Romans (Part 15) – Works Versus Faith (3:24–31)
It is not until verse 24 that we begin to see righteousness in connection to believers. In this verse, we learn that the believing sinners can be justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption of Jesus. We must recall again that to justify means to declare righteous. Therefore, it is based on Jesus’s redemption (not markers of the Law) that people may be declared faithful to the New Covenant of Life, joining that community of God’s people in everlasting love relationship with him. And this declaration of righteousness comes freely by God’s grace. Grace, of course, is unmerited favor. By using the word freely as well, Paul doubles up on the idea that this gift is not owed. Yet it is not a duty or drudgery by God to present this free and unmerited gift because grace also means favor—an act of joy and delight in its presentation.
Verses 25 and 26 pose their own difficulty, but this time not because of mistranslation. Rather, Paul’s Jewish understanding and background comes into play. Paul is working on conveying fully the idea of God’s righteousness revealed through Jesus. Verse 25 begins with Paul saying that God presented Jesus. Paul doesn’t actually use the common Greek word meaning presented but rather chooses one that means put forth. While synonyms abound even in Greek, the use is not common for Paul. If I were to tell you, “I’d like to put forth a gift before you,” although you would understand what I was saying, you’d probably wonder why I chose to say it like that instead of “I want to give you something.” And so, we must also wonder with Paul.
The word translated presented in the HCSB (or set forth in the KJV) is the Greek protithemi (proti,qhmi). We find the word used often in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the same one Paul used in the first century AD). There the word is often used in presenting the sacrifice. It is most often used of putting forth the showbread in the Holy Place. Therefore, we have a hint that Paul may be choosing words to denote sacrificial discussion with which the Jews would be familiar.
Paul goes on to say that God put forth Jesus as a propitiation. The word means appeasement, but again we find its use striking. Paul never elsewhere uses this word. And again we find it in the Septuagint translated to English as mercy seat—the lid to the top of the ark in the Holy of Holies. The only other New Testament use is in Hebrews where it is also often translated mercy seat. So far, Paul is strongly suggesting the OT sacrificial system in his language. If only he would now mention blood. Well, what do you know! Jesus is said to be God’s sacrificial mercy seat “through faith in His blood,” completing this very Jewish, very sacrifice-oriented description. We can paraphrase the first part of verse 25, then, as “God put forth Jesus, whose sacrificial blood (in death) from his faithful life became the means of mercy.”
With that running start, we can view the rest of these two verses more clearly. Verse 25 states that God put forth Jesus “to demonstrate his righteousness.” And verse 26 also starts out “to demonstrate his righteousness.” In other words these two verses are offering two ways in which God demonstrated his righteousness in putting forth Jesus as the sacrifice.
Verse 25—the first way—reads, “because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.” This statement fits in well with what we have discussed before. God did pass over sins. Abraham sinned. Isaac sinned. Jacob sinned. Joseph sinned. David sinned. Daniel sinned. Isaiah sinned. Yet with all these sinners, God seemingly passed over their sins to embrace them in fellowship, counting the faith of Abraham as righteousness, equating the heart of David with God’s own. How could God be just in ignoring their sin? The answer is because of Jesus. Jesus as sacrifice demonstrates that God was not unrighteous in passing over their sin.
Turning from a backward look, verse 26 takes a step forward to say that putting forth Jesus as sacrifice demonstrated his righteousness also at the present time “so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.” Most translations read, “be just and the justifier,” which is a more faithful translation even though “declare righteous” is exactly the meaning for justify. But there is the same difficulty about faith in this verse as was in verse 22. There is no preposition in. Jesus is here in the genitive case (possessive), so if a preposition is to be inserted, it should be of. There is also a Greek preposition (ek) changed by translation into “who has.” This word is normally translated “out of.” By fixing these irregularities, the verse says that Jesus is put forth as sacrifice to demonstrate God’s righteousness at the present time, “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one [who comes] out of the faith(fullness) of Jesus.” So then, Paul is not talking about our saving faith to gain salvation; he is talking about the demonstration of God’s righteousness for relationship with his image bearers accomplished through the faithfulness of Jesus in his sacrifice.
By these two verses, then, Paul is showing God’s righteousness to both his Trinitarian covenants. By his sacrifice, Jesus showed God to be righteous in operating according to his TGB essence. And by his sacrifice, Jesus showed God to be righteous in ensuring his creative purpose—the everlasting love relationship with his image bearers. Thus, it is not the markers of the Law and Circumcision that shows one belongs to God. It is demonstrating God’s righteousness through faith that shows one belongs to God.
In the next few verses closing out chapter 3, Paul draws his argument to a conclusion. He begins by saying that boasting is excluded. This statement is not a mere moral indication that boasting is a bad exercise. The statement rather speaks to Paul’s whole point in attitude correction of the Jews. They boasted in the markers—the works of the Law—that identified them as Jews: circumcision and the Law itself. These identifiers, they thought, proved or declared them to be righteous—members of the covenant community belonging to God. Paul’s argument had been that these markers or works of the Law did not demonstrate that they belonged to God. Paul argued rather that it was faith(fullness) that showed you belonged to God.
As further proof that the Jews were wrong in their assumption, Paul had shown that although the Jews pointed to the Law and their hold of it as something good, they in fact disregarded it in the practical course of their life (2:17–22). That disregard resulted in dishonor. How could someone (or group) who dishonored God boast in the very thing that he or she was dishonoring as proof of relationship with God?
Paul had also argued that some of those who did not have the Law (Gentiles) were being faithful to the things of God (TGB) and as such were being accepted by God (2:25–29).
These attitudes showed that by the works of the Law no one could boast about being in relationship with God. Relationship with God depended on God’s righteousness being fulfilled. God’s righteousness was fulfilled through the faithful hold on TGB. Jesus proved that. And through Jesus’s faithfulness, righteousness was revealed. Therefore, Paul concluded, we are justified by faith.
At this point, we must make clear again what justification is and what it is not. Justification is not redemption. Justification is not transformation. We are redeemed and transformed in our conversion. Justification, on the other hand is declaration of righteousness. Abraham was declared righteous long before he was redeemed (the Redeemer had not even been born to the earth at the time of Abraham’s declaration of righteousness—his justification). And yet, for God to be righteous (faithful to his Trinitarian Covenant of Operational Essence), anyone he declared righteous (justified) had to be redeemed. It all came to realization in Jesus. In Jesus justification and redemption come together. Therefore, on the one hand we must see them for the separate activities they are, but on the other hand we must see them inseparably joined as two sides of a coin. Either side cannot survive without the other.