How to be Right With God

Romans 3:21-25b

July 16, 2006 | Brian Bill

I heard this week about a guy who bought a new refrigerator and didn’t know what to do with his old one so he put it in his front yard with a sign that said, “Free to good home.  You want it – you take it.”  For three days the fridge sat there without even one person looking at it.  He eventually decided that people were too untrusting of this deal because they thought it was too good to be true.  So he took the old sign off and made a new one: “Fridge for sale – $50.”  The next day someone stole it.

Most of us are skeptical when something seems too good to be true, especially when it has great value and we’re told that it’s free.  Last week we learned from what is perhaps the strongest statement on sin in all of Scripture that we are totally depraved in our condition, our conversations, our conduct, and our complacency.  As a result, we are condemned and because of our sin we are silenced before God.  

An illustration of how sin has infected our conversations and our conduct was displayed in front of the entire world on Sunday afternoon during the World Cup Soccer championship.  A player from Italy allegedly used his tongue to criticize a player from France, either insulting his mother and sister or calling him a terrorist, depending on what sources you read.  The French player, the star of his team, apparently heard enough and so he turned around and head-butted the Italian player right in the chest, knocking him to the ground.  He was disqualified from the match and his team went on to lose the championship.  I read this week that now his mother is taking some verbal shots at the Italian player.

After hearing all these sermons on sin it would be easy to think that we are somehow disqualified before God.  We know we’ve blown it in multiple ways and though our sins are not broadcast around the world we recognize that God sees everything.  We might not have ever stolen a refrigerator but we’ve sinned in other ways.  Romans 3:10 summarizes our desperate state: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” 

As we come to our text in Romans today, we’re turning a corner.  For 10 sermons now, covering two and a half chapters, we’ve been hit with how unholy we are.  The weekly refrain has been: “We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!  We’ve blown it!”  As we come to the first two words of Romans 3:21, it almost seems too good to be true: “But now…”  Paul is indicating that what is to come next will be refreshing, amazing, and free.  Then I was lost in sin, but now I am saved!  The man born blind in John 9 certainly experienced this when he declared with exuberance in verse 25: “One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!”  Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief right now by saying together, “Whew!  I was blind but now I see!”   As we were reminded last week, even though we’ve blown it, we’re beautiful to God; we’re fatally flawed, but fully forgiven.  I trust that you’ve put these words up on your mirror so that when you see your imperfect reflection, you’re also reminded of God’s great love for you.

Before we go much further, I’d like to make two preliminary points: 

  • This section of Scripture has been called the heart of the Bible.  Commenting on this passage Leon Morris said “this is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”  The Reformers referred to this section as the “marrow of the Bible.”  You’d be hard pressed to find any other passage as meaty and profound.  Because of that, I’m going to focus just on verses 21-25a and we’ll pick up the rest of this chapter next week.  If last week’s sermon was saturated with the stench of sin, this week we’ll experience the sweet showers of salvation as we move from guilt to grace and from God’s wrath to His righteousness.  
  • This passage actually picks up the thought from Romans 1:17.  In chapter one, Paul introduces the theme of righteousness: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed…”  Romans 3:21 uses the exact same phrase: “righteousness from God…has been made known…” In between these two verses God demonstrated His righteousness in His judgment of sin.  We might be tempted to say that Paul has digressed and now he is back on the topic of the Gospel.  This would not be true, however.  Our sin must be clearly identified and God’s wrath fully explained in order for the Gospel to be truly good news.
God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him

We can capture the main theme of this passage in one sentence.  Let’s say it together: God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him.  Paul gives us six facets of righteousness that we need to understand if we truly want to be right with God.  Let’s read Romans 3:21-25 together: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are 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…”

1. Righteousness is from God (21a). 

This passage helps us see salvation from God the Father’s perspective. Look at verse 21: “a righteousness from God…”  This is repeated in verse 22.  Since no one was born righteous, the only source of righteousness is God himself.  Verse 25 says that “God presented Him…” and in verse 26 we learn that the Father did all this to “demonstrate His justice.”  Too often we view salvation from our perspective alone; selfishly focusing only on how it benefits us.  

Imagine that I am a passenger on a ship bound for New York City.  My ship has an explosion and sinks and I am the lone survivor.  As I float helplessly in the water I know that I am doomed to die because I can do nothing to save myself.  Just then a ship suddenly appears on the horizon and someone spots me.  The ship turns from its course and stops to rescue me.  I should be grateful that I have been spared and overjoyed just to be alive.  But if I start to think that the ship’s main purpose was to save me, then I will think I can tell the ship to turn around or expect the captain of the ship to accommodate my every need.  When we make this mistake, God becomes our servant, the one who is there just to “meet our needs.”  While we are the beneficiaries of salvation, God has provided a way for us to be right with Him in order to proclaim His righteousness and to promote His purposes.  To say it theologically, we must become “theocentric” and “doxological,” recognizing that God and His glory are to be at the center of everything; not “anthropocentric,” which means human-centered.

2. Righteousness does not come from what we do (21b).

Notice next that this righteousness from God is “apart from the law.”  This would have been very troubling to those from a Jewish background.  As we established last week, you and I can’t get right with God by keeping the law, because it is impossible to keep.  The law does however, reveal the righteousness of God.  Look at the last phrase of verse 21: “…to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  The fact that being right with God comes apart from the law is not a new discovery.  It’s exactly what the Old Testament teaches.  We’ll look at this in greater detail next week as we shine the spotlight on Abraham’s life as recorded in the “Law” section of Scripture.  Habakkuk 2:4 is but one example from the Prophets: “…But the righteous will live by his faith.”  

Let’s recite the main theme again: God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him. 

3. Righteousness comes only to those who recognize their sinfulness (22-23). 

The amazing truth about God’s righteousness is that it is for sinners only: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s difficult for us to fathom but in God’s eyes there is no difference between the serial killer and the social worker.  Ray Pritchard writes: “When it comes to needing salvation, there is truly ‘no difference’ between people.  Since all are sinners, all need salvation.”  When David Dykes was in seminary, one of his assignments was to study eight of Billy Graham’s sermon manuscripts to find out how many times he quoted Romans 3:23.  Amazingly, in one crusade, Billy Graham proclaimed these words fifty-six times: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The phrase “all have sinned” is in the past tense and hearkens back to the earlier verses in Romans 3.  Everyone, without exception, has sinned.  The word “sin” literally means to miss a target.  It’s the picture of an archer whose arrows always come up short of even hitting the target, much less the bull’s-eye.  We are sinners by character and we sin by our conversations and our conduct.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it this way: “To sin is to break God’s law by omission or commission.”  

We “fall short of the glory of God” means that in the present tense we perpetually come up short.  God’s glory is the sum of all his attributes, His weightiness, and His worth.  Ezekiel 1 describes God’s glory in an amazing way.  Some rabbis would not allow young men under the age of thirty to even read this chapter because the depiction of God’s glory is so awesome.   The phrase “fall short” comes from an athletic contest and was used of a runner who fell down and never reached the finish line.  When Lydia and I ran that 5K race on the 4th of July, we saw a runner who pulled his hamstring and was down for the count.  He started out strong but never finished the race.  I actually thought of faking this kind of injury so I wouldn’t have had to finish!  I am so glad that God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him. 

4. Righteousness is based on the grace of God (24a). 

God’s glory is a target I can never hit and a race I can never finish.  It’s also a gift I can never earn.   Verse 24 says that we are “justified freely by his grace.”  The word “freely” literally means “without a cause.”  Salvation comes without any cause in us.  Forgiveness is given freely to those who don’t deserve it, to those who actually deserve condemnation.  And that’s exactly what grace is.  This definition of grace is helpful and easy to remember because it uses the letters of the word: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.  Grace is God’s unmerited favor but it’s actually more active than that.  It is God’s free favor bestowed on those who deserve His condemnation at the cost of His Son.  We see this clearly in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

I heard a story the other day about a guy who died and stood before the gates of heaven.  An angel met him and said, “We have a new plan for getting into heaven.  We’re now using a point system and you need 1,000 to enter.”  The man told the angel that this would be no problem as he started rattling off his accomplishments: “I was a member of Pontiac Bible Church for 30 years, taught Sunday School and tithed my income.  I went on mission trips, handed out Bibles, and invited a lot of people to church.”  The angel replied, “That’s nice.  Let’s see.  That’s worth one point.  You only need 999 more.  What else?”  The man thought for a minute and said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years, was involved in a food pantry, was an honest businessman and never cheated on my income tax.  What about that?”  To which the angel said, “Well, that’s worth another point.  Now you only need 998 points.”  The man was frustrated and said with exasperation: “You know at this rate it’s going to take the grace of God to get me in this place!”  The angel responded, “That’s worth 1,000 points.”

Friends, let’s say it again: God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him. 

5. Righteousness is provided by the death of Christ (24b-25a). 

Look with me at verses 24-25 where we are introduced to three vivid word pictures: “And are 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…” Let’s look closely at each of these wonderful words.  I’m reminded of the preacher who mixed up his words one Sunday by telling people he was going to “confound” the Scriptures when he meant that he was going to “expound,” or explain them.  I sure hope I don’t end up confounding you, for as Howard Hendricks says, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.”

Unfortunately, the church has experienced the death of some really great words as we have for the most part become biblically and theologically illiterate.  Benjamin Warfield, who died more than 80 years ago, made this very perceptive and prophetic statement: “What we are doing today as we look out upon our current religious modes of speech, is assisting in the deathbed of a word…worthy words do die…if we do not take care of them…I hope you will…preserve them in life and vigor…But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we see here.  The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand…”  We have fallen even further since Warfield’s day to our own peril and impoverishment.  Let’s resurrect three words this morning found in verses 24-25 and make sure we never let them die again.  The three words are justification, redemption, and propitiation.

  • Justification.  This is a legal term from the world of law.  To justify means to “declare not guilty.”  I’ve heard some people say that it means “Just-as-if-I-never-sinned.”  That might be a clever way to remember the word but it falls short because it means much more than that.  Wayne Grudem defines it this way: “An instantaneous legal act of God in which He thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us.”  We are found not guilty but we are also declared righteous.  In fact, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, we are given the righteousness of Christ so that as Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  

Warren Wiersbe tells the story about a man who purchased a Rolls Royce and decided to tour through Europe.  As he was enjoying his drive looking at the sights, suddenly his Rolls Royce broke down with no one around who could fix it.  He sent a cable to the company in England and they flew a man over who did the repairs.  The man thought to himself, “This is going to cost me a ton of money.”   He waited for a bill but it never came, so he sent a letter to the company telling what had happened, how the mechanic had fixed his car, and wondered what the charge would be.  He got a letter back from the Rolls Royce Company which said, “Dear Sir, Thank you so much for your letter.  You need to know that we have no record in our files that any Rolls Royce has ever broken down at any place, at any time, for any reason.”  

That’s what justification has done in the life of the Christian.  You may fail, you may break down and run yourself into a ditch, but God Almighty looks down at you and says, “There is no record that my child has ever broken down at all.”  Your sin record is wiped away and you are credited with the perfect, eternally secure righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Redemption.  This term has as its background in the world of commerce, and specifically, the marketplace.  There are a couple Greek words used to explain this concept.  The first word means “to buy” something and the second word means to buy something out of the marketplace, with the idea that the object or person purchased never has to return there again.  In short, to redeem means to set free by the payment of a price.  This concept of redemption has deep roots in the Old Testament, with God known as Israel’s Redeemer (Psalm 78:35) and all of life touched by the principle of redemption – from the obligation to redeem the first born to the annual celebration of Passover, to the concept of the kinsman-redeemer in the Book of Ruth.  

In the ancient world, slaves were routinely bought and sold.  The only way to be freed from slavery was for someone to pay the price and then set the slave free.  This purchase price was called redemption.  Redemption is the deliverance of someone or something through the payment of a price, or a ransom.  Jesus saw Himself as the ransom price to purchase those who are slaves to sin in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He bought us, took us off the market of sin and made us His own.  

Do you remember one of the cries of Christ from the Cross?  Right before He died, he declared loudly in John 19:30: “It is finished.”  This is a term from the world of commerce that literally means, “It has been, and now stands, paid in full.”  It’s like having a bill of sale to say that nothing more is owed, it’s all been paid up.

One of my favorite hymns is “And Can it Be.”  The fourth verse captures what redemption is all about: 

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

  • Propitiation.  Propitiation is the literal meaning of the phrase translated “sacrifice of atonement” and has its background in the world of religion and sacrifice.  The word propitiation is used in the King James Version and literally means “to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift.”  Amazingly, this picturesque word has its root in the mercy seat as described in Leviticus 16.  Once a year, on the day of Atonement, after making a sacrifice for himself, the High Priest would take the blood of a goat, and enter the Most Holy Place, where he would see the Ark of the Covenant.  Inside the Ark was a little bit of manna, Aaron’s rod, and a copy of the 10 Commandments.  On top of the Ark was a lid made of pure gold and two cherubim were carved into the ends facing each other.  The High Priest would carefully take the blood of the goat and sprinkle it on the atonement cover.

Now, on every other day of the year, what did God see when he looked down?  He saw the Ten Commandments, which were a testimony against the sins of the nation of Israel.  Without the mercy seat, this box was an Ark of Judgment.  On the Day of Atonement, when God looked down He saw the blood of the innocent sacrifice and not their sins.  

1 John 2:2 refers to Jesus as “the atoning sacrifice.”   When Jesus shed His blood, God had mercy on those who put their faith in Him, thus satisfying His righteous wrath.  All of the accumulated sins of the entire human race were placed on Jesus and all of God the Father’s wrath was unleashed on Him.  That’s why Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What ought to be a judgment seat has now through the blood of Jesus turned into a mercy seat.  God is no longer angry because the punishment for sin has been placated.  Don’t miss the importance of the shed blood of Jesus.  Look again at verse 25: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”  Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

Over 200 years ago, William Cowper was deeply depressed and lived under the fear of God’s wrath.  One day he flung himself into a chair by a window and saw a Bible there.  Let’s listen to his own words: “I opened it up and my eyes fell on Romans 3:25, which says of Christ, ‘Whom God has made a propitiation through faith in his blood.’  Then and there I realized what Christ’s blood had accomplished and I realized the effects of his atonement for me…and then and there I trusted Jesus Christ and a great burden was lifted from my soul.”  Looking back on that day, Cowper wrote a hymn several years later with these words: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.  And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stain.”

These wonderful word pictures are portraits of grace for the believer.  We are guilty sinners in need of justification; we are slaves in need of redemption; and as those under the wrath of God we are in desperate need of propitiation.

Let’s compare and contrast these three power words using this chart:

Word Use Meaning Result

Justify Courtroom To declare righteous Acquittal

Redemption Marketplace To release from slavery Freedom

Propitiation Temple To turn away from wrath Acceptance

Are you ready to say our theme again?  God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him. 

6. Righteousness is received only by faith (25a). 

What Jesus has done is of no benefit to you until you personally believe

God has done everything that is needed but in order for His righteousness to be applied to our account it must be appropriated by faith.  Look with me at the references to faith and belief in these verses: “Through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (22), “through faith in his blood” (25), “faith in Jesus” (26).  It becomes quickly apparent that faith must have as its object the only one who can save us.  Too many people today say, “Just have faith” as a synonym for optimism or hope.  Saving faith must be centered on the Savior and His shed blood on the cross.  What Jesus has done is of no benefit to you until you personally believe.  That’s why Hebrews 11:6 says “And without faith it is impossible to please God…”

There are at least three elements of biblical faith that can be divided into knowledge, conviction and commitment.  Faith must involve the head, the heart and the will.  Faith begins with knowledge, which is where the intellect is involved.  Then it moves to the emotions where convictions are developed.  Saving faith must then move to the will, where a commitment must be made. 

  • Head (Knowledge).  This refers to the factual basis of Christianity.  Faith is based on knowledge and knowledge is based on biblical truth.  You aren’t saved by information but you can’t be saved without it.  Imagine that you’re in a burning building and cannot find your way out.  “Where is the exit?” you cry out.  Through the smoke and haze comes the answer: “Go down the hallway, turn left, go down one flight of stairs, the exit is on the right.”  Are you saved because you know where the exit is?  No, you still have to make the journey yourself.  But if you don’t know how to get there, or if you have some wrong information, you’re going to burn to death.  
  • Heart (Conviction).  Conviction means to know something and then to be persuaded in your heart that it is true.  The most common word for “believe” means “to have confidence in, to regard as completely reliable.”  The word “Amen,” which is a Hebrew word that we use in English, literally means, “Yes, it is true.” Saving faith involves saying “Amen” to the facts of the gospel.  Conviction is essential because you must be personally convinced of the truth, but that alone is not enough either.
  • Will (Commitment).  Commitment speaks to the action part of faith.  We might use the word “trust” in the sense of “relying fully upon.”  The word literally means “leaning or depending.”  It’s more than just being moved emotionally; true saving faith always ends in personal commitment; a receiving that results in a personal relationship.  The night before a convicted murderer was to be executed; a man in a black suit with a Bible came to visit him.  Not wanting to see a preacher, the prisoner shouted to the jailer: “I don’t want to see that man!  Religion never helped me before and it certainly won’t do any good now!”  The man in black looked deeply into the prisoner’s eyes, turned and walked away silently.  The next day, as they were about to execute the prisoner he was asked if he had any last requests.  The prisoner said, “I do.  I stayed up all night wondering who that visitor was.  Who was he?”  The officer paused and said, “That was the governor of the state who came to give you a pardon!  Today you are not going to die just because of your crime, but because you refused to accept the pardon.”  Friend, you can be set free from a sentence of death and receive a full pardon – but you must reach out and take it, before it’s too late.

In Revelation 3:20 Jesus offers to reinvigorate a lukewarm, lethargic church so he can have a restored relationship with those who will respond.  While this passage refers to Christians, it has application to those of you who have never opened the door of your heart to Christ: “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”   The three elements of faith are made clear here:

  • I hear the knock—That’s knowledge, where the intellect is satisfied.
  • I go to the door—That’s conviction, where the emotions are engaged.  
  • I open the door—That’s commitment, where the will makes a decision.

God’s pardon is now on the table…and it does seem too good to be true.  There’s a sign posted on the lawn at Calvary that reads, “Salvation is free – you want it, you take it.”  It won’t become yours until you can say, “Salvation is free – and it’s for me.”  What are you going to do?   

  1. Acknowledge the wretchedness of your own unrighteousness.
  2. Believe that Jesus died in your place to justify you, to redeem you, and to offer propitiation to the Father so that His righteous wrath is now satisfied.
  3. Confess with your mouth that Jesus is your Lord.  God’s righteousness has made a way for us to be right with Him…and we are justified when we receive Jesus by faith.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?