THOUGHTS FROM ROMANS

THE ROLE OF GRACE - 1

The righteousness of which the Gospel speaks is a gift. It is sheer grace.

It is a righteousness from God (3:21,22), or, as the Greek text has it, it is 'a righteousness of God'. Gospel righteousness does not come from human merit or innocence: it comes from God. As we have seen in earlier meditations, here is a declaration of legal acquittal, a 'not guilty' verdict, which does not come because of our lack of guilt or from our possession of actual legal rightness. It is not ours. It comes 'from God', it is 'of God'. It is something that God credits to us, but it is always his, never intrinsically ours. It is not based on our own moral or religious performance.

It is apart from law (3:21). Just so that we do not misunderstand what he has meant when he has described Gospel righteousness as 'from God' or 'of God', Paul here expresses it from another angle: it has absolutely nothing to do with our keeping the law. It is apart from law. Nothing could be clearer than that. And nothing could be more radical than that. Our normal expectation is that legal acquittal, the verdict 'not guilty', is rightly given only to those who are proved not guilty of having broken the law.

But this righteousness proclaimed in the Gospel is apart from law: totally contrary to the expectations of the Jews, totally contrary to the expectations of the religions of the world, totally contrary to the expectations of the cults, and totally contrary to the expectations of the human heart. Even as Christians we have an automatic expectation and perception that God requires us to relate to him on the basis of law, and it is from this law-based mindset that the letter to the Romans intends to rescue us. Gospel righteousness is apart from law – apart from whether or not we have personally kept his law. That is the way God wants us to relate to himself.  That is the way he wants us to relate to each other. That is also the way he wants us to relate to ourselves in the inner recesses of our own being.

It has been made known (3:21). So alien to us, so contrary to our mindset and our way of looking at life and God and rewards and punishment, that we would never have thought it up for ourselves. God has made it known to us. Even when we have understood it from the Scriptures we still have to constantly fight against letting it slip (it is so totally different from the way we think), and reverting to our pre-gospel mindset. We automatically tend to relate to God and to others, on a tit-for-tat basis. Automatically our minds are geared to think 'If I'm good I'll go to heaven' or 'If I'm good God will bless me'. That is part of our human expectations and perceptions. And we expect that God acts in that way too. But, when we are being honest about our sin, we know, that on that basis, none of us would make it.

The Gospel reveals to us 'No! That's not how you get right with God!' The Gospel makes known to us something we would never have dreamed or imagined: that righteousness ' being in the right with God ' is not something we can achieve. It is something apart from law. It is something God provides. Our human hearts revolt at the thought of this grace that makes a way for the sinner to be justified and acquitted, for it renders our supposed goodness null and void. It affirms the words of Jesus Christ that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5)and that apart from faith in him we are condemned already (John 3:18). No. We would never dream up this Gospel righteousness for ourselves. Only God would dream and plan and put into operation such a thing, and then make it known to us.

It is to all who believe. There is no difference (3:22). It would be easy here to accuse Paul of repeating himself. He has told us that this righteousness of God comes 'through faith in Jesus Christ', so why does he then add 'to all who believe? He adds this seemingly repetitive phrase because of the people he is addressing. By saying 'to all who believe' Paul is outlawing any distinctions within the group of believers. Gospel righteousness comes 'to all who believe' - without distinction, without discrimination, without difference. Every genuine believer in Jesus Christ possesses, in Christ, identical righteousness. There is no difference.

All who believe are justified freely, by God's grace (3:24). The word 'justified' has the same Greek root as 'righteousness'. It speaks of that same legal declaration of acquittal. Paul here says that all who believe in Jesus Christ (3:22) are justified, that is, receive a 'not guilty' verdict. They are acquitted. This is amazing, and Paul knows it is amazing; he also knows the wrong, entirely inappropriate responses that it will produce. But he still says it because it is the key concept in the meaning of salvation. All who believe in Jesus Christ are justified - legally acquitted - freely, by God's grace. Again we could accuse Paul of repetition, because 'freely' and 'by his grace' both indicate the unearned, unmerited, undeserved nature of our salvation. But it is necessary for Paul to hammer this home. Not only his original readers, but we also today, consistently fall into the error of believing that in some way, however small, we contribute to our salvation. So Paul says 'freely' - that is, without us contributing anything; then he adds 'by his grace' - that is, rather than being the result of our whole or partial contribution. It is an act of sheer mercy on God's part, totally given to us as gift, totally unrelated to our performance. Sheer gift. Sheer generosity. Sheer love. His love. His initiative. His implementation. His cost. Not ours.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2019