The Apostle Paul begins his Epistle to the Romans, which has rightly been called the most profound book ever written, by showing that God’s wrath rests on mankind universally because all men have sinned. Consequently the human race can be spared from doom only by God’s own intervention. Then in six verses (Romans 3:21–26) that are probably more packed with meaning than any other comparable Scripture passage, Paul sets forth the dynamic answer to man’s lostness—that in justification God imputes divine righteousness to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY here presents exegetical and expository studies of these immensely important verses by two prominent Christian scholars—one a Lutheran, the other a Presbyterian—who represent major traditions stemming from the Reformation. The exegesis is by Dr. Robert Paul Roth, professor of systematic theology in Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The exposition is by Dr. Calvin D. Linton, dean of Columbian College and professor of English literature in The George Washington University in the District of Columbia.—ED.


But now the righteousness of God, which had been witnessed by law and prophets, is manifested through faith in Christ to all and upon all who believe.

Here we begin the passage Luther called the very center and kernel of all Scripture. Until now Paul has been speaking of the wrath of God upon all iniquity, which consists not in a sentence of punishment but in deliverance of man into unbridled wickedness. Sinful men are given up freely to their own devices. Because man in sin has been the author of his own destruction, he can in no way overcome unrighteousness by a righteousness of his own. But now in a marvelous reversal God comes in mercy to the wandering sinner and brings him to righteousness by a plan that was witnessed in the holy history of Israel through law and prophets and is now miraculously manifested in Jesus Christ.

The law may be understood here as a reference to the divine imperative of the covenant God made with Israel as it was repeatedly established in the circumcision of Abraham, the decalogue of Moses, the kingdom of David, and the temple of Solomon. The law witnessed that God was a holy God who required nothing less than the same holiness in his people. But the law was never without the promise that preceded it. And the prophetic hope of Israel, also repeatedly expressed from Abraham to the writing prophets, proclaimed the faith that what God demands he gives. His holiness is his grace, and this grace came in fullness in Jesus to all and upon all who believe.

Article continues below

The Egyptian family of manuscripts reads eis pantas tous pisteuontas while Koine, D, G, 33 and the Clementine vulgate read eis pantas kai epi pantas.… It would seem that the latter should be accepted according to the textual canon that the more difficult text is preferred, since it is easier to think that one phrase was dropped than that one was added. There is also the more important consideration of the structure of Paul’s thought. Since he has been speaking of the wrath of God upon all wickedness (orge theou ap’ ouranou epi asebeian kai …, 1:18), it is most striking here to have him speak of the righteousness of God upon all who believe.

There is no distinction among men, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

While the wrath of God is universal in its condemnation of all unrighteousness, it is really the universal gift of God’s righteousness that breaks down all human barriers. It is the glory of God that he suffers for his creatures, both in his providential care in creative work and in his predestined love in redeeming work. When this suffering glory is manifested in the life and death of Jesus, our little lights pale into common shade. No moral or mystic or religious or aesthetic or intellectual or political or economic or social advantage can be claimed by one man over another. Not even the Jews who were near God as his chosen family can boast before the Gentiles who were far off, for Christ is our peace, who has pulled down the dividing wall between us (Eph. 2:14).

But we are made righteous by the gift of God’s grace through the redemption won by Christ Jesus.

When Paul says God justifies by grace, he rejects a mechanical or causal connection between God and man. Our righteousness comes to us as a gift that has been won for us by the sacrifice of Christ. We are freed from the enemy that enthralls us; and this is a real franchise, not just a declared one. To speak of a mere declaration of freedom from sin without including a real redemption and bestowal of holiness is to human salvation what a docetic revelation is to Christology, a mock façade. God’s redemptive work is not like the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the Negro slaves but left them in a condition in which they were not respected as free men. But on the other hand, this new freedom is not ours unless it is exercised in love; for while we are free from sin, so long as we remain in the flesh we are still not without sin.

Article continues below

… whom God set forth as a mercy seat to wipe out sin by the blood of his sacrificial death.

It is clear from the grammatical construction that Paul intends to say that God is the agent of redemption as well as the one who suffers in the sacrifice that accomplishes it. Proetheto is an aorist middle form of protithemi. In the middle voice the subject participates in the result of the action and is emphasized as the agent. God is the actor in redemption who also suffers the action. It is precisely this sacrifice that is his glory.

There has been much debate over the translation of hilasterion. Luther renders it “Gnadenstuhl,” the vulgate has “propitiatorium,” King James has “propitiation,” and the New English Bible has “expiating.” Literally the reference is to the cover of the ark of the Covenant in the holy of holies (Hebrew: kapporeth, Lev. 16:12–15). Propitiation is an offering to God to please him, thereby changing God by winning his favor. Expiation is an offering intended to atone for sins by covering them, thereby changing man by cleansing him. The ritual of atonement in the holy of holies was not a pagan sacrifice appeasing an angry god, nor was it simply a human work symbolizing ethical ablution. For this reason perhaps “mercy seat” is the best translation because it puts the center of action in God, where it squarely belongs, and yet preserves the whole mystery. God is truly and mysteriously changed in this sacrifice, and so is man. God was in Christ reconciling the world (man’s sin is expiated) to himself (God is propitiated).

Christ is the mercy seat because he does now what the ark of the Covenant formerly did. The old mercy seat covered the testimonies of the ark behind the veil of the temple, yet also marked their presence among men so that the place of God’s mercy could always be found. Now Jesus displays as well as covers the secret of God’s kingdom. The veil of the temple has been rent, and Jesus is the new center of worship because he is the seat of mercy; but yet he is covered in mystery because his mercy can be received only in faith. Moreover, just as the ark was covered because whoever touched this box would die, Christ is the cover for God’s wrath, which is too terrible for human eyes to see. And finally, Christ is like the mercy seat in that blood was sprinkled on it in the Day of Atonement sacrifice. The critical moment of atonement was not the death of the sacrificial victim but the sprinkling of the blood on the ark and the people. So also Christ’s work is continuous in his intercession in the heavenly holy of holies and in the eucharistic celebration of the Christian family in which each new generation is sprinkled with grace afresh.

Article continues below

… thereby showing God’s righteousness to be a suffering on the part of God in which he both forgives past sins and bestows forgiveness in the present upon all who have faith in Jesus.

God is himself righteous in that he makes us righteous. Here is the key to the New Testament teaching on atonement. God made us in his image to have dominion over the earth. All things God made were good; in them all he was pleased. But in the Fall man came under the hot displeasure of God’s wrath. This brought man the curse of death, which extended to all under man’s dominion. But Jesus was sent by God to redeem man from this curse, and this he did by identifying himself with man in all respects, standing under the same curse as man. Yet Jesus was pleasing to God. Thus God’s wrath was removed, and Jesus became the first-fruits of resurrection. To say that Christ is God’s Son in whom he is well pleased means that in Christ Jesus, God was pleased to suffer many things and be crucified!


Here the very hinge of the Gospel turns, opening the door of God’s grace and at the same time setting the angle in direct opposition to the natural inclinations of man. Through Isaiah God has declared, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” and in this passage the difference is made blindingly clear.

How ineradicable is man’s desire to bring his own imagined virtue and wisdom to support God’s in any transaction of reconciliation! Instead, he learns that he has nothing to bring, no counsel to offer, no possession to use for barter, no inducement to parley. Rather, he stands in the body of death, bearing the doom of God’s righteous judgment against sin, lacking even the wit to recognize his own hopelessness. He brings a mind not merely less than God’s, but at enmity against it; an understanding so bent by sin that the truth of God strikes it as folly.

All this Paul has driven home with mounting power in the preceding verses, not so much bending human pride as razing it, leveling it to the ground, and sowing salt upon the ruins. Arrogance dies hard. When urged to make his peace with God, John Stuart Mill is said to have replied, “I was not aware that we had quarreled.” Nicodemus approached the Lord Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s awful holiness (as Paul here makes clear), with the blandness of one man of moral and social conscience speaking to another. “When God made man,” quipped Oscar Wilde, “I think he somewhat overestimated his capacity.” The angels, forever in the blaze of God’s glory and righteousness, must shudder at such things, as they shuddered when Satan, swollen with pride, pitted his created might against the majesty of the Creator.

Article continues below

“Ye must become as little children,” Jesus had taught. And one can imagine no greater contrast than that between the naturally trustful, unself-conscious faith of a child and the calculating, narrow-eyed, hypocritical self-righteousness of a proud man, seeking advantage in a contest of feints and tricks, professing himself wise and becoming a fool (Rom. 1:22).

Worldly wisdom tells us to study the great men of the past, the truly virtuous, the compassionate, the wise. It tells us that virtue and vice, righteousness and sin, are not irreconcilable opposites but mingled comparatives, as all human progress shows.

Not so, Paul replies. The problem is sin, and the difference between sin and righteousness is no more capable of gradation or calibration than that between death and life. And death is the heritage of the sinner, for all flesh has sinned and come short of the glory of God.

The law was given to demonstrate this, “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19b, 20).

These are the words that lead us directly to the “door” of verse 21; and the last word is “sin,” which sounds like the serpent’s hiss. To its accompaniment, every feeble candle of man’s cherished self-righteousness gutters and goes out in darkness.

But a new light begins to shine, God’s light, pure and unstained by mortal corruption. Brighter than Sinai it shines, at first a thing of terror, for it reveals the sinner, “guilty before God.” “But now,” Paul begins—for the first time, fully, visibly—“But now the righteousness of God … is manifested” (v. 21).

And at once, before continuing, he tells us two key truths about this newly manifested righteousness. First, it is “without the law,” which is to say transcendent to it, operating in a higher realm, not in one of deserved approbation for attempted obedience to the code but in the realm of grace, unmerited favor. And, second, it is “witnessed,” attested to, by the “law and the prophets.” Though it transcends the law, it is in perfect harmony with it (“If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil,” Jesus challenged—John 18:23); tested by the law, this righteousness is found perfect. Also, it has been prophetically authenticated; it is fulfillment, culmination.

Article continues below

In sum, this is “even the righteousness of God” himself, the immeasurable measure of all morality, the flame of God’s perfection which consumes as filthy rags man’s highest pretensions.

Still this light blazes destructively to the sinner, just as the very presence of the Lord Jesus condemns the unholy. But now is the revelation, the incredible good news of the love of God to sinful man; for this very righteousness, perfect, eternal, transcendent—this righteousness is offered the sinner, for it “is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (v. 22). The one requirement is not an act, nor an achievement, but only the condition inherent in the nature of a free gift: it must be received—“unto all and upon all that believe.” Now “belief,” as we know, in the New Testament has the force of “faith.” And the object of that faith, which is, again, the sole requirement, is a Person, “by faith of Jesus Christ.”

Here the inspired word permits no ambiguity, no argument, no room for equivocation. Either, like little children, we hear and believe; or, still clinging to shreds of imagined self-righteousness, we reply, in effect, “Thy way, O Lord, is not my way.” Hear David: “Teach me thy way, O Lord …” (Ps. 86:11).

In verses 24 and 25, Paul tells us by what motive and by what means the sinner may be covered in the enveloping cloak of God’s own righteousness. The motive power: “Being justified freely by his grace.…” And the means: “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

God requires no exchange, for man in his poverty has nothing, and God’s grace, flowing from his inexhaustible love, needs none. The redemption, the rescue, the snatching of the sinner from the jaws of death, is as sure as the eternity and might of the Son of God, even Christ Jesus.

Then Paul explains how God can save the sinner and not, to the compromise of his justice, condone the sin. It is because our faith is in the One who himself paid the full penalty for our sins. God has not condoned our sins but condemned them, and the sentence, death, has been carried out on the Son, “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood …” (v. 25). Thus this redemption is in the Lord Jesus, whom we must “put on,” in faith. And that faith must embrace acceptance of Jesus’s death in our behalf; faith, that is, “in his blood.” “In that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:10, 11).

Article continues below

All of previous Scripture, with a harmony explicable only on the assumption of divine authorship, leads up to this focus of God’s redemptive grace, the Cross. By it, Paul declares, God manifests his righteousness, “that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (v. 26). That he is the Just One, no theist can doubt. But that he is also the justifier, saviour, and redeemer of the sinner who believes in the Son and his atoning blood—this is the wonder of the Gospel, the great truth man could never know save as God reveals it to him.

In the light of this wondrous truth, where, Paul asks, is human pride and boasting? “It is excluded,” for “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” And: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.