Some time ago I listened to a group of young children singing a typical evangelical song. It was new to me, so forgive me if I do not get all the words right. The gist of the song was something like this:
When I get to the gates of heaven I’ll be the best dressed kid there. I’ll be in my best Sunday suit And I’ll have on my best Sunday shoes. And then the refrain: New shoes, new shoes, I’ll be the best dressed kid at the gates of heaven ‘Cause I’ll have on my new shoes.
The song had a catchy tune. The children were clapping along with it. Let me tell you something: when I get to heaven, I really don’t care what clothes I’m wearing; I don’t care what my shoes look like; I don’t even care which tie I have on at the time. They will all be as filthy rags.
I want to be clothed in the righteousness of my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. It is not my best Sunday suit, my shoes, or my tie that will get me into heaven. I want to be covered by the blood that was poured out for me at Calvary.
Sounds repulsive, doesn’t it? Many evangelical churches today want to avoid the blood of Jesus Christ. Forget the blood! Tell us about the love of God. Yet, it is in the blood of Jesus Christ that God’s love is revealed most. For it is in His blood that we find salvation.
For two-and-a-half chapters Paul has vividly described the sad condition of the human race. All—Jew and Gentile alike—have sinned before God. None can live up to the expectations God set before them in the Torah and in their consciences. No matter how well we may clothe ourselves, no one can come before the Most Holy God a self-saved individual.
After hammering home the point that a person cannot declare himself righteous by means of the law, Paul declares, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.” Paul uses the phrase, “but now” eighteen times in his epistles. How sweet those words are to the person who has become convicted of his own sin! They transition us from the dark, gloomy picture that Paul has painted in the opening chapters of Romans to the marvelous work that God has done to bring salvation to His people.
The “but now” of Romans 3:21 changes everything. Not that this was some new and radical idea that God came up with after He saw the fall of the human race. This was part of God’s plan all along, even as the Law and the Prophets testified. From the very beginning, already in the garden of Eden, God had promised that He would crush the head of the one who has alienated our race from the Creator. While they pointed out the depths of our alienation and depravity, the prophets continually pointed ahead to the time God’s promise would be fulfilled.
But now that time has arrived. All has changed because of what Jesus Christ accomplished on man’s behalf.
Righteousness Apart from the Law
First of all, Paul points out that genuine righteousness cannot be obtained by keeping the law. In the Old Testament, every time a person brought a sacrifice to the temple as a sin offering, he was testifying that he sought a righteousness that was not his own, apart from the law.
Not only must the people of the Old Testament have a righteousness that is not to be found in God’s law, but also those in the New Testament must, as well. The simple truth is we have rebelled against God and the law that He gave. Paul has made very clear that the human race has rejected God. Already in the first chapter, Paul points out that we suppress the truth of God, even though He has clearly revealed it to us. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that we have grievously sinned against God’s commandments. This is no small matter, not something God takes lightly. In fact, God is already in the process of pouring out His wrath on us by turning us over to the consequences of our own sin.
But now, in the place of wrath, a righteousness from God has been made known to us. It is obtained by placing our faith in Jesus Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. His perfect sin-offering sacrifice is the only way to be freed from the wrath of God. It is not enough simply to “have faith in God.” All kinds of religions teach all kinds of things about God. Many unbelievers say they believe there is a God. Even the demons believe in God. Those who seek after righteousness must find it through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, poured out for sin on the cross of Calvary.
From Condemnation to Justification
Anyone who truly examines himself in the light of God’s law must acknowledge that he has not kept that law in its entirety. We all have sinned, and we all come short of the glory of God. No one can claim innocence. From the very beginning, God made clear that disobedience would mean death—not just physical death but also spiritual death. The sentence that rests on every lawbreaker is eternal condemnation.
But now, without our deserving it at all, God has provided the means to be reconciled to Him. Although we stand guilty, without any righteousness of our own before God, we are declared just. Through His propitiatory sacrifice, Jesus Christ has turned the wrath of God away from us. He took on Himself the punishment and condemnation we deserved as God poured out on Him what every sinner deserved.
In His grace, God transferred the righteousness of His perfectly obedient Son to the account of the guilty sinner. Instead of regarding us a condemned, God regards us as though we were clothed in the righteousness of Christ and declares us justified. This is not any action that we perform. It is a sovereign decree that, through Christ, the heavenly Father regards us as if we had never committed any sin.
Prior to our participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we are called upon to examine ourselves. If the examination is done with any sincerity, we would know how undeserving we are of coming to Christ’s table. Yet, that table was prepared for us. It is to teach us in a very visible way that we are to look outside of ourselves for our justification. Wholehearted trust in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ has moved us away from condemnation to salvation.
From Bondage to Freedom
So great was our fall that not only are we under the wrath of God because of it but we are also enslaved to it. How quickly we fall back into the same sin over and over again! We even come to the point where we can rationalize our sin.
But now, being united with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we are no longer in bondage. We have been freed from the requirements of God’s law and are able to live holy lives. Granted, we still stumble and fall into sin, but the desires of our hearts have been changed. Rather than pursuing the things of the world, we look to Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith.
From Exclusion to Participation
The final contrast is one that should appeal to the majority of The Outlook readers. Salvation was first given to the Jews. They had all the special advantages that the Gentiles lacked.
But now the glorious message of the gospel is not limited to any particular culture. It is for all who embrace Christ. Paul wrote, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19–20).
How wonderful that the good news of salvation is not exclusively for a select few! The righteousness of God freely offered through His Son is available to all people. The one true God is God for Jews and Gentiles alike. Both are justified by faith and not through works.
It is perhaps the most difficult thing of all to persuade a sinner that salvation comes through no merit of his own. Most every false religion has at its base something that the person must do to win God’s favor. Some Christian churches insist that those who become full members must sign a document declaring how they will conduct themselves. Even Reformed preachers are sometimes guilty of trying to preach someone into heaven at a funeral. How easily and quickly we fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking we earned some small part of our salvation. We must be reminded again and again:
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
All of salvation is a free gift that glorifies the benevolent Giver. While salvation may be for us, it is not about us. It is all about a gracious, loving God who provided the way of reconciliation for us through the death of His only Son.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What new idea does Paul introduce here? In what sense is this not new?
2. What four doctrines are taught in these verses?
3. Many people do not have the assurance of salvation because they do not feel “good enough.” Are these feelings closer to unbelief or humility? Explain.
4. Why is it significant that grace is a gift from God?
5. What is the source of justification, the ground for justification, the means of justification, and the effect of justification?
6. Is it significant that we talk about the blood of Jesus Christ? How is that different from speaking about the cross of Christ?
7. How does the doctrine of salvation address pride? How does it exclude any boasting?
8. Does what you believe make a difference? How?
9. Why are these verses often referred to as “the heart of the gospel”?