Dan Popp
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
November 15, 2010

If it's possible that Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome is the most significant document ever penned, then Chapter 3 might be the pivotal chapter of that work, the verses we're about to review may be the key part of the chapter, and it could be argued that the first word of Romans 3:21 is the most important word in all of literature.

It isn't the word cross, or faith, or even God. Nor is it a big theological word like propitiation. It's the little, everyday conjunction, But.

Anyone who reads the first two-and-a-half chapters of Romans without feeling a sense of despair has not understood the message. We collectively abandoned God; therefore God abandoned us (Chapter 1). The few that He snatched from the sewer of paganism distinguished themselves by adding hypocrisy to the Gentile's sins (Chapter 2). We have turned every divine gift into an instrument of evil (3:10-18).

There is no excuse, no appeal and no escape. Everyone stands condemned. Each of us must be separated from God for all eternity — the horrifying "second death" of Revelation 20:14.


What an astonishing word! All hope has been pulverized and scattered to the winds; yet hope has a heartbeat! The fatal verdict cannot be overturned because this Judge cannot miscarry justice, cannot be mistaken and cannot change; yet we hear His voice announcing a reprieve! We demanded that God "leave us alone," so He did; yet somehow He is here, "with us." And more than with us, "for us." But now... But God... But listen — everybody listen — this is the Good News!

But now 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. [ESV]

As other translators express it:

But now, not by the Law, but by another way, God's righteousness is brought to light.... [Con] But now God's way of giving men right standing with Himself has come to light; a way without connection to the law.... [Wms] But now God has shown us a different way to heaven — not by being "good enough" and trying to keep his laws.... [Tay]

...though the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it; I mean a righteousness coming from God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe. [Gspd, Mon, KJV]

Since we have no rightness of our own, it must come from outside ourselves. We cannot manufacture it like we do our idols, the "works of our hands." We'll have to empty our hands in order to receive it.

When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to this other kind of rightness, he assures us once again that he's not making up a new doctrine; it's been right there in the Old Testament all along. This news is (pardon the pun) perfectly kosher.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.... [RSV]

Let's take that a chunk at a time. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned — Jews and Gentiles share the same problem, as we've learned.

...have sinned and fall short.... Note the different verb tenses: have sinned (in the past), and fall short (continuing now). It's not that we made a few boo-boos long ago in our wild and impetuous youth, but we're all grown up now, thankyouverymuch. No, our true situation is that we have sinned, we are sinners who share Adam's deformed spiritual DNA, and we will go on sinning until we are incapable of sin, meaning "dead." More about that later.

As for the phrase, fall short of the glory of God, some translators convey the idea that we're unworthy to share in the splendor of heaven; others bring out the concept that we've failed to bring glory to God; still others that we as His image-bearers are corrupt. Since all those things are true, I'm not sure it matters which sense we prefer. The point is that not one human being measures up.

...they are now justified by his grace as a gift [ESV] ...being declared righteous freely by his favour [Rhm] ...but are acquitted freely by His grace. [Wey] "...Justification being the legal and formal acquittal from guilt by God as Judge, the pronouncement of the sinner as righteous...." [Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words]

The word grace speaks of good will and generosity. Why God would favor us after all we've done is something of a mystery, but we do know that grace flows entirely from His character; it's not that we're really cool people underneath all the slime. And just so we don't miss that point, the word "gift" or "freely" is repeated. As far as the children of Adam are concerned, rightness can be received, but never earned.

...through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus [ESV] ...through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus [NEB] ...through the ransom which is paid in Christ Jesus [Con]

To redeem
means, "to buy back." The picture is that we were slaves of sin, legally purchased on the auction block for the price of Jesus' death (see Rev. 5:9).

We can become numb to frequent expressions like through Christ Jesus, but we should try to remember that in the Bible repetition is usually employed for emphasis. This different way to heaven we've been talking about is through Christ Jesus, and no other way. Jesus' blood is provision enough for the whole world — but it is the only provision. "Unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in you sins." (John 8:24b NASB)

...whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. [NASB] ...For God designed Him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith. [NEB] ...For God set him before the world, to be, by the shedding of his blood, a means of reconciliation through faith. [TNCT]

Under the Old Covenant, the mercy seat or "propitiatory" was a thing: the gold cover of the Ark of the Covenant, upon which animal blood was sprinkled once a year. It was hidden from view. In the New Covenant the touch-point of mercy is a Person. He was set forth, or displayed publicly, to the whole world on a hill outside Jerusalem during the busy Passover holiday.

Why publicly? Perhaps because the good news requires us to make a decision, so we're entitled to see the evidence. God has judged us; now, in the ultimate irony, we must judge God.

Propitiation means appeasement, conciliation. Commentators want us to know that this isn't like the propitiation of the Greek gods: offering goodies to win favor. If God hadn't already chosen to extend His favor (grace) to us, He wouldn't have supplied the Sacrifice. Yet the meaning of the word propitiation is fairly clear by the context, I think: Christ's death on the cross satisfies the claim of justice against us. A life was required in payment for our crimes. "For without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Hebr. 22:9b RSV)

Does God force this solution on everyone, even though it's available to all? No. It's made effective through faith. This right-side-up-ness must be received by faith, as the ESV translates it. If you still want to work your way to heaven, Jesus says, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:29 NASB)

One more thing about faith: the Bible always treats it as a matter of the heart or will — not of ability. Everyone who hears can believe. The question is, will you believe? Jesus entreated us to "Change your hearts and minds and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15b Phillips)

Thanks for coming to this meeting of the Romans Book Club. I hope to see you again next time.

© Dan Popp


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