The following essay is less of a blog post than it is some thoughts on a passage. I'm privileged to have a friend who is a biblical scholar and he was working on Romans 3:21-28 and asked if I would take a stab at it and share my thoughts with him... I have NO idea why he would ask me for my thoughts, but it was nice of him. What follows is the email I wrote to him with my reflections on Romans 3:21-28. I recommend you read the passage before reading my thoughts. Thanks for reading.
On Romans 3:21-28
Though this passage has a great deal to say about justification by faith (vs. 22, 26 - wonderful), propitiation (vs. 25 - wonderful), and substitutional atonement (vs. 25 - wonderful), I believe the focus of this passage is not on the wonder of our salvation in Jesus Christ, but that in this God's Righteousness is now shown (as it was, in part, by the law in the time of the law and prophets).
I tried to draw this out a few times and couldn't quite get it right, so I'll use words. You can picture God as the sun and his people are separated from him by a great cloud. But, this cloud has a hole in the center in which a great light shines through - this ray of light is God's law. Though we were separated from God by our sin and curse, his righteousness is still made known to us as it pierces this cloud. The point is God's righteousness was made known through his law at this time. We often talk about the law as less of something that we can truly own up to as much as it is something to show us our own weakness in comparison to God's glory and righteousness. We saw his righteousness shine through the clouds in the form of a ray of light which had his essence and character, but the law itself was not God. It showed us a great deal about what he was like - but the law itself was not himself.
But now, Paul says, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law (vs. 21). In 22, he says that it is now displayed "through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." They are justified "by his grace as a gift" through the redemption in Jesus. I think we can miss a point here. It's less that his grace has allowed us to be justified... I don't think it is saying, "because God was so nice (graceful) that he allowed us to be redeemed through Jesus Christ." His grace is not given as the reason behind the gift of justification. Jesus' redemptive work is the means by which his grace is apportioned/given/bestowed upon us. In my mind, it's helpful to understand this by replacing the word "grace" in vs. 24 with "righteousness." Paul is telling us that God's own righteousness is gifted to us by the means of Jesus Christ. His righteousness was put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith ("righteousness" entered into vs. 25). I'm not saying that righteousness is the better word - I'm certain that "grace" is the appropriated word. But, I believe that the point is well made to understand his grace as his loving kindness but also his righteousness itself. We are saved by his grace. We are saved by his righteousness, and not our own as Paul goes onto say in vs. 27-28.
The paragraph culminates in the profundity of vs. 26 - "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." Again, Paul's focus is not necessarily on the means of our salvation, which is wonderful and profound, but it is on the fact that in this way God has now shown/displayed/expressed/
revealed his righteousness to us in more fullness.
1. In the time of the law God's righteousness was displayed through the law
2. In the time of Christ and in Christ God's righteousness has been displayed by God's own redemptive work in Jesus Christ as the justifier of those in Christ.
3. When we are with the Lord his righteousness will be seen in its fullness to us, as we now see through a glass darkly.
We can see that God has progressively revealed himself to us, first in the law then through Jesus Christ's justifying act (and the holy spirit) - one day we will see him in his fullness.
Though one can make this a man-centered passage about God's great love for us, I believe it is a God-centered passage about the revealing of God's righteousness in this new way of being the great justifier. He has revealed himself in the law that no man can keep fully and so, in his justice (vs. 26), he has himself revealed his glory further in justifying those same people who could not match his represented glory in the law.
As I described the law as a ray of light piercing through the clouds, God has revealed himself and his glory further. God's righteousness is now literally placed upon our heads. He "righteousnesses" us in Jesus. It is not a straining to attain but a resting in the being in Christ. I am reminded of John 4:13, one of my favorite passages in John. He meets a woman at a physical well. She must come back to the well again and again to be replenished, just as we had to come back for forgiveness and life under the law. What amazes me is that Jesus does not say the water he gives will become a "well of water welling up to eternal life." It would have made sense, as he was at a well... would have been convenient, no? He says he offers a "spring of water" which wells up. God does not call us to dig man-made wells to get to his righteousness. In Jesus, God in his grace has made us to wade in the spring of water which he has placed us in. We no longer strive for justification because it is ours - he extols the Christian to bathe in his spring of grace, not dig the well of righteousness by effort.
This passage surely has great and comforting promises of our justification by God's righteousness and not our own - but what makes this all the better is that it is found in his righteousness displayed and given, not attained or earned, as God, too, is the giver of faith.
Written: September 30, 2011
Written: September 30, 2011