Proper 4 · Romans 3:21-28 · June 1, 2008
By William W. Schumacher,
It is always a challenge to preach on a very familiar text in such a way that people actually hear the message afresh. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then complacency and inattention. For Lutherans, these verses from the third chapter of Romans are perilously familiar, and both the preacher and his hearers may be lulled into a mistaken sense that there is nothing new to which to listen in these words. The antidote for such spiritual numbness is the profundity of the Gospel at work in the text itself, for these verses richly reward close attention at every new reading.
One of the remarkable features of this passage is the way in which it keeps the focus on God Himself. Even though we stoutly confess that the justification of sinners is entirely God’s work, it is still easy for us to see ourselves at the center of the story. If asked why God undertook to save the world through the death of His Son, we might naturally answer that God loves us. Though true, that is not quite the answer provided by our present text. Here the apostle does not speak in terms of God’s love, but of His righteousness. Of course, English translations use a collection of words that may tend to obscure somewhat the fact that “just,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” and “justify” all reflect the same family of underlying Greek words related to dikaios. The words in this group, though closely related, are used in several different senses by Paul, even within a single verse.
Preaching the Gospel as God displaying His righteousness can help gain a fresh hearing for this familiar text. Actually, God’s righteousness may seem to be a strange concept for people who are convinced that God is simply undifferentiated love and acceptance, which is easily understood as sheer tolerance of sin. That idea is a far cry from God’s righteousness. Justice or righteousness can, according to the specific context, be understood as a quality or attribute of God Himself, an essential aspect of His character. But the powerful phrase “the righteousness of God” is not Gospel for sinners as long as we understand it simply as a description of God’s own nature and attributes. The just, righteous, holy God stands over against the shortcomings of sinful people—and who can stand in God’s presence? Of course, as Martin Luther discovered in his study of Romans, the Gospel meaning of the phrase is not a sheer quality of God’s nature, but a gift of His undeserved kindness and mercy, or as Luther put it, “the righteousness that counts before God.”
Christ’s death is the supreme point at which God’s perfect essential justice (by which He condemns and punishes sin) and God’s perfect saving righteousness (by which He forgives sinners and makes them righteous) intersect and coincide. This is why verse 25 is so crucial in the present passage. There it says that Christ’s sacrifice both displays God’s justice and vindicates His mercy; God gives Christ as a “propitiation by blood… to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (emphasis added). How is God’s past forbearance related to His display of His righteousness in Christ’s death? The idea seems to be that God set up a paradoxical difficulty when He overlooked former sins; how could He do so and still be truly just and righteous Himself? Is there a contradiction between God being just and God saving sinners? The two seem utterly incompatible with each other. Christ’s suffering on the cross is precisely where that contradiction is displayed most vividly. The cross holds before our eyes the paradox of a God who is both holy and merciful, and that is the Good News. In Jesus Christ, God satisfies completely His own divine justice, which sentences all sinners to death, and by faith in Christ God redeems and justifies—buys back and makes righteous—all those who have, indeed, fallen short of His glory, but who nevertheless trust in Jesus. Christ’s death on the cross was the only way for God to show Himself to be both the Just One and the Justifier of the unjust.
It is important to remind people in all this that God was not under some kind of external coercion or necessity to justify sinners through the death of His Son. God did not have to save us. His righteous mercy and saving justice are acts of pure divine freedom, so justification in Christ is an utterly free gift. It is driven by no other motivation than God’s own perfect unwillingness to let His all-too-fallen creatures be destroyed by their own sin.
This astonishing Good News is emphatically and unconditionally summarized in verse 28. The “tightness” of a human creature in God’s sight is entirely based on trust in that free saving death of Christ, rather than on any kind of human activity. Our trust rests in the righteous God who embraces unrighteous human beings and puts us right again. Such a word does not leave us complacent about our own status, but overcome by awe and wonder and gratitude.