On August 6 & 9, 1946, during World War 2, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Within a week, Japan surrendered. The bombs changed history.
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (3:21).
“But now . . . “ Those words signal a “bomb-dropping”-like change in the way God works in the world. God is pouring out his wrath against humans’ sin (1:18-3:20). The question, then, that overrides everything else is “how can we escape God’s wrath and get right with him?” Now not by trying (unsuccessfully) to keep regulations, but by receiving the gift of righteousness. This is what Paul means by “apart (separate) from law”.
Yet this apart-from-law-righteousness was prefigured in the Mosaic Law and foretold by Israel’s prophets. “But now” does imply that God is starting new “from scratch”; he’s fulfilling what he long-promised.
We might ask, “What’s the big deal? I’m trying to get my career on track.” Or, “I’m trying to mother three children.” Or, “I’m struggling with debilitating cancer treatments. Religion has to wait.” But suppose Paul’s letter to the Roman church is right? Suppose God really is giving us over in his wrath to the consequences of our wrong choices against him? Suppose our sins against him really mean we’re storing up wrath for the day of God’s wrath? If that’s true, what could be more important than getting right with him? And what could be more important than receiving the righteousness he now gives, especially since regulation-keeping leaves us “short”?
“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:22-24).
What is this “faith in Jesus Christ” through which God’s righteousness comes? It’s “simply” trust in Jesus Christ. It’s reliance on a person. It’s not, “Act right and you get righteousness.” It’s trust Jesus Christ to be the means through which God gives you righteousness.
“Faith” opens up righteousness as a potential gift to all who believe. Paul makes a major point of this here. “There is no difference (or, distinction); for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and (therefore all) are justified freely (without merit or achievement declared right with God) by his grace . . . ”
What does it mean to “fall short of the glory of God”? First, what is God’s “glory”? The Greek word itself (doxa) means, “glory, radiance, splendor”. Doesn’t help much, does it! John Piper calls glory “the going public of [God’s] infinite worth . . . the infinite value of God”. So we gaze at the heavens and the earth that this God created. We marvel at stars and clouds and mountains and oceans—and sleeping babies. How glorious this Creator! What a treasure all that he is must be!
But humans have exchanged God’s glory for images (Romans 1:19-24). Thus, we “fall short” and are left without all that he is; indeed, we incur his wrath.
The Jew who’s been circumcised to mark his belonging to God’s people and assiduously commits to keeping God’s Law can now be “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. So can the pagan Gentile men whom God had given over to their consuming sexual passions for one another. Like the “religious” person, the immoral person who’s utterly rejected God and his laws is declared right with God “freely” by faith.
This is “grace” (God’s favor, kindness, unearned love). And it comes “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “Redemption” means “to buy back” and carries with it the idea of slaves being released. So, we are slaves “under (the power of) sin” (Romans 3:9), but we can be redeemed (bought back from slavery) by Christ’s ransom-price death. Thus, this faith centers in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified.
“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25,26).
The NIV’s translation, “presented”, is of the Greek protithayme, better translated “presented publicly”. God openly offered Jesus as “a sacrifice of atonement”. The Greek is hilastayrios meaning “propitiation”; that is, the place where sins are forgiven. Again turning to John Piper’s definition, propitiation is “the work of God to absorb his divine anger toward sinful man.” In other words, God unleashed his wrath due sinful humanity on Jesus, his Son. Such is the unspeakable grace of God.
Because hilastayrios is used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) to translate “mercy seat”, some have argued “mercy seat” lies behind the word’s meaning here. Thus Paul is saying that God publicly offered Jesus in his bloody death as the merciful covering for our sin–an apt image!
Either way, it’s instructive to note that Paul narrows the object of faith from “Jesus Christ” (3:22) to “his blood”—that is, his propitiatory sacrifice.
Paul then explains the reason for God offering Christ as a propitiation—that is, “he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished”. How can God be just and allow sins go unpunished? He only allowed it for a time. Christ endured the punishment for all sins committed by all believers. At the same time as he is just, he is “the one who justified (declared righteous) those who have faith in Jesus.”
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Paul will apply all this in the next sentences: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:27,28). In other words, “You Jews who work hard at keeping God’s law, you have nothing to brag about. Don’t go point your finger at Gentiles who do what they shouldn’t! Everybody who believes is justified!”
More about that next time. For now it will be good to re-read this blog–even better to prayerfully meditate on Romans 3:21-26, admit our sin and worthiness of God’s wrath, and affirm that we are relying on Jesus Christ crucified alone to be right with God.
Because God’s “But now” changed history–and miraculously changed our standing with our glorious God.