If God failed to fulfill His promise to Abraham, then He would be unjust. If God fulfilled His promise by simply declaring that everyone was now justified, then He would be unjust under that circumstance as well. If He doesn’t save the nations, then He is unjust. If He saves the nations, then He is unjust. But He has declared His intention to Abraham to do this anyway—He will be true, even though every man fails. How will He be able to do that? This passage answers that question.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 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: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God . . .” (Rom. 3:21-31).
Summary of the Text
The righteousness of God, His faithfulness to Abraham, is now manifested. The law and the prophets testify to this, and His righteousness is now manifested “apart from law” (v. 21). What do those who believe receive? Unto all and upon all that believe, this righteousness of God comes in the form of Jesus Christ’s faithful obedience (v. 22). There is no difference between Jew and Gentile (as we have learned), and so we see that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (v. 23). But as they share in the dilemma, they share in the gospel that delivers them from the dilemma—justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (v. 24). This Jesus was “set forth” to be a propitiation for those who have faith in His blood (v. 25). This propitiation (an averting of wrath) was necessary to vindicate God’s righteousness—His forbearance of sins in the past could have led to false conclusions (v. 25). This propitiation in the present time declares His righteousness—for the one who believes in Jesus, He may be both just and the one who justifies (v. 26). This kind of salvation excludes boasting because it excludes works (v. 27). This is why a man (Jew or Gentile) is justified by faith, apart from the deeds of the law (v. 28). The Jew is justified apart from Torah, and the Gentile is justified apart from natural law. This glorious provision of justification apart from law is given to both Jew and Gentile (v. 29). One God, one new mankind, one faith (v. 30). Does this mean the Torah was worthless? No, not at all. This fulfills the whole point of the Torah (v. 31), which was to prepare for the Messiah.
The Righteousness of God
The righteousness of God is not mediated to us directly. God promises to bring a Messiah, and His righteous word is fulfilled when He does so. And what does that Messiah do? He reveals or manifests the righteousness of God in two ways. First, God shows His righteousness by fulfilling His promise (v. 21). Second, God shows His righteousness by having His Son live a perfect, sinless life—God sent an Israelite who would finally live as Israel was required to live by the Torah (v. 22). He would be perfect. God shows His faithfulness by sending a Messiah who would be faithful on our behalf. Since all have been shut up into the same prisonhouse of sin (v. 23), it only makes sense that the key that will unlock that common prisonhouse will be the same key—the key of faith. Faith in what? Faith in whom? Faith in the righteous God who sent Jesus Christ to be faithful on our behalf (v. 22).
Falling Short of Glory
It is important for us to note that Paul is talking about the salvation of the world. He does not have a truncated focus, that of trying to get a handful of individual souls into heaven when they die. Now it is just fine to go to heaven when you die, and you have the church’s blessing for those of you who want to do so. But the salvation plan that Paul is outlining here is nothing less than a restoration of Eden, and a great deal more than that (Rom. 5:20). Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and it has not yet penetrated the heart of man . . . what God has in store for us. But all of it is connected in some way to that word glory.
A Cluster of Salvation Words
Too often we just lump all the biblical words together that describe some aspect of our salvation, and treat them as though they were synonyns. But they are not. So here is a brief glossary. The words justify and righteousness are, in the Greek, part of the same dikai-word group. When someone is justified, he has been declared righteous—in the courtroom sense of that word. Redemption refers to a purchase (v. 24), the purchase price being the blood of Jesus Christ (v. 25). The word propitiation means the “satisfaction or averting of wrath.” So Christ in His death was a propititation, a substitutionary sacrifice, and His blood was the redemption payment. Because He died, the holy wrath that was due to sin was fully satisfied, and it became possible for a holy God to declare “not guilty” over those who were . . . guilty.
Declaration of Righteousness
We have two declarations of righteousness going on here. One is the declaration of our righteousness, our vindication in the courtroom of God’s justice. This is what is meant by justification, a verdict which we appropriate by faith alone. But there is another declaration, mentioned in both vv. 25 & 26. God is declaring His righteousness, not simply because the Messiah showed up as promised, but because the Messiah died as a propitiation. Why was this necessary? Well, because God in His forebearance had left previous sins unpunished (v. 25). The cross is the declaration of God’s righteousness, in that all our sin is now dealt with. When sin in the past is remitted, and when our sin in the present is remitted, the question arises: how can a holy God do that?
The Just God Who Justifies
Unbelievers like to pretend that the great moral dilemma is “how a loving God could send anyone to Hell.” But that is not a real problem. It doesn’t even approximate a problem. He could do that by giving everyone their paycheck. The wages of sin is death. The real problem, the one requiring the death of Jesus as a solution, is how a holy God can let anyone into heaven. And this is the place where Paul describes how it works. God wants to declare His righteousness two ways. He wants to declare that He is just and the one who justifies. He could be just and damn us all. He could forgive us in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way, but that would make Him unjust along with us. The gospel is found in that glorious word and.
Faith, Not Works
If we are saved in this fashion, what is excluded (v. 27)? Faith in the death of Jesus excludes boasting. We are justified by faith alone, and not by any form of scurrying around (v. 28). To go any other way would exclude the Gentiles, who did not have the Torah, and it would also, incidentally, exclude the Jews, who did not keep Torah (v. 29). God is the God of both groups. We worship and serve one God, who has made one justified people, and there is one way to become a member of that people. That one way is faith (v. 30).