Commentary on Romans 5:1-5
Paul has explained how God’s righteousness or justice (dikaiosyne) has been revealed through the gospel in the first four chapters in Romans.
After having used Abraham as an example of justification by faith in Israel’s history in Romans 4, Paul is going to demonstrate how God’s salvation manifests in the life of those justified by faith in Romans 5-8. Paul must not have intended to develop a theology of the Trinity, but he speaks about having peace with God (5:1-11), being united with Christ (6:1-14), and living according to the Spirit (8:1-17), along with discussions of law, sin, and death. Romans 5:1-5 is like a prelude to his following argument, which witnesses the presence of the Holy Trinity in God’s saving action and power.
God’s justice and justification by faith
Since Paul implies that being justified (dikaioo) by faith results in or requires peace with God, it is necessary to consider how Paul addresses “justification by faith.” While the traditional understanding of justification is one’s status of being free from the charge of being guilty in judicial terms, it can also be understood as being in a right relationship with God based on God’s covenant with Israel. When this covenant is also extended to the Gentiles, they need a certain kind of faith to enter into the relationship with God.
When Paul says in Romans 5:1 that “we are justified by faith” (dikaiothentes ek pisteos), the Greek preposition ek (“out of”) implies the causality of justification. This same expression appears in 3:26 where Paul adds “of Jesus”: the one who justifies the one who is of (the) faith of Jesus (dikaiounta ton ek pisteos Iesou). While it is translated as “he [God] justifies the one who has faith in Jesus,” it can also mean the faith Jesus had or Jesus’ faithfulness. In other places, Paul uses God’s justice or justification “dia” (through) faith, but again the preacher would decide how to read it: whose faith is it? (3:22; see also 3:30)
Through our Lord Jesus Christ
Interpreting “pistis christou” as faith or faithfulness of Christ is a possible option because Paul says a little later, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Our entering into right relationship with God is the consequence of Jesus’ faithful obedience to God in his death and resurrection (4:25). Then, what Paul means becomes clear when he says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Through Jesus Christ and his faithful obedience, “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). While peace with God is grace (charis), that is, freely given, Paul also says we received grace (and apostleship) through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection in order to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:4-5; 15:18; 16:26). Justification by faith is neither the mere acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior or a peaceful status of being with God, but an active response to Jesus’ faithfulness by our faithful obedience.
Romans is addressed to the Roman congregations whose majority is Gentile Christians after Jews, who had been expelled from Rome under Claudius, returned under Nero. Jewish Christians encountered adversities both from the society and within the church. Thus, Paul’s primary conversation partner is the Gentile Christians who boasted against Israel. For Paul, obedience to God (1:5, 13) and boasting against God are antithetical (1:5, 13, 18-2:5).1 Although our lection is only Romans 5:1-5, let us see how the theme of boasting functions in the structure, which 5:1 and verse 11 bracket.
- Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 1)
- boast in our hope (verse 2)
- boast in our sufferings (verse 3)
- boast in God (verse 11)
- Reconciliation to God through our Lord Jesus (verse 11)
What is recognizable in this passage is that peace with and reconciliation to God are synonymous. When the Roman emperor is deified as the Lord (kyrios) and Roman peace (Pax Romana) is propagated as the “good news,” Paul proclaims that those Gentile believers have peace with God through “our Lord Jesus Christ,” who was executed on the cross at the hands of Rome. It was a shameful death. Yet, it is the paradox that God’s justice manifests in the cross as the ultimate expression of God’s love reconciling the ungodly to God (verses 5, 8):
- for while we were still weak Christ died for the ungodly (verses 6-7).
- for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (verses 8-9).
- for…while we were enemies…through the death of his son (verse 10).
This is why they can boast only in the suffering that Jesus Christ has already experienced and shared with them: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship [suffering], or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35). Yet, suffering is not a sin “producing” death (7:13; see 4:15), but suffering “produces” endurance, and character, and then hope (5:4). Hope does not put us to shame (NIV; ESV) because, just as Jesus’ death has brought about our justification and reconciliation with God:
- we will be saved through him (verse 9).
- we will be saved by his life (verse 10).
The Spirit as the assurance of God’s love in suffering
If Christ’s faithful obedience in his death brought our peace with God, a group of people cannot claim superiority over others. Instead, God’s love unites all through Christ’s death that is “on our behalf.” Moreover, since his death is not an event isolated from the resurrection, we will be saved “by his life,” which brings “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). This newness of life is possible because of the “newness of the Spirit” (7:6).
The Spirit appears only once in the text assigned for Holy Trinity Sunday: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Yet, she is the one who generates and sustains the newness of life in the midst of sufferings that all humanity and creation share until the redemption of our bodies (8:23). Neither suffering nor anything can separate us from the love of Christ. This is why we boast in hope, as well as in sufferings (5:2, 3) assured by the Holy Spirit of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
- Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 129.