October 31, 2021
The Reformation marked a pivotal event in church history—namely, a return to the apostolic Gospel. In this Reformation Day message, Alistair Begg examines the good news of salvation as proclaimed in Romans 3: that a right standing with God is not something that we are called to produce but something which God has chosen to provide to us as a gift by faith in Jesus. Only the cross of Calvary can bring undeserving sinners into a living relationship with a holy God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Romans, the epistle of Paul to the Roman Christians, and to chapter 3, and to follow along as I read from the twenty-first verse through to the end of the chapter. Romans chapter 3 and reading from verse 21:
“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. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
And so we pray:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, I think it’s already obvious, as I invite you to turn back to Romans chapter 3, that we have chosen to pause in our 2 Samuel studies to join many, many people—millions of people, actually—around the world in celebrating the anniversary of this day in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. So in other words, we’ve decided to come far more up to date. Instead of being three thousand years BC, we’ve come up to 1500 AD. And I actually brought Luther with me this morning. He doesn’t always make an appearance beside me here, but he sits with me on my desk on a daily basis and keeps a watchful eye on what’s going on.
What we’re going to do this morning is just a very brief moment of history and then some very important theology. And if you’re half asleep, I suggest you sit up and give yourself a little bit of a shake and make sure that you can make it all the way through to the end. I don’t say that as a word of warning but actually simply as a word of encouragement.
The history, I think, we know. The work of the Reformation as it is found in Luther’s initiative was not the work, really, of a disillusioned and grumpy Roman Catholic priest, but it was rather an attempt by this Roman Catholic priest to stir the church of his day to reject man-made rules, inventions, and regulations and to restore or to rediscover the apostolic gospel. For it was that apostolic gospel which had so many years before thrust the early apostles out onto the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim this message of free forgiveness and to do so with amazing effect. They were carried along—as one Scottish commentator puts it—carried along by “a waft of the supernatural.” But that had all been before, and many years of Christendom, if we might put it that way, had begun to get layered over the story of this Galilean carpenter and those who had become his followers and who had had their lives transformed by all that he had done on the cross.
Luther himself, despite his intellect and despite his religious zeal, had found himself desperately in need of God. And he had gone to Rome on a spiritual quest. He set himself the challenge of taking four weeks to try and answer for himself the question “How could someone ever know that they had done enough to merit God’s grace?” Well, of course, they never could, and it was a time of great disappointment to him, because instead of losing his burden, instead of finding an answer to his question, all of these weeks of dutiful, earnest religious observance only served to deepen for him a sense of bewilderment. He goes back to his normal duties, and some time later, in Wittenberg, for Luther, the lights go on.
And the lights go on as a result of reading the Bible, as a result of coming for the first time in his life to understand what Paul is writing in his great theological treatise—namely, his letter to the church at Rome. And he discovered for the first time in his life that righteousness, or a right standing with God, is not something that we are called to produce, but rather, it is that which God has chosen to provide; that it is not to be earned by our endeavors but that it is to be received as a gift.
And so God lit a flame in the heart of Martin Luther, and it didn’t stop with Luther, because the Reformation or the restoration of gospel truth spread then throughout Europe: John Knox in Scotland, Zwingli in Switzerland, Latimer and Ridley in England, Calvin in Geneva, and so on. And the reverberating theme that runs through it all is in the answer that is found in Scripture alone to the fundamental question “How does a sinner get right with God? How is it possible to know God?”
Now, Luther was the beneficiary of the work of another religious man who had spent the early part of his life believing that he would be able, if he simply improved his character and obeyed the law, he would be able to find himself in good standing with God. Well, that, of course, was the religious man, a Jewish religious man, Saul of Tarsus. Saul of Tarsus did not accept who Jesus was, and he didn’t care what Jesus did. He did not understand that Jesus died on the cross so that men and women do not need to die for their sins. For the penalty of sin is death, and there is none of us who finds ourselves outwith the character of the sinner. And some who are within sound of my voice right now are in the same position as Saul of Tarsus and of Martin Luther—in other words, religious people, believing the idea that if we can simply do our best and improve our character and if we’ve got a little bit of time left to try and work on it (because we would have to admit we haven’t had a particularly good week), then it may be possible for us to be right with God.
We’re a bit like the man whom we encounter in the eighth chapter of Acts. You remember the politician, the financial man for the Ethiopian government, who has been in Jerusalem, and he’s reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah on his way home. And he’d be reading it out loud, as that was customary. And he reaches the point in Isaiah where it says, “And he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,” and so on: “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities.” And Philip, who’s an evangelist, is instructed to come alongside this man, and he hears him reading this, and he says to him what I want to say to you—namely, this: Do you understand this? Do you understand it enough to do what that man did: repent of his sins, believe in Christ, and be baptized? And you remember, of course, what the man said: “How can I understand it, unless somebody guides me, unless somebody helps me, unless somebody teaches me?”
Well, in the time that remains to me, I want to try and fulfill that objective. I want it to be a reminder to those of us who have sung these songs this morning with a deep-seated conviction, so that we might be strengthened, and that it might also be an invitation to some of us who, in singing these songs this morning, found that we were making protestations or professions about truths about which we really have no significant conviction at all.
You see, once Saul of Tarsus had been turned the right way up by Jesus, he became zealous. And fascinatingly, he ends up giving us a significant chunk of the New Testament. And his great treatise, I suppose we would have to say, is the one to which we have turned now. He introduces it, beginning his letter by letting the people in Rome know that he has been “set apart for the gospel”; that they should know that it is “the gospel of God”; that it comes from God and it is the truth of God; that he is, he says, “eager to preach” it, eager to get to Rome to preach it, and that he is “not ashamed” of it—not a bit—because, he explains, “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew … and also to the Greek.”
And he then goes on into his letter to make it clear that this story is the story of faith from start to finish. We can’t work our way through the entire gospel, you’ll be relieved to know, but we do need to understand what he’s doing, since we just all of a sudden started in verse 21 with that wonderful little “But now,” which Paul is famous for: “But now…” In other words, there’s a huge change. What is the change? What has he been doing?
Well, he’s used the early part of the letter to establish the gravity of the human condition. The gravity of the human condition. What is the great problem of humanity today? Some would say it is the problem of climate change. Some would say it’s the absence of education. The problem for society today is the fact that we’re not as good as we once were, and we need to be better. The problem may be satisfied by science. It may be dealt with in this way or that.
The Bible says whatever’s going on in all those areas, the gravity of the human condition is to be found—and you may read this for yourselves, for homework—in the fact that by nature, men and women “suppress the truth” about God. Suppress the truth. In other words, they say to themselves, “No, I do not believe this. No, I will not believe this.” Also, he goes on to say, “And they seize for themselves, or take to themselves, substitute gods.” Instead of worshipping God, who has made them, they worship creations of their own imagination and their own design. They have, he says—we have—chosen lies over truth.
And as he lays that out, he says, “And the implications of it may be seen in society.” The implications of the condition of the structure of life, whether it is in the first century or in the twenty-first century, has to be dealt with somehow. Why is it after all this time, we find ourselves facing the same grave predicament as has been true from the beginning of time? Brother murders brother. Children disobey their parents. Society crumbles under the hand of adventuresome. Well, “they were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice.”
Well, we can’t delay there. We want to get to the positive side of it. But what he’s saying is, we need to understand the gravity of the human condition, and secondly, we need to realize our total inability to fix that condition. Okay? So, the gravity of our condition as sinners before God and our total inability to fix it. The whole world, he says in verse 19, if your Bible is open, is accountable to God. And by keeping of the law, there is no possibility of being made right with God.
So, the gravity of our condition. Our inability to fix that condition. Sin, wrote Luther, has crippled the ability of every person to make their way back to God. Sin has crippled our ability to make our way back to God. It is only as we own up to that that we will lay hold of the free forgiveness that is offered to us in the gospel.
Now, it is at that point that we get to verse 21: “But now…” You say, “But now, speed up.” All right. Can I just… I said earlier that the story is faith from first to last. Will you just allow your eye to go down here and let me point this out to you? Notice how this is made clear again and again. Verse 22: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” Verse 25: “a propitiation by his blood,” to which we’ll come, “to be received by faith.” “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.” He’s then going to go on into chapter 4—don’t worry, we’re not going there—to bring forward Abraham as this great example and to make the point for his readers that Abraham was justified not as a result of the things that he had done, nor as a result of the things that had been done to him or for him and certainly not by him, but he was justified through faith in the promise of God. And you, again, may read that and confirm what I’m saying to you by following it in the text.
God’s way of reconciliation is faith. Is faith. Not law, but the principle “the righteousness of faith.” And I want to say this again, because it is very, very important: this righteousness about which Paul is writing is not something that we are called upon to produce, as if we even could, but rather that which God has promised all the way through the Old Testament and that which God provides finally in the person of his Son.
Now, the way this works is very different from the way in which religion works. What we discover is simply this: that this is as a result of God’s faithfulness to the promises that he has made. From the very beginning, God makes covenants with his people, and he makes these promises to them. And as you read your way through the Old Testament, you realize that one of the foundational promises that God makes is that he will save his people from their sins. In the unfolding story of the Old Testament, things that we may find a little perplexing about sacrifices and so on, they are all pointing forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus; so that when Isaiah, for example… And you will notice, incidentally, that this is mentioned here in verse 21: “the righteousness of God has been” revealed, and it’s been revealed “apart from the law, although,” notice, “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” In other words, if you read the Old Testament, you will find that the books of Moses point to it, and you will find that as you read the Prophets, they’re pointing to it.
For example—I quoted it already—“All [we], like sheep, have gone astray,” writes Isaiah the prophet, “each of us has turned to his own way.” Everybody’s doing their own thing. Everybody’s deciding their own decisions: “I’m gonna rule my own life.” Each of us operates on that basis, by nature. “I’m not gonna have my mother tell me anything. I’m not gonna do what you say. I’m a teenager. I have my own future to deal with. I don’t need to pay attention to that, and certainly not to an imaginary God.” “All [we], like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; [but] the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Now, the people in the prophet’s day were saying, “Well, who is the ‘him’? Who is this?” In fact, when Peter writes his letter, he says that if you think about this, what you have are the prophets standing on their tiptoes, pointing forward in their writings and looking to see if they can see who is the one who is to come. And furthermore, he says, “And the angels are hanging from the ramparts of heaven, looking down to see how the promises of God will be fulfilled and how the promises of God will be accepted.”
The good news of the gospel comes in the form of a promise. I know very little about a lot, and a lot that I know very little about concerns Greek mythology and Roman literature. But I know this: that when you read Greek and Roman literature in relationship to humanity’s interaction with their gods, small g, what you discover is human beings seeking to gain acceptance with their gods by making promises to them: “If I promise this, if I promise that, if I do this…” Read the Bible and what do you discover? The absolute reverse. The story of the Bible is a story of a God who makes promises to us and then calls us to believe that he keeps his promises. There you have it! Luther: “If I can do this, if I can do that, if I can keep this, if I can secure that…” And the light goes on: “I’ve got this upside down. This sounds like it is something that I must do.” And then he discovers, “No, this is something that God has done.” “See now what God has done, sending his only Son, Christ the beloved one.”
Now, notice the comprehensive nature of this. And I’m just moving through this text; I’m not working phrase by phrase. You’ll have picked that up already. We have already said what verse 23 says: that “all have sinned,” without exception. We’ve missed the mark. We’re short of the target. We’ve transgressed the rules. We have rebelled, all of us. But this good news is not for a certain group; this good news is “for all who believe,” verse 22. “All have sinned”: the human condition. “All who believe” are on the receiving end of the promise.
Now, at the heart of this, of course, is justification. And you will notice that that is what is described there in verse 24. And this, of course, is what Luther wrestled with, and this is what the Bible says. Paul says we “are justified by his grace as a gift” —or, down in verse 26, that he is “just,” and he is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He’s not the justifier of the one who has done his very best. He is not the justifier of the one who is strict in their religious adherences. He is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
We’ve quoted from the Heidelberg this morning; let’s have a little from the Westminster [Catechism]: “Justification … an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardon[s] all our sins, and accept[s] us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness … imputed to us, and received [through] faith alone.” How much righteousness does somebody need to be right with God? Perfect righteousness. One hundred percent on the test. Any takers? No, then we must look to one who had one hundred percent. That’s exactly right.
In the second century, somebody penned these words: “O sweet exchange! … that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” Now, understand this carefully: justification is not an experience in us; justification is what God has done for us and is the basis of our confidence about what will happen to us. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. On what basis do you plan on standing there? What are we planning on saying in the Fort Lauderdale evangelistic question, when they went from door to door: “If you were to die tonight and God was to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what is your answer to that question?”
You see, Luther’s answer was “I’m a Roman Catholic monk. I’m an intelligent person. I’m doing my best. I’m a religious man.” But it didn’t answer the longings of his heart. It didn’t grant him forgiveness. It didn’t give him peace with God. It didn’t allow him to sleep at night. No, the thing that changed it all—this was the sweet exchange: hidden in Christ, accepted in Christ, made new in Christ.
The hymn writer puts it perfectly:
When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
E’en then [shall this] be all my plea,
Jesus ha[s] lived, [and] died, for me.
In the gospel, and in the gospel alone, there is a free forgiveness and a new life for those who have done nothing to deserve it but have done a lot to deserve judgment instead. The divine exchange that is at the heart of the gospel is what makes it the gospel. It is, in theological terminology, substitutionary atonement—that one dies in the place of those who deserve to die so that those who deserve to die may not die.
Now, you will notice—and this is another word that is important, and you’ll see it there. It follows on in verse 24: “justified by his grace as a gift,” and this “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This is another picture. Justification is a picture from the law courts. Redemption is a picture from the reality of slavery, where slaves, where prisoners could be freed by the paying of a price. And what Paul is saying here is that is exactly what Christ has done. Christ has paid the penalty to liberate us. To liberate us. To free us. To free us from ourselves. To free us from our own sinful proclivities. To free us from death.
Now, you see, God the Father knew—God the Father knew from the very beginning—that men and women could never pay the penalty for their own sins. That’s why God’s plan from all of eternity is not Adam and Eve in the garden; it is Jesus Christ on the cross. If you’ve lived with the notion somehow or another that this big switch is from the Old Testament into the New Testament; that God has finally done something to correct a defect in the system; that it didn’t kind of work in the first case, so he came up with another plan—you’re completely wrong! You’re completely wrong. You need to start reading your Bibles. Because the whole reality of it is that from the very beginning, God’s plan—despite rebellion, despite the fact that they were banished from the garden—he loved the world so much that he sent his only Son. He pursued them. He pursues us. He hounds us down in ways that we perhaps have never understood. He sent the Lord Jesus Christ, who himself came willingly to provide a redemption through the shedding of his blood.
Again, the hymn writer… I tell you, hymn writers help me all the time. They take huge truth and make it clear for a little mind like me. This is Cecil Frances Alexander in her children’s hymn:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.
That’s it in a nutshell. And in doing this, Paul says, he showed us God’s righteousness.
You see, God acts in consistency with his character. God is love; therefore, he acts in love. God is holy; therefore, he acts in holiness. God is just; therefore, he acts in justice. And what Paul is doing quite masterfully here is pointing out that it is here that the love of God and the justice of God are combined. The penalty demanded by the law is not set aside; it is paid for by Christ.
You see the nature of the gospel? You see, it is a false gospel, it’s a silly idea, that says, “You know, God used to be really concerned about this, but Jesus came, and he’s not that concerned about it, and you should really not worry about it too much at all.” God is greatly concerned about it, to the extent that his love would be expressed to you, who by nature are in rebellion against him, don’t give a rap for what he’s on about. And that he would love you, and love me?
Now, we need to stop. But there is a foundational question that will be in the mind of all those who are still awake. And the question is this—and it really emerges out of 4:5, just a phrase that you will find there: “the one who does not work but believes in him,” here’s the phrase, “who … believes in him who justifies the ungodly.” “Who justifies the ungodly.” Now, you would think that he would justify the godly. No, he justifies the ungodly.
So here’s the question: How can God justify the ungodly while remaining consistent with his own character, while showing his own righteousness? And how can he do it in such a way that is there in the old context? That’s verse 25: “to show [his] righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Do you ever read the Old Testament and say, “Well, how does this work? How did God not just deal with all of that?” Well, he was dealing with all of that, in the former times on account of what was to be and, you will notice, “at the present time,” verse 26, as a result of what has been—that the cross of Christ is the pivotal event not only of the story of redemption but actually the history of the entire world. Whether it was then or now, reconciliation is in and through the death of Christ.
That brings us to our final big word, and you will see that it is there: that God has put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood.” We are alienated from God on two sides. Do you understand this? We are alienated from God on our side on account of our rebellion, and we are alienated from God on his side on account of his wrath. For his wrath has been “revealed from heaven against all [the] ungodliness and [wickedness] of men.” We are under sin’s power and can’t shake ourselves, and we’re under God’s wrath and can’t relieve ourselves.
Now, what does it mean to propitiate? It means to remove the wrath—so that when Jesus is described not only as the one who justifies us but the one who propitiates, here is the great question, isn’t it? You propitiate the one who’s sinned against. God is sinned against. God is not capricious. God is not arbitrary. God does not lash out at people. God is God. God is holy. His wrath is his settled response to the reality of sin. It cannot be other than that, because of who and what he is. It’s not that he got angry. It is the inevitable reaction of holiness coming into collision with sin.
Now, here—and I will stop with this. And I’m helped in this, I think by memory, from John Stott. But this is masterful. This, if you like, is worth the price of admission. All right? Who needs to be propitiated? God, because he is provoked by evil, and it is sin that arouses his wrath. Secondly, who provides the propitiation? God. God! God the Father “put [him] forward as a propitiation by his blood.” He said, “Behold, my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” “Behold, the Lamb of God,” says John the Baptist, “who takes away the sin of the world!” Who needs to be propitiated? God. Who provides the propitiation? God. What was the propitiation? Who was the propitiation? God, in the person of the Son.
Oh, here’s one for you at three o’clock in the morning: God propitiates God. God, who sees us in all of our disinterest, in all of our rebellion, in all of our mess, and in all of our brokenness, pursues us in love. Liberal theology, which abounds, says, “You know, the love of God makes any notion of the wrath of God unnecessary. Oh, don’t you believe those people who sing songs about ‘And on the cross, the wrath of God was satisfied.’ Don’t deal with those characters.” Far from the love of God making the propitiation of God unnecessary, it is the love of God that makes propitiation possible.
Well, what does it mean? It means a lot, but it means, as he goes on in the twenty-seventh verse to say: So on what basis would anybody go out and boast about stuff? On what basis would you boast? If forgiveness, justification, redemption, is the gift of God, what would you say to people? So there is no place for the religious snob. So not only is our boasting excluded, but our proclamation is defined for us.
And what he’s going on to point out is, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or whether you’re a gentile—whether you’re a circumcised Jew or an uncircumcised gentile—whether you’re like Abraham or whether you’re like David. We’re all in the same position,” he says, “for all have sinned.” And yet, the message that Luther discovered, which the Reformed church in subsequent centuries has continued to proclaim and which we, together with them, seek to proclaim is simply this.
Karl Barth, who was a great theologian from the twentieth century—the beginning of the twentieth century—was once asked in a Q and A session, after he’d made some big theological address, said to him, “Dr. Barth, what is the greatest truth you have ever thought, that you have ever learned?” And if you’ve made an attempt at Karl Barth’s Dogmatics, you know he had a lot up there. After a long pause, Barth looked at the person and said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
My job as a preacher is to tell you that God has made promises and to urge you to believe that he keeps the promises he makes to all who have faith in him.
Lord God in heaven, look upon us, we pray. Clarify our thinking. Move in our hearts. Convince us of the wonder of your promise that whoever comes to you, you will never turn them away. Forgive us our pathetic attempts at self-justification. Forgive us, Lord, for hiding behind our respectability or for standing so far back because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are the one pathetic person that has somehow or another eluded your loving initiative. It cannot be. Forgive us for coming to a morning like this, 31 October 2021, and, as the Spirit of God works within our hearts, saying to ourselves, “Well, we’ll get back to this on some other occasion. After all, there are pressing matters at hand.” Show us, Lord, please, that “now is the accepted time,” that “behold, [today] is the day of salvation.” And in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953), 44–45
 See Romans 6:23.
 Isaiah 53:5, 7 (paraphrased).
 Acts 8:31 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:1 (ESV).
 Romans 1:15–16 (ESV).
 Romans 1:18 (ESV).
 Romans 1:25 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:28–32 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:29 (ESV).
 Romans 3:26 (ESV).
 Isaiah 53:6 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Peter 1:10–11.
 1 Peter 1:12 (paraphrased).
 Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Name of All Majesty” (1984).
 Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 33.
 Epistle of Methetes to Diognetus, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, chap. 9, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iii.ii.ix.html.
 Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, trans. John Wesley, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” (1739, 1740).
 See John 3:16.
 Cecil Frances Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1848).
 Romans 1:18 (ESV).
 Matthew 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11 (paraphrased).
 John 1:29 (ESV).
 Stuart Townend, “In Christ Alone” (2001). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See John 6:37.
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.