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What Does it Mean to be Justified? A Brief Exposition of Romans 3.21-26, Part 1

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I believe that Romans 3.21-26 stands as one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. Leon Morris calls this passage “possibly the single most important paragraph ever written.” Its shortness is hardly an indication of its value, any more than the brevity of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels truncate the importance of that truth!

In 1.18 through 3.20, Paul got us lost. He first showed that the gentiles were lost. Then he showed that the Jews were lost. “No one does good, not even one.” “No one seeks God, not even one.” All of us are dead because of sin. That is the devastating reality of our spiritual condition before God. Now Paul tells us the good news!

But before he can, he must wrestle with a dilemma: because we are utterly sinful and because God is utterly holy, how is it possible for us to get saved, for us to ever stand in God’s presence without being condemned? The answer to this question is the heart of Romans and is found in 3.21-26.

3.21—“ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—”

To Paul, the cross is the central point in all of human history: everything up to the moment of Christ’s death pointed to it, and everything after that moment points back to it. Paul begins with “but now,” an adversative phrase that splits time into BC and AD.

When he speaks of the “righteousness of God” he repeats a phrase he used in 1.17. I take it that it is at least a righteousness which comes from God--that is, an imputed righteousness. If so, ‘apart from the law’ would most naturally belong with this: there is a righteousness which comes from God that cannot be obtained through the law. At the same time, this righteousness is attested by the law. The Greek here probably means something like, “the apart-from-the-law righteousness of God nevertheless is attested by the law.”

When Paul adds ‘and the prophets,’ he is showing that this righteousness in no way abandons or violates the Old Testament—it is even attested by the OT! (This is what ‘the law and the prophets’ means; it was a common way to indicate ‘the whole OT.’) Paul is saying that there is continuity between the OT and the NT. God’s righteousness is now disclosed in the cross, yet this righteousness is not foreign to the OT though it was inaccessible through the law. Paul is concerned that his readers understand that he is not preaching a gospel that contradicts the OT! His gospel fulfills it; it does not destroy it.

Paul concludes this verse by saying that this righteousness ‘has been disclosed.’ The verb used here is used only two other times in Romans (1.19; 16.26). In both places it carries some theological weight, related to God’s revelation. The earlier reference is 1.19: “because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” There is a general revelation of God in nature, which is sufficient to condemn people. But there is a special revelation of God in the Bible, which points to salvation. Paul was speaking about general revelation in 1.19, about special revelation in 3.21.

In his opening volley about justification in just v 21, Paul gives us rich insights into how God’s justice works. It is attested by the Old Testament, though it cannot fully be found there. The OT prophets longed for the age of the Messiah, for a time when God’s righteousness would be amply manifested on earth. But they didn’t know that it would come through his own sacrificial death.

3.22—“For there is no distinction…”

Paul now defines this righteousness (‘namely’). He repeats the phrase ‘righteousness of God’ but this time qualifies it with a prepositional phrase.

“through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”—This is the rendering of the NET Bible (taking the genitive as subjective). Almost all other modern English translations have ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ (taking the genitive as objective). The KJV has ‘faith of Jesus Christ,’ which may be closer to the NET’s rendering (or it may be an indecisive rendering because the translation committee was split!)1. At bottom, both sides would regard the object of our faith to be Christ. But those who consider ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ as the meaning here also see something else in this text: the focus here is on what Christ accomplished more than on what we must do to be saved. Further, if this verse refers to Christ’s faithfulness, then it implicitly affirms the fundamental point that Paul is articulating: God’s righteousness that is now revealed in no way contradicts or destroys the OT! Rather, it fulfills it in that Christ is the one who fulfills all the law’s requirements, rendering them no longer authoritative over our lives. We please God by a different standard altogether.

“for all who believe”—this line is plainly speaking of everyone who puts his or her faith in Christ. The force seems to be that such people have the faithfulness of Christ applied to their account. But our faith is only as good as the object of that faith. Since Christ is faithful, he is worthy of our faith. By treating the previous phrase as “the faithfulness of Christ,” we are seeing Paul’s emphasis as christocentric rather than anthropocentric. A major implication: it’s not so much how much you believe that gets you saved, but whom you trust in.

for there is no distinction”This is a great Pauline refrain. He uses it also in Rom 10.12 to show that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Basically, Paul is saying that the rules are the same for Jews and Gentiles alike: both groups are sinners and both gain access to heaven through faith in Jesus Christ.

3.23—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Paul has just defined the “all” in v 22: “all who believe.” The same ‘all’ are most likely in view here too. Perhaps the reason that most interpreters see the groups as different is that Paul does not qualify the ‘all’ in v. 23, while he qualifies it in v. 22 (‘all who believe’). Thus, two different ‘alls’ seem to be in view. However, it is typical of Paul and of Greek in general not to define the ‘all’ in the second mention. Greek is a more economical language than English and as such it does not need to repeat words and phrases as much as English does. As for Paul, his style is often to establish the meaning of the group in the first sentence, then simply keep the discussion with the ‘all’ for the rest.

Verse 24 starts off with a participle in Greek; it is not a new sentence but is rather a subordinate clause to the preceding. The NET Bible makes it start a new sentence but only because of the length and complexity of the Greek.) The implication? Those who are justified freely (v. 24) are the ‘all’ of v. 23. If the ‘all’ are all sinners, then everyone is justified. Salvation is universal, regardless of what one believes. But this view stands in direct contradiction with the testimony of the NT: ‘there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved’; more specifically, Rom 3.22—’the righteousness of God comes… to all who believe.’ When Paul prays for his fellow Jews in Rom 9, he wishes that he could be sent to hell if that would save but one of them! Why would this even be contemplated if everyone is saved?

Now, an important implication of all this is the following: although Paul is restricting the ‘all’ in v 23 to believers, this is certainly a verse that we can use when sharing the gospel. Why? Because Paul earlier declared that everyone was a sinner; here he declares that all believers are still sinners. If a person wants to get saved, he or she must first admit that they are sinners. So, in significance, this verse is applicable to all people, though in meaning it relates only to believers.

Paul then switches between the aorist (past) tense and the present tense: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This tense change is significant. It indicates that although all believers have sinned, we still fail to reach God through our own righteousness. We are still totally depraved sinners! ‘All have sinned and still continue to fall short.’ How is such a motley crew to be saved?

That topic we will take up next time. Suffice it to say here that Paul’s overarching purpose in Romans, I believe, is to vindicate God’s righteousness. He will deal with that issue in the following verses more explicitly. If we understand Paul’s intent on this, I think it will become easier for us to see what justification by faith is all about.

1 “The faith of Jesus Christ” really is a poor translation because it doesn’t communicate anything. Sometimes the ambiguity of the Greek must be translated or else the English is nonsensical.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification, Textual Criticism