Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
The triumph of grace over law fanned the sparks of Luther’s troubled conscience into the blaze that became the Protestant Reformation.
Romans 3, as much as any other passage in scripture, lays out the dichotomy between the law and the saving grace of God in Christ.
The rule of grace
But it may well be that most of us have not gone far enough. Rather than seeing God’s saving grace as an alternative to salvation through law, many of us inhabit theological systems in which God’s work in Christ becomes the way that the law is freed to vindicate us. The result, often, is that our churches, as well as the societies bearing our influence, become marked by aspirations to a rule of law rather than embodying the reign of grace.
Paul never talks about Jesus keeping the law in our place. Never suggests that Jesus’ law-keeping becomes our own. Such an idea would mean that the problem with the law is quantitative: if we could keep enough of it, we would be ok. Instead, Paul sets out to demonstrate that the problem of the law is qualitative: the law is the wrong kind of thing to give us the life and salvation that God has in store.
In Romans 3:19-20, Paul says both that the purpose of the law is something other than providing our salvation, and that it is impossible for it to do so. When he asserts that no human will be justified before God by works of the law he is not setting up an impossibility that Christ overcomes. Instead, we are learning that the law has a different job: making known the guilt and power of sin.
Romans 3:21 reinforces the dichotomy between the law and the righteousness of God. The law and the prophets both point beyond themselves to something else: to the work of God in Christ (verse 22). Incidentally, this is the same interpretive guide that Jesus applies to the scriptures of Israel in both Luke 24:25-26, 44-47 and John 5:39. Scripture, including the law, is read rightly when we see it not as talking about itself, but as a witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ.
One of the most tragic failures of the church throughout the centuries has been our unwillingness to boldly take hold of the claim, “there is no distinction” (Romans 3:23). Justification by faith should have been the end of all nationalism, racism, sexism, and classism in the church. It should have marked the end of Christian willingness to go to war, literally or figuratively, against people gathered under some tribal or national flag other than our own.
“There is no distinction” might be the single most important confession of the reality of creation that we can make in 2018. And it might be the one that calls forth our deepest repentance.
As this passage represents the salvation that breaks into the world it sets two things alongside each other. On the one hand is the death of Christ on the cross. On the other is the human response of “faith.”
It is likely that when Paul says, “through faith in Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22), he is capturing both of these elements. What is it that puts God’s righteousness on display (Romans 3:21-22)? It is not our human response to the Christ event. It is the death of Jesus itself. Thus, scholars have increasingly advocated that we translate “faith in Christ” as “faithfulness of Christ.” Jesus’ fidelity in going to the cross makes God’s righteousness known.
But this does not elide the human response. This manifestation of divine righteousness through Christ’s fidelity is for “all those who believe” (Romans 3:22). Those words, too, might need to be nuanced. If what saves us is Christ’s “faithfulness,” then perhaps our response should be thought of not so much as mental assent (“I believe that this is right”) as with our own faithfulness to this narrative (“I entrust myself to this saving story and the role God calls me to within it”).
The life we’re called to is measured by the grace and righteousness of God put on display in the cross rather than the law that God gave to Israel.
In a manner that makes many modern interpreters uncomfortable, Paul draws on Israel’s traditions of substitionary atonement to describe how Jesus’ death enables God’s righteousness to stand alongside human vindication. The Maccabean martyr traditions illustrate this way of thinking. In 2 Maccabees 7 righteous martyrs die confessing the sins of the people and praying for God to hear, act, and save.
Fourth Maccabees interprets the same scene as follows: “because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice (Greek hilasterion), divine Providence preserved Israel” (4 Maccabees 17:20-22 New Revised Standard Version).
Only in 4 Maccabees 17 and in Romans 3 does the word hilasterion refer to the atoning sacrifice rather than the “mercy seat” in the tabernacle or later temple. Both times it refers to the death of a martyr that turns God’s disposition toward the people as it frees them from an enslaving power.
Vindication (“justification”) of God’s people is found not merely in a forensic declaration, but in our being freed from the tyrants of sin and death that had formerly enslaved all people (Romans 6-8). As all had been enslaved and had sinned, since the law does not save, and inasmuch as there is no distinction, so all human boasting is excluded (Romans 3:27). Because all of us are saved only by God’s righteousness through the faithful Messiah.