READ : Romans 3:1-21
What is God’s strategy for making right all that we have made wrong?
Welcome, friends, to this fourth in our series on the heart of the Christian faith from the first eight chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans! We’ve talked about the blessed effects of the gospel and Paul’s eagerness to proclaim it – how he’s not ashamed because it’s God’s power to save, God’s way of making things right with us.
Next we saw God’s wrath is also revealed from heaven – again in Jesus. The exceeding sinfulness of sin can be seen in our treatment of him. Paul sketches how our descent into evil starts with suppressing the knowledge of God all around us in creation, not thanking him or honoring him. And, not worshiping him, we worship idols and created things. Not wanting God in our thoughts, our minds become foolish. Our wills go astray and we turn each to his or her own way. Our desires are twisted and corrupted and every kind of evil sweeps in. And as we turn away from God he gives us over to our chosen paths, and we go from bad to worse, not only doing evil things ourselves, but even applauding such wickedness in others.
Last time we saw how Paul focuses on the Jewish people in the church at Rome, anticipating their critical attitudes toward Gentiles (non-Jews). In truly prophetic fashion, he rebukes those who judge others. They condemn themselves. Can they think that when they condemn something in others and do the same themselves, they will escape God’s judgment? God’s patience is meant to lead them to repentance. The Gentiles may do better than they. Then Paul teaches against any self-righteousness in either Jews or Gentiles.
Righteousness Is a Gift
In the first part of chapter 3, Paul continues to show how both are guilty, how Jews and Gentiles are all under sin and all without excuse. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Now listen to these words in chapter 3 about God’s way of making things right with us.
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God [the right making of God] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
That’s the marvelous word that comes to us in chapter 3.
God’s Right-Making Revealed
The good news is that God makes us right with him “apart from the Law” – brought about not by commandments or by actions by us. This is something that has now been shown, revealed. It comes from God! It’s God’s way of making things right with us. Something altogether amazing and wonderful has happened.
This way to getting right with God has been confirmed by the law and the prophets. The Old Testament points forward to this and promises it. The fulfillment of God’s promise and of Israel’s hopes has happened through a series of events. It has happened in our history, made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. These, in the apostle’s mind, are the key events in all of human history, both in what they show us and in what they accomplish.
I remember being given a book once about “The Hundred Greatest Events in World History.” I looked with great interest to see what might be in there about the gospel. One of the greatest events in the history of the world was listed as the crucifixion of Jesus. But there was no mention of his resurrection. They were certainly right, that the dying of Jesus on the cross was the greatest event in the history of the world, but it was accompanied by the following event of resurrection. In God’s book these both stand above all. They are incomparably above all other events.
What God has done for us does not commend our exploits and achievements. These events have to do with God’s work for all people and for our everlasting good. These are in a way absolutely unique, the good news, the glad tidings of great joy. Jesus came among us, lived here as no one else has ever lived, died and rose again. This is the great revealing and the great redeeming. It has nothing to do with anything we have done. It’s all about what God has done for us in Jesus.
God’s Right-Making Received
Now we learn as the chapter goes on that this right-making work of God comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s look for a bit at what faith means as Paul uses it here. What is it to believe in Jesus? It involves first of all a certain amount of knowledge. We need to know something about who Jesus is. He’s a true human person, but so much more, so much more than a noble example or a great teacher. We need to realize that Jesus is the Son of God, God’s promised Messiah. We need to know also about his life among us, about his death for us, his resurrection from the dead, his exalting to God’s right hand, his reign over all things as Lord, and his presence within his people by the Spirit.
But more than knowledge alone is necessary. Faith means we must agree with and accept as true these facts about Jesus. We receive them as God’s faithful witness to his Son. Here it becomes evident that people need to hear, or read, or learn the good news about Jesus before they can possibly exercise faith. Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “so faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the message of Christ.”
Then there’s also another vital requirement in faith: personal trust. You not only believe that Jesus is the Savior. You actually trust him to save you. You put all your weight on him just as you sit down on a chair and commit yourself to that chair. You rest all your hopes for salvation on him alone.
And then the last dimension of faith, very close to trust, is commitment. Jesus is not only Savior. He’s Lord. Paul writes in Philippians 2 about Jesus’ humility and self-emptying. Every knee finally will bow to him. All who believe belong to him. When you believe in Jesus as your Savior you are surrendering your life to him to worship, obey, and follow him. So all of that is involved in what Paul calls faith in Jesus Christ: knowledge, agreement, trust, and commitment. You’re leaving behind all dependence on yourself, your own efforts and merits, to rely completely on Jesus and what he has done for you.
God’s Right-Making Accomplished in Jesus
Now Paul goes on to say that those who believe are justified by his grace as a gift or justified freely by his grace. You know that word justified. This is the language of the courtroom where the judge determines guilt or innocence. We get an idea of this process from Proverbs 17:15, “one who justifies the wicked and condemns the innocent” is an evil judge. So the function of a just judge is to pronounce the wicked person guilty, condemned, and to pronounce the righteous person, the acquitted, as justified.
Now here’s the truly amazing thing. God is the supremely just one of whom Abraham says, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” This God whose justice is unfailing pronounces sinful human beings to be just, innocent, acquitted, justified. And our God does this freely without pressure from anyone, without intimidation or bribe. It’s purely by his grace which means his totally undeserved favor.
This is the wonderful thing. God as the judge of all pronounces us to be guilty but then steps down from his judgment seat. In the person of his Son God takes our judgment upon his own heart and bears it away. That’s how it happens. The redemption, the deliverance, the buying back is in Christ Jesus. In the ancient world redemption meant the freeing of a slave or a prisoner by the paying of a price. In his redeeming work Jesus bought us back from enslavement and condemnation. He did this when he was put forward by God as a sacrifice of atonement.
God’s Right-Making Rules Out Boasting
Jesus spoke about his death when he said the Son of man will give his life as a ransom for many people. This is the wonder of the gospel. Now the question is sharpened. How can God be a perfectly just, holy God and yet declare sinners to be justified? Their sin is real and cries out for condemnation. “The wages of sin is death.” Yet these transgressions will be blotted out, these transgressors will be allowed to live.” How so? Only if God can find a way to bear sin’s penalty himself. That’s what he does in the person of Jesus.
Then what becomes of all our boasting if this is the case? Shall we pride ourselves on making it on our own? That’s all empty and meaningless. No one can ever earn forgiveness and life eternal. Well, if we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ, what room is left for any boasting? None!
Paul has the perfect answer to that in his letter to the Galatians. “God forbid that I should glory in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14 NRSV). One of my favorite hymns is, “The Sands of Time are Sinking,” especially this verse:
The bride eyes not her garment but her dear bridegroom’s face.
I will not gaze at glory but on my king of grace,
not at the crown he giveth but on his pierced hand.
The lamb is all the glory in Immanuel’s land.
The multitude around the throne in heaven sings “Worthy! Worthy!” but none of that is about us. It’s all about Jesus. All glory belongs to God and his Son for making things right through the life, death, and rising of Jesus. Now we through simple trust in Jesus Christ are freely justified and completely accepted. We are God’s beloved children forever. Amen.