Romans 3:21-26 | Refuge Values: Gospel
Please open your Bibles to Romans 3:21-26.
For the month of August, we’re taking a break from preaching through the book of Mark to focus on the four values of Refuge Church: Gospel, Community, Mission, and Multiplication.
Why are we doing this? Because this month, Refuge Church turns three years old!
So as we launch into our fourth year of ministry together, we want to remind ourselves of who we are.
Our topic today is the gospel. The gospel comes first because it is the most important. Nothing that follows matters if we don’t have the gospel at the forefront, powering it all. We are a gospel-centered church, and we’re asking God to keep us one.
So, first, what is the gospel?
The gospel is the good news that God saves his sinful people from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, promising to share his glory with them in a renewed creation forever—all to the praise of the glory of his grace.
A gospel-centered church is a church where people rejoice in the good news of the gospel. That church is centered on nothing else—not the gospel plus something but the gospel alone.
William Tyndale, the man who translated the Bible into English in the 16th century, said:
Evangelion (what we call “the gospel”) is a Greek word, signifying good, merry, glad and joyful news, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy.
I love that. That’s what we’re after at Refuge: deep happiness in God. Nothing takes us there but the gospel. We can’t add to it. We can’t improve it. We can only accept it.
Our church is not here because we have some good ideas we’d like to explore together. We’re not here because we want to do things “our way” in rejection of those others down the road. We’re not here because we’re looking for a new angle or a different path. We’re here because the gospel has been proclaimed, and the Triune God has gathered us as one family for one mission under one Savior, for his glory in our day. We’re not the only gospel-centered church in town. We don’t want to be. But we’re one of them, and we want to see one in every community throughout our region.
A gospel-centered church is really the only kind of church there is. A church without the gospel fails to be a church. It’s something else—a social club or political action committee or a rallying point for pet projects or hobby horse hermeneutics. Those are man-centered organizations. And they can’t last. They make us sad. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately. Every man-made institution ends in tears. But the gospel ends with a party. It’s good news of great joy.
The gospel must be the biggest thing in the church because only the gospel is big enough for the church. The church is a prophetic witness to the watching world of how God saves sinners; an outpost of heaven, showing the world what only God can do.
Three years ago, we planted Refuge Church with that desire: to see what only God can do. We wanted to see God’s salvation sweep through our city. We wanted to see many come to faith. We wanted people to find refuge in Jesus. We still want that. How will we get the privilege of seeing what only God can do?
Many of you know that Refuge was planted out of Immanuel Church. Immanuel’s pastor, Ray Ortlund, wrote a great little devotional book on the book of Romans. In the afterward of that book, he says this:
A wave of authentic revival sweeps over the church when three things happen together: teaching the great truths of the gospel with clarity, applying those truths to people’s lives with spiritual power, and extending that experience to large numbers of people. We evangelicals urgently need such an awakening today. We need to rediscover the gospel...
We should not think, “Well, of course we have the gospel. The Reformation recovered it for us.” Such complacency will cost us dearly. Every generation of Christians must be retaught afresh the basic truths of our faith. The church is always one generation away from total ignorance of the gospel, and we today are making rapid progress toward that ruinous goal. Rather than carelessly assume the gospel, we must aggressively, deliberately, fully and passionately teach and preach the gospel. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. If we do not intentionally search them out, we will miss them.
I believe Ray is right. What will sustain us over the long haul is constant dependence upon God. A rugged commitment to his message of grace. A recurring rediscovery of his gospel. If we ever abandon the gospel as the centering point of this church—no matter how good a thing we replace it with—we will have failed to remain faithful, and God must bring us to repentance or shut our doors.
Our faithfulness to the primacy of the gospel is the issue, the pulse that proves we’re still alive. The degree to which we keep the gospel at the center is the degree to which we will see what only God can do.
So in the time we have today, let’s behold the gospel, to see what a gospel-centered church rallies around. And let’s see how we can maintain and cultivate this gospel- centeredness.
Romans 3:21-26 will be our tour guide. Let’s read it now.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 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. 26 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.
The book of Romans is a great place to see the gospel. Paul wrote it to introduce himself and the gospel he preached to a group of people in Roma he hadn’t met, proving himself as a brother and minister of the same God and gospel that they believed and proclaimed.
The first three chapters are filled with bad news. Paul explains how everyone is a sinner: the man with the Bible, the man without the Bible, and the man who doesn’t even know what the Bible is. No one has escaped the tragic start of sin nor the tragic trajectory of sin. We’re all guilty and accountable to God.
It’s a pretty depressing opening. But understanding the tragedy of sin is vital to understanding the gospel. Theologian D.A. Carson says “until people know they’re lost, they don’t ask to be found. Until they know they’re under sentence of death, they don’t ask for life. Until they know that they’re under the wrath of God, the love of God won’t mean anything to them. Until they know that they’re guilty, they won’t ask for pardon. Paul himself spends almost three chapters getting there before he spends six verses on explaining the solution.”
Romans 3:21-26 is the solution. It’s where the answer to the deepest need of our heart and the deepest need of this world is found. The way bad people like us are set right with the holy God above is by the blood of Jesus Christ. We cannot be justified any other way. We can never be good enough. We can never undo what we’ve done. We can never reach God on our own. Our only hope is God coming down to us. And he has in Jesus.
So let’s break this down into three points to see what Paul says about the gospel and draw some applications for us here at Refuge.
First, the gospel is the center of the Bible, so it must be our center too.
Look again at 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.”
Paul is saying something significant. He’s saying the righteousness of God—that is, “God’s way of righteousness”—has been manifested (revealed) to us. It’s been revealed “apart from the law.” What does that mean? We’re justified not through obedience to the law but by trusting Christ.
That’s a surprise. Paul interrupts his path of sin explanation to talk to God’s propitiation. He spent so much time explaining how we all fail the law. Reading Romans 1-3 leaves you breathless, totally exposed, without excuse. Some people go into self-justification mode, others into depression. But Paul wants to take us elsewhere. He wants to take us into the heart of God. He wants to show that the gospel is a glorious interruption. We’re headed toward hell, and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves, and then God breaks in.
The gospel is always an interruption. Jared Wilson says, “It interrupts our lives, our sinful habits, our selfishness and rebellion, redirecting our attention away from ourselves to God and his work and Word. Sometimes the gospel even interrupts our ways of ‘doing church’.”
Martin Luther experienced this. He was a monk in the 16th century, trying really hard to obey God but constantly failing. His “way of doing church” wasn’t working.
What was his way? He read the Bible and all he saw were laws to obey. And he looked at himself and all he saw was disobedience. He tried to obey. He tried really hard. But he just couldn’t find any freedom. He always felt condemned, never forgiven. No matter how hard he tried to obey, he saw that there were new layers of sin in his heart. He confessed so often and to such minutia that his priest told him to go away and come back when he had real sin to confess. By outward appearances he seemed obedient, but his conscience told him otherwise.
Then he started teaching through through the book of Romans, and God broke through. God interrupted him. He saw with new eyes how God justifies. God didn’t justify based on Martin’s obedience. God justified based on Christ’s obedience. His heart was freed. Then, he started the Reformation. The gospel gives freedom that changes the world.
As Luther thought it through, he saw what Paul was saying. He had misread the entire Bible. He was looking for what he must do when all along it was telling him what God had done. God’s way of righteousness wasn’t in the law, though the law was good and reflected God’s glory. God’s way of righteousness was in himself, in Christ. God’s people wouldn’t be saved by God’s law but by God’s gift—the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.
He realized this is what the whole Bible is about. All along, God shows our imperfection so that we’ll trust his perfection. The law condemns us so that we’ll flee to Christ. This passage encapsulates the whole. Luther said it’s “the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, and of the whole Bible.” The gospel is the center of the Bible, the main point. So, it must be our center too.
The Bible is not a disassociated collection of tales but a unified story in four movements—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration—where Jesus is the hero, and his gospel is the center. We see this everywhere from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus is the meaning of every miracle. He’s the redeemer of every rescue. He’s the Savior of every song. He’s the Christ in every crisis. He’s the provision to every prayer. God’s big story of redemption runs throughout the Bible. We need to see that, rejoice in it, search for it, dig it out, and grab hold of it on every page.
When we read something in the Old Testament, we should ask how the passage moves the story along. How does it help us anticipate Jesus? How do we see God fulfilling his promises? How does this connect with the ministry of Jesus?
As we read the New Testament, we should ask how it fulfills something of the Old Testament. Does it answer questions posed way back there? Does it clarify a story, a promise, an event?
When we read the Bible that way, it comes alive. We see that the heart of God’s holy book is God’s amazing news of grace to the undeserving. That gets us going. That opens us up. That spurs us on. When we see that God doesn’t hate us but love us with an everlasting love that sent his Son to die upon the cross, we change from the inside out. We become new people with hearts ablaze for God. We find ourselves caught up in his story. We still have things to do and not do. Obedience matters to God. But Christian obedience flows from a forgiven heart, not toward a forgiven heart.
As we learn to read the Bible through this lens, God uses us to maintain and cultivate a gospel-centered church. No matter where we are in the Bible, the gospel is the main point. So we preach it that way. We teach it that way. We talk about it that way. The gospel is God’s big story, so it must be ours too. We talk about it in our Bible studies, our community groups, hanging out at the coffee shop— wherever we are.
When we start seeing the gospel in all the Bible, we start to see the gospel in all our life, and in the life of others. The Bible gives us permission to put ourselves in it’s story. It only says we’re not the main character. God is. And God lifts us up to his place of honor and glory, and we get to share that with those around us. So let’s talk about that. Let’s be people about the gospel where the central story of the Bible is the central story of our life together.
When it is, we see yet another way the gospel changes us.
Second, the gospel is honest with our sin, so we should be too.
Paul puts it bluntly in verses 22-23.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
That’s so offensive to our well put-together ideas of ourselves, isn’t it? All have sinned (past tense) and fall short of the glory of God (present tense). We are all liable to divine judgment.
A proper understanding of sin is necessary for a proper understanding of the gospel. The gospel is good news, but it includes bad news. It tells us that without the Triune God’s intervention, we have no hope of heaven. We have no righteousness on our own.
The gospel makes us really honest people. We live in a city that likes to look good. From our dress to our cars to our homes, we’re all very Instagramable. But the gospel takes the filter off. It shows us for who we really are. And when it does, we have a choice to make. We can choose either to be impressive or to be known. What will we choose? In a gospel-centered church, where the risen Christ’s good news is ever-present, we can take a risk of being known. We can trust Jesus with our sin, and we can trust his people to help us find forgiveness and freedom. The gospel says we aren’t impressive, and that’s embarrassing. But the gospel also says we’re known deeper than we thought possible, and loved for Christ’s sake. When we step inside that circle of honesty with Jesus, we actually become far more impressive than the best of this world. We radiate with the glory of Jesus.
The most important trait of a gospel-centered church is a culture of honesty before God and one another. Why? Because total honesty is the only way we grow. Only when we get honest with our sins and struggles will we find help and freedom and forgiveness. Don’t we all want that? Don’t we know deep down that we’re just not okay? If we’ll just admit that and come to Jesus, we will find in him a friend who understands. He is a faithful and merciful high priest in the service of God. He is for you even when you can’t be for yourself. He has covered your sins and failures by his blood. And all he’s asking us to do is walk out in his light, to trust him with all of our life, and to find cleansing by his blood.
It’s risky to live inside a gospel-centered church because it means we don’t set the rules. We can’t limit God. He can go to places in our heart that we’d be fine never entering. But what God wants for us is total renewal, and you can’t get there without him messing with you, opening you up, knocking you around a bit.
C.S. Lewis put it well.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
When we allow God inside, we become new people. We stop comparing ourselves to others. We love to make comparisons and come out on top, don’t we? But God says there is no distinction between us and others. God sees not as we see. Before God, we all stand condemned. God sees not how we compare to another sinner. God sees how we compare to him. And before that holy standard, we all fail.
We think comparison makes us winners. But in God’s eyes, it proves we’re losers because it proves we’re self-justifiers, unwilling to trust his justification by Christ. We’re using others to make us feel better, to give ourselves a boost. That kind of attitude—which we’re all prone to—is a red flag that we’re not trusting the gospel. We’re not taking our sin seriously. We take some sin seriously, but only those we don’t struggle with.
The Devil loves for us to live like that—comparing ourselves to others, always coming out ahead. If he can get us to do that, he can keep us far from God and the gospel. One way we can fail to be a gospel-centered church is by failing to take our personal sins seriously. We can preach the gospel, teach the gospel, share the gospel, but if we fail to take our personal sins seriously, bringing them to the throne of grace for forgiveness, we will say we have a gospel-centered church that even the Devil himself can love. We will say we trust Christ while avoiding him.
But if we get honest with ourselves and stay honest with ourselves about our real need, about our real sin, about our real problem of unrighteousness in our self, we have a chance at maintaining and cultivating a gospel-centered church. God loves a humble people. Ray Ortlund taught me that Isaiah 57:15 says God lives in two places: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” He’s way up high where we can’t go, and way down low where we can go. But he doesn’t live in the middle, where okayness is the status quo. A church filled with people who know they’re sinners is a place where God abides, where his gospel shines brighter than anything else. As pastor Tim Keller says, “The church is not a museum for pristine saints, but a hospital ward for broken sinners.”
Making ourselves feel better than others doesn’t free us. What frees us is letting Christ give us his righteousness. When God gathers a group of people and those people open their hearts before him and, by his grace, keep them open, nothing about anybody surprises us anymore. We realize we’re one before the cross of Christ—sinners in need of a savior, which leads to our third and final point.
Third, the gospel proclaims salvation in Christ alone, so we should too.
Let’s look again at our passage.
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Since there is no distinction in terms of sin, there is, therefore, no distinction in terms of salvation. We are saved through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. No one is higher. No one is lower. No one is more saved than another. In Christ, we’re equally saved through him.
How does this salvation occur? Paul uses three words to explain it: justification, redemption, and propitiation.
Justification is a courtroom metaphor. It means God has declared us righteous, forgiven, acquitted of our crimes against him for the sake of Christ, given freely by his grace. God justified us without cost to us and without anything in us that caused him to do it. God forgave us and set us right because he wanted to, not because we deserved it. Christ earned it for us.
Redemption is a word reaching far back into the Old Testament. It means a release from captivity, like what God did for Israel when he brought them out of Egypt. Our redemption is “in Christ Jesus.” We’re redeemed because God put us in Christ and carried us out of sin by his death and resurrection.
Propitiation is a great theological word. Tim Keller says it means “the Lord pays the debt to justice himself.” In other words, what we owe to God, God pays on our behalf in himself, in the person of his Son. God both offers the sacrifice and accepts the sacrifice. Christ’s death satisfies God’s wrath, meets his just requirements for sin, and offers the free gift of salvation to all who believe.
In sum, here’s the logic. All sinned and stood hopeless before God. But Jesus paid the penalty for those sins by his substitute’s death. Now, all who believe in his finished work are saved through him. This was the plan all along. Way back in Genesis, when Adam and Eve fell into sin, God promised to send a savior. That promise is reiterated throughout the Bible. That’s so important to see. God doesn’t ignore the sins of his people. He pays for them with Christ’s blood. God is both just and the justifier. He forgave sins in the past because Jesus was coming to set it all right. He’s utterly holy and also the one who provides the way to forgiveness in Christ. God doesn’t forgive by overlooking his law. He forgives by fulfilling it in Christ and offering his perfection for our imperfection. At the cross, Christ suffered what we deserved, in our place. There on the cross, God exchanged our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Our moral debt was paid in full and Christ’s perfect obedience was granted to us in full.
The gospel is simply this: God saves sinners. It’s all grace. Theologian P.T. Forsyth puts it well. “The prime doer in Christ’s cross was God. Christ was God reconciling. He was God doing the very best for man, and not man doing his very best for God.”
In verse 24, Paul calls this a gift. What do you do with a gift? Do you boast in it as if you purchased it yourself? No. What do you do? You rejoice in it. Think of a kid at Christmas, opening that one package that you can’t wait for him to open. He tears the paper and there it is in all it’s glory. His eyes grow big. His mouth falls open. He’s speechless. Slowly, he starts smiling as he realizes what’s just happened. He’s beholding the gift, then he starts rejoicing in it. He shows it off to everyone in the room as if they didn’t just see him open it. He can’t get over it. He’s floored.
That’s who we are when the salvation of Christ is given to us. We can’t believe it. All we have to do to maintain and cultivate a gospel-centered church is to never get over the fact that we’re saved. All we have to do is enjoy the gift. We proclaim what the gospel proclaims: Jesus Christ saved me, and he can save you too!
When the talk of our church is the salvation of God in Christ, we’re a gospel- centered church. When we recognize that we didn’t save ourselves and can’t save ourselves and we’re banking it all on God’s gospel, we place ourselves in the path of divine blessing. We are not on a self-salvation project plan. We’re fully saved right now in Christ. We’re just awaiting the final consummation of that on the great and final day when we stand before the Lord in glory. We’re here not to make ourselves better bit by bit through some sort of vague spirituality. We’re here to rejoice in our salvation in Christ and to offer that to as many as we can. All God’s asking us to do to be a gospel-centered church is simply to never get over the fact that we’re saved.
Let me close with this. The Reformation sprung from this kind of awe. Martin Luther never got over the fact that God saved him. Another guy, John Bunyan, never did either. He too felt the same sense of condemnation before God that Luther experienced. And he experienced the same freedom in the gospel. In his book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, he captures what it’s like in telling of the main character’s conversion.
Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came to a place somewhat ascending. And upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow and life by His death.” Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.
Can we not do that together? Can we not join Christian before the cross, awestruck by grace?
To be a gospel-centered church is really very easy. All it takes is watching our burden fall from our back and turning to God in wonder. If we will do that together, all our days, maybe the springs in our head will send the waters down our cheeks. Maybe others will come and stand by us and behold the same thing. Then we will see what only God can do.