The Absolutely Crucial “All”
“There is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they (all) are justified by his grace (Romans 3:22-24). The statement in verse 23 that all, both Jews and Gentiles, have sinned is embedded right in the middle of his treatment of righteousness by grace through faith. That context highlights the full meaning of “no distinction.” Just as all are sinners, even so all need God’s grace.
Thus, it is that “all” without distinction “are justified by his grace as a gift” (verse 24). Justification, a legal term, is the opposite of condemnation. Both are pronouncements by a judge. Justification in Paul’s general usage does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather “to declare righteous.” But it is more than a mere pardon, which is the remission of a penalty or debt. To the contrary, justification includes a positive pronouncement of righteous status on the repentant sinner. We see the point illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father not only forgives his son but also welcomes him fully back into the family at the very instant of confession. “Quick!” exclaimed the father, “bring the best robe” (Luke 15:22 NIV).
Martin Luther viewed justification as the central scriptural doctrine. It is, he claimed, “the master and ruler, lord, governor and judge over all other doctrines.” And it is the unique Christian doctrine that distinguishes (the Christian) religion from all others. Others have highlighted the opposite side of that truth by stating the principle that man can save himself by his own works, lays at the foundation of every heathen religion. It is no accident that Paul placed justification by faith at the core of his gospel (see, Romans 1:16, 17; Romans 3:24-26; Galatians 2:16-21).
Part of the reason that he and Luther saw justification as central to the plan of salvation was undoubtedly the judgment theme that runs throughout the Bible. But beyond the judgement imagery were the two men’s own personal experiences. Early in their lives both were Pharisees at heart. Both had hoped to win God’s favor through amassing merits on the balance scale of judgement. But that attempt, as both learned, was an impossible task.
Paul and Luther in their Pharisaic days were not altogether wrong. After all, righteousness does demand perfect law-keeping. And the automatic penalty for failure is condemnation and death (see Romans 6:23; Romans 4:15). They were also correct about their shortcomings in obeying the law as God demanded. The great breakthrough for both of them came when they understood justification as God’s free gift.
That realization brings us to how God justifies, which Romans 3:24 describes as “by his grace as a gift.” The wonder of wonders is that the greatest blessing in the universe is absolutely free.
Grace is another word central to both romans 3:21-25 and to the plan of salvation as Paul describes it. And what does God freely do for sinners that makes grace central to the gospel? According to Paul, He gives people justification and forgiveness rather than condemnation. Now if people deserve a severe punishment they receive a beautiful priceless gift, they are getting something they do not deserve. And that is the everyday meaning of what Paul calls “grace” in verse 24.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of verses 21-24 to the Christian understanding of God’s salvation. He does indeed have a way of saving all people: apart from law.” It is His righteous gift freely offered to both Jew and Gentiles (all humanity). When they accept it by faith, they are justified, or accounted righteous. The apostle said it differently in Ephesians 2:8, 9, but the meaning is the same: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your won doing it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.”
What a salvation! What a God!
But Paul isn’t finished yet. The first part of Romans 3:24 sets forth the mode of justification with the words “by his grace as a gift.” “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” illuminates the means by which God made His acquitting verdict possible.
With the word redemption we have come to a metaphor of the marketplace. Its most basic meaning is “to redeem one by paying the price, to let one go free on receiving the price or a releasing effected by payment of ransom: or liberation procured by the payment of a ransom.
The ancient world used it in connection with the freeing of military captives or slaves. When the ransom or redemption price was paid, they were free (Leviticus 25:47-49).
The New Testament applies the redemption concept to Christ. Romans 6:16 speaks of sinners as being slaves of sin. It is in the context that Paul tells us that Christ became our redemption (Romans 3:24). As Jesus told His disciples, “The Son of Man” came to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), so also Paul notes that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” On Calvary’s tree (Galatians 3:13). And Peter reminds us that we are not ransomed with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (I Peter 1:18, 19).
The first words of Romans 3:25 shift the focus from the redemptive price that made justification a possibility (“through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus”) (verse 24) To God’s initiative in providing publicly (Christ) as the propitiation” (verse 25, NASB).
With propitiation we encounter an easily misunderstood word. It’s basic meaning is to turn away wrath. In the Greek world in which the New Testament arose, Propitiation had the flavor of bribing the gods, demons, or the dead in an attempt to win their favor. Since the gods were mad, they needed to be appeased (see II Kings 3:26, 27 for a biblical example).
But we must not confuse Paul’s use of the word with that of the pagans. Rather than Christ shedding His blood to appease the Father’s wrath, Romans 3:25 claims that it was God Himself who “Put Forward” the propitiatory sacrifice. That point is in agreement with John, who writes: “herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10, KJV; cf. John 3:16).
Since propitiation has misleading overtones, the New International Version’s rendering is illuminating. Most significant is the fact that the atoning sacrifice is “by his blood” (Romans 3:25). That wording explicitly centers God’s redeeming act through Christ on the cross as the foundation of God’s justifying grace and as the focal point of the demonstration . . . of His righteousness” (NASB) that becomes the topic of the last half of verse 25 and all of verse 26.
Verse 27-31 take up several implications of justification by grace through faith. One is that the redeemed will have no grounds for boasting since it is a free gift and not their own doing (verses 27, 28). Nothing would be more disgusting than having to listen to ten thousand years of Aunt Mary or Uncle Charlie brag about how good they were.
Another implication is that justification by faith does not “overthrow the law” but in fact uphold the law (verse 31). After all, it is the ongoing function of the law to continue to point out sin so that believers can come to Christ and confess their sins and receive forgiveness (I John 1:9). And Paul will move on in romans, 6, 7, 12, and 13 to examine how the law will shape the lives of those who have been freely justified by grace received through faith.