© 2002, B.D. Bohannon. All rights reserved
In Romans 3:21-26 Paul explained that God demonstrated His righteousness in order to justify the one who "has faith in Jesus". Paul expounded this concept by concentrating on Christ's atoning work. Paul initially made it clear that God manifested His righteousness "through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe", and His manifestation of righteousness occurred "apart from the law". Then Paul, after stating that God revealed His righteousness apart from the law, connected the demonstration of God's righteousness with the atonement. In connecting the manifestation of God's righteousness to the atonement the apostle wrote about the ways redemption, propitiation, and blood contributed to the justification of those who place their faith in Jesus. Thus, the atonement served as the foundation for Paul's thesis in this passage of Scripture.
As Paul developed his teaching that God demonstrated His righteousness for the purpose of accomplishing justification for those who place their faith in Jesus, he showed in Romans 3:21 that God manifested His righteousness distinct from the law. Verse 21 reads, "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets." Paul began his teaching on the righteousness of God with the phrase nyni de, which translated means but now. He used this phrase to signal a shift from the previous arguments he had made in the epistle. Nyni de could either represent a logical conclusion drawn from a preceding point made, or the phrase could be used to designate a temporal usage. If Paul meant the temporal usage, then his teaching in Romans 3:21-26 marked a shift in salvation history, a change between the old and new covenant. Douglas Moo stated his conviction that Paul used nyni de in the temporal sense in order to indicate a transition from the old era of sin's domination of the human race to the new era of salvation inaugurated by the cross of Christ. Further, Moo maintained that one of Paul's theological conceptions is the distinction between the two salvation eras. For instance, Moo pointed out that in Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul elaborately described the spiritual state of the ones who belonged to the old salvation era as justly condemned with God's wrath abiding on them. Then, Moo argued that Paul used the phrase nyni de in 3:21 to indicate that God initiated the new salvation era, one characterized by those who respond by placing their faith in Jesus. However, Romans 3:21-26 does not necessitate understanding the phrase nyni de in a temporal sense. It can be used in the logical sense indicating a situation in which the manifestation of God's righteousness has now occurred apart from the law. In other words nyni de introduced the concept that now the manifestation of God's righteousness is not dependent upon the merits of the law. Thus, by using nyni de Paul hoped to convey a qualitative difference between the way God demonstrates righteousness and the way man wants to achieve righteousness. Therefore, man seeks to earn righteousness based upon the requirements of God's law. By contrast, God will only give righteousness to man according to His grace.
Though credence can be given to both options as to what Paul meant when he used nyni de in Romans 3:21, logical sense seems appropriate for the passage under consideration. This phrase can have a logical usage even in light of the significant number of times Paul used it in a temporal manner (6:22; 7:6; 1 Cor. 15:20; Eph. 2:13; and Col. 1:22). However, all of these temporal uses of nyni de do dictate a temporal usage in Romans 3:21. In fact Romans 7:17 provides an example when Paul uses the logical sense for nyni de. Since nyni de can be understood in a logical sense, and since Paul did use it in a logical manner in Romans 7:17, it is conceivable that Paul had a logical intention in his use of nyni de in Romans 3:21 rather than a temporal one. Context must be the deciding factor. If Paul intended a temporal meaning for nyni de that advocated a change in salvation history from the old covenant to the new covenant, then the context of Romans 3:21-26 would somehow indicate that change. However, in Romans 1:1-3:20 Paul does not use language that supports a change in salvation history. Furthermore, no where in Romans 1:1-3:20 does Paul describe this section of Scripture as representative of salvation history as portrayed by the old covenant. Therefore, Paul does not associate the passage of Scripture marked by Romans 3:21 with the terminology of new salvation history. Rather, Paul simply maintained that both Jews and Gentiles are under the wrath of God. As a result, neither Jew nor Gentile can obtain righteousness by keeping the requirements of the law. "But now apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested."
This righteousness that God manifested has been witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. The Old Testament testifies to the demonstration of God's righteousness by pointing to God's future work in providing the human race with atonement. Further, verse 22 indicates that the righteousness to which the Old Testament bears witness is "through faith in Jesus Christ". Therefore, the manifested righteousness of God belongs to all those who believe in Jesus.
When Paul said, "all of those who believe" he meant both Jews and Gentiles. By indicating both groups of people, Paul demonstrated that "there is no distinction" between them.
Because they have no distinction, both Jews and Gentiles can legitimately and equally believe in Christ. The fact that no distinction exists is based upon the fundamental truth revealed in verse 23, which states, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
This truth that all have sinned indicates that no difference exists among any people concerning their standing before God. The aorist of hemarton, translated as sinned, supports the teaching that there is no distinction among any people group in regards to their standing before God as long as this tense of the word can be understood in a historical sense. If understood historically then hemarton refers to the sinning of Adam's entire race. Therefore, there is no distinction between any human being because every human stands before God as a sinner. The consequence for every man's sin is that every person will fall short of the glory of God.
When Paul stated that man falls short of God's glory (the Greek word doxa), what does he mean? The biblical meaning of doxa derives its meaning from its translation of the Hebrew word kabod. Kabod basically means to "be weighty", and it usually denotes prestige, importance, or honor. This term is used in conjunction with God's magnificent presence. Therefore, when Paul claims that all men fall short of the doxa of God because of sin, he means sin causes every human to come short of ascribing prestige, importance, and honor to God. Therefore, no human can live in the magnificent presence of God.
Since man will always fall short of the glory of God and His magnificent presence, he will never be considered righteous in the sight of God. Thus, righteousness must be demonstrated through faith in Jesus alone, and only the atonement wrought by Christ can provide man with the means to obtain this righteousness by faith. Therefore, Paul introduced the concept of the atonement in this particular passage in verse 24.
Verse 24 reads, "Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." This verse speaks to the human being whether Jew or Gentile being justified by God's grace through the redemption that Christ accomplished. This verse does not associate redemption with the atoning work of Christ. However, other verses of Scripture do make the connection between redemption and the atonement. For instance, Ephesians 1:7 states, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins." This verse in Ephesians specifically demonstrates how redemption only occurs through the atoning sacrifice of Christ when He shed His blood. Therefore, since Scripture interprets Scripture, redemption in Romans 3:24 must be understood as Christ's atoning work.
Although redemption in Romans 3:24 does refer to Jesus' atoning work, it still needs to be determined what Paul meant in this verse. The questions over meaning focus on the issue of whether the material in verses 24-26 come from a pre-Pauline tradition, or whether Paul originally developed the concepts. In fact, many scholars maintain that these three verses constitute material that comes from a pre-Pauline tradition. Some argue that the opening phrase in verse 24, dikaioumenoi, translated as 'being justified', begins Paul's use of the traditional material found in his larger teaching in 3:21-26. Another theory proposed by scholars is that verse 24 distinctively contains Pauline concepts while vs. 25-26a begins the pre-Pauline traditional material. The arguments in favor for a pre-Pauline traditional material in verses 25-26 are based upon an over laden style, genitival constructions, prepositional phrase, unusual vocabulary, and non-Pauline theology. For instance, Paul would not have used words like hilasterion and would not have been original in developing theology like the blood of Christ, redemption occurring in the past, and the passing over of sins committed in the past. The scholars who advocate Paul's use of tradition need this argument in order for their interpretation to work. They claim that in verse 26 Paul is correcting the traditional material found in verse 25.
However, it is not necessary to concede that Paul attempted to correct anything from the pre-Pauline tradition, and it is not necessary to conclude that Paul did not develop his own concepts in Romans 3:24-26. For instance, many scholars indicate that the phrase te autou chariti, "by his grace", is Paul's addition to the tradition. However, verse 24, which discusses being justified freely by His grace can be rightly understood as a teaching originally formulated by Paul. The evidence for this can be found in verses in which Paul uses the concept of grace in conjunction with being justified (Rom. 5:15, 17; Eph. 3:7). Therefore, the message or concept Paul intended to convey was that justification comes about freely as a result of God's grace. The grace God demonstrated in order to justify the sinners who have fallen short of God's glory was an act shown in Christ. This grace that provides justification for man can not be obtained through human merit. Since justification occurs because of grace, it can never be achieved by producing good works or through the law. Furthermore, God's grace justifies the sinner through the redemption that occurs through Christ.
This concept of redemption through the death of Christ on the cross is based upon the word apolutrosis. Apolutrosis is a compound of the word lutrosis, which means to be 'set free after the payment of a price.' This word was frequently used in reference to a ransom being paid to set prisoners of war, slaves, and condemned criminals free. If this meaning for apolutrosis is applied to the term in Romans 3:24, then Paul would be indicating that Christ's death was the
ransom paid because it is the penalty for sin that all people owe to God. However, the interpretation that apolutrosis in Romans 3:24 means the ransom paid by the death of Christ as a penalty for sin has been called into question.
Many doubt that apolutrosis refers to a ransom paid in Romans 3:24 for numerous reasons. When the Septuagint used the term apolutrosis in Daniel 4:32, it cannot be ascertained that it demonstrated a ransoming meaning. Furthermore, when the verb lutroo, from which apolutrosis is derived, occurs 104 times in the Septuagint, it usually translates the Hebrew words ga al and pada. These Hebrew words usually meant to liberate without any reference to a ransom price being paid. Also, there are a significant number of times in the New Testament when apolutrosis is used to simply refer to liberation or deliverance (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7, 14; 4:30; Col. 1:14, Luke 21:28; Heb. 9:15; 11:35).
Although there seems to be substantial evidence to deny the ransoming aspect of apolutrosis in Romans 3:24, the context of the verse in addition to the secular Greek usage of the word suggests otherwise. Clearly, Paul seems to be utilizing the ransoming metaphor because Romans 3:21-25 indicates the price paid to enact the deliverance. Specifically, in verse 25 Paul mentions the payment price of Christ's blood. Undoubtedly, the reference to blood in 3:25 refers directly to propitiation; however, the use of blood does indirectly implicate the price Jesus paid. As the context demonstrates that apolutrosis in verse 24 means to pay a ransom in order to liberate, the secular Greek translation of the word is always a ransom paid for deliverance. Thus, there appears to be no reason to reject the secular Greek definition for apolutrosis as the meaning for the word in Romans 3:24.
Since apolutrosis refers to a ransom paid for deliverance, Paul indicated in Romans 3:24 that all sinners are justified freely by the grace of God through the ransom price paid by Christ in order to deliver both the Jew and Gentile from sin. After establishing the doctrine of redemption wrought by Christ as a basis for man's justification, Paul discussed the contribution Christ's propitiatory sacrifice made in order to justify the sinner.
In Romans 3:25 Paul introduced the doctrine of propitiation. The verse reads, "whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed." The key issue to comprehending Paul's instruction in this verse concerning the atonement is whether the apostle meant propitiation or expiation when he described Christ as the hilasterion.
The Greek word hilasterion was used in the Hellenistic language as propitiation, the removal of wrath. In the context of Romans 3:21-26 hilasterion in verse 25 should be interpreted as placating God's wrath against sin. Furthermore, the wider context of Romans 1:18-3:20 supports the translation of hilasterion as propitiation, for the concept of God's wrath permeates throughout this section in Romans. Specifically, the Greek word wrath appeared in these verses: 1:18, 2:5 and 8, and 3:5. If hilasterion should not be translated as propitiation in 3:25, then Paul failed to address the issue of God's wrath. It would seem unusual for Paul to raise the issue of God's wrath, and then neglect this issue in his discussion of Christ as hilasterion.
Since hilasterion refers to appeasing God's wrath, in what sense does Christ function as the hilasterion? Christ can be understood as the hilasterion in four potential ways. Paul either viewed Him as the One whom is propitiating, as the propitiator, as the means of propitiation, or as the propitiatory sacrifice. In the final analysis it seemed best to identify Jesus as the propitiatory sacrifice because: Paul's statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.
Although Paul clearly established Jesus as the propitiatory sacrifice, numerous scholars continue to teach the doctrine that Christ became the expiation for sins. These scholars tend to favor the concept of expiation because of how closely it is associated with the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. Dr. J.A. Ziesler claims that hilasterion does indeed refer to the mercy of the ark of the covenant and to the Jewish sacrificial system. He further argues that the mercy seat and Jewish sacrificial system deals with sin rather than changing God's attitude. If the mercy seat and the Jewish sacrificial system only have the function of dealing with sin, then hilasterion must be translated as expiation. Furthermore, James D.G. Dunn seems to be of the same mindset as Ziesler. Dunn stated, "Anyone familiar with the LXX could hardly be unaware that the word was always used in the LXX to refer to the golden cover of the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25:17-22)."
The interpretation of hilasterion as expiation based upon its relationship to the mercy seat is credible. Twenty-one out of the twenty-seven times hilasterion occurs in the Septuagint, it translated the Hebrew term for mercy seat. In Leviticus 16, the atonement occurred at the hilasterion, the mercy seat. If hilasterion in Romans 3:25 has the meaning of mercy seat just as it does in Leviticus 16, then Paul is associating Christ with the place where atonement occurs. Thus, according to this passage, Christ became the means of providing for atonement by His "once for all sacrifice". However, unlike the Day of Atonement sacrifices recorded in Leviticus 16, God publicly displayed Christ as the means for providing atonement that would cover a man's sins. If Christ simply became the means to cover a man's sins, then the term expiation properly translates hilasterion in Romans 3:25.
Though expiation appears to be a legitimate translation for hilasterion, it does have its weaknesses. First, the word hilasterion does have other meanings in the Septuagint other than mercy seat. Also, since the Greek word hilasterion can be defined as the sacrifice needed to propitiate a god, then it is not necessary to designate the word as mercy seat in verse 25. Furthermore, given context of the book of Romans, hilasterion likely would not have alluded to the mercy seat and the Day of Atonement ritual because the Roman church would not have been familiar with the semitechnical sense of the term with its Old Testament background.
While support for translating hilasterion as expiation contains weaknesses, defining it as propitiation is strong. Yet, what does the concept of propitiation fully mean? Leon Morris provides insights to this teaching. Hilasterion, first and foremost, referred to a wide variety of objects, which do not have any connection with the Jewish Day of Atonement ritual. When the meaning of hilasterion is set apart from the influences of the Old Testament, then it comes to be defined as a votive gift which functions to remove divine wrath. Therefore, the general Greek-speaking public would have had this understanding of hilasterion as propitiation, thus, making the Old Testament reference to mercy seat foreign to them.
Therefore, God publicly displayed Christ as the sacrifice that placates His wrath in the shedding of His Son's blood. The interpretation that Jesus' blood is the means by which God's wrath is appeased developed from a careful analysis of the phrase en to autou haimati (in his blood). Two possible ways to render this phrase exist. Does the phrase function as an object of the Greek word pisteos, thus, properly being translated as "faith in His blood", or should it be understood as a modifier of hilasterion, therefore, rendered as "a propitiation in blood"? Since Paul never used en after pistis in other passages of Scriptures or made Christ's blood an object of faith, a propitiation in blood is the preferable translation. Therefore, the proper conclusion concerning Jesus' blood is that it served to propitiate God's wrath. The propitiation that only occurs through the blood of Christ can only be appropriated by faith.
The faith one places in Jesus in order to receive the propitiation that Christ's sacrifice accomplishes demonstrates God's righteousness. It demonstrates God's righteousness "because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed." It is difficult to determine how God demonstrates His righteousness in this way. There seems to be two prominent and feasible explanations. These explanations concentrate on the phrase dikaiosyne autou (His righteousness).
The first possibility interprets the phrase dikaiosyne autou as God's saving covenant faithfulness. Therefore, when this interpretation is considered, the whole clause in the second half of Romans 3:25 could be translated as "in order to manifest His saving faithfulness through His forgiving of sins committed before, [which He did] in His forbearance." Thus, this view regarding the meaning of dikaiosyne autou emphasizes the connection between God's work in Christ and His fulfilling of covenant promises. God fulfilled those covenant promises by setting Jesus forth as the means by which sins are forgiven.
In the second explanation dikaiosyne autou deals with some aspect of God's character. The characteristics of God under consideration could be God's justice, His impartiality, His fairness, or the manner in which He acts according to His character and for His glory. If this explanation were accepted then the remainder of Romans 3:25 could read with this meaning in mind, "in order to demonstrate [or show] that God is just, acting in accordance with His own character, [which was necessary] because He had passed over sins committed before, in the time of His forbearance." This rendering of dikaiosyne autou contributes to the understanding to the internal workings of the atonement. It does so by providing an explanation of the necessity of the propitiation that Christ accomplished. Thus, dikaiosyne autou demonstrates how propitiation
was necessary to meet every requirement of God's holy character. All of God's holy
requirements had to be met because in the past God restrained His punishment of sins. This
restraint of punishment raised questions about His impartial justice, and therefore, cried out for this justice to be satisfied. Christ becoming a propitiatory sacrifice could only achieve this satisfaction of justice. Since Romans 3:25 deals with the doctrine of propitiation, and the wider context of verses 21-26 concentrates on the atonement, the second interpretation for dikaiosyne autou should be preferred.
Therefore, according to verse 25 the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God. It was necessary for Christ to reveal God's righteousness in His sacrifice, "because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed." If God passed over the sins previously committed, did He for a period of time fail to execute justice? If God created a moral universe, then justice must be maintained at all times. Yet, if sins went unpunished, then in some way did God neglected justice? No, God did not neglect justice because the sacrifice of animals could not legitimately punish sins. On the contrary, the sacrifice of animals only served as a type or symbol for the sacrifice of Christ, which would satisfy the just demands of God. Therefore, when God chose to use the sacrificial system, the animals that were killed symbolically represented God's means to punish sins and provide forgiveness. However, since the sacrifice of animals cannot atone for sins, God allowed sins to go unpunished until the death of Christ satisfied God's righteousness and justice. The cross of Christ proclaims to the world that sin has been atoned for, God's righteous nature has been satisfied, and salvation has been brought to mankind.
In providing man with salvation, God manifests His righteousness at the present time.
Romans 3:26 says, "For the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that
He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." This verse concludes Paul's teaching which begins with verse 21 by indicating that God had to be just in order to justify the one who places his faith in Jesus.
God maintained and demonstrated His righteousness in His justification of sinners through the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus. Christ's shedding of blood and sacrifice enabled God to restrain the punishment of the sins committed in the past, and His propitiatory sacrifice allowed God to uphold His righteousness as He justified those who believe in Jesus. Therefore, the word referring to God being just (dikaion) is not connected to or dependent upon the word used to describe the God who justifies (dikaiounta). Simply put, God is not just or righteous because He justifies. Rather, God only maintained and demonstrated His righteousness while He justifies sinners by faith because Christ provided complete satisfaction for God's impartial, perfect justice through His propitiatory sacrifice.
Sadly, many people in modern times reject the biblical teaching that propitiation, the shedding of blood, and the redemption accomplished by Christ on the cross is necessary for God to demonstrate His righteousness as He justifies those who place their faith in Jesus. In rejecting the necessity of the atonement, they argue that these concepts of propitiation, the shedding of blood, and redemption contradict the biblical instruction on God's sovereignty and love. However, these individuals neglect the teaching that God's love is related to the doctrine of propitiation as indicated by 1 John 4:10 which states, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He love us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." The issue is not a failure on God's part to love. Rather, because God is holy and righteous, he cannot dismiss sin but must punish it. Those who do not understand why God must punish sin fail to comprehend the seriousness of sin.
Because many in the postmodern culture fail to grasp the gravity of sin, the wrath of God and the atonement wrought by Christ offends them. Postmodernists cannot comprehend that the doctrine of God's wrath abides upon those who have not placed their faith in Jesus because Scripture reveals God to be love. The question frequently asked is how can a loving God pour His wrath upon people and cast them into the eternal lake of fire. The inherent philosophy behind this question also advocates that a loving God will save all people. The underlying flaw behind this postmodernist philosophy is that man is good. However, Scripture not only teaches that all men sin (Romans 3:23), but that the wages for man's sin is death (Romans 6:23). Therefore, every man deserves death and judgment when he or she commits a sin. God, out of his goodness and righteousness condemned sin and created a place of eternal punishment called Hell. Thus, in order for God to maintain His righteousness, He must consign all the unrighteous, wicked, evildoers, sinners to Hell. The calling for every saint of God is to proclaim the truth that all men are wicked and deserve the wrath of God to fall on them. If the postmodern culture can come to grasp that God's wrath justly abides on them, then the truth of Romans 3:21-26 will assume great significance. For Romans 3:21-26 exhorts the people with the message that God manifested His righteousness through the atonement of Christ so that He might justify the sinner by His grace through faith.
Brian D. Bohannon, Is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a Masters of Divinity Degree when an emphasis in Evangelism.