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Righteousness Credited: Justification
(chapter 3, verse 21 through chapter 5, verse 21)
Sinners cannot provide the righteousness a holy God justly requires. Acquiring such righteousness is possible only by the grace of a loving God, who gives righteousness freely as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. This exchange whereby God takes away the guilt of our sins and credits us with the righteousness of Christ is called justification.
Righteousness by faith in Christ
Romans chapter 3, verse 21 and 22
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.
The problem Paul has described so fully (chapter 1, verse 18 through chapter 3, verse 20) is that there can be no righteousness from trying to observe the law. Nobody can earn any credit with God by imperfectly following a set of rules, whatever those rules may be. Sinners can do nothing that would please God and thus serve as a basis for God to reward them. Sinners don’t have the righteousness that avails before God.
But now, marvel of marvels, a righteousness has been made known. It’s exactly what sinners need but can’t produce on their own. It’s a righteousness (a) from God and (b) apart from law.
Let’s look at the second item first. It’s a righteousness “apart from law.” We’ve already commented on the significant difference in meaning that occurs when the word for “law” (nomos) appears with or without a definite article. Here it is without. The NIV translators have accurately reflected that. This righteousness comes “apart from law.” It has no connection to obeying any law. It follows then that there is nothing sinners can do to add anything to this righteousness.
But even more important, there is nothing a person has to do. God has done it all! A righteousness “from God” has been made known. It bears repeating that this is all God’s doing. Hence this righteousness can stand by itself; it has a separate existence without any input from humanity. That’s why it must be “made known” to us.*
*(For a parallel idea expressed with a different verb, see chapter 1, verse 17, where Paul speaks of this righteousness as being “revealed.”)
And how has this righteousness been made known? It is a truth to which “the Law and the Prophets testify.” Here nomos has the definite article and refers to a specific “law,” namely, that body of revealed information which was set forth in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Thus the Law, together with the Prophets, forms Paul’s term for the Old Testament.**
(**See Luke chapter 16, verse 29 for a similar designation. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham states that the rich man’s brothers should listen to “Moses and the Prophets,” that is, the Old Testament Scripture.)
The righteousness that comes from God is made known and testified to by the Scriptures.
So far, the apostle has established that there is a righteousness of precisely the type that sinners need, but how do they get it? Paul answers, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
It is a righteousness that God gives “through faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith, in the sense of trust and confidence in God’s promise, is the avenue, the channel, through which righteousness comes to the believer. Or, to use a slightly different picture, faith is the hand that receives this righteousness from God.
Righteousness comes in only one way, and it comes in the same way to all: by faith, by believing. When Paul says “to all who believe,” he is not limiting the scope of God’s righteousness, as though it is intended only for some and not for others. Paul here is addressing the how of God’s saving plan (by faith), not the for whom. This latter point, regarding the scope of God’s gracious plan, is addressed next.
Romans chapter 3, verses 23 and 24
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.
Paul stated earlier (chapter 2, verse 11) that God shows no favoritism in dealing with sinners. Those who are disobedient (which is everyone, Jew and Gentile alike) are under his wrath. But that same impartiality also shows itself when God deals with people in grace and mercy. In that aspect of God’s dealing “there is no difference” as well, Paul tells us.
How can he say that? On what does he base his statement? By inspiration the apostle supplies the rationale for his bold assertion: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.” All have sinned, and consequently all “fall short of the glory of God.” One explanation offered for the second half of that line is that by its fall into sin, the human race lost the glory God gave it at creation, which he fully intended for people to have. That is a plausible explanation that does no violence to the verb paired with it, namely, that all sinned.
But the Greek word here translated as “glory” has another meaning in some contexts. It can also be translated as “praise,” in the sense of approval. A clear example of this occurs in John 5:43,44, where Jesus takes his unbelieving compatriots to task with the rebuke, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise [or approval] from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise [approval] that comes from the only God?”* (Footnote: Other examples of this word having the meaning of approval can be found in John chapter 12, verses 42 and 43; and 1st Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 6.)
According to the latter interpretation, Paul would be saying, “All have sinned and lack God’s approval.” Lacking God’s approval is surely a serious indictment, and yet Paul can go on to say an absolutely amazing thing. He continues, “All have sinned . . . and are justified.” The grammar of the original Greek here makes it perfectly clear that the ones justified are the same “all” who sinned. That’s why Paul can say that with God “there is no difference.” All sinned; all are justified.** [Footnote: Other passages asserting the worldwide scope of God’s justifying love are Ezekiel chapter 33, verse 11; 1st Timothy chapter 2, verses 3 and 4; and especially John chapter 1, verse 29 and 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, verse 19. Taking away “the sin of the world” and “not counting men’s sins against them” are the equivalent of declaring all people to be righteous, or justifying all people. The counterpart to this teaching, namely, the need for repentance and faith on the part of the individual to receive God’s blessing, is also well documented, both in Paul’s letters (Romans chapter 3:28; Galatians chapter 2, verses 15 and 16; Ephesians chapter 2, verse 8) and in the rest of Scripture (Genesis chapter 15, verse 6; Habakkuk chapter 2, verse 4; Mark chapter 1, verse 15).]
How can that be? The answer: because God justifies (declares people just) “freely by his grace.” These two terms are virtually synonymous. Freely means “free of charge, without price or cost.” By his grace means “as a gift.” Because no person has any merit to bring, justification has to come as a gift. Being declared just is something that is done to or for the sinner. It’s not something he does for himself. Therefore, receiving justification as a gift is the only way justification works—and that’s also the way it always works.
When Paul says that all are justified, we need to be careful, however, not to misunderstand him, as though he were saying that all will be saved. That would be the false teaching of universalism. Natural man, wicked and perverse sinner that he is, retains the awesome power to resist God’s grace. In their stubborn unbelief, many people unfortunately refuse to accept Christ’s merit, and they will be lost forever for their unbelief. Our Savior’s sobering verdict, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark chapter 16, verse 16), is still true. In the case of those who are lost, unbelief has rejected the righteousness from God that truly was there for them.
Paul’s teaching of general justification, or objective justification as it is sometimes called, has far-reaching implications. It is really the heart of the gospel. Think of what it implies for you personally. If all sinners are justified, then surely you are too—despite all the sins and shortcomings that Satan argues should disqualify you. Because “there is no difference,” God assures you that his grace is for all, including you. Righteousness from God is there—to be accepted by faith.
General justification has great significance also for our outreach and evangelism efforts. If all have been justified, then there is no one to whom you cannot go with the gospel’s good news. You can tell anyone and everyone, “Your sins have all been forgiven by Christ’s substitutionary death. He has earned a robe of righteousness for you. It’s there for you. Accept it; believe it.” (See Acts chapter 16, verses 29 to 31).
Paul has stressed the absolute necessity of faith if sinners are to receive righteousness from God. But to be true faith, in the sense of trust and confidence, it has to have something to hang on to. It has to have a proper object of trust. Paul now addresses this point.
Romans chapter 3, verse 25
God presented him [Christ Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
God’s motive for justifying sinners is mercy; his method is redemption. The term redemption is intended to bring to mind for his readers the idea of a slave, or a prisoner of war, or perhaps even a kidnapped person—anyone who needs to be ransomed, to be “bought back.” The purchase price is greater than anything the captive can raise on his own. Somebody on the outside has to step in and help if there is to be a rescue. And that is exactly what God did! He provided “the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Chapter 3, verse 24).
God is a holy God who can’t just wink at sins and dismiss the sinner’s many infractions as if they didn’t matter. God, in his Word, is clear and direct on that matter: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans chapter 6, verse 23). The sinner’s life was forfeit. Sin had to be paid for with a life. Again Scripture is clear: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews chapter 9, verse 22). Sin carried a heavy price that had to be paid—and it was! God sent his very own Son to be the substitute to die in our place. Christ became true man so that he might shed his blood as a sacrifice and die the sinner’s death, or as Paul puts it, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement.”
The apostle’s terminology here reflects the activity God had directed Israel to observe annually on the great Day of Atonement. God commanded this festival as a graphic reminder of Israel’s need to confess its sins and then symbolically transfer those sins to a scapegoat that was driven out into the wilderness, bearing away the sins of the people (Leviticus chapter 16, verses 1-34, particularly verses 20-22).
God’s intent was to remind Israel of its need for a Savior and to strengthen in them a longing for the promised Messiah, the Redeemer, who would do for them literally what was being enacted symbolically.
In writing to the Romans, Paul is, of course, speaking from the New Testament perspective in which Christ already has come and offered himself as the sacrifice, thereby putting us at one with God. Hence Paul can say that all have been justified by God’s grace “through faith in his [Christ’s] blood.”
God’s justice demonstrated
God’s motive for justifying sinners is grace; his method is redemption. His objective, or goal, for doing so is now described by Paul. It’s a twofold objective on God’s part: to demonstrate that he is just, and to demonstrate that he is a God who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Romans chapter 3, verses 25 and 26
He did this [presenting Christ as a sacrifice of atonement] 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.
God is just. His integrity requires a negative reaction to sin and disobedience. However, in his great patience and “forbearance,” he moves slowly in dealing with sinners. Often he moves so slowly, in fact, that sinners may get the idea that sin isn’t so serious; that God doesn’t really care all that much; and that, in the final analysis, he may not do anything about it at all. Past experience with God’s seeming inactivity could be misunderstood. Sins “committed beforehand” could appear to be left unpunished, because there has not been any open and obvious day of judgment.
Paul, however, leads us to understand that such a casual view of sin is dead wrong. If you doubt this, Paul says, then look at what God did to Christ because of sin. He required the lifeblood of his Son to pay the price for human sin. Sin is serious! It needs to be repented.
Paul preached the same message in Athens to people whom he called to repentance because of their worship of idols and false gods. He warns them, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts chapter 17, verses 30 and 31; for a similar statement, see Acts chapter 14, verses 15 and 16).
The same warning also fits us, who are all too prone to underestimate the seriousness of our sin and guilt. We would do well to heed the reminder from Thomas Kelly’s Lenten hymn:
If you think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here you see its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed;
See who bears the awful load—
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.
(Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 127, stanza 3)
Look at what God did to Christ, the sinner’s substitute, and know that God is a just God who punishes sin.
Later in this epistle, Paul will write, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God” (chapter 11, verse 22). Both of those qualities are clearly evident here. God’s sternness toward sin is shown by the severe treatment meted out on the Son for the sins that were laid on his innocent shoulders. But the payment for sin that Christ’s death achieved satisfied God’s justice. That was proven by the Father raising his Son from the grave on Easter morning.
In Christ, justice has been served. Now, without compromising his integrity as a just and holy God, the Father can show kindness to redeemed sinners, whose guilt has been pardoned and whose debt has been paid. In Christ, God can see the sinner as just and holy.
In this way Christ’s sacrifice of atonement does double duty. It demonstrates that God is just, but it also demonstrates that God is the God “who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
The principle of faith established
Romans Chapter 3, verses 27 and 28
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
In Christ, God has demonstrated that he is a God who justifies those who have faith. Objectively, God has declared the whole world righteous (Romans chapter 5, verses 18 and 19; 2nd Corinthians chapter 5, verse 19). The benefit of this general justification, however, comes to the individual by faith, by believing and trusting in Christ, by accepting the merit Christ has earned. This personal, individual justification is often called subjective justification, to distinguish it from the former general justification.
Speaking of this justification of the individual believer, Paul now reasons as follows: If, by definition, faith is trust and confidence in what someone else has done, then it can’t be of any credit to the person who trusts and believes. There is no ground for boasting about benefits received.
That is Paul’s point here. If the sinner had kept God’s law and thereby had earned something, then he’d have grounds for boasting. But that’s not the case. Justification doesn’t come on the principle of obeying the law but on accepting righteousness from God by faith as a free gift. Paul repeats and emphasizes that principle when he says, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
This, incidentally, is the verse where Luther in his German Bible inserted the word alone. While that word is not in the Greek text, the context overwhelmingly supports the sense that justification is by faith alone, apart from law-works of any kind.*
(*Luther’s defense for the addition of alone can be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 35, pages 185-189 and 195-202. For scriptural support of the concept of faith alone, see Ephesians chapter 2, verses 8 and 9.)
Romans chapter 3, verses 29 and 30
Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Recall that earlier Paul had spent considerable time on the subject of the Jews having an advantage by virtue of their covenant relationship with God regulated by the Mosaic Law. The Jewish advantage had been ruled out when Paul declared that God shows no favoritism (chapter 2, verse 11). Here the apostle returns briefly to that subject. He agrees that if having and doing the law were the essence of a
right relationship with God, then the Jews would have an advantage. But a right relationship with God does not rest on obedience to the law, but on having faith. Since such a right relationship comes by faith, it’s there for all believers, Jew and Gentile alike. Hence God is the God of Gentiles as well as Jews, because he will “justify the circumcised [Jews] by faith and the uncircumcised [Gentiles] through that same faith.”
Romans chapter 3, verse 31
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Paul has left no doubt that the law is not the basis upon which sinners are reconciled to God. That’s accomplished by faith alone. But does this mean that by extolling faith Paul is thereby nullifying, or rejecting, the law as though it were bad or useless? Paul responds, “Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” In subsequent chapters, particularly 6 and 7, Paul will have much more to say about the proper function of the law. But for the moment he continues his emphasis on the priority of faith. He points us first to the case of Abraham.