Romans 3:22-26 offers a glimpse into handling difficult Greek, difficult syntax, and how to express it meaningfully in English.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets—that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a •propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.
•HCSB includes a bullet to note that this term is explained in an Appendix.
Now, the way to receive God’s approval has been made plain in a way other than Moses’ Teachings. Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets tell us this. Everyone who believes has God’s approval through faith in Jesus Christ.
There is no difference between people. Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory. They receive God’s approval freely by an act of his kindness through the price Christ Jesus paid to set us free ‹from sin›. God showed that Christ is the throne of mercy where God’s approval is given through faith in Christ’s blood. In his patience God waited to deal with sins committed in the past. He waited so that he could display his approval at the present time. This shows that he is a God of justice, a God who approves of people who believe in Jesus.
While there are many issues in the text, I want to focus on three: 1. translating ἱλαστήριον (the means by which sins are forgiven), 2. translating δικαιοσύνη (often “righteousness”) and its cognates, 3. readability.
1. translating ἱλαστήριον (the means by which sins are forgiven)
NIV2011: sacrifice of atonement
GW: throne of mercy
The first three identify the means by which the sins are forgiven. GW focuses on the place where that takes place. It might be easy to dismiss GW based on comparison to most other translations, but as Cranfield (Romans, II, ICC, pp. 214ff.) points out the strongest case of this understanding is that 22 of 23 uses of the word in the LXX refer to the “mercy seat.” On the other hand, except in Exodus 25:17, it always has the definite article. Here in Romans there is no definite article. Leon Morris concludes that it is the purpose or character of what is happening, not the place. The discussion shows that the GW could be appropriate.
If we follow Morris (and hence NIV 2011, ESV, HCSB), then NIV 2011 is the more understandable translation. “Propitiation”—not exactly part of our vocabulary, and ESV leaves it that way. No footnote, no help in understanding the word. For study purposes perhaps, but not as an oral reading Bible or personal devotional Bible.
HCSB helps in two ways: 1) The footnote has: “as a propitiatory sacrifice, or as an offering of atonement, or as a mercy seat.” Note that HCSB allows either of the translations, purpose or place. 2) the appendix has: “The removal of divine wrath; Jesus’ death is the means that turns God’s wrath from the sinner.” At least there is a recognition that the word is unusual and the reader needs help to understand.
2. translating δικαιοσύνη (often “righteousness”) and its cognates
Almost all translations offer “righteousness” as the translation for δικαιοσύνη. The assumption is that “everyone knows what it means.” But is that true? And how is that reflected in this section of Romans.
GW renders it “God’s approval.” I remember during the 1992-1995 time period when testing was done (the congregation I served was a test congregation) and the new translation team at God’s Word to the Nations Bible Society challenged whether “righteousness” was understandable. Because I had been teaching extensively in the congregation at the time, most of our people had a grasp of “righteousness,” even better than “God’s approval.” When GW was finally published in 1995 I was disappointed in this choice. While in some contexts it seems to work, I think something was lost in the process, especially considering that GW inconsistently retained “righteousness” (צְדָקָ֔ה) in many places in the Old Testament. Compare Genesis 15:6 with 1 Samuel 26:23, 2 Samuel 22:21, 25, Job 37:25, Psalm 4:1, 5:8, 23:3, 89:14, etc. Whatever gains the translators made in using “God’s approval” seem lost now with “righteousness” in the Old Testament. And yet, at one level “God’s approval” can be understood correctly within this context.
Of the other three, HCSB offers a better approach, especially in v. 26 (so that He would be righteous and declare righteous). Sometimes the adjective is translated “just” and sometimes the verb is translated ”justifiy.” In English it is hard to make the connection between “declare righteous” and “justify.” The only improvement for HCSB would have been to follow this same process in v. 24 “They are declared righteous” rather than “They are justified.”
Of the three more traditional translations, each has its strengths, although the ESV is the hardest to read, based on vocabulary and sentence strength and length. It uses the word “forbearance” (as does NIV 2011), which combined with “propitiation” adds complexity. NIV 2011 does a reasonably good job of breaking the longer sentence into manageable reading bits.
HCSB offers a mixed bag in terms of readability. The use of “propitiation” can be seen as a negative, but the footnote and appendix note do help. Likewise, the change in v. 26 to connect with “righteous” makes this a more connected reading throughout. One interesting change is the link of the phrase “there is no distinction” with the preceding section, whereas almost all other translations link it with the following thought: “for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This suggests that it is the no distinction with regard to justification, not with regard to sinning and falling short of God’s glory.
One of the hallmarks of GW translation has been its readability. In this case as well, it still the easiest to read—for many people. My guess is that this would be a harder read for those who have grown up with traditional translations. In that case, GW would almost be jarring to the senses. For those who have little or no church background, GW would not seem odd or different.
Based on this text, I think HCSB offers the best translation, with its footnote/appendix regarding propitiation. Its sentence structure offers acceptable readability. Also, the link of the adjective and verb in v. 26 to “righteous” makes the section hold together better. NIV is also acceptable, following closely the NIV 1984. ESV is the least acceptable of the four. While technically a good translation, word choices, and sentence structure do not make it as readable as the others.
GW is very different and may not appeal to many. For the unchurched who have no Biblical background, GW makes the most sense. Since our mission field is 95% in that category, this is a significant factor.