ROMANS 1-4: WHAT IS GOD'S COVENANT JUSTICE?
In today's blog, I'm going to let it fly and really open up Romans 1-4, so this one is going to be longer than usual. Buckle up the seat belts, because we're going to talk about God's righteousness, or what N.T. Wright calls the "covenant justice of God," sin, the Torah, and faith. Ready?
You can hear an audio form of this blog and a series on Romans titled, "When in Romans" at our Journey Podcast.
OK, first let's look at the background of Paul's letter, which is important to understanding the message of the letter.
Letters, we have to remember, are occasional. They're contextual. Paul didn't write Romans just as his magnum opus, just to give his theology of his writing to do that, but also to a particular contextual problem in Rome. What was that? Now, some people ignore the backgrounds of letters or the Bible altogether. I think we miss out on so much when we read the Bible only individually or devotionally. We can read the Bible that way, but we miss out on what really is being said, what Paul is driving at, what his argument is, who he's writing to and why. It's very important that we understand that. Otherwise, we just end up with some nice quotes out of Romans, but we can deepen our understanding if we look at the background. Others focus on justification by faith out of Romans, but also ignore a very, very important aspect of Romans, which is the Jew/Gentile issue that exists in a lot of Paul's letters and definitely exists here in Romans.
When we look at a letter, one of the problems is that we only hear or see one half of the conversation and we have to piece together what's going on in the other half of the conversation. We can read Paul, but what's happening in Rome? What are they saying? What are they doing? We have to look carefully to piece together. Have you ever played this little game that I like to play when someone is with you and answers the phone and you try to guess who's on the other end of the call? Who are they talking to based on their inflection and their tone? Oh, he's talking to his mother. I can tell that tone. Or she's talking to one of her kids. I can tell that tone. We can't hear what's going on on the other side of the phone, but we can hear the inflection. We can hear the very subtleties of language on the one end, but we have to imagine on the other end. That's what it's like to read a Biblical letter. We have to piece together what's going on on the other side of the phone conversation because we just have clues.
What was happening in Rome? Here's the way, which is a very new perspective on Paul in the last 30 years. One of my seminary professors, James Walters, was the first to point out to us 20 years ago that a few years before Paul wrote, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. There was some political reason that the Jews were to be expelled from Rome. This was in the late 40s, early 50s. We find in Acts 18:2 that there were some of those Jews that showed up in Corinth. Now, years later, after the death of Claudius, the one who expelled the Jews from Rome, after his death in AD 54, another emperor came to power. Do you know who that emperor was? Nero. Nero, the emperor, was no saint, but he did something nice. He let the Jews return. They came back to Rome. So, after Claudius expelled the Jews, Nero came to power, and the Jews came back to Rome.
While the Jews were away, during five or so years, the Gentiles began to shape the church in Gentile ways, with Gentile thinking. Then, when the Jews returned back into those churches, those Messiah-believing Jews came back into those churches, synagogues, house churches with Gentile believers, and look out!
This cartoon by The Bible Project illustrates and helps us understand what might have been happening on the other side of that phone conversation from Paul. This gives a little snapshot of what might have been happening in Rome with the church after the Jews were coming back in the mid 50s.
Paul's language in Romans 1 is intentionally confrontational to the powers that be. The upstart Roman government needs to know that this faith goes back to David. Then, Paul even invokes Abraham in chapter four, pushing it even further back. Caesars called themselves what? Son of God. It wasn't necessarily a unique thing that Jesus was called the Son of God, but Paul says this Son of God was what? What does it say there in verse four? What happened to this Son of God? Why is he special? Because he is God and he is risen from the dead. He is the resurrected Son of God.
Now, these scriptures form a vocabulary of faith. Romans 1:16 and 17. It's a theme that really speaks this vocabulary of faith that Paul has,
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'"
Romans 1 also includes a long list of various sins, of various forms of depravity in Romans 1:18-32. The point of this is not necessarily to fixate on one of those particular sins, but the larger point is that all humanity is trapped in sin and needs rescue. How does God respond? God responds in covenant justice, but how is God, a faithful God to Israel and to the promises, the covenant of Israel that he made, the promise that he would be faithful to Israel, but also be a God of justice to sinners? How can he make justice happen for all nations? How can God respond to nations that are repentant and need rescue? That's the question of God's justice. His covenant justice is in question here.
The problem is like parents when the get the question from their kids, "Which one of your kids is your favorite?" Parents notoriously either try to joke with that answer or they just can't answer it, but it's a difficult question. Likewise, how is it that God is the faithful God of the Jews who keeps his covenant, his faithfulness, but also is a God of justice who always does what is right, who doesn't leave sin unpunished but he also rescues all nations? Paul uses language in verse 24, 26, and 28, that God "gave them up" to human depravity. "God gave them up to their own lusts and degrading passions." He goes through a list of those things in the end of the chapter.
Does this mean God gives up on people? That God is not steadfast? All of us remember a time when a parent or a grandparent was frustrated at us and they were trying to get a point across and they were trying to say there's a better way to do what you're doing and we keep doing it our way. Finally, the parent just says, "Fine, do it your way and let's see what happens. Let's see how that goes for you." In the same way that a parent allows the child to experience suffering in order for them to learn, so God has even greater wisdom than this that we don't understand fully. Paul is referring to in the justice of God and the righteousness of God is that God, he sees the world, he sees the depravity, and he's a rescuing God, but at some point, he's going to say, "Do it your way." That's what he means by God gave them up. He says, "Okay, do it your way. We're going to see how that goes for you."
Well, the gospel of Jesus Christ, by a loving creator, is God setting the world right, but if some people persist in doing evil, Paul says God may give them up by saying, "Okay. Do it your way. Let's see how that turns out." It's not just for the Gentiles, but it can also be for the Jews. Everyone is trapped in sin. That's what's going to be made clear in Romans 2. Is Paul just talking about individual judgmentalism at the beginning of Romans 2? Is he saying we shouldn't be judgmental or does he have a larger point in mind?
Look at Romans 2:9-11: "There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek. But glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek." Verse 11, this is key, "For God shows no," what? What does it say? What is it? Favoritism. Partiality. God shows no partiality. He's playing even-handedly with Jews and Gentiles, saying God doesn't show partiality. God is a God of faithfulness. He is a covenant, just God who keeps his faithfulness to Israel, but he's also just. He's not going to leave the nations behind. That's always been his desire to bring the nations in. God is not a God who shows partiality. It's such good news that we have a God who's not just capricious and just random in his judgments and just doing what he wants anytime he wants like some crazy Nero emperor. He's a fair God. Verse 11 tells us there is good news, for God shows no partiality, God is not lax in judgment. He is always fair and right and just. His love is steadfast from times immortal. That's good news for us.
I love this story from StoryCorps. How many of you have heard StoryCorps on NPR before? They take this trailer that has a recording studio around the country and people go and tell their stories. There was a judge from Jackson, Mississippi named Judge Joe Pigott. He served nearly two decades on the bench in Jackson, Mississippi, but he says no defendant impressed him more than a man named Pip. Pip was his nickname. He was otherwise known as the late Willie Earl Dow, whose exploits often landed him in Pigott's courtroom. Recalling those days with his wife, Lorraine, Pigott said that Dow had two bad habits, drinking and stealing in order to support his drinking. "You didn't have to try him," said Judge Pigott. "He always came into the courtroom and plead guilty. He was a likable person," said Judge Pigott.
Now, Dow also sent the judge an occasional letter from jail. In one of his letters, he wrote from prison to tell Judge Pigott, "Well, Judge Pigott, I feel like I've been up here long enough this time and I'd appreciate it if you'd write the parol board and see if they'd let me out." Well, Judge Pigott did so and Dow was released, but six weeks later, Dow robbed one of his friends, taking a watch and the keys to his car. The friend called the sheriff and soon Dow was back before Judge Pigott pleading guilty yet again. Judge Pigott just put down his things and said, "Pip, I'm so disappointed. I don't even know what to say to you. I just don't understand you," he told Dow as he prepared to announce his sentence. Just then, Pip piped up and said, "Well, Judge, I'm disappointed in you." Everything in the courtroom got deathly silent. "When I was here four years ago," Dow went on, "you were sitting in that same chair, wearing that same robe, making this same speech. I figured a man of your caliber ought to at least be on the Supreme Court by now."
I told him, "Mr. Dow, I was going to sentence you to five years, but since you're so perceptive, I think I'm just going to give you three years," he said, "which I did." The next time Pigott saw Dow was at the time of his retirement when a ceremony was held at the courtroom and they were going to hang a big painting of the judge in the courtroom. Who came to that ceremony but Willie Earl "Pip" Dow. He strolled up to the ceremony when they were honoring Judge Pigott and he was retiring. Pigott said, "Well, Mr. Dow, I'm glad to see you." "Well," Pigott remembers him answering, "I heard they were going to hang Judge Pigott at the courtroom so I didn't want to miss that." Pigott then asked Dow how long it would be before he was back in trouble. He said, "Judge, you're resigning. I'm resigning. I'm going to retire just like you." That led Pigott to ask the new judge and the county sheriff to keep him informed about Dow and to let him know if Pip was arrested for anything. Dow kept his promise. In the remaining decade or so of his life, he was never arrested again. Pigott says, "Sometimes you make friends in strange ways."
God is a God of justice. When I think about Judge Pigott, in a strange way, I think that's what God is like. He's a God who is fair and a God who has, from the beginning, cared about our redemption, so how could God be an unfair judge who has always been about our redemption? He's going to be a fair judge who loves the Jews and the Gentiles. He always does what's fair. That's what this means when we say God is not partial to the Jews or Gentiles. That's what we mean by God's covenant justice. He keeps his covenant, but he also is a just God. He always is going to do what's right and fair. He knows the hearts of sinners. He knows our hearts and he can judge hearts better than humans can. We can trust that, that he can judge us fairly, he can judge the world fairly. That's part of what it means to be a God of covenant justice. He's always right and fair and he's always faithful to his promises.
Paul is saying that it's not about having the law, look at chapter two verse 13, or calling yourself a Jew and relying on law keeping for righteousness. He's saying it's not about having the law, certainly, and it's not just about keeping the law. It's also not about considering yourself so smart that you're a guide for the blind. Paul goes on a riff here, a corrector of the foolish, verse 20. Then in verses 25 to 29, Paul discusses circumcision. Circumcision was a physical mark on the private parks of a Jewish male that goes back to Abraham that shows them when they're naked and they don't have the Torah, there's at least a mark that says they are God's chosen people, but Paul says even that is not the basis of righteousness because he'll say in chapter four, "Look, was it before or after that circumcision that Abraham was made righteous, that he was seen as righteous? He was righteous before. He was seen as faithful before. It was his faith, not his circumcision." Paul says even that circumcision is of no worth if by that thing itself you think you're justified by God.
What is at stake here is the whole project of God through Israel. Further, he says, "What makes a Jew? What makes a true Jew?" Look at chapter two verse 28 through 29. This is very important. What is it that justifies and includes both Jews and Gentiles into this family of Abraham, this new family of Christ? Look at it. Chapter two verse 28 and 29, "For the person is not a Jew who is one outwardly only." In other words, the mark of circumcision. "Nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly and real circumcision is a matter of the heart. It is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God." What causes us to be included? Let's go on to chapter three.
In Romans 3:1 through 18, pay attention here to the quotes. When you read a letter, pay strong attention to what translators in English help us with. They put things in quotes. They're trying to interpret what is a difficult Greek text that doesn't have all these punctuation marks and quote marks, but they're trying to help us here to say that Paul is quoting people in Rome. This is another clue to what's happening in Rome and how people were thinking. All through the first eight verses of chapter three, Paul is quoting some conventional wisdom. For example, on the one hand, he's saying Jews claim that in their law, they're righteous, verses one through three, and the Gentiles claim that if they keep sinning, then they deepen the grace of God. We go on sinning so grace may increase. Paul says no. It's crazy talk on both sides.
Look at verse nine. He goes back and forth between Gentiles and Jews and he says, "As Jews, are we better off?" He says, "No, not all. We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, non-Jews, are under the power of sin. We're all trapped by sin." Then Paul quotes several Psalms about sin's effects. "No one seeks God. They do not fear God." He's quoting several different Psalms in the middle of the chapter. Then there's a huge shift in chapter three verse 21. He says this phrase, "Apart from the law." Is he saying the law is abolished? No, but Israel was to be a light of the nations, to deliver this message, but they failed. Jesus comes as the true Jew. The Messiah comes as the true messenger, not one who, like Israel, has failed in message to be the light to the Gentiles. Jesus comes as the true Messiah, the true messenger, to do what Israel couldn't do for themselves. Now, Paul is saying, "This is the Messiah, Jesus, the faithful messenger."
How do we get into this new family? How do we justify it by faith to declare what it means to declare righteousness? How do we get into this new family? We have a new status. We're right with God and forgiven, a new family, included in God's people, a new future, transformed in life in Christ. Then, the question comes, "Who is in God's family and how do we get in?" Is it by circumcision? Is it by having the law? Is it by keeping the law? Is it by philosophies of the Gentiles, the Greeks, the Romans? Paul is saying all of that is not the way into the family of God. It's not through right keeping of the law. The law exists to reveal our sinfulness. The law has come as like a pedagogue, as a teacher until Christ came, as one who's taught us, tutored us.
To summarize the first three chapters, let's answer that question about how you get in by looking at these first chapters again. "All humanity is trapped in sin and needs to be rescued." That's summarized by chapter three verse 23. The second chapter, "Justification comes not by law keeping." That's summarized by chapter three verse 21. Then, verse 25 of chapter three, Paul is saying Jesus himself is now the place, the means, the place and the means of forgiveness, of sins. He compares Jesus to the mercy seat. That's why we've been in Leviticus. That's why we've had a deeper understanding of what the mercy seat is in the Ark of the Covenant, in the holy of holies, because now Paul is comparing Jesus and saying Jesus is our mercy seat. His blood that was sprinkled on the mercy seat, the cross, is for us and our salvation. In other words, as NT Wright says, "His sacrificial death is at the very heart of God's saving plan." The tabernacle and the temple are signposts to that and Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that predicts this.
So here's the deal. The law is really good at revealing sin. It's really good at revealing that we need God, but it's really bad at imputing righteousness upon us. It's really bad at making us righteous. That's what Jesus does. We have this technical theological term that Jesus is a propitiatory sacrifice. In other words, it's one that both purifies us and also turns away the wrath of God, which would otherwise rightly fall on us as sinners. Paul grounds the work of Christ back to this longstanding covenant announced in Abraham. How was Abraham justified? Was it by his circumcision? Was it by the law? No, Abraham was called righteous because of what? Long before circumcision or right before circumcision and long before the law, what was it? His faith. That's exactly right. What has justified Abraham was his faith.
Paul quotes Genesis 15, Genesis 17 to show that it was before the law, before circumcision. For what does the scripture say? Then chapter four, I believe it's verse four, "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." You see, Abraham trusted God. In this classic verse that so beautifully spells it out in Romans 4, this happened in the presence of God in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist. What did not exist was a multiethnic family that we are all called into. Paul is saying it's not just the Jews that are going to be part of this covenant family. The nations are now being called in. That takes a covenant God, a God who keeps his covenant, but also a God of justice who is willing ton punish sin but he's also willing to forgive sin. He is creating the faith-based multiethnic family of Abraham. This faith goes back to Abraham.
What does all this mean for us about the righteousness of God or the covenant justice of God? The covenant justice of God means that God is not an arbitrary judge. That is good news today. You have a God, when you think about your family members, you think about your future, you think about our church, you think about our world, all of those people are in the hands of a fair and just and faithful God. Jews and Gentiles are in the hands of a God who is not arbitrary in judgment. He always does what's right and just. We can rest in that. He's faithful to his promises. It means prophecies have been fulfilled. The faith of Abraham has been vindicated. It's now through that same kind of faith that we, Gentiles in this world, get to come into Christ and live in Christ by that same faith that goes back to Abraham. That's how God is a God of covenant justice. He ties all of this together back to the faith of Abraham and says we can have the same kind of faith, but for us, it's a faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus.
The law reveals sin to be a killer, but death has been decisively challenged in Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, God's faithful messengers doing what Israel could not do. We've been covered by sin, "kippured." We've been covered. Kippur means literally to cover our sins and do away with those sins and purify us by the sacrifice of Jesus. Our sins have not been calculated against us. That's what it says about Abraham. His faith was calculated to him as righteousness. We too, our sin is not calculated against us. Instead, by our faith, it's calculated to us as God's righteousness. As part of his plan for giving us his righteousness, Jesus became what we are so that we can be what he is. Those who believe in the gospel in God's good news about his Son are assured people of the new covenant, the single worldwide family promise to Abraham. This is great news for us in the Gentile world.
I grew up celebration challenged, dancing challenged, but I'm learning in my older age. I'm learning to loosen my feet up a little bit. When I go to a wedding, I go to a party, I go to the Kevo dinner, I've learned to get out on the dance floor and celebrate. There's different ways that we celebrate. What Paul does is several times in the Roman letter, he just stops and celebrates this mystery because he's explaining some very difficult things. I know, if you kind of still have a lot of questions in your mind and thinking, "Wow, this is a lot to go through," yes, it is. It's a lot to pack into our brains. A lot of stuff is real tightly packed in Romans. It's going to take time. It's going to take years for us to kind of fathom the mysteries here, but Paul just stops with us and says, "I know it's mysterious what God's been doing from the very beginning and what he's doing in the Gentiles now, but praise be to God that he did it."
He does what's called doxology three different times at least in chapter four, chapter 11, and chapter 16. He breaks out into song and glory to God. That's what doxology means. Doxo means praise and glory to God. He breaks out. He celebrates the grace of God, celebrating the covenant faithfulness, the covenant justice of God. This isn't just an individual thing. One of the things that I love about the church, about the body of Christ, is that I feed on your faith, you feed on mine. We're a body of Christ. Paul's saying we're Jews and Gentiles. We're all together.
This prayer comes from Romans 4:7-8, 16, 25.
"Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin. For this reason, it depends on faith in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to his descendants, not only to the adherence of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all. Praise God. As it is written, 'I have made you the father of many nations,' in the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become father of many nations according to what was said, 'So numerous shall your descendants be.'
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.