The Righteous God Righteously Righteouses the Unrighteous1
In the margin of the Luther Bible, Martin Luther calls Romans 3:21–26 “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle [to the Romans], and of the whole Bible.” Leon Morris calls it “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”2 This paragraph has four sections (Rom. 3:21, 22–23, 24, 25–26).
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.
“But now” highlights that the righteousness of God has been revealed at this point in God’s multistage historical plan to save his people from their sins—the period that Jesus inaugurated with his death, resurrection, and ascension. This is happening apart from the now obsolete law covenant, and the Old Testament (“the Law and the Prophets”) prophetically testifies to this shift in salvation history.3
The righteousness of God is universally available without ethnic distinction. It is available only by trusting Jesus (“through faith in Jesus Christ”), and it is available for all who trust Jesus—whether Jews or Gentiles (“for all who believe,” Rom. 3:22). The Greek words translated “faith” and “believe” are linguistically related; “through faith [pisteōs] in Jesus Christ for all who believe [pisteuontas]” could read “through trust in Jesus Christ for all who trust” or “through belief in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
“For all who believe” emphasizes that the scope is universal. Why? Because “there is no distinction” (Rom. 3:22). That connects this paragraph with Romans 1:18–3:20: all are under sin; all are condemned; all need God’s righteousness; and all are savable. The righteousness of God is available for all people without any ethnic distinction. It is equally available to both Jews and Gentiles. Why? Because all people without exception sinned in Adam and are now sinners by nature and by choice (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). As a result, we all are lacking the glory-image of God.4 (Christians look forward to fully experiencing that glory. See Rom. 2:7, 10; 5:2; 8:18; 2 Thess. 2:14.)
The righteousness of God is both free and expensive. God declares believers righteous (1) “as a gift” (i.e., freely, neither earned nor purchased), (2) “by his grace” (i.e., by his undeserved kindness, not because believers are inherently better than others), and only (3) through the costly redemption Jesus purchased. The human means of justification is (God-given) faith; the divine means is redemption. God justifies sinners by uniting them with Christ (“in Christ Jesus”).
Redemption is a metaphor drawn from the world of commerce and slavery. Redemption in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts commonly referred to freedom from slavery after someone paid the price or ransom. In our case, we are enslaved to sin, and Jesus frees us from that slavery by paying the price—his death.5
The righteous God presented Jesus as a propitiation. In Romans 3:21–22, “the righteousness of God” is what God gives—God’s gift of a righteous status to sinful people. In Romans 3:25–26, it refers to what God is—God’s attribute of being righteous or just.
According to Romans 3:25–26, the most significant problem of evil is the cross. We typically think of “the problem of evil” as the logical tension in the following three statements: (1) God is all-powerful and all-wise; (2) God is all-good; and (3) evil exists. Some skeptics claim that all three cannot be true at the same time. Theologians must grapple with that challenging problem.6 But when we focus on the problem of evil from our limited human-centered perspective, we do not think about the greatest problem of evil from God’s perspective. The most outrageous evil in human history is the murder of Jesus. Do we feel a doctrinal tension in these three statements? (1) God is holy and just; (2) humans are sinners who offend God’s holiness and deserve his just wrath; and (3) God forgives and justifies sinners. How can that be? Yet most people do not feel any tension with those statements. They flippantly think, Of course that’s the way it is. God forgives people because that’s his job. Paul explains in Romans 3:25–26 how Jesus solves the ultimate problem of evil.7
“Propitiation” (Rom. 3:25) accurately translates the meaning of hilastērion, which refers to the place of atonement, “the mercy seat” (NET). The mercy seat for the old covenant is the gold plate that covered Israel’s ark of the covenant. It is where the high priest sprinkled blood each year on the Day of Atonement (cf. Heb. 9:5). Jesus is the mercy seat for the new covenant in the sense that he is the place where God accomplished the ultimate propitiation.8
God justifies sinners by uniting them with Christ.
In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, pagans would offer sacrifices to their gods to make the gods propitious or favorable. Their sacrifices were propitiations. But that parallel breaks down when we apply it to Jesus’s propitiation that made God the Father propitious, because God the Father himself sends Jesus, God the Son, to make the propitiation. Propitiation is the only biblical term related to God’s saving us for which God is both the subject and object. That is, God is the one who propitiates (i.e., he is the subject doing the propitiation), and God is the one who is propitiated (i.e., he is the object receiving the propitiation). God the Son is the propitiation, and God the Father is the propitiated. Jesus’s sacrificial death is the means (“by his blood,” Rom. 3:25) that propitiates the Father—that is, Jesus turns God’s wrath against us into favor. Hilastērion does not mean merely expiation (i.e., removing or wiping away sin) but propitiation, which includes expiation plus satisfying or appeasing God’s righteous wrath and turning it into favor.9
Propitiation is “accessible through faith” alone (Rom. 3:25 NET).
God presented Jesus as a propitiation for two purposes:
Purpose 1: to demonstrate that God was righteous for leaving the sins committed before the cross unpunished (Rom. 3:25). How does God’s forbearance in passing over former sins show his righteousness? Old Testament sacrifices were valid in God’s mind based on Christ’s future sacrifice. It is like how you buy an item on credit. When my vehicle needs more gas, I stop at a gas station and refuel. Rather than walking into the store to pay, I conveniently enter my credit card in a machine at the pump and fill up my gas tank. I do not pay any cash, but I still get the gas. How? I get the gas on credit. Within a month of filling up my tank, I receive a bill with the account payable to the credit card company. That is when I pay for what I borrowed on credit. That illustrates how God saved Old Testament believers on credit. Just like I enter my credit card in a machine, they offered sacrifices to God in faith. Just like I get the gas, they received genuine forgiveness of sin. Just like I receive a bill for the gas and pay it, Christ received their bill and paid their sin debt in full at the cross. Christ died publicly to demonstrate God’s righteousness in saving Old Testament believers on credit.
Purpose 2: to demonstrate that God is righteous to declare that believing sinners are righteous (Rom. 3:26). Several years ago, I was talking to a relative who had just informed me that he no longer professed to be a Christian. One reason he gave for not embracing Christianity is that he thinks the doctrine of justification is immoral. I asked him if this illustration is what he means: The gospel is like a judge who has a guilty person before him at the bar, and the judge pronounces the sentence. Then the judge steps back from the bench, takes off his robes, and goes down and takes the guilty person’s place in prison or pays the fine. My relative said yes—that is the concept he finds immoral. Then I surprised him by explaining why I agree the illustration is faulty.10 That illustration is not entirely wrong because it illustrates that Jesus substitutes for sinners. But it is misleading because in Western judicial systems, the judge must neutrally administer the law. The guilty person’s offense is not against the judge. If the guilty person is guilty for harming the judge, then the judge must recuse himself from the case. Judges excuse themselves from a case because a possible conflict of interest calls into question their ability to judge impartially. The judge is not supposed to be the offended party. Criminals offend the state or the law or the republic or the crown—not the neutral judge. But not so with God. God is both the judge and the most offended party when people sin. He never recuses himself, and he is always just. The reason he can justly pronounce believing sinners to be innocent is that Jesus propitiates his righteous wrath. Justice is served.
- See especially D. A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21–26,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives; Essays in Honor of Roger R. Nicole, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 119–39.
- Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.
- A form-based translation of the end of Romans 3:21 is “being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,” which the ESV renders “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” Since Paul is arguing that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the righteousness of God being manifested, I prefer a rendering such as “to which the Law and the Prophets bear witness” (cf. NIV, CSB, NET, NLT).
- See Dane C. Ortlund, “What Does It Mean to Fall Short of the Glory of God? Romans 3:23 in Biblical-Theological Perspective,” Westminster Theological Journal 80, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 121–40. Ortlund concludes, “Romans 3:23 is the bottom-line explanation for why we pack stadiums for football games, pay thousands of dollars for liposuction, and meet with psychologists to plumb the depths of the haunting sense of shame we feel. We lack glory, and we know it. At every turn in everyday life we see evidence of the truth that we know, deep within, that we have lost our true glory, our real selves. We feel keenly our sense of alienation from who we were destined to be. We seek to fill that void any way we can, even vicariously through enjoying the glory of others. The message of the gospel, from the perspective of this article, is that in Christ, our glory is given back to us” (139).
- 6 D. A. Carson explains, “The way it normally worked was like this: the redeemer paid the price money for the slave to a pagan temple plus a small cut for the temple priests (and how small a cut was variable!). Then the temple paid the price money to the owner of the slave, and the slave was then transferred to the ownership of this temple’s god. Thus, the slave was redeemed from the slavery to the slave owner, in order to become a slave to the god. Of course, if you are a slave to a pagan god, that basically means that you are free and can do anything you want. It was in part a legal fiction in order to say that the person does not lose his slave status but nevertheless is freed from slavery in the human sphere because the price has been paid. The man has now been redeemed. Paul picks up that language and says that Christians have been redeemed from slavery to sin, but as a result of this, they have become slaves of Jesus Christ (see Romans 6).” D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 59.
- See D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); D. A. Carson, “Biblical-Theological Pillars Needed to Support Faithful Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” Trinity Journal N.S. 38, no. 1 (2017): 55–77; John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004); Feinberg, Where Is God? A Personal Story of Finding God in Grief and Suffering (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004); Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013); Stephen J. Wellum, “God’s Sovereignty over Evil,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, ed. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2012), 231–68.
- Content in this paragraph updates Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 304.
- See Daniel P. Bailey, “Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1999).
- Contra C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (London: Collins, 1932), 54–55. Leon Morris soundly refutes Dodd: Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 144–213.
- The rest of this paragraph paraphrases Carson, Scandalous, 65–66.
This article is adapted from Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written by Andrew David Naselli.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is relatively short (it takes about sixty minutes to read aloud), and it is profound. It explains and exults in and applies the greatest news we could hear.
Romans explains the saving work of Jesus reported in the Gospels, and unpacks many of the teachings that were foundational to the churches that arose in Acts.
There is a particular call to faith in Christ through the call of the gospel. Both God’s gifts and his calling of Jews to faith in Christ remain in force and will not be revoked.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the gospel, the NT often adopts essential concepts/words from the OT, particularly the Greek version.