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What Does it Mean to be Justified? A Brief Exposition of Romans 3.21-26, Part 2

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Paul concluded the first half of this pericope by stating that we have all sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory. As I argued in Part 1, I believe that Paul is restricting his referent to believers in v. 23. The question we concluded with last time was, How are we—whose past lives are summarized by sin and whose present lives are still mired in it—to be saved? Paul answers this in v. 24.

3.24—“being freely justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

James Edwards, in his commentary on Romans in the New International Biblical Commentary, sums up the significance of this text: “In all Scripture there is probably no verse which captures the essence of Christianity better than this one.… Everything in verse 23 was due to humanity; everything in verse 24 depends on God.”1

The first two words in Greek are best translated, ‘being freely justified’ or ‘although they are freely justified.’ The most natural way to read this text is to see the ‘all’ of v. 23 as the all who are justified. But this means either that the ‘all’ are everyone, leading to universal salvation, or the ‘all’ are believers, and v. 24 is already pre-restricted in its application. Most exegetes prefer the former view, but I suspect that this is largely due to a lack of wrestling with the force of all and how it relates to v. 22 (see comments in Part 1 of this exposition).

What does it mean to be justified? Roman Catholics and Protestants are divided over this issue. Catholicism generally regards justification to mean imparted righteousness while Protestants generally take it to mean imputed righteousness. The difference is important: if imparted, then God makes us righteous. If imputed, then God declares us to be righteous. If imparted, then there is no assurance of salvation since God does not make us righteous immediately. If imputed, there is indeed assurance of salvation since the legal declaration of our righteousness is the divine statement about our status, not about our practice. Lest we think, however, that the Reformed view is automatically correct, we would do well to pause and wrestle with the history of interpretation of this passage. As far as I am aware, it was not until the Reformation that anyone in church history—from the second century on—viewed justification as imputed righteousness. Even Augustine, whom Protestants look to almost as a Luther before Luther, did not hold to this forensic view of justification.

At the same time, I align myself strongly with the Reformed Protestant tradition on this. If our exegesis up to this point is correct, then to ‘justify’ almost surely means ‘to declare righteous.’ Here’s why: The ‘all who believe’ (22) are also the all who have sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God (23). And those who fall short are also those who are justified—while they are falling short! This can only mean that God declares us righteous before him. If it meant that he makes us righteous, Paul surely would not have used the present tense to say that we are falling short. The present tense in v. 23 (‘fall short’) indicates that we are sinning simultaneously with being justified.

The language of v. 24 also indicates this: ‘freely,’ ‘by his grace,’ and ‘redemption.’ Now although ‘freely’ and ‘by his grace’ could refer to God changing us, making us better, by his grace, ‘redemption’ cannot. That is a word that comes from the slave market: when a person was redeemed, he was set free from his slavery. If I set a slave free, I don’t change his character. I change his status. The language of v. 24 speaks eloquently of this fact! If Paul had meant that God makes us righteous, he surely would have said something like ‘being justified… through the energizing of God in your lives.’

This is one of the most precious truths in all of scripture. When we are saved, God first and foremost changes our status. He looks at the shed blood of Christ and regards his death as the perfect work, the perfect sacrifice, that covered all of our sins—past, present, and future. We are justified—to use Paul’s language—even while we are sinners, even while we are continually falling short of God’s glory. In other words, our salvation does not depend on our works. There is no work we can do to get ourselves saved and no work we can do to keep ourselves saved. We are declared righteous before God our judge because Christ has paid the price for our sin. It’s that simple.

I would regard Rom 3.24 as a great clarification on what the gospel means in terms of God’s justice. Much of the New Testament speaks of our organic connection to Christ. Paul, in fact, coined the key phrase that expresses this: ‘in Christ.’ That is how salvation is almost exclusively viewed by many: we are in Christ and he is in us. It is certainly a true and good picture of salvation, but it’s not the only picture. The problem, of course, is that some branches of the Christian faith (namely, Catholics and Orthodox) put such a focus on the organic that they forget about the forensic. The difficulty this creates is that how one gets ‘in’ is often a bit muddled. On the other hand, Protestants historically have put such an emphasis on the forensic that they forget about the organic. Thus, our communion with Christ is often neglected. This is especially seen in how Protestants observe the Lord’s Table (namely, infrequently!). And only within Protestantism is there the notion that the Eucharist is just a memorial, devoid of bringing real grace to the individual.

Paul focuses in chapters 3 and 4 on the forensic side of salvation. In chapter 5, he will begin to switch to the organic. When he gets into sanctification full steam, our organic connection to Christ is what drives his theology. It is a tragic thing that today the body of Christ is fractured over this very issue. But for Paul, forensics and organics, though distinct, were inseparable.

3.25— “God publicly displayed him at his death accessible through faith. (NET).

The word translated ‘mercy seat’ is ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion). Most versions render it ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation.’ ‘Propitiation’ would mean ‘an act of placating God’s wrath,’ while ‘expiation’ would soften the notion of God’s wrath but would still refer to an act of atonement. The NET Bible has been influenced by a doctoral thesis done at Cambridge University by Daniel P. Bailey (1999: “Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25”). The author argued that both ‘propitiation’ and ‘expiation’ are improper translations here. Bailey notes that “a ἱλαστήριον is always a thing—never an idea or an action or an animal.” 2 The language is metaphorical, but it moves in one direction: Christ is not the literal mercy seat of course, but represents it. And the mercy seat was where man met God once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Bailey convincingly argued that hilasterion here means mercy seat rather than ‘propitiation.’

Why was this publicly displayed? The imagery says what the Gospels say: the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom, revealing that access to God is now available to all (cf. Mark 15.38). In Christ all have free access to God. And since all of us come to the mercy seat directly, there is no longer any need for priests.

“for a demonstration of his righteousness.” Paul is still concerned about God’s righteousness throughout this whole section. Here he is indicating that the death of Christ is the fulfillment, in type, of the Old Testament. He is the perfect sacrifice that Yom Kippur looked forward to.

“because of the overlooking of sins previously committed.” Rather than the cross and Paul’s gospel being a lowering of the holiness of God, it establishes it! In the Old Testament, sins were overlooked or deliberately disregarded. It is, in fact, only in the cross where God fully satisfies his own righteous anger against sin, and thus demonstrates his righteousness. We must never think that the cross is a lowering of God’s standards; rather, it establishes his holiness like nothing in the sacrificial system ever could.

3.26— “This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.”

Literally, “toward a demonstration of his righteousness in the present time.” This phrase looks back to ‘for a demonstration of his righteousness’ in v. 25: God’s righteousness is not at risk because of the cross.

“so that he would be just and the justifier….” Justifier is a participle in Greek and can function either adjectivally (essentially like a noun) or adverbially. If adjectival, the force would be “and the justifier.” If adverbial, the idea may be “even while justifying.” The adverbial notion presents a very satisfying theological sense: Christ’s death is so final that Paul can now declare that God ‘is just even while justifying’ the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. This may be Paul’s meaning, but the grammatical structure is better taken with an adjectival force.

“the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness”—the translation of this phrase depends on how it was taken in 3.22. Most translations have “the one who [lives] by faith in Jesus.” But if the genitive is subjective, as the NET Bible has it, then the idea is “the one who [lives] because of Jesus’ faithfulness.”

The point either way is that God’s righteousness is intact even while he accepts sinners into his presence. But we see the principle that all the Old Testament sacrifices point to and Jesus fulfills: death of an innocent victim is required as a substitute if sinners are to have life with God. In other words, there is no life without death. And all the Old Testament sacrifices only pointed to Christ; with his death comes the final sacrifice. There can be no more because he fulfilled them all!

In terms of application, one thing we must recognize from this passage: God is not angry with his children. The payment for our sins has been paid, once for all, in the death of his Son. May he grant us the grace to quit playing games with him—of trying to impress him or hide from him our sins. We must never forget that the basis of our relationship with God is the cross. May God grant us grace to pour contempt on all our pride and to embrace the cross as the only route to his loving presence.


1 James R. Edwards, Romans, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992) 102.

2 Quoted in Bailey’s summary of his dissertation in Tyndale Bulletin 51 (2000) 155.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification, Textual Criticism