In his letter to the Romans, after the Apostle Paul describes the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), he gives us some sobering news. There is not one person who isn’t ungodly, unrighteous, a hinderer of the truth, idolatrous, immoral, full of evil, deserving of death, and under condemnation by the Creator (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Every person is guilty because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But what does this mean? To answer this question, we must grasp Paul’s entire argument in Romans 3:21–26.
Paul begins, “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” (Rom. 3:21–22). The righteousness of God has a redemptive quality. God saves His people from slavery to sin so they can enjoy a relationship with Him. He declares us just through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. From before the creation of the world, God planned to save His people by grace alone, but this was not made fully manifest until Christ came. To be sure, the Law and the Prophets spoke of this Christ who was to come. Through shadows and types, the Savior of the world was progressively revealed until “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
This saving righteousness is “for all who believe” in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22). When Paul says, “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), he means that there is no distinction when it comes to being sinners, whether one is Jew or gentile, male or female, legalistic or licentious. This is because “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Apart from Christ, all humankind stands condemned before God. As fallen creatures, we no longer perfectly reflect the knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of God. But thankfully, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). In Christ, believers are being sanctified (growing in Christlikeness) until the day of His return, when we will be glorified (perfectly sanctified).
God, in His grace, grants His children the gift of justification through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). The perfect Judge will declare believers not guilty on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work. The benefits of redemption are applied to believers by the Holy Spirit. The redemption of God’s people is truly a work of the triune God.
God the Father put His Son “forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:25). According to the Old Testament sacrificial system, the Day of Atonement was the only time of the year when the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place. In it stood the ark of the covenant, with the mercy seat on top. It was from above this seat that God spoke to His people (Ex. 25:22). To make atonement for himself and for God’s people, the high priest would sprinkle the blood from the sin offering over, and in front of, the mercy seat (Lev. 16:15–16). In speaking of “propitiation,” Paul does not just have in mind the idea of sacrifice but also the truth that God’s wrath was satisfied in Christ’s death on the cross. This gift can only be received from God through faith in Christ; therefore, we cannot earn our salvation through good works.
Since “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins,” God put forward His Son as a propitiation by his blood to show His righteousness (Rom. 3:25). Because the Old Testament sacrificial system never permanently did away with the sins of God’s people, the just and righteous God had to deal with sin, and He purposed to do this through the death of His only Son. Only the sinless God-man can represent God to man and man to God, give His life as a ransom for those who trust in Him, and be the substitute for sinners. The death of Christ revealed God’s righteousness, “so that He might be just [in dealing with sin] and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
On the one hand, when it comes to sin, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But on the other hand, when it comes to salvation there is a distinction. Only those who believe in Jesus will be saved: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Have you received and rested upon Jesus Christ alone for your salvation? If so, thank God today for saving you. If you are not sure, seek God in His Word and in prayer, asking Him to reveal Himself to you through the Holy Scriptures.
This article is part of the What Does This Verse Mean? collection.