Paul has made his point that the Jew as well as the Gentile is a part of the body of mankind that is under the wrath of God on account of sin. Now he turns to explain how God has worked righteousness in this whole situation. This question of righteousness is at the heart of the gospel. You will remember that the gospel itself was described as where the righteousness of God is revealed (1:16).
We have seen also that, having brought both Jew and Gentile plainly under sin, the question of whether and how God would be righteous in such a fallen world has been introduced (3:4-8). This is natural enough, for God’s position in regard to man is now in serious jeopardy from the human way of thinking. If God has been so offended by the wickedness of man in refusing to honor Him as God that He has simply decided to given them over to their own wicked way, what reason do we have to think that anything more than this should be expected by us from God? He has given mankind over to their depravity! This was a strong emphasis of the first chapter, and the same point was made about the Jews in the preceding section.
So, when the Jews were shown to be included in that same condemnation and corruption, they would begin to wonder how this could consist with the many promises and offerings of hope held out to them throughout God’s dealings with them. Though they were given much grace, they too have proven unfaithful. What will God do with the covenant people now? They were supposed to be God’s means of bringing light to all the world, the vehicle of salvation for mankind. What will God do with His special creation, man, who was made in His very image? What hope is left? What will righteousness and faithfulness on the part of God mean and look like to such a fallen world?
Paul now tells us, and it is not what fallen man expected:
But now apart from law the righteousness of God has been manifested. (3:21)
God will indeed be found faithful, even if all mankind has been found unfaithful. He will be righteous even though every man is unrighteous and full of sin. This is part of the holiness and unparalleled glory of God. But, His ways are not our ways; they are much higher. Rather than seek righteousness through the law as all men would have expected, He instead finds a new manner of declaring, asserting, and accomplishing righteousness.
This was quite necessary because of all that has just been said about the sinfulness of man. All mankind, even God’s chosen people, have disappointed and fallen into sin. None of the means naturally turned to will be of any use, not even the law that God has given. If the law is sought as a basis for righteousness and justification on the part of any man, it will not go well for him. No flesh, you remember, will be justified by the law. Paul has just asserted this. We are all condemned, and so he reminds us again:
For all sinned and are lacking of the glory of God. (3:23)
For this reason, a new method of righteousness, one apart from the law, must be sought. We are now coming to the beginning part of what Paul said from the very start, that the gospel contains a revelation of the righteousness of God. That is, we are about to hear just how God accomplishes His righteousness through the gospel. It is a great mystery, and at this point in the argument, did we not already have knowledge of the gospel, we would be waiting on edge to find just how God is going to work righteousness among sinful men. The gospel message in Christ Jesus is a great “surprise” in one sense. It is a new and unexpected turn in how God works righteousness. With this great problem of sin, how will God find a way to accomplish righteousness? The answer is now revealed.
God finds this new means of righteousness not in the law, which could not accomplish it, but in the principle of faith, as Paul told us would be the case from the very start. He states again here the centrality of faith as the justifying principle of the gospel:
A righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all those who believe. (3:22)
God’s ways are above ours; His thoughts are higher than ours. We men would naturally assume that the path to our justification must necessarily be through our righteous works. God knows that this will never work for us, and He instead provides righteousness to us through faith in Jesus Christ. It is an unforeseen righteousness for us.
The main emphasis in Paul’s thought is upon how God works and acts to be righteous in fulfilling His promises and purposes for mankind. This is about how God will be righteous even though men have been so unrighteous. Of course, this has a lot to say about our side of the question of righteousness as well. Our part, so very importantly, in obtaining righteousness is not centered upon the fact that we must keep the law of God, for we have not done so and cannot do so. Rather, we are called to believe upon Jesus Christ and thus to obtain righteousness.
But how is it possible for us to be made righteous through faith in Christ. What exactly has He done for us to make righteousness possible? Just what is it that we are trusting Him for? Though Paul will not take as long to explain this as we might in our day, he nonetheless is going to give us the answer:
Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood unto a demonstration of His righteousness because of the letting go by of the sins committed beforehand in the patience of God, toward the demonstration of His righteousness in the present time, in order for Him to be righteous and making righteous the one who is of faith in Jesus. (3:24-26).
Without going into great detail and lengthy explanation, Paul tells us plainly that the blood of Christ was given as a propitiation towards God. God was angry with mankind, as we have seen. By the death of Jesus upon the cross, the anger of God was satisfied. This is the basic nature of the atonement that Christ made on behalf of men. We cannot be in God’s favor by doing righteousness; we are all evil by nature and incapable of pleasing God in this way. What we need is some way for God’s anger against our sin to be taken away, and that is what Christ has done by being the sacrifice and propitiation toward God.
This new method of being righteous and making righteous was very unforeseen by all men, and particularly by the Jew, though he was at least anticipating some act of salvation from the hand of God. When Paul begins this explanation by saying that this righteousness is apart from law and then here asserts likewise that this justification comes freely and by grace, the natural man is taken aback and the Jewish concept of righteousness is challenged strongly. How can it be possible to receive justification as a free gift of grace when we are guilty of much sin? If the law condemns us, is that not the end of the story?
Paul says that this is not so. Rather, he even appeals to the law and the Prophets as bearing witness to this means of justification. Though it is apart from the law, that is, it is not a righteousness that we have earned by keeping the law, yet it is born witness by the law (3:21), that is, the law itself speaks of such a means of justification to sinful men. Even in this great declaration of the propitiation in Christ’s blood, we see that Paul has not left sight of his purpose to declare this gospel as being for all men, namely, for both Jew and Gentile. He finds it important to assert that this righteousness, though contrary to the Jewish expectation of righteousness through keeping the law, is not in fact at odds with the law, but consistent with it. This will come back again into view yet more centrally at the end of the chapter and give rise to further argument from Paul. But here, Paul also adds and reaffirms that this righteousness is through faith for the important reason that there is no distinction with God between Jew and Gentile:
But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnesses by the law and the Prophets, but a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all those who believe, for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and are lacking of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace. (3:21-24)
Though this righteousness was not foreseen by men, either Jew or Gentile, yet the truth also remains that this righteousness could have been anticipated had a man been sensitive enough to the hints and indications and, even at times, direct statements of the law and prophets of God’s word. Yes, it is a very different way than that which was expected, but God had declared that He would be doing a new work. He had told us about the suffering of His Servant who would come and how He would take our sins upon Himself. Though this greatest of truths was not often revealed with clarity, yet at times it was, and it could have been seen and can now be seen to have a witness in the law and Prophets. The Jew need not feel at all that God is being unfaithful to His word. Rather, this is the vindication itself of God’s faithfulness to it, and that for all men.
As we said, Paul will return again in a few short verses to the universal nature of this method of justification, but one more point of emphasis remains here concerning this fact. We have likely all often heard and even memorized the great statement of Romans 3:23 that all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And though this verse is naturally understandable in its correct meaning, yet perhaps it is not often grasped how central is the emphasis upon Jew and Gentile in this very statement.
When Paul says all men have sinned, this is an explanation that flows right out the preceding words that there is no distinction. What sort of distinction does he have in mind? He is talking about a distinction between Jew and Gentile, as we have seen so clearly throughout the whole argument. He is making plain that this righteousness opens the doors for all men to be justified, which is so necessary because of the universal fact of sin: All men, both Jews and Gentiles alike, are condemned by the law, guilty of sin, and in great need of a different method of justification.
Even as I write this explanation of this great section of God’s word, I am amazed at the measure of emphasis given to the various parts of the argument here. As I write, I feel a need to move quickly and spend much time explaining those wonderful truths that are considered to be (and rightly so in many ways) the centerpieces of the argument of the gospel: The propitiation in Christ’s blood; His vicarious suffering; the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; the justifying of the guilty. These are indeed grand themes, but what strikes me here and now is how relatively short Paul’s treatment of them is. All of these grand ideas are lumped together in verses 24-26 in a mere stating of the fact without elaboration.
You might expect that Paul would stop and take a fair bit of time to work out some of the full meaning of these ideas. Such important concepts require time and words and elaboration to lay before our minds. But this is not what Paul does. He will spend whole extra chapters throughout the book explaining how the gospel must necessarily be true for the Jew as well as the Gentile (such as the whole of chapter 2 and most of chapter 3 before now and all of chapter 4 that follows), but he does not even give the beginnings of such a fuller explanation to his few words in these verses that contain so much wonderful truth of the gospel.
This fact must be noticed and given its due consideration when we try to understand Paul’s message in this great book. He is concerned to lay out the basics of the gospel truth, but if we take seriously at all the amount of time and words that he spends on each theme, then it will become clear to us that his main focus is upon the gospel as it relates to the whole world, both Jew and Gentile universally. He is burdened to show that God is saving the whole world through the gospel of Christ, and that this gospel is just as necessary for the Jew as for the rest of the world.
What is the content, then, that Paul briefly sets before us as the nature of this new method of righteousness? First, that men are justified freely by grace. This is in stark contrast with a righteousness that comes by keeping the law and thereby has a legal claim to righteousness. Such is not the way any man can be found righteous; it must be freely by grace.
How can such a free grace come? It is through the redemption that is found in Christ Jesus. He has set us free. We are no longer under the terrible condemnation of sin and the wrath of God. We are redeemed from our dire situation in which we had no hope. Redemption is such a profound and rich concept, and Paul here uses it as the key word to sum up what Christ has done for us.
How has this redemption been wrought? God set Him forth as a propitiation in His blood. That is, the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross has appeased God’s wrath. This is important and central because Paul asserted at the very start that the wrath of God has been revealed against all sin. This starting point of God’s wrath, then, is now brought to a conclusion as Paul states how that wrath has been addressed. God has made a sacrifice in His Son that achieves the satisfaction of that wrath.
This atoning sacrifice of Christ in His blood serves as a demonstration for all to see how God is indeed righteous. Here, the phrase “the righteousness of God” takes the meaning of the idea that God Himself is righteous in His ways; He cannot be condemned of doing wrong. What might give rise to such an idea and thus require a public vindication of God’s righteousness? Paul states that the cause is God’s long overlooking of the sin of men, apparently without great concern. Near the very outset of the story of mankind, God then once demonstrated upon the whole world His wrath against their wickedness when He destroyed all mankind with the flood. However, since that time, God has chosen not to so act again upon this earth until the final day. He made that vow to Noah after the flood had subsided.
However, this is not to say that God has no concern for sin. Such would be a great folly and mistake to think. Nonetheless, there is some pretext for thinking that way since God had not fully revealed His wrath in that way again. Now, however, all the overlooking of sin is understood better, for God has shown His wrath against it by bringing to bear the full brunt of it upon His Son, crushing Him upon the cross. This reveals once and for all that God is a God of righteousness and justice; He will not leave sin unpunished. God was patient with sinful men; He did not smite them immediately for their wrongs. He has given time and opportunity for repentance. He does not wish for them to perish. But sin must be punished, and it has been. God is righteous.
By this marvelous and terrible act, God has made possible the justification of sinful men without the violation of His own righteousness. This is Paul’s final statement on the matter: God is just and able to justify sinful men through faith, which remains still and always at the center of the whole picture. There is a marvelous wonder to this method of justification that brings us all under God’s grace when we had no hope of justification under the law.
Paul has now laid down the great truth of God’s righteousness in its first principle in the gospel. God’s righteousness is not through the law, but apart from it in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a righteousness granted to men freely through faith. Sinful men can be justified freely, and so they must be or not at all. Paul thus asks,
Where, then, is boasting? (3:27)
It has been locked out. Through what sort of law? Of works? No, but rather through a law of faith, for we reckon a man to be justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God only of the Jews? Not also of the Gentiles? Yes, also of the Gentiles! Since God is one, who will justify the circumcision from faith and the uncircumcision through the faith. Therefore, do we nullify the law through the faith? May it never be! But rather, we uphold the law. (3:27-31)
Because men are justified freely and not by merit of their works, none can boast. In its purest and most absolute sense, how wonderfully true this is! There is no man on earth who can boast before God, for none is righteous unless it be through the free grace of God found in Christ.
But do we yet understand Paul’s purpose in these statements? Are we learning yet to anticipate just where he is headed when he says such things? Does it still surprise us that he turns immediately again to the concept of the law and the question of the Jew and the Gentile? Who is it that would have a boast so far as Paul’s focus is concerned? It would be the Jew, if he truly could be justified by the law as he would like to think. It is the Jew whom Paul has already exposed as boasting falsely in the law (2:17, 23). It is Abraham, the father of the Jews according to the flesh, whom Paul will now consider in relation to the question of boasting (4:1-2ff).
Paul is busy making it clear that the Jew has no boast over against the Gentile as having in the law the key to his own justification. Such is not the case; he has no boast, for justification cannot come through the law.
If it could, in fact, this would mean that God was not God of all men, Paul argues. If God had provided justification through the law, He would have provided it only to the Jews, for only they had been given the law in that sense. No means of justification can be considered that would only be available to one small segment of the world. God is the one true God of all men. God is but one God, and He is Lord of all the universe. His ways are for all men.
The way in which Paul here argues this point is very insightful for us. Paul is fundamentally committed to the idea that God is a God of all men. He created all, cares for all, loves all, and is concerned with the salvation of all men. Whatever the gospel has to say about salvation, Paul assumes that it must necessarily be true for all men upon this earth. If this were not so, Paul would have to abandon this obvious truth that God is the God of all mankind. We are beginning to see more and more why it is so important for Paul to show that the gospel is universal. If it were not so, God would not be the true God who He is.
And who is God, after all? Paul has in mind a very important foundational truth that has been revealed to mankind about God: “God is one.” This foundational and wonderful truth of the uniqueness and unity of God, which is taken straight from the fundamental teaching of the Jewish Scriptures themselves to make the point, ought to be sufficient to teach us that God would not treat one part of mankind differently from another in the essentials of their eternal fate. All men are in the end equal before God and will be treated as such. God will treat the Jew in the same way as the Gentile. If either is to be justified, it will be through faith in Christ, not works of the law.
This is indeed a difficult truth for the Jew to accept. Paul has had to labor long to convince the Jewish mind of this fact, and he is not done with that labor yet by a long stretch. The Jew might have a very reasonable claim, ostensibly, to be in quite a different position of privilege than the Gentile. Did not God choose them to be His special people, His special treasure upon the earth? Did not God Himself declare that, though all the world was His, Israel would be His in a special way? Was that not God’s own declaration that there is indeed a fundamental difference between Jew and Gentile?
So would run the proud thought of the Jew, and so Paul must tear down this false understanding of God’s promises to the Jews. This is a theme that is very important in the whole of Paul’s argument, as we have already seen and will continue to see. It will do us well to see it plainly now and take good note of it. It will help us much when we come to the great concluding section of the theological portion of the epistle in chapters 9-11. In fact, many of the themes we have already seen will be of help to us as we continue on in our study of the flow of Paul’s thought and argument: The Jew and the Gentile are both in one condition before God; the law has not given the Jew a means of self-justification; God has not chosen the Jew to be above and over the Gentile in any essential way; there is an advantage given to the Jew in that the law and circumcision are indeed of surpassing value; but the true Jew is to be understood spiritually, not carnally and physically; the true Jew might just as well be an uncircumcised Gentile who by faith follows the ways of God; it is only by faith that any man is a true follower of God and receives justification; the Jew has misunderstood God’s ways and promises, and he must accept his position before God to be the same as that of the Gentile, the gifts of the law and covenant notwithstanding; he must give up his boasting and be humbled before God and His grace; God has indeed called the Jews and set them as His special people to bring redemption to the world, but the fulfillment of that purposes has taken place in a way that is very different from what most of them expected.
All of this might seem to the Jew like a great undermining of the truth contained in God’s law. It is not, but the Jew needs help to see the folly that many generations of tradition and thought has bred into him as national pride and arrogance in how they presumed upon God’s grace. Once more Paul is ready to turn to the law itself as demonstrating these great facts that he is asserting concerning the gospel. He will once again have a two-fold focus: That the basic truths of justification by grace and faith are found in the Old Testament itself, and that these Jewish Scriptures also themselves testify that the Jew and the Gentile alike are the objects of God’s mercy and grace, not the Jew alone. Chapter 4 will be devoted to demonstrating that from the Old Testament in order to convince the Jew and reassure the Gentile.