After Darkness, Light!
January 3, 2023, 12:00 AM

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26)


In the movie, The Return of the King, there is a scene in the Battle of the Pelinnor Fields in which, after a dreadful and deadly night of battle between the overwhelming forces of Mordor and the outnumbered soldiers of Minas Tirith, day breaks to the sound of battle horns in the distance. The cavalry has literally arrived. The Riders of Rohan appear to save the day. It is a very moving scene in which hope shines forth in the darkness. Much like that dramatic rescue in The Lord of the Rings, Romans 3:21-31 similarly appears bringing light after darkness.


For nearly three chapters, the Apostle Paul has diagnosed the human condition with painstaking precision; penetrating our false notions of self-righteousness under the law, our faith in our own morality, and our trust in our own religiosity. The entire human race is guilty in the eyes of God. God’s righteous and holy character lays bare our wickedness and depravity. The law of God, rather than being a pathway to justification before God, is no more than a mirror showing us our inherent sinfulness and revealing how far we fall short of God’s perfect righteousness.


Just when it seems like there is no hope, Paul writes these words: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” Those two words, “but now,” are two of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture. All appeared as darkness and death, BUT NOW! All appeared as hopelessness and despair, BUT NOW! What is the source of this hope? The very fact that the righteousness of God has been made manifest apart from the law. This is not to say that the law is unrighteous (more on that in Romans 7), but rather that our attempt to attain righteousness through the law is futile. Instead the righteousness of God has been made available apart from the law, and that availability comes through faith in Jesus Christ.


Let’s examine this a little further. The law of God, though holy and righteous (due to the very fact that it is God’s law), cannot make us righteous before God. Why? The simple answer is “sin” (v. 23). Breaking that down even more, there is our inherent, or original sin and actual sin. The Apostle Paul will delve more into this in Romans 5, but original sin is that sin we have from being in Adam; i.e., it is the sin we inherit from Adam through ordinary generation (i.e., birth). When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden back in Genesis 3, his sin brought a curse to all mankind. We carry the guilt of Adam’s sin from birth, so that we are born sinful. This inherent sin nature leads to actual sins we commit during our lives (as Paul so expertly described in Romans 1 - 3). The sin nature that we, being human, possess makes it so that we cannot keep God’s holy and righteous law perfectly (as perfection is the standard that God’s holiness requires). Even if we could, for sake of argument, attain to a perfect obedience to the law, our inherent sin nature would disqualify us from eternal life with God in heaven. 


That’s the predicament we're all in. However, a righteousness apart from the law has been revealed! It is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22). Translation: We get the very righteousness of God through faith in Christ. This is the essence of the Christian doctrine of Imputation. What is it about Jesus Christ that's so special that we receive God’s righteousness through faith in Him? First of all, His birth is special (cf. Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38). Jesus Christ was born of a woman (cf. Genesis 3:15) and conceived by the Holy Spirit; thereby bypassing ordinary generation. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is God incarnate (cf. John 1:1-4, 14, 18), and is able to fully and completely comply with the righteous demands of God’s holy law. In other words, Jesus did what Adam (and us by extension) failed to do. Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of the law’s demands is a gracious gift from God to us that we appropriate (or rather is imputed to us) through faith.


Now, at this point, it is important to note that we don’t become righteous through faith in Christ. We are declared righteous through faith in Christ! We are justified (i.e., declared righteous) by grace through faith (v. 24). This distinction may seem trivial, but it’s the very heart of the gospel and the reason behind the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Roman Catholic doctrine on this topic teaches that justification is a synergistic work (i.e., a work of both God and man) in which man, through God’s grace and application of the sacraments, slowly over time, has righteous infused to him (i.e., he becomes righteous). The Reformers disagreed with this teaching and taught that righteousness is a work of God alone (i.e., monergistic) in which we are declared righteous by God’s grace through faith in Christ. What one believes on this is of utmost importance as it affects how the gospel is taught and proclaimed! 


How is this justification accomplished? How is God able to declare the one who has faith in Christ justified? What about the debt our sin has incurred against God? Paul continues: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (vv. 24-25). Two key words in this passage: Redemption and propitiation. Redemption carries with it the sense of being bought back or being released from bondage. This is exactly what has happened in our case. Christ, by his shed blood on the cross, has redeemed us (has bought us out of slavery to sin). Furthermore, by that shed blood, Christ has offered propitiation (i.e., appeased God’s wrath for our sin) to God on our behalf.


The work of Christ includes both his active obedience (his perfect fulfillment of God’s law) and his passive obedience (his death on the cross). Through our faith in Christ our sin debt has been imputed to Christ and thereby atoned for on the cross and his perfect righteousness has been imputed to us and thereby we are declared righteous in God’s sight. This is the gospel! This is good news! The glorious light of the gospel breaks through the darkness of our sin and shines the very righteousness of God into our hearts through faith in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and our Lord!


How does this teaching affect us? How now should we live? Look at what Paul writes in v. 28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If you’re trying to earn your salvation, stop; it cannot be done. No amount of law keeping will ever justify you (make you righteous in God’s sight). It is an impossibility! You’re only hope in this life is faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work. But even believers need to hear the gospel message. The gospel isn’t just for unbelievers and non-Christians. We are wired for law-keeping and we see the abundant grace of the gospel and, due to sin in our hearts, just cannot accept that grace is so gracious! We are always tempted to mix our works into the purity of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus. This was the very thing the Galatians were guilty of doing (Galatians 3:3). Whenever we mix works of the law with the gospel, we create a different gospel, which is no gospel at all (JESUS + ANYTHING = NOTHING)! 


Stop trying to earn your salvation! Stop trying to add to your salvation with works. Just rest in the saving gospel of God’s free grace in Christ Jesus. There is no other way that a man can be justified before God!


~ Pastor Carl