3. God’s Righteousness, or Justification (3: 21-5: 21)

Chapter 3.

Another theme we may refer to – in theological parlance – as “Justification” covers 3: 21 through 5:21. A different term for it may be “God’s righteousness”. But we need to begin with 3: 1 which gives us some background to what “God’s righteousness” is – which, again, is a religious jargon that we need to articulate in everyday and every person’s language.

Most Bible translations which give headings and sub-headings have God’s Faithfulness, for example, as the heading for chapter 3. This is the case with NIV. This is followed with No One Is Righteous in 3:9 and finally, Righteousness Through Faith in 3:21.

After chapter 2, one is inclined to ask: What now? Indeed that is the question raised in 3:1.  What is the benefit of being a Jew? What difference does it make? In 2:13; 25; 28-29 Paul made it clear that a). Having the law does not do a person any good, b). Being circumcised doesn’t do anybody any good and c). Being a child of Abraham doesn’t do anybody any good.

Paul uses rhetorical questions to discuss this seeming anomaly and In 3:2 he answers the question in the affirmative. Yes, there are advantages; there are benefits to being a Jew. Later, in 9:4-5 Paul lists the advantages and benefits of being a Jew. Here in v.2 he just gives the main benefit and that is: The Jews were entrusted with the Word of God. Deut.4:7-8 and Ps.147:19-20 make this quite clear.

Having the word of God is a privilege, an advantage and a responsibility. Having the Word of God translates to having the truth and that means responsibility of acting on it.

This assertion is followed by another rhetorical question which has the implication of accusing God of unfaithfulness. “God has chosen us and now God is condemning us!”

In verse 3 Paul shows where the blame really rests: Their unbelief cannot nullify God’s faithfulness! A human being’s faithlessness does not nullify God’s faithfulness.

The answer to the question in 3:3 comes in verse 4: “God forbid!” The same expression appears in 3:31; 6:2; 6:15; 7:7 After all, even in 3:3 it is some, not all, who did not believe. Some believed, for example the apostles. The majority, however, did not believe.

In this verse 4 Paul quotes Ps.51:4. “so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge”. Paul has a purpose in this: This is David’s penitential psalm. No Jew would dare compare himself with David. If David is saying here: “Lord, whatever you say is right. You are always right”

If David is acknowledging his sinfulness and God’s righteousness, who can escape that? Even David was sinful and under God’s judgment – who are we?

Another rhetorical question comes in verse 5 accusing God of being unrighteous, unjust or unfair: “It is unfair for God to judge us!”

Paul answers this question in verse 6 with: “God forbid!”

Let us follow the reasoning here: God’s righteousness and mercy are seen more clearly by means of contrasts. The dirtier we are, the clearer is God’s holiness. The darker the “darkness” the brighter the light, for example in “star gazing”.

God’s righteousness shines brightest against human’s unrighteousness. God’s faithfulness shines brightest against human’s unfaithfulness. If you don’t think that you are very sinful, then take a glimpse of God’s holiness, as Isaiah did in Is. 6:1-5).

The distance between sinful mankind and holy God is filled with God’s grace. (The more we are aware of our sinfulness and God’s holiness, the bigger the cross).

Similar argumentation can be found in 3:7. Indeed it is true that God can use sin and wickedness of mankind to bring glory to God’s name. That is what Psalm 76:10 says. But this does not mean exemption to mankind from judgment.

Paul was falsely accused of teaching: “Let us do evil that good may come” because he taught salvation is by grace apart from any works. He taught that the worst sinner could be saved apart from any works, for example in Rom.3:28; 4:1-5. From this teaching it is easy to see how it could be perverted.

This is not what Paul taught as can be seen in Rom.6:1-2. This is a distortion of what salvation by grace means. As a matter of fact Tit.2:11-12 teaches the opposite.

The philosophy that the end justifies the means is another way of saying “let us do evil that good may come”. Is it alright for one to steal in order to feed one’s starving family? Should souls be won at any cost? Or should one lie in order to win souls for Christ?

The Christian principle should always be: “Faithfulness and obedience to God at any cost!”

Do right always and trust God for the outcome.

In 3:9 Paul raises another rhetorical question: “Are we any better?” In view of what has already been stated, are we any better? In “we” Paul includes himself, and therefore he is referring to all believers.

In verses 9 through 18 Paul uses the Hebrew Scriptures to point out that all of us are sinners and none of us is righteous. He uses both inclusive terms all, and exclusive terms none to emphasize that Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat – a sinking boat.

In verse 9 “we have already made the charge” refers to chapters 1 and 2 in which it was pointed out that both Jews and Gentiles are short of the glory of God.

The quotations from the Hebrew bible in verses 10 -18 prove that humanity is short of the glory of God and in need of help. This message is meant to resonate with Jews.

These are the Hebrew bible references:

3:10 -12 is from Ps.14:1 -3 and Ps.53:1 -3
3:13 is from Ps.5:9 and Ps.140:3
3:14 is from Ps.10:7
3:15-17 is from Is.59:7 -8 and Is.48:22
3:18 is from Ps.36:1

In these verses too, scripture shows that humankind is actively pursuing sin. Humankind has not only turned away from God, but deliberately avoids God. Different parts of the body, hence the whole body, actively pursue sin.

Their throats, tongues, lips, mouths, feet and eyes are all after sin.

3:20 shows us that there are certain things that the law cannot do and there are things that the law can do. In this verse, the law is unable to justify sinful man. The same verse shows that the law can show sinfulness, it shows what sin is.

It is like a mirror which can show one that there is dirt on one’s face but the same mirror cannot wash away the dirt.

A whole new section begins with verse 21, with these words: But now… This shows a turning point. This far it has been bad news. Now there is a change. Humanity is not without hope. God has prepared a plan in which sinful humankind can be declared righteous and enabled to stand before God.

This phrase but now can also be found in Eph.2:13 and 1Cor.15:20.

It can be said that Rom.3:21 -26 is the heart of the Letter to the Romans. These verses give a summary of the Gospel in a way no other section of Scripture does.

The key word in these six verses is righteousness, justified. Righteousness occurs in vv. 21, 22, 25 and 26 while just or justified appears in vv.24 and 26.

The main issue or dilemma here is this: How can a righteous God save an unrighteous person and not compromise justice? The answer is by atonement and that is precisely what Jesus did. His death atoned for our sins. He became a ransom for our freedom. His blood became propitiation for our sins.

The righteousness of God has nothing to do with the law or works of any kind. It is the grace of God that comes to us completely apart from the law. Furthermore, this righteousness was attested to in the Hebrew bible and is now clearly revealed.

3:27 -31 Where then is boasting?

Romans 3:21 -26 is the core of the whole epistle to the Romans. Martin Luther recommended that every Christian memorize the whole epistle word by word but I think if we memorize these 6 verses we will accomplish what he had in mind.

Let us see in a nutshell how he has arrived here:

In chapter 1 Paul demonstrated that all of humanity is accountable to God. In chapter 2 he showed the Jews that it is not enough just being a Jew. He used the example of circumcision. The law or being circumcised – descendant of Abraham – is not enough for salvation. In chapter 3 he began with the rhetorical questions: If circumcision and being a descendant of Abraham is not anything, what is the advantage of being a Jew? In other words, are you saying there is nothing special about being a Jew? To which Paul replies: Oh yes, there is plenty of benefits to being a Jew. He gives one main reason: The special revelation. The word of God was entrusted to the Jews, and that is a lot.

Yet, he wants to make sure that the Jews understand that the law contained in the word of God was not given for salvation. The law is like a mirror. It makes sin known. Just like a mirror shows one a dirty spot on the face, but the mirror cannot remove the dirt.

Then he comes to these crucial verses 21-26.

v.21: A righteousness, from God, apart from the law: It is from God, not from self. It is not based on the law. It is not earned by acting on the law as is the case with human law.

What do we call this scenario? Something from God, not achieved by self or by performance? This is what we call GRACE.

v.22: This verse tells us how we receive this grace. It comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Not by own efforts, not by fulfilling certain precepts, but solely through faith in Jesus Christ.

What exactly does through faith in Jesus Christ mean?

V.23 gives us the first answer: Acknowledging, without a shadow of a doubt that we are all sinners and do not measure up to God’s holiness. Admit that we are sinners. Acknowledge that we can never measure up.

V.24: The second step is to accept that it is God’s grace, which is given freely – and that is why it is grace – which saves us. Not human effort. This grace is the embodiment of Jesus Christ.

In this same verse, Paul calls it redemption. What does it mean to redeem or to be redeemed? It means to pay a price for the release of somebody else. To give something in exchange. In this case, Jesus’ life was given in exchange for our release.

V.25 speaks of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement: To get the picture, think of The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest laid the sins of the people on a scapegoat which was then released into the Kidron Valley and into the Judean desert. It carried the sins of the people.

This is exactly what Jesus did. His blood atoned for our sins.

This was done to demonstrate God’s justice. Once again, justice demands equilibrium. Instead of punishment for sin, there is atonement, or ransom. We are set free, Jesus’ blood is shed.

But what about sins committed before Jesus’ blood was shed? Paul says punishment was delayed. In God’s mercy, those sins committed before Christ’s blood was shed were delayed. What all this means is that Jesus death atones for sins of the past, present and future.

V.27: In view of all this: Who can boast? Can anyone boast of his/her own achievements towards salvation? Of course not!

V.28 makes a firm conclusion: For we maintain that a man (and a woman) is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

Vv.29 -30 are based on fundamental Jewish faith: Monotheism. There is one and one only God. If it is so, the one God of the Jews is also the God of all. And if this one God will justify Jews and Gentiles by the same standard – meaning there is not one standard for Jews and another one for Gentiles – does it mean the law is superseded by faith?

Paul answers in the negative. What he is saying in verse 31 is that we are putting the law in its proper place. The law has its value, and it is not salvation. It is a mirror.

Closing: Before moving on to chapter 4 let us look at this issue of boasting with reference to recovery:

Are there any parallels between the process of recovery and salvation? The answer is strong affirmative. In many ways recovery and salvation are synonymous. Here are some parallels:

1. Helplessness: While struggling with addictions we feel helpless. We try but cannot overcome addiction. This is similar to struggles with sin.
2. Admission of helplessness: The first step in recovery is the admission that we are helpless and need help from outside ourselves. Similarly with salvation.
3. Submission to God. In AA they say we seek help from a Power above our own. In salvation we depend on God and God’s mercy.
4. All these facts are grounded in one word: Humility. It is when we lose this sense of humility that we fail. When we come to believe that now we can do it on our own, failure strikes. There are just far too many examples.