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 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, 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, 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 3:19-20. THOSE WHO ARE UNDER THE LAW
19Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God. 20Because by the works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight. For through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
“Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law“ (v. 19a). A critic might respond by saying that Paul has stated a basic truth, buttressed by his quotations of scripture—but that he has erred at a fundamental point. The critic might claim that the guilt of which Paul spoke belongs to Gentiles—not Jews.
Paul addresses this criticism directly. God gave the law to Jews, so is Jews rather than Gentiles who are under the law. Since Jews rather than Gentiles are under the law, it is Jews rather than Gentiles who will be found guilty of offenses against the law. Jews can expect to be judged by the law—and the reality that Paul has outlined in verses 9-18 is that they have failed miserably to keep the law.
“that every mouth may be closed“ (v. 19b). In the court of God’s justice, the defendant will not gain favor by defending his/her innocence based on good works (Moo, 205). Our best defense will be to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court as we affirm our faith in Jesus Christ.
“and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God“ (v. 19c). If the law speaks specifically to Jews (“those who are under the law”), then it follows that Jews are not exempt from accountability to God under the law. Paul wants to disabuse Jews of their false sense of security.
“Because by the works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight“ (v. 20a). “No flesh will be justified in his sight” appears to be inspired by “for in your sight no man living is righteous” (Psalm 143:2b).
Paul is trying to counter the idea that good Jewish people can be justified in God’s sight through obedience to Jewish law. To achieve justification through obedience, a person would have to be totally obedient. Nobody has achieved that standard. Even the heroes of the Old Testament had clay feet. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah. If the great heroes of the faith failed so miserably to keep the law, how can more ordinary people expect to meet the law’s high standard?
“For through the law comes the knowledge of sin“ (v. 20b). Instead of inoculating a person against sin, the law shines a light on sin so that we can see it. In this sense, the law is like a mirror. A mirror cannot cleanse a dirty face. It can only show us the reality of our dirty face—can only force us to confront the reality of our uncleanness.
ROMANS 3:21-22a. ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE
21But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; 22a even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Greek: dia pisteos Iesou Christou) 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.
When Paul speaks of “the righteousness of God,” 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 “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24).
“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
22b For there is no distinction, 23for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; 24being justified (Greek: diakaioumenoi—made righteous) freely by his grace through the redemption (Greek: apolutroseos—ransom) that is in Christ Jesus; 25whom God set forth to be an atoning (Greek:hilasterion—propitiation) sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance; 26to 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 (diakaioumenoi—made righteous) freely by his grace through the redemption (apolutroseos—ransom) 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/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 (hilasterion—propitiation) sacrifice, 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 “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 “divine 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. JUSTIFIED BY FAITH APART FROM THE WORKS OF THE LAW
27Where 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).
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.
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
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)
Moo, Douglas, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan