Romans 1:16-17; 3:22
ROMANS 1-3. THE CONTEXT
Paul begins his letter to the Romans with a salutation (1:1-7) and a prayer of thanksgiving (1:8-15). It isn’t until verse 16 that he finally gets to his main point.
• Verses 16-17 (the first part of the lectionary reading) constitute a thesis statement—the epistle in a nutshell. Paul begins by saying that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (v. 16).
• In 1:18—3:20 (omitted by the lectionary), Paul establishes the scope of the problem—the reality of our guilt (1:18-32)—the righteousness of God’s judgment (2:1-16)—the failure of those who rely on the law (2:17—3:8)—and the conclusion that none is righteous (3:9-20).
• Having established the problem, Paul returns to his thesis of vv. 16-17. In 3:21-31 (the second part of the lectionary reading), he notes that we have all sinned, and can be justified only by God’s grace as a gift (vv. 23-24). We therefore have no grounds for boasting (v. 27). Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat—both being justified by faith—not law (vv. 29-30).
ROMANS 1:16-17. FOR I AM NOT ASHAMED OF THE GOOD NEWS
16For I am not ashamed of the Good News (Greek: euangelion); for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Greek: pisteuonti—from pisteuo), for the Jew first, and also for the Greek. 17 For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith.”*
“For I am not ashamed of the Good News” (euangelion—gospel, good news) (v. 16a). Why would anyone think that Paul would be ashamed of the gospel? Perhaps because he is addressing Christians who live in Rome—a sophisticated city—the center of worldly power. Paul can offer only a Jew who was executed as a common criminal—a stumbling block to those who prize power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20-23). How can this be euangelion—good news? How can this euangelion compare with the splendor of an emperor backed by legions of soldiers?
But the gospel “is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (v. 16b). Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, because he knows its Godly power. The emperor enjoys great power, but it is both transient and limited. God’s power has no limits—no end. God holds the emperor’s life in his hands. The emperor serves at God’s pleasure.
Paul has seen the gospel’s power. He experienced it on the road to Damascus, where he was going to persecute Christians. Instead of condemning Saul, Jesus used his power to redeem him (Acts 9). Jesus’ power was manifested on that occasion by the bright light that blinded Saul and the voice from heaven. Since that time, Paul has seen God’s power manifested in many ways. He has seen people healed and people converted. He has been freed from prison by an earthquake (Acts 16:16-40). He has preached successfully in unlikely places (Acts 17:16-33). He has survived a host of dangers (2 Cor. 11:23-28). He has seen his confidence in God justified time after time. How could he be ashamed of the gospel?
This gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (v. 16b). Salvation from what? Salvation from whatever would undo us! Christ has saved people from drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. Christ has saved people from self-hatred and aimless living. But the primary thrust of the salvation of which Paul speaks here is eschatological. Christ saves us from separation from God. Christ enables us to live eternally in the presence of the Father.
“for everyone” (v. 16b). That word, “everyone,” is hard to believe:
• Jews believed that Gentiles could be saved, but only by becoming proselytes—i.e., practicing Jews. Paul, however, says that the gospel has power to save “everyone who has faith” including Gentiles.
• We might be surprised to learn that the gospel has power to save a murderer—even a notorious serial killer—but it does.
“who believes” (pisteuonti—from pisteuo) (v. 16b). Pisteuonti is present tense—in Greek, the present tense denotes an ongoing activity. Salvation belief is not something that happens once, but something that continues. We should not, however, fear that God’s grace is insufficient to forgive doubt. We all doubt. We can all say, with the father who petitioned Jesus to heal his son, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
“for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (v. 16c). In this context, “Greek” means “Gentile.” Paul’s ministry is predominantly to Gentiles, but he acknowledges the priority of Jews in God’s plan of salvation. Jews enjoyed centuries of a special relationship with God, and Paul often preaches in Jewish synagogues. With the advent of Christ, however, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“For in (the gospel) is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith” (v. 17a). When Paul speaks of “God’s righteousness,” does he mean the righteousness that is characteristic of God or the righteousness that God imputes to those who have faith? Scholars are divided, but it seems best to say “both/and” instead of “either/or”:
• God is righteous. He has proven himself faithful in his relationship to humans.
• But the gospel (euangelion—good news) is good news primarily because God has chosen to share his righteousness with us—has chosen to justify us “freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).
This righteousness “is revealed from faith to faith” (v. 17a). We could know nothing of God’s righteousness or grace unless God revealed them to us. However, it requires faith to see what God has revealed. It is through faith that we see God’s righteousness. It is through faith that we experience righteousness.
“as it is written” (v. 17b) is a common phrase in both Old and New Testaments to introduce a scriptural quotation (Joshua 8:31; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Chronicles 23:18; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4; John 6:31; Acts 15:15; Romans 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17; 8:36, etc.).
“But the righteous shall live by faith” (v. 17b). Paul’s quotes from Habakkuk 2:4, where the prophet contrasts proud people with people of faith. Habakkuk said that the spirit of proud people “is not right in them,” but “the righteous will live by his faith.”
In Galatians 3:11, Paul quotes this verse from Habakkuk to say “no man is justified by the law before God,” but “the righteous will live by faith.” Salvation by faith will be a continuing emphasis throughout this book (3:22-31; 4:5; 5:1-20; 6:5; 7:24-25; 8:1-2, 37-39; 9:30; 11:20).
ROMANS 3:21-22a. A RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD HAS BEEN REVEALED
21 But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.
Verses 21-22a are not included in the lectionary reading, but it is not clear why. It would seem better to include them.
“But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed” (v. 21a). In 2:17—3:18 (omitted by the lectionary), Paul noted the failure of those who rely on the law. Neither those who rely on the law nor those who do not rely on it are righteous—both are guilty (3:9-20). “But now,” he says, suggesting that a new day has dawned, Paul says that the righteousness of God has been disclosed apart from the law—apart from the law on which people relied for so long—apart from the law that failed to make them righteous. For the phrase, “righteousness of God,” see comments on verse 17 above.
“being testified by the law and the prophets” (v. 21b). Earlier, Paul said that the gospel was promised by the prophets (1:2). Now he says that both law and prophets (another way of saying “all scripture”) point to the righteousness of God.
“even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (dia pisteos Iesou Christou) to all and on all those who believe“ (v. 22). Under the old covenant, Jewish people assumed that they could achieve righteousness by obeying the law—but Paul said in 2:17 ff. that this assumption was wrong. Now, Paul says that the righteousness of God is disclosed—has been revealed—”through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe” (v. 22).
ROMANS 3:22b-26. FOR ALL HAVE SINNED
22bFor there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; 24 being justified (Greek: diakaioumenoi—made righteous) freely by his grace through the redemption (Greek: apolutroseos—ransom) that is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice (Greek:hilasterion—propitiation), through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance; 26 to demonstrate his righteousness at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.
“For there is no distinction, for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 22b-23). What meaningful distinction is there between the person who knows the law but sins and the person who does not know the law? None! Both are guilty—neither can boast.
“fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23b). We were created to share God’s glory. Just imagine the glory of the Garden of Eden. God created Adam and Eve to live in paradise and God’s presence, but they traded that glory for a bit of forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). So also God has created us to live beautiful lives as his children, but we too have proven rebellious—we too have forfeited glory for a mess of pottage—we too have chosen the wide, easy road that leads to destruction instead of the narrow, hard road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13)—we too have fallen short of the glory for which we were created—the glory that God desires to share with us.
“being justified (dikaioumenoi) freely by his grace, through the redemption (apolutroseos) that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). These two words, “justified” and “redemption” approach the subject of God’s grace from two different perspectives:
• Being “justified” (dikaioumenoi) has to do with being declared righteous (as when a judge declares a person not guilty—or, better yet, when a governor pardons someone and strikes their conviction from public record).
• “Redemption” (apolutroseos) has to do with being freed (as when someone pays ransom to free a slave or captive).
This justification/redemption is wholly the product of God’s grace. The guilty party has no way to be justified. The slave has no way to be freed. The sinner has no way to be pardoned. It is only through the gift of God’s grace that we have hope. We can receive justification and redemption only as a gift. We could never earn them, because our pockets are empty of the required currency.
“Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice (hilasterion—propitiation) through faith in his blood“ (v. 24b-25a). A better translation might be “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood”—the problem being that “propitiation” is one of those expensive words that nobody knows. My dictionary defines propitiation as “something that appeases or conciliates a deity”—i.e., something that dampens the fires of God’s wrath.
Those who refuse to believe that God is a God of wrath as well as a God of love find the idea of propitiation unacceptable, but the Bible is replete with references to God’s wrath (Exodus 22:24; 32:10; Leviticus 10:6; Numbers 1:53; 16:46; 18:5; 25:11; John 3:36; Romans 1:18; , etc., etc., etc.). It is clear that God intends us to be better than we are, and is unhappy that we are not. Nevertheless, God is unwilling to hit the delete key and start over again. We have nothing with which to appease God’s wrath, so he has devised a way. In the Old Testament, that was a sacrificial system that served as a constant reminder of the relationship between sin and death. Then, finally, God sent his own Son as a once-for-all sacrifice—a sacrifice that becomes effective “through faith in his blood” (v. 25)—not by our meeting standards that we have shown ourselves unable to meet.
“for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance” (v. 25b). The death of Jesus demonstrates God’s righteousness. Rather than absolving people without a sacrifice, God provided the sacrifice. He thereby maintained a serious posture with regard to sin, while nevertheless making it possible for people to be forgiven.
“to demonstrate his righteousness at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26). God’s action now is consistent with his actions in the past. In “God’s forbearance,” he passed over earlier sins of those who lived in faith, and he now justifies those who have faith. Pure justice would have been cruel and pure mercy would have lacked integrity. God found the middle ground where he can maintain righteousness while showing mercy. The cross established that middle ground, and faith opens the door to receive the mercy created at the cross.
ROMANS 3:27-28. WE ARE JUSTIFIED BY FAITH APART FROM WORKS
27 Where then is the boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
“Where then is the boasting? It is excluded” (v. 27a). Paul earlier called Jews to task for relying on the law and boasting of their relationship to God (2:17), asking, “You who glory in the law, through your disobedience of the law do you dishonor God?” (2:23). The problem was not their observance of the law but their prideful attitudes. Now Paul says that boasting is excluded—in part because those who were given the law kept it imperfectly—but more fundamentally because we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (v. 28).
“By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith” (v. 27b). The phrases, law “of works” and “law of faith” (v. 27) distinguish Mosaic law (works) from Christian salvation (faith). But see the comments about Abram in the next verse.
“We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (v. 28—see also Galatians 2:16). Who could stand before God and ask to be justified by their works of the law? When we examine the great iconic figures of Jewish history—men such as Abraham and David—we see great men of faith—but we also see their clay feet.
• We all remember David’s adultery with Bathsheba—a sin that he tried to mask by having his faithful soldier, Uriah, killed at the front (2 Samuel 11).
• We are more likely to forget Abram trying to pass off Sarai as his sister for fear of Pharaoh. That lapse came on the heels of God’s promise to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3). How could Abram have had such a lapse on the heels of such a promise? While the Torah had not yet been given, it is clear that Abram knew that he was doing wrong. Such a man could not be justified by the law “of works,” but only by the “law of faith” (see Hebrews 11:8-12).
ROMANS 3:29-31. GOD WILL JUSTIFY ALL ON THE GROUND OF FAITH
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t he the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith, and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law.
“Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t he the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed there is one God” (vv. 29-30a). “There is one God” is powerful language when directed to Jewish readers. It alludes to the Shema, which Jews recite twice daily and no Jew can deny. “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). If God is one, there cannot be one God for Jews and another for Gentiles.
Undoubtedly, some Jews would argue that Gentiles are an ungodly people who have no God. In their view, there is only one God and one people of God—Israel. Paul, however, disputes this, saying that the one God is the God of Gentiles also (v. 29) and that he will justify both the circumcised and the uncircumcised (Jew and Gentile) “on the ground of faith” (v. 30b).
“Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law” (v. 31). Paul is overthrowing the law of works, but not the law of faith (v. 27). He is challenging those who would claim God as an exclusive preserve—those who would boast of their privileged status—those who would claim to have achieved righteousness by their own works. Paul affirms the continuity of the law of faith. It was by faith that Abraham and David were justified, and it is by faith that Jews and Gentiles are justified both now and in the future.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Gagnon, Robert A.J., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Jewett, Robert, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan