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What does it mean to be justified by faith?

Of all the passages in Paul’s writings, no single passage is packed with more theologically significant terms than Romans 3:21-31: Justification, redemption, propitiation, grace, justification by faith, and the list goes on an on. Commenting on this, Leon Morris suggests that this passage is “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written” (Morris, Epistle to the Romans, 1988, p. 173). While each of these terms play a significant role in Paul’s description of the gospel, unfortunately many of these terms have simply become clichés today—special church terminology that we hear sung or preached about, but have little real meaning for the average person. Today’s lesson gives us the opportunity to look at several of these terms in more detail.

Justification is a legal term associated with the judicial proceedings in a court of law. It refers to the positive verdict that a judge pronounces when a person is determined to be innocent of any charge of wrongdoing (e.g., Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15). As such justification is the opposite of condemnation. It involves more than pardon, or even the forgiveness of sins. Justification is the positive declaration that a person is legally declared and counted as “just” or “righteous.” Paul declares that sinners are righteous in God’s sight not because they are righteous in their experience, but because God counts them as righteous on the basis of what was done for them in Christ.

Redemption was primarily a secular word commonly used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to the loosening of prisoners or to the manumission of slaves. It always involved the paying of a price to obtain a prisoner or a slave’s freedom. The concept of freedom costing something is also present in the OT Scriptures (e.g., Lev. 25:26, 48; Ex. 30:12) and is even associated with God’s redemption of his people (Ex. 6:6; 20:2). Redemption is one of the key metaphors Paul uses to describe salvation (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:30; 6:20; 7:23; Rom. 8:23).

Propitiation (Gk. hilastērion) carries the basic idea of appeasement. For pagans it involved the idea of appeasing the wrath of the gods through sacrificial offerings. In the OT this same word also could refer to the mercy seat that covered the ark of the covenant (Lev. 16:15, 16; Heb. 9:5). Of these two possible meanings, the context and terminology suggest that Paul likely has the basic meaning of appeasement in mind. Paul’s use of propitiation is, however, vastly different than its use in paganism. While God’s holy wrath does rest on all evil, Paul describes God as the one who does the propitiating, and it is also God who provides the sacrifice—his own Son (cf. 1Jn 2:2). This is another example of how Paul takes events common in the ancient world and infuses them it with a distinctly Christian application.

In spite of the powerful terminology in this section of Romans, the little phrase “but now” in verse 21 became one of Martin Luther’s favorite phrases. What made this phrase so important for Luther was not the actual words themselves, but the practical spiritual application he found in them for his own spiritual life. Romans 3:20 ends on a strongly negative note. The whole world is condemned in the sight of a holy God on the basis of their sinfulness. The evidence against every human is so convincing that we are left speechless. In the midst of what appears to be hopeless situation, Luther realized the words “but now” offered a ray of hope. While the law demands a righteousness that we simply don’t have, God offers his own righteousness as a free gift. As such “now” does not merely represent a logical transition in Paul’s argument, but more importantly it has a temporal sense pointing to the present time in human history in which God has acted decisively in Christ to overcome the problem of human sinfulness. When Luther felt condemned by his conscience and harassed by the devil, he would repeat this phrase again and again. Yes, I am a sinner, “BUT NOW” the righteousness of God.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Romans 3:21-31 is packed full of important theological terms—some you have certainly heard before and others that might not be that familiar. Make a list of all the key terms you find and write a definition of what each term means. Can you think of any modern synonyms that might make these terms more easily understood today? Of the theological terms Paul employs, which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
  2. Paul says that we have redemption in Christ Jesus. What is it that that Christians have been redeemed from? See Heb. 2:14,15; 1Cor. 15: 56, 57; Rom. 6:22; and Rom. 3:24.
  3. Why does Paul say that we have no reason to boast in Romans 3:27?
  4. What do these verses teach us about God’s law? How is it related to faith? To salvation? Would you describe Paul’s view of the law here as negative or positive—or something else?
  5. How does Jesus’ death in our place prove that God is both just and merciful? See Rom. 3:26.
  6. What does Romans 3:21-31 tell us about God, about Christ, and about ourselves?

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