Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone

Romans 3:31-26 – The Five Solas
18th Sunday after Pentecost–October 8, 2017 (am)


     In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And everything that he made was “very good.” Light, air, water, dirt, trees, shrubs, fruit, birds, fish, four-footed animals, crawling creatures—all of it was good, full to overflowing with life and vibrancy, flourishing and fruitfulness, and especially celebration and joy. For at the crown of it all, was man and woman, created in God’s image, holy and happy rulers, manifesting God’s supreme kingship in the world, caring for it, keeping it, causing it to flourish in God’s good purposes.

     But then something horrific happened. God’s created king and queen exchanged a life lived under God in worship and service of him, for a piece of fruit, for creation enjoyed as its own self-contained end,[1] for a chance to define themselves. With that exchange came another equally awful exchange: the happiness and flourishing of God’s good creation was exchanged for a hellish nightmare of sin, disorder, destruction, decay, sadness, suffering, and chaos.

     This is the true and necessary description of the world after Adam (of our world today).[2] We may be oblivious to it. We may have built up defenses against realizing the brokenness of our world. It’s possible, I suppose, that the comforts of suburban life have so dulled our senses that the world’s present state doesn’t strike us as all that bad. If so, then the biblical story makes things crystal clear for us. God created a very good world, but after the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden in Gen 3, sin and evil, wickedness and injustice, idolatry and brutality and self-seeking flesh and death come in to bring everything to ruin. God’s very good creation was fractured and filled with violence. And it doesn’t take long for the story to demonstrate this.

     In Gen 4, Cain murders his brother Abel out of envy. In Gen 6, the whole face of the land is filled with violence and stained with blood leading to the judgment of the flood. There’s war in Gen 14, attempted violent rape in Gen 19, and actual rape in Gen 34. Throughout the book of Genesis, famines sap the land of its goodness and fruitfulness, and idolatry saps people of theirs. At the end of Genesis, strife and envy tear at the fabric of Jacob’s family. And in the book of Exodus, Egypt violently oppresses the young nation of Israel. The world of the Bible is our world—a broken, fallen, decaying, depraved, sinful, sorrowful world.


     But it’s still the world God created. And he’s committed to it, committed to his good purposes for it. He will not let sin and evil spoil forever what he made. So in the mess that human sin made of the world, God did a remarkable work. From the oppression and violence of Egypt, God rescued for himself a people. Creator God proved himself also to be Redeemer God, redeeming Israel from slavery. In his kindness and might, he brought Israel to himself to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And he gave them the holy, right, and good Law on Mt. Sinai. In the midst of the world’s wickedness, God began a mighty, marvelous work to restore what had been perverted by sin, to overturn unrighteousness and impurity, to establish justice and holiness. This was the beginning of God’s answer to the problem of sin and evil.

     Or so it seemed. For though Israel was called to be a holy nation, they quickly proved to be no holier than the rest of the idolatrous and wicked world. While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law, Aaron and the rest of the nation worshiped a golden calf. This wasn’t a small blip on the radar in Israel’s history. As a quick read of the OT shows, Israel is every bit as idolatrous and depraved as the nations around them. So, for example, the prophet Habakkuk laments to the Lord that violence and iniquity and wickedness and injustice abounds in Israel; it’s everywhere he looks.[3] “The law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth,” cries the prophet in Hab 1:4. Wasn’t the holy Law that God gave to Israel supposed to overturn the problem of sin, injustice, and violence? Habakkuk laments that, in the history of Israel, the Law is powerless to bring about any true and lasting change.[4] What began with such bright hopes seems to have ended with paralysis, impotence, despair.


     From this very over-simplified snapshot of the OT storyline, three great problems emerge for God and the world. The first we can call the problem of God’s justice. Sin and wickedness are perverting God’s good creation, spoiling his human creatures, thwarting his purposes for the world. God created the world for righteousness, peace, justice. As the OT story progresses, that looks increasingly like a pipe-dream. Can anything be done about sin and evil, wicked flesh and rampant injustice? What’s it going to take to bring sin and evil to judgment, to put an end to their reign of terror over the earth, and to bring about full and lasting peace and goodness? What’s God going to do about the brokenness of his world?

     This question leads into the second problem, the problem of God’s faithfulness. Over and over again, God makes clear promises that he will bring about justice and judge the wicked. For example, in Isa 59:17–18, God promises that he will “put on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head.”[5] He will “put on garments of vengeance for clothing” and “repay wrath” to his enemies. God promises many times in the OT Scriptures that he will bring his righteousness near to judge sin and pour out wrath on all wickedness and evil. But when is he ever going to do it? Why does he delay so long? Is he a weak God, unable to do anything about evil? Is he an aloof God, who doesn’t really care? Is he a flighty God, who promises one thing but never makes good on his word? Is he unfaithful to his promises?

     That’s a major problem. But the situation is made all the worse by a third problem raised by the OT storyline, the problem of God’s mercy. For, as we’ve already seen, Israel, God’s own chosen people, are themselves awash in sin, idolatry, violence, injustice. They’re part of the problem.[6] God’s own people deserve the judgment and punishment, the wrath and the bringing to an end, that the holy God must bring about if there is to be any hope for the world.

     But how does the “holy” God respond to the rebellion of his own people? When his people worship the golden calf, does he consume them in his wrath for their sin and idolatry? No! Moses prays for the people, and God let’s them go free![7] Israel grumbles in the wilderness, insulting God to his face and accusing him of ineptitude or lack of care for them. And God in compassion provides them water and bread from heaven and quail. They become ensnared in all the licentiousness and lewdness of the nations around them, and God seems to overlook their sin and delivers them again and again. Even when God, in his anger, casts them into exile among the nations, God cares for them in their exile, sustains them, and eventually has compassion on them and brings them back to the land. This is how the “holy” God deals with his sinful people![8] God repeatedly looks past his own people’s sin and shows them mercy.

     There’s a muddleheaded assumption that sometimes gains traction that in the OT God is vengeful and bloodthirsty but in the NT he’s kindly and more lenient. We can only conclude that by not paying attention to the story. God is unbelievably lenient and kind and generous and patient, longsuffering, with his people in the OT story. He endures his people’s sin and hatred and injustice and cruelty and ungratefulness and selfishness and idolatry century after century after century after century. I can barely go an afternoon with my disobedient children without lashing out at them in anger. For millennia, God patiently endures and consistently blesses a hardhearted and rebellious people. God is unbelievably lenient in the OT story.


     And this is precisely the problem. For if this is how God treats his own people’s sin and wickedness, then what kind of hope do we have that God can or will do anything ultimately about sin and wickedness and evil at all? Does God just wink at sin? Is sin no big deal to him? Or maybe God isn’t so much after holiness as simply playing favorites? Do you sense the problems that the biblical storyline necessarily kicks up for us if we pay attention to it?

     Let me paint this facet of the problem in big, bold, capital letters with what I think is the chief example from Scripture.[9] In 1 Sam 11, King David shirks his royal responsibility to lead his army in battle in favor of a little R&R and time with the fam. But it turns out, he’s less interested in his family and more in the naked woman bathing next door. So he arranges to have his guards escort her to his bedroom. David abuses his power in order to rape Bathsheba. Then, to try to cover up his sin, he orchestrates the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite. In ch. 12, the Lord God of Israel, the holy God who gave the holy Law, sends his prophet Nathan to confront David about his sin, to expose David’s sin. “Then,” 2 Sam 12:13 reads, “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.’” Just like that. Without batting an eye, God says through the prophet that he’s taken away David’s sin; David doesn’t need to die.


     David the murderer doesn’t need to die. David the rapist doesn’t need to die. David the one who has harmed everyone in the kingdom—his army, his people, his family, Uriah, Bathsheba, Uriah’s family, Bathsheba’s family—doesn’t need to die for his sin. If someone were to do this to one of my daughters, and some judge decided, “That’s OK; the criminal doesn’t need to pay for his crime; we must show mercy,” I would make it my life’s mission to get that judge removed from the bench. He doesn’t deserve to call himself a judge. He’s a mockery of justice. No judge could get away with so blatant and immediate a disregard for the judgment of wrong-doing. He’d get laughed (or shoved) right out of the courthouse. So what business has the God of the universe treating David this way? If this is how the supposedly just and holy God treats sin, then what good is his supposed justice and holiness? It doesn’t matter how kindly it seems or how “loving” it looks to us; he needs to get off the bench of the universe.

     The OT storyline raises the problem of how God can be God yet show mercy to sinners. And it’s a problem the OT never fully resolves. It hints at a resolution. For example, God’s own good Law prescribes in Lev 16 that every year at the Temple, the High Priest must enter the Most Holy Place with a bull (as the Hebrew reads literally, with a “son of the herd”[10]), he must sacrifice the bull, and he must sprinkle the bull’s blood on the “mercy seat” over the ark. In this way, God indicates that he is justly wrathful against sin, that sin deserves punishment and will be punished, life for life—the life (the blood) of a bull, a son of the herd, for the life of sons of Israel. The Day of Atonement signals God’s intent to enact justice, to repay sin with holy wrath, yet to do so in a way that spares his sinful people. But it’s abundantly clear that the Day of Atonement in Lev 16 can’t be the final or true answer to the question of how God can be just yet let his sinful people go free. After all, the Day of Atonement ritual had to be redone every year, so it could never have been meant as the final word on sin. It involved the blood of bulls and goats, hardly a just or fair substitute for the egregious sins of humankind. And all this stuff on the Day of Atonement took place mysteriously behind the veil—only the high priest ever saw what happened (and his sight was obscured by another veil of incense). The sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat each Day of Atonement may hint that God cares about justice and means to judge sin, but it hardly shouts that word and hope from the rooftops.


     If we are to have hope that in the end there will be gladness and goodness and life, we need a God who justly judges sin and evil, puts an end to it, pours out wrath on it, because sin and evil turn goodness upside-down and destroy all possibility of lasting, ultimate joy and peace. God can’t be light on sin, even his own people’s. But then again, we also need a God who judges sin and evil in such a way that we—wicked, idolatrous sinners—are not consumed in the judgment. The OT story doesn’t really resolve that tension so much as magnify it: the good world God created is awash with sin, flesh, death, and evil; God delays in doing anything about it; God’s own people are complicit in evil; and God passes over their sin seemingly negligently, raising the question of how much he really cares about sin and the horror it unleashes.

     “But now,”[11] says the Apostle Paul in Rom 3:21,[12] “the righteousness of God has been manifested,” fully, finally.[13] The final justice of God that the whole world needs for any hope of true life has been revealed in history, in the work of Christ Jesus. This righteousness of God has been manifested “apart from the Law,” yet it was witnessed to by the Law and Prophets.[14] The Law, as Habakkuk knew all too well, was powerless to do anything lastingly good and redemptive about the world’s injustice and sin. But the Law was never meant to be the solution to our deepest problem; rather, the Law together with the Prophets—the whole OT—pointed forward to the coming solution, promised it over and over, foreshadowed it again and again. The solution has now come, Paul proclaims, and it demonstrates God’s righteousness in no uncertain terms, which is to say, it deals with sin and evil decisively and in undeniable justice.

     Notice how Paul repeats himself in vv. 25–26. In v. 25, God “shows” his righteousness; again in v. 26, God now “shows” his righteousness. Why the repetition? I think it’s meant to sandwich, and thus highlight, something crucial that comes in the middle. In the middle of the sandwich, Paul says that “in his divine forbearance, [God] passed over former sins.”[15] This is the reason why God needed to clearly demonstrate his righteousness.[16] For so long he acted as though he weren’t fully righteous by passing over sins. But he was righteous all along. He has now shown decisively how he could be and is, v. 26 concludes, just while justifying the ungodly. The righteousness that God has now manifested not only judges sin and evil but also at the same time redeems sinners. The perfect justice that God has worked out in Christ condemns sin in the flesh while simultaneously, according to v. 22, rescuing “all who believe,”[17] without distinction, however great a sinner they may seem. Today, any sinner, Jew or Gentile, you and I, can receive mercy from God, without any doubt about his full and perfect justice but only wonder and awe at it! It’s all owing to what God has done in Christ to prove his righteousness.

     But what has he actually done? Verses 25–26 give the answer, verses of such great weight that Martin Luther wrote in the margin of his Bible next to these verses that they are “the chief point, and the very central place … of the whole Bible.”[18] Here Paul declares that God has “presented”  or “put forward” Christ Jesus; as the NASB has it, God has “displayed publicly” Christ Jesus. I think that’s the best translation.[19] Paul’s point is that the demonstration of God’s righteousness in Christ is a public display. God’s work in Christ is not hidden behind a veil as was the Day of Atonement ritual, but out in the open, on the bare hilltop of Calvary, for all to see.[20] The Day of Atonement was a veiled hint, a foreshadowing, a pointing forward to the better and final work that God purposed to do all along out in the open in Christ.

     God has displayed Christ publicly, Paul goes on to say in v. 25, “as a propitiation in [Christ’s] blood.” Interestingly, in the Greek Bible that Paul read regularly, the word translated “propitiation” in Rom 3:25 almost always refers to the mercy seat in the Temple.[21] It’s worth noting, during our month-long commemoration of the Reformation, that the two most important Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both observed this. Calvin thought that the word translated “propitiation” is likely an allusion to the mercy seat from Lev 16;[22] and Luther translated the word here in Rom 3:25 with the German equivalent of “mercy seat” in his German translation of Scripture.[23] Following the lead of these Reformers, I think that, for Paul, the death of Christ on the cross is what the Day of Atonement ritual was hinting at—the ritual of sprinkling the blood of a bull, a son of the herd, on the mercy seat. Christ is the new mercy seat, the new and true place where God’s holy wrath is propitiated and human sin atoned for.[24]

     The blood of the Son of God is what soaks up all the holy wrath of God so that there’s none left to pour out on those who turn to God through Christ in faith. Here is God’s answer to our greatest problems and needs.[25] This is perfect justice, life for life—not the life of a bull (a son of the herd) for the sins of humankind, but the life of the infinitely worthy Son of David for the sins of the sons of Adam.[26] This is God’s unswerving covenant faithfulness, faithfulness to what he has made, faithfulness to his promises to conquer sin and death that spoil us and the rest of creation. For at the cross, God dealt a sure and decisive blow to our truest enemies. No longer may sin and death reign over weak and fragile and self-serving flesh, because in Christ, who took on our flesh, flesh was put to death (as Paul will say in Rom 8) so that also in this same Christ our flesh may be raised anew, raised to new life, raised to the life it was meant all along to live. God has been and is faithful to all his promises. And this is the wondrous saving righteousness of God, which does not destroy sinners but justifies them, declares the unrighteous to be right with God, welcomes them, and, as the following chapters of Romans indicate, also gives them new birth and new life and true hope. In the cross of Christ, God is both just and the justifier of those who trust in Jesus. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the biblical story finds its true center and climax.


     And all of this righteousness and redemption, fulfillment and faithfulness, justice and justification comes from God to us as pure gift. It is, as Paul says in v. 23, God’s “gift by his grace” alone. Our standing before God, our forgiveness, our escape from the judgment we deserve, our hope, our health, our life, the hope and life of all creation—it comes about by grace alone. What God does for our good is pure gift and grace. That means four things.

     First, that God’s redemption and righteousness comes to us by grace alone means that it comes not by our effort and earning.[27] Salvation and goodness and life come not by our own works. How could it? We are all sinners! That’s part of the point of the long OT storyline that we considered earlier, particularly the story of Israel. If the people of Israel, given every advantage in their relationship with God in comparison to the nations, the possessors of God’s holy and righteous and good Law—if even they prove to be sinners subject to judgment, what chance does anyone outside of Israel have of coming to a different fate? If Israel failed, then every person must put their hand over their mouth before claiming their own righteousness before God, which is basically a paraphrase of Rom 3:19–20 right before our passage.[28]

     “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”[29] Paul says in v. 23. Every effort to earn our way into God’s presence, and into the joy of his life, falls short. In fact, this is what Martin Luther thought was the central and basic point in all of his protests against abuses in the church of his day. In debate with the Roman Catholic theologian Erasmus, Luther surprisingly commended and thanked Erasmus for getting to the nub of the matter. He said,

     I praise and commend you [i.e., Erasmus] for this … that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues) … You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot.[30]

     What was it, in Luther’s judgment, that was the “real issue,” the “question on which everything hinges,” the “vital spot” of the Reformation? It was human bondage to sin, the inability of everyone in Adam to will anything right, and thus the inability of everyone in Adam to earn their way into God’s presence.[31] We don’t please God by our own efforts, because we aren’t able to; we are powerless to do so (cf. Rom 8:7–8), because we are in bondage to sin.


     So the only wise thing to do is to forsake the fantasy of trying to earn God’s good favor. Turn away from anxious efforts at self-justification, at impressing God. Our greatest need is not to impress God; we can’t! Our greatest need is not to impress others, which often serves as a substitute “god” for those of us who don’t care much about relationship with God; we’ll never know for sure how we stand in others’ eyes, we’ll always be anxious, grasping for more attention. There is no justification anywhere by our self-effort but simply anxiety and despair. Our only true righteousness, worth, salvation, joy, and life comes to us by grace alone. The only wise thing to do today is to humbly, gladly, gratefully receive the gift God freely provides. And this receiving of the gift we do by faith alone (to tee up next week’s sermon).

     Righteousness and salvation come to us by grace alone. And this means, second, that our salvation and righteousness are not cheap. “By grace alone” means nothing short of the bloody mutilation and death of the glorious and worthy and holy and happy Son of God.[32] Grace is not a divine feeling toward us, mere leniency, a free pass, a willingness to overlook sin. Grace is not a sentiment. Grace isn’t some invisible substance that we access by thinking true thoughts. “Grace” is the name Scripture gives to God’s work in history to enact perfect justice in Christ while not destroying us.[33] Grace is concrete, historical, bloody, and costly.


     And grace is costly because sin is heinous. If we don’t think of grace in such costly and concrete terms, it may be because we don’t think much of our sin. Maybe we think we’re basically ok because we “do more good than bad”; maybe we think of sin as breaking a little rule here or there (“nobody’s perfect”). Remember the sin of David in 2 Sam. When God confronts David, he says, “You have despised me.” I can imagine David saying, “Despise you? I wasn’t thinking of you. I had the hots for a beautiful naked woman; I was scared witless that I was going to be outed; I was trying to save face. You were the last thing on my mind!” That’s the definition of sin. The God who created us, the God who gave us the good gifts of sexuality and marriage, the God who instructs us on how to find joy in these gifts, the God who lovingly gives to us our vocations and relationships and great and good purposes, who gives us life and breath and everything—we do what we do without a thought to him, paying him no attention at all. It’s like a husband telling his wife, after having committed adultery, “It’s not that bad, don’t be so upset—I wasn’t thinking of you at the time.” Sin is ugly. Sin is awful. Sin is wretched and despicable. It’s not breaking an impersonal law, a little mistake here or there, a little blunder, a morally bad thing every now and then. Sin is turning our back on our truest and best, most kind and caring and faithful and satisfying Lover, so that we might spread our legs to every false lover we can find. Sin is awful and damnable, and therefore grace is unspeakably costly.

     We are saved, at great cost, by grace alone, meaning, third, that God’s great purposes for creation are not finally obstructed by sin and evil and flesh and death. God is committed to his creational purposes, committed to all his promises. And what he was doing in Christ, in the working of grace for sinners, was getting his creational purposes back on track, fulfilling his covenant promises. It is no surprise, then, that Paul will go on in the rest of Romans to talk not just about the cross, which assuages wrath and cleanses us from our sins, but also, in chs. 5–6, of the new life of righteousness that we can now walk in by the Spirit’s power; of the hope of resurrection and the final and full renewal of all things in ch. 8; of practical holiness and purposeful vocation in chs. 12–15; and of the final “crushing of Satan under our feet” in ch. 16.[34] God has demonstrated his righteousness in Christ, which is nothing less than the securing of new creation—of us, and of rocks and skies and seas and trees and all the rest of God’s good creation. That happy end of the story is sure (and it’s even the church’s to taste now in downpayment form by the power of the Spirit) because of what has taken place by grace alone.


     Finally, that we are saved by grace alone means that we are the objects of the love of almighty, all-glorious God himself. Don’t buy into the heresy of thinking that our salvation is a matter of the loving, gracious Jesus wrestling our lives away from a vicious, wrathful God of justice. Romans (and the whole Bible) is clear. It is God who displayed his glorious, good, saving justice and righteousness in Christ. It is God who so loved the world that he sent his Son on this mission of love. It is God together with the Son and the Holy Spirit who planned in eternity past to bring about our ultimate good and the ultimate justice and peace of all things. Our salvation by grace alone is the result of a conspiracy of Triune love. The gospel of salvation by grace alone is the good news that we are the objects of the unfailing love of God.

     This love of God for us in Christ is what captivated the hearts of the Reformers, and fueled their labors for God’s glory. “The gospel,” said Martin Luther, is the good news “of the overwhelming goodness of God … the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content.”[35] John Calvin noted, likewise, that Christ is the proof of God’s love: “Christ … is so illustrious and singular a proof of divine love towards us, that whenever we look upon him, he fully confirms to us the truth that God is love.” And when we begin to recognize the wonder of God’s love for us in Christ at the cross, we begin to recognize God’s love for us in Christ everywhere. “If it be asked,” Calvin comments, “why the world has been created, why we have been placed in it to possess the dominion of the earth, why we are preserved in life to enjoy innumerable blessings, why we are endued with light and understanding, no other reason can be adduced, except the gratuitous love of God.”[36]

     This is our God. This is the ocean of love and life that we are invited to swim in. What we’ve considered this morning, it’s all ours to enjoy because of God’s work in Christ: it’s the righteousness and the justice and the life and the love and the joy and the goodness and the hope that is ours as God’s church this morning. And it is ours by grace alone.


     So we thank and praise you, O glorious, good, gratuitously loving God, the God of grace who by grace alone has shown forth in the crucified and risen Christ your perfect justice and righteousness, which judges sin and evil, which secures all your good plans for the world, and which rescues us from your wrath and from our sin. May we, your redeemed church, live more purposefully in the life and joy of your grace, by the power of the Spirit, until all your good purposes are consummated, we pray through Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.




[1] Alexander Schmemann’s comments are illuminating: “Not given, not blessed by God, it [i.e., the fruit of the forbidden tree] was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself” (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd rev. ed. [Crestwood: New York, 1973], 16).

[2] Most of us probably recognize that this is an apt description of the state of our world, regardless of whether we know much about the inspired biblical story of the cosmos. We know that things are “not the way they’re supposed to be.” We know that suffering runs rampant. We know that death is the great and inescapable bill-collector, who will knock on everyone’s door without exception. We know that what “peace” and “goodness” there is to be had comes in small doses and is short-lived and very fragile. And we know that we ourselves—our own selfishness and self-assertion and sloth—are right at the heart of the problem. Our hearts are filled with envy, wanting all goodness for our own private enjoyment and begrudging others for their joys. We hate and murder as though we were the supreme judge and lawgiver. We stir up strife so that we get the thrill of having people “on our side,” leaving a wasteland of broken relationships around us. We lie and deceive to save our own face. We gossip for the self-exalting pride that we are in the know. We lash out maliciously against those that don’t do things our way, that don’t bend the knee to the gods we are. We probably all know or have some inkling and intuition that the world is this way, that we are this way. And we probably all have some inkling that the world ought not to be this way, that it doesn’t exist for this kind of sadness and sorrow and selfishness and disorder. We probably all have a sense of this, regardless of how much or how little with know of the story of Scripture. But in case we don’t (perhaps for some of the reasons noted above), we must read the biblical story.

[3] See Hab 1:2–4.

[4] The importance of Hab 2:4 for understanding the message of Romans is clear (see Rom 1:17). On the importance of Hab 1:4 for Romans, see Rikki E. Watts, “‘For I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel’: Romans 1:16–17 and Habakkuk 2:4,” in Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. S. K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 3–25.

[5] It seems quite likely to me that this text (with several others from Isaiah) helped to shape Paul’s understanding of the “righteousness of God” and the “gospel which was promised beforehand” (Rom 1:1–2; 3:21; cf. Isa 59:20 qtd. in Rom 11:26). Not insignificantly, it is precisely from the lament earlier in Isa 59:7–8 that Paul quotes in 3:15–17. Since the world (and Israel as the representative of the world) is captive to and complicit in sin and injustice, therefore Yahweh himself must gird on strength to bring “righteousness.” This movement of Isa 57 is precisely the movement of Rom 3.

[6] What’s more, they are are open rebels against God’s purposes and calling revealed to them in the Law. They are more culpable than the pagan sinners around them.

[7] There was, of course, an expression of God’s wrath at Sinai—namely, the slaughter of 3,000. Likewise, a whole generation perished in the wilderness for their grumbling and unbelief; and David, whom we will address further below, faced awful consequences for his sin in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. The point here is not that the Lord in the OT did not enact any judgments and curses. The point is that (1) in terms of the covenant with Israel, God never wipes Israel out as their rebellion deserved (there is still an “Israel” after the golden calf incident, after the wilderness grumbling, and even through and after the exile; and David does not die but lives to see the consequences of his sin, with the covenant hopes still intact); and (2) any judgment that was poured out was imperfect or incomplete at best (I’d say it was always in the OT only an inaugurated or typological judgment, never the full judgment and wrath that justice calls for). The mercy of God mitigated the judgments poured out on Israel so that they never amounted to total justice on Israel; it mitigated while never answering fully to how or why God could be just in so acting toward his sinful people. To say it another way, when Paul says in the text we are heading toward that God “passed over sins formerly committed” (Rom 3:25), none of the “judgments” God poured out in the OT resolve the question of how God could ever pass over any sin and yet still be just (if they did, then Paul would be raising a moot point, or worse making something up that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny).

[8] If we find we don’t have time to read the whole story in an afternoon, we can at least read Ps 106, where all of this sin and abundant mercy is told in summary form.

[9] My appeal to 2 Sam 11–12, and my treatment of it, is massively and unashamedly influenced by John Piper, “The Demonstration of God’s Righteousness, Part 3” (sermon, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, May 23, 1999; manuscript and audio available at Try as I might, I cannot think of Rom 3 without at the same time recalling David’s sin, and Piper’s sermon is to blame for it! In any case, to appeal here to the sin of David with Bathsheba is particularly appropriate in light of Paul’s own citation of Ps 51 (David’s confession of his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah) in Rom 3:4 (cf. also Paul’s citation of David’s words on the blessedness of forgiveness in the following chapter [Ps 32:1–2 in Rom 4:6–8]).

[10] Lev 16:3 reads woodenly “with a bull, a son of the herd” (בְּפַר בֶּן־בָּקָר).

[11] The temporal language (“but now,” v. 21; “in the now time,” v. 26) indicates the salvation historical framework of Paul’s thought; the death (and resurrection) of Christ is epoch-making, eschatological (see also Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 221). As N. T. Wright notes, this has purchase in both directions, indicating “both that the past problem has reached a present conclusion and that the future verdict has been brought forward into the present time” (The Letter to the Romans, in vol. 9 of The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary [Nashville: Abingdon, 2015; repr., Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 387).

[12] Though with somewhat differing foci, the preceding  survey of the OT storyline and summary identification of “three problems” functions in this sermon more-or-less as Rom 1:18–3:20 functions in Romans.

[13] Unfortunately, this passages is filled with dozens of interpretive challenges and controversies. We will certainly not touch upon every interpretive issue, but must be selective and representative. Perhaps the two most crucial matters of interpretation have to do with the sense in which we understand the term “the righteousness of God,” appearing four times in the passage and being clearly the passage’s main theme (Moo, Romans, 219). This is an incredibly thorny matter with a bewildering variety of options. In general, I take the term “the righteousness of God” as maximally as possible, thus inclusive of notions of God’s (punitive) justice, God’s covenant faithfulness and saving “righteousness” promised by the prophets, and the “gift of righteousness” bestowed on sinners in justification. However, in this passage, there seems to me to be a definite focalizing of the (punitive) justice aspect (note the concern to rectify the “passing over of sins previously committed,” and the affirmation that God is “just and justifier”; and more generally, recall that the opening concern was stated as the “wrath of God” being revealed against ungodliness in 1:18). Though this is a “Reformation celebration” sermon, this is clearly in some tension with the chief Reformer’s understanding of the passage: Luther famously hated the “righteousness of God” in Rom 3 if it is understood as God’s punitive justice and for this reason interpreted the phrase to mean only the gift of “alien righteousness” bestowed to the sinner’s account through faith.  Luther couldn’t make sense of how God’s punitive justice could be good news for sinners. I have tried to lay a foundation for understanding how there can be no ultimately good news at all unless God enacts punitive justice. He must, of course, do more than that also if we sinners are to enjoy the goodness of the gospel; but he cannot do less.
      The second crucial and difficult interpretive matter worth noting is the understanding of the phrase “the faith of Jesus Christ” (πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in v. 22, 26; also [τῆς] πίστεως in v. 25). To wit, is it an objective genitive (our faith in the object which is Jesus Christ) or a subjective genitive (Jesus’ faith[fulness])? I lean ever so slightly toward the latter: (1) it resolves the apparent redundancy of v. 22 if the mention of πίστις is Jesus’ rather than ours since ours is referred to in the very next phrase, “to all who believe” (εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας); (2) it is difficult to understand how God’s work of “manifesting” righteousness in the past (note the perfect tense πεφανέρωται in v. 21) can be accomplished through (διά) present human faith in Christ but if “the faith of Jesus Christ” in v. 22 refers to Jesus’ own faithfulness then it makes much sense; (3) a good argument can be made that God’s/Christ’s faithfulness has already been established in 1:17 as the means through which the “manifestation of God’s righteousness” has been accomplished (see Watts, “ ‘For I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel,’ ” 3–25); (4) it is theologically appropriate to speak of God’s righteousness being worked out by Christ’s faithful work (see, e.g., Rom 5:18); therefore, (5) taking the genitives here as subjective genitives does not deny or say less than the traditional interpretation but more than while being faithful to orthodox faith. A sixth line of argument, which I have not found in the secondary literature, concerns the ordering of the terms “Christ” and “Jesus” in the few relevant formulations in Paul’s letters. For Paul, when Jesus is clearly the object of faith (i.e., when he is the object [with εἰς] of the verb πιστεύω or when πίστις is said to be “in” [ἐν] him), the order is (with one exception) “Christ Jesus” rather than “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” (see Gal 2:16; 3:26; Col 1:4; 1 Tim 3:13 cf. 1 Tim 1:14; 2 Tim 1:13; 3:15). The exception is in Gal 2:16 (ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ; cf. Eph 1:15; Philem 5 where “the Lord Jesus” is in view). It is just possible that when Paul wants to think especially of the historical person of Christ and his experience/work, he uses “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” (note 1 Thes 4:14, where the content of faith is the events of the historical person “Jesus”), whereas “Christ” (and “Christ Jesus”) generally has in view Christ’s representative vocation and hence our relation to, incorporation with, and/or posture toward Jesus (on the significance of the title “Christ,” in contrast to the name “Jesus,” in Paul, see N. T. Wright, “ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ as ‘Messiah’ in Paul: Philemon 6,” in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991], 41–55). This may provide some limited support for taking πίστις Ἰησοῦ (Χριστοῦ) as a subjective genitive, referring to the historical Jesus’ faith(fulness) (while πίστις Χριστοῦ in Gal 2:16 may be an objective genitive referring to our faith in him). Admittedly, there are thoughtful answers to each of these points (with the exception of the sixth) and weighty counterarguments; see the very good defenses of the traditional objective genitive reading in Moo, Romans, 224–26; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 181–86. It has sometimes been claimed that the early church fathers (native speakers of Greek) consistently read πίστις Χριστοῦ in the NT as an objective genitive (see, e.g., Roy A. Harrisville III, “ΠΙΣΤΙΣ  ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: Witness of the Fathers,” NovT 36 [1994]: 233–41; for a more tempered statement, see Schreiner, Romans, 183n7, who nevertheless still cites Harrisville as his main source). This, however, does not seem to hold up to the evidence (see, e.g., Michael F. Bird and Michael R. Whitenton, “The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ in Hippolytus’s De Christo et Antichristo: Overlooked Patristic Evidence in the Πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate,” NTS 55 [2009]: 552–62, and the sources cited therein). Since the issue is so difficult, and since my inclination toward one option is so slight, I have tried to speak about the text in the main body of this sermon in ways that could fit either reading.

[14] The assertion of the manifestation of God’s righteousness is framed by two statements that balance “continuity and discontinuity in salvation history” (Moo, Romans, 222; cf. Wright, Romans, 383).

[15] Peter Leithart proposes an even more involved chiastic structure spanning vv. 21–28, which centers the final clause of v. 25 (see Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016], 334n1).

[16] The repeated emphasis on a public “demonstration” is for the purpose of “stressing particularly the divine answer to the possible charge of ἀδικία (adikia, ‘unrighteousness,’ 3:3–5)” (Wright, Romans, 387n113). That is to say, the passage is about theodicy as much as it about “how sinners get saved” (cf. Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World, 334).

[17] I take the preposition εἰς in v. 22 as functioning similarly to a dative of advantage. Peter Leithart offers two different potential readings of εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας in 3:22: (1) it may have “perception” in view (i.e., God’s righteousness is manifest [i.e., discernible] to those who believe since faith is the proper mode of perception of the truth of God’s activity), or (2) it may have reference to the “realization” of God’s justice among a people (i.e., God’s righteousness is manifest/displayed/enacted among those who believe, since they reflect/carry on the faithfulness of Christ). For Leithart, the second option is “more likely” (see Delivered from the Elements of the World, 337). However, this seems an unusual way to take the preposition εἰς.

[18] Qtd. in Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 391. Granting the general point about the massive importance to the biblical storyline of Rom 3:25–26, I shy away of the specific claim that these verses are, alone, the “chief point” and “very central place” of Scripture, if for no other reason than that they do not mention the resurrection. Indeed, within Romans itself a persuasive (to me) argument can be made that it is the end of Rom 4, where Paul speaks of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham by way of the resurrection and through faith in the God who raises the dead, which is the climax and “chief point” of Paul’s argument in Romans. (It’s also highly significant that at the end of Rom 4 our faith is said to be not in the crucified Lord, or in the work of God at the cross, but in the God who raises the dead.) For Paul, “justification” is tied inextricably to resurrection (see 4:25) and not chiefly or only to the cross (which is how 3:25–26 is typically read, and which is, it seems to me, what Luther assumes when he claims 3:25–26 is the “chief point” of Scripture).

[19] The notion of “display” (“manifest,” “demonstrate”) is all over this passage; this was pointed out long ago by William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans, 5th ed.; ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902), 87. For further discussion, see Moo, Romans, 231. In addition to the background for Paul’s language (which we’ll suggest below), Moo also notes that the double accusative object of the verb (ὅν, ἱλαστήριον) makes better sense if προέθετο means something like “display publicly” or “set forth” than if προέθετο means something like “purpose/plan” (which the term does mean in Rom 1:13; Eph 1:9; this latter reading is forcefully argued by C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols.; ICC [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975–1979], 1:208–9).

[20] See, rightly in my opinion, Moo, Romans, 232; Schreiner, Romans, 194; Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World, 340.

[21] See Schreiner, Romans, 193, who also notes the few exceptions.

[22] See Calvin’s commentary on Romans, under 3:24–25.

[23] See Gnadenstuhl (= seat of grace/mercy) at Rom 3:25 in the 1545 Luther Bibel; also Luther’s comments in his commentary on Ps 18 (Martin Luther, Complete Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms, vol. 2; trans. H. Cole [London: Simpking & Marshall, 1826], 209). As a side note, I count Luther’s German translation of Scripture as one of the top four or five most important accomplishments of the Reformation (together with, in no particular order, reclaiming a robust doctrine of vocation, clarifying the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, clarifying the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, and renewing/revitalizing/reforming the church’s liturgy).

[24] See further Moo, Romans, 231–36; Schreiner, Romans, 191–94. For a comprehensive treatment, see Daniel P. Bailey, “Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1999). Though we do not have time to consider this here, I am persuaded that, intertwined with a Day of Atonement background, is a suffering martyr theology influenced by Isa 52–53 (on which, see Schreiner, Romans, 192–93; Wright, Romans, 388–91).

[25] Cf. Wright, Romans, 356, who asks, “How, so to speak, does God’s lawcourt justice work together with God’s covenantal justice? The answer will be revealed in 3:21–4:25.” I think the passage addresses both of these categories, though I am distinguishing “saving righteousness” (more or less the traditional Lutheran “alien righteousness”) from “covenantal justice” (or faithfulness) as a specifically crucial part of the latter.

[26] There is striking overlap between what Paul is saying in dense and condensed form in Rom 3:25–26 and what the author of Hebrews expounds upon in Heb 9–10 (see Moo, Romans, 233–34n70). I take it that what Hebrews says expressly in Heb 9:11–14 and 10:4 is implicit in (or at least theologically in keeping with) Paul’s assertion about Christ’s blood in Rom 3:25.

[27] In one sense, it is crucial to recognize that effort is not the opposite of earning. That is to say, God’s grace works through human responsibility, not around it or instead of it (see, e.g., 1 Cor 15:10). Here, however, I use the terms basically synonymously.

[28] More precisely, Rom 3:19–20 addresses the purpose of the Law. It was never meant as a way of pulling one’s self up to God by way of works. It was powerless to make us righteous, as the OT itself clearly acknowledges (Hab 1:4), and it was never intended to do that. Rather, the point of the Law was to humble the world before God by humbling Israel before God. The Law was given to Israel so that Israel and the world might be properly postured to receive their only true hope. If the creation is going to be restored, delivered from violence and injustice and sin, and if God’s people are going to be delivered from their own violence and sin, what’s needed is more than God giving to us a command. What’s needed is nothing less than God coming to us himself in Christ. (Paul here singles out one purpose/function of the Law. I believe there are other purposes [or “uses”] of the Law [see, e.g., Gal 3; cf. Rom 3:21, 31; more generally, note the numerous ways in which Paul himself makes use of the Law in his letters].)

[29] The precise significance of the aorist ἥμαρτον (“all sinned”) is difficult to determine. Moo thinks it is a “‘summary’ aorist,” presenting all people’s sin in a single snapshot (Romans, 226n32); Wright thinks the aorist refers to a past event—namely, the sin of Adam, the head of humanity (Romans, 384). Both make good sense, and a final decision may depend largely on whether one thinks the statement more flows out of the preceding argument (1:18–3:20), which it seems to me would favor the former; or if the statement more prepares for what follows (see esp. 5:12–21), which it seems to me would favor the latter. I lean slightly toward the former.

[30] From On the Bondage of the Will, qtd. in Carl R. Trueman, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 112.

[31] As Luther declared early on in the Reformation debates, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it” (Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, qtd. in Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom [Wheaton: Crossway, 2015], 66, emphasis added).

[32] For this point, see Trueman, Grace Alone, 17–18. See also Brian A. Gerrish, “Sovereign Grace: Is Reformed Theology Obsolete?,” Int 57 (2003): 45–57: “ ‘Grace,’ for him [i.e., the Apostle Paul], means more than a divine attribute: it refers to something that has happened, entered into history. The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel similarly testifies: ‘Grace and truth came (egeneto) through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17; cf. 2 Tim 1:9–10)” (45–46, emphasis original). Of course, Scripture can speak of “grace” in a variety of ways—e.g., as a kind of sphere in which Christians now “stand” (Rom 5:2), as a synonym of “gift” (or the disposition to give gifts) with the result that grace is “given” (Rom 5:15), as something like a power at work in, through, and for believers (Rom 5:21). But all of these uses of the term assume, are rooted in, are expressions/out-workings of, or are otherwise dependent on the work of grace through Christ’s death and resurrection.

[33] Another way to state the same point is that grace is not mere gratuitous good-will (undeserved favor) but the response of God to sinful people (merciful favor). Grace flows from the covenant of redemption, not the covenant of creation. For discussion, see Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 140–41, 315–23, esp. 320.

[34] I have, of course, left out the important chs. 9–11 in this brief synopsis of the remainder of Romans. In many ways, chs. 9–11 are at the heart of why Paul is so confident throughout Romans that all God’s covenant promises are fulfilled and will be fulfilled in Christ. For in chs. 9–11, Paul’s concern about God’s covenant faithfulness, which I have here suggested is a driving motivation behind 3:21–26, is brought to express and extended consideration in the matter of God’s faithfulness to his Old Covenant people Israel.

[35] Martin Luther, “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. T. F. Lull; 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 106.

[36] See Calvin’s commentary on the Catholic Epistles, under 1 John 4:9.