πάντες γὰρ ἥμαρτον καὶ ὑστεροῦνται τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ
… for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…
A simple, yet profound phrase, Romans 3:23 is perhaps the first high-impact verse in the book of Romans. This little thought has caused tall tsunamis of spiritual conviction around the globe for 2000 years. It's the start of what many people have called the "Roman Road" – a string of key verses in this letter-book that walk people to an undestanding of faith in Jesus.*** This verse communicates what we know to be true… we cannot jump high enough to pass over God's standard bar. We were doing the limbo when God was doing a high jump. Or maybe it was more like we were doing a mud crawl when God was doing a space walk.
One of impressive things about this little verse is that it's merely a prepositional phrase in the middle of a very long sentence… and yet it still commands such a "high" impact. Paul started a major shift in his argument in verse 21… ("But" indicates his new focus)… and he carries the sentence into the first part of verse 25 (and takes the argument far beyond that). To Paul, this little phrase in verse 23 is simply a meager part of a larger consideration. So it's interesting that Christians througout history have so regularly treated this verse on its own.
Certainly Romans 3:23 has the legs to stand on its own… but perhaps it would be useful to remember it in context? Prior to God's big 'But' Paul had unleashed a 2.5 chapter diatribe against the sinfulness of every human being. Those first sections of Romans are difficult for people to slog through… and the temptation becomes to use Romans 3:23 to sum it all up. Romans 3:23 truly is a fine summary statement… but it is an incomplete picture because it is merely a phrase in a larger summary comment from Paul. In other words, for Paul, it's not the sin of humanity that is the true focus, 'BUT' the Good News that must take center stage. Paul has been prepping for it's impact- and he has just started unloading the awesomeness… when we Christians decide to steal one wee phrase and dismiss so much of the rest. If we're not careful, Paul's wondrous examination of the Good News, which he begins in verses 21-25a, could be lost in our obsession with our sinfulness. Our sinfulness is always an underlying component, but it is merely a conditional, contextual circumstance of a greater truth… the Good News of Jesus Christ which overcomes our sin.
All of this, of course, does not take away from the profound impact of Romans 3:23. It is one of the most rivoting phrases every written. When spoken, it carries the weight of thousands of years of witness against the action of billions of people. FOR ALL HAVE SINNED. That alone is sobering. And we know it to be true. Every human being on the planet has messed up… at least once… and probably at least 547,500 times. AND FALLEN SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD. God's glory is up there… real high. You can strain your eyes, get out the biggest telescope, send Hubble around the universe for millenia and still you'd never be able to reach the extent of God's glory. No human can stretch to the reaches of the doxa of God. Compared to God, humans trip up. And this verse reminds of this perhaps better than any other.
Like other translations, the New Living Translation communicates verses 21-25a by utilizing sentences. Paul's entire thought in this paragraphical statement is perhaps too much for our devolved intellects to handle! Perhaps this is why we treat Romans 3:23 compartmentally, separated from its context. Or perhaps we handle Romans 3:23 on its own simply because it is such a powerful statement in its own right. Whatever the case, consider the entirety of this NLT version of the beginning of Paul's dramatic shift in focus in the book of Romans:
Romans 3:21-25a ~ But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin.
*** Note: The "Roman Road" often involves Romans 3:23; 5:8; 6:23 and 10:13 – or various other combinations of some of the other impressive statements in this letter-book.