How to Be Right with God
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. (3:21–25a)
Job asked the most important question it is possible to ask: “How can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2). He then said,
If one wished to dispute with Him, He could not answer Him once in a thousand times. Wise in heart and mighty in strength, who has defied Him without harm? It is God who removes the mountains, they know not how, when He overturns them in His anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal upon the stars; who alone stretches out the heavens, and tramples down the waves of the sea; who makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south; who does great things, unfathomable, and wondrous works without number. Were He to pass by me, I would not see Him; were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him. Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, “What art Thou doing?” God will not turn back His anger; beneath Him crouch the helpers of Rahab. How then can I answer Him, and choose my words before Him? For though I were right, I could not answer; I would have to implore the mercy of my judge. If I called and He answered me, I could not believe that He was listening to my voice. For He bruises me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause. He will not allow me to get my breath, but saturates me with bitterness. If it is a matter of power, behold, He is the strong one! And if it is a matter of justice, who can summon Him? Though I am righteous, my mouth will condemn me; though I am guiltless, He will declare me guilty. (vv. 3–20)
Because God is the kind of God He is, Job wondered how a person could ever hope to approach Him, much less become right and acceptable before Him. Can a mere human being have a right relationship with a God who is perfectly holy, infinite, and mighty? Bildad echoed Job’s question, saying, “How then can a man be just with God?” (Job 25:4).
Upon hearing John the Baptist’s fearful warnings about God’s judgment, “the multitudes were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ ” (Luke 3:10). The crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed the day before asked Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:27–28). The rich young ruler asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). After hearing Peter’s sobering message at Pentecost, some of the listeners said to him “and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ ” (Acts 2:37). As he lay blinded on the road to Damascus, Saul cried out to Jesus, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). The Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
Throughout history men have asked much the same questions as did Job and the others. The very reason that religion is so universally common to mankind reflects man’s attempts to answer such questions. As noted in the last chapter, people cannot escape feelings of guilt, not only for doing things they know are wrong but for being the way they are. Man’s sense of lostness, loneliness, emptiness, and meaninglessness is reflected in the literature and archaeological remains of every civilization. So are his fear of death, of existence, if any, beyond the grave, and of divine punishment. Nearly every religion is a response to those fears and seeks to offer a way of reaching and satisfying deity. But every religion except Christianity is man-made and works-centered, and for that reason, none of them can succeed in leading a person to God.
Scripture makes clear that there is indeed a way to God, but that it is not based on anything men themselves can do to achieve or merit it. Man can be made right with God, but not on his own terms or in his own power. In that basic regard Christianity is distinct from every other religion. As far as the way of salvation is concerned, there are therefore only two religions the world has ever known or will ever know—the religion of divine accomplishment, which is biblical Christianity, and the religion of human achievement, which includes all other kinds of religion, by whatever names they may go under.
When threatened by the fierce and powerful Babylonians, the people of Judah asked Jeremiah to intercede for them before God, “that the Lord your God may tell us the way in which we should walk and the thing that we should do.” To reinforce their seeming sincerity, they then “said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us, if we do not act in accordance with the whole message with which the Lord your God will send you to us. Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will listen to the voice of the Lord our God.’ ” But when Jeremiah brought them God’s answer, which was to stay in their own land and trust Him to save them, they rejected His word and went to Egypt (Jer. 42:1–43:7).
Their response is typical of myriads of people who ask how to get right with God. They seem very sincere, but when they hear about the true and only way, which is through trust in Jesus Christ, they are unwilling to comply. Their response makes it evident that they are seeking salvation on their own terms, not God’s.
All men are equally incapable of coming to God in their own power. They can be saved only by the provision of God’s grace. Since Adam and Eve fell, faith responding to the offer of God’s grace has always been the only means of salvation, of providing a right relationship to God. Man cannot be saved even by God’s own divine law given through Moses. That law was never, under any covenant or dispensation, a means of salvation. Its purpose was to show how impossible it is to measure up to God’s standards by human effort. The moral standards commanded and the ceremonies prescribed in the Mosaic covenant were never intended and were never able to save. A sincere desire to obey the law and a proper observance of the rituals were pleasing to God, but only as they reflected faith in Him.
One of the major and repeated themes of the book of Romans is righteousness. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the common Greek root behind righteousness, justification, and their various verb and adjectival forms is found more than sixty times in Romans. The present passage (3:21–25a) is one of many in the epistle that focus on God’s righteousness, by which all righteousness is measured.
The only righteousness man possesses or attains within himself is unrighteousness, because that is the character and substance of his fallen nature. Man’s “righteous deeds,” Isaiah declares, “are like a filthy garment,” referring to a menstrual cloth (Isa. 64:6).
The light of righteousness comes only from above. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied of Jesus that He would be “the Sunrise from on high [who] shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–79). As the godly Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms, he declared, “My eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30–32). John describes the Lord Jesus Christ as “the true light which, coming into the world enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Jesus Christ was God incarnate, bringing in His own self the light of salvation to the world.
Ancient Greek and Roman poets loved to write overly dramatic tragedies in which the hero or heroine was rescued from impossible situations by the last-minute intervention of a god (the deus ex machina literary device). However, the more reputable among them opted not to bring a god onto the stage unless the problem were one that deserved a god to solve it.
The supreme human tragedy is man’s sin, and only the true God can solve it. Only the perfectly righteous God Himself can provide the righteousness that men need to be acceptable to Him.
God’s righteousness is different from all other kinds of righteousness in many ways. First of all, it is different because of its source, which is God Himself. “Drip down, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds pour down righteousness; let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit, and righteousness spring up with it. I, the Lord, have created it” (Isa. 45:8).
Second, God’s righteousness is different in essence. It is a comprehensive righteousness that fulfills both the precept and the penalty of God’s law, under which all men stand judged. The precept of God’s law is the perfect fulfillment of it, in other words sinless perfection, which only the man Christ Jesus has ever fulfilled. He kept every requirement of God’s law without even the most minute deviation or shortcoming. Although He endured every temptation to which man is subject, He was completely without sin (Heb. 4:15). Yet, in order to fulfill the penalty of the law for sinful mankind, God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Heb. 9:28).
Third, God’s righteousness is unique in its duration. His righteousness is everlasting righteousness, existing from eternity to eternity. Throughout Scripture His righteousness is referred to as everlasting (see, e.g., Ps. 119:142; Isa. 51:8; Dan. 9:24). The person, therefore, who receives God’s righteousness receives everlasting righteousness.
In the Iliad of Homer, the great Trojan warrior Hector was preparing to fight Achilles and the invading Greeks. As he was about to leave home, Hector wanted to hold his young son Astyanax in his arms and bid him farewell for what ended up being the last time. But Hector’s armor so frightened the infant that he shrank back to his nurse’s caress. The father, laughing out loud, then removed his bronze helmet and took up his little child in his arms. The boy discovered the father of his love behind all that armor.
That is akin to what Paul does in his letter to the Romans, beginning with 3:21. After having shown God the judge and executioner, as it were, he now shows the God of love, who reaches out His arms to sinful men in the hope that they will come to Him and be saved.
In 3:21–25a Paul gives seven additional elements of the righteousness that God divinely imparts to those who trust in His Son, Jesus Christ. It is apart from legalism (v. 21a), built on revelation (v. 21b), acquired by faith (v. 22a), provided for all (v. 22b–23), given freely through grace (v. 24a), accomplished by redemption (v. 24b), and paid for by atoning sacrifice (v. 25a).
Righteousness Is Apart from Legalism
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, (3:21a)
But translates an adversative, indicating a contrast, in this instance a wonderful and marvelous contrast-between man’s total depravity and inability to please God and God’s own provision of a way to Himself. Except for the introduction (1:1–18), the epistle has portrayed an utterly dark picture of man’s wickedness and hopelessness apart from God. In that introduction Paul gave a brief glimpse of light when he spoke “of the gospel, [which] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’ ” (1:16–17).
Now, after backing all sinful mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, into the totally dark and seemingly inescapable corner of God’s wrath (1:18–3:20), Paul begins to open the window of divine grace that lets in the glorious light of salvation through the righteousness that God Himself has provided.
First of all, Paul says, the righteousness that God imparts to believers is apart from the Law. Nomos (Law) is used in the New Testament in a number of senses, much like its English equivalent. In a negative sense, it sometimes refers to legalism, the strict, self-dependent trust in one’s own efforts to perform to the level of divine morality (see Luke 18:9). Sometimes it refers to the commandments and ceremonial rituals prescribed by God in the Old Covenant through Moses. Sometimes it refers simply to divine standards in general. Sometimes it refers to the entire body of Scripture that God had revealed before the time of Christ, what we now call the Old Testament. Sometimes it is a synonym for a general principle or rule. In interpreting the New Testament, therefore, the specific meaning must be determined from the context.
Because they capitalize Law in this passage, it is evident that the translators of the New American Standard Bible understood nomos to refer to God’s divine revelation, either in the narrower sense of the Mosaic law or the wider sense of the entire Old Testament. But I believe that in this passage Paul primarily has in mind the sense of legalism, of men’s attempt to become acceptable to God by means of their own human efforts.
But the apostle’s main point is the same, whichever of those senses he had in mind for Law. He is declaring that the righteousness God gives to believers is entirely apart from obedience to any law, even God’s own revealed law. God’s righteousness is in no way based on human achievement, on anything that man can do in his own power.
The Jews’ own Scriptures did not teach salvation by obedience to God’s law, much less by obedience to the many man-made laws and traditions that had been devised by the rabbis and elders during the several hundred years before Christ. Nevertheless, members of the Jewish majority in Jesus’ and Paul’s day placed their trust in those man-made regulations. In fact, most of them had more faith in rabbinical traditions than in God’s divinely revealed law in Scripture. Before his conversion, Paul was himself the epitome of Jewish legalism (see Phil. 3:4–6).
The spirit of legalism was carried over into the church by many Jews who had taken on the name of Christ. They were referred to as Judaizers, because they attempted to add to the gospel the legalistic requirements of the Old Testament, such as circumcision and obedience to the Sabbath laws. Paul admonished believers in Colossae, “Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16). He reminded the believers in Galatia that they were “justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Later in that epistle he wrote, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you … For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (Gal. 5:1–2, 6). To the Romans he declared, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28).
Even under the Old Covenant, good works based on God’s own standards were worthless as far as salvation was concerned. Paul says, “David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6) and then proceeds to quote from Psalm 32:1–2
God holds before men the standards of His righteousness in order to demonstrate the impossibility of keeping them by human effort. Because of that inability, “the Law brings about wrath” (Rom. 4:15), God’s judgment on man’s sin. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; … Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith’ ” (Gal. 3:10–11). “By grace you have been saved,” Paul told the Ephesians; “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9). Countless other New Testament passages (see, e.g., Phil. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5) repeat the basic gospel truth that rightness with God can never be achieved by human effort.
Whether the law of God is the Mosaic law of the Jews or the law written in the hearts and consciences of all men, including Gentiles (Rom. 2:11–15), obedience to it can never be perfect and therefore can never save. That is a devastating truth to everyone who seeks to please God on his own terms and in his own power-which is why the gospel is so offensive to the natural man.
Now, however, Paul declares that the righteousness of God, the divine and eternal righteousness by which men can be made right with God, has been manifested. As he will explain in the following verse, that righteousness has been manifested “in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (v. 22).
Righteousness Is Built on Revelation
being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (3:21b)
Before he presents the means for men to receive God’s manifested righteousness, however, Paul declares that it not only is apart from legalism but is also divinely revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.
That truth was obviously directed primarily at Jews, whose whole religion centered in the Law and the Prophets, a phrase commonly used to encompass all of God’s written Word, what we now call the Old Testament. In other words, the apostle was not speaking about a new kind of righteousness but about the divine righteousness that is spoken of throughout the Jewish Scriptures.
Not only do the Law and Prophets proclaim God’s perfect righteousness but they affirm what Paul has just stated-that, without exception, men are unable to achieve that righteousness in their own way or power.
The Jews had great reverence for their Scriptures, but most of them failed to realize that, although divinely revealed, those Scriptures in themselves had no power to save. “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus told a group of Jewish listeners, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (John 5:39). In other words, the Law and the Prophets did not show men how to achieve their own righteousness but pointed to the coming Messiah, the Savior and Son of God, who Himself would provide the righteousness that God demands of men. Although the full revelation of salvation through Christ was not given in the Old Testament, that had always been the way of salvation to which that testament pointed.
The Mosaic laws were not given as a means of achieving righteousness but of describing God’s righteousness and showing the impossibility of men’s living up to it. The Mosaic sacrifices were not prescribed as a means of atoning for sin but of symbolically pointing to Jesus Christ, who Himself became the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The commandments, rituals, sacrifices, and godly principles taught in the Old Testament were, and still are, a part of His divinely inspired Word. But they could never remove sin, forgive sin, atone for sin, or give a new and righteous life to a sinner-no matter how zealously and sincerely he tried to abide by them.
Righteousness Is Acquired by Faith
even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22a)
To avoid any possible misunderstanding, Paul mentions again that he is speaking of the absolute and perfect righteousness of God, not the relative and imperfect righteousness of human achievement.
His point here is that the perfect, saving righteousness of God not only is received apart from legalism and built on revelation, but is also acquired only by faith. That has always been the only way of salvation as far as man’s part is concerned. The very point of Hebrews 11 is to show that there has never been a means of salvation other than faith in the true God.
That is also a repeated theme of Paul’s Roman epistle. In chapter 4 he says, “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v. 5), and, “The promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (v. 13; cf. v. 20). He begins chapter 5 by declaring that “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is, of course, such a thing as false faith, even in the name of Christ. John reports that many people who had a superficial faith in Jesus did not have saving faith. “Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’ ” (John 8:31). In other words, obedience to His Word is evidence of true faith, whereas continual disobedience is evidence of false faith. “Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” James declared (James 2:17). In other words, disobedient faith is spurious faith. It is “by itself,” that is, unrelated to faith in God. False faith may be faith in good works, faith in ritual, faith in a religious experience or system, faith in one’s own goodness, or simply a nebulous faith in faith that is so common in our day.
A person is saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, apart from anything else. But Scripture makes clear that saving faith is immeasurably more than simply making a verbal declaration of believing about Him.
The late A. W. Tozer perceptively commented:
Something has happened to the doctrine of justification.… The faith of Paul and Luther was a revolutionizing thing. It upset the whole life of the individual and made him into another person altogether. It laid hold on the life and brought it unto obedience to Christ. It took up its cross and followed along after Jesus with no intention of going back. It said good-bye to its old friends as certainly as Elijah when he stepped into the fiery chariot and went away in the whirlwind. It had a finality about it. It snapped shut on a man’s heart like a trap; it captured the man and made him from that moment forward a happy love-servant of his Lord. (The Root of the Righteous [Harrisburg, Pa.: Christian Publications, 1955], pp. 45–46)
The saving faith in Jesus Christ that the New Testament teaches is much more than a simple affirmation of certain truths about Him. Even the demons acknowledged many facts about Him. One of the demons who possessed the man from Gadara said to Jesus, “What do I have to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7). The demon who gave the slave girl the power of divination described Paul and his friends as “bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17).
Saving faith is a placing of oneself totally in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, and it has certain indispensable elements that the New Testament clearly teaches.
Saving faith in Jesus Christ involves the exercise of will. Paul told the Roman believers, “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17). Salvation begins (from the human standpoint) with a person’s willful obedience in turning from sin to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
Saving faith also involves the emotions, because, as in the verse just mentioned above, it must come from the heart as well as from the mind. A person cannot be saved by good feelings about Christ, and many people throughout the ages and in our own day have substituted good feelings about Christ for saving faith in Him. But on the other hand, a person whose life is transformed by Christ will be affected in his emotions in the deepest possible way.
Saving faith also involves the intellect. No one can think his way into heaven, but neither can he receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior without some comprehension of the truth of the gospel (see Rom. 10:17ff.).
Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of God’s righteousness, and it is because of that truth that He can impart divine righteousness to those who trust in Him. During His earthly incarnation, Jesus demonstrated God’s righteousness by living a sinless life. In His death Christ also demonstrated God’s righteousness by paying the penalty for the unrighteous lives of every human being.
The seventeenth-century English minister Joseph Alleine wrote:
All of Christ is accepted by the sincere convert; he loves not only the wages, but the work of Christ; not only the benefits, but the burden of Christ; he is willing not only to tread out the corn, but to draw under the yoke; he takes up the command of Christ, yea, the cross of Christ.
The unsound closeth by halves with Christ: he is all for the salvation of Christ, but he is not for sanctification; he is for the privileges, but appropriates not the person of Christ; he divides the offices and benefits of Christ. This is an error in the foundation. Who so loveth life, let him beware here; it is an undoing mistake, of which you have been often warned, and yet none is more common.
Jesus is a sweet name, but men “love not the Lord Jesus in sincerity”. They will not have him as God offers, “to be a Prince and a Savior.” They divide what God has joined, the king and the priest; yea, they will not accept the salvation of Christ as he intends it; they divide it here.
Every man’s vote is for salvation from suffering; but they desire not to be saved from sinning; they would have their lives saved, but withal would have their lusts. Yea, many divide here again; they would be content to have some of their sins destroyed, but they cannot leave the lap of Delilah, or divorce the beloved Herodias; they cannot be cruel to the right eye or right hand; the Lord must pardon them in this thing. O be carefully scrupulous here; your soul depends upon it.
The sound convert takes a whole Christ, and takes him for all intents and purposes, without exceptions, without limitations, without reserve. He is willing to have Christ upon any terms; he is willing to have the dominion of Christ, as well as deliverance by Christ; he saith, with Paul, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Any thing, Lord. He sends the blank to Christ, to set down his own conditions. (The Alarm to Unconverted Sinners [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980 reprint], pp. 46–48)
John Wesley went to heaven on March 2, 1791, at the age of eighty-eight, after having preached the gospel for about sixty-five years. One of his favorite hymns to sing on his deathbed was:
I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath
And when my voice is lost in death
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.
Righteousness Is Provided For All
for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (3:22b–23)
The provision of salvation and the righteousness it brings is granted for all those who believe. Anyone will be saved who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, for there is no distinction.
Preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul declared, “Through Him [Christ] everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). In his letter to the church at Galatia, the apostle said, “A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).
Jesus Himself said, “The one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ—whether a murderer, prostitute, thief, rapist, homosexual, religious hypocrite, false teacher, pagan, or anything else—will be saved. Just as no one is good enough to be saved, no one is so evil that he cannot be saved.
That is the wonderful point of Romans 3:22. All those who believe will be saved, because in God’s sight there is no distinction. Just as everyone apart from Christ is equally sinful and rejected by God, everyone who is in Christ is equally righteous and accepted by Him. Even the “foremost of all” sinners, as Paul called himself (1 Tim. 1:15), was not too wicked to be saved.
There is no distinction among those who are saved, because there is no distinction among those who are lost, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Hustereō (fall short) has the basic meaning of being last or inferior. Every human being comes in last as far as the glory of God is concerned.
Righteousness Is Given Freely Through Grace
being justified as a gift by His grace (3:24a)
By the same token, no one is ahead of anyone else as far as salvation is concerned. Being justified refers back to the “alls” of the previous two verses—all those who have believed, of whom all were sinful. Just as there is no distinction among those who need salvation, there is no distinction among those who receive it, because they all are justified as a gift by His grace.
Dikaioō (justified) means to declare the rightness of something or someone. Justification is God’s declaration that all the demands of the law are fulfilled on behalf of the believing sinner through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Justification is a wholly forensic, or legal, transaction. It changes the judicial standing of the sinner before God. In justification, God imputes the perfect righteousness of Christ to the believer’s account, then declares the redeemed one fully righteous. Justification must be distinguished from sanctification, in which God actually imparts Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. While the two must be distinguished, justification and sanctification can never be separated. God does not justify whom He does not sanctify.
Yet God justifies believers as a gift by His grace, not because of any good thing in the one who is justified.
By definition, a gift is something given freely, unearned and unmerited by the recipient. God’s greatest of all gifts is that of salvation through His Son, given completely out of His divine grace. “If righteousness comes through the Law,” that is, through human fulfillment of God’s divine standard, Paul declares, “then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).
The law reveals God’s righteousness and exposes man’s unrighteousness. Grace, on the other hand, not only reveals God’s righteousness but actually gives His righteousness to those who trust in His Son. That gift of grace cost God the suffering and death of His own Son on the cross, so that, for the believer, there is nothing left to pay.
Righteousness Is Accomplished by Redemption
through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (3:24b)
Apolutrōsis (redemption) is a strengthened form of lutros̄is, which carries the idea of delivering, especially by means of paying a price. It was commonly used of paying a ransom to free a prisoner from his captors or paying the price to free a slave from his master.
Because of man’s utter sinfulness and inability to bring himself up to the standard of God’s righteousness, the redemption of a sinner could come only by that which is in Christ Jesus. Only the sinless Savior could pay the price to redeem sinful men.
Righteousness Was Paid by Atoning Sacrifice
whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. (3:25a)
Because man cannot become righteous on his own, God graciously provided for his redemption through the atoning sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ.
That sacrifice was not made in the dark or even in the hidden and holy recesses of the sacred Temple, but openly on the hill of Calvary for all the world to see. God displayed His Son publicly as a propitiation.
Hilastērion (propitiation) carries the basic idea of appeasement, or satisfaction. In ancient pagan religions, as in many religions today, the idea of man’s appeasing a deity by various gifts or sacrifices was common. But in the New Testament propitiation always refers to the work of God, not of man. Man is utterly incapable of satisfying God’s justice except by spending eternity in hell.
The only satisfaction, or propitiation, that could be acceptable to God and that could reconcile Him to man had to be made by God. For that reason, God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, “gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). He appeased the wrath of God.
That ransoming propitiation made by Christ was paid in His own divine blood. To believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire, Peter wrote, “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
The Hebrew equivalent of hilastērion is used in the Old Testament in reference to the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies, where the high priest went once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to make a sacrifice on behalf of his people. On that occasion he sprinkled blood on the Mercy Seat, symbolizing the payment of the penalty for his own sins and the sins of the people.
But that yearly act, although divinely prescribed and honored, had no power to remove or pay the penalty for a single sin. It could only point to the true and effective “offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.… For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:10, 14).
Those who are sanctified by the offering of Christ are those who receive that sanctification through faith in Him. To the Colossian believers Paul wrote,
In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:11–14)
In his beautiful hymn, Horatius Bonar wrote,
Not what my hands have done
Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears
Can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other work save thine,
No other blood will do;
No strength save that which is divine
Can bear me safely through.
Righteousness Apart from Law
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.
In Romans 3:21–31 we are dealing with themes that are the very heart, not only of Paul’s letter, but of the entire Bible and therefore of reality itself. In all life and history there is nothing more important than these teachings. But who today thinks this way? Who is willing to acknowledge this in an age when abstract thought—indeed, even thinking itself—is suspect? Who even among the masses of Christian people really appreciates what Paul is saying here? Ours is an age in which people are self-absorbed and focus on immediate gratification. We tend to evaluate any religious teaching according to its apparent relevance to our present “needs” and short-term goals.
No one can have success teaching basic truths about man and the universe unless our closed ways of thinking are changed. But, then, this has always been the case. It was no easier for the apostle Paul to preach the message of salvation to a generation that was busy entertaining itself by sex and circuses than for today’s Christians to minister that same word to an age that has anesthetized itself through television.
But we must try! We must try as Paul did! We must teach the Word of God, because it is by the Word alone that God speaks to us about what really matters.
Four Great Doctrines
We have already seen how Paul introduces this section of his letter—with the words “but now.” These words indicate that something of great importance has taken place, and that this is the substance of the good news being proclaimed by Paul and the other messengers of the gospel. Here is a simple outline of this teaching:
- God has provided a righteousness of his own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves. This is the very heart or theme of the Word of God. Although it is new in its fulfillment, it had nevertheless been fully prophesied in the Old Testament.
- This righteousness is by grace. We do not deserve it. In fact, we are incapable ever of deserving it.
- It is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for his people, redeeming them from their sin, that has made this grace on God’s part possible. This is the reason for the “now” in “but now.” It is because of Jesus’ death that there is a Christian gospel.
- This righteousness that God has graciously provided becomes ours through simple faith. Believing and trusting God in regard to the work of Jesus is the only way anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, can be saved.
The importance of these teachings will become increasingly clear in our exposition of them. But we can see their importance even at this point by noticing that they are a nearly exact repetition of what Paul has already stated as the thesis of the letter. They were stated in his opening address, for example: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:1–5). The teachings of Romans 3:21–31 are all there. It is the same gospel.
Again, it is also what we have found in the initial statement of Paul’s thesis in Romans 1:16–17: “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.’ ”
So I repeat what I said at the beginning of this study: There is nothing in all life and history that is more important than these teachings. The issues of eternity hang on these truths, and we must be faithful to them regardless of the resistance or scorn of our contemporaries.
Objective and Subjective Genitives
We begin with the first of these four doctrines, namely, that “God has provided a righteousness of his own for men and women.” You will notice, if you read the text carefully, that in Romans 3:21 the New International Version speaks of “a righteousness from God,” while I have implied (echoing the King James Version) that this is the “righteousness of God,” that is, suggesting that it is God’s own righteousness. Which is correct? Is this a righteousness from God? Or is it the righteousness of God? And is there a difference?
The variations in translations stem from the fact that the Greek text contains a simple genitive construction, which we usually translate in English by using the word “of.” But in Greek, as in English, this can be either what grammarians call a subjective genitive or an objective genitive. A subjective genitive is one in which the word following “of” is the subject or source of the idea. An example is “love of God.” The phrase usually means that this is God’s love. He is the source of the love and the subject of the action. A nonbiblical example is the “novels of Charles Dickens.” It means that Dickens is the author of the novels. He wrote them. It does not mean that they are about him. The other type of genitive is what grammarians call an objective genitive. It refers to a situation in which the word following “of” is the object of the first word. An example might be “world of misery.” This does not mean that misery is the source of the world or even the source of the world’s problems but rather that the world is characterized by misery. It is a miserable world. The word misery functions as an adjective in this construction.
How, then, is the phrase “righteousness of God” to be interpreted? If this is a case of an objective genitive, it is a righteousness determined by God’s own nature. That is, as we can also say, it is his righteousness or divine righteousness. This is what the editors of the Scofield Bible seem to have thought, for they appended a note to Romans 3:21, which reads: “The righteousness of God is all that God demands and approves, and is ultimately found in Christ himself, who fully met in our stead every requirement of the law.” They support this interpretation by a reference to 1 Corinthians 1:30: “Christ … has become … our righteousness.”
I find support for this idea in the text, because Paul’s chief point is that the righteousness of God has been disclosed in the person and work of Christ. Before, we did not have any truly adequate way of understanding what this righteousness is like. But now we do, since we can see it in the Savior.
On the other hand, if this is a subjective genitive (rather than an objective genitive), we should then understand Paul to be teaching that God is the source of this righteousness and that it is in Jesus Christ that God makes it available to us. The translators of the New International Version seem to have preferred this idea, for they have written: “But now a righteousness from God … has been made known.”
Surely this is a case where we do not have to choose between the two ideas, for both are correct. Righteousness is to be seen in the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also his righteousness, rather than our own, that we need. Apart from him we might compare ourselves only with one another and thus have an utterly inadequate idea of what the holy God requires. This is what Paul himself had been doing prior to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He had compared himself with other people, even the most moral people of his day, and had concluded that there was much he could boast about: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more” (Phil. 3:4). But when he saw Jesus in the Damascus road vision, for the first time he came to understand what true righteousness is and learned to reckon his own good deeds as worthless. “For [his] sake,” wrote Paul, “I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (vv. 8b–9).
At the same time—it is explicitly stated in the last of those three verses from Philippians—the righteousness of God, which is revealed in Christ, is also a righteousness that comes to us from God. For if God did not give it, there is no way any of us could possibly win it for ourselves. This is another way of saying that salvation is a gift. It is the ground on which the redeemed will ascribe all their praise to God for saving them.
Apart from the Law
These ideas need to be held together. And they need to be remembered in everything we say both about our inability to attain righteousness by ourselves and about the way God has provided it for us through the work of Jesus Christ.
The phrase Paul uses in our text to state how the righteousness of God can not come to us is “apart from law.” This does not mean that the law has no value, of course. The very sentence reminds us of one of its values, for it says that “the Law and the Prophets” testified to the righteousness that would come (and eventually did come) in Jesus Christ. (In our last study we looked at some of the texts that do just that.) Again, at the very end of Romans 3, we find Paul returning to the subject of the law, saying, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (v. 31). The law clearly had value in the Old Testament period and continues to have value in the Christian era.
Theologians usually speak of the function of God’s law in two areas: (1) to restrain evil, much as secular law is meant to do; and (2) to reveal man’s sin and thus point us to the need for Jesus Christ. These are important functions. But the one thing the law cannot do and was never meant to do was save a person by his or her observance of it.
This is why Paul speaks of a righteousness of God “apart from law” and why this announcement is such good news, although hard for unsaved people to understand or accept. The law, as Paul will say later in Romans, is “holy, righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). If we could be saved by law, the law of God would save us. But we cannot! And it cannot! We cannot keep God’s commandments. If the law is to have any benefit for us, it must be by enabling us to see our inability to satisfy the standards of God by our own efforts and thus turn us to Christ. That is why Paul says that “this righteousness from God comes [not by law but] through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe …” (Rom. 3:22).
Another way of putting this is to say that when the law was given to Israel on Mount Sinai, the very books that listed these unyielding commandments of the holy God also contained instructions for the sacrifice of the lamb on the Day of Atonement. God gave the commandments, but he also gave the altar and taught the principle of substitution. It is as if he were saying, “These are my commandments; you must keep them or be lost. But I know you cannot keep them. So, rather than trusting in your ability to do what you never will be able to do, I point you to my Son, who will die for you. It is on the basis of his future work that I am giving you a righteousness you could never achieve yourselves. Trust him.”
A Unique Religion
This idea is so important that I want to state it another way, showing the utter uniqueness of Christianity in this fundamental matter. Paul has said that this righteousness from God, which we need, is “apart from law,” by which he means primarily “apart from the law of God given to Israel.” He means, as John Murray has said in his commentary, that “in justification there is no contribution, preparatory, accessory or subsidiary, that is given by works of law.”
But “law” also embraces all human effort to attain righteousness, and this means that the fundamental principle of this verse (as well as of the Bible as a whole) is that God’s righteousness is to be received apart from any human doing whatsoever.
This is the point at which Christianity is distinguished categorically from every other human religion. All religions have their distinguishing points, of course. Some call God, the Supreme Being, by a different name. Some emphasize one path to God, some another. Some are mystical, some very ritualistic. But all, except for Christianity, suppose that there is something human beings can do for the Deity to convince him to save them. They teach a human way to achieve eternity, a man-made ladder to the bliss of the life to come. Only Christianity humbles man by insisting that there is nothing at all we can do to work out our salvation.
Of course, once we are saved we have the obligation and privilege of doing much, since Jesus calls us to discipleship. But we are not saved by such doings. All our actions can bring upon us, even the best of our actions, is the judgment from God that we deserve. Therefore, it is vitally important to examine ourselves to see if we are really trusting in Jesus and what he has done, or whether we are trusting in what we suppose we can do. Commentator Donald Barnhouse has written:
Look into your own heart and see whether you are trusting, even in a small fraction, in something that you are doing for yourself or that you are doing for God, instead of finding in your heart that you have ceased from your works as God did from his and that you are resting on the work that was accomplished on the cross of Calvary. This is the secret of reality: Righteousness apart from law. Righteousness apart from human doing. Christianity is the faith that believes God’s Word about the work that is fully done, completely done.…
Righteousness without law. Righteousness apart from human character. Righteousness without even a consideration of the nature of the being that is made righteous. Righteousness that comes from God upon an ungodly man. Righteousness that will save a thief on the cross. Righteousness that is prepared for you. Righteousness that you must choose by abandoning any hope of salvation from anything that is in yourself. And underline this—it is the only righteousness that can produce practical righteousness in you.
The Really Good News
When a person is first presented with this pure core of Christianity, the reaction is usually revulsion. We want to save ourselves, and anything that suggests that we cannot do so is abhorrent to us. We do not want a religion that demands that we throw ourselves entirely upon the grace and mercy of God. But Christianity is not only the religion we need so desperately. It is also the only religion worth having in the long run. Let me explain.
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then we can be saved now. We do not have to wait until we reach some high level of attainment or pass some undetermined future test. Many people think in these terms, because they know (if they are honest with themselves) that their lives and actions are far from what they should be now and they keep striving. But this means—I am sure you can see it—that salvation can never be a present experience but is something always in the future. It is something such persons hope to attain, though they are afraid they may not. It is only in Christianity that this future element moves into the present. And the reason it can is that salvation is not based on our ability to accumulate acceptable merits with God, but rather on what God has already done for us. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished,” he meant what he said. His finished work is the sole grounds for our being declared righteous by God. And since it is a past accomplishment, salvation can be ours now, solely by the application of Christ’s righteousness to us as God’s gift.
This is why Paul can say, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It is also why he declared, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
It is why Joseph Hart, one of our great hymnwriters, wrote:
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and broken by the Fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him:
This he gives you; this he gives you;
’Tis the Spirit’s rising beam.
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then salvation is certain. If salvation is by human works, then human works (or a lack of them) can undo it. If I can save myself, I can unsave myself. I can ruin everything. But if salvation is of God from beginning to end, it is sure and unwavering simply because God is himself sure and unwavering. Since God knows the end from the beginning, nothing ever surprises him, and he never needs to alter his plans or change his mind. What he has begun he will continue, and we can be confident of that. Paul expressed this confidence in regard to the church at Philippi, saying that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then human boasting is excluded, and all the glory in salvation goes to God. I doubt any of us would want to be in a heaven populated by persons who got there, even in part, by their own efforts. The boasting of human beings is bad enough in this world, where all they have to boast of is their own good looks (for which they are not responsible), their money, their friends, or whatever. Imagine how offensive it would be if they were able to brag about having earned heaven: “Old Joe down there—he’s in the other place—just didn’t have what it takes, I suppose. He should have lived a good life, like me.” Even if the only thing that determines a person’s salvation is faith (thought of as something of which we are capable), it would still be intolerable for some people to boast of having believed, though others had refused to do so.
But it is not going to be like that! Salvation is a gift. It is receiving God’s righteousness—apart from law, apart from human doing. It is, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:9). No one in heaven will be praising man. In heaven the glory will go to God only. Soli deo gloria!
Thank God it is that way.
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.
In the last study I introduced four doctrines found in Romans 3:21–31: (1) God has provided a righteousness of his own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves; (2) this righteousness is by grace; (3) it is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for his people, redeeming them from their sin, that has made this grace on God’s part possible; and (4) this righteousness, which God has graciously provided, becomes ours through simple faith. We have already looked at the first of these four doctrines: the righteousness that God has made available to us apart from law. Now we will examine the second doctrine: that this righteousness becomes ours by the grace of God alone, apart from human merit.
That is the meaning of grace, of course. It is God’s favor to us apart from human merit. Indeed, it is favor when we deserve the precise opposite. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written, “There is no more wonderful word than ‘grace.’ It means unmerited favor or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving.… It is not merely a free gift, but a free gift to those who deserve the exact opposite, and it is given to us while we are ‘without hope and without God in the world.’ ”
But how are we to do justice to this great concept today? We have too high an opinion of ourselves even to understand grace, let alone to appreciate it. We speak of it certainly. We sing, “Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—That saved a wretch like me!” But we do not think of ourselves as wretches needing to be saved. Rather, we think of ourselves as quite worthy. One teacher has said, “Amazing grace is no longer amazing to us.” In our view, it is not even grace.
There Is No Difference
This is why the idea expressed in Romans 3:23 is inserted at this point. For many years, whenever I came to this verse, I had a feeling that it was somehow in the wrong place. It was not that Romans 3:23 is untrue. Obviously it is, for that is what Romans 1:18–3:20 is all about. What bothered me is that the verse did not seem to belong here. I felt that the words “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” belonged with that earlier section. The verse seemed somehow an intrusion here, because Romans 3:21–31 is not talking about sin but about the way of salvation.
I think differently now, however. And the reason I think differently is that I now understand the connection between this verse and grace. The reason we do not appreciate grace is that we do not really believe Romans 3:23. Or, if we do, we believe it in a far lesser sense than Paul intended.
Let me use a story to explain what I mean. In his classic little book All of Grace, Charles Haddon Spurgeon begins with the story of a preacher from the north of England who went to call on a poor woman. He knew that she needed help. So, with money from the church in his hand, he made his way through the poor section of the city to where she lived, climbed the four flights of stairs to her tiny attic apartment, and then knocked at the door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He went away. The next week he saw the woman in church and told her that he knew of her need and had been trying to help her. “I called at your room the other day, but you were not home,” he said.
“At what time did you call, sir?” she asked.
“Oh, dear,” she answered. “I was home, and I heard you knocking. But I did not answer. I thought it was the man calling for the rent.”
This is a good illustration of grace and of our natural inability to appreciate it. But isn’t it true that, although most of us laugh at this story, we unfortunately also fail to identify with it? In fact, we may even be laughing at the poor woman rather than at the story, because we consider her to be in a quite different situation from ourselves. She was unable to pay the rent. We know people like that. We feel sorry for them. But we think that is not our condition. We can pay. We pay our bills here, and we suppose (even though we may officially deny it) that we will be able to pay something—a down payment even if not the full amount—on our outstanding balance in heaven. So we bar the door, not because we are afraid that God is coming to collect the rent, but because we fear he is coming with grace and we do not want a handout. We do not consider our situation to be desperate.
But, you see, if the first chapters of Romans have meant anything to us, they have shown that spiritually “there is no difference” between us and even the most destitute of persons. As far as God’s requirements are concerned, there is no difference between us and the most desperate or disreputable character in history.
I have in my library a fairly old book entitled Grace and Truth, written by the Scottish preacher W. P. Mackay. Wisely, in my judgment, the first chapter of the book begins with a study of “there is no difference.” I say “wisely,” because, as the author shows, until we know that in God’s sight there is no difference between us and even the wildest profligate, we cannot be saved. Nor can we appreciate the nature and extent of the grace needed to rescue us from our dilemma.
Mackay illustrates this point with an anecdote. Someone was once speaking to a rich English lady, stressing that every human being is a sinner. She replied with some astonishment, “But ladies are not sinners!”
“Then who are?” the person asked her.
“Just young men in their foolish days,” was her reply.
When the person explained the gospel further, insisting that if she was to be saved by Christ, she would have to be saved exactly as her footman needed to be saved—by the unmerited grace of God in Christ’s atonement—she retorted, “Well, then, I will not be saved!” That was her decision, of course, but it was tragic.
If you want to be saved by God, you must approach grace on the basis of Romans 1:18–3:20—on the grounds of your utter ruin in sin—and not on the basis of any supposed merit in yourself.
It is astonishing that we should fail to understand grace, of course, because all human beings have experienced it in a general but nonsaving way, even if they are not saved or have not even the slightest familiarity with Christianity. We have experienced what theologians call “common grace,” the grace that God has shown to the whole of humanity. Jesus spoke of it when he reminded his listeners that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45b).
When Adam and Eve sinned, the race came under judgment. No one deserved anything good. If God had taken Adam and Eve in that moment and cast them into the lake of fire, he would have been entirely just in doing so, and the angels could still have sung with great joy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). Or, if God had spared Adam and Eve, allowing them to increase until there was a great mass of humanity in the world and then had brushed all people aside into everlasting torment, God would still have been just. God does not owe us anything. Consequently, the natural blessings we have are due not to our own righteousness or abilities but to common grace.
Let me try to state this clearly once more. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, you are still a recipient of God’s common grace, whether you acknowledge it or not. If you are alive and not in hell at this moment, it is because of God’s common grace. If you are in good health and not wasting away in some ward of hopeless patients in a hospital, it is because of common grace. If you have a home and are not wandering about on city streets, it is because of God’s grace. If you have clothes to wear and food to eat, it is because of God’s grace. The list could be endless. There is no one living who has not been the recipient of God’s common grace in countless ways. So, if you think that it is not by grace but by your merits alone that you possess these blessings, you show your ignorance of spiritual matters and disclose how far you are from God’s kingdom.
But it is not common grace that Paul is referring to in our Romans text, important as common grace is. It is the specific, saving grace of God in salvation, which is not “common” (in the sense that all persons experience it regardless of their relationship to God), but rather is a gift received only by some through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from merit.
This is the point we need chiefly to stress, of course, for it takes us back to the story of the preacher’s visit to the poor woman and reminds us that the reason we do not appreciate grace is that we think we deserve it. We do not deserve it! If we did, it would not be grace. It would be our due, and we have already seen that the only thing rightly due us in our sinful condition is a full outpouring of God’s just wrath and condemnation. So I say again: Grace is apart from good works. Grace is apart from merit. We should be getting this by now, because each of the blessings enumerated in this great chapter of Romans is apart from works, law, or merit—which are only various ways of saying the same thing.
The righteousness of God, which is also from God, is apart from works.
Grace, which is the source of that righteousness, is apart from works.
Redemption, which makes grace possible, is apart from works.
Justification is apart from works.
Salvation from beginning to end is apart from works. In other words, it is free. This must have been the chief idea in Paul’s mind when he wrote these verses, for he emphasizes the matter by repeating it. He says that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24, italics mine).
One of the most substantial works on grace that I have come across is by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and it goes by that title: Grace. In the very first chapter Chafer has a section captioned “Seven Fundamental Facts About Grace.” I am not happy with everything he says in this section, particularly the last two of these points. But I refer to him here because of what he says about grace and demerit:
- “Grace is not withheld because of demerit” and
- “Grace cannot be lessened because of demerit.”
These are important points, since they emphasize the bright side of what usually appears to us as undesirable teaching.
Most of us resent the thought of “free” grace. We want to earn our own way, and we resent the suggestion that we are unable to scale the high walls of heaven by our own devices. We must be humbled before we will even give ear to the idea.
But if we have been humbled—if God has humbled us—the doctrine of grace becomes a marvelous encouragement and comfort. It tells us that the grace of God will never be withheld because of anything we may have done, however evil it was, nor will it be lessened because of that or any other evil we may do. The self-righteous person imagines that God scoops grace out of a barrel, giving much to the person who has sinned much and needs much, but giving only a little to the person who has sinned little and needs little. That is one way of wrongly mixing grace with merit. But the person who is conscious of his or her sin often imagines something similar, though opposite in direction. Such people think of God’s withholding grace because of their great sin, or perhaps even putting grace back into his barrel when they sin badly.
Thank God grace is not bestowed on this principle! As Chafer says:
God cannot propose to do less in grace for one who is sinful than he would have done had that one been less sinful. Grace is never exercised by him making up what may be lacking in the life and character of a sinner. In such a case, much sinfulness would call for much grace, and little sinfulness would call for little grace. [Instead] the sin question has been set aside forever, and equal exercise of grace is extended to all who believe. It never falls short of being the measureless saving grace of God. Thus, grace could not be increased, for it is the expression of his infinite love; it could not be diminished, for every limitation that human sin might impose on the action of a righteous God has, through the propitiation of the cross, been dismissed forever.
Grace humbles us, because it teaches that salvation is apart from human merit. At the same time, it encourages us to come to God for the grace we so evidently need. There is no sin too great either to turn God from us or to lessen the abundance of the grace he gives.
That word abundance leads to the final characteristic of grace to be included in this study. It is taught two chapters further on in a verse that became the life text of John Newton: Romans 5:20. Our version reads, “.… But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” But the version Newton knew rendered this, “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” (kjv.)
John Newton was an English clergyman who lived from 1725 to 1807. He had a wide and effective ministry and has been called the second founder of the Church of England. He is best known to us for his hymns.
Newton was raised in a Christian home in which he was taught many great verses of the Bible. But his mother died when he was only six years old, and he was sent to live with a relative who mocked Christianity. One day, at an early age, Newton left home and joined the British Navy as an apprenticed seaman. He was wild and dissolute in those years, and he became exceedingly immoral. He acquired a reputation of being able to swear for two hours without repeating himself. Eventually he deserted the navy off the coast of Africa. Why Africa? In his memoirs he wrote that he went to Africa for one reason only and that was “that I might sin my fill.”
In Africa he fell in with a Portuguese slavetrader in whose home he was cruelly treated. This man often went away on slaving expeditions, and when he was gone the power in the home passed to the trader’s African wife, the chief woman of his harem. This woman hated all white men, and she took out her hatred on Newton. He tells us that for months he was forced to grovel in the dirt, eating his food from the ground like a dog and beaten unmercifully if he touched it with his hands. For a time he was actually placed in chains. At last, thin and emaciated, Newton made his way through the jungle, reached the sea, and there attracted a British merchant ship making its way up the coast to England.
The captain of the ship took Newton aboard, thinking that he had ivory to sell. But when he learned that the young man knew something about navigation as a result of his time in the British Navy, he made him ship’s mate. Even then Newton fell into trouble. One day, when the captain was ashore, Newton broke out the ship’s supply of rum and got the crew drunk. He was so drunk himself that when the captain returned and struck him in the head, Newton fell overboard and would have drowned if one of the sailors had not grabbed him and hauled him back on deck in the nick of time.
Near the end of the voyage, as they were approaching Scotland, the ship ran into bad weather and was blown off course. Water poured in, and she began to sink. The young profligate was sent down into the hold to pump water. The storm lasted for days. Newton was terrified, sure that the ship would sink and he would drown. But there in the hold of the ship, as he pumped water, desperately attempting to save his life, the God of grace, whom he had tried to forget but who had never forgotten him, brought to his mind Bible verses he had learned in his home as a child. Newton was convicted of his sin and of God’s righteousness. The way of salvation opened up to him. He was born again and transformed. Later, when the storm had passed and he was again in England, Newton began to study theology and eventually became a distinguished evangelist, preaching even before the queen.
Of this storm William Cowper, the British poet who was a close friend of John Newton’s, wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
And Newton? Newton became a poet as well as a preacher, writing some of our best-known hymns. This former blasphemer wrote:
How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
He is known above all for “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found—
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Newton was a great preacher of grace. And no wonder! He had learned what all who have ever been saved have learned: namely, that grace is from God, apart from human merit. He deserved nothing. But he found grace through the work of Jesus.
23 The reason all must come to God through faith in Christ is that “all have sinned and fall short of [or lack, as in Mk 10:21] the glory of God.” This crisp summarizing statement repeats the point already established by Paul in 3:9, 19. The glory in view cannot be eschatological (as in 5:2), since even believers, for whom the sin problem has been solved, lack the future glory now. The suggestion that the glory is God’s approbation or praise (Denney, 610) is unlikely, since this meaning of doxa (GK 1518), common in Luke, is somewhat rare in Paul. Dodd, 50–51, seeks to link the glory with the image of God in man (cf. 1 Co 11:7), which is marred by sin. This is suggestive, but it would be more acceptable if Paul had used the past tense (“have fallen short”) to match the sense in the previous statement about sin. Probably the best interpretation is to associate the glory with the divine presence and the privilege Adam and Eve originally had of direct communion with God. This ever-present deprivation is depicted in the restriction of the glory to the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and the denial of the right of access to the people except through the high priest once a year. God’s glory is the majesty of his holy person. To be cut off from this direct fellowship is the great loss occasioned by sin.
22b–23 In something of a parenthesis, vv. 22b–23 remind us why this righteousness is available to all, and why, also, all need this righteousness. “There is no distinction” summarizes a key element of Paul’s presentation in 1:18–3:20, and is likely, therefore, to have special application to Jew and Gentile. In v. 23, Paul elaborates this point. His “no distinction,” as we would expect, has to do with the absence of any basic difference among people with respect to their standing before God. Jews may have the law and circumcision; Americans may lay claim to a great religious heritage; “good” people may point to their works of charity; but all this makes no essential difference to one’s standing before the righteous and holy God. Paul reduces the argument of 1:18–3:20 to its essence in a justly famous statement of the condition of all people outside Christ: “all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God.” The second verb states the consequences of the first: because all have sinned, all are falling short of the glory of God. “Glory” in the Bible characteristically refers to the magnificent presence of the Lord, and the eternal state was often pictured as a time when God’s people would experience and have a part in that “glory” (e.g., Isa. 35:2; Rom. 8:18; Phil. 3:21; 2 Thess. 2:14). And just as this sharing in God’s “glory” involves conformity to the “image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29–30; Phil. 3:21), so the absence of glory involves a declension from (though not removal of) the “image of God” in which human beings were first made. “The future glory may be regarded as the restoration of the lost, original glory.”736 Paul, then, is indicating that all people fail to exhibit that “being-like-God” for which they were created; and the present tense of the verb, in combination with Rom. 8, shows that even Christians “fall short” of that goal until they are transformed in the last day by God.
3:23 / For all have sinned. This is Paul’s categorical summary of the human experience. In chapter 3 he repeats this judgment nine times (vv. 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 19, 20, 22, 23)! Regardless of the distinctions humans draw among themselves, in God’s sight “there is no difference.” All have sinned is an essential prelude to verse 24. Only in the light of grace can humanity recognize and lament its rebellion; only in the light of its rebellion is humanity humbled to receive grace. If humanity is to be saved, salvation must come from outside it, for on its own humanity stands under wrath. The Reformers referred to this as “alien righteousness,” salvation from outside, salvation not from humanity, but freely and entirely from God. Karl Barth presses this idea into service when he says, “Genuine fellowship is grounded upon a negative: it is grounded upon what men lack” (Romans, p. 101). There is no denominator common to humanity, whether social status, nationality, race, or whatever interests, which constitutes the fellowship of righteousness. All humans share a solidarity of impoverishment with one another in God’s sight. The one thing they have in common is that which makes them objects of both wrath and grace, their unworthiness before God.
Unworthiness is characterized by a falling short of the glory of God. Paul said earlier of those who sought glory and did good that “glory, honor, and peace” would await them (2:10). It might be supposed that the human predicament is actually a failure to “come of age” or attain its destiny. This is quite an alien thought for Paul. Falling short of the glory of God is surely a reference to Adam’s sin in Genesis 3. Humanity lacks glory not because it has failed in its potential, but because it has lost it through disobedience. The lacking of glory draws our attention not to a hopeful evolutionary spiral, but to the state of sin (“under sin,” 3:9), resultant from humanity’s exchanging the glory of God for its own will (1:21–23).
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 70). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 246–247). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.