The Righteousness of God Is Ours as Well
Scripture: Romans 3:21–31
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.
27 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. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
There may not be a concept in Christianity more misunderstood than the concept of faith. Many people assume that faith is belief despite evidence. But that is not what the Bible means when it speaks of faith. Biblical faith is belief in line with the evidence. The Bible is not interested in people believing in things there is no evidence for; rather, the Bible expects faith to be grounded in evidence for it. So if you struggle with Christian faith, then your struggle is not primarily a struggle within yourself, a struggle to believe. Your struggle is primarily with God. It’s the struggle to see how God is believable. That he can be trusted. The struggle is to see the evidence that God has given for you to believe in him.
As we work our way through Romans, we come to this passage, which is one of the crucial texts in Romans. It is a text we need to understand if we’re going to understand Romans and the gospel it expounds. When Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16), he explained that he was not ashamed of it because it is in the gospel that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” In other words, the gospel has made it plain that God is right. The gospel has provided the evidence that God is right so that faith can rest in this evidence. What is the evidence that God can be believed? This text highlights three ways: the faithfulness of Christ, the redemption in Christ, and the community of Christ. Here are three ways that God, in the gospel, has proven himself trustworthy so that we will have the evidence we need to believe him.
The Faithfulness of Christ
How has God demonstrated his own righteousness? The first answer we can give is this: through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. It is in the faithfulness of Jesus that we can see that God has kept his promise, that God is indeed righteous.
The Righteousness of God
Now let’s make sure we’ve set the stage correctly. The issue before us up to this point in Romans is the questioning of God’s own righteousness, his own justice. Is the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is this God someone who can be trusted?
Now to answer that question, we have to know what it is that this God has promised to do. If we presume that God has promised to make life easy and prosperous, free of suffering and pain, then it is no wonder that we will begin to doubt God when life becomes difficult. But that is not what God has promised.
On the other hand, there are scores of Christians today who believe that what God has promised to do is to ensure that when we get to the end of our misery, when we finally die, our immaterial soul will “fly away to that home on God’s celestial shore.” Believing that that is the scope of God’s promise will probably not even raise the kinds of questions that Paul believes the gospel he preaches answers. We won’t know if God keeps that promise until we die. But if the righteousness of God, his faithfulness to keep his promise, is not called into question, then the good news of the gospel will fall flat on deaf ears.
You see God has promised something so much better than a life of prosperous ease or a consolation prize at the end of a difficult life. The passage before us, as well as the entirety of the next chapter, is an exposition of Genesis 15 and the covenant that God made with Abraham—what it is that the whole Bible tells us God has promised to do. It’s like the thesis of the entire Scripture, and we must keep it in mind as we read our Bibles. We especially must keep it in mind as we read here and on through the next chapter of Romans. What God has promised to do is to undo the sin of Adam and its cosmic effects, not just pain and poverty, but death itself.
So then, the “righteousness of God” that is in view here in our passage is the question of whether God can be trusted to fulfill his promise. And what we are here being told is, “Yes! Yes! Absolutely, yes!” You see, we don’t just have to hope that God will fulfill his word. He has already done so. His righteousness has been manifested. God has kept his promise!
Really? How so?
Righteousness and the Law
Well, “the righteousness of God has been manifested,” we read in verse 21, “apart from the law.” But what would it mean for God’s righteousness to be manifest with the law?
It would simply mean that we would see God’s justice—his truthfulness, his faithfulness—as he punishes those who adhere to his law and rewards those who adhere to it. But, if everyone has broken it, as Paul has already argued in the last two chapters, then we have a problem. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 is in jeopardy. If he intends to keep his promise, he’s going to have to spare some sinner. Because if he upholds his righteous law, then all sinners will perish, and his promise to Abraham will be nullified.
Do you see the dilemma? If we look to the law of God, we can’t see a solution to the problem. God’s righteousness is called into question. It doesn’t appear God can be trusted because God will have to either violate his law or break his promise.
It’s into this dilemma that those first two words of verse 21 bring hope: But now. There is good news for us to consider. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” God has, in fact, kept his promise, but it did not come about by Israel upholding his law. And yet, this manifestation of God’s righteousness is not entirely separate from the law. It is in fact what “the Law and the Prophets” have been pointing to all along.
The Faithfulness of Jesus
Verse 22 tells us what this hope is: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” We can see that God has in fact kept his promise made to Abraham. And we see it, not “through the law,” but “through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Now, the ESV has interpreted the Greek phrase because it is ambiguous. The word faith can also mean “faithfulness” and Jesus could be the object or subject of faith. In other words, the righteousness of God is manifested either “through the faithfulness that Jesus Christ has shown” or “through the faith we place in Jesus.” As is often the case when the Greek is ambiguous, we probably should not be forced to choose between these two options. Both are in view.
But we cannot really see how our faith in Christ works until we see what the faithfulness of Christ achieves. Here is the faithfulness that God required from Israel in order for his promise for the world to be fulfilled. The argument put forward in the gospel is that in the faithfulness of Christ, God has been shown to be righteous, faithful to his promise, the promise first made to Abraham. In the faithfulness of Jesus we are to see that God has brought it all to fruition. The promise has not just been sustained so that we can keep saying, “God may still keep his promise.” The promise has been fulfilled. God is righteous because God has kept his promise in the faithfulness of Jesus.
The Redemption in Christ
What we are being told is that we are meant now to look at the faithfulness of Christ rather than the faithlessness of Israel in order to recognize that God is righteous, that he is just, that he has been true to his word. At the same time, the faithfulness of Christ highlights God’s righteousness in yet another way. For if the faithfulness of Christ is the faithfulness God required, then what we find in Christ is redemption for the world, because that is what God has promised to do.
For All Have Sinned
God’s great promise in the Bible is not a fiction. It is a promise that affects real human beings like you and me. That’s why, in verse 22, the faithfulness of Jesus is not simply the manifestation of God’s righteousness; the faithfulness of Jesus is also “for all who believe.” Yes, all. Because, as the next two verses explain, all human beings have no other hope than the manifestation of God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus.
“There is no distinction,” verse 22 concludes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” verse 23 states. It seems most people will concede the first part of verse 23 (“nobody’s perfect”), but see here what it is that sin has done to us. To sin is to “fall short of the glory of God.” Sinning is not just breaking the rules, it is to become sub-human. It means we now lack that which was meant to be ours as creatures made in God’s image, namely, a share in the divine glory, the enjoyment of a vibrant relationship with God. Sin is universal in its appearance, so the glory of God is universally absent in human beings.
Redemption Available in Christ
But thanks be to God that the thought continues in verse 24. We do not have to put up with sin, to accept that this is just the “new normal” we must learn to live with. There is redemption found in Christ Jesus.
Verses 24-26 are chock full with heavy theological terms: redemption, justification, grace, propitiation, faith, righteousness. These are terms that can only be fully understood when we consider the story of human beings having lost the glory of God; the story of Israel as the means by which God promises to save the world, but who have also now fallen and need to be saved themselves; and the story of God himself who has been acting all along to save Israel, humanity, and indeed the entire world. These stories complement each other, and when they come together, they give us the density we find in the passage before us.
“Redemption” in verse 24 informs and is informed by justification “by his grace as a gift.” Redemption has to do with liberation or deliverance from some kind of enslavement. Justification refers to right-ness, to vindication. The link between these two theological terms tells us that what God gives to us freely, that is, “by grace,” is the liberation from the effects of sin. That would include, first of all, the guilt of being unrighteous before him and thus under the judgment and wrath of God himself. In Christ we may find liberation from sin and therefore no longer under judgment.
A Propitiation for Sin
But how is this possible? You should be asking that question, for why should you believe it? Why should you hope in Jesus? Because God put him forward “as a propitiation by his blood.” This word, propitiation, refers to the ritual of atonement in which the effects of sin are dealt with, and forgiveness of the sinner becomes justified.
It will help us to consider the second half of verse 25. Atonement for sin was necessary because God “in his divine forbearance . . . had passed over former sins.” In other words, God’s righteousness was on the line. He looks to be unjust because it seems he has let way too many sinners off the hook.
So before we can see what the cross means for us we have to see what it meant for God. It meant that he himself was justified. Verse 26 says that we can now see that God is righteous because he has not ignored sin. He is “just” because he has poured out his righteous wrath on his own self in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
Justified in Christ
But of course, this means, at the very same time, that the cross means something for us. It means that God is right, not only because he has been just in his wrath against sin, but also that God is right to justify us who otherwise would have been the recipient of his righteous wrath. God purposed that Jesus would be the propitiation for sin “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” What an incredible verse! What an amazing gospel!
Quite literally the various stories the Bible tells all converge at this one place, the cross of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. It is here, somewhere around 30 AD that a new era dawned. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested.” God’s righteousness—the proof that God has kept his promise, that he has been faithful, true to his word—this righteousness is displayed at the present time. So you have every reason to trust him. And when you trust him, you are made to share in his righteousness.
The Community of Christ
And this leads us to one last way that God has manifested his righteousness. We’ve seen that God has shown his righteousness in the faithfulness of Christ and therefore what we find in Christ is redemption, the restoration of the glory of God that had been lost by the devastation of sin. But here’s the thing: if that is all true, if the new era has dawned, why doesn’t it appear to be true? Why does sin still reign? The answer is that we are not looking at the right place. To see God’s righteousness, we need to look at the community of Christ.
No Boasting Here
There can be no doubt that the story isn’t quite over yet. As Christians we wait for our “blessed hope,” the “appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” We hope in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. There is more yet to come.
But a new era has indeed dawned with the person and work of Jesus Christ. So if we will look at Christ, what we will see is the righteousness of God proof positive. Back in verse 24, we find the first occurrence in Romans of the distinctive Pauline emphasis on union with Christ: redemption is found “in Christ Jesus.” The doctrine of justification by grace alone, since it is found only in union with Jesus, means that redemption cannot be just a future expectation of being found “not guilty before God when you die (so you can rightly enter into heaven); it means that we possess this redemption now in our union with Jesus Christ.
So for one thing, as verse 27 asks, “what becomes of our boasting?” And the answer is: “It is excluded.” When we exercise faith in Christ, all human pride is given a death blow. That’s a new world indeed!
Notice what Paul says. The gospel deals a death blow to human boasting not by a law of works, but by the law of faith. On the one hand, the law of works does eventually rule out human pride because we come to find that we cannot keep the law. But “the law of faith” eliminates human boasting from the very beginning. If you do indeed hope in Christ, then in him there is no possibility for boasting. The only hope for justification, verse 28 says, is “by faith apart from works of the law.”
So when we look “in Christ” we find a community of people who have no breath to boast in themselves.
One God for All
What else can we see in this community of Christ? Paul tells us, in verse 29, that we find a community of Jews and Gentiles alike, “since,” verse 30 states, “God is one.” The fact that there is only one God is the grounding for the fact that there can only be one unified people of God. But how is this possible given that humanity is so diverse, so divided? What can possibly bring people together who otherwise have nothing in common?
The answer is faith, “the answering ‘faith’ to ‘the faithfulness of the Messiah’ in Romans 3:22, which is itself the outworking of God’s own faithfulness, his truthfulness and justice.” A family of people, all descended from Abraham because they share this same faith with him, a vast and diverse multitude of people. This is what was always envisioned in the people of God, and it is all now realized in the communion of saints reconstituted around Jesus. We are talking here about the one holy, catholic church we confess in the Creed. The diversity of the church, united in “faith, worship, and holiness, is the sole visible symbol” of the promised people of God.
The Law Upheld
Finally, in verse 31 we read, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” Back in Romans 2:13, Paul said, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” So Paul ends this passage by taking up this issue again. Does this faith that Paul proclaims make the law irrelevant? Does this faith by which one is justified mean that obedience to God doesn’t matter? If we look into Jesus, will we see lawbreakers, people who do not care about God and his ways? Absolutely not! By no means. God forbid. “On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
Paul will unpack this point more thoroughly in Romans 5–8. But for now, we can say that when you gaze into Christ you will find a people who uphold the law.
Now the church gets a lot of negative press when Christians are unfaithful in ways that are a scandal even to the world. But what doesn’t get told much is the impact of faithful Christians on the world over the past 2000 years whose works are works of faith in Christ. One example here locally is the fact that the number of children in foster care in our state has decreased in the past several years from about 12,000 to 7,500. There can be no doubt that this is largely thanks to the work of the 111 Project connecting churches and Christians to the foster care crisis, and to the thousands of ordinary believers who have obeyed the call of Jesus to care for the fatherless among us in Oklahoma. There is still a lot of work left to do, but when we look into Christ, God only knows how much good we will see has been accomplished through simple, faithful Christian obedience.
Indeed, God has kept his word. He can be trusted. And the evidence for it is the faithfulness of Christ, the redemption found in Christ, and the community of Christ in which, by his grace, we’ve been included.