Justification by Faith Explained (3:21-31)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 3:21-31; Justification; Faith
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10


This passage constitutes the beginning of a new section of the epistle (3:21-5:21) that explains in great detail God’s remedy for mankind’s guilt. These verses describe quite succinctly just how God confers His righteousness on those who are undeserving of such a privilege.

God’s Work in Christ (vv. 21-26)

Martin Luther referred to these verses as “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible” (qtd. in Moo 218). Paul’s subject here is “the righteousness of God”—not as a divine attribute, but in the sense of a special status granted by God to people who could never achieve it on their own (vv. 21-22). Such righteousness is apart from the law (v. 21); has its foundations in the Old Testament, broadly conceived (v. 21); and is granted impartially to all who believe in Jesus Christ (v. 22).

Verses 24-26 contain a high concentration of theological terms (grace, redemption, propitiation, remission, etc.) that describe the nature of God’s justifying work.

  • “Being justified freely by his grace” (v. 24): Justification is not a matter of being made righteous, but of being declared righteous. As Paul explains in later chapters, God imputes righteousness to us—that is, He credits it to our account. This is an act of grace, incompatible with any form of merit.
  • “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24): Redemption conveys the idea of liberation through payment of a ransom. This is precisely what Christ has accomplished through His death on the cross. It is important to note that justification is not a reality simply because God is merciful; in order for Him to exercise His mercy, a redemption price had to be paid.
  • “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (v. 25): Propitiation refers to the appeasement of divine wrath. The term Paul uses to refer to this (hilasterion) is often used elsewhere in reference to the mercy seat of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. This was the place where the high priest sprinkled blood during the celebration of the Day of Atonement, effectively deferring God’s judgment on the people’s sin for a year. God accepted Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for sin; we appropriate its benefit through faith.
  • “to declare his righteousness” (vv. 25-26): God’s method of justification demonstrates His righteousness in two ways: First, it shows that He was just in overlooking sins that were committed before Christ’s death had provided a way of salvation. Second, it declares His righteousness by providing a way for Him to remain true to His own holy character while declaring righteous those sinners who place their faith in Jesus. According to Douglas Moo, “Those who ignore or minimize the problem inherent in a holy God accepting sinners may well heed Anselm’s own warning: ‘You have not yet considered the weight of sin’” (242).

The Works of the Law (vv. 27-31)

The last five verses of this passage explain the relationship between justification by faith and the law. Since we are justified by grace, boasting has no place in the Christian experience. Works contribute nothing to our standing before God (v. 27). Faith, not observance of the law, leads to salvation (v. 28). The God of the Jews is also the God of the Gentiles (v. 29). He is not approached by the law, which would exclude Gentiles by default, but by faith (v. 30). Nevertheless, though doing the law does not lead to justification, the law is not made void (v. 31).


  • Appreciation of God’s holiness
  • Appreciation of God’s mercy
  • Appreciation of depth of our sin
  • Recognition that there is no place for pride in the Christian life
  • Recognition that grace does not eliminate the law completely