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Study and Exposition of Romans 3:21-31

A. Introduction

Romans 1:18-3:20 speaks profoundly and frankly into the issue of human sin and responsibility. The night is very black indeed throughout these chapters; there is a deathly chill in the air between God and his creatures and the frightening darkness is looking more permanent with each stroke of the apostle’s pen. But a marked change occurs here in 3:21-31. For the first time (apart from 1:17) we receive hope for daylight, and not just a glimmer of the sun and the enjoyment of its heat, but the expectation of a bright, sunny day—such as one would experience at noonday. But even here we will have to wait for the full light of the sun; that will come in chapters 6-8. For now, it is enough to behold the sunrise—and a beautiful one it is! While sin has left us a glorious ruin, wretched vice-regents as it were, and condemned to death, grace is about to change all that.

“Back in the eighteenth century, a young boy was born into a Christian home. For the first six years of his life, he heard the truths of the gospel and he was loved. Sadly, though, his parents died. The orphaned boy went to live with his relatives. There he was mistreated and abused and ridiculed for his faith in Christ.

The boy couldn’t tolerate that situation, and he fled and joined the Royal Navy. In the navy, the boy’s life went downhill. He became known as a brawler, was whipped many times, and participated in some of his comrades’ being keel-hauled. Finally, while he was still young, he deserted the Royal Navy and fled to Africa, where he attached himself to a Portuguese slave trader. There, his life reached its lowest point. There were times when he actually ate off the floor on his hands and knees. He escaped and then became attached to another slave trader as the first mate on his ship. But the young man’s pattern of life had become so depraved, he couldn’t stay out of trouble. As the story goes, he stole the ship’s whiskey and got so drunk that he fell overboard. He was close to drowning when one of his shipmates harpooned him and brought him back on board. As a result, the young man had a huge scar in his side for the rest of his life. After that escapade, he couldn’t get much lower. In the midst of a great storm off the coast of Scotland, when days and days were filled with pumping water out of the boat, the young man began to reflect on the Scripture verses he had heard as a child. He was marvelously converted. The new life John Newton found is reflected in his own heartfelt words, familiar to millions now:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound—
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.”37

Newton’s experience put into words: the ultimate point of Romans 3:21-31.

B. Translation of Passage in NET

3:21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—3:22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 3:24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 3:25 God publicly displayed him as a satisfaction for sin by his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 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.

3:27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! 3:28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. 3:29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too! 3:30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 3:31 Do we, therefore, nullify the law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

Idea: The way in which God freely and graciously justifies any sinner, Jew or Gentile, as testified to in the Law and the Prophets, is not by works of the Law, but by faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice—a sacrifice which demonstrates God's justice in dealing with sin and at the same time excludes all human boasting.

    I. The way in which God freely and graciously justifies any sinner, Jew or Gentile, as testified to in the Law and the Prophets, is not by works of the Law, but by faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice—a sacrifice which demonstrates God's judstice in dealing with sin (3:21-26).

      A. The righteousness of God has been revealed through Christ’s faithfulness and is available to all by grace, through faith, apart from works (3:21-24).

        1. The righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law and the prophets (3:21).

        2. The law and the prophets testify to the righteousness of God (3:21).

        3. The righteousness of God was disclosed through the faithfulness of Christ for all who believe (3:22).

        4. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23).

        5. All men are justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3:24).

      B. The fact that God publicly displayed Christ as a satisfaction for sin was to demonstrate his justice in terms of sins committed beforehand as well as to be the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (3:25-26).

        1. God publicly displayed Christ as a satisfaction for sin by his blood through faith (3:25).

        2. Christ’s death publicly displays the righteousness of God in dealing with sins committed beforehand (3:25).

        3. God is just and at the same time justifies the one who lives by the faithfulness of Jesus (3:26).

    II. The reason boasting is excluded from justification is because justification is by faith, apart from works of the law (for both Jew and Gentile), though it does uphold the demands of the law (3:27-31).

      A. Boasting is excluded in justification since justification is by faith apart from works (3:27-28).

        1. Boasting is excluded on the basis of faith not works (3:27).

        2. A person is declared righteous by faith apart from works of the law (3:28).

      B. Since God is one, he is the God of both Jew and Gentile and justifies both of them in precisely the same way, i.e., by faith (3:29-30).

        1. God is the God of both Jew and Gentile (3:29).

        2. Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by that same faith (3:30).

      C. Faith does not nullify the law, rather it upholds the law (3:31).

D. Simple Point Outline

Idea: The Righteousness of God: It's Availablility and Impact on Human Arrogance

    I. The Way God Made His Righteousness Available Was…(3:21-26).

      A. Through Christ (3:21-24)

        1. Apart from the Law and Prophets (3:21)

        2. His Faithfulness (3:22)

        3. To All Men (3:23)

        4. By Grace (3:24)

      B. Without Compromising His Justice (3:25-26)

        1. Christ Satisfies God’s Wrath against Sin (3:25)

        2. God’s Justice and Justification (3:26)

    II. The Role of Boasting, Faith, and the Law (3:27-31)

      A. Boasting: It Is Excluded (3:27-28)

      B. Faith: All Are Justified By Faith (3:29-30)

      C. The Law: Faith Upholds the Law (3:31)

E. Exposition Proper

3:21 The phrase But now (NuniV deV, nuni de) is extremely significant in Romans and marks off the “post-Christ’s coming” era—including the ministry of the Spirit—as a new development in the salvation historical plan of God. Now, Paul says, is the eschatological time of fulfillment in Christ (7:6). So then, nuni de is not simply a logical connector, as if Paul were saying, “since no one will be declared righteous through works of the law (3:20-21), therefore, righteousness must come by faith” (3:21-26). Rather, nuni de indicates that Paul is thinking in salvation-historical terms, i.e., the time before Christ's coming and the “now time” (3:26) after his coming and the inauguration of the reign of grace in the kingdom (cf. 5:20-21; 14:17).

But the realization of this time of fulfillment has come apart from the law (cwriV" novmou, choris nomou)—the law refers to the Mosaic legislation enmeshed with any current rabbinic legal interpretation which prescribes works on that basis. It is apart from such a works-based-righteousness that the “righteousness of God” has been revealed.

The righteousness of God (dikaiosuvnh qeou', dikaiosune theou) refers to the status of those who have been declared righteous by God through no merit of their own. They are declared righteous on the basis of their redemption in Christ.

But while this legal standing before God is given apart from the Law, that does not mean there is absolutely no connection between his righteousness and the Law. On the contrary, the connection is prophetic, for the righteousness of God is attested (marturoumevnh, marturoumene) by the law and the prophets. As Paul has already stated in 1:2-4, the antecedents of the gospel (i.e., the good news about God’s righteousness given to the believer through Christ), go back deep into OT promise.

Paul uses the verb disclosed (pefanevrwtai, pephanrotai) twenty-two times, often in connection with the coming of Christ as the definitive revelation of God’s plan. Compare Romans 16:26.

3:22-23 In vv. 22-23 Paul explains further what he means by the “righteousness of God.” It comes through faith, not works, and is available on that basis not to Jews only, but to all who believe (eij" pavnta" touV" pisteuvonta", eis pantas tous pisteuontas). It is available to the one who is the most vial idolater and sexually perverse (1:18-32) and it is available on the same basis to the Jew who claimed to live according to the law of God (2:1-3:9). In fact, as far as the righteousness of God is concerned, including the manner in which it is received, there is no distinction (diastolhv, diastole) between Gentile and Jew. The reason for this is simple: since all are sinners and together have fallen short of God’s moral and spiritual perfection (i.e., his glory), all are equally in need of his righteousness and all receive it on the same basis (3:9-20).

This righteousness is made available through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (diaV pivstew" jIhsou' Cristou', dia pisteos Iesou christou). The text literally reads, “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” An interpretive question immediately presents itself: “What does Paul mean by “the faith of Jesus Christ”? Some argue that the “of” phrase (a genitive construction in Greek) should be understood as indicating possession, i.e., Jesus’ faith. We are then saved through imitating Jesus’ faith. This has little grammatical or biblical/theological support.

A second interpretation is to take the genitive “of” phrase to mean “faith in Jesus.” This is often referred to as the objective genitive interpretation where Iesou is taken as the object of the verbal noun “pisteos” (i.e., “faith”). This has been the traditional interpretation and has much to commend it biblically and grammatically speaking.

There is, however, a third interpretation which has been recently advanced and is the one adopted in the NET Bible. In this interpretation, Iesou is taken as the subject of the verbal noun pisteos. This indicates that Jesus’ faithfulness is in view and that the righteousness of God has been made known through the faithfulness of Christ (i.e., his obedience to the Father in life and death) and is available to all who believe.

Now it must be said that both Paul and the rest of the NT endorse both these latter two options. This is not a discussion, then, about which idea is heretical and which is orthodox, but rather about the truth to which Romans 3:22 (26) refers.

There are those who suggest, along with other arguments, that an objective genitive is unlikely since the following phrase, “for all who believe,” is rendered superfluous in this interpretation. But this need not be the case at all, for the accent in this phrase is not so much on faith as it is on “all;” it is an emphatic statement on the universality of the offer of salvation.

Nonetheless, it does appear that the subjective genitive is to be preferred—though neither interpretation is without its difficulties. First, the passage focuses on the revelation (cf. phaneroo) of God’s righteousness publicly (3:25). This fits well with the cross obedience of Jesus which itself argues for the subjective genitive. It is difficult to see how the righteousness of God is revealed through our faith in Jesus, but it is not difficult to see how it is revealed by Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Second, when “faith” (pistis) is followed by a personal noun in the genitive case, it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Matt 9:2, 22, 29; Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52; Luke 5:20; 7:50; 8:25, 48; 17:19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; 12; 3:3; 4:5, 12, 16; 1 Cor 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor 10:15; Phil 2:17; Col 1:4; 2:5; 1 Thess 1:8; 3:2, 5, 10; 2 Thess 1:3; Titus 1:1; Phlm 6; 1 Pet 1:9, 21; 2 Pet 1:5).

3:24 Though all men without distinction are sinners, they may be justified (dikaiouvmenoi, dikaioumenoi), that is, declared righteous and freed from all charges in connection with their sin (Rom 5:1). This is not a reference to being made righteous in any ethical or spiritual sense, but rather to a genuine legal pronouncement involving acquittal (cf. Rom 3:8). And God pronounces a person justified freely (dwreavn, dorean) by his grace. The idea of “freely” reaches back to Paul’s comment in 3:21 about the righteousness of God being revealed apart from the law (i.e., apart from works of the law). We cannot do, nor are we required to do—in fact we are forbidden to do—good works in the hope of earning salvation (Eph 2:8-9). Salvation is a gift and is given by God's grace (cavri", charis).It is given according to his undeserved, completely and utterly, unmerited favor (cf. Rom 4:1-25). While we all fit somewhere in the description of 1:18-3:20, we can nevertheless be freely forgiven and justified through Christ by faith.

Every thought Paul has is focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ in the “now” time of salvation history (cf. the “now” in 3:21). The term redemption (ajpolutrwvsew", apolutroseos) means to “to buy back” and probably has as its background the manumission of slaves. In our context here in Romans, it is likely that Paul intends the idea that through Christ’s death—the fully paid ransom price—sinners are purchased for God from the enslaving power of sin (cf. Rom 3:9; Mark 10:45; Eph 1:7; 1 Cor 6:20).

3:25a God publicly displayed Christ as the satisfaction for sin. The term publicly displayed (proevqeto, proetheto) is in the middle voice and could be rendered “purposed” or “publicly displayed” (Rom 1:13; Eph 1:9). Both are definitely true, but for a number of reasons the second option seems better in this case: (1) Paul has argued that the righteousness of God has been disclosed, that is, “brought to light.” This accords well with a public event; (2) by his blood (ejn tw'/ aujtou' ai{mati, en to autou haimati) focuses on the cross which was a public event; (3) the term demonstrate (eij" e[ndeixin, eis endeixin) argues well for a public presentation; (4) the faithfulness of Jesus Christ refers primarily, then, to his cross obedience which was public; (5) the focus on the present time (ejn tw'/ nu'n kairw'/, en to nun kairo) in 3:26 refers to the present time in light of Christ’s coming, death, and resurrection which was all public; (6) it is connected to the term satisfaction which has as its focus the physical reality of the cross, and is, therefore, external and public in focus; (7) the use of the accusative object complement, i.e., “God publicly displayed him a satisfaction for sin” fits better with the translation “publicly displayed” rather than "purposed."38

There has also been no little discussion over the meaning of satisfaction (iJlasthvrion, hilasterion). It has been argued that since the term is used twenty-one out of twenty-seven times in the Septuagint to refer to the mercy seat, that this is its meaning here too. Further, the only other NT usage of the term in Hebrews 9:5 suggests that this is its meaning in Romans 3:25. There it describes the altar in the most holy place (holy of holies) where the blood was sprinkled in the OT ritual on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Thus Paul it appears that Paul is saying that God displayed Jesus as the “mercy seat,” the place where propitiation was accomplished. Thus Christ is the fulfillment or antitype of the OT image. The fact that the definite article is not used with hilasterion is not a serious objection to this view. The contention that such an interpretation requires too much knowledge of the OT cultus is not damaging either. We may be well assured that in a church with both Jew and Gentile, where the LXX was undoubtedly taught, knowledge of Leviticus 16 and the "Day of Atonement" ritual was well known.

Further, some (e.g., Dodd) have contended that all meaning of “just wrath” is absent from hilasterion, but in a context dealing specifically with the wrath of God, i.e., 1:18-3:20, this is most unlikely. The term is best understood, then, to bring together twin aspects of God relationship to sinners, that is, expiation and propitiation. Respectively, God has removed our sin (expiation) and his anger is satiated against us (i.e., he is propitiated toward us).

3:25a-26 Paul says that there was a reason God accomplished propitiation in Christ on the cross. It was to demonstrate his righteousness because up to this point he had not dealt eternally with the question of man’s sin and guilt—he had passed over sins previously committed (thVn pavresin tw'n progegonovtwn aJmarthmavtwn, ten paresin ton progegonoton hamartematon). The cross, however, is the answer, publicly given, to the accusation that God himself is sinful since he had not openly dealt with sin.

But in the process of demonstrating his deep seated, eternal hatred for sin—i.e., his holiness and justice, he is at once the one who condemns sin as well as the one who justifies the person who lives because of the faithfulness of Christ. The phrase just and the justifier (divkaion kaiV dikaiou'nta, dikaion kai dikaiounta) might also be rendered, “just, even when he justifies.…”

3:27 Paul’s point in v. 27 follows naturally from 3:21-26 and indeed from all the previous material commencing in 1:18. When the apostle asks where then is boasting (Pou' ou hJ kauvchsi", pou oun he kauchesis)—a question particularly addressed to the Jews—the answer is rather obvious. Wherever it is, it is not included in salvation. Indeed, it is excluded (ejxekleivsqh, exekleisthe), “shut out,” “eliminated,” as it were. There is absolutely no room in one’s salvation for boasting since salvation is, from beginning to end, a work of God on behalf of depraved, lawless people (Eph 2:8-9). The principle of faith (pistiv", pistis), that is, having to place sheer trust in God, as opposed to my own efforts (cf. 4:1ff), by the very nature of the case, excludes boasting in human achievement.

3:28 Again Paul hammers home his point. A person is declared righteous by faith apart from works of the law (dikaiou'sqai pivstei a[nqrwpon cwriV" e[rgwn novmou, dikaiousthai pistei anthropon choris ergon nomou). This statement, along with vv. 29-30, brings to a conclusion what Paul has been arguing thus far and prepares the reader for the OT example of Abraham to come in chapter 4.

3:29-30 Since God is the God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, it follows that justification for all men must come apart from the law which was given solely to the Jews.

The oneness of God was a belief properly basic to Judaism and proclaimed by every devout Jew each day (cf. Deut 6:4). Here Paul appeals to this doctrine, claiming that since God is one (ei|" oJ qeoV", eis ho theos), he must have the same salvific concern for the Gentile as he does for the Jew. The Judaism of Paul’s day, however, did not draw the same conclusion from God’s essential unity. The only way a Gentile could be rightly related to God was to become a proselyte to Judaism, including coming under the yoke of the Law. And even then, Gentiles were always Gentiles, never quite up to the level of Jews by birth; in the eyes of the Jew, they had no natural claim on God. Paul says, however, that God is interested in the Gentiles apart from the Law and that contrary to certain Jewish expectations, the Gentiles are saved through the same faith that saves a Jew.

3:31 It is true that salvation is by grace through faith apart from the Law, but this does not mean that it has no essential relationship to the Law. Verse 31, due to the ambiguous nature of the comment, has given rise to various interpretations and modifications within similar interpretations. Two important questions are: (1) what is its relationship to 4:1ff and (2) what is the meaning of “law,” “nullify” and “uphold”? We will treat these questions in reverse order.

First, what is the meaning of “law,” “nullify” and “uphold”? Some argue that what Paul means by “law” is the OT as a whole in that it generally points or testifies to his doctrine of “righteousness by faith apart from the works of the law.” The primary support for this idea is that Paul says as much in 3:21. The problem with this view, here in v. 31, however, is that the term law (novmo", nomos) stands alone and is not combined with “prophets” (as it is in 3:21) Also, the contrast between “upholding” the law versus “nullifying” it is not well established on this meaning. Further, this interpretation does not seem to give proper weight to the contrast between “works of the law” and “faith” in its understanding of the function of “law” (as “testifying”) in v. 31. Finally, the text does not say, “the law is upheld by this faith,” it says “we uphold” [the law by this faith]. This makes it unlikely that Paul intends here that our righteousness by faith was testified to in the OT. This may be true, but here in Romans 3:31 something other than the prophetic witness of the OT seems to be in mind.

Others argue that faith upholds the law in the sense that since the law condemns us all, as Paul argued in 3:19-20, faith alone is the only means of salvation. This is what the law was meant to teach us and to assert that salvation is by faith alone is not to nullify the law in its condemnatory role, but it is indeed to establish the truthfulness of the law in its evaluation of mankind. This, of course, is similar to what Paul teaches in Galatians 3:19-21, 24. But, it is difficult to see how “nullifying” the law and “upholding” it make much sense in this view.

We have said that the “righteousness of God” refers to a perfect legal standing with God (3:21-25). But Paul has argued that this perfect legal standing with God is not earned by works, rather it is received by faith. But, this doctrine—i.e., that justification comes by faith, not by works of the Law—has led to many Jews indicting Paul for antinomianism, that is, accusing him of a complete disregard for the Law and performing its works. It is to this accusation that verse 31 is ultimately directed. In verse 31 Paul is saying that justification by faith does not nullify obedience to the demands of God expressed in the Law, rather it upholds those righteous demands and is the only way they can truly be met. This interpretation is based on taking Law in v. 31 as referring to the demand of the law not to its prophetic witness to the present age of salvation nor to its role in exposing sin.

Verse 31, then, brings a conclusion to 3:27-31 and does not lead one directly into 4:1ff. The transition to 4:1ff came in 3:27-30. The truth of verse 31, that faith really upholds the demands of the law, is ambiguous and will be further unpacked in light of the ministry of the Spirit in 8:4ff and expressed in the context of the new community in 13:9-10.

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: God’s Righteousness Given to Us by Faith…

    I. Is Apart from Any Works We Could Do (3:21)

      A. Apart from the Law

      B. The Law and the Prophets

    II. Is through the Faithfulness of Christ (3:22a)

    III. Is for All of Us (3:22b-23)

      A. For All Who Believe (3:22b-c)

      B. There Is no Distinction (3:22c-23)

    IV. Is Freely Given via Christ’s Redemptive Act (3:24)

      A. By Grace (3:24)

      B. Through the Redemption in Christ (3:24)

    V. Is Rooted in God’s Justice (3:25-26)

      A. Christ as the Satisfaction for Sin (3:25a)

      B. God’s Justice Is not Compromised (3:25b-26)

    VI. Excludes Any Boasting (3:27-30)

      A. Because Justification Is by Faith (3:27-28)

      B. All Men Are Justified by Faith (3:39-30)

    VII. Upholds the Law (3:31)

G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

This passage stands at the very heart of Romans 1:18-15:13 and indeed Paul’s entire doctrine of soteriology (i.e., salvation). First, justification is the act of declaring a sinner righteous and acquitting him/her of all charges and condemnation. Second, the passage clearly affirms that justification is received by faith apart from works of any kind. Third, God justifies sinners by grace on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Fourth, God’s wrath against sinners has been totally satiated through Christ’s sacrifice. Fifth, in the act of justifying sinners God’s justice has in no way been compromised, for the total just payment for sin has been met in Christ. Sixth, salvation theology and the universal offer of the gospel rest on God’s essential unity and His position as creator of all men; we must never divorce proper creation theology from salvation theology. To do so is to bring an end to biblical Christianity. Seventh, faith does not nullify the righteous demands of the law. Rather, it is through faith that the holy demands of the law are upheld.

H. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

This passage contributes in numerous ways to discipleship and church mission. We will mention three. First, we must be sure to continue to teach new Christians (all Christians for that matter) that justification is not something people earn, but something that is credited to their account when they believe in Christ apart from works. Once a person has been declared righteous by God, such a declaration forms the basis or foundation upon which God can approach him/her freely and forever. The question of their sin and falling short (3:23) has been forever answered. Therefore, it is spiritually damaging to people to suggest that once God has declared them righteous they can somehow lose that freely given status, i.e., lose our salvation (which involves more than "losing the Holy Spirit"). We were sinners when we received God’s free offer—sinful enough to require a cross as the solution—and we will be sinners (albeit redeemed) until we are with him in glory.

Second, we must also teach our people that true faith does not nullify the holy demands of the law as if to say that trusting in Christ/God leads to lawlessness or a spirit that takes lightly either sin or holiness. On the contrary, as we trust deeply in Christ the demands of the law are met in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4).

Third, the gospel is available to all men; it is “for everyone who believes.” We must give careful thought to reaching out to our neighbors with the gospel as well as pouring God-given time, energy, and resources into foreign missions.39


37 See R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories & Quotes (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1998), 191-92.

38 The translation "purposed" is not impossible on the object-complement construction, but does not seem to fit as well.

39 The American church as a whole is in bad need of reformulating not only it's mission and structures, but more basically, it's theology of itself and its basic nature. See Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).