which leads us to understand why God would justify us freely, by his grace. From our perspective, it seems that there is nothing for him to gain and there is nothing we have done which caused him to act. However, whether we humanly comprehend it or not, we are justified freely.
Let’s pause and consider what really happens as God makes us righteous and justifies us. He pronounces and treats us as righteous. This action is far more involved than just being pardoned and forgiven. If you hurt me and “do me wrong” I can forgive you, but I have not justified you. I have no power to justify you. God alone can justify, and he does so by his Grace Alone.
When God justifies us, he not only forgives us, but in addition pronounces us as righteous. From that point on he regards us as absolutely perfect. That’s the derivation of the word “saint”—the biblical term which God uses to describe those who have completely, without reservation, accepted God’s grace. All of our sins are completely wiped out. The sins are not just forgiven, they are gone. As far as God is concerned, your sin never happened.
That’s the heavenly reality upon which your relationship with him is based.
God does all of this by Grace Alone.
To help us further understand this profound heavenly reality, it may help to contrast the two sides of the coin of God’s love. On the one side of the coin of God’s love is God’s grace. God’s grace is his free action in giving us what we do not deserve.
On the flip side, another way of understanding God’s love is his mercy. God’s mercy is his free action in NOT giving us what we deserve.
Finally here in verse 24 we read the word redemption—this term which simply means the act of being set free by a payment. Jesus Christ paid the price of our freedom on his Cross. From his Cross Jesus proclaimed, in triumph, it is finished (John 19:30).
John Stott comments on this cry of Jesus from the Cross;
…the loud shout of victory, is in the Gospel text the single word tetelestai. Being in the perfect tense, it means ‘it has been and will for ever remain finished’. We note the achievement Jesus claimed before he died. It is not men who have finished their brutal deed; is it he who has accomplished what he came into the world to do. He has borne the sins of the world. Deliberately, freely and in perfect love he has endured the judgment in our place. He has procured salvation for us, established a new covenant between God and humankind, and made available the chief covenant blessing, the forgiveness of sins.—The Cross of Christ (page 82).
Our salvation is free, but it certainly is not cheap. Verses 25-26 of our passage refer to what happened on the Cross. These verses tell us that Jesus was our atonement for sin.
Paul has several Old Testament illustrations in mind: first he has the once-a-year atonement performed by the high priest for the sins of the people. He is explaining, as does the book of Hebrews in even more detail, that Jesus is now our high priest and our atonement is once and for all. We don’t need to go through ceremonies once a year or once a decade. The effect of Jesus’ atoning work on our behalf is once and for all (Hebrews 10:24-26).
Paul also has the mercy seat of the ark of the old covenant in mind. The mercy seat of the ark was the lid. Inside the ark, under the mercy seat, was the law, and the law was the supreme standard that convicted Israel of sin. The Old Testament high priest would enter into the tabernacle, or the temple, once a year, and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, a foreshadowing of the work of Christ on our behalf. The blood covered the sins of Israel.
And Paul also has the old covenant Passover lamb in mind. You may remember the last plague God visited on the Egyptians because they would not let the Israelites go. It was called the plague of the firstborn. The Passover lamb was slain. The blood of the Lamb represented forgiveness for all those who would accept the blood—but it wasn’t enough that the Lamb was slain. The Lamb was slain, but there were still firstborn who were not spared.
What did it take to be spared death? It took the personal acceptance and application of the blood of the Lamb, smeared all over the door posts of the house in question, so that the death angel would “pass-over” the house.
The blood of Christ has been shed for everyone. But that doesn’t automatically mean everyone is forced to accept God’s grace as expressed on the Cross. We actualize our salvation when we accept his blood—when we believe in and on him—when the blood of the Lamb is smeared all over the door posts of our lives—when we willingly admit that we cannot save ourselves and that only the Lamb of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In one sense, the entire world has already been saved—that happened on the Cross of Christ. But, that salvation is activated only when we accept God’s freely-given grace. We all have the choice—we may accept or reject God’s grace.
Give thanks for the beauty of what Paul is teaching us, inspired by God. In human religion, it is the worshipper who must placate the deity with rituals, sacrifices and offerings. But in the gospel, in authentic Christianity, it is God himself, in the person of Jesus, who provides the offering, which is, of course, Jesus, God in the flesh.
Jesus did on his Cross what the wholesale sacrifice of countless animals could not do, as stipulated in the Old Testament.
Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.
The last two verses (25-26) in our passage tell us that God did all of this, in and through Jesus Christ, to demonstrate his justice, and thereby to justify all who would have faith in Jesus, 1) because of the sins of those who had lived before Christ, and 2) for all those who lived then and beyond.
Truly his justice is based on his grace, not an eye-for-an-eye retributive justice, but the grace-based justice of the new covenant, out of which springs the forgiveness of our sin.