Justification, Redemption, Propitiation – Thursday, 28th week in ordinary time – Romans 3:21-30
So far, Paul has shown us how the very condition of human beings without the Gospel calls forth God’s anger on both the Jew and Gentile. In this section he will show that a new period in human history begins with the coming of Jesus Christ. This section of verses 21-30 are the most important part of Romans which formulates the core of Paul’s good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 28 of this text is also the verse which Luther added the words “ONLY” into his translation of the Bible, making this teaching a major reformation issue.
This passage and much of Romans for that matter, reveals an ethnic conflict within the Christian community in Rome (cf. Romans 14:1-15:6).Remember, Paul is addressing a mixed Church of Jews and Gentiles. By the year 54 AD, many of the Jewish Christians have returned to Rome from exile imposed by the Emperor Claudius who has now passed away. They return to find the Gentile Christians now in charge of the Church in Rome and having made some changes to dietary and calendric dates.
There is obviously some tension between the two groups. How should non-Jewish believers relate to the religious traditions of Israel? Can they become linked to the “one body in Christ” if they do not have the same religious sensibilities as others within the community? Paul’s letter addressed this ethnic conflict, which was also a religious one.
Today’s text begins with the words “but now”. These words provide the most glorious transition from the judgment of Romans 3:20 to the justification of Romans 3:21. It marks a new era that is inaugurated, a new covenant that has begun. An era which supersedes the law, circumcision and the promises . It speaks of the newness of God’s work in Jesus Christ – it really is a New Covenant.
For Paul, the law by itself cannot save us, but God reveals his plan of salvation by sending his son Jesus Christ. We will be now made righteousness through Jesus and this is not a novelty; Paul didn’t “invent” it. It was predicted long ago, the Old Testament said this righteousness was coming.
How is this righteousness communicated to man? In Romans 3:21, Paul told us how this righteousness does not come. It does not come through the deeds of the law, it is apart from the law. Now Paul tells us how this saving righteousness does come. It is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. The righteousness of God is not ours BY faith; it is ours THROUGH faith. We do not earn righteousness by our faith or inherit it at Baptism as a right; nor is this righteousness earned through obedience to the law We receive righteousness THROUGH faith IN JESUS CHRIST. Through faith points to the fact that faith is not a merit or our own. We have not done something to earn salvation.
In verse 24, Paul develops his teaching about salvation around justification, redemption and propriation. Justification is an image from the court of law. Redemption is an image from the slave market and propitiation is an image from the world of religion, appeasing God through sacrifice. Justification solves the problem of man’s guilt before a righteous Judge. Redemption solves the problem of man’s slavery to sin, the world, and the devil. Propitiation solves the problem of offending our Creator.
St Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The harlot, the liar, the murderer, all fall short of God’s glory but then so do you and me. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you and me on the crest of an Alp; but we are as little able to touch the stars as they.” Everyone falls short, but everyone can be justified or acquitted in God’s court because of His grace.
Paul is clear that this justification, this acquittal in God’s court can’t be purchased at all by our good works. In his letters Paul is fond of speaking of God justifying people through Christ. “Justification” does not primarily refer to God transferring moral purity to people or stamping “not guilty” on their foreheads. Rather, God repairs the fractured relationship between humanity and God through Jesus’ death. This justification is a free gift of God; His unmerited favour, given to us without regard to what we deserve. We are not only freely justified but also redeemed by Christ.
Redemption has the idea of buying back something, and involves cost. However, God pays the cost and so we are justified freely. The word translated as redemption had its origin describing the release of prisoners of war on payment of a price and was known as the “ransom.” As time went on, it was extended to include the freeing of slaves, again by the payment of a price. Hence, the idea of redemption means that Jesus bought us; therefore, we belong to Him.
Finally, Jesus, by His death (by His blood) was a propitiation or a substitute sacrifice for us while sparing us who deserved the judgment. However we should not understand propitiation as Jesus appeasing a reluctant, unwilling Father to hold back His wrath. Instead, it was God the Father who initiated the propitiation: it was his love for us that permitted the death of his son and at the cross, God offered man a legal verdict of “not guilty. It is for this reason that we cannot find reason to boast; there is no room for self-congratulation or credit because we are justified freely by His grace. Finally, Justification (acquittal in the court of God) is found, for both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the deeds of the law because God is not just the God of the Jews.
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