Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reboot's Study of Romans, Part III: Justification (3:21-5:21)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.


Paul spent the last section of his letter demonstrating that no one – even the most rigid Pharisees – could remain sinless under the Law. Now this actually may not have been surprising to most Jews. Christians sometimes have the belief that the Jews thought that they were adhering to the Law, only to have Jesus and Paul come and tell them differently. This is not at all the case, however. A significant portion of Jewish effort (and the Law itself) dealt with annual sacrifices for sins committed. The Law itself proves that it is unattainable, or else there would have been no reason for the provisions made for uncleanliness and sin forgiveness.

Where Paul begins to differ from the typical Jewish thought is when he states that the grace of God comes as a gift “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, and that this is to be received by faith. In other words, Paul was saying that redemption was not found in taking an action of purification (bathing, sacrifices, etc.), but rather was an undeserved gift of grace given to those who were faithful to God.

Why is it necessary to be this way? Paul puts it beautifully when he says, “So that [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Let that statement sink in. How this is not one of the most-quoted phrases in Christian history I do not know, for it is of immense importance. God is both just (i.e., our judge as holy) and justifier (i.e., our defender due to His mercy). Paul is hitting at the heart of the relationship between a holy God and sinful man: how can God, in His holiness, abide by our sin while still, in His loving-kindness, be with us? It is a situation which all of us parents have gotten a small glimpse of in our lives—how do we discipline our children to keep them behaving properly, while also loving and forgiving them because we know that they cannot be perfect? I simply love the concept here: God is both just and justifier – both the judge and the defense attorney. That is a relationship that only a parent can truly understand, I think.

Next, Paul also points out that “our boasting” is excluded by this point. This is often taken wrong by Christians, for it is a powerful statement. Here, and in the next few lines, Paul is telling the Jews something that they probably didn’t want to hear. Recall that the Jews had been a greatly troubled people, for quite some time. They had been slaves in Egypt. They had been slaves in Babylon. They had seen civil war. They had seen their Temple destroyed. They had wandered in the wilderness. And, at the time of writing, the Jews were under the authority of the Romans – a contentious relationship at the best of times, occasionally breaking out into riots and wars (such as the devastating Jewish-Roman War of 70 AD).

So what went right for the Jews? How did this people survive so long, when all others of their ancient origins fell apart or assimilated into other cultures? What they had was the Law. They had holiness. They were the receivers of God’s oracles, the keepers of God’s laws. Clean people in an unclean world. We often think of the Pharisees as haughty or arrogant; but that is not true. All ancient Jews naturally had some arrogance, some boasting. It helped them cope, it gave them identity. And the same thing is true today among Christians – Christians perceive themselves as “better” than the rest of the world, and (perhaps subconsciously, but it is there) look down on those around them. We say that we “hate the sin, love the sinner”, as we look down our noses at those struggling with homosexuality, pornography, alcohol addiction, atheism, or any other actions we do not like.

So you see, what Paul is saying here is very important – because we are all sinners, and because Jesus Christ gives us a path to forgiveness despite our sin (thus preserving God’s role as both judge and justifier), we cannot be boastful. For what is there to boast about? Should we boast that we know God’s will better than the heathen, yet still fail to follow it? Of course not.

Verse 30 has one more very fascinating statement: “[God] will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” He specifically uses two different words here: the Jews are justified by (ek) faith, the Gentiles are justified through (dia) faith. What does this mean—why the two different terms? Now to be clear, I am no Greek expert, so take this with a grain of salt. But as I understand of Thayer’s Lexicon, this is an enlightening difference. “By”, ek, means to separate from something with which you were closely bonded; for example, Jesus is born by (ek) Mary, that is, He was closely bonded to her and through birth became separated. Whereas the word for “through” (dia) means that a certain instrument was used to affect the change (for example, words are said to pass “through” the mouth).

What is interesting here is that Paul is distinguishing how the Jew is found righteous, versus how the Gentile is found righteous. Faith is what is used to separate Jews who are found righteous from other Jews – as though they were born from the prior. For Gentiles, though, they are not seen as part of this. Rather, faith is a pathway or action through which they are brought to God.

So I think a great analogy here, based on the terminology, can be made. A Jew under the Law is like a fetus in the womb, ready to be born. For the Jew, faith is the act of the childbirth, and becoming the son of his father. But for the Gentile, we were not in the womb. We are outside of the biological family of God, as it were. But faith is our adoption paperwork, a pathway by which we, too, receive justification.

So both the Jew and Gentile need faith to be in God’s family – but certainly for two different reasons. For the Jew, it is to complete their birth as God’s chosen people; for the Gentile, it is to gain adoption into that chosen family.


What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.


Having established that both the Jew and Gentile arrive at justification because of their faith in Christ, Paul spends a significant portion of time here talking to an expected Jewish retort. Recall that the Jews had piously struggled for years to maintain the Law and rightness in God’s sight. And now, just like the older brother in the parable of the lost son, they are frustrated and angry to find that their lawless brothers (in this case, Gentiles) get welcomed into the family too. Do not judge the Jews here: can you not put yourself in their place? They had spent centuries scrupulously taking care of God’s laws while the Gentiles lived lives of debauchery…and now they find out that everyone gets forgiveness equally, as long as they believe?

Honestly, Christians, would we not feel the same frustration? Imagine yourself living in a dystopian America, in which drugs, sex, and godlessness rule. In which churches are illegal and people routinely spit on the Bible, or burn it. You are one of the few who risk life and limb for your entire life, keeping the word of God. And then, in the end…you are told by one of your church leaders that the crackheads were getting the same forgiveness you were. Would you be frustrated? Can you not understand the mindset of our Jewish ancestors here?

So Paul spends a great deal of time explaining what it is all about, and why faith must be the pathway to God. First, he points out that God promised to give us a gift of forgiveness—but a gift is only a gift if it is unearned. If we work, he says, we have a right to feel as though we earned a reward (wages); therefore, it is not a gift. So he points out that we should all know that forgiveness must come apart from works, or it is not a gift at all.

Second, he talks about when Abraham’s faith counted for righteousness. (You must be impressed by the cleverness and elegance of Paul’s argument here.) Paul knows that his opponents will argue that Abraham was circumcised and all of his children in Israel were circumcised, as a sign of the covenant; thus, he knows, they will argue that ‘faith accounts for righteousness’ only among those a part of the covenant—that is, the circumcised Israelites. But he heads that argument off wholeheartedly, by pointing out that the faith in God (and the imparted righteousness that resulted) happened before the circumcision.

This is a crucial point Paul is making here. The typical thought (both of Jews and Gentiles) is that God sent the Law first, and grace through faith second. That is not the case! He sent grace through faith to Abraham before He established the covenant of Abraham! In fact, the Law came afterward. You see, God granted grace to Abraham, and promised grace to His descendents. The Law came later, to help us understand that grace is only receivable through the sacrifice of the sinless (and, therefore, so God remains simultaneously just and justifier). Furthermore, Paul says, not all of Abraham’s children are Israelites (of the circumcision), and thus God must provide a method for fulfilling His promise to them, as well.
Faith precipitated the Law; the Law points us back to its foundation of faith. God’s justification plan is not linear, but circular.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.


Now beginning to close the argument, Paul summarizes by saying that faith brings our justification to God through Jesus Christ, and that brings joy and hope. Even in our sufferings, Paul says, we can find joy. For suffering leads to endurance; endurance builds character; and character makes us more hopeful for God’s love. We deserve “the wrath of God”, but despite the fact that we were sinners, Christ died for us, and His blood justifies us if we believe in Him. And His resurrection saves us.

Note the key point there. Christ’s death justified us. That made us righteous before God. Christ's death is not where the story ended, thank God! No, He rose from the dead and thus His life brings us salvation from death itself.

The timeline is succinctly laid out here: Adam sinned; thus all men were born with sinful natures; all men have sinned; the Law condemns all men; Jesus Christ died on our behalf; God offers the free gift of Jesus’ sacrifice to forgive us all of our sins; Jesus Christ was resurrected; and thus death itself cannot hold His followers.

I cannot sum up the passage more clearly that Paul does in his closing statement to his treatise on justification:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For 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. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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