3:1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? 3:2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3:3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 3:4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”

The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God – Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God) insists that the word translated ‘entrusted’

‘is always used by Paul in the same sense that it bears in secular Greek: to entrust someone with something is to give them something which they must take care of and pass on to the appropriate person…The whole sentence, and the whole drift of the passage ever since Rom 2:17, is not primarily about ‘Israel’s guilt’, but about God’s purpose, through Israel, for the world.’

The problem Paul is addressing (according to Wright) is that

‘the creator makes promises through Abraham to the world; Abraham’s family fail to pass on the ‘oracles’, in other words, to be the ‘light to the nations, the guide to the blind’ and so on that they were supposed to be (2:17–20); how is this God then going to keep his promises through Israel to the world? If the person responsible for delivering the mail has proved untrustworthy, how can I keep my promises to send you a letter by that same mail system?’

Faith…faith…faithfulness – The root is the same in all three instances (pistis).  The last of these, at least, clearly means ‘faithfulness’ (rather than ‘faith’) lending some support to those who wish to regularly translate πιστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as ‘the faithfulness of Christ’).

In order to bring out the play on words, Stott suggests the following rendering:

‘If some to whom God’s promises were entrusted (episteuthēsan, 2) did not respond to them in trust (ēpistēsan, 3a), will their lack of trust (apistia) destroy God’s trustworthiness (pistis, 3b)?’ (BST)

Let God be true – And so let him be believed.


‘Let God be esteemed true and faithful, whatever consequence may follow. This was a first principle, and should be now, that God should be believed to be a God of truth, whatever consequence it might involve. How happy would it be, if all men would regard this as a fixed principle, a matter not to be questioned in their hearts, or debated about, that God is true to his word! How much doubt and anxiety would it save professing Christians; and how much error would it save among sinners! Amidst all the agitations of the world, all conflicts, debates, and trials, it would be a fixed position, where every man might find rest, and which would do more than all other things to allay the tempests, and smooth the agitated waves of human life.’

As it is written – The quotation is from Ps 51:4.

When you are judged – Paul uses the passive voice to translate this scripture.

Calvin writes:

‘we know that, in quoting Scripture, the apostles often used freer language than the original, since they were content if what they quoted applied to their subject, and therefore, they were not over-careful in their use of words.’

Does this mean that Calvin acknowledged error in Scripture?  Rogers and McKim think so, as does McNeill:

‘[Calvin] is obviously a little disconcerted by St Paul’s choice of a defective rendering. But his frank acknowledgment that the apostolic writers were concerned with matter, not words and that theirs was not a religio verborum, is quite characteristic.’

But Calvin also says:

‘Paul has quoted this passage of David in its true and proper sense.’  (See here).

Barnes comments on the aptness of this quotation:

‘Of all quotations ever made, this is one of the most beautiful and most happy. David was overwhelmed with grief; he saw his crime to be awful; he feared the displeasure of God, and trembled before him. Yet he held it as a fixed, indisputable principle, that GOD WAS RIGHT. This he never once thought of calling in question. He had sinned against God, God only; and he did not once think of calling in question the fact that God was just altogether in reproving him for his sin, and in pronouncing against him the sentence of condemnation.’

This verse illustrates the meaning of justification:

‘The verb translated “to justify” clearly means “to declare righteous.” It is used of God in a quotation, which the New International Version renders “So that you may be proved right when you speak” (Rom 3:4; the NRSV has more exactly, “So that you may be justified in your words”). Now God cannot be “made righteous;” the expression obviously means “shown to be righteous” and this helps us see that when the word is applied to believers it does not mean “made righteous;” it signifies “declared righteous,” “shown to be in the right,” or the like.’ (EDBT)
3:5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he? (I am speaking in human terms.) 3:6 Absolutely not! For otherwise how could God judge the world? 3:7 For if by my lie the truth of God enhances his glory, why am I still actually being judged as a sinner? 3:8 And why not say, “Let us do evil so that good may come of it”?—as some who slander us allege that we say. (Their condemnation is deserved!)

God’s righteousness – According to Wright, Paul’s argument here has to do with God’s faithfulness. If Gentiles are accepted by God on the same basis as Jews, does that mean that God has forgotten his covenant with the Jews? In this context, ‘God’s righteousness’ means ‘God’s covenant faithfulness.’

The Condemnation of the World

3:9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 3:10 just as it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one,
3:11 there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God.
3:12 All have turned away,
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”

As it is written – Paul is about to refer to a number of OT passages – Ps 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; 36:1; 140:3; Isa 59:7-8.

“There is no one righteous”

For E.J. Carnell, this verse implies conditional immortality:

‘Instead of teaching that man is of such infinitely incontestable value, that God, to be worthy of his name, must preserve him immortally, the Christian follows Paul’s judgment that there is none righteous, no not one (Rom 3:10). Man, then, deserves death, not life. The Christian cannot appeal to the rationality of the universe, for all rationality is from God. He cannot claim an independent rule of goodness and justice to assure him of life, for all goodness and justice flow from God. In short, the Christian knows that man, a vile, wretched, filthy sinner, will receive immortal life solely and only by God’s grace; man neither deserves immortality nor is worthy of it. Unless he that made man sovereignly elects to give him salvation and life, by grace and not by works, man is absolutely without hope. Man came into this world naked and it is certain that he will depart in exactly the same manner; and he who gave life in the first place can also recall it either to damnation, blessedness, or annihilation.’  (Quoted in Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 29). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)

Worthless – So much for the ‘infinite value of the human soul’!

Ryle comments on the exceeding sinfulness of sin:

‘Sin is a disease which pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds. The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will, are all more or less infected. Even the conscience is so blinded that it cannot be depended on as a sure guide, and is as likely to lead men wrong as right, unless it is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In short, “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness” about us. (Isa 1:6) The disease may be veiled under a thin covering of courtesy, politeness, good manners and outward decorum, but it lies deep down in the constitution.’ (Holiness)
3:13 “Their throats are open graves,
they deceive with their tongues,
the poison of asps is under their lips.”
3:14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
3:15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
3:16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
3:17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
3:18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

See Gen 20:11; Ps 36:1; Prov 8:13; 16:6; 23:17; Lk 23:40; Rev 19:5

3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
Sin in Romans

As taught by Paul in Romans, to be a sinner is to be:-

  1. under law – not only obligated to it but exposed to judgement by it, Rom 3:19
  2. under sin – that power which energises a sinner’s rebellion against God, Rom 3:9ff
  3. under wrath – God’s retributive response to a world which has transgressed his law, Rom 1:18-2:16; cf 2 Cor 5:10
  4. under death – not cessation of being, but a loss of that fellowship with God which is essential for true life, Rom 5:12,21 6:23 8:6,13

(See Packer, The Problems of Universalism, Bib. Sac, Jan 1973)

3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

Observing the law – This has usually been understood to refer to anything that has been done in obedience to God’s law. However, Dunn has suggested that the ergoon nomou (works of the law) refer to those Jewish practices that marked them out as God’s people, i.e. circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of feasts.  But it would seem from the present passage that

‘when Paul concluded that no one will be justified by works of the law (3:20), this was because even the Jews who had the law failed to observe its requirements, and it was not their failure to practice circumcision, to obey food laws, or observe the Sabbath that he had in mind. The failure he highlighted was their failure in the moral area.’ (Kruse)
3:21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—3:22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Cranfield on Rom 3:21-26
‘This short section is, as has already been indicated, the centre and heart of the main division to which it belongs. We may go farther and say that it is the center and heart of the whole of Rom. 1.16b-15.13. It stands out by reason of the distinctiveness of its style: it reads like a solemn proclamation. Notable, in particular, are the emphatic “But now” followed by the perfect tense, the fewness of the verbs, especially in the latter part of the section, the impressive repetition of key-phrases, the striking use of prepositional phrases placed one after the other without connexion. It stands out much more, of course, by virtue of its content; for it proclaims the fact that the one, decisive, once for all, redemptive act of God, the revelation both of the righteousness which is from God and also of the wrath of God against human sin, the once for all revelation which is the basis of the continuing revelation of the righteousness (Rom 1.17) and of the wrath [chapter one, verse eighteen] of God in the preaching of the gospel, has now taken place. It shows that the heart of the gospel preached by Paul is a series of events in the past (not just the crucifixion of Christ – for the Cross, by itself, would have been no saving act of God – but the crucifixion together with the resurrection and exaltation of the Crucified), a series of events which is the Event of history, an act which, as the decisive act of God, is altogether effective and irreversible. It attests the fact that what we have to do with, in the gift of righteousness, with which Romans is concerned, is nothing less than God’s costly forgiveness which, whereas forgiveness on cheaper terms would have meant God’s abandonment of His faithful love for man and the annihilation of man’s real dignity as His morally accountable creature, is altogether worthy of the righteous, loving, faithful God, who does not insult or mock His creature, man, by pretending that his sin does not matter but, rather, Himself bears the full cost of forgiving it righteously – lovingly.’

But now – ‘There are no more wonderful words in the whole of Scripture than just these two words “But now”.’ (Lloyd-Jones)

These words ‘mark a major transition in Paul’s argument.  More than that, they introduce the great turning-point in the history of salvation.’ (Ryken)  But is the expression rhetorical, or temporal?  Moo thinks that the more normal temporal meaning is likely here, marking ‘the shift in Paul’s focus from the old era of sin’s domination to the new era of salvation’.  Kruse agrees, noting that the idea is clarified in v26 (‘at the present time’):

‘What the apostle is affirming is that with the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection, and the sending of the Spirit, a new age has begun in which the righteousness of God is being revealed apart from the law. This distinguishes it from OT times when the revelation of the righteousness of God was connected to the giving of the law and carried with it the demand of obedience to the law.’

A righteousness of God – Lit. ‘a righteousness of God’. The NIV (1984) takes it as a possessive genitive (‘a righteousness from God’) , which is possible, although disputed. In fact, God both is righteous, Ps 98:2, and gives righteousness. See also Rom 1:17.

Wright (who understands it as ‘the righteousness of God’) says that ‘the phrase does not denote a human status which Israel’s God gives, grants, imparts or imputes (‘a righteousness from God’ as in Philippians 3:9), or a human characteristic which ‘counts’ with God (‘a righteousness which avails before God’). Nor does it denote the saving power of the one God…. It retains its primary scriptural meaning, which is that of God’s covenant faithfulness.’ (Paul and the faithfulness of God)

‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous…Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became a gateway to heaven.’ (Luther)

The faithfulness of Jesus Christ – Traditionally, ‘faith in Jesus Christ’.

Faith in Christ, or faithfulness of Christ?

The issue

Scholars (e.g. Leon Morris, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters) tell us that the Greek word ‘pistis‘ usually means ‘faith’, but can occasionally signify ‘faithfulness’.  The distinction is an important one, not least because it has a bearing on how relevant texts are interpreted in relation to the ‘New Perspectives on Paul’.

An example of a text in which ‘pistis‘ probably carries the meaning of ‘faithfulness’ is Gal 5:22 – ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is…faithfulness’.  Rom 3:3 clearly refers to “the faithfulness of God,” not “faith in God”, and Rom 4:12 equally clearly refers to “the faith of Abraham,” not “faith in Abraham.”

In passages such as Rom. 3:22, 26; Gal. 2:16; 3:22; Phil. 3:9, where English translations consistently have ‘faith in Christ’ (or equivalent), N.T. Wright consistently reads, ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ (or equivalent).

We can agree with Wright that the theme of Christ’s faithfulness to the Father is prominent in the NT (Carson mentions John and Hebrews, together with Phil 2:5-11 and the Gethsemane narrative in the Synoptics).   We might add Rom 5:19.  However, it is less clear that this is the meaning of the ‘faith/faithfulness of Christ’ passages.  For Wright, the Bible tells the story of ‘God’s “righteousness” (more-or-less God’s “covenant faithfulness”) in sending Jesus to function as the faithful Israelite who goes to the cross and is vindicated by His Father, such that all who are in union with Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike, are constituted God’s covenant people’ (Carson’s summary).

It is not that anyone is saying that Wright is completely mistaken.  He denies neither the substitutionary atonement of Christ nor the necessity of faith on the part of the believer.  The problem, as succinctly stated by Moo, is that Wright’s scheme foregrounds the Bible’s background, and backgrounds the Bible’s foreground.

Romans 3:22

Romans 3:3 is an interesting one:- ‘What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?’  Of the three mentions of ‘pistis’ in this verse, the first two are translated ‘faith’ in the NIV, and the third is (correctly) translated ‘faithfulness’.

More difficult are passages such as Romans 3:22:- ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’

(a) Some think this means ‘through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe’.  This view has been championed by Richard Hays and others.

This option reminds us that Christ certainly was faithful to the Father, and that believers are called and enabled to be faithful too (see Gal 5:22 again).

This rendering, ‘through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ would be consistent with, say, Rom 5:18f, which speaks of Christ’s act of righteous obedience.  This alternative view, it is claimed, rescues the present verse from a tautology – ‘faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’.  But this is not necessarily the case: what we have here may not be a redundancy at all, but a case of repetition for the sake of emphasis: ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ—to all who have faith in him’.  So Carson.

Wright reads this verse as follows: “God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for the benefit of all who have faith.”  ‘This,’ he writes, ‘answers exactly to the sequence of thought in 3: 1– 5. Israel’s privilege was to be entrusted with the divine oracles; that is a way of summing up the vocation spelled out in 2: 19– 20. But Israel had been “faithless” to that commission, putting in question the divine “faithfulness” (3: 3) and the divine “truthfulness” (3: 4); but God will be seen to be dikaios, true to his covenant justice, despite it all (3: 4b– 5).’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

(b) The traditional view is that the correct reading is ‘through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’

I am not competent to evaluate the linguistic arguments, but the flow of Paul’s thought in these chapters in Romans seems decisive in favour of this view.  ‘As Dunn has noted, it is telling that if Paul wished to draw attention to the faithfulness of Christ, he missed some opportunities. In Romans 4, for instance, it is the faith of Abraham that is the model, not Christ’s faithfulness’ (Morris)

It is true that pistis can occasionally mean ‘faithfulness’, Rom 3:3; Gal 5:22. In Rom 3:22,26; Gal 2:16,20; 3:22; Php 3:9 it is possible to read ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ rather than ‘faith in Jesus Christ’. However, Dunn notes that if Paul wished to draw attention to the faithfulness of Christ, why did he not do so in Rom 4, where in fact the model is Abraham, not Christ. (See art. ‘Faith’ in DPL)

In favour of the NIV translation, Kruse remarks that v22 can be regarded as an expansion of v21, where Paul says that the righteousness of God has been revealed ‘apart from the law’, with the implication that this righteousness comes by faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Moo (New Bible Commentary) says that although the first option is a possibility, ‘the idea of Christ’s faithfulness’ (expressed with the word pistis) is not clearly attested elsewhere in Paul, while this whole section of Romans focuses again and again on the centrality of human faith in Christ for justification (see especially v 26 at the end of this paragraph). Paul, then, repeats the notion of human faith in v 22 because he wants to say both that God’s righteousness comes only by faith in Christ and that it comes to everybody who has such faith. V 23 is a succinct summary of 1:18-3:20.

The traditional translation is supported by a number of factors, including the exposition of Abraham’s faith in ch. 4. ‘Paul introduces Abraham because he is a paradigm for the Roman Christians, and he is pragmatic because he obtained righteousness by faith. It seems quite unlikely that Paul would emphasize in such detail that Abraham was righteous “by faith” in Ro. 4, whereas in Ro. 3 he would say that we are righteous by “Jesus’ faithfulness.” Just as he emphasizes that Abraham was right with God by faith in Ro. 4, so too in Ro. 3 he stresses that Christians are justified by faith.’ (Thomas Schreiner, JETS, Dec 1998)

Galatians 2:16

This verse is also important in the discussion:-

We…know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Some scholars think that this should be understood as a subjective genitive (‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’) rather than an objective genitive (‘faith in Jesus Christ’).  Both are grammatically possible.

Martyn: ‘Recent decades have seen extensive discussion of the matter, sometimes even heated debate; and the debate has demonstrated that the two readings do in fact lead to two very different pictures of the theology of the entire letter. Is the faith that God has chosen as the means of setting things right that of Christ himself or that of human beings?’

Many earlier translations, from Tyndale onwards (and including the AV), translated, ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’.  But this may simply be a question of usage, the expression being an archaism for ‘faith in Jesus Christ’.

Among recent EVV and commentators, the subjective genitive is supported by NET, ISV, Longenecker, Martyn, Wright, Garlington (who refers to a ‘growing consensus’ on this view)

NET: ‘we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’

Wright: ‘we know that a person is not declared ‘righteous’ by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared ‘righteous’ on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared ‘righteous’.’

Advocates of the New Perspective on Paul tend to understand pistis Christou (faith of Christ) to mean Christ’s faithfulness to the divine plan for Israel, not faith in the Messiah. See note on Rom 3:22.

deSilva (who does not support this view) suggests that there are three main arguments in favour of it:

  1. It maintains the supposed parallelism between ‘the faith of Jesus’ (Gal 2:16) and ‘the faith of Abraham’ (Gal 3:6-9).  But the parallelism is not between Abraham and Christ, but between Abraham and the believer.
  2. It avoids the apparent redundancy in the traditional interpretation, according to which the believer’s faith is mentioned three times in a single verse.  But this verse is replete with repetition anyway: if there can be three mentions of justification apart from the works of the law, there can just as easily be a matching trio of references to a believer’s faith.
  3. It is in keeping with Paul’s unambiguous use of the subjective genitive in Rom 3:3; 4:12, 16.  But, in the case of ambiguous grammatical constructions, context is key, and the contexts differ between the two passages.

Schreiner, in his commentary on that Epistle, outlines why some accept the subjective genitive (‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’).  These include:-

  1. In Rom 3:3 “the faith of God” (τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ) clearly means “the faithfulness of God.”
  2. In Rom 4:12 the phrase in context refers to “the faith of our father, Abraham” (πίστεως τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἀβραάμ).
  3. If one takes the genitive as objective, “faith in Christ” is superfluous since in the key texts (e.g., Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9) Paul already mentions the need to trust in Christ.
  4. The “faithfulness of Jesus” is another way of referring to Jesus’ obedience, which was necessary to achieve our salvation (Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8).
  5. The coming of “faith” refers to redemptive history (Gal 3:23, 25), designating the faithfulness of Christ at the key point in salvation history.
  6. The focus in Paul’s theology is the work of God in Christ, not the human response of faith.

The objective genitive is supported by NIV, TNIV, ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NLT, NKJV, Good News, deSilva, Schreiner, George, Cranfield (on Romans), Garlington, and Dunn.

Garlington, in a commentary expressly written ‘from the New Perspective’, points to a ‘growing consensus’ in favour of the ‘subjective genitive’ view.  ‘This reading is attractive in many ways; and it is undoubtedly true that the NT does represent Jesus as the man of faith, especially in the Gospel temptation narratives and the Letter to the Hebrews (see the first section note to v. 16). Nevertheless, it is doubtful that this single phrase in Paul could bear that much semantic freight.’

Garlington explains: ‘With the advent of Jesus the Messiah, the only legitimate faith is that which finds its repose in him, the one who is “the end of the law” (Rom 10:4). At one time, faith assumed a nationalistic bias and was meaningless apart from the devotion of the believing Israelite to the Torah, the expression of God’s covenant will for his people. But now that the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:15) has come down in Christ, faith latches specifically onto this one who has accepted all the nations without distinction (Rom 1:1–7; 15:7; Eph 2:17; Acts 2:39). This reading that Christ both defines faith and is the object of faith is confirmed by the second clause of v. 16: “Even we have believed in Christ Jesus” (the first two clauses of the verse could be looked upon as a kind of synonymous parallelism), and v. 20b: Paul lives by “faith in the Son of God” (tou huiou tou theou is clearly objective genitive).’

‘While the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is a prominent theme in Paul’s theology (cf. the kenotic hymn of Phil 2:5–11), what is being contrasted in Galatians is not divine fidelity versus human fickleness but rather God’s free initiative in grace versus human efforts toward self-salvation. Thus when Paul spoke of faith as essential for justification, he was thinking of the necessary human response to what God has objectively accomplished in the cross of Christ.’ (Timothy George)

Preferring the objective genitive (‘faith in Christ”) Schreiner adduces the following reasons:-

  1. The genitive object with “faith” is clear in some instances (Mark 11:22; Jas 2:1).
  2. A genitive object with other verbal nouns shows that an objective genitive with the verbal noun “faith” is normal grammatically: e.g., “knowledge of Christ Jesus” (τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, Phil 3:8). Therefore those who claim that the genitive must be subjective fail to convince.
  3. The texts that use the verb “believe” in a verbal construction and the noun “faith” with the genitive are not superfluous but emphatic, stressing the importance of faith to be right with God. Readers hearing the letter read would hear the emphasis on faith in Christ, and thus this interpretation is to be preferred as the simpler of the two options.58
  4. Paul often contrasts works and human faith in his theology. Therefore, seeing a polarity between works of law and faith in Christ—both human activities—fits with what Paul does elsewhere.
  5. Nowhere does Paul in speaking of Jesus Christ use the word “faith” (πίστις) to describe his “obedience.”
  6. The salvation-historical argument fails to persuade as well. Certainly, Gal 3:23, 25 refer to the coming of faith at a certain time in redemptive history. But such an observation hardly excludes faith in Christ, for faith in Christ becomes a reality when he arrives and fulfills God’s saving promises. We should not pit redemptive history against anthropology.
  7. Nor is the emphasis on faith in Christ somehow Pelagian, as if it somehow detracts from God’s work in salvation. A human response of faith does not undercut the truth that God saves, particularly if God grants faith to his own (Eph 2:8–9).

Fee (in his commentary on Galatians), also favours the objective genitive.  In support of this, he cites Mark 11.22, where exete pistin theou, would have clearly meant ‘have faith in God’, not ‘have the faith of God’.

In addition to the works cited, see also this article by D.A. Carson.


‘Recently we read in the papers an illustration of the way of salvation. A man had been condemned in a Spanish court to be shot, but because he was an American citizen and also of English birth, the consuls of the two countries interposed, and declared that the Spanish authorities had no power to put him to death. What did they do to secure his life, when their protest was not sufficient? They wrapped him up in their flags, they covered him with the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack and defied the executioners. “Now fire a shot if you dare, for if you do, you defy the nations represented by those flags, and you will bring the powers of those two great empires on you.” There stood the man, and before him the soldiers, and though a single shot might have ended his life, yet he was as invulnerable as though encased in triple steel.

Even so Jesus Christ has taken my poor guilty soul ever since I believed in him and has wrapped around me the blood-red flag of his atoning sacrifice, and before God can destroy me or any other soul that is wrapped in the atonement, he must insult his Son and dishonor the sacrifice, and that he will never do, blessed be his name.’ (Spurgeon)

For there is no distinction, 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

There is no difference – While men stand under the law, there are always differences among them.  There is the difference between the righteous and the sinners, between those who strive to fulfill the law and those who break the law.  As to the fulfillment or the violation of the law, there is an endless gradation of more or less.  But, all such differences pale before the new righteousness of God.  “There is no distinction.”  Without exception, all are sinners before God.  “All have sinned.”  That is the point of departure for the whole redemptive work of God.  No one has anything to offer which could elicit the love of God.  In that respect, all are alike.  Man’s own righteousness, though it be of great importance within human relations, does not serve, at all, to motivate God’s work of salvation.  That depends, wholly, on God Himself.  The only motive is in God Himself, in His gracious will.’ (Nygren)

Wright on Rom 3:21-4:25
The reference to ‘a righteousness of God’ in Rom 3:21 must mean (says Tom Wright in section IV of his exegetical comments on Romans in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision) ‘God’s faithfulness to his covenant’.  This is demanded by the immediate context in Romans 2 and 3, by the Old Testament usage, and by the usage in the post-biblical second-Temple literature.  In particular, it is demanded by the emphatic references to God’s own righteousness in Rom 3:25f (a point blurred by those interpreters and translations that insist on rendering dikaiosyne as ‘justice’ in these verses’).

[By there way, there occurs here on p177 one of Wright’s unfortunate lapses in relation to those with whom he does not agree.  He refers to ‘Simon Gathercole’s frequent but strange comments about “righteousness”: but Wright does not explain why he calls them ‘frequent’, for he gives here but one reference to Gathercole’s writings; nor does he explain what he finds ‘strange’ about Gathercole’s comments.  Come on, there must be a better way of doing theological debate than this!].

Moreover, (Wright continues) the wider context of Romans secures this meaning for ‘a righteousness of God’.  In Rom 4 (as in Gal 3) Abraham is introduced, not merely as an example or illustration of faith, but to make the point that God’s single plan began with the promises he made to Abraham.

So how is God to do what his covenant proposed, namely rescue humankind from sin and death, and do this through the promised means – through Israel?  Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant, has failed to be the light of the world.  But God’s ‘Israel-shaped world-redeeming plan’ has now been accomplished through the faithfulness of the Messiah.

The phrase pistis Iesou Christou should be rendered, ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’.  There is still a vital place fo faith in Christ (Rom 3:22 explicitly links the faithfulness of Christ with faith in Christ).  This faithfulness of Christ is nothing other than his obedience unto death, and that death is a redeeming death, it is a death that makes it possible for sinners to be justified.  And here is the point of Christ’s sinlessness in 2 Cor 5:21: not so much that God needed a sinless victim, but rather that God needed a faithful Israelite.

In Rom 3:24-26 we see that God’s grace accomplishes a new exodus (apolytrosis, ‘redemption’), in and through the representative Messiah, whom God ‘put forward’ as the place and means of propitiation through his faithfulness and through his sacrificial blood.  The result is that, though God has previously ‘passed over’ sins, not dealing with them as they deserved, the ‘cosmic deficit’ has now been put right, displaying God’s faithfulness and justice to the world.  So,  God ‘now’ and ‘in the present time’, God’s faithful justice is revealed both with respect to his plan to save the world, and with respect to all who have faith in the faithful Messiah.

Eschatology: it is important to note that justification occurs now (Rom 3:21, 26).  However, it is  a present verdict that anticipates the verdict of the last day, which of which Paul has already spoken in Rom 2:1-16.  This will be expanded in Rom 8-10.

Covenant: Lutherans have had to resort to desperate measures in order to deny Paul’s covenant theology.  Kasemann, for instance, postulated that Rom 3:25f was an unassimilated piece of Jewish covenant theology that had nothing to do with Paul’s otherwise non-covenantal discourse.  But the Lutheran fear that ‘salvation history’ is flattened out to leave no room for God’s radical inbreaking in the person and work of the Messiah is groundless: the dramatic achievement of Christ is precisely the fulfilment of the covenantal promises made in Gen 15.

Lawcourt: ‘righteous’ here does not mean ‘morally virtuous’.  It means simply means that the court has found in your favour; you have been given the status of a righteous person.  (This does not mean that God has clothed the defendant with his own righteousness, or with that of Christ.)  And this is what the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed to do.

Christology: through his faithful death, all who belong to him are regarded as having died.  And through his vindication, all who belong to him are regarded as vindicated.  Far from undermining trust in the crucified and risen Christ, this reading emphasises the cross and resurrection.

What is the place of human faith in this scheme of thought?  It will not do to regard faith as a kind of righteousness, better and more pleasing to God than the self-help kind.  Nor is it sufficient to say that ‘it must be by faith, because if it were by the law only Jews could benefit’.  Nor again is is enough to say that ‘it must be by faith, because if it were by the law nobody would qualify since all have sinned’.

It is better to think of faith (a) as Paul does, in the context of Hab 2:4 and Gen 15:6, where the context is of a people living in a time of crisis but nevertheless looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s covenant faithfulness; (b) in the light of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels (“Your faith has saved you…your faith has made you well…as many as received him, as believed in his name, to them he gave the right to become God’s children’; (c) as Paul will go on to do in Rom 4:19-21 in his discussion of Abraham, as ‘the sign of a genuine humanity, responding out of total human weakness and helplessness to the grace and power of God, and thus giving God the glory’.  Faith is the human response to the Messiah’s faithfulness; it is the badge of God’s redeemed people.

Faith does not then become a ‘work’, an attitude that wins God’s favour.  No: already hinted at in Rom 1:16, there is a power at work (the power of God’s spirit [sic]) that calls it forth, cf 1 Cor 12:3.  There is a ‘hearing of faith’, Gal 3:2; a divine ‘call’, Rom 8:29 etc.  Faith is not a work; it is a sign of grace.

You would not scramble five good eggs and one rotten egg and serve the mixture to guests, expecting it to be acceptable. Even less can you serve up to God a life that has the good things in it tainted with deeds and thoughts that are rotten, and expect it to be acceptable to God. If you wanted to get to heaven by your good works, then you would have to be perfect, which means complete obedience to God at all times. But all of us have fallen short of this. (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 318)

All have sinned – or, to make the force of Paul’s argument clearer, ‘both (i.e. Jew and Gentile) have sinned.’  If follows that this text should not be used on its own as a proof-text for universal sinfulness.

Fall short of the glory of God – This ‘is often spoken of as missing the mark, that is, failing to hit the target, let alone the bull’s- eye, or the arrow dropping short. But hystereo, the word Paul uses here, simply means “absent” or “lacking.”‘ (DBI)

In Wright’s view, Paul ‘is referring to the glory that, as true humans, they should have possessed. This is the “glory” spoken of in Psalm 8: the status and responsibility of looking after God’s world on his behalf. This status and this activity are sustained by true worship of the true God. This is the royal vocation, undergirded by the priestly vocation.’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

‘There are, of course, variations in guilt and depravity, but the Bible is adamant that sin is absolutely universal. This does not mean, unfortunately, that conviction of sin is universal. Many human beings live lives of perfect complacency. They have no sense whatever of sin. God had to send a prophet to tell David that he was guilty of glaring iniquity (2 Sam 11 and 12). It is difficult to believe, after all he had done, that he had no sense of his own sin. But it is a great picture of conviction of sin, a reminder that only God can really tell us the truth about ourselves.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

3:24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

They – the ‘all’ of v23.  But in both cases the meaning is ‘both’ (i.e. Jews and Gentiles alike).  Just as v23 should not be construed as teaching universal sinfulness, so v24 should not be construed as teaching universal salvation.

Justified – A legal term.  A justified person is pronounced by a judge to be acquitted, rather than condemned.  But justification is more than pardon, or forgiveness.  Stott cites Loane: ‘The voice that spells forgiveness will say: “You may go; you have been let off the penalty which your sin deserves.” But the verdict which means acceptance [sc. justification] will say: “You may come; you are welcome to all my love and my presence.”’

Hodge: ‘‘To condemn is not merely to punish, but to declare the accused guilty or worthy of punishment; and justification is not merely to remit that punishment, but to declare that punishment cannot be justly inflicted … Pardon and Justification therefore are essentially distinct. The one is the remission of punishment, the other is a declaration that no ground for the infliction of punishment exists.’’

By his grace – as God’s free gift, undeserved, unearned.

Redemption – They are release upon payment of a ransom. God does not set people free without doing something about their sins. The underlying word, lutron, is often used in the papyri of the money used to free slaves.

3:25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith.

God publicly displayed him – ‘presented him’ (NIV), ‘set him forth’.  There is here a divine purpose in sending the Son, and a public exhibition of saving grace.  This ‘setting forth’ of Jesus by God is a similar idea to his ‘sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering’ (Rom 8:4); and to his ‘not [sparing] his own Son, but [giving] him up for us all (Rom 8:32).  The present verse takes us back to the ‘hilasterion‘, the ‘mercy seat’ of the tabernacle.  It was here that heaven touched earth, that God met with mortal human beings.  But it was also the place of cleansing, precisely because of the sin which otherwise separated the would-be worshippers from their God.  And the cleansing takes place by the sprinkling of blood on the hilasterion.  In this way, ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’, and through [him] we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (Rom 5:2).

‘In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. “He set forth Jesus Christ,” says Paul, “to be a propitiation”; “he sent his Son,” says John, “to be the propitiation for our sins.” It was not man, to whom God was hostile, who took the initiative to make God friendly, nor was it Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, who took the initiative to turn his Father’s wrath against us into love. The idea that the kind Son changed the mind of his unkind Father by offering himself in place of sinful man is no part of the gospel message—it is a sub–Christian, indeed an anti–Christian, idea, for it denies the unity of will in the Father and the Son and so in reality falls back into polytheism, asking us to believe in two different gods. But the Bible rules this out absolutely by insisting that it was God himself who took the initiative in quenching his own wrath against those whom, despite their ill–desert, he loved and had chosen to save.’ (Packer, Knowing God)

‘Note that God put Christ forward as hilastērion. Paul does not speak of Christ appeasing an unloving God on our behalf, but of a God who redeems humanity in his own Son.’ (Sifried, Christ, our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification)

The mercy seat – ‘sacrifice of atonement’ (NIV).

The most important word in the Bible?

Murray Harris writes:

If you were asked (quite unfairly!) to decide whether the OT or the NT was the more important part of the Bible, you may well decide in favor of the NT. And if the questions continued:

“Who is the most important author in the NT?” Paul.
“And Paul’s most important letter?” Romans.
“And the most important section of Romans?” Romans 1–8.
“And the most important chapter within Romans 1–8?” Chapter 3.
“And the most important section within chapter 3?” Verses 21–26.
“And the most important verse within 3:21–26?” Verse 25.
“And the most important word within verse 25?” Hilastērion.

Navigating Tough Texts, p104)

The word underlying this expression – hilasterion – has been much discussed by scholars.  If it means, or includes, the idea of ‘propitiation’, then it means that Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice on the cross had the effect of averting the righteous anger of God.

This was the earlier approach taken by Wright, who wrote that the root ‘also refers to a “propitiatory” sacrifice, that is, one which not only purifies people from sin but also turns away the wrath of God which would otherwise rightly fall on the sinner…At the heart of God’s covenant justice, then, is his “putting forth” of Jesus to take upon himself the anger of God of which Paul spoke in chapter 1.  The final judgement day has been brought forward into the middle of history.  God’s righteous verdict against sinners has been meted out against the faithful Israelite, Israel’s representative, the Messiah, Jesus.’ (Paul for Everyone: Romans 1-8, published 2004).

So also in his more substantial commentary on Romans: ‘By itself…[hilasterion] meant “mercy-seat,” the focal point of the great ritual of the Day of Atonement; and thence, the place and/or means of dealing both with wrath (or punishment) and with sin. Dealing with wrath or punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation. You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, a crime, or stain on your character. Vehement rejection of the former idea in many quarters has led some to insist that only “expiation” is in view here. But the fact remains that in 1:18-3:20 Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness and that despite God’s forbearance this will finally be meted out; that in 5:8, and in the whole promise of 8:1-30, those who are Christ’s are rescued from wrath; and that the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now revealed that righteousness, that saving justice, that causes people to be declared “righteous” even though they were sinners.

‘The lexical history for the word hilasterion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts. Paul’s context here demands that the word not only retain its sacrificial overtones (the place and means of atonement), but that it carry the note of propitiation of divine wrath—with, of course, the corollary that sins are expiated.’ (476)

In his more recent book The Day the Revolution Began (published 2016), however, Wright has modified his views at this point.  One reason he gives is that, under this interpretation, it is not possible to explain why Paul refers to salvation from God’s wrath as still future (Rom 5:9).

The view of C.F.D. Moule should be noted: this eminent scholar observed that both here and in 1 Jn 4:10 God is the subject, not the object of ‘hilas-procedures’.  Moule continues: ‘it is manifestly inappropriate to translate them as propitiatory; one is driven to use a word such as ‘expiatory’, which has as its object not propitiating a wrathful God but removing a barrier. It is this which is expressed in the famous words of z Corinthians 5.19: ‘God was, in [or ‘by’?] Christ reconciling the world to himself’. So far from being propitiated, God it is who initiates the necessary ‘expiation’, himself ‘one’ with his Beloved Son. ‘In Christ’s name, be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5 .20) is the Christian exhortation, for ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin [?sin-offering] on our behalf.’ Regularly, God is the initiation of the action, not its recipient. The only exception in the NT is at Ephesians 5.2, where ‘Christ gave himself up on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God for a fragrant perfume’ — a virtual quotation from the standard propitiatory language of the OT.’

This passage teaches that whereas all (Jews and Gentiles) are sinners, all may be justified through faith in Jesus. In the past, God left his people’s sin unpunished, but he has now demonstrated his justice by punishing their sin in Christ. He was set forth as a propitiation, turning aside God’s wrath by suffering it himself in the place of others. That this passage teaches penal substitution can be seen from the following particulars:-

First, from the flow of Paul’s argument. Paul has already concluded that all are under judgment and liable to God’s wrath. He will go on (Rom 3:27-31) to speak of people being justified. The present passage shows how judgment and wrath have been dealt with: it is by Christ’s ‘blood’ (i.e. his death), Rom 3:25. He suffered the penalty for sin so that we might not have to.

Second, Paul has already confirmed in Rom 1:32 to that according to God’s ‘righteous decree’ we all ‘deserve death’. Accordingly when Rom 3:26 says that God’s wrath has been turned aside in a way that satisfies God’s justice, we must conclude that the punishment of sin has not been merely overlooked, but that it has been achieved in the death of Christ.

Third, these verses teach that with reference to those who lived before the coming of Christ, God was delaying his judgment of their sins until they could be punished in Christ. This is implied in the used of the word ‘forbearance’ in Rom 3:25.

Fourth, Paul’s use of the worth hilasterion, ‘propitiation’, supports the doctrine of penal substitution in this passage. The death of Christ was the means by which God’s wrath was turned aside. This meaning of the word was disputed by C.H. Dodd, who preferred to render the word ‘expiation’. The difference is that expiation has to do with what happens to sin, whereas propitiation has to do with what happens to God’s wrath. But Dodd’s position (which is, of course, linked to his curiously impersonal view of God’s wrath) has been refuted by scholars such as Leon Morris and Roger Nicole. Of course, the biblical idea of propitiation does not carry with it the pagan connotations the appeasement the malice of a petulant deity, but it still serves as an accurate representation of the work of Christ in relation to the very biblical doctrine of the wrath of God. And the context of Rom 3:25 makes it clear that God’s wrath – so apparent in argument leading up to this verse – has now been dealt with and removed; and it is equally clear that it has been dealt with and removed through the death of Christ. All this is not to say that propitiation cannot include additional shades of meaning, including that of expiation: but the idea of the wrath of God being satisfied by Christ’s sacrificial death seems inescapable.

Based on Jefferey, et al, Pierced for our transgressions, 77-88

‘New Testament references to the blood of Christ are regularly sacrificial. (e.g., Rom 3:25 5:9; Eph 1:7; Rev 1:5) As a perfect sacrifice for sin, (Rom 8:3; Eph 5:2; 1 Pet 1:18-19) Christ’s death was our redemption (i.e., our rescue by ransom: the paying of a price that freed us from the jeopardy of guilt, enslavement to sin, and expectation of wrath; Rom 3:24; Gal 4:4-5; Col 1:14). Christ’s death was God’s act of reconciling us to himself, overcoming his own hostility to us that our sins provoked. (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22) The Cross propitiated God (i.e., quenched his wrath against us by expiating our sins and so removing them from his sight). Key texts here are Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2 and 1 Jn 4:10, in each of which the Greek expresses propitiation explicitly. The cross had this propitiatory effect because in his suffering Christ assumed our identity, as it were, and endured the retributive judgment due to us (“the curse of the law,” Gal 3:13) as our substitute, in our place, with the damning record of our transgressions nailed by God to his cross as the tally of crimes for which he was now dying (Col 2:14; cf. Mt 27:37; Isa 53:4-6; Lk 22:37).’ (Packer, Concise Theology)

‘God, because in his mercy he willed to forgive sinful men, and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against his own very self in the person of his Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.’ (Cranfield)

Through faith in his blood – ‘The only plank between the believer and destruction is the blood of the Incarnate God.’ (J.H. Evans)

This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

He did this to demonstrate his justice – God does not merely overlook sin. The justice of God demanded an atonement, and the grace of God provided it.

The sins committed beforehand – before the coming of Christ.

‘What Paul is saying is that the gospel which proclaims God’s apparent violation of his justice is really a revelation of his justice. So far from creating a problem about the justice of God’s dealings, it actually solves one; for it makes clear, as the Old Testament never did, the just grounds of God’s pardon and acceptance of believers both before and since Christ’s coming. The gospel shows how a just God can justly believing sinners.’ (Packer, God’s Words, 141)

3:26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

So as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith – God: the just and the justifier. ‘Nowhere has Paul put the problem of God more acutely or profoundly. To pronounce the unrighteous righteous is unjust by itself. (Rom 4:5) God’s mercy would not allow him to leave man to his fate. God’s justice demanded some punishment for sin. The only possible way to save some was the propitiatory offering of Christ and the call for faith on man’s part.’ (A.T. Robertson)

‘In Rom. 3…with its contextual emphasis upon the wrath of God against sin and upon the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ for the satisfaction of the Father’s justice, we must continue to understand dikaios (Rom. 3:26) in its traditional sense: ‘That he [God] might be just [exacting punishment, according to sense 5 above], and [yet at the same time] the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (J. Barton Payne, NBD, art. ‘Justice).

‘Zaleusus flourished about 500 B.C. His government over the Locrians was severe but just. In one of his decrees he forbade the use of wine unless it were prescribed as medicine; and in another he ordered that all adulterers should be punished with the loss of both their eyes. When his own son became subject to this penalty, the father, in order to maintain the authority of the laws, but to show parental leniency, shared the penalty with his son by ordering one of his own eyes to be thrust out along with one of his offending son. In this way, the majesty of his government was maintained, and his own character as a just and righteous sovereign was magnified in the eyes of his subjects.’

‘God is not omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything. God can only do those things which are consistent with his nature. He cannot therefore readily pardon the sinner, because he is a God of infinite justice. But neither can he readily punish the sinner, because he is also a God of infinite mercy. Here, then, if we may use human language, was the divine dilemma. How could he pardon the sinner without compromising his justice? How could he judge the sinner without frustrating his love? How in the fact of human sin could he be at the same time a God of love and of wrath? How could he both pardon the sinner and punish his sin? How could a righteous God forgive unrighteous men without involving himself in their unrighteousness?’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 165)

‘God is not as odds with himself, however much it may appear to us that he is. He is “the God of peace,” of inner tranquility not turmoil. True, we find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them. Yet he is both, and at the same time.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 28)

What, asks Wright, might we conclude on the basis of vv21-26 about what Paul would say the cross achieved?

‘First, he would say that the age-old covenant plan of the Creator, to rescue humanity and the world from sin and death, had been accomplished. The new Passover had taken place, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.

Second, he would say that this had been accomplished by God himself, in his act of covenant faithfulness (for which the shorthand is “love,” though Paul does not use that word until chapters 5 and 8), drawing together Israel’s vocation and his own deepest purposes in the faithful death of the Messiah.

Third, as befits a “Passover” moment, he would say that people of all sorts— Jews and Gentiles alike— were now free, free from past sins, free to come into the single covenant family. They were “freely declared to be in the right,” to be within God’s justified people, able to look ahead to the final day without fear of condemnation (Rom 5: 9; 8: 1; 8: 31– 39).

Fourth, as we have seen in all the other early Christian strands of thought we have studied, Paul saw the new Passover also as the “dealing with sins” through which exile was undone. This is where Passover and the “Day of Atonement” meet and merge.

Fifth, and at the heart of it all, Paul saw Israel’s representative Messiah “handed over because of our trespasses,” in the sense intended in Isaiah 53. Dealing with sins robs the “powers” of their power; and this, as we have seen, is the key that unlocks all the other doors.’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

3:27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle?  Of works? No, but by the principle of faith!
Wright on justification - Romans 3:27-30
Continuing to summarise Tom Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.

Boasting, then, is excluded, Rom 3:27.  Israel could not boast of any superiority that might arise from Torah-keeping or from having a special place in God’s purposes.  No: Torah itself tells you of your own failures, and declares that your privileged place will be taken away and given to others.  Who now are God’s people? – those whose Torah-keeping consists of faith, those who are ‘the circumcised-in-heart’, Rom 2:25-29, ‘the Jew-in-secret’ people, Rom 2:13-16, ‘the ones who do the Torah and thus have circumcision reckoned to them’, ‘the ones who do the Torah and so will be justified on the last day, even though they are Gentiles and don’t have the Torah as their ancestral possession’, Rom 2:10, ‘the ones who through patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality’, Rom 2:7.  God’s people are those who keep the Torah not by works but by faith.

Rom 3:28 explains the dramatic claim of the previous verse, and has as its inescapable implication v29, which asserts that God has not two families but one.  Verse 28 brings us back to the lawcourt setting, and to the meaning of justification as the verdict of the Judge who has found in our favour.  It brings us back to the idea of covenant, for those who believe are constituted not as a bunch of saved individuals, but as the single family which God promised to Abraham.  It brings us back to eschatology, for the verdict of the final judgment, based on the entire life, has already been announced, in advance of the entire life.  The verdict is in before the evidence has been produced!  And this makes sense because of Christology: ‘In and through the Messiah, God has dealt with the whole problematic fact of idolatry, sin and death and so has begun, in the Messiah’s resurrection, the new creation which is the great new Fact standing in the middle of time, space and human culture.’  When God raised Christ from the dead, he said in actual historical event what he had previously announced at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’  In other words, this is the faithful Messiah, in whom my purpose for Israel is fulfilled.

Justification by faith on the basis of Jesus’ faithful death and triumphant resurrection, revealing the “right”]eousness” of the creator God, his faithfulness to the covenant-through-Israel-for-the-world – this justification means that God now declares circumcised and uncircumcised alike “in the right”, “members of the covenant family”, the former “on the basis of faith” and the latter “through faith”.

‘Paul summed up the dangers of the moral law and its signs by the word “boasting,” which occurs some 50 times in his letters (and only four times elsewhere in the NT.) Boasting and pride pit themselves against grace, and grace, which can only be received by humility and faith, sums up the gospel. The essential conflict for Paul is between boasting and grace, not law and grace. Grace teaches that there are no distinctions, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Where then is boasting? It is excluded on the sole basis of justification by faith (Rom 3:21–28).’ (Edwards, UBCS)

3:28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

Paul again underscores the vital necessity of faith (cf. v22, 25, 26). ‘Justification by faith alone’ was one of the great watchwords of the Reformation. When Luther added the word ‘alone’ to this verse, he was accused by the Roman Catholic Church of perverting the text. But in doing so he was not only being true to a long line of interpreters, including Origen and many Church Fathers, but was making explicit what is implied in the verse itself.

3:29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!
3:30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
3:31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.

Paul seems here to be responding to an objection that he probably heard often as he preached to Jews.

Nullify, in this context, means ‘invalidate’ (Kruse).

In what ways is the not upheld, not nullified?

Paul has just asserted (Rom 3:28) that a person is justified by faith ‘apart from the works of the law’.  Law plays no part of justification.  So, in what way or ways is the law not invalidated, but rather upheld?  It is difficult to give a single definitive answer, although several have merit:-

Firstly, the law is upheld in that it points to the gospel (Rom 1:2; 3:21): so much so that, as Paul will show in chapter 4, both Abraham and David were justified by faith.  According to Moo, the weakness here is that nowhere (else) does Paul refer to ‘law’ on its own as having this testifying function.  Rom 3:21; for example, he uses ‘the law and the prophets’.  And in Rom 4:3, he does not ask ‘What does the “law” say?’, but rather, ‘What does the Scripture says?’

Secondly, the righteous requirements of the law were perfectly satisfied by Christ in his active and passive obedience.  Haldane: ‘Can there be any greater respect shown to the law, than that when God determines to save men from its curse, He makes His own Son sustain its curse in their stead, and fulfill for them all its demands?’  Olshausen, (quoted by Plumer): ‘The gospel establishes the law, because it is the most sublime manifestation of the holiness and strictness of God. Sin never appears more fearful than at Golgotha; where, on account of it, God spared not his own Son.’

Thirdly, the law prepares for the gospel: it diagnoses the problem that the gospel resolves.  This condemning function of the law has already been mentioned in Rom 3:19 and, more extensively, in Gal 3:15-4:7.  However, (as Moo points out) Paul has not used ‘law’ in this way in Rom 3:27-30 – the verses that spark the objection now being met.

Fourthly, the law is upheld in that its righteous requirement is fulfilled in those who live by the Spirit (Rom 8:3f; 13:8-10), in the sense that ‘their relationship to Christ by faith fully meets the demands of God’s law’ (Moo).

Plumer: ‘We contend that so far from making useless the law—all the law God has ever given—we assign to it its true use as giving the knowledge of sin, shewing the necessity of a better righteousness than men ever attain to by their own works, furnishing a perfect rule of life, and bringing great glory to God, its author, because as a transcript of his character it is holy, just and good.’