52 Major Stories of the Bible - Lesson 43

Justification by Faith

Justification is the doctrine of being declared not guilty of our sins. It is a work of God alone; we do not help. In Romans 1:16–17 and 3:21–26, Paul makes it clear that this declaration of righteousness is based not on what we do (“works”) but on what we believe about Jesus (“faith”), that Jesus did on the cross for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Bill Mounce
52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lesson 43
Watching Now
Justification by Faith

I. Introduction

II. Thesis 1:16-17

III. None is Righteous Apart from Christ (3:18-3:20)

IV. Heart of the Gospel (3:21-26)

A. Righteousness

B. Redemption

C. Propitiation

D. Received by Faith

  • Genesis 1 is the foundational chapter for the entire Bible. It not only tells us how everything started, but it establishes the basic teaching on who God is and who we are in relationship to him.

  • On the sixth day of creation we learn that people are the apex of creation, stamped with the image of God. This is the source of human dignity, and it is why we pursue spiritual growth, so we will look more like him.

  • Genesis 3 describes how Adam and Eve sinned, how their sin broke the relationship with God for them and for all people, and God’s promise of a redeemer.

  • Genesis 6–9 is not a children’s story. It shows God’s anger against our sin, and yet also shows that he is a redeeming God. Like Noah, it challenges us to step out in faith.

  • Genesis 12:1–15:6 focuses on one man, Abraham, who is part of the fulfillment of the promise God made in the Garden to redeem humanity. Abraham must do two things: believe, and act on that belief. When he does, God makes an eternal covenant with him and with all his descendants, Israel and the church. We too must follow the pattern of our father: believe, and act on that belief.

    The authors of the New Testament refer to Abraham as the person with whom God made the covenant as the father of the nation of Israel. At the time God established the covenant, the man's name was Abram. God changed it later to Abraham and that's how he is referred to in subsequent references.

  • The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 is an account of God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, his omnipotence (all-powerful), and his omniscience (all-knowing). Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God worked through their evil to accomplish good — the salvation of the entire nation of Abraham’s descendants. We too are called to faith in God’s promises.

  • In Exodus 7:14–Exodus 10, we read of God’s salvation of the Israelite nation. The Egyptians had enslaved them, but through Moses God punished the Egyptians with ten plagues and secured the Israelite’s freedom. God is faithful to his promises, and all praise and honor go to him.

  • The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20, are not rules to follow, but they give form and structure to how our love for God (the Shema) should manifest itself in how we treat God and others.

  • Moses wants to see God. Exodus 33 contains the account of how God could not let Moses see him or Moses would have died; but he does allow Moses to see the back of his glory. This is the essence of Christianity: a desire to see God. After all, God created us to have fellowship with us. We were created for community with him.

  • The book of Leviticus is consumed with the holiness of God, that he is separate from all sin. The sacrificial system teaches us that sin violates God’s rules, which extracts the high cost of death.  But Leviticus also teaches us that God forgives, that a sacrifice can pay the penalty of our sin (if we repent), and in so doing prepares us for the cross of Jesus.

  • The Shema is the central affirmation of the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It calls us to rigorous monotheism in which we refuse to worship idols of any shape.

  • The book of Judges shows the necessity of covenant renewal, how each generation must decide for itself if it will follow God. Once the Israelites were given the Promised Land, for the most part they failed to renew the covenant and failed to receive the blessings from God. The same is true of our own families.

  • I Samuel tells of the shift from the nation being ruled by Judges to that of a king. Israel was supposed to be a theocracy, a kingdom ruled by God, and so the people’s desire for a king was a rejection of God. Saul, the first king, did not learn the lesson that God is still king, and what matters for us is to remain faithful. Unfortunately, many people make the same mistake as Saul.

    Update: When Dr. Mounce refers to "theodicy" at the first of the lecture, he means, "theocracy." We have updated the outline and the transcription. We will update the audio when we are able.

  • This is not a story primarily about a young man defeating a great warrior (I Samuel 16-17). It is an account of how faith propels us to trust God, no matter what the appearances.

  • Psalm 23 is David's cry of faith that his divine Shepherd will provide and protect him in all situations, and that God is lavish in his love for his sheep.

  • Psalm 51 gives the pattern for true biblical confession, which admits our own guilt and God's justice, makes no excuses, and appeals not to our good works but to God's mercy.

  • Solomon was the wisest of all people, and yet he died a fool because he ignored his own advice (Proverbs). It is not enough to know the truth; you have to do it. Wisdom begins with knowing that God knows best.

  • Job learned that bad things happen to good people and bad people alike. The question is, will you continue to trust God in the difficult times? Is he worthy of our trust when we don’t know all the answers and our lives are filled with pain?

  • 1 Kings 14–18 tells the story of Elijah and his battle with false religion. The word of the day was “syncretism,” the mixing of two religions. In our day, we are faced with the same challenge, especially the mixing of Christianity and secular culture. Elijah challenges us to not have divided hearts or divided loyalties.

  • Isaiah 6:1-8 tells us of Isaiah’s visit to God’s throne, and there we learn the true meaning of worship: the cycle of revelation and response. As God reveals himself to us, and we must respond appropriately. It asks the question, ”How big is your God?”

  • Isaiah 52–53 give us one of the most exact and theologically helpful looks into the death of Christ. Isaiah prophecies about a servant who was to come, whom God would punish for our sins. This, of course, is a prophecy about Jesus. Here we learn that there is no sin God cannot forgive, and that peace comes not from within ourselves but from outside, from God.

  • Micah prophesied three sets of what we call a “Woe” (judgment”) and “Weal” (restoration). The Israelites believed all they had to do was go through the external motions of worship, and then they could live any way they wanted the rest of the week. This brings judgment, but with judgment God promises a future restoration.

  • Hosea prophesied to people who were caught in persistent sin. Their sin caught them in a downward spiral beginning with idolatry and enforced by luxury. But even at the bottom of spiral, after the people have experienced the necessary punishment, God is still present to forgive. Sinners are called “whores,” living unfaithful lives.

  • Habakkuk asks the question of why do the wicked appear to flourish and the righteous suffer. At the root of his question is whether or not God is righteous. Because Habakkuk asks in faith, God answers his question by telling him to wait. Eventually, the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded. In the meantime, the righteous person lives by their faith that God is a righteous God. 

  • Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied before and during the exile, when God’s people were conquered by the Babylonians, preaching God's judgment as well as the promise of hope. The hope was the New Covenant where God's law would be written on the person's heart and empowered through the work of God's Spirit.

  • The book of Lamentations teaches us that there is an end to God’s patience with sin. It is a national lament in which Israel expresses their deep sorrow over sin. It starts by being honest about the cause of sin, not blaming anyone but themselves. But it concludes by expressing their faith in the God who forgives.

  • Back in Genesis 3:15, God promised to do something about sin. The Old Testament shows God working to keep his promise, a promise that is eventually fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But unlike popular expectation, Jesus was more than just a human being. He was fully God at the same time he was fully human. But it is not enough to know these facts; you must receive God’s blessing in order to walk in relationship with God.

  • The Old Testament ends on a note of promise, that God would send Elijah to prepare the people for their coming savior, the Messiah. This Elijah turns out to be John the Baptist, who prepares the people by teaching them about repentance. Much to their surprise, the people learned that being born Jewish was of no advantage, and that they too had to learn that they have nothing of value to offer God if they are to enter his kingdom.

  • Perhaps the most common term used about Christians is being “born again,” or “reborn.” This comes from the account of the Jewish leader Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that if he is to enter God’s kingdom, he cannot get there naturally, through what he can do. Only the supernatural work of God’s Spirit in making us new — so new that it is a rebirth — can accomplish our salvation. All this is explained by the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16.

  • Do you want to be blessed by God? Jesus tells us how this happens with eight statements at the beginning of his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Contrary to popular belief, blessing comes through recognizing our spiritual depravity, mourning over our sin, and as a result being meek, pure in heart, and pursuing peace. How will the world respond? It will persecute you, which is also a blessing.

  • Jesus teaches us that prayer begins with us orienting ourselves to our heavenly father, being most concerned with his glory and the advance of his kingdom, and concludes with our admission of total dependence on him for our physical and spiritual needs. Prayer is primarily about God.

  • Worry carries the illusion that we have some control and that worry can accomplish something. Of course, it can do no such thing. Disciples are to have unwavering loyalty to God. As we see Gods care of his creation, we can rest assured that he will also care for us. Our focus is to be on his kingdom and his righteous; in return, he will simply give us what we need.

  • Many years before Christ, God told Moses that his name is “I AM.” Jesus picks this name up to assert that he is in fact the Great I AM, and as such he says things like, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world.” The mystery of the Trinity is that there is one God, and yet God is three – Father, Son, Spirit. This is difficult to understand, and yet we should not expect to know everything there is to know about God.

  • When Jesus calls us to follow him, as one person has said, he bids us come and die. Die to our personal ambitions, and live daily as one who has died to himself and lives for God. Only disciples are in heaven.

  • What is the single most important thing you can do? What is the central thing required of us by God? It is to love him him with everything we are. Our love must be emotional (not just obedience) and it must be personal (loving God and not things about him). But if we love God, we must then love our neighbor.

  • Two major events await the disciples: the destruction of the temple and Jesus’ return. There will be signs, warning them to flee Jerusalem, which happened in A.D. 70. But there are no warning signs for when Jesus will return and this age will end. The disciple’s role is not to wonder about when this will happen — not even Jesus knows — but to live a life of preparedness.

  • In Jesus’ last teaching before his death and resurrection, among other things he taught the disciples about the coming Spirit who will convict the world of its sin, show the world Jesus’ righteousness, and convict the world of its coming judgment. We know this “Spirit” to be the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

  • The greatest act of salvation before the cross was God freeing the Israelites from Egypt. To celebrate that event, God instituted the Passover celebration, commemorating God’s graciousness act of passing over the Israelite houses and killing the first-born of only the Egyptian homes. But now God is about to perform and even greater salvation event, Jesus dying on the cross. Christians are to celebrate Passover not looking back to Egypt but looking at Jesus’ death and forward to his eventual return.

  • The death and resurrection of Jesus is the culmination of not only Jesus' life but of all history to that point. Jesus died on the cross so that we can be friends of God, and he was shown to have conquered death by his resurrection from the grave. The temple curtain, which symbolized the separation between God and people, was torn in two, from the top to the bottom, and we can now live in direct relationship with God.

  • Jesus’ final act on earth was to commission his followers. Their central mission is to make disciples. They are to make new disciples by sharing the gospel and baptizing them; and they are to make fully-devoted disciples by teaching people to obey everything Jesus taught. Because God is sovereign over all, we must do this. Because he will never leave us, we are able to do this.

  • During the Jewish festival of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, Jesus’ promise was fulfilled and the Holy Spirit came and empowered all of Jesus’ followers, giving them supernatural power to, among other things, speak in human languages they had not learned. Peter explains the phenomena as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and then preaches the basic message found throughout Acts: Jesus lived, died, was raised form the dead, and therefore all people are called to repent of their misunderstanding of who Jesus is.

  • The church is not a building or an activity. The church is the sum total of all true believers. Christ is the head. We are the body. We are a family. We are the temple of God, the place that he inhabits.

  • Justification is the doctrine of being declared not guilty of our sins. It is a work of God alone; we do not help. In Romans 1:16–17 and 3:21–26, Paul makes it clear that this declaration of righteousness is based not on what we do (“works”) but on what we believe about Jesus (“faith”), that Jesus did on the cross for us what we could not do for ourselves.

  • We are not only saved by God’s grace, but his grace continues to sustain us throughout our life. One way that God’s grace shows itself is in how we give, financially. God’s grace enables to to both want to give and to be able to give. If someone is not giving, they should wonder about the condition of their heart and why God’s grace is not active in it.

  • In Romans 5–8, Paul reminds us of the many reasons why we are joyful. We are at peace with God. We are reconciled to him. We have been set free from sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit lives within us. We are adopted into God’s family, assured that we are his children. This is the joy of the righteous life.

  • Paul wants the church in Philippi to understand humility. They should agree on one central focus, and that is a humility that stems from a right understanding of who you are in Christ. As an example, we look no further than Jesus, who is God, lowering himself to be human, and in return being exalted. In response, we should take great care at working out the implications of what it means to be saved.

  • Christians are people of the book. We believe that all of Scripture came from the very mouth of God. It is true in all it affirms and authoritative over our lives. The challenge is to come to the point where you really believe this.

  • The book of Hebrews is a deep theological study on the superiority of Christ over everyone and everything else. Interspersed throughout the teaching are the “Warning” passages in which the author encourages his readers to not fall away from their faith. If people do leave the Christian faith, they can have no assurance that they truly are Christians.

  • James tells us that there is nothing more difficult to control than  the tongue. It destroys people’s reputation, often under the guise that what is being said is accurate. We are hurt, so we verbally lash out. We want to be well thought of, so we feign piety. The only way to gain any victory over the tongue is to work on the heart, since it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks. Unfortunately, gossip often is the natural language of the church, but there can be victory.

  • 1 Peter asks one of the fundamental question of life is, how can an all-powerful, all-good God allow pain and suffering. It helps us grapple with this question by pointing our attention to the realities of our lives, especially the fact that we are exiles on earth and our true home is heaven. We are to recognize in the midst of suffering that God is still at work for our good.

  • The letter we call 1 John is primarily about love. We have been loved by God, and so we should love others as well. Love is not  some simplistic emotion but it involves action: God loved us and therefore sent his Son. Love is the giving of oneself for the benefit of the other.

  • The Bible closes with the prophecy of how all things will end. While there are many questions as to the precise meaning of this book, it’s central message is crystal clear. God will not keep us from suffering and persecution; it is going to get worst; God calls us to be faithful in the midst of our pain. If we are faithful to the end, we will be rewarded. This is what we are waiting for, a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no pain, no sorrow, no sin. The Garden of Eden will be restored, at last. We were created for fellowship with God, and we long for the day when Jesus will return again and take us home.

English | Hindi | Swahili

The Bible is one continuous story filled with adventure, heroes and villains, triumph and defeat, good and evil, love and jealousy, plot twists and ultimately, a happy ending. As you read each of the short Bible stories along the way, you begin to see how the Bible stories combine to form the structure of the one big story. The individual characters and their experiences of tragedy and triumph draw you into their Bible stories and help you see the overarching themes of cosmic love, judgment and redemption.

Telling stories is an effective way of communicating ideas so you remember them. Immersing yourself into the 26 Bible stories from the Old Testament and 26 from the New Testament helps you to understand and internalize the character of God, the splendor of his creation, his love for humans, the evil and destructiveness of sin, the wonder of the plan of redemption and the completeness of restoration at the end of history.

Each of these stories can be considered as Bible stories for kids because the plot and main teaching of the story is something that most children will understand. They are also Bible stories for youth and adults because if you are wise, the examples you see and the lessons you learn will guide you for a lifetime.


Recommended Books

52 Major Stories of the Bible - Student Guide

52 Major Stories of the Bible - Student Guide

The Bible is one continuous story, from the story of creation to the story of Jesus' future return at the end of time. And yet there are smaller, pivotal stories that...

52 Major Stories of the Bible - Student Guide

Dr. Bill Mounce
52 Major Stories of the Bible
Justification by Faith
Lesson Transcript



Paul is at the end of this third missionary journey and plans to take the offering he had been collecting from the Gentile churches to the Jewish church in Jerusalem. He then wants to move his base of operation from Antioch, up in modern day Syria, over to Rome because he wants to go farther west than anyone else had preached before during his fourth missionary journey, probably to Spain. He wants the Roman church to fully understand his theology, so he writes the book of Romans. And so the book of Romans is the most systematic presentation of the gospel in the entire New Testament. He wants them to support him as he moves further west.

Thesis 1:16-17

Paul states his thesis right up front in Romans 1:16, 17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. He is not ashamed of the story of Jesus Christ, who he is and what he had done. Paul did not care what other people thought of him or his message because he knows it is true. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is true. It is interesting that Paul uses the same word, “power,” in verse 4 that he also uses to describe the power that raised Jesus from the dead. When Paul, you or I unashamedly share the gospel, we do so knowing that we are sharing in the very same power that raises people from the dead. It is this resurrecting power that makes our salvation possible. We were separated from God by our sins. As sinners we are unable to do anything about it. If we are going to be saved, then we must be saved by the power of God. And if God does not save us, then we will pay the penalty for our own sins with our own death. But this salvation is for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The gospel is for absolutely everyone. There are no barriers. There are no ethnic barriers. There are no socioeconomic barriers. It is for everyone. The statement of the Jew first and then to the Greek (in other words, to the Jew and then the non-Jew) is simply a statement of historical chronology. Paul is not a universalist. Paul does not believe that salvation is for everyone, period. Do you notice that? The gospel is applied only to those who believe. So the offer of salvation, the offer of the gospel is for everyone, but it is applied only to those who believe, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first [and then the non-Jew], the Greek.” It is important to ask, “Why would Paul or why would we be ashamed of the gospel?” Why do we so often couch our words in such a way that people do not know that we are a Christian? Why do we often stop short of actually saying the name “Jesus Christ?” Why would Paul and why would we be ashamed of the gospel? Well, it is pretty straightforward. I think the gospel is the message of human inability and arrogance. The gospel is the message that we cannot deal with the sin in our life. The gospel is the message of an apparently failed Jewish religious fanatic who claimed to be able to do what you and I cannot do for ourselves. The theme song of the gospel is not “I did it my way.” The theme song of the gospel is “God did it his way.” On the surface the gospel appears to be an embarrassing, weak, uncool philosophy, the philosophy that values meekness and gentleness. That plot is not going to get you any movies in the top ten; heroes who are meek and gentle, a gospel that calls us to love our enemies and to leave vengeance to God. Paul never would have been popular at high school or work. Nevertheless, the gospel is true and Paul and you and I are not to be ashamed of it. Why was Paul so convinced that the gospel was the message of salvation? He tells us in the next verse, verse 17: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” The gospel message, the story of who Jesus is and what he did is primarily the message of the righteousness of God.

Righteousness is the first of three metaphors that Paul is going to use in this passage in Romans. The English words, “righteous and justified” are the same Greek word. Justification and righteousness are the same thing. It is a metaphor that comes out of the law courts; if you were accused of a crime, taken to court, and went through the trial, you would want to hear the judge say that you are “righteous,” you are “justified.” Because it means that you are not guilty of the charge that has been leveled against you. And so we long to hear the judge say, “You are righteous. You are not guilty of your sin.” The gospel message is the story of the righteousness of God. First of all, the gospel tells us that God himself is righteous. God is perfect in all of his holiness; he is holy, without sin. And the gospel tells us that God is in the business of making people righteous; God is in the business of declaring people justified, innocent of sin. Paul is talking about how you and I become disciples of Jesus Christ. How do we become righteous? And how does he do that? How does God make you and me righteous, justified, innocent of sin, not guilty? It is completely and totally a matter of faith. It is from faith, for faith. We are not made righteous by our works. We do not do things to earn favor with God but rather we are made righteous completely and totally by our faith, by believing that Jesus has already done the work for us. What do works look like today? What does it look like today when people try to earn salvation, when they try to earn their righteousness? Well I suspect if you asked your proverbial person on the street corner they would say, “Well I do not do certain bad things. I do not do the really bad things.” By not doing certain bad things they think they are earning favor with God. Or perhaps the proverbial person on the street corner would say, “Well, I’m better than my neighbor.” Of course, if you asked your neighbor they would think that they are better than you. Or perhaps they would say, “I do some good things. I go to church periodically. I actually throw a little money in the offering when it goes by. And I’m pretty sincere.” These are all things that people do that Paul calls works, which makes them think that somehow they are earning favor with God, that they are earning their righteousness. This is a common thread that runs through religions. The ability to earn salvation is what the Christian cults all have in common, whether it is Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are things that they can do to earn favor with God. Unfortunately it is also embedded in the theological fabric of Catholicism, where they teach that justification is by faith plus works. It is written into their documents that Christ’s death on the cross, as bad as it is, is not sufficient to pay the penalty of our sins and make us righteous. So they believe in justification but add certain things including the sacraments, purgatory, and merits of the saints and Jesus. It is built on the idea that I do not come to God empty handed; rather, I come to God with something to offer. That is not only wrong about the sufficiency of the cross, but how we become righteous, right with God. Because he makes us righteous, not by works, not by things that we do, but we are made righteous by faith. What does faith look like today? Well, faith today looks exactly like it did back in the days of Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet, where Habakkuk looked out at the world and he said, “God, it looks like the righteous are suffering and the wicked are being rewarded. I don’t understand.” And in Habakkuk 2:4 God says, “Habakkuk, the righteous will live by faith.” And that is the verse Paul quotes in Romans 1:17, the righteous person will live by faith, that you will believe that the righteous will one day be rewarded. That you believe that some day the wicked will be punished. But the righteous person believes that, even if they don’t see it. And so in the last chapter of Habakkuk he responds in faith. In Habakkuk 3:17, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” That is what faith looks like. In the face of everything, we still believe that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he says he will do; he rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Faith means we surrender our pride. Faith means that we admit our inability to make ourselves righteous and we come to God with our hands empty seeking them to filled with the work of Christ. It is by faith that we are made righteous. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” That is the thesis of the book of Romans and should be memorized. Everything that goes from 1:18 to the end of chapter 8 is all of Paul’s explanation of verses 16 and 17.

None is Righteous Apart from Christ (3:18-3:20)

Having stated his thesis Paul begins to build his case. In 1:18 through 3:20, Paul is proving that apart from Christ no one is righteous. If righteousness is only from Jesus through faith then there cannot be righteousness anywhere else. The statement in reverse: if other people are righteous apart from Christ then righteousness is not only from God. So from 1:18 to 3:20, Paul wants to prove that there is no one righteous apart from the work of Jesus Christ. From 1:18 to the end of the chapter, Paul delves into what we call “general revelation.” This is information about God that all people of all times know. It is information that all people know about God because God has embedded his thumbprint in the physical universe, the stars and the sky, and in nature itself on earth, he has embedded himself so that everyone can see certain things and know certain things about God. Look at Romans 1 starting at verse 19, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Every person who has ever lived, no matter where they live on planet Earth, knows three things for sure: God who created order in the universe is powerful, the God who created is divine, which means he is separate from creation, and God exists. In other words, there are no true atheists. There are no true pantheists. There are no true animists. Everybody knows that God exists, he is powerful and he is separate from creation. And yet, as Paul argues, although everybody knew this no one responded to it. They are without excuse because they should have responded to what they know about God and creation. And they did not. Therefore, God’s response to our sin is twofold. The first is that he responds in wrath. Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. See, our problem is not intellectual or social or cultural. Our issue is moral. Our issue is sin and it is by our unrighteousness that we suppress what we know to be true about God. So God responds in wrath to our sin and then by giving us over to our sin.

This is the refrain that is repeated three times through the rest of Romans 1. Look for example at 1:28, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God [from what they would know about him by looking at creation], God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God.” And the list goes on and on. Everybody knows certain things about God but no one has responded to it. So God’s wrath is justified and he has turned us over to our sin and we are caught in this downward spiral. Understand that in the flow of the theology starting at 1:18, Jesus does not come up until 3:21. So this is the world apart from Jesus Christ. In chapter 2 Paul turns to the Jew. All the way through chapter 1 the Jews have been applauding saying, “Yeah, go get them Paul. You are right. Those bunch of pagans. You let them have it.” And then in 2:1 Paul turns to them and says, “Wait a minute. You are doing exactly the same things.” The Jews thought their sins would be excused because they were God’s special people. And all through chapter 2 Paul says, “You don’t get it, do you? If it’s wrong for the Gentiles to sin, it’s wrong for you to sin. God shows no partiality. You too have not responded to what you know about God. You too are fully unrighteous.” Then we get to 3:9 and Paul starts concluding this first part of his case. This is one of the darkest passages in the New Testament. It is a string of Old Testament citations because Paul is markedly making the point that no one is righteous apart from Jesus Christ. He goes on to say, “Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is what life looks like apart from Jesus Christ because no one, in and of themselves, can do the good that is necessary to be righteous. No one. If only we could learn to see our neighbors as God sees them. If only we could learn to see the people leaving the movie theater as God seems them. I know that my tendency is to look at my neighbors and go, “He’s a nice guy; loves his wife, spends time with his kids.” That all may be true, but oh to see their heart with God’s eyes. If we would, if we could, we would see something that is dark, sinister and hell-bent. There is a passage in one of C.S. Lewis’ books where he talks about walking down the sidewalk and wishing he could see people as God sees them. He writes about how ugly and dark they would be, not because they are overtly terrible people ravaging and pillaging, but because their hearts are dark and sinister. They are not righteous. I remember one of the years that I was teaching Romans in college, we had a lot of foreign exchange students and a young and very kind Hindu student came up to me after class and said, “Is that really what you think of me?” It was one of those times where you take a deep breath and say, “Do I really believe that all the Scripture is God-breathed, that all of it is from him, that all of it is true?” Even though everything inside of me was wanting to say, “No, I don’t believe that at all. I think you’re a nice person.” And I said, “When Jesus looks at your heart, if you have not been made righteous by the blood of Christ, that is exactly who you are.” Not an easy thing to say to an 18-year-old foreign exchange student. But it is what the Bible says about your neighbors and friends who are on their way to hell. If only we could see them as God sees them. No one is righteous, no, not one.

Heart of the Gospel (3:21-26)

Paul has, to his satisfaction, proven the first part of his thesis that apart from Christ there is no righteousness and in 3:21-26, Paul turns to show that there is righteousness available through Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the book of Romans. Every verse should be underlined and highlighted in your Bible.


Paul starts by saying that the gospel is all about the righteousness of God. Verse 21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." The Old Testament points us towards the righteousness of God and the gospel shows that we are made righteous. Following are three points on righteousness. One, we are made righteous by our faith, not by what we do but by what we believe. We are made righteous by being fully convinced that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he says he will do. We are made righteous by our faith when we believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that he has done what he said he had done. When he said, “It is finished,” do you and I believe that?

Secondly, the gospel shows that we are made righteous by having faith in Jesus Christ. Specifically, faith in what Jesus Christ did on the cross. Faith without the proper object will only get you as far as hell, right? Sincerity does not get you into heaven. People can be sincerely wrong. We are not pluralists. There are not many ways to God because there has only been one cross that tore the curtain in the temple in half and gave us direct access to God, the Father. Our faith must be in Jesus Christ because there is no redemption, there is no reconciliation, and there is no justification in any other name. There is no other name given among heaven whereby we must be saved. So it is faith in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, it is faith for all. Righteousness is available for all who believe. There are no ethnic barriers, no barriers of any kind. We are all in the same boat. The righteousness of God is made available through faith, but faith in its proper object of Jesus Christ and it is available for all, Jew and non-Jew. Paul then repeats himself in reverse order. He says, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” That is as dense as theology gets in the Bible. This is as tightly as he can say it. Let’s unpack what Paul is saying. Sin has caused all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, American and non-American, white and non-white, rich and poor to fall short of the glory that God intended us to have. And therefore, if we are to be justified, if we are to be made righteous, God has to do it because we cannot do it as un-glorified sinners. That is why justification is by his grace, unmerited favor, as a gift. We cannot save ourselves. If we are to be justified, declared not guilty, then God must do it for us. People do not like that, do they? The world does not like the message that they cannot take care of their sin, whatever they happen to think that is, and God has to do it for us. That is why there is such a tendency to be ashamed of the gospel message, because it runs exactly counter to what the world teaches. And yet if we are to be justified, it had to be given to us, not because we deserve it but because God is a God of grace and mercy. And God gives us the gift of redemption that is made possible by Christ Jesus on the cross.


Redemption is the second metaphor that Paul is using after justification. It’s a metaphor that when people heard the word, “redemption,” they would have thought of a slave market. Because if Jesus said he was going to redeem someone, they would think that you were going to go down to the city center, or the town gates, and you were going to free a slave. That you were going to redeem a slave. And there’s two ideas connected with the idea of redemption. The first is that a price is paid and the second is that freedom is gained. The metaphor of redemption is that of a slave market; price paid, freedom gained. And the price that was paid is the blood of the lamb. And the freedom gained is the gain that you and I have from the power of sin. John Bunyan, the man who wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress,” struggled with sin in his life; he was overwhelmed by his past sin. He simply did not understand how God could make him righteous. He says Romans 3:24 is the verse that unlocked everything for him. Let me quote Bunyan, “As I was walking up and down in the house as a man in most woeful state that word of God took hold of my heart: 'You are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.' But oh what a turn it made upon me. Now was I as one awakened out of some troublesome sleep and dream and listening to this heavenly sentence it was as if I’d heard it thus expounded to me [in other words, this is how heard Romans 3:24], ‘Sinner, you think that because of your infirmities I cannot save your soul? But behold my Son is by me and upon him I look and not on you. And I will deal with you according as I am pleased with Him.’” All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.


How did Jesus go about redeeming us? He redeemed us by providing propitiation by his blood, specifically his blood on the cross. Propitiation is the third metaphor that Paul uses in this passage. It is a metaphor that comes from the sacrificial system. It is what happens when you slit the throat of the animal. It is what happened when Jesus died on the cross. I have to use a Greek word here. The Greek word is “hilasterion.” The problem is that we have no word in English that adequately translates what hilasterion means. Hilasterion includes the idea of propitiation, which means that the primary thrust of Jesus' death on the cross was toward God. It is the idea that Christ’s death appeased God’s wrath; that God was really mad at sin and so the hilasterion, Christ’s sacrifice and death, was a propitiation because it settled, it answered, it took care of God’s wrath. Also wound up in the idea of hilasterion is the idea of expiation. The thrust of the English word “expiation” says that what Christ did on the cross was also directed to you and to me. Our feeling of guilt are removed because of what Christ did on the cross. God’s wrath against sin was appeased, propitiation, and as a result our guilt and our feelings of guilt have been truly removed, expiation. Hilasterion also carries another nuance. The mercy seat is the hilasterion. The top of the Ark of the Covenant that is in the Holy of Holies where the high priest goes in once a year and sprinkles blood in order to atone for, in order to gain forgiveness, for the nation, Israel. But that mercy seat is no longer private; that mercy seat is now in public view because the mercy seat is the cross. It was on the cross that Christ offered the hilasterion, the propitiation to appease God’s wrath and the expiation to remove our sense of guilt.

Received by Faith

He redeemed us by being put forward as propitiation by his blood, but notice Paul has to add in that he needs to be received by faith. Forgiveness is hanging on the cross, but you must receive it, you must take it, you must make it your own if it is to have any efficacy in your life, any power, any working. If you are to be made righteous it must be taken, in a sense, off the cross and by faith applied to me specifically and personally. This is why we have the ABC’s of the gospel. That in order to be made righteous we must A: Admit that we are sinners. Accept God’s judgment that we are separated from him. B: Believe that Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins and he was possible to do that because he is the God-man. And then C: Commit our lives to him. Commit ourselves to living out a life of faith and obedience and service to him. Propitiation to be received by faith and if you do not do it, if you do not receive it by your faith then it stays on the cross and you go to hell. Someone the other day asked if we were seeker-sensitive and I said, “Yes, I’m very willing to tell people that they’re going to die in their sins and go to hell.” We must be seeker-sensitive. We must understand that there may be people in this room right now who have been coddled by a false gospel into thinking that they are going to heaven because they sincerely believe a few random ideas. But righteousness is through the death of Christ on the cross for the appeasement of God’s wrath that is appropriated by you by your faith, not by your works. And without that, they will go to hell; and so will you. I am very seeker-sensitive. Please read with me Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’” The gospel is the message that God’s power is available for the salvation of all of us. Every one of us has sinned. Every one of us has separated ourselves from God. And Christ has died on the cross for our hilasterion, as our sole source of redemption and forgiveness. Redemption is offered to all, freely, as a gift by God’s grace. You cannot earn it; you can merely receive it by faith believing that Jesus is who he says he is and that he has done what he said he has done. And then the gospel calls us to live a life of faith, trusting in the promises of God. There is absolutely nothing here to be ashamed of. It is the power of God for salvation. May we not respond in shame or fear; but may we respond in security and in absolute and total joy.

Memory Verse

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ ” (Romans 1:16-17).

Reflection Questions

  • What is there about the gospel that causes us to be embarrassed? How does that embarrassment show itself in daily life, especially in the little things?
  • How does knowing that the resurrecting power of God is flowing through the words of the gospel encourage you in your life and sharing?
  • What does God’s righteousness look like? How would you describe it to a child or non-Christian?
  • What are ways in which you have seen others, perhaps subconsciously, trying to earn their salvation by works and not by faith? What about you?
  • What are some success stories of people who have relied on faith to be made righteous? What does that look like in day-to-day existence?
  • How will you explain to the “nice non-Christian” that their heart is dark and ugly in Christ’s eyes? When you answer, be thinking of a specific person.
  • Why is there salvation in no other name than Jesus?
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