God's Righteousness Revealed (Phil Johnson)

Romans 3:19-26   |   Sunday, November 4, 2012   |   Code: 2012-11-04-PJ

     The righteousness of God is a major theme throughout Scripture--such a consistent thread running through the Bible that I could more than fill our time this morning just by tracing all the passages that deal with divine righteousness from Genesis to Revelation.

     I won't do that, but I do want to start by paying close attention to how the word righteousness is used and what it means in a handful key Old Testament texts where the word is employed. That (I think) will help you understand what this word means in a biblical context. Then I want to look at one key New Testament passage: Romans 3, starting with verse 19. And we'll cover about seven verses.

     Go ahead and turn to Romans 3--and then to put a bookmark or a finger there, because before we get into this passage from Romans, we'll survey a few other passages that help us understand how the Bible uses this word righteousness.

     When we hear the word righteousness, most of us think of something like moral perfection. And moral perfection is by all means essential to real righteousness. To be righteous is to be good rather than evil, or virtuous rather than sinful. That's all quite true, but it only skims the surface of what the expression righteousness means in Scripture.

     Although the biblical term is rich with meaning, we can start with a simple definition in just a few words, short enough for you to take down. Here it is: Righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law." (I know you can't possibly get that on one pass, so I'm going to repeat it several times this morning as we consider what this word means.)

     Righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law." That includes a vast array of ideas--especially justice, virtue, goodness, and faithfulness. In fact (take note of this and we'll come back to it), the key word in our definition is faithfulness. Righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law." (If you still didn't get it all, don't worry, but be ready to write. I'm going to say it a few more times.)

     I think we can best begin to understand righteousness as an attribute of God if we listen to what Scripture says about what God's righteousness demands from us. When Moses gave the law to Israel, he said (Deuteronomy 6:24-25): "The LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God . . . . And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.'" That verse essentially defines righteousness in the exact terms I have already given you. One more time: Righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law."

     Here are four things to notice about this: first of all, guilt is the polar opposite of righteousness. If you want to understand what righteousness entails, think of guilt and reverse it. Righteousness is the exact antithesis of guilt. That may be the easiest way to remember an abbreviated definition of righteousness. It means to be in the right, without guilt. It speaks of standing firm on a solid moral and legal foundation. In fact, the English word righteousness has evolved from an older middle-English word: rightwiseness. To be righteous is to be rightwise (as opposed to contrariwise or crosswise)--rightwise in relationship to the law and in relationship to the Lawgiver.

     Second, remember that the law demands perfect, meticulous, unflagging obedience. Moses says, "It will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment." Anything less than absolute perfection is not true conformity to the law. James 2:10: "Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become [guilty of breaking] all of it." Galatians 3:10: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Jesus said even ultra-fastidious law-keeping such as the Pharisees practiced isn't going to be good enough (Matthew 5:20): "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." What is the divine standard? Matthew 5:48: "You . . . must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." So God's righteousness is the only measure of all true righteousness.

     Third, notice that our definition speaks of "the moral precepts of God's law." Once more: righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law."

     The moral essence of the law is summarized in the first and second commandments (love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself). The law’s moral content was the substance of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. It is the same law Paul says is engraved on the conscience of every human being.

     And this, I think, is a necessary aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God. We are moral creatures with an intrinsic sense of righteousness and guilt. We have hard-wired into our souls a moral awareness of what our Creator is like and what he demands of us. It's not a perfect sense of righteousness or a sufficient knowledge of God--but it's enough to make us sense our accountability, and enough to vindicate God when He judges people who aren't familiar with what He has revealed about himself in the Bible.

     There's no question that when Adam fell, it marred our innate understanding of God and His law. The fall certainly left us with a sinful desire to suppress what we do know of God and His righteousness. Paul describes this in Romans 2:15: "When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires . . . . They show [that] the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them."

     So that same moral aspect of the law is what God engraves once again (in a clear way) on the new heart He implants in every regenerate sinner. In fact, this is the central promise of the New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:33: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." (And it's worth noting that when Scripture speaks of the heart like that, it's not a reference to the blood-pumping organ. It's that set of thoughts and desires and motives that drive us and determine our true character. Believers have a new nature and new desires, with a fresh engraving of God's law.)

     All of this illustrates that moral perfection is an essential aspect of the biblical idea of righteousness. But we need to be even more specific. There's a legal aspect to authentic righteousness. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with God's eternal moral law--and thus with God Himself.

     That brings us to a fourth preliminary thing to keep in mind about the term righteousness: True righteousness is always both personal and relational. Bearing in mind everything we have said so far, you need to understand that authentic righteousness is not only--or even primarily--about our relationship to the law, but more importantly it's about our relationship to God himself. Here's why I said faithfulness is the key word in our definition. This personal and relational aspect of authentic righteousness is summed up in the concept of faithfulness. Here's our definition one last time: Righteousness is "perfect consistency with and faithfulness to all the moral precepts of God's law."

     Now, when we consider righteousness as an attribute of God, what we are recognizing is that God Himself is perfectly consistent with--and faithful to--His own eternal law. That's true by definition, because the moral law is an expression of God's character. The law teaches us (in precepts we can easily grasp) just what the moral character God is like--perfectly righteous. And since He is immutable (not subject to change), He always acts in a way that is consistent with the righteous standard He demands of us. He "cannot lie" (Titus 1:2). "It is impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18). "He cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). Isaiah 5:16: "the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness." Daniel 9:14: "The LORD our God is righteous in all the works that he has done."

     In other words, God is faithful. He doesn't break His promises. He doesn't go back on His Word. He doesn't say one thing and do another. He keeps His covenants. He is faithful. Not like the Pharisees, whose obedience to the law was cosmetic, merely external--faithless. By contrast, God is faithful in every sense of the word. And that kind of faithfulness is essential to the true meaning of the word righteousness. External, mechanical obedience to the law is not truly righteous. The Pharisees' style of righteousness is not really conformity to the law at all, because the law demands a faithful heart. God Himself is by nature faithful, so naturally He demands faithfulness from us.

     Now, here’s the problem: God's righteousness sets up a seemingly impassible barrier for fallen humanity. We have no capacity to measure up to the righteous standard God demands of us. We have already sinned; we are already guilty; we are already under the condemnation of the law. From our perspective as fallen creatures, the very idea of divine righteousness conjures up the horrifying prospect of judgment.

     In fact, one of the close synonyms of the word righteousness is justice. The words are interchangeable in many contexts. Nothing is more clear in the Bible than the truth that God's law demands justice--including (of course) punishment for evildoers.

     For that reason, when the Old Testament speaks of the righteousness of God, there's often an immediate connection to the idea of divine judgment. Genesis 18:5: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Psalm 7:11: "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day." Psalm 9:4 says God sits "on the throne, giving righteous judgment." Verse 8: "and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness." Psalm 50:6: "The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!" Psalm 96:13: "He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness." Acts 17:31: "[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness."

     And that means when the law speaks of "righteousness," it is essentially bad news. Righteousness demands justice under the law, and for those of us who have broken God's law "justice" means condemnation and eternal punishment. No wonder sinners recoil at the thought of righteousness.

     But the law is not the only message from God that has righteousness as its central theme. According to the apostle Paul, God's righteousness is also the central theme of the gospel. In Romans 1:16-17, we see that famous statement from Paul where he says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . [now listen:] For in it [that is, in the gospel,] the righteousness of God is revealed."

     And in the gospel, the righteousness of God becomes good news--great news--the best news ever. That's what Paul demonstrates with uncanny meticulousness in the book of Romans, and the passage we're looking at this morning, Romans 3:19-26, is the turning point where Paul transitions from talking about righteousness under the law--and he begins to help us understand how God's righteousness is also relevant to the gospel. And if you truly understand what Paul is saying here, I guarantee you will come away loving the righteousness of God.

     So let's look at our passage.


     Here Paul is giving the answer to perhaps the greatest mystery of the Old Testament: How can a truly righteous God justify sinners? In other words, how can God declare unrighteous people perfectly righteous without either overturning the rule of law or compromising His own perfect righteousness? How can God justify the ungodly and yet remain faithful to His own law, which clearly demands the punishment of sinners?

     The answers to those questions are all right here. Let me read the passage and then we'll try to unpack it as carefully as time permits. Romans 3:19-26:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--

22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Now that's a long passage, and it is theologically rich. We obviously are going to need to focus on the big picture this morning rather than deal with every meticulous detail.

     And it's a truly big picture. This is the vital passage that helps us make sense of every other reference to the righteousness of God in Scripture. You can't understand God's righteousness at all if you don't grasp what this passage is saying.

     This is the crucial passage where Paul reconciles what the law says about God's righteousness with what the gospel says about it. This is where he shows how the justice of God is perfectly compatible with the mercy of God. This is that vital nexus in the New Testament where Scripture explains what Psalm 85:10 means when it says, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." Here the righteousness of God is reconciled with the justification of ungodly sinners. That, by the way, is precisely the language of Scripture. Look at verse 5 of chapter 4. In this same context, Paul says that God "justifies the ungodly." Anyone steeped in the doctrine of the Old Testament will find such a statement shocking--scandalously so.

     In the verses we're looking at, Paul summarizes how the righteousness of God is manifested in the law, in the gospel, and in the justification of sinners.

     We'll let that be our outline this morning, and I'll try to make it as easy as possible to follow. There are three points: We'll see how the righteousness of God is manifested in the law, in the gospel, and in the justification of sinners.

     So, point one:


1. How the Righteousness of God is Manifested in the Law

     Now remember that as soon as Paul finished his opening words of greeting to the Romans, he starts the meat of this epistle with a declaration that the gospel is all about the righteousness of God. Romans 1:17 "In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed." That is the key verse and the whole theme of the book of Romans.

     But then Paul actually begins his long treatise on the gospel by reminding us what righteousness means from the perspective of the law. Turn back a page or two to Romans 1, and notice that there's a jarring note of discord in the space of two verses between Romans 1:17 and verse 18. Verse 17 is the one that says, "In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed." But then immediately verse 18 answers with this: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." So the gospel is supposed to reveal the righteousness of God, but before Paul ever gets around to explaining that, the first thing he says is "revealed from heaven" is "the wrath of God."

     That's not the way most of us would begin a discourse on the gospel. The word gospel, of course, literally means "good news." But in Paul's version, it doesn't start out sounding like good news, because Paul starts where the law leaves off, with "the wrath of God . . . from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men."

     The law tells us we are condemned because we have offended God's righteousness. So God's righteousness is the very reason we are cut off from Him in the first place--alienated from God (or as Paul says in Romans 5, "enemies" of God). That same righteousness means that God must judge evildoers. And Romans 2:5 says impenitent sinners are "storing up wrath for [themselves] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." So God's righteousness is something that should make us tremble. That's actually the culmination of everything the law says about God's righteousness, and Paul makes it the starting point for his exposition of the gospel.

     Bottom line: when the law is finished manifesting God's righteousness, all humanity stands guilty before God. Paul painstakingly brings us to that point before he ever once considers what the gospel has to say about God's righteousness.

     You're in Romans 3. Look at the end of verse 9: "We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin." Then starting in verse 10, going through verse 18, he quotes a string of verses from the Old Testament as proof, showing that "There is none righteous, no, not one." That whole section consists of diverse quotations from the Old Testament. Paul surveys several texts where Scripture condemns all of humanity. And Paul uses these verses like proof texts to show that in our natural, fallen state we are condemned already. That, of course, is just what Jesus said in John 3:18: "whoever does not believe is condemned already."

     (The "already" aspect of condemnation is a chilling reality. What it means is that there's no hope for any sinner to redeem himself from past mistakes by doing good things to make up for it, because the law demands absolute perfection. If you have once sinned--and we all have--you have fallen short already. The law has just one message for sinners, and it is a curse. It's not a frivolous curse, either, but a message of eternal damnation--a verdict that speaks with a note of hopeless finality. The law by itself has nothing more after that to say about the righteousness of God.)

     And no one can claim to be free of sinful imperfections. The whole point here is that depravity is both universal and total.

     To drive home the truth that depravity is universal (the main point he has been making for two and a half chapters), Paul quotes an array of texts drawn mainly from the psalms. Verse 10--and notice the universal expressions: "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." Six verses from the psalms cited in just three verses here in Romans. They include eight expressions that underscore the universality of sin ("none . . . no one . . . all"), and two of those eight expressions are as emphatic as possible: "no, not one . . . not even one."

     Then Paul establishes the principle that depravity is total. He does that with a string of texts that illustrate how depravity comes from within, from the heart of man. Just as Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come[s everything that is evil]."

     Paul has chosen his texts carefully. They begin with the throat and move outward from the tongue to the lips to the feet, almost as if he is describing someone who spews depravity like vomit. Look at verses 13-18. This is as thorough a denunciation of the state of humanity as you can possibly imagine. And again, it's all drawn verbatim from the Old Testament Scriptures. Verse 13:

"Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips."

14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."

15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;

16 in their paths are ruin and misery,

17 and the way of peace they have not known."

18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

     That is the verdict of the law. That's how the law manifests the righteousness of God. Paul sums it all up in the first two verses of our text: "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."

     The whole human race is utterly devoid of true righteousness. The law condemns us all. Moses' law condemned the Jews, who continually violated that law. And the law inscribed in our hearts and consciences condemns the rest of us. We're unrighteous. Every mouth is stopped, and the whole world stands guilty before a truly righteous God. The law itself offers no hope for redemption; because it manifests the righteousness of God in a way that merely reveals and condemns our sin. The law demands justice.

     If that were the end of the story, we would be in an impossible situation. But Paul hasn't brought us to this point to leave us in despair. Immediately, he begins to explain--


2. How the Righteousness of God is Manifested in the Gospel

     I ought to mention that Martin Luther was very nearly stymied when he came to this point in his study of Romans. He understood how the law manifests God's righteousness, but he couldn't get past that. Here is his testimony in his own words. He wrote:

     I hated that expression "righteousness of God." . . . I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously (certainly murmuring greatly) I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!" . . .

Finally, he says,

     I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.

Here's the crucial distinction: The law the focuses on the righteousness that is demanded of us; the gospel is all about the righteousness that is provided for us. Here's how Paul says it (vv. 21-22): "But now [but now at last, turning from law to gospel] the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for [not "against" but for] all who believe."

     So here's a whole different way of looking at the righteousness of God. The law merely shows us how high--how impossibly high--God's perfect righteousness sets the standard for us. But the gospel shows us how the very righteousness of God is supplied by God Himself to those who believe. The law reveals the righteousness of God as a hopeless dilemma for sinners. The gospel reveals that God's righteousness is in fact the answer to the dilemma of our sin. God supplies the perfect righteousness--His own righteousness, which is imputed those who believe--to make up for a shortfall none of us could ever remedy on our own.

     Imputed righteousness is precisely what Paul is talking about here (verse 22): "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." I love the King James expression: "the righteousness of God which is by faith . . . unto all and upon all them that believe." He is very clearly describing an alien righteousness that is legally transferred (imputed) from God to the believer. It's clear that Paul has imputation in mind in this context. He uses that very expression in chapter 4, verse 3, quoting from Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted [or "credited," or "reckoned," or "imputed"] to him as righteousness." Again in chapter 4, verse 6, "David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God [imputes] righteousness apart from works." This is the heart and soul of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith: perfect righteousness, the very thing we need for a right standing with God, is imputed to (or put to the account of) those who lay hold of Christ by faith.

     There are many biblical expressions that embody this truth. Our spiritual union with Christ, for example, means (in the words of 1 Corinthians 1:30): "You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption." It's the same thing portrayed in the imagery of Isaiah 61:10: "I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest." It's what Paul meant in Philippians 3, when he said he counted all his religious upbringing and pharisaical legal observance as dung, leaving all of that behind for this single-minded purpose (Philippians 3:8-9): "that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith." It's what Paul was describing in 2 Corinthians 5:21, when he wrote that God "made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Just as the sins of every believer were put to Christ's account and He paid the price; in the same way, His righteousness is imputed to them and they gain the benefit of that perfect righteousness.

     The principle of imputed righteousness is the central truth of everything Paul taught about the gospel. It is the linchpin of all gospel truth. And normally when Paul confronted false teachers and phony apostles, this was the main point of doctrine he had to defend. Virtually every heretic who has ever come along has tried to teach that justification must be earned by works.

     That is the common thread of all false religion. All of them teach that the way to a right standing before God is through something you must do for Him. Biblical Christianity is absolutely unique in teaching that God Himself provides everything sinners need for redemption, and they lay hold of it by faith alone. So the ground of our justification is the perfect righteousness of God, imputed to us by faith. Neither good works nor legal obedience can earn us a righteous standing--only the imputed righteousness of God can do that. That's the central theme of both Galatians and Romans.

     In fact, it will help you to understand all of Paul's epistles better if you see that ordinarily when Paul mentions the righteousness of God, he's not talking about the divine attribute per se, but about the righteousness imputed to believers by faith alone--the righteousness that justifies the ungodly.

     Now lots of people stumble when they encounter this truth. The Galatian heresy in the first century stemmed from a rejection of justification by faith. Every subsequent corruption of Christian teaching from the Pelagian heresy to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent has likewise rejected the truth that God justifies ungodly people by faith alone through the imputation of His own perfect righteousness.

     And let's be honest, if we didn't find that expression in Scripture (Romans 4:5)--"[God] justifies the ungodly"--our natural inclination would be to think that there's an unsavory sound to it. Surely there ought to be some requirement that the ungodly become righteous before gaining God's favor. Proverbs 17:15 says "He who justifies the wicked [is] an abomination." What does a free pardon for the wicked have to do with justice? How can God freely justify ungodly people and yet remain perfectly just?

     The answer to that question is the third and final point in our outline. Here's--


3. How the Righteousness of God is Manifested in the Justification of Sinners

     By the way, this was a major dilemma for believers and in Old Testament times. "How can God forgive sins without compromising His own righteousness?" They understood why God would depose King Saul for His unfaithfulness, but how could He fully forgive David and restore David to the throne in spite of his failures? How could God be just and yet justify sinners? That question and all others like it touch on the central mystery that is finally answered for us in the gospel. Look at our text again. We left off in the middle of verse 22. Let's pick it up there:

For there is no distinction:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, [now here's the key:] through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Christ offered a sacrifice to God the Father. Jesus didn't die on the cross as a martyr or a victim of evil men. He offered Himself willingly to God as a propitiation--or in simple terms--a complete satisfaction of all the demands of divine justice. (Satisfaction. That's what the word propitiation means.) Christ became a scapegoat for the full outpouring of divine wrath against sin. He stood in the place of sinners. Their guilt was imputed to Him and He bore the penalty of it. Now His perfect righteousness is imputed to them, and they stand before God, arrayed in the elegant perfection of His son's righteousness. They are justified by a righteousness that they did not earn and don't deserve. But because Christ willingly paid the penalty, every claim of justice--the perfect justice of God--is fully satisfied.

     The sacrifice of Christ also applied retroactively to David, and Abraham, and every saint in the Old Testament who was ever justified by faith. And thus the righteousness of God in the forgiveness of sins was fully vindicated. That's what verse 25 means when it says, "This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins."

     And so the righteousness of God, which apart from the work of Christ, could only demand punishment for our sins, is turned in our favor--and now God's own perfect righteousness pleads on behalf of all who believe. That's why 1 John 1:9 stresses that God is both faithful and just to forgive. God's perfect righteousness is thus reconciled with mercy. The law and the gospel are both vindicated. What the law says, what the gospel says, and what the Judge of all the earth says turn out to be perfectly consistent with one another.

     In the words of our text, God is both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."


     That's why the gospel is good news.