How can sinners be counted righteous before God?
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” Romans 3:21-22 (Read v. 19-28)
How can you and I, who are sinners, be righteous and acceptable to God? How can we escape the condemnation of God’s perfect law and be counted righteous and holy in God’s judgment? You might be surprised how many get the answer wrong, even among those who call themselves Lutheran.
First of all, it is not by our obedience to God’s Law or by any good works or righteous deeds we perform. This was the misconception with which Luther struggled, trying to be righteous before God by doing good works and living a holy life. Having been taught by the church of Rome that salvation is by holy living and righteous works which we do with God’s infused grace and help, Luther sought to appease God, even going to the point of becoming a monk and punishing himself for sins; but it was never enough!
It is as the Bible teaches us in Romans 3:9ff. We are all guilty of sin and deserving of God’s wrath and punishment. It is as St. Paul writes in v. 19-20: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
If the Law of God reveals our sin and condemns us, how can we be righteous and acceptable to a just and holy God who demands perfect righteousness, that we be holy as he is holy (cf. Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:20,48)? The answer is recorded in Romans 3:21-22: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” (Luther found this same answer in Romans 1:16-17.)
A righteousness of God apart from our keeping of the Law is revealed to us in the Gospel. It is a righteousness to which the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, testify. It is “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” It is a righteousness which is imputed to us when we have faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice upon the cross for the sins of the world.
The following verses (23-28) explain: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
Who are the “all” when it says: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”? We shouldn’t take these verses out of their context and from the full statement as some do. Even though all people have sinned and come short of the glory of God, the “all” in this passage is the same as the “all” at the beginning of Paul’s statement when he says: “even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.”
This is important if we wish to rightly understand the chief doctrine of the Christian Faith. Who is it that is justified? Is it all people? Or, is it those who believe in Jesus?
Note that the text says: “Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood”; and “that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Thus, justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. And, with Paul, we conclude “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Cf. Romans 4:1-11; 23-25; 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16.
This, of course, is in complete accord with the Lutheran Confessions (Augsburg Confession, Article IV ): “Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”
So, how can we sinners be counted righteous and acceptable to God and escape His just punishment for our sins? It’s not by works of the law because we, like all others, fail and come short of what God demands. It’s not by a supposed righteousness imputed to all sinners apart from and before faith, as some teach. Rather, it is by faith alone in Christ Jesus – it’s when we flee to the cross of Jesus and trust that God, for the sake of Christ’s perfect righteousness and His innocent sufferings and death on the cross for the sins of the world, is gracious and merciful and forgives the sins of penitent sinners for Jesus’ sake. It’s when we place our trust in Jesus and His cross, that God forgives our sins, counts us just and holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake, accepts us as His own dear children and gives a place in His everlasting kingdom!
Your Law condemns us, O God. We are guilty and deserving of Your wrath and punishment! But we flee to the cross of Jesus and trust that, for the sake of Christ Jesus and His innocent sufferings and death upon the cross for all sin, You deal with us in mercy, grant us forgiveness, and count us righteous and holy in Your sight. Graciously keep us trusting in Christ Jesus that we might not be condemned but have everlasting life. Amen.