Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
This is one of the more theologically loaded passages in the New Testament.
Many Christians, and Lutherans especially, derive from this passage a foundational element of belief: justification comes through faith in Christ apart from the law. Luther called this passage “the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, and of the whole Bible.”1 Indeed, many Christians today hear or read this passage with the familiarity of comfortable clothes. And let’s face it, when most pastors preach on it, the sermon often sings a predictable tune. Because of its acquired centrality, it is difficult to read or preach this passage in new ways. One might even ask, “Do we need to hear a passage anew when we’ve already got a solid understanding of it?”
To paraphrase Indigo Montoya’s famous statement from the movie The Princess Bride, “(This passage may not) mean what you think it means.” It’s not that we might be off the mark (though we should always be attentive to this reality). It’s that we shouldn’t get too comfortable. Most commentators readily acknowledge the interpretive difficulty of this passage. Ernst Käsemann conceded that this is “one of the most obscure and difficult (passages) in the whole epistle.”2 Any perusal of commentaries, articles, and exegetical studies shows that nearly every statement in this short passage raises unavoidable exegetical and interpretive questions around issues of significant theological weight. And it is no secret (or it certainly should not be!) that we have witnessed over the past thirty-five years in New Testament scholarship (and even in more general theological scholarship) significant rethinking of the concept of justification by faith. All of this holds the potential effect of throwing one’s theological framework(s) rooted in this passage into a tailspin. It’s not that this passage does not centrally pertain to justification or Christ’s atoning death. It’s that we cannot so comfortably stand on what we have thought these things mean. It is only fitting that such an important and even familiar passage in Paul’s letters is equally untamable, isn’t it?3
Perhaps one of the most important points about this passage, even if unintended and the result of time and distance from Paul and his audience, is this: we are never far from misunderstanding or misusing even what seems to be the central statement of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. All too often we stand upon our traditions and theological frameworks to define God and God’s activity. Throughout Scripture God has constantly been showing God’s people the inadequacy of doing this.
It is helpful to recall some general points about the letter (though these are disputed). Reading Romans as Paul’s great systematic theology of the gospel, abstracted from real life issues, have been shown unsatisfactory. Paul is likely dealing with a community with some stress fractures. At root of the tension in the Roman community/-ies seems to be the issue of where “righteousness” or “justification” is found. And remember, this is a community of believers; the issue does not pertain to how one gets saved, but how the community in Christ should get along. In Rome, one system of understanding is being privileged over another. Genuine Christlike love and acceptance of one another is lacking (Romans 14:10-19).
As in Galatians, Paul’s argument contrasts Jesus Christ and the Jewish law. Note that the alternative is not “doing” or “works” simpliciter. It is “works of the (Jewish) law.” Paul faces a common perspective that holds the Jewish law as the supreme revelation of God’s justice (righteousness) and what God has outlined for human life. It was also framed in terms of what the Jewish people did, as opposed to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. Paul is not opposing works understood universally, as if the Jews were trying to earn their salvation. Paul opposes the imposition of a particular way of living (in this case defined by the Jewish Torah). He opposes the demand that living according to this law — being part of the people who live this way and not some other (i.e. Greek, Roman, etc.) — made one just. This is causing division in the community in Rome because if “justification” or “righteousness” is through participation in the Jewish system, then Gentile believers are on the outside until they conform. They remain the “them” — even within the body of Christ.
But, for Paul, human sin made humans incapable of being just according to that system of evaluation. Being part of God’s historic people Israel — living according to their covenant — made no difference in relation to the quest for being just before God. No boasting could be made. So it was also wrong to define humanity along these lines — wrong for ethnic Jews within the community of faith to think they have the upper hand over ethnic Gentiles because of their way of living in accordance with God’s law; wrong for ethnic Gentiles to think that they are superior because they are free from law. No human narrative of living could have the upper hand. God’s “justice” has been revealed now in Christ, fulfilling the law, demolishing the quest for the superior narrative, and reconciling humanity. Because of this, evaluation of another’s standing before God on the basis of anything other than God’s revelation in Christ cannot take place. We are made just on the basis of God’s revelation that is apart from the system of the law.
This passage challenges not just “works of the law” understood theoretically. It also fundamentally challenges the effects of “works of the law,” effects that turn being just/righteous before God into the privilege of a certain few — a perspective built on a broken foundation. It is a passage that disarms the wall-building effects of “works of the law” systems, wall-building effects that effectively fracture humanity and the reconciled community rooted in Christ. If we leave Paul’s words at the level of a proposition that we must believe with our minds and hearts, we leave untouched a vital part of what justification in Christ is supposed to effect. Understood in relation to the drama behind the letter of Romans, this passage thrusts us out of our inclination to think that justification only matters for my personal relationship with God. It destroys our human built and well-intended foundations upon which we construct our theories of how God works, and whom God justifies. It leaves nothing but Christ alone, which thrusts us into genuine Christlike “welcoming” of others and the establishment of an identity on the basis of the revelation of God’s justice in Christ, and nothing else.
1 This is found in the margin of the Luther Bible for 3:23ff.
2 Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. and edited by G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 92.
3 As is common, the lectionary gives us a poorly defined text. The section properly begins at 3:21 and runs through 3:26. There is a clear end to a rhetorical movement in 3:20, and the battering of rhetorical questions that begins in 3:27 and continues through 4:10 demonstrates Paul dealing with the imaginary objections that might issue from what Paul declared in 3:21-26. But perhaps not all is lost because of this quirky division of the text. This unfortunate break-up of the natural rhetorical flow of Paul’s argument forces the reader to connect things in a new way. If anything, the lectionary’s division is an invitation (one that I would strongly suggest preachers should not ignore) to say a few words about the wider argumentative and rhetorical context of this passage (which one can find in a good commentary).