God’s Free Gift of Righteousness

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Unshakable in a Hundred Crises

Today I want to focus on verses 23–24. Verse 23 gives the universal need of every human being. And verse 24 gives the all-sufficient remedy for that need. What these two verses say is more important for your future than 10,000 books written by man to help you solve your problems. These are the words of God spoken through the apostle Paul. They tell us our true condition as human beings. And they tell us what God has done to save those who put their trust in his Son, Jesus.

“Sin exchanges God’s glory for something else.”

If you build your life on these verses — if the truth of these two verses becomes the foundation of your life — you will be unshakable in a hundred crises. If these verses become the sun in the solar system of your life, all your planets will orbit in harmony around the will of God. But if you put these verses out on the rim of your life (say near Neptune or Pluto) you need not be surprised if there is confusion and uncertainty and fear and weakness in your life.

There are some truths that are so foundational and so central that you should memorize them, meditate on them, bind them to your mind and heart with chains and ropes and every kind of adhesive you can find. Many professing Christians are very weak, and amble through their days pretty much like unbelievers, because they don’t hold on to these verses the way a drowning man takes hold of his rescuer’s arm.

Lacking God’s Glory

Verse 23 gives the universal need. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All of us have sinned. No exceptions. That was the point of Romans 1:18–3:20. And the outworking of that sin is that we are falling short of God’s glory. “Falling short” is, literally, “lacking.” All have sinned and we are lacking the glory of God.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to “lack the glory of God”? It doesn’t mean that we are supposed to be as glorious as God is, but we aren’t and so we lack glory. No. The best way to put meat on these bones is to look back at what Paul has said about the glory of God in a similar discussion of sin in chapter one.

In describing those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18), Paul says in Romans 1:23, “[they] exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image.” And Romans 1:28 says, “They disapproved of having God in their knowledge.” So the picture we have is that all have sinned and that sin is essentially rejection of God and his glory as the supreme value of our lives. Sin considers God and his glory, and instead of loving God’s glory and treasuring God’s glory, sin exchanges God’s glory for something else. That is what sin is.

Sin has to do with God, mainly. It is not mainly hurting people, though it does hurt people. Mainly, it is dishonoring God. It is belittling his glory — by not trusting him and not treasuring him and not wanting him as the foundation and center of our lives. All have sinned and are exchanging and, therefore, lacking the glory of God and, therefore, dishonoring the glory of God.

Now that is a great guilt. God created the universe to display his glory (Isaiah 43:7). The reason we exist and everything else exists is to display the greatness of the perfections of God. The universe is all about God. The reason there is so much dysfunction and misery in the world is because the world is in rebellion against the purpose of the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that, if the world was designed by God to display his glory, and the human race is intent on glorifying everything but God, there would be great upheaval and malfunction and misery in the world.

All have sinned and are lacking the glory of God. We have traded it away. We have loved other things more. And so we have treated God and his glory with indifference and periodic, weekend, lukewarm attention. There is, therefore, a massive problem for every one of us: How shall we get right with God, and be saved from this God-dishonoring condition of sin? How shall we ever be accepted in eternity by God when all of us have scorned his infinite worth so deeply by treating him as if he had less worth than a weekend hobby?

Four Descriptions of God’s Action for Sinners

The answer is given in verse 24. What is so great about this verse is that it is all about what God has done to save us, not what we do to save ourselves. You remember that this section of Romans began with the great turn in verse 21, “But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested.” Some great event has happened that manifests the righteousness of God — not the legal righteousness of the Law that condemns sinners, but the free gift of righteousness that justifies sinners. What is that great event? What happened in history that makes Paul say, now, now the righteousness of God has been manifested? Verse 24 tells us what that great event is, and what the effects of it are.

Let’s read it, “being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Before we ask who this is talking about — who is “being justified” — let’s immerse ourselves in the achievement of this verse. It’s all about what God has done to save us and how he did it. We need to see this and think about and pray over it and marvel at it even before we ask, Who is this for?

So consider the four descriptions in this verse of how God has acted to make sinners right with himself.

The first phrase is “being justified. . . .” Second, “as a gift. . . .” Third, “by his grace. . . .” Fourth, “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”

1. “Being Justified”

Consider the phrase, “being justified.” Notice three things about it. First, the verb is passive: it says “being justified,” not “justifying.” We are not doing this; it is being done to us. Justifying is something that God does, not something that we do. We are “being justified.” God is justifying. He is the actor here. We are the ones acted upon. This is the way salvation is. It is finally and decisively the act of God the Father.

Second, notice that in the word “justified” is the word “just.” Now “just” is essentially the same as “righteous.” I point this out because in the original language, the word “justified” here (dikaioumenoi) and “righteousness” in verse 22 (dikaiosune) have the same root (dikai) which shows that the meaning of “being justified” in verse 24 and the meaning of God’s “righteousness through faith” in verse 22 are very similar.

“Justification is the act of God, once for all declaring us just and righteous in his sight.”

So read it like this: “Now God’s righteousness has been manifested . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe . . . being justified. . . .” In other words, what happens in being justified is that the righteousness of God comes to us not as condemnation, but as justification. It comes not as a burden, but as a gift.

But that raises a question, and this is the third observation about the phrase “being justified.” In what sense do we receive righteousness? Are we made righteous in the act of justification? Or are we declared righteous in the act of justification? Consider Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” Justifying is something that a judge does. The opposite of justify is condemn. When you condemn someone you declare their guilt and assign them their punishment. You don’t make them guilty. And when you justify someone you declare their innocence and assign them their freedom.

So justifying is not making someone just but declaring someone just. You can see this especially clearly in Luke 7:29 where Jesus has just praised John the Baptist and then Luke says, “When they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified God [same word as Romans 3:24], having been baptized with the baptism of John.” God is justified by men. What does that mean? It means he is declared to be just.

So justification is not an act of God that makes us righteous. It is an act of God that declares us righteous. When verse 22 says that “God’s righteousness is through faith for all who believe,” it means that this righteousness is counted as ours. God’s act of justification is not inside us, but outside of us. It is not in us, but for us. It is not a change of our nature or state, but a change of our standing before him. It is not the same as sanctification, which is done in us, and does change our character. Sanctification is the work of the Spirit of God gradually changing us into the image of his Son. Justification is the act of God, once for all declaring us just and righteous in his sight.

2. “As a Gift”

And secondly, this great act is done for us “as a gift.” That’s the next phrase in verse 24: “Being justified as a gift. . . .” The word used here is used several other places outside Romans in a way that makes the meaning clear. For example, in Revelation 22:17b, “Let him who desires take the water of life without price.” “Without price” translates the same word that in verse 24 is translated, “as a gift.”

So the point is that we are justified in such a way that we cannot pay for it. You cannot purchase your justification. It is a gift. It is free. There is no payment you can make. You can’t buy or barter or rent. God’s act of justification is a gift.

3. “By His Grace”

Now, this is underlined in the third phrase, “by his grace.” “Being justified is a gift by his grace. . . .” This is one of the most important words in the letters of Paul. He uses it 95 times. What does he mean here that God’s act of justifying is “by his grace”?

The easiest way to see it is to look a few verses later in Romans 4:4, which we will come back to again and again on this matter of grace, because here is a fundamental insight. I am going to translate it literally so that you can see that the very same word “grace” is here in this verse. Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited [or counted] according to grace, but according to debt.”

In other words, if you work for somebody, you don’t get grace, you get wages. If you relate to somebody as one who works for them, what you bring about is not grace, but debt. They owe you wages. This is why it’s an abomination to try to work for God. God cannot be put in anyone’s debt. As Romans 11:35 says, “Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” The answer is “no one,” and the reason given is that “from him and through him and too him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

So if you are going to get something by grace, you can’t work for it. Grace is the good that you get from someone when he owes you nothing. So what Paul means when he says that we are “justified as a gift by his grace” is that we can’t work for justification. So the phrase “as a gift” means you can’t pay for it. And the phrase “by his grace” means you can’t work for it.

Well, then how can this be? How can God declare a sinner to be righteous? If we don’t pay for it, and we don’t work for it, then what’s the basis of it? How can it be just to justify the ungodly?

4. “Through the Redemption Which is in Christ Jesus”

The last phrase gives part of the answer, and the rest of the answer comes next week. The last phrase in verse 24 is, “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” “Being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Now, what does that mean? What does redemption mean?

It means “deliverance at a cost” or “release by payment” of a price (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 40–45). Embedded in the word “redemption” in the original language (apolutroseos) is the little word lutron, “ransom.” In other words, the idea of redemption is deliverance or release by payment of a ransom. In redemption, someone’s release or deliverance is accomplished at the cost of a ransom payment.

“Grace is the good that you get from someone when he owes you nothing.”

What’s the ransom? What’s the payment? The word “ransom” (lutron) is used only in Mark 10:45 (and its parallel), “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The answer is that the life of the Son of Man is the ransom paid in redemption. That’s what Paul means when he says, “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” The redemption is in Christ Jesus because Jesus is the ransom. He gave his life so that there could be release and deliverance.

From what? From the guilt and condemnation and power of God-belittling sin — the universal problem of verse 23. So here is the foundation of our justification: Christ gave his life as a ransom for many. He paid the price for our release from sin and guilt and condemnation. This is why God now, as a gift by his grace, justifies the ungodly. Everything is owing to the death of Christ (we will see the blood in verse 25 next week). This is why you can’t pay for it and you can’t work for it. It’s all of Christ. The basis of your justification is not in yourself or anything you do; it is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

How Do I Get this Justification?

We are justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. So if being justified is God’s declaration that you are righteous in his sight, and if you can’t pay for it because it’s “a free gift,” and you can’t work for it because it’s “by his grace,” and if you were ransomed through the redemption in Christ Jesus, then how do you get this justification?

Verse 22: “It is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” O, fellow sinner! O, guilty offender of the glory of God! Do you want this? From your cell on death row do you want an eleventh-hour pardon? Do you want the doors of the prison to open and the Judge of the universe to count you as righteous and release you into everlasting green pastures and still waters in his friendship?

If you want this, then turn to Christ absolutely helpless, with no payment in your hand, and no works to your credit, and trust and treasure his utterly free and sovereign grace.