AOMin_Banner SermonAudio_Banner RYM_Banner DesiringGod_Banner

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 5b: Christ a Curse for Us (Rom. 3)

Let us begin to look at another, and perhaps the most detailed passage in Paul concerning the dynamics of the atonement of Christ, Romans 3:19-31:

"Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

"Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith is one.

"Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law" (Rom. 3:19-31).

Before concluding how this passage supports the assertion of this essay regarding how the Law required and set the stage of history for God’s establishment of both covenantal and absolute justice, let us walk through its logic and make relevant lexical and interpretive comments along the way.

V. 19, discussed extensively in a previous section, begins to bring to a close the well-documented inclusio of 1:18-3:20, summarizing the problem of the world remedied by Paul’s apostolic gospel message. In chapters 2 and 3 Paul had turned from speaking of the problem of sin in general, in the largely Gentile world, to specifically Jewish sin and hypocrisy. Those who possessed the Law should have known better, but by and large failed to live faithfully according to its terms (2:24). However, because Israel was formally, corporately indicted of sin in the context of the Mosaic covenant, Paul says all the world is also accountable to God.

V. 20 focuses us further on the need for eschatological divine intervention beyond the provisions of the Law, by stating that the Law itself will not, in the final analysis, justify anyone! The reason Paul gives is that through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. It is interesting to note the generality of this statement in comparison with what Paul says in Galatians 3:10, in the context of his discussion there. One reason Paul gives in Galatians for the fact that justification or reception of the eschatological inheritance is not by the Law is that the “works-of-the-Law ones” (Israelites) are under the curse of Deut. 27:26, read properly as a curse on covenant unfaithfulness (want of covenantal justice), not judgment for mere imperfection. Here in Romans 3:20, however, Paul says simply that the knowledge of sin (want of absolute justice) disqualifies the Roman believers from justification by the Law. This ties together for us, conceptually, once again, the Law’s anticipation of the need for both covenantal and absolute justice by the work of Christ.

How is it, though, one may ask, that the Law—understood as a reference to the Mosaic covenant administration of the covenant of grace—will not justify anyone? Surely the believing remnant in Israel before the coming of Christ received the grace of justification by seeing, with the eye of faith, something of the glory of the promised Messiah adumbrated in the sacrifices and ceremonial ordinances in which they participated! So does Paul here in Romans 3:20 simply mean to exclude crass Jewish legalism? If not, what is the redemptive-historical point being made, and does that point have no bearing on Paul’s concern with legalism and human boasting?

Here is an opportunity to exercise caution against a number of the reductionisms mentioned in the introduction to this essay. Of course the believing remnant like Joshua were, in ordo salutis terms, justified by faith in the context of the Mosaic covenant, and in that sense, the “Law” (Mosaic covenant) indeed provided for justification. But in historia salutis terms—Paul’s consistent beginning point before ordo issues are ever brought into view—the Law did not bring about the substance or real historical basis of the justification experienced by faith even under Moses. Such appeared only after the coming of Christ, the completion of His work, and through the Spirit-anointed proclamation of the gospel.

This feature of the progression of redemptive history, though, certainly had a pedagogical function in terms of undermining the legalism toward which all sinful “flesh” (note sarx in v. 20) is inevitably bent! Especially if we keep in mind what we learned about the relatively bilateral administration of the Law as over against the unilateral fulfillment of the promises to Abraham in the gospel, the “probation” of the covenant community under the Law (cf. Gal. 3:23; 4:1-3) until Christ came served—as we saw in detail from Romans 7—to powerfully put to rest the idea that fallen humanity, Israelite or otherwise, could ever merit divine favor or justification by means of law. Israel could not corporately attain to or maintain the fullness of rest in the typological promised land by covenant faithfulness; and neither Jews nor Gentiles can attain eternal life by means of works.

The language introducing v. 21 confirms that a redemptive-historical transition is at the forefront of Paul’s mind, fundamental to whatever else he wants to say about the subjective appropriation of God’s saving work in Christ. “But now,” Paul begins (nyni de). The adversative contrasts the notion of justification by works with what will follow, and the time indicator casts the following discussion in appropriately eschatological light. Paul continues, “…apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (v. 21, cont’d). The word “manifested” (pephanerōtai) recalls the “revealed” (apokalyptetai) of Romans 1:17, where Paul says that God’s righteousness in revealed in his gospel, and therefore has power to save. Both of these verses contribute to the eschatological cast of Paul’s presentation of Christ here.

The phrase “righteousness of God” has been the subject of much modern controversy especially in the context of “New Perspective on Paul” discussions. In my non-expert opinion, reductionisms tend to rule the day on many sides. Without spending too much space here establishing a fully annotated, scholarly, alternative opinion, I will simply supply a rich, working, contextual, definition to which I hope few readers will object strongly. I understand the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou) here to mean something like, “God’s justice displayed especially in His covenantally faithfully bringing about the deliverance of His people, while upholding His own glory in the judgment of all sin.”

Paul says that this alternative to the Law, the eschatologically manifested “righteousness of God,” was nevertheless witnessed by both the Law and the Prophets—surely a shorthand reference to the Hebrew Scriptures in toto (v. 21). The details of how this is so are inexhaustible, but we may certainly think of the innumerable Messianic prophecies in the OT, and, based on Paul’s cultic language later in the passage, the whole sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law which anticipated the cross of Christ.

As we will see, we may also include here the Abrahamic narrative from Genesis, which was a foundational part of the “Law.” All of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, speak concerning the Christ, and the necessity of His suffering and subsequent glory (Lk. 24:13-27). With Law and Prophets as witness to the “righteousness of God” manifested in Christ, Paul’s teaching in the rest of this passage has universal import, yes, but a distinctly Jewish foundation and character (cf. Rom. 1:16c).

In v. 22 Paul makes the connection between the redemptive-historical shift and the subjective reception of the benefits of God’s saving work for believers: “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction,” (Rom. 3:22). Here we encounter another controversial language issue. Many “New Perspective” writers have argued that the phrase traditionally translated, “(through) faith in Jesus Christ,” from the Greek pisteōs Iēsou Christou, should be understood as a subjective rather than objective genitive and therefore be translated, “through the faithfulness of Christ.”

This is theologically attractive in terms of the “three sons of God” biblical-theological theme where Adam and then Israel were unfaithful sons, and now Christ has come as the faithful Son to bring about eschatological glory and deliverance for His people. It also seems, initially, to make more sense of vv. 21, 22 together, because the “righteousness of God” is manifested not through the saving faith of believers in Christ (what exactly would that mean?) but rather is manifested through the faithful work of Christ as God’s Messianic agent. One other important reason often given for the subjective genitive reading is the fact that it avoids seemingly unnecessary repetitions about the role of faith on the part of believers. Why mention faith twice here in v. 22 (see similarly Gal. 3:22)?

On the other hand, pushback has come from some Reformed and other writers, defending the traditional objective genitive rendering. Typical arguments include, 1) in Rom. 3:22 and elsewhere where the objective genitive is said to create superfluous repetitions, Paul is in fact emphasizing the universality of salvation by faith in Christ by means of the repetition (“all those who believe; for there is no [Jewish or Gentile] distinction”), or simply emphasizing the fact that the promise is by faith over against reliance on the Law, as in Galatians where such emphasis was situationally crucial (“so that the promise by faith…might be given to those who believe”); 2) Phil. 3:9 seems to directly contrast Paul’s own righteousness with Paul’s faith as mutually exclusive bases on which to receive the “righteousness that comes from God”; and 3) there is a deafening silence in the early Patristic witness with regard to a subjective genitive reading of Rom. 3:22 (although this point has also been contested).

For my own part, I very tentatively hold to the objective genitive rendering. I find the three arguments above relatively compelling, but I also find it more consonant in Rom. 3:22 with the way I read Romans 1:17 (the “righteousness of God” is revealed in the gospel “from faith to faith,” where the phrase “from faith to faith” is understood as referring to subjective saving faith, based on the Habakkuk 2:4 citation, rather than referring to a redemptive-historical shift “from the faith under the Law to the faith of the gospel” or something like that). I also see a potential problem of translational consistency between Gal. 3:22 and 3:23 if v. 22 is read as a subjective genitive. Similarly for Romans 3:26 (“…justifier of the one who is of the faith/faithfulness of Jesus” seems out of place).

I had to address the issue here because it colors to some degree the way one tends to read the rest of the passage in Romans 3, but the main points argued in this essay do not finally depend on the decision of how to translate v. 22. And certainly there is truth in what the subjective genitive rendering would teach, namely, that Christ’s faithfulness does in fact manifest the saving, eschatological righteousness of God.

Also, I should say that I find the common Reformed exegesis that interprets “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” as an explicit reference to justification and specifically imputation to be a bit simplistic. I think that the forensic element of justification is latent in the expression as an aspect of God’s end-time deliverance through Christ (which Paul will develop in the next few verses), and the imputation of the obedience of Christ is arguably part of that justification (made explicit only in chapter 5). However, New Perspective writers are correct to point out that the “righteousness of God” is not the appropriate category for speaking of imputation, in Pauline terms (with the possible but highly controversial exception of 2 Cor. 5:21). I agree with them that the phrase is broader, and focused more upon an objective, covenantal intervention of God, as in my definition given above.

Paul gives a ground for vv. 21, 22 in the next verse, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23, my emphasis). This verse recalls all of 1:18-3:20 as the dark backdrop against which the intervention of God in Christ shines: Jew and Gentile—Law-possessors and non-Law-possessors alike—are all under sin. The conjoined phrase “fall short of the glory of God” should probably be read in apposition with “sinned.” If not quite intended as an exposition of the content of “sinned,” it is certainly at least the result. And it may recall the idolatry of 1:18ff discussed in terms of “exchanging the glory” of the true God (Rom. 1:23), and/or the description of the godly in 2:7 as those who “seek for glory.”

I think that what is most important for us to say at this juncture is that v. 23 names the problem for both Gentile and Jew as nothing other than sin in general, understood as broadly as “falling short” of the glory of God. Therefore when Paul goes on in v. 24, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” the justification granted here comes in light of any lack of or any failure to attain to the glory of God; it comes in light simply of “sin.”

This is further established when looking at the way Paul normally employs the category of “redemption.” A commercial metaphor with both biblical and 1st century Roman background, denoting the purchase of a slave’s freedom, Paul often simply uses the word “redemption” (apolytrōsis) to refer to the forgiveness of sins (cf. the apposition in Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). What we see, then, is that this justification by faith in Christ, one of the benefits of God’s saving righteousness that was witnessed by the Law and has now been uniquely unveiled, comes to grant both Jew and Gentile absolute justice in at least the forensic sense.

It is also worth briefly noting the emphasis Paul gives to the fact that this justification is a “gift” by “grace,” anticipating the discussion in a few verses of the operation of faith over against “works of the Law” for justification, but also anticipating Rom. 4:4-5 where he explicitly contrasts the dynamic of earned wages with that of justification by faith. The consistency with which Paul juxtaposes his gospel message with all forms of human boasting or notions of sinners being able to “earn” something from God undermines, in my opinion, the reductionistic meaning New Perspective writers sometimes give to Paul’s polemic against justification “by works of the Law.” More on this below.

In v. 25a Paul moves to the historical foundation of God’s saving (including justifying) work through Christ, namely, of course, the cross: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” This verse is key in discussions of atonement theory, and debates go on as to whether to understand hilastērion as “propitiation,” “expiation,” or as including both. Many commentators also detect an allusion to the mercy seat of the tabernacle/temple, in front of which the blood of sin offerings was sprinkled to make atonement for the people of Israel. I’m not an expert on the lexical issues, but “propitiation” makes good sense in the context of the rest of the passage, especially the following verses, and is certainly related to the function of the ancient mercy seat. “Propitiation” gives us a small insight into a relational aspect of the atoning work of Christ, whereas most of the passage focuses on the forensic aspect.

Cross-reading with Galatians 3, Christ was cursed in terms of the Mosaic Law on our behalf, and therefore suffered the penal sanction of death—specifically, a shameful death on a cross. The covenantal relationship between God and man, though, was never one of bare, cold forensics; it has always been intensely personal, as well. Therefore we understand that the wrath of God the Father against human sin (and indeed against sinners) burns hot because God is just and must hate and punish sin. Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice, then, “absorbed” that just, divine wrath on the cross, in the context of the negative covenant sanctions of the Law, whatever else we must go on to say about other dimensions of the atonement (i.e. the cross as a cosmic victory over Satanic powers, a definitive breach with the enslaving power of sin, etc.).

In Galatians 3, we remember, the focus was indeed on Christ suffering specifically the Mosaic sanctions due to accursed Israel because of her corporate apostasy, although we noted more universal aspects of Christ’s substitutionary death in that passage as well. Here, the reverse is the case. The emphasis here is on Christ as a sin-bearing substitute in general, for Jews and Gentiles equally, because of sin in general. But we have already seen evidence of uniquely Jewish concerns as well (the background of the Law indicting not only Israel but the whole world for sin, the witness of the Law to the eschatologically revealed righteousness of God, and hilastērion as a possible reference to the mercy seat in Israel’s temple worship).

The rest of v. 25 and v. 26 functions to confirm the heart of the penal substitution “model” of the atonement (as at least one legitimate, and indeed quite central, aspect of it): "This [the public display of Christ as a propitiation] was to demonstrate [God’s] righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25b-26, my brackets).

At stake in the atonement of Christ, at least according to this passage, is the justice of God in “passing over,” or forgiving, sins. It is legitimate, based on these verses, to emphasize the forensic aspect of the “righteousness of God” that is manifested in Christ when interpreting vv. 21, 22, even if we argue for a broader overall meaning.

Paul’s assumption seems to be that if Christ had not been crucified as a propitiatory, substitute sacrifice, all of God’s forgiveness of sins in the past would render Him an unjust judge, failing to uphold the glory of His own righteousness. Not only would He appear unjust (if Paul had left it at the level of “demonstration” in v. 26a, a kind of mere “moral government” theory of the atonement could be more readily advanced from the passage), but in fact would be unjust (hence v.26b, “so that [eis] He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” my emphasis). But because of the cross, God’s glory and righteousness are upheld and fully revealed, even—or especially—in His justification of sinners.

We will have to continue our exegetical reflections on the passage in subsequent posts.

No comments: