One of my favorite realizations of all time was that the Bible isn’t simply a collection of assorted truths or short stories, but that it tells one cohesive narrative, one grand story. It begins with creation, moves through the fall and redemption, and ultimately ends with a new creation. And though we might not think about it that much, along the way, there are some points where you think, “I don’t think that can work” or “That’s going to cause a big problem in this story” or “How can that square with what I’ve already seen.”
One of those moments comes in Psalm 51. Many of you are probably familiar with the psalm. David, the king of Israel, has committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then he had her husband killed. So, he has adultery and murder on his record. But in Psalm 51, he confesses his sin and finds forgiveness. In fact, he trucks on as king until he is an old man. The problem, however, is that the Lord had explicitly prescribed three different times in the law that the punishment for adultery and for murder is the death penalty. And David had been guilty of both. Yet he never bears the punishment of death.
Now, if that doesn’t seem like problem enough, after noting in Exodus 34:7 that he will “by no means clear the guilty,” the Lord says in Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” That is, if someone acquits a guilty man, justifying a wicked individual, the Lord says that is an abomination.
But isn’t that what seemingly happened with David? David looks like the object of mercy. He’s a wicked man who gets to keep on living. But more than that, what about you and me? Over the last seven weeks, working through Romans 1:18-3:20, we’ve seen every Sunday that every individual apart from Christ is wicked, guilty, and condemned. If there was any doubt of that, Paul made it extremely clear in the text we looked at last week (3:9-20), noting, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. . . . No one does good, not even one.” Every mouth is stopped, and everyone apart from Christ stands guilty, condemned before God. He would even write in Ephesians 2 that all of mankind is by their very nature objects of God’s judicial wrath.
And this morning we, as people who the Bible says, on our own, are sinful, guilty, condemned, ungodly people, are rejoicing in our forgiveness and delighting that we have been declared righteous before God. We celebrate and give thanks that God is one who, as we read in Romans 4:5, “justifies the ungodly.”
But how can that be? How can the very God who says he’ll not acquit the guilty, lavish forgiveness on sinners like Abraham, Moses, and David? How can the one who says that it is an abomination to justify the wicked shown himself to be one who “justifies the ungodly” and not become an abomination to himself?
The great news is that not only is this seemingly impossible dilemma answered, it is answered in the cross of Christ, and Paul explains the glory of how God can be both the just judge and the one who justifies the ungodly in our text this morning where we get to see what is easily one of the most glorious gospel texts in all of Scripture. So, let’s dive in this morning to see this glorious good news that we’ve been wading through three chapters of Romans to get to. First, we see that:
God has made available a gift of righteousness to us apart from the law
The last place that Paul ended was to say that all men are sinners, under God’s wrath, and no one will be justified before God by obeying the commands of the law sufficiently since the law doesn’t provide the power to change our hearts but actually just reveals and increases our sin. So, is there any hope of any of us having a righteous standing before God? It would seem not after you read Romans 3:9-20, but then Paul begins our text this morning by saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteous of God through faith for all who believe” (vv. 21-22a).
That is, though the law didn’t provide righteousness for any individual, for no man will be justified by the law, God has now done something at this point in salvation history to reveal something glorious. And that something glorious is that he is providing the very righteousness that men need to stand before him justified as a gift. He’s giving to us, the very wicked men who deserve his wrath, the very righteousness that we need in order to stand before him and be declared righteous. In other words, God didn’t say, “Well, I set the bar too high for them. They can’t achieve perfect righteousness. I will just waive that requirement.” No, he didn’t wave the requirement but instead gave us perfect righteousness, crediting it to us as a gift from him so that the requirement has been met for.
Now, I know that this isn’t news to most of us in here. Again, most of us could pass a theology test if there were a question about how we sinful people can stand and be declared perfectly righteous before a holy God. But I also know that it is the default option of most people to put themselves back under the law when thinking about their standing before God. It is almost the default option of everyone to slip back into thinking that we have to do enough to be righteous before God and then being reminded continually that we haven’t done enough.
So, I want to explain this glorious good news that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel by faith in a slightly different way. I want to try to get you hooked on something that should be harder to believe and then show you that the easier thing to believe then is most certainly true. This is something that the Lord himself does, right? He says things like, sparrows are so utterly insignificant that they’re sold for a penny, and yet our Father watches over them so that not one of them falls to the ground apart from his providential care. That is a remarkable, hard to believe reality, isn’t it? God cares about every second of the life of every single sparrow on the planet? Well, if that’s true, then how can we think that he’s not watching, overseeing, and caring for us, his children, who are so much more valuable than sparrow? That should be much easier to believe.
We also see that kind of argument with God giving us good gifts. Jesus reminds us that even earthly fathers who are not righteous but evil will give their children good gifts. If their child asks for some bread they won’t give them a stone. That is an amazing reality. So, Jesus reasons, if our heavenly Father is utterly good, how would he not also always give us good gifts, withholding no good thing from us? Isn’t that easier to believe.
Well, let’s try something a little bit like that in thinking about your righteous standing before God. I want you to imagine that each day you get to wake up and your standing before God, your approval before him, and his delight in you is dependent not on you, what you’ve done, or what you haven’t done but is instead dependent on someone else. Okay, now I want you to imagine that this someone else is the godliest person you know. I don't know who that might be in your eyes, but think about the godliest person you know, the person that you think, “Man, I wish I knew, and loved, and walked with God the way that person did.” Now, do you doubt for one second that this person wakes up each day and God is displeased with them, wanting to hold them at a distance? If your answer is, “Of course not,” then in our scenario you would get to wake up every day knowing that God is toward you the same way he is toward you because your standing and approval and delight before God is dependent on that other person.
Okay, now that’s not real. Your standing before God isn’t dependent on that godly person you just thought of. It’s actually better. Your standing before God really is dependent on another person; it’s just not that person you thought of. If you’re a believer, your standing before God, your approval before God, and the delight God has in you is dependent on his perfectly righteous Son, Jesus Christ. Each day you get to wake up saying, “Father, my standing before you is dependent on your Son who was perfectly righteous for me.” As Jesus is praying in John 17:23, he even says, “You sent me and loved them [i.e. believers] even as you loved me.” That’s Jesus saying that the Father loves us even as he loves his own Son!
So, each day you can wake up and say, “Does the Father love his Son? Is the Father pleased with his Son? Is the Father delighting in his Son? Yes, yes, and yes, and I am thankful that you, my Father, then delight in me.” That’s the glorious good news. The law didn’t provide us the righteousness we needed. In fact, it simply exposed our unrighteousness. But now God has shown his gift of righteousness as he sent his Son to be perfectly righteous for us so that our sins might be taken care of by him and his perfectly obedient life credited to us, or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might before the righteousness of God.” Praise be to God who made available to us his righteousness apart from the law.
The law bore witness to it, prophesying throughout the OT that one was coming who would make many to be counted righteousness. But now, in Christ, God has fulfilled his promise, and it is glorious news. But it doesn’t stop there. We also see that:
Everyone can have this gift of righteousness through faith
Paul writes of this gift of righteousness to us from God that “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [is] 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” (vv. 22-24).
In other words, just as Paul has shown that every man on the planet has sinned and is under God’s wrath apart from Christ, so he is showing that there is no distinction in who can have this gift of righteousness from God. It’s not a gift that he wants to give to Jews only or to men only or to any other segment of people only. He gives this gift of righteousness to everyone who believes.
Now, this is great news. We are credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ not by first being as good as we can be or avoiding as much sin as we can avoid. We are credited with the righteousness of Christ merely through faith. That is, we trust and place our hope for righteousness not in ourselves being good enough or having connections to the right people or anything in ourselves at all. Rather, we place our hope and trust and faith in Jesus Christ, his righteous life, sin-bearing death, and justifying resurrection as our only hope of righteousness. That is, we merely receive by faith what Christ has done for us.
That’s what faith is. Paul will say in Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Now, do you see how Paul contrasts faith with work? To the one who does not work but believes, Paul says. What he’s saying is that faith is the opposite of working. It’s merely trusting, resting in Christ finished work, believing that what he has done is enough, and receiving his gift of righteousness for us. It’s the difference between doing and realizing that what is needed had already been done. And that glorious gift of righteousness is available to everyone who will turn from their sin and place their faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
But there’s even more good news. Paul also reminds us that:
The ground of our forgiveness and righteous standing is the redemptive work of Christ
Paul says that we 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” (vv. 24-25a). Now, you may ask, “How is this more good news? Haven’t we already seen this in noting that we are not justified by our works but by faith?” Well, yes, but there is indeed something more glorious here.
Notice that Paul says that there is redemption in Jesus Christ “to be received by faith.” What Paul is saying is that faith is the instrument whereby we receive the righteousness of God credited to us. But it’s not the cause or ground of our righteousness. In other words, the Lord doesn’t save us because he looks at us and says, “That is strong, spectacular faith. That is such impressive faith, unwavering, never-doubting faith that you have that I’m counting that as the ground of you being righteous.” Nor is he saying merely faith in any object is sufficient, as if to say, “Just believe in whatever and you’ll be justified.” No, our faith is in the fact that Christ has done something for us. Our faith is in the fact that Jesus provided for our redemption. And it is Christ and his redeeming work that provides the ground and cause of our justification. Let me try to explain this a bit.
The way Paul explains this for us is by noting that Christ was put forward as a propitiation by his blood. By the word “propitiation” Paul is saying that Christ is a wrath-appeasing sacrifice. In other words, Jesus bears the wrath of God that should have come to us because of our sin. By becoming sin for us (in the words of 2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus, bears the punishment we had merited so that God’s justice is satisfied, his wrath appeased. And he did this after having lived a perfect life.
And that is the ground of cause of our righteousness: his perfect life and penalty-bearing death. We must believe in someone and something specifically to receive God’s gift of righteousness. We must believe in Jesus Christ, his perfect life, wrath-bearing death on the cross, and justifying resurrection on the third day.
This also means, as I’ve already begun to note, that the ground or cause of our standing before God is Christ’s work for us and not the unwavering strength of my faith. In other words, if the ground of my righteousness was my faith, then there may be a day when you or I feel like our faith is weak. Does this mean that my hope or assurance before God is at risk? Does my righteous standing fluctuate on how strongly and confidently I’m believing? No, because my weak faith is resting in the unwavering glorious, once-for-all, finished work of Christ.
Let’s think through this by thinking of two men stepping out onto and walking across two bridges. Both bridges are absolutely sturdy and would never give way, even if you stacked cars on top of them. But deep below the bridges are jagged rocks that would assure the death of anyone who falls. Now, the first man is absolutely confident in his faith. He says, “I’m thrilled about walking over this bridge. There’s not a doubt in my mind I’m making it across.” The second man, however, has weaker faith. He has faith. He says, “I’m going across the bridge.” But he also says, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m not a little scared. I am scared. Something I worry about what it would be like to fall to my death on that jagged rocks. But I’m going to walk.”
Now, which one of those men survive the trip across the bridge? The answer, of course, is that they both do because the bridge is the cause and ground of their save trip across the cavern, not the strength or weakness of their faith. If they will exercise the faith to trust in that bridge – stepping out onto it – the bridge will uphold them. That is the glorious good news in seeing that faith is the instrument by which we are justified. We trust in Christ. But the unwavering ground of our confidence is outside of ourselves in the finished, perfect work of Christ for us.
Our righteousness is a gift from God. It is obtained not by works but merely by faith. And it is grounded in the finished work of Christ. Each additional element is showing us more and more glory, more and more good news. This text is almost like an infomercial. So, in light of that, let me one more time show you that it gets even better.
Not only has God justified us but has done so without compromising his justice
Paul completes this section saying that God put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith,” and adds, “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” (vv. 25-26).
Here, Paul is addressing the question where we began. Did God just decide to overlook David’s adultery and murder? Did God just decide to ignore Abraham’s many sins? Did God simply say at some point, “Well, boys will be boys. I’ll just forgive them”? After all, it looks like, throughout the OT as God continues to forgive sin after sin without pouring out his wrath that he is being unjust. Where is the God who says it’s an abomination to acquit the guilty man?
But then, one day, outside Jerusalem on a Friday, as Jesus Christ hung on a tree bearing the wrath of God for every sinner and every sin that had ever been forgiven and ever would be forgiven, God demonstrated that he didn’t ignore any sin. He didn’t sweep aside any transgression. He didn’t put his wrath in his pocket never to be dealt out. As Christ paid our penalty, in our place, as our substitute, it was showing that God was pouring out the full punishment for our sins.
And this is great news. Because what this means is that not only have we been credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ but our penalty for our many sins has been paid. In other words, if the enemy says that we deserve God’s wrath for what we’ve done, we can say, “We agree. But it’s been paid in full by Christ. I am now absolutely free from any condemnation,” which is exactly what Paul will say in Romans 8:1.
We might think of it in terms of a sentence served. If a man commits a crime, is sentenced to a ten-year prison sentence, and then serves that sentence and is released from prison, does he have to walk around, always fearful that he’s going to be declared guilty again for his crime and serve the sentence again? No, the guilt was already declared and the sentence already served. In our case, it’s the same. Condemnation was pronounced, and the death sentence was passed. But our sentence was carried out with Christ as our representative and substitute. Now, we get to walk around with the sentence served. Through Christ, Paul can note, we’ve died to the law. The law condemns, but we point to Christ and say, “Sentence served and his righteousness given.” Praise the Lord.
Moreover, if God had not satisfied his judgment but just decided to forgive, he’d have been less than just. If our forgiveness were based on a whimsical God who just happened to have compassion, then we’d have to live forever, worried that he’d change his mind worried that somehow the law might look at us too closely and say, “Hold on a minute. Justice was never served. Punishment was never meted out.” But God made our justification ironclad. He made the justification of ungodly people like you and me a just act, by paying our penalty for us. Therefore, he is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus, and we are those who are justly justified. Forgiveness with justice satisfied is the sweetest of positions in which we get to live.
This is almost feels too good to be true, but here it is once more. Our righteousness standing before God is completely the gift of God dependent on the righteous life of his perfect Son. In order to receive that righteousness, we don’t have to work but simply believe. And even our standing isn’t dependent on the strength of our faith but grounded in the finished work of Christ so that we can say on days when our faith is weak, “But Christ is enough. He is sufficient.” And because our justification is a just act, it can never be undone. The righteous and just God has declared us righteous, who can condemn? This is good news.
And the source of so much joylessness, I believe, for us as believers is found in forgetting this glorious truth, forgetting or ignoring the good news that Paul has announced for us, and living instead as if there’s a righteousness found in us performing well enough before God. May we today take in this good news, rejoice in it, and no longer seek a righteousness that comes from ourselves, for that is futile, but give thanks for the righteousness that is revealed in the gospel, the righteousness that that law bore witness to but that came to us apart from the law but through the perfect Son of God. Amen.