The Holy Spirit speaking through Paul took 64 verses to establish the sinfulness of all men and the wrath of God against sinners (Romans 1:18-3:20). These 64 verses contain the worst news ever! All men everywhere (regardless of how religious or irreligious) have suppressed the truth about God, broken the laws of God, and by each one turning to his own way, all have become useless to God. And God is holy, righteous, and just. Therefore God is most certainly going to pour out his wrath on every useless, truth-suppressing, law-breaking sinner.
God Himself has said that the wages of sin is death and that sinners must be banished to hell out of His presence and away from His glory. And here is the really bad news – we have already sinned against God so there is absolutely nothing we can now do to make ourselves right with God. Even if we were able to live in perfect obedience from now on we would still die and go to hell because of the crimes that we have already committed against a holy God and His righteous laws.
So if we stopped at Romans 3:20 then no one could ever be saved because there is nothing man can do to arrive at the righteousness of God or to justify himself in the sight of God. God’s own unfailing, always right, and totally reliable Word has already declared the sinful and wretched estate of all men. All have sinned and deserve to die and go to hell.
With nothing that man can do to make himself right with God – is there any hope? Since God is holy, righteous, and just then the holy, righteous, and just penalty for violating His Law must be upheld. So is there any way that God can forgive sinners without violating His holiness, righteousness, and justice? Is there a remedy? Is there a solution? Is there an answer?
Actually there is only one answer to the question: is there any way that God can forgive sinners without violating His holiness, righteousness, and justice – and that is through Penal Substitution. On man’s part his salvation was and is an impossibility. On God’s part man’s salvation is a possibility but only through one means – the substitutionary death of an innocent individual on behalf of the guilty in order to pay the penalty owed by the guilty and to impute the innocence of the substitute to the guilty. This is the Gospel; this is the good news; this is the only answer to the dilemma and God did not spare His own Son but delivered Him up for us all.
Our text begins with two very important words – “But now.” But now – looking back at the bad news that we are unholy, unrighteous, unjust, and unable to make ourselves right with God; that we are totally incapable of fulfilling and obeying the Law of God; that we cannot attain the righteousness of God by works of the Law; and with all hope that we might somehow be good enough to please God destroyed, we read, “But now!”
Against the dark and black backdrop of the bad news of our sinfulness and total helplessness God places His bright and brilliant diamond of His good news/Gospel with the words “but now.” But now – the good news (Romans 3:21-22)!
First, God’s righteousness doesn’t come by works (Romans 3:21)
Apart from the Law – The righteousness on which our justification depends is entirely apart from the Law. In other words no man can attain to the righteousness of God by keeping and obeying the Law because he can’t (Romans 3:20). So what we can’t achieve (the righteousness of God) by the Law, God imparts as a gift apart from the Law. What we can’t do God can do and did do! The way I see it we only have two choices – (1) we can attempt to arrive at God’s righteousness by our ability to keep His Law and fail or (2) we can arrive at God’s righteousness by His ability to keep His Law and then give His righteousness to us as a gift through faith.
If we attempt to arrive at God’s righteousness by our ability to keep His Law then what we would actually have would be a righteousness of our own derived from the Law and then the righteousness of man (my righteousness or your righteousness) would be equal to the righteousness of God. But if we cannot attain to the righteousness of God by our ability to keep the Law then we need the righteousness of God apart from the Law which is by faith.
If the righteousness of man is sufficient for his justification then the righteousness of God is unnecessary; the Law can give life; and the death of Christ was needless. If the righteousness of God is necessary; does not come through the Law; then the death of Christ was needed and there is no room whatsoever for the righteousness of man.
This is the ground and the basis for the Holy Spirit inspired explanation of the Gospel – we are justified by faith apart from works of the Law; the two do not and cannot mix; and there is no boasting whatsoever on man’s part because he had no part.
These two different methods of justification are irreconcilably opposed – the one by grace the other by works and they do not mix – “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). And the opposite is true – “But if it be of works, then it is no more grace; otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6 KJV).
So we are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone or we are not saved at all because we have not believed God and if we have not believed God then we have not received His righteousness because it only comes apart from the Law through faith.
The righteousness of God has been manifested – The righteousness of God is His divine righteousness; the standard by which we will be judged; the standard that must be met and upheld perfectly; the standard by which we must attain if we are to have eternal life; and the righteousness that He freely gives and imputes to those who have faith in Christ Jesus.
The righteousness God requires cannot be performed by sinful man – this is why it is apart from the Law. The righteousness of God is compared and contrasted to the righteousness of man with the righteousness of God being the only ground and basis for man’s justification and for God’s remaining just in the process. The righteousness of God by which we are justified and He is just is based on the righteousness of Christ in His perfect obedience to the Law of God.
For God to justify a man without upholding His own Law would make God a liar and unjust. So in the perfect life of Christ the precepts of God’s Law were magnified, upheld, and fulfilled by Christ. In the substitutionary death of Christ the penalty for violating God’s Law was magnified, upheld, and fulfilled by Christ. Therefore the Lord Jesus fulfilled the Law both in its precept and its penalty, and has magnified the law and made it honorable (Isaiah 42:21) so that God can be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
So apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested/revealed in that He justifies the ungodly based on the truth that His righteousness as found in His Law is given to us on the basis of the finished work of Christ fulfilling the Law which allows God to justify us by crediting the righteousness of Christ to us and thereby God remains just in the process with His own righteousness still intact. Therefore the righteousness of God comes to us by faith and not by works of the Law. That is why we read, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), and, “By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith” (Romans 3:27).
Being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets – The Law and the Prophets (the whole Old Testament Scriptures) testify that the righteousness of God comes by faith and not by the Law. Let’s go back to God’s courtroom and watch and listen as the Law and the Prophets are called to take the witness stand.
Law, did you witness to the truth that the righteousness of God comes by faith and not by the Law? Yes! I plainly stated that “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). I plainly stated that “they are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3). I gave the illustration of Abraham receiving Your righteousness by faith – “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) and I showed that faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:23). Also I spoke of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (Psalm 32:1-2).
Prophets, did you witness to the truth that the righteousness of God comes by faith and not by the Law? Yes! I plainly stated that “the righteous man shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). I plainly stated that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). And I plainly stated that “by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
God’s righteousness comes by faith (Romans 3:22)
Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ – a person is saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, apart from anything else. Even the Old Testament saints were saved by faith in Christ – although they didn’t know His human name. Speaking of the faith of Abraham – where we have read that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness – the Lord Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day, and He saw it and was glad (John 8:56). When Abraham believed God he believed God about the Christ (Galatians 3:16 compared to Genesis 15:5-6). There never has been and never will be any other way for men to gain the righteousness of God necessary for salvation other than through faith in Jesus Christ.
For all those who believe – both Jew and Gentile
For there is no distinction – all are sinners and all are in need of the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
God’s righteousness doesn’t come by works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ – this is good news! Our works can’t save us but His works can! The righteousness of God is unattainable and so far away that we could never get to it by our works. The righteousness of God is attainable and very near so that we can get to it by faith – “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:8-9).