Romans 3:21-31, May 1, 2011
“One Faith” Second Sunday in Easter
Two weeks ago I went to the barber to get a haircut for Easter. As he draped the apron over me, my barber Larry said, “You know, I saw you and your family at Costco a while back. You were across the store, so I couldn’t say hello, but you were there.”
As his scissors started to click away, I said, “You know, you’re the second person to tell me he saw us there that day. Joanna was home for spring break and we all just stopped in to Costco after seeing a movie at Gateway.”
Then Larry quit clipping and thought for a moment. “You know,” he said, “I think I was the one who said that to you. We talked about this the last time you got your hair cut.
I contemplated that for a bit, then told him, “I think you’re right. And if you tell it to me again next time, I’ll probably think three different people saw us that day!”
Larry’s first mention of sighting the Bilynskyjs at Costco was so long before I forgot where I heard it. I imagined there were two different people involved. That’s what happens sometimes when people read the Old Testament and then the New Testament. That God whom Jewish people encountered at Mt. Sinai and in Israel seems like a completely different person from the God the apostles and others encountered in Jesus Christ.
There almost seem to be two different religions, two different faiths presented to us as we turn from Old to New Testament. God dealt with the Jews one way. Now He deals with Christians in a new and better way. But that impression is just as wrong as my barber shop confusion about Larry’s sightings of our family.
One of the main reasons we get the idea that God is different in the Old Testament is this business of the Law, that long complicated list of rules that God directed Moses to give to Israel. That God was a God of rule and regulation. Our God, we say, is a God of grace.
So in this little chunk of Romans, Paul takes law head on and says in verse 21, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the prophets testify.” The only difference between Old and New Testament is now “the righteousness of God has been made known.” The Law told us about God’s righteousness, but now we can know it.
Children can feel a split personality in their parents. One moment Mom is all rules and law. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Eat your vegetables. Get home by 10 p.m. The next she is all grace and love and hugs and kisses like her children can do no wrong. But she’s the same mother. She just wants her kids to grow up as good people of character who love her like she loves them. She wants righteous children. So does God.
That’s why complete righteousness is the ultimate act of God’s work with human beings. He wants to give us what we do not have and cannot get on our own. Righteousness is what the law asked of the Jewish people, but their history in the Old Testament shows they could not produce it themselves. So in the end, God gave it to them, and to everyone.
Verse 22 says the righteousness of God is given through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is the one way that God means human beings to receive righteousness. That’s why the end of verse 22 says, “There is no difference…” That’s all it says literally. Our TNIV translation adds the explanatory phrase “between Jew and Gentile.” But it’s more absolute than that. There is no difference between any human beings, however you select them, because, verse 23 tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
There is the great unifying factor of the human race. You can talk about brotherhood or love or common needs or economic community or Facebook, but what really ties us together across all boundaries of race and gender and nationality and language is this: we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. As Paul has said right along, we have all failed to live up to God’s glorious design for good and fruitful lives, whether we know that plan from the written law or from our own consciences. So there’s no difference.
What Paul adds to that thought in this passage is the great good news of verse 24, “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” That word “justified” needs to be explained. Even though English translators chose “justify,” it’s the same Greek root as that word from verse 22 translated “righteousness.” You could almost translate it, “and all are made righteous…”
The Gospel Paul teaches is that the righteousness of God, that glorious grand design for human life in His kingdom, which He first showed to the Jewish people in the law, is now being imparted to everyone, “by his grace through the redemption of Jesus Christ.”
I guess it’s dangerous to compare Jesus to Mark Zuckerberg, but Beth and I watched “The Social Network” a couple weeks ago about the creator and founder of Facebook. The story turns around the fact that two rich, athletic, connected students, twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss had an idea for an on-line student networking program at Harvard University. The Winklevoss twins enlisted Zuckerberg to write their program for them, but he took their idea and turned it into a social network not just for Harvard, but for any college that would adopt it and ultimately what we have today in Facebook, a network for the whole world.
Paul says that God took His own great idea, a glorious and righteous humanity living in His kingdom, which He first presented to Israel in the Law, and through Jesus Christ turned it into a program for everyone, for anyone.
God’s way of doing that is explained in verse 25, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” Jesus died on the Cross and shed His blood so that anyone could receive Him by faith. That’s what we read in the Gospel this morning as we saw Jesus showing Himself first to the disciples and then to Thomas. It was so they could believe. It was so everyone and anyone could believe. “Because you have seen me, you have believed;” Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And John tells that Jesus did many, many things he didn’t have room or time to write down, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
By believing, by faith—that’s how we connect to God in Jesus Christ. Zuckerberg’s vision was actually a bit limited, a community anyone can join if you have a computer and a connection to the Internet. God’s vision was a community that includes anyone anywhere who puts faith in Jesus. That network of faith is the connection which really bridges all the differences on earth.
Verse 25 continues to say that God “did this to demonstrate his justice,” but once again it’s that same word. It’s God’s righteousness that He demonstrated in the atoning work of Jesus. In the broken body and shed blood of His own Son, God showed us what righteousness, what real living looks like. It’s a life, it’s a whole community of people giving themselves to each other in sacrificial love.
That sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is why, Paul goes on to tell us, God could forbear and leave previous sins, the sins of Israel and the rest of the human race unpunished. It was the great vision that even those sins, committed beforehand, could be forgiven in Jesus and that ultimately God would be just, would be righteous, and would justify, would make righteous everyone who has faith in Jesus.
The plot of the Facebook movie is all about who had the idea first, about intellectual property, about pride of innovation. The Winklevoss twins and ultimately Zuckerberg’s partner sue him to save their own pride of creating a great idea. But for Paul, God’s glory in the gift of righteousness through faith in Jesus completely excludes pride and boasting. That’s verse 27. Shall Jews boast because of their possession of the law? No, that law required works they could never perform. Neither they nor anyone else could never live up to the glory of the righteousness of God by working at it.
No, instead, the real law in God’s program is the “‘law’ that requires faith.” There is one and only one way to connect to God and His righteousness. That is the one faith He asks and offers to anyone who will receive it, to believe in Jesus Christ and to receive righteousness as a free gift.
So the rest of the passage pushes home the point of one way, one faith. Verse 28 says that “a person is justified [made righteous] apart from observing the law.” And verse 29 applies that to a current dispute and division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. God is not just the God of Jews. He’s the God of Gentiles too.
Verse 30 addresses that confusion, which is as old as a heretic named Marcion, which makes us think the Old Testament God is different from the God of Jesus and the New Testament, and says, “there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith.” There is no difference because there is only one way to God’s glorious righteousness. In all the Bible it’s only faith and that faith in finally and completely in Jesus Christ who shed His blood to remove our sins and give us His righteousness.
Let’s consider the implications of that one faith and that removal of difference between everyone who believes. When we log onto Facebook, we get to choose our friends. Our network isn’t really the world, it’s only the people whose “friend requests” we confirm. And if we decide we don’t like a friend we can remove them. As my friend Glenn mentioned to me Friday, “There was this one guy I just had to defriend. I couldn’t stand reading what he said any longer.”
But faith in Jesus Christ connects us and “friends” us to anyone who believes. That’s what Paul is trying to teach Jewish Christians about Gentiles. It’s what God wants to teach you and me about all the other sinners who share faith in Christ with us. We’re in it together, in the great and glorious kingdom of God’s righteousness demonstrated in the love and sacrifice of Jesus.
That means we’re in it with the annoying person across the sanctuary and with the especially annoying person who goes to that strange and different church down the street. We’re in it, as Jesus tried to tell us, with prostitutes and thieves and drug addicts and with the homeless and the illegal immigrants. One faith connects us all. There is no difference, because we are all sinners, but we are all made righteous by the blood of Jesus.
Talk about some of those categories I just listed and people will say, “But what about the law? You can’t throw out the law.” I think they may be talking about a different law than God’s, but it’s still law and Paul answers them in verse 31, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather we uphold the law.”
The law of God was given to show us His righteousness and to bring people into His kingdom, His great connected community meant to embrace the entire world. In the blood of Jesus, God showed us how anyone can have that righteousness and enter that community through faith. Faith doesn’t cancel the law. It completes what the law, any law means to do, to bring people together into the true righteousness and true community which is the kingdom of God.
There is no difference. There is just one faith, for anyone. Come to the Table of the Body and Blood of Jesus this morning and receive the gift of His righteousness, through faith. And believing in Him, you will have life in His name.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj