Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 3:19–23
(Read vv. 19–31) Ever since college, I have loved the Book of Romans. It is so rich, so practical, and so foundational. But I also appreciate the fact that Romans has a clear and logical outline. I love that because I like organization, and I like logic. So, I love the fact that Romans has obvious puzzle pieces, and it’s easy to see how they fit together.
This morning we are going to cross one of the most important hinge points in this outline. Specifically, during the last 8 sermons of the series, we’ve seen the bad news of 1:18–3:20. Paul has been arguing that all people are guilty before God; therefore, they stand under his wrath, awaiting his judgment in hell. It’s heavy stuff to ponder. I doubt that the past 8 sermons will earn me an invitation to appear on Oprah.
Today, we’ll finish this section by looking at vv. 19–20, where Paul pulls it together into a clear, concise, but sobering conclusion. But it’s often been said, “The night is darkest just before dawn,” and this is true of Romans because v. 21 suddenly shifts from the darkness of wrath and condemnation to the glorious light of God and hope in Christ. 3:21–8:39 are great news which describe how God rescues sinners from sin and death and will someday bring them into unimaginable glory.
So, today we are going to make a huge transition in our study. But we must begin with…
I. The Bad News (vv. 19–20)
Remember that one of Paul’s biggest hurdles to proving universal sin and condemnation is proving that even very religious, moral people like the Jews are also sinners who stand condemned.
That’s still a challenge today. The people most resistant to the gospel are usually not people broken and messy lives; it’s people who think they have life together. They can’t imagine that they have a problem and need anything from God. Therefore, we saw last Sunday in vv. 9–18 that Paul responded by appealing to the Jewish Scriptures, the OT. Verses 10–18 string together several OT quotations which affirm the depravity of all people, including Jews. The first and last verses are especially blunt (vv. 10, 18).
Verses 19–20 follow with a couple important conclusions from the quotations but also from the entire section. The first conclusion is…
We have no defense (v. 19). Again, the Jews were God’s chosen people, and most of them at least appeared to be must godlier than the Gentiles around them. Like many religious people today, they couldn’t stomach the idea that they were just as condemned as the pagans around them.
So, Paul goes right after this issue by saying, “Now we know…” This is a sneaky important point because the Jews would have responded to the quotations in vv. 10–18 by saying, “Yeah, that’s all true (It’s in the Bible after all), but God was talking about Gentiles, not about us.”
Paul responds, “No, no, no. The OT was primarily addressed to the Jews; therefore, these quotations apply to Jews just as much as to Gentiles. The Bible condemns everyone, not just pagans. Both Jews and Gentiles are sinners.”
Therefore, notice Paul’s conclusion, “So that every…” The terms Paul uses here and in the following verses indicate that Paul is picturing a courtroom. So, think of people as the defendants and God as the judge.
The OT Law is the prosecutor. It has set the standard of what God demands, perfect righteousness. And in the previous quotations the Law states that all people fall short. The Law finishes its case, and the prosecution rests.
Then God the judge turns to humanity waiting for its defense. But we don’t have one. Verse 19 says, “every mouth may be closed.” There are no holes in the prosecution’s case, there’s nothing to clarify, and there are no legitimate excuses for our sin. All the defense can say is, “I have nothing to say. The defense rests.”
Now, we all like to play lawyer when we are confronted. Even when we clearly are at fault, we can come up with some creative excuses as to why it’s not my fault. For example, “Yeah, I told a lie, but God understands why I did it.” “Sure, I lose my temper, but at least I’m not as bad my dad was.” “I guess I don’t honor my parents, but they have problems too.”
Maybe you are hoping that God will accept these kinds of excuses from you someday and that he will welcome you into heaven. If that’s you, please hear what God says. Every mouth will be stopped. No human defense will withstand God’s perfect justice.
Therefore, the result is, “All the world…” We are all guilty in God’s courtroom; therefore, we are all subject to his condemnation. This includes you. We are all liable for God’s sentence of death. Please do not think you are the exception. Then notice the 2nd conclusion in v. 20.
We have no solution (v. 20). Verse 20 restates what Paul already said in v. 20—that all people are guilty before God and accountable to his judgment. But it also adds a couple new elements.
First, it emphasizes the fact that there is no human solution to our plight, “By the works of the…” “Justified” is a legal term, and it continues the courtroom analogy from v. 19. It specifically refers to the judge’s declaration that the defendant is not guilty and therefore not liable for punishment. Of course, that’s what every defendant wants to hear. He wants to escape punishment.
So, v. 20 once again asks, “Will any Jews be declared ‘not guilty’ at the judgment of God based on their observance of the Law? Will getting circumcised, obeying food laws, offering sacrifices, and loving your neighbor justify any Jews at the final judgment?” We could ask the same questions of any religion or moral system.
Paul puts this in a Jew-centric form by mentioning the “works of the Law,” because the Jews were his primary objectors. But we could also ask if Muslims will be saved by the Muslim ethic? Can Protestants or Catholics be saved by their moral systems? What about Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and broadly spiritual people? Will anyone earn entrance into heaven by their good works?
God answers, “Absolutely not.” If you think you will be reach heaven because you are a good person, a good Christian, or very spiritual, you are wrong. You cannot be justified by your good works.
So, please come to the end of yourself. Admit that you are not righteous; instead, you are guilty. I know that’s hard to do, but it is the only way you can truly rest in the glorious news that is coming shortly.
The second new element in v. 20 is that the Law can only produce “the knowledge of sin.” We should understand this very personally. The Law shows me that I am sinner.
This is because the law reveals the perfect standard of God’s righteousness. And when I try to attain it, I realize that I will never reach this standard in my own strength. Therefore, the Law doesn’t just prove that sin is real; it shows me that I am a sinner.
This sounds awfully negative, right? Didn’t God write the Law on Mt. Sinai? Isn’t the Law good? How can it serve such a negative purpose? Of course, this is not the only purpose of the law. It served many good and wonderful purposes, especially among those who were truly born again. We’ll talk more about this later in the series.
But the law also reveals sin (7:12–14). The Law is “spiritual,” but without Christ, I am “sold into bondage to sin.” Yes, that’s painful to hear, but we need to hear it because I will never truly repent and trust wholly in Christ unless I realize how desperately lost I am. You will never appreciate the light of the gospel unless you first see the darkness of your heart.
I hope that all of us have reached this point. I hope you can admit that you have nothing to offer God. You have no defense and no solution. You deserve God’s judgment, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it. Please come to the end of yourself and admit who you are without Christ. Because only then will you be free to truly appreciate the good news in v. 21ff.
II. The Good News (vv. 21–23)
Pretty much everyone agrees that vv. 21–26 are the central verses of Romans, if not the entire NT. Martin Luther called them, “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.” That’s quite a claim. It’s because this passage succinctly and very specifically defines how God saves.
Therefore, if you master this passage, you are well on your way to understanding what Jesus did on the cross and the foundation of man’s relationship to God. So, I hope that you will really pay attention today and next week. That said, vv. 21 –23 affirm 3 very important gospel truths. First…
God credits his righteousness. Again, the “but now” that begins v. 21 signals a huge and exciting shift. The suddenness of the shift makes it all the more forceful. Specifically, v. 20 ended hopelessly with the fact that the can only bring knowledge of sin but no salvation. “But now…the righteousness of God has been manifested.” The story suddenly shifts from hopeless to hope-filled.
But what exactly does Paul mean by the “righteousness of God” which is “apart from the Law”? Verse 22 clearly tells us that Paul is not simply describing God’s righteous character (read). Paul is clear that he is talking about something that God gives to people through faith instead of through obedience to the Law.
As such theologians have often described this as an “alien righteousness.” They don’t mean that it comes from Marvin the Martian. That wouldn’t be very helpful! Instead, it is alien in the sense that it foreign or outside me. It comes from somewhere else.
So, I am not righteous, but by faith I can receive an alien righteousness. And not just any righteousness, the righteousness of God. God credits his righteousness to me.
This radically changes the courtroom scene of vv. 19–20. In my righteousness, I’m guilty, and my mouth is stopped. But what if God judges me based on his righteousness? Will his righteousness be declared guilty or not guilty? Not guilty every time!
Throughout Romans 3–5 (and plenty of other places in his writings), Paul calls this declaration justification. Notice the contrast between v. 20 and v. 24. Verse 20 says, “No flesh will be justified (or declared righteous)” by “the works of the Law,” but v. 24 says we can be “justified as a gift by His grace.” How is that possible? Again, it’s because he gifts me his righteousness, and I am judged by it instead of my sin. It’s an incredible gift.
Now, it’s really important that we understand exactly what God gives us because this is fundamentally where Luther divided from the Catholic church, and it is fundament difference between the gospel and every legalistic religion on the planet.
Wayne Grudem states, “The Catholic view may be said to understand justification as based not on imputed righteousness but on infused righteousness—that is, righteousness that God actually puts into us and that changes us internally and in terms of our actual moral character. Then he gives us varying measures of justification according to the measure of righteousness that has been infused or placed within us.”
So, they understand Paul to be saying that God gives me righteous character so that I can earn acceptance with God. But v. 24 says that justification is a gift; it’s not something I earn even with God’s strength. Notice as well 4:5. God does not justify me based on my work but by my faith. And furthermore, he does so while I am still ungodly.
Therefore, Grudem summarizes the Protestant, and I believe biblical meaning of justification as, “An instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.” I would add, while we are still sinners.
That’s apparent in v. 21 because Paul says God gifts his righteousness “apart from the Law,” meaning apart from our works. We don’t earn it; he simply declares it. And once God makes this declaration, Paul will later say that it is forever so (8:1, 33–34). Since I am in Christ, no one will ever be able to condemn me.
This is a wonderful assurance and comfort. I don’t have to earn God’s favor, because it’s already mine in Christ. And I can never lose God’s favor because God will never be displeased with his Son. So, I know that I will be in heaven someday. Praise God!
Then notice that all of this is a new revelation for this age based on the finished work of Jesus, but God always said it was coming. Verse 21 begins, “but now.” Paul is talking about the church age, the time following the death and resurrection of Christ.
God has always saved people by grace, but imagine how much easier it is for us to rest in the finished work of Christ than for David. David knew God would provide a perfect sacrifice. Paul says this salvation was “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” God had said Messiah would die for our sins, but it’s certainly easier for us because we can look back. We know exactly how God finished the work. Every Christian should give thanks every day for the assurance of being in Christ, justified by his righteousness. But maybe you are wondering how does this incredible gift become mine? The 2nd gospel truth is…
Justification is available by faith (v. 22). It’s important to emphasize that justification does not belong to everyone; instead, it is only applied “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This does not mean that my faith ultimately saves. God saves, but his salvation becomes mine by faith.
I like how John Murray put it, “Regeneration is an act of God and of God alone. But faith is not the act of God; it is not God who believes in Christ for salvation, it is the sinner. It is by God’s grace that a person is able to believe but faith is an activity of the on the part of the person and of him alone. In faith we receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation” (p. 106).
It’s also worth emphasizing that saving faith has a very specific shape. Lots of people have faith in lots of things. They believe in a higher power. They believe in God. They want God to be part of their lives. Maybe they want to give God a try. None of that is what Paul is describing. No, saving faith is “faith in Jesus Christ.”
I like how John Murray describes 3 essential elements to saving faith.
Knowledge: You must know the essential truths of the gospel to have saving faith. You must know who God is and who Jesus is, that you have violated his will, and what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection. You must know the gospel. 2nd, saving faith requires…
Conviction: Murray states, “We must not only know the truth respecting Christ but we must also believe it to be true.” Specifically, faith believes that the gospel not just true in general; it is true and applicable to me. Murray adds, “Christ is exactly suited to all that I am in my sin and misery and to all that I should aspire to be by God’s grace. Christ fits in perfectly to the totatality of our situation in its sin, guilt, misery, and ill-desert.” 3rd…
Trust: “Faith is knowledge passing into conviction, and it is conviction passing into confidence. Faith cannot stop short of self-commitment to Christ, a transference of reliance upon ourselves and all human resources to reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. It is receiving and resting upon him” (Murray, p. 111).
Have you ever received Christ? Are you resting upon Christ and Christ alone? You don’t have to carry the weight of trying to earn your way to God. That’s good because we already saw that you can’t. Instead, you can rest in the finished work of Christ as fully sufficient to save you from your sin and to give you a place in heaven.
You can make the decision to trust in Christ right now. Romans 10:9–11 tell you what that looks like (read). Tell God that you believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. Tell him that you cannot save yourself, but you believe that Jesus can save you, and ask him to do just that. If you do that, God promises, “You will be saved” and you “will not be disappointed.” If you’ve never done that, I hope you will do it right now in your seat. If you have questions, please ask after the service. But you may think, “Pastor, I’ve done some really bad things. There’s no way God would save someone like me.” I’m glad you mentioned that because the 3rd gospel truth is that…
Justification is available to all people (v. 22b–23). Since Paul just said that justification is available “through faith,” we can assume that the emphasis in the last clause is on “ALL who believe.”
Considering the context, Paul is especially concerned about Jews and Gentiles. God is not a racist. He welcomes and encourages people from every nation. He loves them all equally.
And v. 23 supports this fact by adding that all who believe can be saved because “All have sinned…” The Jews would have a hard time with this. They thought they were far superior to the Gentiles around them. But God says it doesn’t matter how you compare to people; what matters is how you compare to God’s righteous and holy glory.
In this regard “all have sinned”; therefore we are all constantly falling short of God’s glory. This includes us all, even the most mature saints among us. We constantly fall short of the only standard that matters. So, if you still believe that you are righteous, and you don’t need salvation, please hear what God says. Everyone without “distinction” sins and falls short. We all need salvation.
And praise God that v. 22 says it’s available to all without distinction. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, and what you have done. Christ will save any who believe. So do that. Believe on Christ today and be saved. Give up on getting there yourself. Leave behind whatever idols you serve ahead of God. Confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, receive him and rest in him. It’s the most important decision you will ever make.
If you are saved, don’t forget the bad news. God loved you when you were his enemy and you rebelled against his will. He sent Jesus to die in your place, and he removed your sin. Now you stand in the righteousness of God.
You can’t boast in any of it (v. 27a). But we can boast in Christ and give thanks for all that he has done. From there, continue to rest in him. Maybe you came into church feeling crumby because of how you sinned this week. It matters, but don’t forget that your standing with God is fundamentally in Christ and not in you.
Finally, let’s be excited about what God has done, and let’s tell as many people as possible this week about how they can know this same great salvation.