Found Righteous (Part 3)

Romans 3:21-31

Tom Pennington  •  February 28, 2016
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As we prepare our hearts this morning for the Lord's Table, I just want to come back to our continuing study of Romans 3:21-26. We continue to make our way through this magnificent letter of the Apostle Paul to the churches in Rome. And here in this paragraph Paul, for the first time in this letter, sets forth an explanation of justification. And as we have learned, justification is the doctrine that is at the center, the heart, the core of the gospel.

Now, in the first three chapters, Paul has already established that not one of us possesses an intrinsic righteousness. Nor do we have a righteousness that has been earned by our efforts, by our work, by our obedience or any other effort on our part. So in verse 21 Paul introduces us to a totally different kind of righteousness. Let's read it together, Romans 3:21.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

With those two little words "But now" in verse 21 Paul transitions from three chapters addressing our unrighteousness to introduce to us the gift of God's righteousness offered to us in the gospel. A righteousness that is God's own righteousness, as opposed to our righteousness, as opposed to any human righteousness, and it is from God; it is the righteousness of God. Notice, it becomes ours, verse 21 says, "apart from the Law." We don't get this righteousness by law keeping of any kind. Instead, it is the gift of a right standing or a right status before God, earned solely through the work of Jesus Christ alone. It is a righteousness that is given to the believing sinner through faith.

Notice in verse 24 Paul describes this receiving of the gift of righteousness as "being justified," being declared right with God. That's what it means to receive this gift of righteousness. So then, the gift of righteousness, the righteousness of God, describes what the Bible refers to as "being justified," verse 24, or what we call justification. Paul uses that word, as we'll see, in chapter 4.

But what exactly is justification? Well, I've given you several different ways to look at it. Let me begin this morning by giving you a couple of historic definitions of justification. First of all, the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Baptist Confession of Faith would be very similar, similarly worded. Here's what the Westminster Confession says, "Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified. And did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father's justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace. That both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners." Let me give you a shorter definition from the Shorter Catechism. "Justification," they write, "is an act of God's free grace wherein He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone." That is justification.

Now you'll notice that in both of those definitions justification is an objective event that happens outside of us. It is a legal declaration. It doesn't happen in us. It is a legal decision about us that actually happens in heaven in the throne room of God. So understand, it's something that happens external to us.

Now, let me give you a couple of examples from, sort of, common human life that help illustrate the objectivity of this declaration. If you've been married you've experienced this. On the day that Sheila and I were married we stood there and when her father, who was performing the ceremony, pronounced us husband and wife, nothing inside of me changed, my nature wasn't changed, but my life changed dramatically that day, because there was a legal declaration made about me. That's how it is with justification. It's not a change in me. It's a legal declaration about me.

Take the decision of a human judge. When a human judge renders a verdict of innocent or guilty, the defendant isn't changed internally. There's no change to his nature. Instead, it is an objective external declaration about his standing before the law. This is how it is with justification.

Now, file that away and let me give you a very important caveat. Very important. Although in justification nothing happens inside of us, you know that justification, as we've talked about, happens at a moment in time; it happens at the moment of your salvation. The moment you repented and believed you were declared justified, but it's not the only thing that happens at the moment of salvation. At the same moment that we are declared to be righteous there is something that happens inside of us. It's called regeneration. It's an internal change. It's when God gives us spiritual life. He makes us new. We are born again. Those are all pictures that are used of regeneration in the Scripture. We're a new creation. That happens in a moment in time.

You see, Christianity isn't about, sort of, doing your best to do better and turning over a new leaf. Christianity is about a divine change in which our natures are changed. That's regeneration. Logically, regeneration has to come before we believe and before we repent and before we're justified. Why? Because before that happens you're dead. Dead people don't repent. Dead people don't believe. So logically, God has to make you alive in order that all of this takes place. Chronologically, these events happen at the same moment in time. They can't be parsed, they're instantaneous, they happen at the moment of salvation.

By the way, justification and regeneration aren't the only two things that happen at the moment of salvation, there's also your adoption, you're adopted by God. At that same moment you are positionally sanctified. That is, you are set apart from sin unto God as His special possession. You are, from the moment of salvation, a saint. All of those things happen the moment you believe.

So justification then is part of what happened to you at the moment of your salvation. And justification is the judicial decision, it's the judicial act of God, in which He declared you, the believing sinner, to be righteous, to be forgiven and righteous because He credited to you the merit of Christ's perfect obedience and the merit of Christ's death for you.

Now, in the paragraph that we're studying together Paul explains justification. And he does so by outlining for us five key foundational truths about this great doctrine. The last time we studied Romans together we looked at the first two of these truths. Let me just remind you of them. Number one, justification has always been the divine plan. Verse 21, "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God," this gift of righteousness, "has been manifested." How? In the life and ministry of Christ. And specifically, according to chapter 1 verse 17, in the gospel. But this isn't some new plan. Notice Paul ends verse 21 by saying this is "being witnessed," present tense, "by the Law and the Prophets," by the Hebrew Old Testament. The entire Old Testament is constantly testifying that this is God's only way, it's always been His way, to make people right with Him. He's going to give us examples in chapter 4.

Secondly, we noted that justification is appropriated by faith alone in Christ alone. Verse 22, he says, I'm talking to you about "the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe." We noted that Paul intends here to make it clear that justification is appropriated; it's received by faith and by faith alone. I showed you throughout the Scripture where that's true biblically and I also gave you a number of quotes from early Church history to show this is what the early church understood the Scriptures to be teaching.

We are declared just before God because of the work of Jesus Christ. And the benefits that Christ accomplished in His death become ours solely by believing in Him and in what He has done, by faith. Faith, as I explained to you, is merely the means by which we receive the gift of a right standing before God. Faith is the cup in which we receive the water of justification, and God even gives us the cup. Paul adds, in verse 22, "it is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ." The gift of justification is found solely in a person. If you want God to declare you righteous you have to deal with Jesus Christ. That's the only place it's found. You have to come to Him. So justification then has always been the divine plan. It's appropriated by faith alone in Christ alone.

As we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Table, in just the few minutes we have, I want to look today at the third key truth that Paul identifies here. And it's this, justification is imperative for all people, justification is imperative for all people. Look at the middle of verse 22. After saying that God gives this righteousness to all who believe, he says, "for," this is introducing a reason, here is the reason that all who believe are justified,

for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Now, those words appear to be a kind of parenthesis in the flow of Paul's argument. In fact, let's just admit it, they don't seem to fit at first glance. I mean, after all, if you had just spent three chapters dwelling on the depravity and sin of man and you've now turned to talk about salvation, why would you reintroduce the issue of sin? Well, the truth is these statements are absolutely crucial to the flow of Paul's thought. What he's saying here is this, the reason the gospel promises the righteousness of God to all those who believe is because there is no difference, there's no distinction.

Now, in our individualistic age what comes to your mind is probably what comes to mine, and that is, there are a great many differences between us. There are a great many differences or distinctions among the people on this planet. There are distinctions like race and language, nationality, culture. Even those of us here this morning, we share a lot of things in common, but we are different in personality, in intelligence, in abilities, in socioeconomic circumstances, and the list could go on. So in what way are all men and women exactly the same? In what way is there no distinction between us?

Well, specifically, there are four ways. Let me give them to you very quickly. Number one, there is no distinction, no difference, when it comes to our moral state. We are all sinners. Paul has just spent three chapters arguing that. There is no difference in our moral state, we're all sinners. Number two, there is no difference between us in our standing or our status before God. This is related to the first one but different. Our moral state is the same, we're all sinners, and our status before God is all the same, we're all guilty, we stand under the verdict of guilty. Thirdly, there is no difference or no distinction in our need of justification.

And number four, in light of the first three, because there's no difference in our moral state, there's no difference in our standing before God, there's no difference in our need for justification, number four, there is no difference in what is required to secure our spiritual rescue. Notice what he says in verse 24, having said "there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We are justified then "as a gift by His grace."

There is only one way to be justified. There is no distinction in our need. There is no distinction in the means by which that need is met. Until you grasp that there is no distinction, no difference, that the best people on earth are no different in God's sight than the worst of people when it comes to their moral state and their standing, then you will never appreciate the truth of justification. Because you will begin, or continue I should say, to think of yourself as okay. Well, okay, I admit it Tom, I'm not the best person. I mean there are people who are better than I am; I understand that. And I do sin, but I'm not the worst person. And we grade ourselves on this relative scale.

Paul here brings sin up again as he talks about justification as a point of contrast. It's like the great Renaissance painter Rembrandt. I enjoy art and if you've looked at any of Rembrandt's paintings you'll see that he always has a central subject that is well lighted surrounded by darkness. A brightly lit subject framed in darkness. Why does he do that? To make the subject of the painting stand out. In the same way, Paul here presents the black background of sin in order to frame the beauty of the doctrine of justification even more.

So that brings us then to verse 23 and one of the most famous and well known statements in the Bible. Paul here summarizes, in Romans 3:23, God's view of every man. Notice how he begins, "for," that links it to what comes before. Here is Paul's proof that there is no distinction, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Notice, first of all, that it's universal, "all." Paul has really used that kind of expression a lot here in the early chapters. No one's excluded. You're not the exception, I'm not the exception. This is God's view of every human being, "for all."

Then he says "for all," literally, "all sinned." The tense of the Greek verb is not perfect, which would give us, "have sinned," it just says "all sinned." The tense here in the Greek language is like a still photograph. It's as if God gathered up our entire lives into a single moment. And then He took a picture of our cumulative past in order to capture our true nature on film. And the picture showed the entire character of our entire lives like this, "sinned." That's God's perspective.

You know, we, again, like to grade ourselves on a scale. We like to look at our finer moments. We like to look at those times we think we did something good. When God looks at the collective past of my life and of your life He sees it through one lens, "sinned." After all, how often do you have to do something in order to bear that label? How often do you have to lie before you're a liar? How often do you have to commit sexual sin or to lust before you're an adulterer? How often do you have to worship something other than the true God to be an idolater? You see, Paul's point in this word "all sinned" is to say we don't just commit individual sins, we are sinners. That's our character.

Paul adds in verse 23, "for all fall short of the glory of God." If the verb translated "sinned" is like a still photograph of our entire past. the tense of the verb "fall short" is like a video of the present. And on God's video of our daily lives, every one of us are continually falling short.

I can't think of this verse without thinking, this has nothing to do with my sermon, I just want you to know that, without thinking about a man at the college I attended who was known for malaprops. And one Sunday he got up to pray in a very formal setting and he prayed this, "Lord forgive us for our fallen shorts." Think about that for a moment. That is not what Paul means here, I just want you to know that.

What is he saying? What is this "falling short"? The verb means, some of you are just getting that, I hear chuckles. You'll never be able to read this verse again without that thought, I'm sorry. Okay, what does the verb "falling short" mean? It means, to fail to reach, to be lacking, to come short of. What is it that we lack? What is it that we come short of? Paul says, "it is the glory of God."

What does that mean? Well, there are two possibilities. Paul may mean that we continually fall short of God's approval. That's true. And that may be what he's saying here. In fact, this exact expression is used in John 12:43 where it's translated, "the approval of God." So he may be saying, we are constantly falling short of God's approval. I don't think so though.

I think he more likely means the second option. And that is, that we constantly fail to measure up to God's glory. We fail to arrive at God's standard of perfection. We fail to conform to the image of God. You see, you were made in the image of God. And you were made to reflect the holy moral character of God. That's why He created you. That's why He created me. But every day we live, Paul says, we just keep on failing. We keep on coming short of exhibiting the God-likeness for which we were created. "For all have fallen short of the glory of God."

When I was growing up Christians tried various ways in evangelism to explain, to illustrate the truth of this verse. If you grew up in a Baptist setting you're familiar with, this is one of the verses that's called part of the Romans Road, which is an attempt to express the gospel. Unfortunately, it left out justification usually, but was a bona fide effort to express the gospel and it started here in Romans 3:23, and if you were trying to get this verse across to an unbeliever you would illustrate it. You try to illustrate it to make it clear.

One popular way in the years I was growing up was to use the Grand Canyon. I used it myself in door to door evangelism. Here's how the illustration went. You're talking to a person who isn't a believer, you start with Romans 3:23, you say, "'For all have sinned and have come short of the glory of God.' Let me explain to you what that's like." I'd say, "The Grand Canyon is ten miles across on average, rim to rim. Suppose with me that there are several people trying to jump across the Grand Canyon. Now why exactly they would want to be doing that, I'm not sure, but let's assume for a moment that they are trying to do that, and first of all, here comes this person who is a little older, doesn't exercise very much, doesn't have a lot of energy, and they, sort of, take their best shot, and they don't get very far from the rim, you know, they get maybe six feet and shew, straight down. But then there's this athlete, real athletic type, you know, the marathon runner type and they get a running start and this guy jumps and he gets 30 feet before he falls to the floor of the Grand Canyon." I would say, "Our attempts, our human attempts to measure up to the divine standard, are like that. So what if one person can jump 30 feet, five times farther than someone else, with a width of ten miles that still leaves him 52,770 feet short. And that thud is coming either way. So there's no difference, 'all fall short of the glory of God.'"

Now, that illustration is okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but as I've grown in my own understanding of theology, I've realized, that illustration has two very serious problems with it. Number one, it implies that I can contribute my six feet or my 30 feet, and then God, He makes up the rest of the distance that I can't cover. That's absolutely contrary to the Scripture. Scripture says, I contribute zero, zilch, nothing, no feet, not one inch. I have no real righteousness at all. To use the illustration, I haven't left the edge, I'm still standing on the edge. I don't have six feet, I don't have 30 feet, I've got nothing.

The second problem with this illustration is that it assumes that people are actually trying to jump the Grand Canyon. That is, again in terms of the illustration, that they're actually trying to reach God. What we learned in chapter 3 earlier is that that is simply a lie, because Paul says there is none, zero, nada, that seeks God. Not anybody. So in reality, not only has the person not left the edge of the Grand Canyon, they're running the other way. So this is why justification is necessary for every person, because "all sinned and are falling short of the glory of God."

By the way, this is why the inclusivists, those who believe there is some other way than Jesus to get to heaven, are dead wrong. The only Buddhists or Muslims or Mormons in heaven will be ex-Buddhists, ex-Muslims, and ex-Mormons who have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone. And contrary to what Tony Evans has written, God isn't going to trans-dispensationalize anybody into heaven. In other words, you're not getting there because you're a sincere Muslim or because you're a sincere Buddhist. God receives only those who wear the righteousness of His Son. It's imperative for all people.

This is why world missions are imperative. This is why we send families to the other parts of the world. This is why some of you eventually should go. Because the message of the true and living God through His Son Jesus Christ deserves to be heard. It's why we must share the gospel with our family and with our friends. Paul says here, all men must be offered the gospel because all desperately and equally need it. There is no distinction. I have sinned. You know that. And you know in theory this, but let me just remind you, you have sinned. Moreover, in the mind of God, I am a sinner, you are a sinner. We've sinned again and again and again. And so, we cannot rely on our own goodness to get us into heaven.

But our problem is even more profound than that because God made us to share His glory, to reflect His own perfect moral character. But instead, the story of our lives is that we are constantly failing and we are constantly falling short of the glory of God. Our condition is really the same, there is no distinction.

This week I read a powerful quote by Bishop Moule. Listen to what he writes. "The prostitute, the liar, the murderer, are short of God's glory. But so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine and you on the crest of an Alp. But you are as little able to touch the stars as they." So in ourselves, we have as much hope of being right with God, of pleasing Him, of being accepted by Him as we have of touching the stars from the surface of this planet. Justification is imperative for all people.

But let me make it a little more personal. Let this truth settle into your soul. You need the gift of justification. You need it because you are no different. There is no difference between your moral state and the rest of humanity. You're a sinner. There is no difference between your standing before God and that of some murderous terrorist in the Middle East. You are guilty before God. You share exactly the same desperate condition as every other sinner on this planet. You are guilty, without hope, and as certainly headed to judgment and to eternal hell as you are sitting here this morning, apart from Christ. Therefore, there is no difference in what is required to secure your justification, to secure your being made right with God.

That's why he says, verse 22, "there is no distinction," verse 23, there is no distinction in our sinning, in our state, in our guilt, and therefore, verse 24, there is no distinction in how we're made right with God. We are all, those who are justified, are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." It's our Lord's redemption that we remember and celebrate in the Lord's Table. You take a moment and prepare your heart, confess your sin, thank God for justification, as the men come to prepare.

Our Father, those of us whose eyes You have opened, to whom You've given new life and allowed us to to know You through Your Son, Lord, our hearts are filled with joy and with gratitude and praise for what You have done in justification. Thank You that You have not only forgiven our sins because of Christ's death, but You have robed us in His perfect righteousness. You now treat us as if we had lived His perfect sinless life.

Father, we love You and we praise You and we thank You even for the Lord's Table that pictures what Christ did for us at the cross. Lord, may we who know You worship You in this moment. May our hearts be engaged in remembering our Lord and what He did and genuinely worshipping You.

Forgive our sins Father, not in justification, You've already done that, but Father, forgive us as children who have sinned against our Father, who have offended our Father. We want the communion that we enjoy with You to be uninterrupted, so forgive us, cleanse us, for Christ's sake. Help us to take our sins seriously, to confess each one that we know of. Father, cleanse us for Christ's sake.

Don't let any professing Christian, Father, take the Lord's Table today while holding on to some pet sin, some cherished sin, and make a mockery of our Lord's death for sin. May every Christian be willing to confess and forsake and then partake. And if not, Father, I pray that You would give them the respect for Christ not to take.

Lord, I pray for those here this morning who don't know Christ. Help them to understand the truth of the gospel in what they have heard and even in what they see in the Lord's Table as we remember His substitutionary death for all those who will believe in Him. And may they come to faith even today. So receive our worship now we pray, in Jesus' name, amen.