Romans 3:21-26 deals very directly with the subject of how Christians are to understand their righteous standing before a holy God. After all, Christians are sinners. We have a sin nature. Our flesh desires to engage in activities that defy the divine Lordship of God. How is it then that we can move from being unholy, profane sinners to such a prestigious position in the sight of God? Paul begins the passage by driving home his point that succinctly, saying, “But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.” As John MacArthur puts it, Paul has just finished talking about the impossibility of gaining righteous through human works. He has also debunked the view that humans are good people in general back in 3:9-18. He says that all are under sin. The Greek word pas is in the accusative, plural, masculine. When this word is in the plural it means “all.” No one escapes. Again here in v. 22 Paul says there is no distinction. It does not matter what culture we are from or live in. It does not matter what our social standing is. Our earthly heritage carries no weight with God. We are all the same before the Creator. What holds true for sin, now also holds true for righteousness. It does not depend on works, or genes, or cultures, or social standing. Righteousness comes from God to us through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the Law. Leon Morris writes,
“In the first instance this means quite apart from the Jewish law, the law of Moses. It has been part of Paul’s method to demonstrate in the section leading up to this point of the argument that that law cannot bring salvation. It can show up the problem; it can and does make clear that all are sinners. But it can do no more.” [Morris, PNTC, Romans, 174]If righteousness does not come by the Law of Moses, which itself is good and holy, then righteousness certainly cannot come by human means any of kind.
Paul uses the Greek particle de which continues his thought and brings additional specificity to this righteousness of God. “That is” is probably the best rendering. So we read, “That is, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe, for there is no distinction.” It is observed then that the righteousness of God comes through faith for all those who believe. The fact that pisteos Iesou Christou is in the genitive could mean that the phrase is subjective. This means that this verse could be understood to read as follows, That is, the righteousness of God that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe. Given the grammatical evidence however, it is best to take the genitive here as an objective genitive and therefore, the expression as “faith in Jesus Christ,” to be the best rendering of the phrase. We are made righteous by God through faith in Jesus Christ. To be sure, this faith is also a free gift from God. (Eph. 2:8-10) So the righteousness we receive from God is a free gift as much as the means by which we receive it, not to mention the person by whom it comes. And finally, says Paul, “for there is no distinction.”
The Greek word diastole is rendered, “distinction.” It appears three times in the N.T. In Romans 10:12, Paul uses it to say that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. And then again, in 1 Cor. 14:7, the apostle uses it to talk about the distinct sounds that different musical instruments give. The word means a clear or marked distinction – difference, distinction. But we love to make distinctions among ourselves and set up classes both inside and outside Christianity. Within Christianity, in some cases we set up classes of Christians. They don’t come to Sunday school as often as me, so they are in a different class of Christian than I am in. Or they don’t attend Sunday nights like I do. I am more spiritual or I care more about the things of God than they do. There are a million different examples. They go to movies and I don’t is another one. Or, they watch too much television. They listen to less refined music than I and therefore they are a different class of Christian that I. Or even worse, they are not as travelled or as cultured as I am and therefore they are a less enlightened Christian than me. We love our classes. Or how about this one: they have been married twice or three times, and therefore they are clearly defective in some way and I have been married to the same spouse for 40 years now. I am so holy. I must be one of God’s favorites. Yes, we love our classes. But the righteousness of God comes through faith in the person of Jesus Christ, for there is no distinction.
It is significant that Paul ties in the very next phrase with the universality of sin once again in v.23 with his statement in v.22. Literally, v.23 reads, “For all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God.” The question that an exegete wrestles with is the Greek gar which is a conjunction and in this case functions as an epexegetical. That is to say, the word “for” in v.23 is expounding on v.22. Does the conjunction “for” look back at the entire sentence in v.21-22 or just at the phrase “for there is no distinction.” It is probably best to take the whole phrase “for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God as parenthetical. Note that Paul places the Greek adjective pas at the beginning of the second phrase. He does this for emphasis. He is emphatic about this ou diastole (no distinction) point. In order to keep with this theme, he places “all” at the beginning of this phrase. Then he uses the aorist tense to describe the action of the all. All have sinned. No one exists, outside of Christ, who has not sinned. We are all sinners. There are regenerate sinners and unregenerate sinners. But make no mistake about it; the sin nature that is in the unregenerate is the same one that resides in us. To my knowledge, I know of only two states: regenerate and unregenerate. And I know only of one sin nature, not two or three or four. Like it not, we are all the same. Now I realize how upsetting this is to the old-fashioned legalist who considers themselves as somehow better than all those Christians who engage in practices that they abhor. Thanks be to God that only He can legitimately classify us. No man can legitimately classify us as better or worse Christians. Those who have expressed genuine faith in Christ are just as righteous the day of their conversion as they will ever be. There is no such thing as progressive righteousness. There is progressive sanctification but progressive righteousness, no.
The tense of hemarton is aorist. All this tells us is that the action happened. The action happened sometime in the past. That is all one may gather from the aorist. Context must determine the rest. So Paul points that everyone, all of us have sinned.
We are falling short of God’s glory. This Greek verb, husterountai is in the present tense, passive voice, and indicative mood. The present tense indicates continuous action. In other words, we are continuously falling short of God’s glory. Now what is also interesting is that the voice is passive which means the action of continuously falling short of God’s glory is action that is happening to us, not action we are doing. In other words, the continuously falling short of God’s glory is not action we are engaging in. The fact that we have sinned has created the continuous action of falling short of God’s glory.
Now all this defines the essence of sin. Sin must be understood out of the relationship in which God has placed man to himself as his creature and in which he has given and held out the prospect of life to him. [Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 105]The fact that we have all sinned and that we are all continuously falling short of God’s glory is profound, but missed by most Christians because of our sinful tendency to classify people.
What is the point of all this? The point is simply that we are all cut from the very same cloth. Later in Romans Paul uses the analogy of a lump of clay to describe each of us. Paul uses the Greek phrase tou autou phuramatos to describe all of us as he points out God’s sovereign right to choose whomever He pleases to be a vessel of mercy. Both, the vessels of mercy and the vessels of wrath are carved from the very same sinful lump of clay. So there is nothing in the clay itself that would account for any difference in class between Christian sinners and unregenerate sinners. It is entirely the work of God from beginning to end. We are all the same. Any difference in the unbeliever and the believer can only be accounted for by the presence of God in the life of the regenerate heart. But the owner of that heart cannot brag of himself, but only in Christ. Brothers and sisters, regeneration is the work of God. Justification, the judicial act of God’s proclamation that we are made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ is entirely the act of God. We cannot take any credit for that work. There is none good, no, not one. As one scholar put it, you may be located upon the mountain, while others are down in the mine. But your can no more grasp the stars as the person in the mine. Neither can any of us, in and of ourselves, attain the glory of God that was before the fall. We are the same. Out tendency to classify sin and one another, and then set up categories is borne from pride. We want to publish standards, aim at them, and then have a sense of accomplishment that we have reached them. Moreover, we eagerly seek the recognition that we think should come with that sense of accomplishment. And not only this, in our pride we want to be set apart from others and elevated to a status of achievement. We are different. I am here, you are there. You sit here while I sit up there. It is our sin that entices and seduces us into behaving in such a sinful manner.
It would be a mistake to take these comments as assent to the contemporary view of easy-believism. I find the doctrine of “once-saved-always-saved” to be lacking on all fronts when examined in the light of Scripture. My views in this area will be evident when I move to the discussion of sanctification. Keep in mind, we are made righteous by a declaration of God through what we call forensic justification. We have legally be declared innocent. That declaration has consequences which shall be investigated more fully as we move to the question “How shall we then live?”
The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Q. 60: How are thou righteous before God?
Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.