Romans 3:21–27. Lesson 5. The Core of Salvation.
Four Word-Pictures.

Key Notes: Alternating tough and gentle teaching. Judgment in the past and now. Sin. Justification. Redemption. Propiation.

Paul has made the indictment of the sinfulness of human beings overwhelming. They are without excuse; they mock God with images; they trade on God’s forbearance; Jews are no better than Gentiles in spite of their privileges. No one does right, no one. The indictment is so heavy that one begs Paul to stop it. As my wife said at the end of the lesson, “You’ve got to get off this heavy stuff---sin.” That is just what Paul does.

In Romans, Paul will oscillate, varying the pressure between the awesome and difficult and the relieving and delightful. One way to outline the book is to show these ups and downs.

  1–3   *the heavy indictment against sin
       3–5  ~ the relief of faith
       5      *the puzzle of Adam’s sin and its consequences
       6      ~how we win the battle over sin
       7      *the vexing effect of the law on our behavior
       8     ~ the joys of our redemption
       9–11  *the task of understanding election and human responsibility
      12–16 ~practical instruction in the Christian life

There are four picture-words in this text. We use "cave art", stick figures, to illustrate them.

3:21   “But now…” signals a break in the train of thought from the indictment of sinners. “Now” also indicates that the time frame has changed. He uses several other time expressions: “at the present time”, “passed over” and “formerly” to indicate that God has changed His way of dealing with us. His dispensation of Law has been enhanced by His dispensation of Grace.

Paul also refers to God’s time change elsewhere in the New Testament.
“In past generations, He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways, yet He did not leave Himself without a witness.” (Acts 14:16,17). That witness was Israel, at a minimum.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all men everywhere to repent because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world….” (Acts 17:30–31)

3:22 “When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son to redeem those who were under the law.” (Gal. 4:4)
“…the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it….”

The Law and the prophets point the way to salvation.

*Satan’s defeat is prophesied in the Garden of Eden. Gen. 3:15
*Blessing to the nations was promised to Abraham. Gen. 12,15,17
*Salvation was blueprinted to Moses in the sacrifice system (Lev. 4) and especially the Day of
Atonement. Lev. 16
*Substitutionary atonement was prophesied in Isaiah 53.
*Justification by faith was announced to Habakkuk. Hab.2:4

Hebrews gives us further light when it refers to OT sacrifice rituals as “copy”…“shadow”…“pattern” of the realities both in Heaven and on earth. (Heb. 8:5). So God chose to give His people a blueprint of salvation 1500 years before the actual enactment. He taught us His ways by degrees. We are slow learners.

Abraham “rejoiced to see My Day, he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56, KJV). Abraham saw into the future and reveled in the prospect of Jesus coming to give us redemption. We see the Cross as the mid-point of This Age, with Abraham looking forward 2000 years to it, as we look back on it 2000 years later.

3:22   The righteousness of God // through faith // in Jesus Christ // for all // who believe. Each phrase is important and will be expanded in the next verses.

3:23   “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….”
The word “sinned” means to "fall short of the mark". It is a picture-word, the image of an archer with a target 100 feet away. The arrow falls to the ground at 50 feet. It is an image of inability, a failure to meet God’s standard. The standard here, interestingly, is not God’s righteousness or His justice, or even His love, but His Glory. Even a moral athlete will turn away from trying to target God’s Glory. What do we know about God’s glory? It is seen in the face of Christ. And it is His Image that God intends to recreate in us.

The word “sinned” (fallen short of the mark) is in the past tense, but “fall short” (another Greek word which means to come too late or to be deficient) is in the present tense. We have fallen short and we are falling short. It is a doubling of meaning.

3:24   All are “justified by His grace as a gift.”  Grace (Gr. charis) is occasionally translated “gift,” but here the word for gift (Gr. "doron") is stronger, and more formal, like a bequest or an endowment.

Justified is the second picture-word. The scene is a courtroom. The judge presides and has ruled the prisoner GUILTY. The prisoner’s head is down. He knows he is doomed.
A second scene is drawn. The judge has left the bench and lies on the executioner’s block. The guilty verdict has been overwritten ACQUITTED and the prisoner is away free .

Justification is being declared righteous, legally just. It is not being declared morally just—that comes later. We call that sanctification. Justice, however, is a real problem here. God cannot go against justice. He cannot simply acquit the guilty.
The judge in Israel must condemn the guilty and acquit the innocent. Deut. 25:1
“He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov. 17:15)
“Woe to those…who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of his right.” (Lisa. 5:23)
“… I will not acquit the wicked.” (Ex. 23:7)
To solve that problem we go on to the next picture-word.

3:24   “…justified…through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus....”
We have come to the fourth picture-word. Redemption is buying back, purchasing a release, ransoming a prisoner. The picture is a first-century market, where captive men, women, and children are being bought and sold as slaves. However, a benefactor arrives and buys slaves to set them free, redeeming them from slavery into freedom. Christ has paid the price to set us free. The next verse will tell us how the purchase was made.

3:25 “…Christ Jesus whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to be received by faith.” Propitiation is putting away wrath by a sacrifice. Many translations use the word “expiation” instead. Expiation is compensating for a crime by paying a penalty. It is an impersonal word with a legal goal. Propitiation involves the affronted person, whose anger must be mollified. The objection to propitiation is that people cannot deal with God’s wrath. They think it is unworthy of God to be wrathful. The prospect of an angry God demanding blood sacrifice for sin smacks of pagan rites.

God’s wrath is not capricious, arbitrary or malicious; but it is steady and unrelenting. It is not injured vanity. It is provoked by evil which angers Him, for our sakes as well as His.

What makes propitiation? We are not bribing God off with rice and sweet-meats, incantations and prayers. God says of the lamb sacrifice, “I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for you on the altar.” (Lev. 17:11). Sacrifice is not us trying to placate God, to make God gracious toward us. “Not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I Jn. 4:10). Sacrifice is the provision of our gracious God so that He may act in grace toward His sinful people. God put forth Jesus Christ His Son as propitiation, putting Him on a pedestal as it were, an exhibit of His grace.

"Propitiation" is the translation of the Greek word "hilistarion"-- a mercy seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, which was in the Holy of Holies until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. It was in use only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies with the blood of animals to make atonement for himself and the sins of all the people of Israel.

The mercy seat is our fifth picture-word. The mercy seat was a gold-covered box with two angels (“the cherubim of glory”) bowed over it, in an attitude of prayer. The ark at one time contained the tables of the Law, a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded. (Heb. 9:4). The miraculous budding of Aaron’s rod was the sign of his leadership. (Num. 17). (If the manna represents Christ, the Bread of Life, and the Law is associated with God the Father, we may infer that the Holy Spirit is represented in Aaron's rod by His supernatural giving of life and authority.)

Yom Kippur is “The Day of the Covering,” referring to the Hebrew "kappur", the cover of the ark, but also to the covering of sin by the sacrifices (Lev. 16). Blood was sprinkled on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord of Hosts was “enthroned on the cherubim”. (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1). This glory is called the "shekinah" light—where God dwells. The ark was covered with a cloud of incense, a symbol of prayer. (Lev. 16:13). (Again we perceive a Trinitarian reference--the blood of Christ, the cloud of God's glory, and incense of the Spirit's prayer.)

Before the Babylonian invasion, the glory of God left the Temple and Israel. (Ezek. 10). The Ark disappeared into Babylonian smelters. When Christ died and entered Heaven with His sacrifice (Heb. 9:12), the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom to reveal the true mercy seat to our spiritual eyes. (Matt.27:51). The way into the presence of God was now open. So behind the Ark of the Covenant, we perceive the Cross.

What is the propitiatory sacrifice? It is not an animal, a lamb, a goat or a bullock. It is God Himself, the Beloved Son in His human flesh, who took our place. Our Creator took the hit for us. God who must be propitiated did the propitiating Himself. God extended His own love to assuage His own wrath—on His own Beloved Son—so that His own righteousness may be clearly demonstrated in the salvation of His people. The transaction is within the economy of the Trinity. If it upsets us, we may be sure that we had nothing to do with the decision, but everything to do with the gift that is freely offered.

Think of it. God-in-Christ offered Himself in sacrifice for us, His enemies. It was an act of extreme humiliation. What mercy! What love! What grace!

Who could refuse such a gift?


The Cross of Christ, J. Stott; IVP,’86. is an excellent resource in the study of the Atonement. Many of the ideas above are molded by his thought. He does not wish to apply the “mercy seat” concept to the discussion of Rom.3:25 for reasons I do not find compelling. I dare to disagree with his objections because I believe that the richness of the OT references should not be diminished.