“The faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe in him” (Rom. 3.21-26): a Lord’s Supper homily from 2.10.13

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February 12, 2013 by jmar198013

Last time I spoke at this table, I challenged the assumption of one of our favorite modern hymns, “In Christ Alone.” Namely, that “on that cross/ as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied.” I suggested, by contrast, that what makes the Gospel the Gospel is not that Jesus solves the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God, but that God solved the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners. Today I’d like to walk a bit further down that path of thought. Why should God solving the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners be good news for the rest of us? What difference does it make? Maybe it is this: perhaps you are a sinsick soul who just cannot live without the belief that God has vented his wrath over your sin on Jesus in an act of summary violence. If so, perhaps God’s solution to the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners is just the good news you need to hear.

To put it another way, in a sinful world seemingly ruled by violence and deceit, how does God prove his integrity? How does he demonstrate that he is God? Does he do so by means of a superior violence, satisfying his wrath on the perfect victim, Jesus? Or, in the person of Jesus, is God seeking to “build another basis for peace than unity in violence”? I want to propose that “build[ing] another basis for peace than unity in violence … is what the gathering around the communion table attempts to do.”[1]

To that end, the Scripture I want us to focus on this morning is Romans 3.21-26. This passage is important, because it can be–and usually is–taken to mean that God solved the problem of sin by making Jesus a satisfactory sacrifice, and that we can appropriate this sacrifice by faith.[2] But is this what Paul actually meant to express? Did he mean that “every human being has existed in a qualitative state of wickedness and separation from God,”[3] so that without faith in Christ, any of us is as deserving of God’s wrath as Adolf Hitler? Or, might he be speaking of God’s righteous intervention through Christ in the sort of world where people join in the wrath of an Adolf Hitler? In Rom. 3.21-26, Paul writes:

But now the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law. The Law and Prophets confirm this. The righteousness of God comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe in him, without distinction between one or another. Since all have sinned and want for God’s glory, they are made right freely by God’s grace, through the redemption in Jesus Christ. God purposed him as an act of conciliation through faithfulness, effected by shedding his blood. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over previous sins when he held back punishment. He also did this to prove that he is righteous now, and to justify the one who has the faithfulness of Christ.

Here’s a bit of advice for reading Scripture: Jesus used to tell his disciples to “pay attention to how you listen” (Luke 8.18 NRSV). Jesus meant that, I think, for words like Rom. 3.21-26. We need to pay attention to how we hear it. We tend to hear it as the answer to the question, “How can I be saved?”[4] We also tend to assume that when Paul says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, he means sin as the cumulative moral debt of our personal misdeeds.[5] When these are our assumptions, we have little choice but to conclude that Paul was telling a story about a righteous God who could not overlook our sin, but who cancels out “all our disparate individual sins … by Christ’s punishment on the cross.”[6] And so he proves his righteousness both in overlooking previous sins and counting the faithful righteous in the present time by appeasing his wrath on Christ.

Two problems obtain with this reading, however. Really there are more than two, but today I only have time to talk about two. First is, Paul wasn’t trying to answer the question, “How can I be saved?” in Rom. 3.21-26. A careful reading of Romans 3 in its entirety reveals it to be structured as an ongoing dialogue between Paul and a Jewish teacher about God’s integrity.[7] The topic of conversation isn’t personal salvation. Rather, it is God’s faithfulness. Back of this conversation are fundamental questions about God’s character. Is God loyal? Is God trustworthy? If God shows mercy to Gentiles, is this disloyalty to Israel? Does God play favorites? Rom. 3.21-26 is Paul’s considered response to these questions. He is explaining that God’s integrity compels him to make room for Gentiles as well as Jews, and that Jesus is God’s conciliatory gesture that makes this happen.

The second problem has to do with sin conceived as the cumulative moral debt of our individual transgressions. This is not what Paul meant when he wrote that all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our reading of that verse should be determined by what Paul says in 3.9: “all–both Jew and Gentile–are under the power of sin.” Paul does not thereby mean that all people exist in a qualitative state of wickedness. Rather, he means that one group of people should not point at another group and say, “They are more perverse than we are.” In other words, “without distinction between one or another … all have sinned and want for God’s glory.” Furthermore, Paul does not here conceive of sin merely as personal offense against God’s glory. Rather, his extensive scriptural citations in 3.10-18 reveal that Paul understands sin as a dynamic and destructive thread woven into the fabric of the societies that shape ourselves. “They all turned away,” he writes. “They have become worthless together … They are deceitful with their tongues … Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are quick to shed blood … and they don’t know the way of peace” (Rom. 3.12, 13b, 14-15, 17 CEB, emphasis mine). When Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he means that all peoples are prone to this sort of deceit and violence. We share in them as persons, but when we do so, we are appropriating a force that is larger than us. [8] Incidentally, these are the sins that killed Jesus. Paul knew these sins from personal experience. He had not only been a victim of them as a follower of Jesus; he had also participated in them as Saul, persecutor of the church.

So there we have it. Paul’s concern in Rom. 3.21-26 is not “How can I be saved [from the existential guilt of my personal sin]?” So he is not pointing at Jesus as the solution to the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God. Rather, he is taking up the question of God’s faithfulness in a world seemingly governed by violence and deceit. He finds his answer in God’s solution to Jesus in the hands of angry sinners. And here is the story that Paul tells: God injects Jesus into a world in bondage to violence and deceit. His purpose is that Jesus will redeem it; that Jesus will become the place where this violent world can be transformed. Jesus is faithful to God’s vocation for him–faithful to the point of shedding his blood, trusting that God will vindicate him. And vindicate him God does, and in so doing, God proves that he has been righteous all along. That he has not forgotten the victims of the previous sins.[9] His vindication of those who suffer the violence and deceit of this world stretches out in all directions, from Abel on. God vindicates those who stand by the Crucified One. God declares righteous those, who like Paul, step away from the collective violence of this world to stand with Jesus in faithfulness. And so it is, that God’s solution to the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners is good news for the rest of us. It is what transforms the Cross into the Gospel. It is what shapes the character of the church and animates our discipleship.

I would also suggest that reading the Gospels confirms my account of Paul’s word in Rom. 3.21-26. What on earth was Jesus doing with his life but being faithful to the victims of the violence and deceit of his time? He stood by his disciples and defended them against the insults of the Pharisees. He could have said, “You Pharisees are right; these unwashed losers are going to get me killed.” But he stood by them. He stood up to his disciples when they treated Samaritans with the same contempt as the Pharisees had treated them. He stood between the adulterous woman and the town elders about to bash her brains out with rocks. He touched lepers. He restored to Mary and Martha their brother Lazarus, who was their security in a world that was cruel to women left alone. That was what Paul called “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” And God honored that. And God honors those who stand by Jesus and live on the basis of his faithfulness.

As we gather at this table, I would again propose that what we are doing is “build[ing] a basis for peace other than unity in violence.” We are joined with Christ in proclaiming God’s righteousness by means of faithfulness. Around this table, we proclaim our solidarity with the Crucified One. We stand by him. We are not here to celebrate his solution to the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God. We gather here to celebrate God’s action on behalf of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners. We know that if we stand by Jesus, if we share in his faithfulness, God will vindicate us. May Christ’s faithfulness be the template for our life together as a church; may it animate our discipleship. Let us stand by the orphan and the refugee. Let us make room for the excluded. Let us build communities for the homeless and the rootless. Let us absorb the violence directed at the helpless. All for no other reason than when we do these things, we assert God’s righteousness. We share in in Jesus’ vocation of demonstrating that God is still God of this world. I guarantee you that this vocation is so compelling that we will dwell less on our existential guilt and more on God’s faithfulness to us in Christ.

Prayer: God, thank you for Christ, who is faithful to you and to us. Thank you for your promise to stand by us as we stand by him. Amen.

[1] S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: a theology of the cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), xii.

[2] So Simon J. Gathercole, “Justified by Faith, Justified by Blood: The Evidence of Romans 3:21-4:5,” in D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brian, and M. A. Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 168; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 191; John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007), 68.

[3] Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 176.

[4] For a discussion, see Stowers, Rereading Romans, 202-03.

[5] Stowers, Rereading Romans, contrasts this with Paul’s earliest rumination on sin in 1 Thess. 2.14-16: “The text does not describe sin as some universal ontological state but as specific behavior by specific groups of people at historical times and places” (177); for the full discussion of Paul’s words on universal sin in Rom. 3, see the chapter in Stowers, Rereading Romans, “Paul on Sin,” 176-94.

[6] Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, 10.

[7] Stowers, Rereading Romans, 165-66; cf. Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans: Argumentative Constraint and Strategy and Paul’s Dialogue with Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 198-204.

[8] For the assertions I have made thus far in this paragraph, see Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 142-43.

[9] Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 144: “God did this to show God’s righteousness, because God has passed over sins previously committed. Are we talking about only the flock of disparate sins (theft, adultery, etc.) that have accumulated unpunished and are somehow being dealt with now in an act of summary violence? Or are we talking especially still about the sin outlined by Paul in the previous verses [3.10-18], the collective victimization of the innocent? If God has passed over such sins in the past, then there is a case against God’s righteousness … These victims called out to God, with no clear or decisive result. But, Paul says … in this instance God is to prove definitively that Jesus (who as a victim has faith that God will save and vindicate him) and those who have faith in Jesus (who stand by the victim and not the crowd) are in fact justified in their hope. God has vindicated God’s righteousness by not abandoning the victim. The righteousness of God is manifest in the vindication of Jesus, the scapegoat. And this passage tells us that God will likewise save and vindicate other victims as well. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign that God will not fail on this count.”

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One thought on ““The faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe in him” (Rom. 3.21-26): a Lord’s Supper homily from 2.10.13

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