Romans 3:21-4:25


In the first session of this study we saw that the theme of Romans is “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Paul develops this theme under four broad categories.

  • The beginning point of the gospel is a clear recognition of our need for salvation.  That’s why, after the introduction in Romans 1:1-17, Paul launches into a detailed discussion of human sin and guilt. (Chapters 1b-3a)
  • The heart of the gospel is salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  God’s response to our sin and guilt was to offer us a way out through His Son. (Chapters 3b-8)
  • The scope of the gospel is for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.  In this section Paul gives particular emphasis to the place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan. (Chapters 9-11)
  • The gospel calls us to a life of sacrificial service. (Chapters 12-16)


In this session we will begin to explore the second major section of Romans (chapters 3b-8) in which Paul declares the heart of the gospel.  In this section Paul develops the idea of “justification by faith.”  No less than nine times in this section Paul uses the words justification or justify or justify.  This part of Romans is the most complete treatment of the concept of justification in the Scripture.  The word justification is from the legal profession.  It means to be declared not guilty or to acquit or to treat as innocent.  This section of Romans explains how it is possible for sinners, such as we are, to be to be declared not guilty by God.


There are five major movements in this section of Romans.

  • Romans 3:21-31 – A description of justification
  • Romans 4:1-25 – An example of justification
  • Romans 5:1-11 – The blessings of justification
  • Romans 5:12-21 – The basis of justification
  • Romans 6:1-8:30 – The results of justification
    • Victory over sin (Chapter 6)
    • Freedom from the Law (Chapter 7)
    • Life in the Spirit (Chapter 8)


A Description of Justification (Romans 3:21-31)

It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this paragraph.  Martin Luther pointed to this paragraph as the center not just of Romans but also of the entire Bible.  John Calvin said that in the entire Bible there is not a passage that more profoundly explains the righteousness of God.  If we understand this paragraph, we will likely understand the message of Romans.  Conversely, if we misunderstand this paragraph, we will likely misunderstand the message of Romans.


Notice that Romans 3:21 begins with the word “but.”  That is a conjunction of contrast.  The word contrasts what Paul said in the previous section of Romans with what he will be saying in the current section of Romans.  Having established that all humanity is guilty of sin, Paul tells us that is not the end of the story.  God has chosen to do something about our sin problem.  The phrase “the righteousness of God” tells us what God has chosen to do.  That phrase means “the righteousness that comes from God” or “right standing with God.”  It is simply another way of saying “salvation.”


In this these 11 verses Paul lays down nine key principles about the salvation God has made available for us in response to our sin problem.

  1. Salvation is “apart from the Law” (v.21a) – At one time Paul was a devout Pharisee.  He devoted his life to attaining right standing with God through obedience to the Law.  But through his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul learned that salvation does not come by keeping the Law.  It is impossible for anyone to be good enough to earn God’s acceptance.  That’s because, as Paul pointed out in earlier in this chapter, “There is none righteous, not even one…” (v.10).  To think we can be good enough to earn our salvation and blot out our sin is a further expression of our sinfulness!
  2. Salvation is “witnessed (attested to) by the Law and the Prophets” (21b) – While the Law cannot save us, it does have a function.  It points us to the saving act of God in Jesus Christ.  This phrase takes us back to Romans 1:2 where Paul says the gospel was “…promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures…”  If viewed through eyes of faith, the Christ event can be seen in the teachings of the prophets of old. (see Isaiah 53:3-11)  The gospel did not begin in the first century.  It begin when humanity first sinned and God chose to act redemptively toward us.  The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the coming and work of Jesus.
  3. Salvation comes “…through faith in Jesus Christ…” (v.22a) – The main thought here is that it is through faith and only through faith that salvation is possible.  It is important to note that saving faith is a very specific faith.  It is not faith in just anything; it is faith in Jesus Christ.”  Faith is only as good as its object.  It does not matter how much faith a person may have, if it is misdirected faith it has no saving value.  What does it mean to have saving faith?  Paul makes it clear in Romans that saving faith or belief is the kind of faith that submits to the Lordship of Jesus and recognizes His resurrection from the dead as the event that demonstrates beyond doubt His true identity (see Romans 1:4 and 10:9).  It is a personal, faith relationship with Jesus Christ, not keeping the Law, that brings salvation to one’s life.
  4. Salvation is “…for all those who believe…” (vv.22b-23) – Since “…all have sinned…” it is necessary for salvation to be available to “all.”  This is one of the beautiful things about the gospel.  No-one is excluded.  No-one is left out.  The only qualifier is salvation is available to “…all those who believe.”  This is the second time we have come across this concept in our study of Romans.  In Romans 1:17 we saw that the gospel “…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”  This is a major theme of Romans.  More than 60 times in Romans Paul uses the word “all” indicating that the salvation made possible by Jesus is not an exclusive salvation.
  5. Salvation comes to us “…as a gift by His grace…” (vv.24-25a) – Instead of earning salvation we receive or accept salvation.  The word translated “gift” means something freely bestowed on or given to another.  This gift is by virtue of God’s “grace” or unearned, unmerited favor.  In these verses Paul uses three great words to emphasize the greatness of this gift.
    1. “justified” – We have already seen that word comes from the legal profession and it means to be declared not guilty.  The interesting thing about the use of this word is that we are declared not guilty not on our merit but on the basis of Christ’s merit.  We are guilty but in Jesus we are declared not guilty!
    2. “redemption” – This word comes from the slave trade that played such a prominent role in the ancient world.  In ancient times, when someone paid the price for a slave and then chose to se the slave free, the process was known as redemption.  We were enslaved by the guilt and penalty of our sin.  Jesus paid the price for our sin through His death on the cross and set us free!
    3. “propitiation” – This word comes from the system of religious sacrifice.  The word itself means “the act of appeasing, conciliating, making favorably inclined.”  Under the sacrificial system, when a person sinned that person brought a sacrifice to atone for his sin.  In the pagan sacrificial system the purpose of the sacrifice was to turn aside the wrath of the gods and allow the sinner to avoid punishment.  In my opinion, that is not how Paul is using the word here.  The Scripture does not portray God as an angry Deity who needs to be appeased or placated.  The Scripture portrays God has a loving God who is broken-hearted over the rebellion of His creation.  The act of Jesus coming and dying on the cross as the sacrifice for our sin was not an expression of God’s wrath but of God’s love.  “For God  so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).  The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross gave God a way to accept and forgive us without violating His just and holy nature that requires sin to be punished. 
  6. Salvation “…demonstrates His righteousness…” (vv.25b-26) – This is an amplification of what Paul meant in using the word “propitiation.”  People often asked the question, “How can a just God allow anyone to go to hell?”  But the more appropriate question is, “Since we are all sinners, how can a just God allow anyone into heaven?”  If God is by nature righteous and holy, if God cannot condone sin, how is it possible for Him to overlook our sin and allow us into heaven?  The death of Jesus on the cross provided the solution to that dilemma.  Jesus took upon Himself our sins so that God could look at us and pronounce us not guilty.  As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “He make Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
  7. Salvation excludes all reason for “boasting.”  (vv.27-28) – Since we can do nothing to earn salvation, we have no grounds for taking in credit for our salvation.  All the credit and glory belongs to God alone.
  8. Salvation demonstrates that God treats all people, Jew and Gentile, in the same way. (vv.29-30) – Earlier Paul made the point that God shows no partiality in condemning the sins of Jew and Gentile alike (see Romans 2:11).  Now he reminds us that God shows no partiality in offering salvation.  Salvation by faith is available to Jew and Gentile alike.
  9. Salvation establishes or fulfills the true purpose of the Law. (v.31) – The purpose of all God’s revelation to us is to show us our need for Him and our utter dependence on Him.  Turning to Him in a faith relationship with Jesus is the ultimate expression that we understand the purpose of His revelation in the law and the prophets and, more completely, in the gospel.


An Example of Justification (Romans 4:1-25)

This chapter is one long illustration of the principle of salvation by faith.  Paul chose Abraham, the father of Judaism, to demonstrate that God has always dealt with His people on the basis of faith rather than obedience to the Law.

  • Verses 1-8 make the point that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works.  Verse 3 quotes Genesis 15:6 – “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to Him as righteousness.”  The word translated “reckoned” is a banking term meaning “to put in to one’s account.”  The word is used 11 times in this chapter.  When a person works, that person earns money that is credited to him.  But Abraham did not work for salvation; he simply trusted God.  God is the One who did the work of salvation for Abraham and for us as well through His Son.  Through faith, the work of God is credited to our account!
  • Verses 9-12 clarify the true meaning of circumcision.  Circumcision did not make a person right with God, as the Jews in the 1st century believed.  It was the outward sign of the inward faith commitment.  Abraham believed God and was credited with righteousness long before he was circumcised.
  • Verses 13-25 speak of the promise God made to Abraham of many descendants.  Warren Wiersbe writes:  “If you are a Jew, you are a child of Abraham physically; but are you a child of Abraham spiritually?  Abraham is the father of all who believe on Jesus Christ and are justified by faith.  If you are a Gentile, you can never be a natural descendant of Abraham; but you can be one of his spiritual descendants.”