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Author:Rev. Jeremy Segstro
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Congregation:Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church
 Surrey, BC
Title:The Greatest Sermon Ever Written: The Solution: Faith!
Text:Romans 3:21-30 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: Romans 3

Text: Romans 3:21-30



  1. It's Not The Law, But Righteousness

  2. It's Not The Law, But Faith


  1. Psalm 103: 1, 2

  2. Psalm 36: 1-3

  3. Hymn 70: 1, 2, 4

  4. Hymn 1

  5. Psalm 98: 1, 2

  6. Hymn 28: 1, 4, 5, 7


Words to Listen For: curriculum, ears, slavish, ESV, universe


Questions for Understanding:

  1. What 3 word Latin theatrical phrase is key to our salvation?  Why?

  2. Why is Paul so focused on the law?  Is that important to us today too?

  3. What 3 technical terms come together to bring about righteousness?

  4. What is the amazing Old Testament background of “propitiation” ?

  5. Is faith easy or hard? (hint: this might be a trick question)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ our Lord,

I’m not sure how much you know about theatre productions in Ancient Roman society.  Maybe it begins and ends with what you heard last time - that “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word for actor, meaning “mask-wearer.”

But there’s another important element of Roman theatre that fits perfectly with our text this afternoon.

This is the concept of “DEUS EX MACHINA.”  This is a plot point in both Greek and Roman theatre when the playwright has written himself into a corner.  The evil is so strong, the hero has become so weakened, there’s no possible way for him to emerge victorious.

And suddenly - DEUS EX MACHINA!  Literally: God from the machine.  A “god” would be lowered onto the stage, descending from “heaven” by use of ropes and pulleys and immediately solve everything.  The evil would be defeated, the hero would be strengthened and rewarded for his battle.

This started being used as the ending to nearly every single play, because it was the easiest way to end the story.  Whenever there’s a problem - a god will solve it.

And so Horace, an ancient poet and critic of the theatre wrote the following.  He said: “Do not bring a god on to the stage unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it.”

Essentially - don’t overuse it.  If the hero can struggle to the end by himself and defeat the great evil, then this is the best way to do it.  This is the most satisfying for the audience.

And how does this relate, you might ask?  How does this discussion of playwrights and Roman poets actually fit with Romans chapter 3?

Well because our salvation is literally a Deus Ex Machina.  Our salvation, the solution to our most desperate problem is God descending from heaven.

Jesus Christ coming down, putting forward a propitiation by His blood, showing God’s righteousness.  Showing God’s love.

And this would be a solution that would fit Horace’s critique: Do not bring a god on to the stage unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it.

This was THE ONLY WAY.  The Apostle Paul has spent the last 3 chapters, and we have spent the last 3 sermons showing just how desperate our situation was.  The fearsome righteous wrath of God.  Our utter inability to solve the problem ourselves.  We needed someone else to step in.  We needed God to literally descend, defeat our enemy, and shower us with blessings.

And this is exactly what He did!  What an amazing salvation.  And the good news is that it is ours for the taking!

This is 

THE SOLUTION: It is through FAITH! that we are saved!  We will see the Apostle destroy the final argument remaining:

  1. It's Not The Law, But Righteousness

  2. It's Not The Law, But Faith


THE SOLUTION: FAITH!  It’s not the Law, but Righteousness

You may ask yourself, “why is Paul speaking SO MUCH about the LAW?”

Why doesn’t He just teach the truth of the gospel instead of going through all of the false ideas?  After all, when we teach math in school, we teach 2+2=4.  That’s pretty much the beginning and the end of it.  We don’t take time to explain why 2+2 does not equal 5 or 6.  Because there are an INFINITE NUMBER of wrong answers.  Going back to the realm of theology…there are an INFINITE NUMBER of false Saviours.  An INFINITE NUMBER of false solutions.  So why is Paul so hung up on this one?

Well, as any teacher will tell you, the initial plan is always to just teach the truth.  That’s the “hoped-for curriculum.” 

As any preacher will tell you, the initial plan is to always just preach the gospel.  That’s the “hoped for preaching schedule.”


Then the teacher encounters the students.

The the preacher encounters the congregation.

And things sometimes take a left turn.

Because nobody comes to school as a blank slate.

Nobody comes to church with ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA OF ANYTHING about God.

The list of what students and congregants think they know might be very short, but it DOES EXIST.

And that is what the Apostle Paul is coming into when he writes this letter to the Roman church.

Because the Roman church was filled with both Jews and Gentiles.  The Jews, Paul has to address according to the Law.  This is how they were raised.  Strict observance to the Law bring salvation.

To the Gentiles, Paul has to address with open arms, because they were raised as despised and rejected by the Jews, as those who would always be second-class citizens, even if they became Jews through circumcision and strict observance of the Law.

And so we see that the groundwork that this church had received, for sure in the mind of the Jews, and then also for the Gentiles who had been half-heartedly welcomed in…was, in a word: LAW.

It’s ALL ABOUT THE LAW.  This is the solution to our sin.  Pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, just TRY HARDER.

God says no working on the Sabbath…but I slipped into working.  So…more laws!  Let’s define work AS BROADLY AS WE CAN.  So it’s work to pick the heads of grain.  It’s work to heal.  It’s work to walk more than 1 kilometer.  If we can just hedge ourselves in with more laws…then we will be perfect and righteous, and God will love us.

This is how the Pharisees came about.  During the time of the exile into Babylon, a group of very well-meaning Jews gathered together and reasoned: the exile is because of our sin, we have to achieve a certain level of ceremonial holiness so as not to anger God.  Let’s make sure we NEVER SIN AGAIN.  And the Pharisees were born.

And I wish I could say that this was just a problem for the Pharisees.  Just a problem for the Roman church.  Just a first century problem.  But aren’t we the same?

When we hear the 10 commandments read each Sunday morning, if we are actually listening to them being read, how many times do we hear a commandment and think “I failed at that this past week…but THIS WEEK, I will redouble my efforts.  This week I will try harder.  This week I will do whatever I can to perfectly keep this law so I don’t have to feel this guilt next week when the law is read.”

Maybe it’s not any of you, but it is me.  Some of the time.  A lot of the time.

Despite the Apostle Paul and all the other human authors of the New Testament proclaiming the centrality of FAITH.  The foundation of GRACE to salvation…we forget.

Despite the Reformation bringing back “Faith alone” “Grace alone” “Christ alone” … so many of us are, to borrow a phrase from one of my seminary professors: “closet Roman Catholics.”

“God, please don’t return today, I was so sinful.  Maybe return tomorrow when I’ve done a better job of earning your love through my good works.”

But no!  The Apostle Paul rightly rejects this.  He focuses our eyes where they are supposed to go: squarely on Jesus Christ Himself.



Oh yes.  This is what we’re looking for.  It’s been wrath and doom and gloom from chapter 1:18 until now.

In the context that we read, just previous to this in Romans 3, we see 14 indictments against all of mankind.  We are in the courtroom again.  Paul the prosecutor is laying out the case against us.

14 accusations.

And notice what is repeated there.

4 times “none” or “no-one”

  • None is righteous

  • No one understands

  • No one seeks for God

  • No one does good


And 3 times “all”

  • all are under sin

  • all have turned aside

  • all the world (or “the whole world”) may be held accountable to God


Who is righteous?

None.  None.  None.  None.


Who is guilty?

All.  All.  All.


Where’s the good news?

Well it’s RIGHT HERE!


BUT NOW!  Here’s something different.  Keep your ears open!

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.


Wow.  There’s a lot there.  Let’s unpack it.

But now!

Different from before.  Different from what Paul had been preaching.  We have moved from the WRATH to the RIGHTEOUSNESS.  And through RIGHTEOUSNESS, REDEMPTION.  Remember?  The 3 r’s of salvation.

Different from what the Jewish believers had been raised with

Different from what the Gentile converts had been told

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.

Paul wants to be clear that though there is a change, there is a shift, from traditional Judaism to Christianity, even though God has done something BRAND NEW, NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN with His “Deus Ex Machina” … it wasn’t a contradiction of what came before.  This is righteousness APART from the Law, but not CONTRARY to the Law.  This is where it was always going.  Already from the Garden of Eden.

This was the plan from before the beginning, revealed at JUST THE RIGHT TIME.

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.

You see, Jews…

You see, Gentiles…

You see, _________ (congregation's name)…

It’s not about YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS at all.  It’s about GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Your righteousness can’t earn you salvation.  The only thing that your righteousness, by your slavish adherence to the Law will get you is eternal damnation.

Let me say that again so that no-one misses it.

Your righteousness can’t earn you salvation.  The only thing that your righteousness can earn you is eternal damnation.

We need something better.  We need a “Deus Ex Machina” - God Himself coming down to the stage of this earth and bringing with Him the answer.  The solution.

Would it be a more satisfying story if we could do it ourselves?  MAYBE.  But that’s not the option in front of us.

Either God comes down to save us…or evil wins the day.

These are the two options before us, and thanks be to God that it’s the first one and our Saviour came down.


The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And what does this process look like?


Verses 24 and 25 spell this out for us in an amazingly beautiful way.

For all have sinned…

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

We see in these verses 3 technical terms.  These are technical terms that we should have clear in our minds - not so that we can be smarter THEOLOGICALLY, that’s not the end goal of Paul here, not the end goal of any minister of the Word - but rather that we can have our hearts filled with a greater love for God.  A greater admiration for Him, a greater awe and wonder over what He has done for us

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are JUSTIFIED by His grace as a gift.

This is our first word.  Justification.

What does this mean?

Justification is a legal term.  We have, once more, entered into the divine courtroom.

Justification is a legal pronouncement.  A verdict.

Justification is when the Judge says: “Defendent, my verdict is that I find you righteous.”

And the courtroom is abuzz.  After all this evidence, the defendant is RIGHTEOUS?  What about those 14 accusations?

Justification, you see, is a bit of a problem.  Because it is an act that DECLARES US to be righteous, not an act that MAKES US RIGHTEOUS.  Or, put another way, it is not a change of STATE, but a change of STANDING.

Justification changes nothing about our soul, but everything about our relationship with God.

So…how does this work?  Surely justification is UNJUST.  It is the mark of a corrupt judge to declare a guilty man to be innocent.  And not just innocent, but RIGHTEOUS!

And if justification was the whole of salvation, you would be right.

But the text goes on.

All have sinned…

And are justified by His grace as a gift, through the REDEMPTION that is in Christ Jesus.

Redemption is our next word here.  If justification is righteousness DECLARED, then redemption is righteousness ENACTED.

This is a word that takes us from the courtroom into the slave auction.

To redeem someone is to pay a price.  To redeem someone is to pay the cost for their freedom and to then release them.  To loose their bonds and set them free.

Through Christ, a price has been paid.  The wages of sin is death…and Jesus died.  On that cross, Jesus paid our price and has set us free from sin and death, the power of the devil.  He died, that we might live.

We are REDEEMED.  Ransomed.  Brought into the freedom of being children of God!

And still…even in our rejoicing, even with our mouths filled with laughter, our brow is wrinkled in confusion.

We are sinners…DECLARED RIGHTEOUS, enjoying the result of being declared righteous…but that declaration is a lie!  We aren’t righteous.  We are still sinners.  Nothing has happened in us.  How is this judge JUST?

And that is where our third word comes in.  A beautiful word.  A wonderful word.  A key word.

All have sinned…

And are JUSTIFIED (declared righteous) by His grace as a gift,

through the REDEMPTION (righteousness enacted) that is in Christ Jesus, 

Whom God put forward as a PROPITIATION by His blood.

There it is.


Propitiation.  It’s a hard word.  It’s a rare word.  Most Bible translations now have gone away from it.  But we’re going to stick it out with the ESV, and I promise you, it’s worth it.

The word Paul uses here has a long Old Testament history, and so Jewish readers would instantly know what imagery he is drawing on.

Let’s put ourselves in the position of those Jewish readers.  Turn with me now to Exodus 25.

Exodus 25, we will read starting from verse 17

“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth.  And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.  Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends.  The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.  And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.  There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.

The word for propitiation is the same word as for MERCY SEAT.

And you may think: “so what?  Why is this important?  Why is he saying it with awe and wonder in his voice?”

Let me tell you.

Due to Adam and Eve’s sin, mankind could not walk and talk with God face to face, in the cool of the day.

Due to Israel’s sin, the people could not even approach God themselves, but rather they had to be represented to God by the high priest, before the mercy seat.

God said, “I’ll only meet with you at one place.  On the mercy seat.  The only time I will have fellowship with you is when you sprinkle blood on the mercy seat.  When you do, I will meet with you there.  I will speak with you there and only there.”

And now, what does Paul do?  What does Paul say?

He applies this to Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the only way that God meets with us.  Jesus Christ is our mercy seat.  The blood of Christ is sprinkled upon us, and we can approach Him.

If you want to meet with God, you have to go to His mercy seat.  And His mercy seat is Jesus.

It is the propitiation that actually accomplishes righteousness.  It is there, theologically on the mercy seat, historically on the cross, that our sins were actually punished.  It’s not in the courtroom when we are declared righteous.

It’s not in the slave market when our shackles come off our wrists…but it is on the cross that this ACTUALLY HAPPENS.  Propitiation has been described as the turning away of wrath….but it’s more that that.

We should not think that God is DISTRACTED by the cross, and turns His head towards Christ and just forgets about us.  Not at all.

It’s not a turning away of wrath, it’s a POURING OUT of wrath but on someone else.  It was on the cross where all that righteous wrath of God was poured out.  It was on the cross where the perfect obedience of Christ was swapped for our complete DISOBEDIENCE.  For our unrighteous rebellion.  The great exchange.

And so, ON THE BASIS OF WHAT HAPPENED ON THE CROSS, we can be declared righteous in the courtroom, and we can breath the free air once again in the slave market.

How great is our God!  To accomplish this salvation for us.  How great is our God to offer us all of this.  To bring us from death to life. To take an enemy, rabid and frothing at the mouth due to the infection of sin, and to respond in LOVE.  To look on us and say “This will not stand.  Not only will I conquer the sin, not only will I defeat the sinner…but I will be MORE than a conqueror.  I will turn my enemy into my friend.  I will turn this sinner into my son and welcome him into my family.”

This is the righteousness of God.  And it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Let’s go through it once more.  From our beginning to our ending in Him.

Verse 23 - 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.

All of this, all of these eternal glorious riches:

  • the removal of guilt and shame,

  • being set free from our enemies - the devil, the world, and our own flesh

  • Being given status as heir to the universe

  • Being welcomed in as darling children into the household of God


All of these are ours, Paul says, THROUGH FAITH.  Our final point.

It is all grace - the free gift of God, the glorious riches of Jesus Christ

And it is all through faith.

We spent so long on the grace, so long on that righteousness of God…and I make no apologies, this is exactly how it should be done.

Faith, as beautiful and wonderful and glorious a thing as it is, cannot hold a candle to grace.

We are meant to take time to bask, to bathe, to completely immerse ourselves in the grace.

We are meant to look at justification and say - “THANK YOU GOD for your courtroom declaration.  I am overwhelmed.”

We are meant to look at redemption and say - “THANK YOU GOD for seeing me in that slave market, and, even though there was nothing lovable in me, setting me free, taking off my chains, dressing me in the royal robes of your house.  I am overwhelmed.”

And we are meant to look at propitiation and say - “THANK YOU GOD for loving me so much that you would send your Son to suffer unimaginable pain, misery, abandonment, darkness, and death…to make this wretch your treasure.  I am overwhelmed.”

And it is only then, that we turn our attention to faith.

Because faith, faith you see, only has power, faith only has worth, based on what it is connected to.

Faith in yourself, faith in a false god, faith in an earthly power…this kind of faith does not save.  This kind of faith cannot save.  This faith is useless and dangerous, and will bring only condemnation upon your head.

But faith in the One True God, faith in Jesus Christ, faith in the gospel of justification…this is beautiful and wonderful and glorious.

Faith you see…isn’t complicated.

Faith, you could say is simply a set of open hands.  Open hands ready to receive anything and everything from our heavenly Father.

Faith is trusting in the truth of Romans 3.

  • Believing and trusting the bad news that “none is righteous, no not one.”

  • Believing and trusting that the Law cannot save

  • Believing and trusting that we need the righteousness of God, not our own righteousness.

  • Believing and trusting that the Deus Ex Machina of Jesus Christ is our only hope.

  • Believing and trusting that our God DID COME DOWN and that a declaration did happen at my trial.  That a redemption did happen in my slave market.  That a man did bleed and die for MY SINS on the cross.

It’s so easy and yet so difficult.

On the one hand, faith is the easiest thing in the world.  Faith doesn’t require extraordinary strength.  Not only the strong are saved.  Faith doesn’t require extraordinary beauty.  Not only the attractive are saved.  Faith doesn’t require extraordinary intelligence.  Not only the smart are saved.  Not at all.

On that final day, no one can say that the way of salvation was TOO HARD for them.  All you have to do is to become like a child and believe what your Father says.  All you have to do is trust Him.  Lean on Him, rest securely in His embrace.

How hard is it really to accept a free gift?  How hard is it to love the one who died for you?

Nothing could be easier.


And yet.


Oh and yet.  It’s also SO HARD.


What does faith require?  Something harder than strength, beauty, or intelligence.

If I want to get stronger, I can go lift weights.  If I want to become more beautiful, I can suck out the extra fat with liposuction, I can blast away the forehead wrinkles with botox, I can get rid of the glasses with laser eye surgery.  If I want to be more intelligent, I can go to university and get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate.

But what does FAITH require?  It requires HUMILITY.  It requires us to get on our knees before the cross and admit “I can’t do it on my own.  I just can’t.  I’m wounded.  I’m weak.  And I’m so very scared.  Please meet me in my darkness and bring your light.  Please meet me in my brokenness and bring your healing.”

Faith requires us to go beyond ourselves, to deny ourselves, to reject ourselves and say instead, “I’M with HIM.  I’m with the man who came down from heaven to save me.  I have no other hope.  He is mine and I am His.  I will rest in His embrace.”

And on that day, when we’ve given up our pride and kneel at the foot of the cross, clinging to it with all our might, with the blood of Christ anointing our head, our hands, and our feet, we will feel the divine hand of the Father lifting us up, crowning us with His eternal glory, welcoming us into His household, saying: enjoy my eternal life, enjoy my eternal love  It is yours.  Forever.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Jeremy Segstro

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