Who are the “All” of Romans 3:20-24?

Riley and Jones 2. Copywrite Douglas W Jerving 2017.

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Who are the “All” of Romans 3:20-24?

Part One

Copyright © August 7, 2017 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”

-Romans 3: 20-24. (KJV)

How extensive is the “all” modifier in verse 23? Can it logically be applied to the clause “being justified” in verse 24? If “all have sinned” are “[all] being justified”? And if so, who are the “all” Paul refers to? That is the subject of the following meditation.

What I am about to discuss is a very serious issue. Please do not quote me or critique me if you have not taken the time to closely read what I am about to say. You may be surprised by my conclusions and you owe it to yourself to at least read everything first and think about it twice.

Do not use what I have written below to justify your petty sectarian doctrines, cultish attitudes or pseudo-Christian pietism. Please respond to the following only if you have a sincere love for the truth and a real conviction that the Christian Bible is the perfect revelation of that truth. I start with the assumption that all my readers, like me, believe without qualification in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible; that every word of the original texts is the literal Word of God.

I am convinced that the Bible teaches a doctrine that is much despised in many Christian circles today. That concept is “hell”, or more accurately, the everlasting punishment of the wicked. For those not familiar with orthodox Christian teachings, this refers to the condemnation of sinners to unending torments in the Lake of Fire and Brimstone. They will, according to the Bible, spend all the rest of eternity in conscious suffering pain beyond anything imaginable here on earth. (In Part 2 I will set forth the Biblical proofs of this from both the Old and New Testaments.)

Regarding this doctrine of unending torment many of us are either ambivalent in our approach to it, or we find strange ways to lessen its impact without denying it altogether. We either forego and avoid the discussion, pretending it does not exist except in our theology, or we admit it with reservations by denying it as a punishment from God while allowing it as the personal choice of the unbeliever. While the Bible strongly implies that the wicked choose of their own will to be eternally separated from God because of their personal hatred for Him, it also strongly affirms that their judgment is God’s choice to punish them through that same eternal separation. Time and space do not allow us to elaborate on this. Read your Bible for the evidence.

The clear majority of orthodox Christians still hold this teaching as a part of their catechism; i.e., it is established Christian doctrine and denying it is equivalent to denying the faith. Because we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we find this concept in the Bible, we also believe that denying this concept is a denial of the authority of the Word of God. If we reject this concept, then we are not true believers. Our faithfulness to the inspiration of Scripture, and to all “fundamental” doctrines of the Christian faith is called into question by a denial of this doctrine. We are essentially thrown into the category of “heretics” and “cultists” if we deny the literal punishment of unbelievers in everlasting “hell”. By most Christian standards, all those who deny the reality of eternal torment are doomed to experience it, not simply because of their sentimental attitude towards the wicked, but because they deny the straight- forward teachings of the Word of God by which they claim to be saved.

I am not trying to re-establish Christian doctrine, nor intent on a thorough exegesis of New Testament theology on the above points. As I said, I believe the Bible, particularly the New Testament, does teach these things. I am discussing only one particular passage of Scripture (Romans 3:20-24), and asking how it can be reconciled with the doctrine of everlasting punishment, or if it even needs to be reconciled.

This study is divided into two parts.

In part one we examine the following translation of Romans 3:23,24: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [and are] being justified by His grace…” Notice the difference in meaning set forth by this translation from the sense set forth by the KJV translation at the top of this page. This translation is popular in several modern versions. It insists that the three clauses above are all modified by the word “all”.

In part two we will examine the more traditional translation, wherein verse 23 is essentially treated as a parenthetical statement, thus eliminating the application of the “all” modifier from “being justified”.

The non-parenthetical translation of the text is disconcerting and paradoxical to anyone who believes in everlasting punishment. What? Why? We automatically question why anyone would see a paradox here because our Christian upbringings cause us to read over the text without seriously considering what Paul is saying. We assume that he is referring to believers being justified by grace, and that by implication unbelievers are outside his frame of reference. But verses 20-22 make clear that Paul is referring to all of mankind (“no flesh shall be justified” v 20). The “all” who have sinned clearly is a reference to all mankind and therefore must also apply to those “being justified”. (I am arguing here from the point of view of those who hold to the translation under discussion.)

Paul clearly states that all mankind has sinned; not just the Jews who had the written law, or just the Gentiles who had the law already written in their hearts. (Some poorly trained students of the Bible take Romans 4:15 “for where no law is, there is no transgression.” to imply that the Gentiles outside of the Law of Moses could not effectively have been sinners in the Biblical sense, and were thereby excused from judgment.) Sin is universal to all Adam’s descendants. All who are flesh are the subject. All have sinned. The first clause of this sentence implicates all of Adam’s descendants, whoever they may be.

The second clause “and fall short of the glory of God” logically implies the “all” of the first clause. “And [all] fall short…”. (We all know this from experience. But we do not base theology on experience, however true it may be.)

The third clause is the most important for this discussion. “Being justified…” (verse 24). This is where the problem of theological interpretation arises. Who is being justified? Is it the Jews who obey the law? Is it the Gentiles who have the law writ on their hearts and now serve Christ? Is it only those who believe and obey the Gospel presented by Paul and the apostles? Are the justified only those who believe? Or are the justified the entire race of Adam; i.e., all mankind?

This is not a simple question!

If “all” means all the descendants of Adam than that implies a limited universalism that obviously runs contrary to all of Western Christian theology! By limited, I mean that all mankind are saved, but the devil and his angelic hosts are not saved. (They are not “flesh”). It also implies that all the descendants of Adam will ultimately be saved. The possible exception is those who consciously and premeditatively choose to be separated from God at the time of their judgment. The implication is that those who rejected Christ in this present life will be given a second chance to choose or reject him in the after-life; i.e., at the eschatological Day of Judgment. There is, however, no scriptural basis for this latter idea. It is just a bit of wishful thinking without Biblical support.

Either the “all” of verse 23 is modifying all three clauses of verses 23 and 24, or it is modifying only the first clause. If it modifies all three clauses then it reads “For all have sinned, and [all] come short of the glory of God; [and all] being justified freely by his grace…” implying the salvation of all mankind. For many overly sensitive people this appears to be the simple and most logical reading, even though it implies a limited universal salvation as discussed above. Since all mankind is the subject of Paul’s thesis of universal damnation, as shown above, all mankind also must be the object of God’s grace.

If the “all” of verse 23 applies to all three clauses in verses 23 and 24, than “all” are saved as coextensively as “all” have sinned and “all” fall short. The “all” who are saved are all mankind. The verses herein considered imply, yes, even unequivocally state that all mankind shall ultimately be redeemed. Based on this (supposed) grammatically proper interpretation that is the best translation. (In part 2 below we will consider whether this is a true interpretation.)

But what if “all” is not intended to apply to anyone else but those referred to in the first clause “all have sinned”? Then “all” will not apply to the last clause “being justified”. So “all” are not “being justified”, and many are thereby lost. This implies that the “all” of verse 23 refers only to those who will be saved. Of course, that is an illogical argument, since it is already obvious that all mankind are sinners. And as we have already seen, Paul is speaking about the whole race of man born of Adam (v 20).

If “all” only applies to those who have sinned and does not apply to the other clauses, then it does not apply to the middle clause any more than the last clause. It cannot apply to “fall short” logically. That would lead to the logical fallacy that all have sinned, and not all are saved, but NOT all fall short! The failure should be obvious! How do all sin yet not all fall short of God’s glory? How are some who sin not short of glory? This defies logic and defies Paul’s very logical and eloquent argument for the grace of God. (Again, we are arguing from the point of view of those who apply “all” to all three clauses).

It is beyond reduction to absurdity to not apply the “all” of the first clause to the second and third clauses. If “all have sinned”, then “all fall short”, and “all are being justified by God’s grace”. And that “all” is the “flesh” descendants of Adam. (In part 2 we will consider a major challenge to this application of “all”.)

Whatever the rest of Scripture teaches, we must somehow reconcile the seemingly limited universalism of Romans 3:20-24 with the whole. I cannot and will not expound upon the evident teachings of the whole Bible regarding this subject. However I am willing to consider that my Western religious upbringing has misinterpreted a great deal of passages based on pre-conceived ideologies added by the Scholastics and held as true by the Reformers, and silently adhered to by modern day pietist fundamentalism. Whatever I make of the last 2000 years of historical theology, and whether I like their sentiments or not, if I am seriously committed to Biblical exegesis, I will always interpret the Bible by its own internal consistencies rather than on the sentimentalities of historical theology.

From what I read in my lowly position as a common man, is it possible that I am misinterpreting all the rest of the New Testament on this same subject? Have I, through years of “kind” indoctrination, absorbed to much the soul of Roman Catholic mysticism and Neoplatonism, becoming dependent on a theology predisposed to Greek paganism? Have I become enamored with a political-economic justification of my life against the lives of those I view as hating me? How much, really, do I want to send my detractors to hell?

In the movie “Tombstone”, after the Cowboys murdered his brother, Wyatt Earp defiantly proclaims to Ike Clanton “Tell them the law’s coming. Tell them I’m coming, and Hell’s coming behind me.” He replaces God with himself as the judge. How often do we use the judgment of God unjustly to justify our own vengeance?

I don’t want anyone to go to “hell”. Does God want it more? I still hold fast the concept, and yet I have my questions. Maybe the extra-biblical theologians are correct assuming that the only ones who are ultimately consigned to hell are those who purpose it out of their own deep hatred against God. As Doc Holliday said, again in “Tombstone”, they want revenge for no other reason than “being born”. Pity may be the best remedy against such unmitigated rage. Hell? No. The Judgment will make it all clear. We will only know for sure on that ominous Day.

Then again, maybe I am taking an overly sentimental attitude towards the wicked; an attitude that runs contrary to God’s own attitude, and grants more patience with the wicked than does God Himself. Maybe I am more emotionally attached to the sinner’s plight than I am willing to admit, and that because if I allow the Word of God to condemn him, I tacitly admit my own condemnation. If I can find a Biblical pretext for justifying the sinner, maybe I can afford to justify my own falling short of the glory of God (v. 23).

May God’s grace be upon us. Upon us ALL.

In part two of this series we will examine Paul's theology in Romans 3 from the traditional Christian perspective as opposed to the more emotionally oriented perspective set forth above.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at dje@newedisongazette.com.


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