What does the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplish? What does it mean?
These seem rather vital questions for a religion that employs a cross as its primary symbol. But their answers are hardly simple, as evidenced by the different vantage points that the New Testament writings take when they consider them. Sometimes, as is the case with Romans 3, a single passage offers multiple perspectives. The variety of claims and language underscores the complexity of the questions and the inexhaustible richness of the answers.
The Apostle Paul never provides a comprehensive explanation of the mechanics involved in Jesus' "work" on the cross and the benefits that flow to humanity as a result. Instead of detailed solutions, Paul gives us metaphorical expressions, sometimes (as in Rom 3:22b--25a) in rapid succession. A collection of images is no less real or powerful than a logical proof, and the variety in his words reminds us that no single expression can on its own supply a complete account of what God accomplishes through Christ. When sermons explore Paul's language they can help hearers understand the deep and multifaceted character of God's commitment to humanity that is demonstrated through the cross.
Beginning with this week, the lectionary offers an irresistible treat: sixteen consecutive Sundays that journey through the book of Romans. I encourage preachers to seize this opportunity to guide congregations into the rich depths of this important epistle. Your sermon series can begin with the heart of the letter, an expression of the heart of the gospel according to Paul as found in the opening verses of today's lection (1:16--17). While introducing several themes to which he will return, Paul describes the gospel, not as a message or a set of doctrines, but as "the power of God" effecting salvation. This salvation has universal reach, in that it extends to both Jew and Greek (Gentile). The good news ("gospel") of salvation reveals "the righteousness of God," which is expressed through God's faithfulness toward humanity, a faithfulness that itself enables humanity to express faith in Christ. It is important to note that "God's righteousness" does not refer to God's moral purity or inaccessible perfection; the expression resumes Old Testament statements about God's commitment to be active in and on behalf of the world--specifically, to accomplish salvation and bring about justice. The gospel, then, is the ultimate expression of God's commitment and power to reclaim the world.
Further ahead in the letter, Romans 3:21 resumes the thesis statement of 1:16--17, as Paul unpacks the idea of how the coming, dying, and rising of Jesus Christ performs God's salvific "righteousness" (dikaiosunē). The statement, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23), essentially summarizes the context of 1:18--3:20. In response to humanity's sorry state, God does at least three things through Jesus Christ: God justifies, God redeems, and God effects atonement (3:24--25a). In a single sentence, Paul stacks up these three expressions that are rich in meaning. His words deserve extended consideration, lest people hear them only as churchly jargon with no real substance.
"They are now justified by his grace as a gift"
In his letters Paul is fond of speaking of God justifying people through Christ. "Justification" does not primarily refer to God transferring moral purity to people or stamping "not guilty" on their foreheads. Rather, God repairs the fractured relationship between humanity and God through Jesus' death. Most English translations make it impossible to see that the words justification and righteousness mean the same thing, for both translate the same Greek noun. Likewise, the verbs justify and make righteous are synonymous. When Paul refers to God's righteousness in one breath and then says God justifies, he is essentially redundant. Through grace, God's salvific activity claims people, nullifying the separation that human beings have opened up in their proper standing place before God. To be justified is simply to be set right with God, to be brought into the sphere of God's deliverance and justice ("righteousness"), making our relationship and future with God secure.
"through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus"
Before the rise of plastics and curbside recycling, people returned used glass bottles to stores for "redemption." Merchants literally bought them back or returned a cash deposit. "Redemption" refers to a transfer of ownership, and one arena in Paul's day where the term had special import involved the practice of slavery, in which people could be bought or sold and some slaves could purchase their own freedom. Throughout the Old Testament, redemption terminology frequently refers to God's freeing the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt and establishing them as a new nation. Such redemption is liberation, a transfer from slavery to freedom. This connects closely to Paul's understanding of sin as a power that enslaves humanity (see 3:9, 6:6, 16--17). In response, through Christ, God delivers people from sin and claims us as slaves to God (see 6:18, 22). The cross also grants freedom from death, which is a consequence of sin (see 8:2).
"whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood"
Only rarely does Paul employ the vocabulary of temple practice and ritual sacrifice to indicate what happens through Christ. In this instance, Paul's language is deeply metaphorical. He says that God put forth Jesus as a hilastērion. For Jews, this Greek word indicated the "mercy seat," what once covered the ark of the covenant (see 1 Kings 8:1--11). On the mercy seat Israel's high priest sprinkled blood from sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, as an offering for the sins of the entire nation (see Leviticus 16). When English translations render hilastērion as "sacrifice of atonement" they strip the metaphor of its force and potential for meaning. Paul's point is probably that Christ's death, like the mercy seat of past generations, was the location where reconciling atonement occurred. Paul does not explain how atonement might transpire through a sacrifice, and he certainly does not describe Jesus' death as a debt paid to an angry God. What happens through Christ is like what happens through a sacrifice, insofar as through his death God is able "to deal with sin" (Rom 8:3) and its effects.
If the imagery of justification, redemption, and the mercy seat is not enough for a preacher to work with, then note also that this passage is peppered with Paul's assertion that God justifies people by faith. That idea has proven to be a good sermon topic over the years.
Consider preaching on this text as an opportunity for emphasizing God's agency in the gospel. Through Christ, God decisively accomplishes something new for humanity. Invite your congregation into a long-term exploration of Romans to discover all the ways it proclaims God's commitment to the world.