Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
Romans 3 and Reformation Sunday belong together. Both Paul’s witness and the day in the church’s calendar deserve to be taken joyfully, but not in the triumphal ways of the past.
One preacher dragged a log chain into the pulpit and clanged it noisily to emphasize how Luther freed the Bible from the Papacy. He didn’t know the loud speakers in the steeple broadcast his rant around town. His Catholic neighbors firmly advised him, “We also read the Bible!”
Historic polemics against the Jews have had even more devastating consequences, requiring Christian repentance for brutality and genocide. The dark blot of Martin Luther’s anti-Judaism has made many preachers afraid of Paul’s powerful witness, and some others have become ashamed of how Paul has been misinterpreted as merely an “introspective conscience.”
But the misuse of Paul and Reformation Sunday does not excuse disuse. Many reformations have been inspired by Paul. Augustine was stirred to “take and read” Romans, Luther sensed rebirth with the gates of paradise opening, Wesley’s heart was warmed, and Karl Barth’s Romans commentary sounded a thunderclap in the playground of 20th century theologians.
Paul’s letter to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” is “solid food,” to use Paul’s term (1 Corinthians 3:2). It is hard to digest if a congregation has been coddled on baby food. But this reading from Romans 3 gives working preachers and the people something to work at, to chew on. In his 1980 Augsburg Commentary on Romans (page 14), Roy Harrisville identified three portions of Paul’s sturdy fare: the Law upheld, justification at the heart of Paul’s gospel, and the new existence as hidden in Christ. All three call forth God’s reformation in the church.
“But now,” Paul confesses (verse 21), inviting reformation now, in the light of God’s reign in Jesus.
God’s law is in force, and it is still speaking, disclosing the reality of sin (verses 19-20). It might be easier to consign the Ten Commandments to the past or minimize them as moral suggestions, but more is at stake than our morality or human justice. The reason “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18) is that the living God is the Lawgiver.
God’s law is not only “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105), but it exposes how continually and deeply I have turned away from God, pursuing my self-interests. God’s law is a mortally inconvenient truth. It reveals my ungodly life (Romans 5:6-11).
To tell this truth, working preachers need to slow down to break into denials of sin and death. The evidence of this human tragedy is all around us. The gospel gives courage to tell the truth because God’s remedy is stronger than our illness.
Paul affirms that “the righteousness of God … is attested by the law and the prophets” (verse 21) in full agreement with all Israel that their scriptures are enduringly valid and authoritative. The only scriptures Paul and the early Christians had were Israel’s scriptures, and Paul continually dwells in them. “But now,” Israel’s scriptures are to be read theologically in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s will has not changed, but God’s righteousness works in a new way.
When the law is upheld as God’s law, God’s righteousness is newly fearful and wonderful. Paul explores Israel’s deep story of God’s justification. “Righteousness” and “justification” are close synonyms in biblical vocabulary, whether in the form of nouns (dikaiosune) or verbs (dikaioun). Academics may make fine distinctions, and dogmaticians insist on rigid precision, but the apostle is leading us into the passion of God’s heart which is alive in every generation.
Through the centuries, reformations of many kinds have been stirred by these revelations, many drawn very literally from Paul, who was reaching deep into the scriptures. The lamb’s blood Israel put on its doorposts in Egypt once restrained God to pass over their firstborn (Exodus 12). Now God “put forward” Christ Jesus “as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (verse 25).
The power to reform is fired in the forge of God’s holy righteousness, now revealed in “forbearance,” passing over “sins previously committed” (verse 25). God’s ultimate righteousness is enacted in justifying or making righteous those who were God’s enemies through trusting God righteousness at work in Jesus for them, indeed for us.
“But now,” every working preacher, joining the Apostle himself, can bring the timely truth, the joyful Gospel truth that reveals the new life in Christ when Reformation Sunday is about “now.”
Paul expresses his testimony to our dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ in a rich mix of prepositions: “through faith of/in Jesus Christ” (verse 22), “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (verse 24), “from faith of/in Jesus” (verse 26). The relationship is all in the present tense.
This is God’s power of reformation, as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth all realized.
This reformation does not call for trying harder or partisan denominationalism. In fact, our striving has hidden and distorted the very justification of our lives we have sought. To be “justified by God’s grace as a gift” (verse 24) is God’s righteousness at work, not ours: Jesus Christ with us, Jesus Christ in us, Jesus Christ for us.
This reformation begins in repentance, turning away from our striving and techniques. This is the change of mind and heart (metanoia) of returning to God in joy, of trusting the source of our life and being renewed in our vocations to care for our neighbor and the world God loves.
It may have been a long time since you, working preacher, have heard or proclaimed a reformation call to repentance (metanoia is also the word for “conversion,” but that might blow all the circuits). Maybe like Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth, as you dwell in Paul’s message, you will hear this call and promise yourself.
When God’s law is upheld, the pretense of our ambition is exposed. When God’s righteousness is revealed in the mercy of Christ Jesus, the scriptures sing with God’s promise for the world. When our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), God’s reformation is renewed.