Romans 3:21-26 should be interpreted, understood, and received as God’s provision of righteousness. God’s provision to meet our need in our moment of need - this is the eternal truth revealed in the Word of God. However, this is not the primary emphasis of our Romans 3;21-26 text, nor is it solely the authors intended meaning. It has been clear in our process of interpreting and understanding this passage that Paul sees the doctrine of salvation from God’s point of view - not ours. These two are a contrast and are connected most often because the appetite of our humanity and the desires of our flesh are distinctly different than the hunger and thirst for righteousness that God has purposed and desired for us. Man’s (our) salvation through God’s provision of righteousness (Christ) actually should become a secondary theme from this passage.
Here is why.
The primary theme of Romans 3:21-26 is the demonstration of God’s righteousness (WHO HE IS), through His provision of righteousness (WHAT HE DOES) for sinners - namely you and I. The point is that GOD is the focus and priority, not humankind (us), and that is sometimes difficult for a self-focused, feelings-based culture to process. Look, we are dishonest if we deny that much of what we want and seek from God (right or wrong) is unfortunately self-focused and not God focused. In providing the conclusion for Romans 3:21-26 we will emphasize the critical issues of focus and priority and the impact these have on our present understanding and perspective of the righteousness of God.
The Emphasis - Focus and Priority
Here is what I believe to be the heart of Paul’s message: the demonstration and fullness of God’s righteousness. Out time spent on our text should bring understanding and some revelation to what Paul (inspired by the Holy Spirit) emphasized and what he did not. Salvation to all is the result of the demonstration and fullness of God's righteousness - and now that salvation is in our view, we more than likely should have concluded that God the Son would be the most prominent Person of the Godhead (Trinity). And although that is theologically true there is no path that leads us away from an understanding that God the Father was and has always been the author and creative force behind the eternal plan of salvation.
Paul is emphasizing the demonstration and fullness of God’s righteousness, through the Father’s provision of His righteousness for all men, in His Son Jesus the Messiah. The cross of Christ is indirectly alluded to in our text but never specifically mentioned by Paul. Neither is the resurrection of our Lord referred to in this passage.
However, two prominent concepts ARE repeatedly mentioned and emphasized:
1. the righteousness of God;
2. the visible, public demonstration of His righteousness
Paul’s emphasis focuses not so much on the righteousness which God has provided in Christ as as he does the righteousness of God as demonstrated through Christ Jesus. This semantical distinction may seem subtle, but it is not inconsequential. It is one of great significance for our mature understanding of God's purposes and responses to and for us. It is a foundational matter of focus and priority on who God is rather than what God does.
When we choose to look at salvation from a merely human perspective, we are seeing it mostly from the standpoint of what salvation does for US. God becomes the One who is responsible and expected to “meets our needs.” Though in fact, God does meet our needs (according to His steadfast love and abundance), the focus and priority of that perspective or expectation is all wrong. At its core, it is both selfish and self-centered. Though He gives - God as the Giver should not be our focus, but rather, God as the Gift. He is to be our great reward and not just our rewarder (Genesis 15:1, NASB).
This error in understanding happened to the Hebrew people. They lost their perspective of the very salvation which God was to provide, and began to see His salvation from their own point of view. They began thinking that their salvation belonged only to them (entitlement), they determined to keep it for themselves, not sharing it with others, with undeserving sinners. Like Jonah preaching repentance to Nineveh, much like the Jewish people Jonah did not want to see the heathen blessed with God’s salvation. They wanted the wicked to perish. And in the process, they forgot that they too were sinners, just like the Gentiles. They forgot that they must receive God’s salvation just as the Gentiles, by faith, rather than by works. Mistakenly, they supposed that their possession of the Law was their assurance of possessing God’s salvation, a confirmed reservation for entrance into God’s kingdom. Like Jonah, they assumed God was obligated to bless them - entitled to His blessing (proclaimed favor and happiness) even when they were openly and defiantly disobedient. They saw salvation and God’s blessings as their right and not as His mercy and grace.
Israel was given the Law of God as a stewardship. They did not own it; it was given as a sacred trust. They were to use the revelation of God to them to demonstrate His righteousness. This they were to do by believing, and obeying, God’s revelation in the Law. They were also to proclaim the good news to the lost. How could the Jews become so twisted in their thinking? How could they view God’s salvation as something they alone possessed which they could withhold from Gentile sinners?
Paul’s words of warning for the Gentiles in Romans 11 strongly suggest that we today are in grave danger of repeating Israel’s error. We may begin to see God’s gracious provision of righteousness in such a way that we think more of our righteousness than of His. Christians too have been given God’s revelation. The revelation we have received is full and final. It is a stewardship with which we have been entrusted. We must first believe God’s Word and obey it, and then we must proclaim His righteousness to sinners.
As faithful stewards, we must view all of life through the eyes of our Master and not ourselves. We must understand God’s purposes and then act in the light of them. We must seek to fulfill God’s purposes in a way consistent not only with His causes but with His character (who He is). We must pursue God’s goals in ways consistent with God’s character. It is impossible to be a good steward unless we view our task through the eyes of our heavenly Father. Paul describes God’s provision of righteousness from the divine point of view, fixing our attention on God’s purpose for saving men: the demonstration of His righteousness.
When we view salvation from a merely human (personal) perspective, we distort it and abuse it. We begin to look at salvation as though God accomplished it primarily for our benefit and no one else, rather than for His benefit and for all who believe. If I were the only one... He would have died just for me.
Let's say I am a passenger on a cruise ship. There is an explosion on board deep within the ship’s hull and it sinks. Miraculously I find myself as the lone survivor, but I am floating helplessly on ocean’s surface with only a life jacket to sustain my life. I know I will only be able to survive this way for a few hours or more. The reality is that there is nothing I can do nothing to save myself. A cargo ship suddenly appears on the horizon. Somehow, someone on board that ship spots me, floating helplessly. The ship turns from its course and stops to rescue me.
I should be grateful that I have been spared. No matter where the rescue ship is headed, I should be overjoyed and happy just to reach land alive. But if I were to illogically start to believe that the cargo’s main purpose and duty was saving me, then I will begin to think that the ship should redirect it's route to take me to wherever I wanted to go, even though it was headed and purposed for another destination. I may even have the delusion that the captain of the ship was only there to accommodate me. Because I am focusing on myself, I have lost sight of the over-all purpose of that ship, its cargo, and just how grateful I should be that they miraculously found and rescued me.
We fail to grasp the great purposes of God! We have reduced God to the status of being the servant of men, a God whose principle purpose is to make us happy, and not a God actively displaying His righteousness - spiritual entitlement. We forget the purpose for which we have been saved. We have succeeded in looking at salvation as “our salvation” and as God’s primary task. It is not! It is but one part of His eternal plan and purpose to display His splendor, His glory, to all of creation, including the heavenly hosts.
In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul speaks to Christians of the salvation God has graciously gifted them. But from the beginning of this epistle, Paul's focus and priority is clearly that God’s primary purpose in history is the revealing to humankind WHO HE IS: Righteous
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. ESV
I now understand Paul’s introductory words, contained in the first 17 verses of chapter 1 Romans. They are meant to be a pre-illustration of the great truth and meaning that he is intending teaching us here in Romans 3. Paul does not view his personal salvation as the including/accepting of God into his life, but as God including/accepting him into His eternal plans and purpose. Paul views his conversion as a dramatic turning point in his life. Until the time of his salvation, Paul was a religious zealot, a Judiazer, but he seeking to “use God,” to build his own brand - all the while believing that he was somehow serving God. Now, after his salvation, Paul sees himself as being saved by God, to be used by God as God chooses - not as he (Paul chooses. In a moment of supernatural intervention Paul’s life was turned upside down, re-invented and re-purposed, so that he now sought as his most compelling mission to fulfill God’s purposes in the world - not his own. He had not added God to his agenda; God had added him to His agenda, for which Paul would eternally praise Him. To the Christian, this fundamentally different mindset is the result of our perception of who God is and His righteous gift of salvation through Christ Jesus. As believer's we must see His salvation as the demonstration of His righteousness and Himself as subservient to His own plans and purposes. When we see our salvation as God solely meeting our needs, then we are seeing God as subservient to us. The distinction between these two perspectives is fundamental and crucial.
I wonder, if Christians could see salvation as Paul does, would there be a debate over the issue of “lordship salvation”? Were believers to understand that God’s purpose in the world is to demonstrate His righteousness, would we dare to think it does not matter to God whether or not we live righteously?
God saves men from damnation, to demonstrate His righteousness. The determining factor in God’s choices and actions is not man’s salvation, but the declaration of His righteousness. God’s righteousness is displayed in everything He does and in everything He does not do. When we make our salvation the focus and priority, we take the focus from God and put ourselves in His place. We take the sun from the center of the solar system and make earth the point around which all of the solar system revolves.
Only when we see the demonstration of God’s righteousness as primary, and man’s salvation as secondary, can we see our salvation from God’s point of view. Let change this scenario and the potentially disastrous outcome by seeking by God’s grace and by His Word to changing our own being, thinking, speaking, and doing to those which conform and honor God’s ways.
The wonder of it all: that God would choose to save any of us, for we are all deserving of His wrath. For those who are truly convicted of their sin and of their desperate need for righteousness, God’s provision of righteousness will be gratefully received, even though it is not flattering to us. We will gladly receive His grace, knowing that it suits and serves His purposes. Will you receive that righteousness which God has provided in Jesus Christ? If you do, your salvation will be a demonstration of His righteousness. If you do not, your condemnation will be a demonstration of His righteousness. God’s righteousness is not at stake. Your eternal destiny is. If you have already received that righteousness which God has provided in Jesus Christ, is the demonstration of God’s righteousness central in your life? It should be.
While the resurrection of our Lord is not mentioned in Romans 3:21-26, it too is a demonstration of God’s righteousness. Consider these words, spoken by our Lord and recorded in the Gospel of John:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
On Resurrection Sunday we celebrate that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead in victory over sin and condemnation. The resurrection is not only a fact of history, it is a truth with profound significance. Among the implications and applications of the resurrection is the powerful demonstration of the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. The empty tomb of our Jesus continues to provide evidence to His righteousness. His resurrection, like the condemnation of defiant and rebellious sinners and the salvation of undeserving but repentant sinners, is a demonstration of the righteousness of God. How significant is the demonstration of God’s righteousness in your own life?
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