For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. —Romans 3:22-24
The most urgent question in your life is this: Are you right with God? So many other questions are shouting at us these days, including legitimate questions. So many things to think about and care about. But only one question is central: Are you right with God? Does God think that you’re right with God? Romans 3:21-26 shows us God’s way to get there, God’s way to escape the wrath of God, God’s way into peace with God – and there is no other way. We may not understand Romans 3:21-26 all at first glance. But every word is a key that unlocks the door to the deepest need of your heart. And this blessing has the approval of God all over it. It reveals his own righteousness.
Last week God showed us from Romans 3:21-22 that he wrote into the Bible, from cover to cover, one basic message: “You can be right with me apart from your obedience to my law. Jesus Christ obeyed my law for you. He did not come primarily to teach you or to inspire you or to guide you as your life-coach. He came to die for you, because nothing less would do. You are desperate sinners. You cannot be right with me by obeying me, because you’ve never obeyed me. But now, I’m telling you that you can be right with me by taking the debit card of righteousness and charging every one of your sins to Christ crucified. I have a fund of his merit, his righteous obedience, that you can draw on freely, moment by moment. Receive this card with the empty hands of faith, and let Christ pay your debts to me. Will you? Will you let me give you peace with me?”
Let me ask you right now, Have you ever become definite about Christ in that way? Have you ever factored out of your relationship with God all the good you think you have coming to you and factored in all the good Christ has coming to him? Are you adding Jesus to your obedience, or are you trusting Jesus for his obedience? The Father said of him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:6). God has said that about no one but Jesus, and God said that wholeheartedly and publicly so that you could hear it and believe it. God is offering you his life, his record, his obedience, his heroism. You can trade in your record for a better one by receiving Christ. Will you let go of your mixed record and receive the perfect record of Jesus as your only claim to fame? It is so freeing to be right with God again without having to measure up.
Now in our passage for today God takes us deeper, in the rest of verse 22 through verse 24. He wants our liberated consciences to dance with joy over Christ. Here is how he takes us there:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
What is Paul saying here? He is saying that God reinstates all alike who put their faith in Christ alone. God sets the same terms for everyone. Why? Because God sees no distinction between sinners. All have sinned [past tense] and fall short [present tense] of God’s glory. Suppose God said to us, “All right, you’ve sinned a lot in the past. But I’ll just forget it. Let’s begin again right now. I’ll judge you only from this moment forward” – would that be good news? Well, how are we doing? The truth is, every day you and I fail to measure up. And God did not make us for mediocrity. He made us for greatness. He made us to reflect back to him his own magnificence. Think of Adam. The way God created him, he was able to get up in the morning, look at himself in the mirror while shaving and say without embarrassment, “I am like God. I am an image and likeness of God’s moral beauty here on the earth. I am going to be a magnificent blessing today. It’s going to pour out of me.” Then Adam sinned. And by now look at us. Is anyone here blowing anyone else away with the divine glory exploding out of their personality and countenance and performance? Who of us can say to God, “Father, look at me”? Everyone comes up short. It’s true of us all without distinction, isn’t it?
But wait a minute. No distinction? You mean all the times I’ve said no to compromise and I have done my best – it doesn’t put me above people who’ve broken the rules? How can that be fair? Distinctions are important to us. We look at bad people and think, “I’ve never done that.” Maybe not. But God isn’t saying here that everyone is equally criminal. I am a law-abiding citizen, not a criminal. Is that a valid distinction? Yes. The Bible is clear in many passages that God does not think, “Well, sure the Nazis (for example) murdered eleven million people. But hey, there’s enough guilt to go around there. It’s pretty much a wash.” No. God sees. But Paul’s point here is how deeply God sees. He sees not only how we compare with one another but more deeply how we all compare with him. When we look at some other sinner and think, “I may be bad, but I’ve never sunk that low,” we’re clinging to our own righteousness, not to Christ. We’re elevating ourselves by stepping on someone else. The worse they look, the better we look. But that mentality binds us to our sadness. What sets us free is a new standing with God that we haven’t achieved but simply received.
Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9-14). Whenever our thoughts treat someone else with contempt, it’s a red warning light going off, because these two things go together – trusting in myself that I am righteous, and treating others with contempt. And in that parable two men went up to the temple to pray. A Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” What’s wrong with that picture? The man was giving credit to God for the difference in his life. And he was sincere. He really didn’t do all those bad things and he really did a lot of good things. So, what’s wrong with that picture? It’s right here: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” The Pharisee believes the opposite of Romans 3:22. He believes there is a distinction between him and other sinners. He even praises God for it. But the tax collector wasn’t comparing. He wasn’t taking sidelong glances at the Pharisee as he prayed. “Standing far off, he would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’.” And Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Or the parable of the prodigal son. You know the two brothers there. The older brother said to the father, “I have served you” (Luke 15:29). And he had. But he had no peace with his father. The younger brother said to the father, “I am no longer worthy” (Luke 15:21). And he wasn’t. But he had peace with his father. It is so freeing for me and for you to write these words across the whole of our lives: “I am no longer worthy.” I am no longer worthy to have a wife. I am no longer worthy to own a Bible. I am no longer worthy to pray to God above. I am no longer worthy to have a church or even a single friend in the whole world. I am no longer worthy, like everyone else. No more comparing to my own advantage. All that matters is where I stand with God, and I’ve squandered any basis for making demands of him.
Dear old Bishop Moule put it well: “The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of God’s glory; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you are on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they. So you thankfully give yourself up, side by side with them, if they will but come too, to be carried to the height of acceptance by the gift of God.”
Martin Luther: “Who then can pride himself over against someone else and claim to be better than he? Especially in view of the fact that he is always capable of doing exactly the same as the other does and, indeed, that he does secretly in his heart before God what the other does openly before men. And so we must never despise anyone who sins but must generously bear with him as a companion in a common misery. We must help one another just as two people caught in the same swamp assist each other. . . . But if we despise the other, we shall both perish in the same swamp.”
Jonathan Edwards: “Spiritual pride is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christianity. It is the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit. . . . Spiritual pride inclines a person to speak of other people’s failings with bitterness or with laughter and an air of contempt . . . . Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others, but a humble saint is most jealous of himself; he is as suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. . . . The humble Christian sees so much evil in his own heart and is so concerned about it that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts . . . . He is apt to esteem others better than himself.”
This is the low place before God, where you and I and everyone belongs. Let’s go there together. Let’s stay there together. God will give us overflowing peace through Christ and for his sake.
…and are justified by his grace as a gift…
Here is where we stop justifying ourselves by our own goodness and let God justify us by his grace as a gift. The question that’s never far from our deepest thoughts is, “How am I doing? How can I justify my existence? How can I square my life with a moral reckoning of things that puts me in a strong position?” The good news of justification by grace speaks to our heart’s deepest need. God has a gift for us. The word translated “as a gift” is also used over in John 15:25 where it’s translated “without a cause.” In that passage the Bible says that the enemies of Jesus hated him without a cause, for no reason, with no stimulus on his part. They hated him for their own reasons. And here in Romans 3:24 God tells us that he justifies us, he brings us back into his good graces, without a cause, for no reason, with nothing in us to stimulate him. He has his own reasons. We have sinned. We continue to fall short. But God justifies all who trust Jesus, he brings us out from under his anger and relocates us under his smile, and he does it for no reason, as far as we are concerned. The reason why the all-holy God pronounces us free and clear of all our sin and failure is not in us but in Jesus. For us, it’s a gift, it’s unearned, it doesn’t make sense.
Think of it this way. Over there are two people – God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. You and I are over here, looking at them over there. What are they doing? They are arranging together between themselves our restoration to their wonderful favor. They are working it out on their own. We are over here, the angry, the sullen, the suspicious, the whiney, the ugly, the petty, the guilty and the self-righteous. The Father and the Son in infinite love are working our problem out for us, just between themselves, over there, apart from us and apart from the law. You and I are not consulted. We are not needed. The good we’ve done doesn’t help them, and the bad we’ve done doesn’t stop them. Our faith doesn’t even tip the scales. God and Christ solve it all for us without our help at the cross. We are pronounced righteous before God on account of Someone Else’s righteousness. And the apostle Paul is over here, standing alongside you and me, pointing to them over there as he writes these words in Romans 3. He’s explaining to us what they over there are doing and what it all means. And our only part is when our jaw drops open and we exclaim “Wow!” That is the wow of faith. Our faith is not an action; it’s a reaction. What makes our faith real and powerful are the real and powerful things going on over there between them. Our faith only sees and understands and believes and receives what they have done. That is justification by grace alone through faith alone apart from works. Have you received it? Will you let yourself be loved and validated on this new basis moment by moment? You fall short of the glory of God, but you cannot fall short of the grace of God. You can receive his grace right now and keep on receiving it constantly. Just look away from yourself to Christ. Look, and you will live again.
…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
Getting back on God’s good side is free to us, but not cheap. Somebody paid a price. It cost Jesus his very lifeblood. The Bible says, “You were ransomed [that’s redemption language] from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers not with perishable things such as silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). You and I are no longer stuck in intergenerational sin and dysfunction. We have been set free from the futile ways of our forefathers, we’re free to begin again, free to think and feel in new ways, free in the sight of God. How did that happen to us? By the payment of a price – the blood of Christ. That’s what the word “redemption” tells us. God justifies us by pronouncing us righteous in his sight through the merit of Christ. And Christ redeems us by paying the price to free us from the death sentence of our lives. Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Paul said of himself, “Who will deliver me? I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25). The Bible says, “We have redemption through Christ’s blood” (Ephesians 1:7). The Bible says, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
In Saving Private Ryan the hero’s dying words to the man he rescued are, “Earn this.” And Ryan did his best, but was never sure. He said to his wife, “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” In Christ we have a different hero. His dying words to us are not “Earn this” but “Receive this.” And that assurance breathes into us newness of life.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He doesn’t want anything from you, except your heart. He has already paid the price. Charles Spurgeon, the pastor, went to call on a poor woman in his church. He knew that she needed help, and he was taking money from the church as a gift. He walked up the four flights of stairs to her door in an old building, knocked on her door, but there was no answer. He kept knocking. No answer. After a while he gave up and left. The next week he saw her at church and said how sorry he was to have missed her. She asked him when he came by. About noon. “Oh dear,” she said, “I was home and I heard you knocking, but I thought you were the man coming to collect the rent.” Jesus is knocking at your heart, and he isn’t calling to collect the rent. He has precious, blood-bought gifts to give you. Will you open the door and let him in? Christ is a Redeemer. What you must settle in your mind is whether he is a Redeemer to you. The new life he offers you freely was bought at a high price. We cannot deserve him, but we can receive him – right now. A treasure of his worth is not too good to be received; it’s too good to be refused.