[The following sermon on Romans 3:21-31 was preached by Pieter de Villiers, at Christ Church Paarl, on the 6th April 2014. It is placed here by permission.]
At the beginning of the year, Trevor told me that this year he wants to bring the people of Christ Church back to the cross. If you think back over the year, on numerous occasions we have heard a refrain from Trevor saying:
We need to kneel at the cross.
With this desire from Trevor and also with Easter around the corner, I decided to talk from Romans 3:21-31.
There was a Roman poet by the name of Horace who lived from 65BC to 8BC. When addressing the writers of tragedies in his day, he said that the plot of a story must not be unravelled too quickly. His words were:
Do not bring a god on to the stage, unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it.
Martin Luther applied these words to our passage. He said:
Here is a problem which needs God to solve it.
We know that the book of Romans played a major role in the life of Martin Luther and this lead to the Reformation. John Wesley, in 1739, while listening to a reading from Martin Luther’s writings on Romans, came to faith, he called it his “crisis moment”. This event lead to the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century.
No wonder Martin Luther called this paragraph in Romans 3, which we read this morning, the “chief point of the whole Bible”.
I have 3 points I want us to look at this morning.
1. We are condemned apart from the cross of christ (1:18-3:20)
This point actually comes from the chapters before our passage of this morning. This point provides the setting for our passage. It is dealt with from chapter 1:18 to chapter 3:20.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
What Paul is saying here is that by the created order, God has shown his existence and his power. And if we have discovered, or thought out all kinds of complex theories to explain the created order, apart from God, this shows our deep rebellion against God. And then Paul expands on what this means. He says that what we start to do is to worship created things rather than the Creator Himself. And foremost in our worship of created things, is the worship of ourself rather than the one who has made us. And in due course God hands us over to do what we want to do. And from there we become nasty, depraved people. Verse 29-30:
We become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. We are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. We are gossips slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; we invent ways of doing evil; we disobey our parents;
That’s chapter 1. Then it gets worse. Chapter 2 looks at the religious people. You can read this at home. Verse 5:
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
He says that as religious people we don’t even do what we know we should do, let alone the things that God wants us to do.
And then Paul pulls together some terrible verses from the Old Testament. Chapter 3:10:
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.
Do we see ourselves like this description? Isn’t this just a bit too negative? Surely I’m not quite there where Paul wants to put me? I suppose it depends on our standard of comparison, doesn’t it? When you start feeling sorry for yourself because of how hardup you are, do you compare yourself with the poorest of the poor in India? Or do you compare yourself with someone who has just a little more than you do? Someone asked Henry Ford, when he was already fabulously rich: “How much do you really want”. He answered: “Just a little bit more”.
And so we always want to compare ourselves with those that have just a little bit more so that we have reason to feel sorry for ourselves and justification to complain.
In the same way, when we compare ourselves with other people and want to pat ourselves on the back, then we compare ourselves with those that are just a little worse. “I’m not as good as some people, but at least I’m better than that one”. “If you think I gossip, you haven’t heard that one”. You can always pat yourself on the back by comparing yourself to somebody who is just a little bit worse, can’t you?
But suppose you start looking at things from God’s point of view. What would it be like never, ever to have told a lie, even a small fib or so called white lie? What would it be like never, ever to have gossiped? What would it be like never, ever to have lost your temper? Never ever to have raised your voice at your kids, or wife? And so we can go on.
What would it be like always, always to have loved God with heart and soul and mind and strength? What would it be like always to have loved our neighbour as ourselves? What would it be like always to have walked in the fear of God? You see, Paul is simply telling the truth, that’s all. His conclusion is verse 20:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law. No-one.
What is important here is that if we want to understand our passage correctly, we have to be convicted of the problem. We cannot get the gospel right if we do not get the problem right.
The problem is our sin, your sin. And because of your sin, you face God’s wrath.
You see, our understanding of the problem is tied to our understanding of the solution. So, until we see ourselves for who we are in God’s sight, we cannot see the glory of the cross of Christ.
There is a famous letter from John Wesley from almost 2½ centuries ago, to a young man who wrote to him and asked him how to preach the gospel when he first went into a new town. John Wesley writes back and says:
When I preach the gospel in any place, I begin with a general declaration of the love of God. And then I preach the law that men may feel its burden and guilt. Then I preach more law, that men may see themselves as God sees them. Then I see that there are some people that are beginning to weep in despair for their many sins. Then I preach yet more law that men may see they’re under the judgment of God. And when many are crying, then I admit a little grace. And when many in the congregation do see their guilt before God, then I preach grace, fully and freely that men may see the pardon that is in Christ Jesus and in Him alone. And then I mix in some law to prevent some presumptuous thinking.
Of course this is a little over the top. But what is true in it is that you can’t understand the solution unless you understand the problem. You can’t appreciate the glory of Romans 3: 21-31 unless you know you are guilty before God and you face the wrath of the living God. Paul himself spends more than 2 solid chapters laying out sin and only 6 verses laying out the atonement.
That is the first point: we are condemned apart from the cross of Christ.
Now, the second point.
2. We are justified because of the cross of Christ (verses 21-26)
2.1 But Now …
Firstly verse 21:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
After the previous 2½ chapters that emphasize the fact that no-one is righteous, verse 21 starts with the words: “But now”. This tells us that something has come, something has happened. And what has come is the righteousness from God apart from the law. Many people think that this means that in the past God gave us his wrath and now he gives mercy. Many people think that this means that the law is now obsolete. The God of the Old Testament was filled with war and hate and extermination. And Jesus comes in the New Testament and says things like: “Turn the other cheek”. The God of the New Testament seems to be a gentler, kinder God.
But this is not what our text says. The verse ends with the words: “to which the law and the prophets testify”. With these words Paul is placing the cross of Jesus in its relationship to the Old Testament. This tells us that this righteousness that has been made known apart from the law flows from the law and the prophets. The law, the prophets, the Old Testament, the righteousness apart from the law, the New Testament, are all part of the same salvation plan.
Let me try to explain.
Through the Old Testament there are 2 themes we can follow. On the one hand there is this theme of failure and judgment. Think through the history of the Old Testament quickly. God creates mankind in his image. Man and woman know Him and love Him. Then there is the fall. And because of that death. It only takes one generation to move from perfection to murder. And its not very long before there is so much hate and resentment and cruelty and God-defying idolatry, that you come to the terrible judgment of the flood. And after the flood, what’s the first thing that happens? Noah gets drunk. After that what happens? People decide they’re going to build a big tower to protect them from any conceivable disaster, a place of utmost stability and safety. The tower of Babel. And the people are dispersed. Then God calls Abraham. Lot comes along as well and really messes up. The last we hear of him, he’s drunk and living in a cave. Abraham, well, he’s not too bad, but he lies quite a bit. Within 4 generations youget this majorly dysfunctional family. We get a brother being sold into slavery as a better option to killing him. And then people go down into slavery. And when God hears their cries and rescues them, does this mean that they are instantly obedient and loving and faithful? No, the whole wilderness wandering is one story of defiance and rebellion, one after the other. One month after the crossing of the Red Sea, they’re building a golden calf. And then there’s whining and complaining and murmuring and bickering and they’re ready to stone Moses. This goes on for years. They come to the first entry into the Promised Land, and most people can’t remember that God has just brought them through ten plagues and all the miracles of the crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the law. But all they can see is that there are some pretty big blokes in the promised land and they’re scared witless.
And as a result they spend 40 years going around in circles in the wilderness. And then we get the Judges and it starts again. The history of the Judges is a downward spiral until you get to the last three chapters of the book of Judges. You can’t even read these chapters in public because they’re so grotesque.
So God raises up a king. And what happens to the Davidic dynasty? It declines in debauchery, in sheer rebellion and idolatry until the exile. And then a small motely crew returns from exile and it takes several prophets to whip them into shape. That’s the Old Testament.
Themes of defection and failure and God’s judgment returning again and again and again.
That’s one theme. The other theme is: God pursuing his people again and again and again. After the terrible defection of Eden, God promises that the seed of the woman will destroy the serpent. And after the flood, God promises that he will not destroy the human race in the same way again.
God calls Abraham and promises him a land and children as many as the stars in the heavens. And he promises that through his offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
God pulls his people out of misery. God raises up a Joseph when his brothers are selling him off for terrible reasons. God raises up a Moses. God gives the law. God chastens his people as a father chastens his children. God comes after his people again and again.
You find these 2 themes right through the Old Testament. And then we see both themes continuing in the New Testament. These 2 themes meet at the cross. Justice and love meet each other at the cross. Do you want to see the wrath of God? Look at the cross. Do you want to see the love of God? Look at the cross. As you move from the Old Testament to the New the reality of God’s wrath becomes progressively clearer. Judgment is coming. But also, as you move from Old Testament to New the glory of God’s grace becomes progressively clearer.
Where these 2 themes meet at the cross you find a culminating triumph, a culminating solution that has been found apart from the law.
2.2 To whom has this righteousness come?
To whom has this righteousness come? Verses 22-23. To all who believe, without distinction. All people are the same, none are better than any other. What places us on the same level as all other people is our sin. All of humankind faces God’s wrath apart from the cross of Christ. And all who believe are justified freely by God’s grace.
Now, if you’re a christian at all, what I have said should be things you know. But even then we need to be reminded of this fairly often. Because there is something deep down in the heart of most of us that somehow accepts the forgiveness of God by faith, at the beginning. And then soon after that we tend to go on autopilot, switching to earning brownie points again, to impress God with ourselves.
The point is that even if we’re exceptionally good and righteous – as far as that is possible, we’re still not earning anything in God’s eyes because we’re supposed to be good and righteous. You don’t earn points by doing what you’re supposed to do. That said, we know we don’t get anywhere close to God’s standard. That’s why we still sing:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly trust in Jesus name.
This is true not only for you who are not christians, but also for you who have been christians for 10 years or 20 years or 40 years. Its very important to believe that God does not accept you because you’ve been a christian for 40 years. Or because you’ve been active in the church. Or because of your christian heritage. Ofcourse we don’t say this sort of thing, but deep down a fair bit of our sense of well-being is often tied to our sense of accomplishment in the moral arena. Isn’t that the case? What do we have? Draw close to God by acknowledging our sin and shame and guilt. And confess it to Him again and again and again. And cast ourselves upon God receiving his forgiveness in faith. That’s all we’ve got. And it is enough.
2.3 What has come?
What has come? We see the answer in verses 21, 22 and 24. Righteousness (or justification). Verse 24 says:
and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
The terminology used here is the terminology used for buying back slaves and setting them free. Somebody has paid to set me free. We are justified. This means that God has declared us to be just. This is a legal declaration saying: Not guilty! How did this happen? In verse 25 we read:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement.
These words “sacrifice of atonement” actually mean “propitiation”. This means that the judgment has been made, and the punishment has been rendered, and because of that God’s wrath has been appeased. This word is always used in the context of God’s wrath. You can’t duck God’s wrath in the bible. Here in Romans if you follow the flow of the argument from chapter 1:18 and on, you see that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven. You see, the fact of the matter is that God stands against us in wrath. He stands over against us in condemnation. But although God stands over against us in wrath, he loves us so much anyway that he sends his son to bear our sin. That’s the glory of the cross.
You see, God is just (or righteous) and he is love. If God said: “I know your sin, I forgive you, go on your way”, without any punishment, then God is love, but not just. Or if God said: “I know your sin” and he damns me to eternal hell because I deserve it, then he is just, but where is his love?
But verse 24 says:
and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
2.4 God is just
And then almost as if to make sure that we don’t forget the fact that God is just (or righteous), we get verses 25b-26
He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Strange verses. We’ve seen that God sent his son, Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement in his blood, received through faith. And he did this, we are told, to demonstrate his righteousness (or justice), because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. That is, the sins committed before the cross, now finally punished. All those people who had gone on to heaven, who had paid for their sins? Some lamb that was butchered before an alter? Is that paying for sin? No, that lamb pointed to the true sacrifice of Jesus. He had left them unpunished, but now, on the cross, finally punished. God raised up a sacrifice, and God did this to demonstrate his justice, not simply his love, also his justice. God cares about what is right and wrong.
There is a book written by Marsh Whitten called “All is forgiven. The secular message of the gospel in American protestantism”. The thesis of the book is that in a great deal of American protestant preaching today there is so much emphasis on God loving us, and God forgiving us, and God making us feel good, and God telling us what wonderful people we really are deep down inside of us. The book makes the point that what we loose, amongst other things, is the justice (or the righteousness) of God. You see, the cross of Jesus Christ, is not only the basis of our forgiveness, but it is a demonstration that God is just, that sin cannot go unpunished. Jesus was punished in our place on the cross.
3. We are justified by faith apart from the works of the law
How does this declaration of “Not guilty” become ours? Point 3. We are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Verses 27-30.
Clearly the emphasis of these verses is on faith. We are saved by faith.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
We have nothing to boast about. If we have heard anything this morning, it is that we have a real problem. When it comes to our works we fail miserably. Apart from the cross there is no one righteous, no not one.
What this text is saying is that we must have faith alone, or else grace alone is jeopardised. You see, if its faith plus works, then its not grace alone that is giving it, its what we deserve. Whereas if we receive God’s forgiveness and his justification by faith then it is of grace, not because we’ve deserved it, or earned it, or want it. Faith and grace get tied together.
Conclusion: the law (verse 31)
We have seen that, apart from the cross of Christ, we are condemned. In the harshest terms, Paul drives home that we stand guilty before God. And because God is just, our sin has to be punished. And we saw that God is love, and he sent his son to take our punishment by dying on the cross, and only because of this fact are we justified.
What do we do now? To get back to Trevor’s words I mentioned at the beginning: We kneel at the cross. Whether for the first time or not, we acknowledge our disobedience, we ask forgiveness and we place our trust in Christ who died for us.
And after kneeling at the cross, what do we do?
Paul concludes this paragraph with a final note. He writes in verse 31:
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
If someone says: “I believe, I’m justified”, but lives in the greatest of sin, then we can question this statement. For Paul faith is trusting the promises and provision of God in Christ Jesus. You trust the truth of the gospel. You trust Christ and his death on your behalf. You have faith. But we also trust that God’s Holy Spirit would increasingly transform us to conform to the likeness of his Son that people would look at us and know that we have met the son of the living God. And all the demands of the law that we could not meet are met by this Christ. And meanwhile, all the demands of the law that we ought to meet increasingly by the transformation work of the Holy Spirit, we increasingly meet. Not because of the law, but out of God’s grace. Received by faith.