Over the past seven weeks Paul has led us on a treacherous descent down into the vile nature of sinful man. On this descent we learned at the center of every person there’s a thick deadness and darkness. That leads man not only to sin occasionally or even repeatedly, but man’s entire nature is so fallen that our true identity is ‘sinner.’ Paul’s has revealed to us that the biggest problem we will ever face in this world is not something wrong outside of us but something wrong deep within us. This is as true for the immoral pagan blatantly rebelling against God, as it is for the religiously zealous moral person ignoring God. All mankind is ‘under sin.’ But praise God, Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn’t end in 3:20. After revealing our ruin he now turns to present the remedy. Which means, the Christmas themes we’ve sung about today are so fitting because ‘into our great darkness a light has come!’
If you’ve not already turned there I invite you to open your Bibles to Romans 3:21-26, which is in reality the most important paragraph ever written. I say that for two reasons. First, it’s the clearest and most powerful summary of the work of Christ in Scripture. And second, it answers the deepest question that could ever come from man, ‘How could I, a sinner, ever hope to stand secure and saved in the presence of the holy God?’ This is no small question or no mere footnote in the Christian life and Christian doctrine. The answer to this question leads us straight to the heart of the gospel: justification by faith alone. So, Martin Luther said justification by faith alone is the one doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. John Calvin said justification by faith alone is the great hinge by which all else turns. And J.I. Packer said justification by faith alone is the Atlas which carries the whole of the Christian faith on its shoulders.
So Church, let’s dig into this the greatest paragraph ever written. As he makes the turn from v20 to v21 Paul sets before us four movements to walk and work through.
A Righteousness Revealed (v21)
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…”
Now, if we’re to truly understand the Bible we must understand certain words found in the Bible. Words like ‘sin’, ‘salvation’, ‘justification’, ‘sanctification’, ‘redemption’, ‘imputation’, and ‘regeneration’ to name a few. Without understanding these terms, and without understanding how the Bible uses them, we can’t arrive at a true understanding of the message of Scripture. And we do come to a few of those words today as justification is before us in this passage. But every now and then we come to shorter words or small phrases that at first might seem unimportant to us, but in reality carry just as much weight as these bigger words do. v21 begins with two tiny words that do this very thing, two words that you should tuck away in your mind and heart, two words that cut straight to the core of the our message, “But now…” These two little words separate what we’ve already seen in the first three chapters from everything yet to come in the remaining chapters. They mark off a clear division between the plight of man dead in sin and the power of God to save. As we hear them, we are made aware that we have now moved past Paul’s descent into sin’s domination out into the vast landscape of God’s salvation. And from having heard all that we did about the blackness and vileness of our sin can there be two more delightful words than these, “But now…”?
What’s he up to here? Specifically, Paul is speaking about righteousness and the Law. What righteousness is in view here? The same righteousness that was in view in 1:16-17, the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel and received by faith alone. How does this righteousness relate to the Law? On one hand Paul says this righteousness was manifested, or revealed, apart from the Law or without the Law. Yet on the other hand this righteousness that’s now revealed has everything to do with the Law, because it was witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, which is to say, the whole Old Testament bears witness to this. You see what he’s saying? No one can earn a perfect righteousness through obedience, or Law-keeping. But even though Law-keeping can’t save, the Law and Prophets did point ahead of itself through glimpses and shadows to the One who will earn a perfect righteousness by Law-keeping. In other words, in v21 Paul is saying that what the Law could not do and what the Law was never intended to do, God did through sending His Son. Yes and amen!
But we can go further. The phrase “But now…” does show a transition in Paul’s thought and flow within Romans, it does show a transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant, it does show a great turning point from condemnation under the Law to redemption under the gospel, it does show the bright dawn after the dark night, but it does more. These two little words describe our Christian experience. We were blind ‘but now’ we see. We were deaf ‘but now’ we hear. We were foolish ‘but now’ we know true wisdom. We were hateful ‘but now’ we’re loving. We were prideful ‘but now’ we’re humble. We were dead ‘but now’ we’re alive. In v21 everything has changed. Why? The gospel has come! And once the gospel comes to a sinner and is driven home in the heart by the Spirit and faith awakens in a person, they’re never the same again! Sure you will struggle and sure you will fight sin’s influence ‘but now’ you’re no longer what you once were. You once were far away from God ‘but now’ you’re near. You once were alien to God’s promises ‘but now’ His promises are precious to you. You once were held in the power of the Devil and sin enslaved you ‘but now’ you have been redeemed, adopted, freed, and made new.
So Paul has begun this greatest of all paragraphs by telling us how God’s very righteousness has been revealed. But there is still clarification to make. How has it been revealed, how can it be ours, how did it all happen, and why did it happen at all? That leads us on in the passage. So see next…
A Righteousness Received (v22)
Starting with v21 again, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…” now v22 comes in to clarify and expand saying, “…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
So, the very righteousness of God that wasn’t attainable by the Law, the very righteousness of God that the Law bore witness to, that very righteousness of God, Paul says, is freely given to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But wait. Did God do away with the Law by sending His Son, as if the Law didn’t work or failed so now He tries something else? No. The Law isn’t done away with. What did Jesus say, Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So Jesus comes, keeps the Law, fulfills it in every way possible, and now when one comes to Jesus, in faith, God gives them the fruit of what Jesus has earned, perfect righteousness. That’s what v22 says.
But look closer. Faith is presented here as the means of gaining this righteousness. We know what ‘means’ is. A coffee mug is the means of getting that delicious caffeinated nectar in you. The mug in a sense connects you to the coffee. So too, in a far grander manner, it is faith, not works, which connects the sinner to Christ. But see it, it’s not faith in general, it’s not faith in the Church, or faith in my baptism, it’s certainly not faith in my pastor, it’s not even faith in God that Paul says here, no. What does he say? It’s faith in the Person of Jesus Christ. So faith is the means, and Jesus is the object of our faith.
We could stop right here, but we have a great need to clarify who exactly is the Jesus we have faith in. You see, not every Jesus is a saving Jesus. The Jesus who is only seen as a good teacher isn’t a Jesus who saves. The Jesus who is only one divine figure among many options isn’t a Jesus who saves. The Jesus who is only kind and gentle and loving, who is never wrathful and who never disagrees with me isn’t a Jesus who saves. Church, the Jesus who saves, the Jesus we put our faith in, is the Jesus who is offered to us in the gospel. We’re not free to redefine who Jesus is based on what we want Him to be. No, the Jesus standing forth from Scripture is the only Jesus who saves. “This Jesus created all things, sustains all things, makes all things new. Truly God, He became truly man, two natures in one Person. He was born of the Virgin Mary and lived among us. Crucified, dead, and buried, He rose on the third day, ascended to heaven, and will come again in glory and in judgment. For us, He kept the Law, atoned for sin, and satisfied God’s wrath. He took our filthy rags and gave us His righteous robe. He is our Prophet, Priest, and King, He is building His Church, interceding for us, and reigning over all things. This Jesus is the Christ, this Jesus is Lord, and we praise His holy Name forever.” Church, faith that’s true doesn’t look to ourselves, not at what we once were, not at what we are now, not even at what we hope to be one day, no, true faith looks only to Christ and His finished work, and rests on Christ alone!
So the means of receiving God’s very righteousness is faith, and the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. Then we see the subjects come into view, “…to those who believe.” It’s true. This Jesus does not save everyone. He does not give His perfect righteousness to everyone, as if universalism were true, no. Only those who believe, and not a person more, are the subjects of His gracious redemption. Why is this true? Look on ahead to v22b-25a.
A Propitiation Made (v22b-25a)
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
As Paul said before, Jew and Gentile alike are under sin, all mankind is destitute of the perfection which is the divine glory of God.. Here we see the same truth repeated. But ask a question here. Why does Paul repeat our fallen condition here in v23? Haven’t we heard enough of it over the past three chapters? Could it be that by reminding us of the blackness of our sin, he is preparing us to be stunned with the brightness of what comes next in v24-25? I think so. So Church, look. Look and be stunned at what comes next.
“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…” Ok, so sinners are justified, or declared righteous, not by something we have earned and not because we have worked hard for it, no, it’s freely given as a gift. But how does this happen? And who does this justifying work? Keep going in v24-25…
“…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood…” There it is. Very simply we could say here what C.S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity, “Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” That is true, wonderfully so (!), but we can say more. We can say, there is redemption in Christ Jesus. Redemption is a marketplace word. To redeem is to buy back. It’s the language Paul would’ve known and heard when slaves were being sold at the local auction. Do you see it? Only Jesus comes to the auction and buys slaves of sin off the block and makes them heirs of grace. But who did Christ buy us back from? Is it Satan? Some think so. We’re enslaved to sin so it might seem Jesus redeemed us, or bought us back from Satan, right? Wrong. What does Paul say? “…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood…” No mention of redeeming us from Satan is found here. Rather we see the word propitiation here, and we see it is God the Father who put Christ forward as a propitiation by His blood. What does all this mean? It’s all centers on the word propitiation.
It’s a big word, it’s a good word. It means to satisfy wrath or pacify anger. It’s a term all about sacrifice, it brings to mind the Old Testament sacrifices. So we see more now. God the Father put His Son forward to satisfy wrath and pacify anger. But whose wrath? Whose anger? Again, not Satan’s but God’s. So we have the holy God who hates sin, who’s wrath is stirred up by sin, and who’s anger is fanned into flame by sin. And when He’s so stirred to wrath what did He do? Propitiation! Or, in His grace, love, and mercy He put Christ forward to satisfy His wrath, to pacify His anger against sin. How? “…through His blood.” There we have it all now. I think the word blood is used here to bring the whole of this teaching into harmony with the Old Testament sacrificial system. For ages, it was always the blood of a spotless Lamb that atoned for sin as the substitute for sinful Israelites while another Lamb was banished out into the wilderness, which meant Israel was simultaneously banished from God’s saving presence, and carried into it through an atoning sacrifice. But now, Paul says, the spotless Lamb of God makes atonement once for all time through His blood. Though the Lord Jesus never sinned, He was put forward by the Father, in our place, as our substitute, to bear our shame and embrace the wages of our sins. Through His blood God’s wrath is satisfied and God’s anger is quenched.
But look at the end of the sentence. Paul keeps on reminding us, all the time reminding us, of who God did this all for, or who this bloody propitiation work applies to, “…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” So while Jesus’ work on the cross is powerful enough to save every single person in history, His propitiating work is only applied to those who believe. This is what justification by faith alone means. This is how God saves sinners! Jesus lived a perfect Law-keeping life, perfect righteousness, and yet He died a death only a sinner deserves. We on the other hand live a sinful life, ever bent against God by our nature, and yet when we trust in Christ, God gives us the righteous robe of Jesus and declares us to be perfect in Christ. So when the devil whispers in your ears, ‘Look at you sinning, you’re not righteous!’ You can joyfully respond, ‘You’re right, I agree I am not righteous, but do you not know, have you not heard, I have the righteousness of Christ, and it can never be taken away!’
But, Paul isn’t done. A righteousness has been revealed, a righteousness has been received, a propitiation has been made, now he ends in v25b-26 with…
A Righteousness Displayed (v25b-26)
“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.”
In v21-25a we see what God did, and in v25b-26 we see why God did it. In other words, God saves sinners in this way to show the world something about Himself. What does He want to show? That He is righteous. That He is just, and that He is the One who justifies those who believe in Jesus.
God’s answering a problem here. God has always revealed Himself as a God who hates sin, a God who punishes sin, and a God who pours out His wrath on sin. And yet, for ages and ages it seemed God didn’t do that very thing. Remember what God told David through the prophet Nathan? 2 Sam. 12:13, “The LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die.” WHAT?! Where is God’s justice now? Is God no longer concerned about sin? Has He become indifferent? How can God put away sin and remain God? His answer to this problem was the cross. At the cross we learn that all sin is and will be punished. Either our sins are punished in Christ on the cross if we believe in Jesus as He’s offered in the gospel, or our sins will be punished in us for all eternity in hell if we reject Jesus as He’s offered in the gospel. Conclusion? God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This is indeed the greatest paragraph ever written, it shows us the heart of the gospel. I personally think everything that comes after this in Romans exists to explain this paragraph and apply this paragraph. Two quick questions as we close.
First, did you notice what happened in our passage today? This passage, Romans 3:21-26, came after three chapters of sin. Do you see how Paul’s remedy to man’s ruin is not a specific program to get us back on the right track, and not a pattern of good behavior to right the wrongs within? No, Paul’s remedy to our ruin is all about God’s very righteousness, revealed in the gospel, given to us by faith. So be reminded Church, in a year of many problems, our biggest problem is always sin, and the answer is always the gospel.
Second, in v21 we encountered the great “But now…” moment of Romans. I ask you, ‘Has there been a “But now…” in your experience?’ If so, you have a great cause for rejoicing. If not, do you know you today can be that very turning point in your life? Where you part ways with your sin and become forever new in Christ? You don’t have to walk an aisle, go to God directly now, or turn to someone close to you and ask how all of this can be yours.
 R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 97.
 Sproul, 98.
 Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1954) 1.
 With Barnhouse, pg. 1, I also wonder why those who created the chapter divisions in Scripture didn’t begin chapter 4 right here.
 Barnhouse, 1.
 J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 83.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 3 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 27.
 Lloyd-Jones, 26–27.
 Lloyd-Jones, 44.
 Thabiti Anyabwile’s conference message at T4G 2016 is so helpful on this point.
 Taken from the ‘Ligonier Statement on Christology.’
 Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 45.
 Anyabwile, T4G 2016.
 John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 113.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, New York: Harper One, 2001) 54.
 Anyabwile, T4G 2016.
 G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 620.
 Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 83.
 Lloyd-Jones, 103.
 Lloyd-Jones, 27–29.