But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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. 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. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one— who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:21-31)
Romans 3:21 marks an important transition in Paul’s letter. In Romans 1:18–3:20 he had graphically painted the picture of fallen mankind. There he tells us that apart from God’s saving grace, we are all willful and impenitent sinners under the wrath of a righteous God.
Because fallen mankind has suppressed and knowingly rejected the truth that God clearly showed us, we all are without excuse and are worthy of death (Rom. 1:18-32). God is going to judge each of us with complete impartiality on the basis of two criteria:
- The truth that each person knew, and
- The works that each person did during his or her lifetime (Rom. 2:1-16).
Further, neither the possession of God’s truth (religious orthodoxy) nor the practice of religious ordinances (i.e., circumcision or baptism) will suffice to appease an offended and angry God (Rom. 2:17–29). Paul concluded with a warning to the Jews that national lineage will not protect anyone from God’s righteous wrath (Rom. 3:1–20). What a horrible predicament!
Paul has us standing in the law court of Almighty God, the righteous Judge of the entire universe, and lets us know without equivocation that each of us is guilty of willful sin and deserves to be condemned to eternal damnation. This section of Romans ends with us standing without a ray of light, without a flicker of hope, and without a prospect of rescue.
Beginning with Roman 3:21, we pass from the storm to the sunshine. Now that we understand our guilt, Paul urges us to look to God’s forgiving grace. With the words, “But now” (3:21), we watch the gates of deliverance swing open wide. “But now,” Paul joyfully declares, God himself has intervened! God has graciously provided the means for our deliverance.
God’s Gracious Deliverance For Mankind’s Guilt and Condemnation (3:21–25)
In Romans 3:21–25 Paul declares the characteristics of our deliverance, the communication of our deliverance, and the staggering cost of our deliverance.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE DELIVERANCE (3:21–23)
God’s gracious deliverance has two important characteristics. First, God has provided a righteousness for fallen mankind that is thoroughly Scriptural. Second, it is available to everyone through faith.
God’s deliverance is thoroughly scriptural (3:21)—“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” The phrase, “the righteousness of God without the law,” means that God’s righteousness does not come by “law-keeping.” Although Israel failed to understand this important truth (see Rom. 9:31, 32), God had revealed through the justification of Abraham that righteousness comes only through faith.
Abraham “believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In addition to Genesis 15:6, other Old Testament passages linked justification to God’s righteousness (see Hab. 2:4; Isa. 53:11). This is why Paul says this truth is witnessed by “the law and the prophets”— the entire Old Testament (see Mat. 5:17; 7:12; 22:40). The phrase “righteousness of God” (dikaiosune theo) has been interpreted in three different ways.
Some say it refers to God’s personal righteousness. “It is argued that when God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, he did it “to declare his righteousness” (3:25, dikaiosune, repeated in 3:26) and in order that he might be both himself “just”(righteous) and the “one who justifies (declares righteous) those who have saving faith in Jesus (3:26b). Throughout Romans, Paul is careful to defend the righteous character and behavior of God. Paul shows convincingly that whatever God does—in salvation (3:25) or in judgment (2:5)—is absolutely consistent with His righteousness.”1
Others say it refers to God’s divine activity—his saving intervention on behalf of his people. God’s “salvation” and His “righteousness” are frequently coupled in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. “For example, ‘the LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations’ (Ps. 98:2; cf. 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15; 143:11). Again, God declares: “I am bringing my righteousness near…and my salvation will not be delayed” (Isa. 46:13; cf. 45:8; 51:5; 56:1; 63:1). God’s righteousness denotes His loyalty to his covenant promises, in the light of which he may be implored to come to the salvation of His people.”2
God’s righteousness denotes His loyalty to his covenant promises, in the light of which he may be implored to come to the salvation of His people
“Still others say it refers to a righteous status which God requires if we are ever to stand before him, which he achieves through the atoning sacrifice of the cross, which he reveals in the gospel, and which is bestowed freely on all who trust in Jesus Christ.”3
In the context of Romans 3:21 it may not be necessary to choose one view to the exclusion of the other two. Stott suggests that all three views of the phrase, “righteousness of God” be combined so it is understood to mean “at one and the same time a quality, an activity, and a gift.” He thinks it legitimate to affirm that ‘the righteousness of God’ is both God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself as well as a bestowing on them a righteous status which is not their own but is provided for them through the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ and appropriated by faith.4
God’s deliverance is available to all by faith (3:22–23)—“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The righteousness which God bestows comes through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a faith that looks only to Him for salvation from sin. It is a faith that believes what God says, commits to do what God commands, and trusts in and rests on what God promises (Heb. 11:6).
And it is a faith that is available to every fallen human. But let it be clear, faith is the condition of justification, not the cause of justification. Just as all of mankind is united in condemnation, so also all of mankind is united in privilege. There is no distinction. Salvation is open to all through faith in Jesus Christ.
THE COMMUNICATION OF THE DELIVERANCE (24a)
Being justified freely by his grace.
The phrase, “being justified” is in the passive voice. This means that we are not the cause of our own justification, nor do we merit or earn it. God is the one who justifies us. The basic idea of “justify” is to declare righteous (see Prov. 17:15; Luke 7:29).
Justification is the decision and declaration by the Judge that the demands of the Law are fully satisfied. Why would God wish to justify us? The adverb “freely” in the phrase, “being justified freely,” answers the questions. The adverb “freely” means “without cause, without merit.” It is used in Psalm 69:4 in the phrase, “They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head.” It is used in Matthew 10:8 when Jesus told his disciples, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”
Why would God wish to justify us? There was no reason other than His great love. There was nothing in us or about us as rebellious, self-centered, fallen sinners that merited justification, any more than there was something about Jesus Christ, the compassionate, sinless Son of God, that merited people hating him.
They hated him without a cause. The phrase, “by His grace” emphasizes that justification is a free gift from God. Grace is the out-reaching of God’s infinite love and mercy to undeserving people (Eph. 2:4-5). There was nothing lovely or lovable about us in our sin. There was nothing that we could do to save ourselves. God chose to intervene on our behalf.
Grace is the out-reaching of God’s infinite love and mercy to undeserving people
He so loved us that He send His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God comes to fallen mankind’s rescue. But what a price He had to pay!
THE COST OF THE DELIVERANCE (24b–25)
Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.
The cost of our deliverance is revealed by the words “redemption” and “propitiation.” Redemption is a word associated with the world of slavery. To redeem is to purchase the release by payment of a ransom price. When Jesus died in our place for our sins, he took them upon himself and God placed on Him our punishment (2 Cor. 5:21).
He paid the penalty the Law demanded. And through His substitutionary death He provided the means whereby God could righteously declare our sins forgiven. Jesus provided for our redemption thereby setting us free from the slavery of sin (Rom. 6:1–7).
Propitiation is a word that is associated with sacrifice. To propitiate is to appease the righteous wrath of an offended holy God. What is offered to God to propitiate Him? The blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:17; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). The emphasis on the “blood” signifies the life poured out unto death.
God’s justice, righteousness and holiness were completely satisfied in Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. Because of what Christ did, God can righteously justify the sinner.
In other words, He can grant full pardon for sins committed and complete release from the guilt and penalty of those sins, and declare as righteous any penitent sinner who by faith receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The phrase, “to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God,” indicates that God left the sins of the Old Testament saints unpunished because of his forbearance.
He waited until Jesus was crucified on Calvary as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. God spared not His own son. He fully poured out His righteous wrath on Jesus Christ who gave Himself a ransom for many. It is only in Jesus that “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
God’s Declaration About Mankind’s Deliverance (3:26–31)
Paul concludes his description of what it cost God to save us by declaring that God’s method of deliverance establishes the justice of God and eliminates the possibility of human pride. It establishes God’s justice showing that although he did postpone exacting the full penalty for sins that the Law demanded in the Old Covenant, he exacted the full penalty for the sins of the whole world in the propitiation made in Jesus’ blood.
The sacrificial death of His own Son, the sinless Lamb of God, demonstrates God’s righteous standards. The penalty of sin was paid just as God’s justice demanded, but at the same time Jesus’ death on behalf of sinners allows God to declare a sinner righteous immediately upon faith in Jesus Christ.
God’s method of delivering mankind eliminates all human pride and boasting. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:27–28). There is not a solitary thing left for the sinner to take pride in, so far as his own innate worth or acquired merit is concerned. God has done it all. The repentant believing sinner simply receives an unearned gift.
Further, God’s method of deliverance eliminates all human racial and religious prejudice. “Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith” (Rom. 3:29–30).
Last, but not least, since God’s justification is apart from the Law (3:21), “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). Although we are not saved by keeping the law, the law still reveals important truth about God, serves as a flood-light revealing the sinfulness of sin, and provides guidelines for living a holy life.
Forgiveness and Love by Grace
Why would God forgive a person like you or me? What would move him to sacrifice His only begotten Son on our behalf? The answer: God’s forgiving grace.
There was nothing about us to commend us to God. There was nothing lovely about our sinful condition. He loves us because He chooses to love us and He provided redemption for us because of His great love. Love is an expression of His great grace.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- John Stott, Romans, InterVarsity Press, 1994, 62.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 64.