In Rom. 3:21-26 Paul advances his argument that the church must be unified and competing factions must reconcile and “welcome” one another in Christ (Rom. 14:1; 15:7). Just as no one has an inside track with God based on ethnicity, all Christians in Rome (Jew and non-Jew) are set right (“justified”) with God as a gift. Because they all receive this gift on the same basis, there should be no factions—they must be unified.
Most interpreters recognize that 3:21-26 is pivotal for Paul’s entire argument and that it plays a central role in Paul’s theology. Interpreters have tended to focus, however, on the mechanics of justification. That is, we highlight the soteriological components of Paul’s presentation, such as “the righteousness of God” (v. 21), how it is witnessed by the Law and the prophets, the debate over the Greek phrase pisteōs Iēsou Christou (“faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ”) in v. 22, the notion of propitiation in v. 25, and other matters of interest for dogmatic and systematic theologians.
But if we pay close attention to the grammar of the passage, we’ll see that while these are important components of Paul’s presentation, he only brings them up to make the pastoral point. He is ultimately concerned with the concrete situation in the church in Rome.
The two appearances of “for” at the end of v. 22 and beginning of v. 23 reveal that his burden is not merely to state these realities, but to relate them to both Jews and non-Jews in the Roman Christian community.
First, Paul notes that God’s powerful saving program—aimed at reclaiming creation and the nations—is no longer being carried out through Israel. In v. 21, he states that “the righteousness of God” is being revealed “apart from Law.” That is, God is working out his saving program without reference to Jewish identity. He isn’t excluding Jews, but God’s salvation has broken the banks of national boundaries and is including all those in Christ, whether Jew or gentile.
God had called Israel to be a light to the nations, the national agent of God’s redemption of the nations. Israel, however, had proved unfaithful to that commission (Rom. 3:3).
While Israel has been unfaithful, God remains faithful and he is now unleashing his saving program through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe, Jew or non-Jew. In Jesus and among his followers, God is carrying out his universal saving program that he had spoken about in the Law and the prophets. God is faithful and is on the move to reclaim the nations for the glory of his name.
So, this is a new move, a radical shift in God’s pursuit of redemption. But it isn’t new at all, as it is the central mission to which God committed himself and to which he called Israel. Because of their failure, God is now completing this mission in Jesus and among his followers made up of any and every ethnicity.
And God’s world-transforming redemptive program has direct relevance to the Roman church situation. The conjunction “for” directs readers to Paul’s point: God’s saving program is for “all who believe for there is no distinction” between Jew and non-Jew (v. 22).
The second “for” re-emphasizes this point: “for all (in the Roman church) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). And all (Jewish and non-Jewish Christians) are justified as a gift (v. 24).
So, once again, Paul isn’t necessarily expressing the central points of his theology here, nor merely laying out his theology for the Roman Christians’ consideration.
His ultimate aim is the unity of God’s people in Rome. He wants them to stop passing judgment on one another and to embrace as siblings in God’s global family in Christ. What he has to say in Rom. 3:21-26, therefore, has direct relevance to that practical end.
Following the grammar–or, paying attention to what Paul actually says–makes this clear.
8 thoughts on “Justification & the Unity of God’s People”
Only Israelites would have stumbled over the law right? So why would Paul make an argument about the Law [Rom 3:21-26] to pagan non-Israelites? For that matter, why would Paul make an argument about pagan non-Israelites to Judahites about their relationship to the Law. Did pagan non-Israelites care about the Law, or Judahites care about how pagans stood under the law (even a jot or tittle)?
Isn’t it more likely Paul was speaking to Judahites about the status of paganized Israelites as members of the Kingdom despite not being practitioners of the Law? Given that Paul prefaces this soliloquy about Righteousness being by faith, by quoting an OT Psalm likely known to his audience [Psa 143:2] it is more likely Paul was speaking to Judean Isarelites (of the House of Judah) about non-Judean Israelites (of the House of Israel) rather than non-Israelite pagans.
Paul identifies the two groups in ‘verse 9’ calling them ‘Jews and Greeks’, except that it makes no sense to argue he is speaking about all pagans since countries other than Greece had their own pagans. Didn’t Rome have its own pagans? Paul could have said ‘Jews and Latins (Romans)’, but he didn’t – he chose ‘Greeks’. Paul differentiated between ‘Jews’ and particular Greeks. He also differentiated between particular Greeks and other pagans [Rom 1:14]; so clearly he wasn’t speaking about all pagans.
Could he have been speaking about particular Greeks from Pontus, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Galatia etc (the ones named in [1 Peter 1:1]). Interestingly, if he was speaking about the Greeks mentioned in [1 Peter 1:1] (alluded to in [John 7:35]) he was speaking about a people who spoke Greek, but who pagan Greeks didn’t consider ‘Greek’. Pagan Greeks had a name for these folks ‘Leucosyri’ or ‘Leuco-Syrians’ because they had originally come from the Medo-Persian empire (where the House of Israel had been taken).
Even the Greek name for ‘Galatian’ Γαλατικός G1054 (Galatikos) is a clue:
Γαλα from ‘galah’ ( גלה H1540) meaning exiled
-τικός common Greek suffix meaning “characterized by”
Γαλατικός means ‘characterized by being an exile’
But back to your point, notice Paul resumes his argument in [Rom 4:1] by referencing a common forefather he shares with his audience [Rom 4:1]? He doesn’t attack this common lineage. What he attacks is the idea that this inheritance falls to descendants by works. (One must still be related for one to inherit). Paul says that the promised inheritance falls to those “from faith to faith”. Earlier, you were pondering the strange formulation ‘ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν’ (from faith to faith), however if we’re talking a promised inheritance (such as Deut 32:9] this formulation makes perfect sense.
It doesn’t matter if paganized Israelites (currently rejected by Jews) were circumcised or not – so long as long ‘these nations who do not (currently) have the law (because they’ve been alienated from the commonwealth of Israel) by nature do what the law requires, they would be a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.’ As long as these paganized Israelites hear their shepherd’s voice, they will constitute God’s nation (and company of nations) of priests, the Kingdom of God, God’s heritage, and His people – circumcision or no.
‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Anointed One who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.’ [Rom 9:4-5]
Finally, it may be ‘popular’ but the word “ἐκκλησία” is being falsely loaded with meaning that wasn’t in the Greek (in your usage of it). For the sake of accuracy, we should resist the temptation to translate it according to popular convention.
ἐκκλησία appears in the LXX more than 100 times and its intended meaning is always ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation of Israel’ ([Lam 1:10] etc). The Word ‘church’ in Greek is κύριος (G2962) – meaning ‘The Lords’. Not only do ‘church’ and ‘κύριος’ carry the same meaning but also it’s where the English word ‘church’ derives from (by way of ‘kirk’). Any theology of ‘church’ should actually be built off a word that means ‘church’, not ‘congregation of Israel’.
These summaries of portions of Romans are very helpful. Thanks for sharing them. I was wondering if at some point you might also be willing to summarize the entire letter in a few paragraphs.
Cheers, Wesman — I’ll have to think about that. Quite a challenge!
Hi Tim. When the topic of the unity of the Church comes up as written in the scripture, it is truely a message from above. Such a wonderful and blessed message.
Unity for the Church at Rome would involve a price. They must love not their life unto the death. Only the will of the Father in Heaven must be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Brother Paul, a messenger and ambassador of the Lord Jesus, sends the Heavenly orders to that Church.
Precisely the same circumstances are today. Today there are so many divisions in the Church, we would strain to count them. Our orders are the same. We must count the cost and accept that cost that come ye what may, we will serve the Lord.
Therefore those who love God please pray that the servent soldiers of Christ Jesus be raised up as a mighty army in the world, marching together in the unity of the Spirit!
Well said, Joe!
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