Pastor David B. Curtis


God's Solution to Man's Sin

Romans 3:21-26

Delivered 04/23/2000

For our study this Easter morning, we want to look at Romans 3:21-26. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest and most important sections in the whole of Scripture. This is the normative passage on the subject of justification by faith. This section is the heart of Romans.

Romans 3:21(NKJV) But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

Verse 21 starts with the words, "but now" - this is an adversative and marks a turn in the argument. He moves from the subject of sin and judgment to God's remedy in Christ. From 1:18 through 3:20 Paul deals with the subject that all men are under condemnation. Man, because of his sin, is under the wrath of God. We must understand Romans 1:18 - 3:20 before we can appreciate 3:21-26.

Romans 3:19 (NKJV) Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

The whole world stands guilty before the judgment bar of God. We are all guilty sinners who stand condemned. This is where the gospel starts; it starts with wrath. If you really understand this section on wrath, you will embrace the gospel immediately and thank God for it the rest of your life.

With the "but now" of verse 21, he moves from the subject of our sin to God's remedy. Romans 3:21-26 tells us the way of salvation, or how to be right with God. This section answers Job's question:

Job 9:2 (NKJV) "Truly I know it is so, But how can a man be righteous before God?

I think it is safe to say that nobody wants to go to Hell, nobody wants to experience the wrath of God. And the question that most thinking people ask is, "How can I have eternal life, how can I escape that wrath of God?" Romans 3:21-26 answers those questions.

Romans 3:21 (NKJV) But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

Since 1:18, he has been showing how we don't have righteousness, and therefore we are under sin and judgment and destined for final wrath and fury. The mouth of the whole world is stopped, and everyone is accountable and without excuse. Nobody gets right with God through the performances of the Law. No one is righteous. And no one can get right with God by the works of the law.

There is a divine righteousness -a God-sent, God-given righteousness that is not through the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.

Romans 3:22 (NKJV) even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;

In other words, God's solution to the problem of sin and condemnation in Romans 1:18-3:20 is for God to send his Son Jesus to die for sin and to give us his own righteousness. This is called justification by faith; God's reckoning his righteousness as our righteousness, if we will trust in his Son.

God is saying, "Trust me. Trust my Son. Cast yourself on us as your only hope. And, for the sake of my Son, I will put your sins away and give you my righteousness."

Paul tells us several things about this righteousness that God gives us;

1. It does not come to us through works of the law - "the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed..." It is altogether independent of any obedience of man to law. It is apart from our works.

2. It is witnessed to in the Old Testament - "witnessed by the Law and the Prophets." Paul is saying that the free gift of God's righteousness comes to us "apart from the law," but "witnessed by the law." In other words, God brings about this gift of righteousness without using the works of the law to do it. He did it in the life and death of Jesus. But that very law taught this would be so and called people to hope in God's mercy.

Now the easiest way to show this is by looking forward just a few verses into chapter four. Here we see two examples of how the Old Testament witnessed to justification by faith. In Romans 4:3, Paul refers to Abraham and quotes Genesis 15:6:

Romans 4:3 (NKJV) For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness."

That's Paul's first Old Testament illustration. Then in verse 6, he refers to David and says:

Romans 4:6 (NKJV) just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:

So David and Abraham (or Genesis and Psalms) witness to the righteousness that comes by faith, even though they don't yet know the fullness of how it will come about through the life and death of Christ.

When they trusted in God, God reckoned it as righteousness. They were justified by faith. It was Jesus, hundreds of years later, who carried their sins and vindicated the justice of God in passing over their sins.

3. It is acquired by faith - "the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ..." Faith is believing the promises of God. It is taking God at his word.

Romans 4:5 (NKJV) But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

4. It is provided for all who believe - "to all and on all who believe." The "all" here primarily refers to "all classes" - Jews and Gentiles. But what we must see here is that your background doesn't matter. All that matters is that you believe the gospel. Anyone who believes receives the righteousness of God - drug dealer, child molester, murderer, rapist, or homosexual. The end of verse 22 says, "For there is no difference." There is no difference, because we are all sinners in God's sight and worthy of his wrath.

Verse 23 gives the universal need of every human being. And verse 24 gives the all-sufficient remedy for that need. These are the words of God spoken through the apostle Paul. They tell us our true condition as human beings. And they tell us what God has done to save those who put their trust in his Son, Jesus.

Romans 3:23 (NKJV) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

A literal rendering of this would be "all sinned". It is in the past tense. The same Greek word and tense is used in Romans 5:12 where God is looking back to our sin in Adam as our federal head. When Adam sinned, we sinned. All of us have sinned. No exceptions. That was the point of Romans 1:18-3:20.

The words "come short" are in the present tense, we are continually coming short. The Greek word used here is hustereo. This same word is translated "to be in want" in Luke 15:14; "to suffer need" in Philippians 4:12; "being destitute" in Hebrews 11:37; and "lack" in Matthew 19:20. So we are all continually "in want, suffering need, being destitute, and lacking" of the glory of God.

All have sinned, and we are lacking the glory of God. But what does that mean? What does it mean to "lack the glory of God"?

Glory is from the Greek word doxa. It has come down to us in our word "doxology". How it got to mean glory, praise, and honor is an interesting study. Hundreds of years before Christ, there was a word commonly used in Greece, which means: "to seem, to appear." The noun of the words came to mean "an opinion," which is the way a matter appears or seems to one person. Little by little the word began to be used for an opinion of a person, whether a good opinion or a bad opinion, and finally, in the Bible, it began to be used for a good opinion only. From there on, it comes to mean: "praise, honor, and glory" resulting from a good opinion.

Men who had the right opinion of God were able to form a correct estimate of His greatness and majesty. Hence, they began to consider more and more of the attributes of God, which He has revealed: His power; His majesty; His love; His greatness; His loving kindness; His tender mercies; His goodness; His perfections without end. Therefore, little by little, the word came to include praise of God of all that He is and for all that He thinks and does.

Our Anglo-Saxon word "worth" is equivalent to the word "glory." When we think of the worth of God, we are thinking of the glory of God. And when we praise Him, we are acknowledging His worth and are therefore engaged in the contemplation of His worthship. Now, as "worth-ship" was hard to pronounce, the difficult letters were dropped in the course of time and our noun "worship" is the result. There is no difference in meaning between the worship of God, the praise and adoration of God, and the glory of God.

In describing those who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18), Paul says in 1:23, "[they] exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image." And 1:28 says, "They disapproved of having God in their knowledge." So the picture we have is that all have sinned and that sin is essentially rejection of God and his glory as the supreme value of our lives.Sin considers God and his glory, and instead of loving God's glory and treasuring God's glory, sin exchanges God's glory (worth) for something else. That is what sin is.

Sin has to do with God, mainly. It is not mainly hurting people, though it does hurt people. Mainly, it is dishonoring God. It is belittling his glory (worth) - by not trusting him, and not treasuring him, and not wanting him as the foundation and center of our lives. All have sinned and are exchanging and, therefore, lacking the glory of God and, therefore, dishonoring the glory of God.

God created the universe to display his glory:

Isaiah 43:7 (NKJV) Everyone who is called by My name, Whom I have created for My glory; I have formed him, yes, I have made him."

The reason we exist and everything else exists is to display the greatness of the perfections of God. The universe is all about God. The reason there is so much dysfunction and misery in the world is because the world is in rebellion against the purpose of the world. It shouldn't surprise us that, if the world was designed by God to display his glory, and the human race is intent on glorifying everything but God, there would be great upheaval and malfunction and misery in the world.

All have sinned and are lacking the glory of God. We have traded it away. We have loved other things more. And so we have treated God and his glory with indifference and lukewarm attention. There is, therefore, a massive problem for every one of us; how shall we get right with God, and be saved from this God-dishonoring condition of sin? How shall we ever be accepted in eternity by God when all of us have scorned his infinite worth so deeply by treating him as if he had less worth than a weekend hobby? The answer is given in:

Romans 3:24 (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

What is so great about this verse is that it is all about what God has done to save us, NOT what we do to save ourselves. You remember that this section of Romans began with the great turn in verse 21, "But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested." Some great event has happened that manifests the righteousness of God - not the legal righteousness of the Law that condemns sinners, but the free gift of righteousness that justifies sinners. What is that great event? What happened in history that makes Paul say, "NOW, the righteousness of God has been manifested"? Verse 24 tells us what that great event is and what the effects of it are.

This verse is all about what God has done to save us and how he did it. We need to see this and think about and pray over it and marvel at it.

So consider the three descriptions in this verse of how God has acted to make sinners right with himself.
The first phrase is :

1. "Being Justified"

Notice three things about this phrase. First, the verb is passive; it says "being justified," not "justifying." We are not doing this; it is being done to us. Justifying is something that God does, not something that we do. We are "being justified." God is justifying. He is the actor here. We are the ones acted upon. This is the way salvation is. It is finally and decisively the act of God the Father.

Second, notice that in the word "justified" is the word "just." Now "just" is essentially the same as "righteous." I point this out because in the Greek, the word "justified" here and "righteousness" in verse 22 have the same root (dikai), which shows that the meaning of "being justified" in verse 24 and the meaning of God's "righteousness through faith" in verse 22 are very similar. In other words, what happens in being justified is that the righteousness of God comes to us as justification.

But that raises a question, and this is the third observation about the phase "being justified." In what sense do we receive righteousness? Are we made righteous in the act of justification? Or are we declared righteous in the act of justification? Consider Proverbs:

Proverbs 17:15 (NKJV) He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.

Justifying is something that a judge does. The opposite of justify is condemn. When you condemn someone, you declare their guilt and assign them their punishment. You don't make them guilty. And when you justify someone, you declare their innocence and assign them their freedom.

So justifying is not making someone just but declaring someone just. You can see this quite clearly in Luke 7:29 where Jesus has just praised John the Baptist and then Luke says:

Luke 7:29 (NKJV) And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God [same word as Romans 3:24], having been baptized with the baptism of John.

God is justified by men. What does that mean? It means he is declared to be just.

So justification is not an act of God that makes us righteous. It is an act of God that declares us righteous. God's act of justification is not inside us, but outside of us. It is not a change of our nature or state, but a change of our standing before him. It is not the same as sanctification, which is done in us and does change our character. Sanctification is the work of the Spirit of God gradually changing us into people who live righteously. Justification is the act of God; once for all declaring us just and righteous in his sight.

So the next description we see in verse 24 of how God has acted to make sinners right with himself is:

2. "Freely by His grace"

"Freely" is from the Greek word dorean, which means: "for nothing, gratuitously, or gift-wise." Dorean is used nine times in the New Testament. Let's look at a few of them to get its meaning.

Galatians 2:21 (NKJV) "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain [dorean - for nothing]."
2 Thessalonians 3:8 (NKJV) nor did we eat anyone's bread free of charge [dorean], but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you,
Revelation 21:6 (NKJV) And He said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely [dorean] to him who thirsts.

I think that one of the most striking uses is by our Lord in:

John 15:25 (NKJV) "But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, 'They hated Me without a cause [dorean].'

The cause of their hatred of Christ was in them, not in Christ. In this same way the cause of our justification is in God and NOT IN US.

We see here the doctrine of "Unconditional Election" - God chose those whom he would save according to His purpose, according to His sovereign will. Election is not based upon some foreseen condition that some of us meet and others fail to meet. God's choice of the elect was"without a cause"; in them the cause was in God.

"By His Grace" Being justified is a gift by his grace, . . ." The word "grace" is the Greek word charis which means: "unmerited favor, or kindness shown to one who is utterly undeserving." In the phrase "freely by his grace", the idea of "free" is redoubled to show that our justification is all of God.

Grace is one of the most important words in the letters of Paul. He uses it 95 times. What does he mean here that God's act of justifying is "by his grace"? The easiest way to see it is to look a few verses later in Romans 4:4, because here is a fundamental insight.

Romans 4:4 (NKJV) Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

In other words, if you work for somebody, you don't get grace, you get wages. If you work for someone, what you bring about is not grace, but debt. They owe you wages. This is why it's an abomination to try to work for God. God cannot be put in anyone's debt. As Romans 11:35 says:

Romans 11:35 (NKJV) "Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?"

The answer is "no one," and the reason given is that "from him and through him and to him are all things" (Romans 11:36).

So if you are going to get something by grace, you can't work for it. Grace is the good that you get from someone when he owes you nothing. So what Paul means when he says that we are "justified as a gift by his grace" is that we can't work for justification. So the phrase "as a gift" means: "you can't pay for it." And the phrase "by his grace"means: "you can't work for it."

How can God declare a sinner to be righteous? If we don't pay for it, and we don't work for it, then what's the basis of it? How can it be just to justify the ungodly?

3. "Through the Redemption which is in Christ Jesus"

The last phrase gives part of the answer, and the rest of the answer comes in verse 25. What does redemption mean? It means: "deliverance at a cost" or "release by payment of a price." Embedded in the word "redemption" in the original language apolutrosis, is the little word lutron, "ransom." In other words, the idea of redemption is deliverance or release by payment of a ransom. In redemption, someone's release or deliverance is accomplished at the cost of a ransom payment.

What's the ransom? What's the payment? The word "ransom" (lutron) is used only in Mark 10:45 (and its parallel),

Mark 10:45 (NKJV) "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

The answer is that the life of the Son of Man is the ransom paid in redemption. That's what Paul means when he says, "the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." The redemption is in Christ Jesus because Jesus is the ransom. He gave his life so that there could be release and deliverance.

So, here is the foundation of our justification: Christ gave his life as a ransom for many. He paid the price for our release from sin and guilt and condemnation. This is why God now, as a gift by his grace, justifies the ungodly. Everything is owing to the death of Christ. This is why you can't pay for it, and you can't work for it. It's all of Christ. The basis of your justification is not in yourself or anything you do; it is "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

So if being justified is God's declaration that you are righteous in his sight, and if you can't pay for it because it's "a free gift," and you can't work for it because it's "by his grace," and if you were ransomed through the redemption in Christ Jesus,
then how do you get this justification?

Romans 3:22 (NKJV) even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;

You receive this justification by turning to Christ absolutely helpless, with no payment in your hand, and no works to your credit, and trusting his utterly free and sovereign grace.

Paul now begins to describe this redemption:

Romans 3:25 (NKJV) whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,

Whom [referring back to Christ] God displayed publicly [or, put forth] as a propitiation. We are declared righteous through redemption on the basis of propitiation.

To understand Propitiation is to understand the gospel, and without it, you have no gospel. The Greek word used here is hilasterion, which means: "the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice." It is the turning of God's wrath away from the sinner by a sacrifice made to satisfy God, to bring back God's favor toward the one who is offering that sacrifice.

Hilasterion is only used one other place in Scripture and that is:

Hebrews 9:5 (NKJV) and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat [hilasterion]. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

Here it is translated "mercy seat." It is also the same Greek word which the LXX uses to translate this word "mercy seat". This word hilasterion involves the meaning and significance and purpose of the mercy seat. The mercy seat was a top for the ark of the covenant, and in the ark was the ten commandments. An uncovered ark is a throne of judgment. This might explain a very difficult Old Testament passage.

1 Samuel 6:19-20 (NKJV) Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth Shemesh said, "Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? And to whom shall it go up from us?"

In order for them to look into the ark, the mercy seat had to be removed. If you saw the movie, Indiana Jones, you may remember the scene where they took the mercy seat off of the ark, and all who looked into it died. In removing the mercy seat, they exposed the law; and apart from the mercy seat, the law is death to all who break it. The Lord Jesus Christ is our mercy seat. He stands between the sinner who violated the law and a holy God.

Some of the critics say that this is a pagan notion. Hilasterion, in its classical form, was used of the act of appeasing the Greek gods by a sacrifice.

Prince Paris had carried off Princess Helen to Troy. The Greek expeditionary force had taken ship to recover her but was held up half-way by persistent contrary winds. Agamemnon, the Greek general, sent home for his daughter and ceremonially slaughtered her as a sacrifice to mollify the evidently hostile gods. The move paid off; west winds blew again, and the fleet reached Troy without further difficulty.

This bit of the Trojan war legend, which dates from about 1000 B.C., mirrors an idea of propitiation on which pagan religion allover the world, and in every age, has been built. They would take a present to their god and try to bribe him. They would try to turn the god's favor toward them by a sacrifice.

This is not the Biblical idea. There is no sacrifice we can offer and nothing we can do to turn away God's wrath. But God himself has done what we never could. "Whom God has set forth as a propitiation..." It is God himself providing the propitiation in his own Son. It is God contriving a way whereby His own wrath upon sin has its full vent, and yet that sinners might be saved. The very God whom we have offended has provided the way whereby the offense has been dealt with. His anger, His wrath against the sinner, has been satisfied; he is appeased.

Romans 3:25 (NKJV) whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,

Notice here the purpose of Christ's death - to demonstrate God's righteousness. Now, why does God need to demonstrate his righteousness? Because in the forbearance of God, He passed over the sins previously committed. The problem that needed solving was that God, for some reason, seemed to be unrighteous, and wanted to vindicate himself and clear his name. Indeed, verse 26 says he would have been unrighteous, or unjust, in justifying sinners, if Christ had not been put forward as a propitiation by his blood. God's righteousness is at stake. His name or reputation or honor must be vindicated. Before the cross can be for our sake, it must be for God's sake.

Why did God face the problem of needing to give a public vindication of his righteousness? The answer is in the last phrase of verse 25 and at the end of verse 26: "because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;"and because he is "the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

Now what do those two phrases mean? They mean that now, and for centuries, God has been doing what Psalm 103:10 says:

Psalms 103:10 (NKJV) He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.

He has been passing over thousands of sins. He has been forgiving them and letting them go and not punishing them.

King David is a good example. In 2 Samuel 12, he is confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. Nathan says, "Why have you despised the word of the Lord?" (2 Samuel 12:9).

David feels the rebuke of Nathan, and in verse 13 he says, "I have sinned against the Lord." To this, Nathan responds, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die." Just like that! Adultery and murder are "passed over." It is almost incredible. Our sense of justice screams out, "No! You can't just let it go like that. He deserves to die or be imprisoned for life!" But Nathan says, "The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die."

That is what Paul means in Romans 3:25 by the passing over of sins previously committed. But why is that a problem? Indeed, how many Christians wrestle with the fact that our own forgiveness is a threat to the righteousness of God?

Remember what we saw in verse 23: "All have sinned and fall short of [or lack] the glory of God."What's at stake in sinning is the glory of God. When Nathan confronts David, he quotes God as saying, "Why have you despised me?" We could imagine David saying, "What do you mean, I despised you? I didn't despise you. I wasn't even thinking of you. I was just hot after this woman, and then scared to death that people were going to find out. You weren't even in the picture."

And God would have said, "The Creator of the universe, the designer of marriage, the fountain of life, the one who holds you in being, the one who made you king - that One, I the Lord, was not even in the picture! That's right, David. That's exactly what I mean. You despised me." All sin is a despising of God, before it is a damage to man. All sin is a preference for the fleeting pleasures of the world over the everlasting joy of God's fellowship. David demeaned God's glory. He belittled God's worth. He dishonored God's name. That is the meaning of sin - failing to love God's glory above everything else.

Therefore, the problem when God passes over sin is that God seems to agree with those who despise his name and belittle his glory. He seems to be saying it is a matter of indifference that his glory is spurned. He seems to condone the low assessment of his worth. That is what the passing over of sin (forgiving sin), justifying the ungodly (Romans 4:5) communicates; by itself, God's glory and his name and worth are of minor value, or no value. And that is the essence of unrighteousness. So God appears to be, and indeed would be unrighteous if he passed over sin without saving us in a way that demonstrates his infinite passion for his glory - which is his righteousness.

But according to Romans, this is the most basic problem that God solved by the death of his Son. Let's read it again:

Romans 3:25-26 (NKJV) whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

God could have settled accounts by punishing all sinners with hell. This would have demonstrated that he does not minimize our falling short of his glory - our belittling his honor. But it was not God's delight to destroy.

John 3:17 (NKJV) "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

At the end of verse 26, Paul shows what God's two great goals were in the death of Jesus. Why did Jesus die? It was "so that [God] would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."To be righteous, and to reckon as righteous those who don't have their own righteousness - these seem to contradict each other. God's righteousness would dictate: pour out your wrath on sinners who exchange your glory for other values - that would be righteous. Or: have no wrath against the ungodly - that would be unrighteous. But if God wills that he demonstrate the infinite value of his glory, and that he justify the ungodly, then someone, namely Jesus Christ, had to bear the wrath of God to show that God does not take lightly the scorning of his glory. That's why the word "propitiation" in verse 25 is so important. Christ bore the wrath of God for our sins, and turned it away from us.

Christ is our propitiation. That is, out of love for the glory of God, he absorbs the wrath of God that was rightfully ours, so that it might be plain that when we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus" (verse 24), God will be manifestly just, righteous, in counting as righteous those who trust in Jesus.

So, let's close by making crystal clear how we get connected with this great work of God in Jesus. Three times in this short paragraph Paul says it.

God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

The righteousness of God is for all who believe. The righteousness that you do not have in yourself, but must have for eternal life, is given to you "as a gift, by his grace" through your faith. Trust him. This is what he calls for - not a payment, not works that put him in your debt, but "trust in him who justifies the ungodly" (Romans 4:5).

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