Works won’t work

The late Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, had on his office wall a unique picture of a turtle sitting atop a fence post. When someone asked him about it, Haley would say, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that he had some help. Anytime I start thinking, ‘Wow, isn’t this marvelous what I’ve done?’ I look at that picture and remember how this turtle, me, got up on that post.”

Obviously, a turtle can’t get on top of a fence post unless a hand picks it up and puts it there. If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost bragging his heart out, you know something is terribly wrong! Yet it’s so easy to boast, isn’t it? We can boast about our accomplishments, our finances, our possessions, our grades, our athletic abilities, our friends, our looks, and nearly anything else. We’re braggadocios people. Sadly, our bragging ways can creep into our spiritual lives as well.

Have you ever made critical comments about unbelievers calling them “ignorant,” stupid,” or “blind” because they have refused to trust in Christ?

Have you ever claimed that you chose Christ?

Or have you ever assumed that God chose you because you were smarter or better than others?

In Romans 3:27-4:12, Paul expounds the great theological thesis of 3:21-26. In what I called “the greatest paragraph in the Bible,” Paul expounded the guts of the gospel, but he hasn’t yet finished what he wants to say. Having shown what justification is, he now reaffirms that it is available only by faith. In 3:27-31 he states this theme, and 4:1-12 elucidates and elaborates it. In these seventeen verses, Paul explains three essential truths related to justification.

  1. Justification Excludes Pride (3:27-31)

Since salvation is by faith, there’s no place for boasting. Paul raises three questions and provides three answers in these five verses. These questions and answers begin to interpret and apply his teaching in the first three chapters and serve as an introduction to what follows. Paul’s first question and answer is found in 3:27-28: “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 [a person] is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Paul’s rhetorical question assumes that boasting is illegitimate. He says, “It is excluded” (lit. “to shut out, to make no room for”). We can’t boast about receiving something that we didn’t earn! Any boasting has been “excluded” not by a law of works but “by a law of faith.” This is a wordplay in which Paul uses the concept of “law” (nomos) to contrast works and faith. He insists that we’ve been “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

You may recall that the word “justified” (dikaioo) means “to declare righteous.” The term comes from the courtroom of the first century. As a trial drew to a close, the judge, having heard all the evidence, would pronounce his verdict. To justify a person meant to declare they were not guilty in the eyes of the law. Yet, there’s another more contemporary way to understand the term. If you have a computer you probably know what it means to have justified margins. A “justified” margin is one that is absolutely straight from top to bottom. The computer arranges the words and spaces so that all the lines end up at exactly the same place. In that sense to justify means “to make straight that which would otherwise be crooked.” Now take those two concepts and put them together. When you trust Jesus Christ as Savior, God declares you “not guilty” of sin and “straight” instead of “crooked” in His eyes. This can only take place through faith.

Imagine your car runs out of gas in a remote area. It’s late at night and you need a ride to a gas station. Out of sheer desperation, you begin to hitchhike. Eventually, a gracious motorist picks you up. He then takes you to the gas station, buys you a gas can, fills it up, and takes you back to your car. Since its dark outside, he even stays with you until you’ve finished filling up your car. Now can you imagine telling this story to your spouse, your children, your friends, and bragging about your thumb? “My thumb sparkled like a diamond in the moonlight. The curvature of my thumb notified the motorist of my need.” That would be crazy, right?! The motorist deserves all the credit. It was his work; you merely responded.

Similarly, Jesus Christ is the basis of our justification while “faith” (pistis) is equivalent to the thumb. Faith is the instrument through which we embrace what he did as our only hope. God doesn’t justify us because we have faith. God justifies us because of what Jesus did, which we receive through faith. The only boasting is not in what I have done for Him, but in what He has done for me (see 1 Cor 1:29, 31). In Gal 6:14 Paul writes: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV).

In 3:29-30 Paul records the second question and answer: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.” The Jews may have thought God’s only interest was in them and that He couldn’t care less about the Gentiles. But Paul affirms that God “is one” and deals with both Jews and Gentiles on the same basis. God has worked salvation in such a way that the gospel is for everyone. Are you sharing the good news of God’s grace with people of all races or have you let barriers of age, class, color, or status creep in? Why not talk to someone outside your own circle about the good news of Christ?

The third question and answer is found in 3:31: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish [“uphold, validate”] the Law.” After reading 3:21-30, most Jews would have assumed that the Law was to be discarded. Yet, in this context, Paul states that the Law is to be upheld or validated. The reason is simple: The Law is fulfilled in the believer through the power of the Spirit. Paul will develop this point more fully in chapter 8. For the moment let’s simply note that when we trust Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us to enable and empower us daily to please God. He supernaturally lives His life in and through us.

[Now that Paul has briefly answered three pertinent questions, he transitions into chapter 4 to answer these same three questions in even greater detail. The second essential truth that Paul explains is . . .]

  1. Justification Excludes Works (4:1-8)

The Bible has always taught the doctrine of justification apart from works. Hence, Paul calls forth two examples to validate his argument. In 4:1, Paul brings up Abraham and asks the question: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” Paul is addressing the question: How did Abraham get to be righteous before God? He gives two arguments (“for”), one logical and the other biblical, concerning Abraham’s justification. Paul begins with the logical argument in 4:2. He picks up on the concept of “boasting” (cf. 3:27) and states, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Paul’s point is that even if works justified Abraham, he still couldn’t boast before God. Admittedly, Abraham was a man of great works. He kept the commandments to such an extent that the Lord called Abraham His “friend.” As a result, the three great world religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism identify Abraham with the coveted title, “friend of God.” Yet, even Abraham was saved by faith, apart from works, because it’s impossible to boast before God.

In 4:3, Paul follows up his logical argument with a biblical argument. Paul quotes Gen 15:6, which doesn’t say one word about Abraham’s good works. Rather, it says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Bear in mind, this experience of Abraham was prior to the Law of Moses by about six hundred years. The setting is rather memorable. God told Abraham that at the age of eighty-five he was about to have a child. Abraham assumed that God was kidding. He must have said, “What kind of joke is this?” “It’s no joke, Abraham. You’re going to have a son.” “Lord, you know full well, I lost that ability years ago.” “Don’t worry, just trust me and I will work a miracle on your behalf.” God took Abraham outside and said, “Look up!” Abraham looked up and God said, “Count the stars.” As Abraham began counting, God said, “Before I’m through, I will give you more descendants than the stars in the skies.” “Abraham believed God it was credited to him as righteousness.”

To believe is to be persuaded. It’s to place one’s trust in God’s promises apart from any works. In the case of Abraham and other Old Testament saints, it was to believe God’s promise of a coming Savior. While these believers didn’t understand all of the details concerning the Messiah, nor did they know His name, they certainly knew enough to believe in a coming seed that would deliver them.

Hence, Old Testament saints and New Testament saints were saved the very same way—belief in God’s promise of a Messiah. The only difference is that New Testament saints have the benefit of progressive revelation (i.e., they know the name Jesus and live on this side of the cross). Again, the issue is that faith excludes boasting because the one with the faith doesn’t do anything. Works are antithetical to faith. In 4:2-3, Paul sharply contrasts “belief” with “works.” Why? Because faith and works are opposites, like water and oil that don’t mix. To do good works is one thing; to believe God is another thing.

The key to Paul’s explanation is in the term “credited.” The verb “credited” (logizomai) occurs eight times in 4:1-12. It’s the key word in the chapter. Logizomai is an accounting term that means “to take into account or credit something to someone.” It’s what happens when you deposit money in the bank. If you bring a $1,000 check, the teller “credits” your account with one thousand dollars. Similarly, when you’re justified by faith, God puts His righteousness into your bank account!

Although you were spiritually bankrupt, now you’re a spiritual millionaire because Christ’s perfection has been placed in your account. In this verse, Paul is saying that you have a choice. You can be credited for your works, as payment for what’s owed, or you can be credited with righteousness for simply trusting God. The point of this passage turns on what you want credited to your account. Do you want God to credit you with what you’re owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith? The simple equation is: Belief in the promise of God plus nothing equals righteousness (B + N = R).

The next two verses exhort people not to mingle faith and works when seeking eternal life and forgiveness. In 4:4 Paul states the negative side of the principle: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” A person who “works” receives what’s due or owed, which is contrary to grace.

Imagine your current job. You’re working hard for your employer. By the end of the month you’ve worked well. Now you’re eager to collect your paycheck. But your employer seems very causal. He says, “Well, I’m not planning to give you anything. But I’ll give you a gift to keep you going.” What would you say? “What do you mean you’ll give me a gift? I don’t want a gift. I want my salary, my wages. I’ve worked hard for it. You owe it to me.” That’s Paul’s argument. When a person works, his wages aren’t credited to him as a gift. But the point is that salvation doesn’t come by way of works; it comes freely. It’s not earned; it’s free. If God justified people on the basis of their good works outweighing their bad He would owe them something. Yet, I assure you, God is no man’s debtor.

The positive side of the principle is found in 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” This is the strongest statement of justification in the Bible. The scandal of the gospel is that we’re justified by doing absolutely nothing!

Justification is effortless. It’s shockingly free. Another startling statement is found in this verse: “God justifies the ungodly!” He puts our sins on Christ’s account that He might put Christ’s righteousness on our account. What an amazing plan orchestrated by an amazing God! Salvation is a gift, not a paycheck. So don’t take credit; receive God’s credit.

In case his audience missed the point about Abraham, in 4:6-8 Paul calls another witness from the Old Testament to testify to justification through faith. According to Jewish Law, two or three witnesses settled a question. So Paul chooses David—a man after God’s heart—whom the Jews deeply respected. He wants to demonstrate that Abraham (who lived before the Law) wasn’t an exceptional case. David (a man who lived after the Law) was also declared righteous “apart from works.” In 4:6 Paul writes: “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” This verse makes it clear that the “crediting” of righteousness to David wasn’t part of what was owed him but was in spite of what was owed.

In 4:7-8 Paul quotes from Psalm 32, which is a Psalm of David. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” These verses were penned after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. Although the Law existed in David’s day, David refuses to quote it or even refer to it. David finds his refuge against sin and guilt in God. He experiences the great blessing of being justified.

These two verses are not only for David, they are also for us. They teach us three valuable truths about justification.

(1) When we’re justified our “lawless deeds have been forgiven.” The word “forgiven” (aphiemi) means to “send away.” It has the idea of physical removal from one location to another. When God forgives you, He removes your sins from you and takes them so far away that you will never be able to find them again. There’s a tombstone which bears only one word on it: “FORGIVEN!” That word is more important than anything else that could be said about the person. Forgiveness is only found in Jesus Christ.

(2) When we’re justified our “sins have been covered.” The word “covered” (epikalupto) means to “cover so completely that it can never be uncovered again.”

(3) We can have confidence that the Lord will not take our sins into account. We’ve been given Christ’s righteousness.

Have you ever used System Restore on your computer or a hard reset?  I have the option of setting my computer back to a prior date. All the things I somehow messed up are put back in their original configuration. These simple steps forgive and cover my computer sins. My sins aren’t taken into account or held against me. Likewise, when God justifies you, He declares you righteous and covers all your sins past, present, and future. Now, He won’t erase all the consequences of your actions, but when it comes to your eternal status with Him, you are forgiven and declared righteous.

[After making an irrefutable case that justification excludes pride and works, Paul now explains that . . .]

  1. Justification Excludes Race (4:9-12).

At first glance you might be inclined to think that these verses are intended to prove that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works; specifically, not by the rite of circumcision. Although this is true, it’s not the main point Paul is striving to prove. The point which Paul is driving at is the universal nature of justification by faith, and that not for the Jews only, but also for Gentiles (cf. 3:29-30). Paul writes, “Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, ‘Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.” These verses beg the question: Was Abraham saved as a Jew or as a Gentile? Was Abraham declared righteous as one who was circumcised or as uncircumcised? Of course, Abraham believed God and was declared righteous before he was circumcised.

According to Gen 15:6 (cf. Rom 4:3) Abraham was eighty-five years old when he believed God and was justified. But Abraham did not undergo circumcision until Gen 17, some fourteen years later when he was ninety-nine. Thus, long before Abraham submitted to any religious ritual or ordinance, he was saved and accepted in God’s sight.

Technically then, Abraham was saved as a Gentile and not as a Jew for he didn’t enter Judaism by circumcision, nor did he have the Law to keep. What a blow to the Jew who maintained that one couldn’t be saved without becoming a Jew by circumcision and keeping the Law!

So why did Abraham get circumcised? What’s circumcision for? If circumcision doesn’t automatically save, what’s its purpose? Paul answers that for us in Rom 4:11-12. This first half of 4:11 defines circumcision in two specific ways.

(1) Circumcision was a “sign” of new life. Circumcision isn’t the source of one’s salvation, but the sign of it. It’s a symbolic testimony to what has happened inwardly in the man who’s been justified by faith.

(2) Circumcision was a “seal” that God had given the promise and would keep it. Believers today are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit. We experience a spiritual circumcision in the heart, not just a minor physical operation, but the putting off of the old nature through the death and resurrection of Christ. The point of this section is that while circumcision is valuable, justification is available to Jew and Gentile alike through simple faith in Christ.

The outcome of all this great text is that Abraham is the “father” of all who are justified by faith (4:12). Hence, we should follow in his footsteps and exercise faith in God’s promises. We should reach new heights and be a man or a woman who will pass the baton of faith to the next generation. May we revel in the free gift of our justification and share the simple gospel with as many people as possible. May we boast in the Lord Jesus alone.


The “guts” of the Gospel

Imagine it’s Sunday morning and you’re seated in church anticipating the sermon. Suddenly, a man begins frantically canvassing the auditorium offering a life jacket to whoever would take it. Eventually, he approaches you with it. What would you do? You’d probably think he was nuts and turn it down, right? At best, you might politely accept it while yawning internally at your need for it. But, if you were on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, you’d lunge forward and grab that same life jacket as if your life depended upon it.

We’ve spent five lessons working through a section titled “Sin” that spanned Rom 1:18-3:20. These sixty-four verses contain nothing but the bad news that we’re utterly unrighteous. Paul has constructed an airtight case that every creature that has ever lived, or will ever live, is leveled under the weight of sin. The inescapable conclusion is that we’re not only guilty; we’re absolutely helpless and hopeless. In other words, we’re born into this world enslaved to sin on a sinking ship. God holds out a life jacket to us, but until we become convinced that our plight is truly desperate we’ll never joyously and tenaciously grab hold of what’s being offered to us. The intent of God in clearly exposing our sinfulness isn’t to make us feel bad—it’s to make us feel desperate! Desperate enough to wrestle with the question of the ages: “How can a person be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2)


Of course, a great chasm lies between Rom 3:20 and 3:21. It’s a deep canyon, a wide gap separating our condition and God’s character. We’re sinful and God is holy. How can we bridge the gap? How can we go from one side to the other? We can’t. But this is where the good news begins: Paul informs us in 3:21-26 that God does what we cannot do. This is not only the heart of Romans; it’s likely the greatest paragraph in the entire Bible. Therefore, if we fail to understand this passage accurately, we’ll be unable to grasp the central message of the Scriptures. For it’s here that we see who we are, who God is, and what God has done for us. If there’s one passage of Scripture to become an expert on, let it be Rom 3:21-26. Before you spend lots of time looking for principles in the Bible on career success and personal affluence, before scouring the text for ideas on how to change your wife, your husband, your kids, your parents, your pastor, and your church, look at Rom 3:21-26. Meditate on it. Study it. It will change your life! In these six verses, Paul reveals three ways that God’s righteousness bridges the gap between our sin and Himself.


  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Word (3:21)

Despite our inability to obey the Law, God’s salvation can be found in the Old Testament Scriptures. In 3:21 Paul writes, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” “But now,” two words made up of three letters each, serve as the hinge pin for the fate of humanity. After sixty-four verses of sin, you’re probably in need of some relief, aren’t you? How do you spell relief? Years ago, the answer was: R-O-L-A-I-D-S. But in this context it is “B-U-T N-O-W!” These two words signify that a “righteousness of God” has inaugurated a new age in world history. Unlike the first revelation of the “righteousness of God” that condemns us (cf. 1:17), this revelation frees us! In this context, the “righteousness of God” primarily refers to God’s activity in salvation; He provides righteousness for people who need it.


The “righteousness of God” has inaugurated a new age that is “apart from the Law.” This is only fitting because righteousness has never been able to be obtained through obedience to the Law (cf. 3:19-20). We have been so infected by sin that we cannot heal ourselves. No one can purge his or her body of cancer by eating healthy food. Shunning cancer-generating toxins is a good way to avoid contracting the disease, but once someone has it, a cure demands radical action. Unfortunately, we were born with the disease of sin. But there is another way God makes His righteousness known, and it is apart from the Law. Once again we see that God does what we cannot do.


The righteousness of God has been “manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” This phrase declares that God’s righteousness has been “manifested” through His Word. The root word “manifested” (phaneroo) is used back in 1:19 where Paul writes that God has made Himself “evident” to humanity through His creation. Now Paul states that God has revealed Himself through His Word. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is a summary term for the entire Old Testament. “The Law” referred to the first five books of Moses and “the Prophets” to everything else. The primary purpose of the entire Old Testament was to point to “the righteousness of God” that would one day be fully manifested in Christ. This very phrase was used in the theological theme of 1:16-17 where Hab 2:4 is quoted. Paul’s point is that the revelation of “the righteousness of God” isn’t some new phenomenon. Only in the death of Christ is there anything new or unique. God’s righteousness has always been revealed in His Word. Therefore, if you want to know who God is and what He’s like, you must know His Word. I cannot emphasize this enough. Many people have developed erroneous views of God based upon faulty thoughts or emotions. Often, I will hear: “Well, I think God is” or “God would never…”


Whenever I hear someone saying these kinds of things, I cringe. Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Isa 55:8-9. So when it comes to the knowledge of God and how we can be right with Him, the Bible refers us to the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures.


Do you call yourself a “New Testament Christian” and avoid the Old Testament at all costs? If so, you’re missing out on God’s full revelation. Why not balance your diet of Bible reading with healthy portions of the Old Testament? My personal commitment is to alternate between the New Testament and Old Testament. This ensures that I’m always keeping the whole counsel of God’s Word before me. This also helps me to be an accurate Bible interpreter. After all, the only way to truly understand the New Testament is by knowing the Old Testament. May you and I see the promised Messiah and His plan of salvation in the Old Testament.

[Not only is God’s righteousness revealed in His Word, in 3:22-24 we’ll also see that…]

  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Grace (3:22-24)

God’s plan of salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul writes in 3:22a that “the righteousness of God” is revealed “through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” He uses the noun “faith” (pistis) and the verb “believe” (pisteuo) to emphasize the sole condition of “God’s righteousness” (i.e., salvation). There are almost two hundred verses that use the words “believe” or “faith” as the sole condition of salvation. However, we must recognize that we’re saved “through” (dia) faith, not “by” faith. Faith is merely the means. What is important is the object of our faith—Jesus Christ! If we have the right object, the amount of our faith is not what is important. This means “all” are welcome who will simply believe in Christ. While Christians are often charged with being narrow and restrictive, it’s really all other religions that are narrow and restrictive. If good works are necessary to heaven, then all of us are excluded.


In these systems, everyone is disqualified. Under the Christian faith, “all” can come, regardless of their background and past failures. The only condition is simple belief. Let me be clear: When you come to Christ, you do not come to give, you come to receive. You do not come to try your best, you come to trust. You do not come just to be helped, but to be rescued. You do not come to be made better, you come to be made alive! God does what we cannot do.


Robert Chesebrough believed in his product. He’s the man who invented Vaseline. He so believed in his own product that he became his own guinea pig. He burned himself with acid and flame; he cut himself and scratched himself so often and so deeply that he bore the scars from his tests for the rest of his life. But, he proved his product worked. People only had to look at the scars from his healed wounds to see the value of his work and the extent of his belief. The gospel is looking at God’s Son and the price He paid for our sins and believing His work alone can take us to heaven.


It’s essential that we believe in Christ because we have a sin problem. Once again, Paul returns to the topic of sin. (Apparently, he didn’t feel that sixty-four verses [1:18-3:20] were sufficient. He enjoys waxing eloquent on the doctrine of sin.) He understands that the good news is only good news if we recognize how bad the bad news is. Although a person can be saved without fully comprehending the depth of the bad news, one can never fully appreciate the gift of salvation unless he or she has come to recognize the wickedness of sin. It is worth noting that the last part of 3:22 and all of 3:23 may be read as a parenthesis: (“for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). One can, therefore, read from 3:22b to 3:24 omitting the parenthetical thought (“for all those who believe… being justified as a gift…”).


Paul states in 3:22b that “there is no distinction.” This verse clearly condemns humankind—“there is no distinction”—we’re all sinners. In 3:23, the word “for” (gar) gives the reason for Paul’s insistence that there’s no distinction: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, we have all committed acts of personal sin. To “fall short” (present tense) speaks of continually lacking the glory of God. The biblical concept of sin is any failure to glorify God. It’s missing what God wants in our lives. Whether you are less of a sinner than someone else is not the issue. The issue is that no matter how well you might have lived, you have fallen short of God’s standard of perfection.


Paul is now ready to return to good news. In 3:24 he writes that those who have believed (cf. 3:22) are “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” This is such an important verse that we must tear it apart word by word. First, let’s consider the word “justified.” Justification is the doctrine for which Romans is most famous—and rightly so. Paul uses some form of the verb “justify” fifteen times in Romans. Justification is a legal term that means “to declare righteous.” On account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, we are declared as good as God.


First: Justification is both instantaneous and irreversible. The moment we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re on the other side of judgment day. Since God always keeps His Word this declaration is eternal. In television programs such as CSI and NCIS there are people who gather what is called forensic evidence, which is used at trial in criminal cases. Forensics has to do with judicial judgment or declaration. Here, Paul shows us that in the act of justification God makes a judicial declaration about a person’s status before He makes His judgment. The person who believes in Jesus receives all the benefits of His person and work.


It may help if we further expose what justification is not.

(1) Justification is not forgiveness. It’s more than forgiveness. While forgiveness is part of it, it’s not all of it. If a teacher cancels out an “F” you got on an exam, that’s forgiveness. However, if your teacher declares your “F” to be an “A+” that is the equivalent of what it means to be justified.

(2) Justification is not a pardon. It’s more than a pardon. A pardon covers sins of the past. No judge has ever issued a pardon for future crimes. Justification deals with the sins of the past, present, and the future.

(3) Justification is not a return to innocence. It’s not “just as if I’d never sinned.” It’s a state of righteousness, not innocence. The fact that we’ve sinned and continue to fall short is the basis for the greatness of what God has done in justification. It’s important to know that this takes place as a transaction. It is not a process. I am not gradually being justified in the hopes that someday I will be fully justified. The death of Christ took place at a point in time, and my justification takes place at a point in time (cf. 1 Cor 6:11). God does what we cannot do.


Secondly, Paul goes on to write that we’re justified “as a gift.” This is one of the most astonishing truths in the entire Bible. Justification is a free gift! The word translated “gift” (dorea) can also be translated “freely” (NET; HCSB; NIV; NKJV) or “for nothing.” In John 15:25, this same word is used when it’s said that Jesus was hated “without a cause.” There was nothing in Jesus that deserved hatred, and there’s nothing in us that deserves salvation. The idea of “freely,” reaches back to Paul’s comment in 3:21 about the righteousness of God being revealed apart from the Law. We cannot do, nor are we required to do—in fact, we are forbidden to do—good works in the hope of earning salvation. Justification comes only to those who exercise naked faith (i.e., empty-handed faith).


One ad for the U.S. Marines Corp pictures a sword, and beneath it the words: “Earned, never given.” If you want to become a Marine, be prepared to earn that slogan through sacrifice, hardship, and training. If you get it, you deserve it. But if you want to become a Christian, you must have the exact opposite attitude, for the message of the gospel is: “Given, never earned.” You cannot save your own soul, and God will not save anyone who tries to earn salvation, but only those who will humbly receive it as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. If you get it, you absolutely didn’t deserve it.


Thirdly, Paul also states that our salvation is solely “by His grace.” Grace is a giant step beyond mercy. Mercy is not getting what we deserve (i.e., death, hell). Grace is receiving what we don’t deserve (e.g., eternal life, heaven). “Grace” (charis) means God’s undeserved favor or that which God gives us which we don’t deserve. It’s a gift that sets aside all human merit. It doesn’t simply give us a hand, it gives us a resurrection. Grace is all one-sided. I like the old acronym: Grace is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” The reason you and I have salvation is on account of God’s grace. It’s because of Jesus—it’s all about His person and work. God does what we cannot do.

Fourthly, Paul continues his thought by further explaining that this gift came “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” The word “redemption” (apolutrosis) is a term that was used in the slave trade in Paul’s day. It pictures the release of a slave by the paying of a price. Since all people were “under” sin (cf. 3:9) and condemned by the Law (cf. 3:19-20), God the Father chose to offer a solution to our predicament. He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and pay our ransom. Christ’s person and work paid the price for our sin and the debt was canceled. We have been set free, if we will only believe.


A boy once captured two little birds and put them in a cage. A man saw the boy carrying the cage and asked him what he was going to do with the birds. The boy replied, “Oh, I’m going to play with them for a while and then I’m going to feed them to my cat.” The man looked at the caged birds and took pity on them. He said, “I’d like to buy the cage and the birds from you. How much do you want for them?” The boy thought for a minute and then named his price. The man paid it and the boy handed over the cage. Immediately, the man opened the cage and set the birds free. That’s what Jesus did for us. Satan had us caged up in our sin and was going to feed us into the jaws of eternal death. But Jesus Christ purchased us and set us free.


Romans 3:22-24 are three of the most important verses in the entire Bible. In these verses, we learned that:

God’s righteousness (i.e., His salvation) is made available to those who will simply believe (3:22a).

Salvation is faith alone in Christ alone.

Paul further expounds on salvation by explaining that we have been justified (i.e., declared righteous, 3:24).

He calls salvation a gift of grace. He even uses the picture of redemption to demonstrate that we were held captive to sin, but Jesus Christ has paid our ransom and released us from our captivity.

God does what we cannot do. In fact, He has already done the work; it is ours for the taking. [God’s righteousness has been revealed in His Word and in His grace, but now we’ll see…]


  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Justice (3:25-26)

How can God maintain His justice while forgiving unjust sinners? Paul explains in 3:25: “. . . God displayed [Jesus] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” [or better “through faith in His blood,” NIV]. The word “propitiation” (hilasterion) refers to the satisfaction of God’s righteous anger, so that He can now deal with us graciously. It’s a sacrifice which takes away wrath—a wrath quencher, which satisfies God’s anger.


Although God is merciful, gracious, and compassionate, He is also righteous, wrathful, and just. He can’t lower His righteous standard. He can’t just wink His eye with the attitude, “Boys will be boys,” or, “Let’s let bygones be bygones.” God must judge sin. He has done so by nailing every sin (past, present, and future) on His Son. Hence, God’s wrath, His holy anger, has been appeased by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Salvation is infinitely costly to the Father and the Son, but absolutely free to you and me.


If you still struggle with this concept, consider that God’s intolerance toward sin is like the intolerance of a surgeon who insists on sterile instruments for an operation. A surgeon’s demand for a pure operating environment is not an angry reaction to the presence of bacteria. Rather, it is an inseparable part of being a surgeon. To expose the surgeon’s scalpel to bacteria would result in contamination, and you would not get upset that your surgeon insists on absolute cleanliness in the operating room where even a speck of dirt could lead to infection. You would insist on absolute purity under those conditions. You would demand that your surgeon be completely intolerant of any impurity. If you understand a surgeon’s “wrath” against contamination in a hospital operating room, you can understand God’s wrath against sin. God is perfect and sinless in every detail, and His character demands that He deal with the slightest contamination of sin. God also knows that sin leads to total corruption and infection, so for these reasons He must judge sin.


In 3:25, Paul indicates that this act of propitiation was “to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Although the death of Christ for the sins of humankind was planned in eternity past and prophesied in the Old Testament, it didn’t become an earthly reality until almost 2,000 years ago. Therefore, Old Testament believers were forgiven on account of what was about to happen but hadn’t happened yet. God didn’t revoke the punishment for sin, He suspended the punishment. We could say, “Old Testament justification was through faith in the promised Savior; NT justification is through faith in the provided Savior.”


Old Testament believers looked forward to what God would someday do;

Believers today look back at what Christ has already done.


Prior to the cross, Old Testament believers were in paradise “on credit” (i.e., their sins had not yet been paid historically, even though they received some of the benefits from their faith. The same thing happens when we purchase something with a credit card and enjoy possessing the purchased item, even though we have not paid for it yet). God’s righteousness was shown at the cross in that God righteously judged and punished every last sin that man has committed or will ever commit. The cross is and always will be the center point and the focal point of all history.


Verse 26 tells us that God provided salvation 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.” God the Father demonstrated His righteous character through the cross of Jesus Christ. The words “just” (dikaios) and “justifier” (dikaioo) are both renderings of the root term for righteous. God has revealed His justice through the cross. We deserved death and hell—that would have been justice. But instead of getting what we deserve, we were not given what we deserve. That is mercy!


But God has gone one step further as we saw in 3:24. He’s given us grace, which is receiving what we don’t deserve—the free gift of eternal life. This is the gospel! God has acted with justice by slaying His Son, but He also acted as the Justifier by allowing us to be set free from our sin by trusting in Jesus. What a God! What a Savior! There is no one else like our God! He has created and orchestrated a sovereign plan that you and I would never have come up with. To Him be the glory! God does what we cannot do.


But how can all this heavy-duty theology be fleshed out in our lives? Let’s review this passage and consider three applications.

(1) When we present the gospel, we must always remember to emphasize sin (1:18-3:20). Unless we recognize how bad the bad news truly is, we won’t sense a need for a Savior. The good news of the gospel (3:21-26) isn’t truly good news until we first deal with the bad news.


(2) We need to begin to see fellow believers as those who have been “justified” by God. I rarely think this way about others. It’s easy to see the faults and idiosyncrasies in other people. Yet this passage teaches that fellow believers have been declared righteous and are now seen by the Father through the blood of Jesus Christ.


(3) We must be sure to present an accurate gospel. This means we must understand the words and the central message of 3:21-26. If we do, we’ll have a proper understanding of God’s righteousness and the free gift of salvation. God does what we cannot do.

None of us is okay, okay?

Many years ago, The London Times had a correspondent who ended many of his articles with the words, “What is wrong with the world today?” Finally, in response, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the well-known Christian writer and apologist, wrote the following reply to the paper, “Dear Editor, What’s wrong with the world? I am. Faithfully Yours, G. K. Chesterton.” In those few words Chesterton beautifully summed up the Bible’s teaching concerning the central problem of the world. It’s people! More specifically, it’s what lies within us—our inner being or person. As the great theologian Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m not okay and neither are you. In short, we’re the problem in the world today. We’re our own worst enemy. As sinful as Satan is, our sin problem is so severe and all-encompassing that we’re in deep trouble all on our own. There’s no need to claim, “The Devil made me do it!” We sin quite well without him or anyone else tempting us to sin (cf. Jas 1:14). We’re disgustingly sinful in our own selves. In Romans 3:9-20, we’re faced squarely with the reality of our sin against God and other people. This text is a fitting climax to the entire section (1:18-3:20) and functions like a great baseball relief pitcher. In the eight or ninth inning, “the closer” comes in to replace whoever is pitching and promptly attempts to “put the game away” for his team. Well, Paul closes his argument here with the same kind of determination and authority. This text is the clincher, the closer, in this section of Romans. This passage, like no other, will tell us the truth about humankind. The bottom line is: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. Paul reveals three penetrating truths about humanity.


  1. We Are Universally Sinful (3:9)

Paul begins with a formal legal charge: All are under sin. He writes, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” In light of Paul’s previous remarks about the Jews (2:1-3:8), an objector asks whether he and his fellow Jews are better than Gentiles. Paul has affirmed that the Jew has certain “advantages” (3:2; cf. 9:4-5) that permit spiritual growth. However, here, Paul reiterates that there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles—“all are under sin.” No one is exempt from judgment, not even God’s chosen people. Paul repeats his reason for this conclusion with the phrase, “we have already charged.” This is the ongoing message he has been giving, beginning with 1:18 and continuing up to this point (i.e., that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin).


It’s worth noting that the preposition “under” (hupo) is a military term that means to be under the authority of someone or something else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. In this context, it means that the human race is dominated by sin. We’re under its power. The phrase “under sin” implies that we were born sinful and then began willfully committing sin as early as three to six months! A nursing infant who is told not to bite his mother may look her in the eye and bite even harder. A crawling infant may be told by his father to stop, and she may smile and crawl all the faster away from him. We’re sinful and we’re “under” sin’s power at a very young age.


Furthermore, the phrase “under sin” goes beyond “original sin” and our propensity to commit certain sins. Our problem is that we are enslaved to sin. In other words, we were born in sin, intentionally sinned as quickly as possible, and have exhibited sin during the course of our lives. Again, we’re under sin’s power. It will do no good to claim goodness. We are not good; only God is good (cf. Mark 10:18). As an ancient Chinese proverb observed, “There are two good men—one is dead and the other is not yet born.” Paul’s point is simple: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. On the contrary, we are universally sinful. Thus, if you and I want to overcome the junk in our lives, we must own our sin and recognize that God has provided a solution to our sin problem.

[Not only are we universally sinful, Paul will now demonstrate a second truth about us.]

  1. We Are Totally Depraved (3:10-18)

In these nine verses, Paul indicts all people as totally depraved. Total depravity means that there’s no spiritual good in humankind that is able to commend us to God. Many people have trouble with this concept. While not denying they are sinners, many people feel that their sin isn’t bad enough to condemn them. What they don’t understand is that any sin is wholly unacceptable to God. In this section it’s as if Paul says, “Are you still not convinced? Let me show you further proof from the Old Testament.” He uses a technique called “pearl stringing,” where he quotes verse after verse to prove his point. Interestingly, Paul carefully chooses a slew of Old Testament verses directly attributed to God. So the expert witness that Paul calls to the stand—God Himself. In 3:10-18, Paul reveals three categories of sin that demonstrate our depravity.


The first category is: Our character is depraved. In 3:10-12 Paul states: “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’” Paul uses words like “none,” “all,” and “not even one” no fewer than seven times in the first three verses in order to make his point. Paul summarizes the fate of humanity by stating that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10). Verse 10 is a summary statement and the following verses flesh this truth out more fully. Verses 11-12 indicate that our whole inner being is controlled by sin.

(1) Our mind is depraved (“none who understands”). We don’t spend our time trying to understand God’s thoughts or His ways. We’re more interested in football, our favorite TV show, going to a concert, shopping, or hanging out with friends. We wouldn’t choose to spend considerable time attempting to understand God’s purposes or His program. We don’t go away on personal retreats to understand God.

(2) Our heart is depraved (“none who seeks for God”). If left to our own devices, we would never seek God. While it may appear that there are some who are actually seeking hard after God people are actually running from God. No sinner seeks God; rather, God seeks sinners. If anyone seeks God, it’s only because the Holy Spirit is working in his or her heart.

(3) Our will is depraved (“none who does good”). Consequently, we don’t do good works that honor God. Rather, our works are “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6) before God. Perhaps you’re thinking about a neighbor, a coworker, or a classmate that does seemingly wonderful deeds. I would affirm that this is prevalent from a human perspective. These “good works” are beneficial to your neighborhood, your workplace, and your school. However, from a divine perspective, these works fall short of God’s standard because they haven’t been carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mind, heart, and will are totally depraved. We’re sinful to the core.

Paul even goes so far as to state that together we have all become “useless.” Ouch! The word translated “useless” (achreioo) means “to corrupt” or “to turn sour” as milk. (Take out a gallon jug with sour milk and invite class members to smell it. Explain that this type of stench is similar to the stench of our sin.) Since the Bible speaks figuratively about God’s nostrils, there’s some precedent to say that the stench of our sin stinks to high heaven and reaches God’s nostrils. Our sin is repulsive and repugnant to Him. Indeed, I’m not okay, you’re not okay.


In 3:13-14, Paul shares another category: Our conversation is depraved. We betray our character by our speech. The heart blazes the way, and the mouth follows. In these two verses it’s as though humanity is given an annual physical exam. As you know when you go to the doctor for some unknown ailment he generally wants to look into your mouth. He puts one of those overgrown Popsicle sticks on your tongue and says, “Say ahhh!” Well, here God looks into the mouth of the sinner, and when we say, “Ahhh,” God says, ‘Yuk!’ Paul writes in 3:13a: “Their throat is an open grave.”

During biblical times embalming wasn’t practiced like it is today. So it goes without saying that an open grave must have reeked! In the same way, Paul is saying that the stench of man’s throat is like a rotting corpse. Interestingly, the phrase “open grave” literally means a yawning grave. I guess that means we should be careful when we yawn so that people don’t see down our throats into our decaying hearts.


In 3:13b-14 Paul goes on to say: “with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Our tongues are a constant source of deception. Notice the present tense: “they keep on deceiving” (3:13b). Our conversation is so totally depraved that our native language is deception. Paul states that the poison of asps is under our lips. The asp was probably the Egyptian cobra. Under its lips was a sac full of venom. When this snake was provoked pressure was placed on the poison sac, and the venom would surge through the fangs that devoured its victim. One can scarcely think of a more graphic way in which to express the pain and suffering caused by vindictive and unjust words.

How many times have you assassinated someone’s character or reputation?

How many times have you cut someone else down in order to build yourself up? How many times have you cursed or even used the Lord’s name in vain? Gulp. How many times have you expressed bitterness in your speech (3:14)?

We are all guilty.

Even as believers who’ve been given a new nature from God, we still struggle with our conversation, don’t we? I know I do. It’s easy to speak words of deception and bitterness. It’s easy to be critical. All of us are guilty of slander and gossip in some way, shape, or form. James put it well: The tongue is a “restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8b). Our worst enemy is our mouth! This is what makes Jesus’ words in Matt 12:36 so terrifying: “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the Day of Judgment.” I know when I stand before Jesus Christ, I will have two give an account for my speech. I’m not looking forward to this accounting one bit. It will be a sobering day indeed when I fully come to grips with how I have dishonored God in my conversation. I’m not okay, you’re not okay. I’m totally depraved.


The third and final category of our depravity is found in 3:15-18: Our conduct is depraved. What the mouth utters, the feet usually carry out. Paul writes, “Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known” (3:15-17). These verses describe America to a tee. Life is so cheap in our country today, particularly in the major cities. People kill one another over a set of car keys or a verbal insult or even a sinister look.


Today, there is at least one murder every twenty minutes. Furthermore, every year upwards of 50,000 people die as the direct result of someone else’s abuse of alcohol. And all that pales into insignificance when compared to the 1.2 million babies murdered every year under “freedom of choice” laws related to abortion. And if you’re innocent so far, do you still claim innocence when confronted with Jesus’ claim that murder is committed when one hates another person (Matt 5:21-22)?


Rom 3:17 would be an appropriate slogan for the United Nations: “The path of peace have they not known.” Indeed, we’re a warring people who constantly seek evil. Back in 1968, Will Durant wrote a book entitled, Lessons from History. In this book Durant wrote, “In the past 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.” The search for peace goes on unabated because we don’t know the way of peace. Tragically, we’ve failed to recognize that there will be no peace until we acknowledge our sin and trust in the Prince of Peace.

What is the cause of all this violent and sinful behavior? The answer is found in 3:18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” As individuals and as a country, we have failed to fear God. Prov 1:7 states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” yet we have opted for foolishness instead of wisdom. God is left out of our conversations, decisions, and life. He’s ignored. When God is ignored, the consequences of Rom 1 are set into motion: He gives us over (1:24, 26, 28). This leads to the problems that are facing our country and our world today. Once again, we are the problem. We need to point the finger at ourselves. I’m not okay, you’re not okay.

[Paul has indisputably argued that we are universally sinful and totally depraved. Now he decrees a final truth about us.]

  1. We Are Helplessly Lost (3:19-20)

Paul concludes this passage with a verdict: GUILTY! These two verses also summarize the entire section (1:18-3:20). Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law so that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:19-20). The phrase, “Now we know that” indicates that what follows has already been established as fact. The Law has a message to those under the Law (i.e., Jews), which declares that the whole world is held accountable to God. Implied here is the responsibility of Jews to relay information from the Law to the world largely via their obedience. The Jews are to be an example to the world of how to carry out the standards of the Law.

The Jewish people of Paul’s day didn’t understand that they were condemned under the Law. They knew that they sinned, but they thought they had diplomatic immunity from God’s judgment because they were Jewish. The phrase “whatever the Law says,” refers back to the Old Testament passages that Paul quoted in 3:10-18. The word translated “closed” (phrasso) is literally translated “shut up,” that every mouth may be shut up! The Law brings us up short with God every time. So much so, that when we stand before Him, we’ll be silenced! This verb evokes the image of a defendant in court, who, when given the opportunity to speak in his own defense, remains silent, overwhelmed by the weight of the evidence against him.


Your brain is more incredible than the most vast computer system in the world. Every experience we have and every word we speak is recorded in our brains. Concerning the judgment day I think that in the last day God is going to take our brain out of our head, put it on a table there in his court room, plug in a recorder, and punch rewind. We are going to have to sit there and listen to our brain replay everything we’ve ever done, said, and thought. The prosecuting attorney doesn’t have to say a word. Indeed, when we receive a glorified mind and body and we stand before Christ, we will be shut up.


In 3:20, Paul explains that the Law was given for condemnation, not justification (i.e., “to declare not guilty,” see 3:24). The Jews had distorted the purpose of the Law. It was never intended to commend a man before God, but to condemn him. Like the blood-alcohol test is designed to prove men are drunk, so the Law is designed to prove men are sinners, under the wrath of God. The Law provided a standard of righteousness, not that men could ever attain such human righteousness, but to demonstrate they’re incapable of doing so and must find a source of righteousness outside themselves. That’s the point of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. When the Law revealed man’s sin, God provided a way of sacrifice so that a man wouldn’t need to bear the condemnation of God. The Law was never given to save us, but to show us that we need a Savior.


The Law has been likened to a mirror. The purpose of a mirror is to reveal what is wrong with my face (e.g., gunk in the eyes, food in the teeth, messy hair, blemishes, etc.) As I carry on the activities of my day, I may somehow get dirt on my face and not even realize it. A mirror serves a wonderful purpose of showing me that I have a dirty face. It shows me that I have a problem. But the mirror cannot wash away the dirt! It makes a very poor washcloth. Likewise, God’s Law can show me that I am a guilty sinner (incapable of keeping God’s holy commandments), but it can never save me. It can only condemn me and show me that I need a Savior.

It is tempting to conclude my lesson on this negative note. However, you would be left with a sense of hopelessness and despair. While this may be Paul’s aim in 1:18-3:20, it is not the end of the story. Hence, I think it’s fitting for me to whet your appetite for the next section in Romans. In 3:21, Paul opens with the conjunction “but” (de). This three letter word that we often overlook may be the most important word in the Bible. The word “but” informs us that sin does not win the day. In a similar passage, Paul exclaims: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…” (Eph 2:4). He utters these words after laying out total depravity (2:1-3). In both of these texts, the word “but” reminds us that God’s grace is greater than all our sin! Now that’s good news.


Like Paul, I have attempted to level you under the weight of your sin. I want you to feel the full brunt of your depravity. I desire for you to sense that you are hopelessly lost. If you’ve arrived at the end of yourself, there will be nowhere to turn but to Jesus Christ. Today, Jesus offers you His righteousness in exchange for your unrighteousness. If you will simply bring your sin to Jesus, He will offer you His perfection. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and the sin of the entire world. He rose from the dead to demonstrate that He is God. He simply asks you to believe in His person and in His work. The decision is yours. Will you be pardoned or punished? I urge you: Believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and cross over from death to life (John 5:24).