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How to be Righteous

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Josh Turner

Romans 3:21-26



Have any of you seen the movie The Mission?  I remember the first time that I saw it.  I was in high school, and we were studying about how the great empires expanded into the New World, and the effects.  It is a 1986 British film about the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in eighteenth century South America.  The film is set during the Jesuit Reductions, a program by which Jesuit missionaries set up missions independent of the Spanish state to civilize the indigenous peoples and to teach them about Christianity. It tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, who enters the South American jungle to build a mission and convert a community of Guaraní Indians to Christianity.  He is later joined by a Portuguese man named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), who sees the Jesuit mission as a sanctuary and a place of forgiveness.  The mission, which was once under Spanish protection, has been handed over to the Portuguese while the Vatican has ordered the Jesuits to withdrawal from the territory above the falls.  Eventually, a combined Spanish and Portuguese force attacks the mission and, failing to see the simple life of the Guarani as anything but threatening (contrary to Father Gabriel and Mendoza).  Mendoza and Gabriel try to defend the community against the cruelty of Portuguese colonials (who are trying to enslave the Guaraní under the new powers granted by the Treaty of Madrid), Gabriel by nonviolent means and Mendoza by means of his military training. kill many of them as well as all the priests. Mendoza ends up  dying trying to save Guarani children on a bridge.

But focusing more on Mendoza, there is a scene where Father Gabriel visits Mendoza to try and get him to come up and help at the mission.  To set the scene a little more, Mendoza has been a mercenary – he led groups of men to capture some of the indigenous people.  He has also killed his brother for sleeping with his wife.  He tells Father Gabriel to go away, because there is “no redemption for one such as me.”  Father Gabriel asks him is he is willing to seek and try.  Father Gabriel has Mendoza carry a large net containing his armor and weapons from the town all the way to the village the mission is located.  Expand.  At one point, they reach a waterfall, and Father Gabriel forces him to carry the load up the face of the cliff.   After this, one of the other Jesuits walks up to Father Gabriel and says something like this:  Why are you continuing to have him carry that net up the mountain – hasn’t he already done enough?  Why don’t you just tell him that his sins are forgiven?  Father Gabriel responds:  Because he feels that he must pay for his sins, and doesn’t feel like he has done so yet.


How often are we just like Mendoza?  Have you ever said “there can be no redemption for one such as me”?  Probably not – I am guessing here, but I would bet if you were asked that question your response would be something along the lines of, “we are Christians, we know that God forgives us.”  Yet I challenge you to look at your lives, do your actions reflect that knowledge?  I think that all too often, we mess up and feel that we must do something to make up for our sins.  Or maybe How is it in your life that you are trying to bear the weight of your sins?

Biblical:  The book of Romans was written by Paul to the church in Rome.  It was most likely written between 55 and 59 A.D.  The people Paul was writing to had never met him.  There was a fair mix of Jews and Gentile believers, starting in Chapter 1 verse 1 and going through 3:20, Paul talks about how man’s every inclination is to sin, regardless of their ethnicity.  He points out that all are guilty.  Yet starting in verse 21 of chapter 3, Paul switches his focus.   In this second part, which will continue through 4:25, Paul will talk about what God has done to make us right with himself.

Today we will be answering the question, how can we be right with God? How can we be counted righteous in God’s sight?

Textual:  Please turn in your bibles with me to Romans 3:21.

Subject: How can we be right with God?

Purpose:  To show that it is only by faith that we can be right with God.

I.      We can only be right with God by faith. It is only by faith in Christ that we sinful people can be counted righteous.  (21-22)

a.       Exposition

                                                  i.      The law is unable to make us right with God (3:21)

In this section, Paul is pointing out that it is not our adherence to the law which justifies us – because we are unable to keep the law.  Rather he says that it is apart form the law that we have seen God’s righteousness manifested, yet at the same time, the fact of justification by faith is witnessed by the law and prophets.  Paul’s point in mentioning that we can see evidence in the Old Testament that it is not by following the law that we are counted righteous, is vital, because we would expect that if this was truly the way God works, then we would see that this is how He has always worked. 

The Jews thought that salvation could be attained through obeying the law.  The Jews tried to make it easier to follow the law, by simplifying the meaning and following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. Yet, Jesus said that if anyone stumbled on just one single point of the law, then they were guilty of breaking the entire law. God knew that no one could follow the law perfectly.  So he provided a system where people would make sacrifices to atone for their sin.  But as God says in Isaiah 1:11-13a, “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? Says the Lord.  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.  When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings to me no longer…”  Through these verses we see that it was not the actual sacrifice that God wanted (God even called them “worthless offerings), it was not the act of killing that pleased God, but rather it was what it represented; a repentant heart. 

                                                ii.      Righteousness is brought by faith in Christ.

In the first part of verse 22, Paul tells us that it is through faith in Jesus Christ that we are counted righteous.  This faith is more that a verbal declaration – it involves a total life change.  In “The Root of the Righteous, A.W. Tozer writes “The faith of Paul and Luther was a revolutionizing thing.  It upset the whole life of the individual and made him into another person all together.  It lay hold on the life and brought it unto obedience to Christ...It snapped shut on a man’s heart like a trap; it captured the man and made him from that moment onward a happy love-servant of his Lord.”  As Tozer says in this passage, faith in Christ cannot be merely understood as a verbal profession, but as a commitment which grabs hold of a man and totally changes him. 

Verse 23 tells us that there is no distinction for those who believe, those who believe in Christ are saved, no matter what.  This reminds us that what ever our past, in the sight of Christ, we are all on equal footing. 

b.      Illustration

                                                  i.      Just before coming back for spring classes, I went to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. The whole family was there except one of her 9 grandkids. I got to see a lot of old people and spend a lot of time reminiscing and hearing stories about my grandmother’s life. At one point we were talking with my grandmother about what she’s seen in her life. She grew up in the era of horse and buggies and remembers when her dad bought a model T.  She saw people go to the moon. And now she writes all her grandkids on email! One person piped up and said, “And who knows; maybe if you live long enough you could actually visit the moon!”

She objected, “Oh no; I’d never do that. I’m not exactly sure where heaven is at, but it’s the closest I’m going to come to the moon is heaven… At least I hope I’m going to go to heaven and not to the other place down there,” she said with an element of seriousness about her. “I hope I’ve done enough in my life.” The other person laughed and said, “If you’re not going there, none of us will be!”

c.       Application

                                                  i.         How like my grandmother are you?  Have you ever - perhaps late at night, perhaps early in the morning - felt the frightening weight and ugliness of your own sinfulness, and had a sinking feeling in your stomach, that if you died right then and there, you were not sure you would go to heaven, but perhaps be cast by a just and holy God into everlasting fire, away from the presence of his glory? If you come to that place - and you will all come to that place - would not the sweetest words in all the universe be to hear God say, "I do not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Trust me. Trust my Son. Cast yourself on us as your only hope. And, for the sake of my Son, I will put your sins away and give you my righteousness - I will give you my righteousness! - as a free gift and accept you and save you." 

II.      We can only be right with God because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  It is only trough the blood of Christ that we are able to be justified before a holy God (23-26)

a.       Exposition

                                                  i.      Just as there is no distinction for those who believe, all those without Christ are dead in their transgressions.  Since there is no distinction, and since we have seen that it is apart from the law that God’s righteousness has been revealed, what Paul says next is awesome.  In verse 24, Paul points out that justification is a gift.  In chapter 4, Paul will expand on this and will point out that if a man works, his wages not credited to him as a favor (or gift), but as what is due him.  What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the idea that it is not because of our goodness that we are justified, but rather, it is a gift. 

                                                ii.      At this point I think that it is important to look at how God gave that gift.  We have been counted righteous through the redemption of Christ, which was achieved through his blood.  Now, the NASB uses a term here that it not used in common everyday English – propitiation.  What does this word mean? One dictionary defines it as “The act of appeasing another person’s anger by the offering of a gift. The word was often used by the pagans in antiquity, for they thought of their gods as unpredictable beings, liable to become angry with their worshipers for any trifle. When disaster struck, it was often thought that a god was angry and was therefore punishing his worshipers. The remedy was to offer a sacrifice without delay. A well-chosen offering would appease the god and put him in a good mood again. This process was called propitiation.”[1]

As I mentioned before, the phrase the righteousness of God cannot simply refer to God’s saving works, but in the context of this passage, it also must refer to God’s ability to pass over our sins.  In his book, Counted Righteous in Christ, John Piper says that “the emphasis in Romans 3:24-26 is how can God pass over sins (past, present, and future), not so much how can God transform sinners into a holy people.”  This is evidenced in verse 25, where Paul says that Christ had to die as a propitiation for the sins previously committed –why?  So that the righteousness of God can be demonstrated – so that God can be both just and the justifier.  A just and holy God who finds sin offensive and that the penalty for sin is death, cannot be just if he lets sin go unpunished – yet as the justifier, He sent his Jesus to bear the punishment for our sin –and only because of this sacrifice are we counted as righteous.

b.      Illustration

                                                  i.      I think the perfect illustration for this can be found in CS Lewis’ book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”  Has everyone read it/seen the movie?  I am just going to focus on one scene, if you would just picture this with me for a little bit.  Peter, Susan, Lucy, and a group of Narnians just rescued Edmond from the White Witch.  The next day, the White Witch and her entourage enter into Aslan’s camp.  She marches right up to Aslan and demands he turn Edmond over to her – for Edmond is a traitor, and according to the law, all traitors belong to her.  Aslan takes her aside, and reminds her that according to the deep laws of magic from the dawn of time, the traitor can be ransomed if someone willingly lays his life down for him – then Aslan offers up himself. 

c.       Application

                                                  i.      So let's close by making crystal clear how we get connected with this great work of God in Jesus. Three times in this short paragraph (verses 21-26) Paul says it. Let's go backward.

Verse 26b: ". . . so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus. Trust Jesus.

Verse 25a: ". . . whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith." Do you want the wrath of God that you deserve to be what Jesus bore, so you don't have to? If so, behold the beauty of this salvation and embrace it. Trust Jesus.

Finally, Verse 22: ". . . even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe." The righteousness of God is for all who believe. The righteousness that you do not have in yourself, but must have for eternal life, is given to you "as a gift, by his grace" through your faith. Trust him. Trust him. This is what he calls for - not a payment, not works that put him in your debt, but "trust in him who justifies the ungodly" (Romans 4:5).

III.      Conclusion

a.       In this message, we have seen that the Law is powerless to save and that it is only Christ’s sacrifice and faith in him that we are able to be right with God.  We have also seen that the reason that Christ had to die was to appease God’s wrath –in order that God would be able to make us right and at the same time be totally just. 


[1]Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale reference library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001). 1087.

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