Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
Paul has just spent two chapters making sure that all the Gentiles among his hearers and all the Jews alike will recognize themselves to be pretty much out of wiggle room.
Gentiles, he argues, might not have had the law to guide them, but they had revelation from God in the natural world, and they did not follow what they knew. Jews have even less of an excuse. They had the law and yet did not remain faithful to the covenant God made with them. Quoting Psalm 14, Paul concludes, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
While all the religious language in Paul’s argument might not speak to you, you don’t have to be a particularly religious person to look around the world and see that it’s a mess. And it doesn’t take much for most of us to admit that at least some of the mess has our fingerprints on it. Sometimes we can draw a straight line from something we did to some harm that happened to another. Most of the time, the lines are messier than that. We are part of systems that are broken, so we are not the only ones responsible. Or it’s not that we did something; it’s that we failed to act when an action might have helped someone else, or we tried to help and we made things worse.
The Righteousness of God
So Paul sets up this scenario where everyone listening to his letter is staring at their shoes and wishing it would just be over soon, and then he says, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Romans 3:21).
Of course, it is not immediately good news that the righteousness of God has been revealed. In Luke, “the righteousness of God” is pictured this way:
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
When Old Testament prophets speak of the God’s righteousness, they are pointing to God setting things right for God’s people. The little people will be vindicated, and Israel will know justice, peace, and prosperity.
Paul has just spent those opening chapters of Romans documenting how far we all are from that vision. Now, when he says the righteousness of God has been revealed, you have to wonder, is this good news or bad news? If no one is righteous, not even one, then a righteous God might just give up on the human project altogether.
Paul continues, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22b-24). When you redeem something, you recapture its value. Think of a coupon or a returnable bottle. The store or the manufacturer buys them back from you. They are worth cash.
In Christ Jesus, God redeems not coupons or bottles, but people. Paul would not have had to look far for a case in point. He himself had tried to do the right thing and ended up persecuting the church. The book of Acts tells us that when the deacon, Stephen, was martyred, the men doing the killing laid their cloaks at the feet of the young man we know as Paul, and he “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). The world is this way, and it should not be. Paul had been on the wrong side of God’s righteousness. And God’s response? The Lord Jesus had found him on the road to Damascus and redeemed him for something better.
The whole ministry of Jesus was dedicated to this kind of buying back. He healed people — a few he even raised from the dead — and he gave them back to their families. He ate with tax collectors and other sinners, people everyone else had already written off as a loss. He bought them back. The justice he embodied in his life and his death was not content to rail against sin. The justice of God that Christ lived out so faithfully aimed to break the power of sin, to restore sinners so that they could love God and those among whom God has placed them.
The Protestant tradition speaks of God as always reforming the church. Not just individually, but also together, in the body of Christ, we drift away from the righteousness of God as Jesus lived it out and made it available to all. Sometimes we abandon it altogether. Part of what we observe with Reformation Day is this movement of God, in Christ and through the Spirit, to redeem not just individuals, but also the church.
One of the stories of Protestant Reformation is the story of God buying back a church whose creative ways of keeping the budget balanced (that is, through the selling of indulgences) had effectively put a price on “the free gift,” as Paul describes being right with God (see Romans 5:15 and following). The reformers rejected the idea that anyone could buy or sell the righteousness that God bestowed.
It is easier to recognize the compromises of the church in a previous century than it is to see such failures in our own time. Yet just as it is always true in our individual lives and in our societies that “there is no one righteous, not even one,” the same is true of our individual congregations and of the church as a whole. Those who have spent any time at all in the church are likely to find that illustrations of “the church is this way, and it should not be,” come rather too easily to mind.
We, as the people of God, lose our way. To say that the church is always being reformed is to say that God is still paying attention and paying the price to redeem our communities from all the ways we sell out to sin, death, and the power of the devil. God is still buying us back for something better.