But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
At long last we come to Romans 3:21-26. For many people it is this passage that delineates the heart of the Pauline gospel, articulating as it does the classic doctrine of justification by faith (by implication) alone and an understanding of Jesus’ death in sacrificial—indeed, most likely, penal—terms. Indeed, speaking personally, this paragraph is my own favorite portion of holy writ, summarizing, as it does, the gracious basis of my own acceptance with the God against whom I have sinned so egregiously.
Nevertheless, the transparent importance—even centrality—of this passage, not to mention the clarity of theNIV’s translation, masks the fact that it is a veritable exegetical minefield fraught with multiple difficulties. Hardly a word, phrase, or syntactical relationship passes that has not been the focus of sometimes heated scholarly debate as to its meaning and/or theological significance. And with a passage as important as this, the stakes are very high indeed with regard both to theology and theology’s sociological companion, viz., group identity. One is reminded of the classic dialogue between Hugh Laurie’s Lieutenant George and Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Blackadder from one of my favorite British sitcoms:
George: Oh sir, just one thing. If we should happen to tread on a mine, what do we do?
Blackadder: Well, normal procedure, Lieutenant, is to jump 200 feet into the air and scatter yourself over a wide area.Many an exegete or churchman has similarly been exposed to theological or professional ruin by treading unwarily on this fertile ground for theological controversy. Others appear oblivious to these pitfalls, preferring to form judgments precipitantly based on assumed, at times veritable, theological traditions. And so it is with respect to the gospel and justification by faith.
Thus far in Romans we have seen (here and here) that the “gospel,” as Paul understands it, can be described as the message of the fulfillment of God’s inscripturated promises in the Messianic career and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. More precisely, the allusions to Old Testament texts such as Psalm 98:2-3, Isaiah 51:4-5, and Isaiah 52:7, 10 in the programmatic Romans 1:16-17 indicate that Paul clearly defines the gospel as an announcement of the death and resurrection of Christ, theologically interpreted as the decisive, climactic expression of God’s saving righteousness, which both fulfills his covenant promises to Israel and extends salvation to the Gentiles.
Romans 3:21-26 doesn’t mention the term “gospel,” but its opening clause (“But now the righteousness of God has been made known”) clearly is meant to hark back to 1:17; hence, its significance for a proper understanding of the gospel is assured. Not only that, but these verses also introduce the apostle’s most complete exploration of the theme of “justification by faith” (3:21-4:25). As a result, Protestant theologians and biblical scholars have long tended to view justification as the essence of the gospel, which—to use Scot McKnight’s terminology—they correspondingly view in “soterian” terms.[i] Most importantly, in this venerable tradition, Paul’s teaching on justification has been understood ahistorically: to use fancy theological language, exponents of this view understand “justification by faith” in the context of the ordo salutis (the “order” of the application of salvation to the individual sinner) rather than that of the historia salutis (the unfolding of God’s plan to work “salvation” for the world in history through the seed of Abraham). Justification by faith, on this common view, is God’s answer to the universal plight of individuals, Jews and Gentiles alike, who are “under sin” (3:9) and thus incapable of being “justified” “by works of the law” (3:20), the latter term understood without historical or cultural specificity as “good works” whose performance could hold God in the achiever’s debt.
Now I would argue that there is much truth in this popular understanding of Protestant theology, deriving as it does from Luther’s successful refutation of classic Roman Catholic teaching. But I would likewise argue that the truth in this view lies largely at the levels of implication, application, and contextualization rather than at the micro-level of the apostle’s historical argument to the church at Rome. And failure to grasp this argument distorts Paul’s theological achievement at a fundamental level.
As mentioned above, Paul in 3:21 resumes the train of thought summarized in 1:16-17 when he writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested.”[ii] It thus forms an inclusio of sorts, binding together all the intervening material. Indeed, Romans 1:18-3:20 provides the negative foil against which the apostle’s teaching in Romans 3:21-4:25 must be interpreted. In other words, all depends on how Paul’s depiction of humanity’s plight is to be understood.
The classic view begins with Paul’s conclusion, articulated in 3:20, that “by works of the law shall no flesh be justified before [God].” It then understands the apostle’s argument to be a three-stage, systematic dismantling of any human pretension to earn favor with God by “good works” that satisfy God’s “law.” First, Gentiles stand under God’s “wrath”[iii] because they have rejected the revelation of God’s eternal power and divinity available to them and, as a result, have lived godless lives (1:18-32). Second, Jews—despite having been the beneficiaries of God’s covenant—likewise stand under the righteous judgment of the impartial God because they have failed to keep the very law in which they boast (2:1-3:8).[iv] Paul thus concludes, thirdly, that all of humanity—both Jews and Gentiles en masse—are equally guilty before God. No one is capable of being justified by one’s own moral efforts (3:19-20) because all people are “under sin” (3:9), as the testimony of Scripture attests (3:10-18).
In broad strokes, I would agree with this analysis, and I would maintain that it continues to work at the level of application to anyone who fancies he or she can earn favor with God by “doing” of any sort. Nevertheless, this view of Romans 1-3, focusing as it does on the ahistorical issue of individualistic soteriology, misses the subtlety and salvation-historical nuances of Paul’s argument in these chapters.
The first hint that something else (or something more) is going on is found in the conclusion to this section of the epistle, 3:19-20. After quoting a catena of Old Testament texts, Paul states that “whatever the law says, it says to those who are ‘in the law’, so that … the whole world might be accountable (hypodikos)[v] to God” (3:19). Those “in the law,” of course, are the Jewish people, who had been granted the Torah as their covenant charter. Failure to obey that law, however, meant—as David the psalmist himself acknowledged (Ps 143:2)[vi]—that “no flesh” will be justified by “works of the law” (erga nomou)[vii] (3:20a).
Familiarity with Paul’s denial, however, has not bred contempt as much as complacency. But the question begs asking: who—apart from those demanding proselytization—ever supposed that Gentiles would be “justified” by keeping the Torah?[viii] Indeed, as Paul makes clear in verses 28-29, “works of the law” served to divide Jews from Gentiles. Affirmation of “justification” by such deeds, in the apostle’s view, would necessarily imply that God was God of the Jews alone in a manner that was no longer relevant now that the gospel events of Jesus’ death and resurrection had taken place.[ix]
Moreover, if Paul’s effective sting operation in 1:18-2:1 were not sufficient, this verse in itself would be enough to demonstrate that his intended target is not those who demand that Gentiles Judaize, but rather those Jews confident in their superiority over the godless Gentile “sinners” by virtue of their covenant status and, hence, their possession and performance of the law. For Paul, such confidence is misplaced and unwarranted. Obedience to the law, no matter how heartfelt and motivated by gratitude to God for his “grace,” is not a sufficient condition to be “acquitted” before the bar of God’s justice and counted as one of God’s covenant people.[x] Instead, empirical observation demonstrates that the law is capable only of mediating the “knowledge of sin” (3:20b)[xi]. And thus the “whole world”—not just the godless Gentiles, but particularly the privileged Jews as well—stands in the dock in God’s cosmic law court.[xii] The God who shows no favoritism (2:1-16) must therefore judge both Gentiles and Jews according to the facts of the case.
But is Paul’s argument directed simply at individual Jews who suppose they can merit God’s favor by keeping the law? A close reading of Romans 2-3 suggests otherwise. First, as Ed Sanders noted years ago, Paul’s indictment of the Jews is hardly fair if intended as an objective, inductive description of Jewish behavior—not all Jews stole, committed adultery, or robbed temples, for example (2:17-24).[xiii] Indeed, Paul’s own experience as a Pharisee, in which he claimed to be “blameless” (amemptos) by the standards of the “righteousness from the law” (Phil 3:6), should point us elsewhere.
Second, Paul describes the nature of the Jews’ boasting in 2:17-18 in terms of their special relationship with God and advantage by virtue of their possession of the law. How the apostle elaborates is even more telling: “if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (2:19-20). What is at issue is the Jews’ “priestly” function vis-à-vis the Gentiles by virtue of their covenant relationship with God. Obedience to the law is what mattered if one was to remain a member in good standing under the terms of the Old Covenant. The apostle’s point, by citing such egregious instances of law-breaking, is that Israel—God’s appointed means of bringing blessing to all nations as per the Abrahamic Covenant—had failed in their commission and thus, by implication, stood in the same relation to God as did the Gentiles by virtue of their sin.
Third, Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 52:5 in 2:24 is equally telling: “As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Christian readers are likely to pass over this citation unawares, but, as Richard Hays points out, Paul’s usage of this text would appear, at first glance, to be not only a low blow but a stunning unhistorical reading of the text.[xiv] In context, this verse is part of a message of consolation and hope to Israel in exile (as a consequence, Israel’s oppressors “blasphemed” God’s name because of his apparent ineffectualness). Note how Isaiah 52:6-7 continue the train of thought:
Therefore my people will know my name;
therefore in that day they will know
that it is I who foretold it.
Yes, it is I.”
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Fourth, in Romans 2:13-16, 25-29, Paul mysteriously speaks of Gentiles who “do the law” and will thus be justified, who show the “work of the law” written on their hearts, and who will be “reckoned” as “circumcised” by virtue of the removal of the foreskin of their hearts. Certainly in verses 25-29, and probably in verses 13-16, the obvious allusions to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 indicate that the apostle is speaking of Christian Gentiles who have thus experienced fulfillment of the Abrahamic and New Covenants while the Jews, to whom the original promises were made, remained on the outside. This in itself demonstrates that Paul’s primary focus is on salvation-history, to which his gospel provides the God-intended climax. Jews outside of Christ remain on the wrong side of the great salvation-historical divide marked out by the Christ event. This scenario implicitly raises serious theological issues, which the apostle immediately tackles in chapter 3.
Fifth, and most important, is Paul’s oft-ignored paragraph that comprises Romans 3:1-8.[xvi] The empirical situation of Jews in exile and Gentiles receiving the benefits of Israel’s covenant promises raises the logical question: “Then what is the advantage of the Jew? And what is the value of circumcision?” Paul, somewhat surprisingly in view of his argument in chapter 2, answers, “Much in every way” (poly kata panta tropon).[xvii] Specifically, the apostle points to the fact that the Jews were those to whom God had entrusted the “oracles of God” (ta logia tou theou).[xviii] This immediately shines a light on the issue at hand: God’s “oracles” made certain unconditional promises to Israel as his elect nation. Would Israel’s unfaithfulness (apistia) nullify God’s unswerving commitment to carry out his end of the covenant obligations faithfully (pistin tou theou) (3:3)?
Paul answers with his characteristic mē genoito, “Never!” In support of God’s faithfulness, he cites David’s classic confession found in Psalm 51:4 (50:6 LXX): “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” Here the contrast, like that in Romans, is between the reliability of God and the moral unreliability and, consequently, guilt of human beings. David, confessing his sin(s) with Bathsheba, recognizes the justice of God’s judgment against his sin. God’s faithfulness to his covenant obligations, it must be remembered, entails not only his obligations to save his people, but to judge them as well (cf. Deuteronomy 27-32!). God’s judgment of Israel for their sin and unfaithfulness is thus entirely just. Nevertheless, his covenant promises remain in effect, and this shines a spotlight on the major theological tension underlying Paul’s argument: how does one reconcile God’s impartiality—according to which God must judge both Jews and Gentiles for their sin—and his status as the electing God—according to which he must keep the unconditional promises made to Israel, his chosen people? At issue, as Leander Keck noted a generation ago, is the moral integrity of God.[xix]
Paul expresses this with the rhetorical question found in verse 5: “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us?” This question elicits a similar mē genoito in verse 6. Despite the claims of some that “God’s righteousness” here is his judging or punitive righteousness[xx], Paul’s point actually depends on “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) referring to his saving righteousness as an expression of his covenant faithfulness[xxi] The point of the hypothetical objection is this: God has no right to judge people for their unfaithfulness if such unrighteous behavior throws God’s own faithfulness into greater relief. This objection, though intellectually coherent, is, Paul rightly claims, morally vacuous nonsense. For God’s moral integrity to remain intact, he must both judge sin and remain faithful to his covenant promises.
Here we have, in a nutshell, Paul’s major point in Romans 1-3. God’s moral integrity, his “righteousness,” demands both that he judge sin without showing national favoritism and that he remain faithful to his covenanted commitment to bless the world through Israel; hence the point of his catena of quotations in 3:10-18 is to demonstrate from Israel’s own scriptures that God is just in his condemnation of people for their sin. Israel, like the Gentiles everyone knew were sinners, was “in Adam” and in need of ultimate rescue from their sinful condition. Yet God still, as an expression of his saving righteousness, had promised to deliver Israel from exile and the nations, as a necessary consequence, from their benighted condition.
This is where Romans 3:21 comes in: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested.” Like Romans 1:17, this righteousness alludes back to the promises in the Psalms and Isaiah 40-66 that God would manifest his eschatological saving righteousness in faithfulness to his covenantal promises. Less often recognized is that this “righteousness” is implied by Paul’s allusion to Psalm 143:2 (LXX 142:2) in verse 20.[xxii] Psalm 143:1-2, 10-11 (LXX 142:1-2, 11-12) read as follows:
LORD, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness (alētheia) and righteousness (dikaiosynē)
come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
…For your name’s sake, LORD, preserve my life;
in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
destroy all my foes,
for I am your servant.
As in Psalm 51 David appealed to God’s mercy to deliver him from the just consequences of his sin (Ps 51:1-4), so here he appeals to God’s truthfulness (Rom 3:4, 7!) and righteousness to deliver him from his enemies. So it is with Paul as well. The fair and just God must judge all for their sin. Nevertheless, he had committed himself to a plan to deliver the sinful, Adamic world through the seed of Abraham, whose failure demonstrated their solidarity in sin with the rest of the world. God, however, is still a righteous God, and hence he had promised to rescue his people in saving faithfulness to his covenant promises, which would result in the salvation of the world. It is this righteousness that Paul sees manifested in the Christ event.[xxiii] In our next post we will discuss how Paul describes the revelation of this righteousness in 3:21-26.
[i] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). In other words, they define the gospel in terms of the salvation of the individual, irrespective of the narrative of scripture.
[ii] Note the substitution of the perfect passive pefanέrwtai (“has been manifested”) for the present ἀpokalύptetai (“is being revealed”). God’s righteousness, as will be seen, was demonstrated definitively in the historical event of Christ’s faithful, sacrificial death (Rom 3), and each successive proclamation of that death’s theological significance is an instantiation, as it were, of the saving power of that righteousness (Rom 1).
[iii] God’s wrath is best understood as his punitive justice arising from a personal sense of indignation against all that contradicts his holiness. Cf. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (2 vols.; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959-65) 1:35
[iv] Alternatively, it has been suggested that in 2:1-16 Paul has a third target, viz., the pagan moralist. Though somewhat in eclipse in today’s scholarship, it still has its defenders. E.g., N. T. Wright, “The Epistle to the Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) 437-43.
[v] “Accountable” in the sense of being liable to judgment/punishment. Cf. BDAG, 1037.
[vi] That Paul is here alluding to David’s words is generally recognized. The apostle alters the wording in the following ways: (1) he adds the phrase “by works of (the) law”; (2) he changes the LXX’s “every living being” (pᾶς zῶn) to “all flesh” (pάsa sάrx); (3) he changes David’s direct address to God (“No living being will be justified before you”) to a general theological principle: (“No flesh will be justified before him”). The effect, as Richard Hays notes, is “to render the intertextual relation indirect rather than direct. The psalm is not adduced as proof for Paul’s assertion, but his assertion echoes the psalm, activating Israel’s canonical memory” (Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven: Yale, 1989] 51.
[vii] In general terms, by “doing what the law requires” (cf. James R. McGahey, “‘No One Is Justified by Works of the Law’ [Galatians 2:16a]: The Nature and Rationale of Paul’s Polemic against ‘Works of the Law’ in the Epistle to the Galatians” [Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1996] 150-59. They are works performed as the entail of living under the old (Mosaic) covenant. In specific contexts, of course, specific works of the law can be primarily in view, such as circumcision in the Galatian crisis. What must be emphasized, however, is that the Western, Protestant knee-jerk assumption that Paul is arguing against explicitly-held legalism must be rejected as anachronistic.
[viii] This, of course, was the case in the Galatian crisis, where Paul interprets the “agitators’” demand that Gentile converts be circumcised as an implicit succumbing to a belief in “justification by works of the law.” (Cf. my dissertation [note vii supra], for a full discussion of Paul’s response to this crisis). There I argue that the demand for circumcision was not an explicit “legalism” in the sense of the belief that one might earn or merit justification. It was, rather, an implicit legalism in that it, in effect, denied the definitive apocalyptic and salvation-historical significance of the Christ-event, which rendered such ethnic identity markers as circumcision redundant and thus a de facto rival to Christ.
[ix] Key here is the conjunction ἢ (“or”) that introduces verse 29. Inexcusably left untranslated by the NIV in 1984, the new NIV has rectified the omission. Cf. Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009) 97.
[x] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC 38A; Dallas: Word, 1988) 154-55: “Paul’s polemic here therefore is quite specific and particular. He has the devout Jew in view, but not as a type of the universal homo religiosis who thinks that his piety somehow puts God in his debt (Käsemann) … His target was rather the devout Jew in his presupposition that as a member of the covenant people he could expect God’s righteousness to be put forth in his favor because he was ‘within the law.’”
[xi] This is almost certainly a symphonic foreshadowing of Paul’s extended argument in Romans 7:7-25, providing prima facie evidence that the “I” in that disputed text is a rhetorical portrayal of the Jew under the law.
[xii] Cf. esp. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 154-55.
[xiii] E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia; Fortress, 1983) 123-35.
[xiv] Hays, Echoes, 45.
[xv] Cf. esp. Akio Ito, “Romans 2: A Deuteronomistic Reading,” JSNT 59 (1995) 21-37 (31-32).
[xvi] As is often pointed out, 3:1-8 raises questions later elaborated and answered in Romans 9-11, another passage often misunderstood and marginalized when justification, individualistically-conceived, is considered the heart of Paul’s argument.
[xvii] C. H. Dodd famously accused Paul of a “feeble and obscure” answer here motivated by an ingrained Pharisaism and patriotism (The Epistle of Paul to the Romans [MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932) 43.
[xviii] Because the term logίa is broad enough to encompass divine promises, commandments, and pronouncements of judgment, it is perhaps preferable, with such commentators as Hodge, Barrett, Murray, Dunn, and Fitzmyer, to understand the term here in reference to the Old Testament scriptures as a whole. On the other hand, verse 3 clearly suggests that Paul has in view principally the covenant promises given to Israel (so, e.g., Denney, Michel, Käsemann). Of note is the use of the term “entrusted” (ἐpisteύqhsan). By implication, these“oracles” were given to Israel, not simply as promises designed for their own benefit, but as a trust for the benefit of others, i.e., the whole world. Cf. Wright, “Romans,” 453. On the notion of the law as an “oracular witness” to God’s saving activity in Christ, cf. Richard B. Hays, “Three Dramatic Roles: The Law in Romans 3-4,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law (ed. James D. G. Dunn; WUNT 89; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996) 151-64.
[xix] Leander E. Keck, Paul and His Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 117-30. Cf. also Richard B. Hays, “Psalm 143 and the Logic of Romans 3,” JBL 99 (1980) 107-15.
[xx] Thus, e.g., commentators such as Schreiner and Moo.
[xxi] So most commentators, e.g., Cranfield, Dunn, Fitzmyer, and Wright. Cf. also John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) 111; Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009) 685. Not only is the force of the objection nonsensical on the other view, but Paul also identifies his intended meaning by using “righteousness” in conjunction with synonyms such as “faithfulness” (pίstiς) (3:3) and “truth(fulness)” (ἀlhqὴς/ἀlήqeia) (3:4, 7).
[xxii] It was first brought to my attention by Hays, “Psalm 143.”
[xxiii] Hence, it is inexcusable for any putative New Testament scholar to persist in identifying “the righteousness of God,” whether in Romans 1:17 or 3:21, as the gift of an imputed righteousness from God.