A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on August 1, 2021.
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. 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, 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Romans 3:21–30).
Short of Glory
The Shorter Catechism eloquently describes God’s work of creation as “God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good” (Q. 9). The “heavens and the earth…and all the host of them” were created by God (Gen. 2:1), but that does not mean that everything was created equally good. Of all that God created in the beginning, it was only of man that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Only man was created in God’s “own image”: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). They were created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (WSC 10), perfectly revealing the glory of God.
Though true, this is hard to fathom, isn’t it? We may think of glory, but we do not typically think of mankind as revealing God’s glory. It’s far easier to sing with the psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1), or to agree with Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, who pondered, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” (Pride and Prejudice). Yet, it is neither the heavens above nor the firmament below that bear God’s image, only man.
The reason it’s hard to fathom is because when we think of God’s glory we rightly think of God’s supreme gravitas: He is glorious, while compared to him we seem glory-less. But the distinction is more than merely the difference between Creator and creature. The Fall of man into sin severely and substantially impacted all of mankind as image-bearing, glory-revealing beings, a truth consistently revealed in our depravity.
Therefore, when Paul describes the evidence of fallen human depravity, he describes it as suppressing the truth, dishonoring God, and exchanging “the glory of the immortal God” (Rom. 1:18-23). Suppressing, dishonoring, and exchanging glory are not compliments of the human race. Yet, we want glory, even long for it. In fact, Paul says that the human heart seeks restoration of “glory, honor, and immortality” (Rom. 2:7). The reality of our current condition is far different, isn’t it? “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In light of God’s glory, among those created in the image of God, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. …no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But this is not the final word for sinners like you and me.
Saved by God
Paul doesn’t leave us to wallow in the knowledge of our sinful state, nor the evidence of it, but points us to the glory of God’s grace in Christ. Consider the glorious truth of God’s mercy and grace. In God’s mercy, he does not give us what we deserve: judgment. In God’s grace, he gives us what we do not deserve: salvation. And we receive God’s mercy and grace through the means of faith. We are saved by God’s grace through faith.
Although contrary to how we typically think of faith, saving faith is not something we produce. It is a gift. As Paul clarifies in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). It is through this gift of faith that we are justified as righteous before God. And it is this perspective that will bless your life immensely. If you believe that you decided to believe, that it was your choice, then the emphasis becomes you and what you have done. But when you realize that even your faith is a gift from God, God and his grace becomes the focus, and you are the recipient of his gift.
But faith in and of itself is not the point, is it? It is nothing more or nothing less than, as Paul described it to the Corinthians, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But why Christ crucified? Why not Christ the teacher, the role model, the moral man? The answer is found in understanding “redemption.” We are “justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
The word redemption means to buy back, a financial term used here (and elsewhere) to describe a purchase from slavery. To understand this term, remember the words of prologue to the Ten Commandments, when God tells his people, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:1-2). The indicative of who God is and what he has done precedes the imperative of what he commands. But there is more to this word redemption that we must understand, because it includes not only a statement of truth but also payment, a transaction securing redemption.
To illustrate this, think back with me to Israel’s first Passover while still in Egypt, its preparation and celebration. In it God revealed the means of their redemption, specifically in the slaughtered life and shed blood of the lamb. It was not by uprising force that Israel was freed but by the liberating act of God. It was not by their merit that they were saved from the angel of death but by the shed blood of the lamb upon the doorpost. It was the lamb that was the center point of the Passover meal, but why? Because the lamb pointed to something greater, the blood pointed to something more. Israel’s redemption from slavery pointed to something beyond their freedom. It pointed to redemption from slavery to sin “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” To put it another way, we have been saved by God because we have been served by Christ.
Served by Christ
The word translated “propitiation” means atoning sacrifice. Rightly did John the Baptist address Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In his righteous life, he was “a lamb without blemish or spot,” and it was his precious blood that atoned for our sin. He was the perfect sacrifice, the lamb of God. The writer of Hebrews explains the significance this way:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. …Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:14-17).
Through Christ’s service we are saved.
What we are saved from is the judgment of God’s wrath, precisely because Christ’s atoning sacrifice satisfied God’s justice. When Paul says, “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins,” he does not mean that God dismisses our sin without cause or cost. Our sin is an offense to a holy God. Justice is due and demanded, and the cross of Christ satisfies the righteousness of God. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16), in the time and space, to be made sin “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Therefore, “we have now been justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9), preserving God’s justice and justifying sinners like you and me. God is “just and the justifier.” Justice must be served, and Christ served it. But not everyone is justified as righteous. Only those who by God’s grace believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are saved. We are saved through faith.
Saved through Faith
For Jew and Gentile alike, salvation is not, nor ever was, by obedience to the law, whether written on tablets of stone or the heart. None but one perfectly kept the law. None but one fulfilled it. None but one may boast. None but one is worthy of worship. And so, we look by faith to none but one, Jesus Christ the righteous. We are saved not by “a law of works” but by “the law of faith.”
Where does this put us, those made in God’s image but fallen from grace, those saved not by works but by grace through God’s gift of faith? It puts us in a position not of self-exalting glory but of God-glorifying praise. As the Shorter Catechism beautifully states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Q. 1). Yes, for this we were created in God’s image, and for this reason we were redeemed, to glorify him. So, let us rejoice in this: Though we all fall short of God’s glory, we are saved by his grace to glorify him forever!
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).