But now… (Romans 3:21-31)

You are talking with someone about the Gospel and they raise the classic objection. It is arrogant for you to claim that you will be going to heaven and they won’t. On what basis can you make such an outrageous and intolerant claim. You start to share the Gospel further with them. How would you respond to and refute this claim? Do you think they would accept it.

But, I’d also like to get you think about your reaction to the question too. How do you feel about the accusation?  And may I challenge us even further.  When we think about our engagement with the church, the work we do, the recognition we do or not get. Are there times when we are tempted to think that somehow we have earned, if not the love of God, at least the gratitude of our brothers and sisters?

What does Paul say?

V21 Paul has been setting out the reason for his pride and confidence in the Gospel. He has told us in Romans 1 that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because it reveals God’s righteousness.   The question then is why is the Gospel needed to do this? Isn’t God’s righteousness revealed in creation and in the law and the prophets?

Well creation does reveal something of God, it reveals who he is clearly and therefore, it reveals God’s wrath at sin because no-one is without excuse. The Law reveals something of God’s justice and righteousness too. It shows what is required of us but the ability of Gentiles to keep some of God’s demands shows up the Jewish reliance on possession and knowledge of the Law when in fact, the requirement is that we should do the Law. Therefore, there is no exemption for Jews. Yet, if we are judged by whether rot we keep the law, then no-one is able to say that and so, there is no escape from God’s wrath, all know what is expected, all fall short and so all are under judgement. That’s why we need the Gospel and so Paul begins to set out now how the Gospel is the soltuin we need.

The righteousness which the Gospel makes manifest is something that is not explicitly set out in the Law and the Prophets.  It is there, the Old Testament in various ways points forward to Christ’s coming, his death and his resurrection. This is most overtly seen in the prophetic literature as people like Isaiah and Daniel point towards a coming Messiah but it is also there in the Toral.  Perhaps the earliest example is the promise to Eve in Genesis 3 that one of her descendants will crush the serpent. However, the Gospel needs to be made explicit and that’s what the apostles do so that Paul will often refer to it as a mystery that has now been revealed and made known.

V22 As we saw in chapter 1, righteousness is connected to faith but whose faith is it that Paul has in mind. The words here have traditionally been translated to refer to “faith in Christ.” However, it is linguistically possible that Paul writes about the faith(fulness) of Christ Christ’s faith.  This is because in Greek, we have a genitive here which links together faith with Christ but that could either make Christ the subject so that faith is something he possesses or the object of the faith so that we place our faith in him. It has been suggested that the former is a better translation as this prevents Paul from repeating himself because otherwise he would refer to belief in Jesus and then immediately to those who believe.  On this basis then, the verse speaks either about Christ’s faith -so that we are saved because he trusts in God,[1] or more plausibly it is Christ’s faithfulness, his persevering obedience in life through to death that saves us.

Whilst this option isn’t too far removed from the idea of imputed righteousness, there isn’t actually enough linguistic or contextual support to insist upon it.  It seems normal from Paul when talking about faith and Jesus to talk specifically about faith in him rather than his faithfulness. Of course, Christ is the faithful and obedient son but it will be other scripture writers who will put emphasis on obedience.

So, our translations seem likely to have got it right when talking about “faith in Christ” and it is no clumsy repetition to add that this righteousness is for those who have faith in Christ …  for all who believe. The “all who believe” bit emphasises that this is for all those and only those who have faith in other words it emphasises its extent to the whosever will and at the same time it’s exclusiveness. It is only through faith in Christ and not by any other means or through any other saviour that we receive the Gospel.

We now turn to two of the most famous verses in the Bible with v23-24. We are reminded again that no-one is righteous. All sin and all therefore fall short of God’s Glory. God’s glory here is held up as the objective standard to which the law calls us to. To fall short of his glory is to fall short of being the image bearers that we were made to be. It is to fail to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbours as ourselves.  So then, righteousness comes not through the Law but through something different. Here it is described in terms of the action, God justifies us or declares us to be right with him.  This is now described in terms of grace or a gift. This is something God does freely and unconditionally, it is something we receive undeservedly. 

Note that Paul then introduces a further concept, that of redemption, in other words, this righteousness is something that God paid a price for and that price was paid in Christ.  V25 then goes on to explain that the price was paid when God presented Christ as a propitiation. The Greek word here, hilasterion, is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer to the mercy seat where atonement is made in the Old Testament. In Greek and intertestamental texts it has the idea of a sacrifice which is made to appease or to turn back the anger of the gods. Understandably, people have been uncomfortable with that concept and so have often preferred to leave the word effectively neutral and uninterpreted, simply referring to atonement or have suggested an alternative.  So, some translations talk about “expiation” where the focus is on what the sacrifice does to us, purging and cleansing us from sin. Certainly that is an outworking of the atonement but that does not actually fit the meaning of the word.

However, when we talk about God making a propitiation, there is a distinction from pagan religion. For in pagan sacrifices, it is we who are called upon to make a sacrifice in order to appease an angry but passive god (or gods) but here it is God who takes the initiative. Father and Son are both active in this. The Father sets the son forward as the propitiation and the Son willingly steps forward. In the context of Romans 1:18 and the following passages on judgement, it is right talk in terms of God’s wrath being satisfied.

Paul then explains why God has taken this route. First of all (v25b), it is to deal with the issue of history. Up until this time, we have seen God’s patience and mercy but we have not seen his justice. Implicitly, neither the sacrificial system, nor the death penalty (and other penalties) in the law satisfy God’s justice.  This has provoked much theological discussion down through the ages. It also means implicitly that God has provided in some way for those who died before Christ came.  God has shown mercy, passing over former sins.  There is of course a question here, does this mean God has let everyone who came before Christ off? Well later scripture will deal with that in more detail but already we know that God does exercise justice and that something of his wrath has been revealed so that the requirement of faith is implicitly present for those who God show mercy to, even prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Secondly, Christ’s sacrifice is necessary for the present time (v26). It proves that God is just. It proves him just in showing mercy before Christ but it also shows him just at the present time in justifying those who believe in Jesus (literally those out of/belonging to faith of/in Jesus – see comments above).  So, Christ’s atoning death reveals God’s righteousness.  This is because there on the Cross, an acceptable offering was made and the due penalty for sin was received. Once again, we will be wanting to ask questions here about how that justice works. How is it possible for one man’s death to deal with the sin of all men when each of us cannot pay for our own sin by dying personally.  That question is answered in chapter 5 and in a wider discussion of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement which we will introduce shortly.

This conclusion leads Paul to set out some further questions. The first is about boasting noting that the big question has been whether or not Jews could claim an advantage over the Gentiles either through ethnicity or Torah possession. Paul responds by saying that boasting is excluded just as he will tell the Ephesians that they are saved by grace so no-one has anything to boast about. The Gospel removes both ethnic and legalistic pride, national and moral self-righteousness.(v27a).

He then asks about the nature of the Law that removes boasting (v27b). Note that here, he sets up not a distinction between law and grace but between two types of law. There is The Law that is concerned with works (what we do) and the law that is concerned with faith (what (who) we believe (in). This is because it is a legal resolution that is needed to the charge of sin. Justification is a legal resolution and status. We might suggest then that the question is about which real and which law we are under. The suggestion is that the Law of Works operates in the kingdom of sin whilst in God’s kingdom, we are under the law of faith which is the appropriate law for this jurisdiction.  So, we are justified by faith, apart from or without works. In other words, the place of works in justifying us is removed from the equation altogether. It is not that God looks at our works and sees them falling short so tops them up with our faith. Rather, God chooses not to look at the question of our works at all and instead looks at the question of faith (v28).

The follow on question that supports this claim is about who God is the God of. Is he a mere national God just concerned with the Jews (v29). No, he is the God of all creation and therefore he is concerned with Gentiles too. This means that there is one God and one means of knowing this God and receiving his approval. It is faith. Both circumcised and uncircumcised know God through faith (v30).

(v31) This leaves Paul with one outstanding question. Does this mean that the Torah Law of Moses was in conflict with Faith and is now abolished. Of course this would again imply two different means to approach God suggesting that he was divided or that we were indeed dealing with two gods. So Paul replies emphatically “by no means” mei genoito, may it not be so. Rather he insists that the Law is upheld. How? Well hold onto that question for future studies.

What does Paul mean?

I’ve already started to pick up on some of the doctrinal implications as they’ve arisen in the text. The  primary thing we see here is Paul setting out a Doctrine of Atonement.  There has been much debate throughout the ages about what exactly Christ did for us on the Cross.  Options have included

  • A demonstration of God’s love
  • An example of self-sacrifice and obedience to God
  • A victory over evil.

The Cross clearly does all of those things and you will find throughout the New Testament and even within Paul’s letters pointers to these aspects of atonement. However, there are two risks here. First of all, the risk is that we set these up as competing theories when actually each need one another. The other problem we have is that there is one vital ingredient excluded that makes sense of all the others and it is only with it in place that the doctrine holds together. Yet this one is frequently and intentionally excluded.

I’m talking of course about Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). This is the belief that Christ’s death on the Cross was substitutionary (he took my place) and that it was penal (he bore my punishment). It is clear from this passage that Paul regarded Christ’s death as doing just that. The Cross was needed for justice, Christ’s death was penal.  Paul has made it explicitly clear that we deserve judgement but instead receive grace because of Christ’s death.

Now some have objected to the doctrine and presented the imagery of it as being an angry father taking out the retribution, he wants to carry out on us on his own son instead.  Steve Chalke famously compared this to “cosmic child abuse.” This is to miss the point completely that we are not talking about an angry Father and a passive son but about the Triune God acting in response to sin, sharing righteous anger (wrath) at evil but acting willingly in love towards us. Christ is no helpless youngster but nothing less than the eternal and all powerful creator.

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that each of the other models become concerning and disturbing without the explanation of penal substitution. Why is the cross a beautiful example and not a tragic and disturbing horror?  How does the Cross provide victory and why would anyone demonstrate their love for us by killing their own Son. 

We might do better to say that the Cross, Christ won the victory over sin, Satan and death by taking our place and bearing the judgement for our sin.  In so doing, he clearly demonstrated God’s love for us and provides us with an example to follow now that we belong to him.

How does this apply to us?

We are now getting to the heart of the Gospel. We are completely dispossessed of any false confidence in our own ability to save ourselves, in any religious or ethnic pride.  This should help us to respond not just to the challenges and objections of others but of any temptation towards pride or envy in ourselves.

We have here a message that is good news for all.  For those of us seeking to engage with people of other faiths in multi-cultural contexts, we can see the distinctive offer of the Gospel. Where other religions present an impossible example to follow or leave us hoping for the best and that an arbitrary and unpredictable god might show us mercy, we have instead sure and certain assurance that God acts to forgive us in Christ even though we do not deserve it and because we simply cannot just follow a good example.

For those of us ministering to those with messy and messed up lives, the drug addict, the ex-criminal the violent gang member, we have the promise to offer that Christ’s death is enough to pay the price for all their guilt. For those who turn up expressing a sense of shame and dirtiness, Christ’s atoning work is similarly enough to cover their shame.

The Cross speaks to both the sin shamed despairing and the religiously pride and speaks a better word than anything this world has to say.


[1] This approach has been taken by prosperity teachers to argue that Christ has to exercise faith and so we can have some of his faith in order to receive blessings.

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