We have seen that the first section of Romans speaks of the knowledge of God (1:28), the conscience (2:15), and the law of God (v. 17). The best way to study the Word of God is to find the central lines and the main points. If we have the central lines and the main points, everything will be open and crystal clear. Without the main points, however, the more we speak, define, and explain, the more we are not clear. Therefore, just as we have seen the basic points of the first section of Romans, we need the right words to describe the content and insight of the second section. However, this is the most difficult section. After reading from 3:21 to 5:11 many times, we still may not know what this portion of the Word tells us and how to summarize it.
The Glory of God
The second main section of Romans gives us a full picture of how we are justified through the redemption of Christ (3:24). The first basic term in this section is the glory of God. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The glory of God is the standard of God’s justification. When we human beings measure ourselves against the standard of the glory of God, we realize that God’s glory is higher than the heavens. How can we compare with it? When we come to the glory of God, we fall short.
The Righteousness of God
The second main term is the righteousness of God (vv. 21-22, 25-26). Only God’s righteousness comes up to the standard of God’s glory and matches God’s glory. No matter how high the standard of God’s glory is, God’s righteousness reaches that standard; it is just as high as God’s glory. Man by himself can never be justified by God because the standard is too high. It is impossible for us to reach that standard. This is the thought in this section.
The third important word is propitiation (v. 25). We have seen that only God’s righteousness can reach the standard of His glory, but how can God’s righteousness, the highest righteousness, be applied to us? It is through propitiation. Romans 3:25 says, “Whom God set forth as a propitiation place.” That this verse begins with whom indicates that propitiation is Christ Himself. Christ has been set forth by God as a propitiation; the set-forth Christ is the propitiation.
The phrases propitiation place and set forth are not easy to translate. In his New Translation, J. N. Darby translates propitiation place as mercy-seat. We must understand this term in view of the background of the Old Testament types. In the ancient times whenever a sinner realized that he was condemned before God, he needed to be redeemed. This was done by bringing a sin offering to the altar. After this sin offering was slain and its blood shed on the altar, the blood was brought by the high priest into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat, or expiation cover (Lev. 16:14-15). On the mercy seat there was propitiation. By this propitiation and at this propitiation place, a sinner could be forgiven. Here his sins were forgiven, and he was redeemed and made one with God. This is the meaning of propitiation. Romans 3:24-25 tells us that Christ Himself was made such a propitiation place.
(General Sketch of the New Testament in the Light of Christ and the Church, A - Part 2: Romans through Philemon, Chapter 1, by Witness Lee)