But now 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 all who believe. —Romans 3:21-22
In the gospel God says, “You’re worse than you think. I’m better than you think. I’m for you. So let’s get together.” Romans 1:18-3:20 is God saying to us all, “You’re worse than you think.” Now in Romans 3:21 he starts saying, “I’m better than you think.” But we needed to look at ourselves first, and we should never stop doing that. Repentance is the gospel mentality. And what we’ve learned thus far in Romans is that, though we rarely feel evil, we are. The gospel helps us get in touch with ourselves. And what we see in ourselves is three dark impulses. In Romans 1:18-32, we got to know Mr. Self-Indulgence. He’s the self-centered kind of person who looks at this world as his playground. God doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. All that matters is his ego and appetites. That’s Mr. Self-Indulgence. He lives in every one of us. You and I are always five minutes away from destroying ourselves. But God loves Mr. Self-Indulgence. God gives people like that newness of life and puts them in his new community where Christ, not Self, rules supreme, where everyone will shine forever.
In Romans 2:1-16 we got to know Mr. Moral High Ground. He looks at this world of self-indulgence and he doesn’t like what he sees. He votes against it. But Mr. Moral High Ground is not himself a beautiful alternative. He has his own secrets. He’s cutting corners when no one is looking. He’s excusing in himself the very things he condemns in others. And Mr. Moral High Ground lives inside you and me too. What does God do with someone like that? God loves him and receives him and puts his feet on a new path and makes someone like that a lovely person who really helps others.
In Romans 2:17-29 we met Mr. Biblical World View. His thinking rises above self-indulgence and mere morality. He knows the Bible. He thinks in terms of God. He’s very sure of himself, therefore, as a guide to all the blind and backward people around him. But he is so blind to himself and his own sins that he actually casts doubt on God in the eyes of the world. And what does God do with someone like that? He gives a new heart within, a new humility and softness.
Through the gospel Christ is creating out of all kinds of people beautiful new human beings who come together as a foretaste of heaven right here on earth. It’s called church.
Then in Romans 3:1-20 the Bible confronts every single member of the entire human race with one accusation. What is the accusation? The accusation is that we aren’t free. “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). Sin is not just bad; it’s enslaving. In ourselves, we are dominated by dark impulses called “sin.” And this bondage is guilty bondage. We are not victims. We are guilty in this misery. And it’s true of us all, without a single exception, even if we look good on the outside, like Mr. Moral High Ground, even if we can quote the Bible, like Mr. Biblical World View. So we see the human race in Romans 3:19, everyone blaming everyone else, even blaming God, for their miseries, when the voice of God silences the complaining and finger-pointing and accusing. The good news of who God really is begins with the bad news of who we really are, so that we can learn to listen. If you can receive the bad news where the gospel begins, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). You are ready for the good news of Romans 3:21-22.
Paul begins the next major section of his letter with these words “But now.” We’ve seen that every one of us is under sin (Romans 3:9), with no way of escape. Our own morality is no escape. Even God’s own law is no escape. Moral people and religious people are just as much under the wrath of God as pagan people. I’m thankful the book of Romans does not end at 3:20. It’s just getting started: “But now . . . .”
The words “But now” announce God’s protest to our futility and failure. We take God’s law and use it as a scorecard to tally up what he owes us. But God protests with “But now” and shows us his way of grace. Is there a “But now” in your life? As you think back through your story, can you see there a moment or a time when you changed from law to grace, from trusting in your own sin-management to throwing yourself on Jesus Christ as your only hope? In chapter 8 Paul will say, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Do the words “set free” describe your experience of Christ? Have you come to the end of yourself, only to discover the beginning of Christ? That is the gift God wants to give you. It’s a change, as abrupt as the words “But now.” If you feel hopeless and defeated, pay attention to those feelings. You are hopeless and defeated. You are your regrets, and you’re stuck with yourself. In fact, you are what God regrets. “But now” – God has something more to say to you, a real surprise. If you’re willing to hear him out, the only price you’ll pay is self-discovery under the scrutiny of his law. But it’s worth the embarrassment, because it’s freeing to let go of pride and gain Christ. Millions of people will tell you so. They will tell you that was when Christ came to them and spoke into their lives “But now.”
These words “But now” introduce an alternative we never would have thought up. “But now” shows that the gospel is different. It’s a new way of thinking. It’s different from our natural moral calculations. It sets us free from our face-saving and blaming and scrambling. How is the gospel different? Paul goes on to explain.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law
“Apart from the law” – those words are actually placed forward in Paul’s sentence for emphasis. He actually wrote, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested.” The words “apart from the law” stand out, because God wants them to leave a deep impression on our thinking from today on for the rest of our lives. The words “apart from the law” have the power to change us. What is the Bible saying?
Let me put it this way. Here is one sentence: “God loves me.” Here is a second sentence: “I obey God.” But how do those two sentences fit together? In either of two ways. Either we can think, “God loves me, because I obey God,” or we can think, “God loves me, therefore I obey God.” It’s the difference between bad news and good news. It is bad news to tell ourselves “God loves me, because I obey God.” Why is that bad news? Because we don’t really obey him. And even if we think we do obey him, why should that be good enough for him? Why should our on-again off-again obedience grab God’s attention? “God loves me, because I obey God” is the law. This whole way of thinking is legalism, and it runs deep in our veins. Our hearts think, “I have served the Lord. He owes me. I have denied myself. He owes me. I have cared, really cared. He owes me. I have done the right thing. He owes me. I have sacrificed and prayed. He owes me. I believe all the right things. He owes me. I have suffered. He owes me. In fact, everybody owes me.” But God doesn’t play that game. He will not be manipulated. In our legalism, we aren’t really obeying God’s law; we’re using God’s law to obligate him. We have our mental list of all our grievances, we’re keeping score, we’re showing it to God and wondering why he doesn’t seem to care. When we’re trapped in that misery, we can’t walk into church to praise God; we want him to praise us. We lose all our joy in all of life, because “God loves me, because I obey God” is a death sentence. We may chase legalism out the doctrinal doorway, but we can let it back in through the emotional window. It’s our natural moral instinct, and Christianity saves us from it.
The “But now” at the beginning of this verse leads right to “apart from the law.” In Christ we have a beautiful, happy, free, open relationship with the all-holy God apart from our performances: “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” You can come to God today as you are and have the smile of God upon you – and with God’s justice on your side. Immoral people can come to God. Hypocrites can come. Religious people can come. And no one has to clean up their life first. God provides everything. All the righteousness you need to satisfy God comes from God. His righteousness has his own seal of approval on it, and he’s offering this treasure freely to you today, right now, however banged up you are with your sin. It’s why the old hymn urges us,
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requires
Is to feel your need for him.
Come, you weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.
Jesus said on his cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). What more are you waiting for? Come to God with nothing, and he will give you Christ. He will receive you for the sake of Christ. He will forgive you. He will honor you. He will rejoice over you. He will give you your life back. He promises, and he certifies his promise by his very righteousness.
This is the gospel. And we didn’t think it up. God has revealed it: “The righteousness of God” – who God is and why he matters to us and what he offers us – “has been manifested.” The reason we cannot free ourselves from our sin is because of the One we’ve sinned against. However much or however little we think we’ve sinned, what matters is the righteous One against whom we have sinned. But now, God has rolled out his own plan to remove our offenses against him. We didn’t research it and discover it. God revealed it. And his strategy of liberation does not compromise his own integrity. In revealing his grace, he has revealed his righteousness. The gospel does not mean that God lowers his own standards; he satisfies his standards. God found a way to rescue us such that his own conscience is clear and happy to love us. And if God feels good about it, so can we.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it
God has published his bailout plan. He wants everyone to know. He put it in the world’s best-selling book, the Bible. In fact, beginning in the Old Testament – “the Law and the Prophets” is the Old Testament – God went on the record about his law-free righteousness for unrighteous people. It’s not as though God tried works-righteousness back in the Old Testament days, and found that it failed, so he modified his approach in the New Testament and tried grace to see if that would succeed. No, from the beginning, grace has always been God’s message to us. For example,
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. —Isaiah 55:1
That’s the Old Testament speaking. And the words “without money and without price” are the Old Testament way of saying “apart from the law.” From the beginning, God has been appealing to us. The Bible is one huge open invitation. It reveals the good news that God gives unearned riches to discredited people. How do we get in on it?
But now 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 all who believe
“Through faith in Jesus Christ” means that, as we stand before the all-holy God, we let Jesus do all the talking for us. He lived for us the ideal life we’ve never lived. He died for us the guilty death we deserve to die. And God raised him from death to certify to us that Jesus has his approval. Everything about Jesus delights God the Father. And if you put your faith in Jesus Christ, that’s enough for God. When you put your faith in Jesus, God credits to you all that Christ is worth to him, as if you were worthy of all the approval he feels toward his Son. He treats you like royalty for the sake of his royal Son. He treats you as precious for the sake of his precious Son. He treats you as righteous for the sake of his righteous Son. You and I don’t deserve this at all. But it’s who God is. He loves his Son, and he loves to spread the joy of it all to others through his Son.
That’s why Jesus is the issue in your life. The sins you’ve committed are a sideshow. The central question in your life is this: Will you let go of your guilt and your righteousness and lay hold of Jesus as your only and your sure hope before God?