A letter turned up in The Australian newspaper last weekend, reiterating in just a few lines that ‘religion is the problem’ with the world. The myriad cynical voices around us today may tempt us to doubt the truth of God’s gospel. How important it is, not just to be able to remind others of the millions put to death at the hands of ruthless, unbelieving rulers last century (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin come to mind), but to focus on what it is we do believe.
Central to our faith is that we are not here simply by chance but that we are all personally accountable to the creator God. Tragically, following our own desires and devices, we have turned away from God. Such is the consequence of our decision that we are incapable of doing any thing good enough to restore, or even contribute to restoring, this most precious of all relationships:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The wonderful and unique news of Christianity is that God who is rich in mercy, has stepped in and done what we could not do. As Paul puts it in Romans 3:21,
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law,…
One of the biggest mistakes we make about Christianity is that it is easy for God to forgive. It isn’t. The reason is tied up with the words, the righteousness of God… God is not just awesome in his power, he is not just wise in the way he deals with his world, he is also just in all his ways. His character defines what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.
God’s righteousness. If God overlooked evil, calling what we say or do to one another, misdemeanors, he would be saying that there’s no such thing as good and evil. But he can’t allow that. It is essential for the preservation of morality in his universe that God’s righteousness is evident, that justice is done. Deep down we know how true this is, for when we see injustice we cry out for justice. If this matters to us, how much more will it matter to God. If he didn’t care, if he didn’t stand against it, goodness itself would lose its meaning.
How then does God uphold the good? One way is to be a judge. The problem here is that God would have to condemn us all. But, there is another way that God can uphold the good and offer forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what Paul writes about in Romans 3.
In Romans 3:21 he says, But now… Following the tragic events of Genesis 3 when men and women first turned their backs on God, another side to God’s character emerged— mercy. God did not cut off Adam and Eve; he did not even kill off the Babel tower builders. Rather, with his promises to Abraham he set in motion a plan that makes reconciliation possible.
Now in Romans 3:21 Paul tells us that something has happened that provides new hope for a world hopelessly in the grip of its own wickedness. ‘There is a righteousness of God apart from the law,’ Paul is saying, and Romans 3:22 tells us that this has come, through the faith of Jesus Christ. Our translations imply that Paul is referring to our faith in Jesus Christ. But it fits the syntax and suits the context better to translate this, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
The righteousness of God has come, not by means of the law, but rather through the perfect obedience of Jesus to the mind and will of God. Jesus is the one person who has kept God’s law. His relationship with God remained pure, and because of this he introduced a new way whereby God could reconcile us to himself. God is both just and the justifier, Paul says in 3:26.
How can God justly do this? Romans 3:25-26 is the key:
God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
We are justified by faith in Christ alone. Article XI of the 39 Articles says,
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.