A Commentary by John Stott
All human beings of every race and rank, of every creed and culture, Jews and Gentiles, the immoral and the moralizing, the religious and the irreligious, are without any exception sinful, guilty, inexcusable and speechless before God. That was the terrible human predicament described in Romans 1:18-3:20. There was no ray of light, no flicker of hope, no prospect of rescue.
‘But now’ Paul suddenly breaks in, God himself has intervened. ‘Now’ seems to have a threefold reference – logically (the developing argument), chronological (the present time) and eschatological (the new age has arrived 2 Cor. 6:2). After a long dark night the sun has risen, a new day has dawned, and the world is flooded with light. ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known…’ (21a). It is a fresh revelation, focusing on Christ and his cross, although ‘the law and the prophets testify’ to it (21b) in their partial foretellings and foreshadowings. So then, over against the unrighteousness of some and the self-righteousness of others, Paul sets the righteousness of God. Over against God’s wrath resting on evil-doers (1:18; 2:5; 3:5), he sets God’s grace to sinners who believe. Over against judgment he sets justification.
He begins, first, by portraying the revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ’s cross, and lays the foundation of the gospel of justification (3:21-26). Secondly, he defends this gospel against Jewish critics (3:27-31). Thirdly, he illustrates it in the life of Abraham, who was himself justified by faith and is in consequence the spiritual father of all who believe (4:1-25).
1). God’s righteousness revealed in Christ’s cross (3:21-26).
Verses 21-26 are six tightly packed verses, which Professor Cranfield rightly calls ‘the centre and heart’ of the whole main section of the letter, and which Dr. Leon Morris suggests may be ‘possibly the most important single paragraph ever written’. Its key expression is ‘the righteousness of God’, which we considered when it first occurred, namely in 1:17. In both verses NIV renders the phrase *a righteousness from God*, thus stressing the saving initiative which he has taken to give sinners a righteous status in his sight. Both speak of his righteousness as being ‘revealed’ or ‘made known’. Both indicate its newness by declaring that it is made known either ‘in the gospel’ (1:17) or *apart from law* (3:21). Yet both represent it as a fulfilment of Old Testament Scripture, which shows that it was not a divine afterthought, And both state that it is available to us through faith. The only significant difference between these two texts lies in the tense of their main verbs. According to 3:21 a righteousness from God *has been made known*, a perfect tense which must refer to the historical death of Christ and its abiding consequences, whereas in 1:17 a righteousness from God is being revealed (a present tense) in the gospel, which presumably means whenever it is preached.
In verse 22 Paul resumes his announcement of the gospel by repeating the expression *righteousness from God*, and now adds two more truths about it. The first is that it *comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe*. Moreover, it is offered to all because it is needed by all. *There is no difference* between Jews and Gentiles in this respect, as Paul has been arguing in 1:18-3:20, or between any other human groupings, *for all have sinned (hemarton*, everybody’s cumulative past being summed up by an aorist tense) *and fall short (a continuing present) of the glory of God* (23). God’s *doxa* (‘glory’) could mean his approval or praise, which all have forfeited (cf. Jn. 12;43), but probably refers to his image or glory in which all were made (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7) but which all fail to live up to. Of course there are degrees of sinning, and therefore differences, yet nobody even approaches God’s standard. Bishop Handley Moule put it dramatically: The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of it (sc. God’s glory); but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they’.
The second novelty in these verses is that now for the first time ‘a righteousness from God’ is identified with justification: *and are justified freely by his grace…(24a). The righteousness of (or from) God is a combination of his righteous character, his saving initiative and his gift of a righteous standing before him. It is his just justification of the unjust, his righteous way of ‘righteoussing’ the unrighteous.
Justification is a legal or forensic term, belonging to the law courts. Its opposite is condemnation. Both are the pronouncements of a judge. In a Christian context they are the alternative eschatological verdicts which God the judge may pass on judgment day. So when God justifies sinners today, he anticipates his own final judgment by bringing into the present what belongs properly to the last day.
Tomorrow: Romans. 3:21-4:25. God’s righteousness revealed and illustrated.