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Called to Righteousness
Spring Quarter: Discipleship and Mission
Unit 3: Call to Life in Christ
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 5, 2019
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Romans 3:21-31
Key Verse: Romans 3:24, 25
- Explain how God maintains his just nature while providing a way for sinful humans to be justified.
- To acknowledge our sinful nature and accept God’s forgiving grace.
Since we are going to be dealing with the Book of Romans for the next four weeks, a word about it seems appropriate.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome in approximately AD 58, during his third missionary journey. His letter to the Roman Christians is somewhat different from his other epistles in that he had not planted the church at Rome and did not know the people there personally. However, he envisioned Rome to be a future stop on his way to Spain for missionary work (Romans 15:24, 28). Paul did indeed come to Rome a couple of years later, but not as part of a missionary trip. He arrived under Roman guard due to his appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:9-28:16).
The church in Rome had a mixed membership of Jews and Gentiles. We can only guess at the church’s size. Paul’s greeting in Romans 16 lists more than two dozen people by name, implying many more. It’s reasonable to think of that church of several hundred – still a tiny fraction of the city’s total population.
Paul wrote to prepare the church in Rome for his intended visit. He was aware of issues between the Jews and Gentiles in the church and had words for both groups. We are informed that in the process Paul gave a thorough presentation of the gospel that he had been preaching. It was a message that had already influenced the Roman church through people like Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:3; Acts 18:2).
A central doctrinal concern of Paul was to demonstrate the universal sinfulness of humanity and the incredible scope of God’s plan for redemption of men and women from the consequences of sin. Paul based his conclusion on both the historical facts of Jesus’ life and proper interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. The lesson today makes the assumption that the case for universal sinfulness has been made in Romans 1:18-3:20. With that foundation in place, the question that arises is how the sinless, holy God can rescue sinners from the wrath that divine justice requires. It is this weighty issue that is before us.
Just and Justifier
Note that Paul begins today’s text with the words, “But now.” What did Paul mean by these words of transition? He had just pointed out that we are all guilty sinners who deserve only God’s wrath. So what could Paul possibly say that will give us hope?
In reality, there is hope! Paul states the good news that while there is a righteousness we could never obtain through the law, there is righteousness has been made available by a different avenue. God’s righteousness is now available to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Here, God does not lay down a new Law for us to keep. We are not invited to attain a right standing with Him through obedience to any religious code. Paul writes, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law.” The gospel is non-legalistic. It is grace, God’s unmerited favor to a sinful humanity.
Back to the heart of the passage! God’s righteousness is now available to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul refers to a definite “righteousness” the process by which God acts to put people in a right relationship with himself. Since all have sinned, obviously the only hope for us is to have righteousness credited to our account by someone who has that righteousness. And, of course, that is Jesus Christ, and His righteousness is available to anyone who puts his or her trust not in oneself, not in the law, but in Him.
Before continuing on, let’s take a look at the meaning of the word “trust.” In the Greek world, the idea of trust was closely related to a sense of duty so that the word carried with it the idea of obedience. It was sometimes used in regard to contractual relationships and might be translated “faithful” or “trustworthy.” It also was used to indicate “conviction.” Within the concept of trust and trustworthiness, the word carried with it the idea of “to rely on.”
We are told that in later Hellenistic times, the word took on the meaning “to believe,” to believe in the gods. However, this belief still carried with it the sense of trust, faith, and reliance.
In Romans 1:2, Paul indicated that God had promised the gospel, beforehand through His prophets in the holy scriptures. At this point, in Romans 3:21, he expands the statement to include the law as well as the prophets. Through both, God has borne witness to his saving acts in Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul shares with other early Christians the conviction that the Old Testament points forward to the coming of Jesus Christ.
In verse 22b, 23, the fact that there is no “difference between Jews and Gentile” with regard to the problem of sin implies that there is also no difference with regard to the remedy. That remedy is Christ, just noted.
Next, in verses 24-26, we see that “all are justified freely by his grace.” Paul does not want his readers to forget the chasm of sin that is bridged by Christ. Consequently, in verse 24 and 25, Paul uses these weighty words to define our sin status and how it is overcome.
The first word is “justified,” a legal term of Paul’s day. Although we are indeed guilty sinners, to be “justified freely by his grace” means to hear the great judge promise “guilty but no penalty.” We will not suffer the eternal consequence of our sin.
Forgiveness says, “I’m going to let this slide this time.” On the other hand, justification says, “I’m going to remove the offense from all memory, as if it never occurred.
The reason why this happens comes next, “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Paul’s second weighty word is “redemption.” This introduces the basis of the “no penalty” part of the great judge’s pronouncement before.
Through the centuries, the meaning of the word redemption comes to include the idea of paying a ransom to release the one who is in bondage (compare Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6; Contrast Psalm 49: 7-9). All this is building up to Paul’s conclusion regarding how exactly this redemption came by Christ Jesus.
Our salvation is possible because of “a sacrifice of atonement,” Paul’s third of three weighty words. This word is drawn from the system of sacrificing animals to atone for sins (example, Numbers 29:11). Such atonement was for the purpose of turning aside God’s wrath. But that system was only temporary.
If God’s holy wrath comes down on us because of our sin, then we will pay the price of eternal separation from God. But there is an alternative, Jesus Christ. He serves as the final and perfect atoning sacrifice for sins, his death satisfies any penalty our sins require (1 John 2:2; 4:10; Hebrews 9:11-10:18). But it’s not automatic; rather it becomes effective “through the shedding of his blood.”
While Paul never fully explains how Jesus’ sacrifices on the cross of Calvary actually atones for our sin, this idea is at the very heart of his theology.
Dr. Robert E. Lee, the noted minister, tells of an unforgettable experience he had the first time he visited Calvary on a tour of Israel. He was so excited that he outdistanced his guide in climbing the hill. As he reached the summit and stood there at the very place where his Lord poured out his blood, the great preacher’s emotions were so stirred that his body began to tremble. When at last the breathless guide caught up with him, he asked, “Sir, have you been here before?”
For a moment, there was silence. Then Dr. Lee whispered, “Yes, I was here nearly 2,000 years ago.” So were we all!
Part of God’s consistent love for humankind is God’s merciful forbearance, a word related to “patience” (Romans 2:4). With rare exceptions (Acts 12:23), God does not punish sin immediately. His delay allows us a chance to repent (2 Peter 3:9, 15). But God does not postpone punishment indefinitely either.
When Paul says, “because of His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Romans 3:25), he is pointing out that up to the death of Christ, God had let the sins of humankind go unpunished, which would have been contrary to his nature if he had not eventually presented the sacrifice of Christ. God punished everybody’s sins on the crucifixion cross.
Through Jesus’ death, God demonstrated at least two truths: (1) that He is a God of justice and (2) that He justifies – or makes right with Himself – those who have faith in Jesus.
Important! For God to be just means that the penalty for sin must be paid. For sin to go unpunished would mean that God is unjust. And indeed, sin’s penalty has been paid – by Christ on the cross. Through the work of Christ, God retains his perfectly just nature while being the one who justifies sinners.”
We sing in mighty choruses, “What can wash my sins away?” We answer in positive affirmation – “nothing by the blood Jesus; what can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Faith and Law
The question is asked, “What implication does justification by faith have for us at the point of our basic attitude toward God and ourselves?” Without question, it should make a difference in our lives. Those who think they have attained a right standing with God by keeping the Law tend to be prideful. But when God’s gaze is rightly understood pride melts away. Paul states, “It is excluded.” Addressing the Corinthians, Paul says “The one who brags should brag in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31 CEB).
As far as the Law is concerned, Paul does not believe the Jewish law has no value. Its great value is defining sin (Romans 7:7). Even so, lasting justification must come from some other quarter and Paul has shown this to be faith in the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ. Therefore Paul’s inescapable conclusion is that justification and salvation are possible without reference to “works of the law.” And this must be true whether the word “law” refers to the Law of Moses or any other religious or secular system based on law-keeping.
In verses 29 and 30, Paul makes clear another concern that is extremely important to him. He wants his readers to know that God shows no partiality between Jews and Gentiles. The one, supreme God, revealed in Jewish Scripture, is the only God. He is the Lord of both Jew and Gentile, for there is no alternative.
For Paul, in this context, verse 30 is not really about circumcision, but about justification – being counted as righteous in the eyes of God. God’s plan is for both groups: faith (compare Romans 4:11, 12: Galatians 3:8).
Finally, Paul is not trashing the Jewish law so that it can be abandoned by the church. His intention has never been to sever the church from its foundation in Jewish Scripture. If Paul were alive today, he would insist that the Old Testament has an indispensable place in the church. As we are informed, without it, the concepts of sin, sacrifice, atonement, righteousness, and divine justice would have no anchor point. The doctrinal truth of Christianity would drift into chaos.
Therefore, Paul reminds his readers that his arguments do not “nullify the law.” Indeed, Paul believes he has pointed out the true purpose of the law: to define sin and the necessity for a remedy for human sinfulness.
And Paul’s claim is right in line with Jesus’ claim that he came not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). However, Paul still insists that faith in Jesus Christ is the way to justification, not the keeping of the commands of the law.
- Why did the Jews think that keeping the Law gave them a right standing before God? What was Paul’s response to this belief?
- How might your perception of others change were you to remind yourself daily that God justifies in the same way all who are willing?
- What did Paul mean when he talked about the Law? Why is the Law important today?
Resources for this lesson:
“2018-2019 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary,” Uniform Series “International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 305-312
“The NIV Application Commentary, Romans” by Douglas J. Moo, pages 125-142
“Adult Bible Studies, Spring 2019, Discipleship and Mission, Teacher, Uniform Series,” Gary Thompson, pages 90-97
“The Book of Romans, The Smart Guide to the Bible Series,” Gib Martin and Larry Richards, pages 46-49
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and
vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).