We’ve been warned repeatedly. Gloom hangs heavy because we all know what is supposed to happen to us at the end. It was a done deal. It really was.
As you’re crossing the Marquam bridge in Portland, you can see Mt. Hood on the horizon, imposing, majestic, and snow covered . But if you take the exit to it, you’ll get killed. Ramp construction was discontinued and walled off. Nothing remains now, but a stump that stops in mid-air, with a long drop to the river beneath.
Just like you can’t reach Mt. Hood from that ramp, people who would like to head toward God will also find a serious gap—a fatal one. At first they don’t think of it as daunting. Sin is not that big a problem to human reckoning, so men calculate the distance as being less a leap than a hop. Hitler has a leap. The average Joe, however, only needs to hop over his anger management issues, or tinker with some other character flaw, and then he’ll arrive. That’s what he thinks, at least. He will make it out four feet or so toward God—about fifty miles short of his goal—before realizing he should have used a better calculator.
Others do recognize the vast chasm between themselves and God, and try to remedy the problem with religious pursuits. They’re going to prove they’re worthy of divine favor. You could say these sincere souls try to make the jump in a high performance race car. They roar off the ramp in a promising upward arc, but in bell curve fashion, there’s that matter of the downward side…
It’s hard for us to understand how far away our native condition is from God and that the distance cannot be bridged by our own efforts. But our natural response is still to self-justify, like the lawyer in the gospels who approached Jesus, asking “Good teacher, what must I do that I may inherit eternal life?” That sounds like a great question, but the Bible reveals his motive in asking it. He wanted “to justify Himself” (Lk. 10:29).
“Justification by self” is a suicidal vault across an impossible expanse to God. You can get a great running start toward Him, but it’s only a matter of time before you’re left in thin air. The bridge is out, a present and future reality for every human being.
However, God has done something to interrupt your certain upcoming catastrophe, and it’s just great enough to deserve celebration, party favors, and a little hooping and hollering. It’s all contained in Romans 3:21-31, the most important paragraph in the book, if not the whole Bible. That’s right, we’re venturing into justification by faith.
Something Old, Something New
The first point we’re going to unfurl is that justification is now possible only because God gave us Jesus. This changed everything.
21 But now…” signals the idea that we’re turning a corner in Romans. We’re leaving the dreary environs of condemnation.
“the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law,”
In times past, God showed His righteousness in one exclusive way. He gave His law to us, and when we broke it, He condemned us. That was righteous in the same way a court that condemns a guilty person is a righteous court.
“But now” God can show His righteousness apart from that arrangement. He does it apart from the law, “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” That means faith in Christ is not some new innovation, as if God had to discard the Law because it didn’t work, and had to find something easier for us. If you go back and read the Old Testament Law, you’ll see prophecies of something coming that was planned and anticipated from the beginning.
What is it?
“— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,24 and are justified by his grace as a gift,”
Since all have sinned, all must receive justification as a gift. If you want God to justify you, to approve you according to His righteous standard, you have to forget about working to earn it. He must gift it to you.
“through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Don’t skate over the word “redemption” as though it were mere Christianity-speak. In relation to Christ, it means the payment He made on the cross to buy your soul back from under the condemnation of God’s broken law. Redemption is the price He paid for you that you were going to have to pay, and for all eternity, since you would never have been able to pay it off yourself.
“25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood,”
God put Jesus forward as a propitiation, (an even less recognizable word to the contemporary English speaker), which means covering. It is a covering by His blood, and it is so effective, that when a sinner is covered by it, God doesn’t see the person’s sin, He sees the payment for sin. That’s got to be the greatest blessing ever for sinful people, which is why when God put Jesus forward, He intended His Son “to be received by faith.”
More Gifts than a Shopping Mall
The idea of accepting a gift is simple, but lost on those who over complicate it. We conceive of God as holding His Son out to us to inspire more works, or to stimulate us to copy Him, or to be a better person. No wonder He has to spell out for us, “Receive! It’s a gift!”
In the current global village, hundreds of “gifts” are being held out all day every day. Buddhism offers the “gift” of meditative techniques that can help one focus and lower anxiety levels. Confucianism offers the “gift” of ancient wisdom that can benefit how one gets along with others in the workplace. Various chanting practices and other rituals might be perceived as beneficial in how we pick stocks or find a mate. It seems a lot of names and options have been put forward, all bristling with alleged benefits.
But God would say,
“I know you’re busy and your life will not last long, even if you hit 90 or 100 years old. With no time to waste, I’ll only speak to you about important things. That’s why I gave you one book, with one topic—My Son. And the most important concern you’ll ever have will happen as you take your last breath, while your soul is about to leave your body, and you essentially ask yourself, Have I been redeemed? Am I covered?”
Jesus Christ is the critical difference between catastrophe and catastrophe interrupted.
In no other name is there redemption or propitiation. God didn’t put forward any gurus, yogis, swamis, enlightened teachers, priests, prophets, mullahs, spirit guides, or holy men. Instead, He offered you His Son.
Have you received Him? Get that question right, even if you get everything else wrong.
No Sin Forgotten
Many of us imagine that justification is all about God showing His love. But Paul lays out a different case here.
“This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
There’s a nagging little question that often emerges about the sins committed before Jesus came. What happened to them? God could have thundered down and flash-fried the entire world for its wicked impudence. He didn’t, but neither did He dismiss the problem with a wave of His hand, saying, “Let’s let bygones be bygones.” That wouldn’t be right.
Instead of sweeping sins under the rug, He gave His Old Testament people a system of animal sacrifice that would temporarily count as payment for sins, until the real payment came along later in the death of Jesus.
The sinner would bring a bull or goat or lamb to the Jewish priest and then lay his hands on the animal. In that moment, the sins of the sinner would symbolically rest upon the beast. The priest would then kill it, and in the eyes of God, symbolically, its death would be counted as the death of that sinful person. Penalty paid.
But this arrangement was all token in nature. The death of an animal can’t really dispose of a person’s sins. The righteousness of God still demanded real and true justice.
That’s why when Jesus came and died, “It was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time.” It was both a retroactive payment for the sins that had already occurred, and for ours now, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (v. 26).
Every time one more wretched sinner “tests” whether God will make good on His promise to justify in the name of Jesus, God’s righteousness absolutely shines.
God honors the blood payment of His Son as being one hundred percent sufficient, no matter how horrid the sinner. This means He cannot righteously require those who believe to pay their own penalty. If God were to refuse a sinner, saying, “You need more than the blood of Jesus” it would either imply the cross wasn’t enough, or that it was enough, but the sinner ought to pay as well, constituting a double payment. Such a thing would demonstrate unrighteousness, something inconsistent and intolerable to God.
Suppose God Didn’t Love You
A long-running television series, Suits, tells the story of a young man named Mike Ross. He is the hottest attorney in New York, but he has a secret: he didn’t graduate law school. He didn’t even go to law school. Nor did he finish his undergraduate studies.
Although Ross has a heart for people, wins cases, and generates huge amounts of money for his firm, at a hidden level, his fraud undermines all of his achievements and puts a weapon into the hands of every enemy who might want to blackmail him.
The moral of this story (if Hollywood is capable of teaching a moral anymore), is that one speck of unethical behavior can dog the steps of even the most gifted, talented person. If this is true of a mere man, how much more of God, whose righteousness is watched and praised all day long by the angels, and scrutinized with envy by the devil. It is important to God not only to justify us but to do it in a just way.
Perhaps you wonder from time to time if your justification will hold up before God. How do you know it will? The most popular response is to invoke the love of God—that He loves you so much. Yet even if God didn’t love you in some science fiction scenario, He would still have to justify you based on the blood of Christ covering you. It is the right thing to do.
Modern ears may find the word “righteousness” as prudish and uptight—certainly not the most inspiring attribute of God. Yet the uncompromising righteousness of God is the most fundamental guarantee that God will wholeheartedly honor your justification both now and on the day of judgment.
Justification Comes the Same Way for Everyone
Paul does more in these last few verses than convince garden variety sinners to believe in Jesus; he’s embroiled in debate with Jews about it. The entire thought of justification by faith is bothersome to the religious mind that wants to know, “Then what becomes of our boasting?” (v. 27).
When it’s properly understood, justification by faith is truly good news, but it stirs the ire of folks who feel they’ve already paid their dues. The Jew (representing the religious crowed here), attended synagogue while the gentiles slept. They avoided pork, while their Roman neighbors used hog fat to flavor everything. They kept Sabbath and forwent financial profits that would have come from working on Saturday, while the gentiles cashed in on a seven day work week. And this is not to mention of course, basic moral living to which the gentiles were largely indifferent.
What about all that Jewish obedience? Shouldn’t it somehow count toward justification?
Yet Paul said, “It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. ”
Faith sets aside human works and accomplishments, telling us to give up on ourselves and trust in the work of Another.
“29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”
If God were to justify based on Jewish moral and ceremonial accomplishments, then that would shrink Him to the status of a national deity. He would be a Jewish God standing alongside a Jewish flag, ruling over Jewish cultural accessories, and a tiny sliver of land in the Middle East. But as it stands, God is the God of the whole world and He justifies everyone in the same way—by faith in His Son.
“31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
Again, the concern emerges that faith might dispose of God’s standards. Are we inadvertently giving permission to the ungodly to pursue their previous lifestyle with continuing abandon? Actually, as Paul points out, it is the opposite. We pay the highest respect to the law by believing in Christ for our justification.
Any person anywhere in the world who believes in Jesus is essentially acknowledging: 1. I have broken God’s law and deserve the penalty of His wrath. 2. I put my trust in the One whom the Law of Moses and the prophets recommend. 3. In Christ the penalty of broken Law is satisfied, making me acceptable to God, the author of the Law. And so, the justified person reflects the uttermost respect and desire for the righteousness of God, not casual indifference to it.
Yet it is a righteousness that comes only through faith, whether for Jew or gentile.
We dislike when a restaurant won’t honor its own coupons. Like when standing in line at Kentucky Fried Chicken, only to be told your coupon for a dollar off the value meal is good “Only at participating locations.”
God isn’t like that. He honors His gospel promise no matter where it is, or who tries to use it. This holds true, even when it involved going to the other side of the world from Jerusalem into a wilderness area that would one day be called America, where a bunch of Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, Irish, Russians, and Africans would resettle. In the midst of such cacophony, God has honored His gospel promise with delight, and justifies all who believe in His Son.
It’s time to stop trying and start thanking. We all pray for things like health scares and money and grades, and when those prayers are answered, we squeak out a little thanks to God.
This is big. It wouldn’t hurt to incorporate into your devotional time a few minutes to kneel and tell the Lord “I really don’t know how to thank you, because nobody ever died for me before. Nobody ever paid my way into glory. This is something new for me. Give me a few words to say to you. Just a few.”