I have written a sample chapter and would love for you to comment on it. Where is it rough? Where is it too technical? I've often said my target audience is my wife and her kindergarten teaching colleague! It is definitely not a scholastic group. So, please feel free to help me find my voice. Or better yet, have your significant others help you to help me!!!
One of the tremendous challenges for reading ancient texts is to become familiar with the techniques designed to draw the reader back to the main theme of the author. The oral nature of these texts allows those of us reading them in the modern world to locate some of these techniques. One of the easiest techniques to recognize is repetition. Paul identifies his main them in 1:16–17 as the “righteousness of God.” Now, in 3: 21 Paul repeats this phrase and uses a synonym for the original verb, revealed. This marked similarity returns attention to his main idea.
What is Paul’s main idea? This is an important question to keep in mind when reading an old text translated into a modern language. The reader can easily slip into the pattern of reading these words solely through the lens and filter of a modern mind and assume they were written in our history and should be understood by our methods. It is always helpful to keep in mind that ancient texts use ancient means for communicating. When we forget this simple truth our reading often becomes conflicted as we think the text says one thing based on our modern tendencies, but our eyes catch sight of a different meaning.
Paul’s main idea in this letter is to communicate the message he has been proclaiming throughout the Mediterranean region known today as Turkey and Greece, a message he summarizes in a single word, “gospel.” Since this term might also mean “good news” Paul could easily understand himself to be sent to tell other people in the first century about this good news. Hearing the words of Romans as bad news or depressing news misses the point of Paul’s actual proclamation. He utilizes the repetition of the words “righteousness of God” in order to draw his audience back on track.
One of the more important ideas in the New Testament is the term “righteousness.” Choosing to examine and explore the idea behind righteousness would likely imply that we identify it by using our preconceived notions. Instead, Paul provides the reader a tremendous clue regarding his particular view of righteousness. On the one hand it is “apart from the law” while on the other it is “witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Although this may appear difficult, it is really only difficult because we want, no, we demand or insist that our preconceived notion of righteousness should have dominant position in our mind rather than Paul’s.
Placing the righteousness of God squarely within the context of the Old Testament causes the Christian in the 21st-century to rethink some presumptions that he or she may hold. The phrase “the law and the prophets” is a distinct reference to Hebrew scripture and is witnessed in other parts of the New Testament, particularly in Luke 24:27 where Jesus opens the mind of two followers to what is written within. Although great disagreement remains around which concept Paul uses, I prefer to view his term “righteousness of God” within the context of hesed; the lovingkindness of God portrayed throughout the Old Testament, mainly based on Paul’s references to God and what God is doing. These references become even more obvious as we examine how Paul unpacks his thesis in this section of text.
We see also that this righteousness of God is through faith, for all who believe, and demonstrated by God in Jesus Christ. We also find that this same righteousness of God is “at the present time” and demonstrates that God is just in the one who justifies at the same time.
How might righteousness be understood apart from the Old Testament? The standard context for understanding righteousness within Christian history is in a legal sense. John Calvin, one of the early reformers, was trained as a lawyer. Martin Luther viewed the Scripture through the two lenses of law and faith. The Western world is strongly influenced by Roman and Byzantine legal traditions. It is, thus, no real surprise that we are preconditioned to understand righteousness within the context of keeping the law. However, Paul has just devoted a considerable amount of time and space in order to clarify that legalism simply does not work! “In His presence there is no cause for justification by the works of law.” (3.20) If this is the case, how can Paul now argue that legalism is necessary?
”The steadfast love of God endures forever.” This phrase appears over thirty times in the Psalms alone. The foremost characteristic of God in the Old Testament is hesed, translated as either steadfast love or as lovingkindness. Given Paul’s propensity to situate his discussion and description of God’s righteousness within the context of the Old Testament, it appears the context for Paul’s use of this phrase is far less inside a courtroom and far more inside a covenant agreement. Paul is arguing that the righteousness of God is made visible within the covenant relationship with his people. The righteousness of God is God’s character revealed to his people. Thus, the righteousness of God has to do with God, and God alone, rather then some seal of approval humans can earn.
A second clue for the reader that Paul is returning to his main idea is his use of the word faith. The idea of faith occurs four times in this brief section: 3:22 (2x), 25, 26. Paul’s statement of his main idea in chapter 1 identifies “the righteous nature of God is revealed by faith to faith” and the quotation from Habakuk that “the righteous one will live by faith.” Although Paul has not yet defined faith for the reader, he will soon provide an example of the type of faith he is discussing.
Faith is critical to Paul’s discussion. Since he has argued that there is no righteousness through the works of the law, he must provide a means for righteousness. He is claiming that God’s righteousness has become visible through faith to those possessing faith (3:22). In other words, only the means of faith is useful for understanding God’s righteousness. At the end of this brief section God demonstrates his righteousness and justifies the person of faith, a direct correction of the problem identified by Paul’s statement in 3:20.
The reader of Paul’s letter to the Romans is provided two highly visible clues that this section returns to the main idea. Thus, this section is explaining further the “good news” that Paul has spent his past twelve years sharing around the Mediterranean. But what exactly is this “good news?”
Good news can be experienced either through action or person. A phrase such as “I won!”, or “We’re expecting a baby!” focuses on the action while “My son is coming home from deployment,” or “We have a granddaughter!” focuses on the person. Paul discusses his main idea by describing the person of God more than the action of God. There are only two strong verbs in this passage: “revealed” (3:21) and “displayed” (3.25). Meanwhile, Paul’s description of the person of God is more extensive.
In addition to God’s righteousness, we hear about God’s glory (3:23), God’s gift and grace (3:24), God’s forbearance (3:25) and God’s just nature (3:26). It should come as no surprise to an attentive reader that Paul focuses his message on God. At the very beginning of the letter Paul identifies himself as “an apostle, set apart for God’s Good News” (1:1). Furthermore, God promised this Good News (1:2) and it concerns his son (1:3). Later Paul refers to this Good News as “God’s power” (1:16).
More to the point, Paul’s good news message does not focus on humans, human frailty, human sin, or human condemnation—none of which sound “good” to my ears. Instead Paul’s message focuses on the character and nature of God, seen in action within the covenant relationship with God’s people. The negative nature of this passage is reinforced when one takes the dependent clause out of its sentence; thereby removing it from its context. Many have memorized Romans 3:23 for one reason or another, “for all sinned and lack the glory of God.” This clause simply clarifies the opening phrase of its sentence—There is no distinction regarding the “all who believe”.
More importantly is the closing phrase—All are being justified as a gift! Much more to the point is the good news of this particular message. Since “no one is justified by works of the law” (3:20), Paul quickly counters that negative message with this powerful statement, God’s righteousness is for ALL who are believing and ALL are being justified as a gift. No longer is the status quo the law and its inability to grant justification. The relationship is governed by a new paradigm, experiencing God’s righteousness ias a gift from God alone!