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The best phrase in the Scriptures… Romans 3:21-31?

November 14, 2010

As you read through Romans, you find that you spend a long time dealing with bad news. From Chapter 1 v 18 through to Chapter 3 v 20, Paul goes into great detail to make sure the readers and listeners know that no one makes the grade, that no one is righteous. If you’re anything like me, when you begin to read the letter, you perhaps would’ve said you’re a pretty good person but as I read through these passages from Paul, I’ve been convicted of how I turn away from God on a regular basis. It seems to me it’s a bit like if I was an Everest climber, I’d bought all the right gear, done all the right training and finally set out for the summit. The clouds and snow surround me as I battle each step, but I trust myself, as the world tells me to, I trust that if I keep pressing on I can make the summit. Then the clouds clear for a brief moment, and I realise with horror that in actual fact I’ve just gone round in circles. I’m right make where I started at Base Camp! As I’ve read through the  first few chapters of the book of Romans it seems to me to have been a bit like that. I’ve seen a clearing in the clouds and I’ve realised that I’m no further forward, that I’m still walking around base camp, and all my efforts to be good have been in vain. I’ve trusted myself, and I’ve ended up absolutely nowhere. My goal was to make it to the summit, my goal was heaven, my goal was to be good enough for God, but I’m actually nowhere near it.

I know that to get to heaven I need to be in a right relationship with God, that is I need to be ‘righteous’. But as I look back on my life, it’s like looking back on my Everest trail and seeing that I kept choosing the wrong way to go, even though my heart knew it was wrong I kept choosing the wrong path, and even those who had been given a map, like the Jews of Chapter 2 in having the Old Testament scriptures, chose to ignore what it said and ended up in the same place as me. Chapter 3 v 10 makes it abundantly clear:

There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.

Pretty clear isn’t it! Everyone is in the same place, and it’s not a good place. Paul has made it very clear that we all have two problems. Firstly we sin, that is we turn our back on God and go our own way, and secondly because of that first choice, because we sin, God is angry with us. Sin and wrath mean that we’re not righteous, we’re not in a right relationship with God, we’re guilty, we’re not innocent before Him, and what’s more we’re not even close. Remember Chapter 3 v 20:

…no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight!

We’re all well and truly sunk, its hopeless, and by the time we get to chapter 3v 20 we know it as well. We’ve seen the summit through the break in the clouds, and we know we can never make it.

BUT NOW… BUT NOW… Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a famous Christian minister, said that there were no better words, no better phrase in the whole bible than these two words:


Having realised we’re sunk, having realised that despite our best efforts we’re not even close to being good enough for God. Having seen that God is right to judge and that we are all completely guilty, that we deserve hell and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It is at this point when we’re at our lowest that Paul writes these amazing words of 3:21:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Paul says that there is a way we can be righteous, a way we can be in a right relationship with God, a way to be declared not guilty, a way to get to the summit, and it’s a way we would never have dreamed up. Look at verse 22; God declares us righteous, God gives it to us as a free gift He does it for us. It’s the free helicopter ride to the summit, the free ride we could never have provided, and could never have afforded but God gives it to us at no cost to ourselves. Perhaps if you’ve been a Christian for a while like me, you miss the enormity of what Paul says, perhaps like me you’ve heard it so often that its become fairly ordinary, well if that is so, may God forgive us, and set our hearts on fire once again. The words of the great hymn ‘And Can It Be’ spring back to mind:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

And can it be? Can this news of God’s free provision, can it be true, dare I believe it, oh can it be? Yes says Paul; and if we accept that this glorious news is true the next question which quickly springs to mind is:


The amazing news that we can be righteous comes about because of a great big swap. God had planned this from the beginning of time, which is what Paul meant by the end of v21:

…to which the Law and Prophets testify.

A plan which meant that He would take our punishment, and in return we would be given His righteousness. And this plan, as you would expect from a perfect God, deals perfectly with our two problems Sin and Wrath. Firstly, the problem of our sin v24:

…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus

Here is a picture of the slave market. We have a great big price on our head because we have sinned, we owe God a huge amount which we could never afford, and just like a rich person might pay for a slave to be redeemed, that is set free, so God pays the price for us to be redeemed, to be set free from sin and the guilt that goes with it. He does this by taking the punishment we deserve, paying the price we could never pay, as He died on the cross. How absolutely amazing,we sin against God,we go our own way, we rack up extortionate debt, and He picks up the tab. That’s like borrowing huge amounts of money from someone, you try hard to pay the money back, but there’s no chance, the debt is simple too much. So you go to the guy in desperation, you show up with empty pockets, and rather than the guy demanding you pay, instead he turns around and says ‘don’t worry, I’ll cover it’. How grateful would you be? But that’s not all. The second problem is that God is angry with us, and amazingly this is dealt with too, v25:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood…

Paul has changed the picture from the slave market, to the temple courts. Now he is showing us the altar and the sacrifices which were made upon it. Each year on the Day of Atonement a goat would be killed on the altar to appease the wrath of God, to absorb the anger if you like, so that the Jewish nation could be free. Paul tells us that Jesus does this for us, He takes the wrath of God on His shoulders, at the cross, so that we can go free. When He dies on the cross all the wrath, all the anger we deserve, is taken out on Him.

It’s a bit like the scene from the film To End All Wars, a true story based upon the biography of a British POW, caught by the Japanese. Robert Carlyle plays a captured British solider who hates the Japanese and was desperate to take over the prison and kill all of the Japanese soldiers. One night he takes a band of men and kills the soldier guarding the rifle store, in an effort to seize some weapons. Unfortunately the plan went wrong and he is captured. Next morning he is sentenced to death and is paraded in front of his fellow prisoners, a rifle aimed at his head as the sentence is read out. At that point a fellow prisoner, a Christian called Dusty, one whom Carlyle’s character despises for his faith, steps forward and offers to take his place. The Japanese agree, despite Carlyle’s characters pleas to die, and the prisoners are swapped, substituted if you like and Dusty takes the punishment on behalf of the guilty man. The guilty soldier was free, Dusty had dealt with the Japanese wrath. In a similar way, the wrath of God is poured out on Christ, as He dies on the cross, so that we, anyone if us can be friends with God.

How absolutely staggering!

This is the essence of Christianity, nothing more and nothing less, than a God who loves us so much that He dies for us. In the words of great modern hymn:

This, the power of the cross: Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath – We stand forgiven at the cross.

The Cross of Christ is how we are redeemed from our sin, and how God’s wrath is dealt with so that we can be made righteous. Paul said it had been predicted in verse 2 and throughout the Old Testament we catch glimpses but none clearer than Isaiah:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

I don’t know about you, but I find this truly astonishing; and not only that I find it truly humbling. If I ever think too much of myself, I only need to look to the Cross and see that Jesus died for me, Jesus takes away my sin takes away the anger which I deserve, anger which I had caused and which was far too much for me to bear, and any arrogance on my part goes right out of the window.

But how can any of this be fair? How can it be fair that Jesus takes our punishment? How can it be fair that God punish someone else in our place? Well its fair because, the angry person who has been sinned against, the judge who decides to send the punishment elsewhere and the person who takes that punishment are one and the same person. We have sinned against God, God has worked to deal with that sin, and He does this by taking the sin and wrath himself. If someone else had been punished then we may well say that’s unfair, but instead the punisher and the punished are one and the same.

Because a sinless Saviour died, My sinful soul is counted free; For God, the Just, is satisfied To look oh Him and pardon me.

Understanding this should lead us to be amazed, to fall at Jesus’ feet and cry for His mercy, to raise our hands and worship him as a merciful God. And if we have understood any of this at all, we must be led to ask a further question:


At this point we may start to ask what must I do to profit from His death, and the answer is absolutely nothing. We don’t do anything, doing things are what got us into trouble in the first place. No this is all grace, it’s a free gift, v22:

…to all who believe.

and again in verse 25 you can claim it:

…through faith in His blood.

We do absolutely nothing and what more this is the only way you can claim it – by faith. As we recapped earlier and as v23 repeats:

…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

No one can work their way there by themselves, and equally no one can work their way to earning Christ’s righteousness, it’s only by a gift which is why in verses 27-31 Paul goes on to say that boasting is redundant. We can’t boast of what we’ve received freely, and of which we do not deserve. Such news should humble us further, as we realise that our walk to the top was always going to fail. And so as we live in a multi-cultural world, don’t be taken in by the claims that all religions are the same, that all lead you to God, it simply isn’t true. All other religions, say you have to work hard, and maybe just maybe you’ll make it. If the Muslim, prays 5 time a day, fasts enough and goes on the Hajj then maybe just maybe. If the Buddhist take enough time for meditation, if he clears his mind and ignores the world, then with enough effort he can slowly work his way to the divine. If the Mormon just does enough missionary work, never touches alcohol, and works really hard to follow Joseph Smith’s teaching, then maybe he’ll be good enough for their god. Pick any other religion you like and you’ll find its down to you, but we know that only leaves us in Base Camp. It only leaves us wandering hard through the snow and clouds, only eventually to see through the gap in the clouds that we are nowhere closer. What we need, and what we get in Jesus Christ , is the free helicopter ride to the top. God does it,because we can’t and the only way to take hold of it is to stop working and start trusting. This goes so against a world, where we are only worthwhile if we strive and succeed. That’s why all other religions, religions we have invented, are works based. We love to think we’ve done something, that its down to us, but the Cross undercuts our arrogance completely. So the Christian faith is about accepting something as a gift, something which we haven’t contributed to, but this also means that this gift is for absolutely anybody. Again v22 says:

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

That is everyone starts from the same point, everyone starts from Base Camp, and anyone who grabs hold of this gift by faith, will be justified. Fat or thin, rich or poor, English or Indian, Greek or Jew, slave or free, all are equally stuffed and all can claim this free gift. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked hard all your life to be a good person, if you’ve gone to church every week, given to charity, and helped old ladies across the road. You’re still at base camp and you are still offered this free gift. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the exact opposite and have got a messy past; if you’ve spent time in jail, if you’ve never believed in God, if you’ve terrorised your housing estate, or even flown aircraft into tower blocks. You’re still at base camp and you are still offered this free gift. Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler are in the same boat, just like us, they’ve both sinned and turned away from God. Neither of them are good enough on their own, they both need God’s grace they both need God’s free gift of righteousness, and they both can have it if they trust and believe. This kind of amazing grace should lead us to a whole range of emotions and reactions, I just want to point to three.

Firstly to Humility. As we’ve said we do nothing, God does everything. The only thing we contribute is our sin we should be profoundly humbled before the face of God. The Christian should never be a person who promotes themselves, we should never be people who knock others, or look down on others for we have had the most humbling experience. We’ve realised that we are nowhere without Christ, so we shouldn’t be surprised if all those around us are nowhere. Our job is to love fellow sinners, to empathise with those struggling, for we know that but for GOD’S grace we would be in their shoes. This doesn’t mean we say sin is okay, the Cross shows us that sin is immensely serious, that it is extremely costly, but we should appreciate that we can’t boast in anything, and so looking down or criticising others for their sin is completely out for us as Christians.

Secondly security. Christians should be people who are completely secure. Christ has done everything for us, we shouldn’t doubt His love, we shouldn’t wonder whether perhaps we can add to, or improve upon, the cross. We shouldn’t be those who dabble in other religions when we know they are wandering around trying to work for what is given freely in Jesus. I know my temptation is to think, that if I’ve had a day when I’ve done my quiet time, when I’ve prayed for my neighbours, and chatted to my colleagues about Jesus, that somehow Jesus loves me more, and if the opposite is true, that if I’ve committed that sin again, if I’ve not talked to God once or even given Him a passing thought, that today God will somehow love me less. No on the Cross, Jesus had to die for my sins, He loved me totally when I was His enemy so I can’t earn any more love, and on the Cross Jesus died for all my sins, all the ones in the past,so I don’t need to worry that if I didn’t confess that sin somehow I’m still guilty, and he died for all the sins I’ll commit in the future, so I shouldn’t think that He’s going to give up on me if I mess up again. No the Cross means that I should be totally secure in God’s love, which should free us up to stop worrying, should free us up from patting ourselves on the back,and instead get out there and live for the God who died for us.

Thirdly praise, Christians should be people who praise God! Praise Him for who He is, and what He has done. Praise Him for His love, praise Him for His mercy and praise Him for His Son. Praise Him in the morning when you wake up. Praise Him before you eat for giving you the food. Praise Him when you’ve sinned and then asked for forgiveness. Praise Him each and everyday, in prayer, in song and in the time you give to others.

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