In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul is demonstrating that all men, no matter their background, ethnicity, or knowledge, fall short of the standard by which God judges a man of being just. Therefore, in verse 23, Paul concludes that all “fall short of the glory of God.” Paul is also attempting to explain to the church in Rome why possessing the law does not make one righteous before God. But rather, the law acts more like a sign or pointer revealing to man how he does not measure up to God’s standards, and exposes the many transgressions of all men. Paul is building up the tension for his readers because up until this point he has clearly shown how all men, Jew and gentile alike, are under the wrath of God. The question then arises, “if no one is good, how can anyone get to heaven and God remain just?” For if all men are unworthy of heaven, and worthy only of hell, how can anyone receive this reward? Furthermore, how can God seemingly just drop the charges for the sins committed and remain a just judge? These are the questions Paul answers in Romans 3:24-26.
3:24. Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. This verse is picking up in mid-thought and is clearly connected to verse 23. The ESV translation of vs. 24 starts with the word and. So there is an obvious connection in Paul’s mind of the category of those who “sin and fall short” and those who are “justified.” In this verse, the author states that those who are in Christ Jesus are “justified” as a gift of grace through redemption. The word justified, used here, is used thirty-eight other times in the New Testament. Twenty-four of those times the word is translated exactly the same, the other fifteen times it is translated nearly the same only differentiated by tense of the word.
Throughout the New Testament justified is used to mean, “to show to be righteous or to declare righteous.” For example, if someone were to make the claim that they knew the president of the United States, that person and his claim would be justified if President Bush were to come over to his house and verify this person’s claim. However, this term is most often used with a courtroom motif. Schreiner states:
Justification is a legal or forensic term, belonging to the law courts. Its opposite is condemnation. Both are the pronouncements of a judge. In a Christian context they are the alternative eschatological verdicts which God the judge may pass on judgment day. So when God justifies sinners today, he anticipates his own final judgment by bringing into present what belongs properly to the last day (Schreiner 190).
So Paul argues that even though everyone sins against God and is therefore under His condemnation, those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under that condemnation, but rather, seen as just before God and His law. Paul then goes on to explain through what means this is done.
Those who are justified are so on the basis that they have been redeemed. In the previous verse Paul stated that everyone has sinned against God. The idea could be understood that all men are therefore indebted to God. Therefore, for them to be free they must be redeemed. The word redemption is used only ten times in the New Testament. However, the word was very common to Paul’s contemporary audience. They would have most likely associated this word with the connotation of a slave being indebted and being set free due to a ransom being paid. In other words, the word redemption means, “to release on payment of ransom.” However, there has been debate on the intended meaning by Paul when he used this word. Some have argued that this word could be seen not as a ransom being paid, but rather, or simply the idea of “deliverance” or “emancipation” from slavery (Cranfield 206). That being said, the best understanding of the word is likely the idea of a ransom being paid. This can be seen for three reasons.
First, as stated before, the common understanding of this word is most commonly understood to have the imagery of a ransom being paid. There is no reason given for the reader to think otherwise.
Secondly, the immediate context is already carrying the imagery of an indebted group of people who have been ransomed. In verse 23 Paul states that all men have sinned against God. And in verse 24 Paul states that those who are in Christ Jesus have been redeemed “freely.” Why would Paul use terms such as this one if he did not intend for it to have a ransom understanding?
Lastly, looking at the Scriptures in a broader context by the same writer, Paul uses the imagery throughout his epistles with the idea of those in Jesus being there through means of a price or purchase (I Cor. 6:20). That being said, it does not mean that Paul does not have in mind the ideas of “deliverance” or “emancipation.” Rather, that is exactly what the ransomed experience on the basis of the purchase being made.
So in verse 24 Paul gives hope to the reader. This hope is found outside of the individual. It is found in Christ Jesus. However, at this point, though Paul has spoken of hope for those in Christ Jesus, he has not answered the dilemma at how a holy righteous judge can do so. Stott states it well:
Then how on earth can Paul affirm that God does what he forbids others to do; that he does what he says he will himself never do; that he does it habitually, and that he even designates himself ‘the God who justifies the wicked’ or (we might say) ‘who “righteousses” the unrighteous’? It is preposterous! How can the righteous God act unrighteously, and so overthrow the moral order, turning it upside down? It is unbelievable! (112)
Here is the point Stott is making: If God has clearly revealed that it is an abomination for a judge to condemn the righteous and justify the ungodly (Pro. 17:15), how can He then justify the ungodly? Paul goes on in verse 25 to explain.
3:25. Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed. The “whom” in verse 25 refers back to Christ Jesus from the end of verse 24. Paul argues that God the Father appeals to Jesus, His Son, as a testimony to His righteousness. But how is Jesus a demonstration of God’s righteousness? In verse 23 Paul stated that all men have sinned against God and are therefore under God’s just wrath. In verse 24 Paul states that those who were under God’s just wrath have now been justified and redeemed. In other words, somehow God’s just wrath against sin has been placated, appeased, or dealt. This is what the word propitiation means.
However, all scholars do not accept this word here in Romans 3:25. Many scholars such as Dunn, Gundry, and Chalke would translate this word as expiation or as mercy seat (Dunn 180-181). There is good reason for this. For this word is used, by the translators of the Old Testament, for the LXX for the Hebrew word for mercy seat. This is the same reason why Calvin and Luther translated this word this way. Now Paul is dealing largely with the Law of Moses in the context and it is clear that the Old Testament is in mind here. However, to translate this word as expiation or mercy seat would not communicate the full meaning of the word here being used by Paul. One scholar states it best:
The main reason these options are not satisfactory, and a reference to propitiation seems necessary, is the context. In these verses Paul is describing God’s solution to the human predicament, which is not only sin but God’s wrath upon sin (1:18; 2:5; 3:5). And where there is divine wrath, there is need to avert it…In sum, it would be hard to exaggerate the differences between the pagan and the Christian views of propitiation. In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to the Christian revelation, God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to us to save us from himself (Stott 114-115).
As Stott and many others have stated the immediate context demands for a more full meaning that simply expiation. Seifrid states it wonderfully, saying:
According to Paul, our sins themselves are an expression of the wrath of God on idolatry, a wrath that therefore cannot legitimately be reduced to an impersonal effect or natural result of a deed (1:18-32). Humanity has been subjected by God to the power of sin (3:9). The righteousness of God effects deliverance from sin to which God’s wrath delivered us (3:24; cf. 6:1-23, esp. 6:7). Expiation is thus contingent on propitiation. Propitiation effects expiation. (620)
Finally it should be noted that to translate the word as expiation and not as propitiation would only speak of what has been done with sin and would do so at the neglect of what is done with God’s wrath (Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach 82).
This can be seen in the same verse where Paul uses the word forbearance. Forbearance means, “to bear with or endure.” In other words, because of the past sins prior to Jesus Christ not being dealt with, God was enduring something. What was God enduring? God was enduring the injustice of sins undealt with. In other words, it is God’s nature to be just! For Him to never deal with sin would be impossible. However, God did forbear the injustice for a time until Jesus Christ came. Then He sent forth His Son as the propitiation for sin “previously committed.” By doing so, God “publicly” demonstrates to the world that He is indeed just! As Clement of Rome has said, “His flesh for our flesh, and His soul, for our souls.” (Clement of Rome 1.18.) Or stated in a letter to Diognetus, “The father Himself placed upon Christ the burden of our iniquities. He gave His own Son as a ransom for us…” (Letter to Diognetus 1.28.) Jesus Christ took upon Himself the wrath against sins committed by others.
3:26. For the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. The word for at the beginning of verse 26 is connected to the last phrase in verse 25. It answers the question, “why did God pass over sins previously committed?” God passed over sins previously committed, so that, He could display His magnificent righteousness “at the present time.” Murray comments on this phrase saying,
The definite specification of time in the expression “at this present time” (vs. 26) is another example of the significance attached to the historical epoch in which God gave this demonstration of his justice. It is contrasted with the generations of the past when God’s forbearance was in exercise, and it shows that location in history belongs to those accomplishments which have a Godward reference at their centre. We are not to relegate to the realm of the superhistorical that which meets divine interest and exigencies. (121)
Paul uses the word demonstration, which means, “to prove.” This word is used three times and translated as: demonstration, proof, sign. In other words, Jesus Christ being a propitious sacrifice to God is a sign or a proof that God is indeed righteous.
What exactly is God seeking to prove by punishing sin? What is God demonstrating by giving sin its proper due? God is proving that He is indeed just. This word is used 79 times in the New Testament. It comes from a word, which means, “right.” In fact, this word is translated 48 times as righteous. So when Paul states that this is all done to display God being just, he means it shows and proves that God does indeed uphold what is right! He does not sweep the sins previously committed underneath some cosmic rug. Nor does He ignore it. He does not just “up and forgive it” either, but rather, he deals justly or rightly with sin. In this way God is not only just, but He is just in justifying the ungodly! What an awesome God. For here God clearly manifests not only that He is a just God, but that He is a loving God that would do so at the expense of His dearly loved and only Son. Only God can clearly manifest both perfect love and perfect justice in one event. One scholar writes:
Now the bearing of the cross on God’s dealings with men “at the present time” is unfolded. It amounts to a declaration that God is at once just in himself and justifying in his activity on behalf of mankind. (Harrison 45)
Or as another has said,
Christ was set forth as a sacrifice for the manifestation of the righteousness or justice of God, that is, that he might be just, although the justifier of the ungodly(Hodge 98).
The last phrase in verse 26 states the who God justifies, those who have “faith in Jesus.” In the opening of the epistle, Paul had quoted a prophet from the Old Testament stating, “The just shall live by faith.” It is here in these verses that Paul explains how that can be! One is not able to stand before God by keeping the Law of Moses or even the laws written on their own hearts. One must and can only stand before God by faith in Jesus Christ and His accomplished work on the cross.
Because of the clear argument being made here by the Apostle Paul, he closes the chapter with this being the reason God is not a respecter of persons or ethnicities. Nor will God justify anyone by works of the law. But rather, the law of faith alone will justify them. However, the question arises, “if men are justified before God apart from the law, is the law then overthrown?” Paul then begins to grapple with this question in the following chapter.
So, now that we have taken a brief examination of what Paul is talking about in Romans 3:24-26, how then should we live? It seems the best application of these truths is found in the following verse, where Paul asks a rhetorical question. “Where then is the boasting?” The answer, “It is excluded.” This is why getting Romans 3:24-26 is so crucial! Because God’s glory is at stake! And our sin is on the line! If we get these verses wrong, there will be room to boast. Perhaps this may be the biggest problem with all the other interpretations of this text. The application doesn’t fit their exegesis. But if we realize that we are all deserving of Hell. And the only reason we are not condemned, is because of the free gift of redemption “by His grace.” I cannot boast for being in Christ, or remaining there! I am there because it was given to me to be in Him. So here is how we can apply this verse specifically. The next time you encounter someone that you grow impatient with, or think less of than yourself, remember that all of us are just as lost and our only hope is Jesus. So patiently and lovingly, as a servant, point them to the only hope for mankind. That is Jesus! Boast in nothing, save the cross of Calvary! For it was there that the sinless, innocent, and just Son of God was punished with the full penalty of sin on the behalf of wicked, guilty, sinners like you and me. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b)