Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
Celebrating The Reformation
Many churches will celebrate the Reformation this week.
Though Christians differ on some points of doctrine, most agree this is a great opportunity to lift up the biblical themes of God’s grace and the liberating power of faith. A reading from Luther and a description of why he is important for the church would certainly be appropriate. Above all, it should be underlined that Luther and the other reformers did not claim to be saying something new.
Rather they believed they were recovering a teaching from the Bible (and especially Paul) that had been obscured or ignored by the church of that time. Moreover, they stressed that the core message of Romans is always relevant, no matter how many years separate us from the sixteenth century. The age-old tendency of humans to justify themselves means the church must always be reformed — and this includes the congregations that claim Luther as a father in the faith. And now we turn to this rich passage from Paul and select some themes that connect with the life of Christians today.
Good Works Can Be Dangerous!
The opening verses in our passage summarize what Paul has been saying up to this point in chapters two and three. Paul stresses that humanity has no claim whatsoever on God. Both Greeks and Jews stand accused by the law. The former know the law as it is “written on their hearts” (2:15) while the latter fall short of the law revealed to the people of Israel. Note carefully that the law is not the problem. Paul underlines that the law itself is good (7:12). But it is our tendency (sin) to use what is good to promote our own agenda that is the problem. In doing this we reveal the depth of our rebellion.
Paul is basically reminding us that even our best works can be the occasion for sin. Church members know this quite well. Sometimes the most active members of congregations are also infected with an insufferable self-righteousness. Though we know the goal of our efforts on behalf of others is to build up the community, we also understand the temptation to take these good acts and set ourselves apart as special in the eyes of God. Odd as it may sound, doing good works can be spiritually dangerous. It is important for Christians to keep Paul’s stern declaration forever in front of our eyes: “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law…” (3:20).
It is easy to pass over the small words of Scripture and count them as having little value. We prefer to unpack the big terms that are loaded with theological freight, like “justification” and “righteousness”. However, Paul is making a big shift in our passage as he transitions from futility of the human situation to what God is doing to address the problem.
BUT NOW (3:21) says Paul, God is doing something new. That little word “now” deserves some attention. Paul is directing our attention to the present tense. This is echoed latter in the section when he says “…they are now justified by his grace” (3:24) and “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous” (3:26, underlining mine).
In other words, we are not dealing merely with something that God has done in the past. This is not a glance back to a “once upon a time.” It is certainly not merely a history lesson. Paul’s point is that right now, this very moment, God is declaring something to us that we need to hear. In other words, this is a message that connects with peoples’ lives as they live today. Preachers and teachers would do well to address their hearers in the here and now and avoid the past tense!
This brings us to the final and most important part of the comments on these verses. Just what does Paul say that God is now doing? Basically, he is making clear what kind of God he really is. If God’s righteousness is only a standard for us to attain, then we are out of luck. As has been shown, we lack the power (our wills are bound to self-love) to follow the law and make ourselves righteous or whole.
But the picture changes completely if God’s righteousness is something that is given to us. And this is the key point that must be grasped. Paul is saying that, in Christ, God shares (3:24) his righteousness with those who do not deserve it — we “Greeks and Jews” who are so bent on doing things our way on our own terms.
Since this is Reformation Sunday, Luther’s own experience might be instructive here. When Luther first studied the Bible it became for him a great puzzle as to why Christ should have to die. After all, sin is punished by death (Romans 6:23) but Christ was not guilty of sin. When he came to see that Christ himself actually became a sinner (compare 2 Corinthians 5:21) the mystery dissolved.
As Luther reasoned, if Christ was truly bearing the sin of the world (3:25), then that also meant Luther’s own sin was on Christ. If his sin was on Christ, then he was — in Christ — free of sin. And if he was free of sin then he was righteous. Not because of anything he did or deserved but rather because God was determined to have it that way.
Paul describes this new, Christ-based relationship with God as “faith.” Interpreters will take care to point out that Paul understood faith as “trust” and not simply intellectual belief. Otherwise people might be tempted to make faith the one final condition for being made right with God, as long as they simply “believe” it (as if faith is simple!). But this would just bring us back into the realm of the law once again and commit us to the futile enterprise of justifying ourselves (3:28).
Keep the focus solely on Christ and his death for you on the cross. Tell your listeners that this radical love is aimed squarely at them — right now. And they might be amazed to find themselves wrapped up in a relationship with this God whose mercy extends even to the “ungodly” (Romans 4:5).