March 30, 2011

God's Righteousness and Our Justification

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to 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, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [26] It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

In many ways, Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is like a good essay or research paper, similar to what you may have had to write in high school or college. Each passage is built on the one before it and that one built on the one before it. So, in order to understand this passage, or any other for that matter, as the original author intended, you first have to see and understand what comes before it.
The letter from Paul to the Romans begins with an apostolic introduction, in which he gives an expression of the Gospel that grounds it in the Old Testament. He next moves on to a greeting to the church itself. In this he tells of his desire to visit the church, having heard of their faith, and wanting to come there so that he might have an opportunity to share and instruct in the Gospel and so that he might also be edified by the saints there.
After those portions, in 1:16-17, Paul moves into, what is considered by many, to be the statement of the main theme, or thesis, of the rest of the letter: namely, the gospel as the power of God for salvation. This Gospel, and the salvation that it provides, is available for everyone who believes, solely on the basis of faith.
Immediately after this expression, it seems like Paul does a complete one-hundred-eighty degree turn about and goes from talking about our salvation, to talking about our condemnation. In verse eighteen and following of the first chapter, it says:
[Read 1:18-19]
From this verse, we see that God’s wrath is ‘ being revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.’ Paul then spends the next two and a half chapters unpacking exactly what that means, coming to a conclusion in verses 3:9 and following:
[Read 3:9d-18]
That doesn’t paint a very pretty picture for humanity, does it? If God’s wrath is against all unrighteousness of men, and all men are unrighteous, then God’s wrath is against all of mankind. We need to stop and soak that in for a moment. Most people’s default setting is not to think of themselves in that way. For most people, this default setting is to think of themselves, and other people, as essentially good. However, that is not what the Bible teaches. The bible teaches that all men are sinners and under the wrath and judgment of a holy God. Each and every one of us here, apart from Christ, is under His wrath and judgment. Understanding that is essential for understanding our passage today.

I. Justification through Faith

In verse 21, it begins with the phrase “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… Before we go any further into this passage we have stop and consider the phrase the righteousness of God and its meaning.
If you are reading this passage in the KJV, NASB, or the ESV, the natural interpretation might be to see this as talking about God’s righteousness, that attribute (or element of His character) where He is, in and of Himself, holy, just, and good. While those translations are good and faithful to the original text, they could be misleading in this particular text. Here is why I think that. If you scan down to the next verse (twenty-two) you will notice that the main idea of this paragraph, the righteousness of God, is repeated. The difference is that this time, it is followed by the phrase “…through faith in Jesus Christ.” If this was talking about God’s attribute of righteousness, how is God made to be righteous through our faith? The very idea of that is utter nonsense.
So, what does this phrase, ‘the righteousness of God,’ mean? In the NIV, it offers us a different translation of that same phrase. It says ‘but now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.’ They do that, probably, for many reasons, including grammatical reasons in the original language and for theological reasons, like I just expressed. I think that in this case, this translation is to be preferred. However, we still haven’t answered the question of what this phrase means, though looking at it from this translation helps.
This righteousness that comes from God is a status, a status of being in a right standing before Him. The teaching in the Bible, of how we are able to be righteous before God, is called the doctrine of justification. Justification meaning the declaring to be just or righteous before God and, as it says in verse twenty-two, this status is given to us through faith in Jesus Christ.
Not only is this right standing given to us through faith, but it is given to us apart from the law. In other words, this right standing before God is not given to us through obedience to God’s law. The Law was never intended to be a means of becoming right before God. The Law was intended to show sin to be sin. It was intended to convict and condemn people. It was intended to drive people to God’s grace and mercy in faith and repentance. It was intended to show people their need for a savior.
However, people missed that. All throughout history, people have missed that. They missed it in the Old Testament; so people wandered off into idolatry and paganism because those gods were easier to satisfy. They missed it in Jesus’ day and that’s why they nailed the Lord of glory to a Roman cross. They missed it in the Middle-ages and that is why Martin Luther and the rest of the reformers were labeled as heretics and schismatics by the church of the day for teaching that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ’s perfect righteousness alone. And we miss it today, especially here in America where we do EVERYTHING our own way. I’m not just talking about other people either. I’m talking about each and every one of you. I’m talking about myself. Our natural mind-set is to try and earn God’s favor, but it doesn’t work like that. We are all unrighteous, as we are told in Romans 3:11, and under the wrath of God (Romans 1:18), and that we cannot be made to be right merely by observing the Law (Romans 3:20).

II. Was This a New Doctrine?

Next, in verse 21, it says, although this right standing before God was given through faith and apart from observation and works of the Law, ‘the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…’ The Law and the Prophets, what in the world does that mean? The Jews saw their Bible (which, for the most part, is our Old Testament) as being divided into only two parts: the Law (the first five books) and then everything else, the prophets. So, what Paul is saying is that this isn’t some new fangled teaching that he has come up with; it has been around all along and has just been missed. He goes on to cite the greatest example of this in chapter four of this same book.
[Read Romans 4:1-12]
For a Jew, one of the most important things that set them off as different, as being in a special relationship with God, was their circumcision, however, they saw this as a work, an obligation of the Law and if they did it, they would be in a right relationship before God. But Paul throws their world upside down in this passage by asking “when was Abraham counted as being righteous? Was it before or after his circumcision?” As was seen in that passage, quoting from Genesis 15:6, which says that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” In Genesis, this was before any of the righteous deeds that Abraham did. In fact, this was just after he had tried to pass off Sarah as merely his sister for the second time, but God came and comforted him and told him that he would have many offspring and Abraham believed God and was justified.

III. Who Can Be Justified

Paul moves on to answer the question: who can be justified? Is it only Jews? Is it only the Gentiles? Paul answers in verse 22, that this justification is through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. Amongst the Jews, they taught that in order to enter into the covenant with God, you first had to become a Jew. This meant that the individual had to get circumcised, go through certain ritual cleansings, and they had to forsake their birth family and heritage. Also amongst the Jewish Christians, there were certain groups that taught essentially the same thing: that, in order to become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew and live under the Law. That, what I just mentioned, was the problem in the church of Galatia, to which Paul wrote the book of the Bible that we know as Galatians.
We, today, may not have those same requirements that we place on people, but we may have a similar mind-set at times. Look at the type of people that you share the Gospel with. Who do these people look like? My bet would be that, in one way or another, these people look like you. People by nature are scared of the unknown, scared of people and things that are different.
However, what is Paul telling us here in this passage? He says that “there is no distinction.” At our very root we are all the same. We are all image bearers of God and we all have the same basic problem. “We have all sinned.” We have gone against the will of God at one time or another, whether in thought or by deed, whether actively disobeying God or just falling short of the standard he has set. It doesn’t matter, we have all sinned. It doesn’t matter whether you are the pastor of a church or the man who spends all his time in the bar. You have the same problem: on your own, you are not in right standing before God and need to be so.

IV. How Are We Justified?

1. By Grace

So, how is this accomplished? How are we, unrighteous sinners that we are, made righteous before a holy God? First, it is solely by ‘the grace of [God] as a gift.’ Our salvation is the result of God’s undeserved favor. As this text has already said, we have all sinned. As sinners, what we deserve is God’s wrath. Even though that is the case, God, in His infinite love has chosen to show us favor by offering us salvation.

2. Through Redemption

This justification was also accomplished by “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The word redemption, in the original language, was one that has its roots in the slave market of the day. In Paul’s day, they didn’t have banks like we have today; so, if someone wanted to start a business and didn’t have the money, they would have to go to and borrow from someone who did. Now, say the economy tanks, as ours has in the last couple of years, that person loses their business, and the can’t pay back the money they owe. That person, and their immediate family, would become the slave of the one from whom he had borrowed the money. That may sound strange to our ears, in the twenty-first century, but in the first century, that was just how they did business.
In order for the debtor to escape this slavery, there was one of two things that had to happen. First, if the creditor was generous, they would only make them work until they had effectively paid off their debt with their labor. The only problem with that is, that the slave-owner would have to continue to pay for the food and lodging of, sometimes, entire families, and thus, the poor sap who had sold himself and his entire family into slavery to pay for a business venture, would just continue to go deeper and deeper into debt.
The second possibility for escaping slavery was, if a wealthy relative, having heard about the plight of his kinsmen, went and purchased, or redeemed, the man and his family. The thought would be then; that this kinsman would own his relative, but out of honor would allow the man his freedom.
When I first wrote this sermon, and my wife was going over it to check my spelling and structure and what not, she made a note in the margin of my draft, which at this point asked “ kind of like Ruth, Naomi, & Boaz?” She was absolutely right. The book of Ruth is a beautiful picture of this very concept in the Old Testament. In that book, Naomi, and her daughter-in-Law, the Moabite Ruth, had both lost their husbands. In those times women could not work or own property, so these two women had no way of providing for themselves. However, there is a sort of ancient welfare system built into the Old Testament. Everyone who raised crops was supposed to leave a portion of their field un-harvested. This was so that if there was someone who could not provide for themselves any other way, could go out into these fields and harvest these portions and sell or eat them. Ruth took advantage of this for her mother-in-law and herself, but she happened to do so in one of the fields of a relative of her dead husband. This kinsman, Boaz, saw the predicament of this young woman, and acted the part of the kinsman or, as the Hebrews would call him, the Go’a l, and redeemed the young woman out of her situation by marrying Ruth and providing for Naomi.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “ why does this matter? or why should I care? I am not a slave.” Well, in point of fact, you are a slave. We have all been slaves at one point or another in our lives. As Paul asserts earlier in this letter, and as I have already talked about, all people are sinners. All people have sinned. In John 8:34, it says that “everyone that commits sin, is a slave to sin” and if all have sinned, then all are slaves to sin. So, Christ has come to act as our Go’al, to redeem us, to buy us out of slavery. Since this slavery was to sin, and the wage or penalty of sin (as it says in Romans 6:23) is death, the debt that was paid was death. Christ died to buy us out of slavery.

3. Through a Propitiation

The third way that our justification is accomplished is through “God put[ting] forward [Christ] as a propitiation,” as it says here in verse twenty-five. Once again, Paul uses a big theological word here and unfortunately, it is not one that we can dodge. We just have to deal with it.
Now, if you are reading out of the New International Version (NIV), you are not going to see the word propitiation here. Instead, it reads ‘sacrifice of atonement.’ While the NIV is a good translation and is beneficial in a great many things, I think it misses the mark here. What Paul has in mind here, isn’t just a sacrifice or even just a sacrifice of atonement. Paul has in mind a very specific way in which this atonement, this reconciliation is affected.
The term propitiation, once again in the original Greek of the New Testament, is drawn from pagan temple rituals. First century pagans believed that their gods were fickle or capricious. In other words, their moods could change at the drop of a hat. Since they believed that the production of crops, the bearing of children, and pretty much every other aspect of their lives depended on the gods looking with favor upon them, they would perform certain ritualistic sacrifices to turn away the gods’ wrath and make them propitious, or favorable towards them. The New Testament writers took the core concept of that word, removed the pagan concepts that were attached to it, and used it to describe a part of Christ’s work on the Cross.
Unlike the Pagans of the first century, our God, is not capricious. He is not undeservedly angry or wrathful towards humanity. God has every right to be angry. His anger burns against all those who are unrighteous in His sight, which includes all of humanity. This would leave us all in a rather hopeless state, except now, God has put forward Christ as a means of appeasing His wrath so that He might be able to look with favor upon us.
At this point, we need to be careful. Some people would see this as pitting a loving Jesus against a wrathful God. This however, is not the case. The God who, in this book is depicted as being wrathful towards and hating sin, is the same God as in John 3:16, that loved the world, the corrupt, filthy stinking world, so much that He gave his only son so that all who believed in Him would have eternal life. That is why it says that God, that is God the Father, was the one that put Christ forward as a propitiation.
In the text it says that this propitiation, was “ through [Christ’s] blood.” This doesn’t mean that all Christ had to do was to prick His finger and spill just a drop of blood. In Leviticus 17:14, it tells us that “the life of every creature is its blood; its blood is its life.” So, when the Bible talks of us being forgiven and reconciled by the blood of Christ, what is meant is that Christ’s life was given, or rather, his death was the means by which these things are accomplished. In the same way Christ appeasing the wrath of God could only be accomplished by the giving of His life.
This propitiation was necessary, as it says at the end of verse twenty-five, “to show God’s righteousness.” In this instance, and the next, it is talking about the attribute of God or the element of His character where He is holy, just, and good. This propitiation, then was necessary “to show God’s righteousness because He had passed over former sins.” He had left former sins unpunished. Believe it or not, the fact that God has left any sins unpunished is a major problem. In order for God to be truly just, He has to punish sin. If He doesn’t punish sin, then he is not just. If He is not just, He is not perfect in all things, and if He is not perfect in all things, He is not God. So, if God is to be true to His own nature, He has to punish sin. However, in His divine forbearance, that is His patience, He passed over former sins. He passed over the sins of the faithful amongst His covenant people, the Jews, but also amongst His covenant people from all nations and times, all those who would come to Christ in faith.
Christ’s propitiation shows the righteousness of God, because, in His death on the cross, the penalty for sin was paid and God’s justice was fulfilled. This allowed God to maintain His justice, yet still declare sinners to be righteous in His sight.


This passage is really dense with information. Though I have tried my best to unpack this in such a way that it would be understandable, I know that there are those that, for whatever reason, may not have gotten it all. So, if you walk out of here this morning with nothing else, I want you to know that on the cross, the God and savior of this universe has done a great and mighty work. He is seeking to restore fellowship with a remnant out of all humanity. For all those that come to Christ in faith God, will declare to be upright in His sight. God has already bought you out of slavery from your sin. He has already sent His one and only Son to bear the penalty of your sin and His wrath and judgment on the Cross. So, have you put your trust Christ?

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