So far in Romans, Paul has painted a dismal picture of the world. The Greeks have abandoned God and chosen idolatry. In response, God withdrew His restraining grace, and they embraced the practice of all kinds of immorality (Romans 1:18–32). The Jews and the moralizing Greeks also turned their back on God, but they hid their immorality with hypocrisy (Romans 2). Paul summarized this bleak picture of human sin with a collage of Old Testament texts (Romans 3:10–18). These texts demonstrate that sin and alienation from God are universal problems that plague everyone and every culture. It is in this dark context that Paul began to expound the beauty of God’s good-news plan.
The plan of salvation doesn’t acknowledge a difference between ethnicities. At the most fundamental level, we are all the same—all have sinned, and all can be justified by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22–24). Justification is a vital component of the plan of salvation. What is justification? Justification is courtroom language. In a judicial proceeding, a person can be justified or condemned. Justification by faith is God’s assurance in the present and His promise for the future, that those who have faith in Jesus will be declared righteous when they are judged. Justification is a gift of free grace bestowed upon the undeserving (Romans 3:24).
God can graciously give this incredible gift of justification because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the cross, Jesus shed His blood (Romans 3:25) so that He could justify those who have faith in Him (Romans 3:26). What fantastic news! No matter the sin, no matter the sense of shame, guilt, or condemnation, the death of Jesus is sufficient to justify those who have faith in Him.
Write out Romans 3:19–31 from the Bible translation of your choice. If you are pressed for time, write out Romans 3:21–26. You may also rewrite the passage in your own words, or outline or mind-map the chapter.
According to Paul, justification is freely given (Romans 3:24). When something is freely given, it expresses an abundance of generosity extravagantly bestowed without cost to the recipient. It also demonstrates the willingness of the giver to present the gift. God doesn’t give the gift of justification begrudgingly. He lavishes it.
Similarly, justification is a gift of grace (Romans 3:24). The word grace communicates the free and unmerited nature of God’s favor. By using the words freely and grace together, even though they have similar meanings, Paul is emphasizing just how free God’s gift of justification is. Justification is free free. It is grace grace. We can’t earn it by the deeds of the law (Romans 3:20), and we can’t compel God to give it. He graciously gives it freely to those who have faith (Romans 3:24). He is a genuinely generous God who delights to give saving gifts to His children.
God gives this extravagant free gift of justification through the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Redemption is the language used to describe the rescue of slaves from slavery, such as the time God redeemed Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 6:6). Jesus redeems sinners from the enslaving power of sin and freely bestows upon them, by grace, the gift of justification. Many of the converts to Christianity were actual slaves in the Roman empire. This image of the work of Christ would have been particularly beautiful to those who knew firsthand the pain and trauma of slavery.
Justification and redemption are possible because of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Romans 3:25). We don’t often use the word propitiation today, but it is an important word. At the most foundational level, the word means an instrument of regaining the favor of a deity. In the pagan Greek world of Paul, people would make offerings to their gods to propitiate them in the hope of regaining their favor. They thought that their propitiatory sacrifices would earn back the goodwill of the gods. Propitiation in Christianity is a radically different concept. In Christianity, we don’t propitiate God. God propitiated Himself by giving Himself in Christ for our sins (Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 5:19).
God freely gives us, by the gift of His grace, the verdict of justification. He did this by redeeming us from sin through Jesus’ death. By Jesus’ death, God propitiated Himself so that all who trust in Jesus have the promise now and in the final judgment they are righteous. Through the sacrifice of Christ, God’s favor is restored. We didn’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. It is given freely by grace.
Sometimes Paul doesn’t seem very practical. He uses words like justification and propitiation that are not a significant part of most people’s vocabulary. His arguments are often highly involved. His teaching is intensely practical, however. All people face sin, shame, and guilt. Jesus’ death provides a truly liberating solution to these universal problems.
Have you ever done the wrong thing and strategized in your mind about how you were going to spin your bad behavior to get into the least amount of trouble possible? Was your spin effective? Were you able to fool someone into giving you a pass for your bad behavior? Were you able to avoid getting into trouble? We might be able to trick someone into thinking better of us than we deserve, but it is impossible to fool God. According to Paul, God’s law is entirely effective at pointing out our sins. It silences all of our excuses and demonstrates that every person is guilty before God (Romans 3:19). Because of the universality of human guilt, no one can be justified in God’s sight by the deeds of the law (Romans 3:20, 28). The law cannot solve the sin problem; the best the law can do is point out the sin problem (Romans 3:20). Since we try to hide, deny, or excuse our sin, exposing sin is a necessary and essential function of God’s law that continues to this day.
Our justification by faith in Jesus apart from the deeds of the law helps to humble our pride and prevent boasting in moral and ethnic superiority (Romans 3:27, 28). By recognizing our moral failures and our inability to save ourselves by the deeds of the law, we are better able to have compassion for the faults of others.
Some are tempted to see a radical distinction between Paul’s understanding of the law and the Old Testament understanding of the law. This is a mistake. According to Paul, his own understanding of the law is consistent with the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) understanding of the law (Romans 3:21). Both Paul and the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) teach that we can’t save ourselves by our works and that salvation would come through Jesus, apart from our obedience to the law (Romans 3:21, 22). In fact, Paul’s understanding of salvation by faith establishes the truthfulness of God’s law (Romans 3:31). Throughout the book of Romans, Paul works hard to show that all of his teachings are consistent with the Old Testament teaching. He does this by citing Old Testament scriptures and narratives.
Another one of Paul’s reasons that salvation can’t be by the law is that it would limit the reach of salvation to the Jews alone, since they alone were given the law (Romans 3:28, 29). Since God is the God of the whole world, and everyone needs salvation from the universal problem of sin, the plan of salvation must be big enough to include everyone. Faith in Jesus is universally accessible to all people (Romans 3:22–26, 30).
According to Paul, the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) tells the story of “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ” by the gift of His grace (Romans 3:22). It is important to Paul that his audience understands that he isn’t inventing doctrines. He is merely expressing a faithful reading of the Old Testament. Accordingly, a correct interpretation of Scripture would see Jesus as the unqualified focus of the entire Bible from beginning to end. Every doctrine, every passage, and every narrative, correctly understood, points to God’s plan to save through Jesus. Throughout the Old Testament, countless promises of the Messiah were made. With the coming of Jesus, God confirmed every promise. “For all the promises of God in Him [Jesus] are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
During His earthly ministry, Jesus was adamant about the fact that the Old Testament pointed to Him. He rebuked the religious leaders for their refusal to follow Him by saying, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39, 40). According to Jesus, we misread Scripture when we think the Scriptures can save us. Instead, the Scriptures point to Jesus, who alone can save us. If we miss Him when we read the Bible, we lose everything.
Shortly after His resurrection, Jesus reminded some of His disciples about this essential fact. He began with Moses and all the prophets and explained to them everything concerning Himself (Luke 24:27, 44). This new Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament became the foundation of the apostolic teachings. Throughout the New Testament, we find the apostles formulating their teachings about Jesus in the context of the Old Testament. For example, Peter, who was an eyewitness of Jesus, reminded the church that they weren’t following fables. His eyewitness testimony validated what the Old Testament had promised, thereby confirming the reliability of God’s Word (2 Peter 1:16–21).
As a faithful Jew, Paul knew it was important for the Romans to understand that his teaching about justification by faith in Jesus apart from the deeds of the law was not something he invented. This was the teaching of the whole of Scripture from Genesis to Malachi. It was essential for Paul to help his readers understand that Jesus and His saving grace is the story the Old Testament is telling.
“We must learn in the school of Christ. Nothing but His righteousness can entitle us to one of the blessings of the covenant of grace. We have long desired and tried to obtain these blessings but have not received them because we have cherished the idea that we could do something to make ourselves worthy of them. We have not looked away from ourselves, believing that Jesus is a living Saviour. We must not think that our own grace and merits will save us; the grace of Christ is our only hope of salvation. Through His prophet the Lord promises, ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon’ (Isaiah 55:7). We must believe the naked promise, and not accept feeling for faith. When we trust God fully, when we rely upon the merits of Jesus as a sin-pardoning Saviour, we shall receive all the help that we can desire.
“We look to self, as though we had power to save ourselves; but Jesus died for us because we are helpless to do this. In Him is our hope, our justification, our righteousness. We should not despond and fear that we have no Saviour or that He has no thoughts of mercy toward us. At this very time He is carrying on His work in our behalf, inviting us to come to Him in our helplessness and be saved. We dishonor Him by our unbelief. It is astonishing how we treat our very best Friend, how little confidence we repose in Him who is able to save to the uttermost and who has given us every evidence of His great love.
“My brethren, are you expecting that your merit will recommend you to the favor of God, thinking that you must be free from sin before you trust His power to save? If this is the struggle going on in your mind, I fear you will gain no strength and will finally become discouraged.
“In the wilderness, when the Lord permitted poisonous serpents to sting the rebellious Israelites, Moses was directed to lift up a brazen serpent and bid all the wounded look to it and live. But many saw no help in this Heaven-appointed remedy. . . .
“ ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,’ even so was ‘the Son of man . . . lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3:14, 15). If you are conscious of your sins, do not devote all your powers to mourning over them, but look and live. Jesus is our only Saviour . . . ; we must rely upon a crucified and risen Saviour. Poor, sin-sick, discouraged soul, look and live. Jesus has pledged His word; He will save all who come unto Him” (Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, 36, 37).