Romans (Part 14) – Revelation of God’s Righteousness (3:9–23)
We now move to chapter 3 verses 9 through 20—the last subsection of our Part 2 discussion labeled “God’s Righteousness: Judging TGB” (Romans 1:18–3:20). This last subsection is a summation of sorts, concluding (or reiterating) that the Jews were as guilty of sin before God as were the Gentiles. Paul had just stated in the previous subsection that the Jews did indeed have an advantage based on having received the oracles of God pointing to redemption. Paul then begins this last subsection by asking whether that advantage had made the Jews better or, rather, had placed them in a better ultimate position. Paul’s answer is an emphatic “Not at all!” He returns to his original chapter 2 point that, despite the advantage of being the first to know more intricately God’s redemptive plan, both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin.
Paul than underlines his conclusion, quoting a series of passages mainly from the Psalms but also from Isaiah. In these verses, Paul shows clearly the failures of the Jews recorded for them in their Scriptures. However, I think we would do well to remember that Paul is not merely flipping his concordance open to words of sin to find passages that suit his purpose. Paul recalls these passages from past study, which means that he knows not only the parts he is quoting but also the parts he leaves as yet unquoted. If we return to each of these passages (Psalm 14, 5, 140, 36, and Isaiah 59), we will certainly find these accusations and condemnations of sin. But in every one of these passages, we will also find words of mercy and rescue and salvation based on God’s faithful love. I believe that is the reason Paul has chosen these verses in particular. By quoting them, he is hinting to the Jews (who also know these Scriptures and the corresponding words of rescue) that although the sin is definite, redemption is possible—which will be Paul’s next point in his argument (in 3:21 through 4:25).
At his current point, however, Paul insists that they recognize their guilt and estrangement from God. Yes, they were given the Law, but as he states in 3:19, the Law speaks to those who are subject to it. The Jews—being the ones subject to the Law—had to realize that in breaking the Law, they had broken their covenant obligation to live according to it (promised by the nation way back at Sinai). They, therefore, have no defense. Their mouths will be shut (3:19b). They, along with the Gentiles, are all subject to God’s judgment (3:19c).
In verse 20, Paul reiterates his conclusion that no one will be justified by the works of the law. This verse requires further discussion to understand its impact. First, the word justify and justification come from the same root as the words righteous and righteousness. We have discussed the term righteousness a lot. We know it is a word of status, meaning, faithful to the covenant. With the same root, we must conclude that justification, then, also relates that status of covenant faithfulness. But justification is a word of pronouncement or declaration. It is much like the verdict handed out by the judge in a courtroom. The judge declares a person righteous; that declaration is justification. Therefore, when Paul says in verse 20 that no one will be justified by the works of the law, he is saying that no one will be declared righteous in the final judgment based on works of the law.
But, wait a moment. Isn’t that statement the exact opposite of what we have understood Paul to be saying throughout chapters 2 and 3 so far? Let’s go back to 2:6. We read there: “He will repay each one according to his works.” That’s a judgment based on works. And then verse 13b follows: “The doers of the law will be declared righteous.” How can Paul say in one chapter that the doers of the law will be declared righteous (which means justified), and in the next chapter say that no one will be justified (which means declared righteous) by works of the law? Paul has actually not lost his mind here. If Paul understands both these statements he has made to be true, we must be presuming something about one of the statements that we should not.
We are so accustomed to understanding “works of the law” as things we do to gain favor that we miss the implication by Paul (which is also the understanding of the Jewish mindset). We have just discussed such things as circumcision and the Law (meaning keeping the law in regard to the Sabbath, dietary requirements, etc.) as markers or identifiers or signs. While circumcision was regarded by the Jew as a sign of belonging, it was an action undertaken. Likewise, keeping the Sabbath, which was a marker of belonging for the Jew, was an action repeated every week. Thus, although these markers were actions—works—they were not considered by the Jews as something they did to earn the favor of God. They were actions—works—performed to show their identification already as belonging to God. That mindset understanding makes all the difference in the world. When Paul argues in 3:20 that no one will be justified (declared righteous) by works of the law, he is concluding the chapter 2 and 3 argument that, in the final judgment, no one will be declared righteous merely for having these markers (these works) of the law identifying those Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant commitments. Yet his chapter 2 statement still stands. Everyone will be judged based on actions—works—that reveal their heart response to God’s TGB. The Jews had failed in those works (as Paul had shown from the Scripture quotes in chapter 3).
We, as Christians, should easily see the difference. What do we say of that person who goes to church each Sunday, carries his Bible, and never fails to give a 10% tithe in the offering plate all out of a supposed duty to show he or she belongs to the Christian community? Well, first we often agree that person looks as if he or she belongs. The markers are all there. But what would we think about that person if he or she sneered at the beggar on his way to church and treated others with a contemptuous hard heart? Good works are important, but that person’s church attendance and offering activity says nothing about that person’s heart. They are acts or markers that this pseudo-Christian employed to cast the impression that he or she belonged to—was a member of—the Christian community. Those markers, however, do not make that person righteous regarding covenantal relationship with God. That was the attitude of the Jew, and that is Paul’s distinction in these chapters.
Notice the last part of verse 20. Paul had said no one will be declared righteous by the works of the law precisely because that is not the purpose of the law. The Law’s purpose was to show that the Jews hearts were not trusting in God, and as not trusting in God, those hearts would break the Law founded on TGB. In other words (and as Paul says), the Law was there to bring the knowledge of sin, not to validate ignoring sin for a special group.
With the conclusion of this part of his argument—that God’s righteousness required judgment against both Jews and Gentiles who were equally guilty before God, Paul begins his development of God’s righteousness required in establishing a people for everlasting love relationship. Our high-level outline so far, then, has brought us to Part 3 of our study:
Part 1: Introduction (1:1–17)
Part 2: God’s Righteousness: Judging TGB (1:18–3:20)
Part 3: God’s Righteousness: Redemption (3:21–4:25)
Notice that the distinguishing characteristic about our movement from Part 2 to Part 3 is the change in discussion of God’s Righteousness. In Part 2, Paul wanted the Jews to recognize that God would be faithful to his Trinitarian Covenant of Operational Essence. In other words, he would judge based on his essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. But the conclusion of Part 2 seemed to leave everyone in the horrifying position of being estranged from God. How could God be righteous (faithful to his covenant obligations) in regard to his Trinitarian Covenant of Creative Purpose? There was no one with whom he could have everlasting love relationship. Thus, in order to be righteous to that covenant, God decides to redeem. And that decision is the point beginning Paul’s Part 3 discussion.
The first paragraph of this Part 3 discussion is chapter 3, verses 21 through 26. Paul begins by separating the Jew and his law-keeping from his upcoming discussion of God’s righteousness in actually forming a people for himself. Because Paul is going to emphasize God’s righteousness (faithfulness to his covenants), let’s recall again those covenants to which God must be faithful. We have discussed five covenants. In each, God had obligations:
Covenant of Operational Essence: God obligated himself to always act in truth, goodness, and beauty.
Covenant of Creative Purpose: God obligated himself to secure everlasting love relationship with his image bearers.
Covenant of Redemption: God obligated himself to redeem fallen image bearers (in essence and person).
Abrahamic Covenant: God obligated himself to provide land, offspring, and the Messiah.
Mosaic Covenant: God obligated himself to make priests of his chosen people.
Before moving on, notice in the Covenant of Redemption, God’s obligation was to redeem the entire image bearer. Since image bearing included the multiple-in-one reflection of God’s three-in-one, redemption had to involve both body and spirit or God would have failed. Gnosticism’s disregard for the body cannot be justified biblically. Also note that in both the Abrahamic and Mosaic obligations, senses of actuality and image come through. God provided Abraham physical land and physical children as an image of creation’s actual redemption in the physical (bodies) and spirit (persons). Likewise, God formed the nation of Israel as a nation of priests in image to reflect the actual priesthood of God’s actual eternal image-bearing community.
We know the story. We have all read the Bible before. God’s obligations in each of these covenants is upheld in the faithful activity of Jesus. It is Jesus who, as Messiah (God’s appointed one), becomes priest, redeems creation both physical and individual, and secures everlasting love relationship, maintaining God’s activity in truth, goodness, and beauty. And through the death he offers and the birth to new life he gives, believers (all persons of faith) may join that community of love in God.
That’s the full story. But Paul is only getting started. He had talked about God’s faithfulness to the Covenant of Operational Essence in Part 2. Now he is just moving to God’s faithfulness to the Covenant of Creative Purpose. But to do that he must bring in redemption and, importantly, Jesus. So Paul begins with the sentence in verses 21 through 23 of chapter 3. The first phrase tells us that this redeemed community is not formed by the Law but rather apart from it. And then Paul tells us that the righteousness of God is revealed.
The statement Paul makes is difficult to follow, and translators have butchered its meaning in their manipulations. Let’s look at the word for word translation (with some punctuation thrown in):
But now, without the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, a righteousness of God through faith Jesus Christ, to all the believing; for not there is difference; for all sinned and come short of the glory of God.
The first thing I want to point out is the lack of a preposition immediately before the mention of Jesus. Most translations insert in there to make the phrase “through faith in Jesus Christ.” I don’t think that in is appropriate. Jesus is presented in the genitive case. If any preposition should be inserted, then, it should be of, rendering it the phrase “through faith of Jesus Christ.” And this is surely the case. It is not your or my faith in Jesus through which God’s righteousness (God’s faithfulness to his covenant) came about; it is through the faith(fulness) of Jesus.
As I hinted, most translations do these verses a disservice in suggesting an alternate, false meaning, which is most clearly seen in the NIV’s translation. The NIV places a period at the end of verse 21, ignoring the flow. Thus, the refashioned verse 22 reads, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Consider what that says: the righteousness of God (God’s faithfulness to his covenant) is somehow given to believers. First of all, why would God be giving his faithfulness to his covenant obligations to anyone? And second, how in the world does that happen? How exactly does the faithful activity of God in a covenant get transferred to someone who was not even under the obligation to perform God’s activity in that covenant? The statement, as the NIV has shaped it, is hopelessly confused and meaningless regarding the whole thrust of Paul’s discussion.
Let’s look back at the word-for-word rendering. It is not the righteousness of God that is being given to believers. Note that there are two phrases that describe the righteousness of God. The first is “being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” The second is “a righteousness of God through faith Jesus Christ.” Since those two phrases merely explain what the righteousness of God is, let’s remove them to see the flow of the rest of the sentence.
But now, without the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed . . . to all the believing; for not there is difference; for all sinned and come short of the glory of God.
By removing those two phrases, we can see that the righteousness of God is not given to all the believing but rather is revealed to all the believing. We also see Paul stressing the fact that it is revealed to all the believing because all need it. In this, Paul’s point continues from the previous section: all are in the same boat; all (both Jews and Gentiles) have sinned and come short of the glory of God (the manifestation of his TGB). To make better sense, then, we could rephrase these three verses as follows: “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God (which had been attested by Scripture and is now realized because of the faithfulness of the Messiah Jesus) has been revealed to everyone who believes (Jews and Gentiles alike) since all (both groups) fall short in manifesting the image of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty.”
Paul’s point then has not yet approached faith in Jesus for individual salvation. The point rests squarely and only on Paul’s argument for the righteousness of God being revealed through the faithful work of Jesus. His righteousness is realized through Jesus, it is revealed to all humanity (Jews and Gentiles), and it is revealed because all have sinned.