Romans 3:21-26 - 'What God did' by Judith Smith

This is the second of a series of passages that we shall be looking at from Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome.

Today’s verses are what the commentators describe as ‘dense’ – by which they mean that they are tightly packed with ideas and strands of meaning, all of which we need to get hold of if we are to understand how the Christian gospel works. It will take some concentration, and maybe the Bible to follow, but just hang on in there if you can!

Last week Colin helped us to look at verses from chapter 1 of the letter, which described in more detail part of verse 23 from today’s reading, which says, “… all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God”. We need to start here, because if we don’t accept that, then there is no need to look at the rest of the passage.

In the beginning God is described as making humankind – both man and woman – in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

The stories that follow at the beginning of Genesis are the means of describing how humankind became less like their creator as they decided they would make their own choices of what to do and how to live (Genesis 3, 4,11 etc.). Inevitably, in making these decisions, bad choices were made – choices that were selfish, unfair, and on a larger scale, unjust. Humanity gradually drifted further away from the image and likeness – “the glory of God” – in which it was originally created.

It’s a situation in which all human beings, of every age, find themselves. A long-ago bishop put it like this: “The prostitute, the liar, the murderer, all come short of God’s glory; but so do you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you on the crest of an Alp, but you are as little able to touch the stars as they are”. (Bishop Handley Moule [1894]).

The Old Testament tells us regularly that this was the case, and that God chose one man, Abraham, to be the father of a nation through which God’s perfect justice would again be seen in the world.

God gave Israel the commission, bound with a solemn covenant agreement, to show his justice to the world – but it soon became clear that in spite of God’s Law to guide them, and his special care of this nation, they were no better than the rest of humanity. “The bearers of the solution to the world’s problems turned out to be themselves part of that problem” (Tom Wright).

So, what now?

Verse 21 says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known…” It is similar to a verse in chapter 1, which says, “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed…” God has revealed his answer to the problem of drifting and unfaithful humanity.

The Law, given by God to Israel, showed them where they were going wrong, but did not, of itself, have any power to stop them making more bad choices and drifting further away from God. 

Paul says God’s new revelation has taken place “apart from the law”. It is not a revelation given only to Israel (who had the law to guide them, and had been commissioned to show God’s ways to the world). This new revelation is something given for the benefit of the entire human race - although Paul also says that it is something “to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (verse 21). This revelation fulfils everything that God promised to Israel of old. God did not simply abandon Israel and try something else when they failed in their task – it was through Israel that God’s plan came about, by means of their long-promised Messiah.

The Messiah was not only the representative of his people, but in the person of Jesus, he was the faithful representative who did what the rest of the nation failed to do – in the way he lived he illustrated “the image and likeness” of God in which humankind was first made.

In Paul’s thinking those who fail to live reflecting “the glory of God” are like slaves. Just as Israel had once been enslaved in Egypt and only rescued through the action of God, so he pictured the whole human race as being unable to help itself out of its predicament, and so needing to be rescued.

 As God alone provided the means of rescue for Israel, so he provided rescue for humankind – “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (verse 24). ‘Redemption’ is a word borrowed from the marketplace; in Old Testament times it was used in the context of slaves who were purchased in order to set them free.

At the beginning of verse 24 Paul uses another borrowed term. ‘Justification’ is a word from the law courts. It is the opposite of ‘condemnation’, but means more than just giving a pardon. If ‘condemnation’ is to say a guilty party is worthy of punishment, then ‘justification’ is to say the guilty party, although guilty, is to be acquitted, that there are no just grounds for punishment, and that he or she is declared to be in the right. This is “the righteousness from God” of verse 21, which God gave as a gift – but how can this possibly be? It seems to go against all that God would be expected to stand for.

Well, righteousness for the guilty “came by Christ Jesus” (verse 24), and it came, at great cost, through the cross. There Jesus bought freedom for slaves – he redeemed them.

At the beginning of verse 25 Paul shifts his focus to the Temple and to the language of sacrifice, saying, “God presented him” (i.e. Jesus) “as a sacrifice of atonement…”

 In Old Testament times on the Day of Atonement the blood of sacrifice would be put on the ‘mercy seat’ – the place in the Temple where God met with his people in forgiveness. Paul is now saying that Jesus himself is the place where, and the means by which, God meets his people and forgives them. It is Jesus’ own blood, shed on the cross, which is the ransom price, and his sacrificial death that is the means of justification for all who believe.

But ‘atonement’ has another implication, if you notice the footnote. The alternative reading of the beginning of verse 25 is: “God presented Jesus as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin”. 

Last week Colin explained that God is only angered by evil. Righteous anger is something that we too feel and understand, and we should be surprised if God did not react like this. 

There is no way that we can placate the righteous anger of God, but in fact God has done it himself – in Jesus. John Stott puts it like this – “God himself gave himself to save us from himself”.

The second part of verse 25 and verse 26 tell us why God needed to act as he did. The phrase “He did this to demonstrate his justice…” appears in both verses. Paul makes a contrast between wrongdoing that occurred in the past and which appeared to go “unpunished” (verse 25), and the wrongdoing of “the present time (verse 26). It might look as if God just ignored what happened in the past, but this was not so. 

The wrongdoing of Israel was punished symbolically in the animal sacrifices of the Temple. God, as it were, postponed his full judgement until the time when its full weight and consequences would be borne by Jesus, the one faithful Israelite, the Messiah, on the cross. There his once and for all sacrificial death was not just for Israel, but for all humankind. 

Without the cross it would have been impossible for God “to demonstrate his justice”, to deal with his anger in the face of evil, and at the same time to redeem and justify wrongdoers.

All we now need to do is to accept what Jesus has done. As chapter 1 verse 17 tells us, “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last…” No earning it – it’s a gift – just say thank you and accept it.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011