Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
I’ve been having trouble breathing, and today my ear-nose-and-throat specialist told me I need surgery to correct a deviated septum.
He needs to put things right so air can flow in and out as it ought. He is enthusiastic about the prospect and assures me my quality of life will improve once things are straightened out.
In writing to the Romans, Paul describes God’s process of putting us right, of straightening us out. He introduces this theme immediately after his salutation and thanksgiving with his statement of purpose in 1:16-17. The good news has the power to change our lives.
After this statement of purpose, Paul explores the flip side of his theme, concluding that all of our relationships with God stand in need of repair. We have all lost the glory God gave humans in creation. We have turned away from God and God’s splendor. Because of sin, none of us stand in right relationship with God (3:23). Having established that dark side of the truth, Paul returns to his theme in chapter 3, spelling out in more detail the ideas he introduced briefly in 1:16-17.
Paul’s core conviction is that the gospel reveals “the righteousness of God.” For some of us, that phrase conjures up an image of a God who judges rightly between the good we have done and the evil we have committed and then decides our fate. We line up, and God counts off: “Number seven, you go to heaven! Number six, you are in a fix!”
Martin Luther once hated the phrase “the righteousness of God.” It made him shudder all over. He wrote: “Who can love such a God who deals with sinners according to such a standard of justice? We are all sinners, and none of us stands a chance. Will not such a God devour us all like a consuming fire?”1
But while reading Romans, Luther discovered that God’s righteousness does not consist in weighing out punishment or favor. For Paul, God’s righteousness is not simply a quality God has. It is primarily an activity, a righteousness that God bestows on us. God gives this righteousness to us to make our relationship with God right. In the words of the NEB, “it is God’s way of righting wrong” (3:22). Such an understanding of the righteousness of God stands in sharp contrast to any reward-and-punishment logic. God sets us right, not on the basis of our attempts to put things right, but by “grace as a gift” (3:24).
The process by which God bestows such righteousness is a matter of debate, as the footnotes to 3:22 and 3:26 in the NRSV indicate. If we adopt the reading of the main text that focuses on “faith in Jesus,” we underscore that Jesus is the object of our faith. If we adopt the alternate reading that focuses on “the faith of Jesus,” we stress that God gives righteousness to us on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus. In that case, Jesus becomes the example of faith or faithfulness for us. God’s gift comes to us through Jesus’ death, but it is the human Jesus who has offered himself. His obedience opens up new life for us.
The most significant question, however, is not about how justification works, but for whom. Who is this good news for? Paul’s unswerving answer is everyone: “there is no distinction” (3:22). This good news is for the Greeks and the non-Greeks, for the Jews and the non-Jews. It is for the civilized and the savage, the educated and the ignorant, the haves and the have-nots. It is for us all, for all of us sinners stand in need of redemption (3:23). Just as sin and guilt are universal, so is God’s grace. As Paul will argue later in the chapter, the fundamental belief in the oneness of God underwrites God’s equal treatment for all (3:29-30).
Desiring to put all of us in right relationship, God shows no partiality on the basis of those adjectives we love so well. God does not judge between us on the basis of our skin color, our culture, our race, our nationality, our gender, or our sexual orientation. God loves us all, accepts us all, and desires to put us all in right relationship. That truth challenged the status quo in Paul’s day, and it continues to challenge us in ours.
It was good news for me to learn I will be breathing more easily once my doctor straightens out my crooked nose. But my insurance company and I will both pay for that operation. How much more wonderful to know of God’s free gift through Christ that sets right a most fundamental deviation–our attempts to build our lives and center our loves on self rather than God. Because of what has happened in Christ, God rights our wrongs in a new way that forever changes us and our world. That is a transformation for which none of us could pay. It is gift. It is grace. That is good news for all of us.
1Martin Luther, W.A. 40:11, 3331, 25 and 444, 36, as quoted in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957): II/1, 378.