The Romans Road is a popular evangelistic method which walks through a number of verses in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. While I personally don’t like the way in which most people explain Romans 10:9-10 in that presentation, I do like the way Romans 3:23 is usually presented. However, recently it dawned on me that we could do an even better job of explaining Romans 3:23.
All Have Sinned
The English translation here is a perfect tense. However, the Greek is actually an aorist tense which by itself merely conveys past action. The context must be consulted to determine the precise nuance intended. As we shall see, the context here indeed requires an English perfect tense, for in English the simple past implies that the action has ceased. Yet no living human being has yet ceased from sinning.
I ran across an excellent comment by C. E. B. Cranfield in his two-volume commentary on Romans. Concerning the aorist hamarton, used in 2:12 and 3:23, he says,
It may be described as a collective historical aorist (cf. 3:23), the aorist being used because the sins referred to are thought of as together constituting a past event. Since no interval is envisaged between the completion of the sum of sins and the time of speaking, a perfect is required in English. But it is possible—indeed, probable—that here the statements of past fact are made proleptically as from the viewpoint of the last judgment (p. 153, italics added).
Since Paul is discussing all people and not merely unbelievers, the reference to the last judgment is a bit misleading. Actually, there is one judgment for believers, the Judgment Seat of Christ (e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:9-10), and another, separate judgment for unbelievers, the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). In addition, Cranfield appears to be reading in the idea that Paul is writing proleptically. It makes perfect sense for Paul to be saying that at any point in time all people have sinned. Compare 1 John 1:8, 10. In other words, all sinned in the past and continue to sin in the present. Cranfield’s point that the English requires a perfect tense is excellent, and shows why this likely is not written proleptically.
All people sin. Not just in the past, but in the present as well. The lone exception is the Lord Jesus who never has and never will sin. He is the lone exception because He is only man who is God incarnate. He was born of a virgin and He thus did not inherit a sinful nature. The sin nature is passed through one’s biological earthly father, which the Lord Jesus did not have.
Most people blithely move on to the next phrase and assume it is simply making the same point again in different words. That, however, is not the case.
All Fall Short of the Glory of God
Paul doesn’t say that all have fallen short of the glory of God. Look at the verb tense here: all fall short of the glory of God. He shifts to the present tense for a reason.
We often use Romans 3:23 to show the unbeliever that he has sinned and that he falls short of the glory of God. Actually the verse says that all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God. That includes each and every believer as well!
Believer, you right now fall short of the glory of God. Until you die or are raptured, you will continue to fall short of the glory of God. The most mature saint still falls short of the glory of God.
Cranfield’s comments here are superb:
The reference is to that share in the divine glory…which will be restored in the eschatological future (cf. 5:2; 8:18, 21, 30). As a result of sin all men lack this illumination by the divine glory. Here both the tense of the verb [present] and the fact that its subject is pantes [all] should be noted. They clearly imply that not only all other men but also all believers still lack this ‘glory of God.’ Attempts to soften this or to explain it away have the disastrous effect of obscuring the transcendent majesty of the glory which is yet to be ours. This is not to deny that there is a relative glory which already illumines the lives of believers—Paul can speak elsewhere of their being tranformed ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18); but the decisiveness of the distinction between these two glories should not be blurred (pp. 204-205, italics added).
When we explore other references to this coming future glory, we find that our share in it will be proportional to how well we have served Christ in this life. There is a special degree of glorification for believers who suffer for Christ: “If [we are] children [of God], then [we are] heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ if indeed we suffer together with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Romans 8:17). Similarly Peter says, “But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:13).
Romans 3:23 should remind regenerate people that we have sinned (have sinned in the past with an continuation in the present) and still fall short of God’s glory. This reminder should motivate us to strive to share in God’s glory as fully as we can forever.
So, the next time you share Romans 3:23 with someone, put yourself in there too. And remember that the verse looks not only at past sins, but also at a present shortfall in relation to God’s glory.
May we strive to reflect God’s glory as much as possible now. Remember that to do so requires among other things that we suffer with Christ. And if we abide in a life of suffering with Christ, we will obtain a fuller measure of His glory forever.