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How is Man Made Right With God?

How is Man Made Right With God?

Understanding Grace Through Romans 3:21-26

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

If you look at any human relationship – any meaningful one at that – you will find injustice from either party. It is inescapable, humanity defaults toward relational injustice, not towards relational justice. We inflict harm to those we love, and those who love us. Humanity has a strange propensity to cause brokenness in relationships. We do this not just in our horizontal relationships, but in our vertical relationship with God. How is man made right with God? This is the question, the most important question anyone can ask. Therefore, the answer we come to must be correct. The question that all of humanity has asked, since time began. Life eternal hangs on our answer to this question. One may argue that this is the question scripture answers; in the Old Testament and New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, we find the redemption plan for humanity. Paul lays this out succinctly in Romans 3:21-26. In this text we will find; the need for saving, the means by which we are saved, the responsibility of humans for salvation, and what happened in order for us to be counted as righteous.

Over the years this passage has garnered some attention from notable scholars. John Piper calls this section of scripture the most important paragraph in the bible. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones also says these are the most important verses in the bible. The doctrine that this passage uncovers – that of justification – Martin Luther says, is “appointed for the rise and fall of the church.” That means where the church gets off to call itself ordained by God is whether or not it believes and holds true to the central idea in this famous paragraph. Martin also says this is, “the chief point of, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.”

What Paul writes to the church in Rome – here in the next five verses – shapes what Christianity is. These verses have changed the history of the world. They have caused, wars, how cultures act, and changed morality. But most importantly, they have saved thousands of souls who would have been lost. What Paul writes in the next five verses may very well be some of the most important words you will ever read, ever teach your children, your congregation, and/or your family. It is crucial that we understand them well.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—

Paul uses the language of But now. This is a clear contrast to what he was describing in previous verses. Paul just finished explaining how all humanity – under the law – will find guilt with God. Paul is moving from one era – under the law – to a new era; by grace, through faith, in Christ.

As we make this shift from the old era to the new, we make a shift from the wrath of God to the righteousness of God. Paul’s point is to try to show the church in Rome - and to a further extent all who would ever read this letter – that anyone who is made right with God, is made right apart from keeping the law. The law has done a bad job at justifying the Jews in the Old Testament. Here again we see the beauty of the Gospel. We cannot make ourselves right by earning salvation through works, but wholly by God’s grace alone. This does not mean that God’s law is void or insufficient. We (who are in Christ), still must acknowledge the law and desire to keep its commandments. Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Even though it was not through the Law and Prophets, the whole Old Testament foreshadows the coming savior and the way to become right with God.

22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Paul repeats the words the righteousness of God, to add clarity to the statement in verse 21. This is great for us who are a considerable distance from the New Testament writer. This gives us no room to question the subject of this verse. Christianity is left richer because Paul mentioned this clarifying phrase here.

Paul mentions the response of man to the justifying action that God does for us by mentioning faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. I believe that Paul does this to highlight the importance and availability of the universal nature of salvation.

For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Paul gives us a beautiful piece of theology here in 22b-23. We see here that just as all who are equally separated from God because of sin – those who are in Christ – are equally declared righteous in His sight. Sin and grace are the great equalizers in this world.

24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

When we blend the point of verse 23 and the new ideas about justification in verse 24 we see that the gracious nature of our justification shows the unworthiness of the recipient. The word justified – in the Greek – makes its first sighting in this verse. What we see in this verse is that even though all are guilty, all charges are dropped. This is the legal reality of our salvation.

The doctrine of justification is central to this passage. Unfortunately, this work cannot give any worthwhile explanation of this doctrine. Although, I cannot do this topic “justice,” I will try to give a brief summery here. Justification encompasses together forensically – legal affirmation of the righteousness of the believer – together with the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as the center of their acceptance.

The present tense of the word are, shows us that the legal verdict for the believer is not an eschatological one, but rather one that is made in the moment of belief.

The idea that this is by His grace, means that this is not something we could earn or even accept. God did this before we could ever recognize Him, thus emphasizing the reformed doctrine of unconditional election. God acted first to give us this gift. This is a gift, and the very nature of a gift is that it is not earned. To earn a gift transforms it into a payment owed for work done. The beauty in this is that we could do nothing to earn our salvation, but God who loved us, died while we were still in rebellion to Him. This only glorifies Him more and should make our hearts respond with worship for the One who died to take our place.

The Roman idea of redemption is an economical transaction. It means a liberation of a slave through a payment of a price. Typically, how this would work is, an affluent person would pay the price that a slave owed in debt, or was worth. Upon payment, the slave would be declared a free man, or woman. We understand that we once were a slave to sin and that we needed to be redeemed – set free – from that very sin. We then see that Jesus Christ is the only one who could provide such a payment for our freedom. On the one hand, the price that was paid (God Himself dying), far exceeded the worth of the object purchased (all who believe). While on the other hand, the price for sin and death required such a high price. In Western culture, we have a tendency to downplay sin, but in doing so, we downplay the price that had to be paid for sin and death to be defeated.

Never more rang true the words of the songwriter, Matt Boswel, “Our sins, they are many, His mercy is more.”

25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins

God put forth Himself as a propitiation to propitiate Himself.

The word propitiation carries the ancient idea of appeasement to a god. What we can understand is that Jesus propitiates the wrath of God the Father, the propitiated. God’s wrath has been tragically, downplayed, or played too highly. With that in mind, I would like to give – in my opinion – a neutral and more orthodox view of God’s wrath. The wrath of God is a reaction to the very opposite of God’s character. God, because of the holiness that is an essential part of His character, then must be put to fury or wrath in the sight of anything unholy. This comes from the Hebrew word in the Old Testament, ʾaph, occurring about 210 times. It is the word for “nose” or “face.” As weird as that is, the concept goes back to an idea of snorting, or wheezing as a sign of anger or disgust.

We should note that because one character within the Trinity, is appeasing the other, does not mean that they are acting against each other, or undermining each other’s will. They did this in unity, as planned before the foundation of the world.

The word blood harkens back to the Jewish festival of the Day of Atonement. Blood was seen as the life of an animal or a human. Therefore, this means, the very death – antithesis to life – of Jesus appeased the just wrath of God the Father.

Paul uses further Old Testament language when he refers to how God he had passed over former sins. This would have been understood by the original audience in Rome. The church in Rome was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Jewish portion was probably there because of the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, after Pentecost. These Jews would have clearly picked up the salvific overtones from the Passover, in reference to Israel’s physical salvation from slavery.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus

In this verse, Paul continues off of the idea in vs 25 of him passing over former sins. In this verse we see the why, or the intended action. God passed over former sins so that he could give - to those who believe – His righteousness. Paul then says so that, to show the reason why God did this action. God must be legally just, yet He desired to bring us back to Himself. In being the justifier of us, He maintained his legal righteousness.

Succinctly, Paul is explaining to the church in Rome how they are all separated from God – by nature and by choice. But man is made right with God, when Jesus propitiated God’s righteous wrath as a gift of grace to those who have faith in Him.

Barrett, Matthew. The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. 1st ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019) 223.

Boswel, Matt. His Mercy is More, Church Songs. (Nashville, Getty Music, 2016) Chorus

Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893) In Logos Bible Software.

Hodge, Charles. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1953.

MacArthur, John. Romans 1-8. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) 204, 207.

Martin Luther, Luther Bible, Margin at Rom. 3:22ff., quoted in Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 1st ed., 2218n1

Millikin, J. A. Wrath, Wrath of God. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003) p. 1688 In Logos Bible Software

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Edited by Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee. 1st ed. Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015) 221, 224, 227.

Piper, John. “PDI Celebration East Conference.” PDI Celebration East Conference. May 31, 1999.

Sproul, R. C. The Gospel of God: Expositions of Pauls Letter to the Romans. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1999) 75.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) Romans 3:21-26, John 8:34–36, John 15:10,

White, J. Justification. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003) p. 970

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