READ : Romans 3:21-25
You know, trying to reach God by your own efforts is like trying to jump to the moon. Some people could get closer than others, but nobody gets close enough to matter.
If you read the opening chapters of the book of Romans, you discover that the most basic human need is for righteousness. Now that’s rather surprising. I don’t think any of us would have guessed that on our own. We might have said that the most basic human need was for food and drink – the physical necessities of life. Or we might have talked about important psychological needs like the need for love or the need to belong or the need for meaning to one’s life. But Paul’s description of the need is based on his diagnosis of the problem. The fundamental human problem is sin, which began with humanity’s rejection of God and has resulted in humanity’s alienation from God. Every other problem in the world is a symptom; sin is the root disease. And righteousness – being made acceptable to God – is the only cure.
ANOTHER KIND OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
So it’s righteousness that we most need, but how do we get it? Our natural inclination is to try to earn it through religion or by doing good works, but that just doesn’t work. Think of it like this: We are separated from God as a result of sin. Now imagine if that spiritual gap were a physical one. (It’s not, of course, but just picture it that way.) Let’s say that the distance between God and us is like the distance between us and outer space. Trying to reach God by our own righteousness is like trying to jump to the moon. Some people will come closer than others. An Olympic athlete using a pole for help can soar almost thirty feet, while an out-of-shape lazybones might barely get his feet off the ground. From our perspective there’s a huge difference. But think of it from the moon’s perspective. What’s the difference then – all efforts are hopelessly inadequate. The only way to get there is to fly. You’ll never make it jumping; you have to be carried. In the same way, a decent person with the aid of religion can live quite a good life, especially compared to someone truly evil. In moral terms a Mother Theresa soars way beyond an Adolf Hitler. But what if the comparison is to the perfection of God? Then everyone falls short. No one can ever make it by their own good works. To quote Paul, “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20). We can’t make it by jumping; we have to be carried. What we need is a different kind of righteousness, not our own but a righteousness that comes from God.
One man who found out about this righteousness in the same place we’re looking, the book of Romans, was Martin Luther. As a young man Luther had set out on a spiritual quest to find forgiveness for his sins. The church of his day said that if that was his concern, the best thing a man could do was to become a monk. So young Martin headed off to a monastery, becoming not only a monk but eventually a priest and a doctor of theology as well. He lived under the most rigorous discipline, torturing himself spiritually and physically in an effort to do penance for all his sins as the church prescribed. But he found no peace; his righteousness never seemed to be enough; he didn’t feel forgiven. His spiritual advisor urged Martin to continue to pray and to study the Scriptures for himself, and he also ordered him to begin teaching the Bible to others. The breakthrough came as Luther was studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. What especially arrested his attention was the phrase “a righteousness from God . . . that is by faith” (1:17). As he struggled to grasp the apostle’s meaning, it gradually began to dawn on Luther that the gospel Paul was describing was drastically different from the religion he was attempting to practice in the monastery. And then he understood. The righteousness that saves us is not our faulty attempts to do good offered to God as the basis of forgiveness, but a different righteousness altogether: one coming from God and supplied to us in place of our own, to be claimed by faith alone. This gospel of a “justification by faith” became Luther’s watchword; his preaching and teaching of it was the spark that set off the correcting movement in the church known as the Reformation.
Listen to the passage that explains it most clearly, Romans 3:21-26:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from the 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.
To understand what Christianity is all about, you have to understand the ideas talked about in the brief paragraph I have just read. In these verses, Paul makes four points that tell us everything we need to know about God’s righteousness and how it can become ours.
FOUR POINTS TO UNDERSTAND
The first point he makes is that God’s righteousness has recently been revealed to the world. Something has happened that has manifested it or caused it to appear; there is a new possibility in the world for salvation that wasn’t there before. “Now,” says the apostle, “a righteousness from God . . . has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (v. 21). What he means is that the Old Testament (“the Law and the Prophets”) talked about this new way of relating to God; it hinted at it, so to speak, but it could not describe it fully because something had to happen first. That “something” now has happened, and it happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the decisive new thing. This is the thing that both reveals and makes possible the new way of being right before God.
Next, Paul says that this new way of being right with God becomes operative through faith in Christ. He makes the point negatively in verse 21 when he says that the righteousness God gives is “apart from the law,” meaning it’s not based on any human striving to obey either God’s written law or our own conscience (the “law” for Gentiles who have not received God’s written revelation, as Paul explains in chapter 2 of Romans). And then he puts it positively in the next verse: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v. 22). It’s through faith in Jesus that we receive the righteousness God offers. Notice that to be made right with God, what matters most is belief, not behavior. It’s not what you do, or how much you do, that counts; it’s whom you trust. Faith is the key, and the faith that’s needed is faith in Christ. God’s righteousness isn’t automatically extended to everyone, whether they are aware of their need or not, whether they care about receiving it or not. Nor is it credited to anyone who “believes” in God in a vague or general sense, or who believes in gods other than the true God, or in some philosophy or other. People believe in all sorts of things. They pin their hopes on everything from politicians to scientists to aliens from other planets. Generic faith doesn’t save anyone. Only faith in Christ saves. Believing in anything is not the way to receive God’s righteousness; believing in Jesus is, for this righteousness is credited to all who are joined to Christ through faith.
The third point Paul makes about God’s righteousness is that it is a free gift of grace. We are “justified freely by his grace” says the apostle in verse 24. Two of the great Christian words are used here. Justify is a form of the same word we’ve been considering: righteousness. It’s a legal term, taken from the courtroom. It means to pronounce someone innocent. Imagine a trial being conducted: The evidence is in, the accused stands before the bench waiting to hear the verdict from the lips of the judge, and back it comes: “Not guilty!” That’s what justification means. The other word is grace. God’s grace is his goodness and favor in action, extended to the undeserving. It’s his free, spontaneous, unearned love. God justifies us by grace, Paul writes. He does it freely, as a gift. He gives us a righteousness we don’t deserve. That’s what a gift is. If it’s something you’ve earned, it’s not a gift, it’s wages. The only thing we have earned from God is death: the wages of our sin. If he gave us what we deserved, we’d only get condemnation. But he gives us righteousness instead; he says “not guilty” to those who are guilty. How can God do that?
This brings us to the final point. The righteousness from God that is freely given by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is made possible “through the redemption accomplished in Christ Jesus” (v. 24), whom God has presented “as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (v. 25). God did this not only so that he could declare sinners to be righteous, but so that he could do so while maintaining his own righteousness, “so that he might be righteous even in justifying the [one] who believes in Jesus” (v. 26). The issue, you see, is not just how God can forgive, but how God can forgive righteously. Indeed, being God, he has to do this. If he were to compromise with sin in any way, or tolerate its presence ultimately in any of his creatures, or pretend that it just didn’t matter and was something he could overlook, he would betray himself. He would no longer then be good and just; in other words, he would no longer be God.
So here’s the problem: If God is just, he must punish sin with death. If God is to save us, he must give us a righteousness we can never earn, and don’t deserve. And yet somehow, he must give that to us without compromising in any way his holiness, his character, his integrity. How can he do it? How can he justly declare the unrighteous to be righteous? How can he punish sin and yet save sinful people? The answer is by taking the punishment upon himself in the person of his Son. God became a man in Jesus Christ. Christ offered himself on the cross, paying the penalty of sin with his own death. And all who believe in him, who renounce their own merits and put their trust in his perfect sacrifice, are credited with his perfect righteousness. It was a problem only God could solve, and a solution only God could manage.
Let me speak to you personally; let me tell you how I understand it. I won’t speak for you, friend, only for myself. Christ Jesus is my redemption. His death, his blood, is the payment for my sin. I have cast myself upon him by faith, and all my hope both now and for eternity is in his righteousness, not my own. It’s a free gift of God’s grace, free to me, but there’s nothing cheap about it. It cost God infinitely. This is the gospel message. I must have heard that thousands of times, but I never tire of hearing it again, and each time I do I have the same reaction: I am filled with wonder. I can hardly believe that the God of the universe should have done this for me! You know, it could be for you, too. You can believe in Christ; anyone can. The rules are the same for everyone: no one will be righteous through good works or personal merit or religious efforts; but anyone can be righteous through faith in Christ’s blood. Why would anyone want to cling to their own righteousness when they can have God’s for free?