By. Ligon Duncan
Romans 3: 21-28
Turn with me to Romans chapter 3. We’re going to be looking together at this great passage in which Paul articulates the truth of justification by grace through faith. It is one of the foundation stones of the Protestant Reformation—the recovery of this biblical truth—and it’s important for us to think about it together. I suppose that just about everyone here would say if you were asked that you believe in justification by grace received through faith. And yet, many of us don’t understand it as we ought, and we live in a culture where you’re supposed to say that you believe in salvation by grace or in justification by faith.
I was involved in a panel discussion on salvation just a few weeks ago in which people from various faith traditions were to say what they thought about salvation. It was interesting to me that even those from non-Christian faith traditions, including the Hindu tradition, articulated a belief that salvation was by faith. Now that’s an interesting thing. I suspect that had to do more with the culture of that debate—the fact that it was taking place here in the middle of the Bible Belt in Jackson, Mississippi—than it does with a fair exposition of those various faith traditions and what their primary texts actually say about salvation. I happen to know that some of those traditions represented there actually teach very clearly a salvation which is by human effort or human works. And yet, they knew what their audience was, and they knew that their audience wouldn’t like a doctrine of salvation by works articulated for them, and so their spin on their particular views was much more in the direction of salvation by faith.
But I want to say that even when we use that language, we may not know exactly how radical the doctrine that Paul is teaching here in Romans chapter 3 is. And that’s really going to be my one-point message today: I want to remind you again of just how radical the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is, or especially the doctrine of justification by faith. Because in the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul is saying that God pardons and accepts the ungodly. Yes, I said that right. In justification by faith, God pardons and accepts the ungodly as righteous. He declares those who are wicked to be not guilty and accepted as righteous. That’s how radical Paul’s teaching on justification is! And we need to re-appreciate that for the living of our Christian lives.
Now let me outline the passage before you before we read it today. In verses 21 and 22, Paul tells us about the provision of the gospel. And in those verses what Paul does is he highlights an important aspect of God’s character that is especially displayed in the gospel. Now, if you and I were writing Romans chapter 3, my guess is we would say that in the gospel God’s grace is highlighted. And that would certainly be true. But that is not what Paul mentions in verses 21 and 22. So, he talks about the provision of the gospel, and he highlights a particular aspect or attribute or character of God that is displayed in our justification. We’ll talk about that in just a few moments.
Then, if you look at the end of verse 22 and all of verse 23, you’ll see a second thing in this passage. You’ll see there the problem which the gospel answers. Here Paul is saying why there needs to be a gospel, why Jesus did what He had to do, why we have to be saved by grace through faith. He articulates the problem.
Then, in verses 24-26, he explains the process whereby God righteously saves us by grace. Now that’s a mouthful. He explains the process whereby God righteously saves us by grace, and he points, of course, directly to the propitiation of Jesus Christ.
And then finally in verses 27 and 28, you see a fourth thing. You see the proceeds of this gospel; you see the results of this gospel. And, of course, he points to the fact that there can be no boasting if one is saved by grace through faith. And, furthermore, he articulates this truth very clearly in verse 28: that we are justified apart from the works of the law. So I want to look at those four things with you today. Now, before we read God’s word and hear it proclaimed, let’s look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. We pray that You would speak to us by it this day. By Your spirit, enable us to understand and embrace the truth. Help us to remember that this is Your inspired, inerrant word. Help us to remember that it is the only authority for faith and life. We pray, heavenly Father, that as we understand the gospel and as we understand this truth of justification by faith, our lives and our Christian service would be changed, transformed, energized through it and by it. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“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. 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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Justification by faith is one of the most radical things that we have ever heard if we have really heard what Paul is saying in this passage. When we say that we are justified, we mean that we are declared righteous. But when we say we are justified by faith, we are emphasizing that we are not declared righteous because we are righteous; we are declared righteous for another reason. When we say that we are justified by faith, we are not saying that we are justified because we believe, on account of our belief, on the ground of our believing—because that would be saying that we are justified by something that we do as well, as opposed to our works or our goodness—just our belief, or our faith. The doctrine of justification by faith is not that we are justified by faith as opposed to works. The doctrine of justification by faith says we are justified by God’s grace, not because of our works, but because of Christ’s works.
In other words, the ground whereby God accepts us and pardons us is not found in us. It’s not because we were good; it’s not because we were better than others. It’s not because God foresaw good works in us; it’s not because God foresaw faith in us. It’s based upon what God saw in Christ credited to our account.
That’s why we say it is “justification by faith”—not that it’s based on faith, but that what Christ has done is received by faith. So the important thing about justification, Paul says, is that it has nothing to do with something in you or about you, and it has everything to do with something in and about the person and work of Jesus Christ. In other words, our acceptance with God is not based on something within us; it’s based on something in Christ which is received by us through faith. That’s what Paul’s talking about when he says “justification by faith.”
And it’s a glorious truth, and it’s a radical truth…but we’ve domesticated that truth, and some have even modified that truth. And so it’s good for us today to come right back here to Paul and study for a few moments just how radical he was when he proclaimed this doctrine of justification by faith.
It’s not, by the way, just a New Testament doctrine; it’s an Old Testament doctrine. In fact, in Romans 4, the very next passage, he’s going to prove the doctrine of justification by faith from Genesis 15 and the life of Abraham. So this is a Bible doctrine, Old and New Testament, and it’s a radical doctrine, because it cuts against our natural grain.
You see, we tend to think that God will justify those who are righteous. But I want you to hear again Jesus’ words: “I did not come for the righteous but for sinners.” Now, Jesus is not saying that there are people out there that are righteous apart from Him, but He is saying that there are people who think that they are righteous apart from Him, and that His salvation is a provision for those who know that their righteousness cannot measure up. And, therefore, in justification by faith the Apostle Paul is saying that God accepts and pardons those who don’t deserve to be accepted and pardoned. In justification, Paul is saying that God declares to be righteous those who are unrighteous. In justification by faith, Paul is saying God declares those accepted that ought not to be accepted. In justification by faith, the Apostle Paul says that God declares sinners in rebellion against Him to be accepted and in relationship to Him. In justification, God declares those at enmity with Him, those who are ungodly, to be brought into a new relationship with Him and to be made part of His family. That’s how radical justification by faith is!
And, yet, over and over we have seen the Church in many ages attempt to sneak something of our work back into justification, precisely because of this: people just can’t imagine that God would declare sinners to be righteous. But that is precisely what Paul says that He does. And let’s walk through this passage and see how.
I. The provision of the gospel for sinners.
In verses 21 and 22, you’ll see the first thing: here’s the provision of the gospel for sinners. “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.” The Apostle has spent two chapters explaining that we are all under the just condemnation of God; we deserve to be punished for our sins. In and of ourselves, we cannot be accepted by Him, but in His mercy He has displayed His gospel solution, and that solution is set forth here in verses 21 and 22. But what you’re expecting Paul to say is something like this: “Though we were dead in our trespasses, and though we were under the just judgment of God, God has displayed His grace in saving us through faith.”
But that’s not what Paul says. Paul says that “God has displayed His righteousness in saving us by faith. And that ought to take you by surprise because that doesn’t seem to make sense.
You see, the very question someone would want to ask you if you said that “Justification by faith means that God declares sinners to be righteous,” the very question that someone who’s listening ought to ask you is “Wait a minute! How can God do that? Doesn’t God’s own word in Deuteronomy 25 and in Proverbs 17 say that “it is an abomination when a judge calls the righteous ‘wicked’ and the wicked ‘righteous’?” Aren’t you saying that that’s what God is doing? How can God do that?” And so you see, many people say, “Oh no, that’s not what God is doing. It’s that we’re sort of righteous and sort of sinners, and there’s a combination of it. And God makes us to be righteous, and then He declares us to be righteous.” And Paul says, ‘No, no, no, no! I’ve got something far more radical to say than that, and here’s what I’ve got to say: God does declare the ungodly to be righteous, but He doesn’t declare them to be righteous because of anything in them. He declares them to be righteous because of something about His Son. And because of what He does with His Son, God’s righteousness is manifest in His grace to us.’
Now, how so? Because, Paul says, God deals with our sin not by visiting upon us the due penalty of our sin, but by visiting upon Christ the penalty for our sin, and thereby God’s justice is upheld. You see what Paul says here in verse 26: “That He might be just and the justifier He declares you to be righteous, but He declares you to be righteous on the ground of His dealing in strict justice with His Son.” And so Paul is emphasizing that the provision for our problem is not to be found in us.
II. Our problem is sin.
Now, what is our problem? Paul tells you there in verses 22 and 23, and that’s the second thing that I want you to see. The problem is sin. He says, “There is no distinction”—“no distinction between Jew and Greek,” no distinction between faithful Israelite and pagan Gentile: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That is the basic human problem. It’s vital for us to pause and remember that. There are all sorts of people offering different ideas today about what our basic human problem is. And even within the church there are those who say, “No, no, no, no. The big problem is not all this sin business. We make too much of that; we beat people down. We shouldn’t talk about sin; it’s depressing. The real problem is getting along with one another, fellowshipping in the church, loving one another, loving the world,” or whatever else. But Paul says, “The big problem is sin. The big problem is that we deserve the condemnation of God. We deserve to be cast out from His presence. We deserve to fall under His judgment. We deserve the due penalty of sin because we’ve rebelled against Him.”
And the Apostle is telling us here that God’s free justification is His answer to our problem and to what we deserve. So, His provision is described in verses 21 and 22. The problem for which that provision is made is described in verses 22 and 23.
III. How exactly are we justified
And now Paul explains the process. Notice that this justification is not based on anything in us. It’s not based on our works; it’s not based on our goodness; it’s not based on our faith; it’s not based on our foreseeing works or our foreseeing faith; it’s based on something else. Look at verse 24: We are “justified as a gift.” You can’t earn God’s gift. You don’t contribute to God’s gift. He gives you His gift—God’s gift “by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
Notice verses 24 through 26, in showing us the solution to our problem, point our eyes away from ourselves and to the cross of Christ. The solution to our problem is the propitiation, the satisfying of the due penalty of our sins provided for us by Jesus Christ on the cross. The solution to our problem is not found within: it’s not found in our works; it’s not found in our goodness; it’s not found in our faith. It’s found in Christ! And all faith is, is a looking away from ourselves to Him. It’s trusting in what He has done. That’s why God chooses faith, because true faith is inherently self-renouncing. It doesn’t look to ourselves; it looks away from ourselves to Him.
And the Apostle Paul says, “Here’s the glorious thing about this justification: God declares you and me, sinners, to be righteous in His sight, not because of anything in us, but because of something about Jesus.” Jesus is righteous. Jesus bears the penalty of sin. And what is Jesus’ is credited to our account even as what is ours is credited to Him. And, therefore, justification by faith is extrinsic to us; it happens outside of us. We contribute nothing to justification! God does justification, and we receive it by faith. And, of course, Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 2: 8-10, that even that “faith is the gift of God.” Even our ability to reach out an empty hand to receive the mercy of God is itself the gift of God. And so our faith is not the basis by which God accepts us. Christ is the basis by which God accepts us and faith is the instrument whereby we get Christ. It’s the soul looking away from self and to the only Savior.
You know, the movie Martin Luther is finally coming to Mississippi. I saw it this last week in South Carolina. I’ve been wanting to see it. And it’s coming next week. And there’s a scene in the movie when Luther racked with the sense of his own guilt speaks to his spiritual father who says to him…as Luther is saying, “How can I be saved? How can I know that I am saved?” And his father says, “You say to God, ‘I am Yours. Save me.’” You see, it’s looking away from his works, looking away from his person, and looking to Christ and His cross and His person and His work whereby we are justified.
And in that way God is shown to be just in salvation. How so? Because though He shows mercy to us, though He gives to us what we do not deserve—in fact, He gives to us what we positively have demerited—He gives it to us on the basis of perfect justice, because His Son has paid for every iota of our sin in our place, so that God is both merciful and just. He is both just and righteous and the justifier of those who are not righteous.
IV. What is the result of our justification?
And what are the proceeds of this? What is the result of this? Boasting is excluded. How can you brag about anything in a salvation which is granted to you only in Jesus Christ? You see, if justification by faith meant that we’re justified because we believed and other people aren’t justified because they didn’t believe, then we would have to say this: that the difference between us and them is that we believed and they didn’t, and therefore we were better. But that’s not the doctrine of justification by faith.
The doctrine of justification by faith is that we are justified because of Christ! The only difference between us and those who are not justified is that they have not cast themselves upon the basis of acceptance with God: Jesus Christ. There can be no boasting. We can’t say, “We’re better than other people. We exercised faith and you didn’t.” No, the difference is Christ, because we’re justified by something outside of us. And that’s why Paul can say, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Or as we’re going to sing in just a few moments: “Thy works, not mine, O Christ.” That’s why David Dixon can say, “I have made a heap of all my bad deeds and of all my good deeds, and I have pled them both to Christ.” Because justification by faith is receiving the worthiness and the goodness and the works of Christ credited to your account merely by trust in the Christ of the gospel. It’s the most radical news in the world, and, my friends, it will change your life. It will change your life, because it will keep the gospel clear.
You see, the gospel is that God saves sinners: He declares the wicked righteous because of Christ. The gospel isn’t for those who have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and who’ve made themselves savable. It’s for sinners! And it protects and exalts God’s grace, and it humbles the redeemed sinner believer, because no believer can point to his own actions as saving himself or herself. And, my friends, it assures the Christian, because as long as our certainty of acceptance and pardon with God depends upon something in us, we will never, ever be securely certain.
Our certainty of salvation rests ultimately in Christ. And if it doesn’t rest there, it has no place to rest at all, because our fickle lives cannot support an eternal security. For all these reasons, my friends, justification by faith is a truth that needs to be recovered by the church today, and it needs to be lived out radically, even as it is radical, in our lives. Let’s look to God in prayer.
Our Lord and our God, we do ask that You would grip us again by this call of the gospel—a call which reminds us that we have nothing to offer to You, that we have not merited Your favor, that we’ve done nothing to deserve the salvation which is freely given us in Jesus Christ, and that even our faith looks away from ourselves and looks to You to receive that which we have not accomplished in our own strength or deserved in our character. We pray, heavenly Father, that we would again sense the glory and the freedom that that message brings, and that it would be life transforming. For those who have come this day not knowing Jesus Christ, we pray that they would understand Your message and this free offer of forgiveness in Him, and that they would embrace Him who is the savior of souls. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.