Romans 3:21-31 (click to display NIV text)
July 15, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “ – Romans 1:16, 17
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” – Romans 3:21, 22 Paul uses the word “righteousness” at the heart of his proclamation of the gospel. This can be a difficult word for us to grasp. We hesitate to say “I am a righteous person.” That sounds like boasting, like claiming more than we want to about how upright and good we are. It also sounds like we might be trying to cover something up. The word raises suspicions of hypocrisy.
We often think of righteousness as a moral and spiritual term that describes someone’s behavior. A righteous person is law-abiding, good, clean, sober, and often strict. He carries a large Bible. But in scripture, this word refers primarily to relationships. Righteousness means being faithful in a relationship, being at peace with God or with another person, upholding the covenant with God in one’s life, or keeping the promises we make to others. Paul Achtemeier writes, “God is righteous because he acts to uphold the covenant, to bring people into a right relationship with him. A person is made righteous when he is put into a restored relationship with God.” God is righteous because he does not abandon people to their own devices. He always seeks to save, renew and redeem people from slavery to sin.
Marriage is a relationship of righteousness. A commitment is made to live in a loving and faithful way to each other. There is a responsibility in the marriage to live above one’s own selfish desires, to care for each other in all seasons of life. A good marriage also includes times when forgiveness is offered and when grace is extended. There will be times of disagreement, but the relationship remains strong. There are times when one or the other is weak or struggling, but the married relationship remains strong. On vacation I read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. He quotes a sermon on marriage when Bonhoeffer says to the couple, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but the marriage that sustains your love.” This is the meaning of righteousness: a committed, loving relationship where people are strengthened and at peace.
So in our relationship to God we know that God is righteous, meaning that God is faithful, loving, holy and just. He wills to be in a close relationship with his creation. He is Lord of creation and so part of his righteousness is his right to judge his creation. Paul talks about the wrath of God, which is His determined will to bring salvation to His world. Right relationship with God means there will be judgment in the Kingdom.
Paul then reflects on the world he observes and on the Kingdom that God promises. Through faith in Christ we come into a right relationship with God, a righteous relationship. In the first two chapters Paul lists the various sins he sees rampant in the world since the time of Adam. If he was writing today, he might add a few. What Paul knows from his understanding of history gained by reading the prophets, is that from Adam all people have turned away from God and tried to create their own gods. The sins listed in chapter 1 are all about attempts of people to exalt themselves and to turn away from God towards other gods and idols. Achtemeier says that “Adam’s sin was his attempt to be his own Lord. The tempter said he could be ‘like God.’ His attempt led him to enslavement to the forces that oppose God.” That set the pattern for humanity.
Then in chapter 4, Paul talks about Abraham, who was a kind of new beginning, a new creation in the development of a “chosen people.” This new beginning was based on the faith of Abraham. Abraham believed God, and so his faith was credited as righteousness. So God’s plan in history to restore people to a righteous relationship is based on faith.
But as a Jew, schooled as a Pharisee, and as one who fully accepted God’s Word, Paul could not ignore the place of the law. First he says that the law does not make people righteous. Following the law does not bring one to peace with God. Achtemeier writes, “If you try to maintain a right relationship with God through Law, you fail because sin has overpowered the law and the law offers no way to freedom from sin’s power. To try to have a relationship with God through law excludes trust in Christ as the way.”
So what is the place of the law? Paul says the law makes people aware of their sin, it names their sin. The law even intensifies their sin. “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20, 21).
Paul also finds another place for the Law; in 3:21 Paul says that the law and prophets testify to the righteousness of God. The testimony of witnesses in a court of law leads a jury to see the truth and then to make a judgment. So the scripture leads us to Christ and to the character of God, the righteousness of God, so that we can make a faith commitment. The law is a guide that brings us to Christ. Faith requires a testimony. When you read the Word of God you come to know that God understands your life: your struggles, your temptations, your failings and also your courage, your dreams and your commitments. When you read the Old Testament you find yourself, and then you are led in hope to Christ.
This is the place of conviction. It is not a comfortable place, but very necessary, a kind of waking up. When you feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit in your life, it is always accompanied with an awareness of the love of God. Conviction without love is simply a heavy sense of guilt and can drive a person away from God. But conviction with love draws us to faith. In the same way, the conviction of the Holy Spirit causes us to feel despair — for here we honestly come to despair over all our attempts to make our life work. But the despair is always mixed with hope. This is the presence of grace that comes before salvation. We come to say, “I cannot save myself” but “I feel there is someone greater who can save me.” Now the moment for faith has come.
It is in the place of conviction of sin, awareness of the love of God, despair over your own inability to save yourself and a feeling of hope that you turn to Christ as the only way to salvation. Here Paul speaks the Gospel, verse 25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.” When you believe in Christ there is an experience of freedom from the power of sin to enslave you and lead you to death.
Belief then draws us into Christ. In Christ we find the Holy Spirit, given to the believer to guide and empower the new life. In this, the Spirit never leads us away from the law of God or tells us to do something that is contrary to God’s will. Life in Christ is always a moral life. The Spirit will not tell you to go murder someone, or to commit adultery or to live in drunkenness. There is rather in this life in Christ a continual movement out of idolatry and self-exaltation. Here Paul uses the image of baptism. We are dying with Christ and rising with Christ to newness of life. We are moving out of slavery into freedom. We are welcomed into a relationship with God as children of God.
Then Paul says that there is a law that requires works and can lead us to boasting. If we are simply trying to become better people our lives soon begin to rely on self, rather than on God, and pride replaces love as our central characteristic.
But Paul says there is a law that requires faith (verse 27). When we walk in faith, trusting God fully with our lives, then we come to depend on God and enter that new life in Christ.
“Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come, Jesus I come, into your freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to you. Out of my sickness, into your health, out of my want and into your wealth, out of my sin and into yourself, Jesus, I come to you.”