Romans 3:21-26 ESV
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 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, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. 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.”
Study the Word in Context
When we read a passage like this one from the book of Romans (from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome) – “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” – we need to read it in the context of the whole book of Romans, especially considering Romans 1-2.
It is also helpful if we understand some about the Old Covenant our Lord had with the Jewish people, the Israel of old, and if we understand the promise God made to Abraham and to his seed (Jesus Christ) and the promises concerning the Messiah (the Savior, the Christ) who was to come.
First off, a saint is one who is set apart by and for God to be holy, unlike and different from the world because we are now being conformed to the likeness of Christ (of his nature). So, right there that tells you that faith in Jesus Christ involves a change of heart and mind away from living for sin and self to now being conformed to the image of Christ.
Then Romans 1 tells us that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people, “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” This is speaking of their actions (their deeds). Although they knew who God was, they did not honor him as God, but they worshipped their idols and they engaged in all manner of evil.
“Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:32).
Those Who Practice Such Things
Then, in Romans 2 we read that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who PRACTICE such sins as were mentioned in Romans 1. And then there is an exhortation to those who judge those who do such things and yet do the same things.
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom 2:4-5)
And what are the riches of his kindness? He is speaking of his grace. We are not to presume upon God’s grace a liberty to keep on living in sin. For his grace is intended to lead us to repentance, and biblical repentance involves forsaking our sins and our idols to follow our Lord in obedience to his ways.
And, then listen to this:
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom 2:6-10).
Do we understand what this is saying? We are going to be judged by our works, and what we do will determine where we spend eternity. If we obey our Lord, we will have eternal life, but if we do not obey the truth, but we obey unrighteousness, what we will face is wrath and fury (cf. Gal 6:7-8; Gal 5:16-21; Eph 5:3-6; 1 Co 6:9-10; 2 Co 5:10; Rom 6:16; Rom 8:1-17).
So, in context, when he speaks of us trying to be declared righteous by keeping the law, he is not speaking of us obeying our Lord and living righteously in his power and strength. He is speaking of those who are trying to be declared righteous by works of the flesh, by following a set of rules, such as the liturgical, ceremonial and purification laws of the Old Covenant.
He was also addressing their hypocrisy, because they were judging others for doing the same things they were doing. Yet, they were trying to appear righteous by following the outward and ritualistic requirements of the Old Covenant, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. So, Paul said this:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28-29).
So, in context, what is he saying? He is not condemning living righteously and having hearts which are conformed to Christ and to his nature, who are not making sin their practice, but who are those who practice righteous living, in the power of God’s Spirit. He is upholding this!
But he is condemning hypocritical outward shows of righteousness based on a set of rules regarding things that are outward (external), such as any kind of religious ritual we might follow, such as Sunday church attendance, or forms of outward worship, or religious rituals of standing and sitting, etc.
Apart from the Law
So, when he says in chapter 3 that God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law, it is clear, in context, that he is speaking of those liturgical, ceremonial, and purification laws, not God’s moral laws. For he said if we practice righteousness (not a false righteousness), by God’s Spirit, we will have eternal life with God (1 Jn 3:7).
Also, in context, the faith in Jesus Christ which Paul spoke of is not some mere acknowledgment of Jesus and of his sacrifice for our sins on a cross, nor is it some mere confession or profession of him (lip service only) as Savior and Lord. But it is faith as is lived out in our daily lives in obedience to our Lord and in being conformed to his nature.
Also, the gift of God’s grace and of our salvation from sin is deliverance from our slavery (bondage, addiction) to sin so that we would now be slaves of his righteousness, which is evidenced by our actions and by our obedience, and by living out in truth what we say we believe (Lu 9:23-26; Rom 6:1-23; Rom 8:1-17; 1 Jn 1:5-9; 1 Jn 2:3-6; Tit 2:11-14; Eph 2:10; Eph 4:17-24).
So, there is no boasting for us because we can’t live the life we are called to live apart from God and his grace and his empowerment to live righteously. It is only as we die with Christ to sin and we are resurrected with Christ to newness of life in him that we can obey him and live righteously.
So, then, all the glory belongs to God, not to us. Yes, we still must obey, but we do so because of God’s grace to us and in his strength and as being led by the Spirit of God. So, by the Spirit we now live according to the Spirit and no longer according to our flesh. And God be praised!
Oh, to Be Like Thee, Blessed Redeemer
Lyrics by Thomas O. Chisholm, 1897
Music by W. J. Kirkpatrick, 1897
Oh, to be like Thee! blessèd Redeemer,
This is my constant longing and prayer;
Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures,
Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear.
O to be like Thee! while I am pleading,
Pour out Thy Spirit, fill with Thy love;
Make me a temple meet for Thy dwelling,
Fit me for life and Heaven above.
Oh, to be like Thee! Oh, to be like Thee,
Blessèd Redeemer, pure as Thou art;
Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness;
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.
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