The Revolution 7: What happened on Good Friday? Romans 3:21–26

What happened on Good Friday? Romans 3:21–26

Seventh post on N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.

The day the revolution began is divided into four parts, and this post is an attempt to summarise much of the sixth chapter of Part Three.

The previous post (The Revolution 6) in this series on Tom Wright's book is here.

Wright returns here to Romans 3:21–26. He does so because, he says, it summarises a first-generation Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death. To quote his conclusion: Romans 3:21–26 ‘does not, then, focus on the point that most of us, including myself in earlier writings, have assumed. Paul is not simply offering a roundabout way of saying, “We sinned; God punished Jesus; we are forgiven.” He is saying, “We all committed idolatry, and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.‘

Wright summarises the position he opposes: ‘The usual way of reading Romans 1–4 … is the straightforward “works contract.” God requires perfect obedience; all fail, and sin; all must die; Jesus dies in our place; we are forgiven and assured of going to heaven. In this reading, the word “righteousness” in this passage is assumed to refer to “goodness” or “good moral standing.” We have no goodness (“righteousness”) of our own, but God conveys, reckons, or otherwise grants to believers a different “righteousness,” a status that comes from God himself (“a righteousness from God”), …’

This interpretation of 3:21–26 undervalues chapter 4, as Abraham becomes merely an example of someone who was justified by faith, whereas the chapter is actually about the establishment of God’s covenant. It also ignores the plain meaning of 2:17–20 and 3:1–9, which are about the fact that under the covenant Israel was to be a light to the nations.

Wright summarises the context of 3:21–26 as follows. ‘Romans 2:17–3:9 is concerned, first, with the worldwide purpose of Israel’s divine vocation (2:17–20); second, with Israel’s covenantal failure (2:21–24; 3:2–4); and third, with the problem that this poses for God’s dikaiosynē, his “righteousness” (3:5). How is God to be faithful to the covenant—to rescue and bless the world through the Jews—if Israel is faithless? This is the topic of 3:21–26. Romans 4 is then all about God’s covenant with Abraham, its worldwide purpose, and the way in which, through the gospel, God has now been faithful to that covenant.’

The traditional reading also neglects the connection between the words ‘apart from the Law’ (3:21) and Israel’s failure (2:17–24), which sets the scene for Jesus’ death and resurrection, representing the culmination of Israel’s story. In Wright’s words, ‘The living God comes into his world in the person of Israel’s representative, to do for Israel and the world what they could not do for themselves, to be the place of meeting between the Creator and his human creatures. That explosive fusion of roles forms the heart of Paul’s theological vision, here and elsewhere.’

Crucial to Wright’s interpretation is his translation from Greek into English of 3:21-26, which differs from some more conventional versions.[1]  I give the NIV translation below, followed by Wright’s, as I think the difference is crucial to understanding what Wright is saying. Wright’s translation is given with words based on the Greek root dikaio- inserted, as in the book, as he discusses these (see below). I have italicised these in both translations. What I take to be other significant differences between the two translations are bolded.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (3:21–26, NIV)(italics and bolding mine)

In Wright’s translation, however, it reads:

But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice [dikaiosynē] has been displayed. God’s covenant justice [dikaiosynē] comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory—and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right [dikaioumenoi], to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.

God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice [dikaiosynē], because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right [dikaios], and that he declares to be in the right [dikaioutai] everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (3:21–26, KNT)(bolding mine)

The interpretation of dikaiosynē is central to the passage. Usually translated ‘righteousness’ (an archaic and ambiguous word in modern English), in Wright’s view it refers to God’s righteousness in adhering to the covenant with utter faithfulness and he thus translates it as ‘covenant justice’. In 3:25–26 it is indeed clear that ‘righteousness’ is God’s, not the sinner’s. Wright sets out 3:21–26 as above so as to show the frequency and interpretation of the dikaio- root.

The NIV translates Greek dikaiosynē theou in 3:21-22 as ‘a righteousness from God’ (i.e. a righteousness bestowed upon the sinner), where Wright translates it God’s covenant justice. A literal translation is ‘righteousness of-God’, so Wright’s ‘God’s’ is unexceptionable, while the NIV’s ‘from God’ entails a broader interpretation. The difference arises because the Greek genitive (‘of’) case in theou ‘of-God’ is capable of multiple interpretations. Much the same is true of the phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou, literally 'through belief/faith/faithfulness of-Jesus-Messiah', with the additional obstacle that the second word of the phrase can be translated ‘belief’, ‘faith’ or ‘faithfulness’. So Wright translates it ‘through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah’, NIV ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’, where again the genitive Iēsou Christou allows more than one interpretation. Wright’s is on the face of it less daring, and is supported by context: Israel has been faithless, calling God’s faithfulness into question (3:3),

If some of them were unfaithful to their commission, does their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? (3:3)

and its vocation is now fulfilled through Jesus. Wright says, ‘The main thing Paul wants to say in this paragraph is that God has done, in and through Jesus, what he promised and purposed all along.’

Wright points out that the traditional reading misses the Temple imagery of the passage. “All sinned, and fell short of God’s glory” is not a way of saying “they failed to qualify for the glory of ‘heaven’ (‘heaven’ hardly figures in Romans). It refers back, rather, to 1:21–23: “They knew God, but didn’t honour him as God” (more literally, “They did not glorify him as God”[2]), and “they swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans.” This echo (via Ps. 106:20) of the story of the golden calf indicates that, as in 1:18–32, behind ‘sin’ lies idolatry. Paul returns to this theme in 5:1–2 ‘where those who are justified have “access” to the divine grace and celebrate the “hope of the glory of God.”’ In Jewish thought in the first century ‘the hope of the glory of God’ was the hope that God’s glory would finally return to his Temple, a hope fulfilled in Jesus (see The Revolution 2).

Also associated with the Temple is the Greek term hilastērion (in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament it translates Hebrew kappōreth) in 3:25, which Wright translates ‘a place of mercy’, the location on the lid of the ark, the ‘mercy seat’, ‘where purification would be made, so that God and his people could safely meet; the blood of the sin offering was to act as a ritual detergent to purify the sanctuary, so that the place on earth where the divine Glory came to dwell, as in Exodus 40, might be kept pure, maintaining not only the covenantal link between God and Israel, but also the very fabric of the cosmos, the joining of heaven and earth’.

The NIV has a more traditional translation of hilastērion, namely ‘sacrifice of atonement’, and older English translations use ‘propitiation’, which immediately presupposes an angry God.[3]  Translations like ‘propitiation’ and ‘sacrifice of atonement’ also incorrectly presuppose that a sacrificial animal is killed in place of the worshipper, but the idea that an animal was punished in a person's stead is pagan, not Jewish (cf discussion of Hebrews in The Revolution 3.) The animal was not slaughtered on the altar but elsewhere, so that its blood could be used to cleanse the altar and the supplicant. The only animal that symbolically took on people's sin was the scapegoat, and this was the one animal that was not slaughtered.[4]  So when Paul writes in Romans 3: 25 that God put Jesus forth as a hilastērion, he does not mean that God was punishing Jesus for the sins of Israel or the world. Had he wanted to say that, he would not have echoed the language of the Day of Atonement, when ‘the priest cleansed the sanctuary from the defiling effects of the past sins of Israel with the sprinkled blood of the sacrifice.' Thus Jesus’ blood provides the cleansing from sin that allows people again to meet with their God, echoing the covenant of Exodus 24:8. This is the context for Paul’s statement in 5:9 that ‘we have been declared to be in the right by his blood‘.

Jesus is the hilastērion, ‘the place where God and his people come together’ … ‘the place where heaven and earth overlapped’… ‘Jesus himself, the focus of belief, invoked in prayer, loved in answer to his own love, is the ultimate answer to the problem of idolatry. “He is the image of God, the invisible one” (Colossians 1:15), the reality of which all other “images” are at best distorted parodies.’ … ‘And the argument then naturally emerges into the summary in 5:1–2, where those who are justified by faith have “peace with God” and “access to this grace in which we stand,” celebrating the “hope of God’s glory.” The new Temple has been constructed; the “meeting” has taken place.’

Another word whose Jewish associations we are likely to overlook is apolytrōsis ‘redemption’ (3:24). Conventionally ‘redemption’ is associated with redeeming a slave from a slave market, and this is correct, but the term had a much older association in Paul’s day. ‘Israel had been enslaved in Egypt; God’s great act of liberation, overcoming Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods and rescuing his people, was the apolytrōsis, the great “redemption” at the heart of Israel’s covenant story.’ And this brings us back to the Passover, which celebrated the exodus from Egypt and looked forward to the new exodus a day later.

When Jeremiah speaks of a ’new covenant’, he is looking directly back to that moment of deliverance:

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,’”
declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:31–32)
But this new covenant will also entail the forgiveness of sins:
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
The promise is fulfilled by the new redemption of Romans 3:24.

The final post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


  1. [^1]  Wright is not alone in his interpretation of the passage. It is shared by the NET Bible (1996) and the Complete Jewish Bible (1998).
  2. [^2]  Greek: οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν
  3. [^3]  Tyndale (1525) translated it ‘seat of mercy’. The NET Bible (1996) has ‘mercy seat’. But the New American Standard Bible (1977), the New King James Version (1982) and the English Standard Version (2001) all have ‘propitiation’. The NIV (1984) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989) have ‘a sacrifice of atonement’. The New Living Translation (1996) has ‘the sacrifice for sin’, and The Message (2002) says ‘God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world’.
  4. [^4]  In Leviticus 16:7-10 the only animal that had sins confessed over its head was the scapegoat, and it was driven out into the wilderness.