Righteousness from God (Rom 3:21-31)

The 16th century church reformer, Martin Luther, said that in his opinion the letter to the Romans is the “chief part of the whole Bible” and the “gateway to Heaven”. The other great European reformer, John Calvin, wrote that “If we understand this letter, a way is opened for us to understand the whole of Scripture.” I think they are both right, and today’s passage from Romans in particular expresses the heart of the Good News of Christianity.

If we truly understand the Good News in today’s passage, it should shape and motivate our whole lives – both as individuals and as a church. A car may look great on the outside, but if it doesn’t have an engine it’s not going anywhere. A church may look good on the outside, with wonderful facilities and lots of activities, but if its members haven’t grasped the Gospel, then it’s not going to go anywhere fast.

Today’s passage spells out humanity’s biggest problem, declares God’s gracious solution, and invites a response.

Humanity’s Problem (v.23)

If we are to understand why the Christian message is Good News, we need first to understand the bad news. We need to look first at humanity’s biggest problem, a problem that lies behind all the other major problems that the world faces, a problem summarised in verse 23 of today’s passage: “everyone has sinned and is far away from God”.

It is sad but true that human selfishness, our neglect of their responsibilities to God, to each other and to the world, lies behind the problems we see on our TV screens day by day: things like crime, anti-social behaviour, environmental damage, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown and greed.

If we had the time, and were able to read the first two and a half chapters of Romans, we would read the apostle Paul’s full account of human rebellion against God, and its depressing consequences:

  • In chapter 1 Paul reminds his readers that despite the evidence of God’s existence, power and goodness in Creation, people do not serve him as their rightful King.
  • And in chapter 2, we are told that despite the voice of God in our consciences, we all often do what we know to be wrong.
  • And in the first half of chapter 3, Paul tells us that despite having the words of God in Scripture, his Ten Commandments and other laws, even the most “religious” people (i.e. his fellow Jews) fail to consistently follow God’s standards.

This catalogue of human error has awful consequences. In verse 29 of chapter 1, Paul compiles a list of sin’s consequences. A list that includes: jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, disobedience, pride and a lack of kindness or pity. But Paul leaves the biggest consequence of sin until chapter 2 verse 8. He tells us there that such behaviour angers our righteous God, our good and just Creator.

So whilst he may be being patient now, God cannot let evil go on forever. He repeatedly warns us in the Bible that there will be a Judgement Day when he will rightly punish all those who have done wrong.

This should make us all feel uneasy, because we are all in that camp. As Paul writes in the verses just before today’s passage, “All have turned away from God, all have gone wrong; no one does what is right, not even one!”
If you don’t believe me, here’s a challenge for you. Try and go the next 24 hours without thinking anything unkind, unjust or unfair. And try spending the day without doing anything even slightly shady, lazy or dishonest. And try going through tomorrow without saying something you regret, something you shouldn’t, or something unhelpful.
If you manage it, give me a phone call. And if I manage it, I’ll give all of you a phone call. Don’t worry, there’s absolutely no chance of your telephone ringing! None of us could last more than a few hours without doing something wrong, and I know I wouldn’t last five minutes.

So it looks like we are all in trouble with God. But then in verse 21 comes a “BUT”, the best, most important and wonderful “but” the world has ever known. Because it is a ‘but’ that introduces God’s solution to our plight, and provides the basis for every true Christian’s hope and joy, and the unifying, driving force behind every church’s mission…

God’s Solution (v.24)

God’s solution to humanity’s crisis was to send his Son. Look at verse 24: “By the free gift of God’s grace, all are put right with him through Jesus Christ.” By sending his Son to die a sacrificial death in our place, God made it possible to show mercy towards us, while at the same time punishing sin. This is what Paul means by the end of verse 26: “God shows that he himself is righteous AND that he puts right everyone who believes in Jesus.” Or as one hymn puts it, the Cross is the place where God’s “justice and mercy meet.”

This great rescue operation was achieved because Jesus took upon himself our sin, and took upon himself the penalty that we deserved. On the Cross, Jesus bore in his body God’s rightful anger towards us, and made us clean and blameless in God’s sight. Jesus’ death on the Cross took away God’s rightful anger towards us, and made our sin disappear from God’s sight.

The Right Response (v.28)

A wonderful thing took place on the Cross: Jesus willingly took our sin and guilt, making possible our forgiveness, our cleansing and the possibility of new life in him. But how are we to respond? Paul couldn’t be clearer about what we need to do to receive the free gift of God’s grace. He uses the words “faith” or “belief” nine times in ten verses. Verse 28 is typical. He writes: “a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the law demands”.

None of us can get right with God by obeying his law, because we have all broken it! But we can all put our faith in Jesus, by simply asking him to take our guilt and give us God’s forgiveness. Jesus is making us a great offer, so please do accept it if you have never done so before. As verse 30 says, whoever we are, Jew or Gentile, faith in Christ is the only way we can be “put right” with God. Don’t miss out!


When the great evangelist John Wesley first truly understood the Gospel in 1738, it was during a sermon on Romans. He said: “My heart was strangely warmed, and an assurance was given me that Christ had taken my sins away, yes even mine.”

I hope our hearts have been warmed today as we’ve reflected on the great Good News of Christianity, the news of God’s gracious solution to the problem of human sin. And I hope we have all responded to this Gospel rightly, in faith, and have been inspired afresh to love, serve and share Jesus – our gracious Lord and Saviour.

Phil Weston