Why the Messiah had to Die, Romans 3:21-26

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 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. 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.” (Romans 3:21-26 in the New English Translation Bible.)


“Only when we allow Paul to develop his own trains of thought in his own way will we avoid doing violence to the text.”1 So let’s first try to get on board Paul’s trains of thought in the context. From 1:16 through at least chapter 2, Paul appears to be envisioning, not so much the Christians in Rome, but Jewish opponents as his audience. He speaks in 1:18-32 of Gentiles in the 3rd person (they, them). At 2:1ff the pronoun changes to 2nd person (you). The “you” of chapter 2 passes judgment on the Gentiles (2:1), bears the name “Jew” and relies upon the Law and boasts in God and so forth (2:17ff). But the “you” are not Jewish Christians. The “you” are stubbornly unrepentant, practicing the same sort of sinful things the Gentiles practice, storing up wrath for themselves in the day of judgment (2:1-5), and, though knowledgeable of the Law, they do not keep the requirements of the Law (2:17-29). This does not necessarily mean there were Judaizers in the church at Rome. Paul may have wanted to present the church with the way he reasons with Jewish opponents to better equip them to do the same should they need to and to foster greater unity in this Jew/Gentile mixed church by helping them see all the more clearly that in Christ, Jew or non-Jew doesn’t matter.

One of Paul’s main points in the first three chapters is that typical Jews stand before God just as condemned as typical Gentiles, because they practice the same sort of sinful things (1:18-2:3; 3:9-20). On judgment day God will render to each person according to their deeds without partiality (2:6-11). Eternal life will only be given to those who came to repentance and persevered in doing good (2:5-7), who became obedient to the truth and righteousness (2:8), not merely hearers but doers of the Law (2:13), who were circumcised of heart, whether physically circumcised or not (2:25-29 cf. Deut 30:5-8). I think it’s important to notice here, but very often missed, that a righteous standing before God is inseparable from ethical righteousness. In other words, one who is unrepentant and practicing sin in his life cannot have the standing of righteous before God. Not that God requires us to be perfect, but repentance, becoming characterized as a doer of the will of God, is necessary to be right with Him. This is also Paul’s teaching later in the letter (6:16-22; 8:8,13).

Another point Paul has made before our text, though not yet elaborated on, is how Jews and Gentiles today come to have both righteous character and righteous standing before God. He makes it clear that knowledge of the Law of Moses doesn’t do it (2:13,17-21, 29; 4:13-14; 7:5,14-25), nor does observance of some works of the Law like circumcision (2:25-27; 3:20; 4:9-12). Paul has spoken of two divine powers and one human choice that both transform people’s character and make them right with God. Those two divine powers are the gospel (1:16) and the Spirit (2:29). The human choice is faith (1:16, 17). Through the gospel and the Spirit, God works on human hearts. Through choosing not to suppress the truth and the evidence (cf. 1:18-19), but to believe the gospel, people “plug into” God’s power to save them from both the control and penalty of sin. These truths are further explained in chapters 4-8.

Some ambiguous phrases

Next we need to understand some rather ambiguous phrases in our text. First…

“the righteousness of God” (dikaiosune theou)

Many understand it to mean the righteous status that God gives to believers (see NIV, “a righteousness from God”), is probably better understood as God’s own righteousness, His qualities of faithfulness, love, justice, impartiality and so forth. There have been in the letter before this point multiple references to God’s own righteous character (1:17-18; 2:4-5,11; 3:3-7) and there will be more later (9:14; 11:22; 15:8-9). Note especially 3:5 where “the righteousness of God” is contrasted with “our unrighteousness”.

Another ambiguous phrase here is…

“the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (pistis Iesou Christou)

Most English versions take it to refer to a Christians’ “faith in Jesus Christ.” But if “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s own righteous character, then it’s probably better to understand this as Jesus’ own faithfulness, not only because that has Paul being consistent with his genitives, but also makes better sense of 3:21-22, which says that through pistis Iesou Christou the righteousness of God has been manifested. It’s hard to see how a Christian’s personal faith in Jesus manifests God’s righteous character, but it’s much easier to see how Jesus’ faithfulness to the God’s will and plan to the point of death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:6-8) manifests God’s righteous character. And “a further reason why pistis Iesou Christou here is likely to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness is that, if taken instead to refer to the faith Christians have ‘in’ Jesus, the next phrase (‘for all who believe’) becomes almost entirely redundant, adding only the (admittedly important) ‘all.'”1

There may be a number of other phrases here that need clarification, but to keep this short let’s just deal with one more, the participle that begins v24…

“being justified” (dikaioumenoi)

Protestant and Catholic scholars have long disagreed about Paul’s meaning with the words justify, justified and justification. The Protestant Reformers took a forensic, judicial, extrinsic, one-time-event view of the terms, that God once for all declares us righteous on the basis of our faith in Jesus, that He imputes Christ’s righteous to us while we remain internally unrighteous. The Catholic view is non-forensic, intrinsic, and an on-going process, that the Spirit of God with our cooperation actually makes us righteous internally. The Protestant view has to do with our status before God. The Catholic view has more to do with our character and lifestyle. Other views have been advocated as well, such as N.T. Wright’s, “the verdict ‘righteous,’ to be issued in the future on the basis of the totality of the life led, is brought forward into the present.”1

My understanding is that Paul has at least both the protestant and catholic ideas in mind, both imparting and imputing righteousness, declaring and making righteous. As we’ve seen in the context, a righteous standing before God is inseparable from ethical righteousness. Not that one must be perfect, but unless one comes to repentance, becomes a servant of righteousness rather than sin, they cannot be right with God (2:5-13,25-29; 6:16-22; 8:8,13). In 5:6-11 “justified” is contrasted with “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies” (descriptions of character and lifestyle), and linked with reconciliation, which involves no longer being hostile in mind and deed (Col 1:21-22). Also, the fact that “being justified” in 3:24 is a present tense participle, an on-going process, suggests to me that the process of making us righteous in character is at least part of what Paul has in mind. But Paul certainly also has in mind God declaring us righteous while we still fall short of His righteousness (cf. 3:23). In 4:1-8 justification is associated with being credited righteousness as a gift and with forgiveness of sins. In 5:16 and 8:33-34 justification is the opposite of condemnation.

So with all that in mind, let me give my understanding of each verse in this paragraph and then give a summary of what I see to be Paul’s point(s) in the context.

Verse by verse interpretation

3:21 – God has now shown His righteous character (His love, mercy, justice, faithfulness, impartiality, etc) by a means other than the Torah. Yet certainly the Scriptures bear witness to this manifestation of His righteousness.

3:22 – God’s righteous character has been displayed in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus’ faithful life and death we see that God is indeed “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet will by no means leave unpunished” (cf. Ex 34:6-7). Those who benefit from God’s righteousness and Christ’s faithfulness are all those, Jew or Gentile, who trust God and His word, which today includes the gospel (cf. 1:16; 3:3; 4:5, 17-24). God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (v22).

3:23 – The reason God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles is because they have all sinned in the past and still in the present fall short of His glory. God is concerned with human hearts and choices, not with superficial things like nationality and circumcision and possession of the Law. The equally sinful hearts and lives of typical Jews and typical Gentiles shows that Jewishness does indicate a superior person.

3:24 – Christ’s faithfulness is a gracious gift for believers. It enables believers to be made righteous in both character and status before God. The way Christ’s faithfulness has done this is that it purchased for them redemption, freedom, from their slavery to sin and to law. In a relationship with Christ believers are set from the power of sin to control their lives and their destiny (cf. 6:1-7,17-18; 7:14-25), and they are set free from law as that which determines their standing with God (6:14; 7:1-6).

3:25a – The way the faithfulness of Christ has purchased this redemption for believers is that it was a faithfulness to the shedding of His blood as the atoning sacrifice for sins. His faithfulness to the point of death on a cross satisfied God’s demand for justice.

3:25b – The atoning sacrifice of Christ for sin shows that God was righteous in the ages past when he forgave people of their sin, seeming to ignore their sin. God wasn’t ignoring their sin. He knew Christ would be faithful to pay for their sin.

3:26 – The atoning sacrifice of Christ also shows God to be righteous to forgive sin in this present time. It is how God can be both just (not leaving sin unpunished) and the justifier (the one who makes righteous) of the one who has lives on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus (ton ek pisteos Iesou , literal translation – “the one out of the faithfulness of Jesus”).

The Point(s)

This dense paragraph is part of a long line of argument for the truthfulness of the gospel that Jesus who died is the Messiah risen from dead and He saves from sin and death all those who trust and obey Him, whether Jew or Gentile.

Here Paul mentions at least three facts that confirm the truthfulness of the gospel.

  • First, the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to point of death was witnessed, testified about, by the Law and the Prophets (3:21).
  • Second, the surpassing and increasing righteousness of believers in contrast with Gentiles and Jews outside of Christ confirms the power of Jesus’ death to redeem them from their slavery to sin. Paul has explained in the previous chapters that typical Gentiles and Jews outside of Christ lead equally unrighteous lives. But believers in Jesus as the Messiah are being made righteous through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3:24).
  • Third, the righteousness of God requires the death of the Messiah. The atoning death of Christ for sin is the only way God can be both just and at the same time the justifier of people guilty of sin.

– James Williams

1 N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans 3:21-4:25

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