II.1. Romans 3:21-4:25. Justification by Faith Only.
§ 1. (III. 21-31.)
Christ our propitiation.
Now we have been brought to recognize the true state of the case as between ourselves and God — the facts about ourselves as we are in God's sight. We were meant for fellowship in the divine glory. 'The glory of God,' says an old Father, 'is the living man: the life of man is the vision of God.' But, meant for fellowship in the divine glory, we have fallen short of it and have come to appreciate our failure. We have sinned, and that universally and wilfully. We are such that God cannot accept us as we are: the 'day of His appearing' could be for us but a 'day of wrath.' And in this dire situation we are helpless. We can supply no remedy. 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good that are accustomed to do evil.' But to acknowledge this — to abandon the claim so dear to the human heart, that we can be independent and manage our own life successfully: to repudiate all our false pride, and to come before God all of us on the same level, confessing our failure and our sin — this is to let man's necessity be God's opportunity, and to open the flood-gates of the divine righteousness. God is righteous in all the richest meaning of that word, and that righteousness of His He is now extending to us and giving us admittance into it. And this He does purely and simply as His gift. On His side it is pure and gratuitous giving, on our side simple and unmeritorious receiving. We contribute nothing. No distinctions are admitted between those inside the law and those outside it. The gift is quite apart from the law, though law and prophets bore witness to it. No questions are admitted as to what we have done or what we have left undone. Purely and simply out of the freedom of His love, who is our Creator and our Father, now, when a bitter experience has taught us again our true attitude towards Him, He offers us admission into His righteousness, all on the same level, if we will simply believe in Jesus Christ His Son, that is, take Him at His word and believe His promises (vers. 21-24).
And what is this offer? It is, first of all, what befits the captives of sin: it is redemption. God, who of old bought His people out of captivity in Egypt, without any co-operation of theirs, by a pure act of His power, has now again, without any co-operation of ours, but by a manifestation this time of self-sacrificing love, in the person of Jesus Christ, bought our freedom from sin. And this redemption He offers to us first of all in the form which befits sinners conscious of sin and guilt, as the mere gift of forgiveness, the mere power to break with the past, the mere right to stand and face the future with a clean record. For as the brazen serpent was lifted up before the eyes of rebellious Israel, bitten of the fiery serpents, and those who looked to it lived, so upon the open stage of history God set plainly Jesus Christ shedding His life-blood — obedient, that is, to God and righteousness to death, even the death of the cross. And this sacrificial shedding of the life-blood of the Son of God — to which we contributed nothing — is accepted by the Father as propitiatory, that is, as something which enables Him to show His true character of righteousness, and to acquit or accept among the righteous, irrespective of what he has done or been, every one who has faith in Jesus (vers. 24-26).
And why (we in our age are disposed to ask) did not God simply declare His forgiveness? why this roundabout method of a propitiatory sacrifice? It was (St. Paul's language suggests) to prove or vindicate His righteousness, which means both holiness and mercy. All the long ages past of the times of ignorance, God had been 'overlooking' or 'passing over' sins in His forbearance, never 'suffering His whole displeasure to arise,' but allowing all nations to walk in their own ways and to find out their own mistakes and helplessness. The result of their being thus left to themselves was that men did indeed become conscious of their misery and need, but also came to entertain all sorts of slack or unworthy ideas about God. A mere declaration of forgiveness might have left men with an impression of an easy-going or 'good-natured' God who would make light of sin. But the awful burden laid upon Jesus on account of human sin, the awful sacrifice of His life which He readily offered, restores the sterner element to our thoughts about God, just at that crisis or opportunity in the divine dealings, when by God's declaration of free forgiveness we are made to feel His love. God does forgive us, but it costs Him much. And no one who under these conditions comes and takes at the hand of Jesus the gift of pardon can fail to receive with it the awful impression of the divine holiness and of the severity of the divine requirements. All the former 'passing over of the sins done formerly' was made morally possible because God had in view that 'now at the present season,' or opportunity, He would 'show,' or prove, His whole righteousness, and be before men's eyes the righteous being that He is in fact (righteous rather than merely 'just'); and be able, without the danger of a great misunderstanding, to give His righteousness full scope by admitting into it, by a pure act of pardon, every one who comes simply taking Jesus at His word.
Here then there is no room for pride or glorying. It is utterly excluded because there is here no consideration of human merit. It is a pure and unmerited boon of the divine bounty presented as an honor, without reference to any law known or observed, simply on those who, utterly confessing their need, accept in faith the offer of love. Again there is no reference to any chosen race. Jew and Gentile, circumcision and uncircumcision, are all in the same case. All have the same need. God is the same, with the same offer, for all alike. He will accept the Jew because he believes, and He will accept the Gentile with no other equipment but his faith. Yet this principle of faith involves no repudiation of the principle of law; rather, it realizes the very end which law was intended to serve (vers. 27-31).
But now apart from the law a righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set plainly to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood, to show his righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins done formerly, in the forbearance of God; for the shewing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that has faith in Jesus. Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? No: but by a law of faith. We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yea, of Gentiles also: if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: no, we establish the law.
For our understanding of this famous passage a good deal depends on our fixing, as exactly as possible, what the 'righteousness of God' here spoken of means. Beyond all question it means in part God's own moral character. This is quite certain, as in the Bible generally, so in this very chapter. But it is also certain that God's character is, especially in this epistle, viewed as revealed to us in such a sense that we can take hold of it and become identified with it. Thus (especially in i. 17) human faith is spoken of as the starting-point or region for revealing divine righteousness. It extends to and embraces the believers. It is a righteousness communicated to us from God on the basis of faith. The 'righteousness of God' is what we men are to become. This transition of meaning from what God is in Himself to what we are by the gift of God is of course thoroughly natural. The grand idea of the Bible is that of a moral fellowship between man and God. The grand idea of the New Testament is, further, that of a disclosure and communication to us of the divine life.
And what is this moral quality described by 'righteousness' which belongs to God and is communicated to us? Righteousness is a term belonging primarily to man. A righteous man, in the Old Testament, is one who fulfils all that is expected of him, one who is blameless — towards man, but especially towards God. But if God expects such and such conduct in men it is because of what He Himself is. His requirements express His character. God Himself therefore is believed to be righteous, incorruptibly and awfully righteous. But a great strain is put upon this belief in the 'wild and irregular scene' of this world, the Governor of which appears so often indifferent to the sufferings of His most faithful servants. Thus the righteous cry out to God to vindicate Himself, and God's righteousness is, in the Old Testament, largely identified with God's vindication of His own character by righteous acts or judgements accomplished in the past or expected in the future; acts of such a character as that in them the wicked and insolent are put to confusion, and the meek and holy justified and exalted. Such righteous judgement is expected to characterize the kingdom of the Christ. Of course, in the general lowering of moral ideals among the Pharisaic Jews, the idea of righteousness suffered with all else. The righteous came to mean those who strictly keep the outward Jewish law; and God's righteousness was identified with His expected vindication of those who keep the law, i.e. the pious Jew, at the coming of the Messiah. Our Lord, and His disciples after Him, were engaged in nothing so much as in deepening the idea of righteousness again. Especially it is something much more than the mere observance of outward ordinances. It was, in fact, the fundamental error of the Jews to confuse the two. Righteousness in man must be real likeness to God, and God's righteousness is His holy character which He is now once more manifesting in the gospel of His Son; a character which is still shown in acts of justice, in punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous, but which manifests itself also more especially as love, and by gracious promises of forgiveness and acceptance. Thus, in Rom. i. 17, 18, the present 'revelation of divine righteousness' is a gracious manifestation which is put in contrast to the 'revelation of divine wrath,' the place of which it is intended to take. And yet, though the quality of mercy is made emphatic, it is not isolated. God's righteousness is not mere good nature. It would not be rightly revealed by any mere ignoring or passing over of sin. God's mercy is inseparable from His holiness, and His righteousness includes both. It needed the severe requirement of the atoning sacrifice, as well as the free gift of forgiveness and new life, to prove or exhibit it.
And if God's righteousness shows itself first of all in a simple act of justification of sinners — in simply forgiving men or pronouncing them righteous, irrespective of what they are in themselves at the moment, if only they will take God at His word — three points have to be borne in mind. First, that the mere offer of forgiveness is put in the forefront because this readiness on our part to be treated as helpless sinners is the annihilation of the one great obstacle to our reconciliation with God — the proud independence which led the Jews, and has led men since their day, to resent being dealt with by mere mercy, and to want to justify themselves. If the Christian character is to grow correctly, it must have its root in an utter acknowledgement that we owe to God our power even to make a beginning in His service: that we can run the way of His commandments, because, and only because, He by His own act has set our hearts at liberty.
Just as I am, without one pleaBut that Your blood was shed for me,And that You bidst me come to You,O Lamb of God, I come!
To many really good Christians this sort of language has come to have an unreal sound because they have been surfeited with it, and because it has been associated with a very one-sided Christianity. But, for all that, the moral necessity remains that we should dig out of its last refuges the claim of human independence, if the Christian character is to grow healthily. In other words, the only root of Christian thankfulness and progress is the recognition that our spiritual life rests at its basis on a pure act of the divine bounty in accomplishing our redemption from sin and giving us the forgiveness of all our sins.
Secondly, it must be borne in mind that our forgiveness through the sacrifice is only the first step towards fellowship with God. It is only the removal of the preliminary obstacle which guilt had raised against actual admittance into the life of God. The language of the New Testament refuses to allow us to separate the forgiveness of our sins from our admission into the 'body of Christ' by baptism, or, in other words, our incorporation into the life of the redeemed people, the new Israel. For the faith which accepts forgiveness is the same identical quality which corresponds with all the later movement of the new life. God's free gift of grace is not forgiveness only, but forgiveness and new life; it is 'forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith that is in Christ.' St. Paul does not contemplate, or contemplates only to repudiate, a faith which accepts forgiveness and stops there — indifferent to actual holiness or baptismal incorporation. For it would be no real faith at all. The preliminary justification or acquittal is simply and solely to serve as a basis for the life of consecration and glory. The stages of justification and sanctification are separable in idea but not in fact. The refusal to proceed from the threshold of the acquittal into the palace of the new life would expel even from the threshold; even as the failure of the unthankful servant to behave as one should behave who has been excused the debt he could not pay, cancelled all his acquittal and left him with the weight of the old debt rolled back upon him to his destruction.
Lastly, and in one word, it must never be left out of sight that even the initial movement of faith, the taking Christ at His word and believing His promises, involves the element of moral allegiance. His gracious person and character attract even while the boon is being accepted, and a new motive enters into life. Justifying faith at its very root is a faith which yields allegiance to its object.
To a Jew, and to almost all races when St. Paul wrote, the idea of an expiatory sacrifice for sin seemed natural and obvious. But for the special Christian doctrine of expiation the basis is to be found in the memorable chapter liii of the 'later Isaiah.' That great prophet of the captivity is assuring Israel of their restoration to their own land. This restoration is to follow on the due punishment of her sins — 'She has received of the Lord's hands double for all her sins.' And the restored people is to be, before all else, a righteous people — 'all righteous' — a people of God's favour, because they are living according to God. But there is so much sin still remaining in them as to make it necessary that the new life of the recovered people should be based on a great act of propitiation. The Righteous Servant of Jehovah, who is, at starting, the idealized people itself, but who comes to be represented as an individual acting for the people while repudiated by them, offers his life a willing sacrifice for their sins. The chastisement of their iniquities falls on him, and he accepts the burden, and is obedient to death. Dying he makes his soul a guilt offering: and, living through death exalted and powerful, he becomes an intercessor accepted with God, the head of a new seed whom he 'justifies' before God by the intimate knowledge of God's mind and character which in his voluntary humiliation he has won. This wonderful prophetic picture represents a vast advance in moral teaching on what had gone before. It is not only that the self-sacrifice of a perfect human will is substituted for the animal victims to which the enlightened conscience of God's people already refused to allow any real efficacy; but also that the idea of propitiation is put in a context where it is made plain that it can only be the prelude to a state of actual righteousness in those who are to be justified by it. It occurs as part of the answer to the question, not — How is Israel to escape punishment? but, How is Israel to become the really righteous nation, living in the likeness of God?
In the later books of the Maccabees we have this idea of the expiatory sacrifice and intercession of the ideal Israelite still retained, but degraded, probably under Greek influences. 'And I, as my brethren,' says the Maccabean martyr, 'give up both body and soul for the laws of our fathers, calling upon God that he may speedily become gracious to the nation ... and that in me and my brethren may be stayed the wrath of the Almighty, which has been justly brought upon our whole race.' 'Be propitious to my race,' prays Eleazar, in another Alexandrian version of the story, 'being satisfied with our punishment on their behalf. Make my blood a propitiation for them, and receive my life as a substitute for theirs.' These passages are on a lower moral level than Isaiah's, because in them the prominent idea of propitiation is that it is a means of procuring from God exemption from further punishment, not a step to the restoration to holiness. The idea both of what God desires and of what man desires is lower. And indeed all conceptions of propitiation may be distinguished into true or false, according as righteousness or exemption from punishment is the end which is specially in view.
Thus when we pass on into the New Testament we find in Caiaphas' saying, 'It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not,' the typical expression of the quite immoral notion of the forcible sacrifice of an innocent person in order to exempt a guilty race from punishment. In our Lord's teaching, on the other hand, we find the doctrine of atonement raised to its highest moral power. As the Forerunner had revived the teaching of the later Isaiah by pointing to Him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away (i.e. takes up and expiateth) the sin of the world,' so Christ Himself spoke unmistakeably of the new covenant which He came to inaugurate, as to be based upon the sacrificial offering of His body and the outpouring of His blood: spoke also of 'the remission of sins' as the benefit to be expected from His expiation. But no teacher in the world ever made it so plain that God can be satisfied with nothing that any other can do for us — with nothing but actual likeness to Him in ourselves. No teacher ever made it so plain that what we are to desire is not to be let off punishment, but to be actually freed from sin. He left no room for doubt that only by following His steps, even to the cross and surrender of our lives, can we share His fellowship. The very life which is offered in sacrifice to lay the foundation of the new covenant is a life or spirit which we are to share. We are to eat and drink His sacrificed flesh and blood — the blood which is the life — and so to be one with Him and He with us. He sacrificed Himself, in other words, in order to make possible, through His life and Spirit, a new covenanted society, in which men should have perfect fellowship with God and with one another. He did not reject the idea of a propitiation won for man by His vicarious sacrifice — the truth is far from that — but He keeps it in inseparable connection with the life which is to be based upon it; and in the eucharist He brought back the idea of sacrifice to what had been its starting-point in all primitive usages. 'The one point,' says Professor Robertson-Smith, 'that comes out clear and strong (from the examination of ancient sacrificial customs), is that the fundamental idea of ancient sacrifice is sacramental communion, and that all atoning rites are ultimately to be regarded as owing their efficacy to a communication of divine life to the worshipper, and to the establishment or confirmation of a living bond between them and their God.'
Still Christ's sacrifice of propitiation, to which we contribute nothing, in which we do not share, remains a necessary prelude to the establishment of the new life. It is in virtue of this that we are justified and accepted and allowed to start afresh. This fact the New Testament in general takes for granted, and offers no explanation of it; as indeed the human heart has in general accepted the benefit in all thankfulness and asked no questions. But the speculative modern intellect has found a difficulty in the matter — in the matter at least as commonly represented — and we have noticed that a suggestion of explanation is made by St. Paul in this passage. God had long gone on 'passing over' sin all over the world in loving forbearance, bearing with all men's sinfulness, till they had thoroughly learnt the lesson of their own need of God and inability to save themselves. But this very forbearance rendered God's character liable to complete misunderstanding. He might have been supposed to be kind indeed, but indifferent to sin. 'These things have you done and I kept silence: you thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as yourself.' Thus the severity manifested in the claim of the 'righteous Father' upon the Son of Man, His claim of an obedience to the shedding of His blood, and the ready response to His claim on the part of the Son of Man gladly rendering up His life in homage to the Father — these taken together, the claim of the Father and the sacrifice of the Son, vindicated within the area of the Christian faith the true character of God, and forced the believer in Jesus to hold the severity and the love in their inseparable unity as making up the divine righteousness.
Does not this thought open at least an intelligible vista into the mystery of the Atonement? Christ is the Son of Man. He is to inaugurate the true humanity. But first He must deal with the humanity that has gone astray, and make an act of reparation to the Father for all the outrage that our sins have done Him. Thus in contrast to all our self-pleasing, self-indulgence, self-excusing, in contrast to all our clamorous insolence towards God and indifference to His laws, we behold the Son of Man recognizing the Father's strict requirements, and lifting before His eyes, in the name of the humanity which He represents, the great reparation of an unshrinking obedience and loyalty to death. The Father spared not His only Son the natural consequences of obedience in a world of sin. The Son spared not Himself, but shed His blood — the 'blood which is the life' — at the Father's will. This is the one full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It is the sacrifice offered in the power of nothing less than 'eternal spirit.' From that time on, then, no man can come to God in faith in Jesus, in the faith which even at its root is moral allegiance, and think lightly either of God's holiness or of his own or others' sin. God forgives him his sin, but it cost Him much to forgive it. The Cross is the measure of the antipathy between God and sin.
And it is well to notice how the great thought of this passage is made intelligible to the ordinary English reader again, only by the Revised Version. In the old Bible the word signifying 'passing over' of sins is translated 'remission' — the very thing with which it is in fact contrasted. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in this and very many places of the epistles, the Revised Version for the first time renders the thought of the apostles again intelligible to the English reader. And if the Revised Version is not popular, as the booksellers tell us it is not, this is, I fear, only a sign that the majority of English Christians do not really care to understand the meaning of the message with which, as a matter of words, they are so familiar.
The metaphor of 'redemption' and the metaphor of 'propitiation' complete and check one another. As in the parables it is only the exact point of comparison between the earthly and the heavenly which can be pressed for the spiritual lesson, so it is with these metaphorical words, which are in fact parables compressed. The word 'redemption' is meant to suggest a price paid by God, or by Christ, for our being made free; it is the price of the Son's death. He 'gives His life a ransom for many.' The word 'propitiation' again is meant to suggest that the offering of the life in sacrifice was the means to win for us forgiveness from God. So far, both metaphorical words have their clear and harmonious meaning. But in old days the metaphor of redemption was worked out by Origen and others beyond the exact point of the original suggestion. The price, they argued, must have been paid to the enemy who held us captive; i.e. Christ's life was offered as a price to the devil in order that his claim might be satisfied and we might be justly set free. But this extension of the scope of the metaphor is wholly alien to the New Testament. On the other hand, the idea of propitiation has suggested at many periods the horrible notion that the Son wrung from the angry Father the pardon which He was unwilling to give. Such a notion is again wholly alien to the New Testament. But in fact the two metaphors are mutually corrective; and each tends to exclude the misuse of the other. The idea that Christ offered anything to the devil is corrected by the notion inherent in the phrase 'propitiation (of the Father).' What the Son offered was a sacrifice directed to the Father only. On the other hand, the idea that the mind of the Father needed to be changed towards us, is corrected by the suggestion inherent in the other metaphor of redemption; for it is He who, because He loved us, gave up His own Son to buy us out of the slavery of sin. Each metaphor suggests a single idea — each complementary of the other, and corrective of its misuse — and both combine to tell us of the one inseparable love of the Father and the Son, uniting in a sacrificial act which is ascribed to both, to redeem us from the tyranny of sin and to set the pardoning love free to work upon us, without obscuring the true hatefulness of sin or the true character of God.
If, especially recently, the doctrine of the atonement has involved intellectual difficulty, on the other hand it has proved itself, as the popular Christian literature of all ages sufficiently shows, widely and deeply welcome to the human heart. This wide welcome which it has received shows that it contains a deep truth. And from this point of view, from the point of view of our practical spiritual needs, we do well to meditate much and deeply upon this doctrine. We can depend upon it, that if we are to go on patiently doing good in a world like this, so full of disappointments and anxieties and moral failures and torturing scruples, we must have peace at the heart. And this is what the really evangelical doctrine is capable of giving us. It bids us continually look out of ourselves up to God, and assures us that His love, manifested in the sacrifice of His Son, is there continually, unchangeably. It is there, waiting till first we turn to Him, to give us the assurance of entire absolution and admission into the divine fellowship, wholly irrespective of what we have been or done; and it is there continually, however often we fall, with the same large and liberal hand to pour out continual forgivenesses, and never wearies of restoring us again and again to the solid foundation of the peace and grace which are by Jesus Christ. We are not meant to be miserably anxious or morbidly introspective. We must confess our sins, and that with exactness, without self-sparing, without self-excusing, in utter humility and truth; but 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'
 Jer. xiii. 33.
 Except the sins which slew Him.
 I have combined this passage with the illustrative passages in St. Paul's speeches to the heathen. Acts xiv. 16: 'Who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways.' Acts xvii. 30: 'The times of ignorance God overlooked (winked at); but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent.' Wisd. xl. 23: 'You overlookest (winkest at) the sins of men to the end they may repent.'
 This paragraph gives distinctness to a somewhat latent thought in vers. 25, 26. But I feel convinced that this, and nothing else, is the thought.
 Verses 5, 25, 26.
 Rom. iii. 22.
 Phil. iii. 9.
 2 Cor. v. 21.
 Rom. ix. 31.
 Rom. ii. 5.
 Cf. 1 John i. 9: 'Faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.'
 Joseph, the 'righteous' man in Matt. i. 19, is kindly. But his kindliness has still the elements of moral severity. And it must be remembered that in Rom. v. 7 'righteous' is still put in contrast to 'good.'
 See Acts ii. 38: 'Be baptized ... to the remission of your sins.' xxii. 16: 'Be baptized and wash away your sins.'
 Acts xxvi. 18, i.e. forgiveness and fellowship in the consecrated body, the new Israel; cf. xx. 33.
 2 Macc. vii. 37.
 4 Macc. vi. 28, 29.
 John xi. 50.
 None the less immoral as Caiaphas intended it, because, as St. John perceives, a divine truth uttered itself through his lips (John xi. 51).
 John i. 29.
 Matt. xxvi. 28; Luke xxii. 19; 1 Cor. xi. 24.
 Robertson-Smith, Religion of the Semites (Black, 1889), p. 418.
 Ps. l. 21; cf. Eccles. viii. 11.
 On some of the difficulties felt about the doctrine of the Atonement, see app. note D.
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I A Practical Exposition by Charles Gore D.D. Reprinted in 1900. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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To the Romans, vol I - C. Gore
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