By In Theology

Understanding Romans 3:21-26 in Context

Romans was an important book in the sixteenth-century Reformation, as was the topic of how one was justified in the sight of God. And one part of the cultural revolution that occurs was over how sins were punished. For instance, here are a couple of Martin Luther’s theses:

– The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

– The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

Our passage in Romans 3 has something to say about that, but let’s remember some of the context.

Paul tells the Romans early on that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). It would be interesting to consider why Paul would even bring up the possibility of being ashamed of the Gospel, but we’ll leave that aside for now.

Paul also says that, in the Gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:17). That’s a wordplay and there is some debate on what Paul meant. I think he is referencing that God’s righteousness is revealed from God’s faithfulness to our faith. There are parallels in Romans 3 that I think point to that understanding.

But it is noteworthy that Paul goes on to say that not only is God’s righteousness revealed in the Gospel, but God’s wrath is revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18).

Now here is where I think we can go wrong and miss Paul’s point about how God wrath is involved in his Gospel. What follows from Romans 1:18 is not a description of God’s wrath but of the human behavior and unbelief that provokes God’s wrath.

There are statements in Romans 1.18-32 that lead readers to think something else is going no. For example, verse 26 says: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” And verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” Ok. God was just in providentially responding to their sin in that matter. But was that stuff the execution of God’s wrath?

No. God’s wrath is still being provoked. The wrath of God is not fully revealed in that process. In fact, Paul states that it is God’s kindness that is being revealed. Romans 2:3-4:

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

So, God’s wrath isn’t on display in this cycle of sin. Rather, God’s kindness is mixed in all of it. God’s wrath awaits a special day when God’s righteous judgement—not quite the same term as “God’s righteousness” but close—will be revealed.

But, if God wrath is not yet revealed, what exactly does Paul means in Romans 1:18?

Romans 3:21-26 is part of the culmination of this part of Paul’s letter and he addresses this same issue that the wrath of God needs to be revealed. Romans 3:25b— “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

So again, God’s wrath was not revealed in the history of sin that Paul describes in Romans 1:18 and following. His wrath was obscured by “divine forbearance”—by “the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” according to Romans 2.4.

So, what is the “THIS” in Romans 3:25? Consider Romans 3:23-26:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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. 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.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was arguably the ultimate sin of human history, the fruit and culmination of all man’s treason and folly.

Yet it also was the full expression of God’s wrath. If you read the Gospel accounts the description of Jesus’ death make it sound like Judgment Day with earthquakes, the heavenly lights being darkened, and the dead even being raised.

And that’s because it was Judgment Day. God executed his wrath on sin in the crucifixion of Jesus. In so doing, God not only provided to the justification of sinners but for the vindication of His righteousness. He wasn’t ignoring or condoning sin. He was working on a plan by which he could fully deal with sin and yet accept sinners.

So, back to Romans 1.16-18:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed [in it—in the Gospel, in the story of the death of Jesus] from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

When we tell the story of Jesus death and resurrection, we are telling the story of God’s full wrath on sin. For those who refuse to believe there is still a day of wrath ahead, but for believers the wrath of God on sin has already been fully revealed. There’s no question of owing anything to God or God’s justice not being satisfied because of sin.

Romans 3:21-22:

But now God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

God’s wrath against sin vindicates God’s righteousness. While there’s debate about it, I think “through faith in Jesus Christ in all who believe” is an over-redundant mistranslation. Try this:

But now God’s righteousness has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Jesus’s faithfulness to be obedient to the point of death manifested God’s righteousness and his acceptance of all believers. The Greek expression for the faithfulness of Jesus is exactly the same as earlier in Romans 3 for the faithfulness of God.

Romans 3:1-8:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

So that’s a lot but the passage shows that “the righteous of God” the “the faithfulness of God” are virtually the same thing. One demonstrates the other. And Paul is setting us up for his climactic statement that “God’s righteousness” is “manifested” in “the faithfulness of Jesus.”

So again, the world’s climactic sin was also God’s act of salvation for all. That after all is how “some were unfaithful.” They rejected Jesus and handed him over to be killed. “Their faithlessness did not nullify God’s faithfulness”! Just the opposite. Their unrighteousness served to “show” or “manifest” God’s righteousness.

Some of Paul’s unbelieving countrymen were apparently saying that, if God used their sin in handing Christ over to be crucified to fulfill his promise and prove himself faithful, they shouldn’t have to repent. Some were even saying that the Gospel story which shows the salvation of the world resulting from the crucifixion of Christ means that people should do evil that good may come.

Paul considers such objections useless. All have sinned, and all must now entrust themselves to Christ because only in him is escape from God’s wrath.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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.

There’s been debate among some scholars if the word “propitiation” should be used here. In the context of God’s wrath against sin, no other word will do. The only way a just God could justly forgive sinners is if he has somehow executed judgment against sin. And that exactly what he did. He satisfied his own righteous judgment.

“God put forward” Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood through faithfulness.” Again, the text only says, “through faith” or “through faithfulness.” I think the ESV’s paraphrase, “to be received by faith,” is a stretch. Our faith marks us as members of Christ and the redemption that is in him, but his propitiation was accomplished by his faithfulness.

Likewise, in Verse 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.” That probably would be more accurately translates “the one who if of the faithfulness of Jesus,” meaning the one who belongs to his and thus is a partaker in his redemption.

If you belong to Jesus, God’s wrath has nothing left of you. Jesus took it all. It is finished.

Now, I hate to end this on a down note, but I think I should point out that we face challenges in proclaiming the Gospel in contemporary unbelieving culture. We aren’t talking to people who think God’s righteous wrath has not been satisfied yet, and that they have to do their part in Purgatory. That seems like an easy mission field to us now.

Rather, we’re dealing with people who are in several overlapping classifications if they believe in something remotely like the Christian God at all:

  1. They believe that God does not need to punish sin—that is, is not morally obligated to do so in order to be righteous.
  2. They believe that many of the sins listed in Romans 1.18ff are not sins at all. That’s exactly what Romans 1.18ff says will happen to unbelievers, but they don’t get it.
  3. They don’t believe one needs to commit oneself to Christ to escape God’s wrath—they think the work of Christ applies to everyone whether or not they believe.

For that last error, we can simply point out that there is no way it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus or the apostles. Paul was against every other kind of distinction as opposed to saying there is no difference between believer and unbeliever.

For the other objections, we need to point to the content of the Gospel itself.

Jesus died and rose again. Why did he die? He died because death was a curse that he alone could suffer fully in order to be raised to a new life that he shares with his people. If death were not a curse, then the resurrection makes no sense. But if it is a curse, then that reveals something to us about God’s righteousness—that he had to inflict it on his own son. Sin really must be punished. And if sin involves delusion and foolishness, then we had best learn from this same God what sin is.

Of course, all this depends on believing that Jesus died and rose from the dead. Since this is not an apologetic essay, I’m going to bail on helping you further on that point. But oddly, I think a lot of people who embraced the errors I mentioned actually affirm that Jesus was a real person who died and rose again. So, you have something to work with there, while you pray for wisdom and for their conversion.

But the point here is that to Gospel, while it is the power of God for salvation, isn’t a message about how to improve your life. It may get there, but it is first and foremost a message about what God did in human history. God dealt with sin and revealed his wrath on sin at a particular point in history, in a particular nation, on a particular hill, on a particular person—who was and is his Son.

God’s wrath is done for all who entrust themselves to him.

And secondly then, before we talk about anything about ourselves or our lives, the Gospel reveals that God is righteous. That he’s faithful. That he’s trustworthy. The English translation uses different words for the same thing. The Gospel reveals God’s righteousness. It shows his righteousness. It manifests God’s righteousness.

God is entirely righteous and trustworthy—faithful. He wasn’t ignoring sin and leaving people to suffer. He was piling it up for what Paul calls in Romans 5.6, “the right time” when he would deal with it and reveal his wrath for our salvation.

This is at once the most awesome and awful point. God has proven himself to be right and trustworthy, so we know he is a reliable savior. What did Isaiah say?—”a righteous God and a Savior.” That’s awesome.

But God has proven himself to be right and trustworthy, and still people accuse him of being worthy of suspicion and in the wrong. God creates rules that restrain us and warp us, people think. We are better off listening to the voices of unbelief, no matter to what obvious folly and pain they lead us, than believing the Gospel, they say. That’s awful—a truly awe-inspiring level of self-deception, denial, and even delusion.

People tell us to be ashamed of the Gospel.

But all we can do, whether talking to others or talking to ourselves when we are tempted, is remind ourselves that Jesus has proven himself faithful. God has proven himself faithful and righteous.

So, believe the Gospel and trust in God—he has saved us from wrath and accepts us as his sons and daughters.

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