Q&R: How do you read Romans 3:23? Brad Jersak

Romans 3:23 —

In my childhood, as a young Evangelical, memorizing Scripture was important to me. I saw and experienced its value and knew it as one way to commune with God. I also appreciated finding short verses that were easy to recall. That’s one reason Romans 3:23 made it to my earliest list of well-known passages.

The verse is an excerpt from one of Paul’s notoriously long sentences:

22b For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In retrospect, the tone with which I learned that isolated verse involved an accusatory and condemning finger … rather than noting the next phrase, “being justified freely by his grace,” verse 23 was our first stop on the way to an ultimatum/altar call.

A Better Tone

I suppose it was at least fifteen years ago that my friend Andrew Klager cited the Scripture to me in context with a far more inviting tone. He quoted the passage verbatim, but I’ll paraphrase him so you catch the tone of  his voice and body language:

“Hey, look, everybody sins. [shrugs his shoulders, palms up]
Everybody needs mercy. [gestures broadly across the cafe]. Obviously. [smiles].
And that’s why Paul says, ‘Everybody is also freely justified by grace… redemption for everybody through Christ.”

Now there’s much debate about when and how this gift is received or experienced, but Andrew’s reading of Paul’s words lacked the scolding I had internalized in my “memory work.” It was a good news message that since everybody needs mercy, that’s exactly what God has given (perfect verb tense, meaning perfected and complete!). Note that in Paul’s language, he is describing a gift that has been given without any quid pro quo transaction.

The Glory of God

More recently, another friend offered further insight into the phrase “all fall short of the glory of God.” He pointed out that Romans 3:23 does NOT say, “We all fall short of some glorious ideal or standard of human perfection.” That’s not what the verse says or what Paul means.

But in the gospel of my youth, that’s how we read it… in conjunction with our view of sin as “missing the mark.” For us, “missing the mark” meant exactly that: the “mark” was moral perfection and God’s standard of holiness. And “holiness” was perfect law-keeping. So our gospel was that by missing the holy mark of flawless law-keeping, all of us alike stood condemned to everlasting punishment in the Lake of Fire. But gratefully (we were taught), Jesus both obeyed on our behalf and was punished in our place. That was his gift to us. Believe it, receive it and you’ll be forgiven, become God’s child, and inherit eternal life. And if not… molten fire for all eternity.

In the stack of fundamental flaws with that account, we begin with a presumption: that to “fall short of the glory of God” is a failure to keep God’s law… that “sin” is defined as not measuring up to the morality code of our religious system (the Law).

Is that what Paul said in this passage?
Of what did we fall short? Sinless perfection? NO.
We fall short of “the glory of God.” 

What is the glory of God? In the Hebrew Scriptures, God was revealed as divine glory. Glory was a manifestation of God’s Person and Presence. God’s people beheld God’s glory in profound visions of ‘uncreated light’—beautiful, majestic, and powerful. The glory of the Lord and the voice of the Lord together were often overwhelming. Those who observed the Glory were frequently filled with fear and fascination, reverence and awe, but also with joy and worship.

Humanity was created to behold God’s glory, to dwell in God’s glory, to commune with and participate in God’s glory. That glory is the very nature of God, revealed as infinite, self-giving, unfailing Love. The Light of God’s glory is the very Life of God, shining on everyone in indiscriminate hospitality, goodness, and lovingkindness.

Falling Short of God’s Glory

To fall short of God’s glory is, therefore, much worse than the inevitable stumbles of human imperfection! For moral toddlers to trip over the shoelaces of lawkeeping is hardly hell-worthy in the sight of the God of unfailing mercy.

The real issue is that we turn from the Light and Glory of God’s loving care into the delusion of autonomy (“My will be done!”) and self-will. “Perishing” (John 3:16) is nothing other than the experience of falling out of communion with the Glory of God into the universal human condition of spiritual alienation. It happens. To everyone. Sin is both the turning and the alienation. Turning from the Light of God’s Glory, we become lost and blind in the darkness of our own wandering, just like the prodigal sons (yes, both of them).

The Way Home

Gratefully, the Son of God was not sent to condemn this perishing world but to rescue and heal it. In God’s infinite love, the Father sends his Son to show and to be the Way home. That Way is not about moral perfection or, worse, appeasement of divine anger. Rather, Christ the Rescuer and Healer has delivered, in himself, the gift of redeeming love and transforming grace.

Through the love of Christ, we are redeemed from alienation to share once again in God’s glory. For love is exactly this: the desire God gives us and by which God draws us home, back to the Paradise of communion with and in the Glory of God’s eternal presence. Divine love, freely given, and revealed on the Cross, is God’s desire to share existence with us and us with him.

To get there, Jesus picks us up from the dust and beckons us, “Come, follow me.”

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