Romans 3:21-31.
Justification by Grace Alone

           Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.

The local news has been recently covering an incident where an office full of workers conspired together to embezzle money from the organization they worked for.  Started by one or two individuals who wrote bogus bills for small amounts, their successful thievery grew both in scale and in the number of participants until the supervisor and all of the office workers were involved, and the amount stolen was in the millions of dollars.  Most of the stolen money has been recovered.  The participants are not career criminals, and their appearance and demeanor is quite unlike many criminals who come through the court system.  All of the participants were "first-offenders" who plead no-contest to the charges, so the most difficult part of the trial has been to determine the appropriate sentence for each.  The judge in the case desires to be fair, and give to each participant a punishment that is consistent with that which they deserve.  These people broke the law, and under that law they deserve severe punishment.  Should they be given a minimum sentence as first offenders, or should they be given a maximum sentence as a warning to others who might try the same crime?  Most likely, the sentences handed down to these individuals will probably be somewhere between the two.  Mothers and fathers will go to jail and be separated from their children.  The consequence for their greed and stupidity will be enormous.

It may be easy for us to point to those who have broken the law and employ a "nana-nana-boo-boo" theology as we point our fingers at those outlaws who we feel deserve punishment and separation from society.  Like children in a play yard we gloat in our goodness as we revel in the badness of those caught being "bad".  "After all" we say, "I never embezzled millions of dollars from my company.  I never committed murder or adultery."  We consider ourselves pretty good members of our community, and unlike those criminals, we do not break the law.  Is this actually true? 

What is the purpose of the law?  We have established a set of laws that define normative behavior by defining that which is not.  We have also prescribed punishments that are meted out on those who choose to act outside of those bounds.  Consequently, we have divided the population into two sets:  those who are criminals, and those who are not.  Are the criminals "bad people," and the others "good people"?  Are we good simply because we have not broken the law?  Or, are we all truly criminals, and the "good" people are simply those who have not been judged for their sins?

Our pagan culture defines "being good" as being one who does not break the law, and many of us are comfortable with that idea, and many of us consider ourselves pretty "good" because we do not break laws.  Most people think that when they come to the end of their days on this earth, the criminals will go to hell, and they because of their relative goodness will go to heaven.  They think that, somehow, God accepts everyone but the criminals, those others who have broken the law.  However, God is not subject to man's laws, and as a Holy and Just God, He has the authority to determine what is righteous behavior.

When we look honestly into our own hearts, we all know that we are not good.  We all know that we are not righteous.  No, we may not have committed murder, but we are guilty of many other smaller ungodly attitudes and behaviors.  This truth goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, and since humans were created, we have always rebelled against our creator.  We have always stood before God and plead no-contest as we recognize our true unrighteousness.  If the truth be known, none of us can point a finger at one another and judge one another's behavior.  We all deserve to be judged, and we all deserve punishment, for we all have broken the law of both our society, and the higher law of God.

From half way through Chapter-1 to the end of Chapter-2 of the Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Paul has defended quite vividly the need that man has for true righteousness.  He states that God has revealed Himself as a righteous God to every man,  through creation, through the patriarchs and prophets, and ultimately through Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of men.  Though God clearly demands righteousness, when left to choice, all people sin.  We do not have the capacity within ourselves to lead a sinless life, and only a sinless life will escape the judgment of a perfect God.  As hard as man works to earn righteousness, simply nothing works.  We can design for ourselves all manner of religions, practices, rites, and chants, but nothing cleanses our lives of sin, and without such cleansing we are doomed to an eternity separated from God.  If the Gentile cannot do it on his own through religious practices, and even the Jew cannot do it on his own by following the law, what hope is there for any of us?

Romans 3:21.  But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;

This passage of scripture begins with the word, "but."  Placed in any sentence, this word creates a dramatic shift in tone, and usually it implies that what is to come overrides that which was just stated.  "You are a beautiful person, but ..." (insult to follow.)  Paul has just taken us down a path of doom: the rightful demise of sinful man.  However, this little word announces a turning point: a line that is drawn through the ages that overcomes the separation from man and God, as he proclaims a righteousness that comes from God.  This is a righteousness that is wholly separate from the tenets of the law.  It is a righteousness that is separate from anything that man can do for himself.  However, Paul is quick to note that this doctrine is not new:  it was already proclaimed by the prophets, one of the media through whom God revealed Himself and His purpose to mankind.

It may be instructive at this point to note that Paul, a Jew, has a very Jewish world view.  Consequently, it is easier for him to communicate the gospel through a Jewish message.  Though the Jew was familiar with the practices of sacrifices in the temple, the Jew also clearly knew that these sacrifices did not atone for sins that were "premeditated" or volitional:  hamartema, ham-ar'-tay-mah; a sin of choice.  Sacrifices only covered sins that were either committed by error or circumstance.  There were many such actions, some necessary, that rendered one "unclean", requiring a sacrifice for remedy.  However, no sin of choice had a corresponding sacrifice that would render atonement.  This is why David pleaded for God's mercy following his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his assassination of her husband.  There was never a remedy for such sin that could be found in any action that man could do.  All David could do was trust in God's forgiveness.  The only remedy for David's sin came from God, and God alone.

Romans 3:22.  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:

In once sentence, Paul describes the one remedy for sin:  the righteousness from God that is imparted on those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.  Placing one's faith in Jesus is an act of belief, or one might refer to it as "belief in action."  Certainly satan "believes" if belief is a matter of accepting that something is true.  Satan knows that Jesus is LORD, but has no faith and trust in Him.  James stated, "the demons believe, and tremble"[1] because they also know their fate.  Consequently, how one responds to belief in Jesus is important.  Paul refers to empowered belief as "faith in Jesus Christ."  I demonstrate faith in the strength of a chair when I sit on it.  I demonstrate faith in the ability of an airplane to fly by getting on board and take a ride.  I demonstrate faith in Jesus Christ when I accept Him for who He is: my Savior, and my LORD.  It is one thing to believe that Jesus is The LORD, and quite another to accept Jesus as "My LORD."  The difference is faith.  The difference is salvation.

The "difference" that Paul refers to is used only one other place in the New Testament, and is grammatically connected to the next phrase, and is a translation of a Greek word that made a contextual reference to the contrast between Jew and Greek.  When it comes to the righteousness of God, it is offered to all, without regard to their status as a "son of Abraham."

Romans 3:23.  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Though Paul spent the best part of the first two chapters of this letter describing the sinful state of men, he summarizes this state in one short thought:  All have sinned and fallen short.  There are no exceptions.  Jesus made this point clear when he was approached by a devout Jew who referred to Him as "good man."  Jesus' response was that there is no person who is good, except for God alone (Matt.  19:17).  Jesus was not proclaiming Himself less than good, since Jesus is the Messiah, God in the flesh.  He was pointing out this man's belief that a man could be righteous was in error.

Matthew 19:16-22.  And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.  18He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  20The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.  22But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

The Jews thought they found saving righteousness under the law, and their interpretations of the law were liberal enough that they often believed in their own security.  The young man in the Matthew, Chapter 19 passage thought he had kept the law, and was therefore righteous, right with God.  However, the Jew knew that any infraction of any small part of the law was considered breaking the whole law, and would deem them as unrighteous and unacceptable to God.  How many Jews, do you suppose, truly felt in their heart that they had never broken any part of the Law? Though this young man had found a way to rationalize away his sins by covering them with his own good works, all people know in their heart that they are not without sin.  As you read these words do you believe that you are perfect and without sin?  If you do, you are in disagreement with both Jesus and Paul.

Why do we all know we have sinned? The Jew knew, just like us, that He did not have the righteousness that God demands.  Consequently, he probably felt very frustrated.  The Law condemned him and he had no recourse.  His life was a charade, an act.  Knowing of his own unrighteousness, he played the part of a righteous person, demonstrating fully the character of such belief.  Jesus often pointed out the actions of the self-righteous Pharisees as ones who should demonstrate the humility that comes from their own frailties, yet demonstrate pride and arrogance.

Consequently, Paul's message in these verses is quite important to the Jew.  What does it say?

A Jew might be relieved to know the charade is over.  He knows he is a sinner, his true sin nature is finally exposed, and now something can be done about it.  Romans 3:23 should be a toolbox verse.  Every Christian should know it, since it can be the starting point for sharing our faith.  One cannot convince someone of their need for Jesus if they are unaware of their lost state.  What do you say to the person who says, "I've led a pretty good life.  When God weighs my good against my bad, the good will win out, and God will accept me."?  Your answer is, "All have sinned ..."  Good works do not outweigh sin.  Good works do not cancel sin.  It is the sin that separates us from God.  It is the sin that has the power to destroy us.  It is the consequences of sin that tear our lives apart.  Good works and sin are not in contention.  When it comes to the ultimate decision for salvation, God will only see the sin in the life of the lost, for it is the sin and unrighteousness of man that He rejects.

Romans 3:24.  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

What happens when we accept Jesus as our LORD?  We are justified freely by his grace.  What does it mean to be justified? When one finds justification, God forgives the sin debt, and treats us "Just as if I" never sinned.  At what cost to ourselves does this forgiveness come? There is no cost.  The religions of man are all designed to do one specific task:  to create a way to pay the cost, or to atone for, sin.  Some teach that righteousness can come from repeating chants and mantras.  Others teach that one cane become righteous through daily prayers and confessions.  Justification does not come from anything that we can do.  Religions that teach justification by any work are presenting a false gospel and leading people away from salvation. 

God provides salvation simply out of His grace.  What is grace?  Obviously, this is one of the most important concepts in the Christian faith.  We have done nothing to merit God's intervention in our sinful lives in our behalf.  Yet, God has chosen to do so.  This is the character of grace.  God has given to us a gift that we do not deserve.  God, because he loves us, provided a way where He could forgive our sins: in a way that we cannot purchase through any price or effort of labor.  God provided redemption for those who place their faith in Jesus solely because He chose to do so.

If we could work our way to acceptance by God we would make every effort to do it, and any casual observation of the world's religions exposes an attempt at this practice.  Consider the pride we could gain by becoming successful in the endeavor.  Consequently, there is no place for pride (Verse 27), because we have not done anything that cannot also be done by every living person on this planet, without regard to their social state.  Another toolbox passage:

Eph.  2:8-10.  For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9Not of works, lest any man should boast.  10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. 

Romans 3:25-26.  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; 26To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. 

Paul describes Jesus as a propitiation, that is, a "sacrifice of atonement."  To the Jew, these words would bring to mind all of their understanding of the history and context of the Jewish sacrificial system.  The sacrifice of valuable possessions, animals, and even children, was a practice of many different world religions, as each tried to find some way to repay God for their sins.  They knew that God would be angered by their acts of unrighteousness and desperately sought ways to appease that anger.  The people wanted to exact some form of justice from God, initiating it themselves.  In the writings of Moses, God instructed the Jews in an appropriate implementation of this generally accepted pagan practice, allowing them a form of this accepted expression of sin payment.  Still, the Jewish sacrificial system served as only a small bandage over a grievous and deadly wound when no sacrifice would cover volitional sin.  The sacrifice for those sins required something that no man could muster.  However, the familiarity that the Jews had with the propitiation of the blood sacrifice should have cause them to recognize the propitiation of Jesus' sacrifice.

By covering volitional sin, Jesus' own sacrifice on the cross brought to culmination the entire sacrificial system.  There was no longer any need for sacrifices after Jesus' crucifixion on the cross of Golgotha.  When this sacrifice was brought before God, the price for sin was far greater than any that man could bring.  Man had still sacrificed objects of his own possession such as animals and crops.  God sacrificed Himself.  God's own Blood was shed at Calvary, bringing for men the justice that they so diligently had been seeking ever since his creation. 

Romans 3:27-31.  Where is boasting then? It is excluded.  By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.  28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.  29Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.  31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

One of the hallmarks of sin is pride.  World religions separated those who "kept the rules" in different levels of social status, and certainly the Jewish religion was no exception.  When one thinks that they can perform works of righteousness, the natural result is "look what I did."  The scriptures continually and repeatedly teach that God abhors pride.  Pride stands between sinful man and their choosing faith in God.  Pride separates people, and separates them from God.  It is extremely difficult to convince one who takes pride in their own righteousness that they are not righteous at all.  When one places their faith in Jesus Christ, the testimony changes from, "look what I did" to "look what God did."  There is no basis for boasting, and no basis for the expression of pride.  It is pride that brought us to the point of our need for salvation, and it is only humility before God that brings us home. 

God offers His grace to all who will place their faith and trust in Him.  The Jews, for a millennium, had thought that they had God all for themselves.  This self-righteous pride led them to despise all other nations, certainly not the task of priesthood that God had intended.  God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God is the God of all creation and all whom He created are His. 

Paul also makes another very important point:  Jesus sacrifice on the cross covers the sins for all people, not only the Jews and Gentiles of the first century, but both those who placed their faith in God before the cross, and all of those who would place their faith in God after the cross.  The hallmark of this position is the defended faith of Abraham who's sins are also covered by his faith in God, as noted in Hebrews 11.  God's love and grace is extended to all people who will place their faith and trust in Him.  Jesus paid the debt of sacrifice for all who turn to God in faith.

How does Paul see the Christian in relationship to the Law? It was the law that defined Jewish culture.  Christ did not come to destroy the law, but rather to fulfill it.  The prophesies stated that the law would be written in the hearts and minds of the faithful, and the Holy Spirit's indwelling in the heart of a believer has fulfilled that prophesy.  Orthodox Jews interpreted this to mean that scriptures were to be tied in boxes and placed on their foreheads and arms.  However, the true meaning is that Godís Word will be before our eyes (His word will shape the way we see things) and on our arms (His Word will shape the way we do things.)  Those who place their faith and trust in God have been given illumination as to the meaning of the law, and that law now lives within each of us as a dynamic paraclete, speaking to us continually.  It abides within us.  James referred to the law in this form as the "Law of Liberty".

Paul paints a quite dismal picture of the state of humanity in the first chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, illustrating the depraved state of man, both Jew and Gentile.  All have sinned and come short of God's glory, and none are able to approach the throne of God on their own good works.  Good works do not nullify sin, only God's intervention in our lives, as He provides a way of forgiveness is our only hope.  God provided that way when He left His throne and came to abide with men in the man, Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ.  Jesus paid the final price, the one sacrifice that would atone for the sins of all who would place their faith and trust in Him.  This does not make any sense from human logic, and defies belief by those who refuse to humble themselves before God and accept this free gift.  To the unrepentant sinner, God's plan is foolishness, and Christians are a family of fools. 

Let us return to the court case concerning the office staff who embezzled millions from their employer.  The judge in the case is trying to determine the appropriate punishment for each, appointing to each a sentence that they deserve.  What if that sentence was in the form of huge monetary fines, in the order of millions of dollars.  Then, recognizing the true repentance in the heart of each of the condemned, he chooses to pay the fine himself and set them free.  That act of grace would amaze us all.  This is what God has done for us.  When there was no hope for our salvation, God paid what we could not pay for a debt that He did not owe.  He did this because of his nature of grace.

God's grace has been offered to all people, without regard to their social state.  The Jew can come to Jesus and find that his cultural background and teachings explode with meaning when brought under the context of the power of the Holy Spirit.  The non-Jew receives that same grace and gift of salvation.  If God's grace is offered to all, then why do so many still perish?  It is important that those who have placed their faith and trust in God allow the light of God's love to shine in their lives as they express God's love for those who are lost.  If this were the pattern of Christianity, satan's dominion would fall and far more lost souls will be saved.  Will you love others in this way?  Will you offer grace to those around you?  We would probably agree that we would like to be able to treat others with love and grace.  The solution is not that difficult:  First give to God all of your heart, your soul, your mind, and your spirit.  He'll take care of the rest.

[1] James 2:19.