The Only Way to Be Right With God

Romans 3:21-26

March 29, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

This morning we are considering the greatest question in the world—How can a man be right with God? It is the supreme problem of life. No more important question could ever be asked.

Every sincere person asks this question. Every sincere Methodist asks, “How can a man be right with God?” Every sincere Presbyterian asks, “How can a man be right with God?” Every sincere Catholic asks, “How can a man be right with God?” Every sincere Lutheran asks, “How can a man be right with God?”

Somewhere in the world this morning a man is offering a child upon an altar, hoping to appease his angry God. Somewhere in the world a man is cutting himself with a knife, hoping by his pain to win the approval of his deity. Somewhere in the world a man lies on a bed of nails, proving by his mastery of pain to prove his worthiness of eternal life. In the Middle East millions of believers pray toward Mecca this morning, following the dictates of their religion. In Haiti followers of Voodoo kill chickens and place the carcass before a makeshift altar, hoping to cause God to smile upon them with good fortune.

Why? Why? Why?

The answer is always the same. The men and women who do these things desperately want to be right with God. They do what they do because they hope to appease God or to please God or to pacify God or to somehow manipulate God into favoring their cause.

It is a totally sincere question, is it not? We all want to stand before God someday and have him declare us righteous in his sight. That one fact explains most of the religious activity in the world around us. From killing chickens to bowing to Mecca, from resting on a bed of nails to praying the rosary, from going to Sunday School to saying the Lord’s Prayer, we do what we do because we want to be right with God … and we don’t know how!

What is the answer to this great question? How can a man be right with God? To that all-important question, no answer is more satisfying than the answer given in Romans 3:21-26. It is the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Christian message.

Seven Weeks of Sin

For seven weeks now I have been preaching on the doctrine of sin from Romans 1-3. With all my strength I have tried to show the universal sinfulness of mankind. My goal has not been to depress you, but to paint a realistic picture of the human condition. As we have seen, the “human condition” is utterly hopeless apart from Jesus Christ. For all our talk of human progress, we haven’t advanced one whit beyond Romans 3:23—”All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Those who doubt that verdict are invited to read the Chicago Sun-Times and see for themselves. On every page there is a story that testifies to man’s repeated failure to live up to God’s high standards. In this case, the newspaper doesn’t “prove” the Bible, but it does convincingly demonstrate that Paul knew exactly what he was talking about.

Last Sunday we came to a major climax when we looked at Romans 3:9-20, which lays out the ultimate truth about you and me. We are all infected with the virus of sin. Not only are we infected, but the virus has entered every part of our being. We are totally infected with a terminal disease called sin. Without a miracle, there is no hope for any of us.

After I finished that sermon, one of our friends who has only been attending Calvary for a few months said to Marlene, “Pastor Ray is building up to something. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t wait to hear it.” She’s right, I have been building up to something and that “something” is what we’re going to talk about today.

If I could diagram these last few sermons, they would look something like this:

Bad News

Bad News

Bad News

Bad News

Bad News

Bad News

Bad News

After all that bad news, what we desperately need is some

Good News!

The Heart of the Bible

That’s what we find in our text. Romans 3:21-26 is all about good news. In fact, it contains the best news you’ve ever heard. Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse called this passage “the heart of the Bible.” Martin Luther called it “the marrow of theology.” I would simply add that these verses contain the most condensed bit of theology in the New Testament. Each verse is packed with crucial truth about God’s plan for saving sinners.

The theme of the passage is not hard to find. Paul introduces it in verse 21 by saying, “But now a right-eousness from God … has been made known.” That’s the theme of Paul’s good news: The righteousness that comes from God. That’s also what you and I need if we’re going to go to heaven. Here in this phrase we discover the essence of the Christian gospel. What sinners need but do not have, God has provided in the Person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In these verses Paul discusses 7 aspects of the righteousness of God. Each one deserves our attention if we truly want to be right with God.

The righteousness we need is …

1. From God.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known.” What great truth is contained in that little phrase “but now.” The difference between heaven and hell hangs on the meaning of those tiny words. One writer called this “One of the biggest ’buts’ in all world literature.” What is God’s answer to the depravity of the human race? Does he turn his back and damn us all to hell? No! Thank God for those two little words—”But now.” They guarantee that God has an answer for the worst that man can do. His grace is greater than our sin, his mercy infinitely more than our iniquity. Somewhere I read that Martin Luther said that you should never introduce God into a plot unless the plot is so tangled up that only God would untangle it. That’s the state of the human drama. It’s so tangled by sin that only God could untangle it.

Why do we need a righteousness “from God?” Simply put, because we have no righteousness of our own. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” But what of the good works that I do? They are but filthy rags in his sight.

To some people, this is tragic news. They think that because of some inherited goodness that God will accept them. Wrong! Goodness isn’t inherited like blue eyes and brown hair. In fact, what you inherited from your parents is a sin nature that causes you to turn away from God almost from the moment of your birth. You were born with an inbred tendency to disobedience. No one had to teach you to say “No!” You figured that out all by yourself.

You weren’t born righteous. No amount of moral reformation can change that fact. Since there is no righteousness within you, the only kind of righteousness that will save you is a righteousness that comes from outside yourself. That’s what Paul means when he says a righteousness from God has been revealed.

That’s where the Good News begins. The righteousness we need comes down from God himself!

2. Apart from the law.

Notice the second fact about this righteousness. Paul says it comes “apart from the law.” To the observant Jew, this would be a shocking and troubling statement. In Paul’s day, as in our day, many religious people sincerely believed that their religious devotion would win God’s approval. They hoped that by following the Ten Commandments, by observing the rabbinical ordinances, by offering the proper sacrifices, by attending to the moral precepts of the Torah, that God would be satisfied and their sins forgiven. Paul says it doesn’t work that way.

Does this mean the law was of no use? Not at all. The law revealed the righteousness of God—that is, it showed mankind God’s righteous standard for human behavior. Unfortunately, that’s all the law could do. It showed what God wanted; it couldn’t compel obedience neither could it provide the inner “want to” that would actually change human behavior.

Swimming to Hawaii

When Paul says that righteousness comes “apart from the law,” he is really saying that it comes apart from …

Religious observance

Good works


Giving money

Devoted prayer

Ritual of any kind.

In fact, he is really saying that righteousness comes to those who haven’t even kept the law at all. Since lawkeeping isn’t a requirement for salvation, those who have broken the law can be saved!

Let’s suppose that American Express offers a one million dollar prize to anyone who can swim nonstop to Hawaii. On the appointed day, six carefully-screened swimmers line up on the beach at San Diego. At the crack of the gun, the six contestants plunge into the surf, heading for Honolulu. After a few minutes all six are out of sight. Six hours into the race the first contestant quits because of cramps in his side. Four hours later a second swimmer stops because of sheer exhaustion. The other four redouble their efforts. Twelve hours pass, then 15, then 18. At the 20 hour mark, 3 others finally give up. Meanwhile, one determined man swims on. Eventually he too must quit, but only after an amazing 48 hours in the water.

Will he win the million dollars? No, because he didn’t swim to Hawaii. The prize was not offered to the one who swam the farthest, but only to the one who made it all the way to Honolulu. Since no one made it, no one wins the prize. All six swimmers tried valiantly, and some did better than others, but all of them ultimately failed.

It’s the same way when it comes to keeping the law of God. Some do better than others, but all ultimately fail because no one ever keeps it perfectly. But since God demands perfection, no one can be saved by keeping the law.

Which is why the righteousness we need must come apart from the law. If righteousness came by keeping the law, no one would ever be saved.

3. Received only by faith.

This is the third great fact Paul discusses in this passage. Not only does the righteousness of God come apart from the law, it is received only by faith. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” This point is crucial because almost everyone trusts in something, if only in themselves. Many people say, “I trust in God,” as if that only were enough to take them to heaven. But salvation depends on more than a vague, quasi-religious confidence in “the Man upstairs.” Such secular faith saves no one. In fact, it is not faith in God that saves us. That kind of faith is too general, too generic, too mushy-sweet and non-specific. After all, James 2:19 says, “The demons believe, and tremble.” In God’s eyes, the only faith that saves is faith that is directed at his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is faith which saves, not faith mixed with human works.

It is faith in Jesus Christ which saves, not faith in God alone.

God is maddeningly specific about what he wants, and he will accept no substitutes. But why shouldn’t he be specific? After all, he sent his own Son to die on the cross for us. It shouldn’t surprise us that he will accept nothing less than a faith that is focused entirely on Jesus Christ.

4. For sinners only.

The righteousness we need has a fourth characteristic. It is “for sinners only.” “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Think for a moment about what that means:

No difference between the harlot and the debutante.

No difference between the serial killer and the social worker.

No difference between the profane and the priest.

No difference between the cruel and the kind.

No difference between the cheater and the law-abider.

How can this be? Has God lost his moral compass? How can there be “no difference?” The answer is that when it comes to needing salvation, there is truly “no difference” between people. Since all are sinners, all need salvation. In that sense, there is “no difference” between the morally bankrupt and the morally upright. Both are lost and separated from God.

Perhaps harlots and murderers stand at the bottom of a mine. Perhaps morally you stand at the top of Mt. Everest. But you are as unable to touch the stars as they are. Relative location makes no difference. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Some are higher, some are lower, but none can touch the stars. That’s what “no difference” means.

To put it another way, you may be a:



College graduate


Eagle Scout

Man of means

Woman of wealth

Good Citizen

It doesn’t matter. You are still a sinner in God’s eyes.

Weighed and Found Wanting

Paul says that as sinners we all fall short of the “glory of God.” What precisely is the glory of God? In a theological sense, God’s glory is the perfection of all his attributes. But where do we see his attributes clearly displayed? We see them in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, which is why Hebrews 1:3 calls Jesus the “radiance of God’s glory.”

All right, then, let’s apply that to Romans 3:23. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory in Jesus Christ.” How does your life measure up when it is compared to Jesus Christ? Consider him. He lived 33 years and never committed a sin. He never had an evil thought, never said an evil word, never committed even one evil deed. He never cheated, never lied, never procrastinated, never got bitter, never lost his temper, never lusted, never sought an easy way out of a hard situation, never bent the truth to make himself look good, never cursed, never turned his back on his friends. On top of that, he lived a life of perfect holiness, perfect purity, perfect kindness, perfect truth and perfect goodness. He was in every way the one perfect person ever to live on the earth. How do you stack up against him?

When most of us consider our sinfulness, we tend to measure ourselves against someone else who isn’t quite as good as we are, so that we end up looking pretty good in our own eyes. “Well, maybe I’m a sinner but I’m a lot better than old Jones. He’s a big-time jerk.” That may be fine for you, but that’s not how God looks at things. He says, “Stop looking at old Jones and take a look at my Son. How do you stack up next to him?”

The answer is clear. You don’t look so good next to him. That’s why there is truly “no difference” between the kidnapper and the den mother. Both are sinners when compared with Jesus Christ.

5. Based on the grace of God.

Verse 24 tells us how God begins the salvation process. “And are justified freely by his grace.” The word “freely” literally means “without a cause.” Salvation comes “without a cause” in us. That is, God saves us despite the fact that he can’t find a reason within us to save us. Salvation is a “free gift” to the human race. There is nothing in us that causes God to want to save us. No good works, no inner beauty, no great moral attainment, no intellectual merit of any kind. When God saves, he does it despite the fact that we don’t deserve it.

That’s what the grace of God is all about. This week I read a neat definition of grace: What you need but do not deserve! God declares us righteous when we have nothing but the sewage of sin in us!

This is the doctrine of free grace. God saves people who don’t deserve it! God saves people who actually deserve condemnation! God saves people in spite of themselves and contrary to their record. It is “pure, abounding, astounding grace!”

6. Provided by the death of Christ.

Now we come to the heart of the gospel. Verses 24-25 explain exactly how the death of Christ saves sinners. In order to make himself clear, Paul uses three very picturesque words: “Justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” Each word presents another facet of Christ’s saving work on the cross.

1. Justify. This word comes from the courtrooms of ancient Greece. To “justify” means to “declare not guilty.” More than that, it means to wipe away the record of sin and to declare a sinner righteous in God’s eyes. It’s what happens when God alters our “permanent record” in heaven. When a sinner trusts Christ, God declares him righteous, and that declaration never changes!

2. Redeem. This word comes from the slave market. To redeem means to “set free by the payment of a price.” When we were slaves to sin, God paid the price and set us free from our slavery. The price was the blood of his Son. When a sinner trusts Christ, God releases him from the chains of sin and sets him free forever!

3. Propitiate. This is the literal meaning of the phrase translated “sacrifice of atonement.” It comes from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The word means “to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift.” In the Old Testament, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and sprin-kle blood on the top of the Ark of the Covenant. By the sprinkling of the blood, the sins of the people were “covered” or “atoned.” The wrath of God against sin was thus turned away. Why is this important? Because God’s justice demands death as the ultimate punishment for sin. To call the death of Christ a “propitiation” means that God’s wounded heart is now satisfied with the death of his Son. When a sinner trusts Christ, God accepts him on the basis of the bloody sacrifice Christ made when he died on the cross!

Let’s put these three words together in a simple chart:

Word Meaning Result

Justify To declare righteous Acquittal

Redeem To release from slavery Freedom

Propitiate To turn away wrath Accepted

All these wonderful benefits come to you the moment you trust Jesus Christ as Savior!

7. A demonstration of God’s justice.

Now we come to the final fact about the righteousness we need. God’s method of salvation demonstrates his justice. “He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” This passage reveals that God’s salvation plan began long before Jesus came to the world.

The paradox of salvation is this: God is a God of love … and therefore wants to forgive sinners. But he is also a God of holiness … who must not, indeed cannot, overlook sin. How could God love sinners and yet not overlook their sin? How could God be true to himself by forgiving sinners but not overlooking the sin they committed?

No one would ever have dreamed of his answer! God sent his own Son to die for sinners. In that way, the just punishment for sin was fully met in the death of Christ and sinners who trust in Christ could be freely forgiven. No man would ever have dreamed of such a radical solution. Only God could have done something like that! Thus, Paul says, God is both just (in punishing sin) and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.

But note the power of Jesus’ death. Even the sins of those who lived before Christ are forgiven by his death. When Jesus died, he reached all the way back to Adam and took care of those sins! Not only that, but Jesus

also took care of the sins of those who would live long after him.

Think of it. In the death of this One Man, all the sins of the human race are fully paid for—past, present and future. As a result, those who believe in Jesus find that their sins are gone forever!

God is just—He doesn’t overlook sin.

God is the justifier of sinners—He declares righteous those who trust in Jesus.

Our Only Option

Robert Mounce (Themes From Romans, pp. 43-44) offers us a wonderful summary of all that this passage is saying to us:

To be justified means to be acquitted, to gain a right standing. Justification frees the guilty man from paying the just penalty for his sin. It declares that he is totally exonerated. All charges are dropped.

This acquittal is absolutely free because it is based on the unmerited favor (grace) of God. God decided to set man free, arranged a plan by which He could justify the guilty and still remain a moral being, and then carried it out.

It’s a free offer. The only option we have is to accept it or reject it.

This is so hard for us to believe. We would prefer to work for our salvation. But God’s gift of salvation costs us nothing, even though it cost his Son everything. The Lord now says to us, “Take it by faith! It’s yours for free. I have paid the cost for you.”

Barb’s Story

A few weeks ago Barb Duncan told me the amazing story of how she came to Christ. Her story so moved me that I asked her to share it with all of you. This is her story, told in her own words:

Into a little Roman Catholic Church, my parents brought me, their firstborn, to the Lord, believing as the priest immersed me in the tub of water and anointed me with oil, that I was given the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

My parents lived by their convictions, and the little church which my grandfather helped build was the center of my family’s life. At a young age, the Lord gave me a great desire for all things religious. When I was ready for high school, I begged by parents to send me to Catho-lic school.

It was there that I met the order of nuns, the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, who became my teachers, my heroines and my friends. After only two weeks of school, I knew I wanted to be one of these wonderful but mysterious ladies. When I broke the news to my parents, they objected to what they considered an unnatural life and one cut off from them, and in the face of their opposition, I went to college. At age 19 I had enough courage to go against their wishes and I entered the cloistered postulancy and novitiate to train to be a religious.

There I learned more about the vows I would later take—vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Holy Rule with its 512 precepts. My goal was to become holy. My calling was the one given to the Rich Young Ruler—”If you would be perfect, go sell what you have, give to the poor and come follow me.” And “anyone who loves his father or mother or sisters or brothers more than Me is not worthy to be my disciple.” My whole life would be surren-dered to Jesus through the Church, my congregation and my superiors. Obedience to them was obedience to Christ. I would obtain forgiveness and grace; I would merit rewards in heaven through the Church, the sacraments, through her penances and prayers and ceremonies.

I strove to be humble by being more obedient, more submitted. Although I struggled with my feelings and being separated from those I loved, I was surrounded by a very joyful and enthusiastic community of sisters. We enjoyed magnificent liturgies, warm and loving friend-ships and great respect from the outside world.

Then came Vatican II. We were asked to evaluate our manner of life in order to make it more relevant to a modern world. We were to sort out what was cultural and what was absolute, a difficult task for those who don’t use Scripture as the sole authority. Much confusion resulted. As I started to question, I lost belief in many things. Two things happened to me during this time: I became aware of an unspeakable gap between me and a holy God that I couldn’t even describe to Father Confessor. The harder I tried to live for God, the more distant He seemed. Second, I picked up a Bible and verses that bothered me: “Don’t take vows … let your speech be simple, saying yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no.” Matthew 23 became almost daily reading for me. When Christ spoke of the hypocrites who argued about the tassels of their garments while inwards they were like dead men, I became utterly convinced that we were like the hypocrites.

I began to challenge my superiors when I felt that the law of love contradicted our religious law. I felt that if there was a hell, it was for hypocrites. My last and 7th year in the convent became a tension between my own struggles and the institution I was serving. I left.

I had no belongings, no direction and no experience. I was working and studying when I met Wally, the first evangelical Protestant I had ever met. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a layman who loved the Lord as much as I. On our second date, he told me he had been saved. The term really bothered me, but it was much too soon in our relationship to start an argument. I did struggle to understand what that meant. When he told me that he realized God had a plan for his life, that he was a sinner, that he had repented and accepted Jesus personally, I related to him all those religious moments in my life that paralleled his. The only thing I let slide was this idea of being saved. I thought it might be a Protestant ceremony.

Soon we had fallen in love and were married. While we dated, we attended a Catholic underground, a group of ex-priests and nuns who met in homes, Bibles in hand, celebrating a free liturgy of sorts. After we were married, we found more and larger groups of Catholics who truly believed in Jesus but didn’t know why they felt so dead, meeting together to read the Scriptures, believing every literal word and experiencing the kind of life described in the book of Acts. Wally was amazed to see Catholics coming to new life through the Scriptures. I wasn’t so thrilled, but if something Catholic kept him happy, surely I wouldn’t complain. The one thing I couldn’t be was a Protestant.

Everything was love to me. God was love, and everything was beautiful. I was loved and I was happy. Then came a test of my so-called love, when I had to unselfishly love the unlovely. I failed the test. I had disobeyed and failed the one requirement I felt God demanded. It was hopeless. I felt like the publican in the back of the church. I fell to my knees: “Holy Spirit, if there is a Holy Spirit, change me.”

Two weeks later I went to a prayer meeting and met a man whom we invited to dinner. During our conversation that night, he asked me if I was saved. That question again … that horribly personal question. How could I say yes? How could I say no?

Wally came to my defense. “Barb loves the Lord and was a nun, Tom.” Tom persisted, giving me the salvation Scriptures from Isaiah, John, Ephesians and Romans. One verse in Romans struck me especially hard. The next day, I opened my Living Bible and read all of Romans 3, concentrating on verses 20-24: “Now do you see it? No one can ever be made righteous in God’s sight by doing what the law demands … For the more we know of God’s laws, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying them. His laws serve only to make us see that we are sinners. Now God says he will accept us and acquit us … declare us “not guilty” … if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins.”

At that moment the scales fell off my eyes. I saw the truth at last. I was a sinner, yet Christ had died for me. All my striving amounted to nothing in God’s eyes. All I needed was to trust Jesus Christ as my Savior. Free at last, free at last, praise God, I was free at last.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of His Spirit, washed in His blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long!

What God did for Barb Duncan he can do for you. Your religious background may be similar or it may be completely different. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you accept God’s free offer of salvation. “The only option we have is to accept it or reject it.” So we bring this message to an end with a simple question: What will you do with God’s free offer of salvation?

_______________________I accept God’s free offer.

_______________________I reject God’s free offer.

Signed _______________________

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?