How can sin­ners be counted right­eous be­fore God?

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“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 it 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; 5:12; 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.

De­vo­tion by Randy Moll. Scrip­ture quo­ta­tions are from the King James Ver­sion of the Bi­ble.

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