A description of Justification – Romans 3:21-26

In our study of Romans, we have come now to the second major division of the book. The first section of Romans showed us that people have no hope of obtaining righteousness on their own. We are all condemned in our sin. The second major division of the book of Romans covers 3:21-5:21. In this section, we learn how we can obtain God’s righteousness or, as we may call it, the imputation of God’s righteousness. James Stifler points out that “the first main division of the epistle forms a powerful negative argument for the second, and was evidently so intended. Since man is a sinner with no help in himself and none in the law, what is left to him but to look to the mercy of God? In a court of justice it is only after every defense has failed and the law itself has been shown to be broken, it is only at this point that the appeal is made to the judge for his clemency. The epistle has brought us to such a point.”[1] The New American Commentary expounds on this thought as it says, “At the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans we encountered the theme that runs throughout the entire epistle. Paul stated that he was not ashamed of the gospel because in it is revealed a righteousness from God that is completely dependent upon faith (Rom 1:17). After building a case against all people, showing their universal sinfulness and therefore their universal need of salvation, Paul then spelled out the only way for them to be brought into a right standing with God. From a human standpoint—and by nature people are legalists—the plan was radical. It excluded anything and everything that people by themselves might do to attain righteousness. The righteousness God provides has its origin in what God did, not in what people may accomplish. It is received, not earned. It depends upon faith, not meritorious activity. God justifies the ungodly, not the well intentioned. What makes the “good news” news is that no one would have come up with a plan that excluded their own contribution toward a future salvation. This central theme is now expanded in what is generally acknowledged to be the most theologically important segment of the entire New Testament.”[2]

But now. In verses 21-22 we read, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference.“[3] Those two words at the beginning of this section ‘But now…’ could be the most beautiful words in all of the Word of God. Previously, Paul showed just how sinful and hopeless man is. ‘But now’ here comes the good news. The good news is that the ‘righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed.’ The law reveals our sinfulness. As our sin is revealed we come to realize that we are unable to keep the law of God because we are totally depraved. Every part of man is tainted with sin. Therefore, we are left without any hope. However, God has provided a way of salvation apart from the law. This is not a new way because this way was ‘witnessed by the law and the prophets.’ “The church father John Chrysostom pointed out that “Paul does not say that the righteousness of God has been given but that it has been manifested, thus destroying the accusation that it is something new. For what is manifested is old but previously concealed. He reinforces this point by going on to mention that the Law and Prophets had foretold it.”[4] This good news, which was once a mystery, is now made known or revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Dr. Constable states, “Moreover the righteousness of God has been manifested, namely, through the coming of Jesus Christ.”[5] The righteousness of God is given to everyone who believes no matter who they are because “all have sinned.”

All have sinned. Notice the classic verse 23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [6] The righteousness of God is made available to everyone, because everyone is in the same boat. We have all sinned, therefore, our only hope is found in the one who has manifested the righteousness of God; His name is Jesus. What exactly does it mean to sin and fall short of God’s glory? God is perfectly holy and righteous and cannot have anything to do with sin. When we fall short of that, we have sinned. We have ‘missed the mark’. The mark that we aim for is the glory of God. However, our lives cannot bring Him glory because we are so completely sinful. This state of sin is true for every single person ever conceived. We are born in sin. We have inherited a sin nature. We have all sinned.

Being justified freely. In verse 24 we read, “ Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” [7]This verse is one the most doctrinally rich verses in all of the Bible. Paul begins by introducing to us the term ‘justified.’ Here we find the Biblical doctrine of justification. The Holman New Testament Commentary says, “Paul introduces a thought so contrary to Jewish and Gentile sensibilities as to be scandalous—an example of the clash of kingdoms at its best. The idea that the wicked could be justified freely was unheard of, not only in Rome but also in Israel. The iron-booted authority of Rome not only condemned the guilty but probably a lot who were innocent as well.”[8] The word ‘justified’ is a legal term which basically refers to a ‘pardon.’ Some will say that the word justified means ‘just as we have never sinned’; I would beg to differ. It is not ‘just as we have never sinned’, because we have sinned. Being justified does not take away the fact that we are sinners. Being justified is to be pardoned from the penalty of our sin. When a criminal is pardoned by the Governor or President, the criminal record is made clean. He no longer has to pay the penalty for his crime. He still committed the crime. He still sinned, but the penalty of the sin has been removed. This Divine act of justification is given to us ‘freely.’ In other words, there is nothing that you or I have to do in order to earn justification. To be pardoned of a crime, there is no further act that must be done by the accused; if there were, then it would not be a true pardon. We are justified freely in that there is absolutely nothing that we must do to earn such a gift, all we must do is accept it and receive it.

By His grace. The justification we receive is given to us by His grace. In other words, God gives to us what we do not deserve. That is what grace is. We are given what we do not deserve. None of us deserve to be justified. We have all sinned and we all deserve to pay the ultimate price for our sin. But, God loves us so much that He gives us His grace. What a glorious thing!

Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The giving out of this Divine pardon known as justification; is given to us by the grace of God which is made possible through the redemption that is given to us in Christ Jesus. The cross makes it all possible. Jesus went to the cross in order to pay the price of our sin and buy us out of the slave market of sin. Apart from the cross there is no justification. There is no possibility of receiving a pardon for our sin without the cross of Jesus Christ. I love that old hymn by Isaac Watts: “Alas and did my Savior bleed? And did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I? Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree! Well might the sun in darkness hide and shut his glories in, when Christ, the mighty maker, died for man the creature’s sin. But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe: Here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘Tis all that I can do! At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away, it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!”[9] This free gift of justification is made possible by the redemption that was given to us by Jesus on the cross of Calvary!

Whom God sent forth as a propitiation by His blood. Notice what we find in verse 25, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”[10] God presented Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. In some versions the term ‘atonement’ is used instead of ‘propitiation.’ The Bible Knowledge Commentary suggests, “This noun is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Hebrews 9:5 for the mercy seat (niv, “the place of atonement”) of the tabernacle’s ark of the covenant. There a goat’s blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement to cover (atone) Israel’s sins (Lev. 16:15), and satisfy God for another year. Jesus’ death is the final sacrifice which completely satisfied God’s demands against sinful people, thus averting His wrath from those who believe.”[11] A simple way to put it is that on the cross, Jesus appeased the wrath of God. The holiness of God does not allow Him to have anything to do with sin. Therefore, His wrath must fall on the unbelieving world. However, Jesus satisfied the righteous demands of God on the cross. All those who go to cross, all those who believe in Jesus, are set free from the wrath of God. This appeasement of God’s wrath comes at a price, the blood of Jesus. Christ died for our sins in order that we might be saved from the wrath of God.

Through faith. In order to be justified, redeemed, and saved from God’s wrath, one must place his or her faith in Jesus. Faith is not a work, it is a choice. Faith is an act of the human will. In other words, in order to be saved, there is no work or labor that you must do in order to merit the grace of God. However, there is something that you must do. You must make a conscience decision to accept or receive God’s gift grace that is freely given to you. Faith makes the gift a reality for you. Therefore, Jesus becomes the propitiation for your sin through faith. The bottom line is that is all up to you. The work of salvation has already been accomplished. Jesus will never have to go to the cross again. It is over. It is done. It is finished. It has been accomplished. The question is; will you receive it? Will you believe in Jesus? Just like that song we see at camp, “Will you believe? Will you believe in Jesus? That He died for your sins and if you will receive Him, He will come and live within. Will you believe?”

To demonstrate His righteousness. In verses 25-26 we find the main purpose for God’s gift of justification. “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”[12] R.C. Sproul sheds light on this point when he writes, “The cross of Jesus Christ not only redeems us, it also vindicates God. It makes it perfectly clear that God takes sin very seriously. How many times have you heard people say: The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a God of grace, mercy and love. Where do we find in Scripture the fullest expression of the love of God? In the cross. Where do we find the most awful manifestation of the wrath of God? Is it not also in the cross, where he pours out wrath upon his own Son? That same act shows that God judges sin, and yet is a loving and merciful God. God did this to vindicate his own righteousness, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (verse 26). When God spares me and gives me the gift of his kingdom and access into heaven, he does not compromise his own integrity to do it. His righteousness is preserved and maintained throughout.”[13] Here we find the doxological purpose of God. In all the God has done and given to us through the cross of Jesus, He is glorified. His righteousness is revealed. His holiness is shown. He is glorified.

“When Luther defined the doctrine of justification in the sixteenth century, he used a Latin phrase simul justus et peccator, which means ‘At the same time, just and sinner’. This gets to the heart of justification by faith alone. Though in and of myself I am a sinner, once I have received the benefit of Christ’s propitiation, I am just in the sight of God. Just, by virtue of Christ’s righteousness; sinner, by virtue of my own performance.”[14] This is the beauty of the Gospel. I’m just a sinner saved by grace. In the eyes of God, I am justified, and I stand before Him with a certificate of pardon stamped and certified with the seal of the Holy Ghost written by the blood of Jesus Christ! Have you been justified? Have you received God’s gift of grace?


[1] Stifler, James M. The epistle to the Romans. Chicago: Moody Press. 1960.

[2] Mounce, R. H. (1995). Romans (Vol. 27, pp. 113–114). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[3] The New King James Version. (1982). (Ro 3:21–22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 103). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[5] Dr. Constable. Notes on Romans. p. 43

[6] The New King James Version. (1982). (Ro 3:23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7] The New King James Version. (1982). (Ro 3:24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[8] Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 105). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[9] Issac Watts. At the cross. Public domain.

[10] The New King James Version. (1982). (Ro 3:25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[11] Witmer, J. A. (1985). Romans. (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Eds.)The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[12] The New King James Version. (1982). (Ro 3:25–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[13] Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (pp. 78–79). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.

[14] Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (pp. 77–78). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.

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