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In our last lesson we left off with the weight of our own condemnation and unfaithfulness. There is no one who is righteous. All have turned away. But this problem of our unfaithfulness has not given cause to God to be unfaithful toward his covenantal promises. God is going to remain faithful to his word, even if every person were a liar (3:4). Our sinfulness reveals God’s goodness, loving kindness, and mercy. It does not allow us to sin because God is faithful. Rather, we are to be moved to love God because of his devotion and love toward us. This devotion and faithfulness of God is completely undeserved by us because we have broken God’s covenant. Let’s pick up our study in Romans 3:19.

The Function of the Law of Moses (3:19-20)

Paul simply points out that the law of Moses did not bring salvation or justification, but a knowledge of sin. The Old Testament speaks and what it shows is that all people are guilty before God. The “stopped mouth” (ESV, NKJV) is a courtroom picture. By placing one’s hand over one’s mouth one was indicating that they had no more to say in one’s own defense. How could the whole world be liable to God’s judgment because of a law given to the Jews? The answer is that if the Jews, who had the privilege of being God’s covenantal and elect people, could not keep the law, then it follows that no one, including the Gentiles, can. No one can present a defense. The mouth of every person is shut when it comes to a defense. Both Jews and Gentiles are guilty.

Verse 20 is very important. Appealing to the law of Moses as a defense will not work because the law shows that Israel is guilty. The law shows that all our guilty. The Jews thought that possession of the law of Moses, circumcision, and keeping food laws and sabbaths would legitimize their covenantal status. The Jews appealed to these things to show that, though sinful, they should still be justified by God. Paul’s point is that the keeping of these things does not give the verdict of righteousness. All who attempt to prove their covenantal status by appealing to the possession of the Law would find that the Law itself accuses them of sin. The Law did not show that Jews were different from Gentiles. The Law revealed that the Jews were the same as the Gentiles. These covenantal marks (works of the law) were of no value because the Jews were not doers of the law, just like the rest of the world. I think we are able to grasp this problem. The more we try to keep the law, the more we realize that we are failures at keeping the law. But this was God’s plan. The law of Moses revealed the failings of the people and teaches the concept of sin. Paul gives a more detailed explanation of the purpose of the law of Moses in Galatians 3:19-4:7. The law acted as a babysitter, giving us the elementary regulations, until the fullness of time came (Galatians 3:22-24; 4:3-4). Paul makes a quicker point in Romans to say that the Law brings the knowledge of sin. The Law does not bring justification, nor was it intended to bring justification.

God’s Righteousness Revealed (3:21-26)

21 But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets— 22 that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. (3:21-22; HCSB)

Therefore, it is not through the Law of Moses that God’s righteousness can be revealed. The Law of Moses reveals sin. There must be another way. Paul points out that the other way has been attested by the Law and the Prophets. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is an excellent attestation that God’s righteousness would not come through the covenant made when Israel came out of Egypt. Instead, God said through the prophet Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with Israel, a covenant where God would forgive their sins. The Law of Moses, the first covenant, could not do this. The writer of Hebrews makes this point clear in Hebrews 8 and Hebrews 10. A new covenant was required because the first covenant had a fault (Hebrews 8:7). It was our fault for not keeping it (Hebrews 8:8) and there was no provision for God to be able to forgive sins and remain righteous. This is the problem God has.

We need to carefully examine the answer given in verse 22. There are two ways to translate this passage. Most translations read as the ESV, “…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Notice that the emphasis in on our faith in Jesus. There is another way to translate this passage, reflected by the KJV and NET.

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: (KJV)

…namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction…. (NET)

Notice the difference: Most translations read that it is our faith in Jesus. But another way to understand the verse is that it is speaking about the faithfulness of Jesus. Many of the translations note this possible rendering in the margins. The HCSB marginal note reads, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The NRSV marginal note reads, “through the faith of Jesus.” The TNIV marginal note reads, “through the faithfulness of.” The point is that the text can be translated either way and understood either way. So which way should we understand the text?

I believe we should go with the second option, that is, that Paul is speaking about the faithfulness of Jesus. I will present to you two main reasons. (1) A theological advantage: In verse 21 Paul is explaining that God’s righteousness has now been revealed. God’s righteousness has been revealed, not through the Law of Moses, but through the faithfulness of Jesus. God’s righteousness is not revealed in our personal faith in Jesus. Rather, God’s righteousness, that is, his faithfulness to the promise to Abraham, is revealed in the perfect life of Jesus. It is in the faithful living of Jesus that God’s righteousness has been unveiled to the world. (2) A grammar advantage: Read verse 22 carefully the way most translations have the verse. “…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.” Do you notice that this is essentially redundant? “Through faith in Jesus” and “for all who believe” is talking about the same people doing the same thing. Having faith in Jesus is the same as saying, “for all who believe.” But notice that we have a clear picture from Paul if we understand the text the way the KJV, NET, and the margins of most translations read. God’s righteousness is revealed through the faithful living of Jesus and that righteousness of God is available for all who believe. Now we have made sense of this verse. God’s righteousness has been revealed through Jesus’ faithfulness and is available to every person who believes in Jesus. Go back to Romans 1:17 and notice that this fits exactly what we learned in that first chapter.

“For in it [the gospel] God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17; HCSB). There are two faiths that are in this equation. Remember what we learned from the message of Habakkuk: God is faithful, now you must be faithful. Paul simply expands this. God’s righteousness has been revealed through Jesus’ faithfulness and is available to all who have faith. God’s righteousness is available to all who have faith. That is, God’s righteousness is a shorthand for speaking about God’s faithfulness to keep the Abrahamic promises. God shows that he can still keep his promises through Jesus’ faithfulness and we have access to receive the fulfillment of those promises through faith in Jesus. Essentially, verse 26, “so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.” God can do that because of Jesus’ faithfulness. But before we look at verse 26 we need to read the explanation found in verses 23-25.

23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (HCSB)

There is no distinction. The righteousness of God is for everyone who believes, Jews and Gentiles. In the same way, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, both Jews and Gentiles. Everyone has been condemned. Everyone has the opportunity to be recipients of God’s righteousness. Not only have we sinned, but we have come up far short of God’s expectations of us. We have fallen short of God’s glory. Instead of receiving God’s wrath, those who have faith in Jesus are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. What does this mean?

  1. When we read “justified,” we need to think of a courtroom where the judge renders the verdict of “not guilty.” God is the judge and he is declaring us righteous. It is an acquittal. God is not saying that we are righteous, for God has declared that there is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). We are not morally righteous. Our character has not changed. There is nothing in the text that says that the judge or that Jesus has clothed us with his righteousness. There is nothing here about substitution or that Jesus took our place. It is a simple point. God is passing the sentence of “righteous” even though we are not righteous. God is declaring us acquitted even though we are guilty of the crime.
  2. Thus, we are justified freely. Some translations read, “justified as a gift.” The point is that this declaration is not based on what we have done. Our actions should lead to the declaration of unrighteous and guilty. The pronouncement of “righteous” is not based on what we have done.
  3. Rather, we are justified by God’s grace. God is being a merciful and gracious judge. It is out of God’s goodness that we are given the status of righteous. As we studied earlier in chapter 3, God is doing this despite our unfaithfulness.
  4. We are justified through the redemption in Jesus. Redemption, in its simplest picture, is the idea of buying something back. Redemption is certainly a picture of purchasing a slave out of slavery and into freedom. But the picture ought to go deeper in our minds. Think about what redemption meant to Israel. Redemption is directly tied to Israel’s enslavement to the Egyptians and the Passover. It brings out a picture of deliverance. The blood of Jesus is the price paid to bring about our deliverance. A new exodus has occurred. God has been faithful to his word and is bringing his people out of the slavery to sin. This is redemption.

The question must be: how can God do this? How can God declare us righteous and acquitted even though we know and God knows that we are unrighteous and guilty of sin? How can the righteous judge make such an announcement about those who earlier were standing on trial guilty and without a defense? Verses 25-26 is the explanation of how God can do this.

25 God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26 He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (3:25-26; HCSB)

This is a difficult verse because “propitiation” is not a word we use too often. Here are a couple other translations to assist our understanding.

…whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (NRSV)

God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. (NET)

Let’s read the sentence in pieces and I think this will also help us along in our study. Beginning with the last clause in verse 25 (looking at the HCSB), God previously passed over the sins committed in his restraint. God did not strike people down for their sins immediately after they were committed. How could God be merciful to the people who were committing sin after sin? How could God continue to be faithful toward them even though they were violators of the law? A just and righteous God must bring wrath against all ungodliness, as Paul stated in Romans 1:18. So God needed to demonstrate that he was in the right to continue to be merciful (the second clause of verse 25). To show that God was right to do this, God put forward Jesus as a propitiation (a sacrifice of atonement). Jesus is declared to be the reason why God could exercise restraint toward the sins previously commitment. Jesus was going to pay the price to redeem us from our sins. Knowing that Jesus would be the sacrifice for sins allowed God to be merciful and gracious rather than execute wrath upon them in the past. The sacrifice of Jesus validates God’s kindness. So often propitiation is defined as appeasing God’s wrath. But carefully read verse 25 again. God is not having to appease his wrath. Such an idea is not found anywhere in this chapter. Further, I submit to you that God needing to appease his wrath is not found anywhere in all the scriptures. Rather, God is having to justify himself for being merciful. Through the faithfulness of Jesus, God could use Jesus as the way to show that he is right in being merciful. We access that mercy seat, that sacrifice of atonement, or that propitiation, through faith in his blood. This is what verse 26 expands upon.

God demonstrates his own righteousness through the sacrifice of Jesus, not only toward those who have sinned in the past, but also for us “at the present time.” Through the blood of the faithful Jesus God can remain righteous and just (that is, right in not executing wrath immediately but being faithful to the Abrahamic promises) while at the same time declare us righteous. Remember how we entered these verses with an important question: how can God declare us righteous and acquitted when we are unrighteous and guilty? The answer is the sacrifice of Jesus. God can declare us righteous because Jesus paid the price for sins (redemption) that sets us free. The people who are declared righteous through the blood of Jesus are those who have faith in Jesus. In summary, God has shown himself to be right to bear with our sins. Rather than executing wrath, God has been faithful and merciful because Jesus is the payment for our sins. God’s righteousness (the way he fulfilled his promises and keeps his word to deliver his people from sins) is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus. Everyone who has faith in Jesus will be declared righteous (acquitted) in the law court of God. God can make that judgment of acquittal because of the blood of Jesus. Jesus’ death is the ransom price to free us from the sins we have committed. Jesus is the place where atonement is made.