This is the third of a four-part post of my discussion on Romans 3:21-26 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. Rom 3:21-26 is the key atonement text in the New Testament. See Part 1 and Part 2.
“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 text employs several key atonement terms. First, on the cross Christ provided “redemption” (24b). Second, Christ provided “propitiation” (25a). Third, Christ provided justification (25b–26). The Greek word translated “redemption” (apolytrōseōs) is a commercial term borrowed from the marketplace. While “redemption” is the translation most often used, the word has a range of meanings including “acquittal,” “release,” and “deliverance.” In the OT, the term was used of slaves set free from bondage and Israel redeemed (set free) from Egyptian captivity. In some NT texts, apolytrosis does not specifically include the payment of a price, but “invariably the notion of ‘cost’ is present,” and the main focus is on deliverance through payment of a price. The word appears in Rom 3:24 and in Luke 21:28; Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 1:30; Eph 1:7, 14; Col 1:14; and Heb 9:15; 11:35. “In this particular case [Rom 3:24] it signifies being set free from the power of sin as the dominating condition of humanity (Rom 3:9) and, as a consequence, being set free from the divine wrath at the final judgment (Rom 5:9).”
This redemption is “in Christ Jesus.” Paul often uses this phrase to refer to believers who have experienced redemption and are thus in union with Christ, hence, redemption viewed from the perspective of having been both accomplished and applied. Such is not the case in Rom 3:24. Here Paul is using the instrumental case in Greek—the phrase addresses the means whereby God has accomplished redemption, irrespective of its application. Other examples of this usage in Paul include Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 1:4; 15:22; 2 Cor 5:19; Gal 3:14; and here in Rom 3:24. In Rom 3:24, Paul is affirming “justification occurs through redemption and in Christ Jesus. Grace is the efficient cause of justification, but its instrumental cause is redemption.”
The Greek word translated “propitiation” (hilastērion, the only use in the Pauline corpus) is capable of three possible meanings: (1) “mercy seat” (Hb. kapporet, Exod 25:17–22), alluding to the golden slab atop the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies in the tabernacle and later the temple; (2) expiation of sin on the basis of sacrifice; (3) propitiation (including expiation of sin). No doubt all three meanings inhere in Paul’s usage (we do not need to succumb to the false dichotomy of whether Paul intends “propitiation” or “expiation”), but “propitiation” is the best translation for the Greek word.
Usage of hilastērion and its cognates includes the notion of God’s wrath and expiation of sin. The previous context of Rom 1:18–3:20 makes this clear. God’s wrath is the result of human sin (1:18), and the judgment of God against sin involves His wrath (2:5; 3:5–6). As Stott so aptly puts it: “Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself.”
This act of atonement was also a “demonstration” of divine forbearance in the OT that postponed judgment and illustrated divine justice in the NT, which exacted justice in fulfillment of the Law. Hence God is said to be both “just and the justifier” (Rom 3:26). As Schreiner notes, the question is not “How can God justly punish people for their sins?” but “How can God justly forgive anyone?” Paul’s answer is that God’s forgiveness does not obscure His righteousness; it displays His righteousness. Pendleton expresses it well: “In short, the atonement of Christ exerts so important an influence on the throne of God, as to make its occupant ‘just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.’ Rom. iii. 26. . . . Without the atonement we should have heard of God as just and the condemner—with it we hear of him as ‘just and the justifier.’”
The means of this justification is three times stated to be faith in Christ, a necessity for the application of the benefits of the atonement. The atonement is not ipso facto applied to anyone. There is a condition of faith which must be met, a condition annexed by God Himself.
Some have questioned why the phrase “by His blood, through faith” (Rom 3:25) is mentioned at this point in the argument. They suggest that the best interpretation of the context is to construe the meaning of “through faith” as a parallel expression to “by His blood,” thus denoting not the human response for the reception of grace, as in the previous reference, but here the faithfulness of Jesus demonstrated in His obedience to the cross. While this is a possible interpretation, Schreiner’s rationale for taking the phrase as a reference to believer’s faith in Christ wins the day.
In verse 24, the phrase “being justified” must refer back to the “all” in 3:23. The “all” is an inclusive group that can hardly be qualified, according to Cousar. The present tense participle translated “being justified” indicates that Paul is stating a principle and not speaking of actual individuals who have experienced God’s justifying act. The stress is on the way in which God justifies—He does so “freely by His grace.” However, “be . . . the justifier of” in 3:26 (the same Greek verb, dikaioō, translated as “being justified” in v. 24) does not refer to the “all” who have sinned (v. 23) but to “the one who has faith in Jesus.” Paul moves from the principle of justification, which is possible for the “all” who have sinned to the specific individual who is declared righteous or is justified because he has expressed faith in Jesus. Faith is the condition for justification to occur.
Hultgren notes that there are two types of statements of God’s justifying activity in the Pauline letters. One type does not mention faith but expresses or implies the justification of all humanity (Rom 3:24; 5:6–9). These texts are found in strongly theocentric contexts.
The Christological grounding is found in Rom 5:12–21, where the universal availability and offer of grace in Christ exceeds the universality of Adam’s sin. Unless Christ died for the sins of all, the universality of grace cannot surpass the universality of Adam’s sin. God does not act prejudicially, with arbitrary love, toward only some and not all people. Christ is available to save anyone and everyone who believes because atonement has been made for the sins of everyone. God offers the same grace to all; “For there is no difference” (Rom 3:22)—a statement that does not mean there are no ethnic distinctions, which would be obviously false. Rather, there is no distinction in terms of preferring one and neglecting the other. “All have sinned” makes any distinction moot.
The second type of statement explicitly mentions faith (either as a verb or noun) and tends toward a forensic interpretation of God’s justifying activity (Rom 3:22,26; 5:1; 10:4).
Hultgren makes the point that the two statements need to be distinguished but seen as related. Methodologically, the universal statements demand prior consideration. “Only in light of them should the more specialized statements of justification by faith be taken up. In turn, each type has its particular function to perform in the strategy of the letters.” Paul speaks of Christ’s death as providing “redemption” (Rom 3:24), which is released from bondage through the payment of a price. This price, which was paid at the cross, was the blood of Christ shed for the sins of the world.
However, like justification, the effect of “redemption” is not ipso facto liberating to anyone. It must first be applied to each person, and the condition of its application is faith in Christ, as Paul reiterates three times in Rom 3:21–26. In the Greek text, verses 25–26 comprise one long clause, the first five words of which comprise the main proposition: “God presented Him as a propitiation.” The means by which God justifies sinners is Christ’s death on the cross as a “redemption” and “propitiation.” On the lexical meaning and usage of these terms, see chapter 1, “Atonement: Terminology and Concepts.”
In Rom 3:24–26, God’s action with respect to human sin is, first, universal in scope. The death of Jesus effects a complete change in the situation between sinful humanity and God. In the context, grace that is available to all and offered to all on the grounds of an atonement for the sins of all is essential to Paul’s argument that with God there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles. Because there is no distinction, therefore there is no difference in the provision of the atonement for the sins of all and the offer of salvation to all people.