This section is brief, but forms a theologically rich transition in the book of Romans. Having proven both Jew and Gentile stand before God condemned, Paul will now begin his argument that God himself has acted decisively to provide righteousness from God apart from the Law.
Romans 3:21-26 is one long sentence in Greek, although English translations usually break it up into several smaller sentences to assist readers to catch the flow of Paul’s thought. Several scholars have identified verses 24-26 as “early Christian confessional material.” Paul may have selected (and adapted) a well-known element of worship to support his thesis that God has provided righteousness through faith by means of the death of Jesus. There are several words Paul does not normally use (such as propitiation), implying he is adapting some existing confession of faith. However, since these verses are critically important to the argument of Romans, it seems unlikely
In contrast to his wrath (1:18), God is now revealing his righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 21-22). One problem with this paragraph is a single Greek word (δικαιοσύνη) can be translated as either righteousness or justice, two words with distinct meanings in English. Christianity tends to think of righteousness as a moral state (as opposed to sinfulness). Paul will use the word with that sense elsewhere, but here there is a contrast with the wrath of God toward those who have suppressed the clear revelation of God and rebelled against him.
Rather than venting wrath, God is now revealing how his justice will be satisfied. Humans are guilty of rebellion against God therefore ought to be found guilty when they stand before God as a righteous judge. But the death of Jesus serves as a propitiation, a sacrifice which turns aside wrath. Although this word is not particularly common in modern Christianity, both Jewish and Gentiles would have been familiar with a sacrifice which turns aside the wrath of a god. God is pleased with the sacrifice of Jesus and gives justice (δικαιοσύνη) for the sinner on the basis of that sacrifice.
A second problem is the meaning of the phrase “faith in Jesus” in the NIV and ESV. The Greek does not have the preposition “in” so Paul may be referring to the faithfulness of Jesus in submitting to his death on the cross. This is a technical grammatical discussion and quite controversial in recent years. Usually the “new perspective on Paul” argues Paul meant the “faithfulness of Jesus” since the next phrase is “for all who believe.” If both phrases refer to our faith, then there is an awkward repetition. There are several other places in Paul’s letters where he uses a similar phrase and each might be interpreted as the faithful act of Jesus submitting to the Cross.
The traditional view is represented by the NIV and ESV is that the sinner’s faith in Jesus makes them right with God. When the sinner responds to God’s gracious offer of salvation, then they are “declared righteous” (justified) by God. This gets a bit ahead since the next two chapters of the book of Romans deal with how a sinner can be declared righteous by God.
There are several possible solutions in addition to these two popular suggestions. Paul does say “all who believe” (v. 22) and “received by faith” (v. 25), so even if Paul meant faithful act of Christ submitting to the cross in verse 22a, he is still clear that salvation is by God’s grace through our faith and not through works of the Law.
I have far more to say about justification as we move through chapters 4 and 5, but for now I want to focus on the shift from the wrath of God to the righteousness or justice of God. If Paul is right in his description of the total inability of humans to respond to God, then how does his solution in Romans 3:21-26 “solve the problem”? How does the offering of Jesus satisfy the justice of God? Or to put it another way, how can we as Christians incorporate Paul’s view of propitiation into our theology and worship?