For two and a half chapters of Romans, we have been looking at the sad story of the ruin of the race because of sin. Now we reach a new and glorious point in Paul’s letter. Instead of reviewing the grim story of sin and God’s wrath, we turn with relief to the wonderful news of God’s great grace to sinners through the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Romans 3:21-31 we are dealing with themes that are the very heart, not only of Paul’s letter, but of the entire Bible and therefore of reality itself. In all life and history there is nothing more important than these teachings. But who today thinks this way? Who is willing to acknowledge this in an age when abstract thought – even thinking itself – is suspect? Who even among the masses of Christian people really appreciates what Paul is saying here? Ours is an age in which people are self-absorbed and focus on immediate gratification. We tend to evaluate any religious teaching according to its apparent relevance to our present “needs” and short-term goals. No one can have success teaching basic truths about man and the universe unless our closed ways of thinking are changed. But, then, this has always been the case. It was no easier for the apostle Paul to preach the message of salvation to a generation that was busy entertaining itself by sex and circuses than for today’s Christians to minister that same word to an age that has anesthetized itself through all the media devices available to them. But we must try! We must try as Paul did! We must teach the Word of God, because it is by the Word alone that God speaks to us about what really matters.
At the beginning of Romans 3:21 we come to two tremendous words: “But now”! If we had not studied the first two and a half chapters of Romans carefully, we would not be in a position to appreciate these words, because the change they speak of would not seem to be a change at all. With no understanding of the past, we can never appreciate the present. But now we can! We have studied the past. Therefore these two words become for a cry of great joy and thanksgiving. The words “But now” indicate that something of great importance has taken place, and that this is the substance of the good news being proclaimed by Paul and other messengers of the gospel.
Here is a simple outline of this teaching: (1) God has provided a righteousness of His own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves. This is the very heart or theme of the Word of God. Although it is new in its fulfillment, it had nevertheless been fully prophesied in the Old Testament. (2) This righteousness is by grace. We don’t deserve it. In fact, we are incapable ever of deserving it. (3) Its the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for His people, redeeming them from their sins, that made this grace on God’s part possible. This is the reason for the “now” in “but now.” It is because of Jesus’ death that there is a Christian gospel. (4) This righteousness that God has graciously provided becomes ours through simple faith. Believing and trusting God in regard to the work of Jesus is the only way anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, can be saved.
We can see the importance of these teachings by noticing that they are nearly exact repetition of what Paul has already stated as the thesis of the letter. They were stated in his opening address in Romans 1:1-5. It is also what we have found in the initial statement of Paul’s thesis in Romans 1:16-17. So I repeat what I said at the beginning of this study: There is nothing in all life and history that is more important than these teachings. The issues of eternity hang on these truths, and we must be faithful to them regardless of the resistance or scorn of our contemporaries.
When a person is first presented with this pure core of Christianity, the reaction is usually revulsion. We want to save ourselves, and anything that suggests that we cannot do so is abhorrent to us. We do not want a religion that demands that we throw ourselves entirely upon the grace and mercy of God. But Christianity is not only the religion we need so desperately. It is also the only religion worth having in the long run. Let’s review why.
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then we can be saved now. We don’t have to wait until we reach some high level of attainment or pass some undetermined future test. Many people think in these terms, because they know (if they are honest with themselves) that their lives and actions are far from what they should be now and they keep striving. But this means that salvation can never be a present experience but is something always in the future. It is something such persons hope to attain, though they are afraid they may not. It is only in Christianity that this future element moves into the present. And the reason it can is that salvation in not based on our ability to accumulate acceptable merits with God, but rather on what God has already done for us. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished,” He meant what He said. His finished work is the sole grounds for our being declared righteous by God. And since it is a past accomplishment, salvation can be ours now, solely by the application of Christ’s righteousness to us as God’s gift.
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then salvation is certain. If salvation is by human works, then human works (or a lack of them) can undo it. If I can save myself, I can unsave myself. I can ruin everything. But if salvation is of God from the beginning to end, it is sure and unwavering simply because God is Himself is sure and unwavering. Since God knows the end from the beginning, nothing ever surprises Him, and He never needs to alter His plans or change His mind. What He has begun He will continue, and we can be confident of that. Paul expressed this confidence in regard to the church at Philippi in Philippians 1:6.
- If salvation is by the gift of God, apart from human doing, then human boasting is excluded, and all the glory in salvation goes to God. The boasting of human beings is bad enough in this world, where all they have to boast of is their own good looks (for which they are not responsible), their money, their friends, or whatever. Imagine how offensive it would be if they were able to brag about having earned heaven. But it’s not going to be like that! Salvation is a gift. It is receiving God’s righteousness – apart from law, apart from human doing. It is, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:9). No one in heaven will be praising man. In heaven the glory will go to God only. Thank God it is that way.
Romans 3:21-24 Reflection Questions:
When have you received grace from someone when you’ve fallen short?
What does God’s fulfillment of His covenant promises to Israel reveal about Himself?
We see that the “righteousness” or “justice” referred to in Romans 3:21-24 means showing God’s faithfulness to the covenant. How does Paul say God did this inn verses 21-24?