STUDIES IN ROMANS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

STUDY SIX: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH: - THE GIFT/GRACE NATURE OF GOSPEL RIGHTEOUSNESS - ROMANS 3:21-31

So far Paul has taught us:

[1] The gospel:

  • is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
  • is for both Jews and Gentiles.
  • reveals a righteousness from God.
  • reveals a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.
  • parallels the OT scripture 'the righteous will live by faith'.

[2] Creation reveals the truth about God; no one has lived by the light of this truth, everyone has corrupted it, distorting their understanding about God and displaying in their lives the same corruption. Everyone is without excuse in the presence of God.

[3] Even the Jews, who were given additional revelation in the Law, have not lived according to the Law.

[4] No one, not even the Jews, will be declared righteous by keeping the law, rather the law reveals our sinfulness.

Paul now returns to spell out the power of Gospel, which he has mentioned in summary form in 1:16,17.

He introduces this description of Gospel righteousness with the two words 'but now' (3:21).

But now . Something that stands in acute contrast to all that Paul has been describing is about to be stated. Something totally different, totally unexpected, totally contrary to human thinking, totally in opposition to the performance based approach to God and to life that characterizes the religions of men, is about to be spelled out. Something absolutely unique has been made known, has been revealed. 'But now' a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known

The word righteousness, and its relatives, translates inter-related Greek words which come from the law courts. To be declared righteous, or to be justified, means to be given a legal declaration of acquittal. Righteousness, or justification, is the legal acquittal. In other words, a 'not guilty' verdict is pronounced. This is the radical truth that Paul is about to define and describe. Before we look at what he says, here is a list of these related words from 3:19-31:

Ref.
NIV Translation
Greek text
Derived from
Part of Speech

3:20

'will be declared righteous'

dikaiothesetai

dikaioo

Verb

3:21

'righteousness'

dikaiosune

dikaiosune

Noun

3:22

'righteousness'

dikaiosune

dikaiosune

Noun

3:24

'are justified'

dikaioumenoi

dikaioo

Present participle

3:25

'justice'

dikaiosune

dikaiosune

Noun

3:26

'Justice'

dikaiosune

dikaiosune

Noun

3:26

'just'

dikaion

dikaios

Adjective

3:26

'the one who justifies'

dikaiounta

dikaioo

Present participle

3:28

'is justified'

dikaiousthai

dikaioo

Verb

3:30

'will justify'

dikaiosei

dikaioo

Verb

Now let us look at what Paul says about this righteousness proclaimed in the Gospel.

[1] It is a righteousness from God (3:21,22), or, as the Greek text has is, it is 'a righteousness of God'. As we have seen in 1:17 Gospel righteousness does not come from man: it comes from God. Here is a declaration of legal acquittal, a 'not guilty' verdict, which does not come because of our lack of guilt or from our possession of actual legal rightness. It is not a righteousness of man. It is not ours. It comes 'from God', it is 'of God'. It is something that God provides: it is always his, never intrinsically ours. It is not based on our own performance. It is, as Martin Luther phrased it when he discovered its liberating meaning, an alien righteousness. Alien to us. Undeserved, unmerited, unearned, by us. We have nothing to do with it. It is from God. It is his righteousness. This is a massive truth, but, as we will see towards the end of this study, there is an even grander dimension to it than what is immediately obvious in this verse.

[2] It is apart from law (3:21). Just so that we do not misunderstand what he has meant when he has described Gospel righteousness as 'from God' or 'of God', Paul here expresses it from another angle: it has absolutely nothing to do with our keeping of the law. It is apart from law. Nothing could be clearer than that. And nothing could be more radical than that. Our normal expectation is that declarations of legal acquittal are given to those who have been proved to have kept the law, that the verdict 'not guilty' is rightly given only to those who are proved not guilty of having broken the law. But this righteousness proclaimed in the Gospel is apart from law: totally contrary to the expectations of the Jews, totally contrary to the expectations of the religions of the world, totally contrary to the expectations of the cults, and totally contrary to the expectations of the human heart. Even as Christians we have an automatic expectation and perception that God requires us to relate to him on the basis of law, and it is from this law-based mindset that the letter to the Romans intends to rescue us. Gospel righteousness is apart from law. That is the way God wants us to relate to himself, and that is the way he wants us to relate to each other. That is also the way he wants us to relate to ourselves in the inner recesses of our own being. But Paul will expand on this later.

Note: in the Greek text the words 'apart from law' (literally 'without law') are placed immediately after the 'but now', which draws emphatic attention to them, and to the obvious contrast between what Paul is beginning to say and what he has just said.

[3] It has been made known (3:21). This we also learned in 1:16-17, where the word 'revealed' is used. So alien to us, so contrary to our thoughts and our way of looking at life and God and rewards and punishment, that we would never have thought it up for ourselves. God has made it known to us. Even when we have understood it from the Scriptures we still have to constantly fight against letting it slip ' it is so totally different from the way we think ' and reverting to our pre-gospel mindset. We want to think, we want to relate to God and to others, on a tit-for-tat basis. Automatically our minds are geared to think 'If I'm good I'll go to heaven' or 'If I'm good God will bless me'. That is part of our human expectations and perceptions. And we expect that God acts in that way too. But, when we are being honest about our sin, we know, that on that basis, none of us would make it.

The Gospel reveals to us 'No! That's not how you get right with God!' The Gospel makes known to us something we would never have dreamed or imagined: that righteousness ' being in the right with God ' is not something we can achieve. It is something apart from law. It is something God provides. Our human hearts revolt at the thought of this grace that makes a way for the sinner to be justified and acquitted, for it renders our supposed goodness null and void. It affirms the words of Jesus Christ that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5)and that apart from faith in him we are condemned already (John 3:18). No. We would never dream up this Gospel righteousness for ourselves. Only God would dream and plan and put into operation such a thing, and then make it known to us.

[4] It is testified to by the Law and the prophets (3:21). Although Gospel righteousness is alien and unexpected, something quite new to our human way of thinking, it is not new to God. It is something that he has had in mind right from the beginning, as Paul here points out: 'the Law and the Prophets' (which commonly refers to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures), bear testimony to this same righteousness which is from God and apart from law. This same righteous was possessed by people of genuine faith right through the Old Testament (study Hebrews 11). This historic character of gospel righteousness in the saving purposes of God Paul will expand at length in Romans 4 in relation to Abraham, who is presented in Scripture as the father of all true believers.

For your study: discuss the presence of gospel righteousness in the Old Testament in relation to the sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7), the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). In what way are these rituals prophetic of the righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel?

[5] It is a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Here we are confronted with a critical truth, a sine qua non, the one thing without which none of what Paul teaches would apply. Although gospel righteousness is apart from law, there is one pre-requisite: faith in Jesus Christ. Paul here identifies, for the first time in this letter, what or who the object or focus of faith is: it is Jesus Christ. We must not make the mistake here, as many do, of redefining 'faith in Jesus Christ' as 'faith in what Jesus Christ did on the cross', which is just another way of saying that you get salvation by believing in salvation. (See notes on 1:16). No. We get salvation when we believe that Jesus Christ is the One he claimed to be (John 1:12; 8:24; Romans 10:9). Another error commonly made, and it is very difficult not to make this error when using words to describe salvation, is that we understand salvation as something additional to and distinct from Jesus Christ, and we find that people are reported to have received salvation without even knowing who Jesus Christ is, let alone believing in him. We say things like 'Jesus gives us eternal life' or 'Jesus gives us salvation', and it is impossible to avoid saying these things, in fact they are true Biblical statements. The deep reality, however, as the Bible also expresses, is that Jesus Christ is our salvation. He is the eternal life which he gives (1 John 5:20). To have him is to have life (1 John 5:11,12). When we receive him we receive at the same time everything God has for us. But if we do not believe in him, in his name, then we do not have this gospel righteousness of which Paul is speaking (John 1:10-12; 3:16-18, 36).

For your study: If you did not do so in response to the study suggested in the comment on 1:16, read through John's Gospel and his first letter now, and make a tabulated list of every time 'believe' occurs and what the focus or object of that believing actually is. You will find that faith is almost exclusively focused on his person, his identity, and that promises of salvation are given on the basis of that faith; in fact you will notice that assurances of presently effective, fully fledged salvation are given to those who were physically present as Jesus Christ spoke, on the sole basis of believing in him, apart from any knowledge of the cross, for it had not yet happened.
For further study: Go to the studies titled 'Who is Jesus on this website. You will find there extensive analyses of the New Testament writings in relation to the central focus of saving faith on the person of Jesus Christ.

[6] It is to all who believe. There is no difference '3:22. It would be easy here to accuse Paul of repeating himself. He has told us that this righteousness of God comes 'through faith in Jesus Christ', so why does he then add 'to all who believe He adds this seemingly repetitive phrase because of the people he is addressing. Remember: Jewish believers and Gentile believers in the church in Rome, with the Jewish believers assuming superiority because of their national identity as the covenant people of God who possessed and taught the law. By saying 'to all who believe' Paul is outlawing any distinctions within the group of believers. Gospel righteousness comes 'to all who believe' - without distinction, without discrimination, without difference. Every genuine believer in Jesus Christ possesses, in Christ, identical righteousness. There is no difference ' a point that Paul will emphasize heavily in the following verses.

[7] All who believe are justified freely, by God's grace (3:24). As indicated above, the word 'justified' has the same Greek root as 'righteousness'. It speaks of that same legal declaration of acquittal. Paul here says that all who believe in Jesus Christ (3:22) are justified, that is, receive a 'not guilty' verdict. This is amazing, and Paul knows it is amazing; he also knows the wrong, entirely inappropriate responses that it will produce. But he still says it because it is the key concept in the meaning of salvation. All who believe in Jesus Christ are justified ' legally acquitted ' freely, by God's grace. Again we could accuse Paul of repetition, because 'freely' and 'by his grace' both indicate the unearned, unmerited, undeserved nature of our salvation. But it is necessary for Paul to hammer this home. Not only his original readers, but we also today, consistently fall into the error of believing that in some way, however small, we contribute to our salvation. So Paul says 'freely' - that is, without us contributing anything; then he adds 'by his grace' ' that is, rather than being the result of our whole or partial contribution, it is an act of sheer mercy on God's part, totally given to us as gift, totally unrelated to our performance. Sheer gift. Sheer generosity. Sheer love. His love. His initiative. His implementation. His cost. Not ours.

I was once asked 'But doesn't our 'little bit help Doesn't our little contribution of' 'obedience' or of 'goodness' help to justify us, or keep us justified' My answer: 'No. It hinders!' It actually renders all that God has done to provide us with an alien righteousness worthless, for like the significance of one weak link in a strong chain, if we add our 'little bit' to the work of God everything will depend on that 'little bit' and will be absolutely untrustworthy. The Gospel tells us: all who believe 'are justified freely by his grace.'

[8]It is through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (3:24). Here Paul is getting close to the central fact that makes Gospel righteousness possible. The key meaning of the word 'redemption' is freedom. Not freedom in a vacuum, but always freedom from something ' a setting free, a liberation, from something that held one bound, enslaved or captive; and it always involves a cost. The whole exodus event in which the Hebrews were liberated from slavery in Egypt is a massive, historical, enacted-in-real-life prophecy of the redemption the believer has in Christ Jesus. From the time of the Exodus onwards God was known to the Israelites as Redeemer, and he constantly reminded them through the words of his prophets that this is the kind of God he is: One who redeems his people ' One who sets them free. So Paul now speaks of the 'redemption that came by Christ Jesus'. The way in which we are set free, and the cost, he is about to explain, and we will look at that in the next study; what we are set free from, though he certainly implies it here, he does not explain till chapters six to eight.

For your study: Look up the words 'Redeemer', redeem(ed) and redemption in a concordance and follow through some of the references. It will fill out your understanding of these concepts. Keep any notes you make for your own reference when we look at this verse in the next study.

[9] God's justice (his righteousness) is demonstrated in the work of Christ on the cross (3:25,26). The word translated 'justice' in these verses is identical to the word translated 'righteousness' in verses 21 & 22. Paul is here saying that God's legal rightness, that is, his acting in strict legal justice in accordance with his law is demonstrated in what he put into effect in what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Paul here covers the gospel against accusation of injustice, or reduction or alteration of justice. Whatever God did in and through Christ's death on the cross it was a demonstration of God's righteousness. Gospel righteousness, rather than being contrary to legal righteousness, rather than being contrary to God's intrinsic righteousness, is actually a manifestation of God's righteousness, as we will see more clearly in the next study.

[10] Gospel righteousness excludes boasting (3:27). While the Jewish Christians in Rome (and let us look into our own hearts, for we will likely see there the same attitudes) thought that they had something about which to boast ' in their case their national identity as the people of God, and their possession of the law and of circumcision ' Paul here states that gospel righteousness excludes boasting.' Because gospel righteousness is given 'freely by his grace' (24) and is 'through faith' (22), because its operating principle is not the principle of law, but the principle of faith (27,28), boasting has no relevance and no place. It is outlawed. If we are legally acquitted (justified) apart from observing the law (28) then there is nothing that we have done, are doing or ever will do, that we can boast about. Nothing we have done, are doing, or will ever do makes any contribution to our legal acquittal. Nothing about us gives us any legal right to brag in the presence of God or in the presence of others. Bragging about our religious r'sum' is prohibited by the gospel. In fact, bragging about our religious achievements, about the things that we assume give us credit in God's presence, means that we have not begun to understand the real meaning of gospel righteousness.

For your study: Check out Luke 18:9-14 and Philippians 3:1-11. You will see that both the Pharisee in the temple, and Paul prior to his conversion, approached God bragging about their religious r'sum'. They related to God on the basis of their own performance, and thought that because of that performance they merited acceptance in the presence of God. Look at Philippians 3:3: the word translated 'glory' in this verse, is variously translated by the English words 'rejoice', 'glory' and 'boast'. Paul has undergone a complete about face, a complete paradigm shift. Instead of bragging about his the things he thought gave him credit with God, he now brags ' boasts, glories, rejoices ' about one thing only: Christ, and Christ's righteousness.
For discussion: Paul makes it clear that boasting about our supposed credit points with God is outlawed by the gospel. Does the gospel also outlaw the destructive, negative, de-motivating self-talk that many people indulge in, which reveals a guilt-ridden, lacking-in-assurance and fearful attitude in the presence of God and others' There will be more about this in Study Eight.

[11] Gospel righteousness is apart from observing the law (3:28). The Greek here is very simple and straight: without works of law. Distinct from, without any reference to, things we have done, do, or will do, which are either prescribed or prohibited by law. If we think we have kept the law: that has nothing to do with gospel righteousness. If we think we are disqualified by law: that has nothing to do with gospel righteousness. What the law says about our deeds has nothing to do with gospel righteousness, because, as far as gospel righteousness is concerned, the operating principle of faith has replaced the operating principle of law. How this can happen we will see later.

Personal question: Are you relating to God and to others under the operating principle of faith, or under the operating principle of law? As you live your next week watch yourself and your expectations and perceptions of God and of others: how you expect and perceive them to relate to you, and how you relate to them. Out of which principle do your expectations and perceptions come? You might be surprised!

[12] Gospel righteousness includes both Jews and Gentiles (3:29). Because gospel righteousness operates under the principle of faith, not of law, it includes both Jews, who possessed the law and tried to keep it, and Gentiles, who didn't possess the law. As Paul has said earlier (22) 'there is no difference'. We are all justified freely, by God's grace, without reference to our performance of law.

[13] Gospel righteousness renders circumcision irrelevant. (3:30). As with the Jews' possession of the law, so with circumcision. In itself, as a ritual act, it does not gain merit with God. Circumcised and uncircumcised are all alike to God. Again, faith, is the operating principle.

[14] Gospel righteousness upholds the law (3:31). We will look at this in the next study.