Romans 3:21-31

Romans 3:21-31

SERIES: The Book of Romans

Acquitted:  The Legal Status of the Redeemed Sinner  

Introduction:  This may be the most important sermon I will ever preach at First Evangelical Free Church, so I invite your closest possible attention.  If you grasp the truths we are sharing today, it could change your whole perspective on the plan of salvation.  

For months now we have been bombarded by news of the sensational trial of O. J. Simpson in Superior Court in Los Angeles.  The jury has been sequestered and tomorrow morning the trial is scheduled to begin.  When all is said and done, the jury will have two choices:  they can declare Simpson either “guilty” or “not guilty.”  It is essential that we, as participants in the American judicial system, understand what those two verdicts mean and what they don’t mean.

If the jury returns the verdict “not guilty,” that does not necessarily mean that Simpson is not guilty.  In fact, acquittal in a court of law really says nothing about the moral guilt or innocence of the defendant; it merely says that the prosecution has been unable to establish beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of all twelve jurors, that the person committed the crime of which he is accused.  He may indeed have committed it, but the evidence may be deemed insufficient.  There have been many times in judicial history when a jury has been convinced that a defendant was guilty but was forced to declare him “not guilty” for lack of admissible evidence. 

By the same token, if the jury declares O. J. “guilty,” it does not necessarily make him guilty.  Many innocent people have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.  Legal declarations of guilt or innocence are exactly that—legal declarations!  They are not necessarily moral evaluations.  

Now this is extremely important for us as American citizens to realize.  But my sermon today is not about O. J. Simpson or the American judicial system—it’s on Romans 3.  However, there is a great and profound parallel between the legal status of a defendant who is acquitted in a court of law, and the legal status of a redeemed sinner before God’s bar of justice.  That status is wrapped up in one of the great theological terms of Scripture, namely justification.   I would like to suggest that being justified in God’s court of justice is very much like being declared “not guilty” in a court of law.  That’s not all it means, but that is the aspect we are going to emphasize today. 

I would like for us to think of the first three chapters of the Book of Romans as the transcript of a great criminal trial.  The entire human race is the defendant.  God is the judge and the jury.  From 1:18-3:20 the prosecutor has been amassing and displaying the evidence of mankind’s guilt.  He started with the unreached pagan, the one who might be thought to have the most excuses for his unbelief and his sinful behavior, and he knocks all the props out from under him by showing that the character of God and the basic moral law of God is known to him through nature and conscience, rendering him without excuse on the Day of Judgment.

Then the prosecutor took up the case of the ethical humanist; he too was pronounced lost and without excuse because he practiced the same sins as the pagan (albeit perhaps in a more civilized fashion) and viewed with contempt God’s kindness and patience.  Thirdly, the prosecutor called to the witness stand the deeply religious person.  In fact, he called up the most religious of all people—the orthodox Jew—and cross-examined him, demonstrating that he committed the ultimate sin of hypocrisy, his religion being outward instead of inward.  

Finally, the entire human race was put in the dock at one time, and the prosecutor charged that all were under the domination, control, and power of sin.  And in today’s text he sums it all up:  “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The whole human race is universally sinful, totally depraved, without excuse, and guilty before God.  

The prosecutor is finished, the verdict is assured, the outcome is inevitable.  Q.E.D., Latin for “the point has been proven.”  Now the Judge speaks, and with a clear and loud voice He says, “I declare you ‘Not guilty.'”  Suddenly pandemonium breaks out in the courtroom.  Some of the defendants are astonished, and in tears they cry out in gratitude to the Judge.  Others seem indifferent and confused, as though they are totally unaware of the gravity of the crimes of which they have been accused or the severe sentence they could have received.  Still others, believe it or not, show contempt for the Judge and question whether He had any jurisdiction over them in the first place.

The Judge strikes His gavel, and when the uproar dies down, He speaks in a tough but tender voice:  “I do not dispute the evidence the prosecutor has brought against any of you.  The case is watertight, to be sure.  Nor do I excuse your behavior.  Nor do I find any extenuating circumstances that might mitigate your guilt.  I do, however, exercise my prerogative as judge and declare you ‘not guilty.  Furthermore, because of the Law of Double Jeopardy, you can never be tried for these crimes again.  You may go now—you are free.” 

Immediately you ask, “How can a judge do such a thing, especially a righteous judge such as God?  How can He be righteous and at the same time declare the guilty, ‘Not guilty’?”  I’m glad you asked, for that is the very issue the Apostle Paul is addressing in our passage today.  Do you see the clause in verse 26:  “that He might be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  

That last phrase, “those who have faith in Jesus,” is, of course, the key to everything.  The Judge does not acquit all the defendants.  In a sense he offers them all acquittal, but there is a string attached.  Only those who have faith in Jesus are declared, “Not guilty!”  and released.  All the other defendants—the ones who are indifferent and the ones showing contempt—remain bound over for eternal sentencing.  

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.  Let’s go back to the word justification and make sure we all understand it.  The passage before us is a difficult one to outline, so what I have done is to outline the subject rather than the passage.  But first, let’s read the text, as found in Romans 3:21-31:

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. {22} This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, {23} for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, {24} and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. {25} God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— {26} he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 

{27} Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. {28} For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. {29} Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, {30} since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. {31} Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.”

What does justification mean?  

Justification addresses our legal status, not our moral character. From Romans 3:21 through chapter 5 Paul hardly even touches upon our moral character—he is almost exclusively concerned with our legal standing before God.  Beginning in chapter 6 he addresses clearly and directly the relationship between our legal standing and our moral behavior, between our justification and our sanctification.  But here in chapter 3 it is our legal status which is in view.  

Justification is a work of God, not a work of man No defendant can ever declare himself, “Not guilty.”  Oh, he can declare it, but it doesn’t mean anything.  In fact, every time in Scripture where a person tried to justify himself, he actually ended up condemning himself.  For example, in Luke 10:29 Jesus is speaking to a certain lawyer who has asked what he could do to inherit eternal life.  When Jesus tells him to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and ‘love your neighbor as yourself,'” we read, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And just who is my neighbor?'”  To that question Jesus responding by offering the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the man condemns himself with his question.  

In Luke 16 Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, who were lovers of money and scoffers at Him.  And He says to them (verse 15), “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.”  No one can justify himself; it is God’s work, not ours.  

Justification is a gift, not a reward.  (24).  One can’t earn justification by keeping God’s Law.  Verse 21 says, “But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.”  I must clarify something for us here.  The word “righteousness” and the word “justify” are the same word in the original language of the Greek New Testament.  Righteousness is the noun; justify is the verb.  In fact, every time you see the word “justify” you can substitute the words, “to declare righteous” or “to pronounce ‘not guilty.'”  

Now verse 21 says that the righteousness that comes from God is “apart from law,” and verse 28 adds that “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”  No person ever earned the verdict, “not guilty,” from God.  No person has ever kept the Ten Commandments with perfection or followed the other Old Testament or New Testament laws sufficiently to be declared righteous by the works of the law.

Rather justification is ever and always a gift.  Note verse 24:  “we are justified freely by His grace.”  The word translated “freely” here is a fascinating term.  It is a Greek word that is used two different ways in the New Testament.  Sometimes it means “without charge” or “freely.”  That translation makes good sense, and it may indeed be correct.  

However, this Greek term also can mean “without cause” or “without reason.”  It is used this way in John 15:25, where Jesus speaks of the hatred of the world toward Him and His Father, and then He quotes the Psalmist:  “They hated me without reason (or without cause).”  “Without reason” is the same term translated “freely” in Rom. 3:24.  Another relevant passage is Gal. 2:21, where the Apostle says, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”   In other words, if one could earn salvation, then Christ died without reason, without cause.  Same word. 

Now returning to Rom. 3:24, could this phrase mean more than simply “we have been justified freely?”  Could it possibly mean that we have been justified without cause or without good reason?  I think it does.  Have you ever asked your child following a particularly inane bit of behavior on his part, “Why did you do that?” and get the reply, “Because.”  Then you ask, “Because why?”  And how do they always respond?  “Just because.”  There is no good reason.

Friends, God says to us here that we have been justified because.  Because why?  Just because! There is no good reason why God was moved to declare us “not guilty.”  There was no good reason in our character or in our behavior or in our ancestry.  God didn’t have to.  There was no compulsion operating on Him.  He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.  He just did it.  And it’s not until we get it through our heads that justification is a gift, not a reward, that we will ever fully understand God’s plan of salvation. 

Finally, it’s time to give a formal definition to this term we have used so much already.

Definition:  Justification is a judicial act of God, whereby He declares, on the basis of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law have been satisfied with respect to the sinner who puts his faith in Jesus.  

There are a number of key words in this definition:

         judicial—we have already explained that this deals with our legal status before God, not our moral character (though we will see later in the book, it has a profound impact on our character).

         declares—God doesn’t make us righteous; He declares us righteous

         perfect sacrifice—Jesus didn’t save us through His perfect life or his profound teaching or His powerful miracles.  He saved us through His death on the Cross.

         claims of the law—not just the Mosaic law, but the entire moral law of God

         sinner who puts his faith in Jesus—not all sinners.  All have the opportunity, but all are not justified.

Having examined what justification means, allow me to ask and answer a second question:

What is the prerequisite for justification?  

What must you have before you can hear those fantastic words from Almighty God: “not guilty”?  The answer clearly is “faith.”  Now to explain this fully, I want to offer you two companion propositions which I believe are clearly taught here in Romans 3:

         Faith in Jesus Christ is the only prerequisite to justification.

         Faith in Jesus Christ is the sufficient prerequisite to          justification.

In other words, no one is acquitted without faith and no one with faith is declared guilty.  First, 

Faith in Jesus Christ is the only prerequisite to justification.  For me to prove this first proposition, I would have to take you through the entire Bible and show you that there are no other prerequisites mentioned, and obviously I can’t do that here this morning.  But I think we could expect Paul, in this most important of all discourses on justification, to mention any other prerequisites if there were any.  But he doesn’t.  Look at how many times, however, he mentions faith, or the verb “believe,” which is the same word in the original language of the New Testament.  

         v. 22 through faith 

for all those who believe

         v. 25  through faith

         v. 26  those who have faith in Jesus

         v. 27  the principle of faith

         v. 28  justified by faith

         v. 30  by faith

                  through that same faith

         v. 31  by this faith

         Plus 18 times in the next 22 verses.

There are those, of course, who tell us that other conditions must be met before a person can be justified.   For example, he must be baptized, or he must surrender to the absolute Lordship of Christ, or he must do good works, or he must confess each and every sin.  I find none of these to be prerequisites to justification.  Oh, some may be prerequisites to a full and complete Christian experience, but none are required in order to be declared, “not guilty.”  Faith is the only prerequisite offered.  

Faith in Jesus Christ is the sufficient prerequisite for justification.  Not only is it the onlycondition, but everyone who meets it is justified.  Not all conditions are of this nature.  For example, a necessary condition for getting into Harvard University is that you must be smart.  But fulfilling that one condition will not guarantee your entrance into Harvard.  You must also have money.  And it helps to know somebody.

But, as we said, faith is not only a necessary condition for justification; it is also a sufficientcondition.  This is seen in our passage today in verses 29-30:  “Is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles too?  Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”  It doesn’t matter who you are, what your race, or how many religious rites and rituals you have experienced.  If you have faith, then God guarantees your justification.  There is, however, a third point which is extremely important.  

But faith is more than a leap in the dark; more than mere mental assent to a set of historical facts.  In fact, to say that “faith is sufficient for justification” without addressing the content of that faith is to suggest that everyone is saved, for everyone has faith.  Some have faith in themselves, some have faith in human nature, some in fate, some in horoscopes, some in the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and some even have faith in faith. 

But the kind of faith that results in justification is faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, not only must faith have specific content, it must also have substance—i.e., it must be productive.  Biblical faith is an active trust in Jesus Christ evidenced by a changed life.  James put it this way—”faith without works is dead.”  What he is really saying here is not that faith plus works is a condition for salvation but rather than a faith without works is really no faith at all.

This relationship between faith and works is sometimes difficult to grasp.  So let me offer an illustration I used four years ago when preaching on James 2, but which is very relevant here as well.  

         I have a basketball ticket here in my hand.  It’s like most any sports or entertainment ticket.  It consists of two parts—the ticket itself and the stub.  When you go to the game the person at the ticket booth takes the ticket; the stub he returns to you to help you find your seat—whether in the nosebleed section or the box seats.  

I would like for you to think of faith as the ticket to Heaven, and your works as the stub (it determines where you sit in Heaven, i.e., what your rewards are).

Now if you try to get into the game with just the stub, there’s no way they’re going to let you in.  But by the same token, if you try to get in with just the ticket, it’s not going to work either, for something very interesting is written on this ticket.  It says, “Not good if detached.”  If there are no works produced by my faith, that faith is dead and useless and will not get me into Heaven.

In other words, faith is more than mere mental assent to historical facts about Jesus Christ; it is an active trust in Him.

So far we have explained justification as the legal status of the sinner who has been acquitted before God’s bar of justice.  We have also seen that the one and sufficient condition for justification is faith, a productive trust in the Person and work of Christ.  Our third question is this: 

What is the basis for justification?  

The answer is found in two great theological terms found in verses 24-25:  Redemption and Propitiation.  The first deals with the solution to man’s problem.  The second deals with the solution to God’s problem. 

Redemption solves man’s problem.  (24)  That’s what verse 24 clearly teaches.  Man’s ultimate problem is sin.  The solution to our sin problem, which enables God to declare us “not guilty,” is the redemption which Jesus accomplished when He died on Calvary’s cross.  Redemption is a rich word.  It means “a release” or “a rescue from bondage or slavery.”  The release involves the payment of a purchase price.  You can redeem an item you have hocked if you will pay the redemption price.  The price for the redemption of mankind from the bondage of sin was very high—it was the death of God’s Son.   You see, Jesus had no sin of His own and did not Himself stand under a sentence of condemnation.  Therefore, He could offer Himself as our substitute and receive our penalty upon Himself.  He did just that, and thereby He redeemed us from the marketplace of sin. 

Propitiation solves God’s problem.  What is God’s “problem,” if we can ask that reverently?  It is His wrath toward sin.  God hates sin and cannot have it in His presence.  So unless something assuages or satisfies His wrath, there could be no justification.  In other words, so long as God is angry, He is not going to declare us “not guilty.”  Well, the theological term for assuaging or satisfying God’s wrath is “propitiation.” 

The death of Jesus Christ propitiated God, i.e., it satisfied His wrath toward the sinner.  God looked down at His Son on the Cross and said, “I have been satisfied.”  In Heb. 9:5 we read about the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant:  “Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover or the mercy seat.”  The term used there for the lid on the Ark of the Covenant is the same word as translated “propitiation” in Romans 3:25.  

In Old Testament times no one ever went into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle except the High Priest, and he did so only once a year.  He went on the Day of Atonement and carried with him the blood of the animal sacrifices, for without the shedding of blood there could be no atonement for sin.  The High Priest would sprinkle the blood on the Ark of the Covenant, the lid of which was called the Mercy Seat.  When God saw the blood on the Mercy Seat on the Day of Atonement He agreed to pass over the sins of the people for another year.

But those sins were not forgiven in the fullest sense of the term.  They were atoned for (covered up), not taken away.   God’s wrath wasn’t yet satisfied—just postponed.  But when Jesus hung on the Cross the veil of the Temple was rent, signifying that access was available for anyone into the Holy of Holies.  The lid of the Ark lost its significance, and Jesus became the Mercy Seat.  His blood satisfied God’s wrath and enabled God to forgive and deal finally with all the sins of believers from Adam until history comes to a screeching halt at the Final Judgment.

That’s what verse 25 tells us when, after referring to the propitiation which is in Jesus’ blood, it says, “He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.”  He couldn’t just leave those sins unpunished forever; some day they had to be dealt with; someday God’s wrath had to be satisfied.  That happened the day Jesus died.

Friend, do you know something?  One of the great truths in Christianity is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which you can do to appease God, to satisfy Him, or to assuage His anger.  His wrath toward your sin has already been satisfied.  All He asks you to do is to accept it, believe it, and trust it.  

The final question I wish to ask must of necessity receive a very brief answer:

What are the results of justification?

Well, what are the results when a prisoner on trial hears the words of the jury, “Not guilty?”  He has freedom, restoration of the rights of citizenship, hope for the future, a new purpose in life, and restored or new family relationships.  All those things are also the result spiritually of being declared “not guilty” by God.

John Donne, the great English poet, who was gloriously saved after writing much poetry that was scandalous in his day, used the mythological story of Hercules, the strongman of the ancient world, to write a profound one-verse poem.  Hercules, you may recall, had been confronted with the enormous task of cleaning out the Augean stables.  And John Donne observed that though Hercules accomplished this enormous task, mankind is unable to clean out the much greater filth of the human heart.  Here is the poem:

         Lord, I confess that thou alone are able

                  To purify this Augean stable

         Be the seas water, and the land all soap

                  Yet if Thy blood not wash me—there’s no hope.[i]

Conclusion:  My conclusion is this:  Do you want to stand before God almighty in the Court of Heaven on the Day of Judgment and try to plead innocent?  If so, you are doomed to failure.  The first 3 chapters of Romans are all the proof you should need.  Your only hope is to admit your guilt and plead the blood of Christ.  Then and only then can you be acquitted and have all the rights and privileges of being a member of God’s family granted to you. 

I call upon you today to believe in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross.  Perhaps you are saying that you would like to believe but cannot.  Even such a statement is a symptom of your lost condition.  If you do not believe it is because you will not believe.  The Lord Jesus Christ spoke to men who had been reading the Scriptures and said to them, “You diligently study the Scriptures, because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  (John 5:39-40)

The problem was not that they couldn’t believe; the problem was that they refused.  God says you can and that you must believe in His Son, if you would experience eternal life. 

DATE: January 22, 1995 







[i] John Donne, quoted in Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Vol. 2, Part 1, 28.