Seventh Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

Justified by Grace


Scripture reading: Romans 3:1-20.

Sermon text: Romans 3:21-31.

As the Church gathers today as believers in Jesus Christ, many of us know we come here because of a godly legacy. Our parents, grandparents, and ancestors for generation passed the faith to their descendants, including us. We know this gives us no advantage over first-generation believers. In the Church, all stand equal before God: We all need grace, and we must all receive that grace through our confession of Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection.

At this point in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. Paul has definitively proved that all humanity needed grace; no race stood above any other in remaining guiltless. However, when we needed grace and mercy, God accomplished our salvation by fulfilling His covenant with His chosen people, the Jews. Jesus Christ paid the debt we could not, redeeming us from sin and restoring our relationship with our Creator.

Chapter 3 opens with St. Paul’s acknowledgement that while the Jews possessed no advantage in their standing before God, they did receive one crucial advantage over the Gentiles: “To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Unlike the Gentiles — meaning every other tribe and race of humanity except the descendants of Jacob, or Israel — God gave the Jews the Law and the Scriptures. God had called the Jews to use the Scriptures and the Law to serve as an example for the Gentiles so the Gentiles would then turn to God: “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Unfortunately, the Jews failed miserably; at times, their actions differed little from their Gentile neighbors. Did this mean the Law was worthless? “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?”

St. Paul emphatically answered the charge: “By no means!” God remained faithful to His promises in the covenant and in Scripture. God promised that those who approached Him in faith would receive forgiveness. Read Leviticus, the book of Moses that describes the sacrifices of the Law and the priestly protocols. Time and again, you read the words: “he shall be forgiven.” Anyone who approached the altar in the sanctuary, believing that God would accept His sacrifice and forgive him, received forgiveness.

However, not everyone came in faith to the sanctuary; some came merely through ritual or habit. Others outright defied the Law, choosing to follow other gods. As a nation, the Jews failed to uphold the Law. Yet, God remained faithful. He preserved the nation through exile and dispersion. God’s faithfulness “justified” His “words” in Scripture that He would preserve His faithful people.

The Scriptures and Law proved something beside God’s faithfulness; they also proved His righteousness. As humans — including the Jews — examined the Scriptures, they found that God’s very character revolved around His holiness, or His separateness from sin. Compared to sinful humanity, God remained consistently righteous. He could judge sin because He remained holy.

St. Paul foresaw an objection to God’s righteousness: It appeared only in contrast to our sinfulness. Therefore, some would argue, God’s righteousness relied on our sin to reveal itself. Nonsense, St. Paul argued; “By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” Our evil actions do not make God’s righteous actions possible; God would remain holy and righteous even if humanity never existed.

Therefore, our “condemnation is just;” we stand guilty before our Creator for our sin. In the verses that follow, St. Paul quoted no fewer than 9 Old Testament passages clearly describing our guilt. These quotations also proved the Jews’ guilt as well. Mere ritualistic  adherence to the Law accomplished nothing, “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law condemned everyone who tried to follow it, because no one followed it perfectly.

Could we find any hope here? If the Law only condemns us, how does it help to have received it?

“Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Jesus Christ, a Jew, fulfilled the Law perfectly. Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the Jews’ part of the covenant with God. Although “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” those who accept Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Here we find the real purpose of the covenant. The covenant existed to bring deliverance from sin. The Law showed us our sinfulness; Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law brought the covenant itself to its ultimate conclusion. When we confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, we “are justified by his grace.” God declares us guiltless by grace, not by our own worthiness or works. Jesus became the “propitiation” for our sins, meaning He took our penalty on Himself and delivered us from the penalty. We deserved death for our sin; Jesus died for us. We deserved eternal separation from God because of our rebellion; Jesus made it possible for us to reconcile with God instead.

Every sin forgiven under the Law was forgiven by faith, but the blood of the sacrificial animal had never atoned for those sins. In His “divine forbearance” — a translation of a Greek phrase that implies an intentional overlooking — God had looked forward to the blood of Christ on the cross to see the atonement for the sins He forgave under the Law. Now, “at the present time,” God looks back at the cross “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” We now see God’s righteousness as our own through the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives.

If we stand in Jesus’ righteousness and not our own, “what becomes of our boasting?” Can we boast of what we receive by grace? “It is excluded.” How do we receive this righteousness? “By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” When we come to Jesus by faith, believing He will forgive us, we find that He does.

This applies to all humans now, because God is God of both Jew and Gentile. “He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” In so doing, “we uphold the law” through our faith.

What a glorious passage!  Do you realize the implications? We can stand justified before God, not because of our ancestry or our race. We can stand justified before God in spite of our education, economic status, language, or nationality. Because Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, we no longer face the ultimate penalty for our sins.

Believers, since we have received God’s forgiveness through our confession of Jesus as Lord, what does this chapter mean to us?

For one thing, it never hurts to receive a reminder that we stand forgiven by grace and not because we deserve it. This passage reminds those of us who have generations of believers in our ancestry that we did not deserve this legacy, while it reminds those of us who are first-generation Christians that we stand as equals with everyone else in the Church. None of us were born justified; we receive this justification through faith as God graciously accepts our faith and forgives us.

It also helps to remember that all of us know someone in our lives — in our families, communities, workplaces or schools — that needs forgiveness. Many of these people can rightfully claim that they do good things. Some of them can also rightfully claim they behave better than some Christians in their lives. However, these people cannot rely on their own works to receive the right to stand justified before God. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Only those who accept Jesus’ payment for their sins receive forgiveness and eternal life.

If you’ve never believed in Jesus’ resurrection and confessed Him as Lord, I encourage you to accept His payment for your sins. Your hope for eternity rests in Christ alone.