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Bible Commentaries
Romans 3

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Romans 3:21 to Romans 4:25

The Problem

The word "justify" sounds dry to a newcomer. It has a legalistic sound, for it belongs to the jargon of ancient courtrooms. It is so much associated with the name of Paul that some people think justification was his hobby, a doctrine his lawyer mind invented. But the word is neither dry nor is it Paul’s special hobby. Justi­fication is one of many figures of speech that Christians have long used. But it is nobody’s hobby. It represents a uni­versal problem, one with which every religion in the world, past or present, is in some way concerned. Indeed, it is the most vital question any man can face. People who cannot spell the word and who have never heard of it, may ask themselves the chilling question, "How do I stand with God?" Chilling, because the suspicion creeps into the mind, "I haven’t any standing with him!"

Frankly, if we treated any ordinary person as it is our habit to treat God—working against his interests most of the time, indifferent to him the rest of the time, never listening to what he says to us, speaking to him only by way of an occasional scream for help—if we treated people that way we would have no friends. How can God accept us as friends?

"Working against his interests" is putting it much too mildly. We work against him, we resist him. Practically, we demand his resignation as God and we set up ourselves—our own desires, judgments, plans, comforts, even whims—set up our shabby selves as The Most Important Object in the universe. We act as though we thought him stupid, for we think we are deceiving him as easily as we fool our grandmothers; we even act as though we thought him bad, for we expect him to let us get away with murder. Yet we want him on our side. In serious moments we know that if he is not, we are lost. We are like a man who wants to be reconciled to his wife but perversely keeps on doing and saying insulting things that only drive her further away. How can God accept us?

"Justification" can be given other names. Paul himself was not tied to any one set of words. The question, How can God justify the unjust? can be asked in other ways: How can God forgive the unforgivable? How can God accept the unacceptable? How can God reconcile the unreconcilable?

That is the problem of justification. Of course there are peo­ple who are not bothered by it in the least. Nevertheless it is a real problem, and it becomes acute when it gets into the first person singular. How can 1 come to terms with God?

False Solutions

We may understand Paul’s answer to this problem better if we take a quick look at other answers. First, we know there are many who do not see the problem. We cannot appreciate it at all un­less (1) we believe in a God who is entirely good, whose will is always good; and (2) we have consciences that tell us that we are not fit for God’s approval. But let us assume that a man does believe in God, and has a working conscience, even a primitive one. Then what?

The Epicureans would have said there is no problem. Not because God does not exist, but because God, or the gods, just does not care. An ant in the woods is not bothered about his stand­ing with you; he goes his way and you go yours, and you do not care. But all high religions understand that God does care, and we have to take him seriously or suffer the consequences.

The kind of high religion represented by the Greek writer of tragedies, Aeschylus, understood well the "wrath of God" on greatly wicked men, but he saw no outcome except the pursuing and destructive vengeance of a God who could not be appeased.

In some very popular misinterpretations of religion—including a common misunderstanding of the Hebrew religion—it was considered impossible to please God by doing what he requires, since his requirements were too strenuous. So God had provided, it was thought, an easier way, the way of sacrifice. In this view not everybody could keep the Ten Commandments, but anybody who could afford it could offer up a lamb, or have a priest do it for him. Sacrifice thus would become a substitute for obedience. (Isaiah 1 and Micah 6:6-8 show how the prophets protested against this parody of religion.)

The kind of Jew that Paul had been before his conversion, took this matter most seriously of all. He believed that God had set forth his will in his Law, and that the way to God’s approval, the way to have the right standing in God’s sight, was to keep the Law. As simple as that!

The trouble with this was twofold. On the one hand it led straight into the conceit and complacency of the Pharisees. Many "trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" (Luke 18:9), and Jesus had little use for them. Pride is the blight that withers the flower of virtue.

On the other hand—and especially for a man like Paul, a man with a high sense of God and a keen conscience—this method of winning God’s favor by building up a kind of ladder out of "works of law" simply leads to despair. Unlike the kind of Pharisee whom Jesus denounced, this kind of man knows he does not keep the Law—that is, carry out the will of God to perfection—and yet he feels that unless he does so he will never win God’s approval. God’s verdict is always "Guilty," and it is small comfort to know that this is God’s verdict on every man. How Paul’ discovered the key to the riddle, the answer to the problem, we do not fully know. But the answer he gave in this letter not only appealed to the church at Rome (for we know that the Christians there kept and treasured the letter), but in time appealed to the whole Church. It was not merely one man’s idea; it was the truth, a truth which God wanted his chil­dren to know, a truth for all times and all men.

Verses 1-20

Are Jews a Special Case? (3:1-20)

As for the Jew, Paul would have been the first to claim that the Jewish religion was the true religion, or at any rate that the Jews worshiped the one true God. They also had the highest moral standards in the Roman world. Paul will come back again and again to discuss the Jews; he was much more interested in them than most Gentile readers of this letter are. But he is mainly concerned about them as examples of the best religion there is, apart from Christ.

He even suggests that they are actually worse than the Gentiles, because the Jews had had the Law of God to go by in a way and at a level different from that of the Gentiles. A homemade do-it-yourself medicine man in the backwoods can be blamed for killing people with his mixtures; but he is not nearly so much to blame as the graduate in pharmacy who makes a mistake he was taught never to make. The more you know, the more you are to blame; that is common sense, and Paul applies it to the Jews.

Three sentences we may set down as summing up the main points of this part of Romans are: all men have sinned (3:10-12); all men are in the grip of sin (3:9); and, most discouraging of all, no human being can get God’s approval even by doing what God requires (3:20). (For the why of this, see the comment on 3:21-4:25.)

Verses 21-30

The True Solution (3:21-30

In Paul’s words, "A man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (3:28). God’s approval, his "justification," his verdict of acquittal, his forgiveness, a right standing with him—this is not to be bought, it cannot be earned. Men are "justified by his grace as a gift" (3:24).

Once get this straight and you have the clue to the Christian life; you have also a leading truth which is related to most of what Paul has yet to say. For although this, in a sense, is the main theme of the letter, it raises a great many questions, which Paul proceeds to deal with.

Someone might ask: So God really makes no requirements of us? If his grace is a gift, then we need not do a thing! On the contrary, there is one thing that is required: faith. But faith is not a thing you do, it is not a virtue you practice. Faith is accept­ing God’s acceptance of us in Christ. It is letting God take our hand and lift us up. Faith is not just another form of currency, so to speak, by which to buy God’s grace. Faith is not a good­-deed-to-end-all-good-deeds, for which we are suitably rewarded.

There is a somewhat short and mysterious glimpse here of what is brought out elsewhere in Paul’s writings and in the rest of the New Testament; namely, that God’s grace is connected with the death of Jesus Christ. Just what this connection is cannot be seen directly from this passage (3:24-25).

But Paul uses two suggestive words here, "redemption" and "expiation." Each is a figure of speech drawn from the Old Testament. We may note that "redemption" is an idea going back to the time when if a Hebrew got taken over as a slave, for debt or otherwise, his next of kin was expected to buy him free. This suggests that Christ, so to speak, bought sinners free from their slavery to sin, and that the price he paid was his own life.

"Expiation" is one of the meanings of "sacrifice," a word not used here. If we may get ahead of our story, we can say that in many places in the New Testament, not only in Paul, Christ’s death is considered a sacrifice. Paul refers to Christ’s death in this way (1 Corinthians 5:7; Ephesians 5:2) and also to his blood as sacri­ficial (Romans 5:9; 1 Corinthians 10:16; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 2:13; Colossians 1:20).

Sacrifice is a complex problem, but it is clear that in the Old Testament the word had many meanings and intentions. The Early Church, following Paul’s lead, singled out one of these as basic—namely, substitution. The one who made a sacrifice of a living animal imaginatively identified himself with the sacrifice. The killing of the beast signified the wrath of God; in other words, the repenting man felt he deserved to die—the universe would be better off if his own bad life were destroyed. But God allowed him to make the sacrifice as a substitute for himself. The purpose was not simply to wipe the slate clean, it was to give him a fresh start and restore him to fellowship with God. So Christ above all is the final and all-availing sacrifice which brings sinning man back to God. Note that it is God who "puts forward" Jesus; in other words, the death , of Jesus did not change God from anger to love. It is the loving God who makes the sacrifice possible.

In verses 27-31 Paul repeats the thought that justification, right relation to God, is not something to boast about, as did the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), for such a relation­ship cannot be managed, bought, earned, or deserved on our side. God alone can make it possible. This is true for Jews, true for non-Jews.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Romans 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/romans-3.html.
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