Romans 3:23-26

When we understand God’s grace, forgiveness becomes more astounding as does the depth of our humility. An accurate view of who we are—or were—magnifies what God has done in Christ.

The Universality of Sin (v. 23)

Paul makes his idea of sin evident by saying all have sinned. Our tendency is not only to excuse our sin but also to compare and classify it. We seem quite content to place the blame on someone or something for our sin. While the temporal consequences of some sins are greater, God does not measure sin in degrees but in what it is: a transgression against his holy nature, an offense, and a missing of his standard.

According to James, breaking one of God’s laws makes us guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10). This breaks down every suggestion that one sin is bigger than another one. We are born with a sinful nature, and we do sin. This makes us a sinner. Committing only little sins doesn’t make us worthy of eternal life at the expense of someone who is a dastardly sinner. All sin separates us from God and must be forgiven to avoid its ultimate consequence.

The Origination of Sin

If God pronounces us sinners—and if we are responsible to him—then it bears considering why and how we are what he says. Consider the difference in the logical outcomes of the following statements: “I am a sinner because I sin,” or “I sin because I am a sinner.” The first leaves open the possibility of living without sin. If this were possible, Christ’s sacrifice was unnecessary.

The second proposes the reality that all will sin and have no choice in the matter, but we are not robots. No one will ever enter heaven on their own merit. Our nature is infected. We are not born good and infected by our environment (though it does have an influence on us).

We are born with an evil nature and our propensity to sin will become evident as we move toward the age when we can make choices between right and wrong. Our sin leads us to miss God’s glorious standard or goal.

The glory of God is mentioned numerous times in Scripture but is difficult to define. Bringing glory to God is making sure the spotlight shines on him through our actions, words, and attitudes. We might compare it to a spotlight shown on a singer or actor.

God’s glorious standard is his moral standard of perfection for us. Sin leads us to miss this, inhibiting us from reaching the existence God planned and designed for humanity. Sin will always take us away from God and should be considered serious. The tense is present in the Greek and infers all people are continuing to fall short of God’s standard. Our behavior is not evolving bringing us closer to God’s requirements. Rather, we are continuing the pattern that has been ours from the beginning.

The Work of Christ Enables Us to Access God’s Standard (v. 24)

This verse and the next are vital in understanding what happened on the cross and what happens when Jesus’ work is applied to our life. Paul says God in his kindness declares us not guilty. If God declares us not guilty, it is safe to imply we are guilty.

The question is how God can declare a guilty sinner not guilty without violating his holy nature. Paul declares it happens through Christ who took our sins upon himself on the cross. A courtroom scene might aid in our understanding. The prosecuting attorney presents the evidence against the person on trial for a particular crime. The defense attorney does as well. When all evidence has been presented and closing arguments made, the jury retires to consider a verdict. If the judge or jury finds the suspect not guilty, they are released. No longer are they defined as criminals for they have been declared innocent of all charges. Should the person be found guilty, but it was possible for someone to pay their fine or spend time in prison in their stead, the guilty party would still go free and not be required to live as a criminal.

God is the judge who let his Son pay our penalty and take our place so we could go free. This process is termed justification, and what Christ did is called atonement. Justification can be modestly but not adequately defined as “just as if I never sinned.” God declares the guilty not guilty. He pronounces our holiness and our success in living up to the requirements of God’s law. God takes the righteousness of Christ and his perfect obedience to God’s moral law and applies it to us. Now God can accept us. He also adopts us into his family (John 1:12). No longer are we alienated from him.

Atonement has been defined as “at one ment (with). Christ accomplished this on Calvary. Accepting him into our life by asking his forgiveness changes our status and position with God. What he did brings us to God and is allowed because Christ paid the debt keeping us from him. Jesus took the punishment for our sins and satisfied God’s anger against us because of those sins.

No one enjoys hearing bad news, but if there is good news that follows which counteracts the bad, we can deal with it more appropriately. Our deadly fall into sin—with all its consequences—is counteracted by the gracious sacrifice of Christ. All God requires is that we accept what he has been done on our behalf.

The symbol of the cross itself paints a graphic picture of how ugly and costly sin is. The shape shows what happens when the work there is appreciated and accepted. A vertical beam reminds us our relationship with God has been tainted and can only be healed by the blood of Jesus. Only as the vertical is remedied can the horizontal be healthy.

God’s Fairness in Punishment (vv. 25-26)

Many question the fairness factor of God punishing sinners. According to the Bible, the punishment is hell. Many choose to view God a grandfatherly type who may threaten but will in the end overlook and forgive. After all, he is a God of love. Surely, he will take our good deeds into consideration and weigh them against our evil deeds.

Paul discusses the former and present times as it relates to God’s punishment and grace. According to the apostle, God was just in withholding punishment from those who lived before Christ or in the former times. A general perusal of Old Testament scripture appears to give many examples of people being punished for their sins. And didn’t those who died without Christ and before the cross find themselves in hell after they breathed their final breath? In a later chapter, Paul will propose that the wages of sin is death (6:23). In the present time, Christ is declaring sinners righteous because they believe in Christ, but what about before?

Some questions to consider are as follows: What happened to those who lived before Christ if they died in a state of unbelief? Was it fair for God to condemn them since Christ had not come yet? And if God saved people before that time, why did Christ need to come?

The Cross is the Focal Point in Salvation History (vv. 25-26)

Salvation was certainly not by one avenue before the cross and another thereafter. It has always been by faith whether before or after the crucifixion. Those who lived before were made acceptable to God by faith—and it was actually faith in the cross even if they didn’t understand God’s plan or had even heard the name of Jesus.

Two examples are Noah and Abraham. Noah was declared righteous because of his faith, and his faith was proven by his resulting action of building an ark for rain that had never fallen. Abraham is known as the father of the faithful and proved his faith by leaving his homeland and trusting God to guide him to his designated new home (Hebrews 11:8).

God’s fairness in salvation is just whether before or after the cross. But what exactly does Paul mean when he says God didn’t punish those who sinned prior to the cross? The statement does not mean God didn’t punish temporally or even eternally. Scripture is filled with stories demonstrating how he punished those who ignored him. God told Adam and Eve they would die if they ate fruit from the forbidden tree. When they disobeyed, they died immediately but not physically. God did not immediately wipe them from the face of the earth when they disobeyed, and this is what Paul has in mind by the statement.

God could have immediately removed each human the moment they consciously chose to sin. He still could, but the cross has made a difference. God always saves on the basis of the cross. He simply had the ability to look ahead in time and see an accomplished act that had not yet transpired. God is not consigned to time, though he is free to enter it at any moment since he created it.