We are studying Romans 3:21-31 for Sunday, May 5. This is the first of four selections from this important Pauline letter. Most Christians, most Protestant Christians for certain but really most Christians, will find that our foundational theology stems from this text. [Discussion questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Commentaries on Romans abound, and Christians who have spent any time in or around church have been exposed to many of them, because of Sunday preaching. My suspicion is that most of Paul’s readers think we know what this text is all about before we read ten or so words. That situation is always something to watch out for. We have lots and lots of personal and church history with this text.
Romans is a letter, a long one. Paul’s longest letter, in fact. (That’s why it’s first in the New Testament collection of Paul’s letters, by the way, which are arranged in descending order of length. Fun fact.)
It’s in classic “Greek letter” form: it opens with a “from:” and “to:” and a greeting (1:7-15). Paul typically establishes a central theme for each of his letters early on, and that’s here as well (1:16-17). Then there follows the body of the letter (in this case, everything up through about the middle of chapter 15), and then closing matters: personal comments, farewell messages, and so on.
The body of this letter is divided into a fairly tightly structured argument about the nature of the sinful human condition and the way God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ addresses that problem; the specific relationship of Israel to that universal plan of redemption; and instructions about how to live in light of this evangelical (“good news-y”) situation. (I notice here that I’ve already incorporated a lot of interpretation of Romans into this contextual summary. In particular the use of that word “universal,” which sums up a whole lot of argument about “the main purpose of the letter to the Romans.” I invite you to notice that along with me.)
The letter to the Romans is a letter to a church – “the church in Rome.” In those days, which we understand to have been late in Paul’s career, after some extensive missionary travels, “the church in Rome” meant something a lot different from what it means today. This is the church around the late 50s CE.
In this church, they never read from the gospels in worship, because none of those gospels have been written yet.
In fact, they never read from “the New Testament,” because there isn’t one yet. It’s still being written. This letter is one of the first pieces of it. They don’t even know it’s scripture. Yet.
“Scripture” for this group of early Christians is what we call “the Old Testament” these days, if not a little more, depending on what specifically “we” call “the Old Testament.” Most likely in Greek translation – the Septuagint. Paul quotes it a lot. In fact, right before our text (see 3:10-18).
The people themselves are a mixed bag of folks, some of whom were raised and who think of themselves as Jewish and others of whom were raised and who think of themselves as … not Jewish, but definitely religious, pious, in other ways, so, Gentiles.
Judging from the content of the letter to the Romans, the mixed bag-ness of the group, its multi-ethnic character, is a challenge. (This ought to make sense to us. That kind of ethnic diversity, with all the differences in basic cultural assumptions that come with it, would be a challenge for us, too. Try thinking of our own church, and then imagining that there’s a big group of “them,” whoever “they” might be, who’ve started showing up and getting involved and putting forward their ideas and being “how ‘they’ are – you know” in all kinds of ways. That will give us a little better feel for what’s going on in Rome in the 50s.)
One of the specific challenges seems to be how Torah practices, ritual and ethical, should or shouldn’t govern the behavior of the group, and why they should or shouldn’t, and which specific practices, for that matter. Up to now, there have been various ways of understanding how that Torah, “the law,” works as a means of relating people to the God of Israel – who is, as we would know for sure if we were Jewish in the 50s, the one and only true God. Jesus would have known that, for instance. So would his mom and dad and all his friends.
And this one and only true God has given to Israel (and no one else, fairly obviously) good instructions about how to live in a way that actually pleases God.
He declares his word to Jacob,
His statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
They do not know his ordinances.
We can probably just imagine the kind of cliques that would form in a church like this. Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to me to suggest that our imaginations are correct on this score. That’s why he’s writing the letter: to get them all on the same page. His page. The one he’s writing now.
A couple of thousand years later, we can say with some confidence: It seems to have worked.
So we should probably notice this, too, when we read Romans: if we read this text as Christians, we read it as members of a church that long ago made this letter part of its scripture, and made it one of the foundations of its theology and its way of life. That has to have some effect on the way we read this text.
CLOSER READING: Oh, dear.
There are translation issues all over this text. Whole systematic theologies hang on how to interpret words like “of” and “in.” And whole systematic theologies have formed around the vocabulary list of technical terms here (redemption, justification, atonement, law, faith, grace … ). Ours. All of them. So, briefly …
In v22, there is a question about how to translate the Greek phrase pisteōs Iēsou Christou. It’s literally “faith of Jesus Christ,” but that kind of prepositional phrase can have a couple of different senses. Is this the kind of “of” that is in “the feet of clay” – feet made from the material of clay – or the kind that’s in “the feet of Clay” – that is, our friend Clay’s feet? In other words, is this the kind of “faith of Jesus Christ” that is faith that consists of Jesus Christ as its object, or is it “faith of Jesus Christ” that is “Jesus Christ’s (own, perfect) faith”? It’s a potentially large theological question: whose faith is having the effect here? And there’s not much to go on to make the call. That hasn’t stopped people from spending a lot of time arguing about it.
V23 depends on the argument Paul has been making in chapters 1 and 2, demonstrating that both Gentiles and Jews sin, Gentiles in their uninformed Gentile way, Jews in their despite-being-fully-informed way. So the point here is: it’s not what you know, it’s what you do that determines whether you have or haven’t sinned.
Thank God for v24.
All the righteousness in vv21-26 (4 occurrences) belongs to God. All the faith (2 occurrences) is of Jesus Christ. The righteousness and the faith are related. The faith of Jesus Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God. [We might still be arguing about what sense we need to read out of or into “of”.]
In v25 the phrase translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV is a technical term about which there is some ongoing disagreement; it might refer to a “place” of atonement. In either case, it seems to be using a reference to a known ritual to make clear the significance of the work of Jesus Christ in effecting human justification.
The term “justified” in its day would have been a technical legal term, something akin to “acquitted” in our day. (It may help us to think about this as follows: In our day, while we might rather have all the charges dropped, acquitted is still good news.)
In verses 27-31, the terms law and faith become the dual hammer blows of a tightly and elegantly structured little argument that plays on the contrasting expectations of the audience around faith and law, with a little bit of working tossed in (the working of the law, which we might want to think of as a bit like the working of a machine).
We probably need to pay close attention to v29. Notice how it provides the rationale and the evidence for the argument being made here: that the “law of faith” mentioned in v27 works the same way for Gentiles and for Jews. The rationale and persuasion point is that there is one and only one God, who is the God of Gentiles and Jews. [We might be thinking to ourselves: equally.] One and only one God would obviously have just the one and only one law for the one people of God; one and only one law for everyone.
And since per v28 “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” that one and only one law is the law of faith that Paul is talking about, which applies to everyone.
We’ll get to more of the specifics of how this doesn’t “overthrow the law” but “upholds the law” around about chapter 12. Which we’ll get to in a couple of weeks.