Lectionary Commentaries for October 29, 2017
Reformation Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Samuel Cruz

Reformation Sunday this year is a very special historical moment for Lutherans throughout the world.

We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s October 31, 1517 posting of the 95 theses on Wittenberg Castle.1 As we reflect upon the meaning this holds for us, I believe that it behooves us to think about Luther’s relevance in the 21st Century church. His ideas certainly offer fertile, enduring concepts for theological and ecclesial work today. However, in attempting authenticity and faithfulness to Luther’s legacy, the advice of Karl Barth might be apropos:

“There can be as little question of the repristination of the teachings of Luther and Calvin as of the orthodoxy of the 17th Century — in the present rediscovery and re-acknowledgement of the authority of the reformers. If there were, we would not be giving them the honor due them, but refusing it. Not those who repeat the doctrine most faithfully, but those who reflect upon it most faithfully so that they can expound it as their own doctrine, are their most faithful pupils.”

In other words, regurgitation is not what we should be seeking. It is with that spirit of faithful reflection that we must read the gospel lesson for this week: How does one become free? That was the question for the Jewish leaders, and remains the question of today’s leaders, concerned with our present reality. It seems that the differences of opinion between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day were what many Liberation Theologians would refer to as “Orthopraxis verses Orthodoxy.”

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day perhaps felt that they were faithfully sharing/repeating the traditions and doctrines of the patriarchs and prophets in their strictest Orthodox manner. Jesus admonishes these leaders to have the truth revealed to them and to become free. Many felt somewhat confused at Jesus’ admonition. It is quite possible that they, like most of us, assumed that ideas and intellectual concepts were truth in and of themselves — fulfilling the criteria of truth and freedom. Apparently, Jesus saw it differently. He saw them as being enslaved to their “Orthodox” theology — one of regurgitation rather than a “lived” theology.

Declaring something a truth does not make it truth. Declaring freedom does not make you free. It is similar to some politicians declaring that everyone will have “access” to health insurance while promulgating a system of healthcare that is unaffordable and therefore, inaccessible to many. Similarly, another example that was evident in Jesus’ day as it is now, is that of the rich and powerful members of our society. These powerful members of society can create a semblance of being law abiding and pure, attending religious services regularly, following the traditions and offering the largest sacrifices/offerings, but at the same time lacking true faithfulness and good works.

The Jews were following the patriarchs and prophets, through strict adherence to the law. However, Jesus reinterprets the prophets and patriarchs for his day, leaving the leaders stunned and confused. The Apostle James referred to the kind of theology that is characterized by action — faith in action seen as Good Worksas a “living theology,” and theology characterized by inaction as “dead.”

It seems that Jesus was imparting for us the idea that in order to truly follow him faithfully, (and for that matter, follow the patriarchs and prophets), one had to live his teachings. It was not enough to understand their teachings intellectually. This life of practice, in turn, would result in knowing the truth. The truth could only be obtained in the praxis of discipleship. As Jesus reinterprets for the leaders in his day, it is our task to re-interpret Luther’s teaching for our society today.

The truth obtained in living out our faith will lead us to freedom. Perhaps the religious leaders were enslaved by their interpretations of and adherence to tradition. Are we ourselves stuck in “faithfully” regurgitating Luther? How has our adherence to law and tradition imprisoned us, causing us to live out a “dead’ theology? Rather than adhering to an orthodox Lutheran supplanting of Luther’s teaching for today, we are called instead to reading Luther within the contextual realities of today. The truth obtained in living out our faith will lead us to freedom. Jesus’ has always offered freedom, but sometimes we are so connected to our ways of living and being, that we remain imprisoned in these rituals and traditions that prevent us from living our faith.

In the spirit of reflecting upon these teachings faithfully and in praxis, what can we learn from this passage as we celebrate 500 years of the great teachings of The Reformation? Can we really know the freedom of grace without living in grace to others? Can we understand reconciliation without being reconcilers in our communities and churches? Is it enough to say we have been lifelong Lutherans, and have studied the Augsburg’s confessions without faithfully and contextually applying its teachings? These and many other questions are here for us to ponder as we reflect on Luther’s legacy to the Christian faith.


1. Historians believe that the 95 theses were disseminated in a different manner.

Alternate Gospel

Commentary on John 8:31-36

Martin Junge

Controversial questions abound in John’s Gospel as conflict simmers just beneath the surface of several conversations involving Jesus:

  • Nathanael sneers: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1)
  • The Judeans question: “Will you raise [the temple] in three days?” (John 2)
  • A bewildered Nicodemus wonders: “How can these things be?” (John 3)
  • A woman at Jacob’s well asks Jesus: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4)
  • A voice from the crowd: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6)
  • To a man born blind: “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” (John 9)
  • On the morning that Jesus will carry his cross to Calvary, Pilate looks into Jesus’ eyes and asks: “What is truth?” (John 18)

The Gospel reading for today also shimmers with controversy. John 8 begins with scribes and Pharisees questioning Jesus about Moses’ law as they prepare to stone a woman caught in adultery and closes with them wanting to stone Jesus. In between is a lengthy confrontational dialog in which Jesus speaks of his authority and his relationship with God.

Yet some in the crowd believe in Jesus and to them he declares: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Remember how John’s Gospel begins? “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God;” it then continues with the declaration that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

Word and freedom. Grace and truth. We read John’s Gospel text on Reformation Sunday because of those four words. The text from Romans that we also read underscores those words in Paul’s declaration that inspired Luther: we are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

During this 500th anniversary year, the Lutheran World Federation has lived the theme, Liberated by God’s Grace. It’s a theme that looks back over centuries of history to many of the questions, controversies, and conflicts that have enlivened and occasionally divided Christ’s church. As such the LWF was careful to call this anniversary year a commemoration rather than a celebration. For within those past questions, controversies, and conflicts there was need of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In the grace and mercy of God, while guided by God’s Word and Holy Spirit, there have been occasions for repentance, healing forgiveness, and reconciliation that gave rise to hope.

For example, nearly 500 years ago, Luther and his followers condemned the theological teachings and practices of Anabaptists. In subsequent years, those condemnations came horrifically to life in terrible violence and persecution. Anabaptists were burned at the stake or drowned for their theological beliefs.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Might that apply even to persecution of Anabaptists? In 2005, a Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission held conversations together that included honest, truth-telling examinations of shared histories alongside of Scripture study, prayer and confession. In 2009 they published their report1 and in 2010 at the 11th LWF Assembly in Stuttgart, Germany, the LWF and the Mennonite World Conference mutually confessed, forgave and entered into a new covenant relationship of reconciliation. It was a deeply moving and prophetic action that looked back on history while looking ahead to a future together.2 Liberated by God’s grace.

Another example concerns Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The study of God’s Word, a discovery of God’s grace-full truth and resultant freedom to love and serve one’s neighbour accompanied Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, his “Here I stand” defense and his prolific writing and publications. Yet his attempts to reform the church led to excommunication, denunciations, and divisions in the church.

Nearly concurrent with Vatican II, Lutherans and Roman Catholics began a series of dialogues that have borne significant fruit. As a culmination of fifty years of dialogues and in anticipation of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the LWF and the Vatican jointly published From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Joint Commemoration of the Reformation 2017.3

This document is also the product of honest, truth-telling examinations of shared histories alongside of Scripture study, prayer, and confession. It provided the foundation for the historic Joint Commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, when Pope Francis, Bishop Munib Younan and I presided together at a prayer service that included repentance, confession, affirmation of justification by grace through faith, reconciliation, and a commitment to work more closely together as Lutherans and Roman Catholics to love and serve the neighbour on a global scale.

At the Joint Commemoration Worship in Lund there was a beautiful Salvadoran cross.4 At the top was an image of Jesus standing at a festive table set with bread and grapes, around which many people gathered. It is my hope that one day soon, we will gather together as Lutherans and Roman Catholics at the Table of the Lord sharing one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one holy communion. Liberated by God’s grace.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” This Reformation Day (October 31, 2017), we will witness a commemoration of the Reformation by many churches that continue in Christ’s word, to proclaim the truth that we are liberated by God’s grace. You can watch this experience of “the Reformation as a global citizen” unfold in a remarkable livestream event. For North Americans, you’ll need to get up early!

From 5 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) there will be a live broadcast of Reformation Day worship throughout the world, from all seven regions of the LWF. The journey begins in Denmark and will take us to Tanzania, Germany, Hungary, Hong Kong, the United States and Argentina. Three ecumenical services, including the Joint Commemoration in Lund, Sweden, and the Global Commemoration in Windhoek, Namibia, will show how the Reformation anniversary has been commemorated in a spirit of ecumenical accountability.

We are liberated by God’s grace. As we journey together into the future, may God’s grace and peace be your daily companion.


Ed. Note: A Spanish-language version of this commentary is available at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3476

1 Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, 2005-2009, produced the report, Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ. Report of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission.

2 A wonderful North American resource guide for future learning and cooperation among Lutherans and Mennonites may be found at http://www.elcic.ca/Documents/HealingMemoriesOnlineFinal-March21.pdf

3 https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/resource-conflict-communion-basis-lutheran-catholic-commemoration-reformation-2017

4 For an image and interpretive article about the Salvadoran cross, visit https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/salvadoran-cross

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Anathea Portier-Young

Reformation Sunday draws our attention to God’s ongoing work of renewal in the church, to the unmerited gift of divine grace that cannot be bought or sold, and to a history of courageous response to that free gift, embodied in reformers who have been willing to challenge abuses within the body of Christ.1

Jeremiah’s declaration of God’s renewed covenant, enfleshed within the very guts of God’s people and written on their hearts, surprises with visceral and vital imagery of intimate knowing and belonging.

God says: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). What will it mean for the people of God to carry the law within their bodies? God’s own will and teaching will become their electromagnetic signature, radiating from within, setting the rhythm for all that they do.

What do we know about our hearts? We know that with each heartbeat blood courses through our bodies, delivering to each cell and organ the nutrients and oxygen they need to thrive. With each beat blood returns to the heart, so that it may be pumped through the lungs to be filled with oxygen once more. The heart’s beating is the pulse of life within us.

The ancient Israelites understood the heart as a faculty. They knew the heart as the seat of will (Jeremiah 7:24), invention (Jeremiah 14:14), reasoning, discernment, and judgment. In 1 Kings, when Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind … able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 NRSV), he has requested, in the first phrase, “a hearing heart” (lev shomea’ 1 Kings 3:9). Later, God’s gift to Solomon is described as “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding” (1 Kings 4:29 NRSV). In Hebrew, the last phrase is rechov lev: “wideness of heart.”

These metaphors emphasize the capacity to receive, respond, grow, and hold a wisdom that only God can give.

Perhaps the people of Israel and Judah felt the heart quicken with insight or resolve, seize with worry, settle with peace, and deduced from these sensations that this beating organ was bound up in human thought, awareness, memory (e.g., Jeremiah 3:16, 28:50), and decision-making.

They also understood the heart’s powerful link to emotion. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, his prophetic word exploded from the painful awareness of his heart’s response to the distress of his people: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war” (Jeremiah 4:19 NRSV). On another occasion the prophet declared that he ate God’s words and they became the delight of his heart (15:16); later still, Jeremiah confesses that God’s word rages in his heart like a fire (20:9).

Indeed “heart” (Hebrew lev and levav) is a word that Jeremiah uses again and again — 65 times in all, more frequently than does any book of the Hebrew Bible apart from Psalms and Proverbs. This prominence highlights an important theme in Jeremiah, namely the embodied awareness, thoughts, disposition, choices, and actions of God’s people. Their hearts embody their intentions (5:24), guilt (Jeremiah 17:1), and punishment (4:18).

When God will write God’s law upon the hearts of the people, their hearts will embody and empower the true relationship they share with God and one another. This relationship will be characterized by a deep and abiding knowledge of God’s will and by an intimacy that defines each in relation to the other.

This interior and intimate knowledge of God does not shift the focus from community to individual. Rather, it unites and renews the community as God’s people. They are still bound in covenant with God precisely as a people, as a community sharing past, present, and future. Within the biblical canon, God’s promise to be the God of Abraham’s children is first articulated in Genesis (17:8).

Here, too, the context is covenant. God’s promise accompanies the command that, through circumcision, the male members of Abraham’s household will incise this covenant in their flesh. This focus on shared, embodied obedience helps us to recognize, on Reformation Sunday, the corporeal and corporate dimensions of the renewed covenant God promises in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

In her book, The Body, Lisa Blackman summarizes insights of anthropologist AnneMarie Mol on the ways our bodies extend beyond our perceived self:

…the body is not bounded by the skin, where we understand the skin to be a kind of container for the self, but rather our bodies always extend and connect to other bodies, human and non-human, to practices, techniques, technologies and objects which produce different kinds of bodies and different ways, arguably, of enacting what it means to be human.2

This understanding of the body as interconnected, extending beyond perceptible boundaries of skin, helps us to understand how the interior transformation God promises is not bounded by its location. The heart’s law is not a private matter. The new, or perhaps more accurately, renewed, covenant God promises joins God’s people not only to God, but also to one another.

Even as we anticipate and live into this renewal, Reformation Sunday also invites attention to persisting divisions within the body of Christ. Ancient Israel knew division as well. First Kings reports that, after Solomon’s death, his son’s abusive and exploitative rule led the united kingdom of Israel to split, resulting in two nations: ten northern tribes, called Israel, and two southern tribes, called Judah (1 Kings 12).

Now centuries later, long after the northern kingdom had fallen and in anticipation of the southern kingdom’s demise, God promises through Jeremiah to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah together (31:31). Placing the law within God’s people creates condition for unity, as God later declares: “I will give them one heart and one way” (Jeremiah 32:38). This unity is a gift from God’s own heart and life: God promises to plant God’s people in faithfulness, “with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).


1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 26, 2014.

2 Lisa Blackman, The Body (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 1, citing AnneMarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).


Commentary on Psalm 46

Rolf Jacobson

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” — the hymn, which according to Ulrich Leupold, “more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience” — is a rather free paraphrase of Psalm 46.1

For that reason, the psalm is assigned for Reformation Sunday. But as Leupold notes, Luther “did not write [the hymn] to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.”2  This is a fine summary of the preaching task — to interpret and apply the biblical text to our own time and struggles. So why not preach this Reformation Day on Psalm 46?

The Text of the Psalm
The psalm is tightly composed, with three, three-verse-long stanzas and two refrains:
Stanza 1 (verses 1-3)
Stanza 2 (verses 4-6)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 7)
Stanza 3 (verses 8-10)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 11)

An important note about the text of the psalm is necessary, because some recent modern editions of the Book of Psalm “restored” (a fancy scholarly term meaning “fussed with”) the text of the psalm to include the psalm’s refrain after the first stanza, too. The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and The Book of Common Prayer of 1977 both used a version of this psalm with the refrain so restored.3

More recently, however, postmodern sensibilities have rightfully undermined scholarly confidence in the ability to fuss with the biblical text in these ways. So here is the point: Just be aware of which text your congregation is using. The commentary here does not supply the supposed missing verse. If you are still using a version that “restores” the refrain after the first stanza, adjust your interpretation accordingly.

Stanza One — The Roaring of Creation and God “Our Refuge”
In the first stanza, the hymn juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar. (For more on the key Hebrew term “refuge,” see the commentary on Psalm 91:9-16.) The image of “earth” shaking and “sea” roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order. This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience. The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature. Thus, the “law” that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator. Earthquakes and tsunamis cause destruction. Disease and disability strike. Death awaits all. And the “gospel” that the psalm names is the one trustworthy source of security that can be relied upon in the midst of this roaring rebellion: God is our refuge, “therefore we will not fear.” Notice that similar to other poems of trust, such as Psalm 23, the strategy of the psalm is to name the very real reasons there are for fear, and then to confess trust in God in the midst of those fears.

Stanza Two — The Roaring of the Nations and the River of God
The second stanza of the poem intensifies both the threat that is named and the promise that is proffered. The first stanza remained at the more universal level, naming the universal threat of creation in rebellion and offering the general promise of God (using the generic term elohim) as refuge. The second stanza focuses in more specifically on the national identity of God’s chosen people. It refers to the nations (Hebrew: goyim) that threaten “the city of God” (also known as Jerusalem) and the refrain employs both the personal name of “the Lord” as well as the epithet “God of Jacob” — a reference to the nation’s ancestral patriarch.

All of which is to say that in the second stanza the poem intensifies the sense of threat by naming the national threat that empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many smaller nations posed to the descendants of Jacob throughout Israel’s existence. This intensification of the naming of the threat also balances the first stanza by naming a second, more particular and more direct way in which the fallen condition of sin affects human — through human sin.

Yes, all of creation is fallen and in rebellion, but human sin and rebellion is more nefarious, or at least more potent — if only because the combination of human intelligence and will make evils such as genocide and war possible. Thus, “the nations are in an uproar” (the Hebrew verb hamah is used both for the nations in verse 6 and the sea in verse 3) summarizes the intensification of the rebellious threat.

The corresponding promise that the second stanza offers is the presence of God with the people. Here, God’s presence is metaphorically described as “a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There was and is no river in Jerusalem, of course, but that is not the point of the poetic flourish. The point is rather the powerful promise resident in the stark image of the refreshing and life-sustaining river to a city and people in an arid climate under siege by an invading army. The image of the river flowing from the throne or habitation of God was, moreover, a metaphor known throughout the ancient Near East and one that found its way into the promises of the New Testament (Revelation 22:1-2).4

The promise of the presence of God with the people in the city was a key element of the theology of the southern kingdom of Judah. The city, and in particular its Temple, was “the holy habitation of the most high.” According to this theology, God had chosen both the Davidic monarchs and the City of David, Jerusalem. This “dual election” included the promise of protection for both (see Psalm 89; Isaiah 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 7:1-7). In the refrain, which we can imagine the entire congregation singing, the words of trust become almost a creedal confession of confidence: “The Lord of hosts is with us.”

In the New Testament, this theology modulates to a new key, with Jesus coming as both the presence and habitation of God and as the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah (the royal descendant of David) — who is present wherever two or three gather in his name, to the end of the age.

Stanza Three — Be Still and Know that I am God
The psalm’s final stanza culminates with a statement of trust that is cloaked as an invitation and then with a promise. The invitation is the imperative cry, “Come!” which occurs in Psalms 95 and 66 in calls to come, see what God has done, and therefore to praise God. Here, the call is not so much to praise God, but to come and be silent — to witness God’s powerful ability to crush rebellion and then to be silent.

In the end, God even speaks the promise: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To know, in Hebrew, does not mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting God’s exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God in stanzas 1 and 2 of the poem: “I am exalted among the nations” (stanza 2) and “I am exalted in the earth” (stanza 1).

That is the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all things, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.

The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.


1Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 30, 2011.

2In Luther’s Works 53: 283.

3This restoration to the psalm can be found in such important scholars as Hans-Joachim Kraus [Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 458-9]. The argument is entirely internal, assuming that because the Hebrew word selah follows each of the three stanzas, the refrain should follow also. But there is no external textual support, either in ancient Hebrew manuscripts or among the ancient versions, for such a change to the psalm. If you read this footnote, you can now impress your colleagues in your text study. What does selah mean? Glad you asked. Nobody knows, but the best guess is that it was a musical or liturgical direction calling for some now unknown action to take place.

4For what it is worth, certain psalm scholars have argued that this psalm must have originated in some other city, since the mention of the river does not fit Jerusalem, and that the psalm was only “adopted” by Jerusalem. This argument misses the poetic power of the image of river and betrays a way of interpreting the Bible that is, in my view, hopelessly enslaved to a literalistic hermeneutic.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Jane Lancaster Patterson

It would be reasonable to assume that Reformation Sunday is the time to deliver a Reformation-era interpretation of Romans 3:19-28.

But that is actually the interpretation that has become standard fare for most Christians, and for many the juice has gone out of it. Here I consider Paul’s purposes in writing to the fractured community in Rome, and try to bring to the surface some of the original shock value of his use of a sacrificial metaphor.1 I continue to be both inspired and fascinated by the daring rhetorical power of Romans 3, and I hope that other preachers may find new ways to connect this seminal passage to the needs of contemporary congregations. I will focus mainly on verses 21-26, a passage I sometimes refer to as the “Mount Everest of biblical interpretation,” for its difficulty.

Social Context

Paul’s epistle to the house churches in Rome, written around 60 CE, is intended to prepare for his visit in person and to garner financial support for his mission to Spain. The situation he is addressing is one of division between the Jewish and Gentile believers, possibly exacerbated by the relatively recent return of the Jews from expulsion during the reign of Claudius. It appears that Paul is well-known for his law-free Gospel to the Gentiles, so he must address this fractured community with care, lest he only widen the fault line and weaken the local churches. The question is: Can he respond to their situation in a way that is truly effective for reconciliation?

Literary Context

While biblical scholars often refer to Romans 1:16-17 as the thesis statement of Romans, the real force of Paul’s argument occurs in the practical counsel of Romans 15:7, addressed to the Jewish and Gentile factions: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In this plea for mutual welcome, Paul sets his practical counsels to the Roman house churches within the wide theological framework of God’s purposes in Christ: to create a single humanity devoted to the will of God. The sacrificial metaphor in Romans 3:21-26 is the most important preparatory element in Paul’s movement toward this simple, but radical counsel, “Welcome one another.”

Romans 3:21-26

This passage is the climax of the argument that Paul has been building since Romans 1:16. Having described the failings of both Gentiles and Jews in language that echoes the standard clichés that each probably uttered about the other, he sums up the situation by saying that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” We might imagine that, in the heat of an argument between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome, Paul yells, “Stop! You’re both wrong!” Then in Romans 3:21 he says, “But now….Now, since the unjust execution and resurrection of God’s messiah, God is bringing people into right relationship by a new means: by faith, a means that sets Jews and Gentiles, women and men, on equal footing.

When this letter was received, the challenge it presented was relational. But in our own time, we have to deal with difficulties in translation and misunderstanding of the sacrificial metaphor before we can even get to the social challenge of Paul’s Gospel.


The beauty of the passage is built on the repetition of two Greek word-families and their cognates, as Paul turns them to different uses, carefully winding them into a dense net of meaning. They are:

  • pistis, faith, belief; pisteuo, to believe (Romans 3:22, two times; Romans 3:25, 26). The most enigmatic use of pistis is in the phrase pistis Christou, literally “the faith of Christ,” or “Christ’s faith” (Romans 3:22, 26). While many scholars have spilt ink over the question of whether the phrase is best translated as the “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ,” several (including me) are beginning to say that the Greek phrase implies a complex interweaving of Christ’s faith and the believer’s faith, a double knot that ties the believer into the patterns of Christ’s obedience to God. The fact that the term is frequently used as a verb (Romans 3:22) underscores its active moral role. The brothers and sisters in Rome believe, that is they entrust themselves to Christ Jesus’ patterns of life, including the call to welcome one another courageously across the Gentile-Jewish divide.
  • dikaiosyne, justice/righteousness; dikaioo, to justify; dikaios, just, righteous (Romans 3:21, 22, 24, 25, 26 two times). This word gives English translators fits, because they have to choose between righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor). The Greek language expresses the two as a single reality, a fact that grounds Paul’s argument in Romans 3. There is no true relationship with God if there is no true relationship with one’s neighbor.

Sacrificial metaphor

The use of a sacrificial metaphor to refer to Rome’s unjust execution of Jesus is Paul’s most stunning move in Romans 3, in spite of the fact that centuries of Christians post-70 CE (after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple) have come to accept the death of Jesus as necessarily sacrificial. And yet, the power of Paul’s insight in Romans 3:25 relies precisely upon the “is/is not” character of metaphor. To first-century believers, who participated in sacrifices regularly, the death of Jesus was obviously not literally a sacrifice because it did not take place in the Temple, was not offered by a priest, and was not one of the animals authorized for Jewish sacrifice. There is nothing about the death of Jesus, on the face of it, to suggest something other than an unjust execution at Roman hands.

What Paul says in Romans 3:24-25, however, is that there is redemption (purchase of freedom) in Christ Jesus, “whom God put forward: a mercy seat (hilasterion) through faith (pistis) in his blood as a demonstration of his [God’s] justice (dikaiosyne).” The mercy seat is in the Holy of Holies, the very center of the Jewish Temple, where the High Priest entered only once a year (Yom Kippur) to sprinkle blood, making atonement for all Israel. In effect, Paul claims unholy Golgotha as the Holy of Holies, the very center of God’s reconciling grace. God can turn what is unholy into a wellspring of blessing, as is in fact visibly happening among the Gentiles now called to walk in holiness as believers in Christ and servants of God.

The second thing Paul deftly accomplishes in this difficult sentence is the removal of Roman agency in the death of Jesus and the assertion of God’s agency. No matter what destruction Roman functionaries might enact, even the death of God’s anointed, God has the power to bring life and freedom, and not only for Jesus, but for all who join their lives to his by faith. The point of God’s decision to respond to the death of Jesus as though it were a sacrifice was to make a way for the whole earth to be atoned, to be made one, for all people to be reconciled to one another. The proper response to this global offering of atonement is overwhelming joy and welcome.

Living into grace

Opening up the startling freshness of this sacrificial metaphor may invite contemporary Christians into a deeper understanding of the grace of God to reconcile precisely where people are most tragically divided. The invitation to the hearers is to find those particular channels where, by Christ’s faith, they feel called to join themselves to the creative agency of God, already at work, already moving forward in welcome.


1. Interpretation of Romans 3:21-26 was an important coda to my dissertation and the subsequent book, Keeping the Feast: Sacrificial Metaphors in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.