This is the fourth and final post of my discussion on Romans 3:21-26 from 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, Part 2, and Part 3.
“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.”
To summarize, justification is by the death of Christ, in so far as its basis is concerned; it is by the grace of God, in so far as its cause is concerned; it is by faith, in so far as its application is concerned. Paul asserts three key points in this paragraph: (1) All human beings are equal in their confirmed sin state and are in need of salvation. (2) Christ has provided an atonement for the sins of all people through His own death on the cross. (3) All people have equal access to God’s righteousness through faith in Christ. There is an equality between Jews and Gentiles (i.e., all humanity) in terms of judgment, according to Rom 1:18–3:20, and there is an equality between Jews and Gentiles (i.e., all humanity) in the possibility of salvation, as stated in Rom 3:21–26 and again, in summary fashion, in Romans 9–11, especially 11:32.
What does this paragraph say about the intent, extent, and application of the atonement? Concerning intent, atonement is necessary for God to accomplish His goal of providing His righteousness to people. Also, God apparently desires that all people avail themselves of His provision of righteousness. “There is no difference,” according to Rom 3:22. According to some, nevertheless, God makes a distinction between the elect and the reprobate with respect to His intention to save. The elect are elect unconditionally by God in eternity past. Reasons for this election are not stated in Scripture. For reasons known only to Himself, God has no special intention of saving the non-elect. Moreover, this text makes no mention of election in relationship to the atonement and people who have faith in Christ. A question worth asking is: How can God be said to be righteous if He arbitrarily selects some to save from their sins yet passes over others? If He chooses to save all or none, His righteousness would not be called into question. But if He chooses some to be saved and some to be reprobated, it is difficult to see how His divine character can fail to be impugned on this point.
Concerning the extent of the atonement, the clear implication is that it has been accomplished for all people and not for only some. This comports with many other texts that affirm in a straightforward manner the unlimited extent of the atonement as being for the sins of all people (Mark 10:45; John 1:29; 3:16; Rom 5:8, 18–19; 1 Cor 15:3–4; 2 Cor 5:14–21; 1 Tim 2:4–6; Titus 2:14; Heb 2:9; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 2:2).
Those who affirm limited atonement assert that, with respect to the extent of the atonement, God has distinguished two categories of the human race—those for whose sins Jesus died and those for whose sins He did not die. Limitarians believe that Christ eventually justifies (declares righteous) only those for whom He died. Romans 3:21–26 does not say this. God declares righteous everyone who believes in Christ.
The thrust of the text is the assertion of a righteousness available to all on the grounds of atonement and on condition of faith, the latter point being mentioned three times by Paul. The “all” who have sinned can be justified freely by God’s grace. There is no limitation or conditionality with respect to the provision of the atonement itself. Christ does not become a propitiation only when people believe in Him. He is the propitiation for all sin and all sinners, whether believers or unbelievers (1 John 2:2). The only conditionality concerns the application of the atonement to an individual sinner, and that condition is clearly stated to be faith in Christ. As all are sinners, so all may be made righteous if they meet God’s condition for salvation—faith in Christ.
This passage places no limitation in the atonement itself. The limitation has to do with the application of the atonement. The application is limited by a condition that must necessarily be fulfilled for salvation (justification, forgiveness, redemption) to occur: faith. God declares people righteous by means of providing redemption for them. He does this by means of His atonement for them (v. 24). Justification (being declared righteous by God) is grounded in redemption (release through payment of the price of the cross—i.e., the death of Jesus), is conditioned on faith in Christ, and occurs on the grounds of and by means of atonement (the satisfaction of the wrath of God via the expiation of sin). The application of the atonement is based on meeting God’s required condition: faith. God justifies all who believe on Christ.