We like a good challenge, don’t we? Think about it. Almost every movie ever created involves a storyline that has the characters encountering and overcoming some type of problem. Perhaps the problem is a person. Maybe it’s a situation they find themselves in. Shoot, for that matter, every person’s life is filled with problems that need to be solved and challenges that need to be overcome.
As you’re aware, the headlines have been full of stories surrounding the launch of the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon spacecraft. And that reminded me of the Apollo 13 mission from April 11, 1970.
Most anyone born prior to (say) 1965, can probably recall the event from first-hand knowledge and experience. Those born later find their orientation of the event in newsreels, documentaries or, more likely, the 1995 movie by the same name. (An interesting little side note, in case you weren’t aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of that mission, and many of the celebrations were cancelled and/or postponed due to COVID-19.)
But regardless of how you recall the Apollo 13 mission, there’s no doubt that that 5½ (almost 6) days was a real test of man’s ingenuity and problem-solving skills. And the flight crew, mission control, and all the engineers did it! They were able to find a solution to the problem and bring Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise home safely.
When you remember that event or watch that movie it makes you feel like we can overcome almost anything – that we can solve any problem or dilemma that we face. And yet, the Apostle Paul, via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has thus far painted a picture for us that displays humanity in a situation with no human solution.
Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 3:21ff. You might recall that when Paul began his letter to the Romans, tucked away at the conclusion of his introduction was this wonderful announcement of good news, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)
But for the last two weeks and since chapter 1:18 – the last 66 verses – Paul has argued that neither the Jew (who had the Law) or the Gentile (who didn’t) was innocent or blameless or righteous before a holy God. So, the question that needs to be answered, the problem that needs to be solved is this: how can anyone be made right in God’s eyes? How can sinful man please God? How can MY/YOUR sinful thoughts, words, and deeds be justified before a holy God?
On the one hand we have fallen, sinful, immoral, ungodly man, and on the other we have a completely and utterly holy, righteous, just, and perfect God. How can the two be reconciled to one another? Do you see the monumental problem? Can you appreciate the colossal issue? It’s the reality of this dilemma that is the heartbeat of the epistle.
Listen, commentators are unanimous in their ascriptions of the importance of these next few verses. Douglas Moo says, “Rarely does the Bible bring together in so few verses so many important theological ideas… Here, more than anywhere else in Romans, Paul explains why Christ’s coming means “good news” for needy, sinful people.” Robert Mounce elevates it to another level, saying it is “generally acknowledged to be the most theologically important segment of the entire New Testament.” But it’s Leon Morris who takes the cake in his description, suggesting that it may be “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”
Are you there? Have you found your spot in Romans 3:21? I’m going to read down to verse 26. Follow along, with me, as we hear God’s answer to this most impossible problem.
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the 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 [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. [God] 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.”
He who has ears to hear, let him hear the veritable Word of God.
Now, before we go further, I want to try to help you understand the massive challenge in preaching this text. I want you to imagine (for a moment) that you’re listening to a song or a piece of music that is so heart-stirring that every time you hear it, it brings you to tears. Maybe it’s a favorite hymn. Maybe it’s Amazing Grace. Maybe it’s How Great Thou Art. Maybe it’s a secular song. Perhaps it’s a patriotic song: The Star-Spangled Banner, or God Bless America. Maybe it’s just an instrumental song – an orchestral piece or a jazz number. Whatever it is, you’re listening to that song and you have headphones on so that there’s nothing that can distract you from listening to the song.
The song begins and you close your eyes and the music – sometimes soft and other times loud, sometimes slow and other times fast, sometimes harmonious and other times strained – takes you on this emotional journey. As the singer soars or the orchestra reaches its height tears well up in your eyes and you hold your breath – you don’t even want your heartbeat to interrupt the moment. When the song ends a single tear drops from your eye and you take a deep breath and say, “WOW!” or “Thank you, God.” We’ve all had that experience, right.
Now, with that same emotional scene still fresh in your mind, I want you to imagine that you decide to listen to the song again. But this time, you decide that as you listen you’re going to isolate certain instruments or special words and phrases that “speak to you.” Perhaps there’s a string of measures or lyrics that just gets you every time and you want to get to that point in the song and just soak it up again. Only this time, when you get to the end – because you started and stopped, rewound and listened, isolated and started again – you didn’t have that same tear in your eye or lose your breath.
It’s not because it wasn’t the same song. It was exactly the same song. The same performers, the same arrangement, the same sound system. Everything was the same except we isolated certain lyrics or concentrated on particular measures, and the song didn’t quite flow together like it was intended. This section of Romans is like that. It’s so dense. It’s so packed full of rich, beautify truth that it’s hard to squeeze out this truth without ruining the whole thing.
It’s like dissecting a butterfly. There’s something of the beauty and majesty of it that you just ruin it the moment that you pluck it from the air. I want us to understand Romans 3:21ff. I want us to get what it’s saying. But I also want it to keep flying. There’s nothing wrong with musical notes and individual parts and phrases in a song, but it’s together that it moves us and compels us to sing.
That’s the difficulty in preaching this text. I want us to linger. I want us to understand certain measures, certain lyrics. I want us to hear particular instruments in the orchestra and get strung out as we wait for the soloist to finish her last note, but I also want the passage to move us. I want the Holy Spirit to drive the truth of this text so deep into our hearts that we leave forever changed.
The first thing I want us to notice is…
God’s Righteousness Is Rooted In The Old Testament
Notice verse 21, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Why is that so important? Well, it’s important because it proves He’s faithful. It proves God is indeed righteous. It demonstrates God’s faithfulness as the promise maker.
As far back as Genesis 3:15 – right after the introduction of sin into the world – we get the first notice of the gospel. You remember, back there in the garden, God is speaking to the serpent (Satan) and He says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; [H]e will crush your head, and you will strike [H]is heel.” The “he” that’s mentioned there is a reference to Jesus.
Later on, in Genesis 15, God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and makes this mega-promise that He will make Abraham the father of many nations and that the promise God is making with him will continue through Abraham’s descendants. And that promise, that covenant is confirmed with Isaac and Jacob and ultimately preserved through the 12 tribes of Israel. And we continue to follow that promise all the way up to the birth of Jesus.
Why? Because it proves to us that God is trustworthy. If God made a promise that was supposed to culminate in sending forth His only Son as the Jewish messiah, but then that didn’t happen, God would be impugning His own righteousness. He would be breaking His own promise. He would be lying. He would be sinning. In essence, God would not be God. And if God can’t keep His promises from the past, then how can we be sure that He’ll keep His promises to us in the present, much less the future.
In fact, all of chapter 4 (which we won’t cover), is nothing more than Paul using the story of Abraham (the one I just paraphrased for you) as an illustration to prove that God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s righteousness is NOT new. This isn’t plan B. This is NOT some new doctrine. This is rooted and grounded in the testimony of the Old Testament. The very same way that you and I are saved from our sin today is the very same way that Abraham was saved – by faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul is showing us conclusively that God is vindicating His own character. God is vindicating His own righteousness. This means of salvation is rooted in the Old Testament. It’s proof that God is faithful to keep His Word. He’s the supreme promise maker.
God’s Righteousness Is Through Faith In Jesus Christ
Look at verses 22-24 again, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
What Paul introduces here is something so contrary to Jewish AND Gentile sensibilities that it’s scandalous. Acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty was the norm in Israel. If the guilty party was acquitted, it was often because an official had been bribed. The iron-booted authority of Rome did the same thing. In fact, in Rome, they not only condemned the guilty they sometimes condemned the innocent just to be sure.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ introduced an entirely new way of administering justice. Since everyone is guilty, everyone deserves to be condemned. That’s what verse 23 says, “all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God.” But in order for God to continue to be just, He has to punish sin. See, God would be as unrighteous as the guilty if He overlooked our sins. But what you and I didn’t count on was a God who was both just AND justifier of the guilty.
I have to pause for just a second a get a little technical. When God justifies a guilty sinner, two things happen:
- You and I are declared no longer guilty and,
- You and I are declared righteous.
Now those two things sound like the same thing, but they aren’t. Let me illustrate it like this.
Suppose we go to the bank to get a loan (say $10,000); we say, “I’m in debt” and we are. Let’s suppose we go to the bank and level was the banker, “Listen man, I can’t pay you back – not now, not ever.” Suppose the banker pulls up our account on his computer and there we see it – in arrears, default, late – and he says, “I tell you what, I’ll just erase the entire thing.” We’d be over the moon. We’d probably start crying. We didn’t deserve that. We just received mercy – that’s what mercy is, by the way, not getting what we deserve. That’s the first thing that happens. You and I are declared no longer guilty. That’s the first thing that happens when God justifies a guilty sinner – our debt is removed and we’re declared no longer guilty.
But suppose we were just about to walk out the door and the banker says, “Hey, before you go, come here. I want to show you something.” And we walk over to his desk and he points at that same line, which just a second before was filled with $10,000 worth of late fees and charges and big red numbers, and he enters a 10, followed by 12 zeros (that’s $10T, by the way). We’d probably pass out, right. That’s the second thing that happens. You and I are declared righteous. God, of His own free gift of grace, credits that account – the same one that just seconds ago was defaulted – He puts into our account the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Folks, that’s what Paul means when he says that we’re justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (v. 24).
God’s Righteousness Is Demonstration Of God’s Justice
Look at verses 25-26 one more time, “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. [God] did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – [God] 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.”
So far so good. Most of us understand what Paul is talking about here. God’s plan of salvation, His righteousness is rooted in the Old Testament. I get it. If God didn’t keep His promises, then He’d be guilty of sin and impugn His own character. No problem. Second, we understand grace. We sing about grace. We love the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus. We’ve all said it, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” We love us some grace.
But see, here’s where most of us stop. As soon as we hear the words “not guilty” and we receive the free gift of grace we’re gone. We’re out the door. We dust our hands off and call it a day. We punch the time clock and go home. But there’s one final aspect of this transaction that we miss if that’s our attitude.
Our sin has to be atoned for. Somebody has to pay for our sin. See, we just watched the banker clear our slate and give us more money than we could use in a million lifetimes, and we never gave it a moment’s thought about who paid the $10,000 debt. All we cared about was the fact that it wasn’t on our ledger any more.
One of the greatest lessons I learned in high school came from my economics and history teacher. It was the principle that many of you know, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It might seem free to you and me, but somewhere, somehow, somebody paid for that lunch. The same is true for our salvation. It might seem free to you and me – which it is – but somewhere, somehow, somebody paid for that salvation. It was Jesus.
There are two old churchy words that we used to use years ago. They’ve fallen out of use in our day, but we really need to hang on to them. They’re the words propitiation and expiation.
Some of you come from church denominations where the church building itself was part of the worship experience. The architecture itself was part of the praise and adoration. I’m talking about churches built in the cruciform shape – churches built in the shape of a cross with a long center aisle and two transepts on either side. Outside of my visits to Europe, the church that comes to my mind is the Summerall Chapel on the campus of my Alma mater – The Citadel.
I want you to picture that church in your mind, as I give you this illustration. Propitiation is the center aisle that leads up to the intersection of the horizontal crossbar. The word “propitiation” means to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin. In the Old Testament, the image of propitiation was the mercy seat, the lid to the Ark of the Covenant. That’s where the blood of the sacrificed lamb would be sprinkled on behalf of the people, in order to atone for their sin. That’s why the altars in our churches are located where they are. They aren’t out in the foyer or the fellowship hall or the back of the church. It’s where the vertical and horizontal meet.
But, then, you have the horizontal transepts of the church. That’s the part that represents expiation. The word “expiation” refers to the removal of our sin. Some of you have gone through or are going through cancer treatments. Occasionally, you’ll hear someone say they’re in remission – the cancer is gone. Psalm 103 tells us “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is [God’s] love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
That’s why I don’t want to lose these words. Propitiation is the satisfaction of God’s wrath. How? By putting Jesus in my place, in your place. He was a substitute. He took the punishment. Expiation is the removal of our sin. Big words. Big concepts. Now do you see why this little segment of scripture is considered so monumentally important to our faith?
Let me close with this story. Many of you will recall the name, Cliff Barrows. For those of you that don’t, he was the long-time Minister of Music for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He used to tell a story about how his children learned to appreciate the price that Jesus paid for their sins.
When they were small, like most kids, they persisted in doing something that they had been forbidden to do. Mr. Barrows told the kids that if they broke the rules again, they would be punished. One day Cliff came home and discovered that, indeed, his kids had yet again disobeyed him. But he just couldn’t bring himself to spank them.
“Bobbie and Betty Ruth were very small. I called them into my room, took off my belt and then my shirt, and with a bare back I knelt down at the bed. I made them both strap me with the belt 10 times each. You should’ve heard the crying – from them, I mean. They didn’t want to do it. But I told them the penalty had to be paid and, so, through their sobs and tears they did what I told them… I must admit, I wasn’t much of a hero. It hurt. I haven’t offered to do that again. It was a once-for-all sacrifice, I guess you could say, but I never had to spank those two children again. They got the point. We kissed each other, and when it was over we prayed together.”
Romans 3:21-26 shows how God can remain righteous even while He declares guilty sinners righteous, and how He can be just and the justifier of the wicked. God, in Christ, has done this for you and for me.
I don’t know where you are today – physically or spiritually. But regardless, I want you to know that the God of the universe loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in your place. Jesus took the punishment for your sin. He stands ready to give you the free gift of His grace and remove your sin, if you’re willing to accept it by faith. Don’t be fooled today. Nobody – I don’t care how much money you give, how many good deeds you do, how long you’ve attended church – nobody will hear those words that we all long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” unless you repent of your sins and accept God’s free gift of grace through Jesus Christ.