The Bible’s Greatest Text

Text: Romans 3:21-26

Introduction:  John 3:16 is probably the best known verse in the Bible. It surely is one of the most important. But, like any other text of Scripture it must be properly understood. After all there is no shortage of interpretations of John 3:16 that distort its meaning (i.e., the various cults). If one wishes to understand the Biblical meaning of that great text you must turn to Romans 3:21-26. Paul has challenged human pride with its peacock’s feathers in chapters one and two of Romans. He has shown convincingly man’s fatal disease of sin, sin original and total. And that which makes man so pitiful in his state is that he is for the most part blind to his sin. Too common is the view of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, “Sin is the mere moonshine of an antediluvian Calvinism.” In much that passes for evangelicalism today we hear things like “Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking.” Or, “I’d just like to share that we just need to target holiness as a growth area.” Where sin is concerned, people mumble now.[i]  When there is no recognition of sin, there is felt no need of the saving cross of Christ. The crucified Christ becomes unnecessary to the life of the church, and biblical gospel preaching is no longer heard. Job expressed the problem that the gospel is intended to solve in this way, “I know it is so of a truth; but how should man be just before God?” (9:2). Later on in his book he wrote, “How then can man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (25:4). It is the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ that through the redemption accomplished by Him we may extol the wisdom and mercy of a God “that justifieth the ungodly” (cf. Rom. 4:5). The section of Romans to which we now turn gives the solution to Job’s problem. It contains the normative passage on the great Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Leon Morris has referred to this passage as “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”[ii] Calvin declares ‘that there is not probably in the whole Bible a passage which sets forth more profoundly the righteousness of God in Christ.’[iii]

I.          The Manifestation of Justification

A.        Its Relationships (Rom. 3:21):  The words “But now” (NUNI DE) are according to A. T. Robertson, an emphatic logical transition.[iv] The words, then, make the turn in the argument. The righteousness of God, which in the theme verses was said to have been “revealed” (cf. 1:17), is now said to have been “manifested.”

B.        That is the state of the plot in Romans at this point:  That is the state of the plot in Romans at this point. The righteousness of God is said to be apart from the Law, and yet witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. In other words the righteousness is not gained by legal effort, or by the works of the Law. And yet at the same time it is not contrary to the Law, for the Law did not teach that man gained life by good works. Rather, the Law brought by its demands, which man could not meet, the knowledge of sin (cf. 3:20). The Old Testament witnessed to the righteousness that was apart from legal works. It taught that righteousness came by the merits of a Redeemer who justified men by faith (cf. Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4; Psa. 32:1-2; Isa. 8:14; 28:16; 59:20-21, –all these texts are used by Paul in Romans). The Old Testament sacrifices by a kind of Pavlovian conditioned reflex impressed upon the minds of the Israelites the fact that God was to be approached only on the ground of sacrifice, and that forgiveness was received only on the ground of the blood that was shed (cf. Heb. 9:22).

C.        Its rationale (Rom. 3:22):  Its rationale (Rom. 3:22). Further explanation is given in this verse, Paul setting forth the rationale of the righteousness. It is a faith righteousness (cf. 1:17). It is given by the instrumentality of faith in Jesus Christ to all believers. This is necessary, namely, that it be through faith and not by works, because there is no difference in the sinnerhood of all men.

D.        Its reason (Rom. 3:23):  Its reason (Rom. 3:23). All men fail, for both Jews and Gentiles are sinners. This clear statement of universal sinfulness is basic to Paul’s understanding of the human predicament and also of the salvation Christ brought. Were it not for our sin there would have been no need for Christ’s redemptive activity; because of our sin there is no possibility of our achieving salvation by our own efforts.[v] The verb translated “come short” (HUSTEROUNTAI) is in the present tense and is followed by the ablative case, the case of separation. Thus it conveys the idea of continued action i.e., still falling short. Men have all sinned, and they are constantly coming short of the glory of God. But what is meant by “the glory of God”? Shedd refers the words to “the approbation of God.”[vi] Others have suggested the image of God, or original and future glory.[vii] Paul, of course, does not say that all come equally short of the standard. The standard is nothing less than perfection, and nothing less can pass. That means that the lack of an inch is as fatal as the lack of a foot. Thus, in the light of God’s standard (cf. Matt. 5:20; 22:37), religion, culture, educations, good works, and religious ordinances cannot save. Man is lost; his mouth is “stopped” before the demands of a just and holy Sovereign. The preaching of biblical sin, wrath, condemnation, hell, and justification, regeneration, heaven, and glory has been neglected. These are the things the apostles talk about. They do not speak of “self-doubt,” “self-worth,” and “personality difficulties.” In fact, modern psychology, although it may contain some genuine insights, is entirely too superficial in its major emphases to be called apostolic. Paul’s necessary and inevitable note concerning man’s state is that he is a sinner, under divine judgment. His fate is death (cf. 6:23).

II.         The Description of Justification

A.        The manner or principle (Rom. 3:24, ‘freely”):  Two words demand definition, if we are to understand the apostle here. They are the words to justify, and propitiation. The former word is often misunderstood, being given the force of to make righteous or to be righteous. In spite of able and learned attempts to make the word mean to make righteous,[viii] it must be given the forensic, or legal, sense of to declare righteous (cf. Deut. 25:1; I Kings 8:32; Isa. 5:23; Rom. 2:13; 3:4; 4:3-25 [notice the use of the word to reckon with righteousness]; 5:17, “the gift of righteousness”).[ix] Thus, we shall use it in the sense of to declare a believer righteous by virtue of the imputation of the merits of the crucified Savior, Jesus Christ. The other word, “propitiation,” may be loosely paraphrased by the word satisfaction. It may in this instance mean mercy-seat, for it is doubtful that a Jew could fail to make the connection, since the root was commonly used in the Old Testament for that part of the furniture of the tabernacle where the blood was sprinkled in the most holy place. Since the article is lacking from the word in Paul’s usage here, the emphasis rests upon the mercifulness of the mercy-seat. It, the cross, is a MERCY-seat. The apostle speaks of the manner, or principle, of justification in the use of the adverb, “DOREAN, freely.” It is rendered by the phrase, “without a cause,” in John 15:25 and by “for nought” in II Thessalonians 3:8. It is clear that the word here underscores the grace that underlies God’s dealings with man in justification. In fact, the words, “by his grace,” simply emphasize and explain the adverb, “freely.” In the words of Cranfield they “support and confirm each other.”[x] It is what Lenski calls “pure, abounding, astounding grace.”[xi]

B.        The method (Rom. 3:24-25a):  In the course of the exposition of the method of justification Paul refers to the instrumentality of redemption. The word Paul uses is a beautiful intensive word. He might have used the simple LUTROSIS, ransoming, but he used the APOLUTROSIS, which means a ransoming away. In other words, as Deissmann points out, justification is not through the ransoming, but the ransoming away, which is in Christ Jesus. It suggests the fact that we shall never again come into the same slavery to sin.[xii] Cf. Lev. 16:22. To sum up the apostle’s description of the method, as it is presented here, we can say that the Father provided that which was the satisfaction of His holiness and justice in their claims against man. That satisfaction was secured by the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the mercy-seat, and it was His blood that secured the redemption. There is no Cain-way of approach to God. Cf. Lev. 16:9, 15-19. Thus, it was the satisfaction of the divine holiness and its claims on man in judgment through the death of the Representative of His people that secured the redemption from the bondage of sin. It is clear that inherent in the doctrine of the atonement as set forth here is the affirmation of substitution, penal sacrifice, and divine propitiation.

C.        The means of appropriation (Rom. 3:25):  The means of appropriation of the benefits of the death of Christ is through faith and faith alone. Some people mistakenly believe that it is their act of believing that saves them. Lloyd-Jones emphatically declares, “It does not. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who saves you. If you say that your faith saves you, your faith has become a work, and you have something to boast of. You can say, “I have believed, the other man has not, and I therefore deserve salvation and he does not’. You are saving yourself. That is the very thing the Apostle is denouncing. Faith does not save us; it is through faith we are saved. Faith is only the instrument; it is not the cause of my justification. The cause of my justification is the Lord Jesus Christ and all He has done, and I must never put anything, not even my faith, there.”[xiii]

III.        The Intention of Justification

A.        Righteousness for the past (Rom. 3:25b):  In a sense we have the motive in the heart of God in the provision of righteousness. In the first place, there is a manifestation of God’s righteousness in the past, “to declare his righteousness for the remission (lit. passing over) of sins that are past (PROGEGONOTON).” The pro- in PROGEGONOTON has reference not to sins committed before conversion or baptism, but before the new era of salvation. The book of Hebrews declares that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (9:22) and that the blood of bulls and goats could not atone for sin (10:4). “This does not mean that God failed to punish or “overlooked” sins committed before Christ; nor does it mean that God did not really forgive sins under the Old Covenant. Paul’s meaning is rather that God postponed the full penalty (PARESIS) due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before Him without their having provided an adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice (cf. Heb. 10:4).”[xiv]

B.        Righteousness for the present (Rom. 3:26a):  He was also set forth for the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the present season. In view of this, it is clear that DIKAIOSYNE AUTOU must have reference to some aspect of God’s character that might have been called into question because of His treating sins in the past with less than full severity, and that has now been demonstrated in setting forth Christ as the propitiatory.

C.        Righteousness for the believer (Rom. 3:26b):  The final intention of the Father is that He might be seen to be both just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus. The great problem, not of how to get men to God, but of how to get God to men, is solved,–and righteously (cf. 5:21). In the cross of Christ He is seen to be both light in His judgment and love in His mercy (cf. Psa. 85:10). God has been propitiated, and it no longer is necessary to coax, cajole, wheedle mercy from Him. God IS propitious by reason of the death of Christ. Just believe Him and thank Him, receiving the gift of eternal life.

Conclusion: I have documented throughout this series that the Reformation’s understanding of justification by faith alone is under attack. N. T. Wright and those sympathetic to the so-called New perspective on Paul, contend that justification is not central to the gospel. Brian McLaren, the latest “expert” on church growth,[xv] recently wrote that “bona fide evangelicals (such as Mark Baker, Joel Green,[xvi] and N. T. Wright) are suggesting that the gospel is not atonement-centered, or, at least, not penal-substitutionary-atonement-centered…This suggestion represents a Copernican revolution for Western Christianity, in both its conservative Catholic and Protestant forms. It may be judged erroneous—and likely will be judged so by many readers of this paper—but even those who dismiss it would be wise to consider the possibility that there is at least some small grain of truth to these ruminations on the nature and center of the gospel. A lot is at stake either way…For reasons I have detailed elsewhere, I have put my eggs in the basket that suggests we need to rethink our understanding of the gospel—both for the sake of faithfulness to Holy Scripture, and for the sake of mission in the emerging post-modern culture.”[xvii] The gospel according to McLaren has as its primary focus the Kingdom of God on earth and as such has a sociopolitical agenda. Forgiveness of sins is likewise construed socially and racially. Was justification a pivotal doctrine in the Apostle’s theology? How did Paul understand the gospel? Note how the doctrine of justification is directly linked with the Cross of Christ in Rom. 3:21-26. The two themes (justification and penal substitution) are interlocked. Note also the Apostle’s emphasis elsewhere “I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). Earlier in this same letter he declares, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2) and with a similar sweep, he tells the Galatian Christians, capturing much of the substance of his letter to them, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). For Paul the gospel was centered in the Cross of Christ—and the atonement is a penal substitution—and our justification is directly connected with Christ’s active and passive obedience. In other words, this is the sum and substance of the gospel. In their misguided attempt to make the gospel more attractive to unbelievers, these people end up with no gospel at all—in fact, what they have is, “another” gospel and that, in the assessment of the Apostle Paul, is anathema (Gal. 1:9).



[i] C. Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995), p. X.


[ii] L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1984), p. 173.


[iii] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries VIII (Eerdmans, 1973), p. 75.


[iv] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament IV (Broadman, 1931), p. 346.


[v] L. Morris, The Epistle to The Romans (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 177.


[vi] W.G.T. Shedd, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Romans (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1977), p. 77.


[vii] C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans (T & T Clark, 1975), p. 204.


[viii] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans (Harper, 1967), p. 75.


[ix] Cf. David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 155-62. J.R.W. Stott has a good discussion in his popular commentary The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994). “To justify,” he writes, “is to declare or pronounce righteous, not to make righteous. This was the nub of the sixteenth-century debate over justification. The Roman Catholic view, as expressed at the Council of Trent (1545-64), was that justification takes place at baptism, and that the baptized person is not only cleansed from sins but simultaneously infused with a new, supernatural righteousness. One can understand the motive, which led to this insistence. It was the fear that a mere declaration of righteousness would leave the person concerned unrenewed and unrighteous, and might even encourage persistence in sinning (antinomianism). This was, of course, the precise criticism, which was leveled at Paul (6:1, 15). It led him to expostulate in the most vigorous manner that baptized Christians have both died to sin (so that they cannot possibly live in it any longer) and risen to a new life in Christ. Put a little differently, justification (a new status) and regeneration (a new heart), although not identical, are simultaneous. Every justified believer has also been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and so put on the road to progressive holiness. To quote Calvin, ‘no one can put on the righteousness of Christ without regeneration’. Again, ‘the apostle maintains that those who imagine that Christ bestows free justification upon us without imparting newness of life shamefully rend Christ asunder’. An important fresh turn in this Roman Catholic-Protestant debate was taken by Professor Hans Kung in 1957, when his dialogue with Karl Barth entitled Justification was published. He agreed both that justification is a divine declaration and that we are justified by faith alone. But he also insisted that God’s words are always efficacious, so that whatever he pronounces comes immediately into being. Therefore, when God says to somebody, ‘You are just,’ ‘the sinner is just, really and truly, outwardly and inwardly, wholly and completely…In brief, God’s declaration of justice is…at the same time and in the same act a making just’. Thus justification is ‘the single act which simultaneously declares just and makes just’. There is a dangerous ambiguity here, however. What does Hans Kung mean by ‘just’? If he means legally just, put right with God, then indeed we become immediately what God declares us to be. But if he means morally just, renewed, holy, then God’s declaration does not immediately secure this, but only initiates it. For this is not justification but sanctification, which is a continuous lifelong process (p. 112).


[x] Cranfield, p. 206.


[xi] R. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to The Romans (Augsburg, 1936), p. 251.


[xii] Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East (Doran, 1922), p. 327. The idea is traceable to Chrysostom through R. C. Trench, from whom Deissmann got his idea.

[xiii] M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Ch. 3:20 – 4:25: Atonement and Justification (Eerdmans, 1970), p. 47.


[xiv] D. Moo, Romans 1-8: The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Moody, 1991), p. 241.


[xv] The most recent issue of Christianity Today (Nov. 2004) devoted its cover story to Brian McLaren and the “emerging church movement.” All of the catch phrases of church-growth are used, “cultural relevance,” “cultural adaptation,” “culturally savvy.” The only way to be effective is to adopt not only a post-modern vocabulary but a post-modern perspective as well. “Pastors,” the article tells us, “who would have a hard time seeing the relevance of post-modernism could suddenly envision it as the key to finding (Brian McLaren’s Book, A New Kind of Christian) spiritually renewal for those who thought they had given up on church” (p. 39).


[xvi] Baker and Green authored the book, Recovering The Scandal of The Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts  (IVP, 2000) in which they categorically reject any notion of the atonement being a penal substitution. They are guilty of marginalizing sin as individual acts of disobedience (pp. 54, 95, 201-2) and speak of God’s wrath merely in terms of his “handing people over to experience the consequences of the sin they choose: (p. 54). They conveniently neglect to even mention texts like Eph. 5:3-6 and I Thess. 5:2-3, 9!


[xvii] B. McLaren, “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy”. Theology News & Notes (Fuller Theological Seminary, Fall 2004), p. 5.


Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (2 DVDs)


What is Calvinism? Does this teaching make man a robot and God the author of sin? What about free will? If the church accepts Calvinism won’t evangelism be stifled, perhaps extinguished? How can we balance God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? What are the differences between historic Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Why did men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Edwards and a host of evangelists deny the Arminian definition of free will and label it heresy? Why did the Roman Catholic Church condemn the Reformed teaching of predestination and election and embrace free will theology? And why do so many Protestants, perhaps unwittingly, agree with Rome on this issue?

Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism is the first video documentary that answers these and other related questions. Hosted by Eric Holmberg (Hell’s Bells 1 & 2; The Massacre of Innocence) this fascinating three-part, four-hour presentation is detailed enough so as to not gloss over the controversy. At the same time, it is broken up into ten “Sunday-school-sized” sections so as to make the rich content manageable and accessible for the average viewer.

Part One explores the history of the debate. It begins with the pivotal dispute between Augustine and Pelagius and continues through the semi-pelagian controversy; focusing particularly on the debate between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Many viewers will be shocked to discover that free-will theology was NOT the doctrine of the Reformation but instead the teaching of an increasingly apostate Roman Catholic Church. The history section ends with a definitive historical explanation of the issues that arose during the Calvinist/Arminian controversy. By examining the five points of Arminianism and the Synod of Dort’s response, the viewer will clearly see that the Protestant Church understood how the Gospel would be compromised if Arminianism prevailed.

Part Two opens the Word of God, our ultimate authority for life and faith. The five points of Arminianism are put on trial as what would later come to be known as the “five points of Calvinism” are clearly and forcefully presented.

Part Three asks and answers the provocative question: If Calvinism is true, if God is absolutely sovereign; then why should we evangelize? It also explores the vital issue of how to and to whom the gospel should be presented so as to be faithful to the great doctrines of God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the miracle of amazing grace.

Rich in graphics, dramatic vignettes, and biblical analogies, Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism features many of the finest reformed thinkers and pastors of our time: Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. George Grant, Dr. Stephen Mansfield, Dr. Thomas Ascol, Dr. Thomas Nettles, Dr. Roger Schultz, Pastor Walt Chantry, Dr. Joe Morecraft, Dr. Ken Talbot, Pastor Walter Bowie and Dr. R.C. Sproul, Jr.

Learn what the great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon meant when he said, “…to deny Calvinism is to deny the gospel of Jesus Christ.”


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