The Heart of the Epistle- Romans 3:21-26

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; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 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. 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, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).



Martin Lloyd-Jones, arguably the greatest expositor of the twentieth century, said that these are the greatest verses in the entire Bible on the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is quite a strong statement coming from quite a noted man. This section is all about the doctrine of justification. In fact, when he edited his famous series through Romans, Lloyd-Jones began putting his messages into print not with chapter one and verse one, but with these very verses. He believed that this paragraph is that important to the message of the entire book of Romans. I agree with the Doctor.


Beginning in Romans 1:18 and extending through 3:20, those verses constituted the first section of this epistle. There, Paul presented his case for the condemnation of the entire sinful human race. All mankind that finds itself outside of Christ is under the wrath of God. The apostle argued a devastating case, indicting mankind. As we come to Romans 3:21, there is a dramatic shift as he proceeds from condemnation to justification. Justification is the total opposite of condemnation. The first two words of verse 21 are “But now,” which signals a dramatic pivot in the flow of this letter. Martin Lloyd Jones has said, “Praise God for the buts in the Bible.” “But now” turns the corner from the condemnation of the entire human race to the justification of all believers in Jesus Christ by the grace of God. The first time the word “justification” or “justified” is found in the book of Romans is in verse 24, “being justified as a gift by His grace.” To this point, everything in this letter to the believers in Rome has been preparation for this extraordinary truth of justification.    

Martin Luther, who was used by God to recover this doctrine 500 years ago in the Reformation, has said that this doctrine of justification is “appointed for the rise or the fall of the church.” By this assertion, Luther meant that every true church teaches and preaches this doctrine. But conversely, he declared any church that does not hold to this doctrine is a false church that lies outside the kingdom of God. The doctrine of justification is that important. It is a watershed truth that separates the true gospel from the false gospel. There is no room for any equivocation whatsoever when it comes to holding fast to this truth. John Calvin said that the doctrine of justification is “the hinge of the gospel.” In other words, it is the tipping point. Our right understanding of salvation turns with this truth. It is that critical.


J. I. Packer has said that the doctrine of justification is “the mighty atlas that upholds the entirety of the gospel.” The gospel truth is held up by this singular doctrine. None of us can afford to be wrong at this point. To be right here is to be right with God. To be wrong here is to be wrong with God and remain under His condemnation. We simply cannot overstate the importance of these verses.


As we look at verses 21-26, I have nine headings that I want to give you. I want to walk through this phrase by phrase. Here are nine watershed truths about justification by faith alone.


I. Justification is Apart from the Law (3:21a)


The first point that Paul states is that justification is apart from the Law. The apostle begins, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been revealed” (verse 21). This announces that the righteousness we desperately need cannot come by our attempt to keep the Law. “The righteousness of God” means the righteousness that God requires. Paul says that it is “apart from the Law.” It is apart from any works of the Law that we could ever hope to perform or achieve. This righteousness cannot be achieved by our keeping the Ten Commandments. A right standing before God is entirely apart from the keeping of the requirements that God has revealed in His written word. There is no way by our own efforts that we can meet the high mark that God requires to enter into heaven. What God requires is absolute perfection. God will not grade on the curve. God will not look for the happy medium. God has established the standard of His own perfect holiness, and He will not lower it one iota.    

In fact, at the end of verse 23, Paul says, “All have sinned and fell short of the glory of God.” The standard of measurement is the glory of God, which is the moral perfection of His own holy character. We are not going to be measured against the morality of other people. We are not going to be measured against our own expectations for ourselves. It is by the unattainable standard of the glory of God that we are weighed in the balances and found to be wanting. We could never achieve the righteousness that God requires by our attempts to keep the Law.


It is not within any person to be able to meet the standard that God has set for us. Justification is apart from the Law. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves” (Ephesians 2:8). We bring absolutely nothing to the table. We make no contribution to our own salvation, other than our sin that was laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ as He hung upon the cross. As the old hymn says, “In my hands, no price I bring, simply to Your cross I cling.” Justification is apart from the Law.


II. Justification is Witnessed by the Old Testament (3:21b)


Second, justification is witnessed by the Old Testament. Paul goes on to say, “Being witnessed by the Law and the prophets” (verse 21). This is a summary statement that encapsulates the entire Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi. Paul says that the whole Old Testament bore witness of the righteousness that God requires and that He provides in the gospel. Paul wants us to know this is not a new message. What he is teaching is as old as the Old Testament. This truth is as old as the book of Genesis. This is not a new way of salvation. This is not a new way for Gentiles to come into the kingdom of God. There is only one way of salvation, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. There is only one saving gospel, and it is justification by faith.


Paul made this announcement at the very outset of Romans. He told us in the second verse of this book that the gospel was witnessed by the prophets and recorded in the Old Testament Scripture long ago. In Romans 1:2, Paul wrote about the gospel, “which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures.” By this, the apostle declares that the gospel and the righteousness that was required was clearly made known in the Old Testament.           

A Survey of the Old Testament 
In Genesis 15, we see a clear statement of how the patriarch Abraham was made right before God. The gospel was preached to Abraham, who looked forward to the day of Christ. “Then he believed in the Lord and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). That is the doctrine of justification by faith alone taught crystal clear in the Old Testament.  The righteousness that Abraham so desperately needed in order to find acceptance with God was provided by God Himself. God credited divine righteousness to the account of Abraham. It was imputed to him on the basis of faith alone. Abraham knew that salvation would be in the Messiah, the One who would come in the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus Christ. Abraham had Christ preached to him, and he believed. The righteousness of God was deposited to his account on the basis of his faith.


To give you another Old Testament passage in which we find this imputation of the righteousness of God, David writes, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psalm 32:1-2). God does not impute sin to the one who puts their faith and trust in Him. Instead, God imputes the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. “Impute” is not a word that we use in our daily English language, but it simply means ‘to credit to the account of, to reckon to the account of.’ It is a legal term in which a judge declares one who stands before his judgment bar to be acquitted of all charges and to be declared to receive the righteousness of God in Christ.


Isaiah 53 is the highest mountain peak of the entire Old Testament. This chapter rises to become its loftiest summit. Isaiah records, “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). This refers to the suffering servant of Jehovah, the Messiah who would come and “justify the many,” who will believe in Him. Once again, this is the doctrine of justification by faith alone taught in the Old Testament. This seminal truth was witnessed by the prophets, and there are many other passages which could be sited.


Paul wants us to know, as he enters this section on justification, that this gospel truth was distinctly taught in the Old Testament, both in the Law, referring to the first five books of the Old Testament, and in the prophets, referring to Joshua through Malachi. They all bore witness of this doctrine of justification by faith throughout the Old Testament.


III. Justification is Provided by God (3:22a)


Third, justification is provided by God. At the beginning of verse 22, Paul says, “Even the righteousness of God.” In this instance, this statement is not referring to the righteousness that belongs to God, but the righteousness that comes from Him. In other words, God is the Source and Giver of this righteousness. The righteousness that God requires is the righteousness that He gives. He is the Source of the righteousness He demands. The righteousness that is imputed to us does not come from us, but from outside of ourselves. It comes from outside of the church, and outside of this world. It is a righteousness that comes down from the throne of God. It is what Martin Luther called a “foreign righteousness” or an “alien righteousness.” It is a righteousness that is foreign to man. It comes from a far away country in the heights of heaven. Only God could provide that which He requires, because the standard to be received into His presence is absolute moral perfection to His Law.         

We must come to God to receive this righteousness. He alone can give to us. We cannot go to a preacher. We cannot go to a priest. We cannot go to a church. We cannot go to a denomination official. We cannot go to an association. We cannot go to a ministry. We have to go to God to have this righteousness that He alone can give. We have to do business with God to have this righteousness. This righteousness from God is the very heart of the gospel message.     

IV. Justification is Received by Faith (3:22b)


Fourth, justification is received by faith. Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” The only way to receive this righteousness is by exercising saving faith in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is only as good as its object, and it is only faith in Jesus Christ that will give to us the righteousness of God. If you put faith in anything or anyone else, there will be no righteousness from God. God will only deal with us on the basis of our faith in His Son.


What is saving faith? It is the firm commitment of a person’s life to Jesus Christ. The faith that saves is nothing less than this. It is more than the mere head knowledge about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation. It is more than the emotional feelings of conviction of sin and affections for Christ. Saving faith is the exercise of a person’s will to turn away from self-righteousness and entrust his life to Jesus Christ. It is to enter through the narrow gate. It is to come to Christ and entrust all that you are to all that He is. A half trust will not get you there. There must be the reliance of your entire soul upon Jesus Christ. You cannot hold back any part and try to contribute some portion of your salvation through your own good works a right acceptance before God. Faith is real when you come all the way to trust Jesus Christ alone.


Faith Alone

There are some people who try to straddle the fence. They want to have faith in Christ and their baptism. They think that faith is in Christ and their church membership. Or they are relying upon faith in Christ and their good works to commend them before God. It is not until you burn all these other bridges behind you that you truly rely upon Jesus Christ to save you. You must turn away from all else and embrace Jesus Christ exclusively. You must put your full confidence in Him. That is when you receive the gift of the righteousness from God.      

You cannot play all ends into the middle. Faith is when you take that decisive step to leave behind the world system and commit your life to Jesus Christ alone. You leave behind dead religion and you entrust yourself to Jesus Christ. Saving faith begins when you know the truth of the gospel, the truth about yourself, the truth of the fact that you are under the wrath of God, and that salvation is found exclusively in Jesus Christ. You have to know this or you cannot be saved. You also must be convinced of your need for salvation and the truthfulness of its message. The Holy Spirit has come into the world to convict men of sin and righteousness and judgment. Then as an act of your will, you take that step of faith and come all the way to Jesus Christ and embrace Him as your Lord and Savior.

The righteousness of God in justification is received by faith alone. Paul will belabor this point throughout the rest of this section. The emphasis he will make is on faith alone, not faith and, but faith alone. You will notice the repeated stress upon faith throughout the rest of this section. In verse 25, the apostle writes, “It is in His blood through faith.” At the end of verse 26, he states that the one who is justified is “the one who has faith in Jesus.” In verse 27, he insists justification is received “by a law of faith.” In verse 28, he affirms, “A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” In verse 30, he reinforces, “God will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” In verse 31, he reiterates, “Do we nullify the Law through faith? May it never be!” The point is so well made that it cannot be misunderstood.


Paul later says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves is the gift of God and as a result of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8). This is the distinguishing mark of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Every other religious message in the world is a message of human works as the basis to earn salvation in which man makes some contribution to his own righteousness. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only message of pure grace in which righteousness is received by faith alone. Man must receive the righteousness of God by the empty hand of faith.


V. Justification is Needed by All (3:23)


Fifth, justification is needed by all. Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23). Every person in the history of the world, whether past, present, or until the end of the age, has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. That is a simple definition of what sin is. There are many different definitions for sin used in the Bible. This is one of those, which is to fall short of the perfect holiness of God. By this high standard, God is not comparing us to our neighbor, or to someone you think is further away from God than you are. If you can picture a set of scales and on one side of the scales is placed your life. On the other side of the scales is the glory of God, which is the sum and substance of all of the perfections of God. We are weighed in the balances and measured against the absolute purity of God. By this standard, we have fallen woefully short of the glory of God.

This is why every person in the world desperately needs the saving righteousness that only God can give. There is no other means by which we may have a right standing before Him. Whether you live a moral life or an immoral one, whether you have heard the gospel or never heard the gospel, whether you grew up in church or have never darkened the doors of the of church, whether you are religious or are irreligious, no matter who you are or what you are, you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. You desperately need the righteousness of God in order to be right with God. There is not a person who does not need the righteousness of God that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is needed by all.


VI. Justification is Declared by God (3:24a)


Sixth, justification is declared by God. At the beginning of verse 24, we read these two words, “being justified.” This is a passive verb, which means we are passive in obtaining this righteousness and someone else is active. We cannot justify ourselves. Someone else is the justifier. We are the one being justified. Who is this One who justifies us? The answer is stated very clearly two verses later in verse 26, “So that He [God] would be just and the justifier.” It is God and God alone who can justify us. God the Father alone can bring the gavel down and declare us to be His righteousness. All that matters is what God does and says on this matter.


Justification is a forensic declaration. This pictures a courtroom scene in which God, the Judge, makes a legal declaration. He declares the guilty sinner to be righteous on the basis of the righteousness that Jesus Christ has secured for us. This pronouncement of righteousness is an immediate and irrevocable act. It takes place in a split second the moment the sinner believes in Jesus Christ. Our sanctification is progressive throughout the rest of one’s life. Our glorification will take place in a moment and will last throughout all eternity. But justification takes place in the twinkling of an eye when one believes in Jesus Christ.


It is possible to walk into a Bible study, lost, under the wrath of God, and condemned. Then, in the middle of that Bible study, the truth is being made known to you. Suddenly, you put your faith in Jesus Christ. Before you even get up out of your seat, you are immediately justified by God. And it is an irrevocable act by God. This divine proclamation by the high court of heaven can never be reversed. What God has declared stands forever, permanently entered into the records of the Supreme Court of heaven. There is no higher court that could overrule the declaration of God in heaven on this matter.


This justification is full and complete. You can never be more justified than you are the moment you believe in Christ. When God declares you to be His righteousness, you are as justified as anyone else who believes in Jesus Christ. Justification is the reversal of His pronouncement of condemnation. Before you believe, you are under the wrath of God. Then, the very moment you believe, you are immediately justified by God. You go from being under the curse of the Law to the blessing of Jesus Christ. This is the very heart of the gospel, and it is the heart of this epistle. It is that which puts us in right standing before God.


A Divine Deposit into Our Account

The divine act of justification is more than the removal of the penalty of sin. It is more than being forgiven of your sin. That is only the removal of the negative that separates you from God. Justification, moreover, brings the acquisition of the positive righteousness of God. By faith, you are given a positive righteousness before God. We need far more than the forgiveness of sin. All the pardon of sin does is bring us back to point zero, and zeros do not go to heaven. Forgiveness washes away sin, but in order to have a right standing before God, we must be more than a clean slate. We must be brought higher than merely ground zero. There must be deposited into our account the positive, saving righteousness of God.


What forgiveness does is wash away the debt that we owe to God. This simply brings us back to square zero. With divine forgiveness, we reach a zero balance in our account. Divine pardon removes the debt we have incurred against God. But in order to go to heaven, there has to be a positive deposit that is made into our standing before God. In other words, we need more than the removal of our debt to God. We also need the positive deposit of divine righteousness. What must be put into our account is what only God can deposit into our account. He must justify us and impute His righteousness to us. This transaction takes place in a split second in justification by faith, when we believe in Jesus Christ.


VII. Justification is Given as a Gift (3:24b)


Seventh, Paul says in verse 24, “Being justified as a gift by His grace.” In order to understand the thrust of this, we must remember the difference between wages and a gift. Wages are that for which you work hard. You earn your salary. You deserve them because you have labored for them. By your own efforts, your employer gives to you what is rightfully yours. You earned it. A gift, on the other hand, is the total opposite. There is nothing you can do to deserve a gift. You do not work for it, but it is freely given. You have done nothing to deserve it. A gift is solely based upon the mercy of the giver. He chooses to give something which you have done nothing to deserve. In this case, God gives His righteousness freely to those who have done nothing to work for it. They have earned nothing. They have no merit of their own. They have no basis by which to make any claim on His perfect righteousness. They are weak, fallen sinners who have done nothing to work for it. They have done nothing to deserve it. In fact, it is the very opposite. They, in their life, have done everything to deserve condemnation. But God freely gives an undeserved gift. When He gives His righteousness as a gift, Someone else has paid for it. It is a prepaid gift, paid in full by Another. You cannot so much as contribute anything. You cannot even pick up the tip. It is not like God will pay for the meal and you pay for the parking. There is nothing you can add to the gift of God. It is already paid for and accomplished by Jesus Christ, which leads to the next heading.


VIII. Justification is Acquired by Jesus Christ (3:24c-25)


Eighth, justification is fully acquired by Jesus Christ. God the Father has sent Jesus Christ into this world to pay for this gift that the Father will give to all those who believe in His Son. In verse 24, we see that this righteousness has been acquired by Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (verse 24). “Redemption” (apolutrosis) means ‘the payment of a ransom in order to secure the release of one who is held captive under the tyranny of another.’ It represents ‘a releasing effected by payment of a ransom.’ It indicates ‘a deliverance, a liberation procured by the payment of a ransom.’


Jesus Christ, when He entered this world, invaded the slave market of mankind. He came into the prison house of this world and, through the perfection of His sinless life and His substitutionary death upon the cross, Jesus Christ purchased in full the redemption of sinners who were held captive by the chains of sin under the cruel tyranny of the devil. The Lord Jesus paid the ransom price in order to secure the release of those imprisoned by their sin. You will never hear any better news than this for the rest of your life. Everything else is secondary. This truth is what is primary.


The entirety of this redemption was purchased by Jesus Christ. There is not a drop of saving grace outside of the Lord Jesus Christ. The righteousness of God is not found in the church. It is not realized in the pulpit or the pew. It is not in the elders or the deacons. It is not in any teacher. It is not in a denomination. This righteousness is not discovered by merely attending a worship service. It is not merited by our good works. It is not earned in the baptistery. It is not purchased by holding the communion cup. It is not earned by taking the bread in the Lord’s Supper. It is all secured by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is acquired by Jesus Christ.


Wrath Satisfied in Christ

In verse 25, Paul writes, “whom God displayed publically as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” This propitiation through blood refers to the death of Christ Jesus. “God” identifies God the Father as the One who “displayed publically” Jesus. In other words, it was the Father’s plan to send His Son into this world, into the public spotlight before the eyes of His generation. Jesus came to make “a propitiation in His blood through faith.” “Propitiation” (hilasterion) means an ‘appeasement, a satisfaction.’ The death of Christ satisfied the righteous wrath and anger of God toward those who believe. The cross not only did something for us, it did something to the Father. It placated the vengeance of God toward those in Christ.


The death of Christ bought us out of our slavery to sin. Never will we return to that former state of slavery again. Jesus said, “If the Son shall set you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). But the cross also did something toward God the Father. The death of Jesus placated His righteous anger toward those who believe in Him. It appeased the vengeance, fury, and wrath of God toward all that is violently offensive to His own holiness.


Let me remind us, God is angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 7:11). God has indignation towards the wicked every moment. They are presently under His wrath (Romans 1:18). It is the death of Christ on behalf of all who will put their faith in Him that propitiates the righteous anger of God. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is not one drop of eternal anger that God has for believers in Christ. Christ bore the curse of the Law upon the cross (Galatians 3:13). When Jesus died upon the cross, God the Father transferred our sins to Him. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). When Jesus became sin in our place, the Father unleashed the fury of His wrath upon Jesus Christ as He bore our sins.


God the Father unleashed His vengeance upon His Son, as He bore our sins in His body upon the cross (1 Peter 2:24). The only people who can comprehend what that is like are the damned souls in hell who are suffering the eternal punishment of God. The full force of divine wrath deserved by those for whom Christ died was unleashed upon Him in a moment. A tsunami of wrath swept across Jesus Christ as He bore our sins. There is now no more wrath for those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ.


A Triangle of Salvation

I want you to think of a triangle. At the top is God the Father, at the lower left corner is God the Son, and in the lower right corner is all who will believe in Him. The death of Christ is in the middle of the triangle. On the left line connecting God the Father and God the Son, that is the propitiation in the blood of Jesus. In His death, God the Son propitiated the wrath of God the Father. Propitiation had nothing to do with us. It had everything to do with satisfying the righteous anger of God the Father. On the bottom line of the triangle, connecting God the Son and believers, is the truth of redemption. This truth is between Jesus and those who trust Him. Jesus Christ has redeemed us out of the slave market of sin. On the right line connecting God the Father with believers is the doctrine of justification. By this truth, God the Father declares believers to be the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Understand this simple triangle, and you will understand the three theological words that are found in this passage – propitiation, redemption, and reconciliation.


To summarize, justification (verse 24) occurs between God the Father and the sinner. Propitiation (verse 25) occurs between the God the Father and God the Son. And redemption (verse 24) occurs between God the Son and the sinner. In the very middle of this triangle of salvation is the death of Jesus Christ that He accomplished on the cross. Each of these three theological words reveal the multidimensional value of the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We need more than merely justification. We need more than only propitiation. We need more than simply redemption. We need all three of these realities. There are other theological words that we will examine like reconciliation in Romans 5.


IX. Justification is Designed by God (3:25-26)


Ninth, justification is declared by God. In verse 25, Paul concludes this section, “Whom God displayed publically as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness.” If we are to be released from our sin, the justice of God demanded that there be One who would suffer in our place. God could not wink at our sin and sweep it under the carpet. Sin had to be eternally dealt with in full. Paul adds this explanation, “because in the forbearance of God, He passed over the sins previously committed” (verse 25). This refers to the stay of judgment upon all the saints in the Old Testament. Through the future death of Christ upon the cross, God was able to pass over all their former sins from the era before His coming. The end of verse 25 refers to the past, while verse 26 refers to the present hour. The apostle states, “For the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (verse 26). That God is just means He must punish our sins. That He is the justifier means that He has devised the plan whereby a Substitute would stand in our place and bear our sins. He would suffer our punishment and endure the wrath that is deserving believers. By this means, God can justify sinners who trust in His Son without forfeiting His own justice. God’s justice is executed at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. How could God be both just and the justifier? Only in the cross of Jesus Christ.


Paul concludes this section with the same emphasis that he has been making, “All this is by faith in Jesus” (verse 26). Once again, he stresses that we must put our trust in Christ. Let me make this more personal. You must renounce your own self-righteousness. You must turn away from any self-efforts to commend yourself to God. You must repent of a life pursuit of sin. You must turn to God through Jesus Christ and commit your life to Christ. When you do that, God immediately declares you to be righteousness based upon what Jesus Christ accomplished at the cross. Understand these verses and you understand the gospel. Herein is the heart of this epistle.

© 2019 Steven J. Lawson