The epistle of Romans is a book that I refer back to very often, for amongst all the Pauline epistles, Romans is arguably the most rich in theology, due in part to the necessity of the Roman church then. It was a time of cultural awkwardness inside and outside the walls of the church – Claudius had exiled all Jews from Rome due to rioting by a man named Christus. The Roman Church had in that time become a purely Gentile Church, free from the Jewish traditions. But upon the death of Claudius about 5 years later, many Jews had returned to the city. The sudden influx of Jews in the city also saw the Jewish Christians entering the Roman church, leading to a standoff and confusion between the two. The book of Romans thus served to clarify, correct, and also encourage. Romans 3:23, as grave as it sounds, is actually part of an encouragement from Romans 3:21-24 – about how we are righteous by faith. Romans 3:23 emphasizes on the extreme graciousness of God that enabled us to be righteous by faith – because we’re so unworthy, because we’re so sinful, because we’ve long fallen short of the glory of God – yet the most unworthy amongst us has also become righteous by faith.
For all have sinned – All have sinned – there can be no doubt here, can there? Recall an episode during the ministry of Jesus, where men were trying to stone an adulteress. Jesus simply said, if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her [John 8:7], and with that alone, everybody left. Everybody knows that they themselves are sinners too. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone – this is not an uncommon phrase amongst certain church circles to remind us that we are all sinners alike, and only our Lord have the right to judge. All have sinned – the teacher says in Ecclesiastes 7:20 – There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins – and Paul references that in Romans 3:10 – There is no one righteous, not even one. Even if the likes of Job had been called righteous and blameless, whom no one can compare to; even if he was said to be without sin in his initial reaction to the waves of tragedies dealt on him; it wasn’t said that he had never sinned.
We all have universal sin – the general, inherited sinful nature of mankind that has permeated the world since Adam and Eve committed that first sin in the garden of Eden. Paul also talks about this sinful nature in Romans 7:18-19 – For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. We all have personal sin – the little habitual sins that we have, behind the backs of everybody – the occasional sin that we commit due to a moment of weakness or a moment of pure rage. We are all sinners, and we don’t have to look at each other and wonder, are you a sinner? Are you not a sinner? We’re saved from that, because we’re told that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
fall short of the glory of God – There are several ways to read this. If you subscribe to John Piper’s Christian Hedonism (which sounds radical but isn’t really, it’s just the provoking and controversial name that often misleads, although if we can put away our biasness it’s actually a very apt term), then you would agree that God created men so that He could be glorified. Our purpose on earth is ultimately to glorify God. Even if you don’t accept Christian Hedonism, you probably would agree that we should and need to glorify God. How do we glorify him? By doing his works, by giving thanks to him, by loving those whom he loves, by hating what he hates – and that includes sin. We absolutely do not glorify God when we sin; and by sinning, we fall short of our purpose – we fall short of the glory of God. By sinning, we again become technically underserving to partake in the glory of God. We still do, only because of the grace of God.
When we sin, we sully the name of the Lord. It’s like when you commit a crime, you bring shame to all those who are associated to you – your family, your company, your friends. Whether this verse is about us attain the glory of God or bringing glory to God, it boils down to the same, really, because the main point here is that we have fallen short of it.
This is all in all a very harsh verse when read on its own – it’s always recommended that we read this in context, Romans 3:21-24 at least. Paul is often serious and spews out harsh words, but like most other authors in the Bible, kinds words and encouragement often precede and succeed harsh words. Besides, Paul probably wasn’t intending to reprimand in verse 23 – he was merely stating out plainly a fact that few would like to face or admit. Yet I’d like to think of this verse as encouraging – it is because we’ve fallen so far away (mankind in general), that when God still calls us righteous by faith, it is all the more gracious and great of him. Think about it this way without trying to use this as an excuse to sin – if you are truly a sinless, blameless and extremely righteous being; then how can God’s graciousness and mercy be shown? I say this without the intention of absolving myself of the guilt of sin – it’s just that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. God’s mightiness is best shown through out shortcomings. That is not an excuse for us to keep being weak. That is not an excuse for us to keep sinning; but an encouragement for us to improve ourselves to be closer to this great God of ours.
All have fallen short of the glory of God – In human terms, the phrase ‘fall short’ is most commonly applied to expectations. Falling short of the expectations of others; the expectations of yourself; of the media, of the society. In human terms, when you fall short of expectations, you are deemed a failure; or at least, that very endeavour would be deemed a failure. In Christianity, it works differently. Right from the get go, we were told that we are sinners. Right from the get go, we weren’t expected to match God’s high standards. We aren’t God. We aren’t ever going to be sinless. Even if we personally are able to not sin; the universal sin that permeates the world will still be there. The expectation isn’t to be sinless. The Bible doesn’t tell us to be sinless. The apostles urge us to stay away and refrain from sinning; but there is no command to be sinless. You aren’t sinless just because you’ve stopped sinning or you no longer sin. It’s like a fatal illness – you may heal yourself by repressing the disease, but you can never cure yourself of its roots. If you do not take care and take regular medication, the disease may one day overcome you. Instead, as people who have fallen short of the glory of God, let us look towards God and look towards glorifying him. Let us refrain from sin so that we can glorify him. If we sin, let us repent from it genuinely and double our efforts to refrain from sinning so that we can glorify him. Let us keep fighting this good fight even as sinners – because this God is full of grace, even if we don’t deserve it.