This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Why Does Paul Glory in the Gospel?

The following article is taken from a series of talks that the author gave at the Banner of Truth Conference in Sydney, February 21-24, 2023. We are very grateful to Mr Strivens for allowing us to publish talks with The Australian Evangelical.

We are considering the reasons that Paul had for boasting, or glorying, in the gospel. We are connecting these reasons to his understanding of who God is. We are arguing that it is Paul’s understanding of God, first of all, that gives him grounds for his confidence in the gospel. And that we need to recover a clear, biblical doctrine of God, in relation to the gospel, if we are to share the apostle’s confidence in its message.

We have seen that the wrath and judgment of God against fallen humanity’s sinfulness is the first ground on which Paul has confidence in the gospel. This brings us to the point where we have nothing to say for ourselves before God – every mouth is stopped and we are all found guilty before him. This is why the gospel is needed – and why the gospel is the only possible remedy for human sin. This gave Paul great confidence in the message that he preached.

And we see this now, as he comes to expound the heart of the gospel itself, in 3:21 onwards, where he begins with the righteousness of God. We will consider two things – firstly, that it is God who justifies sinners, and secondly how it is that he does this.


1. God is the one who justifies sinners, 3:24-25.

It was Paul’s use in this letter of the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, that famously brought Martin Luther to a clear understanding of the gospel, as he realised that the ‘righteousness of God’ here does not refer to God’s standard of righteousness being brought down upon us in judgment, but to the wonderful fact that God gives his righteousness freely, by grace, to all whose faith is in Jesus Christ. So Luther wrote, ‘Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’1Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Bodley Head, 2016), p. 100, quoted from Luther’s Preface to the first edition of his Latin works, 1545.

Paul has already mentioned the righteousness of God, 1:17. It is God’s righteousness, he said, that is revealed in the gospel. We have seen that, negatively, in the revelation of God’s wrath against our sin. Now Paul shows how God’s righteousness takes us to the heart of the salvation that the gospel provides. In 3:21, he says that this righteousness is now ‘revealed’, in the sense that it has appeared, it has now arrived – the law and the prophets had told of it and witnessed to it, but ‘now’, says Paul, it is here, it has arrived. He is talking, of course, of the coming of Christ to this world, his incarnation, death and resurrection.

Commenting on the similar phrase in 1:17, John Murray says that Paul here is writing about more than just an intellectual revelation of God’s righteousness. It is not merely that we are given fresh information on the topic – it is rather an actual exercise of God’s saving power. ‘He means that [God’s righteousness] was to be made manifest with saving effect … that in the gospel the righteousness of God is actively and dynamically brought to bear upon man’s sinful situation’.2John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Eerdmans, 1959-65), 1:29-30.

Murray shows how, in the Old Testament, the concepts of God’s righteousness and his salvation are placed in parallel with one another, e.g. Ps. 98:2, ‘The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.’ Or Is. 46:13, ‘I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay.’ So it is correct to think and speak of this righteousness as a saving righteousness – the saving righteousness of God.

But it is not quite correct to say simply that God’s righteousness is his salvation – to equate the two concepts. Some who argue for a New Perspective on Paul essentially want to do this – they argue that the two concepts are parallel and so, when Paul speaks in Romans of God’s righteousness in 1:17 and 3:21, we are simply to understand his salvation, his saving grace, the forgiveness of sins. Paul, it is argued, is simply saying here that, by faith, salvation comes, our sins are forgiven and so we see that we belong to the people of God.

The problem with that is captured in the comments of Herman Bavinck when he writes on the attribute of God’s righteousness in his Reformed Dogmatics. He shows how in Scripture God’s righteousness is indeed closely associated with salvation, as we have seen, but goes on to assert, ‘Although righteousness and salvation are thus closely interconnected, it is wrong to use them interchangeably. Righteousness is not the same as favor, mercy, or grace; neither is it something like covenant faithfulness … Righteousness is and remains a forensic term’.3Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Baker, 2003-2008), 2:225. This is crucial. Paul is talking here in forensic, that is in judicial terms – our legal standing before God.

Why do I say this is crucial? For two reasons. Firstly, because there is often, I believe, in our minds a confusion between justification and what we tend to call sanctification – or between God’s saving act of giving us a righteous status and the work that flows from that of changing us to become more like Christ. These two things, though they can never be separated, need to be distinguished – as Paul distinguishes them in this very letter. Justification – which is what he is speaking of here in chapter 3 – is the conferral of a status, a standing before God, that of being righteous. Just as God himself is righteous, so the believer, almost incredibly, stands before God with that perfect righteousness that comes from God, that God himself bestows upon him, freely by grace.

We can see from chapter 4 that this is the case. The language that Paul uses there demonstrates this. He uses accounting language, when he speaks of righteousness being ‘counted’ to Abraham because of his faith, v. 3 – the same terminology is used in vv. 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24. Paul’s repeated use of this term ‘counted’ is surely most significant. The word means, ‘account’, ‘put to the credit of’ someone, or more generally to ‘reckon’ or ‘consider’. It speaks of how someone is viewed, how they are thought of, what their standing or status is before someone. It does not refer to a change of character, or to any moral reformation or some change either inward or outward in a person. It is to do with how God views us, our standing before him. We are righteous in his sight, with the righteousness that he freely gives to the believer in Christ.

That is the first thing. But secondly on this point, many evangelicals today, in my experience, tend to think of justification primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of the forgiveness of sins. It is that, of course, but Paul has far more than that in mind, when he speaks of the revelation of the righteousness of God here. He is speaking, as we have seen, of God’s giving to sinners, freely, his perfect, divine righteousness – so those who trust in Christ are the ‘justified’ ones, v. 24, and God is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’, v. 26. This is more than the forgiveness of sins, though that is certainly included – we can see this in chapter 5, where Paul goes on to spell out the blessings that those who are justified by faith in Christ enjoy – it is more than simply forgiveness – peace with God, 5:1, access to him, 5:2, joy and hope, even in sufferings, 5:2-3, and the love of God poured out into our hearts, 5:5. These great blessings, together with the adoption as God’s children that Paul speaks of in chapter 8, demonstrate that our salvation is more than simply the wonderful blessing of the forgiveness of sins.

There is no reason why having our sins cleansed should confer upon us the tremendous blessings that Paul spells out here and elsewhere. Why should we have joy in our sufferings? Why the hope of glory and an eternal inheritance? Why should we be able to call God our Father and be known as his children? What is the basis for all this? It is not just that our sins are forgiven, but that we are justified before God – that his righteousness is given, counted to us – that the righteousness of Christ is accounted to us, just as our sin is accounted to him. ‘For our sake [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Cor. 5:21).

So God gives the believer in Christ his righteousness, so justifying us – granting to us the status of righteousness before him and giving us immeasurable blessings as a result.

And the point that I want to drive home here is that it is God who does this. This is a personal act of his. Because we tend to speak in terms of ‘justification’ and ‘being justified’, we can begin to think rather impersonally of this. Yet Paul spells it out in 3:26 – it is God who is the ‘justifier’ of the believer, the one who will, v. 30, ‘justify’ both Jew and Gentile by faith. Justification is the free, gracious act of God, for the one who trusts in Christ.

It an act that puts on full display the grace and the love of God for sinners. We only really begin to grasp this when we have seen the wrath of God against sin, as we did in the first paper. When we see ourselves justly condemned by a holy God for our sin, with nothing to say for ourselves, guilty before him. When we know that it would be right and fair and just for God to pour out all the terrors and the horrors of his anger upon us, because we have broken his law, and there is nothing that we could justly say in response. Once we begin to grasp something of that, then we begin to see the wonder and the glory of God’s love and grace in justifying sinners.

And so we see how essential a strong doctrine of God is, a sound understanding of who God is, his character and his saving power, if we are to glory and rejoice in and have confidence in the gospel as Paul did. To see that God is absolutely holy, that he does not bend the requirements of his law one inch to accommodate us in our sin, but that nevertheless in his love and grace he chooses to save sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. We need to recover a stronger emphasis upon the personal action of God, in total keeping with his character, in saving sinners. He is the one who justifies the ungodly.


2. But how precisely does God justify sinners? Once again, Paul puts the accent on what God has done.

What has God done? He has ‘put forward [Christ] as a propitiation by his blood … to show God’s righteousness’, 3:25. Paul is speaking here of God the Father – actively setting forth Christ, the Son, to be a propritiation – averting, turning aside God’s wrath, through his death on the cross.  So we see that this is the only way for sinners like us to avoid the wrath of God. We stand before him guilty, fully deserving of his wrath and judgment. We have nothing to say. How can we escape? Here is the way – and it is the way that God himself, the holy one whose wrath it is that hangs over us, as it were – this God himself provides the way of escape.

And he does so by giving his beloved Son for us. Again, we need to recover the personal, active nature of this. There is nothing mechanistic and impersonal about this. It is intensely personal. Paul in 8:32 refers to the Father’s giving up the Son for us as the most costly thing that he could possibly have done – because we can be sure that if he has done that for us, then there is nothing that he will withhold from us. That speaks of the depth and intensity of the love between the Father and the Son. In chapter 5, Paul speaks of God’s love for sinners as lying behind the whole scheme of salvation: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (5:8). Again, this is intensely personal. It is the love of God that leads to the saving act of his giving his own Son, for sinners like us.

This is extraordinary. Sinners who fully deserve the wrath of God with which Paul began his letter instead experience God’s love in the gift of his Son, to turn away his wrath from them and receive them into his presence and give to them all the blessings that heaven can afford – he goes on in the letter to speak of how believers are baptised into Christ’s death and burial, how we are raised with him, 6:3-11; how God has condemned sin through Christ’s death, 8:3; subjected the creation so that it may ultimately be freed, 8:18-22; how God works all things for good for those he foreknew, called, justified and glorified, 8:28-30; how his infinite grace and love is made known to us through all trials and sufferings and opposition of all kinds in this life, making us more than conquerors through his love in Christ, 8:31-39. No wonder Paul concludes in 5:11 that we ‘rejoice in God’ through Christ. Indeed we do.

And let us be clear that this work of salvation is the work of the triune God. The Father, as we have seen, set forth Christ, the Son, as a propitiation, giving him for us sinners that we might thereby be justified. Christ, for his part, willingly came to give himself in this way. He is our propitiation, through his death on the cross. He through his death turned away from us the wrath of God that we deserved. The wrath of God against our sin, that we saw in chapters 1-3, was experienced and suffered by Christ on the cross. He drank the cup of the Lord’s wrath to the very bottom. ‘All the wrath of God to the last drop, was squeezed out into that bitter cup which Christ drank of, and wrung out the very dregs thereof’.4John Flavel, Works, 1:470, as quoted in Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (Bryntirion Press, 1991), p. 73. He bore the curse of God for sin on our behalf, in our place (Gal. 3:13). He was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). It was he who cried out from that cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matt. 27:46). He it was who thereby saved us from the wrath of God, 5:9, who delivered us from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:10).

Put positively, as Paul does in the second half of chapter 5, Christ’s perfect obedience to his heavenly Father in his life and in his death brought justification and life for those who believe, 5:12-21. And it is for those for whom he died that he now intercedes at the right hand of God. In sum, he has loved us and continues to love us and nothing in heaven or earth, time or eternity can possibly separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, 8:34-39. Again, we are speaking in all this of the personal character and actions of the Son of God.

Then, without wanting to labour the point, Paul speaks to us of the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer: pouring out God’s love into our hearts, 5:5; by his power we put to death the deeds of the body, 8:13-15; by whom we know that we are sons of God by adoption, 8:14-17; helping us in our weakness in prayer, 8:26 – once again, this is God the Holy Spirit personally at work, not merely a spiritual technique for us to summon up and make use of.

Much of our evangelism focuses, I suspect, on the people we are seeking to reach – we want them to see their sinfulness, their plight in the face of death, judgment and hell; we want them to come to repent and turn to Christ, to put their trust in him as the only Saviour of sinners; and we want them then to persevere in faith, trusting in Christ and living, not in their old sinful ways, but lives of godliness for Christ. All of that is right and good, of course, but I wonder whether, in order to achieve that, we have the emphasis upon God and his work in salvation that Paul does here. Do we, like Paul, provide a solid foundation for the gospel that we preach in the saving righteousness of God? And do we have a thoroughly trinitarian view of this God who saves, in the way that Paul does in these chapters?

See how Paul preached the gospel in Acts. In Acts 13, in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, his sermon is all about what God has done – how he dealt with his people in the Old Testament, how he ‘brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised’; and then of how Jesus was treated by the authorities, put to death undeservedly, laid in a tomb; and then ‘God raised him from the dead’ – again, God’s agency. So, Paul continues, ‘what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus’ (13:32-33). All the emphasis is on what God has done, what he has promised, what he has fulfilled in Jesus Christ, especially in raising him from the dead. And so, he says, ‘through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you’ (13:38). In Athens, it is the same story, though without the Old Testament assumptions and allusions – all the focus of Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is on God’s character and what he has done, is doing and will do, in and through Christ.

This is why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. It is the work of God – the triune God – it is the power of God to salvation. He knows that it is therefore utterly foolproof, guaranteed in every way, entirely safe from error, failure, obstruction, reversal. It flows from God, it is entirely consistent with the very nature of God, it is indeed the work of God himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is how Paul presented the gospel message – not merely as something that we need to do, to repent and trust in Christ, to give our lives to him, and so on – but first of all and most centrally of all, as what God has done in and through Christ, by the Spirit, to save sinners from the wrath to come and give them the certain hope of eternal life.

Do we, in the light of this, I wonder, need to rebalance our evangelistic message? Do we, perhaps, even need to rebalance our own thinking about the gospel and our salvation? Are we sufficiently focused, as believers and as preachers of the gospel, on our triune God himself as the author and the architect of this great salvation, as well as the one who himself acts to bring it about and accomplish it in full for helpless sinners like us?

Series Navigation<< “Why Does Paul Glory in the Gospel?”: An Answer from the Doctrine of God in the Letter to the Romans – Part 1
  • 1
    Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Bodley Head, 2016), p. 100, quoted from Luther’s Preface to the first edition of his Latin works, 1545.
  • 2
    John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Eerdmans, 1959-65), 1:29-30.
  • 3
    Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Baker, 2003-2008), 2:225.
  • 4
    John Flavel, Works, 1:470, as quoted in Eryl Davies, An Angry God? (Bryntirion Press, 1991), p. 73.