Chapter 17 – Romans 3 and Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

This Chapter will review the verses in Romans 3 which relate to atonement, reconciliation, righteousness and the claims of Penal Substitution.

Romans 3:5 “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)”

This passage tells us that our wrong-ness demonstrates God’s right-ness by means of contrast. Therefore, God is not wrong in bringing anger (Greek “orgen”) against us. The reason this does not fit in the PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) model relates to the PSA claim that righteousness can be transferred from the account of Jesus to our account. This claim is incongruent with this verse because:

1) If righteousness can be transferred, so can unrighteousness, but no unrighteousness has ever been transferred to us.

2) Deeds of unrighteousness are actions that are deemed wrong, just as deeds of righteousness are also actions which are deemed right, as we read in Romans 6:16, “obedience, which leads to righteousness”, and “he who does righteousness is righteous” 1 John 3:7.

3) The infliction of wrath upon the doers of unrighteousness is a righteous act on God’s part, which again shows that righteousness is an action that is deemed right, it is not a transfer.

4) By inflicting wrath upon the unrighteous, God is not making any accounting or legal balancing of books, He is not paying Himself, collecting a debt in retribution for the wrongs of others. Rather, God is “in a human way” like a parent imposing a punishment on a disobedient child – the parent is not getting any personal reward or payment for the wrong that was committed, rather the punishment is to impose consequences for the wrongs done, mostly in hopes that the child will learn a valuable lesson.

Romans 3:9-18 “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Here Paul joins together a collection of Old Testament statements about the wicked for the purpose of stating that both Jews and Greek Gentiles demonstrate the same capability of wickedness. And, while it is true that all men have sinned numerous times in their lives, thus demonstrating that they are under sin, or in the sin category, not all are equally sinful. The claims here are hyperbolic, rhetorical, and metaphoric, as the specific listed items cannot be literally true, with literal open graves in throats, literal asp venom under lips, and so forth. Not all people have mouths full of cursing and bitterness, and only a few people have shed blood. Nevertheless, these are valid claims as general characteristics of humanity. Even those who have not committed all of these deeds have likely considered them and are capable of committing them.

Additional proof that the Romans 3:9-18 passage is hyperbole is because when its statements are taken as literal it contradicts numerous other passages. Here are a few:

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13

“That they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:27

“Woe to those…Who justify the wicked for a bribe, And take away justice from the righteous man!” Isaiah 5:23 NKJV

“Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” 1 John 3:7

This passage serves as a good place to make the point that the Bible often makes statements that are expected to be understood in the common sense category. “All” is usually a general “all” and does not usually mean “all” in its most extreme, absolute sense. Not all humans have committed all of these evils. We know this to be true, yet proponents of PSA like to start their logic from the most extreme possible point of argumentation, claiming that humans are infinitely evil and have no ability to stop being evil, which is patently absurd. But they need this claim as a starting point so they can make the case that the only way justice can be achieved is to have an infinitely righteous person compensate for their claim of infinite evil. But these arguments are reductions from absurdities, called “reductio ad absurdum”, an appeal to an extreme that does not fit the facts.

Paul’s reason for arguing this point is because the church at Rome was having trouble with arguments between Jews and Greeks, and both needed to be put in their place as being equally sinful in the sense of the ability to sin. The Jews had no business boasting that they were more righteous because they had the Torah, and the Greeks had no business pointing out that the Jews arranged the murder of Jesus, since if Jesus had gone to the Greeks instead, he would have likewise been killed. (Granted, that is not the precise argument of Paul here, but that was the type of argument he was making – of both groups being under the influence of sin.)

Romans 3:20-22 “For by works of the law no human being will be justified [set right, rightened] in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [-], although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.”

What Paul means by “works” is discussed in chapter 8, “Grace and Works”, of this book. But in short, works of the law for Paul are intended to mean rote obedience to the law with no corresponding faith or relationship with the law-giver. This was often seen in Torah-observant Jews who had made the law to be their god instead of serving from their hearts the God who authored the law.

Verse 20 is telling us that slavishly following law, even good law, does not in itself make us right in God’s sight, as the law is only a minimal standard of conduct. There must be a higher righteousness as stated in verse 21, “the righteousness of God”. This kind of righteousness has been manifested, revealed, demonstrated, made visible (“pephanerōtai”) in the man Jesus Christ and by the Torah and the prophets of old. This is the kind of righteousness that pleases God and it is obtained through faith, active obedient faith, not mere intellectual affirmation. Righteousness is a virtue like love or mercy, and is not something that is literally transferred, it is lived. Yes, God can strengthen someone, thus enabling the individual to love, be merciful, or to choose right when under pressure, but righteousness itself is not literally transferred, it is lived. The righteousness from God, which is due to faith in Jesus Christ, comes from believing in and following Christ in our daily lives. As Christ faithfully obeyed his God and Father, so must we also follow his example, and in so doing we will be living righteously, just as Paul states in Romans 6:16, “obedience, which leads to righteousness”.

There is no longer a need to follow the Torah if one is following Jesus Christ because he is the human perfection of what God considers to be right. Verse 22 tells us that through faith, following Jesus, we can have the right-ness that God desires. The fact that the change is brought about by means of faith is also mentioned in Acts 15:9, “having cleansed their hearts by faith.” The word “righteousness” in verse 22 is “dikaio-syne”, “dikaio” means “right”, “syne” is “together”, or “with.” Therefore, “dikaiosyne” is “right-ness”, or being right. This is a rightness that is visible and active in the believer’s life, not a transfer of righteousness to our account. It comes from Jesus in the sense that he is the perfect example and we follow his teachings and the result is rightness, or righteousness. To claim that someone is somehow declared to be right without living in actual right-ness is to make God a liar and a deceiver. In fact, if someone were to be declared righteous while in reality practicing unrighteousness, then this would be a violation of God’s law because the law prohibits declaring the guilty to be innocent (Proverbs 17:15, Exodus 23:7, Deuteronomy 23:7).

Romans 3:23-24 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified [set right, corrected, rightened] by his grace [favor] as a gift, through the redemption [release] that is in Christ Jesus.”

Here is another text that PSA advocates use, thinking that it teaches their view. But they are reading what they are expecting to see, not what the text actually states. Verse 23 is often used to claim that salvation requires that we be as righteous as God, but this is poor argumentation. There is no disagreement with the first phrase, “For all have sinned”, but the next phrase is sometimes used to claim that we must be as perfect as God, and anything short of this perfection is unacceptable. However, there are various perspectives of what it means to “fall short of the glory of God.” One perspective is that we fall short of being what God intended for us, that we have failed to display God’s image. Another view is to examine the word translated “glory” in Romans 3:23, which is “doxēs”, meaning “honor, good opinion”. This word “doxe” can apply to men and is translated by various Bible versions as “glory” or “honor” in 2 Corinthians 6:8, “through honor [doxēs] and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true.”

When we understand Romans 3:23 to be saying that all have fallen short as God’s image bearers, or failed to live up to God’s intended “good opinion”, then we have a very different standard than the imagined infinite perfection projected by the PSA adherents as a basis for their logic. We must examine the Bible to see what God thinks of us, not what certain theologians want us to think so they can leverage their preferred theological bias. We read things like, God “…knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14), and many other like passages about God’s mercy and tenderness. This is not to disregard God’s rightful anger and judgment at times because He is like a parent to us, correcting, guiding, scolding, and forgiving – that is why He is called Father. (See also “doxe” variants in Galatians 2:2,6,6 and Hebrews 10:29.)

In verse 24 we find that we are “justified by his grace as a gift”, or “justified freely by his grace”, depending on the translation. The PSA teachers use this to claim that, as a gift, God clears our imagined heavenly ledger, thereby declaring us to be righteous, as if we had never sinned. However, this is jumping to a conclusion without examining the evidence. The word “justified” is the Greek “dikaioumenoi”, which is a verb, an action that means “being righted” or “rightened” – making straight what was formerly not straight, or correcting something that was wrong. This verb applies to what God is graciously doing to us in our lives – we are being rightened, set right, from error and sin “through the redemption [literally, release] that is in Christ Jesus.” Of course, PSA teachers quickly claim that the word “redemption” indicates a payment, and that this payment is a gift that God takes as a payment to declare us righteous. But this is a hasty conclusion that is also refuted in this book, and also by Paul, in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The word “redemption” here is the exact word “apolytrōseōs” used in Romans 3:24, and it shows that the redemption does not take place until a future date, which is “the day of adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). This word “redemption” is studied in Chapter 10, “Ransom, Redemption, and Purchase” and usually means to free or to liberate. The context typically shows us whether “redemption” is intended to be understood as literal or figurative.

What happens if in Romans 3:24 we use the word “redemption” in its literal sense of a payment for a release? The verse would be saying, “and are being justified by his grace as a gift, through the payment of release that is in Christ Jesus.” Now, many questions should arise as, who paid, what was paid, and to whom, so we could be released from what or who in order to be set right? If Jesus literally paid, what did he buy? He bought our sins? From whom was this purchase? Why did Jesus need to pay so that the seller would release us? If God is the seller, then what did God sell – our sins?, and why was God needing this transaction in order for us to be set right? God sold our sins to Jesus? Would not God be violating His commands against accepting bribes to release the guilty? There are so many problems with this idea of Jesus making a literal payment to God (or Satan) to enable us to be righteous that it is hard to believe anyone would make this claim if they would just pause to think about it.

If, however, we understand the redemption as figurative, meaning release or liberty from engaging in unrighteousness, then we understand the verse as saying, “and are being righted/corrected/rectified by his grace as a gift, through the release [of sin] that is in Christ Jesus.” We simply stop the pursuit of living in sin and pursue right living, just as Paul states later in Romans, “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart …and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” Romans 6:17-18. There is no weird logic that has to be ignored or any buying or selling to free us to do right.

The redemption in verse 24 indicates a release from under the control of sin or the devil. A release or redemption may at times be by means of a payment, but in the end it involves freeing, or releasing from the control of another. Jesus had victory over sin at the cross, and this victory over bondage to sin can be ours if we follow him. Transforming the real meaning of redemption, a release, into becoming a literal payment brings a serious distortion to the text and its message. This payment idea also implies that Jesus paid to get God to declare us innocent in spite of our not being innocent. In the real world this would be bribery, tampering with a judge, a serious crime! It would also violate multiple Bible commands, such as Deuteronomy 27:25 “Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’“ Proverbs 17:15 “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Therefore we should conclude that “justified by his grace” is not a declaration that something that is not right is to be considered as right, even if it is not right. We are justified, set right, corrected, rightened, made right, by means of the favor of God, and this occurs through, by means of the redemption, the release from sin that is in Christ Jesus.

A more accurate translation of Romans 3:23-24, aimed to avoid misunderstandings, could be something like this: “For all have erred and fall short of God’s honor, and are set right by his favor as a gift, through the release [of sin] that is in Christ Jesus.” (Author’s translation.) Once we have been set right through the release of sin, we can claim “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1 KJV

Romans 3:25 “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” KJV

The KJV Bible version is referenced here instead of the ESV because the ESV moves words around to give the verse a different reading than the Greek text, though at first glance it may seem to have the same meaning. The KJV has the correct translation as will be discussed below.

The first phrase is, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood…”

In verse 25 the word “propitiation” is “hilastērion” in Greek, which is literally “mercy seat” (as used in Hebrews 9:5), and is most likely being used in a figurative sense. It indicates a place of mercy and has nothing to do with a payment. One way we know that it has nothing to do with a payment to appease God is by carefully examining the context. The effect of “hilastērion” is that it will “declare [Gr. endeixin] his righteousness” to the world around us. Can the world around us observe a heavenly payment between Jesus and God, and on that basis declare God as being righteous? If you think “hilasterion” means “propitiation”, is this something that the world around us can observe and thereby declare that He is a righteous God? Obviously not. Whatever “hilastērion” is, it must be observable to those around us so as to demonstrate that our God is righteous. An invisible mysterious “hilastērion” cannot be used as evidence to declare anything.

A very important word in verses 25 and 26 is glossed over by the teachers of PSA. It is the Greek word “endeixin”, which means proof, a sign, a demonstration, a display. These verses indicate that God’s righteousness is shown, demonstrated, by Him justifying us, setting us right. However, if this justification is merely forensic, legal or positional, then how is this able to be shown to those around us? How does the world notice that we have been declared righteous? Obviously, an invisible legal/forensic declaration cannot be seen by anyone, which demonstrates that this meaning cannot be what Paul is intending for justification to convey! For a justification, a rightening, to be visible as a testimony of righteousness, it must be demonstrable to others, and a legal declaration does nothing of this sort. This is no different than what James 2:14-26 is claiming, (with the same basic word “deixō” in verse 18) that “justification” is an outward showing of evidence in a person’s life. This is admitted, but ignored when it does not suit the PSA interpretation in the Romans texts.

The English word “propitiation” may be well intended, but it means “appease”, and thereby actually distorts the idea of a “mercy seat” or “place of mercy.” A better term would simply have been “reconciliation”, or perhaps “propitiator“ or “appeaser”. The problem with the term “propitiation” is that it is a theological term which gets loaded with whatever additional meaning a theologian wants to add to its core meaning, which is almost always some form of payment idea to an angry deity, which is given in order to achieve the favor.

The ESV and NIV are glaring examples of how PSA translators are very willing to change the original text to get it to say what they want so they can teach their theology, and this violation is no different than when a cult tampers with the Scripture! Instead of, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation/mercy seat through faith in his bloodas in the Greek text, The NIV reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith…” as if God were some pagan deity who could be appeased by a murderous shedding of human blood, and this atonement-through-murder is to be received by us through faith. No! The Greek text is “mercy seat through faith in his blood”, which is vastly different.

The original Greek text phrase “mercy seat through faith in his blood” is critical, as it ties the obtaining of mercy directly to faith in his blood covenant, and not faith in a blood sacrifice. Faith in a sacrifice implies faith in a payment, while faith in his blood is referencing the blood covenant of Jesus, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto the release of sins.” (A literal translation. See Chapter 14 for more information about this verse.) The NIV and ESV word-switch makes the solution to sin to be a blood payment instead of the blood covenant of Christ! Faith in a payment renders reconciliation superfluous because the offended party has received a payment while the offender has not actually resolved the offensive relationship! A blood covenant, on the other hand, deals with the relationship because entering into the blood covenant is the means of obtaining mercy and reconciliation. The translators may have not even deliberately intended to be deceitful, as they have the PSA model firmly implanted in their psyche and may have actually thought they were helping to add clarity, but the result is a corrupted doctrine which removes reconciliation and replaces it with a payment. Translators do have a difficult task in some textual places, but this text was easy to translate just as it was, and only serves to demonstrate how pervasive this PSA doctrine has become.

By entering into the blood covenant established by Christ (blood covenant: Hebrews 13:20, 9:15, 10:29, Mat. 26:28), our lives become pleasing to God and we thereby obtain His mercy. The change to right living reveals to others that our God is a righteous God who is willing to put off punishing and passes over former sins and offenses if we forsake them. In contrast, if God is bought or bribed by blood then this would be a display of God’s unrighteousness, just as we would consider it to be an offense if a President or a Governor were bribed to issue a pardon to a criminal. God will not pardon the wicked who refuse to repent (Ezekiel 18:20-32).

The second phrase is, “… to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.”

It is more literally, “…into proof [eis endeixin] of his righteousness [dikaiosynēs] through the release [paresin] of former sins – through the patient endurance of God.”

When paraphrased it could be, “By submitting to the blood covenant we…demonstrate God’s righteousness because we release the former sins. This demonstrates God’s patient endurance toward us.”

When the Greek text is examined, it is us who remit, let go (paresin) of sin. This is not God letting us go for His having been paid! When a sinner releases his former sinful life he demonstrates that his God is a righteous God, and also a God who endured patiently while he was living in sin.

The word “righteousness” in Romans 3:25 and 26 is also used in 2 Peter 2:21, “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it …”. It is the Greek “dikaiosynēs”. Peter describes it as a way, a path, a direction of travel which can be known. This is not some alien, extrinsic or legal accounting, nor a declared positional state of being. It is knowingly acting in accordance with what God has deemed to be right. Peter even goes on to state that a person can turn back from this path after having known it, which further emphasizes that it is not a static position, a condition, nor a legal or accounting term. (See 2 Peter 2:21 in Chapter 28 of this book.)

Romans 3:26 “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier [the one who sets right] of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Our release of living in sin demonstrates to ourselves and to others the glory of God’s righteousness at this present time (not in some nebulous future), so that He would be seen as a just God, the one who sets right, who corrects, who rightens, those who have faith in Jesus. This is not a future righteousness when we are living in another age, but at the present time (“Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.” Titus 2:12). The world sees this right living and God receives glory for our changed lives. This is not about God getting paid so He can declare people as legally righteous while they are actively living in sin! That would demonstrate an unrighteous God! God’s righteousness is displayed before others because those who believe in Jesus have changed lives, freeing them from their former sinful life.

Romans 3:27-30 “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we reason that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or, is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since indeed it is the one God which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.”

It is not rote obedience to a system of laws that makes us righteous before God. What makes us righteous is to live according to our Christian faith, following a God who is righteous and living to please Him. It is a choice from the heart which seeks to obey God instead of sinful passions. This faith is not works of the law because its motivation is not a reward as payment, but because of loving faithfulness to God. We are justified/set right/corrected/rightened due to our faith being practiced, not because of any legal declaration or by works of the law. (See also see Chapter 9, Justification and Righteousness.) Furthermore, it is the same God who is the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles, and the same concept applies to both, as in Acts 15:9 referenced above, “and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Romans 3:31 “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

This faith is centered around a relationship with a righteous God, and all who seek to be faithful to Him will live righteous lives by default. This will uphold lawful living because its source, God, is the source of all that is defined as righteous. The written law is used as a restraint to govern the lawless. Those who live to please God don’t have to be concerned as to whether or not they are obeying the written law because if they are living to please the God who authored the law, they will be fulfilling the intent of the law anyway, thereby making the codified law irrelevant for that individual. The validity of the law is established by the fact that godly people live according to the law without having to be concerned with the law itself because their concern is to live according to faithfully following and pleasing God, thereby upholding the law by default. In this verse Paul is claiming that the law can be done away with, provided a person is living according to the faith of Christ.

Faithfully following our righteous Messiah establishes the fact that even thought the law is good, it just happens to not be needed if we are being faithful. “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching that agrees with the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.” 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Romans 3 Conclusion:

A careful reading shows that there is no Penal Substitution in this Chapter, no transfer of the righteousness of Jesus to our account, nothing about Jesus taking our punishment or God forgiving us because Jesus paid for our sins with his blood. Paul is stating that the evidence that our God is righteous is put on display by the fact that those who follow Jesus, God’s Son, also choose to live right. Right belief in the right God leads to right living, just as a belief in a wrong, perverted god will lead to perverted living. Jesus redeemed us, set us free from the bondage of sin so we would be the servants of God and display our God’s righteousness.