A Interpretative Review of Romans 3:21-31

Paul’s exposition of the Gospel has now reached its rhetorical peak and in some way, the heart of the epistle can be located within these verses that accentuates the saving work of Christ. The apostle has been arguing against any distinction from Jew and Gentile towards God’s judgment and wrath that involves a transition of one epoch to another. The justice of God has been made manifested apart from the Mosaic law and this covenantal saving act has redeemed humanity from the injustice it imposes. The argument takes a salvific-historical shift from the old era of the covenant to the new that is revealed in Christ. This power of God’s saving justice is demonstrated in the death of the Messiah Jesus and is repeated in the process of faith (pistis Christou). The nature of this faith is represented in the person of Christ as Paul now begins to expand on the thesis (1:16-17) of the letter and add Christological content to the Gentile audience’s story in God’s plan of salvation.[1]

The faith in Christ or through faith of Christ discussion draws from a linguistic and grammatic argument. In context, it is this pistis which is the source of God’s righteousness that adds to the proclamation in these verses (vv.21-26) and further demonstrates our need for justification. The word “all” (πάντες) is repeated throughout the epistle that emphasizes the universal outreach of God’s saving purpose and action with those who believe.[2] The why is answered in this verse as to our need for true saving faith and how there’s no distinction to the extent of God’s justice. Draper is worth quoting at this point concerning the mind of the first century Jew: “They thought they had a special status before God; they thought they had thus a special claim on the Messiah over against the Gentiles, and they insisted that Gentiles must keep the Jewish law and ritual if they wished to be equal to Jews.”[3] Yet, all have been brought short (fallen) in comparison to the glory of God since all are sinners and all believers are justified by God’s standard of justice. For the Jew and Gentile, both must approach this kind of faith under the terms of redemption that God interrelates with the freedom of humanity. This refers to Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he writes that those who are under the works of the law are in direct exposure to the curse of the law and the glory of men more familiar than the glory of God (Gal. 3:10). The efficacy of God’s justice is inclusive and will be made full at the end of the age when Christ calls believers’ home.

Paul uses the verb “justify” (dikaioō) at this very juncture in a declarative tone concerning the justice of God. It is this free gift of grace and not something that can be purchased or attained. It providential comes without payment from the character of God. Redemption was a means to free a slave during the Old Testament which involved a certain payment for their freedom. This concept can be traced back to when God redeemed Israel, before dispensing the law, in the Passover lamb and the sacrificing of the firstborn of Egypt.[4] It was exactly this same enslaving power of sin that kept us from experiencing God’s justice but now freely given, Christ died for all and if not, then his death had no purpose (Gal. 2:21). This redemption carries the idea of a ransom paid that could only come from a sinless savior because of the law and humanity’s inability to bring itself up to the standards of God’s justice (v.24). It is this justification that denotes our inheritance as Paul continues to argue for the Gentile Christians rite of passage into God’s shared table to enjoy in this hesed (LXX translation).

The efficacy of God’s justice is inclusive and will be made full at the end of the age when Christ calls believers’ home.

What then does this liberation mean for those who would consider its calling? For the church in Rome, a large population was enslaved especially Christians who suffered under imperial rule. This liberation through the atonement would bring about the deliverance of such tyranny and incorporate a status whereby everyone was of equal worth. This could only come about through what Paul describes Christ as the “venue of mercy through faith,” publicly displayed for the world to deal with the enslavement of sin. Just as the crucifixion was a public spectacle to the known world at the time, so the same event would publicly usher in the justice of God, allowing the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Old Testament sacrifices are no longer sufficient in light of Christ, just as the law is no longer adequate to appease the wrath of God but were failed attempts to account for one’s sins after the Resurrection. The Son of God was the gift of grace given to all that the apostle would only find it proper to boast in (Gal. 6:14). An Old Testament reference to the mercy seat (ἱλαστήριον) seems to fit into the imagery of what Paul was designating. The day of atonement requires just the high priest to enter into the inner chamber, never without blood (Heb. 9:7,11,12) and Jesus entered death alone on the cross through his blood for our justification. Justice and mercy are operative in the work of God, breaking the credentials of self-boasting and expressing the faithfulness of God that becomes the focal point of salvation. 

The work of justice is to call the one’s God intended to justify in the present time who possess faith in Messiah Jesus. Paul is dealing with this Christological timeframe of divine forbearance that fulfilled the promises made from the time of the first Adam in the garden and Israel during the promise land so that grace may invade the hearts of the human in the second Adam (Christ). This demonstration is Paul’s understanding of the justice of God and is firmly dependent on his understanding of who God is, as benevolent and faithful who covenants with the human, delivering the promise of peace through the love of Christ.[5] This is why God became man (Cur Deus Homo) and Anselm of Canterbury echo’s that God does nothing out of necessity because God is not compelled or restrained to do anything.[6] Only Messiah Jesus could have satisfied this wrath as we begin to see Paul shifting gears to expound on what has been previously mentioned surrounding the faithful obedience that Christ suffered on the cross in solidarity with our suffering, to die a death that releases us from the rule of sin.

The work of justice is to call the one’s God intended to justify in the present time who possess faith in Messiah Jesus.

The question that Paul has been answering thus far concerning boasting has been ruled out by God (3:27) as he continues to speak to his Jewish hearers in a diatribe format. The root of pride kills not only the expression of God’s love towards others but seeks to become part of who they are. Boasting and faith are mutually exclusive, and this self-confidence can’t be found in the piety of the Jew. Paul made mention of this kind of arrogance earlier in the letter (2:23) and questioned its legitimacy of upholding such a law. This type of relationship between law and faith which Paul is alluding to is based on the Atonement of Christ (v.25). God bound himself in flesh in Christ, reaffirming the glory and justice of God to restore our relationship with the divine. The law (nomos) couldn’t support the argument of maintaining dependency on God since it is bound up in human efforts, keeping us bound to sin and death. The internal structure of Paul’s argumentation is concerned with a boasting that hinges the righteousness of God on the law of faith rather than the law of works. The intensity and climax of the passage have passed at this point. The cross has proven that humanity is incapable of approach God according to their own set of rules and authority. The cross was the prescription that exalted the grace of God through faith in Messiah Jesus.

 So how is this boasting excluded? Through the love of Christ on the cross that affirmed His oneness with God. This oneness contrasts the oneness of God with the division of Jew and Greek which refers to the Jewish article of faith (Shema, Deut.6:4). Paul takes this argument, still in diatribe format, by asking if God is only for the Jew (v.29) and not for the whole of humanity. The response is that God is not the God of a particular group but the God of all.. The law is not abrogated or does Paul contend against antinomianism but is rather fulfilled in the person of Christ. It is the Mosaic law that prepared the way for this oneness to invade the hearts of both Jew and Gentile alike and both can share at the same table. The universality of justification was revealed in the cross and this oneness of God is the central truth that rules out boasting. Up to this point, Paul’s literary device is found in the argument of distinction that is marked, not through the sign of circumcision by faith, but the uncircumcision through this faith. The judgment of God is not a matter based on the personal credentials of one’s justice but has been firmly established in the one who has satisfied the law (Matt.5:17). This portion of the narrative has reaffirmed that we are saved, justified, and can all participate in a new way of boasting that grows our faith in God’s loving mercy. This unifying Gospel of the justice of God is inclusive, doesn’t discriminate, criticize but draws from a place of God’s selfless love. 


[1] Witherington, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004, 99.

[2] Dunn, James D. G. Romans 1–8. Vol. 38A. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988, 167.

[3] Yeo, K K, and Ch Strecker. 2007. “Navigating Romans through Cultures.” Theologische Literaturzeitung 132 (10): 1071.

[4] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

[5] Professor Tommy Givens, Podcast Notes: Rom 3:1-3.

[6] Anselm. Cur Deus Homo? Why God Became Man? Edited by Edward S Prout. Christian Classics Series, 1. London: Religious Tract Society, 188AD.

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