This is the context for the Gospel. God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18). Every man, woman, boy and girl is guilty. “We know that whatsoever the law says, it says to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). At first we side with God's word against great sinners. But then we realize that we are the sinners God’s word condemns! And we find that we are no better by our efforts to please God. We find that we are worse than others if we recognize sin in them, because that sin is also in us (Rom. 2:1). We condemn ourselves because we are able to see our sin in others, and yet, we are unwilling and unable to compensate for our crime or repair our ruin. We are left guilty, ruined, condemned, helpless and hopeless. This is the intended result of Romans 1:18 - Romans 3:20. And it is very effective. I don’t know how many times I have read through those first two chapters as a believer and have come under a deep sense of my own guilt and shame and condemnation, because I knew that God’s word was describing me (Heb. 4:12)! But it is comforting beyond words to realize this is the result designed by God. God’s law is designed to discover and expose our sin to us as God’s view of ourselves (Rom. 3:19-20; 5:20; 1 Tim. 1:9).
And that is why the Gospel that is declared in Romans 3:21-ff is such good news! These words, “But now,” introduce the great transition from despair to unbounded, overflowing joy, as the light of Christ shines into the darkness of the void and ruin of my own nature and mind (Gen. 1:2). Truly, “every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Ps. 39:5). Have you ever felt it? Do you feel it even now? If not, do not despair. There is a blessed, “But now” for every shortcoming! Though helplessly, deservedly dying and hopeless to do one thing to remove our just condemnation, we are called to look away to that One who hung on Calvary’s tree, who was made sin, cursed under God’s law, in order that He might redeem us from the curse we deserve, for the wrath we earned by our sinning (Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4, 20).
Many verses are spent building up to this point. But listen to the very condensed cordial poured out from the throne of grace in Romans 3:21-26. As in Hebrews, 1:1-3, in these few verses in Romans 3, there is the greatest condensation of heavenly truth to be found in scripture! The first part of Romans draws back the curtain on the wasteland of man’s righteousness. The second part draws back the curtain on the blazing light of God's grace in Christ’s sin-atoning blood and righteousness, and the free, sovereign grace of God that saves the most sinful of men, to the glory of His grace and justice...
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 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; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus…” (Rom. 3:21-26).
I highly recommend that you read and re-read these verses. Read from Romans 1:18 through Romans 3:20. See yourself described there. Then see that where sin abounded in you, grace did much more abound from God in Christ (Rom. 5:20-21)! The righteousness of God is set forth here in contrast to the righteousness of man. Man has no righteousness (Rom. 3:10). That is the point. But though man is void of righteousness, the righteousness of God is now revealed. And where is this righteousness seen? In the Gospel. And in what does this righteousness consist? The righteousness of God is the obedience of Christ in His life and death. This is the righteousness witnessed by the law and the prophets (Gen. 15:6; Ps. 71:16; Isa. 45:24-25; 54:17; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:16; Isa. 53:1-12). His righteousness is made ours by God’s free gift (Rom. 5:17-18). All who believe Christ are righteous in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). Look carefully at Romans 3:24-25. “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). That is good news from heaven to sinners! First, God was only moved to justify us by His free and sovereign grace, and not by any work on our part; not by our deserving, but only by His uninfluenced and uninfluenceable grace, which neither looked nor looks for anything in us to move Him, but found all reasons in Himself to be gracious to hell-deserving sinners! Second, God justifies sinners according to His righteousness (Dan. 9:16), on the ground of “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This, dear brother and sister in Christ, is the Gospel of God’s grace in which God is both just and the justifier of the ungodly man or woman who looks to Christ for all of their salvation (Rom. 3:26)! May we know our guilt and condemnation and helplessness and hopelessness before God in ourselves, so that we take "no confidence in the flesh," yet find every reason for confidence and assurance in Christ crucified (Php. 3:3; Heb. 10:19-23)! And, most importantly, may we look away from ourselves to Christ crucified, in whom and by whom God is seen to be just when He justifies sinners by the blood of His own dear Son (Rom. 5:9; 1 Cor. 1:26-31)!
This grace, this redemption, this righteousness that is in Christ, this free and gracious justification grounded on Christ’s sin-atoning blood and righteousness, is the present possession of every one that believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, reigning and interceding. Our sin is not a barrier to God’s grace. Until we see that God who was offended has reconciled sinners to Himself in the death of His own Son, and that our sin is the great evidence of our need for this great grace, we will never come to God by Him (Rom. 5:9-10; Ps. 25:11). Our sin is the evidence of our need of grace. Our knowledge of sin shows us that God’s law is doing its job to reveal to us what we truly are: poor and plagued, blind and naked, needy and helpless because of our sin (Rev. 3:17)! The second big point is that our personal obedience counts for nothing (Rom. 3:20). In fact, it counts against us, because our best is really bad. “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses (the best that we do) are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isa. 64:6). Grace convinces us that we are sinners, but grace does not stop there! Thank God, it does not stop there! Grace also convinces us that Christ has accomplished the salvation of His people, great sinners with a great many sins. And grace convinces us that we must flee to Christ alone for refuge. May we be given grace to do so today and every day until we lie in the bosom of our Savior, and proclaim with His blood-bought people:
“Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood...be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 1:5).
“Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, tongue, people and nation” (Rev. 5:9)!
all to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain.
He washed it white as snow!”