Commentary on Romans 3:21-31

Notes (NET Translation)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed —

Romans 1:18-3:20 outlines the spiritual state of those who belong to the old era. “But now” God has intervened to inaugurate a new era.1 The “righteousness of God” is the justifying activity of God (see notes on 1:17).

In Rom. 2:1-3:20 Paul has made clear that the law has failed to rescue Jews from the power of sin because compliance with its demands to the extent necessary to secure justification has not been–and cannot be–forthcoming. “Apart from the law” might mean, then, “apart from doing the law”: God’s righteousness is now attained without any contribution from “works of the law.” While this may, indeed, be part of what Paul intends, it is questionable whether it goes far enough; for there is, as Paul will show in chap. 4, nothing really “new” about this: justification has always been by faith, apart from the law. Furthermore, it is not the manner in which God’s righteousness is received that Paul is talking about here, but the manner in which it is manifested–the divine side of this “process” by which people are made right with God. This phrase, then, reiterates the salvation-historical shift denoted by “but now.” In the new era inaugurated by Christ’s death God has acted to deliver and vindicate his people “apart from” the law. It is not primarily the law as something for humans to do, but the law as a system, as a stage in God’s unfolding plan, that is in view here. “Law” (nomos), then, refers to the “Mosaic covenant,” that (temporary) administration set up between God and his people to regulate their lives and reveal their sin until the establishment of the promise in Christ. One aspect of this covenant, of course, is those Jewish “identity markers,” such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and food laws; Paul is certainly affirming, then, that the righteousness of God is now being manifested “outside the national and religious parameters set by the law.” But Paul’s point cannot be confined to this. The reason these “identity markers” are no longer required is that the covenant of which they were a part has been made “obsolete” (cf. Heb. 8:7-13). It is this basic shift in salvation history that Paul alludes to here, and much of his discussion of the law in the rest of this letter (cf. 3:27-31; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 6:14; and especially chap. 7) is an attempt to explain this “apart from the law,” while at the same time justifying his assertion that faith “establishes” the law (cf. 3:31; 8:4).

But Paul hastens to balance this discontinuity in salvation history with a reminder of its continuity. While God’s justifying activity in the new age takes part outside the confines of the Old Covenant, the OT as a whole anticipates and predicts this new work of God: God’s righteousness is “witnessed to by the law and the prophets.”2

22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,

It is debated whether the righteousness of God is disclosed (a) through faith in Jesus Christ or (b) through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Both translations are legitimate renderings of the Greek word pistis.

Witherington III thinks it is through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ:

V 22 tells us that this righteousness is revealed either through faith in Christ or through the faith/faithfulness of Christ. The latter would presumably be a shorthand way of referring to Christ’s death: his faithfulness and obedience even to death on the cross revealed the righteousness of God. This interpretation is favored by several things: (1) It relieves us of the redundancy of Paul referring to Christian faith twice in this sentence. Instead, both objective and subjective means are referred to: the righteousness of God is revealed through the faithfulness of Christ (i.e., through the Christ-event), and it is revealed to all who believe. This, then, would be an expanded form of ek pisteos eis pistin in the brief introductory peroratio in 1.16-17. (2) This reading also gives proper force to the two prepositions “through” and “unto,” one referring to the means and the other the ultimate object or recipient of the revelation. (3) This comports well with the parallel dia clause in v. 24, which tells us that the gift of righteousness or being righted comes through the liberation or ransom provided in the Christ-event.3

Moo counters this position, successfully in my opinion, and argues that it is through faith in Jesus Christ:

The linguistic argument in favor of the alternative rendering is by no means compelling. In addition, contextual considerations favor the objective genitive in Rom. 3:22. While the Greek word pistis can mean “faithfulness” (see 3:3), and Paul can trace our justification to the obedience of Christ (5:19), little in this section of Romans would lead us to expect a mention of Christ’s “active obedience” as basic to our justification. Moreover, pistis in Paul almost always means “faith”; very strong contextual features must be present if any other meaning is to be adopted. But these are absent in 3:22. If, on the other hand, pistis is translated “faith,” it is necessary to introduce some very dubious theology in order to speak meaningfully about “the faith exercised by Jesus Christ.” Finally, and most damaging to the hypothesis in either form, is the consistent use of pistis throughout 3:21-4:25 to designate the faith exercised by people in God, or Christ, as the sole means of justification. Only very strong reasons would justify giving to pistis any other meaning in this, the theological summary on which the rest of the section depends. The simple references to “faith” in 3:28 and 3:30 are abbreviations of the “faith in Christ/Jesus” that is enunciated in 3:22 and 26 (cf. v. 25).

But if Paul mentions human faith in this phrase, why then does he add the phrase “for all who believe”? Comparison has been made with the combination “from faith for faith” in 1:17, but this is to appeal from the uncertain to the obscure (see the notes on 1:17). Paul’s purpose is probably to highlight the universal availability of God’s righteousness. This theme is not only one of the most conspicuous motifs of the epistle, but is explicitly mentioned in vv. 22b-23. God’s righteousness is available only through faith in Christ–but it is available to anyone who has faith in Christ.4

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

There is no distinction among people with respect to their standing before God.

The verb hysterouratai in v. 23 means “lack, fail to obtain, be wanting, or fall short.” Probably here Paul means that because all have sinned they lack the glory of God. This translation is supported by 1.23, which speaks of people exchanging such glory for something else when they choose to sin. Later rabbinic discussion talked about how Adam had such glory but lost it, but we find the notion already in 3 Baruch 4.16: “Adam was divested of the glory of God,” and Apocalypse of Moses 21.6: “O wicked woman, what have I done to you that you have deprived me of the glory of God?” So the reference to lost glory may prepare for the discussion of Adam and those who are in Adam which will follow in Romans 5-7. To speak of a “lack” suggests a loss of glory, so we must speak of a once and future glory.5

“God’s glory will be restored to those who believe in Christ when redemption is completed.”6

24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

According to Moo, to be justified is to be declared righteous. It means to be acquitted by God of all charges that could be brought against a person because of his sins.7 This justification is unmerited. The word “redemption” means liberation (e.g., of prisoners of war, slaves, criminals), often through payment. Paul may envision slaves to sin being liberated from the power of sin through Christ’s death.

If we ask further the question “To whom was the ‘ransom’ paid?” it is not clear that we need to answer it. The usage of the word makes it clear that there need be no specific person who “receives” the “payment.” Certainly we are not to think of Christ’s death as a payment of God made to Satan, a view that became very popular in the first centuries of the Christian church. A more biblical answer, and one that might be implied by v. 25, would be that God, the judge who must render just verdicts, is the recipient of the ransom. If so, an equal emphasis must be placed on the fact that God is also the originator of the liberating process.

As he does in Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14, Paul adds that this redemption is “in Christ Jesus.” It is not clear whether Paul means by it that the liberation was accomplished by Christ at the cross or that the liberation occurs “in relation to” Christ, whenever sinners trust Christ. Favoring the latter, however, is the connection of “redemption” with the forgiveness of sins in Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14, and 1 Cor. 1:30: “Christ was made . . . our redemption.” While, then, the “price” connoted by the word “redemption” was “paid” at the cross in the blood of Christ, the redeeming work that the payment made possible is, like justification, applied to each person when he or she believes.8

25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

God takes the initiative in inaugurating the process of redemption. We should not think of the loving Christ trying to placate the angry Father. Both the Father and the Son have the same will for redemption. Both God’s love and God’s wrath meet in the atonement.

The verb translated “publicly displayed” can mean either “to set forth publicly” or “to plan or purpose”. Kruse takes it to be referring to God’s eternal purpose.

The Greek word hilasterion can mean “mercy seat”, “expiation” (the removal of guilt and the purifying of the sinner), or “propitiation” (appeasing God’s wrath). Scholars differ on exactly how to understand it in this verse but we need not take an either/or approach. If we understand hilasterion as mercy seat, this would mean Paul is alluding to the cover over the ark where God appeared and on which sacrificial blood was poured (Lev 16). This understanding agrees with Heb 9:5 and 21 of 27 occurrences of hilasterion in the LXX. The “mercy seat” was the place of atonement in the old covenant and so Paul is saying that Christ is the place of atonement in the new covenant. Whereas the ark of the covenant was in secret, the death of Christ was public. At the same time the Greek word hilasterion is connected to expiation and propitiation. Expiation refers to wiping away the guilt of sin and propitiation refers to turning away the wrath of God. Christ’s death was expiatory and propitiatory, in addition to being like the mercy seat.

Faith is the means by which people appropriate the benefits of the sacrifice of atonement (mercy seat). Christ’s death/blood is the means by which God is propitiated (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; 2:13; Col 1:20).

In this verse, God’s righteousness refers to his character. God “passed over” the sins that were committed before Christ’s crucifixion in the sense that he did not exact a full and immediate punishment of the sins but, rather, provided an opportunity for repentance (2:4). This does not mean that God failed to punish sins at all under the old covenant or that he never really forgave sins under the old covenant. “By passing over these sins God appears to have compromised his righteousness — any judge who passes over a person’s offenses without punishment cannot be said to be righteous/just.”9 Christ’s death is both a judgment on those past sins and a propitiatory sacrifice for those past sins (and all sins). Hence, it satisfies the demands of God’s character and demonstrates his righteousness.

26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

The “present time” (kairos) is the correct time as determined by God. It is the time of salvation. Moo thinks the phrase “just and the justifier” should be translated “just even in justifying”. He takes Paul to be saying that God maintains his righteous character even while justifying sinful people. Christ’s death provides salvation to all who have faith in Jesus, not just to those who lived prior to his crucifixion.

27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith!

Paul returns to the diatribe style in verses 27-31. There is disagreement on whether nomos (translated as “principle” in the NET) refers to the Mosaic law or to a principle/rule. Either way, the Jew cannot boast on the basis of works (cf. 2:17-24) because justification comes by faith (3:28).

28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

Verse 28 defines the principle of faith mentioned in verse 27. The words “we consider” imply that Paul thought his audience would agree with him on this point. One enters the people of God by faith, not by works of the law.

29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!

“Or” introduces the alternative to the principle set forth in v. 28: if justification is by works of the law, then only those “in the law” can be justified, and God becomes the God of Jews only.10

There is only one God, and he is God of all creation and the entire human race, Gentiles as well as Jews. Despite the special place of Israel in salvation history (cf. 11:25-29), she cannot claim an exclusive relationship to God.11

30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

Paul takes one of the most basic of Jewish beliefs, monotheism, and turns it against Judaism. The “oneness” of God was confessed by the pious Jew every day: “the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut. 6:4). Yet if this is so, then God must be God of the Gentiles; else they would be left with no god. To be sure, Jews also believed that God was God of the whole world. But the limitations they placed upon this concept illustrate the radicality of Paul’s argument. For, in Judaism, God was the God of Gentiles only by virtue of his creative work, while only the Jews enjoy any meaningful relationship with God; this is expressed in later Jewish text: “I am God over all that came into the world, but I have joined my name only with you [Israel]; I am not called the God of the idolaters, but the God of Israel.” Only by accepting the torah could Gentiles hope to become related to God in the same way as Jews. In this paragraph, and in many other places in Romans, Paul makes clear that the torah no longer functions as the “dividing wall” between those who are outside and those who are inside the sphere of God’s people. In the OT, while the law was not the means of salvation, it did function to “mark out” the people of God; and in Judaism, it became an impenetrable barrier. But for Paul monotheism, as he has come to see it in Christ, means that there can be no such barrier; all must have equal access to God, and this can be guaranteed only if faith, not works in obedience to the Jewish law, is made the “entrance requirement.”12

Faith, not circumcision, is decisive for entrance into the people of God. That the circumcised are said to be justified by faith and the uncircumcised are justified through faith is merely a stylistic variation.

31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.

To put it another way, the questioner is asking, “If people are justified by faith does that mean the law has been nullified or invalidated?” Paul responds that he is actually upholding, establishing, fulfilling, or confirming the law. How is the law upheld through faith? According to Kruse, the gospel enables the fulfillment of what the law sought to bring about in human behavior (8:2-4) and it fulfills what is foreshadowed in the law’s account of Abraham’s justification (4:1-25).13 Schreiner says that it is because those who have faith in Christ will keep the moral norms of the law.14

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 221 
  2. Moo 1996, 222-223 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 101 
  4. Moo 1996, 225-226 
  5. Witherington III 2004, 102 
  6. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3981-3982 
  7. Moo 1996, 227–228 
  8. Moo 1996, 230 
  9. Kruse 2012, 192 
  10. Moo 1996, 251 
  11. Kruse 2012, 197 
  12. Moo 1996, 251–252 
  13. Kruse 2012, 199 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4383-4384 
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