Who Is All

Who Is All

I had a good friend recently ask me the following question, which I attempt to answer here.

His Question

How does that same application of the word all apply in other biblical references?

In particular would be Romans 3:22-24? The “all” here refers to both the righteousness from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ to “all” that believe (v.22), and the “all” who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (v.23). Of which this same “all” from verses 22 & 23 are justified freely by His grace and through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (v.24). If the same “all” is those who believe, those who have sinned, and those who are redeemed through Jesus–and we understand that two out of those three scenarios: ability to believe and ability to be redeemed can refer only to the elect, then can the third scenario: sin, only be the attribute of the elect. Or am I to interpret the “all” as the “elect” only when dealing with redemption?

It seems that a truer reading of the scripture is that: God’s righteousness comes to all who will believe, for we are all sinners in need of redemption, and that this redemption comes only through Christ.

My Response

There is a rule that requires context to always provide an understanding of how the word “all” is used, but that doesn’t require the word to be used in the same precise, wooden manner in all cases. Every time we run across the word “all” we must check the context to ensure our working definition of “all” in that instance matches the context. Thus the golden hermeneutic rule:

Context is king, a text without context is a pretext for a proof-text.

Let us look first at the English term all. This word alone serves as:

  • adjective
  • pronoun
  • noun
  • verb
  • and has four idioms.

It is of use in communicating quantity, whole collection, extent, duration, or quality/degree. Here are some examples:

  • all the apple (quantity)
  • all the apples (whole collection)
  • all the way (extent)
  • all day (duration)
  • with all due respect (quality
    or degree

Thus, simply picking which of these five possible usages is appropriate is an exercise in context! Most of us do this without thinking about it, and it is natural to use the word in each of these ways, yet context is essential for appropriate usage. Of most interest to us is the use of “all” to communicate quantity and whole collections.

Apple Analogy

All apples grow on trees. I picked all of these apples. Some of these apples are red, some are yellow. There is no difference between red and yellow apples, for all grow on a tree, and were picked by me. All the red apples go in that bucket and all the yellow apples go in this one. Take all the apples to the store.

The first sentence uses an “all” that is universal in scope and is meant to include every apple that ever was or ever will be; however, it would be silly to interpret the last sentence in the same scope. The last sentence assumes the same scope as the “all of these” in the second sentence.

In the fourth sentence, the “all” is limited by growing on a tree and being picked by me. Given that growing on a tree is common to the universal scope used in the first sentence, it is actually the phrase “were picked by me” at the end of the sentence that does the limiting.

We see that in a normal paragraph, the scope of “all” can rightly be extremely flexible. It seems reasonable to assume the scope of “all” is just as malleable and usable in Scripture, thus we need to be diligent in pursuing context to understand the word’s usage in conveying concepts to us.

We must be careful that we do not interpret a word’s usage according to our own desires but according to the intent of the author.

Romans 3 – Chapter Context

All scripture quotes are NIV unless otherwise indicated.
(Did you see what I did there, using the word all? Hehehe, I crack me up sometimes!)

The Statement:
“God’s righteousness comes to all who will believe, for we are all sinners in need of redemption, and that this redemption comes only through Christ.” We are in violent agreement on this statement.

In this case, your opening phrase “God’s righteousness comes to all who will believe” necessarily limits “all” to the elect. There are those who will NOT believe, therefore God’s righteousness does not come to them. We do not say “God’s righteousness comes to all” because it necessarily only comes to those who believe, and those who believe are a subset of the universal “all” of mankind.

The second phrase “for we are all sinners in need of redemption” is a little muddled. It can rightly be understood in two fully truthful ways.

  • The universal all of mankind are indeed sinners in need of redemption.
  • The subset of the universal all of mankind that are elect are indeed sinners in need of redemption.

Although we can understand the “all” in this phrase either way, I would be inclined to interpret the meaning of the second phrase in the same limited scope as the first for two reasons:

  • the sentence begins “all” referring to a smaller subset
  • the “all” in the second phrase is not redefined as having a wider scope.

To completely clarify the scope issue, I would propose restating the sentence along these lines, “Except Christ, every human who has, or will have, ever existed is a sinner in need of redemption; however, God’s righteousness comes to each one who will believe, and this redemption comes only through Christ.

We can see the same pattern occur in Romans.

  1. Romans 1:16-17 – The Righteousness of God is revealed from Faith.
  2. Romans 1:18-2:5 – God’s Wrath on mankind (Universal Set)
  3. Romans 2:6-11 – God is not partial in this, all races. (Jew & Gentile Sets)
  4. Romans 2:12-3:8 – Specifically discuss’ God’s faithfulness & the Law (Jewish Set)
  5. Romans 3:9-20 – No One Is Righteous (Universal Set)

Romans 1:18-3:20 are particularly compelling scriptures for understanding Total Depravity within the Doctrines of Grace. The scope of these verses demonstrate universal application, Paul further breaks things down into how it applies to both Jews and non-Jews, Paul discusses how it applies specifically to Jews, and finally he restates the universal application of the doctrine.

“What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.”  The first “all” –“Not at all!”–deals with extent rather than quantity. I would submit that it is like saying, “Not to any extent!” The second “all” is of great interest to our conversation; “all,” in this sentence refers to a collection. We see that Paul defines this set, “Jews and Gentiles alike.” Understanding the term “Gentile” to mean “any and everything NOT a Jew,” we begin to apply a universal scope for the set.

Furthermore, Paul pulls in other scripture (Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20) in verses 10-12 to demonstrate total depravity, and here he uses the term “no one“. “No one” is a set as well, it is an empty set. This empty set compared with the positive set of “all” further leads us toward understanding the second “all”, in verse 9, as having the broadest, most inclusive scope possible.

Romans 3:20 sums it up nicely using the empty set, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”  Verse 22 then begins the transition into the doctrine of atonement, specifically in contrast (verse 21) to the depravity revealed under the Law.

Romans 3:23 – Exegesis

Romans 3:22-24:  “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  The “all” in verse 22 is clearly limited in scope, with the  same, precise limitation as in Romans 1:16.


everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.


all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile

In no way does this teach that “the righteousness of God is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all, including those who do not believe.” Those who do not believe will not receive. (Note: we are not saying that those who do not currently believe can not come to believe and then receive, we are simply stating that belief must occur before receipt. This is the domain of the doctrine of election, which is not explicitly addressed in these verses.)

Because the word “all” in prior verses–1:16 and 3:22–is limited in scope to those who believe (or the elect), I argue that the context here limits the “all” in verse 3:23 to the same scope. Although I do agree that the phrase “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is also universally applicable, by definition of applying to “all” in the universal sense, it is likewise applied to the limited subset of believers. However, if the intention here in verse 23 is that “all” applies to the universal scope, then without redefinition/qualification, the “all” in verse 24, taken to its logical conclusion, will eventually make us into universalists and heretics!

Let us consider those which history indicates make up Paul’s audience in Rome–the elect, made up of both Jewish converts and non-Jewish converts. Other letters by Paul indicate a tension between Jewish and non-Jewish believers, and we can often see Scripture speaking to that tension. We also see these first chapters of Romans repeatedly speaking to this tension. I submit that we could, therefore, clearly restate Romans 3:22-24 as follows, without losing or modifying any truth that Paul is attempting to communicate to us.

Paraphrased: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for both Jewish and Gentile believers (all) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and both Jewish and Gentile believers (all) are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

I believe that you will agree that this restatement is completely truthful. I also believe it is the simplest and most effective way to understand what Paul is communicating in these verses. Other interpretations I’ve heard only lead to significant theological issues further downstream as one works toward logical conclusions.

Compare NIV vs ESV

NIV: 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 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—

ESV: [22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25] 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.

Notice how verse 24 in the ESV assumes the “all” used in verse 23. Upon comparison, the ESV both communicates the meaning of the text most effectively and better reflects the original Greek text (where there is no explicit “all” in verse 24 – compare 23 vs 24 online in the Greek.).  Thus, we can conclude that  the scope must be the same. Also note that in the ESV verse 24 ends with a comma rather than an period thereby including the first half of verse 25 in the context of the sentence, and further limiting the scope of “all” with the end of the sentence “to be received by faith.”

According to an universal “all” in 3:23, a similar universal interpretation must be assumed in 3:24. Consequently, Romans 8:30 would teach that the universal all are glorified. If that be the logical conclusion, we would be required to teach “the universal all go to heaven” and hell is empty.

Justification, Redemption, Atonement & Propitiation

Romans 3:25 in the English Standard Version (and Greek) clenches it for me. Simply put, if one has had their sins atoned for, God’s wrath towards them propitiated–justified and redeemed–then the individual must no longer fear punishment. The wrath of God is satisfied, his judgment complete, and that individual stands before God with none to condemn him/ her.

How horrific it would be if Christ atoned for my sins, but then I was sent to hell anyway! This speaks directly to the justice of God, who would be double dipping if he punished twice for the same sin.

Imagine a judge that fines a man for breaking a civil law like speeding. This man cannot pay the fine, but his brother who is in court walks up and pays the clerk, all the while the man is protesting his brother paying this fine for him. The clerk accepts the check; the fine is paid, but then the judge has the bailiff haul the man to jail anyway to serve time because he did not pay the fine himself and protested his brother paying it for him. This is injustice, and the judge is a foul perverter of the law. God would be considered the same if he accepted Christ’s work on the cross as atonement and propitiation for the universal “all,” then sent any of them to hell.

The “all” in verse 22 is limited/qualified to “all who believe.” Furthermore, verse 25 confirms this limitation by adding the phrase “received by faith.” Couched between these obvious qualifiers, the “all” in verses 23-24 is most accurately interpreted within the same limited scope. The text then requires an understanding of these particular “all’s”  as limited to the elect and does not allow for a broader scope, regardless of how truthful it might be to take verse 23 out of context and apply a broader scope.

[23] Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. [25] But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. [27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – (Galatians 3:23-29 ESV)


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