The Meaning of Romans 3:23

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

That is how most English Bibles translate Romans 3:23. Western Christianity typically interprets these words as, Every individual person has done something wrong and not lived up to God’s perfect moral standard. This statement may be theologically true, though not true to Paul’s intention. The individualistic and moralistic meaning that most Westerners assume was not Paul’s main point here.

When you consider the verse’s various contexts—historical (e.g., Jew-Gentile tensions, imperial Rome), cultural (e.g., collectivistic, honor-shame), and rhetorical (e.g., the preceding chapters defining sin as dishonor, the preceding verse critiquing ethnic privilege)— a different meaning emerges.

Here is an honor-shame paraphrase of Romans 3:23 that captures the intent and implications of Paul’s sentence: “And the reason [that God does not privilege one ethnic group over another] is because all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles, have become dishonorable since they have failed to properly honor God.” Here is an explanation.

For (“And the reason is because”)

When preachers quote Romans 3:23, they often gloss over this word “for,” as though Paul is making a general theological statement about the nature of sin. But, the word “for” connects Romans 3:23 with the previous verse. “For” indicates that Paul is about to give the reason for his previous claim. Romans 3:23 is not an independent theological declaration, but an explanation of why “There is no distinction” (Rom 3:22). Translating the Greek word gar as “And the reason for this is because…” reminds us to consider the previous words. (The ESV places a colon at the end of verse 22 to indicate this explanatory function of Romans 3:23.) The purpose of Romans 3:23 is to explain why there is no longer any (ethnic) distinction in God’s newly-established covenant. 

All (“All peoples, both Jews and Gentiles”)

Simply put, all does not mean “every single, individual person.” Rather, all means “both Jews and Gentiles,” or “every ethnicity.” Or most succinctly, it means “all peoples,” instead of “all people.” The primary categories in Romans 1-3 are groups, not individuals. Romans addresses the relationship between two groups of people. Group A consists of ethnic Israelites, “the circumcised,” “the Jews,” “those under the nomos/Torah.” Group B is the Gentiles, “the uncircumcised, “the Greeks,” “those without nomos/Torah. So, when Paul says “all” he has in mind both of these groups—Jews and Gentiles. The use in Romans 3:23 means “all peoples” more than “every individual.”

This reading collaborates with the preceding clause—“For there is no distinction:” This statement countered the false Jewish boast to ethnic superiority—the law does not distinguish ethic Jews over and above Gentiles, for that would make God a tribal deity of only one nation when he is in fact God of all peoples and groups (Rom 3:29). God does not favor one group over the others, and the reason for this is because all groups—both Jews and Gentiles—are dishonorable/unacceptable due to sin.

Once we understand the meaning of the first two words in Romans 3:23—“for all”—then the rest of the verse is rather simple and straightforward!

Have Sinned (“Have failed to properly honor God as he deserves”)

The problem of sin is not just that people have transgressed a moral code or failed “to conform to the moral law of God” (Grudem, p. 490), but that all peoples have missed the covenantal goal of honoring and glorifying God the Creator. This is the OT and Pauline view of the human predicament.For the biblical background of “sin” as “failing to glorify/honor God,” see here and here. Both Gentiles (Rom 1:21-25) and Jews (2:23-24) have shamed God’s name as disloyal creatures. 

The Greek word of amartano means to “not accomplish a particular purpose,” or “miss the target.” (But don’t assume the missed “target” coheres with Western moral/logic systems). The aim of our vocation as humans is God’s glory, but we have woefully missed that target. 

And Fall Short of God’s Glory (“Have become dishonorable”)

Falling short of glory is the result of “sinning.” People of all cultural groups “have sinned” (a past tense verb), so consequently we fall short (a present tense verb) of God’s glory. Because humanity has broken the relational/covenantal expectations of glorying God (i.e., sinned), they now “lack the glory of God.” We shamers have become the shamed.

The phrase “fall short of God’s glory” carries a double meaning—people don’t properly glorify God and lack the glorified existence God intended.

Humanity has fallen short of attributing the supreme honor and glory rightly due to God. As a consequence, Adamic humanity lost its own divine glory. Humanity has disgraced and dishonored itself through its sin. By failing to attribute the honor and glory properly due to God, humanity now lacks the glory and honor bestowed upon Adam at creation.

Summary

So, putting it all together, my honor-shame paraphrase of Romans 3:23 would read: “…and the reason is because all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles, have become dishonorable because they have failed to properly honor God..”

 

Posted in Bible, Honor, NT, Shame, Theology Tagged with: , , , , ,
10 comments on “The Meaning of Romans 3:23
  1. Steve Hong says:

    Thank you for posting this. Especially after chapters 1-3, the common individualistic rendering of R 3.23 so highlights just how blind we are in our Western lens. You are helping set free what Paul felt, what God feels, what He intended, and I honor you.

    Even in the West where I live, I run into so many culture groups that really don’t see themselves as a function of self, and so default Gospel presentations really don’t resonate with them. We’re tapping into something huge here to unlock the abundant life for all peoples.

  2. Deborah Coles says:

    This is so excellent! So helpful! I appreciate your work, and how you are leading me deeper into Truth. Thank you!

  3. Sandra says:

    Great stuff Jayson! It’s been a while since I commented on your blog. Good to have a succinct and clear explanation of this verse which is so well known and yet mis-understood as to its full meaning. It was great that you highlighted the fact that it is really a part 2 to the previous verse, not a stand-alone statement. This context is important in missions particularly where so often the target culture looks at the missionary as being in a higher spiritual category. Time and again I have to remind folk here in Africa that every culture on earth fails to meet the standard of true honour of God, even the West! Its also ironic that such a well known verse that even refers to God’s glory, is usually not given its proper glory/honour context. I hope your paraphrase and comments will reach many and give fresh appreciation and application for this verse.
    Thanks Jayson.

  4. Steve says:

    Very interesting.

    I’m wondering if the group perspective applies also to Romans 1:18-32, that all groups have suppressed the truth, so God has given all groups over to impurity (24-25), unnatural lusts (26-27) and depraved minds (28-32).

  5. John D Wilson says:

    This is only one example among many challenges of translating Scripture for oral cultures, and it is an important one because we live in highly individualistic societies, but our audiences often are part of the complete opposite where one influential member of a family, village or tribe can influence groups of people to turn to Christ, They think collectively, and so should we.

    Another issue is orality itself. That is a hard thing for people in the west to get their heads around. It is no only about a preference of oral “literature” to written; it is also about how you think, and how you say things and address people. For example the inclusive “we” and the “you all” instead of you singular.

    I wrote on some of these issues back in 1988! Look on line for “Scripture in an Oral Culture: The Yali of Irian Jaya”

    http://www.academia.edu/8807995/Scripture_in_An_Oral_Culture_The_Yali_of_Irian_Jaya

  6. Kees Haak says:

    Tnx Jayson. Yr comment on reading Rm 1-3 non-individualistic concerns (in my view) also to Rm 1:18-34. The ‘they’ (who have suppressed the truth [= God’s revelation, maybe even: God himself]) is NOT just any individual, but a certain group (of groups) of people(s) together, NOT as universal as we usually think, but specifically ‘those’ who first knew the revelation, before God ‘gave them over’ (3x, 1:24.26.28). This is referring to the period of time before the Tower of Babel. The peoples in that time purposefully suppressed God’s clear revelation to spread all over the earth (and NOT some unclear, mystic-romantic kind of ‘General Revelation’). This climaxed in the building of the Tower: to honor themselves in stead of God. That’s why God forced them to spread all around the world (by language confusion) and ‘left them at their wish’. Since that time God started to create Israel as the only people who would experience his glory again. It took till Pentecost that God set aside this ‘ gave them over’ of Rm 1, and reached out to the nations / peoples by the work of mission, ‘make disciples of ALL nations,’ Mt 28:19. Greetings and blessings for Jayson. I really am a ‘honorshame-post freak’, Kees

  7. Kees Haak says:

    Also I want to thank John D Wilson for his contribution on oral cultures and Scriptures. Terimakasih banyak, pak Wilson! Woould be nice to find your e-mail somewhere to have more contact. If you might read this, please contact me on haakcj48@gmail.com, Salam, Kees

  8. Timo Keskitalo says:

    Missing glory is something that started in the garden of Eden. Glory is essentially a clothing. Losing the glory (initial righteousness) caused Adam and Eve to find some clothing to cover themselves. Equally Moses felt the need to cover himself as he was losing the glory, each time after meeting with God. His glory was fading and he wanted to cover the shame of vanishing glory.
    In this loss of glory all nations are equal. All are under the shame.
    The honorable thing to do is to accept the clothing from God. We honor God by clothing properly for the occasion. The occasion is the celebration in Heaven.

  9. Dave Cottrell says:

    I agree that the focus of Romans 2 and 3 is to show that Jews have no inherent moral superiority to Gentiles and that God does not show partiality to either group. Both groups are guilty of sin.

    But verse 22 breaks down the big picture of both groups by specifying “for all those who believe”. Paul reiterates that “there is no distinction” on the basis of Jew/Gentile, but he has shifted his focus from group identity for righteousness to faith in Jesus Christ for righteousness, which has nothing to do with ethnicity.

    Verse 23 “all have sinned” must be speaking of individuals, not huge groups, because Paul continues with the same thought into verse 24 “being justified as a gift by His grace…” which is always based upon the faith of the individual, not their group identification.

    What is the author’s point? Is he suggesting that there are lots of us reading this article who have not sinned? That Jesus came to save groups, not persons?

    Yes, it is very important for us to examine the cultural and worldview context of the Scriptures in order to understand their fullness, but I’m afraid that the analysis, in this case, is incorrect. The “for” (Gk ‘gar’ g1063), which has been correctly identified as supporting a prior main idea, is not pointing back to “there is no distinction” but to the manifested “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [to] all those who believe”. The author ignores the very point he put forth, that “there is no distinction” is actually “FOR there is no distinction”, which is a supporting point, not the main idea that Paul is supporting!

    Every one of us needs “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” because every one of us has sinned (v. 23) and needs to be justified (v. 24).

    I am grateful for Honor/Shame perspectives on this website that help me and so many others to see the Scriptures more clearly. I’m afraid that this time is a rare exception to your excellent record.

    • HonorShame says:

      Dave, thanks for the response. I suspect the main reason for your questions/concerns is that I (purposefully) limit posts to 500-600 words, so can’t explain nuances, such as those which you raised. Here are a few comments in response.

      The notions of “group identity” and “individualism” are not exclusive–groups merely consists of individuals, and individuals are always part of a group. The issue is not either/or, but a matter of priority and emphasis. So to ask whether “Jesus came to save groups, not persons?” is a false dichotomy and very misleading suggestion. Groups and persons are not separate; groups are nothing but persons. But to answer your question, Jesus came to form a new people of God (the “church,” which is a group) comprised of people (individual “Christians”) from all nations. Please keep the group and the individual together. When you drive a wedge between them, you miss subtle yet key aspects of Paul’s theology.

      As for the “for” in Romans 3:23, you can’t just pick what phrase you want it to modify. Unless there demonstrative proof to suggest otherwise, a “for” clause offers a reason or rationale for the immediately proceeding claim (in this case “There is no distinction.”) And you can link for clauses together in a chain; they don’t all have to point back to the main clause as you assume.

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