Many people assume that after a person comes to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation that the gospel is no longer a regular part of their lives. That notion is wrong. The gospel is the greatest comfort a Christian can enjoy. The deeper your understanding of the gospel is the further the comfort extends.
Romans has been called the Apostle Paul’s gospel tract. He had never personally been to Rome when he wrote the letter to the church. He wanted them to be thoroughly rooted in the gospel that he proclaimed. Studying the book of Romans carefully yields a wealth of comforting gospel truth.
After two and a half chapters of showing that the world is condemned for rejecting God and his truth, Paul turns the corner to the good news in Romans 3:21-31 (which continues into chapters 4 and 5). While space does not permit a detailed examination of this portion of Scripture, thinking about verses 24-26 will encourage our hearts with the glory of the gospel.
Paul announces that “apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested” (Rom 3:21). This is the beginning of the good news because from 1:18-3:20 Paul has shown conclusively that no one can live up to God’s standard of perfect righteousness. There are many that assume if they live a pretty good life and don’t commit any horrible sins, they will go to heaven. This is wrong. As Paul summarized in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If perfect righteousness (according to God’s standards revealed in his laws) is required to enter into heaven and if no one lives up to that standard, how will anyone get to heaven? The answer to the question is the reason that verse 21 was such good news. There is another righteousness that God has which is apart from the Law. If you can get God to put that righteousness on your record instead of your wickedness, you are certain to get to heaven.
Many people thought the late Gerald Ford was an unjust President for giving a pardon to Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. Though Nixon was responsible for criminal activities, he did not suffer the full penalty for his actions because of Ford’s pardon. Is Paul arguing that God treats us like Ford treated Nixon? How could God possibly be a just and fair judge if he would dare call an unrighteous person righteous and then let them into heaven? These are very important questions that Paul seeks to answer.
He says the key is “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). To be justified is to be declared righteous before God. All that God requires of a person to qualify for entrance into heaven has been accomplished by Jesus.
A key distinctive about justification is that it is a declaration. The official Roman Catholic teaching says that people are made righteous throughout our lives through faith plus their religious efforts and then at death, God declares what they are—righteous. The Bible teaches, however, that our standing before God is through faith alone in Christ alone, not in any way determined by our works (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
The righteousness, which God offers to sinners, is found totally in Christ Jesus. Verse 24 says it is by God’s grace (unearned gift), and through Jesus’ redemption, that is through his paying the ransom for their pardon. The cross was where this great transaction occurred. Verse 25 continues, “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”
Propitiation means satisfaction. God’s wrath against sinners, who have broken God’s laws, was completely satisfied by the work of Jesus on the cross. God’s demands were paid in full in the sacrificial death of Christ. Paul explains, “This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed” (verse 25). God waited to fully punish past (and future sins) on Jesus on the cross.
Why would God punish perfect Jesus for other people’s sins? Did not Jesus perfectly obey his Father’s laws? Did the only righteous man (the God-man) who ever lived get as a reward a shameful death on the cross as a punishment from God? The answer to all of these questions is Yes indeed! The reason is found in Romans 3:26.
Paul makes plain, “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Grasping the final phrase of this verse energizes your understanding of the gospel.
God punished Jesus so he could be two things at once.
First, God is just. Because he is a just judge, he always punishes all sin. He cannot pardon my sin, but let it go unpunished. The only way he can justly forgive you or me is by punishing someone else in our place, hence Jesus’ death on the cross.
Second, God is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. God declares righteous anyone and everyone who turns from their sin to Jesus Christ by faith. He takes your sin and puts in Jesus’ account (and punished him on the cross for it), and at the same time, God puts Christ’s righteousness in your account.
This gracious action allows for you to be two things at once—a righteous sinner. Your record in heaven reads righteous, based upon Christ’s work. Yet you were and still are a sinner who sins. When you come to Christ, God gives you a new heart with new desires. He also puts his Spirit within you which gives you new desire and ability to obey him (see Philippians 2:12-13). So you do sin less, and are progressing towards Christlikeness.
But even the maturest Christian on earth is still not righteous enough to earn heaven. Without the glorious truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, all hope is gone. But God has given the assurance of salvation to those who are trusting not in themselves, but in Christ.
I know this has been a heavy article. I hope you pull your Bible out and wrestle with these truths until you grasp them clearly. A full understanding of the gospel is such a strong source of hope, encouragement, and comfort that it is a treasure worth exerting great effort to gain.
By John Crotts