Luther quipped that he hated the commonly accepted idea of “the righteousness of God” within Romans. Accordingly, he discovered a new definition that created a whole new way to interpret Romans.
We need to be aware that what we do not want to be true as well as what we value can exert powerful influences on how we interpret. I call this the hermeneutic of desire.
My goal in summarizing Romans below is neither to conform to nor reject popular understanding. I neither seek to stand in Luther’s shadow nor run from it. Using your Bible, you will have to decide to what extent the following represents Paul’s thoughts.
Whatever message we understand embedded within Romans will greatly influence how we interpret grace. This in turn will shape our Christian behaviors, values and teachings.
Within the first eight chapters, Paul mentioned grace (charis) sixteen times. If we do not consider his greeting, these early references cluster between Romans 3 and 8. Space permits reviewing the first five chapters.
Romans 1:16-17 is regarded as the thesis statement. Paul unpacks its ideas and its repercussions throughout Romans. The gospel is God’s power to save, offered first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Furthermore, what God does through the gospel is righteous in working “from faith to faith.” No wonder Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel.
So how does Paul unpack this? Paul’s gospel declared God judges human hearts (Romans 2:16). Can God be just in condemning humanity? Paul claimed that because people know how they ought to live before God’s glory but refuse to do so, God’s judgment is righteous.
Furthermore, God assesses people according to how they implemented their understanding of his standard of glory. That is fair. Theoretically, the principles God will use to judge could either commend or condemn. However, in reality it always leads to condemnation because everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. No one, not even those who have God’s Law, are right before God.
Whereas the Law and the prophets had testified to God’s righteousness, now the gospel also reveals God to be righteous by how he is saving people. However, we might ask, how can God be righteous in saving sinners, since scripture curses the one who acquits the guilty? Paul’s explanation reveals God does not merely declare the guilty innocent, rather Christ provided the basis enabling people to be right with God.
In his words, being right with God is created by “the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22), namely Christ’s death which provided redemption thus displaying God’s mercy seat (Romans 3:24-25). Hence, those who live justified lives do so based upon “Jesus’ faith(fulness)” (Romans 3:26; See also Galatians 2:20,16).
God’s righteousness is further manifested by offering the same salvation to both the Jew and Gentile through the same means. Who can receive this salvation? “The ones who believe/trust” (Romans 3:22). Hence both Jew and Gentile can appropriate being right with God “through faith/trust in his blood,” that is the mercy seat (Romans 3:25). No favoritism. God is fair.
If this is true, then being right with God requires faith. It does not come through the works of the Law.
Abram’s story substantiates this principle of faith/trust. Because Abram was counted as righteous when he believed/trusted in God, Paul confirmed that being right with God is given as a gift to those who believe/trust in the one who can make the ungodly right with God.
Furthermore, God’s promise to make Abram the father of many nations is realized, not through the Law, but through this principle of faith/trust. Since Abram was uncircumcised when he was justified by faith, he is capable of being the father of both his believing descendants who have the Law as well as the uncircumcised Gentiles who follow in his example of faith. Jew and Gentile are on the same footing before God.
What does all of this mean? Jesus and the blood of his death has provided access to God’s gracious gift in being right with God, hence being at peace with God – even though enmity had existed. Jesus’ death demonstrates God’s love for humanity. Unlike the rebellious who exchange the glory of God for a lie, “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).
Paul’s survey of human history reveals the greatness of God’s gift. The first man, Adam, ushered in a new reality for humanity, namely sin and death. Thus all of humanity experiences death, because as Paul had stated earlier everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
Sometimes this sin involved directly disobeying God’s revealed commandments, as Adam did. At other times, sin involved doing wrong without violating such a directly revealed commandment. In this latter case, it is not counted. Nevertheless, the death Adam released continued to reign.
However, Jesus has also ushered in a new reality for humanity. This reality involves people being made right with God as a result of God’s gift. In every way, the gift of Christ’s faithful obedience that makes people right with God is far greater than Adam’s work. Jesus inaugurated a new humanity where grace reigns over the lives of people. This grace enables them to enter into eternal life.
While this brief overview cannot capture nor do justice to every detail, hopefully it does represent the basic thrust of the initial section of Romans. Possessing a sense of context can enable us to more accurately handle statements about grace.
The first article in this series was: The Gravity of Grace: Definitions and Results (1)
Next article is The Gravity of Grace (4): Overview of Romans 6-8