Sermon on Romans 3:21-26 – “God’s Righteousness Past and Present”

Preached Mar. 18, 2018 at Dillingham Presbyterian Church

[Rom 3:21-26 ESV] 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 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. 26 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.

Introduction:

A Christian from time to time is asked some rather difficult questions. Some sermons ago on the book of Romans I talked about one difficult question; that is, “What about people who live on remote islands and have never heard the Gospel, are they saved?” The answer, if you recall, was based on the Biblical teaching that “Ignorance is not bliss.” All men are guilty of breaking the law of God; ignorance of the Gospel is not a sufficient excuse.

Another difficult question might be raised based on our text today. That is, “How were people saved before Jesus died on the cross?” How were people saved in the Old Testament? Since this letter of Paul’s to the Romans is a treatise on salvation, we find in it the answers to many difficult questions, including the one at hand: How were people saved in the Old Testament?

Our passage today is one of the most important passages of the Scriptures. But I said this also of Romans 1:16-17 which was the purpose statement of the book of Romans — “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

This is the very Gospel message, given there in 2 verses near the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans. And now—after almost three chapters of Law leading to the conviction of sin—Paul returns to this Gospel message. And, we, now having a good knowledge of his argument up to this point—knowing just how bad things are, for “none is righteous, no not one”— we are to be convicted of our sins and prepared for the Gospel message. This is Paul’s intent.

This Gospel, Paul now tells us, is “Apart from the Law.” And it is “through faith” and “by his grace.” This we have heard before. Salvation is by Grace through Faith, and not of own doing, it is a gift of God so that no one may boast.

But there is something else about this Gospel. The Gospel shows God to be just, for in Christ’s death on the cross it is shown that God has not forever passed over former sins and left them unpunished, but has put forward His son Jesus Christ to to be a propitiation, to appease His divine demand for justice.

And, it is through this divine justice that Jesus Christ redeemed His people, both those in the Old Testament era and those in the New Testament era.

And so, with these two eras in mind, the title of the sermon today is “God’s Righteousness Past and Present.” (REPEAT)

And, as we consider this passage today, we’ll look at three points from it:

I. God’s Righteousness is through Faith. (REPEAT)

II. God’s Righteousness is through Grace. (REPEAT)

III. God’s Righteousness is through Justice. (REPEAT)

Transition:

We left off in Romans 3:9-20 with Paul saying emphatically “none are righteous.” Now we contrast that with the righteousness of God.

I. God’s Righteousness is through faith. (vs. 21-22)

Paul writes,

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Paul’s “But now” is the grand transition to the Gospel, previously mentioned briefly in Romans 1:16-17. So the argument is this: No one is righteous. BUT NOW. The gospel of God’s righteousness has been revealed. A way to be declared righteous in the eyes of God has been revealed apart from the law.

This phrase “the righteousness of God” you might recall from previous sermons is not only that righteous quality of God himself, but a righteousness that God credits freely by His grace to people who do not have righteousness of their own. Man is not made righteous but is seen as righteous in God’s eyes for the righteousness of Christ credited to us.

A. God’s righteousness revealed apart from the law.

And, Paul says, this righteousness has been revealed “Apart from the Law.” That is, one does not become righteous by doing the things of the law. Righteousness comes in another way.

Though the Law and prophets—the whole Old Testament—bears witness to the righteousness of God, it is credited to man only by faith; only to those who believe.

B. Our faith is not a generic faith, but faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.

But this belief is not just any generic faith, but a faith IN JESUS CHRIST as revealed in the Scriptures. Christians are not just “people of Faith”—we don’t put our faith in just anything and everything. We put our faith in Christ.

Imagine, if you will, how foolish it would be to put your faith in everyone and everything. If you did that you would believe you truly are going to win the Publishers Clearing House jackpot, you would believe the telephone scam saying you’ve won a free vacation in Florida if you merely send in a modest fee to cover the taxes, or you might even believe what a lawyer or politician says.

But ours is not a generic faith. We don’t have faith in just anyone or anything.

Our faith is IN JESUS CHRIST.

And we don’t just believe anything about Christ, we believe what the Scriptures tell us about him.

We don’t believe in the Jesus Christ of the ancient heretic Arius or of today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses who say Jesus was just a man but not God.

Nor do we believe in the Jesus Christ of the ancient Docetists who said that he was merely a phantom with no physical body.

Nor do we believe in the Jesus Christ of the liberal social gospel which says that Jesus was merely an example for us of how to live, and not our savior.

Our faith is in the Jesus Christ of the Bible, who was foretold by the prophets, who was born of a virgin at Bethlehem, who lived a perfect life, who was crucified and died and was buried. Who rose again and who ascended into heaven. We believe in the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures who is both the second person of the Trinity and human as well.

This is not a generic faith, but a faith in a very specific Jesus —the only one who is truly worth worshipping, the Jesus Christ of the Bible.

So we have the righteousness of God credited to us through faith in Jesus Christ. But the righteousness of God is credited to us also through God’s grace.

This is our second point: “God righteousness is through Grace.”

II. God’s Righteousness is through Grace. (vs. 23-25a)

Paul writes,

For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

A. These few verses are a great summary of the Gospel.

These few verses are a great summary of the Gospel: Though all have sinned and fallen short, justification comes by God’s grace as a gift to be received by faith.

And here, so importantly we have the word “gift.” As “all have sinned” and as we are “justified by his grace as a gift” it is clear that no one makes any contribution to his own justification. It is purely OF GOD.

All of these things are gifts from God — faith, grace, and salvation.

B. Paul is NOT teaching Universalism.

But, it is important to note, Paul is not teaching universalism. Though all people (universally) sin, only those who believe in Jesus Christ are redeemed. Universalism falsely says that each and every person will go to heaven and that there is no hell.

But who could be so obtuse as to believe that the Bible doesn’t teach there is a hell and that some will end up there? Who could be so obtuse? I will tell you …

A pastor, Rob Bell, in the town I grew up in gained great popularity in those years. I heard him preach once, having attending his church with some friends. Like the town down the road from here, his church was called Mars Hill. Well, some years after I heard him preach he wrote some rather WONKY things. Primarily he argued for universalism – that God Loves each and every person with a saving love such that none will go to hell! Though he eventually lost his job over this and other matters, there were (and are) many who have followed him. He discounted the doctrine of Hell.

But Jesus spoke often of Hell as a real place.

He said that it would be better to lose your right eye or your right hand than to have your whole body cast into hell. (See: Matt. 5:29-30). He said that we should fear Him who has the authority to cast into hell. (See Matt. 10:28) And he said that it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (See Matt. 13:42)

Peter also tells us that when certain angels sinned against God, He cast them into hell. (See 2 Peter 2:4)

And so, because there is a hell, and because some do end up there, we do not preach Universalism. Jesus’ death on the cross was for His people, not for All people such that none will end up in hell. The righteousness of God is credited to His people through faith and through grace as a gift from God— the gift of Jesus Christ.

And of this gift, Paul tells us that God put forward Jesus Christ as a propitiation by his blood.

C. Propitiation is …

A Propitiation. What does this mean?

The commentator William Hendrickson says that propitiation is “deliverance by means of the payment of a ransom, from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin.” (Hendricksen. p. 130-1.) REPEAT

Because many deny that the Bible teaches propitiation, the payment of a ransom in the death of Jesus Christ, it is important to note those important places in the Bible where this is taught. Here are some place where it is taught Jesus’ sacrifice removes the wrath of God.

Isa 53:4-8 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

Matt 20:28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

1 Peter 1:18-19 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

The Bible most clearly teaches this propitiation. A propitiation that is made by God’s grace.

1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

D. “Mercy seat” of the Ark was a (hidden) type of the fulfillment of the “propitiation” of the public crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the word translated “propitiation”—in Greek hilasterion— is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament for the “mercy seat” – the golden cover of the ark of covenant. On the annual day of atonement the high priest would enter the holy of holies and sprinkle first the blood of a sacrificed bull on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, and then upon it also the blood of a sacrificed goat. This was an Old Testament shadow of what was to come — the blood atonement, the propitiation, of Jesus Christ. But, while the ark of the covenant with its “mercy seat” (hilasterion) was kept hidden in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, Christ in his propitiation (hilasterion), in the pouring out of his blood, was out in public for all to see. His death was a public spectacle. And while the sacrifice of the bull was a yearly occurrence, Christ’s propitiation was once-and-for-all.

Knowing this, that God’s righteousness is through grace in the propitiation of Jesus Christ for our sins, we move to our third point, God’s Righteousness is through justice.

III. God’s Righteousness is through Justice. (vs. 25b-26)

Paul writes,

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 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.

A. Christ’s death showed God’s demand for justice.

In order for God to be just, He must execute justice. To do so He put forward Jesus Christ as a propitiation by His blood.

In Old Testament times, the sins of the reprobate were punished in that immediately following their deaths they experienced the pains of hell. But the sins of God’s elect in Old Testament times remained unpunished until Christ bore the punishment they deserved upon the cross. Having previously passed over sin, God now fulfilled his demand for justice in the death of Jesus Christ.

And this was to prove that God is just. For to leave sin forever unpunished would be to lack justice.

In our times we often have too much sympathy for the criminal, thinking all punishment to be unjust. But the readers of Paul’s letter would want to know how God could be considered just if he did not punish sins, for punishments are rightly due to criminals; sinners.

And so God proved his justice in Christ. The sins of the elect were not left unpunished, but were punished in Jesus Christ.

And so God is just, for he did truly punish sins as He promised.

And simultaneously, while proving on the cross that God is just, it is also shown that God is the justifier. God is the justifier in that He is the one who justifies the elect when He credits His righteousness to them.

Think of it this way: Would you consider a judge to be just if he never pronounced a sentence on a guilty person? But the sentence for breaking the law of God is death. The sentence must be carried out. And it is Jesus whom God has chosen to carry it out.

B. God the Father and Jesus Christ in Agreement

It is important here that we do not make the mistake of thinking that God the Father is the angry God, and Jesus Christ the loving God.

But rather the Bible teaches that God loved us before He sent Christ to die for us. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He FIRST loved us and THEN sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

And God the Father and God the Son are on the same page, they both wanted the arrangement of Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the Elect.

Again the Bible teaches that God, in this manner, loved the world: HE gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And this was not only the Father’s will, it was the sons will as well. He went to the cross willingly. Hebrews 12:2 tell us that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” He took great joy in saving His people. He was not a reluctant savior, merely carrying out his Father’s wishes.

And so both God the Father and Jesus Christ love the elect, and both God the Father and Jesus Christ willed that Jesus would die on the cross as a propitiation for sin.

C. How were people saved in the Old Testament?

So we reach a question I noted at the beginning: How were people saved in the Old Testament?

If faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation, how were people saved before Jesus walked the earth?

Paul writes that God had “passed over former sins in his divine forbearance.” Forbearance is “patient self-control; restraint.” God passed over the former sins of His people in His divine forbearance. He restrained himself for a time from punishing those sins until Jesus Christ bore the punishment on the cross. Christ’s death on the cross was for the sins of all believers, both those in Old Testament times and in New Testament times. The saving effect of Christ’s death on the cross reaches both backwards and forwards, for all God’s people, past and present.

Salvation in the Old Testament is explained in the WCF, chapter 7.

Get yourself a copy of the WCF. This is our “subordinate standard.” The Bible is our authority, divinely inspired, revealed to us by God. There is no substitute for the Bible. But confessions are helpful summaries and explanations of the Bible. And the Westminster Confession is the best confession I know of in explaining and summarizing the major teachings of the Bible.

So let us look at what the confession tells us about this question: how were people saved before Jesus walked the earth?

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 7:

It explains salvation in the Old Testament times:

V. This covenant [the Covenant of Grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: [that is the time of the Old Testament and time of the New Testament] under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

So, while salvation in the New Testament era is through faith in Jesus Christ, salvation in the Old Testament era was through faith in the promised Christ. (REPEAT)

It is the same covenant by which God saves man in both the Old Testament era and the New Testament. The same covenant, but differently administered.

In both cases salvation is through faith. And in both cases the object of that faith is the same – the messiah, the Christ.

The difference is now we know Christ more fully. (REPEAT)

Christ was known by the promises in the Old Testament. Back in the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans he speaks of the “Gospel which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” And then he says, it is the gospel “concerning his son.” The object of faith in the Gospel has always been Jesus Christ.

The author of the book of Hebrews also tell us something of the Old Testament saints:

HEB 11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

Since God’s way of salvation is through faith in Christ in both New Testament times and Old Testament times, it is clear that Christianity is not a new religion, founded in the first century. Christianity is the continuation, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Those who rejected Christ are the ones who started a new religion. Judaism began in the first century.

God’s righteousness is through faith and through grace, AND ITS HAS ALWAYS been through faith and through grace. That is, in salvation in Old Testament times was as much by faith and grace as it is now in New Testament times. But now the object of our faith is more clear. What was once types and shadows is now known to us – Jesus our messiah.

Conclusion

The Old Testament concealed the cross, the New Testament reveals it. The mystery is no longer hidden. God’s righteousness is known through faith, it comes to us through His grace and is upon His justice.

We have something not even Abraham had

We have something not even Moses had

We have something not even Davis had

Though they too were saved by Grace through Faith by God’s divine justice in punishing Christ for their sins,

We have the more complete knowledge of Jesus Christ and his death for us as a propitiation by his blood on the cross, proving His righteousness for all times.

What we have is a great blessing. We have a God who loves us.

Amen.

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About douglasdouma

I am a husband to beautiful wife, an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church - Hanover Presbytery, and founder of Sola - Appalachian Christian Retreat (www.discoversola.com). In addition to blogging at this site I am the author of The Presbyterian Philosopher - The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark (Wipf&Stock, 2017) and compiling editor of Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark (Trinity Foundation, 2017). I have a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering (University of Michigan), a master's in business administration (Wake Forest University) and a master of divinity (Sangre de Cristo Seminary). I'm an avid hiker, having completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian trail in 2013 and the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.
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2 Responses to Sermon on Romans 3:21-26 – “God’s Righteousness Past and Present”

  1. Dylan Halili says:

    Dear Douglas,

    Thank you for sharing your sermon on this text. This is my favorite paragraph in the Bible as it is, in my opinion, the best encapsulation of the Gospel. Praise God for your ministry.

    I also thank you for writing the biography of Gordon Clark. I purchased it as a Kindle e-book and am understanding Dr. Clark more. I have become a Clarkian (if there is such a thing) most recently when I discovered him quite serendipitously by way of the Trinity Foundation. His philosophy has profoundly affected my christianity.

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