In the opening chapters of the greatest letter ever written, Paul completely obliterates any thought of human righteousness. The conclusion to his dismantling of any thought of human righteousness is that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). God does not even consider one person as righteous in his eyes! What hope is there then for the unrighteous, for the entire human race? The hope is only found where God chose to reveal, provide, and demonstrate his righteousness—the cross of Christ. Let’s learn more about how Paul answers this universal problem in Romans 3:21–31.

Having conclusively proved the universal sinfulness of humans and their need for righteousness (1:18–3:20), Paul develops the theme he introduced in 1:17, i.e., God has graciously provided a righteousness that comes from him on the basis of faith alone (3:21–5:21).

We’ve adapted the rest of this article from the ESV John MacArthur Study Bible, 2nd edition.

God’s Righteousness Revealed

Paul begins to answer the universal dilemma he described in 1:18–3:20 with the words “but now” in 3:21. This is not a reference to time, but a change in the flow of the apostle’s argument. Having shown the impossibility of gaining righteousness by human effort, he turns to explain the righteousness that God himself has provided.

This righteousness is unique:

(1) God is its source (Isa. 45:8)

(2) it fulfills both the penalty and precept of God’s law. Christ’s death as a substitute pays the penalty exacted on those who failed to keep God’s law, and his perfect obedience to every requirement of God’s law fulfills God’s demand for comprehensive righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Heb. 9:28)

(3) because God’s righteousness is eternal (Ps. 119:142; Isa. 51:8; Dan. 9:24), the one who receives it from him enjoys it forever. This righteousness is provided entirely apart from obedience to any law (Rom. 4:15; Gal. 2:16; 3:10–11; 5:1–2, 6; Eph. 2:8–9; cf. Phil. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5). However, the Law and the Prophets bear witness to God’s provision of righteousness.

God provides this righteousness to all who believe. There is no distinction between mankind since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). This is a parenthetical comment explaining that God can bestow his righteousness on all who believe, Jew or Gentile, because all people—without distinction—fail miserably to live up to the divine standard.

God’s Righteousness Provided

The verb justified, and related words, come from the same Greek root (e.g., justification). They occur some 30 times in Romans and are concentrated in 2:13–5:1. This legal or forensic term comes from the Greek word for “righteous” and means “to declare righteous.” This verdict includes: pardon from the guilt and penalty of sin, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer’s account, which provides for the positive righteousness humans need to be accepted by God. God declares a sinner righteous solely on the basis of the merits of Christ’s righteousness. God imputed a believer’s sin to Christ’s account in his sacrificial death (Isa. 53:4–5; 1 Pet. 2:24), and he imputes Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s law to Christians (cf. Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). The sinner receives this gift of God’s grace by faith alone (Rom. 3:22, 25; 4:1–25).

Sanctification, the work of God by which he makes righteous those whom he has already justified, is distinct from justification but, without exception, always follows it (8:30). Justification is a gracious gift God extends to the repentant, believing sinner, wholly apart from human merit or work.

The imagery behind the Greek word for redemption comes from the ancient slave market. It meant paying the necessary ransom to obtain the prisoner or slave’s release. The only adequate payment to redeem sinners from sin’s slavery and its deserved punishment was “in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18–19), and was paid to God to satisfy his justice.

God’s Righteousness Demonstrated

This great sacrifice was not accomplished in secret, but God publicly displayed his Son on Calvary for all to see. Propitiation is crucial to the significance of Christ’s sacrifice. This word carries the idea of appeasement or satisfaction—in this case Christ’s violent death satisfied the offended holiness and wrath of God against those for whom Christ died (Isa. 53:11; Col. 2:11–14).

The Hebrew equivalent of this word was used to describe the mercy seat—the cover to the ark of the covenant—where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the slaughtered animal on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins of the people. In pagan religions, it is the worshiper not the god who is responsible to appease the wrath of the offended deity. But in reality, humans are incapable of satisfying God’s justice apart from Christ, except by spending eternity in hell (cf. 1 John 2:2).

God, in his forbearance, passed over former sins. This means neither indifference nor remission. God’s justice demands that every sin and sinner be punished. God would have been just, when Adam and Eve sinned, to destroy them, and with them, the entire human race. But in his goodness and forbearance (see 2:4), he withheld his judgment for a certain period of time (cf. Ps. 78:38–39; Acts 17:30–31; 2 Pet. 3:9).

God chose to show his righteousness through the incarnation, sinless life, and substitutionary death of Christ. The wisdom of God’s plan allowed him to punish Jesus in the place of sinners and thereby justify those who are guilty without compromising his justice (v. 26).

Justification by Faith Eliminates Our Ground for Boasting

Paul asks, “what becomes of our boasting?” (v. 27; cf. 4:1–2 and 1 Cor. 1:26–29). Paul’s point is that we have nothing to boast about because justification is a gift God has provided. His clear meaning is that a person is justified on the basis of faith alone (cf. 4:3–5). Since there is only one true God (cf. 1 Cor. 8:5–6), both the circumcised and uncircumcised are justified through faith.

Knowing he would be accused of antinomianism (being against the law) for arguing that a person was justified apart from keeping the law, Paul introduced here the defense he later developed in chs. 6–7. Salvation by grace through faith does not denigrate the law, but underscores its true importance. It does so:

(1) by providing a payment for the penalty of death, which the law required for failing to keep it

(2) by fulfilling the law’s original purpose, which is to serve as a tutor to show mankind’s utter inability to obey God’s righteous demands and to drive people to Christ (Gal. 3:24)

(3) by giving believers the capacity to obey it (Rom. 8:3–4).

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