According to Paul, men are not set right before God “from the works of the law,” but instead, “from the faith of Jesus Christ.
Having demonstrated that all men have sinned and violated the revealed will of God, both Jews and Gentiles alike, Paul concludes that no one can be set right before God “from the law.” Jews have the Mosaic Law but fall short of its requirements. Gentiles have the witness of their own conscience yet continue to live and even revel in sin.
In fact, our proclivity to sin is not only evidence that humanity is under the “wrath of God,” our continuing transgressions are part of this “wrath” that already is “being revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness.” Because we persist in ungodliness and idolatry, God “gave us over to the lusts of their hearts.” Sin begets even more and worse sin as we “treasure up for ourselves wrath in the day of wrath” – (Romans 1:18-28).
Jews possess the law, yet they sin and so will be judged by it. Gentiles are “without the law” and so they will “perish without the Law.” Both Jews and Gentiles are “all under sin.” There is no one righteous, “no, not even one.” We are all in the same sorry state.
However, just as “wrath” is “being revealed from heaven,” so also, the “righteousness of God is being revealed from faith for faith,” both for Jews and Gentiles. Paul is very specific in his choice of prepositions. The faithfulness of God is revealed “from” faith, representing the Greek term ek and stressing source, and “for” faith, translating the preposition eis. The grammatical structure of the statement becomes important for his summary in chapter 3. Paul then declares that “the just one” (ho dikaios – singular) “will live” (zésetai – singular) “from faith” (ek pisteôs).-
So, if no one is set right before God “from the works of the law,” how then are men and women “justified” before Him?
Paul does not leave his readers without hope. There is a “righteousness of God” that has been “manifested apart from the law.” It is important to note that he is referring to the righteousness “of God,” to something that He possesses, and not to some moral absolute or principle that men must attain in their own lives or through their own efforts. Certainly, there are moral absolutes, but that is not the subject under discussion.
Paul’s language reflects the Old Testament idea of God’s faithfulness, especially His covenant faithfulness. Yahweh did not leave his wayward children without hope. Instead, He provided a solution that remedies their plight, and in a way that also highlights His faithfulness to His promises. And that way was attested to previously by the “law and prophets.” He hinted at this in the opening paragraph of the letter. The gospel was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,” a promise “about his Son who was born of the seed of David.” And that promise has come to fruition in Jesus – (Romans 1:1-4, 3:21).
And that righteousness is “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.” Here we must note Paul’s use of the genitive case in the Greek clause. If he intended to write “in Jesus,” he would have used the dative case and inserted the preposition en or “in.” But no Greek preposition is present in the clause, and the genitive case signifies something that Jesus possessed. The Apostle is referring to his faith, the “faith” or “faithfulness of Jesus,” and most likely, he means especially his faithful obedience “unto death.” And that righteousness is now “for[eis] all men who believe” – faith is how they respond to the righteousness “from the faith of Jesus” – (Romans 3:22).
We are set right “freely by His grace” that has been made available “through the redemption that is in Jesus.” “Redemption” represents a Greek word that is formed with the preposition apo (“from”), the noun lutron (“ransom”), and the verb luô (“loose, release”). The idea is a “ransomed-release,” a releasing accomplished through a paid ransom. The language is metaphorical, and questions about who paid what to whom do not enter Paul’s discussion – (Romans 3:23).
God “presented Jesus.” Paul uses a verb that means to set something forth, to “present” something or someone for public display. And He “presented” Christ as the ‘hilastérion.’ When we debate whether the noun means “propitiation” or “expiation” we overlook the background from Leviticus. The Greek Septuagint version uses hilastérion for the “mercy seat” that was in the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle.
Paul is drawing an analogy from the annual Day of Atonement when the high priest entered the “holy of holies” with sacrificial blood that he sprinkled before and on the “mercy seat” to “cover” the stain of Israel’s sin:
- “Then shall he kill the goat of the sin-offering that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with his blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy-seat (hilastérion), and before the mercy-seat (hilastérion). And he shall cover the holy place because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins: and so shall he do for the tent of meeting that dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness. And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he enters to make atonement in the holy place” – (Leviticus 16:15-17).
The “mercy seat” was the place where the presence of Yahweh met with the priestly representative of Israel, and it was the place where reconciliation was made by applying the blood to it. In Leviticus, the blood “covered” the stains of Israel’s sin that had polluted the “mercy seat” and the other furnishes of the “holy place.” The blood was not applied to the Israelites. Thus, in Romans, Jesus is both the place and the means of reconciliation between God and man.
But there are differences. The high priest entered the “holy of holies” alone and out of sight of the people, but God “presented” Jesus as the place of sacrifice openly for all to see. And the high priest applied the blood of bulls and goats to the “mercy seat,” but God applied the blood of Jesus, the “just” and faithful one.
In the Greek sentence, the clauses “through the faith (singular)” that is, through his faith, and “by his blood” are parallel and refer to Jesus. And “by his blood” (or “in his blood”) is in the dative case and used in an instrumental sense. The sentence is structured as follows:
- “God presented him (as) a mercy-seat,
- Through his faith,
- By his blood,
- For proof of his righteousness because of the passing-over of the sins done before,
- In the forbearance of God.”
Through his faithful act and by his death Jesus became the “mercy seat,” the place of reconciliation and the means for reconciling us to God. His sacrificial death is also “proof,” the evidence of God’s “righteousness,” of His justice and covenant faithfulness. Humanity has sinned against Him from the beginning, and our persistence in disobedience has “treasured up” for ourselves “wrath” that we will reap on the “day of wrath” if we do not respond to His gracious offer, and wrath that we have earned.
But in His “forbearance,” in His patience, God has “passed over” our past sins. By putting off our just desserts until the “day of wrath” God has spared us from experiencing the very “wrath” that we so richly deserve. That is, until now, for in Jesus Christ He has dealt decisively with the problem and made provision for our justification.
“Pass over” or paresis does NOT mean to “remit” or forgive, but to “permit, tolerate, allow.” And that divine “forbearance” was introduced when Paul chastised the hypocrite who condemned others – “And do you reckon this, O man, who judges them who practice such things but does the same that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God is leading you to repentance?”
But the provision for our justification was done “for proof in the present time,” for God has made salvation available to all men through His Son. That is why the paragraph concludes – “To the end, his just one, even the one who is being justified from the faith of Jesus.”
“To the end” translates the clause eis to einai that Paul used often to indicate purpose – “to the end, for the purpose.” And here, “his just one” (auton dikaion, singular) reiterates the letter’s opening proposition that the “just one (ho dikaios, singular) will live from faith (ek pisteôs),” only now, the source of that faith is specified – “from the faith of Jesus.” That is, the (now) righteous man is being reconciled to God on the basis of Christ’s faith.
“Being justified” represents a Greek participle in the singular number and the present tense, signifying an ongoing process. And “from the faith of Jesus” reiterates Paul’s claim at the start of the paragraph that righteousness is through the “faith of Jesus.”
In Romans, the question is not whether men are justified by meritorious works or unmerited grace. Elsewhere, Paul certainly does not shy away from insisting on the importance of Christians acting righteously and doing good works. And he certainly did believe that men do not merit God’s grace. However, that does not mean that he believed that men earn salvation through works and thus obligate God to save them. He did not view good works and divine grace as diametric opposites.
Nor did Paul oppose the principle of “law” in general. Elsewhere, he speaks of the “law of Christ” and does so here. His argument is that men are not justified on the basis of the Mosaic Law, but instead, on a different basis – “from the faith of Jesus Christ.” The Torah was never intended to justify men before God, that was not its purpose. Instead, it reveals the will of God and exposes sin for what it is – transgression of the law of God – (Romans 3:19, 5:12-14, Galatians 3:19-21).
This understanding is confirmed in the conclusion of chapter 3. There can be no “boasting,” no claim upon God because of our faithful law-keeping, for we are not justified “from the law” of Moses, but instead, “from a law of faith,” that is, from the “faith of Jesus Christ.”
The very fact that Paul speaks of the “law of Christ” demonstrates that he is not opposed to the principle of law itself, but is referring to a very specific law, the law of Moses. And the “works” he mentions are the “works,” the deeds required by the Torah. And that is why he goes on to claim that we are “justified apart from the works of the law.”
“Is God the God of Jews only? Is He not also the God of Gentiles? Yes, of Gentiles also, if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision from (ek) faith, and the uncircumcision through (dia)faith.” That is, just as Paul stated in verses 21-26, the Gentiles are those now justified “through the faith of Jesus,” and the Jews “from the faith of Jesus.” And it amounts to the same thing – all are reconciled to God “from the faith of Jesus.”
As for “appeasing” God or “propitiating” His wrath, nowhere does Paul state or even imply such an idea. Moreover, it runs contrary to everything he has said about God and all that He has done to provide the means for man to be reconciled with Him.
Justice demands punishment for transgression, and disobedient men are “treasuring up” for themselves “wrath” that they will reap on the “day of wrath.” But that day has yet to arrive, and when it does arrive sinners will find themselves without excuse. And that is especially so because God, in His “forbearance,” has not only “passed over” their past sins and postponed the “day of wrath,” He has strived mightily to provide humanity with the means of reconciliation, and He has done so openly for all to see (“He presented…for proof”). And by doing so, he has demonstrated to the world just how just and faithful He is (“for proof of His righteousness”).
Thus the “good news” that Paul announced and also attested by the “law and the prophets.” God has justified Jew and Gentile alike “from the faith of Jesus Christ” whether they are under the Mosaic Law or not. And He vindicated Christ’s faithful act by resurrecting him (“marked out as the Son of God by power…through a resurrection from among the dead”).
And now, in this “present time,” men are set right before God by responding to that gracious act with faith in what God has done “through the faith of Jesus.”