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: or 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. – Romans 3:21-26 ESV
Inevitably, the book of Romans is about how man can be made right with God. The first few chapters build a case concerning man’s unrighteousness, proving that no man is capable of living up to God’s holy standards. Man’s sin nature prevents him from keeping God’s law. Even those parts he does manage to keep, he does so from a wrong motivation, out of a sense of obedience or obligation, not love. His law-keeping ways are insufficient to earn him any merit with God. His acts of goodness come across as worthless to God because they are tainted with sin. So Paul concludes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That includes Jews and Gentiles, pagans and the pious, reprobates and the religious, and everyone in-between.
But God’s brand of righteousness has been revealed apart from the law, Paul contends. In other words, God revealed His righteousness through the gift of His grace, not as a form of payment for man’s efforts. Over in chapter four, Paul states, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Romans 4:4 ESV). If our righteousness can be earned, then we are simply receiving what we are owed. If it is based on our own efforts, then God is somehow obligated to pay us what we rightly deserve. But Paul clarifies the truth regarding the gospel and the righteousness God approves of. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5 ESV). In fact, the Scriptures say of Abraham, “Abraham believed god, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 ESV). The kind of righteousness God is looking for is base on faith, not works. It is God-dependent, not self-dependent. All “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as the propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25 ESV).
Man-made righteousness is insufficient. It can’t measure up. It leaves us far short of the goal that God has established. Augustine writes, “The Law was given, in order that we might seek after grace. Grace was given, in order that we might fulfill the Law. It was not the fault of the Law that it was not fulfilled, but the fault was man’s carnal mind. This guilt the Law must make manifest, in order that we may be healed by divine grace” (Augustine, Concerning the Spirit and the Letter). We are justified through faith by grace. As Paul says, it is a gift, unearned and undeserved. Christ’s death solved our problem. He paid our debt. He redeemed us out of slavery to sin and propitiated or satisfied the holy demands of God. Until Jesus showed up on the scene, God had willingly overlooked or passed over the sins committed by men. This does not mean that He accepted or tolerated them. What Paul is inferring is that God restrained Himself from dealing with the sins of men according to His own justice. He put off the inevitable. He delayed His wrath in order that He might reveal His righteousness through Christ. As Paul says, “It was to show His righteousness at the present time” (Romans 3:26 ESV). God knew it was “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). So, the author of Hebrews writes, “when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book”’” (Hebrews 10:5-7 ESV). Jesus Christ was sent by God to do His will. He was sent to die for the sins of men. The righteousness God demanded of men was only possible through faith in the sacrifice of God’s Son. The book of Hebrews reminds us that, “by that will [the will of God that He die] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV).
In sending His Son to atone for the sins of men, God was able to remain just. He was able to punish sin in the way that His holy standards required, while at the same time justifying those who, those sinners, placed their faith in His Son’s saving work. God provided the righteousness man needed. It was a gift – unearned, undeserved and unmerited in any way. So that no one can boast. No one can take credit for their salvation. No one can claim to have played a part in their sanctification. And no one can say they had a hand in achieving a right standing before God. It was all done for us and in spite of us.