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Romans 3:21-31

I.              Epistolary Introduction - 1:1-17

II.            The Way of Salvation - 1:18-5:21


A.            Human Depravity: the doctrine of universal sin - 1:18-3:20


B.            Divine Deliverance: the doctrine of particular justification - 3:21-5:21


1.             Justification: its provision - 3:21-31


a.              the righteousness of God - vv. 21-26


1)             its manifestation - v. 21


a)             the way of righteousness - v. 21a


Some argue that Paul's point is that God's righteousness, which we so desperately need to cover our spiritual nakedness, does not come by obedience to the law. Hence it is apart from the law, i.e., apart from our doing the works of the law (e.g., Schreiner, Cranfield). Others believe that here the word nomos or law refers to the Mosaic Law or the Mosaic Covenant. Moo explains:


"In the new era begun with Christ's death God has acted to deliver and vindicate His people 'apart from' the law. It is not primarily the law as something for humans to do, but the law as a system, as a stage in God's unfolding plan, that is in view here. Nomos, then, refers to the Mosaic covenant, that temporary administration set up between God and His people to regulate their lives and reveal their sin until the establishment of the promise in Christ" (222)


b)             the witness to righteousness - v. 21b


Here Paul tells us once again (cf. 1:2-3) that whereas the gospel is good news it is not new news. The entire OT stands as a unified witness that if righteousness is to be obtained that will avail in God's sight it must come by faith, not by works of obedience.


2)             its appropriation - vv. 22-24


a)             how we get it - v. 22


Paul is clear: it isn't by being religiously sincere or by being faithful or by having faith in general or even by having faith in God. It is by faith in Christ Jesus.


The phrase translated "faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe" has stirred considerable discussion. Note the parallel text in Gal. 2:16 - "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified."


The two phrases in italics could be translated literally, faith of Christ Jesus. Most translate them as faith in Christ, thus a reference to our faith in the Son of God, our trusting of him to save us from sin. On this view, Jesus is the object of our faith.


More recently numerous scholars have argued that this is a reference not to our faith in Christ but to the faithfulness of Jesus himself. If so, Paul's point would be that because Jesus was faithful, because his life was a perfect demonstration of faithful obedience to his heavenly Father, we have a basis for our acceptance with God. We put our faith in the faith(fulness) of Jesus and are thereby justified.


Theologians have called this the Active Obedience of Christ, his sufferings on the cross being his Passive Obedience (cf. Rom. 5:19).


Paul uses the phrase faith of Jesus Christ seven times in his epistles: Gal. 2:16(2); Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:22,26; Eph. 3:12; Phil. 3:9. Each of these texts would make sense if we translated them as referring to the faithfulness of Jesus himself. Cf. also the "faithfulness of God" (Rom. 3:3) and the "faith of Abraham" (Rom. 4:16). If interpreted this way, this would not diminish the importance of our faith in Christ. Indeed, see Rom. 3:22 ("for all those who believe"); Gal. 2:16; 3:22; Phil. 3:9.


N.B. If Paul is thinking of the faithfulness of Jesus as the foundation or basis of our acceptance with God, then justification may, in a sense, be conceived as being both by works and by faith. That is to say, we are justified by faith in the works of Jesus. What do you think?


Still, it must be noted that much can be said for the traditional interpretation that our faith in Christ is Paul’s intent. Schreiner appeals to four arguments:


First, “both Romans and Galatians have a plethora of passages that refer to the faith of believers” (185; he cites 38 such texts).


Second, “nowhere is there any unambiguous indication that Paul spoke of the faith/faithfulness of Christ. . . . Granted, the obedience of Christ is an important element in Pauline theology. But there is not a shred of evidence anywhere else that he speaks of that obedience as Christ’s pistis [i.e., “faith”]” (185).


Third, and on the other hand, “there is unambiguous evidence in the Pauline letters that Paul called for faith in Christ” (185).


Fourth, “the reading ‘faith in Christ’ also makes the best sense of the flow of thought in Rom. 3:21-4:12” (185; see his argument for this on pp. 185-86).


b)             why we need it - v. 23


The need for acceptance with God through faith is due to the fact that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (v. 23). What does it mean to "fall short" of God's glory? John Piper explains:


"It does not mean we were supposed to be as glorious as God is and have fallen short. We ought to fall short in that sense! The best explanation of Romans 3:23 is Romans 1:23. It says that those who did not glorify or thank God 'became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.' This is the way we 'fall short' of the glory of God: We exchange it for something of lesser value. All sin comes from not putting supreme value on the glory of God -- this is the very essence of sin" (Desiring God, 44).


Literally, the verse reads, "are lacking the glory of God." But again, this does not mean God meant for us to be as glorious as he is. Piper explains:


"Rather it is that he meant us to reflect his glory. We reflect his glory as we cherish it and keep it ever before us and make it the treasure and the goal of our lives. But Romans 1:23 describes us all as having 'exchanged' the glory of the Lord for the glory of his creation. Thus we have traded treasures. We prefer other things in life to the delights of seeing and knowing the God of glory. This is the sense in which we 'lack' the glory of God. We lack it as the treasure of our lives. We lack it as our passion and goal. We lack it as our all-satisfying vision. This is the essence of sin: preferring other things to the glory of God" (The Pleasures of God, 178, n. 1).


c)             what it means - v. 24


(1) Redemption. The word translated “redemption” (apolutrosis) entails the notion of a ransom being paid to set free someone in bondage. The ransom price by which our freedom was secured is nothing short of the “blood” (v. 25) of Christ which “propitiated” (v. 25) the Father.


(2) Propitiation


On propitiation, see John Stott, The Epistles of John (IVP, 1988), pp. 89-93; Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 125-185; John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 29-33; Roger Nicole, "C. H. Dodd and the Doctrine of Propitiation," Westminster Theological Journal, May 1955, Vol. XVII, pp. 117-57. The relevant NT texts are Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Hebrews 2:17.


To propitiate is to turn away wrath. Murray explains:


"To propitiate means to placate, pacify, appease, conciliate. And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ. Propitiation presupposed the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people" (30).


Thus, propitiation entails four elements:


·          an offense, crime, or sin which incurs a penalty


·          an offended person whose anger needs to be appeased


·          an offending person who needs to be pardoned and accepted


·          a sacrifice of sufficent value to appease the offended person, resulting in pardon and acceptance of the offender, and a reconciliation of the two estranged parties.


The word for “propitiation” may well have as its background the “mercy seat” on which the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled. In the vast majority of instances in the LXX this Greek word denotes the mercy seat (Exod. 25:17,18,19,20,21,22; 31:7; 35:12; 38:5,7,8; Lev. 16:2,13,14,15; Num. 7:89).


(3) Justification


·          Justification means we are declared righteous, not made righteous. Cf. Rom. 3:4.


(a)           Hence, justification is objective, not subjective. That is to say, it is something done for us, not in us.


(b)           Hence, justification is forensic, not experiential. That is to say, it is a legal act, not an emotional feeling. Whereas we do not feel justification when it occurs, once we comprehend what God has done there is certainly great exhiliration of soul and spirit.


·          Justification is both acquittal and acceptance. That is to say, it involves both the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the righteousness of Christ. God not only declares us "Not guilty!", he also declares us "Righteous!" Mere pardon would leave us spiritually naked with no righteousness. Pardon might save us from hell but it wouldn't get us into heaven.


·          Justification is both exclusive and extensive. By exclusive I mean there is no middle ground: you either are or are not justified. By extensive I mean that all sins are dealt with, whether past, present, or future.


·          Justification is both instantaneous and irreversible. It is a position or status to which we are elevated. It is not a process (contra the RCC). Furthermore, it is irreversible. It cannot be lost. God's verdict will never be appealed to a higher court (cf. Rom. 8:31-34).


No one in Scripture is ever described as being de-justified. What significance might we draw from this?


·          Justification is received by faith, being freely bestowed by God (cf. Rom. 3:24; 2 Thess. 3:8; John 15:25).


3)             its vindication - vv. 25-26


There appears on the surface to be a miscarriage of justice in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Prov. 17:15 we read that "he who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike -- an abomination to the Lord." But if the gospel is that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5) and acquits the guilty, how does he escape this denunciation? Romans 3:25-26 provides the answer.


For centuries God "passed over the sins previously committed" (v. 25b). From the flood of Noah's day to the first century mankind appeared to sin with impunity. It appeared as if there were no justice. There was no visible, universal manifestation of divine justice and retribution. God's reputation as righteous and holy was thus open to public slander. John Murray explains:


"In these generations gone by God did not visit men with wrath commensurate with their sins. In this sense there was a by-passing or overlooking of their sins. This by-passing is not to be equated with remission. Suspension (of punishment) is not equivalent to forgiveness. . . . (But) the forbearance exercised in past ages tended to obscure in the apprehension of men the inviolability of God's justice. Forbearance was liable to be interpreted as indifference to the claims of justice and suspension of judgment as revocation and remission of the same" (119).


When it appears that sin is treated as inconsequential, as was the case in the centuries preceding Christ' advent, the glory of God is treated as inconsequential. As Piper says, "when God passes over sin, it looks as though he is agreeing that his glory is of little value. But if God acts in such a way as to deny the infinite value of his own glory, then he commits the ultimate outrage; he desecrates what is infinitely holy and he blasphemes what is infinitely sacred" (The Pleasures of God, 167-68). But that is precisely what it appears God has done by acquitting and justifying sinners. So the question is this: How does God uphold the worth of his glory and at the same time save sinners? He does it by setting forth his Son, Jesus, as a propitiation for sin. When God set forth Jesus as a propitiatory sacrifice on the cross he was, as it were, answering his critics. The death of Christ was not only a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners; it was also the public vindication of the justice and righteousness of God himself. God is just; God is righteous; the wages of sin is death; the undeniable public proof of which is the propitiatory suffering of Jesus.


b.             the results for man - vv. 27-31


1)             boasting is excluded - vv. 27-28


Note well: Paul does not say we are justified because we believe. Human faith is not a work that merits justification. Justification is not propter fidem per Christum, or "on account of faith through Christ". Justification is per fidem propter Christum, or "through faith on account of Christ." The person and work of Christ is the grounds or basis of our justification. Faith is the instrument through which we embrace what he did as our only hope. God doesn't justify us because we have faith. God justifies us because of what Jesus did, which we receive through faith.


So, why is “boasting” ruled out? “If righteousness were based on human works, boasting would naturally follow. Yet boasting is ruled out if righteousness cannot be obtained or gained through a person’s works. Righteousness with God depends on faith alone, and is received as a gift, not achieved as a work” (Schreiner, 203).


N.B. Martin Luther was criticized by the RCC for inserting the Latin word solum into Romans 3:28 so that Paul would be read as saying that we are justified by faith alone. He responded:


"Here in Romans 3:28 I know very well that the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists do not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s o l a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous. . . . [For] when all works are so completely cut away -- and that must mean that faith alone justifies -- whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, 'Faith alone justifies us, and not works.' The matter itself, as well as the nature of the language, demand it" (On Translating: An Open Letter, 1530, LW, XXXV, pp. 188-89, 195.


2)             distinctions are eliminated - vv. 29-30


3)             the law is established - v. 31


·          In the sense that the OT Scriptures testify to justification being by faith alone. Or,


·          In the sense that the law convicts us of sin and awakens us to our need for justification by faith alone. Or,


·          In the sense that our faith fulfills the law because it is fulfilled in Christ in whom we believe (cf. 8:4). Or,


·          In the sense that those who have faith in Christ will in fact keep (fulfill) the law. I.e., the moral norms of the law still function as authoritative for the believer