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THE KEY PARAGRAPH FOR UNDERSTANDING ST. PAUL'S LETTER TO THE ROMANS AND HIS THEOLOGY OF SALVATION (HIS SOTERIOLOGY)
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Thursday, 28th Week of the Year, October 19, 2017
Romans 3:21-30, Psalm 129, Luke 11:47-54


Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

 

"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it" (Romans 3:21).


Romans 3:21-25, which is part of today's first reading, is considered by many to be the most important paragraph of the greatest of St. Paul's letters, his letter to the Romans. Some have called it the most important paragraph in the entire Bible. It sets forth God's plan of salvation in Christ. It makes perfectly clear that we are acquitted of all our sins and declared righteous before God by our faith in Christ, because of his death on the cross that successfully propitiated God's just wrath against us for our sins. It is therefore clear that it is our faith, not our works of any kind, that justify us before God. This is because Christ's work on the cross made just and complete reparation for all our sins before God the Father, who sent him into the world to do this for us. His death atoned for our sins, and God accepted his atoning work on the cross and declared us acquitted and righteous, that is, he justified us.


When we put our faith in Christ and in his atoning work on the cross, our alienation from God, caused by our sins and by Adam's sin, is overcome, and we are reconciled with God. Our faith is what connects us with Christ's sacrifice, whereby he took our sins upon himself, and God punished them in his flesh on the cross, as St. Paul says in Romans 8:3. Since my sins have been duly and justly punished in Christ's flesh on the cross, when I put my faith in Christ and in his atoning death, God credits his reparation-making atoning death to my account and accounts my sins as atoned for, paid for, and so declares me acquitted and righteous, free to go, case ended.


In doing this, Christ fulfills the Old Testament sacrificial system of sin offerings, whereby an animal is designated as the sinner's representative and substitute and is killed vicariously, that is, instead of the sinner, for the sinner's sins. The animal thus makes substitutionary satisfaction for the sinner before God, and so atonement is made for his sins, and he is forgiven by God.


This is what Christ actually did for us on the cross. He did in fact what the animal only symbolized. He and he alone is the true "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).


God accepted the Old Testament animal sacrifices for sins and forgave their sins, not because the animal had any power to atone for sins, but because it prefigured Christ's one sacrifice for sins that did have the power to atone for sin. It was because of Christ's future sacrifice, represented and prefigured by the animal, that God forgave the Old Testament people for their sins ahead of time, in an anticipatory way, when they offered their sacrifices for sins.


Let us now look at this key paragraph of Romans (Romans 3:21-25) verse by verse:


Vs. 21: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it" (Romans 3:21). This righteousness of God, which has just now clearly appeared, is not an attribute or quality of God in the sense of God being righteous or just in himself, but rather it is his justifying righteousness whereby he makes us who believe in Christ righteous, and it is revealed apart from the law. The Greek word order adds emphasis: "But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has appeared." This means that God is now clearly revealing a new way of becoming righteous, and it has nothing to do with keeping the law. It is "apart from law." I say a new way because, although it was always God's way of making people righteous in the Old Testament, it was not clearly understood in the Old Testament, nor was the means God used for justifying us known in the Old Testament, namely the death of the Son of God on the cross.


Vs. 22: "The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction" (Romans 3:22). Here St. Paul tells us the key fact that this justifying righteousness of God, which he has already said has nothing to do with law, that is, with keeping the law, comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ, and it comes to all who believe (in him). And this "all" is without distinction. It includes everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews.


Vs. 23: "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Everyone needs this gift of righteousness, because everyone is a sinner in need of forgiveness and justification, whereby we may be declared and made righteous. By sinning we have all fallen short of the glory of God, which God now wants to restore to us by justifying us.


Vs. 24: "They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24). All sinners are now justified as a free gift by God's grace, not by our good works of any kind whatsoever that we have done to earn it. Rather, this justification has come to us by the redemption or ransoming work of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is, Christ paid our ransom price to set us free from sin, guilt, and eternal death for our sins. The ransom price that Christ paid, St. Paul will tell us in the next verse, is his own blood shed in reparation for our sins on the cross.


To whom does Christ pay the ransom price? To the devil? No, although some early Christians thought so. St. Paul does not say to whom Christ paid our ransom price to release us from our sins, but it is clear that he paid it to God the Father, to whom it was owed. St. Paul does not need to tell us the obvious, namely that we owed God eternal punishment for our mortal sins and that Christ paid this debt of ours to God the Father with his own blood shed on the cross in reparation and just punishment for our sins. Our debt being paid, the Father can then set us free, that is, acquit us and declare us righteous.


This is what St. Paul means when he says that God justifies us by Christ's death on the cross, not through any work of ours, but simply through our act of faith that enables God to credit Christ's sacrifice to our account.


Vs. 25: Jesus Christ "whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed" (Romans 3:25 NKJV). This is the key verse of this key paragraph of this key epistle for understanding St. Paul's theology of salvation, his soteriology. The Father set Christ forth as a propitiation in his blood, through our faith. Propitiation means a means of rendering God favorable again, of turning aside his just wrath against us for our sins. God's wrath (Romans 1:18; 5:9) is his righteous aversion toward all sin, and it is the Father himself who averts his own wrath against us for our sins through Christ's death on the cross, which satisfied divine justice concerning our sins.


Since God is all just, he must punish all sin, for otherwise he would not be all just. So to spare us, God "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (Romans 8:32). His Son takes our place and takes the rap for us on the cross so that God can and does now set us free if only we genuinely repent and put our faith in him.


This is substitutionary satisfaction, like the Jewish sacrifices offered for sins. As the animal died vicariously for the sinner, so Christ dies vicariously for all who put their faith in him and genuinely repent of their sins.


And God does this to vindicate his own personal righteousness as a just God who justly punishes all sins, for the fact that God passed over so many Old Testament sins without adequately punishing them calls his just nature into question. How could he really be all just if he let so many people off so easily without adequately punishing them for their sins?


Now it is made clear how he did this. He passed over their sins without properly punishing them, because he planned to fully punish all the sins later in the death of his own divine Son on the cross. This is what St. Paul means in this verse when he says that God set Christ forth as a propitiation "to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance God had the past over the sins that were previously committed" (Romans 3:25b NKJV). Now in Christ's death it is clear that God really is all just after all, and all merciful too, offering his own Son to be punished in our place to be able to justly acquit us and declare us righteous and free to go.


Hence, a few verses later, St. Paul draws his great conclusion: "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28). This is a conclusion that St. Paul often states (Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 2:16; Titus 3:5; 2 Timothy 1:8-9).


Our good works are necessary for our sanctification, not for our justification. Our good works are the result, not the cause of our justification, but they must follow our justification, for if they do not, we were either not really justified or we lost our justification and our salvation by failing to do good works.

 

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