Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 4, 1990
Purpose: To help us understand the doctrine of justification by faith and its implications for our lives.
I hate flashing red lights behind me when I'm driving. And I've experienced a few of them through the years. I remember driving through a little town in Oklahoma at 2:00 in the morning with Mary and the three little kids we had at the time. We were on our way from Fort Worth where we lived to visit my folks in Detroit. That was the only kind of vacation we could afford in those days--sponging off of our parents. And we usually drove all night so the kids could sleep and we could maintain our sanity.
It was a tiny, two block town, with a blinking yellow light at its one lone intersection. The town was deserted, there was no sign of life anywhere. But I slowed down to about 35 m.p.h. anyway and sailed on through. That's when I saw the flashing red lights behind me. The sheriff pulled me over and told me to follow him to the police station. When we arrived he informed me that while there was no speed limit posted, I should have known that it was 15 m.p.h. under that flashing yellow light. He said I would have to wait there in the cell until morning when the judge came in to fine me.
I pleaded with him on the basis of time (my parents would be expecting us), a shortage of money (I was a poor preacher), and my young family waiting out in the car (where would they spend the night?). He said, "Well, I could call the judge right now and get him out of bed and bring him down here, but he wouldn't be too happy about that and he'd be [likely] to lay it on pretty heavy."
I said, "Call him; I'll take my chances."
Now, what I needed, folks, was a miracle. A gracious judge who would take pity on me, admit that the sheriff was being unreasonable, declare me innocent and let me go to--exonerate me, to make it just as if I had never broken the law. That's not what I got, as you probably guessed. As I remember, the fine was pretty steep--and I strongly suspect that he and the sheriff split the loot.
But I got to thinking about that experience, and realized that while I didn't get what I wanted and needed in that little town in Oklahoma, I have gotten essentially that very thing in the spiritual realm. It's called in the Bible the doctrine of justification. Justification. That's one of those theological words that the world doesn't understand, and even some Christians would rather tune out.
Dr. John Gerstner tells of talking to a group of business people on the subject of justification by faith, explaining it as clearly and earnestly as he knew how. He was rather discouraged to learn from the newspaper account the next day that he had spoken on the theme "Just a vacation by faith."
Folks, we are not talking about vacations today, all right?! We are talking about being pronounced righteous, innocent, just as if we had never sinned at all. That's the meaning of "justification." You see, Paul has just written a lengthy passage proving conclusively that the whole world, Jew and Gentile, is guilty before God and deserving of His wrath. He summed it up by saying:
Romans 3:19-20. "Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those that are under the Law that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may be guilty before God." All the world--is guilty. "And by the deeds of the Law, no flesh is justified in His sight. For by the Law is the knowledge of sin."
Is there no hope then? If we are all guilty before God, are we all condemned to suffer God's eternal wrath and judgment against our sin? In a sudden change of tone, Paul assures us that there is hope. It's found in that word he introduced in Romans 3:20--"justified."
"By the deeds of the Law no deeds will be justified in His sight."
That becomes the major theme of the next section, and--from this point on--of the entire book. That's the major theme. The words just, justified, justifier, righteous and righteousness are all basically the same Greek word and all mean the same thing. And those words appear nine times in the next eleven verses. There can't be any doubt about what the subject is this morning. It's justification. It's being declared righteous. God giving to us a right standing before Him.
The first things we see is the revelation of our justification.
Romans 3:21. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed." Revealed. Being witnessed by the Law and the prophets.
Does that verse sound strangely familiar to you? It should, because it's almost identical to what Paul said back in Romans 1:17. "For in the gospel," he said, "the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith." Faith. Beginning to end, totally and completely.
And now here in Romans 3:21 he's talking about the same kind of righteousness as he was there in Romans 1:17. He's been talking about the same thing, you see. It's, clearly, a righteous status before God, a right standing with Him. It's been clearly and unmistakably revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ. And look at what he says about this, in this revelation of our justification. He says three things.
Justification Is Apart from the Law (Romans 3:21)
First of all, he says it's apart from the law. You see those words in verse 21: "Now the righteousness is revealed apart from the Law."
That was different from the way most of Paul's readers understood righteousness. They thought they could be pronounced righteous by keeping the ten commandments and doing other good things. If they didn't worship idols, take God's name in vain, murder, steal or commit adultery, they figured they were okay. "Not necessarily so," says Paul. This righteousness has nothing to do with obedience to God's law. That's incredible! Think of it! As vile and unclean as adultery is, for example, and as much as it grieves the heart of God, and even though it will bring divine discipline to our lives, and will affect our reward in heaven, not committing adultery has nothing to do with obtaining this righteousness.
Now, I know a lot of people don't like to hear that. But folks, I didn't write this. Okay? Don't get mad at me for this. This is given by inspiration of God's Spirit. God gave us this book. This righteousness is apart from the works of the Law. That's God's Word.
Justification is attested by the Law and the Prophets (Romans 3:21)
Secondly, it is attested by the Law and the prophets. This righteousness that comes apart from the law isn't some new thing, God's afterthought, Plan B, hastily conceived because Plan A didn't work. It was revealed all through the Old Testament. Paul is going to tell us in the next chapter how Abraham was declared righteous (quoting Genesis 15:6). He's already quoted Habakkuk 2:4 (in Romans 1:17)--"He who is righteous by faith shall live."
And there are many other Old Testament passages he could have used to prove his point. People were never declared righteous by doing good works. They may have thought they were, but they were wrong. They failed to read the Old Testament carefully. People have always been justified by faith. And it was attested to by the law and the prophets.
Justification Is Received by Faith (Romans 3:22-23)
The third thing he says about this righteousness, this justification, is that it is received by faith.
Romans 3:22-23. "Even the righteousness of God, which is through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and in all who believe, for there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Paul wants to be sure we get that. He repeats it--"through faith in Jesus Christ," "to all who believe." What an amazing thing! The condition is faith.
When the guilty sinner merely believes in Jesus, God treats him as though he were innocent. And it's the same for everybody. There is no difference. For all of us have sinned and fall short of God's glory. God's glory could mean His praise (as in John 12:43). We all fall short of God's approval. Or it could mean the standard of His own holy character. Nobody in the whole world measures up to His glorious attributes. So nobody can base his hope for acceptance by God on his own good works. Nobody!
Everybody must be declared righteous the same way: by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is God's clear and unmistakable revelation concerning how a person is declared to be right with Him.
The Explanation of Our Justification
But Paul wants to amplify that a bit for us. So after this revelation of our justification, let's go on for a further explanation for our justification. Just as there were three things to know about the revelation of our justification, so there are three more things to learn in this explanation of our justification.
Justification is Granted Freely by His Grace (Romans 3:24a)
Romans 3:24a. "Being justified freely by his grace." All those people who had sinned and fallen short of God's glory in Romans 3:23 can be pronounced righteous the very same way: freely by His grace.
Again, Paul repeats himself for emphasis. The word grace refers to favor freely given, unearned and undeserved. The idea of "free-ness" is included in the word. But just to make sure we don't miss it, he adds the word "freely." It's like saying it's a free free-gift. Looking at it from our side, it is received by faith. Looking at it from God's side it is granted freely by His grace.
So here we are, caught red-handed in our sin, guilty, condemned to God's eternal wrath, as the first chapters have clearly pointed out. But when we put our trust in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior from sin, the Divine Judge slams down the gavel and says to us, "Not guilty! That's the truth of Romans 3:21-31.
Not guilty. You are innocent of the crime. You are righteous. You may go free. It is just as if you never sinned." He doesn't do it because we've performed some good deed, or promised to reform our ways, or went to church so many times a month, or followed some religious ritual. He doesn't do it because He decides that we really aren't such bad folks after all. He does it freely, by His grace.
But how can He do that? If we are guilty and condemned to be punished, it seems as though a judge who would let us off scott free would not be gracious; he would be unjust and corrupt. Paul wants to deal with that problem as he continues this explanation.
Justification is Based on Our Redemption in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24b)
Our justification is not only granted freely by His grace; it is based on our redemption in Christ Jesus. Our redemption.
Read Romans 3:24 again. "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…"
The word redemption has to do with slavery. Some of Paul's readers may have thought--when he used that word--about the defeated captives in a war who were carried off as slaves. If they were prominent citizens, they would be required to pay a large sum of money for their release. Others may have thought back to the Old Testament that provided rules by which someone could buy back a poor relative who had sold himself into slavery. In either case, a ransom would have be paid for release of the slave. When the slave was released by the payment of a ransom, that was called redemption. That's what we're talking about her in verse 24.
Now, the Bible views all of us as slaves to sin, held in sin's grip and dominion, bound to suffer God's righteous wrath. That's where we all are, according to the first two and a half chapters. What we need is somebody to pay for our release. And that's exactly what Jesus did. God can justify us, freely by His grace, and still maintain His own justice and righteousness because His Son paid the ransom price for our deliverance from sin's penalty.
This is a particularly interesting word for redemption (apolutrosis). There are three different words translated "redemption" or "redeem" in the New Testament. This is the most interesting because it doesn't mean merely to purchase for transfer from one owner to another; it means to purchase for freedom.
You may remember the story of Dr. A.J. Gordon, a famous pastor in Boston who met a little boy carrying an old rusty bird cage in which were two wild birds fluttering around. And he said to the little fellow, "Where did you get those birds?"
"I trapped them in the field."
"And what are you going to do with them?"
"I'm going to take them home, have some fun playing with them, and then feed them to the cat."
So Dr. Gordon asked, "How much will you take for them?"
He said, "Mister, you don't want these birds. They're just little old field birds and they can't even sing very well."
Dr. Gordon said, "I'll give you two dollars for the cage and the birds."
And the little boy said, "Mister, you're making a bad deal. But if you want to do it, I'll do it." So he took the two dollars and went happily on his way.
Dr. Gordon took the cage behind the church, opened the door, and let the birds go free. What had he done? He redeemed them.
The pastor was bigger than the boy and could have taken the birds away from him, but he didn't do that. It wouldn't have been fair. So he paid for them. The birds couldn't do anything to gain their freedom. They couldn't even sing very well. They were worthless. The redemption was accomplished freely, but only because a price was paid. That's verse 24. That's redemption, you see.
Now bring it over to us. Here we are, condemned, bound in the cage of sin's eternal condemnation--justly so. We can do nothing to free ourselves. We're guilty. But God opens the door and says, "I paid for your redemption. You're not guilty any longer. You can legally and fairly go free."
Justification is Provided by Christ's Atoning Sacrifice (Romans 3:25-26)
But that's not the only reason God can pronounce us righteous without violating His own justice. Justification is not only granted freely by His grace, and based on the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. It is provided by Christ's atoning sacrifice, and that's the truth of verses 25 and 26.
Romans 3:25-26. "Whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance, He passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time, His righteousness, that He might be just, that He might be righteous and yet the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus."
Now, that's heavy. That's heavy doctrinal truth and yet it's really not so difficult to understand. Paul is transporting us back to the Day of Atonement, that one day each year when the high priest brought the blood of a goat into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it on the mercy seat--the lid of that box called the Ark of the Covenant. The people had broken God's law and the penalty for the broken law was death. But the goat was punished in place of the people. Instead of pouring out His righteous wrath on the entire nation, God accepted the blood of that goat as payment for their sin and was satisfied. His wrath was temporarily averted for another year. They had to do this year after year.
Now, we have broken God's law, no question. And there is a legal demand for God's wrath to be poured out on us for our sin. The penalty for His broken law is death, eternal death, eternal separation from His presence. That's what the cross was all about. And only when that legal demand is satisfied can He justly declare us to be righteous. That's what the cross is all about. There God poured out on His Son all the righteous fury which all the sin of all time deserved, so He wouldn't have to punish us.
Do you see that word propitiation? That's another theological term we seldom use today. A lot of people would rather avoid it. Some translations even avoid it; they translate it "sacrifice of atonement." That pretty well describes what it is. But you know the word, "propitiation," the very word, is translated in Hebrews 9:5 as "mercy seat." That really helps us understand it. You see, the cross was like that Old Testament mercy seat where our High Priest, God's Son, sprinkled His blood so that God's wrath would not be just temporarily averted for another year, but God's wrath was forever satisfied. That's propitiation.
It was like a Judge pronouncing us guilty, passing our sentence, then stepping down from His bench and paying our fine for us so that He could declare us to be righteous without violating His own righteousness and justice. That's what God did in the person of His Son. Romans 3:26: "That He might be just and the justifier to the one who has faith in Jesus."
That's the explanation of our justification. But there are some significant results of all this.
The Ramifications of Our Justification
So let's talk, thirdly, about the ramifications of our justification. And again, there are three.
Justification Eliminates Boasting (Romans 3:27-28)
Number one, it eliminates boasting.
Romans 3:27. "Where is boasting then? It's excluded. By what law? By works? No, but by the law of faith." I mean, how can we possibly walk around saying, "Look at all I did to make myself right with God," when we haven't really done anything that could ever make us right with God. We can't do anything and we won't do anything, but accept by faith what God has already provided. Nothing else will satisfy.
And just in case we've somehow missed that message, the major message of this entire book, Paul repeats it again.
Romans 3:28. "Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the Law."
We may not be so stupid as to brazenly claim we earned a righteous standing with God by keeping some of the ten commandments or doing some other good work, but when we look down on other people for their sinfulness, it's a dead giveaway--we've never really come to grips with the awfulness of our own sin and the immensity of God's grace in saving us. Understanding the book of Romans and the great doctrine of justification by faith wipes away all pride and boasting.
Justification Maintains the Unity of the Godhead (Romans 3:29-30)
It does something else as well. Romans 3:29-30. "Or is He a God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles, yes, of the Gentiles also. Since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith."
Do you follow Paul's argument? Since God is one, He will have only one way of justifying mankind. A righteous judge wouldn't require the Jews to keep the law in order to be declared righteous and the Gentiles merely to exercise faith in Jesus. If He's truly righteous, He'll have one way of declaring people righteous. And that's what He has. The unity of the Godhead excludes every other means of salvation except faith.
Justification Establishes the True Purpose of the Law (Romans 3:31)
Paul mentions one more ramification of this great doctrine, and that is that it establishes the true purpose of the law: Romans 3:31. You see, up to this point now, if we just stopped here, people would say, "Wait a minute now! What good is the law, then. We don't need that, do we?"
Paul says, Oh, no. "Do we make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law." In other words, we establish the proper use of the law, which is not to make us righteous--it was never intended for that--but to reveal our utter sinfulness so that we will cast ourselves on God's grace and God's mercy, and receive freely by His grace that righteousness we need to enter heaven.
Remember Romans 3:20? "For by the law is the knowledge of sin."
That's the purpose for the law--not to make us righteous. The very righteousness which the law demands but can't give to us, God gives to us in Jesus Christ. That's 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
The truth is clear. God has done everything necessary in the death of His Son to pronounce us righteous--just as if we'd never sinned--so that we may escape His wrath and enter His glorious heaven. He's done everything that needs to be accomplished. And His provision is great enough to include everybody in the whole world. The apostle John taught us that. "He is the propitiation"--same word--"for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).
But unfortunately not everybody in the world will benefit from it, because there is one human condition, mentioned eight times in the passage, just to be sure we don't miss it. That is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You see it in these verses: 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 30. We must believe the message, put our faith in the shed blood of Christ, and receive God's pardon.
When Haddon Robinson was here last summer, he told us the story of George Wilson, who in 1829, was sentenced to be hanged in Pennsylvania for robbing the mails and for murder. As a result of a plea made on his behalf, President Andrew Jackson granted him a pardon. But Wilson refused the pardon and insisted that it was not a pardon unless he accepted it. He didn't want to accept it. He wanted to die. That point of law had never been raised before, so the President urged the Supreme Court to decide it at once. Chief Justice John Marshall gave the following decision: "A pardon is a paper, the value of which depends upon its acceptance by the person implicated. It is hardly to be supposed that one under sentence of death would refuse to accept a pardon, but if it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must be hanged." And he was! Why? Because he refused to accept what the President had offered him.
Dear friend, God offers to pronounce you innocent, guiltless, righteous before Him. This infinitely holy God offers to declare you to be righteous, as though you hadn't even sinned. And He can do that justly because He punished His Son in your place. Jesus paid the fine you owed. But He isn't going to force His righteousness on you. He asks you to put your faith in Christ and His sacrificial death at Calvary, and to receive His gift of eternal salvation, of forgiveness. To receive the pardon that He paid for and offers you in Christ.
Now just so you don't misunderstand. If you receive this pardon, the Spirit of God comes into your heart and life to live. And He's going to make some changes. Things are going to be different. Old things are going to pass away and all things will become new. And you will hate the things you once loved, and love the things you once hated, and you'll want to live for the glory of Jesus Christ if you truly make this decision. God's going to change your life. But the decision is: Are you willing to acknowledge your guilt before God, believe that Jesus paid for your pardon in full and receive it by faith? That's the decision. Have you decided "yes"? If there is any doubt in your mind, we urge you--we plead with you--make that decision today. Your hope for any meaning in this life and your entrance into eternity depends on this decision. Your faith in the finished work, the shed blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let's bow together in his presence prayerfully.
Have you acknowledged before God that you're guilty? Worthy of His condemnation? But that you believe that Jesus died in your place and bore the punishment that you deserve, and you're ready to put your total trust in Him alone--nothing you can do--but Him alone, for your eternal salvation. That's the good news: that if you will do that, He will pardon you, and credit to you His own divine righteousness. He'll view you as though you were His own sinless son. I know that sounds too good to believe, but that's what the Bible teaches. Will you accept His pardon right now?
I would like to suggest that you settle it in prayer. It's the best way I know to express your faith to God. Just in the quiet of your own heart right now:
"Lord, I'm a sinner and I believe what your Word says--that I'm guilty before You and deserving of your wrath. But thank you for your wondrous mercy and grace that provided for my pardon. Right now, Lord Jesus, I accept your offer. I invite You to come into my heart and my life. And thank You for giving me this gift of Your righteousness, which fits me for heaven."
Oh, God, I pray, that some today--yes, all today-- who have never made that decision, will be drawn to You by the work of Your Spirit in their hearts and find forgiveness and life by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For we ask it in His name--this marvelous, wonderful Savior who gave all for our eternal redemption. We ask it in His name: the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.
Continue to ROM 05: Too Good to Be True