Romans 3:21-31


I remember once flying through a thunderstorm.  The winds and the rains buffeted the plane and the lightning flashed and the thunder roared.  But then, there was a break in the clouds and the sun broke through.  What a dramatic change!  That is what happens in this chapter.  For the past three chapters, we have heard the thundering of God’s condemnation against sinful men.  But now, the SON breaks through.


Romans 1:17 - 3:20

Romans 3:21-31

God has brought all of mankind into the courtroom and passed the divine verdict that all men are guilty before God.

Begins with the words “But now” to introduce how God has carried out the verdict in Christ to bring salvation to men.

A groan of despair.

A sigh of relief.

Dark picture of men in their sins.

Bright light of God’s salvation.

A revelation of the wrath of God against all unrighteousness.

A presentation of the righteousness of God which is available for men.

Establishes the need for righteousness.

Provides that righteousness.


Where do you go to find the revelation of the righteousness of God?  Where is God’s righteousness manifested?  In the LAW!  The Law is a standard which reveals the righteousness of God.   But God’s righteousness has also been revealed in another way.  It has been revealed THROUGH FAITH.





            "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction" (Romans 3:21-22).


Notice how verse 21 begins.  It begins with a conjunction of contrast.  It begins with “BUT.”  This is in contrast with the fact that no flesh can be declared to be righteous by the works of the Law (3:20).


No flesh can be declared to be righteous by the works of the Law


Apart from Law God’s righteousness has been manifested.


Verses 19-20 tell us what the Law could not do.  It could not declare you to be righteous.  Verse 21 goes on to say that you HAVE been declared righteous - but it was not by the law's doing.


You see, the law was a manifestation of the righteousness of God.  If you want to know about God's standard of righteousness, then look at the law.  But now, that righteousness has been revealed in a new form.  It has been revealed as it comes through faith.


Here is the principle.  Justification does not come through our own OBEDIENCE.  It could if there were anyone who had been obedient.  But Paul has just spent three chapters showing to us that no one is obedient.  Justification does not come through obedience.  Justification can only take place if it is on the basis of God’s righteousness.  Even forgiveness of sins cannot save you.  Only righteousness can save you.


Paul destroys false concepts of righteousness in this chapter.  What is righteousness?  It is the state of being right.  God is righteous.  Man is just the opposite.  And thus, man has no righteousness which could save him.  His own works cannot save him and the Law cannot save him since it is the business of the Law to condemn rather than to save.


A Middle Eastern man was eating pears in his home.  He picked up a pear and saw a worm hole in it and threw it away.  He picked up another pear and saw that it also had a hole.  It happened with a third and a fourth pear.  Then he blew out the light and continued eating.  The Law is the light to tell us where the holes are.


            But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested (Romans 3:21a).


The righteousness which has now come is divorced from the Law of God.  But it is not contrary to that Law.  Indeed, the Law and the Prophets foreshadowed and foretold of a righteousness which would come apart from a Law-works relationship.


            "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me" (John 5:39).


God manifested a righteousness.  Verse 22 describes to us what kind of righteousness this is.  It is a righteousness which comes "through faith in Jesus Christ." [1]


This is the MEANS by which that righteousness is attained and appropriated.  It is not that faith has merit.  It is rather the merit of the OBJECT of our faith that brings this righteousness.


Why is this important?  It is because God cannot accept an unrighteous man.  You need the righteousness of God to be accepted by God.


The good news is that this righteousness is offered "to all those who believe" (3:22).  The offer of salvation is to ALL men.  This is significant because ALL have sinned.





            "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”  (Romans 3:23).


The previous verse shows that there is no distinction between how men are declared to be righteous.  Now we see that the reason for this lack of distinction in salvation is because there is also no distinction between men in their standing in sin.  This standing in sin is both past and present.


1.         “All have sinned” points to the past.


The aorist tense is used.  It points to all of the sins of the human race and labels all under sin.


We have all sinned.  We have all gone contrary to the will of God.  What is sin?  The Westminster Catechism defines sin as “any lack of conformity to or transgression of the law of God.”


2.         “All... fall short of the glory of God” is an indication of our present status.


This time the tense is in the present.  It is not merely that we have sinned in the past.  We continue to sin in the present.


Notice that this is another good definition of what sin is.  It is falling short of the glory of God.  The picture is of an archer who shoots an arrow, aiming at the bull’s eye.  But the arrow falls short, missing the mark to which it was intended.  Sin is like that.  Sin is missing the mark of what God has demanded.

These two definitions are in parallel.  They are saying the same thing.




Falling short of the Glory of God


The mark is perfection.  And no one has been perfect.  Our tendency is to look only upon relative righteousness.  It is as though we decided to have an Olympic event to see who could jump across the Niagara Falls.  One man might only be able to jump two feet.  I would be able to go further and I might look down my nose at the one who only jumped a short distance and think that I had done very well.  And then, an Olympic athlete would come and take a running start and jump a distance of 32.7 feet.  His feat was much better than mine.  But the goal was to clear the falls.  And none of us did that.


God is perfectly righteous.  God demands perfect righteousness.  The good news is that freely gives that which He demands.





            "...being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith." Romans 3:24-25a).


Paul begins this section by saying that we were justified.  We’ll speak of what that means in a moment, but before we do, I want you to note the order in which these are presented.


(1)        Being Justified...


(2)        As a Gift by His Grace.


(3)        Through the Redemption in Christ.


(4)        Who was Displayed as a Propitiation.


Are these given in the order in which they take place?  NO!!!!  These are the REVERSE order in which they take place.  Paul is starting with justification and going backwards to see what brought about justification and what brought about that thing that brought about justification and what was before that.



Presupposes that we were previously...



Without merit




Deserving of wrath


1.         Justified.


What does it mean to be “justified”?  If we were to listen to the Roman Catholic Church, we would think that it describes an “infusion of righteousness” - that God saves you and makes you righteous so that you are now acceptable before God.


But this is not what justification is at all.  To be justified means that one is “declared to be righteous.”  This is seen in Luke 7:29 where Jesus is preaching and we read that...


            "And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, the ACKNOWLEDGED GOD'S JUSTICE, having been baptized with the baptism of John" (Luke 7:29).


The phrase translated “acknowledged God's justice” is literally, “they JUSTIFIED God.”  Now, this certainly does not mean that they infused God with righteousness.  There is nothing that they could do to make God more righteous than He already is.  They did not MAKE God more righteous.  They merely declared that He already WAS righteous.  And that is what God has done with us.  He has declared us to be righteous.


Alfred Dryfus was a Jewish soldier in the army of France, serving on the general staff.  In 1894, he was accused and arrested on the charge of selling secrets to the enemies of France.  He was tried and condemned as a traitor, court-martialed and sentenced to the French penal colony on Devil’s Island.


The friends of Dryfus were unsatisfied with the trial and, because of their protests, a second trial was granted in 1899.  Dryfus was again found guilty.  This time, the public dissatisfaction with the trial caused such an outcry that the president of France granted Dryfus a pardon.  He was released from Devil’s Island and permitted to come home.


However, the stigma of being a traitor still rested upon Dryfus and in 1906 a third trial was held in which Dryfus was completely vindicated.  He was declared to be righteous in the eyes of the law.  He was reinstated in the French military, promoted to the rank of major, and awarded the French Legion of Honor.  This illustrates the difference between a pardon and justification.




Says that you are guilty but suspends the penalty of that guilt.

Declares you to be righteous and without guilt


God does not merely pardon.  He justifies.  This brings up another question.  How can God do this?  How can He declare me to be righteous when I am not righteous?  It is a gift of His grace.


2.         A Gift by His Grace.


Justification is the outgrowth of GRACE.  What is grace?  Grace is the unmerited favor of God.  It is a gift which you have neither earned nor deserved.


Think of this!  You were declared to be righteous apart from any merit of righteousness that was in you.  You didn’t earn your justification.  You didn’t deserve it.  It is a GIFT.


3.         Through the Redemption.


The gift of God involved a purchase.  This is seen in this word “redemption.”  This isn’t a word we use a lot today.  But I can remember a time when Publics Grocery Stores used to give out green stamps.  You would collect these stamps until you had a certain amount and then you would go to a special store and you would REDEEM certain items - you would PURCHASE them with the stamps.


Who has been purchased in this passage?  WE have!  This is the language of a slave market.  Slavery was common in the ancient world.  A slave had few rights.  And he had no hope of freedom UNLESS someone were to purchase him and then set him free.


That is what this describes.  You see, there are several possible words which could have been used to describe redemption.


a.         Paul could have used agorazo.  This would describe the act of purchasing a slave in the agora - in the marketplace.


b.         He could have used exagorazo.  This would have taken us one step further and described the act of purchasing the slave and taking him OUT of the marketplace.


Instead, Paul uses the compound word apolutrosis - to not only purchase the slave and take him out of the marketplace, but then to set him free from his slavery.


This is the language of liberation!  It is popular to speak of liberation theology today, but THIS is true liberation theology!  We have been set free from our enslavement to sin.


4.         Displayed as a Propitiation.


This is another word that is hardly ever used today.  What is a “propitiation?”  It is a “satisfaction.”  An “appeasement.”  The offering of a sacrifice which satisfies and appeases the wrath of an angry God.


The Greek word is hilasterion.  It is used to describe the Mercy Seat — the top of the Ark of the Covenant.  This was the seat of God.  It served as the throne of God within the Temple.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel would enter into the Holiest of Holies to come before the presence of God.  He would bring with him a cup of blood from an animal freshly slain.  He would sprinkle that blood upon the Mercy Seat.  And that blood would serve as the satisfactory sacrifice for the sins of the nation.  A common prayer among the Jews was that “God be to me a Mercy Seat.”


In the ancient world, when one thought that he had committed some offense against one of the deities, he would go and offer a sacrifice of appeasement.  By doing so, he would try to assuage the anger and the wrath of that deity.  Thus, propitiation refers to satisfying the wrath of one who has been offended.


Your sin has offended God.  It makes you deserving of the anger and the wrath of God.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that Jesus was the satisfaction.  He satisfied the righteous judgment of God.


On the wall of the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. is the motto: “When the guilty is acquitted, the judge is condemned.”


If God is to be a just God, then He cannot simply forgive sin.  It must be judged.  Our sin was judged at the cross.



Death of Christ


The Cross


The Remission of Sins


In the Old Testament, the sheep died for the shepherd.  In the New Testament, the Shepherd died for the sheep.


Remember that we asked the question: “How can God declare you to be righteous when you are not righteous?”  Here is the answer.  He does it by having judged your sin in Christ.  You were found guilty.  Your sin was judged.  You were sentenced to death.  And the sentence was carried out.  Except that it was carried out upon a substitute - Jesus bore the sentence of your penalty.  As a result, Jesus was credited with your sins.  And you have been credited with His righteousness.


5.      Through Faith.


What must you do to enter into this justification?  Is there some measure of goodness which you must perform?  Is there some meritorious level to which you must attain?  No!!!  It is through FAITH.


a.         Faith is born out of need.


It is only when you have seen your need for a Savior that you will be ready to believe in Jesus Christ as being that Lord and Savior.  This is why Paul has gone to such great lengths to portray man in his hopeless condition.  He wants to show the need.


b.         This faith is in Christ.


Everyone has faith.  An atheist has faith that there is no God.  An agnostic has faith.  A skeptic has faith.  Such faiths are powerless to save.  It is the object of that faith which is so important.  There are people who have faith in all sorts of things:


     m   Faith in a church or denomination

     m   Faith in Baptism

     m   Faith in church membership or church attendance

     m   Faith in good works

     m   Faith in faith


None of these is a saving faith because none of these is in a correct object.  Saving faith is in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, depending upon His work upon the cross on our behalf.





            This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25b-26).


Notice what Paul says here.  The point of our salvation was NOT for US.  It was for HIM.  It was to demonstrate HIS righteousness.  Why?  Because it shows that He was righteous, even though He passed over past sins.


            ...in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (Romans 3:25).


In the days and years and centuries before the cross, God forgave sins.  Forgiveness didn't start at the cross, it started at the garden of Eden.

This brings us to a question.  How could God forgive sin in the Old Testament and still be righteous?  It cannot be that He merely allowed sin to go unpunished.  You wouldn’t think much of a judge who had a vicious criminal brought before him and who said, “Oh, that's okay.  I want to be a loving and kinder judge so that you will like me, Mr Criminal.  I'm going to let you go so that you can go commit some more crimes.”  What would we think of such a judge?  We would say that he is unrighteous!


In the same way, how shall God escape the charge that He is unrighteous if He permitted (and still permits) sinners to go unpunished?  Why didn't God destroy Adam and Eve in the Garden?  “Crunch”....BOOM!!!!  The answer is because God had planned the cross.


The cross justifies the righteousness of God.  It is at the cross that God is seen to be righteous in not judging men immediately when they sinned.


An animal sacrifice could not pay for sins.  God merely allowed them to serve as a spiritual IOU until the coming of Christ.  From this standpoint, God did not seem to be righteous when He allowed animal sacrifices to atone for sins.  But He is vindicated and seen to be righteous by the cross.


Our salvation demonstrates the righteousness of God.  He is both righteous and the One who declares others to be righteous.  He is "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).





            Where then is boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  Of works?  No, but by a law of faith.

            For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

            Or is God the God of Jews only?  Is He not the God of Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

            Do we then nullify the Law through faith?  May it never be!  On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Romans 3:27-31).


What are the results of our being declared righteous through faith?  There are several...


1.         Boasting is Excluded.


            Where then is boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  Of works?  No, but by a law of faith. (Romans 3:27).


Works are compatible to boasting.  When you have worked long and hard, you can stand back and say, “Look at what I accomplished!!!!”

Faith is opposed to boasting.  It is merely the open hand of a beggar.  That is why we as Christians ought never to be proud.  We are merely beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.


We cannot even boast that we were smart enough to choose God and to believe in Him, for the Scriptures make it quite clear that even my faith is a gift from God.


There is no occasion for boasting in the plan of God.  It was by God’s grace that our salvation was provided.  It was by Christ’s blood that it was purchased.  It is by a faith which God give to me that it is appropriated.


2.         Works are also Excluded.


            For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28).


The opposite of faith is work.  Paul has shown that it is impossible to be justified by works of the Law.  You can’t be good enough for long enough.  And the Law wasn’t designed to justify anyone.  The Law can only condemn.


3.         Gentiles are not Excluded.


            Or is God the God of Jews only?  Is He not the God of Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Romans 3:29-30).


Under the Law, who were the chosen people of God?  The Jews were!  The children of Abraham!  God is called, “the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.”  He is never called, “the God of the Assyrians” or “the God of the Romans.”


The Jews were the recipients of the Law of God.  To them were entrusted the oracles of God (3:2).  And if righteousness is only by the keeping of the Law, then it is only for the Jews.  But salvation is for more than just the Jew.  God is not only the God of the Jew, but He is also the God of the Gentile.


4.         God is One in His Program.


            ...since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. (Romans 3:30).


God doesn’t have one way of salvation for Jews and another for Gentiles. He doesn’t have one way of salvation in the Old Testament and another way of salvation in the New Testament (We’ll talk more of this in the next chapter).


5.         The Law is Established.


            Do we then nullify the Law through faith?  May it never be!  On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Romans 3:31).


Justification does not do away with the Law.  It doesn’t nullify the Law.  It does not cause one of the least of these commandments to pass away.  To the contrary.  It establishes the Law.


The Law demands DEATH to the sinner.   Justification through faith answers to this demand in the affirmative.  The Law says, “Give me death!”  Justification answers, “YES!!!  The penalty of death has been paid on the cross!”


Don’t miss this!  God didn’t merely pardon your sins.  He executed you for them.  But He did so in the person of Jesus Christ who took your place and died the death you deserved.


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[1] There are some who have wished to translate this as a subjective genitive to speak of “the faith OF Jesus Christ.”  A.T. Robertson supports rendering it as an objective genitive(“the faith IN Jesus Christ”) by pointing similar objective genitives in Galatians 2:16 and Colossians 2:5 that clarify by adding a preposition.