A Survey of Romans, Part 4

A survey of Romans 3:21—4:25

Of this section of Romans Martin Luther claimed—

It is the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.

Perhaps Luther was exaggerating to prove his point, but there is no denying the extraordinary importance of these chapters; no other portion of Scripture has so many vital theological ideas expressed in so few verses. Gathered together in less than two chapters, Paul expresses the profound ideas of redemption, free grace, propitiation, forgiveness, and God’s justice. These verses are special because in them Paul explains in language everybody can understand why Christ’s coming meant good news for sinful man.

The thing that makes these verses so powerful is their arrangement; Paul places his exposition of God’s wondrous grace immediately following his discussion of man’s utter hopelessness, being lost in his sin and shame. The apostle’s discussion of this good news for man can be broken down in two parts:

  • The gospel as it relates to our “sins”
  • The gospel as it relates to our “sin,” that is, our sin nature

We will consider the first part—the gospel as it relates to our “sins,”—as it is covered in chapters 3:21—4:25.

1. “But now” 3:21a

The great British preacher and expositor, Martin Lloyd-Jones remarked that:

There are no more wonderful words in the whole of Scripture than just these two words, “But now.”

Beginning with verse 21, Paul changes his subject. Since by “now” he has completely illustrated man’s pitiful condition, he will “now” show what God can do about it. “Now,” since man’s unrighteousness has been fully revealed, Paul will now reveal a—

righteousness from God, apart from law… (3:21)

Paul makes it clear that what he is about to write about is nothing new, but it is a teaching as old as the prophets themselves. For example, the OT prophet Isaiah wrote—

I am bringing my righteousness near,
it is not far away;
and my salvation will not be delayed.
I will grant salvation to Zion,
my splendor to Israel. (Isaiah 46:13)

God’s righteousness is not God’s goodness, but rather the phrase refers to God’s way of bringing sinful man into a right relationship with Himself, which is accomplished “apart from the law.” In other words, this manifestation of God’s righteousness is apart from the deeds of the law, that is, the law as a series of commandments cannot effect our justification. But at the same time, this law that could not alter man’s condition or position before God, Paul declares bears witness to the manifestation of God’s righteousness. This is a righteousness from God for unrighteousness man that is not dependent upon our merit or attainment.

Why does God do this for man? Is it because He loves them? Partly, but there is more; for this is a righteousness that God is providing to man freely; it is a righteousness that puts man in perfect standing with God even though he is himself guilty. It is God’s way of providing that which He demands from man, but that man is utterly incapable of producing.

2. An eternal idea, 3:21b

This method of bringing sinful man into a right relationship with Himself was not an idea that God concocted when He saw how bad off man had become. It was, Paul indicates, in His mind from all eternity. This plan was “witnessed” to (martyroumene) by the ancient writings from Jewish history. For example, the coats of skin God provided Adam and Eve to cover their bodies; the atoning sacrifices offered on behalf of the offerers; even the foreshadowing symbolism of the Tabernacle all foretold the story of a righteousness given to man from God, who by faith accepts it.

3. “By faith” for all freely, 3:22—23

This righteousness from God is acquired by needy man “by faith,” it can never be acquired by needy man working for it. Faith is simply taking God at His word, and so God sent that message to man. Paul, however, makes it clear that this faith cannot be a “general faith” that merely acknowledges that there is a God. Note the phrase Paul uses:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ. (verse 22)

Nygren makes a very astute observation when he wrote that works belong to the law, but faith belongs with Christ. This is a very common idea of Paul’s, which he articulated in 1 Corinthians 1:30—

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Also of note is 2 Corinthians 5:21 states—

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

When we look at Christ with believing faith, which is really saving faith, He takes our sin from us and gives us His righteousness. But that righteousness is not limited to some, it is available to “all who believe” because “all have sinned.” This is not the doctrine of universal salvation, which says “everybody is going to be saved,” rather, it is a doctrine that says every single sinner will be given an opportunity to say “yes” or “no” to God’s offer of free grace.

The phrase all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God deserves a moment of our attention. Because all have sinned, they fall short of God’s glory. What does that statement mean? The key lays in understanding the verb “fall short,” which is hysterountai, which means “to lack something.” So, because of all have sinned, all lack the glory of God. In other words, and this is truly a stunning—

Man’s normal state is one of conformity to the divine image. When man sinned, he fell away from his true nature in the image of God. (William Greathouse)

Because every single human being has this lack, every single human being is offered a chance by God to be set right.

4. Justification, 3:24

With verse 24, Paul makes is key proposition: We are justified by means of God’s grace and on the basis of His redemptive work in Christ (Douglas J. Moo). To be “justified” is simply to be declared righteous; justification is not a condition of the soul. We are not justified because we have suddenly become righteous in our hearts and in our lives. God by His grace declares us to be righteous, and then He enables us to walk in practical righteousness.

The wondrous thing about God’s justification is that it is practiced freely. The word rendered “freely” means literally “without cause” and is also used of Jesus in a negative way in John 15:25—

But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.

Sinful man hated Jesus, in whom there was no sin and no cause to be hated. They hated Him “freely,” without cause. But God does the opposite with sinners; He justifies them without cause. for there is nothing in a sinner deserving of justification.

All this is accomplished by means of grace. Grace is not only “God’s unmerited favor” it is “favor against merit,” it is the goodness of God being lavished on people who don’t deserve it.

5. The cost of free grace, 3:25—26

By allusions to Old Testament passages, Paul illustrates the price paid by Christ in the expression of God’s grace seen in the justification of sinners. The price was beyond comprehension, and amounted to nothing less than the shedding of Christ’s very own blood, in other words, the offering up of Himself in the sinner’s stead. The implication of this cannot be overstated. Because of our iniquitous ways, our lives are forfeited; we are sold under judgment. But Jesus Christ too the our place and paid our penalty, redeeming us from the wrath of God and punishment of sin, top which He had willingly sold Himself.

All of this, Paul is careful to state, was in complete harmony with God’s magnificent plan established in eternity past. Hendriksen comments—

What Jesus offered was a voluntary wrath-removing sacrifice, made effective in the lives of God’s children by means of their God-given faith.

In order for us to grasp the enormity of what God did in Christ, we need to objectively observe God and ourselves. Without Christ, we are slaves to sin, unable to free ourselves from its grip. God is completely holy and just and therefore cannot tolerate sin. Because of His holiness, God cannot be, as it were, in the same room with sin in any form. Because He is just, God must punish sin, that is, He must punish man. Some erroneously think that since God can do anything, He can just give man a pass—He can turn a blind eye to man’s shortcomings because, after all, God is also love. But God cannot act in any way that is contrary to His nature, any more than we could, if we wanted to, fly just because it looks like fun. God’s dilemma was this: on the one hand He desired to reach out to His creation in love, mired in sin as we are, but His holiness and justice prevented Him from doing that. Our sins could not go unpunished. James Denny wrote—

The problem of the sinful world, the problem of all religion, the problem of God in dealing with a sinful race, is how to unite [the righteousness of God and the ungodly].

The answer was supplied by God Himself—

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice…

In point of fact, Christ’s atoning sacrifice demonstrated both God’s justice and His love.

6. Two examples, 4

With chapter 4, Paul gives two examples of how this doctrine of justification is seen throughout the Old Testament: Abraham and David.

  • Abraham. In Genesis 15:6 we read:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He was not justified by his good works or anything he had done; Abraham had done nothing to deserve God’s approval. This was the exact principle Paul was explaining to his friends.

Why could Abraham, or any other man, not earn salvation by good works? If that were possible, God would then be in man’s debt. God would, in effect, owe it to the good worker to save him. This is the very opposite of grace.

  • David. The Psalmist himself wrote Psalm 32, which Luther once referred to as “the Pauline psalm,” for it teaches what Paul is teaching in Romans—

Blessed is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the man
whose sin the LORD does not count against him
and in whose spirit is no deceit.

The Hebrew word translated “forgiven” means “atoned for.” In two short sentences in the Psalms is a majestic summary of the Gospel. Atonement was made for the sins of man. Instead of sins being imputed to man, He imputes righteousness instead.

A truly blessed man, according to David, is not a man who wins a lottery or finds a good mate or lands a good job; a blessed man is one who one to whom righteousness is imputed without works. He whose sins are pardoned, to whom the Lord does not impute sin—this is the man whom David calls “blessed.”

Justification, then, is an act of absolute grace on the part of God. No wonder John Wesley, when thinking on this, wrote these words—

For the sinner, being first convinced of his sin and danger by the Spirit of God, stands trembling before the awful tribunal of divine justice; and has nothing to plead, but his own guilt, and the merits of the mediator. Christ here interposes; justice is satisfied; the sin is remitted, and pardon is applied to the soul, by a divine faith wrought by the Holy Ghost, who then begins the great work of inward sanctification. Thus God justifies the ungodly, and remains just, and true to all His attributes…

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