Romans 3:21-28


After a greeting and stating his desire to come to Rome (1:1-15) Paul had summarized the whole Epistle in two verses (1:16-17). Then followed a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) on man's sin and God's consequent wrath because of sin. Left to himself man and his condition are hopeless.  "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin."  3:20. At this point (3:21) begins the lengthy section on justification by faith (3:21-5:21).

Formula of Concord, Epitome, Good Works, Tappert 474.7: We believe, teach, and confess that if we would preserve the pure doctrine concerning the righteousness of faith before God, we must give special attention to the exclusive terms, that is, to those words of the holy apostle Paul which separate the merit of Christ completely from our own works and give all glory to Christ alone. Thus the holy apostle Paul uses such expressions as 'by grace', 'without merit', 'without the law', 'without works', 'not by works', etc. All these expressions say in effect that we become righteous and are saved 'alone by faith' in Christ.

Note the exclusive terms in our text. Salvation by works or merit and salvation by grace through faith are mutually exclusive. Note how emphatic the exclusive particle is in verse 20. And note the similarity between verses 21 and 28 in our text. Both have the exclusive particle in common.

Romans 3:21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.

Bengel: 'Now' introduces the antithesis, but includes also the idea of time.
Franzmann: It is the 'now' of the time of God's favor, the 'now' of the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Stoeckhardt: Paul does not contrast the Christian era with the pre-Christian era, but rather the Christian estate with the non-Christian.

Here "law" denotes the Mosaic law or any other code of ethics which says  "do"  and  "don't"  to people.

Franzmann: The Law with its 'This DO, and thou shalt live' plays no positive role here.

Here  "righteousness" has the same meaning as at 1:17, imputed righteousness. All Lutheran commentators point out that this is a forensic term.

Stoeckhardt: This righteousness of God rests outside of us in God, in God's judgment, and so is as firm and immovable as God Himself. . . He whom God declares righteous is righteous, even though all the world and all devils condemn him, even though his own conscience pronounces him guilty and judges him. . . . The righteousness of which he speaks is identical to the forgiveness of sins.

 "Made known" is the perfect passive, punctiliar-durative. That means that it has been revealed and continues to be revealed. He will explain later how it was revealed.

The prepositional phrase which follows denotes agent. The expression  "the Law and the Prophets" denotes the entire Old Testament. The Old Testament saints had the forgiveness of sins by faith but did not see the fulfillment of the promises. Compare what Jesus says at Luke 10:23.24.

Bengel: This phrase removes all danger of supposing that the apostle was speaking of a righteousness which was opposed or strange to the Old Testament.
Stoeckhardt says: The apostle does not refer merely to such passages of the Old Testament which mention that righteousness, as Genesis 15:6; Habukuk 2:4, but especially to the prophecy of the Old Covenant concerning Christ and salvation in Christ.
Apology, IV Justification, Tappert 113.41 says: Paul says 'Now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from Law' (Romans 3:21), that is, the forgiveness of sins is offered freely. Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits.

Note that "forgiveness of sins" and "reconciliation" are used as synonyms for "the righteousness of God." 

Romans 3:22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,

This verse is an emphatic expansion on the subject of verse 21. The exclusive "this" excludes all the work, merit or worthiness of human beings.

Arndt: The apostle does not mean to say that faith produces righteousness. That is excluded by the whole connection. . . . It (the righteousness) has been achieved. It is offered in the Gospel. Hence it is something that comes to us offered as a finished product.

Jesus is the content of the Gospel which Paul preaches.  "All who believe" means that only believers benefit from this righteousness. It does not mean that God redeemed only the believers. The last four words of this verse exclude such a thought: "You see, there is no distinction."  Arndt and Stoeckhardt take this to mean:  "There is no distinction among believers."  With Bengel, Franzmann and Lenski we state that it includes all men.

Bengel: Jews and Gentiles are both accused and justified in the same way. The same phrase occurs in 10:12.

Chapter five makes very clear what is meant by  "There is no distinction." 

Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

The  "for" clause at the end of verse 22 clarified the preceding words. Here we have another "for" which clarifies the final words in verses 22.

"All have sinned" means all people of all ages.  "Glory" , look at John 5:41-44, means "approval."  Jesus' enemies were seeking approval from each other. Jesus was seeking the approval of His heavenly Father.

Arndt: Man at first had this glory of God. But through sin this glory was lost.
Bengel: But for their sinning, they would have enjoyed God's good pleasure.
Lenski: 'Glory' here has no connection with God's own essential glory; it is not the glory of heaven, nor with divine image in which man was created. The word is used in its very first meaning: 'good opinion'.

Romans 3:24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Note that faith is not mentioned in this verse.

Franzmann: Only an act of God can restore him from ungodliness to communion with God. ..God justifies, pronounces righteous, unrighteous man; He 'justifies the ungodly'. (4:5)

That is evidently the way Luther understood it.

 The Smalcald Articles,  Part II, Christ and Faith, Tappert 292.1-3: The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, 'was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification' Romans:25. He alone is 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world' (John 1:29). 'God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all' (Isaiah 53:6). Moreover, 'all have sinned', and 'they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood.' (Romans 3:23-25).

"Freely" or  "for nothing" is explained by the remainder of the clause. First we have a dative of cause "because of His grace."  The grace of God, the moving cause, lay behind the coming of Christ. Next follows the meritorious cause "through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus."  Christ has redeemed all people from sin, guilt, wrath, and eternal damnation.

Lenski: The sense of 'redemption that came through Jesus Christ' is most adequately supported by synonymous terms: 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; Galatians. 3:12; Acts 20:28; Titus 2:4. Especially instructive are Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 where Jesus speaks of giving his life as a ransom and in 1 Timothy 2:6 which mentions his 'ransom in place' of all.

Romans 3:25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--

"Him" is a relative pronoun whose antecedent is "Christ."  It introduces a dependent clause. But TEV, NIV, NEB, and AAT start a fresh sentence here making "him" not "whom." That does not disturb the intended sense. English likes shorter sentences than does Koine Greek.

"Presented" is variously translated as "set forth, put forward, offered, presented, appointed, designed, publicly set."  What all of these have in common is that God has plainly made His Son, Jesus, known as the "sacrifice of atonement." 

The commentaries point out that "sacrifice of atonement" in the Old Testament is the LXX translation for the lid on the Ark of the Covenant. Read Exodus 25: 17 -22 for its significance as a type of Christ. This cover covered the ten commandments in the Ark. Thus Christ covers our sins. This cover was the place where God and sinful man met.

Commentators have had difficulty with the word "atonement."  Some translate "," some "expiation."  Both can be understood.

Franzmann: Whatever term is used, the Godward reference of the sacrifice ought to be made clear, and the fact that Christ 'gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice TO GOD' (Ephesian 5:2), should not be ignored. Perhaps a translation like Goodspeed's 'sacrifice of reconciliation', or 'atoning sacrifice' will do.
Stoeckhardt: The Lord put all our sins upon Him and imputed them to Him. Isaiah 53:6. God made Him to be sin for us Who knew no sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21. And Christ of His own free will took our sins upon Himself. Isaiah 53:4; 1 Peter 2:24. Once and for all He atoned for the sins and the guilt of the whole world, He turned God's wrath into pleasure.

Look at Leviticus 16:13-15, and Hebrews 9. Also 1 John 2:2. Arndt, Lenski, and Stoeckhardt are lengthy in their exegesis of this verse, though they are not unanimous in their explanation of every point.

The phrase "through faith in His blood" does not mean that there is no  "atoning sacrifice" until there is faith but it does mean that this ransom does the individual no good until faith in mere human merit and works is abandoned and is substituted, by grace, with the faith which the Holy Spirit works. The ransom was made effective by and in His blood. Christ's blood.

The meaning of  "justice," both in this verse and in 26 has caused commentators trouble. Arndt considers it to mean  "the personal justice of God, one of His essential attributes" but in 26 he says it means the imputed righteousness of God in Christ. Bengel takes it the same way.

Bengel: In the law God is seen as just and condemning; in the Gospel, he is seen as being just himself, and justifying the sinner .
Kretzmann: Before the coming of Christ, the divine justice, on account of the righteousness of God, had demanded the punishment of sinners. And the full punishment had been meted out to Christ, the Substitute for all sinners of all times. . . . And in sending forth Christ to make this vicarious sacrifice, and in being in Christ for the reconciliation of the world, God justified the sinners, pronounced them pure and righteous.
Franzmann: God's manifested righteousness of the Judge who punishes sin with death and the redeeming righteousness of the Savior who bestows righteousness as His gift upon inglorious man.

The ransom can be one's own only by faith. The ransom is effective only "in, through" the blood of Jesus. The ransom took place to display God's justice (sin had to be paid for). The ransom took place to make clear that God had passed by the sins which had been committed before. This does not mean that God was permissive or that men were not held responsible. Forgiveness was plainly available in the promise of God. But God waited for centuries to make crystal clear that His avenging justice would be satisfied only in the bloody death of His Son.

Arndt: Grace has to adopt this peculiar method, that is, it had to provide a substitute for mankind.
Bengel: In the blood and atoning death of Christ, God's righteousness was exhibited, with his vengeance against sin itself.
Stoeckhardt: By letting sin go unpunished before Christ, God had in mind just this demonstration of His righteousness in the New Testament era. Divine righteousness demanded punishment. What moved God to redeem sinners was exclusively His free grace.

Five more prepositional phrases in this verse! Our English versions take the first one with verse 25. It is variously rendered:  "in his divine forbearance, he was patient, because he held his hand, He had patiently passed by the sins."  This by no means says that God was permissive or had a different standard of justice at that time.

Arndt: God formerly had let sins go by without punishing them. That might have created the impression that he was not just. But when His appointed time had arrived, He did punish every sin. God was forbearing and postponing the meting out of punishment in the time of the Old Testament. He waited till Christ came who bore all penalties.
Stoeckhardt: By letting sin go unpunished before Christ, God had in mind just this demonstration of His righteousness in the New Testament era.

God's "passing over" sin and His forbearance are not meant to minimize sin's enormity and man's culpability but rather to magnify the saving grace of God, the vicarious shedding of Jesus ' blood and the imputed righteousness of God in Christ.

In verse 26 we have "demonstrate His justice" almost verbatim the same as in verse 25. Everyone agrees that this time we have a purpose clause which indicates the imputed righteousness of God which is made possible through the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ.

Franzmann: In going the way of ransom and of atoning sacrifice He asserted to the full the righteousness, in every sense of the word 'righteousness'; His Son, in virtue of a sacrifice which He himself provided. God's manifested righteousness is at one and the same time, in one and the same act, both the righteousness of the Judge who punishes sin with death and the redeeming righteousness of the Savior who bestows righteousness as His gift upon inglorious man.
Franzmann again: But now at the supreme hour of history , in the great 'now' of deliverance, He had in the cross shown forth beyond all doubt His righteousness as Judge; He has shown that all His 'passing over' of men's former sins was just that, a suspension of judgment that had this hour in view. Look at Galatians 4:4

That leaves us with the last clause in verse 26, a purpose clause beginning with  "because" as its introductory word. The antecedent is God. By the way, note that God is stated or referred to once in verse 21, once in 22, once in 23, once in 24, twice in 25, and thrice in 26. Christ is stated or referred to once in 22, once in 24, twice in 25, and once in 26.

But back to our final clause in verse 26. Note that ancient manuscripts, uncials F and G, the Old Latin and Ambrosiaster lack the Greek  "kai."  That would make the clause mean:  "so that He is the just justifier of the one who believes in Jesus."  None of our versions drop the word. All translate it with "and."  Lenski calls the word explicative (epexegetical).

Lenski: The result is not two things, but one. Its meaning is 'that he is righteous and that he is this as (or by) declaring the believer in Jesus righteous.'

So far as we know, no one else agrees with Lenski. Simply stated the clause comforts the guilty sinner both about the character of God and what He has done for the guilty sinner. God can be trusted completely and His action can be trusted completely.

Arndt: On account of the justice of God, which could not be violated, grace had to adopt this peculiar method, that is, it had to provide a substitute for mankind.
Bengel: We have here the greatest paradox of the Gospel; for, in the law, God is seen as just and condemning; in the Gospel, he is seen as being just himself, and justifying the sinner.
Kretzmann: In demanding from Christ, the Substitute of sinners, the full payment of the guilt of sin, God proved Himself to be the Just One. And in sending forth Christ to make this vicarious sacrifice, and in being in Christ for the reconciliation of the world, God justified the sinners, pronounced them pure and righteous.
Stoeckhardt: God sent forth Christ to be a propitiation that he might be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus. God wanted to be just; therefore, He punished sin in Christ. God wanted to be the Justifier of sinners; therefore, He redeemed sinners through Christ's death and blood, through the punishment executed upon Christ. And once more Paul mentions that it is faith which applies Christ's redemption and the resulting justification.

Romans 3:26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

This verse rules out salvation by merit or works. In the article of justification faith is not a good work. It totally excludes works. Justification is received by faith exclusively. True. But note verses 23-24. All men have sinned. All men have been justified. We find that again and again in this Epistle.

Romans 3:27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.

"Boasting" is an active noun.

Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

It is difficult to decide whether "Therefore" (BCD Majority) or "For" (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) is the correct reading. AAT omits it altogether: "We are convinced etc."  If the first is read it denotes a conclusion:  "Therefore we conclude etc." If the second is read it denotes an explanation: "For we maintain etc."  Either makes it perfectly clear.

Luther preferred the latter:  So halten wir es nun, dasz der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben. 

By the way, Luther was severely criticized by Rome for adding the word "alone" but it is surely implicit here and besides.

Bengel: Volumes are on sale, abounding with testimonies of persons who used the word 'allein' (only) before Luther. . . . Justification takes place through faith itself, not in so far as it is faith, or a work of the law, but, in so far as it is faith in Christ, laying hold of Christ.
Arndt: Faith viewed simply as the means of appropriating. It is the  organon lepticon. 
Stoeckhardt: Works do not come into consideration before God when He justifies sinners. . . .Even the truly good works of the converted do not satisfy God. . . . Not faith as an act of the human will, not the act of apprehending, but the thing which faith apprehends justifies man.

Faith is only as good as its object, which causes the faith in the first place. If a mother, whom the child had learned by experience to trust, says:  "We are going to have steak for supper"  the child will firmly believe that they will have steak. If a criminal, beyond the shadow of a doubt, has murdered five people but says: "I am totally innocent"  people refuse to believe him.

In this verse note that  "man" means  "person"  (man, woman or child).

 "Apart from observing the law" reminds one again of verse 20 and 21 and is an  "exclusive term" shutting out the works, worthiness, or merit of mankind.

Ever since the fall of man into sin all people, both Christians and non-Christians, have the perverted old Adam who tries to deceive us into thinking that we can be justified by works but, on the other hand, have freedom from doing the works of the law. The first is clearly seen by the fact that people try their best to rationalize a bad product as if it were good. For example, when a student takes a test and gives wrong answers he will often attempt to justify his wrong answers. The second is clearly seen by the fact that people try their best to rationalize freedom from the law where God has made none. For example, teachers are often tempted to think that they are above error.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 9-13. Used with permission.

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