But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
Romans 3:21-22

These verses are the beginning of a new section in Romans. If the man who divided the Scriptures up into chapters and verses had been wiser then he would have started a new chapter at this point. This tightly packed section, verses 21 through 26, has been called the ‘centre and heart’ of the whole main section of this letter. Dr Leon Morris called it ‘possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” Dr. Barnhouse called it ‘the heart of the gospel’ and Martin Luther referred to it as the ‘marrow of theology.’ This passage is the most condensed piece of combustible theology in the whole New Testament. Every word is big with meaning. Remember they were written to a congregation full of slaves and illiterates and old people and children 2,000 years ago, while you are all immensely richer and more sophisticated than any of them. So we expect that if you are Christians and so possess the illuminating Spirit of God that you already understand these six verses. If I should sit next to you and ask you, “What does Paul mean by verse 23, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” then you would give me an excellent explanation, and if I said, “Good! Now tell me what he means by the next phrase, “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” then again you would show me have you a fine grasp of the New Testament gospel – just like a Christian slave of 2000 years ago in Rome, because you listen to me each week, and some read the sermons afterwards, and you study the Bible. So let’s jump straight in, not for me to tell you the familiar meaning of these clear words but for us all to feel again the power of these truths.

1. ‘BUT . . .’

Let’s start with the first of the two simplest words in the whole section (apart from ‘and’), “But . . . ” (v. 21). “But” looks back. Something has been said, ah, “but . . .” What’s been said? We have been given a realistic picture of the human condition in these opening chapters and we’ve discovered that apart from Jesus Christ our standing before God is utterly hopeless. Sin has affected every one of us, and sin has touched every part of us, nothing in us has been unaffected by its influence, physically, spiritually, affectionately and eternally. That is where we are in this letter, “But . . .” says Paul. We’ve both been building up to something, Paul the apostle and Geoff the preacher of Paul’s letter. Absolutely, and that is why this paragraph is hyper-important – not just for us but for the whole world, and for everyone in it. I wish the Queen and Prince Philip could have heard a series of messages explaining these verses during the last month. I wish the Archbishop of Canterbury could have stood up in Canterbury Cathedral a month ago and told the congregation that for the next month he was going to explain and apply to them these verses as they are the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Christian message, and then that the Church Times printed them out over the next month. Nothing could do more good to the Church of England and the people who live in the British Isles than such a action. That is what this extraordinary position held by the Established Church must be used to do, to explain to the millions of people who have moved into Great Britain in the last 30 years what Christianity is all about. How can a man be right with God? This is the supreme question in life, and this passage gives us the supreme answer, and it was first written for a multi-racial congregation of ordinary people. Ideal!

So the word ‘but’ is looking back to the opening theme of the depravity of man that has been expounded fully, whose truth was demonstrated to the congregation in the Coliseum and in the wretchedness of daily life in Rome, just as it is demonstrated in the U.K. today and in our national crime and depravity. “But” Paul writes, and it is one of the most trenchant ‘buts’ in world literature. What is God’s response to the depravity of the human race? Does he sigh like Buddha and contemplate his navel with an enigmatic smile on his face and do nothing? Does he turn his back on us and condemn us to live for ever with the fallen angels in hell? Thank God that the Holy Spirit put the brakes on Paul’s comprehensive description of depravity. “Enough!” said God. “Change the record,” said the Lord. “Play another tune on your one string banjo” says a little boy in the congregation who is getting weary of being reminded that he is a sinner – which in fact he knows too well.

“But . . .” says Paul and what we are going to hear in the paragraph before us is the divine answer to the plight of man. God has an answer for the worst that man can do. A hundred years ago the First World War started, and after it had finished, within twenty years, there was a Second World War, and then came the Cold War and then a hundred conflicts all over the world. But God kept speaking, and saying these very words of this letter, this tremendously powerful message that millions of people have received, by which their lives have been transformed when they could have despaired. I believe it was Martin Luther who said that you should never introduce God into a plot unless the plot is so tangled up that only God can untangle it. So here we have man in a tangled mess – the kitten has been playing in the wool basket – and now the power that made the universe is needed to deliver mankind.

Aren’t you glad that we know the living God who has often been there for us when we needed him, that only he could help us and he did. We are in despair . . . but! We don’t know where to turn . . . but! There is no one who can answer our questions and calm our troubled hearts . . . but God is there.

2. “ . . . NOW . . .”

Paul says, “But now . . .” and what does that mean? Paul’s ‘now’ was almost 2000 years ago and so it seems to be our ‘then,’ in an old book. Is it quite out of date? What is this ‘now’? It means three things; it has a logical meaning. Paul has been saying, “Let me show you the plight of man,” and step by step he has displayed the human condition extensively and then individually, and then he says, “Now” and he is going to go to the next logical step in the developing argument. Then the  now’ also has a chronological meaning. Now that the old covenant has ended and the ceremonial law has been fulfilled and the gospel is going out into Rome. Gentiles are embracing Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour in their hundreds of thousands. Now we are facing a very different situation from the previous 2000 years to the appearing of our great God and Saviour, when God had been dealing primarily with Abraham and his seed, the children of Israel. Now things will never be the same. The clock can’t go back to the badger skins and the shittim wood and the seventh day Sabbath and the tribes and judges. Now it is all over. So there is definitely a chronological meaning. And finally the ‘now’ refers to the new age that has come, the New Covenant and the new dispensation that has arrived. The buzz word here is ‘eschatological’; the ‘now’ has an eschatological perspective. Now the gospel is established and growing in Europe and Rome in particular and out to Ethiopia and to the ends of the world. Once the devil had the kingdoms of the world in darkness, but now it is not so. Now we look forward to a new heavens and a new earth, through Jesus Christ. Now we know that the kingdoms of the world are going to become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ.

And that is our perspective today. There is depravity worldwide, but we will not be in despair, because now we have this counterpoise of the glorious redemption of Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the Great Commission. The Lord did not tell us that we were to be the Jeremiads of the world crying “Woe! Woe!” and pointing out every example of wickedness all around us. He told us that we were to be the light of the world now! “Let your light shine now,” he told his disciples. It has been a long dark night, but now the sun has risen, and the new age has arrived, a new day has dawned and the world is being flooded with light . . . now!


It has been made known. Why does it need to be made known? Paul would not say that now the sky has been made known to be blue, or milk made known to be white. But righteousness has now been made known because everywhere there has been unrighteousness. In the first three chapters of Romans we have the divine diagnosis of the state of mankind and of every person. There is not one person righteous, no not one, compared to heaven – a world of righteousness. The righteous God loves righteousness. The Father is righteous; the Son is righteous; the Holy Spirit is righteous. The angels are holy angels bright. The people now in heaven are glorified people, but we are all unrighteous. “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling; naked come to Thee for dress, Helpless, look to Thee for grace.” We do good works, yes, some wonderful works. A woman devotes many years caring for a sick husband, but all of those years have been imperfect. A little tinge of self-pity and anger and pride make our best acts needing forgiveness. I had a super letter on Friday from a woman called Hannah whom I know, who is looking after her mother in a wonderful way. “Mum has Alzheimers,” Hannah writes, “I am at home with her all the time as she cannot really be left alone. She is a joy to look after and spend time with, although repeated questions can be exhausting.” That’s the balance perfectly; the good works done by a Christian in love with her Saviour, in obedience to the law of God and done for his glory – three marks of true good works, but frustration and imperfection and unrighteousness is there in the best that we do. We all need a magnificent righteousness, an alien righteousness quite outside ourselves, a righteousness as holy as God himself. Our own is inadequate, even in our own eyes, even Christians helped by the power of the Spirit of God and by the example and love of Jesus – we know there are threadbare patches in our robes of righteousness, let alone those who are surviving by their wits and the arm of the flesh.


How has this righteousness been made known? By Sinai? By the Ten Commandments and by the law? “Do this! Don’t do that! Eat this and don’t eat that! Wear this and don’t wear that! Be scrupulous in keeping all the rabbinical ordinances” Who can ask for anything more? Surely God must applaud such a righteous life. No. Paul tells us that “now a righteousness from God, apart from law” is revealed. It is apart from agonising over whether I have tithed accurately the herbs in the back garden; apart from studying the torah and the rabbis, and apart from handling the guilt my faulty obedience creates. This righteousness is not from the law. It is not from any religious observance. It is not from baptism. It is not from a bishop’s hands on my head. It is not from giving generously to the church or the poor. It is not from praying five times a day and fasting for a month each year

Certainly the law served to reveal the righteousness of God. It showed to all mankind God’s righteous standards for human behaviour. That’s all it could do. “This is what Jehovah wants.”  But it could not compel obedience; it could not provide an inner “want to be righteous” and it could not give the divine energy to actually change human behaviour. With all the publicity and legislation encouraging people to stop smoking 60 million more cigarettes were smoked in Britain last year than the year before. The law is helpless because of the power of the flesh. Let me use this illustration; let us imagine that a Welsh Newspaper offered a hundred thousand pounds to someone who could swim the 100 miles from Aberystwyth to Dublin. A dozen men enter the sea at the same time on South Beach and off they go. After five hours one drops out with cramp, an hour later two more drop out. The another gets stung badly by a jelly fish and he drops out. Then in the night three men have hyperthermia and they drop out, and so on. 36 hours later there is only one swimmer left and he is being carefully monitored by a support fleet but he has tens of miles still to swim, and reluctantly he has to give up too. Did he win the 100,000 pounds for swimming the furthest? No.  Because the prize was given to anyone who reached Dublin first. No one made it and no one won the prize. All dozen men tried valiantly; some did better than others, but all of them ultimately failed. They all ultimately came short of the target – all of them.

It is the same way with regard to the law of God. Some do better than others, but all ultimately are failures because no one ever keeps the law perfectly. In fact our righteousnesses in God’s sight are pathetic. They are as unclean as a menstrual rag. That is why if we are to have a righteousness we must find it apart from our law obedience.

Some people cry “Woe” at that. They want to get to heaven under their own steam. They want to be fully paid up, card carrying, righteous men. They want to slide the card of righteousness down the slot at the gate of heaven and see the door open automatically and walk in, head held high. They want to earn it, but they cannot. Einstein, and Luther, and Mandela, and Churchill, and Gwynfor Evans could not get a big, joyful, angelic welcome in heaven because of their own righteousness.

“What bad news you are giving us!” you are tempted to say, but rather this should make you ask, “Then where can I get this righteousness that is not attainable by law-keeping? Maybe the law could become my school-master and he might lead me to this righteousness?” Is there another clue – positive or negative – that helps me to know where I can find this righteousness? I have learned that this righteousness is revealed  and is make known now, that it is from God, and that it is apart from the law. What else? Another thing . . .


Now Paul gives us a clue as to where we might find this righteousness from God. He tells us this, that the place to begin your search for it is not in your own heart and life. It is in the Bible, the Law and the Prophets, because the Scriptures have testified to it (v.21). So it’s nothing radically new except for this, that the “now”, the set time, has finally appeared. The world has actually been prepared for this righteousness – long before we began to see our need of it. Old Moses was speaking of it in the first five books of the Law, and then that it had been further amplified by the writings of the Prophets. What is Paul referring to? Where in the Law and the Prophets can I find this?

We have to start with Moses and so we turn to the book of Genesis, and there in the third chapter we meet naked man, a fallen rebel, ashamed and clothing himself with leaves. Then God comes in mercy to this ungrateful sinner, and he kills two animals and he skins them and he covers Adam and Eve with those skins. What is all that about? God did this. He took the initiative. They didn’t suggest this to him and ask him for it. Doesn’t that action of Jehovah sow a tiny seed in your minds of the sort of God he is?  A God who at the very first dealt like that with our first parents, not in mere condemnation and high dudgeon at their believing the lies of Satan so easily. So I ask, could this God cover your sin too?

Then we read a few chapters later again in Moses’s Genesis of Abraham being commanded to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to a land God promises that he will give him. Immediately Abraham obeys. Off he goes trusting in the word that God who has spoken to him, and this is how God responds in Genesis 15 and verse 6, “Abram believed the LORD, and God credited it to Abram  as righteousness.” Imagine a great ledger, and there in the debit side is Abraham the sinner, but one day God speaks to him and he believes what he hears and he trusts in God and shows he really trusts him by doing what he says. Then Abraham is moved from the debit side to the credit side. From sin to righteouness. From condemnation to justification.

Again, you find the idea embedded in one of the very names of God – Jehovah Tsidkenu. You find this in the prophets, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16). Some of you might remember how Robert Murray M’Cheyne took that divine title and made it the theme of one of his hymns, “I once was a stranger to grace and to God.” He wrote,

When free grace awoke me by light from on high,
Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see;
‘Jehovah Tsidkenu’ my Saviour must be.

Again, another prophet, Isaiah tells us that something wonderful had happened to him. He had been clothed in the garments of righteousness: “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10). God is going to cover some people with righteousness.

Thus it is that both Moses and the Prophets in all the Old Testament Scriptures spoke of a righteousness that was divine, the Lord’s own righteousness that was imputed to a sinner who turned from his sin and trusted in the Lord and showed he trusted in him by a new life of obedience. Again here is David in the book of Psalms and these are the opening words of Psalm 32; “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”  Then he says in the following verse, “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him.” Here is a forgiven man, and a covered man, and a man to whom God does not impute the guilt of his sin. It is here in the Bible in Moses and the Prophets.


Then Paul gives us the final definitive statement about this specific righteousness that is from God. No more somewhat veiled references. The build-up is all over. Now he lays it on the line before us. It is absolutely clear. Paul says that this divine righteousness “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v.22). In other words it is the righteousness of the God-man Jesus Christ. Let’s start at the most basic level . . .

i]  This is the real day-to-day righteous life of a human being; it has nothing like a movement of a cloud of gas in a court of law (as N.T. Wright mockingly refers to justification by faith alone). It was for 30 years the Nazareth-wrought righteousness of a Nazarite. It was always a sweaty, painful, tough achieving of righteousness. For Christ to obtain it wasn’t a breeze. It was rather the kind of righteousness you can only obtain by sacrifice – a plucking out the right eye type of righteousness. The righteousness of the man Christ Jesus is the measureless accumulation of trillions of thoughts and feelings and words and deeds over 33 years by this one young brave, good man. This righteousness is not an attribute of God that Jesus brought into the world with him from heaven – that righteousness that had been eternally displayed up there, in his love to his Father and to the Holy Spirit, or in his graciousness towards the angels. Not that! Such righteousness was a reality but we are not first of all talking about that, we are considering real human righteousness.

Consider how Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman – just like us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. His birth gave his mother pangs and pains; he came painfully into the world like every baby, and the world he entered was a world of pain. The first Adam had been asked to fulfil righteousness in paradise; the last Adam was asked to fulfil it in a groaning creation. It was a world of human cruelty, and human weakness, and hunger and thirst. There was scourging in this world where Jesus was required to live a righteous life; there was torture, and mockery, and ridicule. They stoned women to death, and they crucified men. There were nails and hammers and gambling; demon possessed men were bound with chains and left to survive for themselves in a graveyard, and into one such cemetery Jesus went to fulfil all righteousness. Into that kind of world, in the concreteness of a human body, and in his flesh and blood reality, God the Son came, and he came to love God totally and to love man as himself. God did not build into the body of Jesus an analgesic, any immunity to pain. He was not sheltered from overwhelming grief. Pain came seeking him once his ministry began and it never left him. It was very taxing for him to fulfil all righteousness. There were times he needed to get away from it all if he were to keep sane. It cost him everything; he could hold back nothing.

I am insisting on this, do you see, that Christ fulfilled all righteousness with a human brain, and human arms, and human legs, and human physical energy. Day by day he presented his body as a living sacrifice to God. That was his reasonable service, and alongside that body was an inseparable human psychology. A human mind, a human soul, a human way of knowing and at times of not knowing, that was how the righteousness of Christ increased over his lifetime from one month old to thirty-three years of age. It was in his human body and mind that he maintained and created this righteousness, and I am saying that this human righteousness grew and developed by the whole range of human emotions and fears and sorrows and amazement and joy that he experienced. This righteousness was not ethereal like a shadow or a cobweb; it grew tough and strong as Satan came to him and tempted him without any restraints. It was a proved and tested righteousness. At every point Jesus was tempted not to live a righteous life, and yet he did live it day after day. So Paul reminds us that Christ was born of a woman.

Then he adds this, that Christ was born under the law. That constraint also structured his righteousness. First there was the moral law and he kept that: no other God beside the Lord; not making or serving any idol; not misusing the name of the Lord; remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy; honouring your father and mother; not murdering; not committing adultery; not stealing; not giving a false witness; not coveting. This is how Christ lived each day. The law is of course inward in its demands, and Jesus kept it inwardly, from his heart, not reluctantly but lovingly; he desired no law breaking ever. Then secondly there is the Old Testament ceremonial law, in other words the Son of God submitted himself to circumcision, to the feasts in Jerusalem, to keeping the Sabbath day and going to the synagogue, to paying temple tax. He did all that throughout his life. Then thirdly there was the civil law, to keep the civil requirements of the books of Moses, to pay to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, to carry a legionnaire’s bag for a mile – all the civil legislation and Jesus kept it. The God of Sinai became incarnate and he fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law which he himself had given. That is the active obedience of Christ.

So when Paul says in our text that the righteousness from God comes to every believing man or woman through their faith in Jesus Christ it is the righteousness of a human being that is being referred to, bone of our bones. It is the righteousness of someone born under the law who fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law just as any other man must.

ii] It was the righteousness of divinity. The Lord Jesus was not just like any other man, even though he was the best of men and the perfect man. Jesus, the Word made flesh, was not only human he was also divine. The Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Whatever constituted God Jesus had that. Whatever is the essence of God Jesus had that. Whatever God is then Jesus was that too. He had every single perfection of God and every attribute of God. He was infinite, eternal, unchangeable; he was omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnicompetent. Jesus had the glory of God, the likeness of God, the nature of God, the being of God, the names of God and the prerogatives of God. So his righteousness also had all those qualities too. Remember it was a true human righteousness achieved by living in the same fallen world under the same pressures that we all live under. It was a tempted and tested righteousness, but it was also divine, an infinite, eternal, enduring and unchangeable righteousness because it was the righteousness of the God-man.

This righteousness is immeasurably vast. It is enough to cover every atom and electron and neutron in the cosmos. In the Old Testament there were holy pots and pans; holy garments; holy places; a holy city. That is those things were set apart to God. In the world to come everything will be set apart to God. The righteousness of the God-man could cover every grain of sand, every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every insect, bird and animal, ever planet, star, and galaxy. I am saying, that there is nothing in all creation that the righteousness of Christ could not come upon and transform into a righteous status, and one day it will do just that, when there will be a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness shall dwell – all the cosmos redolent with the righteousness of Christ. But even after it has done all that there will still be an infinite and endless righteousness in all the fullness of Christ that could cover another million fallen universes and then there will be yet more infinite righteousness to spare. Infinite righteousness, yet Jesus’ own, the carpenter’s from Nazareth, a real human righteousness, one we can identify with, one familiar to us, not the righteousness of spirits in heaven but of men and women who have to keep the law of God in this world. This is the divine-human righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Where is it today? It is where Christ himself is. That is a wonderfully safe place to be. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress was tormented with uncertainty about his relationship with God until the truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ broke in on his soul, but when he saw it, it changed everything. Bunyan described it in these words:

“One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. ‘Thy righteousness is in heaven.’ And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I am, or whatever I am doing, God could not say of me, ‘he lacks my righteousness,’ for that was there in front of him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today and, and forever.” . . . Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [e.g. Hebrews 12:16 –17] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.” The sight of our righteousness safe in heaven becomes our doxology.

How often in a prayer meeting do you hear a brother praising God that he has clothed him with the righteousness of his own Son Jesus Christ? It is referred to in that precise way in many wonderful hymns:

What was the theme of Count Zinzendorf’s praise?

Jesus Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed with joy shall I lift up my head.
This spotless robe the same appears when ruined nature sinks in years!
No age can change its glorious hue; the robe of Christ is ever new.
Nicholas Von Zinzendorf, 1706-60 tr, John Wesley, 1703-91

Again Charles Wesley could sing:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley 1707-88).

Again, what was Edward Motes’ hope built upon? It was Jesus’ blood and righteousness:

When he shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in him be found,
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

Edward Mote 1797-1874

What was M’Cheyne’s confidence?

When I stand before the throne
Dressed in beauty not my own.

Or there is the hymn of Isaac Watts, “Thy Works Not Mine O Christ” and again it’s not long before he is singing about the robe of righteousness;

Thy righteousness, O Christ, alone can cover me:
No righteousness avails save that which is of thee.
Isaac Watts 1674-1748

How can this divine righteousness become imputed to us? You see that there is only one way and it is emphasized twice in our text to show how exclusive and fundamental it is; “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v.22). Through faith . . . all who believe. Why faith and not our love? Because faith has this unique and definitive property, it looks to something outside of ourselves. It is accompanied by nothing of ourselves only our great and eternal need, our guilt and longing for pardon, our hope in another, in someone else. Nothing in my hand I bring. My trust is in another’s righteousness, not my own, never my own, for it is filthy rags and unacceptable to God, but Christ’s is utter perfection. God clothes those who entrust themselves to Jesus Christ with his Son’s righteousness. You saw it in that vivid illustration last week. You were shown two T-shirts, one covered with the names of the many kinds of sins of which we are all guilty – “there is no difference” all of us have sinned and come short of God’s glory, and then another T-shirt as white as snow. Our sins have been imputed to Christ, while his righteousness is imputed to us. Whose sins? Those who have nothing to plead but Jesus, whose trust is in the Lord Christ alone, who cry, “Forgive me Saviour, or I die.” Go on pleading that prayer with all your heart until you know that God has forgiven you, until you have the inner witness.

8th June 2014             GEOFF THOMAS