Teaching series from Romans

God's Good News

Romans 3:21-31

Teaching t07936


Reiterate importance of chapters 1-8. This is the most extensive explanation of the "good news" in the whole New Testament. We are going to look at the beginning of the "good news" today, but we begin with Paul's summary of the "bad news."

Read 3:9. This is Paul's summary of 1:18-2:29. It's not just the "bad" people who are under God's judgment; it's also the "good" people. I may be deep inside a mine and you may be on the top of a mountain--but we are both millions of miles away from the nearest star. In the same way, I may have committed many more sins than you have--but we both fall far short of God's standard of moral perfection. And we both therefore deserve God's condemnation.

After quoting several Old Testament passages that make the same point (3:10-18) and making a comment on the purpose of God's Law (3:19,20) which we'll look at later, Paul finally breaks into the first part of God's "good news" in 3:21-26. Leon Morris, a New Testament scholar says this is "possibly the most important single paragraph ever written."1 Every verse, and every phrase in every verse, is packed with theological content. Let's read the whole thing first, and then I'll try to explain it to you as clearly as I can.

What is justification?

The key word in this good news is "justify." "Justification" is the key concept of this whole paragraph, so we must start by getting a clear understanding of what it means--and what it does not mean.

Dikaiow is a legal term, borrowed from the courtroom. It is the legally binding verdict of the judge, and it is the opposite of condemnation--acquittal.

So justification is not synonymous with forgiveness; it is more than forgiveness. "Forgiveness" is to be let off from the punishment you deserve. "Justification" is to be declared in right standing with God, fully satisfying his righteous demands. To be justified is to have God accept me "just-as-if-I'd" never sinned.

Suppose you were charged with sexual harassment at work and brought to trial. The judge's verdict is acquittal. If you were at work the next day, and someone said "I'd heard they dropped charges," you'd bristle! "No, I was acquitted!" Only in our case, God acquits us even though we are guilty!

Justification is not doled out piecemeal over a period of time through priests and ritual-observance (ROMAN CATHOLICISM). It is not subject to recall so that you have to get it over and over again (RADICAL ARMINIAN CHURCHES). It is something God bestows directly on you once-for-all as a permanent, package deal. This is why so many passages speak of justification in the past tense (see Rom. 5:1) and as something complete and permanent (see Rom. 8:1). Just as you may not be tried for the same crime again after being acquitted, God's justification means you will never be tried or condemned by him again for your sins--past, present, and future.

In this paragraph, Paul tells us three things about God's justification we all need to know: how it is offered, how it is accomplished, and how it is received.

Offered by God's grace alone

First, justification is offered by God's grace alone (" . . . justified as a gift by his grace . . . "). This has to do with why God justifies us. The reason has nothing to do with God's justice, because we've already seen that we can expect only condemnation from it. Justification is not a wage that God owes us--the only wage he owes us is death (Rom. 6:23); it is a gift that he offers freely. Justification is not reward that we deserve; it is charity for the undeserving.

This is tough to swallow for people like us, who have been raised on self-esteem and entitlement, but it's great news once you understand it. This means (for one thing) that justification is not based in any way on your moral improvement. Your moral life may well improve after being justified (later chapters explain why), but this is always a result of being justified--never a condition for getting or staying justified. The moment we let this slip back in at all, God's justice demands perfect righteousness from us.

Provided by Christ's death alone

Second, justification is provided by Christ's death alone. This has to do with how God justifies us in a way that is consistent with his own character. Since we are sinful, how can God declare us righteous without violating his own righteousness and justice? A righteous and just God must punish sin with death--so how can justification be anything other than a miscarriage of justice? The answer is that justification is free to us, but it cost God a terrible price--the death of his righteous Son. The clearest expression of this is 2 Cor. 5:21 (read). In this passage, Paul uses two images that communicated this idea to his audience.

God justifies us "through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." "Redemption" (apolutrwsis) means "deliverance by payment of ransom." It was one of the most popular terms in the ancient world, because it spelled freedom for slaves. If you were a slave, you had a price on your head. There was no "Emancipation Proclamation"--no legal decree that made you a free citizen. The only way you could be emancipated was for someone to pay your purchase price and then choose to relate to you as a free person. In very rare cases, slaves could save enough money by "moonlighting" to pay their own redemption price. But usually they were dependent on the hope of a loving benefactor who would buy them and then set them free.

This is a picture of what Jesus did for us. We are slaves to sin, hopelessly indebted to God because of our sins, owing the penalty of death, and unable to buy our way out. But Christ came to voluntarily pay the price of our sins by dying in our place. He made it clear that this was the purpose of his coming (read Mark 10:45). And his last cry from the cross announced that he had accomplished this (tetlestai may be translated "paid in full").

Christ's death was "a propitiation in his blood" (NASB) or "a sacrifice of atonement" (NIV). This word (hilastayrios) referred to the world of the temple, both Jewish and pagan. To "propitiate" means to appease the wrath of the deity through a sacrifice. It's not politically correct or therapeutically proper to talk about the wrath of God. This is viewed as primitive and dysfunctional. But the God of the Bible is justly at enmity with us because of our sin and rebellion. And his wrath can be turned away from us, not by our vows to do better or self-inflicted punishment or money to buy him off, but only through the death of the Sacrifice that he provides.

This is exactly how Jesus viewed his death. This is "the cup" that he feared to drink (Matt. 26:39)--an Old Testament symbol for the wrath of a holy God against sin (Isa. 51:17,20; Jer. 49:12). This is (in part) why Jesus cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He who had lived a perfect life and always experienced perfect fellowship with the Father was now identified with our sins, separated from his Father, and experiencing his infinite wrath. Because he was fully human, his sacrifice could represent us. Because he was fully God, his sacrifice could fully appease God's wrath.

Now we can understand 3:25b,26. How could God pass over the sins that people committed earlier without judging them? For the same reason he can pass over our sins today and declare us righteous--because he punished his Son Jesus for them on the cross. This is how God can be both "just and the justifier." Therefore, the cross is the ultimate revelation of God's justice and his love. It reveals that sin is so offensive to God that it cost him the death of his Son to pay for it. But it also reveals that God loves us so much that he would come in the Person of his Son to take his judgment in our place.

Received by our faith alone

So justification is offered by grace alone, and accomplished by Christ alone. We come now to the third key issue: How do we receive justification? Is it something that God applies to all of us irrespective of our choice (UNIVERSALISM), or is there a condition we must meet? Paul couldn't be clearer on this crucial issue. Read 3:22,25,26,28,30. Justification is received by our faith alone.

Faith has no power in itself; what matters is the power of its object. It is simply holding up empty hands to receive the gift that God offers through Christ. It is personally agreeing with God that you could never pay the debt you owe him, and then humbly asking Christ to pay your debt for you. It is personally agreeing that you could appease God's wrath only by your own death, and then humbly trusting Christ's death to appease God's wrath for you.

This is why we say that Christianity involves conversion. There is a point of time in your life, before which you are separated from God and under his judgment. And there is a point of time in your life, after which you are reconciled to God and secure in his acceptance. The point of time that separates these two states is your decision to trust Christ and receive his gift of justification. Have you made this decision? If you've never consciously trusted in Christ's death on the cross to provide you with the gift of God's acceptance, why not do so now? You can do this in the quiet of your heart, because it is a transaction between you and God.

Test your understanding of justification.

One way to test your comprehension and response to the good news is by seeing how you respond to the three questions Paul raises in 3:27-31.

"Where then is boasting?" Paul is referring to pride in your good or religious works, as though they deserve God's acceptance. The gospel excludes all such boasting, because it tells us that God accepts us not because of what we do for him, but because of what Christ has done for us.

How do you respond to this statement: "My best works will not qualify me for God's acceptance." There will be many, many different kinds of people in heaven--but there will be no one saying, "God and I did a good job." Everyone there will be in awe over how merciful God was in spite of our sinfulness--and those who have justifying faith recognize this now. If this offends you, you still don't understand (or haven't received) the gospel. Justifying faith cancels out all such boasting and replaces it with humble gratitude.

"Is God the God of the Jews only? Or is he not the God of the Gentiles also?" Paul is pressing his Jewish audience on God's willingness to accept "bad" people just as much as "good" people. He will justify both groups in exactly the same way (3:30).

How do you respond to this statement: "God invites the worst sinners to share heaven with me." How do you feel about the possibility of sharing heaven with someone like Jeffrey Dahmer? He evidently turned to Christ before he was killed in prison. If so, he will be there with you. If that offends you, doesn't that mean you think you're more deserving of heaven than he is? And if you think that, you don't understand how far short you fall and how much you need God's grace.

"Do we then nullify the Law through faith?" Paul is verbalizing his opponents' objection that grace removes all reason for God to give us the Ten Commandments.

How do you respond to this statement: "God never gave the Law for us to keep." This is Paul's answer in 3:19,20 (read). God never gave the Law to be a LADDER by which we climb to him and earn his acceptance. God gave us the Law to be an X-RAY to expose the extent of our sin and guilt, so we would see our need for his grace. If you are bothered by this statement, doesn't this mean you still think you can keep the Law well enough to earn God's acceptance?

NEXT: Justification in the Old Testament


1 Leon Morris, cited in John R. W. Stott's commentary on Romans, p. 109.