Ever since verse 18 of chapter 1, the Apostle Paul has been writing about God’s wrath and our sinfulness. And he’s been driving home the point that all of us are sinners who deserve God’s wrath. First of all, in verses 18 to 32 of chapter 1, he considered the case of people in general. Everyone knows there’s a God, because the world around us speaks to us of him. But people have suppressed their knowledge of God and they have not given thanks to him. And instead, they have fallen deeper and deeper into sin. Well, because of their wickedness, because of their godlessness, they are guilty before God and are liable to his wrath and curse.
But in chapter 2, Paul began to consider the case of the Jew. And the Jew has all kinds of benefits, doesn’t he? He has the law of God to guide him. And he has circumcision which marks him out as a member of God’s special people. Nevertheless, none of it really matters, and having the law doesn’t matter, because the person who has the law, and who sins against it is no better off than the person who sins apart from the law. Both are sinners and both are liable to God’s wrath and curse. Having the law doesn’t matter; doing the law is what matters. So, Mr Jew: have you kept God’s law? No. Then you’re guilty before God. And Paul concluded his argument in verses 9 to 25 of chapter 3 which we looked at the last time. ‘Are we Jews any better off?’ he asked. And what’s his answer? It’s there in verse 9:
We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one.’
And jump down to verse 20:
Therefore, no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Are you trying to win God’s favour, and are you trying to gain God’s acceptance by keeping the law? Are you trying to impress him by the things you do? Do you hope to climb up to heaven by your good deeds? Well, you’re sadly mistaken, because no-one, no-one will be declared righteous by observing the law. On the contrary, rather than assure us of God’s favour, the law only reminds us of our faults. It exposes our sins and it teaches us that we’re sinners and are under God’s wrath and curse.
So, is there no hope for us? Is there no good news? Well, there is. Paul has been laying us low, knocking us down, uncovering our sinfulness and hopelessness in order that we might see and appreciate the glory of the good news of Jesus Christ. And he turns to the good news in verse 21 of chapter 3, a verse which begins ‘But now….’ All alike are under sin. But now. There is no-one righteous, not even one. But now. No-one will be declared righteous in the sight of God by observing the law. But now. But now, here’s the good news. But now, God has done all that is necessary to deliver us from his wrath and curse. But now, there is hope for guilty sinners. Whoever has been laid low by what Paul has said, and whoever has been laid low by the law, which exposes our sinfulness and makes clear our guilt, whoever has been laid low is raised up and comforted by those two words: But now.
But now what? Well, verses 21 to 26 are packed with good news and almost every word and phrase delivers comfort and re-assurance to guilty sinners. So, let’s get started on it now.
Firstly, in verse 21, there’s the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’. We’ve come across that phrase already, back in verses 16 and 17 of chapter 1 where Paul wrote:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.
When we were studying those verses, I mentioned Martin Luther, the German Reformer who used to hate the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’. He once understood the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ to refer to God’s justice. And justice means God has to punish the guilty and clear the innocent. So, if someone has done well, then it’s only just, it’s only right, for God to clear that person. But if someone has sinned, then it’s only just, it’s only right for God to punish him. That’s the right thing, the righteous thing, for God to do: God must punish the guilty. And because Luther was aware of his sins and because he was conscious of all the ways he had disobeyed God’s law, then he dreaded and hated the righteousness of God, because the righteousness of God meant there was no hope for him. God must condemn him as a lawbreaker.
But eventually Luther came to realise that the righteousness of God doesn’t refer to God’s justice. It refers instead to the righteousness or the righteous status which comes from God and which he shares with sinners. Instead of declaring us guilty and condemned, which is what we deserve, God now declares us righteous in his sight. He regards us as having done everything right, even though we have done everything wrong. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he declares us right in his sight.
So, there’s no-one righteous, not even one. We’re all liable to God’s wrath and curse. But now, but now, a righteousness from God has been made known so that God now declares us righteous in his sight so that we’re no longer under his wrath and curse, but can instead look forward to eternal life in his presence.
And look at what Paul adds. He wrote that this righteousness of God which has been made known is ‘apart from the law’. In other words, it’s got nothing to do with the law and with keeping the law. Already he’s said that no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law. Now he’s saying that there is a way to become right with God, but it has nothing to do with the law or with keeping the law.
However, Paul then adds at the end of verse 21 that even though this righteousness has nothing to do with the law, nevertheless the Old Testament, which contains the Law and the Prophets, bears witness to it. Whoever reads the Old Testament in the right way will see that everywhere it testifies to the fact that God was going to do something so that he would be able to declare sinners righteous in his sight. And he was going to do so in a way that has nothing to do with keeping the law. Now, we don’t have time to go through the Old Testament today, but let me give you one example from the Old Testament where it makes clear how God is willing to accept his people as righteous and it’s got nothing to do with keeping the law. In Psalm 32, King David wrote:
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.
So, instead of counting our sins against us, the Lord is prepared to forgive them, and to cover them up. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he is willing to pardons us. And it’s got nothing to do with keeping the law.
If verse 21 is about the fact that this righteousness of God has been made known, verse 22 is about how we receive this righteousness, or this righteous status before God.
We’ve already heard that it’s got nothing to do with the law or with keeping the law. So, if no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, how then are sinners declared right with God? And Paul tells us in verse 22:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
We receive this righteous status through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, we’re declared right with God not through what we do, but through faith in Jesus Christ. We receive it by relying on him and on what he has done for us.
And, of course — and this is an important point — we mustn’t turn our faith or our act of believing into a good deed. You know, someone might boast:
Look at me! Aren’t I great, because I’ve believed. God’s bound to be pleased with me, because I’ve trusted in Christ.
No, faith and the act of believing are not good deeds which we perform in order to please God and to win his favour. Faith in Christ, believing in Christ, means we look away from ourselves entirely and we look to Christ. We realise there’s no good thing in us at all. And because there’s nothing good in us, we look away from ourselves, and we look to Christ and we rely entirely on him to save us.
So, this righteousness from God comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. And it’s for all who believe. And the point Paul is making is that it’s not for some who believe; it’s for all who believe. Whoever believes is declared right with God. So no-one should worry that ‘through faith’ is fine for some, but I have to do something else. No-one should worry that ‘through faith’ is the way for some to be saved, but I have to do something else, something extra, in order to be saved. No, salvation is through faith and it’s only through faith, and whoever believes is declared right with God forever. Are you trusting in Christ for salvation? Then God regards you, sinner though you are, he regards you as right in his sight.
Verses 22b to 24
As we move on, you’ll see that Paul says that there is no difference. That is, there’s no difference between Jew and Gentile. There’s no difference between us because all have sinned and we fall short of the glory of God. Falling short of the glory of God means we have fallen short of the glory of being like God in holiness and righteousness. Instead of reflecting his glory, we have become sinful and corrupt and wickedness and unclean. Think of a car which is sitting on the garage forecourt, and it’s gleaming, because it’s brand new and there’s not a spot of dirt on it. Well, think of the difference between that car and a car which has been driven hard for many years, and there are scratches and chips and dirt and dents all over the bodywork and the engine has broken down and the tyres are flat and the lights are smashed. One car is gleaming, the other is a wreck. Well, we were meant to gleam and shine and reflect God’s glory, but instead we’ve become corrupt and broken because of Adam’s sin which we’ve inherited.
And we’re all like that, says Paul. Now, we can imagine one of Paul’s Jewish neighbours, protesting at this:
Hang on! We’re not the same. We Jews are God’s chosen people. We have the law. We have circumcision. We’re not the same.
But Paul says:
No, you are the same, because even though you have the law, and circumcision, you’re still a sinner.
And Paul could say the same to Presbyterians living in Belfast:
You’re just the same as everyone else. Though you’ve been brought up with all the benefits of belonging to the Presbyterian Church, nevertheless you’re still a sinner and you still fall short of God’s glory.
However, verse 24:
[we’re] justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Our time is moving on; so I need to be brief now as we think about justification which Paul mentions in verse 24. And so, let me remind you of what our church’s Shorter Catechism says about it. ‘What is justification?’ the Catechism asks. And the answer is:
Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone.
There are two main parts to justification. First, God pardons our sins. Second, he accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of Christ. So, he forgives us for what we’ve done wrong; and he regards us as having done everything right.
And God justifies us — he pardons us and accepts us — freely by his grace, Paul wrote. God’s grace is his kindness to sinners. We don’t deserve anything from him, except his wrath and curse. But instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he treats us with kindness. And so he graciously pardons us and accepts us.
And when Paul says God justifies us freely by his grace, he’s underlining the truth that we haven’t done anything to deserve this kindness from God. It’s his free gift to us.
And then, though our justification costs us nothing, it cost the Lord Jesus his life, because the only way to redeem us — or the only way to deliver us from our sin and misery — was by laying down his life on the cross to pay the ransom for our sins. And that’s what the phrase ‘through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ means. Christ Jesus gave up his life to redeem us, or to deliver us from our sin and misery. He paid the price on our behalf so that we can go free.
That’s as far as we can get today. Paul has been teaching us that no-one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law. No-one will be declared right with God by the things we do. But now, now that Jesus Christ has come, and has lived for and died for and was raised for us, because of him, sinners can be declared right with God through faith in him.
Theologians sometimes refer to the five solas of the Reformation. Sola is the Latin for ‘only’ or ‘alone’. And by the five solas they mean the five great principles which the Reformers recovered whenever they studied their Bibles. The first is: By Scripture alone. In other words, the Bible alone is our only rule of faith and practice. And what does the Bible teach us to believe? That we’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. And those three great principles are taught here by the Apostle Paul. The fifth sola is ‘for God’s glory alone’. Since our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, then God alone deserves all the glory. He deserves all the glory because our salvation is his work from beginning to end. And so, we should glorify him with our prayers and our praise, giving thanks to him always for his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. And we should seek to glorify him with our lives and by the way we live each day, seeking to honour him in all we do and say. And then, in the life to come, we’ll join together with all the redeemed and glorified saints in glory to worship him for ever and ever, because though we deserve his wrath and curse for a lifetime of sin, he has not treated us as our sins deserve, but he sent his Son to redeem us so that we can be pardoned and accepted and glorified.