Third Sunday in Lent

There is a total absence of human logic for why Christ would do this for us

aerial view of a well filled to the brim with water
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March 12, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

The epistle lesson for the Third Sunday in Lent continues in Romans. It may seem like we’re jumping around the letter, but there is a logic to it. In Romans 5:12-21 we see Paul’s theology of sin and grace at the macro level of Christ and Adam; in 4:1-5, 13-17 we see the specific story and promise of grace for the unworthy in Abraham; and in Romans 5:11 we see Paul present his theology of grace for believers in the present, with an eye towards future hope.

The already/not yet of grace (5:1-5, 9-11)

In Romans 5:1-11, Paul’s understanding of grace is set forth within an already/not yet scheme. Christians have already been justified, yet they await final salvation (5:1, 9-10). For this reason, a key theme in this passage is hope: on the basis of our present standing in God’s grace, we look towards future salvation with confidence.

Verses 1-2 describe this “already”: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Justification happens in Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9); through Christ believers “have access into this grace in which we stand” (5:2 English Standard Version). When Paul says “this grace,” he is speaking of the specific gift of Christ described in 5:5-8.

Verses 9-11 describe the “not yet”: although presently justified and reconciled, we are still awaiting the final deliverance from God’s wrath. For Paul, the Christian’s current standing “in grace” provides the strongest basis for confidence in the future: that is, he makes the strongest link between present justification and future salvation. God loves and has acted to redeem sinners; and if he has done that, just imagine how confident we can be that he will rescue his people! Believers do not look to the future in fear or doubt; rather, grace turns us in confidence towards final salvation.

Yet we still have life to live between now and then, and in verses 2b-5a, Paul sets forth how Christians live “between the times” as those who are in grace yet also experience “sufferings.” Paul believes that what Christians suffer “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” But the reason for Paul’s confidence is because this hope is anchored in God’s love for us—the love of God that has been “poured into our hearts” through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, Paul makes clear here that God’s love is poured out through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, for Paul, is both gift and Giver: as such, the gift of the Spirit is inseparable from the gift of Christ, because it is “through” the Spirit that one receives God’s Christ-shaped love (see also Galatians 3:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Corinthians 4:13; 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 1.5-6). Believers, therefore, are justified by faith and stand in grace: this is the “already” that defines their existence “between the times,” as they look forward to the future in hope because of the love that shapes their lives in the present. But who, exactly, is God’s love for—and what is this love?

Who is God’s love for? (5:6-8)

In verses 6-8, Paul explicitly defines divine grace and love as Christ’s death for the ungodly. The “for” that connects verses 5 and 6 make clear that the following verses define for us what God’s love is. Paul’s clunky expression, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” makes it clear that Christ died at a counterintuitive time for the sake of people who did not deserve it. Indeed, Paul celebrates the absurdity of Christ’s death for the ungodly. Anyone who has been in a church for very long is familiar with the claim that Christ died for sinners. But here Paul goes out of his way to underline that there is a total absence of worth on the human side of the equation; we have nothing to show God that makes it reasonable for him to give his Son for us; that is, there is a total absence of human logic for why Christ would do this for us.

Paul acknowledges that sacrifice for a person of particularly high quality is certainly possible. All humans are drawn to show love for those who have worth to them: family, friends, people within their sphere. Love draws us to take care of the “right kind” of people. Paul also acknowledges that self-giving or sacrifice is done for an understandable reason. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die.” For example, one might sacrifice oneself out of love for family, or duty to country or colleague. These are good things. There are many kinds of sacrifice we would say are honorable, selfless. Paul is not distinguishing Christ’s sacrifice from these others by saying his was selfless and others are not. Rather, Paul wants us to see that Jesus’ death does not make sense like these do. From a human point of view, Jesus died for the entirely wrong people, at the wrong time. Human love is a fitting gift; the Christ gift is unfitting. The former goes to proper recipients; the latter goes to the unworthy. As Luther famously put it, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.”

Thus, Christ did not give himself for the “righteous” or the “good.” Instead, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And here Paul makes the radical claim that the death of Christ for sinners both demonstrates and defines God’s love: “but God has demonstrated his love for us.” Since God’s love is Christ’s death for the unworthy, we can be confident that our hope “does not”—and will not—“put us to shame.” For if God’s love for sinners has meant the reconciliation of enemies now, how “much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10)?

In Romans 5:1-11 Paul continues to drive home his theology of grace for sinners—a theology in which the enemy is reconciled, the unworthy is loved, and the afflictions of the present time cannot overwhelm the confidence we have for our future salvation.