In Rom. 3:21-26 Paul advances his argument that the church must be unified and competing factions must reconcile and “welcome” one another in Christ (Rom. 14:1; 15:7). Just as no one has an inside track with God based on ethnicity, all Christians in Rome (Jew and non-Jew) are set right (“justified”) with God as a gift. Because they all receive this gift on the same basis, there should be no factions—they must be unified.
Most interpreters recognize that 3:21-26 is pivotal for Paul’s entire argument and that it plays a central role in Paul’s theology. Interpreters have tended to focus, however, on the mechanics of justification. That is, we highlight the soteriological components of Paul’s presentation, such as “the righteousness of God” (v. 21), how it is witnessed by the Law and the prophets, the debate over the Greek phrase pisteōs Iēsou Christou (“faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ”) in v. 22, the notion of propitiation in v. 25, and other matters of interest for dogmatic and systematic theologians.
But if we pay close attention to the grammar of the passage, we’ll see that while these are important components of Paul’s presentation, he only brings them up to make the pastoral point. He is ultimately concerned with the concrete situation in the church in Rome.
The two appearances of “for” at the end of v. 22 and beginning of v. 23 reveal that his burden is not merely to state these realities, but to relate them to both Jews and non-Jews in the Roman Christian community.
First, Paul notes that God’s powerful saving program—aimed at reclaiming creation and the nations—is no longer being carried out through Israel. In v. 21, he states that “the righteousness of God” is being revealed “apart from Law.” That is, God is working out his saving program without reference to Jewish identity. He isn’t excluding Jews, but God’s salvation has broken the banks of national boundaries and is including all those in Christ, whether Jew or gentile.
God had called Israel to be a light to the nations, the national agent of God’s redemption of the nations. Israel, however, had proved unfaithful to that commission (Rom. 3:3).
While Israel has been unfaithful, God remains faithful and he is now unleashing his saving program through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe, Jew or non-Jew. In Jesus and among his followers, God is carrying out his universal saving program that he had spoken about in the Law and the prophets. God is faithful and is on the move to reclaim the nations for the glory of his name.
So, this is a new move, a radical shift in God’s pursuit of redemption. But it isn’t new at all, as it is the central mission to which God committed himself and to which he called Israel. Because of their failure, God is now completing this mission in Jesus and among his followers made up of any and every ethnicity.
And God’s world-transforming redemptive program has direct relevance to the Roman church situation. The conjunction “for” directs readers to Paul’s point: God’s saving program is for “all who believe for there is no distinction” between Jew and non-Jew (v. 22).
The second “for” re-emphasizes this point: “for all (in the Roman church) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). And all (Jewish and non-Jewish Christians) are justified as a gift (v. 24).
So, once again, Paul isn’t necessarily expressing the central points of his theology here, nor merely laying out his theology for the Roman Christians’ consideration.
His ultimate aim is the unity of God’s people in Rome. He wants them to stop passing judgment on one another and to embrace as siblings in God’s global family in Christ. What he has to say in Rom. 3:21-26, therefore, has direct relevance to that practical end.
Following the grammar–or, paying attention to what Paul actually says–makes this clear.