Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28 – No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Justification by Grace through Faith
Here is the Romans 3:19-28 text in its entirety:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
The Romans’ faith is known throughout the world already at the time of Paul’s writing (57 A.D?). Christianity is making its mark on Rome, a city of 400,000 people, enormous for this time in European history. Perhaps not all are equally excited about this.
Tacitus writes in the latter part of the first century:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Annals 15.44.)
In Romans 1 Paul introduced his thesis. In rhetorical terms, it is his propositio:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Paul’s gospel: the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, for faith.
What does “through faith, for faith” mean? Luther interpreted ek pisteos, ein pistin to mean “by faith alone.” Ben Witherington III prefers a more nuanced translation: “from the faithful One, unto faith.” As we’ll see below, I take this to mean through Christ’s faith, so that we too might have faith.
In Romans 2, Paul levels the playing field. All have sinned, therefore Jews and Gentiles are on the same level. It is not having the law that justifies, but keeping it. On this count, he contends, all have fallen short. Therefore you have no excuse in judging others.
In Romans 3 Paul develops his thesis a bit more. Now that the playing field has been leveled, Paul shows that Christ has revealed that righteousness comes apart from works of the law. We are saved through Christ’s faith, but that faith elicits a response from us, also faith.
A growing number of scholars agree that Romans 3, along with Galatians 2:15-21 and Philippians 3:2-11, speak of Christ’s covenantal faith, not ours. We are justified by the faith of Christ, not our faith in Christ. This is Michael Gorman’s conclusion in Apostle of the Crucified Lord.
Paul was born into a Roman world of citizens and slaves. Slavery was not racial, like U.S. slavery was, but it was widespread. By Paul’s time Gorman tells us that most slaves were born into slavery. A slave’s children were the property of of the slave owner, the ultimate dehumanization.
The Pax Romana, Roman Peace, was well-known. Order was kept in the vast Roman Empire of many diverse peoples through military conquest, domination, taxation, slavery and crucifixion. Gorman calls it “peace through war.” The Romans invaded and enslaved. Like lynchings in the U.S., Roman crowds gathered to watch and jeer as dissidents and opponents died in naked shame. Honoring, worshipping or deifying a crucified man was an absurd idea.
We cannot understand Paul without understanding his context.
In his German Bible, Luther writes about Romans 3, in his Preface to Romans,
St. Paul verifies his teaching on faith in chapter 3 with a powerful example from Scripture. He calls as witness David, who says in Psalm 32 that a person becomes just without works but doesn’t remain without works once he has become just. Then Paul extends this example and applies it against all other works of the law. He concludes that the Jews cannot be Abraham’s heirs just because of their blood relationship to him and still less because of the works of the law. Rather, they have to inherit Abraham’s faith if they want to be his real heirs, since it was prior to the Law of Moses and the law of circumcision that Abraham became just through faith and was called a father of all believers.
Our text starts at verse 19, but Paul has just quoted Psalm 32, using David to make it clear that no one is righteous. He will also use Abraham later.
Lutherans and Roman Catholics proclaimed together in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:
By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.
So how does one preach this message in the 21st century?
Perhaps more than ever, this message needs to be absorbed by people of faith. So many, particularly in the Bible Belt, understand Christianity as a set of laws or rules to follow. They read the Bible as a rule book. They believe the 613 rules in the Hebrew Bible as laws that must be followed by Christians. Luther rejected this idea. Clearly Paul does too.
Christianity is a religion of faith in Christ, not a religion of laws. In fact, this is one thing that distinguishes Christianity from many other religions. We are offered not laws, but rather a relationship. What is called for is not strict obedience to a legal code. What is called for is trust. Paul will, in chapter 4, use Abraham as an example. Abraham believed God’s promises and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. This is the righteousness of God, in Paul’s thought. For Luther, faith is trusting God’s promises, as Christ did, even unto death.
But faith is not an armchair business. It is not believing the Bible, or creeds, or doctrines. It’s not believing six impossible things before breakfast, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland.
“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.“
Faith is trusting God’s promises. It is my daughter jumping off the kitchen counters in my arms with no doubt that I will catch her. This is faith. Throwing ourselves in life and in death into the arms of God. It draws us into God’s work in the world.
My all-time favorite story about this faith, is the somewhat overused, but helpful story. When I tell it, it always gets a laugh and brings the point across.
The great Blondin was a tightrope walker. He once walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He then asked,
“Who believes that I can push this wheelbarrow across Niagara Falls?” “We do! We believe!”
Then he asked, “Who will get into the wheelbarrow?”
Faith is no armchair business. It is getting in the wheelbarrow. Faith is not believing creeds or doctrines. Faith is not assent to an intellectual proposition. Faith is ultimate trust. Faith is putting our trust in God, in life and in death. Faith is Abraham believing God’s absurd promises. Faith is Moses standing before Pharaoh. Faith is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, “Lord let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless not my will, but your will be done.” In short, faith is throwing ourselves into Jesus’ wheelbarrow. Jesus’ boat. Come hell or high water.