Thursday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:21-29

In this beautiful passage we come to the very heart of Paul’s letter. Here, as in the letter to the Galatians, Paul discusses how a person is made “righteous” or is “justified” in God’s eyes: he explains that salvation comes solely through faith in Christ.

In order to understand what Paul is saying, we need to remember the context in which he spoke. In some of the Christian communities, there were Jewish Christians who were agitating for the return of the Mosaic Law as the basis for a life in and with God. They were urging that every Christian, including Gentiles, be circumcised. Paul, himself a circumcised Jew and formerly a Pharisee, is totally opposed to this movement, as it compromises his claim that salvation is through Christ alone.

He begins by conceding that the “righteousness of God” was formerly made known through the Law and the Prophets, in other words, through the whole Jewish tradition of the Old Testament. ‘Righteousness’ or ‘justice’ refers to God’s inherent goodness and infinite love extended to every single human being. In the Old Testament understanding, we are ‘just’ (righteous) when we are totally in harmony with God’s justice as revealed in the Law. But now, he says, with the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s “righteousness” is to be seen in a completely new light and as no longer dependent on the Law. Now “righteousness” is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe in him as Lord and Saviour sent by the Father.

Formerly, the Jews regarded themselves as being on a different level before God because of the adherence to the Law, but now:

…there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

‘Glory’ has many meanings, but basically it refers to the importance of God. So to fall short of God’s glory means that we do not adequately recognise the importance of God. Although God is present to human beings and is communicating himself to them more and more, this process can reach its climax only when the importance of God is fully revealed in Jesus. He proclaims his Father’s importance in all he does and suffers, and so gives the Father the fullness of glory:

…I always do what is pleasing to him. (John 8:29)

Then comes Paul’s key sentence:

…all [Jews and Gentiles alike] who believe…are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…

So much theological blood has been spilt over this one sentence! For our purposes we will try to keep it simple.  The key words are ‘justified’ and ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’.

For ‘justified’, other translations use ‘made righteous’.  In either case, we are speaking of being put in a state of total harmony with God, the opposite of the alienation that comes from sin.

And this happens “by his grace as a gift”.  The Greek word translated as ‘grace’ is charis.  The word means something which is given freely and is unearned or unmerited, and this is the meaning which predominates in the New Testament.  Paul uses the word to describe the way God saves us through Jesus – it is a work of spontaneous love to which none of us has any claim.  It is interesting that John uses the word agape in the same sense.  Agape is the love that pours out from God on to all his creation, and it is the love that we are called on to pass on to others:

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
(1 John 4:10)

This is exactly the same as what Paul is saying to the Romans.

It was, then, an act of ‘grace’ – an act of love emanating totally and only from God – for Jesus to come on earth, to suffer and die, for his Father to give him up as a gift to us:

…as a sacrifice of atonement…

The only condition on our part is our surrendering to him in total faith and trust. Salvation, then, is total gift: nothing good that we can do independently of God – even our dutiful performing of the works of the Law – can ‘earn’ it. God is never, ever in our debt. We see this in the scene of the two men praying in the Temple. The tax collector is bowed humbly at the back begging God’s forgiveness for his many sins; the Pharisee is standing up in front, telling God how good he has been in his keeping of the Law, with the implication that God is obliged to reward him accordingly. And it is the tax collector who goes away ‘justified’ (see Luke 18:9-14).

So Paul says:

…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness… [i.e. his total union with the Father]

On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the ‘throne of mercy’ was sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed goat.  But now, the blood of Christ has done what the ancient ritual could only symbolise – purified us from sin.

We are told that God:

in his divine forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed…

This implies that total forgiveness and reconciliation were to follow, and that the complete destruction of man’s sin was accomplished through the saving death of Christ.

And the same applies “at the present time” to show how God is just and makes just everyone who has faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Then Paul says:

…what becomes of boasting? It is excluded.

He is clearly addressing those Jews in the community who are going back to strict observance of the Law as the way to God. The word Paul uses here expresses the attitude of one who boasts of their own achievements, relies on them, and claims to accomplish their supernatural destiny by their own strength. This attitude is ruled out, since one does not receive God’s acquittal by superior strength – one receives it as a gift. The act of faith excludes self-sufficiency because in it, human beings explicitly attest their radical insufficiency.

But, he says:

Through what kind of law? That of works [i.e. actions]? No, rather through the law of faith.

Faith in Christ is what counts, not adherence to a set of man-made rules. And he repeats what he has already said:

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works [behaviors or actions] prescribed by the law.

And that ‘person’ is any person. 

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of gentiles also? Yes, of gentiles also…

There were those who believed that only the Jews were God’s Chosen People and that salvation for the Gentiles was out of the question (remember the story of Jonah we had recently).

Summing up, then, it is the ‘law’ of faith, that total giving and surrendering of the self to God in Christ, that saves and not the Law of works. Salvation is not based on self-initiated acts, but on entering into an intimate relationship with a God who reaches out in love (agape) to me and calls me to share his life. That reaching out in spontaneous love is called here ‘grace’. My good works are not the down payment by which I ‘buy’ salvation; rather they are the sign of God’s love working in and through me.

There have been various interpretations over the centuries in regard to our relationship between God and ourselves:

  • One is the idea that we “get to heaven” simply by the good works we do, by “keeping the Commandments”. In this view God owes us salvation, as an employer owes the workers their wages. In reality, this misses out on the centrality of God’s overflowing grace, and is called Pelagianism. There is a hint of this in most of us!
  • Another gives the impression that good works are irrelevant – all one needs to be saved is to “call on the name of Jesus”. But a balanced view is summarised in the Letter of James (2:14-26) which says: “Faith without good works is dead”. God does not love me because I am good; I am good because God makes me good from my creation, and so I am to be a carrier of goodness to others – this is to build the kingdom of God. By my closeness in faith to Jesus I try to live by the Gospel of love. I live in the light of God’s ongoing forgiveness.
  • “Justification by faith alone” tends to see no goodness at all in our behaviour. In this view we are irrevocably sinful and only the blood of Christ “covering over our sins” makes access to God possible. In essence, this was Luther’s solution to his own very scrupulous conscience: overwhelmed and riddled with guilt he felt that God could never forgive his sins, but hoped that Jesus the Redeemer would turn a blind eye to them. He would say that we are saved in spite of the sinfulness which remains in us, whereas the Catholic position is that we are already created in grace, and its lifelong effect is to bring our interior transformation.
  • Interiority: Luther’s position led to a Christian life which makes little accommodation for what we would call an “interior” life. Classical Protestantism speaks little of spirituality; it dropped what we call the “religious life” of the monk, friar, nun. It did not include schools of prayer and contemplation, or the making of retreats. It did not recognise saints. Despite all of this, however, the lives of many Protestants are deeply penetrated by the Spirit of Christ, and they often put to shame many of us Catholics by the love and care they show for the poor and the needy.
  • ‘Private salvation’: Some forms of extreme Protestantism seem to lack concern for bringing God’s Kingdom on earth through the struggle for justice, freedom and peace. The focus seems rather on personal salvation. For them, the only task is that of calling on Christ in faith. With this thinking, there will also be the exclusion of what Karl Rahner called the “anonymous Christian” or the “Kingdom person”, that is, someone who, though not aware of the Christian message, leads a life which reflects the deepest attitudes of truth, love, justice, community sharing, respect for the dignity and equality of every individual. But these are the values for which Jesus lived and died.
  • Growth of ecumenism: It is gratifying to know that in recent times Catholics and Lutherans (as well as other Protestant groups) have come together in dialogue and, freed from the polemics of an earlier time, have learnt that there is really not so much disagreement as before over the understanding of Paul’s words. Many churches, too, have been taking back features of the Roman church whose absence were a loss to their Christian life.
  • On our part, we Catholics are getting a richer concept of faith which, in the past, was often identified with the intellectual acceptance of the Church’s doctrines and an obsession with orthodoxy as the test of a “good” Catholic. We are becoming more aware that faith as trust and surrender to a loving Christ is of primary importance. The Latin word credo literally means ‘I give my heart to’. In praying the Creed we ‘give our hearts to God.’

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