Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
It would be reasonable to assume that Reformation Sunday is the time to deliver a Reformation-era interpretation of Romans 3:19-28.
But that is actually the interpretation that has become standard fare for most Christians, and for many the juice has gone out of it. Here I consider Paul’s purposes in writing to the fractured community in Rome, and try to bring to the surface some of the original shock value of his use of a sacrificial metaphor.1 I continue to be both inspired and fascinated by the daring rhetorical power of Romans 3, and I hope that other preachers may find new ways to connect this seminal passage to the needs of contemporary congregations. I will focus mainly on verses 21-26, a passage I sometimes refer to as the “Mount Everest of biblical interpretation,” for its difficulty.
Paul’s epistle to the house churches in Rome, written around 60 CE, is intended to prepare for his visit in person and to garner financial support for his mission to Spain. The situation he is addressing is one of division between the Jewish and Gentile believers, possibly exacerbated by the relatively recent return of the Jews from expulsion during the reign of Claudius. It appears that Paul is well-known for his law-free Gospel to the Gentiles, so he must address this fractured community with care, lest he only widen the fault line and weaken the local churches. The question is: Can he respond to their situation in a way that is truly effective for reconciliation?
While biblical scholars often refer to Romans 1:16-17 as the thesis statement of Romans, the real force of Paul’s argument occurs in the practical counsel of Romans 15:7, addressed to the Jewish and Gentile factions: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In this plea for mutual welcome, Paul sets his practical counsels to the Roman house churches within the wide theological framework of God’s purposes in Christ: to create a single humanity devoted to the will of God. The sacrificial metaphor in Romans 3:21-26 is the most important preparatory element in Paul’s movement toward this simple, but radical counsel, “Welcome one another.”
This passage is the climax of the argument that Paul has been building since Romans 1:16. Having described the failings of both Gentiles and Jews in language that echoes the standard clichés that each probably uttered about the other, he sums up the situation by saying that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” We might imagine that, in the heat of an argument between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome, Paul yells, “Stop! You’re both wrong!” Then in Romans 3:21 he says, “But now….” Now, since the unjust execution and resurrection of God’s messiah, God is bringing people into right relationship by a new means: by faith, a means that sets Jews and Gentiles, women and men, on equal footing.
When this letter was received, the challenge it presented was relational. But in our own time, we have to deal with difficulties in translation and misunderstanding of the sacrificial metaphor before we can even get to the social challenge of Paul’s Gospel.
The beauty of the passage is built on the repetition of two Greek word-families and their cognates, as Paul turns them to different uses, carefully winding them into a dense net of meaning. They are:
- pistis, faith, belief; pisteuo, to believe (Romans 3:22, two times; Romans 3:25, 26). The most enigmatic use of pistis is in the phrase pistis Christou, literally “the faith of Christ,” or “Christ’s faith” (Romans 3:22, 26). While many scholars have spilt ink over the question of whether the phrase is best translated as the “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ,” several (including me) are beginning to say that the Greek phrase implies a complex interweaving of Christ’s faith and the believer’s faith, a double knot that ties the believer into the patterns of Christ’s obedience to God. The fact that the term is frequently used as a verb (Romans 3:22) underscores its active moral role. The brothers and sisters in Rome believe, that is they entrust themselves to Christ Jesus’ patterns of life, including the call to welcome one another courageously across the Gentile-Jewish divide.
- dikaiosyne, justice/righteousness; dikaioo, to justify; dikaios, just, righteous (Romans 3:21, 22, 24, 25, 26 two times). This word gives English translators fits, because they have to choose between righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor). The Greek language expresses the two as a single reality, a fact that grounds Paul’s argument in Romans 3. There is no true relationship with God if there is no true relationship with one’s neighbor.
The use of a sacrificial metaphor to refer to Rome’s unjust execution of Jesus is Paul’s most stunning move in Romans 3, in spite of the fact that centuries of Christians post-70 CE (after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple) have come to accept the death of Jesus as necessarily sacrificial. And yet, the power of Paul’s insight in Romans 3:25 relies precisely upon the “is/is not” character of metaphor. To first-century believers, who participated in sacrifices regularly, the death of Jesus was obviously not literally a sacrifice because it did not take place in the Temple, was not offered by a priest, and was not one of the animals authorized for Jewish sacrifice. There is nothing about the death of Jesus, on the face of it, to suggest something other than an unjust execution at Roman hands.
What Paul says in Romans 3:24-25, however, is that there is redemption (purchase of freedom) in Christ Jesus, “whom God put forward: a mercy seat (hilasterion) through faith (pistis) in his blood as a demonstration of his [God’s] justice (dikaiosyne).” The mercy seat is in the Holy of Holies, the very center of the Jewish Temple, where the High Priest entered only once a year (Yom Kippur) to sprinkle blood, making atonement for all Israel. In effect, Paul claims unholy Golgotha as the Holy of Holies, the very center of God’s reconciling grace. God can turn what is unholy into a wellspring of blessing, as is in fact visibly happening among the Gentiles now called to walk in holiness as believers in Christ and servants of God.
The second thing Paul deftly accomplishes in this difficult sentence is the removal of Roman agency in the death of Jesus and the assertion of God’s agency. No matter what destruction Roman functionaries might enact, even the death of God’s anointed, God has the power to bring life and freedom, and not only for Jesus, but for all who join their lives to his by faith. The point of God’s decision to respond to the death of Jesus as though it were a sacrifice was to make a way for the whole earth to be atoned, to be made one, for all people to be reconciled to one another. The proper response to this global offering of atonement is overwhelming joy and welcome.
Living into grace
Opening up the startling freshness of this sacrificial metaphor may invite contemporary Christians into a deeper understanding of the grace of God to reconcile precisely where people are most tragically divided. The invitation to the hearers is to find those particular channels where, by Christ’s faith, they feel called to join themselves to the creative agency of God, already at work, already moving forward in welcome.
1. Interpretation of Romans 3:21-26 was an important coda to my dissertation and the subsequent book, Keeping the Feast: Sacrificial Metaphors in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.