Summary: In Romans 3:21-25a, Paul gives us seven elements of the righteousness that God divinely imputes to those who trust in his Son. This sermon looks at the first element.
In his commentary on Romans, John MacArthur notes that centuries ago Job asked the most important question it is possible to ask: “But how can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2b). That is, “How can anyone be right in the presence of God?”
Job then said of God in Job 9:3-12:
3 If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand times.
4 He is wise in heart and mighty in strength
—who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?—
5 he who removes mountains, and they know it not,
when he overturns them in his anger,
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond searching out,
and marvelous things beyond number.
11 Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 Behold, he snatches away; who can turn him back?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
Because God is the kind of God he is, Job wondered how a person could ever hope to approach him, much less become right and acceptable before him. How can a sinful human being be right with God who is perfectly holy, infinite, and almighty?
Later on Job’s friend, Bildad, echoed Job’s question, saying, “How then can man be in the right before God?” (Job 25:4a).
Throughout the Bible, many have asked a similar question.
For example, upon hearing John the Baptist’s terrifying warning about God’s impending judgment for unrepentant sin, the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10).
The crowd that Jesus had miraculously fed the day before asked him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28).
The rich young ruler asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16).
After hearing Peter’s gospel message on the Day of Pentecost, some listeners were cut to the heart, and said to him and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
As he lay blinded on the road to Damascus, Saul (who later became the Apostle Paul and wrote this letter to the Romans) cried out to Jesus, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10).
The Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
Throughout history men and women have asked the same question as did Job (and the others): “But how can a man be in the right before God?”
The Apostle Paul answers that question in our text for today. Let’s read Romans 3:21-25a:
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. (Romans 3:21-25a)
Lee Eclov, the pastor under whom I served in my first pastorate, tells the story of when he was hanging out at a bagel shop one day. He asked a couple of non-Christian friends, “What’s the most important thing I can pray for you?”
The woman was taken back. “Health, I guess,” she said.
“Health? That’s not the most important thing,” Lee said. “Sooner or later your health is going to go, no matter who prays for you. There must be something more important than that.”
She was stumped. “What’s more important than that?”
“What about a relationship with God?” asked Lee.
“I never thought about that,” she said.
Then her husband said, “You mean God is going to haul us into court or something?”
Now Lee was surprised. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess you could say that.”
What Lee Eclov was saying to them is that one day every one of us is going to stand before God in the courtroom of heaven. And then we will each ask the question that Job asked millennia ago, “But how can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2b).
Every attempt to answer that question throughout all of human history can be summed up in this way, “We can be right with God by our effort, our work, our obedience, or our righteousness.”