< October 27, 2019 >

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

 

Our lectionary text belongs to Romans 1:18—4:2, in which Paul presents the thesis of “God’s righteousness revealed in the gospel of Christ crucified.”

In 1:18—3:18, Paul notes that the entire human race is “under the power of sin.” And 3:19-20 not only functions as the conclusion of the argument, but also connects to his following argument on the theme of “being justified without works of the law.”

  • Romans 3:19-20 For “no flesh will be justified in his sight” by works of law (ergon nomou)...
    • 3:21-22 “…the righteousness of God has been disclosed ... through faith in/of Jesus Christ (pistis Iesou Christou )”
      • 3:24-25a “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ... through faith.”
    • 3:25b-26 to show/prove the righteousness of God ... (who) is righteous and justifies the one who has faith in/of Jesus Christ (pistis Iesou Christou).
  • 3:27-28 ... For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law (ergon nomou).

Here we see how the themes of “justify” (dikaioo), “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), “faith,” and “law” are intertwined.

Justification by faith—whose faith?

Martin Luther is the forefather of the Reformation tradition who formulated the essence of Paul’s theology in terms of “justification by faith.” Since Luther interpreted “justification by faith” in judicial terms, this tradition has dominated Western standard interpretation of Paul. Human disobedience brought a death penalty, but the death of Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and satisfied the wrath of God. Reflecting this dominant interpretation, many translations adapt the word “propitiation” for hilasterion in Romans 3:25 (ESV, KJV, NASB; or “sacrifice of atonement,” NIV, NRSV). Justification is a once-for-all act of declaring acquittal through Jesus’ death, and what is needed is each individual’s acceptance of that declaration through faith—faith “in” Christ. In Luther’s interpretation, the genitive form in pistis Iesou Christou is viewed as the objective genitive, meaning belief in Jesus Christ.

For other interpreters such as the New Perspective on Paul scholars, this reading can imply that the effect of salvation is brought by the human act of faith. They understand “justification” in terms of right standing before God based on the covenant understanding of salvation. Believers are made right before God or set in a covenantal relation with God through faith. They read pistis Iesou Christou as the faith “of” Jesus Christ. 1

In this subjective genitive interpretation, the role of Christ is critical: his faithful obedience to the will of God through his death. And God presented this Christ as a “mercy seat” (hilasterion). The believers are justified when they participate in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ by following his example.

God’s impartial righteousness as grace

Still emphasizing the saving faithfulness of Christ, there is a third way of looking at justification by faith. Such an interpretation stresses God’s righteousness demonstrated in the act of justifying people disenfranchised by the cosmic power of sin, rather than justification by faith as opposed to works of law. God’s redemption is found in Jesus’ death that defeated the power of sin. The following translation presents this view: “[Christ Jesus] whom God publicly displayed (proetheto) at his death through faith to demonstrate the justice (dikaiosyne) of God...” (Romans 3:24; see NET). God’s righteousness/justice is manifested in the unprecedented way that the shameful death of Christ on the cross was God’s final blow to rampant injustice of the Roman Empire, the world dominated by evil powers. Justification is participation in God’s victory by being united in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is both “just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness” (verse 26, NET).

Since both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin (Romans 3:9), no one can be made right before God—by law or its performance. Here Paul is not just speaking about the Jewish law, which he affirms elsewhere in his letters and in 3:21. Paul’s use of law, with or without the definite article, can mean a cultural system that defines a group’s identity and organizes the society. While keeping the law may make a person be a member of the covenant people or a good citizen, it does not free that person from the bondage to the power of sin. Moreover, despite of benefits of law, it often appears to be oppressive, most representatively seen in Jesus’ crucifixion under Roman imperial law. Although the function of law is good, sin nonetheless works death through the law (Romans 7:12-13).

However, through Jesus’ redemptive death all have been freed from sin, and this is grace (charis) as a gift (charisma). Since the righteousness/justice of God is impartial, no one person, group, or nation can claim to be exceptional or superior over others because of status or performance (Romans 3:22-23, 27; 10:12). While law necessarily excludes those outside the law, the law of faith or the faithfulness of Jesus Christ does not discriminate. Embodying that faith is an ongoing journey in which believers have been justified through the redemption in Jesus Christ and also discern the groaning of other fellow human beings and the creation in solidarity, all of whom are still waiting for the ultimate redemption of our bodies in hope (Romans 8:23).

Toward the ongoing reformation and redemption

Just as faith comprises individual, communal, and cosmic dimensions, so each interpretation has its truth and strength. Situating all interpretations in their own social and cultural contexts and reflecting on their implications are a part of interpretive process. As a part of his radical response to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine and practice, Luther engaged the public. However, Luther’s judicial interpretation of “justification by faith” gave rise to the standard Protestant interpretation of Paul as anti-Jewish and as focused on individual salvation. At the heart of the Reformation tradition is the intent to reform and transform church and society, as well as the tradition itself. Our interpretation of the scripture on Reformation Sunday should serve to provide a hopeful, inclusive vision of the redemption of humanity and the creation by proclaiming God’s impartial gift of grace publicly displayed in the gospel of Christ the crucified and resurrected.


Notes:

1 See also my Working Preacher commentary on Romans 5:1-5 from June 2019.