Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
This text for Reformation Sunday is at the core of Protestant soteriology, yet it is part of a much longer argument in Romans whereby Paul outlines how salvation that comes through faith (1:16-17) is grounded in God’s response to the human condition, which sees all people in a state of sinfulness (1:18 – 3:31). It is clear in the early chapters of Romans that because of humanity’s refusal to recognize God in creation and its propensity for evil, everyone will stand condemned before God, since God judges each person according to his or her works (2:6-11).
Today’s lectionary reading includes two verses that form the conclusion of the preceding rhetorical section in which Paul summarizes the accountability humans face before God because of their failure to keep the Mosaic law (verses 19-20). Paul is addressing Judeans who might think of themselves as exempt from God’s judgment. They are legally accountable before God since they have not met the requirements of the Mosaic law. Paul deploys a scriptural proof to this effect: “no human being will be justified in his sight” (verse 20 referencing Psalm 143:2, Septuagint 142:2). Gentiles, on the other hand, never had a chance as they are outside Mosaic law, so they too are legally accountable before God. Thus, the entire world is “under judgment” (hypodikos, a legal term in verse 19b).
In the following verses, Paul takes on the Mosaic law directly, but it is critical to recall that he is not judging Judeans independently, although he recognizes their special status “under the law.” The law is inadequate not because the rules are broken but because there is no way to please God based solely on behavior. Whether sinning under the law (Judeans) or outside the law (Gentiles), all will be judged because, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23). The claim that “all have sinned” underscores there being no differentiation in Paul’s mind between Judeans and non-Judeans. This is a radical departure from the Jewish emphasis on the Mosaic law setting apart the Judeans as a people specially chosen by God, a position that Paul himself seems to have held until he revoked it upon his encounter with Christ (see also Philippians 3:4-11).
Despite this condemnation, God’s righteousness has been “manifested apart from the law” through faith in/of Jesus Christ for all who believe (3:21-22). Those who believe are justified by the gift of grace, through redemption in Christ whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood (3:24-25). This justification occurs apart from the Mosaic law (3:28).
These verses are some of the most theologically dense in Paul’s writings and have led to much scholarly explication. One of the key issues focuses on grammar: what to make of the genitive construct in the Greek clause dia pisteos Iesou Christou, since this is the basis of the “righteousness of God” (verse 22). The Greek construction could be translated “through faith in Christ” (so New Revised Standard Version) or “through the faith/faithfulness (obedience”) of Christ.” There is a critical operational difference here in terms of soteriology. In the first instance, a person puts their faith in Christ so as to ensure their own salvation, grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Certainly this is the more traditional way of understanding this verse, and yet the action of “having” faith could itself be understood as a “work,” that is, action beginning with the person in order to effect salvation. In the second understanding—“through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”—the emphasis remains on salvation being effected outside of human will and action. It is the Christ event, Jesus’ willingness to undergo death and resurrection, that has brought about the necessary reconciliation between God and humans. This is a theological conundrum that cannot be solved grammatically. Yet, for the sake of the faithful, Paul’s overall point about the inability of all humans to find salvation directly through Christ and not through following rules, Mosaic law or otherwise, should not be lost in attempts to explain how this might be imagined as taking place.
In verses 21-26 the character of God’s “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) is manifest outside of Mosaic law even though it is attested in the scripture (“the law and the prophets,” verse 21). This happens in three ways:
- through the faith in/of Jesus (verse 22)
- through God’s tolerance in overlooking sins committed (verse 25)
- through God making just those who believe in Jesus (verse 26)
Inserted into these demonstrations, the emphasis in verses 24-25 centers on the restoration of the relationship between God and humanity with key words: justification; redemption; sacrifice; atonement. Expounding any of this legal terminology could be a sermon in and of itself. It starts in verse 19 when Paul declares that the world will be “accountable” or “under judgment” (hypodikos), a conviction that is overturned through being declared “not guilty” (dikaiosynē, “justified,” verse 24), liberated as if from slavery or a prison (apolytrōsis, “redeemed,” verse 24b), and no longer responsible through a “sacrifice of atonement.” There’s just a single word behind the translation “sacrifice of atonement”—hilastērion—which has created much theological head-scratching through the centuries. It is not clear whether Paul means that Christ’s death placates God’s wrath or whether his death removes the cause of the wrath from humanity. Either way, Christ’s death is effective, but how the metaphor works remains a mystery, although clearly for Paul it is a gift—“grace” (verse 24)—that restores this relationship.
Overall, Paul here seems to be deploying substitutionary theology, and one cannot help but think of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). In the case of Jesus, however, the son who is not spared yet is at the same time the substitute for those whom God’s justice would require be sacrificed themselves. This, for Paul, is humbling (verses 27-28), for the salvation that believers claim is none of their own doing.
Reformers such as Martin Luther saw in texts such as this one Paul’s repudiation of legalism, a consequence of which was a denigration of Jews who were seen to bear the brunt of Paul’s negative rhetoric. Such interpretations miss just how thoroughly Jewish is both the structure and argument of the passage (here and elsewhere in Romans) as Paul works out his theology using Jewish Christian forensic terms. Paul is trying to make sense of his experience of the Christ event—Jesus’ death and the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection—as filtered through his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish theology.