Good News Back to all sermons
Date: October 14, 2011
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Romans 3:21–3:31
The Roman poet, Horace, once wrote an essay criticizing many of the plays which were being written and performed on the stages of ancient Rome. One criticism he made was that many playwrights would weave a very complicated set of problems in a play, and then solve them all in the final act by bringing one of the gods onto the stage to use his supernatural power to straighten everything out. This was Horace’s concluding advice:
“Do not bring a god onto the stage unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it.”
In the first two and a half chapters of the Book of Romans, Paul has been describing a problem. It is a problem that is shared by the entire human race. It is a sin problem. In these chapters, Paul has argued carefully to demonstrate the guilt of the pagan man, the moral man and finally, the religious man. We looked last time at his closing argument in chapter 3 and verse 19: so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
We are sinners. We are guilty. What is more, this is no academic discussion. This is not simply a “fill in the blank” answer in a catechism book. Life is at stake. Eternity is at stake. Remember his words in 1:18: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.
And it isn’t going to work to just double our efforts and try harder. Paul’s statement in verse 20 is absolutely clear: no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law;
Truly we have a problem. It is a problem without a human solution. It is time to bring God onto the stage.
That is exactly what Paul does in verse 21: But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known,
It is absolutely impossible to overemphasize the impact or significance of these words. It is an explosion of hope in the midst of great despair. It is shaft of brilliant sunshine beaming down into a scene of unbearable darkness.
Let’s look at the words carefully. “A righteousness.” This is a legal term. Paul is using legal language throughout. Righteousness signifies one’s legal standing, one’s legal status. The law has declared us guilty, but now this. A righteousness is available. It is “from God”. It is both God-like in its character and has God as its source. A righteousness from God which is “apart from law”. It is “without law”. It does not depend on law or law-keeping. It has a whole different source. The right standing, this legal pardon from God’s court “has been made known.” The word means “to make plain, to reveal, to bring to light.”
Wouldn’t you like to know how you can have a righteous standing before God which does not depend on your efforts to do right or keep the law? A righteousness which comes not from your own efforts, but from God himself? That is what is being offered; a life line to the human race drowning in its own moral failure. It has been made known.
How can we have this righteousness? This righteousness from God, verse 22 tells us, is “by faith in Jesus Christ,” and it is for “all who believe.” Let me quickly point out here that “faith” and “believe” are actually the same root in the original Greek language in which Paul wrote. One is the noun, the other is the verb, but they carry the same nuance and meaning. To keep them lined up in our thinking as English speakers, I like to use the word “belief” rather than “faith”. This righteousness from God is by belief in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Paul now pauses to make sure that his readers understand that he is talking about both Jews and Gentiles. “There is no difference.” No distinction, no line of demarcation between the two. Why not? He reaches back into the earlier part of the chapter to reiterate the spiritual reality of both Jews and Gentiles. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That verse requires some additional thought. “All”. I think we get that. Rather a disturbingly inclusive word, isn’t it? “Have sinned.” This word looks into the past and is a summary statement of the moral realities of every human being. It is a reiteration of the Old Testament passages Paul quoted earlier in the chapter. “There is no one righteous, not even one;” There are two possible references to this phrase which looks at the past. It is a clear description of God’s assessment of every man’s moral state. However, some scholars see this as a reference to the participation of every son and daughter of Adam and Eve in the original act of rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden which set us all on this evil path. In Adam, all sinned. I just sow that thought for your consideration, and we will come back to it later in Romans 5.
However, the past is not our only problem. “Fall short of the glory of God” is in the present tense, describing our ongoing failure to live up to what God desires for us and requires of us. “The glory of God…” If you were here back in January when I was preaching through the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, you may remember that I described man as “made of dirt but destined for glory.” We were made from the earth, but made in the image of God, to enjoy him and to reflect his glory. But through sin, both the sin of Adam and Eve and our own continued sinning, we have utterly failed and continue to fail to fulfill that purpose for which we were created. It is a failure shared by Jew and Gentile alike.
So what is the answer to our dilemma? Paul now returns to his description of the righteousness from God by faith in Jesus Christ. And are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Grammatically, Paul is continuing his description of what happens to those who believe in Jesus Christ. They are “justified freely.” That word “justified” is one that we need to take a closer look at. It comes from the same root as “righteousness.” Righteousness in this context refers to our legal standing before God’s courtroom. Justify is also a legal term and it means “to declare someone righteous,” or to “declare a defendant’s legal status as righteous before the court.” To justify is to declare someone innocent and is the opposite of to condemn, which means to declare someone guilty. Once again, it is a legal term and relates to one’s legal standing under the law and before the court.
There are then three descriptive words or phrases to explain the basis upon which we are declared righteous before God’s court. The first is an adverb. Freely. We are justified “without cost, as a free gift, without paying.” The second is a phrase, “by his grace.” This is God’s grace. God is the judge, and he is showing us kindness, mercy, unmerited generosity. On what basis? “Through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The word “redemption” means to set someone free, with the implication of the paying of a price or fee. Here we once again find ourselves in the courtroom. There are two ways a defendant can be justified in a court of law. He can be justified by being found innocent of the charges against him. Or he can be justified through the paying of the penalty the law has assessed against him for his crimes. Either way, the court declares that the defendant can walk out a free man. In our case, someone else has paid our penalty. That someone is Jesus Christ. “We owed a debt we could not pay. Jesus paid a debt he did not owe so that we could go free.” That is redemption. That is the basis on which we can be justified, or declared righteous in God’s court.
Paul continues to elaborate on his legal argument in verse 25-26:
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
In these verses, Paul is both elaborating on the Gospel and defending God’s righteousness. Two very similar questions arise in the mind to challenge the justice of God and the righteousness of his court. How could God, as a righteous judge, let the sins of Old Testament believers go so long unpunished? On what basis were they spared the wrath of God against their sins? Think of Abraham, of Moses, of David. Men of faith, yes, but sinners nonetheless. On what basis were their sins overlooked? And what is more, even in the present time, how can God be both just and the justifier of sinful people? The answer to that question lies in the cross of Jesus Christ and in his blood shed on that cross. “God presented him”, put him on public display before the universe as a “sacrifice of atonement.” This is the word that Pastor Joe referred to last week in his message. It is the word “propitiation”. It means a sacrifice whereby the righteous requirement of God’s law and God’s courtroom was fulfilled and satisfied. The barrier of our sin which separated us from God was removed. God demonstrated his justice by punishing sin. Only the punishment fell on Jesus Christ. The innocent died in place of the guilty. This happened so that God could maintain his righteousness and the justice of his courtroom and still justify or declare righteous everyone who believes in Jesus.
Paul then quickly moves to wrap up his legal argument, particularly as it relates to both Jews and Gentiles in his audience:
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Jew and Gentile are alike condemned before God. That is the conclusion of the first half of chapter 3. Jew and Gentile alike can be justified by faith and only by faith. That is Paul’s point in the second half of the chapter. Does this truth nullify the law and the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures? No! It is in fact the fulfillment of the law and the whole message of the Old Testament. This takes us back to the summary of the Gospel which Paul gave all the way back in Romans 1:17: For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
You will note that the last phrase is, in fact, a quote from the Old Testament. And Paul will go on to illustrate the same truth in Romans 4 in the story of Abraham.
This, then, is the Gospel. After over two chapters of “bad news” about the sinfulness of men and the coming judgment and wrath of God, the glorious light of the Gospel is now shining.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
How do we receive this gift? It is clear, is it not? By faith. Remember, faith is belief. Belief has to have an object. Faith as an abstract entity has no real value. I saw something on the internet this week inviting people to submit stories in which “faith” had played a significant role. It was an interfaith site. The presupposition was that any “faith”, no matter what the object, was a powerful force. This is totally contrary to Biblical revelation. Belief must have the right object, or more specifically, faith must be placed in the right person, or it is nothing more than the foolishness of positive thinking. The object of our belief, of the belief that brings salvation is twofold, according to our text. It is belief in the person of Jesus Christ; Jesus as Messiah, the anointed Messenger of God. And it is belief “in his blood” according to verse 25. That means, we must believe not only in Jesus as a historical person, or as a great moral teacher or even as a prophet. In fact, it is not even enough to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God as portrayed in Scripture. We must also believe in and put our trust “in his blood” as the sacrifice of atonement for our sins. This is what we must believe if we would be “justified by belief in Jesus.”
On Monday afternoon as I was studying for this sermon, I took a little time to browse a sermon site on the internet. I found a sermon which listed Romans 3:23 as its text, and was described as a sermon on how to deal with failure in our lives. Out of curiosity, I skimmed the sermon. The preacher made two main points from this verse. “Everyone fails” so don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, you’re only human! And the second point? “Your failures are not fatal, as long as you get back up, dust yourself off and keep on trying.”
I feel sorry for that preacher’s poor congregation! How could anyone read Romans 3:23 and come away with that for a message? The truth could not be more diametrically opposite to what he was saying. Yes, everyone fails. And our failures and our sin and our rebellion have brought us under the condemnation of the righteous and holy God of the universe. And our failures are fatal. “The soul that sins must die.” “The wages of sin is death.” That is the bad news side of the Gospel. But here is the good news. Our failures are fatal, but the righteous Son of God took that fatality, that death upon himself. He paid the price with his own blood, so we can be forgiven; so we can be declared righteous before God’s court; so we can walk free. All we have to do is believe it!
In my opening message on Romans, I made reference to the fact that there was going to be a distinction in roles between me as the preacher and you as the listeners. My role is to declare the truth as clearly and as powerfully as I can under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I have sought to do that today. I don’t think I can make the Gospel any clearer than I have in this message. But when I have done all that is within my power as a preacher, there is something I cannot do. I cannot believe for you. That is something that only you can do. And so I leave you with this simple question.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in his blood, shed for you on the cross?
If you do, then you have been… justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
I think that is Good News!
How is belief in Jesus demonstrated and expressed when it is exercised for the very first time? To answer that question, I would quote from a later chapter in Romans: Romans 10:10-13:
For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
With your heart you believe. With your mouth call on the name of the Lord. Just a simple prayer expressing your belief in Jesus and asking him to justify you and save you.
Here is a sample prayer you can use:
“Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I deserve your wrath for my disobedience and rebellion. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Christ and the Son of God. I believe that you shed your blood for my sins. I call on you to be my Savior and to forgive my sin. Justify me by your grace. Amen.”
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- “Romans 3:21-31 contains the most complete and comprehensive summary of the legal, logical and theological foundations of the Christian faith contained anywhere in Scripture.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
- What is man’s dilemma? (Summary of thoughts from first 3 chapters of Romans)
- What was God’s dilemma? (Clue: look at verse 26)
- How did God solve both man’s dilemma and his own?
- What is man’s part in the solution?
- Have you been “justified freely by his grace”? As a group, you may want to take some time sharing how and when that happened for you individually, or what is holding you back from taking that step.