Most agree that Romans 3:21–26 is the heart and apex of Paul’s teaching on the atonement, if not the key passage on atonement in the entire New Testament.
This is the first of a multi-part post of my discussion on this text in my new book The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019), 75-87, minus all footnotes.
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
This paragraph functions in the overall discourse of Romans as the major point or principle of the first eleven chapters and is the central unit to which nearly all of Romans 1–11 relates. As such and because it is also considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important foundational passages in the NT on the atonement, I will examine it more thoroughly than space permits for other NT passages.
This paragraph initiates the second major division of Romans, following 1:18–3:20, where Paul has focused on proving the case that all people—Jews and Gentiles—are separated from God due to sin and are rightfully recipients of His wrath and judgment because of their sin (Rom 1:18). Romans 3:21–26 explains what constitutes God’s provision for the sin problem. The paragraph is composed of two sentences in the Greek text: 3:21–22a; 22b–26.
The first sentence (vv. 21–22a) states the fact that God has revealed He can declare people righteous so their sins can be forgiven and they can be brought back into a right relationship with God. The second sentence is comprised of two parts, 3:22b–24 and 3:22b–26. The first part states that God declares righteous people who put their faith in Christ. The second part explains how God can do this: Christ has atoned for the sins of all humanity by His death on the cross.
The initial conjunctive phrase “But now” in verse 21 (and again in verse 26, creating an inclusio) marks a total reversal from 1:18–3:20, which focuses on all humanity lying under the wrath and judgment of God because of sin. The wrath of God is now counterbalanced by the righteousness of God. God’s solution to the sin problem is His revelation and offer of righteousness—a right standing before Him, made available to sinners through the atonement provided by God through Christ. Hultgren defines God’s “righteousness” as “God’s [saving] activity by which he justifies, or sets relationships right, between humanity and himself. As a consequence, humanity has been set free from the power of sin (3:9), a freedom that is received proleptically by faith (3:25).” This righteousness combines God’s righteous character, His saving initiative, and the resultant right standing before Him when a person believes.
Paul stresses God’s saving initiative in the provision of the atonement and righteousness for fallen humanity by stating that this righteousness is “from God.” Paul’s logic is summarized by Green: “This logic introduces Christ’s dual role in his death—his substitution for humanity before God and in the face of God’s justice, but also his substitution for God in the face of human sin.”
The noun “righteousness” or its verbal form “to make righteous; to justify” occurs seven times in this paragraph. This righteousness made available is not something totally new in that even the OT Law and Prophets spoke about it. Paul further declares that this “right standing” before God is acquired by means of faith in Christ. It is a right standing available to “all” without any distinction or exception. “Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in the new covenant, as part of the new age.”
This righteousness is not automatically bestowed on anyone. The condition for its reception is faith in Christ. All are sinners, a universal category. All may be made righteous by meeting the one condition: faith in Christ. J. B. Lightfoot makes the important point that the concept of God’s righteousness in this context is twofold: It is something inherent in God, and it is something communicated to the believer. “There is thus both the external act, what is done for us, and the inherent change, what is done in us.” Likewise Schreiner correctly notes “that God’s righteousness has two dimensions. On the one hand, it refers to God’s work in history that was manifested in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the righteousness of God is also subjectively appropriated in the present by faith.”
Paul emphasizes the way in which this righteousness of God is received—“through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (Rom 3:22)—by the double reference to “faith” and “believe.” Paul is also emphasizing the universality of redemption, the universal availability of God’s righteousness to all people. It is available only through faith in in Christ, but it is available to anyone who has faith in Christ. The “all” is emphasized by the following phrase, “For there is no difference.” God shows no partiality as Paul established in Rom 2:11.