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. Romans 3:23 was among the earliest on my list of well-known passages, not least because it was part of ye olde “Romans Road” tracts we used.
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 the verse involved a scolding and accusatory finger and condemning theology (we’re all born totally depraved)… and 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 colleague (at SSU.ca) Andrew Klager cited the Scripture to me in context and in a far more inviting tone. He quoted the passage verbatim, but I’ll paraphrase him so you get the tone:
“Hey, look, everybody sins. [shrugs his shoulders, palms up]
Everybody needs mercy. Obviously.
And that’s why everybody is also freely justified by grace.
This means redemption for everybody through Christ.”
Now there may be some 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. It was a good news message that since everybody needs mercy, that’s exactly what God has given. 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, Lazar Puhalo offered further insight into the phrase “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 it says or what it means.
But in my traditional Protestant gospel, 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 mark of holy law-keeping (and we all had), we were all condemned to punishment in the everlasting Lake of Fire. But gratefully, Jesus both obeyed on our behalf and was punished on our behalf. That was his gift to us. Believe it and 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).
Now that’s a longer discussion, but is that what Paul said in this passage? Of what did we fall short? “The glory of God.”
What is the glory of God? In the Hebrew Scriptures, God was revealed as divine glory, a manifestation of God’s Person and Presence. God’s people beheld God’s glory in a vision of ‘uncreated light,’ beautiful, majestic, and powerful. The glory of the Lord and the voice of the Lord were often overwhelming. Those who observed it were frequently filled with fear and fascination, reverence and awe, but also with joy and worship.
We were created to behold God’s glory, to dwell in God’s glory, to commune with and participate in God’s glory. For that glory is the nature of God, revealed as infinite, self-giving, and unfailing Love. The Light of God’s glory is the very Life of God, shining on everyone in indiscriminate hospitality, goodness, and care.
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 moralism is hardly hell-worthy in the sight of the God of unfailing mercy.
The real issue, according to Abp. Lazar, is that we turn from the Light and Glory of God’s loving care into the delusion of autonomy 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 human condition of spiritual alienation. Sin is both the turning and the alienation so that turning from the Light of divine Glory, we become lost and blind in the darkness of our own wandering. Just like the prodigal sons (both of them).
The Way Home
Gratefully, the Son of God was not sent to condemn the 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 delivers the gift of transforming grace (aka theosis).
Through the love of Christ, we are redeemed from alienation to share 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. Divine love, freely given, revealed on the Cross, is God’s desire to share existence with one another.
To get there, Jesus picks us up and beckons us, “Come, follow me.”