Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
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21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.Romans 3.21-26
WSC 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins,1 and accepteth us as righteous in His sight,2 only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us,3 and received by faith alone.41Rom 3:24–25; 4:6–8; 22 Cor 5:19, 21; 3Rom 5:17–19; 4Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9.
The Book of Romans is like a beautiful painting. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul is composing this picture. It is entitled: “The Just shall live by faith.” Paul begins this masterpiece by painting the background as most painters do. But the background is a very dark one. His pot of black paint is almost used up.
Indeed, up to the verse before our text, Paul appears to use only black paint. Man, he tells us, is by nature totally depraved. There is none righteous, no not one. None understands. None seeks after God. None does good, no, not one.
This is the sad state of man. All men descending from Adam by natural generation are sinners deserving God’s wrath. And none of us can help ourselves in any way at all: for by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified. That is, we cannot do anything to make ourselves righteous. To be just is to be righteous. It is the same word in the Greek. To be justified is to be made righteous.
The prospect of fallen man is dark and grim. Our condition seems helpless and hopeless. We are doomed for damnation!
What then? “How then can man be justified with God?” (Job 25:4a; cf. Job 9:2). What hope do we have of being accepted by God?
Thankfully, Paul does not stop after painting the dark background, or we will be left dumbfounded. Look! Paul is painting the sunshine in our text!
Beginning with the little word ‘but,’ Paul is painting in the sunshine. “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (v. 21).
The Lord helping us, let us appreciate together this burst of sunshine that Paul is depicting. Look! Is it not painted with one broad stroke? Our text is one sentence! But this burst of sunshine has seven sunbeams. Paul is describing God’s righteousness with seven beams. He is, in other words, teaching us the doctrine of justification in seven points. Justification is about how to be just in God’s sight, or how to obtain the righteousness acceptable to God.
In the first sunbeam, Paul teaches us:
1. God’s Righteousness Comes Not by Law-Keeping
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (v. 21a).
The apostle is answering the question: “How can a man be justified with God?” Or how can he obtain a righteousness that is acceptable to God? By the “righteousness of God,” he refers to this righteousness, not to the intrinsic righteousness of God, but to the righteousness acceptable to God. And the first thing he wants us to know is that this righteousness is without the law.
To be without the law is to be “without the deeds of the law” (v. 28). Many of the Jews thought that they could obtain righteousness by keeping the law. The apostle Paul used to think that way that too.
But after his conversion on the road to Damascus, the truth came upon him powerfully. The law cannot be used to obtain the righteousness of God. By the law is the knowledge of sin. By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified!
Sinful man simply cannot make himself righteous in God’s sight by doing the deeds of the law. It does not matter whether He does according to the law of Moses or the work of the law written in the heart! He cannot make himself righteous in God’s sight by the deeds of the law.
If the righteousness acceptable to God must be obtained by our works, we are doomed. Thank God that the righteousness acceptable to God, without the deeds of the law, is now clearly manifested.
2. God’s Righteousness Without The Law Was Taught in the Old Testament
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, 21b being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (v. 21).
Make no mistake. The righteousness, which is acceptable to God, has not changed. It was not that in Old Testament days, the people obtained righteousness by the deeds of the law. No, no; when Paul uses the term ‘manifested’, he is saying that it is now made clear. In Old Testament days, the people saw the truth in shadows and types. But the truth has always been the same. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).
Paul is not teaching something new. The law and the prophets (or the entire Old Testament) are unanimous in affirming the same thing: No man can obtain righteousness by keeping the law.
Some of the Jews in the days of the Lord misunderstood the law and the prophets. They thought that righteousness could be obtained by obedience to the law. But the Lord corrected them by pointing out that the Scriptures are about Him and how He alone brings God’s righteousness to His people.
The law and the prophet serve as a candlelight to show this righteousness of God. This righteousness could be found in the Old Testament days, though you would have to work hard to find it using the candlelight. But today, the Light of the world has come! The Sun of righteousness has risen! The righteousness of God without the law is now manifested!
This righteousness, thirdly, is obtained by faith in the Sun of Righteousness.
3. God’s Righteousness Is Obtained by Faith in Christ
“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ” (v. 22a).
The phrase “by faith of Jesus Christ” does not mean “by the faith which Jesus Christ exercised.” It means, instead, “by means of faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith is the grace of knowing, believing and trusting. The righteousness of God is obtained by knowing, believing and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ!
The law and the prophets are unanimous in testifying that the righteousness of God is obtained by faith in the Christ to come. The history of the people of God was about God’s preparation for the coming of Christ. The exodus, battles and building works of the people of God typified the work of Christ. The Tabernacle and temple, the ordinances and sacrifices of the law of Moses, all pointed to Christ. The Psalms of David spoke about Christ, very often in the first person. Solomon spoke about Christ in his songs and proverbs. Every one of the prophets was preaching about Christ.
The apostle to the Hebrews affirmed that the Old Testament saints lived by faith in Christ! Of course, they did not see Christ as clearly as we see today. But when Christ came, He was like the sun rising in the horizon, dispelling the darkness of Old Testament days.
The righteousness of God had always been by faith in Christ. Now that Christ has come and, this truth has been made manifest! The righteousness that is acceptable to God must come through Christ, and must be received by faith.
But let us be clear about what the apostle is teaching us.
Firstly, let us remember that by the deed of the law shall no flesh be justified. This means that our faith, which is our act of believing and trusting, cannot justify us. Or let me put it this way: it is not our faith that God accepts as righteous. Do not make this mistake which many modern evangelicals make. Faith is a hand by which we receive the righteousness of God obtained by Christ. When we speak of “Justification by Faith”, we are speaking of “Justification by Christ, whom we believe.” Our faith does not justify us. It is Christ who justifies us.
If it were my faith that justifies me, I would be in trouble because I know that my faith wavers!
Secondly, remember that Paul is contrasting between righteousness by the law, and righteousness by faith. And he tells us that the righteousness of God is without the law. This means that when Paul speaks of “righteousness by faith,” he must mean: “righteousness by faith alone.” The Great Reformer Martin Luther was surely right when he insisted on this little word at the time of the Reformation.
You see, Roman Catholicism does teach that justification is by faith. The problem is that they say that that is not enough. They say that justification happens as a result of a combination between faith and good works done after baptism.
But this is not what Paul is teaching. He is teaching us that the righteousness of God is by faith in Jesus Christ alone! We do not contribute one iota to our justification.
But in the third place, remember that faith in Christ does not merely mean believing that Christ came or that He is the Son of God. James tells us that “the devils also believe, and tremble” (Jas 2:19; cf. Mk 5:7).
Saving faith is, instead, a faith that flows from the heart that is changed by the Holy Spirit. It is a faith that manifests itself in love for God and Christ. It sees Christ not only as Priest but as Prophet and King. It submits to His teaching. It is obedient to His will. It submits to Him out of gratitude. It is a faith that produces good works. James clearly shows that a faith that does not produce good works cannot save. Saving faith is not a dead faith. It is, as Luther reminds us, a “living faith.”
Many professing Christians today have been influenced by an error known as antinomianism. Antinomians believe that the law does not apply to Christians. It teaches that you can receive Christ as Saviour without receiving Him as Lord. In other words, you are saved as long as you pray to receive Christ, even though you may continue living in sin. But this is certainly not what Paul teaches. Faith without works is dead.
We are justified by faith alone, but this faith is not alone. It produces good works. True believers produce good works. But works are the evidence of our salvation. It contributes not to our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Thank God for Martin Luther, who, in the 16th century, made the doctrine of the apostle Paul very clear for us!
But now, returning to Paul, we see him telling us, fourthly, that God’s righteousness is given to all believers.
4. God’s Righteousness Is Given to All Believers
“unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (v. 22b).
The righteousness of God is not only for the Jews, nor only for the Gentiles. Neither is it only for decent citizens nor is it only for criminals.
The Lord himself says:
All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.Jn 6:37
All who are effectually called and, therefore, come unto Christ and believe and rest upon him for salvation will have God’s righteousness. There is no difference. It does not matter whether you are young or old, male or female, or whether you are a Christian, an idolater, a murderer, a rapist, a homosexual, a hypocrite or a heretic. It does not matter if you are the chief of sinners. As long as you recognise you are a sinner, you can come to Christ, and He will give you the righteousness of God.
In God’s sight, every sinner is, in this regard, the same. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. In God’s sight, there is none righteous, no not one. The murderer and the pastor are both sinners. They both come short of God’s glory. They are both failures. They both need the righteousness of God if they are to be saved. This righteousness of God is given to them if they believe in Christ.
And it is given freely.
5. God’s Righteousness Is Given Freely
“Being justified freely by his grace” (v. 24a).
To be justified is to be declared righteous. Paul’s doctrine of justification involves a declaration on God’s part. Those who believe in Christ for salvation are declared righteous by God. They are not actually made righteous. That is a fruit of justification. In justification, the sinner is declared righteous, though he is still a sinner in the heart. Luther made this point clear when he used the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator, “at the same time just and sinner.”
Justification, in other words, is not about a change in the heart. It is about a change in status. It is about God freely declaring a sinner to be righteous despite his sin.
Now this is a great privilege because, with this declaration, you can enter God’s presence. Remember the story of Esther. Her cousin Mordecai wanted her to see the king because the wicked Haman wanted to kill the Jews. Esther hesitated. Why? Because she knew that no man could enter the king’s presence without being called. But when she eventually went to the king, the king extended his golden sceptre to indicate she could go in to him. She would not be executed. To be justified is like having the sceptre of God extended to us perpetually. Were it not for justification, we could not come into the presence of God. We cannot know God.
But how can we obtain this justification? Do we have to pay for it? Do we have to qualify for it? Think of it this way. Today, there are great security concerns for the leaders of the world. Not everyone, for example, can see the president of the United States. If you want to see him, you may have to pay certain fees, and then you must first undergo many levels of security tests. If you pass the tests, you are given a badge. This badge will declare that you are clean. You are not a terrorist, and your intentions are good. With this badge, you can see the president at an appointed time.
Now, justification is like having a permanent badge access to God. And we can go to Him at any time. But do we have to pay for this badge? Do we have to pass certain tests? No, no; this badge is given freely. If we have to be tested to see if we qualify for the badge, none of us will get it, for we all fall short of the glory of God (v.23). And if it were not free, we cannot pay for it, for by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.
This is an important doctrine. Some believe that a sinner must be sufficiently reformed or knowledgeable before God will accept him. But this flies in the face of what the apostle Paul is saying. No, no; so long as a person recognises that he is a helpless sinner and, therefore, forsakes sin and flees to Christ, he will be saved. He need not bring anything in his hand. Indeed nothing that he brings can help him the least bit.
Thank God that justification is by his free grace, or none of us would be saved!
But sixthly, Paul teaches us that Justification is free for us but not for God.
6. God’s Righteousness Was Paid for by Christ
Our justification is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (v. 24b-25a).
The term redemption speaks of an ancient practice of buying back slaves. In those days, whenever an army conquered another nation, they would lead some of the people into captivity to sell as slaves. Redemption describes the practice of paying money to buy back those being held in bondage.
As sinners, we are, by nature, slaves to sin and Satan. As such, we cannot come into God’s presence: God is holy and hates sin. How, then, can we be justified and come into the presence of God? How can we qualify for heaven?
Paul teaches us that we qualify because the Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us by His blood. We are redeemed by the “precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot,” says the apostle Peter (1 Pet 1:19). That is, Christ shed His blood at the Cross of Calvary to redeem us from the bondage of sin and Satan.
But take careful note. The ransom price was not paid to Satan. There was an ancient heresy that taught that. But no, the ransom price was paid to God. Paul teaches us that Christ was “set forth to be a propitiation.” That is, He died to appease the wrath of God.
God must punish sin. And He is angry against sinners. Those who place their faith in Christ, believing that He died for them, would be redeemed.
Now, note that when Christ redeems us, two things happen: First, we have our sins paid for. Secondly, we are given a righteousness which is acceptable to God! There is, in other words, a double transfer. Our sins were transferred to Christ. He paid for our sin. But at the same time, His righteousness is imputed to us.
Because Christ died for sin not His own, I now have a righteousness not my own. Therefore, I am not my own. I belong to Him, for He died for me.
But what is the rationale behind this elaborate scheme of redemption? Paul explains.
7. God’s Righteousness Is Declared in the Context of Justice
“To declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (v. 25b-26).
I mentioned earlier that the words ‘righteous’ and ‘just’ are the same in Greek. The words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are also the same. Here (in v. 25-26), when the apostle speaks of God declaring his righteousness, he is referring directly to His justice. In other words, Paul is now speaking of the righteousness of God in a different sense. In verse 21, the righteousness of God is the righteousness that is acceptable to God. In verses 25 and 26, the righteousness of God is the judicial righteousness of God, or the justice of God.
But what is Paul saying? He is saying that the death of Christ vindicates God’s righteous justice. You see, God has His saints in all ages. And it is a known fact that God forgives the sins of his saints. The Jews knew very well that God could forgive sin. And they would know the words of David in Psalm 32 very well:
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity…Ps 32:1-2
But the question is: How can God forgive? How can God pass over their sins? The word ‘remission’ (v. 25) means ‘passing over’ or, in other words, forgiveness. David wrote Psalm 32 after his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah was discovered. He sinned most grievously. On what basis did God forgive him? It does not seem right for God to forgive him when he does not deserve forgiveness. Where is justice? If God could forgive David, what about the millions of others who sinned much less grievously?
Paul is saying that the Cross of Calvary vindicated God’s righteous justice. The Cross “declare[s] [God’s] righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” God forbore to punish the sins of the saints in the Old Testament. He did not punish their sin immediately. But that does not mean that He simply overlooked them. If He did so, He would not be just.
No, no; in the fullness of time, God sent His Son. He came to live and die on behalf of the sinners whom God forgave and would forgive. Justice demands that all sins be punished. God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7). If He did so, He would be unjust. But God can forgive us our sins. Why? Because Christ, His only begotten Son, was punished on our behalf!
The Cross of Calvary, therefore, vindicates the justice of God. By it, God does two things. First, He proves Himself to be a Just God; secondly, He justifies those who believe in Christ (v. 26).
The Cross of Calvary, then, is where “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10).
Where? O Where in the history of the world do we find the greatest expression of God’s justice and wrath? It was there at the Cross. There, God showed how much He hates sin and how severely He will punish sin. He hates sin so much that He punished his only begotten Son with an infinite outpouring of His righteous wrath.
But where? O where in the history of the world do we find the greatest expression of God’s love and mercy? It was there at the Cross too. There, God showed how much he loved us and how much He would do to show mercy to us. He loves us so much that He punished his eternally beloved Son with the infinite wrath we deserve.
O beloved brethren, children and friends, what is the Cross of Calvary to you? If it does not excite great love and gratitude in your heart for God, you have not understood Paul.
We must conclude. We have seen the apostle Paul’s sevenfold description of the righteousness acceptable to God. He tells us that (1) it is apart from the deeds of the law; (2) It was witnessed by the law and the prophets; (3) It is obtained by faith in Christ; (4) It is provided for anyone who believes in Christ; (5) It is given freely; (6) It was paid for by the blood of Christ; and (7) It is given in the context of God’s righteous justice.
Here then, are the seven sunbeams breaking upon the darkness of our depravity and wretchedness.
These seven sunbeams are beautifully captured in the 33rd question of our Shorter Catechism:
WSC 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
It is an act for it is a declaration of God (v. 25b). It is God’s free grace, for we are justified freely by God’s grace (v. 24a). It involves our pardon of sins, for our sins are paid for and remitted (v. 25). It involves our being accepted as righteous in God’s sight for we are declared righteous (v. 25b-26). It involves the righteousness of Christ being imputed to us, for His righteousness is imputed on all who believe (v. 22). And finally, it is received by faith in Christ, for it is “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ” (v. 22a).
What shall we do with these things?
(1) First, let me address you who are unconverted: The righteousness of God is provided for all who come unto Christ. The very reason why God provide this righteousness is that we are all sinners. And sinners must be punished. God cannot even forgive His adoptive children without punishing their sins. He punished their sins in His only begotten Son. How, then, will you escape punishment for your sin if you remain in them? May I appeal to you, flee from your sin. Flee to Christ. He will not turn back any sinner who goes to Him for salvation. Will you not go to Him? Why will you perish? Whosoever believes in Christ will have everlasting life.
(2) Secondly, let me address you who profess to be believers. Over the years, I have come to realise that many who profess to be Christians are not truly converted.
I do not wish to make you doubt your salvation. But I want to remind you that all true believers are justified by grace through faith. And I want to remind you that professing Christians throughout the generation have fallen into two errors vis-à-vis the doctrine of justification. On the one end of the error is antinomianism. Those who fall into this error assume that because they once prayed to receive Christ or were baptised as children, they are justified even though their hearts have never been changed and their life have remained lawless. But remember that though we are justified by grace through faith, this faith is not alone. Living faith testifies to its reality through good works or a holy walk. Are you walking with Christ with a heart of gratitude that seeks to please your heavenly Father out of love for Him?
But on the other extreme, there is the error of perfectionism. Those who fall into this error begin to doubt their salvation whenever they feel they have failed the Lord or have not walked as holily as they should. So they beat themselves and try to prove themselves that they are true believers by doing more and more to please God. They forget that they are accepted by the Father not because of their good works, but because of Christ. Are you a perfectionist? Trying to do your best for the honour of Christ in whatever your hands find to do is not wrong. But you are a perfectionist if, in trying to prove yourself, you begin to damage your health, relationship with your family, or your brethren in Christ. Remember that you are accepted in Christ. Walk gratefully before Him, but do not deny Christ by trying to win God’s approval by your works. Amen.