Romans is my favorite book of the Bible, and Romans 3:21-26 is my favorite passage in this epistle. I have a series of 28 lessons on the first eight chapters of Romans, including the one that follows here. (This is also found in my book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, 190-193.)
The first main section of Romans (1:18-3:20) is all about LAW. It makes three points: (1) Everyone knows some law. (2) Everyone has broken this law at some point. (3) Thus no one can be right with God by law-keeping. What, then, is our hope for eternal life? This is what Paul explains in the next main section (3:21-5:21), beginning with 3:21-26. He explains HOW WE CAN BE RIGHT WITH GOD’S LAW.
Paul’s teaching in this paragraph conjures up the image of a courtroom, with a defendant, his lawyer, a judge, and a jury (think of Perry Mason, Matlock, Law and Order, or John Grisham). In a fictional courtroom, usually (though not always) the innocent are cleared and the guilty are exposed. In this Biblical courtroom scene, however, there are no innocents (Rom. 3:10). We are all defendants charged with a crime, we are on trial before God, and we are actually guilty as charged. This is the context in which Paul explains the crucial doctrine of JUSTIFICATION. The question is: How will the Judge decide in our case?
I. THE CRIME: The Sinner’s “Problem with the Law” (v. 23).
A. “All have sinned.” (This was one of the main points in 1:18-3:20.) We should remember that the Bible describes sin as law-breaking: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). The Greek word is anomia, which combines the word for law (nomos) with the negating alpha (a-). It thus means “opposition to the law, contrary to the law.” This anomia takes two forms. It is first a state of the heart, an ATTITUDE of rebellion against and disrespect for the law. This is the concept of lawlessness. Also, it is the ACT of breaking the law. Thus some versions translate it “the transgression of the law” (KJV) or “the breaking of law” (Holman’s CSB).
B. “And fall short of the glory of God.” This verb is present tense; it refers to the STATE in which we exist as a consequence of sin. The Greek word is hystereō, which means “to lack, be deficient in, be wanting, fall behind.” It suggests “being weighed in the balances, and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27). We don’t measure up—to the glory of God.
“The glory of God” refers to the glory of God’s holiness that is supposed to be shining forth from our lives by virtue of our being made in His image (Matt. 5:16, 48; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). Every aspect of our lives should glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). However, because of our sinfulness (lawlessness!), we do not show forth that glory of God as we are obligated to do. We are like faulty 3-way, 100-watt light bulbs that will shine at only 33 or 50 watts.
C. Thus, as sinners, we are “in trouble with the law.” We have a legal problem. We stand guilty before God the Judge (Rom. 3:19; James 2:10). In the terminology of legal dramas, each of us is what is called “the perp” (the perpetrator of the crime). This guilt is an objective state in connection with the law, and should not be confused with subjective guilt feelings.
Our situation thus seems to be hopeless. We are facing the maximum penalty, which is like a debt we owe to God, namely, the debt of eternal punishment in hell. See Matt. 6:12; Luke 13:4; Matt. 18:23-25. Also, the evidence against us is overwhelming, and it cannot be hidden from the omniscient God, who is our Judge. And as our Judge, He is very strict and fair.
D. As they used to say on the old TV drama Hawaii 5-0, “Book ’em, Danno!”
II. THE POSSIBILITY OF ACQUITTAL. The point of this paragraph in Romans (3:21-26) is this: It IS possible for sinners to be “right with the law” again! Our hope and our goal are to “beat the rap.” But in fictional stories, usually only the innocent go free, and the guilty get what’s coming to them. But we are guilty! How can we hope to “get off”?
A. Being right with the law means being in a state of righteousness. (“Righteousness” basically means “satisfying the requirements of the law.”) So if we are judged strictly by the rules of law, the only way to be acquitted is to be innocent. But we are guilty! And yet we seek acquittal—or at least we seek to escape the punishment we deserve! Is there any way this can happen? Is there some way we can make up for our sins, or avoid the due consequences of our sins?
B. As sinners, and according to the provisions of law, the ONLY way we can be in a state of righteousness—i.e., the only way we can satisfy the requirements of the law—is to suffer the full penalty deserved by our sins (i.e., eternity in hell). Is our case hopeless, then?
C. NO! There is another kind of righteousness, another way to be right with the law, a way that is different from anything the law can provide. It is “outside the law,” or “apart from law” (v. 21). It has been revealed or made known through the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:17), specifically in the event of the cross. “Apart from law” (v. 21) means “apart from the law SYSTEM.” The law system CANNOT bring sinners into a state of righteousness except by applying the penalty, i.e., by condemning us to hell forever. But the GRACE system is different! The grace system allows us to be right with the law without having to suffer its penalty, even though we have sinned!
D. In other words, even though we have sinned, the Judge can still JUSTIFY us (v. 24). He is the One who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5)! To be “justified” means having the Judge say “No penalty for you!” or “I declare you to be right with the law, just as you are!” “To justify” is a legal term; it is the opposite of “to condemn.” (See Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Rom. 8:33-34.) “To be justified” means the Judge declares us righteous; He does not make us righteous. This meaning of “justify” is seen in Luke 7:29, which literally says that people “justified God.”
III. THE LAWYER. The only way we guilty law-breakers can be justified is to have the right lawyer (which, of course, is every criminal’s dream)!
A. When you are in trouble with the law, you need a good lawyer, one who can “get you off” even though you are guilty. You need a lawyer who can say, “Don’t worry! Leave everything to me. I will handle your case; I will take care of it. I will make sure you don’t serve any time. And I am your only hope.” In the divine courtroom, the only one who can do this is Jesus (vv. 22, 24), our paraklētos, or “defense advocate” (1 John 2:1).
B. The only way sinners can “beat the rap” of sin is to turn their case over completely to Jesus: “through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22). No matter how guilty you are, as your lawyer Jesus absolutely guarantees that you won’t serve any time; i.e., he guarantees that the Judge will justify you!
IV. THE STRATEGY. How does Jesus accomplish this?
A. If you were actually on trial here in an earthly court, e.g., for murder, your lawyer would have to decide: how are we going to approach this case—especially if you are actually guilty? What strategy can “get you off”—or at least have the judge declare: “No penalty for you”? How would your lawyer accomplish this? By calling lots of character witnesses? By entering an insanity plea? Self-defense? Bribe the jury? Lie like a dog? Sometimes these things actually occur in earthly courts, but they won’t work in the divine courtroom. Nevertheless, Jesus, our defense attorney before the heavenly Judge, does have a strategy, a “gimmick” that He guarantees it will be successful!
B. This strategy, however, must be very different from anything the law system can provide—and it is! Jesus’ defense plan is a sure-fire system of getting around the law, a way to “get us off”; but it works in a totally different way from the way law itself works. It is “apart from law” (v. 21a).
C. This strategy is called GRACE (v. 24). It is the “grace defense.” Grace is a way of handling our legal problem, a way of getting the Judge to JUSTIFY us by declaring “No penalty for you!”. How does Jesus, our defense lawyer, pull this off? He pays off the Judge! And he does it with His own resources! This is the “grace defense”! How does it work? (This is not as gross as it sounds!)
This payment is described as an act of redemption (v. 24), i.e., setting us free by paying a price. (See Exodus 13:11-13; Numbers 18:14-16; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Ephesians 1:7.) What is the redemption or ransom price? Jesus’ own blood (His life), paid to God the Father (Matt. 20:28).
It is described also as an act of propitiation, or sacrifice of atonement (v. 25). “To propitiate” literally means “to turn aside wrath by means of an offering.” Jesus becomes that offering, our hilasmos, our hilastērion: the “offering that turns away wrath.” Propitiation is common in pagan religions. Pagans assume their gods are angry with them; thus they seek to provide their own offerings to turn away this wrath.
How is Christian propitiation different from this? Because in Christianity the true God Himself, by His gracious love, provides the only offering that is capable of turning away His own wrath: Jesus our propitiation (1 John 4:10; John 3:16). Jesus our lawyer accomplishes this propitiation Himself; His offering of Himself on the cross pays the full penalty for our sins. He is not only our defense advocate (1 John 2:1); He is also the very “offering that turns away wrath”—the propitiation itself (1 John 2:2).
This is his strategy—the strategy of grace, the “grace defense”—that keeps us from having to suffer the deserved penalty for our sins. It works every time!
D. “But can I afford such a lawyer? Won’t He cost me a lot?” Yes and no. On the one hand, His services are FREE: grace is a GIFT (v. 24). But He requires that you trust Him completely to take care of your case (vv. 22, 25, “through faith in His blood”). On the other hand, it costs you EVERYTHING. You have to turn your whole life over to Him. There is no “cheap grace,” to use Bonhoeffer’s term.
V. THE JUDGE. What does the Judge think about all of this? It was His idea (vv. 25-26)!
A. It was God the Judge Himself who set Jesus forth as the propitiation, or atoning sacrifice (v. 25a). He was already using the grace system even before Jesus went to the cross; He was forgiving “the sins previously committed,” for those who believed, through all of history ever since Adam and Eve (v. 25b).
B. Redemption through the blood of Jesus is the only strategy that allows God to be true to both
sides of His nature (v. 26). Under this system God is JUST, because the requirements of the law (for penalty) are satisfied—by Jesus. Thus His holy wrath is satisfied. But He is also then free to JUSTIFY anyone who takes on Jesus as his defense lawyer and trusts his eternity to the grace strategy. Thus His gracious love is satisfied.
CONCLUSION. This passage, Romans 3:21-26, is the heart and core not only of Romans but also of the whole Bible. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans, 173) says it is “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” He is correct.