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Romans 3:21-31

Righteousness Through Faith

     21 But now apart from the law (although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it) the righteousness of God has been made known. 22 This righteousness of God is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference [between Jew and Gentile] 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are freely declared innocent by God’s grace, rescued by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the faithful shedding of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and yet to declare innocent all those who trust in the faithfulness of Jesus.

     27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the ‘works of the law?’ No, through the principle of faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is declared innocent on the basis of faith, apart from performing the ‘works of the law.’ 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will declare innocent the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

We said when we started our series of readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that this book of the New Testament is considered to be one of the cornerstones of Christian theology, and especially of Protestant theology. In Romans, the apostle Paul stresses the importance of God’s grace – which is defined as the un-earned favor of God – as the basis of our new life as followers of Jesus. Romans is Paul’s longest letter, and it’s full of other important ideas about the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, and about what it means for us to be his followers.

Studying Romans can be a challenge. It can be complicated to figure out exactly what Paul means to say in some passages. That’s because some passages have probably been translated from the Greek originals in ways that aren’t easy to understand. A good commentary helps, because the scholars compare different translations of the text to make the readings as understandable as possible.

In today’s reading, the apostle Paul is writing about the idea that’s usually called “salvation by faith, not works.” The basic idea is that we’re saved by our faith in Jesus, not by being good or by doing a bunch of religious rituals or good deeds. That’s not really wrong, but what Paul is saying has a little more to it that we tend to appreciate.

Most translations of Romans say that righteousness comes to us “through faith in Jesus.” But some of the best New Testament scholars – and notably the English scholar N. T. Wright – say that a better translation of the Greek original would say that righteousness comes to us “through the faithfulness of Jesus.” In other words, it seems that what Paul meant to say was that God’s righteousness, which had been revealed through the long history of Israel, actually became a powerful force in our lives because Jesus was faithful to his calling to die on the cross.

That actually makes a difference. The common Christian belief is that if we believe in Jesus, then we basically earn salvation by believing. But think about it – if we’re saved as a reward for believing, then we’re saved by something we do – by believing. That would make our salvation an achievement on our part. But Paul’s point, it seems, is that by the faithfulness of Jesus in going to the cross, God’s grace began to work in the hearts of people, causing some to believe in Jesus. In other words, we aren’t ‘saved because we believe’; rather we ‘believe because Jesus saved us.’

Paul’s point – and this is probably the most important point in Romans – is that we are saved by what God did, not by anything that we do. That’s what it really means to be “saved by grace” as Reformed believers understand the phrase. Grace is “un-earned favor,” and you can’t earn it, even by “having faith.”

Paul also writes that because of what God did in Jesus, we are “justified.” That’s the word that’s used in most translations of the New Testament. But some translators translate the Greek word as “declared innocent,” instead of “justified.” That’s what the Greek word really means – that because of the faithfulness Jesus showed by dying on the cross, we have been accepted as innocent in God’s eyes, even though we’re really guilty of all kinds of sins. Jesus took upon himself a verdict of ‘guilty’ (although he was really innocent) and allowed himself to be executed in place of people like us, who have been declared innocent (although we are really guilty).

The scholars say that when Paul talks about observing “the Law” in this passage, what he really had in mind wasn’t obeying the Ten Commandments and the other rules and ordinances we find in the Old Testament. The scholars say Paul is really talking about what the Jews called “the works of the Law” – things like being circumcised, eating kosher food and keeping the Sabbath. Paul says you can’t make yourself ‘innocent’ in God’s eyes by doing those works of the Law – God’s verdict of innocent is given as a gift to those who have been moved to faith in Jesus.

It’s not that trying to obey the Law of God is a waste of time. That law shows us the kind of lives God wants his people to live. But we can’t keep that law faithfully enough on our own to earn that verdict of innocent – to be ‘justified’ – in God’s eyes.

So as we said, this passage has some of the most important ideas in the New Testament. One is that we’re saved by Jesus’ faithfulness, and that our faith is a gift out of God’s gracious love, not an achievement on our part, or something we’ve earned. Paul also says that it was through the death of Jesus on the cross that the depth of God’s gracious love was most clearly shown. And finally, that no amount of religious behavior is enough to earn us God’s favor – we are totally reliant on God’s grace for that.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the faithfulness of Jesus by which the penalty for our sins has been paid, so that faith might be kindled in our hearts and we might be declared innocent in your eyes. Help us to live out our faith with thankful hearts, eager to live as your law directs and to make your gracious love known to others. Amen.

Grace and Peace,