The History of Redemption: The God Who Justifies Sinners

We’ve all seen movies that portray people doing some pretty horrible things. Maybe one of the characters kills another person in cold-blood, but no one is around to see it. As we watch, we wait for the moment the murderer is caught. But, then, the credits begin to role. The movie is over, and the “bad person” got away with it. Often, we become personally invested in the movie, so much so that when justice isn’t done we become indignant. He or she should have paid for their crime.

But what about us? Do we think we should come under similar judgment? “But I’m a good person,” you may think. When was the last time you lied or cheated? When did you fudge the truth to make yourself look good to someone else? When was the last time you had an impure or hostile thought? We are all guilty of something and should be brought to justice for it. The question remains, “Will we be?”


As we leave the book of Acts, we come to the third section of the New Testament: the letters. These letters (sometimes called epistles) are largely situational in nature, meaning they were written to address problems (and head off potential ones) in specific churches connected to the author of the letter. These letters often contain sections of doctrine (what the church believes) and application (practical usage of doctrine).

The New Testament letters were written by several different individuals, including the apostles Paul, Peter, and John, and two of Jesus’ brothers, who emerged as leaders in the early church: James and Jude. There is one letter, Hebrews, in which the author remains unknown.

These letters actually predate many of the Gospels and Acts. They provide a glimpse into many of the triumphs and difficulties of life in the early church. These letters were passed around from church to church, copied, and collected over a period of time. Church leaders quickly recognized they too, like the Old Testament, were a work of the Spirit and began to be read and revered as the word of God.

The letter to the Romans is one such letter written by the apostle Paul. In it he takes up the central theme of the gospel. This chapter looks at Romans 3:21-26. This passage comes after a lengthy discussion by Paul on humanity’s sinful condition and its inability to breach the chasm between itself and God because of its sin. Not only are Gentiles in this condition, but also God’s chosen people the Jews, who are condemned by the law (1:18–3:20). The answer to humanity’s condition is the grace and justice of God, who mercifully forgives them in light of the cross of Christ. He who did not know sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Jesus (2 Cor 5:21). What follows Romans 3:21-26 is the example of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham who was reckoned righteous by faith (4:1-25) and the results of the believer’s justification (5:1-21). With this overview done, let us now turn our attention to the passage at hand, Romans 3:21-26.

A Righteousness Made Known Apart from the Law (Rom 3:21)

As we read through this passage we are struck by the repetition of certain phrases. One of these we find in verse 21, the “righteousness of God.” But what does this mean? If we were only to read verse 21, we may very well conclude that it is an attribute of God; God is righteous, just in all his dealings, or he is perfectly holy and right. There is no sin in him. But as we continue to read, we realize this can’t be exactly what Paul has in mind. We could also go back to 1:16-17, which serves as something of the theme for the entire letter. There we read, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (emphasis added).

This is the verse that shaped the German Reformer Martin Luther way back in the 16th century. For Luther the “righteousness of God” was God’s holiness; it was what condemned Luther because he knew he was a great sinner and could never do enough good works to be forgiven by this holy God. Then he began to teach his students on Paul’s letter to the Romans. When he came to 1:16-17, he realized that the righteousness of God is a righteousness that is appropriated by faith. He no longer viewed God as merely an angry, vengeful God, but as one who out of great love toward sinners makes God’s righteousness available to them by faith. So no longer did God stand over them as judge, but as the one who forgives and redeems sinners by faith. This is why Paul says this “righteousness of God” is found in the gospel, that is, the good news. If Paul meant the “righteousness of God” to be God’s holiness, his righteous judgment against sin only, then where is the good news of the gospel?

So when we read the phrase the “righteousness of God” in 3:21, we must understand it in the same way it is used in chapter 1 and throughout 3:21-26: it is a righteousness that comes from God that enables sinners to no longer be under judgment, but under grace.

Now let’s look at Paul’s argument a bit more closely. This “righteousness of God” has been made known “apart from the law” (3:21). The “law” is marked lowercase in the NIV and most modern translations to distinguish it from the “Law and the Prophets,” that is, the Law in the sense of the Pentateuch. Law (lowercase) is the law code that God required of his covenant people to obey.

So what is Paul saying? There is a “righteousness of God” that has been made known apart from the law code. Previously, Paul explained that the law code is unable to save anyone. It cannot change anybody. It can only make one aware of sin. It condemns. This doesn’t mean the “righteousness of God” was unknown in the Old Testament, for Paul clearly states the “Law and the Prophets testify” to this righteousness; God’s gracious act of making sinners right with him. In fact, Paul utilizes literature from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings to make this very point. Earlier, in Romans 1:17 he quotes from Habakkuk 2:6, “The righteous shall live by faith.” And a little latter in Romans 4 he used both Abraham and David to show that one is declared righteous, justified by faith in God apart from the law.

A Righteousness That Is Appropriated by Faith in Jesus (Rom 3:22-23)

Paul continues that this “righteousness” is made available to “all who believe” (3:22). He makes it clear as can be that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). No one may approach God and be forgiven based on their own merit or good works. We have nothing in and of ourselves that can overcome the offensiveness of our sin against a just and holy God. And this is the case for everyone, for no one is exempt. However, neither is anyone outside of God’s gracious provision to forgive sinners like you and me. All are sinners, but also all may appropriate the “righteousness of God,” that which allows sinners to stand before him, to be in fellowship with God, no longer enemies but friends, “through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:22).

A Righteousness Grounded Upon the Sacrifice of Jesus (Rom 3:24-25a)

So we see that the “righteousness of God” may be appropriated by anyone who places faith in (trusts) Jesus Christ. Now Paul turns to the ground or basis of the availability of God’s righteousness to sinners. How can God forgive sinners? Paul has already mentioned that we can bring nothing to God that would make him want to forgive us our sin (cf. 3:23). So how can it be that God, who is holy and just, can and does forgive sinful people? The answer is: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the sinner’s behalf.

Paul writes that sinners who repent of their sin and trust in Jesus “are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ” (3:24). The language of “redemption” in our day is largely regulated to the religious realm. However, there was a time, in the not so distant past that one might say they “redeemed” a coupon. A coupon has a cash value on it that is redeemed when it is used to purchase something. Redemption in the first century, when the apostle Paul penned these verses, was often used with reference to slavery. There were no bankruptcy laws in the first century. When someone was unable to pay one’s debts, that person (or a family member or the entire family), became a slave of the person to whom the debt was owed until the debt could be paid off. This debt could be paid off by anyone. So often a family member stepped in to pay the debt. But the payment didn’t go directly to the one to whom the debt was owed. The person wishing to pay off the debt went to the local temple. They would provide the money for the debt, as well as a percentage. The percentage went to the priest who would perform a ceremony that declared the local god paid the debt. (The money owed was then given to the moneylender.) Thus, the local deity “redeemed” one from slavery. While the local god in no way actually redeemed anyone this is not so of Jesus. He paid our debt against God that had been incurred by our sin against him. This debt was so great that we couldn’t satisfactorily pay it on our own. So Jesus paid our debt to redeem us, to make us truly free.

Paul continues that Jesus paid our debt to redeem us with his own blood, that is, his death. His death is described as “a sacrifice of atonement” (3:25a). The term behind this phrase (Gk. hilastērion) is translated in some versions “propitiation” (see KJV, ESV). Propitiation means to make God favorable toward sinners redeemed by Jesus Christ. By dying in our place, Jesus removes God’s wrath, his holy anger against sinners.[i] As noted earlier, Paul makes the case in 1:18–3:19 that all people everywhere have sinned against God. We really need go no further back than 3:10–18, as Paul strings together several passages from the Hebrew Bible as the exclamation point to his argument that all of us stand condemned under God’s just judgment. So what we needed was a perfect representative, a substitute to take our place, to bear our punishment, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. And it is Jesus alone who has done this for us.

The Reason God Did All of This (Rom 3:25b–26)

Verse 35a states, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice for atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood.” This was something God the Father did to “demonstrate his righteousness” (3:25b, 26a). The term “righteousness” (same term in vv. 21, 22) here has the meaning of “just” or “right.” Thus, God presented Jesus as a propitiation to show that he is just. The point is that sin must be dealt with; it simply cannot be swept under the rug. God’s justice demands that sin be punished, and this is what Christ bears on our behalf, God’s just punishment against our sin.

God demonstrated his righteousness through punishing his Son for us “because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (3:25b). While there were temporal punishments there was not a once and for all sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb. 9:28; 10:10, 12). It was Jesus who was the final and perfect sacrifice for our sin against God.

Finally, Paul sums up the reason why God did all this: “so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (3:26b). If we stop with “so as to be just,” this would not be very encouraging. God would be perfectly just in punishing us. But he knows a better way of dealing with sin. He punishes sin, but he also “justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” We see here that God is: (1) just in punishing sin; (2) just in punishing Jesus in our place so that his wrath against us might be removed; and (3) the one who justifies, declares righteous, on account of the righteousness of Christ, those who place faith in Jesus as the one who alone merits their restored relationship with God.

Theological Reflection & Application

  1. All of us stand condemned before God. We needed a mediator to stand in for us so that we might not receive God’s punishment against our sin. Jesus is that mediator.
  2. While we are great sinners, Christ Jesus is a greater Savior. His death alone is able to purchase redemption for us. There is not a single person who has ever lived or who will live that is beyond the grace of God. His love is big enough to rescue the worst of sinners. He does not withhold the gospel from anyone and neither should we.
  3. We stand before God “justified,” in right standing, not because of the things we do, but by trusting what Jesus has done for us.
  4. The God of the Bible, the God who stands over all creation, is both just and gracious. He is both wrathful and merciful. He is both holy and loving. These are not mere characteristics of his nature; rather, they are who he is. God is God is love.
  5. Sometimes people get offended and bothered by a God who is just or wrathful. They don’t think it’s very kind of God to punish sinners. The thing is, God is perfectly just in doing so. He owes none of us anything. We all deserve death, and yet, God graciously gives his Son to die in our place so that we might live with him. The Son is punished for us so that we don’t have to be. What is most perplexing is not that God punishes sinners, but that he loves them enough to save them.

[i] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988; Reprint 1994), 180.


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