But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. (Rom 3:21-26)
“But now” … After the long, and sometimes painful, discussion of the wrath and judgment of God in 1:18-3:20, the reader of Romans may be excused for exhaling a sigh of relief and muttering “finally.” Perhaps one day I will have a better grasp of how to interpret the references to and stories about divine retribution in Holy Scripture. I don’t want to rationalize them away and thus dilute the biblical witness; but neither am I satisfied just to accept them at face value. The evangelical and spiritual cost is too high. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is absolute love and unconditional grace. If he is not, why be a Christian?
“But now,” the Apostle declaims, “the righteousness of God has been disclosed.” St Paul returns to the previously announced theme of his letter: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, ‘The righteous by faith will live'” (Rom 1:16-17). As we have seen, the divine righteousness is properly interpreted as God’s saving power and covenant fidelity. It can only be understood within the relationship and bonds God has established with his people. In the 4th century Latin exegete Ambrosiaster discerned the heart of the matter: “Therefore, what seems to be mercy is actually called the righteousness of God, because it was based on the promise; the fulfilling of God’s promise is called the righteousness of God. To accomplish what one has promised is itself righteousness. Moreover, because to refuse refuge to those fleeing to God would be evil, to grant refuge is also righteousness” (The Church’s Bible: Romans, p. 73).
In 1:17 Paul says that the divine righteousness is revealed in the gospel. In 3:21-26 we learn that the gospel is not only about Jesus the Messiah but that he is the gospel. The dikaiosynê theou is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, declares Paul. In our analysis of Gal 2:15-21, we saw that the faithfulness of Christ, consummated in the cross, is the apocalyptic event by which God has put the world to rights and delivered humanity from the powers of sin, the flesh, and the devil. The kingdom has come—not by military conquest but the the power of love enacted through suffering and death.
Years ago I read a remarkable book by Rabbi Pinchas Lapide: The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Lapide acknowledges that given the historical evidence Jesus probably was raised from the dead by God; but he still rejects the critical claim of the Christian Church that Jesus was the Messiah. Why? Because his resurrection did not in fact usher in the kingdom. Israel has not been delivered from her oppressors, justice and peace have not been established, evil has not been conquered, the general resurrection and final judgment have not occurred. “If it is true that the Messiah of which our ancient prophets spoke has already come,” Lapide asks, “how then do you explain the present state of the world?” Hence he still awaits the coming of the Messiah. In his dialogue with Jurgen Moltmann, Lapide remarks that “should the coming one be Jesus, he would be precisely as welcome to us as any other whom God would designate as the redeemer of the world. If he would only come!” Amen.
Lapide’s simple argument represents a cogent critique of Christianity. If the death and resurrection of Christ has inaugurated the kingdom, where is it? The world looks the same—only the deck chairs have been moved around a bit. No doubt St Paul was confronted with similar questions. How might he have answered? I suspect he would have pointed to the Church: “Look! God is creating communities of love and faith filled with the promised Holy Spirit. Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slaves and freemen—we are now united in the Supper of the Lamb. The old prophesies are coming true. Open your eyes!”
Paul is concerned to demonstrate that all that is happening in and through the gospel is happening in fulfillment of the Scriptures (“attested by the law and the prophets”); yet clearly the fulfillment has taken everyone by surprise. This is not how things were supposed to go. In light of his encounter with the risen Messiah, Paul realizes he must now re-read the Scriptures with a new pair of glasses; he must read them in and through the crucified and risen Jesus. The narrative of salvation begins with the Nazarene, and the preceding story must now be read retrospectively. Pascha is our hermeneutic.
The saving power and covenant faithfulness of God is revealed, Paul declares, in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ unto death. N. T. Wright elaborates further:
The Messiah’s “obedience unto death” (cf. Phil 2:6-8) is the critical act—an act of Jesus, and also in Paul’s eyes an act of God—through which sins are dealt with, justification is assured, and the worldwide covenant family is brought into being. In making this point it is important to be clear what is not being said. Paul is not speaking of Jesus’ “faith” either in the sense of the things Jesus believed, or Jesus’ exemplary trust in God, or Jesus’ religious experience. Nor is he suggesting that Jesus’ “obedience” was somehow meritorious, so that by it he earned “righteousness” on behalf of others. … Rather, he is highlighting Jesus’ faithful obedience, or perhaps we should say Jesus’ obedient faithfulness, to the saving plan marked out for Israel, the plan by which God would save the world. On the cross Jesus accomplished what God has always intended the covenant to achieve. Where Israel as a whole had been faithless, he was faithful: 3:22 answers to 3:2-3. (NIB, X:467)
Many commentators on Romans believe that Paul has incorporated a traditional creedal or liturgical formula in vv 24-26. Joseph Fitzmyer proposes that the formula may have gone something like the following: “being justified freely through redemption (which comes) in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as a means of expiating sin [hilastērion] through his blood, as a manifestation of his uprightness for the pardon of past sins committed in the time of his forbearance” (Anchor Bible: Romans, p. 342). If this is true, this might explain the use of specific words (hilastērion being the most notable) that do not appear elsewhere in the Pauline corpus.
“All have sinned,” Paul observes. That at least is clear from the preceding exposition in 1:18-3:20. But perhaps most importantly, “all are under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9). It is not just a matter of being guilty of individual transgressions—presumably one could just repent of them or offer sacrifice—but of domination by a malevolent power. Paul will elaborate further on the power of sin later in his epistle.
Paul then goes on to say, “But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Sinners are righteoused freely, gratuitously, undeservedly, for nothing (dorean). And to make this point even more emphatic, Paul adds “by his grace” (charis). “‘Grace,’ Wright explains, “is one of Paul’s most potent shorthand terms, carrying in its beautiful simplicity the entire story of God’s love, active in Christ and the Spirit to do for humans what they could never do for themselves” (p. 471). Here is the heart of the gospel!
God’s act of rectification, says Paul, is accomplished through “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “Redemption” translates the Greek word apolytrōsis. The word is typically interpreted as a ransom paid to redeem a slave, an interpretation favored by advocates of penal substitutionary atonement; but Douglas Campbell argues that the word should be interpreted more generally, namely, release, liberation, or deliverance from bondage (The Deliverance of God, pp. 656-658). It is not necessary that the release be effected by a payment, though it might be. The context would need to supply this information, as the signifier itself does not automatically supply it. Campbell then goes on to explain the connection between justification and redemption:
If we take Paul at his word, here, then, he is stating in v. 24 nothing more or less than that Christ has released believing humanity from some enslavement or bondage. The immediate implications of this judgment are significant. The statement qualifies instrumentally a famous antithesis of problem and solution—of sins and justification—described in vv. 23b-24a. But ἀπολύτρωσις itself, correctly interpreted, describes a process of release from an enslaved condition. So in context the most obvious reading of this signifier views it as positioned across this antithesis, glossing the entire process with one word. It denotes that the movement from sin and a lack of glory (whatever that means specifically) to justification is a release from something enslaving or constraining. And it follows that the process of ἀπολύτρωσις and the notion of “justification” (which can most easily be referred to in what follows as δικαίωσις) are essentially the same; “justification,” or δικαίωσις, is apparently a liberative notion, denoting deliverance from some situation or constraint, and should be translated accordingly. (p. 657)
Campbell thus supports what he calls a forensic-liberative construal of justification. Contrary to traditional Protestant exegetes who see the act of justification as a deliverance from the retributive wrath of God, Campbell understands it as apocalyptic deliverance from the powers that oppress humanity:
Paul is convinced that God has acted in the Christ event to intervene in an ungodly situation—a scenario within which an enslaved and hostile humanity cannot help itself. It is his fundamentally benevolent action that reveals the deeply loving character of God: God “justifies” the ungodly. His decisive forensic act—his judgment—is that they be released in Christ from their ontological prison; in Christ, he has set them free. God’s justification is consequently a forensic-liberative act. (p. 669)
As God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, so God through the cross of Christ has now redeemed humanity from bondage to death and sin.
Campbell’s exegesis returns us to the notion of performative rectification discussed in “Is Justification Forensic?” Wright, along with most classical Protestant exegetes, dispute this “catholic” interpretation. He understands it as purely declarative, as ratifying or confirming that which is (namely, “you belong to the eschatological people of God”). Wright departs from his fellow Protestant exegetes by focusing on the ecclesiological dimension rather than the soteriological, but they agree on a forensic-declarative construal. But as we are seeing, there are compelling reasons to understand the Apostle Paul as redefining justification by grace as a performative act. When God justifies a sinner, he does more than ratify that a change has previously taken place; he does more than confer a legal status. He actually changes the sinner. His Word accomplishes what he intends and does not return to him empty. Wright’s fellow New Perspectivist E. P. Sanders also supports an effective reading of dikaioō. “The passive verb ‘to be righteoused’ in Paul’s letters almost always means to be changed,” he explains, “to be transferred from one realm to another: from sin to obedience, from death to life, from being under the law to being under grace. While some words beginning with dik are judicial in Paul, the passive verb seldom is (only in 1 Cor. 4:4; 6:11; Rom. 2:13), and it is the passive verb which bears the brunt of the argument in Galatians 2-3 and Romans 3-4″ (Paul, p. 48; also see Thomas Stegman, “Paul’s Use of Dikaio- Terminology: Moving Beyond N. T. Wright’s Forensic Interpretation“).
From his apocalyptic perspective, J. Louis Martyn also supports a liberative construal of justification. He observes that St Paul rarely speaks of repentance and forgiveness in his letters. This is one of those facts one simply does not notice until it is brought to one’s attention. It’s odd, isn’t it? Repentance enjoys decisive significance throughout the Scriptures and the Jewish tradition and Christian traditions; yet Paul doesn’t spend much time talking about it.
Paul’s letters reflect a keen awareness of the fact that in the human scene something is terribly wrong, and needs therefore to be set right. In Rom 1:18-32, for example, the apostle speaks at length about the ungodliness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. When we sense this ominously dark side to the human scene, as Paul perceives it, and when we note that Paul takes as his major theme the announcing of good news, we are not surprised to find him repeatedly referring to the setting right of that which has gone wrong.
We may be surprised, however, to find in Paul’s letters virtually no use of certain words we often employ in connection with righting what is wrong. When he speaks to human beings of their wickedness, should he not call on them to repent? And should he not say that, after repentance, they can be assured of the peace and rightness that comes with forgiveness? Yet, in all of his references to the righting of what has gone wrong, Paul makes no significant reference to repentance and forgiveness.
Pondering the texts in question, we begin to see that Paul’s view of wrong and right is thoroughly apocalyptic, in the sense that on the landscape of wrong and right there are, in addition to God and human beings, powerful actors that stand opposed to God and that enslave human beings. Setting right what is wrong proves, then, to be a drama that involves not only human beings and God, but also those enslaving powers. And since humans are fundamentally slaves, the drama in which wrong is set right does not begin with action on their part. It begins with God’s militant action against all the powers that hold human beings in bondage. Thus, that action of God, instead of consisting at its center of a call for the slaves to repent and seek forgiveness (!), proves to be the deed by which God frees human beings, thus producing a liberated community of mutual concern that is so radically novel as to be called the new creation. (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pp. 87-88)
(This understanding of justification as liberative deliverance through the faithfulness of Christ has important consequences for our understanding of divine wrath. Do you see why?)
Paul then introduces the symbolism of the mercy seat (hilastērion). In the Septuagint hilastērion (Hebrew kapporet) is used to denote the gold cover, “mercy seat,” that was placed over the ark of the covenant. On the Day of Atonement the priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed goat upon the mercy seat. “No mere item of furniture,” elucidates Brendan Bryne, “the kapporet came to be seen as the focus of the cleansing and renewing presence of God, on the occasion when God ‘wiped away’ the stain of all the accumulated sins of the previous year, inaugurating a fresh epoch of covenant relations between Israel and her God (Lev 16:2-16)” (Romans, p. 127). It appears that the Jewish-Christian tradition antedating Paul in some way identified Jesus with the hilastērion and the sacrificial ritual of the Day of Atonement. We probably should not, however, seek in this language an explanation of how Paul, or the earlier tradition, understood the mechanism of atonement. Not only are attempts to precisely state how the Temple sacrifices “worked” futile; but Paul’s own apocalyptic vision of justification moves beyond the remission and sacrificial expiation of transgressions. We certainly should not import notions of propitiation into this verse. What is important here is the symbolism, not the explanation. The Crucified is himself the mercy seat, the place of God’s cleansing, renewing, and liberating power.