This is the second 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. See Part 1 here.
“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 revealed righteousness is not something that would have come as a surprise to Moses and the prophets. The promises God made through the Law and the Prophets have now come to fulfillment in Christ. In interesting fashion, Paul declares that this righteousness offered to sinners is simultaneously continuous and discontinuous with the law. Obedience to the law is not, and never was, the basis for access to salvation. The law does, however possess a prophetic function for Paul. The promise of the Law and the Prophets is seen many times throughout the OT.
“This promise periodically emerges in the scenes of the biblical story like a flashing light pointing people to an emergency exit. This salvific promise is tacitly mentioned, elsewhere typified by example, and even explicitly prophesied in an array of verses, visions, victims, and victories in the biblical discourse.”
Paul continues by connecting this “righteousness” from God with justification. Believers are “justified freely” and by God’s “grace” (Rom 3:22–24). The means for this justification is “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). God Himself “set forth” Christ as a “propitiation.” Notice the connection between the propitiation or atoning sacrifice of Christ and “His blood,” signifying His sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross. In doing so, God demonstrated His own righteousness in “passing over” the sins of humanity prior to the final sacrifice for sins by Christ on the cross (v. 25).
Appeal can be made to Acts 17:30, which expresses the idea that the demonstration of God’s righteousness through Christ’s cross was necessary because sins had been passed over, meaning they had not been permanently forgiven.63 Until the time of Christ’s atonement, God had initiated a stay of execution, so to speak. He temporarily withheld His full and final judgment against sin. Until the cross, sins committed from Adam and Eve onward “were neither punished as they deserved nor atoned for as they were going to be.”
Paul is answering the question articulated by John Stott: How can the unrighteous of all sinners before the death of Christ on the cross be declared righteous by God without compromising His own righteous character or condoning our unrighteousness?
“At the present time,” i.e., at the time of Paul’s writing, God had “demonstrated” His righteousness by fully and finally dealing with the sin problem in the cross of Christ. Now, God Himself can justly declare as righteous anyone who has faith in Jesus because of the objective atonement in history.
This offer of a right standing before God is based on God’s saving initiative coupled with His righteous character and grounded in the atonement of Christ. The offer is to all because (1) atonement has been made for all, and (2) a right standing before God is needed by all.
When Paul speaks of “justification,” he is speaking of pardon for sin in the sense that sin is forgiven because the penalty for sin has been met. But that is not all. Justification is the bestowal of a righteous status in a legal sense. But that, too, is not all. Justification includes a sinner’s reinstatement into fellowship with God. It is not just a matter of the judge saying to the guilty party, “You are free. Your debt is paid.” In this case, God says to the sinner, “You are now in a new relationship with Me through My love—a relationship I have made possible by paying your penalty.”
John Stott helpfully summarizes what is happening in Rom 3:21–26. He notes that the source of our justification is God and His grace; the ground for our justification is Christ and His cross; and the means of our justification is our faith in Christ.