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The Good News of Forgiveness

How does the death of Christ save us? This is the question Paul answers in Romans 3:21-26. In the same way that not everyone is interested in understanding the technology of how a car takes us from point A to point B, many Christians are content with a superficial understanding of how God saves them. But the reason we have this text is because God wants us to understand. That is, God wants us to have STRONG CONFIDENCE in the work of Christ so that our standing with him is on solid ground. He doesn't want us to be insecure in our relationshp with him.

The German reformer Martin Luther called this paragraph - Romans 3:21-26 - ‘the chief point . . . of the whole Bible’ because it focuses on what he thought was the heart of the Bible: justification by faith.[1] Luther believed that this ‘article’ was vital: ‘if that article stands, the church stands; if it falls, the church falls’.[2] With the phrases sola fida (by faith alone) and sola gratia (by grace alone) the Reformers expressed their conviction that justification is, from first to last, a matter of God’s own doing, to which human beings must respond but to which they can add nothing. Justification means the declaration of NOT GUILTY and the pronouncement of RIGHTEOUS. The point of this passage is that we are saved from our sins by faith in Jesus and not what we can do. No human performance can achieve our justification, but rather, only what God has done in Christ.

At the heart of this passage is the picture of guilty sinners standing before God who is judging their sins. Not all contemporary theologians and missiologists like the focus on guilt and forgiveness implied by the courtroom metaphor. The mistake these folk make is understanding the courtroom metaphor in Romans as only appropriate for cultures sharing a sense of guilt rather than a description of a universal human problem in relationship to God (guilt because of sin). The entirety of the Bible points to the fact that humans stand guilty before God, regardless of their culture. That is, human guilt is not culturally-specific but spiritually unversal.

People have four key problems in their relationship with God: we are morally corrupt, spiritually dead, relationally alienated, and legally guilty. The gospel answers all four of these questions, and in Romans 3:21-26 we encounter the answer to the problem of legal guilt. This is not the only human problem, but if our guilt before God is not dealt with, none of the other benefits given in the gospel matter.

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. Romans 3:21-26



v. 21: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it
  • But now signals the end of an era and the start of something new. The new is contrast to the old, in which both Jew and Greek were guilty before God and in bondage to sin. John’s way of saying it goes like this: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17).
  • the righteousness of God: this hearkens back to Romans 1:17: For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.  The righteousness of God, then refers to the saving righteousness of God revealed in the gospel.   
  • has been manifested - it is brought about; God is active, it has been revealed.  This phrase focuses on the divine, not human, activity in salvation.
  • apart from the law: the new plan, manifestation and era God is now inaugurating is distinct from the Mosaic Law; God’s justifying activity in the new age takes part outside the confines of the Old Covenant.
  • although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it: the Old Testament as a whole anticipates and predicts this new work of God.  God’s saving righteousness fulfils what was promised in the Old Testament. 
v 22:  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
  • Righteousness of God: here, the righteousness of God refers to the human side of the equation: what is on offer in the gospel is God’s righteousness: right standing with God is available. That is, through Christ, God gives us the gift of rigteousness - the gift of right standing before him in which we treats us as righteous in his sight. The theological term for this is imputation: our sins are imputed (counted to) Christ; his righteosness is imputed to us. See 2 Corinthians 5:21.
  • Through faith (pistis) in Christ Jesus: Faith here refers to the faith of believers. This how people come to have right standing with God.  “Faith is the means by which God’s justifying work becomes applicable to individuals.”[3] Note the focus of our faith - our faith is in Christ Jesus - that is - trusting in him. What is faith? In short, faith is simply believing the promises of God. When we believe his promises, we entrust our lives to him. That is, we rest in, or sit down in, or actively embrace and rely upon, his promises. Specifically in the case of the gospel, faith is believing that God will save us from our sins because of what Christ has done. 
  • For all who believe: God’s righteousness is universally available for all who believe. This includes everyone; specifically, both Jews and Gentiles are included in this ‘all’; this means that there is no other way by which anyone can come to have right standing with God. And it also means that for anyone who has right standing with God, this is how they achieve it.
v. 23: For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
  • there is no distinction: this applies to everyone – both Jews and Gentiles, religious and irreligious; all social standings, all ethnicities – everyone is in the same condition. 
  • all have sinned (aorist tense – sinned in the past): this applies to everyone; all have sinned.  The Greek word used here for sin is hamartema and means ‘to miss the mark’.  Think about an archer aiming for a target one hundred yards away; if he misses the target, he has sinned.  At its root, “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude or nature.”[4]
  • And fall short (present tense – sterounti – are lacking) of the glory of God. The mark for which we are aiming is God’s glory (doxa); God’s glory has to do with his magnificent presence and perfect character (Isaiah 35:2). It is into this glory that we are being transformed (the image of Christ – Romans 8:29).   God’s character is the standard; God is perfect and holy and just and good.  Sin is any behaviour, thought, word, or motivation inconsistent with God’s character. Everyone – including Christians – fails to exhibit the ‘being-like-God’ for which they were created.  We continue to fall short of God’s goal until transformed on the last day by God.[5] 
v. 24: and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus 
  • and are justified
    • WHO: whoever believes, from v. 22. Who is this verse describing? It cannot be taken to mean ‘everybody’ (implying universality); although in v. 23 the ‘all’ is truly descriptive of everybody, not everybody is justified. Therefore, the appropriate answer to ‘who’ is anybody (implying lack of particularity) that believes.
    • WHAT: justification (Gr. dikaioo). Justification does not mean ‘to make righteous’ (in an ethical sense) nor simply to treat as righteous (though one is really not righteous).[6] “This is ‘no legal fiction’ but a legal reality of the utmost significance; ‘to be justified ‘means to be acquitted by God from all charges that could be brought against a person because of his or her sins.”[7]  In Jewish theology, one had to wait until the last judgment to receive their judicial verdict.  In Paul’s theology, the verdict of ‘not guilty’ is rendered the moment a person believes.  The reason this is not a legal fiction is because God really counts (imputes) the righteousness of Christ to us (see Imputation in Systematic Theology section below).       
  • by his grace as a gift.
    • The Point: God’s justifying verdict is totally unmerited. We are justified freely by his grace.  By grace, Paul is emphasizing the fact that justification is rooted in nothing we bring to the table; grace describes how God has acted in Christ, God’s justifying verdict is completely unmerited.  People have done, and can do, nothing to earn it.
    • Grace: In secular Greek, grace (χαρις – charis) means ‘what delights’ and is used with reference to things that bring joy, especially gifts. The point Paul is making is that God’s unearned favour is what justifies us, and to clarify the point, adds that it is given as a gift – it is gracious, benevolent, undeserved, freely given.
  • through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
    • through the redemption Redemption’ in biblical theology is most thoroughly expressed in the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt.  Thus, in the Old Testament, believers are called to look back to that event as a reminder of their covenantal relationship with God.  In the New Testament, the use of redemption always has the Old Testament background as an undergirding idea.  Redemption basically means ‘liberation through payment of a price.’  In 1st and 2nd century B.C., redemption referred to ransoming of prisoners of war, slaves, and condemned criminals.  ‘Human beings pay nothing to receive God’s righteousness; the freedom of justification, however, involves a cost on God’s part, for it was obtained “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”’[8]  Additionally, as Paul uses it here, redemption involves the idea of sacrifice, because in the next verse (25) he refers to blood, and thus brings in the idea of sacrifice.  Sacrifice involves the payment of a price (e.g., the blood of the animal in the Old Testament). This connection between redemption and price paid (the blood of Jesus) is confirmed in other New Testament passages like Ephesians 1:7:  In him we have redemption through his blood.
  • that is in Christ Jesus Jesus is the redeemer; it is through his work on the cross that we are redeemed. Thus, 1 Corinthians 1:30 says ‘And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us … redemption’.


v. 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.

Here, Paul further unpacks the phrase “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” 

  • whom God put forward: this means that God himself took the initiative. This is not, as some have characterised it, a cruel Father demanding that his Son do something tortuous, and the Son giving in against his will.  No, this is the blood of the eternal covenant (Hebrews 13:20), God’s eternal plan to save people through the redemption described here.  Father and Son entered an eternal, mutual covenant.
  • as a propitiation Not only are we redeemed by Christ, but he also serves as a propitiation through his blood. Propitiation (Gr.  hilasterion) means the turning away or appeasing of the wrath of God. Think of propitiation as a missile defense shield that blocks us from the incoming intercontinental balistic missiles of God's wrath. We don't like the idea of God's wrath because we celebrate the revelation that God is love. But it is in love that God judges sin; sin is so utterly destructive God is committed to its anhialation. The Greek word hilastarion, translated here as propitiation, is translated as mercy seat in 21 of its 27 occurrences in the LXX (the Septuagint - the Greek version of the Old Testament).  This imagery gives us a huge appreciation for what Jesus did:  Christ is simultaneously the priest, victim, and place where the blood is sprinkled. He is the place where believers meet with God; it is the sprinkling of his blood that enables this meeting to happen.  And it is his blood that turns away the wrath of God. As demonstrated in Romans 1 – 3 (1:18, 2:5, 3:5-6), God’s wrath is his holy, righteous, and appropriate response to human sin. God himself took the initiative to satisfy and appease his own wrath.  “God’s righteous anger needed to appeased before sin could be forgiven, and God in his love sent his Son (who offered himself freely) to satisfy God’s holy anger against sin.”[9]
  • by his blood  This is the means by which God’s wrath is propitiated.  “As in other texts where Christ’s blood is the means through which salvation is secured (Romans 5:9, Ephesians 1:7, 2:13, Colossians 1:20), the purpose is to designate Christ’s death as a sacrifice.” The reference to blood in connection with propitiation also calls to mind the Passover whereby blood on the door turned away God’s judgment (Exodus 12). God's judgment does not penetrate the shield provided by the blood of Christ.
  • to be received by faith Faith is the means by which we appropriate the benefits of the hilasterion by his blood. We believe the promise that is held forth for us in the propitiatory work of Christ.   Drawing the previous description of justification as a gift, the word receiving implies that the work is God’s, not ours.  It is a gift, and the way we receive this gift, the means by which the benefits of the gift become ours, is by faith:  believing the promise held forth in the gift.
  • This was to show God's righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. To understand the first phrase, we will begin with the second phrase. In the age prior to the cross, the period of time before the redemption Christ accomplished, God ‘passed over former sins’ in the sense that God “postponed the full penalty due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before him without their having provided an adequate ‘satisfaction’ of the demands of his holy justice (cf. Hebrews 10:4)”.[10]  That is, “God did not exact a full and immediate punishment for sin”.[11]  Therefore, God’s righteousness could be called into question.  Therefore, God set forth Jesus as a propitiation to demonstrate his righteous character.  By righteousness, we mean that God always acts consistently with his own character; he always does what is right; therefore, he always both just and merciful.  In the propitiation of Christ, both the justice of God and the mercy of God are on fully display, demonstrating God’s righteousness.  The redemptive sacrifice of Jesus means that no one can question God’s character. 


v. 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.
  • It was to show his righteousness at the present time. Building on verse 25, the demonstration of his righteousness at the present time is exactly what was accomplished at the cross.  That is, Paul is explaining how the ‘now’ action of God in the cross answers a dilemma (the sinfulness of man and God’s merciful nature) that has existed since the garden.
  • so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. The previous discussion about the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus is the foundation for understanding this phrase. Because of what he accomplished in Christ, God is both just (one who appropriately judges sin) and justifier (one who pronounces ‘NOT GUILTY’ over the one who has faith in Christ.’  In other words, God is just even in justifying the one who has faith in Christ; the fact that he justifies believers in no way invalidates his intrinsic justice.   God’s character is not compromised; the judging righteousness of God is displayed even in the justification of the one who has faith in Jesus.


New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner summarises the impact of this Romans 3:21-26: “Verses 25-26 also solve the problem that has been building since 1:17. How do the saving and judging righteousness of God relate to each other?  How can God mercifully save people without compromising his justice?  Paul’s answer is that in the death of Jesus the saving and judging righteousness of God meet.  God’s justice is satisfied in that the death of his Son pays fully for human sin.  He can also extend mercy by virtue of Jesus’ death to those who put their faith in Jesus. By demonstrating his saving and judging righteousness, God has vindicated his name before the world.”[12]

We will not take time to look at the next section in detail (Romans 3:27-31, and chapter 4), but the point of this next section is to emphasize the ‘through faith alone’ basis of justification. The key verse is v. 28:  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.




[1] Some contemporary voices challenge this; for example, Jackson Wu sees the soterian orientation of much evangelical theology as reductionistic. Jackson Wu, One Gospel For All Nations (Pasadena: William Carey, 2015). The mistake these missiologists make is understanding the courtoorm metaphor in Romans as only appropriate for cultures sharing a sense of guilt rather than a description of a universal human problem in relationship to God (guilt because of sin).

[2] Luther’s exposition of Psalm 130:4.

[3] Moo, Romans, 224.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Nottingham: Inter-varsity, 1994), 490.

[5] Moo, Romans, 227.  See Romans 8;18.

[6] Moo, Romans, 227.

[7] Moo, Romans, 227.

[8] Schreiner, Romans, 190.

[9] ESV Study Bible, note on Romans 3:25.

[10] Moo, Romans, 240.

[11] Schreiner, Romans, 197.

[12] Schreiner, Romans, 198-199.