Romans 3:21–28 comment (0)
December 5, 2013
By Thomas L. Fuller
Related Scripture: Romans 3:21–28
Bible Studies for Life
Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
The Gift You Can’t Give Yourself
In the opening portion of his letter to the Romans (1:18–3:20), Paul delivers the bad news: “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10), and “by works of the law, no one will be justified in God’s sight” (3:20). A hopeless and depressing bit of news to say the least. Then Paul begins 3:21 with the glorious words, “But now,” introducing the very good news of a solution, of salvation from God’s righteous condemnation and wrath.
The solution is not a loophole in the law or some obscure ruling of the heavenly court, which Paul discovers like a modern-day attorney seeking exoneration for a guilty client. It is different and better: It is a way of salvation “apart from the law,” and one that both satisfies and highlights God’s righteousness. Right standing before God cannot be obtained by good works, keeping the law or (as many say today) basically being a good person. All the law can do is make us aware of our sin (3:20b).
Our only hope is the righteousness of God — the same righteousness that condemns us but now is graciously our salvation.
Paul, however, is quick to point out that this is not a new idea or God’s Plan B. The Old Testament Scriptures — the Law and the Prophets — consistently herald the truth that righteousness comes by faith, as God’s gift, not by our works. Paul devotes chapter 4 to offering evidence for this claim by pointing to Abraham as Exhibit A.
So how then does this solution come to us apart from the law? Through faith in Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross, Jesus was “put forward as a propitiation,” an atoning sacrifice, for our sins. This is the language of Levitical priests offering animal sacrifices, whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat once a year to atone for the sins of God’s people (Lev. 16 and 17). What was then only symbolic became real in the death of Jesus. In His forbearance, God previously only passed over people’s sins, but those sins were not removed from God’s presence. In the death of Christ, the Lamb of God, all righteousness was fulfilled: Our sins are removed from the presence of God such that He remembers them no more (Jer. 31:34); they are placed on Jesus, who pays the penalty that we rightly deserve; and Jesus’ righteousness is placed on us, who now stand justified before God. Thereby God is just (His righteousness is satisfied) and the justifier (He declares sinners righteous in His sight). Thus we are redeemed, ransomed from bondage, as God’s merciful gift — a gift we can’t give ourselves but one that is free to all who will receive it by placing their trust in Jesus Christ.
It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But this is the heart of the gospel — justification in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. And so to God alone belongs all the credit (glory); there is no place for boasting on our part. We are justified by the law of faith, not by the law of works. Such faith in Jesus Christ and devotion to Him leads us in a new way as new people (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:19–20) whose works will bear witness to God’s love but will never earn us or keep us in God’s favor.
When Habakkuk wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4), he expressed a truth with dual meanings: that by faith we who are dead in our sins will be given life; and that by that same faith, we will live lives that bring glory to our righteous and merciful God.