Here is the bad news: we really need a savior. Here is the good news: Jesus is a wonderful Savior. The only solution to sin (the last two weeks’ lessons) is a Savior (the next three lessons). Christ our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30) has entered the human dilemma (the fallen world) and has liberated us by his vicarious death on the cross. As far as the east is from the west has he removed our sins from us (Psalm 103:12).
Guilty as Charged
Paul’s argument in Romans is linear. It progresses. After announcing his theme (1:16-17) Paul began the journey of getting humankind lost (1:18–3:21) so that we can be saved (3:22–5:21). This journey is universal. It is no respecter of persons. Both Jew and Gentile are guilty before God. The Jews did not obey the law and the Gentiles did not obey their conscience. In Romans 3 Paul raised several questions concerning the Jews and salvation. Do they have any advantages at all? Yes, they do (3:2). But no, they don’t (v. 9). Like the Gentiles, they are under the power of sin.
Paul drove this point home by a cluster of six ugly texts and seven metaphors of depravity. This cluster of texts can be referred to as a catena or catalog. Paul used the following proof texts to establish his point that all people are guilty as charged in the court of God: Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; 5:9; 36:1; 140:3; and Jeremiah 5:16. The phrase not even one appears twice in this list that includes three substantives and three activities. The substantives are: unrighteous, worthless, and not good. The activities are: do not understand, do not seek God, and turn away from God.
The cluster of texts is followed by the seven metaphors of depravity. The metaphors are throats, tongues, lips, mouths, feet, ways, and eyes. These all become instruments of sin. Our fallenness is much worse than we imagined. Notice the things connected with those metaphors: graves, poison, cursing, bitterness, and blood. It is not a pretty scene.
No wonder Paul concluded this section as he did, holding the whole world accountable (under sentence or under obligation) to God. The law pretty much body-slams everyone to the mat. In fact, Paul said it did two things: 1) It silenced us. This expression means to block up with a fence, wall, or hedge. 2) It made us conscious (knowledgeable) of our sin. Therefore Jew and Gentile are in the same fix, in desperate need of being justified by God.
Off the Hook
Paul clearly wrote one of the most theologically weighty paragraphs in the New Testament in these verses. All verses are equally inspired, but not all verses are of equal weight. This is clearly a high-water mark of the gospel. It basically describes in doctrinal terms what happened the day Jesus died on the cross.
Since the old way of being right with God did not work, there had to be a new way to be right with God. This way had to be provided by God since humankind could not save itself. It was not as if the old way did not see this coming. The Law and the Prophets testified to it. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ (or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ) to all who believe. Paul reviewed the previous section of Romans one last time in the famous verse 23. Jew and Gentile alike have sinned (action viewed as completed) and fall short (or “are continuing to lack,” action viewed as ongoing) the glory of God. [Sidebar: the study of the glory of God in Romans is very telling about the progression of salvation history.]
The question is: How can God stay true to his nature (that is, punish sin because he is righteous) and at the same time get those who deserve the punishment off the hook? That is answered from three worlds—the world of the court, the world of the market, and the world of the temple. Paul used several words to help believers understand what happened to them. The very people who sinned are justified freely (a courtroom term meaning to be acquitted). This acquittal happened through the redemption (marketplace term meaning to purchase). These things took place when God gave Jesus up as a sacrifice of atonement (temple term meaning to cover or substitute). All is good. God stays true to his just nature and gets sinners off the hook, or justified. To experience this blessed liberation takes one thing—faith.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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