Jesus' blood was a propitiation through faith (Romans 3:21-26)

Exegeting Romans 3:21-26 with D. A. Carson

This study is not in commentary form, nor does it touch on every possible trajectory and issue in the passage. Rather, this study is a summary and elaboration of D. A. Carson’s contribution to the excellent book, The Glory of the Atonement edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III. There, Carson discusses 10 debated exegetical issues within this passage. Eight shall be discussed here, the two others he discusses in that chapter concern the passage’s relation to preceding and following contexts, into which we will not venture now.

With each of the eight points, I will first succinctly paraphrase the issue at hand. Below that, I will briefly summarize Caron’s take on it, followed by my own opinion. After that I will summarize the position of all commentaries I have on Romans concerning each point. This last section mostly only states who agrees or disagrees with me, but also contains any noteworthy comments on the matter.

How does “But now” relate to the preceding context?

Is the “But now” at the beginning of verse 21 simply a means of keeping the flow going? or does it signify some timing within redemptive history (i.e. OT was this way, but now it works differently)?

Carson’s Answer: “…it is almost certainly temporal, indeed salvation-historical” (Carson 2004: 121).

My Answer: I also think it is obviously temporal. The gospel age is being contrasted with the era before the cross.

Consensus: This point is not discussed by all. Moo and Schreiner agree that it is temporal. Hodge seems to prefer it. Shedd disagrees, saying that “the writer is engaged in a process of reasoning and not in a historical narrative” (Shedd 1980: 74). This does not necessarily hold, however, for Paul’s “process of reasoning” involves salvation history. Paul is speaking of the failure of the Old Covenant to make man right with God, as well as the change God accomplished through Christ in history.

What exactly is “apart from the Law”?

Do the words “apart from the Law” (v. 21) go with “righteousness” or with “being made known”? In other words, is Paul’s thought, “This righteousness which is being made known to you now has nothing to do with your good deeds”? or is it rather, “This righteousness I’m discussing is being revealed by some means other than the Law”?

Carson’s Answer: The latter. To him, this righteousness is being manifested apart from the Law. He says that the former position, if we correctly take “But now” as temporal, would seem to teach that righteousness was once by Law, either in part or whole (Carson 2004: 122-3).

My Answer: I would disagree with Carson here. Salvation by faith alone, apart from works, is a huge theme in this section. The verse right before says that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). He has shown in 1:18-3:20 that man cannot be right before God by keeping the Law, so he now presents other means of obtaining the righteousness God requires. Also, immediately after the thought in question, Paul says that the Old Testament bore witness to this righteousness. Thus it would be a contradiction to say that it was not witnessed to by the Law. And further, the next verse mentions elaborates on the term, calling that very same righteousness “the righteousness of God through faith” (v. 22, emphasis mine). That salvation is “by faith or grace, apart from works” is common in Paul, and especially in this section of Romans; therefore, it is likely his use here. Carson’s accusation that this position says righteousness was once by the Law does not hold, for we are saying that it is now revealed, not that it now exists.

Consensus: Stott, Shedd, and Moo all disagree with me. Stott gives no discussion (Stott 1994: 109). Shedd comments, “God, in revealing and manifesting this peculiar kind of righteousness, makes no use of man’s work of obedience. He employs only the work of Christ” (Shedd 1980: 75). I admit I do not understand what he means. Harrison, Barnes, Schreiner, and Hodge all agree with me, but don’t offer much discussion.

What is meant by “the righteousness of God” (3:21)?

Does the “righteousness from God” in verses 21-22 (and Romans as a whole) refer to God’s covenant faithfulness, as proponents of the New Perspective say? or is the traditional view correct, namely, that it refers to the believer being seen as righteous before God?

Carson’s Answer: The New Perspective is wrong (in so many words).

My Answer: The New Perspective’s take on the “righteousness,” “justification,” and “works of the Law” terminology is simply ridiculous and must be rejected outright. The righteousness to which men cannot attain by the Law is clearly moral, not covenantal. Justification in Scripture, as well as in common use, is clearly taken from the law-court. For example, it is often contrasted with condemnation. The righteousness accredited to believers in the gospel is clearly moral and related to the Law, rather than belonging to God’s people. For example, Paul contrasts his good deeds as a strict Pharisee with the far better righteousness he gets through Christ in Philippians 3. Clearly “works of the Law” is a reference to the Law in its entirety, not the ceremonial aspects only. For example, the use with the most clear clue from context is Galatians 3:10 where it is paralleled with “all things written in the book of the Law”. Further, just after that, Paul, referring to the same works of the Law, quotes Leviticus 18:5 which says a just man shall live by “them”. Looking back at the original context, “them” refers to God’s statutes as opposed to the immorality of Egypt and Canaan (Lev. 18:1-4), as well as sexual immorality (Lev. 18:6ff).

Consensus: All agree that it relates to the justification of sinners instead of an attribute of God, seeing it as the same “righteousness of God” as in Rom. 1:17. Bruce awkwardly sees it as both an attribute of God as well as the righteousness by which we stand right before God based on the ‘Hymn of the Initiants’ (Bruce 1996: 74-75).

Is the genitive, “through the faith of Jesus Christ” (3:22) possessive or subjective?

Both “through faith in Jesus Christ” or “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” are legitimate translations. Is the passage talking about our faith or His?

Carson’s Answer: It is our faith in Christ.

My Answer: I agree that it should be taken to mean “faith in Christ”. The idea of Christ being the object of our faith is prevalent throughout the whole Epistle, as well as this passage in particular. The objection to this position, namely, that it is redundant or tautological to say “through faith…for all who believe,” is a straw man.

Consensus: All of the commentaries I have agree on this stance. Along with contextual evidence, many will reference other uses of the genitive “faith of Christ” where the meaning is unquestionably faith in Christ. Bruce agrees, citing verse 26’s use of “faith of Jesus,” which is unambiguous, as support (Bruce 1996: 96). Harrison agrees, citing Mark 11:22 and Gal. 2:16 (Harrison 1976: 41). Barnes agrees, citing Mark 11:22; Acts 3:16; and Gal. 2:20 (Barnes 1982: 572). Moo agrees, citing Rom. 3:25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31; and Chap. 4 (Moo 2000: 127). Schreiner agrees and provides an involved study (Schreiner 1998: 181-6). Hodge agrees, but gives no discussion on the matter (Hodge 1976: 89). Stott agrees and also gives no discussion (Stott 1994: 109). Shedd agrees, citing Mark 11:22; Acts 3:16; Gal. 2:16; [Something 20:3, 22]; Eph 3:12; Phil 3:9; and James 2:1 (Shedd 1980: 76).

How should we define “justification” and “redemption” (3:24)?

Next he discusses the terms “justified” and “redemption” found in verse 24. He defines both and discusses what each teaches us about the nature of sin.

Carson’s Answer: Justification is “grounded in the imagery of the law court” (Carson 2004: 127) and redemption is freedom from slavery by the payment of a price, i.e. Jesus’ death. As to what this shows us about sin, he says, “sin…has not only made all human beings judicially guilty before God, but it has enslaved them” (Carson 2004: 128).

My Answer: Both a dictionary and a lexical definition of these terms agrees with this. The Bible regularly contrasts justification with condemnation (1 Kings 8:31-32; Job 40:8; Prov. 17:15; Matt. 12:36-37; Rom. 5:18; 8:33-34), another law court term, and uses it in a court setting (Deut. 25:1). In terms of salvation, a believer is declared holy, blameless, spotless, etc. by faith (1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:27; Col. 1:22; 1 John 1:7; Jude 24). Rather than one’s own good deeds being their righteousness, we gain the righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:9). As for redemption, the ideas of substitution and a price paid are prevalent. In terms of salvation, believers are redeemed from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:10-13), the Law (Gal. 4:4-5), and from bondage to sin (John 8:34; Acts 8:23; Rom 6; Titus 2:14; Heb. 9:15; Rev. 1:5).

Consensus: All agree that justification means to declare righteous. All also agree that redemption is release from bondage through the payment of a price, except for Harrison, who does not specify (Harrison 1976: 41). Many, along with the etymology of the word, see the idea of payment in this passage’s reference to His blood, death, etc. Moo also says, “The connotation of liberating a slave through payment of a price fits perfectly his earlier use of slavery imagery to depict the human predicament (‘under sin’ in 3:9)” (Moo 2000: 128).

What does “propitiation” mean in 3:25?

He then moves to the third image in that sentence, hilasterion in Gk. This one word has stirred up much controversy over the years. Etymologically, it could either be a reference to the Mercy Seat, or to propitiation (the removal of wrath), or merely to expiation (the removal of guilt).

Carson’s Answer: He takes the Mercy Seat root: “…Paul is presenting Jesus as the ultimate ‘mercy seat,’ the ultimate place of atonement, and derivatively, the ultimate sacrifice” (Carson 2004: 129). He continues by asking whether the OT background of the mercy seat and the related Day of Atonement sacrifice was propitiatory or expiatory. He concludes, against C. H. Dodd’s classic take, that Christ’s sacrifice, in light of OT sacrifices, included propitiatory aspects.

My Answer: I take it to mean propitiation or propitiatory sacrifice because God’s wrath is a large theme throughout the Epistle (1:18; 2:2-3, 5, 8-9; 3:5; 5:9; 9:22). There is also support in the immediate context. Whereas in the past God overlooked sins, such was not the case while Christ was on the cross, and God’s wrath was poured out on Him. I do not dogmatically hold that hilasterion must mean propitiation and not expiation in every use. In fact, I lean more towards translating a similar word expiation in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The difference is that in the latter cases, sin is the subject, and in 2:2 in particular, Christ’s role as High Priest is the theme.

Consensus: None agree with Dodd that it means only expiation without any reference to wrath. Hodge and Shedd differentiate between propitiatory sacrifice and propitiation. I feel that such a distinction is unnecessary, for they would mean the exact same thing. Hodge prefers propitiatory sacrifice (Hodge 1976: 92-93), and Shedd sees either one as the correct option (Shedd 1980: 80-81). Harrison simply lists all the options without explicitly stating his opinion (Harrison 1976: 43-44). Barnes, Moo, and Schreiner take it as mercy seat. However, all who go the mercy seat route still see a propitiatory aspect. They see the old sacrifices as means of removing God’s wrath. With such linguistic support, I can respect such a position so long as the theme of appeasement and placation is present. Bruce and Stott both take it as propitiation only and reject the mercy seat option.

What do the phrases “through faith” and “in His blood” in verse 25 modify?

For example, are the KJV and HCSB correct when they translate it, “…a propitiation through faith in his blood” (so also is the thought in the NLT, BLB, WEB, YLT)? or should we see the propitiation as being in His blood, with those benefits being received by faith (so NIV, ESV, NASB, ISV, NET, ASV, ERV).

Carson’s Answer: Both go back to the propitiation. The propitiation was in his blood, and the benefits thereof are appropriated by faith.

My Answer: Clearly the “through faith” points back to the hilasterion. Christ’s shed blood, although the object of our faith, most likely here points back to the hilasterion also, for the word signifies Christ’s atonement.

Consensus: Bruce agrees with Carson and me on both halves (Bruce 1996: 101. Stott says that this way is more probable (Stott 1994: 117). Shedd, Barnes, and Hodge see it as hilasterion by faith, but translate the second as “faith in his blood”. Hodge responds to the objection that Jesus’ blood is never the object of faith by saying that Jesus’ death as a whole is in mind, and cites Gal. 3:26; Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:17; and 2 Tim. 3:15 as examples where His work, and not He Himself alone, is the object of faith (Hodge 1976: 94-95). Schreiner says that “in His blood” could modify faith, but that it most likely modifies the hilasterion (Schreiner 1998: 194). Moo agrees the hilasterion is by faith, but leaves the question concerning “in His blood” open to either stance (Moo 2000: 129). Harrison’s comments on the matter are unclear.

Is the “righteousness of God” in 3:25-26 the same thing as in verse 21?

Carson’s Answer: “…God’s ‘righteousness’ in Romans 3:25-26 does not mean exactly what it means in Romans 3:21” (Carson 2004: 138).

My Answer: Clearly the second use has some relation to God’s character instead of His saving action among believers. This is supported by the parallel with God’s justice in the following verse. The word “because” connects the displaying of God’s righteousness with His overlooking past sins. Justifying a sinner is unjust, therefore God must vindicate Himself, proving that He is just (or, righteous). In other words, to justify the ungodly is abominable (Prov. 17:15; 24:24), yet God does this all the time. Thus, in order to vindicate His justice, that He is indeed just, He displays Christ, bearing the punishment for all who believe in their place. Therefore, when God clears a believer’s charge, it is not as though He sweeps their infinite-punishment-worthy sins under the rug, but the penalty due them has been paid. Therefore, God can call the wicked “righteous” without relaxing the demands of the Law.

Consensus: All agree that it is different except for Barnes. To paraphrase, for him the redemption, justification, and propitiation which the apostle talks about in these verses display the righteousness of God that Paul mentioned in verse 21 (Barnes 1982: 573).


Barnes, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982 reprint).
Bruce F. F. The Letter of Paul the Apostle to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996 reprint).
Carson, D. A. “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26” in Charles E. Hill & Frank A. James III, eds The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004).
Harrison, Everett F. “Romans” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).
Hodge, Charles Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 reprint).
Moo, Douglas J. Romans. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).
Shedd, William G. T. Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980 reprint).
Stott, John Romans: God’s Good News for the World. The Bible Speaks Today. (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1994).

-Steve Rohn

What do you think?