Through the letter to the Romans – Part 5: Then who can be saved?

Remember the conversation Jesus had with his disciples after the rich young ruler went away downcast? He told them it is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And the disciples’ reaction was, “Then who can be saved?” That was an honest question, and it revealed the preconceptions of their worldview. Paul is now dealing with such preconceptions head on.

Paul has declared the Law powerless to change the heart of man, even though that is precisely what the Law declares is needed if anyone is to be right with God:

Deuteronomy 30:6 And Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

Psalm 24:3-5 Who shall ascend into the mount of Jehovah? and who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath blameless hands and a pure heart; who lifteth not up his soul unto vanity, nor sweareth deceitfully: He shall receive blessing from Jehovah, and righteousness {vindication} from the God of his salvation.

So, now Paul has to explain the way God makes man right:

Romans 3:21-23 But now, without law {separate from law}, righteousness of God is manifested, borne witness to by the law and the prophets; righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards all, and upon all those who believe: for there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God

The first thing to understand is that this righteousness of God, that is, the way He keeps His promise of salvation, cannot depend on the Law because it is meant to be for all mankind since all mankind has sinned. This is why God made it available on the principle of faith, based on Jesus the Messiah, even as the Law and the Prophets had declared.

Now, the audience has to be about to ask, where precisely in the Law is this salvation for all declared? And Paul is going to point them to Isaiah, and the passage of the suffering servant, with all the echoes of the first Passover that it contains.

Romans 3:24-25 …being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which [is] in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood, for [the] shewing forth {the proof} of his righteousness,

  • Our justification, that is, the declaration in court that we are cleared of all charges, that we are right with God, is given to us freely. Who gives it to us?
  • God himself does, through His favor. (That is what the grace of God meant to his audience.) On what basis?
  • On the basis that our sins have been forgiven (that is what the imagery of sacrifice implies): We have been redeemed by the one who is both Mercy Seat and Sacrifice. But because that true Mercy Seat and that once-and-for-all Sacrifice have not taken place in the earthly Temple, mediated by human hands, the only way we can partake of it is through faith.
  • This is how God proves His righteousness.

Isaiah 53 4-11 (NIV)  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

     We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

     … Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

The imagery of the suffering servant being like the sacrifice whose blood is used to cover the sins of the people and at the same time like the scapegoat on which the priest explicitly lays the sin of the whole community and at the same time like the Mercy seat in the Holy of Holies on which the blood is sprinkled is inescapable. But the most startling verse to me is the way that verse 11 ends:

By knowledge of Him, my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.

Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospel testify, over and over again, that the forgiveness of sins that is required to receive eternal life is received, not by any ritual or work of the Law, but exclusively on the basis of faith; here Isaiah says it is received by knowing Him.

The Gospel also says it that way:

John 6:69 and we have believed and known that thou art the holy one of God.

John 10:14 I am the good shepherd; and I know those that are mine, and am known of those that are mine,

John 14:7 If ye had known me, ye would have known also my Father, and henceforth ye know him and have seen him.

John 14:9 Jesus says to him, Am I so long a time with you, and thou hast not known me, Philip? He that has seen me has seen the Father; and how sayest thou, Shew us the Father?

John 15:15 I call you no longer bondmen, for the bondman does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things which I have heard of my Father I have made known to you.

Why must the Righteousness of God be proven (Romans 3:25)?

This too is a recurring theme in Paul’s letters. It comes from a quandary that we see stated by Job and the Psalmist. It is the question asked in desperation: How long are you going to wait before rescuing us? Why do the wicked prosper? In other words, God have you forgotten your Promise?

The pain is made worse by the reality that the wicked use that question to taunt those that call on God:

Psalm 94:3-7 How long shall the wicked, O Jehovah, how long shall the wicked triumph? [How long] shall they utter [and] speak insolence—all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? They crush thy people, O Jehovah, and afflict thine inheritance; They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless,  And say, Jah will not see, neither will the God of Jacob regard [it].

But God has promised all along that he will be Just.

Zephaniah 1:12 And it shall come to pass at that time, [that] I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil.

So why did God wait so long?

Romans 3:25-26 …for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God; for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus.

Because God wanted to give everybody a chance to repent. That is Paul’s answer. Paul uses this concept of God “passing by” or ignoring, for a time, the sins of the peoples several times in his discussions with the Gentiles.

We saw it at Mars Hill, “God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent

We saw it in Lystra: “who in the past generations suffered all the nations to go in their own ways”

This is also what Peter says in 2 Peter 3:9 [The] Lord does not delay his promise, as some account of delay, but is longsuffering towards you, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Therefore, because God’s Judgment had to be delayed by His choice, and with it His Promise, it seemed to put His righteousness, that is his faithfulness and His truthfulness, in question. We can imagine Satan himself raising this argument: ‘How are you going to save all these people when you condemned me?’

And we can see Paul silencing this last taunt in Colossians: Colossians 2: 6-15 As therefore ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, walk in him … in whom also ye have been circumcised with circumcision not done by hand, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of the Christ; buried with him in baptism, in which ye have been also raised with [him] through faith of the working of God who raised him from among the dead.

     And you, being dead in offences and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he has quickened together with him, having forgiven us all the offences; having effaced the handwriting in ordinances which [stood out] against us, which was contrary to us, he has taken it also out of the way, having nailed it to the cross; having spoiled principalities and authorities, he made a show of them publicly, leading them in triumph by it.

That last verse is painting the image of the victorious King parading before him, for all to see, his defeated enemies. Making a public show to the whole universe that indeed Satan was utterly wrong and God was and always will be right.

Notice also that as it was for Jesus, it is for Paul: the forgiveness of sins is inseparably tied to and proven by eternal life. That is what quickening means in these translations: to be given life, real life.

This is how God fulfilled His Promise

That is the conclusion Paul wants his Jewish audience to get. Therefore, being a Jew, having had the Law is nothing to boast about. (Which implies that there must have been some boasting going on. As I suggested at the beginning of this series.)

Romans 3:27-31 Where then [is] boasting? It has been excluded. By what law? of works? Nay, but by law of faith; for we reckon that a man is justified by faith, without works of law. Is [God] the God of Jews only? is he not of [the] nations also? Yea, of nations also: since indeed [it is] one God who shall justify [the] circumcision on the principle of {through} faith, and uncircumcision by faith. Do we then make void law by faith? Far be the thought: [no,] but we establish law.

Note that every time Paul is making his argument against the works of the Law, he couches it in terms that God intended to save all peoples not just the Jewish nation. And this salvation occurs on the principle of faith. To the Jewish believer who correctly understands the purpose of the Law, it becomes clear that salvation cannot be on that principle. That leaves only salvation through the principle of faith.

To the Gentiles, who did not have the Law and were at a disadvantage, not understanding the whole story of the Promise of God, that same faith gives them all the knowledge they need, and so they too are saved by that faith.

But Paul knows he has to finish this argument…

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