We come to Romans 3:21-26, a very important paragraph in Paul’s argument. He has just completed the section that began at 1:18. He has demonstrated the sinfulness of all human beings and the impossibility of their standing right before God by their own efforts to keep and to observe God’s law.
v.23 The NEB renders v. 23, “all have sinned and have been deprived of the divine splendour.” That is, they have been separated from God as a judgment on their sin. They have not been allowed to enjoy God, the source of every beautiful and wonderful thing. I like that translation because it dovetails so well with the account in Exodus 34 and then again in 2 Cor. 3 of Israel being deprived of God’s glory as it shown on the face of Moses. If you remember, Moses would come out of the Tent of Meeting having spoken to God and God’s glory would be shining on his face. He would deliver the message God had given him and then he would cover his face. It was an act of judgment. Israel was being deprived of God’s glory because of her unbelief and disobedience. She did not deserve to have that extraordinary privilege of looking upon the glory of God. It was an enactment of the very judgment Paul describes here in v. 23. You cannot bask in the glory of God as a sinner. It doesn’t sound to modern people like such a terrible punishment until they began to realize that the glorious presence of God is the source of every good and the absence of that presence inevitably and finally the bringing to a human life of every bad thing.
v.25 The second half of verse 25 is a difficult statement. It is susceptible to various interpretations and the longer one thinks about it the more questions rise in the mind. Obviously God did deal with sin in the ancient epoch. He did forgive sin and he punished sin. But overall the sense seems to be that God did not fully deal with the sins committed before Christ came into the world and went to the cross, even among his own people, the people he loved and saved. No final atonement had been offered yet for their sins. And so it could appear that God was unjust; that he had failed to deal with the sins of men and of Israel. He was a judge who did not punish as justice required. But all such questions were put to rest and forever when Christ went to the cross and made a final and perfect atonement. As the next verse goes on to explain, in view of the cross there can be no doubt about God’s justice even when he forgives sinners.
We have before us one of the most important paragraphs in the Bible. It sets before us the relation between the work of Christ, that is, his suffering and death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, and the salvation of sinners. In that it is an account of the gospel, indeed, it is a definition of the gospel which Paul is setting out to give us as he told us way back in the middle of the first chapter. But it is a Pauline definition. It is not John 3:16, though its message is the same as that most famous of all verses. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Nor is it Isaiah 53, though again, it gives us the same savior and the same salvation that are described in that most beautiful of all prophesies. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” I heard a minister once say that at the ordination examinations of young men it was his habit to ask them to give a detailed explanation of these six verses. If the young man could define Paul’s terms and explain his argument and follow it from beginning to end, then he knew that this young minister understood the gospel and could explain it to others.
Paul was a theologian, he was a seminary graduate, he was akin to our professor of theology, and what we have in these few verses in Romans 3 is high-register theology. And the proof of that is that these few verses are loaded with technical terminology, or, at least, terminology that has become the technical terminology of Christian theology because of the use Paul makes of it here and elsewhere in his letters. T.C. Hammond, an evangelical theologian and preacher of the early and middle 20th century, used to give this advice to theological students: “Define your terms and verify your references.”
That is, if you want to be an accurate theologian, make sure you have a firm grasp of the particular vocabulary of your discipline, the technical terms by which various doctrines are defined and explained. If you want to know the doctrine of the Trinity, the triunity of God, think of the terminology that you must master to be able to define and explain: to begin with, “nature” and “person.” But as you advance into the subject you must gain an understanding of perichoresis or circumincessio, taxis, filiation, spiration, and the like. All of those terms express various biblical assertions that are made about the persons of the one, living and true God. And in the same way, if you want to know about salvation, you must gain an understanding of the terminology of salvation as it is employed by the Apostle Paul as well as other biblical writers.
As you know, through the ages the teaching of Holy Scripture regarding its great themes has been clarified in the church’s mind under the pressure of controversy. Initially that controversy concerned the doctrine of God – as creator against the Gnostics for example, as Triune against the modalists and the Arians – and there was the controversy concerning the identity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, the God-Man. Each of these controversies was, in fact, an argument about the meaning of words, biblical and theological words, and both sides employed technical terms, sometimes but not always drawn from the bible, to articulate their viewpoint. Think of the importance of just two terms – homoiousia and homoousia – in the Arian controversy. Was Christ’s divine nature like the nature of God the Father or was it the same as the nature of the Father?
Well, in the same way, the controversies over the nature of Christ’s atonement and the way of salvation from the 11th century through the Reformation were arguments over the meaning of biblical words and technical theological terms. It is not overstating the point that the Reformation happened in some large part because Martin Luther realized what a few words in Romans 1-3 actually meant!
There are a number of such important terms – terms that bear the weight of the Bible’s teaching about salvation – in the verses we have read. I am going to define the terms for you and, on the basis of those definitions, I will give you an expanded reading of the text.
- The first term is “righteousness.”
Like virtually every one of these terms that we will consider, efforts have been made to understand the word in alternate ways, that is, in ways different than the church has ordinarily understood it. People who wish to propose alternate interpretations of biblical teaching are faced with the Bible’s own terminology and so it is necessary to find an alternate meaning for the words themselves. And so a host of biblical terms have been given different meanings through the ages. But, you should know that it is almost always the case that sooner or later wiser heads prevail and there is invariably a return to more straightforward and obvious definitions. Such has been the history of the word “righteousness.” Recent years have brought a welter of different interpretations of the word, but it seems now highly unlikely that any of them will supplant the definition so long fixed in the church’s mind, a definition based on the nature of the word itself and its biblical usage.
Righteousness means being in the right. A righteous person is one who does what is right and one who is judged to be in the right. Righteousness is the opposite of sin. All biblical words for sin are in some way related to the law of God. “Sin” is a term that means falling short of God’s law. “Iniquity” means a twisting of God’s law and so on. “Sin is lawlessness” says the Apostle John. And Paul has made a point of defining man’s sin as a violation of God’s law in the paragraphs before this one in Romans. So, if sin is the breaking of God’s law, righteousness is keeping God’s law and, the condition of a human being who is judged to have kept that law. A guilty person is liable to be punished for his law-breaking. A righteous person in the nature of the case is not liable to punishment. This is the ordinary meaning of the term and it is Paul’s meaning here.
When in v. 20 he said that no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, he was saying that man’s behavior is unrighteous, that is, sinful. He cannot be judged to be righteous so far as his own life and living are concerned because, in fact, he is comprehensively and persistently sinful. If subjected to a moral judgment, our lives in themselves are not righteous and will not be judged to be righteous. God will not tell a lie about us and say that we are righteous when he knows that we are not.
But now, Paul says a righteousness from God, apart from the law has been revealed. In other words, in some way, we who are unrighteous and sinful can become and be said to have become righteous and to be said to be righteous by no one less than the judge of all men himself. It won’t be our law-keepiing that makes us so; it will be something God does that will make us righteous and cause us to be declared righteous by God.
- The second term is “faith.”
This righteousness that comes from God, we read in v. 22 comes through faith. Faith is a very important term in the Bible and in Paul and it is of critical importance in Paul’s exposition of the way of salvation. Here and throughout Paul’s letters it is set in opposition to works, or self-effort, or moral achievement. It is not immediately so here, but will be in v. 27 and then throughout chapter 4. There are, in other words, two competing theories as to how a sinful man can become righteous and how God can declare a sinful man to be righteous in his sight: one theory is that a person must perform works of righteousness, acts of obedience to God’s law in sufficient quantity and then he will be judged righteous before God. The other is that a person must trust or count on God to give him righteousness that he does not have and cannot produce. The first theory was widespread in Judaism in Paul’s day – despite what you hear in some quarters, saving righteousness as human moral performance was indeed the prevailing understanding of salvation in second temple Judaism – but Paul has already repudiated that understanding as both unbiblical and dishonest. Man is not righteous and cannot make himself so, no matter how hard he tries. Legalism – the theory that salvation is earned by moral performance – is futile because it cannot overcome man’s sinful record or his continuing penchant for sinning still more. As Paul puts it here famously in v. 23, summing up his argument from chapter 1 through the first half of chapter 3: “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” Man is a moral failure, not a moral success. He is morally incompetent not competent, incapable, not capable. Man can no more keep God’s law to God’s satisfaction than he can fly, and so his efforts to do so amount to a willful refusal to admit his faults.
The second theory is that sinful man becomes righteous and is declared righteous in the sight of God by faith. It is this understanding that Paul is at pains to assert here. To say that we receive righteousness by faith – to say that we trust God for it – is simply another way to say that this righteousness from God is a gift. We receive it; we don’t earn it. As Paul will say in 4:16, to say that our righteousness comes to us by faith is the same thing as saying that it comes to us by grace, which is to say, a free gift. That is what faith means. Faith is a receptive posture of the soul. Faith is the soul receiving something from another. Faith does not accomplish, it accepts it does not achieve or perform. Faith is putting confidence not in oneself but in another. Faith is looking away from oneself to another. That is what faith is from the beginning of the Bible to the end.
And by contrasting faith and works, receiving and doing, gift and accomplishment, Paul poses the great theological question he is concerned to answer: is our righteousness and our right standing before God – with all that that means (our membership in God’s family, our inheritance in heaven) – is it something we earn or something that is freely given to us? And Paul leaves us in no doubt as to the answer. This righteousness is a gift of God, which is to say, it is received by faith. This righteousness comes from outside of us not inside. It is a gift of God’s lovingkindness, not our achievement.
- The third term is “justify.”
As we read in v. 24, though all of us are sinners and have fallen short of God’s glory, we are justified nevertheless. As you know, the great argument of the Protestant Reformation concerned the meaning of this term. And the scholarly debate has been largely over for a long time now. Even Roman Catholic scholars will now admit that the Protestant thinkers were correct about the meaning of the term. To justify means “to declare righteous” not “to make righteous.” It is a forensic or courtroom word in many of its biblical uses and certainly here in Paul. It is what a judge does for an innocent man at the end of his trial. He declares that man to be innocent, not guilty, or righteous. The verdict is in: the man is acquitted. That is justification in Paul’s usage. That is hardly any longer in dispute. What Paul means when he uses the term is that God, as our judge, declares us righteous. He does not make us righteous as we are going to see we have already been made righteous in some other fashion. He declares us to be righteous. He pronounces a verdict of acquittal. He declares us “not guilty.” Indeed, the NIV’s translation of the verb “to be justified” in 3:20, viz. “to be declared righteous” could be used again in 3:24. We could read it this way:
“For all have sinned…and are declared righteous freely by his grace…”
Paul’s point is that this declaration of being righteous in the sight of God is made on the strength of God’s grace; exactly the same point conveyed by the use of the term faith. We are not declared righteous because we have been or are righteous people; we are not declared righteous or acquitted because we have somehow transformed ourselves into righteous people and so an accurate judgment by a just judge would acknowledge the fact. No; as Paul will say in chapter 4, God justifies the wicked. He acquits and pronounces “not guilty” people who are still in their living profoundly unrighteous. How can this be? Paul goes on to explain.
- The fourth term is “redemption.”
This justification, God declaring us righteous when we are not righteous comes through, we read in v. 24, the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. It is this redemption that explains how God can justify or declare wicked people to be righteous. Now what is this redemption? Redemption meant in biblical times what it means today. It is setting a person free from some bondage and especially the buying of someone out of bondage with a payment, a ransom. Redemption is not simply deliverance; it is deliverance affected by the payment of a ransom. When I was a boy they gave you green stamps at the grocery store, more or less stamps depending upon how many groceries you bought. You then saved those green stamps and stuck them into books given to you for the purpose. When you collected enough books of green stamps you could exchange them for merchandise. I got my first .22 rifle with my mother’s green stamps. What I remember is that the warehouse where they kept all the merchandise you could get with those stamps was called “the redemption center.” My .22 was in bondage in that warehouse and if I wanted to deliver it from there I needed to pay the ransom: so many books of green stamps. From there to Paul we go from the ridiculous to the sublime, but the meaning of the term is the same.
In Greek, unlike English, the terms “ransom” and “redemption” belong to the same word group. It is obvious by their spelling that redemption and ransom belong together. “Ransom” is the “redemption price;” the means of effecting the deliverance of someone from some bondage. So when the Lord Jesus, in Mark 10:45 says,
“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,”
he meant, and everyone would have understood him to mean, that by his offering up of his life on the cross, he would set people free; he would redeem them or deliver them from bondage. In the Bible man’s bondage is to sin. He is slave to sin. He cannot escape sin’s power or its consequences, especially his own guilt, that is, his liability to be punished for his sins. But Jesus has set us free from that bondage by paying the price of our freedom, viz. by suffering our punishment in our place, by satisfying the demands of God’s Law on our behalf.
Now we are beginning to understand how God can justify, or declare righteous men and women, boys and girls, who are still deeply sinful in their behavior. He does it on the basis of what Christ has done for them. He applies to them the results of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. This will become clearer still as Paul proceeds.
- The fifth term the NIV renders as “sacrifice of atonement.”
Verse 25 explains the statement that was just made in v. 24 about the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. What was that? What did it do? How did it do it? Well, the NIV says that God offered Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement.” That is an unfortunate translation. The Greek word thus translated means “propitiation,” as you have it in the ESV. The NIV’s translation theory was that the Bible should be accessible to someone with only an 8th grade education and the translators perhaps rightly assumed that an eighth-grader would not know what propitiation means. The problem is that nobody knows what “sacrifice of atonement” means. You can look up propitiation in a dictionary and find out what it means. But you can’t look up “sacrifice of atonement.”
Propitiation is a noun meaning “the turning away of wrath.” When someone is angry at you and you take steps to remove the offense, you are propitiating that person; you are engaged in propitiation. What turns anger away is propitiation. Some years ago, I broke up a fight between two teenage boys in front of my house. I happened to be watering the grass when the fight broke out so I stopped it by turning the hose on the two boys. The one who was losing the fight didn’t seem to mind that I had got him wet, but the one who was winning was angry with me and went away breathing threats. Well, I didn’t want him to try to get back at me by burning my house down or throwing a rock through a picture window, so the next day, when I saw him in the neighborhood I walked up to him and had a conversation; I told him I was sorry to get him wet but that I didn’t know how else to break up the fight; I told him that I wanted to be friends and so on. We had a reasonably pleasant conversation and left on good terms. I was engaged in propitiation. I was turning his anger away from me.
Now, in the Bible God’s anger is not a fit of temper. His wrath, of which Paul has already spoken in Romans, is his justice in operation. It is the expression of his holiness and his justice. His wrath is always pure; it is always subject to all of God’s other perfections. His is a perfectly righteous anger against the sins that ought to make us angry too. And Christ’s sacrificial death is what turned that anger away, or propitiated it. Now, this is a great deep. You can think for a long time about this and you will not get to the bottom of it. God is obviously propitiating himself. He is turning away his own holy anger. The Father sent Jesus, his Son, into the world to suffer and die for our sins. Jesus himself is God. So it is the Father’s holy anger and the Son’s holy anger against our sins that were propitiated and turned away when the Son of God went to the cross. God was angry with us because of our wickedness. He dealt with that wickedness by punishing it, but in a substitute instead of in us ourselves. Punishment satisfies justice and God’s anger is simply the expression of his justice. Satisfy justice – which appropriate punishment does – , balance the scales, and the righteous anger is removed or turned aside.
So actually we can speak of Christ as redeeming us from bondage to our guilt by suffering and dying in our place or we can speak of Christ turning God’s righteous anger away from us by suffering and dying as our substitute. The cross is such a great and mighty event that the Bible naturally describes it and its effect in different ways. They are not contrary ways of considering the cross but complementary to one another. Whether redemption or propitiation, both are ways of describing the same effect: we are delivered from our guilt and made to be at peace with God, not by what we have done but by what Christ has done in our place bearing our punishment in our stead. Paul could have left propitiation out. He could have left redemption out, but Paul is not the sort of person to say just one thing when he might say two.
- The sixth and last important term Paul employs in this great explanation of the gospel is “blood.”
We read in v. 25 that God presented Jesus as the propitiation of the holy wrath of God through faith in his blood. Paul has already said that this righteousness from God, this declaring of being righteous before God, which is what it means to be justified, comes to those who believe. It is through faith in Jesus Christ. It is Christ in whom we believe; it is what Christ did as our redeemer and our propitiator in which we place our hope of being declared righteous and so of escaping God’s wrath.
Now Paul repeats that thought by saying that the propitiation is effective for those who have faith in Christ’s blood. There are two distinct moments, two distinct dimensions of salvation described here, in other words. There is the Lord’s death on the cross, now some 2,000 years ago, propitiation, redemption. And there is the believing in Jesus that comes to pass in the life history of an individual human being. Both are essential. Both are how salvation comes to us. Nowadays our theologians distinguish between the historia salutis, the history of salvation, by which they mean the saving events that occurred in the life history of Jesus: his incarnation, his suffering, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. Salvation happened then. The deed was done; the die was cast. But there is another dimension that is referred to as ordo salutis, the order of salvation, by which is meant the obtaining of Christ’s salvation in the life experience of an individual human being. Sometimes ordo salutis refers to the various stages of the outworking of salvation in an individual life: the new birth, faith, justification, sanctification, and so on. But the phrase is often used more generally and simply means the realization of salvation in an individual human life. He or she believes in Jesus and is saved. So salvation occurs when Jesus dies on the cross and salvation occurs when a man or woman, boy or girl believes in Jesus. Salvation requires both and Paul makes that clear by saying that the propitiation that Christ accomplished on the cross becomes effective when a person believes in Jesus and begins to count on what Jesus did for him.
That is put in a short form by saying that Christ’s propitiation happens or becomes effective through faith in his blood. The Bible’s emphasis on blood can be off-putting to people today. It seems grotesque to them and primitive. We know how often people faint when they see blood. Back when a quarter of a million dollars was a huge sum of money, Covenant College was offered that sum if only it would remove from its hymnal William Cowper’s hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The potential donor was offended by the concentration on blood.
But in the Bible “blood” is simply a short way of speaking about sacrificial death. Not any kind of death—most do not die by bleeding out—but the death of a sacrifice. When the blood ran out of a lamb or goat or bull it died. Its blood sprinkled then on the altar signified that a death had taken place, a substitutionary death. The sins of the sinner had been punished in the death of a substitute. And all of that looked forward to and was an enacted prophecy of the death of the substitute, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Faith in his blood means simply faith in Christ’s redeeming and propitiating death.
What all of this means, Paul’s reference to Christ’s redemption, and his propitiation, and our faith in his blood, is that Christ’s death on the cross is the foundation and the principal matter of the gospel. It is the basis of our salvation. It is God’s greatest act and it explains why the denial of the cross or a failure to take it seriously must condemn a man or woman to suffering the wrath of God. If they ignore the stupendous thing that God has done to put sinners right with himself – the suffering and death of the Son of God in the place of sinners – what hope can there be for such people?
And what does all of this explain? A righteousness from God, by faith, that results in sinful people being declared righteous in God’s sight and having removed from them the threat of God’s wrath and punishment all because of Christ’s redemption and his propitiation of the holy wrath against sinners, at least those sinners that believe in the power of his death to effect such results? What does this mean? It explains how God can be both a just and righteous judge and the one who justifies sinners. It explains how God can declare us righteous when in ourselves we are not righteous, when our record is not righteous. He can do that because Christ fulfilled the requirements of God’s justice on our behalf and in our place. Because Christ turned away God’s holy wrath by receiving that wrath and suffering that punishment in himself and on our behalf. God must deal with our sin as a just judge and he must deal with it honestly, and he dealt with it in Christ on the cross as our Savior. This is going to come up again in chapter 4, it is obviously the great burden of Paul’s explanation: how God can declare wicked people righteous by dealing with their sin and guilt in their substitute, Jesus Christ.
So we have the terms before us and we can read the text then in this way.
Now a righteousness for us sinners that comes from God has been revealed, the same righteousness to which the entire Scriptures bear witness. It is a righteous that we obtain by faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed faith is the only way to obtain this righteousness. We are declared right in God’s sight because of what Jesus did for us as our redeemer, removing us from this slavery to sin and guilt and because of what Jesus did for us as our propitiation, turning away God’s holy wrath that was against us on account of our sin and guilt. We are declared righteous, not guilty, we are acquitted because of what Christ did for us, in our place, and this happens when we trust what Christ has done and forsake all hope of earning our peace with God through our own efforts. This is the only way sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, can be put right with God because we are not righteous in ourselves and never shall be as the result of our own efforts and because God, just judge that he is, must deal justly with our sin and guilt. He cannot declare us righteous unless in some real sense we have become so. And the only way we can become righteous is for the righteousness of Christ, his satisfaction of divine justice, his paying the debt of our sin, the ransom price of our redemption, to be made ours through faith.
There is a righteousness before God, before the judgment of God, for the unrighteous; there is a deliverance from eternal punishment and it is available to any and every sinner if only he or she will turn away from the futility of supposing he or she can earn a right standing before God and instead trust himself or herself to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in the place and for the sake of sinners. That is the gospel, that the good news.