Romans 3:21-26

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

In Romans so far, Paul has been slowly building up to this point. The point Martin Luther described as “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible”; Romans 3:21-26.

Paul started by saying that his gospel is the ‘power of God for salvation’, and that it reveals the righteousness of God. That righteousness of God in Romans so far is his completely righteous and justified judgement against the universal rottenness of humanity.

So if all of us is under the power of sin, how can God be a righteous God and yet bring salvation to people like us?

It’s the age-old and very pressing question of how perfect justice can co-exist with grace and free forgiveness. This episode is a discussion of the momentous ideas in Romans 3:21-26, the world-changing paragraph which has the answer.

An exposition of this passage can be found at 7. True Freedom.

The next episode in this series is How to Have the Faith of Abraham. The previous episode is The Inclusiveness of Evil.


Justice, mercy and the problem of evil.

Tony Payne: You frequently see the problem of reconciling justice and mercy outside the courthouse. The families of the criminal are supporting their family member, and are pleading for mercy and saying, “Look, there are mitigating circumstances. You can’t blame him so much. Give the guy a break; you’ve got to show some compassion. And he’s a good family man.” 

Phillip Jensen: He’s always a good family man.

TP: And if it was one of my family members in the dock, I’d probably feel exactly the same way. And then of course, there’s the family of the victim who are after justice and the maximum possible sentence.

So we want justice, and we want mercy. But it’s just hard to want them at the same time. 

PJ: Yes, when I’ve done the wrong thing, I want mercy. When someone’s done the wrong thing to me, well, justice is a much better idea than mercy. It’s never at the same time because I’m either the perpetrator or the victim, but it’s very hard to be the perpetrator and victim.

TP: Exactly. And yet, when it comes to us and God, God is just and at the same time, he’s merciful. So how can he be both just and merciful, especially at the same time to a person like me? 

PJ: Yes, it reminds me of a verse in 1 John that puzzled me when I first came across it. 

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. 

‘Just’ is not the word you’re expecting. It’s not faithful and ‘loving’ or ‘kind’ or ‘merciful’ to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It’s a very strange phrase. 

TP: As if the only right thing for him to do would be to forgive, as if he would be unjust not to forgive. And that’s strange because God’s response to our evil is a just and righteous response. It makes me think of the problem of evil more generally, because that’s one of the issues that many people have with God, that he doesn’t punish evil, that evil exists in the world and somehow the supposedly good God doesn’t do anything about it. 

PJ: Yes, it’s the first year philosophy argument. God is all powerful. God is all good. But evil exists. Well, if evil exists, either he’s not all powerful because he hasn’t stopped it or he’s not all good because he hasn’t stopped it. And so therefore, the all-powerful, all-good God doesn’t exist. But that reminds me of what Jesus said to the Sadducees, “You know neither the power of God nor the Scriptures.” And this is because the God that they disprove never existed.

TP: They didn’t believe in it to start with. So they’ve now disproved the thing they don’t believe in.

PJ: Yes, their own philosophy fails, because there is no evil nor good in hardcore atheism; there is no right or wrong. But it also shows an incredible ignorance of what the Bible says about God, because it’s not as if the Bible is silent on the subject. You could almost argue that the whole Bible is about the problem of evil that pops up in Genesis 3 and continues throughout. 

Yet the Bible also says God is slow to anger, because his anger is not temperamental. He’s measured and just. And so the fact that evil exists in the world at the moment is part of the timing of God in delaying his anger. Romans 1 also tells us that God’s anger against us is demonstrated by leaving us to make the mess of the world we’ve made, and this is part of God’s judgment against us. 

But God is also slow to anger, because he’s bringing his plan of salvation into effect his way. So the whole Old Testament is the necessary preparation for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Without our Old Testament, we would not understand what Jesus did and the spread of the gospel throughout the world since. God also delays because he is being merciful, giving time and opportunity for us to repent, as it says in Romans 2:4 and 2 Peter 3.

It’s the whole attitude towards God, that he is in the dock and we are on the bench, and God is answerable to us—when God is not answerable to us; we are answerable to God. And the law says we have all failed and we will all be called to account for what we’ve done. One day, God will bring justice to everyone, and it’s complete justice because he judges not just what we’ve done but also our hearts, as Paul said in Romans 2. So it’s not as if there’s one put down argument of the problem of evil, because there’s a whole range of biblical teaching about God and justice, and why evil is in the world and what God is doing about it.

TP: Whereas the simple argument that people like to run up the flagpole I always feel like saying, well, well done. You’ve disproved one version of God, but it’s just not the God I believe in or the God of the Bible. I mean, congratulations on constructing a nice little syllogism that disproves a static philosophical concept. But that’s not who God is, nor is that how he’s revealed. The syllogism doesn’t have anything of history in it, whereas the God of the Bible reveals his goodness and his love and his mercy and his justice in history, in actual space and time in what happens in his response to human sin. And yet the old classic formulation of that argument has nothing to do with that. It’s an abstract philosophical concept. So it’s not that useful as a way to actually discuss this question, although I suppose it shows the presuppositions of people as they come to this question. But if we want to see how justice and how mercy can fit together and how God can be both just and merciful, well, we should go to where he actually talks reveals itself.

PJ: That’s right. Back in Romans 1:16-17, the righteousness of God is revealed in this. And now again in Romans 3:25-26 it talks about how God shows himself and his justice. And if you’re not looking where he is showing himself, there’s no point saying, “Well, he’s not here” because you’ll find him where he shows himself. 

TP: So before we get into this paragraph, where should we start? 

PJ: I think we should start with the argument so far from Romans 1:18 where the anger of God is being revealed in giving people over to their own folly. And then in Romans 2, it talks about the day of judgment that people are storing up for themselves and the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment. But it also speaks about God judging in a retributive manner, which means giving to every person what they deserve without partiality, and that he judges by the secrets of our heart.

And the famous topic sentence of Romans in Romans 1:17 is actually calling us back to Habakkuk 2. In Habakkuk, there is evil in the land and Habakkuk is calling upon God to bring justice, and God responds by saying he’s going to bring justice through the Babylonians. But hang on, says Habbakuk, the Babylonians are worse than the people that need to be punished. And so how can you punish somebody through someone who’s even worse? To which God says, “Well, I’m going to bring the judgment, and I’ll bring the judgment on the Babylonians as well. What you must do is wait–wait in faith.” And so the just will live by that patient faithfulness in God’s justice. 

So at the moment, we are waiting for this justice to happen. But when it happens, God will not acquit the guilty, or punish the innocent. And when the law is brought in, it also condemns us because the law speaks the truth and we are guilty. 

TP: Yes, Romans 1:16-17 says:

For I’m not ashamed of the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith”. 

That’s the quotation from Habakkuk you’ve just been explaining. And then the following chapters we’ve been looking at unfold why that righteousness is so necessary and why God’s anger and justice are revealed.

PJ: And up until Romans 3:21, the justice of God and the punishment that we deserve is before us, so no one will be justified; we are all under sin. But now… 

TP: Romans 3:21

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

PJ: Let’s tease out this long, complicated paragraph. Firstly, it’s about grace, isn’t it? So what do you think grace is?

TP: Well, grace is the thing you say before meals, Phillip.

PJ: Thank you.

TP: I was taught that grace is God’s generosity. 

PJ: Yes. Mercy is always generosity. You can’t insist upon mercy. You can’t demand mercy and you can’t deserve mercy. Mercy is given because you’re guilty. It’s the generosity of the person who gives mercy that provides forgiveness. And so it’s out of the grace of God that we find this justification, this declaration that we are all right with God out of his mercy. 

But how can we extend mercy to an old sinner like me? How can the judge of all the world look at Phillip Jensen and say, “You’re all right with me?” Because that would be a corrupt judge. And so it’s through the faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 

The word ‘belief’ is actually the same word as ‘faith’ in the Greek of the NT–one is a verb and the other is a noun. Verse 22 says that the righteousness of God comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (or ‘have faith’)”— which seems like an unnecessary repetition (“through faith … for all who have faith”). So I think the first reference to ‘faith’ in this verse is referring to how we are saved through the faith of Jesus, and it comes to all who have faith in Jesus. Are you happy with that? 

TP: No, I don’t think that’s what it’s saying. But tell me why you believe that? 

PJ: Well, because the word ‘in’ is not there; it says “the faith of Jesus”, which could mean Jesus’ faith, or it could mean our faith in Jesus. But seeing that afterwards it goes on to talk about having faith in Jesus, therefore I think the first first one–“faith of Jesus”–is talking about how we are saved through Jesus being faithful even unto death. You see, sin is being faithless. But Jesus was faithful. We are all faithless because we’re all sinners. But he was never sinful, he was always faithful, even to the extreme–even to the point of hell–he remained faithful, and because of his faithfulness, so God extends mercy to all who have faith in him.

TP: It makes perfect sense and I think is quite a legitimate way to take it. The repetition of faith here, I’ve always taken to be emphasizing that it’s for all–that the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who have faith, for all who believe. “For there is no distinction,” he goes on to say, “for all have fallen short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … to be received by faith.” And so, you can read the repetition as emphasizing that all have fallen short, all are under sin, and now all by faith (whether Jew or Greek or anyone) are able to receive the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 

PJ: Yes, it’s one of those in which either reading could be right.

TP: Exactly. The way you read it also makes sense of the passage and it’s absolutely true that it’s only by the righteousness of Jesus–the faithfulness of Jesus–that the faithless, the unbelievers, can believe and be justified. Or you can also take it that the repetition is emphasizing the universality of faith as the means by which all–both Jew and Gentile–receive redemption and salvation.

PJ: There are also three words or metaphors that help unravel the sentence: the law court, the slave market, and the temple sacrifice. In terms of the law court, we are justified; we’ve been declared right by the judge.

TP: It’s worth pointing out too, that just as ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are really the same underlying word in the Greek, so also ‘righteousness’ and ‘justified’ are the same word in the Greek. There is God’s righteousness, and ‘to justify’ is the verbal form that means ‘to declare someone righteous, to righteous-ify somebody’. So those ideas are connected as well, and they are law court ideas. 

PJ: Yes. And then there’s the slave market, which is the redemption idea. Now we’ve got rid of slave markets, it would seem, although there is still lots of slavery in the world, but that’s another story for another day. Slave markets were where people could buy a slave, but it is also where you could redeem a slave; you could purchase freedom for the slave. The only place we use the word ‘redemption’ nowadays is the pawnbroker, where you put your guitar or trumpet in, borrow the money, and then you come back, repay the money plus interest, and redeem your guitar. You purchase its freedom from the pawnbroker. That is the same word that is used here. We are redeemed, we were purchased out of our slavery to sin. And so the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom–as a redemption payment for our sin. 

And then the third one is the temple sacrifice, the one on which it is all built. Jesus died as a propitiation (or atoning sacrifice, according to the NIV). And the idea is you’re paying the price to turn aside the righteous anger of the person that you’ve offended. God put forward his Son in order to propitiate himself, in order that he might be propitiated by his Son. I can’t propitiate God’s anger because I’m the cause of his anger.

TP: And what can a man offer to God for his own life? As it says in the Psalm. What can you offer to redeem yourself? What price can you possibly pay? 

PJ: Yes, there’s nothing that you could pay to redeem your own life. And so God has done that which we cannot do. He’s paid the price for our redemption, and he has paid the price for the turning aside of his anger.

TP: And it’s all by his blood. 

PJ: Or ‘bloodshed’ is a better word. 

TP: Yes, it’s not just blood in a vial somewhere, not like a blood bank or blood as a substance. 

PJ: It’s the violent taking of death. 

TP: And we still use the word ‘blood’ that way in English from time to time, but that’s the kind of connotation here. It’s the shedding of blood that has propitiated God. 

PJ: That’s right. I came home from Christmas holidays once and when I arrived, I found that my front fence–a brick fence–had almost been destroyed. One of my neighbours had given his young son a new car for Christmas. And the bloke had jumped in and driven around the block and wiped out my front fence. And so there I was looking at this fence, destroyed, where my children normally played. And within a few minutes, the man and his son came around. They were very apologetic and really seeking mercy. But it required justice as well. Somebody had to pay for the fence. I could have been merciful and said, “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. I’ll pay for the fence myself.” But I didn’t. They said, “We’ll pay for the fence.” And I thought, “Good, as you should!” So they paid for the fence, but they still had to appease my anger, because if my children had been playing there, it wouldn’t have been just the fence, it would have been my children being mowed down. And it would be a righteous anger at being so careless and stupid. 

But they were very apologetic and it wasn’t very hard for me to be merciful, especially since I remember the first time I ever drove a motor scooter I went straight into somebody’s fence. So there’s a certain hypocrisy in me holding this poor boy to ransom because of the very thing I did myself. So it was easy for me to be merciful. 

But it’s an illustration of the fact that forgiveness is not enough; payment is necessary and appeasing anger is necessary. And what Romans 3:21-26 is saying is that God has done all of that for us. In his mercy, he has paid the price. In his mercy, he has appeased his righteous anger. And so out of his mercy, he has declared us to be right with him. But it all happened through Jesus and Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection. So it is only for those who have faith in Jesus, because the only way you can be forgiven is by faith in Jesus. Therefore, he is just to forgive us.

TP: He is just to forgive us because he has paid the price for the ransom. And he’s offered the sacrifice that propitiates, in order to be able to declare a guilty person innocent, justified, righteous—because the sins have been paid for, the anger has been turned aside. And so that’s how he, at the same time, can be completely righteous and just and the justifier–the one who declares righteous the guilty, the kind of people we are. 

PJ: That’s right, because he’s paid it himself.

TP: No wonder they say this is one of the greatest paragraphs ever. It’s an extraordinary idea.

PJ: Yes. God can’t just ignore justice. But at the same time, he wants to be merciful. And so he takes justice on himself, in order to be merciful. And at this point, the cross is where you see the righteousness of God, the justice of God, the character of God, all seen at the same time. 

And this is where cross-less Christianity fails—those who just want to be liberal in their thinking and who want to forgive everybody all the time without atonement. They have failed to understand the gospel and are misrepresenting God seriously. Because if there’s no atonement, there’s no Christ offering on the cross his sacrifice. Remember, God put forward Jesus, but Jesus himself took it upon himself. It’s where the divinity of Jesus also becomes so important. Because Jesus was a man, he could represent us on the cross and die for us; but because Jesus was God, his sacrifice was not only sufficient to pay for all of us, but it was God himself putting forward his own Son to propitiate himself—which reveals God not only as perfectly righteous and just, but also the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

TP: Amen. 

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