Romans 3:21-31- The Righteousness of God Through Faith
Explanation- The life that God desires us to live is one of faith. It has always been this way. Even when we look as far back as the account of Cain and Abel, we see that Abel’s offering was given in faith toward God and not through the works of the flesh as Cain sought to offer. It is for this reason that God has chosen to display His righteousness through the law of faith and not of works. Faith places its trust in God to perform that which man cannot do. It is an absolute acknowledgment of the supremacy and worth of Christ. This is the glorious reality that the Law and the Prophets pointed to, namely that God would count one righteous through the possessing of faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the law. The law can play no role in our justification, for as Paul says, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’ With this being the case, the law is useless in terms of drawing men unto salvation. All that the law can do for a man is reveal to him the sin that is present in his heart. Left to itself, the Law only increases the severity of our sin and leaves us deeper in the realm of hopelessness and despair. Without the intervening grace of God through the revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ, our condemnation would be irreversible.
God put forward Christ, ‘as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.’ When it came to the Puritans, it was believed that there are some words that should not be said without a ‘quivering lip.’ Propitiation was one of those words. Propitiation comes from the Greek word ‘hilasterion’ and is also translated as ‘mercy-seat’ in Hebrews 9:5. The mercy seat was the cover of the Ark of the Covenant upon which the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies once a year to offer atonement for the entire nation of Israel. This was to foreshadow the atoning work that Christ would accomplish through His death and resurrection. While the High Priest would make this atoning sacrifice yearly, Christ would once and for all provide a sacrifice for the people of God and forever bring justification to those who placed their faith in His work. In this act, Christ did not only take upon Himself the penalty of our sin but in doing so, He transferred His righteousness to us. Through this ‘transaction,’ we have now come to be seen by the Father as literally having the righteousness of Christ. He no longer views the treachery of our sin, nor does He reserve any wrath for us at the final judgment. The blessed hope and inheritance of the Son has been credited to our account, and it is a fixed reality. In light of this, our only hope, joy, peace, and assurance can be found in Christ. He has accomplished all things on our behalf and provided Himself as the ‘earnest of our inheritance’ (Eph. 1:14 KJV). This idea of an ‘earnest’ has a Hebrew origin and implies making a down payment as a pledge or promise to ensure security for the rest of a purchase. It is a guarantee that what has been paid for in part will eventually be purchased as a whole. Obviously, in the dealings of men, this was a matter of great integrity, so we can rest assured that when God, who cannot lie, offers an earnest, He will surely come through and keep His word.
Following the idea of propitiation comes the humbling reality that because (from an OT perspective) Christ would certainly come to be a propitiation for the people of God, God overlooked certain sins on the basis of faith in the coming Redeemer. This brings us to a great theological dilemma. Namely, that if God is just, then He cannot forgive us. Why is this? Well, simply put, if God has put forth His law, which is the standard of perfection, holiness, and righteousness that He Himself adheres to and expects of mankind, then any deviation from this law is a capital offense against the glory of God and must be punished. If God fails to punish even one sin, then He sacrifices His own just position and is disqualified from the seat of judgment that He holds. Even further, Proverbs 17:15 says that’ He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.’ Is this not exactly what God does? Does He not take a wicked man and declare him just? How then can God still be just and the justifier of wicked men? The answer is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When a man places his faith in Christ, God is legally able to declare that man just on the basis of another’s righteousness. If God were to declare us righteous on the basis of our own works, then He would be in violation of His own word. But if God, looking to Christ’s perfect righteousness, credits this righteousness to our account through faith in His work, God can legally dismiss our case and count us righteous in Christ Jesus.
In light of this, can there be any boasting on the part of man? Absolutely not! How can a man boast of something that is not His own? Our only boast can be in the work of Christ, which has been credited to us through faith. Any boasting in ourselves is excluded, and even more so, is an attack against the glory of God.
Application- Paul’s argument for righteousness apart from the Law is the foundation of Christian belief. As Jonathan Edwards put it, ‘You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.’ What may be offensive to some, is a great comfort to the believer who understands his fallen state before God. When a man comes to see his utter inability to escape from the clutches of sin, it brings great despair and sorrow. It is much like that which is illustrated in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ when Christian finds himself wallowing in the Slough of Despond. In this slough (or swamp) dwells all the scum and filth that come along with conviction of sin. ‘As the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul, many fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.’ These bring a man into great sorrow and desperation for deliverance. The Cross of Christ provides the precise remedy for such a malady. Through Christ’s work, we come to a place where we do not have to find our identity in our own filthy works but are able to find true and lasting identity in the person and work of Christ. This is the greatest hope and encouragement for man, and we would do well to meditate on such glory frequently.
 Bunyan, John, John Haysom, and James H. Thomas. The Pilgrims Progress: in Todays English. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1964, 18.