Romans 3:21-26 reads, “But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed – attested by the law and the prophets – that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 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. God 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.”
This part of Romans 3 will be the crux of our focus, but we will be visiting parts prior to this section so that we can understand the full weight of this passage Paul is trying to convey. We’ll be walking through the first few chapters of Romans to understand how what he is saying accumulates in verses 21-26. Prior to this part in Romans 3 Paul is summarizing the significance of the human condition. He takes the law (which the Jews were to uphold), the behavior of humanity (which is radically opposed to the law of God), and the certainty of God’s righteous judgment (which will judge the discrepancies between the law and human behavior) and examines what these three things mean for us. These three ideas are intimately intertwined in his examination of humanity, and his goal is expose the sin of the world, the detraction from God’s perfect standard, and how God will fill in the cracks against the broken law with His grace.
But first, Paul wants to focus in the sinfulness of the Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul starts in Romans 1 where he tells his original readers the desire he has to visit them and preach the Gospel in Rome. Part of this desire to preach the Gospel in Rome extends from his examining the guilt of the Gentile world; this guilt is exactly what he mentions next which is a bold move considering that his original audience were Christians living in Rome (since this letter is his epistle to the Romans). But why do the Gentiles have guilt? Paul gives us the answer in verses 18-20: “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” Paul reminds us of what is established in Genesis 1: God’s created order. God is a Creator and what He makes is good. Not only is it good in itself but it is meant to drive us to a greater Good: God Himself.
Through God’s created order He demonstrates who He is to us. Psalms 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.” Through the created order, from the starry sky above to the moral law within, we understand who is God. We understand that He is Creator (He created the universe), intelligent and wise (He fashioned it), merciful (for He gives rain to the just and unjust alike), and moral (for we are inwardly compelled to do certain things and stay away from others as Paul says in 2:14-15), but Paul says we have largely abandoned that general revelation from God. Our thinking was darkened by sin (v. 21). We tore down these notions of right and wrong and the nature of God and constructed in their place our own notions of how we want things to be. Here we see the emergence of idolatry. In verse 23 Paul says the notion of God as immortal and glorious is reduced to being fashioned in our own image. This is the root of paganism. God is constructed to resemble mortal man and animals, so instead of affirming the created order of human beings made in the image of God, idolatry constructs God in our own image. It is an upheaval of both God Himself and His created order, and it leads to the sins listed in verses 26-32. Paul’s point in mentioning these sins is to demonstrate that their is a rebellion against the way things ought to be. Sexual immorality, greed, murder, arrogance, pride, hatred of God, inventions of evil, and celebration of wrong is not the way creation ought to be. So there exists a detraction in the Gentile world against a true conception of God and His good created order.
In fact, it is this poor conception of God which leads to sin. This is why I cannot emphasize the importance of immersing oneself in the Bible where God tells us who He is. People who live in and justify sin often have a false understanding of God which justifies their sin. This fulfills what Paul says in v. 23 where persons have made God to resemble man or they have cast Him in their image. It is a reversal of the created order.
This is Romans chapter 1.
You can imagine the readers’ reaction to this letter thus far. Paul is condemning the Gentile world for their rebellion against God and His created order. He calls out the proud, the deceitful, the blasphemous, the unloving, and celebrators of sin. I am sure his readers (members of the Church) agreed with every word and then some. You can imagine the self-righteous person reading every sin he mentions and saying, “Yes, go get them! They deserve what is coming to them!” Paul then takes a dramatic turn in 2:1: “Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things.” He is calling out his own readers for their hypocrisy and their lifestyles of rebellion. He’s calling us out. He places all people, whether they be Christians or not, on the same playing field. Sinners in the hands of a just and righteous God. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is the grace of God, and we didn’t earn the grace of God (as Paul will say in chapter 3) so why is there boasting among us? Why is there judgment? Boast in that you know God, not that you’re somehow morally superior. Paul shows us such thinking is a sham. Paul declares there is no favoritism with God in verse 11. Both Jew and Gentile are subject to God’s wrath, and without mercy there is no hope.
So Paul then declares God’s presentation of the law: the way of life given to the Jews in order to demonstrate how to be righteous before Him. This includes not only the Ten Commandments but also the plethora of commands given to Moses including sacrifices, rituals, civil disputes, and daily living. If you have ever read the first five books of the Bible, you know how hefty those commands are. They are all encompassing, and they must each be followed to a “T”. It is no surprise then how awfully we fail at reaching God’s standard of righteousness.
Despite the obvious failure of persons to uphold perfectly the law of God, there were Jews in Rome who believed their righteousness was secured because of their adherence to the law, which manifested itself in their adherence to the law concerning circumcision. Because these persons were circumcised according to the law, they believed the law could make them righteous, and they argued that Gentiles themselves should follow the law of Moses and be circumcised.
Paul’s rebuttal of this mindset centers on what he says in chapter 2:25-29. He submits that circumcision only benefits those who keep the law, but the unfortunate truth is that all persons are lawbreakers in some form or another. It seems odd that a person would hold up one aspect of the law (circumcision) while holding in less significance other aspects of the law. As James writes, “For He who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker” (James 2:11). In the same way, Paul argues, “For circumcision benefits you if you observe the law, but if you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25). So adherence to specific aspects of the law is useless.
Further, Paul redefines what true circumcision ought to be in v. 28-9 when he says, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart – by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God.”
So Paul says Jews and Gentiles are alike in their guilt before God. For all are under sin, and there are no special groups apart from sin’s grasp.
This is Romans chapter 2.
So here is the end of Paul’s point in the first few chapters of Romans: There is a created order brought forth by a glorious and holy God. We have rejected that order to raise up something of our own creation, but it is sinful, imperfect, and rebellious. Not even those in the Church can claim moral superiority for we have done the same things and are just as guilty. We all fall short of God’s perfect standard and are worthy of God’s judgment, but even when God gives us the law we cannot satisfy Him for we are still in sin. In fact, the law gives sin its power not because the law is evil but because we are wicked. The law declares us guilty so we are still in our sin. This condition is not limited to a special group of people. Paul universalizes this problem by quoting a variety of verses in the Old Testament: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Viper’s venom is under their lips. Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths, and the path of peace they have no known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:10-8).
This is the weight of the human condition. No one has unfairly put this upon us. We are not victims though we may claim it. We have at no point said, “I don’t want this sin and rebellion. I want God.” We have willingly chosen our sin over God; we have openly done heaped our guilt upon ourselves. We chose and still everyday choose sin and rebellion against God. All stand condemned before a holy and just God.
Thank you, Paul. What a cheerful letter. Are there any good news then? Paul then moves in another drastic direction and uncovers hope.
In ancient Greece, there were often plays which presented a seemingly unsolvable conflict or loose end in the story. The story progresses through its stages, but when it came to the end the characters needed a way for the play to reach a satisfactory ending. A tactic often used was to pull what we call today a “Deus Ex Machina” (which means “God from the machine”). The writers would present a god or god-like figure who would use their power to tighten up all loose ends and bring the play to resolution. Sometimes this character would be introduced via crane as they would lower him down from above the rafters using a pulley system. Often this figure was unexpected and it came as a great relief for the characters. It would solve the problem in a way the main characters themselves could not have done. I’ll give you an example: When I was in middle school, my family visited a lake on the 4th of July because the town would shoot off fireworks over the lake; the entire town would come out for this event. Many families would get boats so that they could watch from the water, so we got a boat and went out onto the water. After the show, we tried to start up the engine and it wouldn’t turn on. The engine, lights, and radio went completely dark on us. So we were in the dark on a boat in the middle of a lake with other boats speeding past us. At one point my brothers and I had to get flashlights to direct the other boats away from us while our dad tried to get the engine running. We were stuck like this for about half an hour when another boat stopped to check on us. We told them our problem, and the other guy in his boat told us to take off the cover of the engine and yank the cord that was there. We tried to do so and failed several times, but the other guy tried it once and (of course) the engine immediately started. Thanks to this random stranger, we were able to get back safely to our dock. In a dangerous circumstance, someone came out of nowhere to save us.
This exactly what we see Paul doing in the first few chapters of Romans. He starts off presenting the conflict: we are dead in sin. We are rebels against God who distort both His created order and good conceptions of Him. We cannot even stand in judgment of those deemed “worse” than us, because we are all totally depraved of anything righteous. God tells us how to do good through the law, but we can’t follow the law perfectly. Jew and Gentile said equally condemned before Him. Our circumcision means nothing. Our religious rituals mean nothing. There is no one righteous, not even one. We deserve the full measure of God’s judgement.
BUT, like the solution to an irresolvable conflict God Himself enters the picture in the person Jesus of Nazareth. He rejects the lifestyle of the Gentiles and rebellious Jews, and He fulfills the law in its entirety living the life we never could. He Himself is our Righteous Judge who will judge the living and the dead, and since He has fulfilled the law entirely He is able to justify us apart from the law not by our works that we do (for remember it was our works that condemned us) but by the righteousness His bestows upon us through faith (that is, trust and hope) in Him. This is the Gospel. That while we were still sinners, God the Son, empowered by God the Spirit, acting in accordance with the will of God the Father left the glory of angels singing His praise and traded it for jeers, scorn, and mockery. That while we were still sinners, God desired that not a single person be lost from Him but that all should come to know His grace. That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And He rose again in confirmation of who He is and for the hope for all those who would believe in Him. This is the Gospel. This is our Deus Ex Machina: our hope and resolution despite hellish circumstances. This grace is offered freely to all no matter who you are for their is no distinction among persons. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-4).
So, my prayer is two-fold. First, I pray for the Christians reading this sermon. I pray you would never lose sight of the awe that comes from experiencing the Gospel. May you never treat it as trivial or common but would rather immerse yourself into it as it is the power that saves for all people to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Secondly, I pray for the non-Christians here. The lukewarm, the skeptic, or whatever you may be. May you contemplate the weight of what is being said. There exists a God with a love so wide, so deep, so large that He freely offers up Himself for you to be saved from your sin. Better: to experience eternal life. Better: to know Him. This is what God offers you, and should you feel compelled to act upon this gift of grace talk to me or some godly person you trust. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would lead you in all these things. Amen.
“…since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:30-1).