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Frank Thielman: In 3:21–31 Paul returns to his definition of the gospel as the righteousness of God that powerfully saves those who believe and explains it in more detail. He focuses on two elements of the gospel.

  • First, the gospel shows God’s fairness and impartiality, although it entails God declaring sinful people to be right with him.
  • Second, the gospel excludes any form of human pride, whether pride in one’s performance or pride in one’s social status.

Main Idea: The righteousness of God powerfully saves sinful people from God’s wrath but maintains God’s fairness and impartiality through the sacrificial and atoning death of Christ. Like the mercy seat in the biblical tabernacle, Christ’s death on the cross was the “place” where God’s necessary and justified wrath against human rebellion ceased, allowing reconciliation between God and his people. That God took the initiative in this atoning sacrifice leaves no room for human boasting either in one’s achievements or in one’s social status.

Thomas Schreiner: Most scholars acknowledge this paragraph as the heart of the epistle. From 1:18 to 3:20 Paul has argued that all people deserve God’s wrath and judgment. Not even the covenant people are an exception, since they have failed to keep the Mosaic law. Indeed, the burden of 2:1–29, which is summed up in 3:19–20, is that even the covenant people failed to keep God’s law. Instead, the law reveals the transgressions of both Jews and gentiles. Thus reliance on the law or on Jewish distinctives is a false path. Romans 3:21–26 turns the corner in the argument. The saving righteousness of God is not available through the law but has been revealed in Jesus Christ and his atoning death.

James Dunn: The centrality of this passage in the development of Paul’s argument is clearly indicated by the re-emergence of the two key terms in the thematic statement of 1:17: δικαιοσύνη3:21, 22, 25, 26; πίστις3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31. . .

In exegetical analysis we mark off here the beginning of a new section of the overall argument, and it is clear enough that Paul at this point switches from indictment of all, Jew and Greek, to outline in fuller terms what his gospel actually says to this otherwise depressing analysis. But the transition does not involve a complete discontinuity in the thought, and it will be necessary to bear in mind the preceding context if we are fully to understand Paul’s exposition of his gospel. The point, which bears some reiteration, is that his gospel is good news precisely to the situation elaborated in 1:18 – 3:20, the good news of God’s action on behalf of man, to and in the believer, to establish him in the relation with God broken by man’s (Adam’s) unrighteousness and distorted by Israel’s misunderstanding of the law.


Alva McClain: This section is the very heart of the book of Romans.  For this reason, all Christians ought to memorize verses 21-26.  If someone should ask me, “Brother McClain, if you could have just six verses out of the Bible, and all the rest be taken away, which would you take?”  I would select these six verses.  All of God’s gospel is there, and in a way found nowhere else in the Word of God.

A.  (:21) The Manifestation of the Righteousness of God

  1.  Revealed Now

But now

Frank Thielman: The passage begins with an expression (“but now” [νυνὶ δέ]) that alerts Paul’s readers and hearers of a dramatic switch in the course of the argument. He is now about to describe in detail the saving righteousness of God that he had briefly mentioned in 1:16–17 and that answers the human plight he has just described at length in 1:18 – 3:20. This contrasting section can be divided into two parts.

  • The first part (3:21–26) consists of one long, complex sentence of high-sounding prose, a style that was fitting for the solemn announcement that God’s saving righteousness was displayed in the atoning death of Christ Jesus.
  • The second part (3:27–31) returns to the feisty give-and-take of the philosophical diatribe, a style that Paul had last used in 3:9.

John Murray: Meyer contends that the “now” at the beginning of verse 21 is not an adverb of time expressing “the contrast between two periods”, but that it expresses the contrast “between two relations”, namely, “the relation of dependence on the law and the relation of independence on the law”.  He does draw attention to the pivotal contrast instituted here between justification “through law” (which is nonexistent) and justification “without law” or “apart from law” which is the provision of the gospel and with which Paul proceeds to deal forthwith.  But it is not apparent that the “now” in question should be deprived of its temporal force.  Paul is emphasizing not only the contrast between justification through the works of law and justification without the law, that is, without works of law, but he is also emphasizing the manifestation of the latter which came with the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Now, in contrast with the past, this righteousness of God is manifested; it has come to lie open to full view, as Meyer so admirably shows later on in his exposition.  This does not mean for Paul that justification without the law was now for the first time revealed and that in the earlier period all that men knew was justification by works of law.  It is far otherwise.  To obviate any such discrepancy between the past and the present Paul expressly reminds us that this righteousness of God now manifested was witnessed by the law and the prophets.  He is jealous to maintain in this matter as in other respects the continuity between the two Testaments.  But consistently with this continuity there can still be distinct emphasis upon the momentous change in the New Testament in respect of manifestation.  The temporal force of the “now” can therefore be recognized without impairing either the contrast of relations or the continuity of the two periods contrasted.

  1.   Revealed Independently of the Principle of Law (e.g. earning by obeying)

apart from the Law

John Murray: The absoluteness of this negation must not be toned down.  He means this without any reservation or equivocation in reference to the justifying righteousness which is the theme of this part of the epistle.  This implies that in justification there is no contribution, preparatory, accessory, or subsidiary, that is given by works of law.

  1. Revealed Openly in the Gospel and in the Person of Christ

the righteousness of God has been manifested,

Michael Bird: God’s righteousness describes the actions whereby God rectifies creation and shows himself faithful to the covenant. God’s righteousness is chiefly a way of designating his saving action as it is expressed in his feats of deliverance for his people. The righteousness of God then is the character of God embodied and enacted in his saving works. The principle benefit for humanity is that this new unveiling of God’s righteousness enables persons to be justified by faith in Messiah Jesus.

Note Paul’s emphasis that the revelation of God’s saving righteousness in the gospel is simultaneously discontinuous and continuous with the law. To begin with, when Paul says that the righteousness of God is manifested “apart from the law,” he means, first, that obedience to the precepts of the law is not the basis for access to salvation. In other words, performance of the works of the law, getting your Jewish lifestyle on, will not put you in the right. Second, adherence to the law does not demarcate the community who will experience God’s justifying verdict. The law is not a badge of covenant membership in the messianic age. Alternatively, “the Law and the Prophets testify to” this saving righteousness. According to Brian Rosner, Paul sees the law as possessing a prophetic function. The law (i.e., Torah) with its stories and sacrificial system all pointed ahead to the redemptive work of Israel’s messianic king.

Everett Harrison: God’s righteousness, that is, his method of bringing men into right relation to himself, is “apart from law,” which is agreeable to the declaration that the law operates in quite another sphere – viz., to make those who live under it conscious of their sin (v. 20).

  1.  Revealed in Harmony with the Testimony of the OT Law and Prophets

being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

Thomas Schreiner: The saving righteousness of God has become a reality through the work of Jesus Christ, not through the Mosaic law. It doesn’t follow from this that the OT is an inferior revelation. The OT repeatedly promises that God will fulfill his saving promises and looks forward to the day when they will become a reality.

B.  (:22) The Appropriation of the Righteousness of God

  1. This Righteousness Comes from God

(we can’t try to mix in our works)

even the righteousness of God

Thomas Schreiner: The “righteousness of God” (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) in verses 21–22 is not a reference to the judging righteousness of God, in contrast to Rom. 3:5. The term reaches back to 1:17, where the accent is on the saving righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel. This saving righteousness . . . is forensic.

  1. This Righteousness Only Requires Faith in Jesus Christ

(we can’t try to mix in our works)

through faith in Jesus Christ

Thomas Schreiner: Faithfulness of or faith in Jesus Christ? More and more scholars dispute the idea that πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ refers to faith in Christ.  The debate on this matter appears to be unending.  Many now understand the genitive to be subjective, denoting the faithfulness of Christ. . .

Grammatically equivalent constructions in Paul reveal that an objective sense is plausible because Paul uses objective genitives as the object of a verbal action. We see examples of hope in Christ and knowledge of Christ, and thus it also makes sense to speak of faith in Christ. . .

The emphasis on faith in Jesus Christ is theologically important. In contrast to his opponents, Paul affirms that righteousness isn’t obtained through obeying the law, since no one can practice the law sufficiently. Believing in Christ, not obeying the law, is the means by which the saving righteousness of God is received. The desire to underscore the centrality of faith explains why the faith of believers is inserted in verse 26. A. Hultgren (1980: 259–60) correctly argues that the contrast between believing and doing, which appears so often in Paul, suggests that believing in Christ is in view. The sustained emphasis on faith in Christ is present because it distinguishes Paul’s gospel from that of his opponents. Typically, Second Temple Jews had a more optimistic view of human ability. By contrast, Paul asserts that human beings cannot obey the law.

An emphasis on human faith hardly detracts from the centrality of God’s work in Christ (against Keck 1989: 454), since faith is explicitly distinguished from works and in Pauline theology is the consequence of election (8:29–30), and Paul also says faith is a gift of God (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8). Contextually, then, an emphasis on faith in Christ makes good sense.

John Murray: In representing Jesus Christ as the object of faith the apostle brings to the forefront a consideration which had not been expressly stated so far in this epistle.  The faith that is brought into relation to justification is not a general faith in God; far less is it faith without well-defined and intelligible content.  It is faith directed to Christ, and when he is denominated “Jesus Christ” these titles are redolent of all that Jesus was and is personally, historically, and officially. . .  Faith is focused upon him in the specific character that is his as Saviour, Redeemer, and Lord.

  1. This Righteousness is Available without Favoritism

(the same plan of salvation applies to all — Jew, Gentile, moralist, most corrupt)

for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

John Murray: The glory of the gospel is that there is no discrimination in the favourable judgment of God when faith comes into operation.  There is no discrimination among believers – the righteousness of God comes upon them all without distinction.

James Dunn: The πάντας is obviously the point of the repetition (the phrase is neither a mere repetition nor a new thought)—emphatic, both to balance the repeated “all/every” of vv 19–20 and 23, and at the same time to emphasize the universal outreach of God’s saving purpose and action (as in 1:5, 16; 2:10; 4:11, 16; 10:4, 11–13). See further on 1:16.

C.  (:23) The Desperate Need for the Righteousness of God

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Frank Thielman: God’s saving power and status of acquittal comes to anyone who believes because God, as a fair God, does not distinguish between social groups in administering his saving power. Everyone, without distinction, needs God’s righteousness because everyone, without distinction, has sinned and experienced the corrupting effects of sin.

John Murray: to come short of reflecting the glory of God, that is, of conformity to his image (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:18; 8:23). . . We are destitute of that perfection which is the reflection of the divine perfection and therefore of the glory of God.

D.  (:24-25a) The Redemptive Aspects of the Righteousness of God  

  1. (:24a) The Essence of Justification

being justified as a gift by His grace

Thomas Constable: Justification is an act, not a process. And it is something that God does, not man. As mentioned previously, justification is a forensic (legal) term. On the one hand it means to acquit (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Acts 13:39). On the other positive side it means to declare righteous. But it does not mean to make one’s behavior righteous. It means to make one’s position in the sight of God righteous.

Warren Wiersbe: The characteristics of justification are that it is: apart from the Law (v. 21), through faith in Christ (v. 22a), for all people (vv. 22b-23), by grace (v. 24), at great cost to God (vv. 24b-25), and in perfect justice (v. 26).

Alva McClain: Justify means to pronounce and treat as righteous.  It is vastly more than being pardoned; it is a thousand time more than forgiveness.  You may wrong me and then come to me; and I may say, “I forgive you.”  But I have not justified you.  I cannot justify you.  But when God justifies a man, He says, “I pronounce you a righteous man.  Henceforth I am going to treat you as if you have never committed any sin.”  Justification means sin is all past and gone – wiped out – not merely forgiven, not merely pardoned; it means clearing the slate and setting the sinner before God as a righteous man, as if he had never sinned, as if he were as righteous as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

  1. (:24b) The Essence of Redemption

through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

Thomas Schreiner: The question is whether ἀπολύτρωσις involves the idea of a ransom paid in Rom. 3:24. Two lines of evidence converge to support the idea of a price paid (see esp. Marshall 1974).

  • First, Paul says that all are justified “freely” (δωρεάν, dōrean). Human beings pay nothing to receive God’s righteousness. The freedom of justification, however, involves a cost on God’s part, since it was obtained “through the redemption” (διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως) accomplished in Christ. The contrast between freely (δωρεάν) and the redemption provided by God suggests that the latter includes the idea of a price being paid.
  • Second, the sacrificial character of the context points to the payment of a price. Whether one understands ἱλαστήριον as hailing from a cultic or martyrological background or both, the sacrificial dimensions of the term cannot be expunged (against Hill 1967: 75–76). The reference to αἷμα (haima, blood) in verse 25 confirms that sacrificial motifs are employed here (cf. Schnabel 2015: 401). Since sacrifices involved the payment of a price (i.e., the blood of an animal) and since Paul elsewhere specifies that Christ’s blood was the price of redemption ( 1:7; cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23), we should conclude that the payment of a price is intended here as well. Büchsel’s (TDNT 4:355) objection that ἱλαστήριον would be superfluous if a ransom were specified falters because the two themes together highlight the sacrificial quality of Christ’s death.

Hence, believers in Jesus are freed from their sins in that they are forgiven of their transgressions by virtue of his redeeming work.

John Murray: Justification is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; it is not through any price of ours; it is the costly price that Christ paid in order that free grace might flow unto the justification of the ungodly.

  1. (:25a) The Essence of Propitiation

whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.

Michael Bird: There is widespread agreement among commentators that the background to this word comes from the sacrificial cultus prescribed by the Torah.  The hilastērion designated the “mercy seat,” the cover of the ark of the covenant over which Yahweh appeared on the Day of Atonement, and over which the blood of sacrifices was poured (see Exod 25:17 – 22; Lev 16:13 – 15; Heb 9:5). This is why the NET opts for “God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat.” The sacrificial context is underscored further by the reference to “the shedding of his blood” because it was the shedding of blood that made atonement for sins (see Lev 17:11 and esp. Matt 26:28; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:22). By using this cultic imagery, Paul was “presenting Jesus as the ultimate ‘mercy seat,’ the ultimate place of atonement, and, derivatively, the ultimate sacrifice.”

Thomas Schreiner: The presence of propitiation doesn’t exclude the concept of expiation. Both are present in 3:25.  The death of Jesus removed sin and satisfied God’s holy anger. . .

That Jesus functioned as the priest, victim, and the place where the blood is sprinkled should not trouble us. Paul is trying to communicate that Jesus fulfills the sacrificial cultus, and the fulfillment transcends the cult. The sprinkling of Jesus’s blood makes it possible for believers to meet with God. . .

Paul’s employment of cultic terminology from the Day of Atonement signals a crucial theological judgment. The cultus of the temple is no longer effective (B. Meyer 1983: 206). The OT sacrifices cannot bring forgiveness; Paul implies that they simply foreshadowed the forgiveness effected through Jesus, since God patiently bore with sins committed during the Mosaic era. God looked ahead to the death of Jesus as the true sacrifice for sins. The salvation-historical dimension of Pauline theology emerges here. Those who revert to the law for righteousness will be disappointed because the atonement provided in the law does not really forgive. Only Jesus’s death satisfies God’s wrath. The saving righteousness of God, therefore, cannot be obtained through the law. The exclusive means of becoming right with God is through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

John Murray: Redemption contemplates our bondage, and is the provision of grace to release us from that bondage.  Propitiation contemplates our liability to the wrath of God and is the provision of grace whereby we may be freed from that wrath.

David Thompson: The term “propitiation” (ilasthrion) is one that refers to the actual means and point of appeasing that satisfies all the demands necessary to be right with God.

The question on this doctrine is what needs appeasing. Dr. Ryrie thought it was the wrath of God that needs to be appeased (Basic Theology, p. 294). Dr. Chafer believed it was the righteousness of God and the law of God that needed to be appeased (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 93). That was basically the same view as C. I. Scofield (Ibid., p. 95).  We think the propitiation satisfies the demands of and appeases the righteousness of God and the violated O.T. law of God.

  1. (:25b-26) The Vindication of the Righteousness of God

This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

James Dunn: “in the forbearance of God.” The phrase simply strengthens the clear implication of the preceding phrases that whatever the rationale of God’s not pressing for punishment of the sins committed by his covenant people in the preceding epoch (whether the sacrificial system “worked” or merely foreshadowed Christ’s sacrificial death), it was an act of divine forbearance or “restraint” (Williams, Saving Event, 28). The thought was hardly strange to Jewish ears (cf. particularly the often repeated theme of Exod 34:6–7—see on 9:15, and further 11:31, 32; Wilckens; and further Zeller, “Sühne,” 64–70); yet it would be easy to fall into the habit of taking that forbearance for granted simply because the sacrificial system was so well established

Frank Thielman: God intended Christ’s death to prove that, although he had kindly dismissed the sins of his people prior to the death of Christ, he had not ceased to be committed to the impartial and fair administration of justice.

Thomas Schreiner: What Paul argues in these verses is that God vindicates his righteousness in the cross. He satisfied his wrath in sending his Son as a substitute for sin, to demonstrate that the passing over of former sins was not because he winked at sin. He tolerated the sin of human beings only because he looked ahead to the death of his Son as an atonement for sin. In the present era of salvation history (ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ, 3:26) God’s righteousness has been vindicated in the death of Jesus. These comments by Paul make clear that the question he asked was not How can God justly punish human beings? His question was rather How can God justly forgive anyone?

Verses 25–26 also solve the problem that has been building since 1:17. How do the saving righteousness and the 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 righteousness and judging righteousness of God meet. God’s justice (εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν δίκαιον) is satisfied in that the death of his Son pays fully for human sin. He can also extend mercy (καὶ δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ) by virtue of Jesus’s death to those who put their faith in Jesus. To be more specific, the καί joining the last two clauses is probably concessive (Cranfield 1975: 213; D. Moo 1991: 243) or perhaps epexegetical (so Linebaugh 2013: 148–49n80). God is just even in justifying the one who has faith in Jesus. Piper (1983: 127–30) is also correct in seeing the fundamental issue as the glory of God’s name. Even though, against Piper, God’s righteousness should not be defined as his desire to maintain his glory, the desire for his glory undergirds his desire to demonstrate his righteousness.  Romans 1:18–32 indicates that the gentiles experienced God’s wrath because they scorned his name, and that the Jews dishonored his name among the nations (2:24). By demonstrating his saving righteousness and his judging righteousness, God has vindicated his name before the world so that all those who believe receive forgiveness of sins.


Thomas Schreiner: The paragraph has three major points.

  • First, since righteousness is based on faith in what God has accomplished in Christ ( 21–26) and not human works, boasting is ruled out (vv. 27–28).
  • Second, the oneness of God demands that Jews and gentiles are justified in the same way: by faith ( 29–30).
  • Third, Paul concludes (οὖν, oun, therefore) that faith does not nullify the law but establishes it (31).

James Dunn: Following the log-jam of prepositional phrases and somewhat tortuous syntax of the preceding paragraph (vv 21–26), the change of style is abrupt. The staccato interchange of brief question and answer would give relief after the intensity of concentration required to catch the full force of what had obviously been a major statement of the letter’s central theme. The change is certainly deliberate and shows Paul’s awareness of the need to vary his style in order to retain the attention of those listening to his letter read out.

A.  (:27-28) What about Boasting in Works?

Faith Leaves No Room for Boasting in Our Own Accomplishments

Where then is boasting? It is excluded.

By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

David Thompson: When it comes to justification, man’s big mouth cannot boast or brag about one thing because it is all a grace gift found in Jesus Christ. You cannot brag about your works or commitment or your discipleship or obedience because it has nothing to do with God’s justification. Human boasting finds no place in grace salvation. Why? Because grace salvation is found in Jesus Christ and it is His righteousness that is imputed to us and it has nothing to do with our righteousness. He is our redemption and He is our propitiation and He is our justification.

B.  (:29-30) What about Boasting in Ethnicity?

The Oneness of God Means a Universal, Common Plan of Salvation

that Leaves No Room for a Spirit of Exclusivity

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also?

Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith

and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

John Murray: Identity of principle in his saving operations follows from the unity of his relationship to all as the one God of all (cf. Isa. 43:11; 45:21, 22).

John Witmer: The next two questions cover the same issue of Jewish distinctiveness from a different angle.  Because the Gentiles worshiped false gods through idols, the Jews concluded that Yahweh, the true and living God (Jer. 10:10), was the God of Jews only.  That was true in the sense that the Jews were the only people who acknowledged and worshiped Yahweh (except for a few proselyte Gentiles who joined with Judaism).  But in reality Yahweh, as the Creator and Sovereign of all people, is the God of all people.  Before God called Abraham and his descendants in the nation Israel to be His Chosen People (Deut. 7:6) God dealt equally with all people   And even after God’s choice of Israel to be His special people, God made it plain (e.g., in the Book of Jonah) that He is the God of everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. And now since there is “no difference” among people for all are sinners (Rom. 3:23) and since the basis for salvation has been provided in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, God deals with everyone on the same basis.  Thus there is only one God (or “God is one”).  Paul no doubt had in mind here the “Shema” of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord [Yahweh] our God [Elohim], the Lord [Yahweh] is One” (Deut. 6:4).  This one God over both Jews and Gentiles will justify all who come to Him regardless of background (circumcised or uncircumcised) on the same human condition of faith.

C.  (:31) What about the Role of the Law — Is the Law then Worthless?

The Value of the Law Leaves No Room for a Spirit of Independent Lawlessness –

Instead, Justification by Faith Should Motivate Holy Living

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be!

 On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Frank Thielman: Paul anticipates an objection from what he has said so far about the lack of any role for works or social identity in justification. Does this mean that faith in the gospel cancels the law (3:31a)? This was not the place for an extended answer to that question, but he briefly denies that its implication is true (3:31b–c) in anticipation of what he will say later in 7:7 – 8:17.

John Murray: Paul is well aware of the danger of the antinomian inference from the doctrines of grace.  He deals with it in detail in chapter 6 and offers the arguments which not only refute it but reduce it to absurdity.  But here he anticipates the objection and he answers it summarily.  The summariness is eloquent.  He is guarding against a distortion which cannot be granted a moment’s toleration.

Alva McClain: There is only one religion in all the world that can save men and still establish, exalt, and honor the law: Christianity.  All other systems that are based on legality, on salvation by works, dishonor the law, because nobody ever kept it. The inevitable result is that they pull the law down a little bit so that man can win his salvation by keeping it.  But God punished Christ, His Son, for our transgression, and in so doing, He not only saves us, but at the same time he also establishes His throne in the heavens as a throne of justice and mercy.