10. God’s Saving Justice: Paul and Salvation

The interpreter of the story Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection who has most powerfully shaped the generations since has been the Apostle Paul.  Christian theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology.  When we focus on Paul’s thought in relation to the biblical salvation story that we have been addressing, we will see (I will argue) that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.

Like his predecessors, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.

Paul’s most extended argument related to salvation comes in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans.  So we will focus our attention on that argument.  I do not assume that Paul has a perfectly coherent view of these matters in his various writings.  But this Romans text is indeed an extended argument that does seem compatible with what he writes elsewhere.  So I will treat it not as a full statement of Paul’s views but as instead a reliable statement about the core of his thought.

Paul’s Main Concern

After various introductory comments, Paul begins his longest and most theologically complex letter with an extended discussion of salvation and justice (complementary motifs for him, not in tension in any way).  This discussion, which runs from 1:16 through 3:31, begins and ends with affirmations that justice and salvation go together and their meaning has been revealed to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In 1:16-17, Paul offers a thesis statement, both for the argument that concludes in 3:31 and for his letter as a whole.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith [i.e., to everyone who is faithful],[1] to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness [or justice][2] of God is revealed through faith for faith [i.e., from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness]; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous [just] will live by faith [faithfulness]” (Romans 1:16-17).

After setting out the problems to which the gospel speaks, the nature of salvation God provides, and the universality of the human need for salvation, Paul concludes his argument in this section with a sense of resolution—emphasizing the role Jesus plays bringing salvation.

But now, apart from [works of the] law,[3] the righteousness [justice] of God has been disclosed and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness [justice] through faith in Jesus Christ [i.e., the faithfulness of Jesus Christ[4]] for all who believe [i.e., are faithful].  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified [i.e., made whole[5]] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement [i.e., a self-sacrifice enabling reconciliation[6]] by his blood, effective through faith [faithfulness].  He did this to show his righteousness [justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous [just] and that he justifies [i.e., makes whole] the one who has faith in Jesus [i.e., shares in the faithfulness of Jesus]. (Romans 3:21-31).

Idolatry: The Problem that Paul Analyzes

So, precisely what problem does Paul believe humanity needs to be saved from?  The term he uses most often in our passage is “sin.”  From a careful reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, we may find at the heart of the sin problem for Paul the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God.  Paul describes two distinct kinds of idolatry here.

These may be characterized as the idolatry of the nations and the idolatry of the covenant people—or, we could say using Paul’s language here, the idolatry of the Greeks and the idolatry of the Jews (recognizing that by “Jews” here Paul most likely has in mind Jewish members of the Roman assembly of followers of Jesus).  Both types of idolatry put something in the place of the merciful God Paul has learned to serve through his linking his life with the faithfulness of Jesus.  This idolatry, in both cases, produces injustice and violence.

Chapter one describes the progression of the idolatry of the nations.

Idolatry I: The Nations (Rome)

After his introduction to his argument in 1:16-17, Paul turns to the big problem.  He analyzes how people move from the rejection of truth to lack of gratitude to trust in created things to out of control lust to injustice and violence.  This dynamic itself manifests “wrath”—not direct intervention by God but God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death.

As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are salvific.  Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger aimed at people God has rejected.  We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel.  “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.[7]

In 1:17 we have the salvific “revelation” of God’s justice.  In the next verse, we have the suppression of truth that leads to the “revelation” of God’s wrath.  With “justice,” people see created things for what they are (pointers to the creator), not as false gods worthy of ultimate loyalty.  Such sight leads to life.  With “wrath,” the act of giving loyalty to created things results in truth being suppressed and a spiral of lifelessness.

God has built within creation itself directives that should lead to “justice” (linking “justice” here with a basic stance of gratitude towards life that encourages kindness, generosity, and wholeness in relationships).  Many people have not lived in gratitude (1:22) and as a consequence brokenness characterizes much of human life.

The “revelation” of God’s wrath (1:18) concerns God giving those who trust in idols up to descent into self-destructive behavior (1:24).  People make an “exchange.”  They trade their humanity as God’s children for “images” that resemble created things.  This trade leads to an exchange of justice for wrath leading to an exchange of justice for injustice, of life for death.  This exchange need not happen.  God has shown the world what is needed.  “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…, seen through the things God has made” (1:19-20).  However, when human beings exchange “the glory of God” for images that resemble created things they lose their ability to discern God’s revelation.  Paul echoes Psalm 115, where people become like the lifeless images they worship.

When created things are worshiped they no longer reveal the God who stands behind them and gives them their meaning.  The paradigmatic expression of this dynamic for Paul is how inter-human love—which indeed reveals God in profound ways—comes to be reduced to lust, and relationships become unjust, broken, contexts for alienation.

Paul writes that “for this reason” (1:26) God gave those consumed by lust (the “lusters”) “up to degrading passions.”  When they exchange trust in God for worship of created things, the lusters are led into “unnatural” behavior.  What is unnatural is when intimate human relationships become occasions for death and alienation instead of life and wholeness.

As Neil Elliott has suggested, Paul may have in mind the recent history of the Roman emperor’s court and its prolifigate sexual behavior that had scandalized many.  When the emperor Caligula went down, many understood this to be an act of cosmic vindication.[8] Paul sees lust as the problem (not homosexuality per se) because of how it diminishes humanness, reflects worship of “degrading passions” rather than God, distorts the revelation of God in the human, and fosters injustice.

In 1:28, Paul once more refers to the dynamic where “God gives them up,” in this case to a “debased mind.”  They can’t see reality as it is.  The revelation of God’s love becomes wrath for them rather than whole-making justice.  When people trust in things other than God, their ability to think and perceive and see and discern is profoundly clouded.

Paul refers to “things that should not be done” that result from “the debased mind” that follows from “God giving them up” (1:28) that happens when people “exchange the glory of the immortal God form images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23).  The reference to “things that should not be done” points ahead to the vice list in 1:29-31 with a wide-ranging description of the injustice and violence of those who trust in creation rather than the creator—paradigmatically, the Empire’s leaders.

In this discussion of idolatry in 1:18-32, Paul wants his readers to see their would-be Benefactors (the rulers of the Empire) as God’s rivals.  The Benefactors claim to act on behalf of the gods and for the sake of “peace” (they use terms such as “Good News,” “Savior,” and “Peace of Rome”).  They desire people’s trust and loyalty.  These Benefactors are actually profoundly unjust and violent.  Rome’s “peace” is actually based on the sword—it is a counterfeit peace.[9]

When people worship “created things,” the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for images (1:23), being “given up” to degrading lusts (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

The Powers that exploit this progression into idolatry replace God as the center of people’s lives and as the objects of worship.  In doing so, they so distort people’s minds so that instead of recognizing that those who practice such injustice deserve judgment people instead “applaud” their unjust Benefactors (1:32).

Idolatry II: Works of the Law

Paul now adds a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace idolatry in relation to the law.  Following James Dunn, I will use the term “works of the law” for what Paul criticizes here—in distinction to Torah in and of itself, which Paul (like Jesus) embraces.

Dunn sees Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” in Galatians 2:16 (“We know that a person is justified, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”) as helping us distinguish between Paul’s critique of how the law was being understood among his opponents and Paul’s affirmation of the continuing validity of the law (Romans 13:9: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”).[10]

Behind Paul’s critique here is his own earlier commitment works of the law as boundary markers.  He protected the “true faith” with extreme violence.  Paul as Saul the Pharisee, before he met Jesus, had made an idol of works of the law in a way that made him just as guilty of injustice as the leaders of the Roman Empire in his harsh persecution of Jesus’ followers.[11]

Paul’s concern in 1:18-32 centers on idolatry and the need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters.  If one points fingers at other idolaters while denying one’s own tendency to worship idols, one will never find such freedom.  Hence, “the very same things” (2:1) that those who point fingers (the “judgers”) are guilty of are themselves forms of idolatry. Paul experienced his own exchange—God for the boundary markers that required a violent defense.  Paul’s “degrading passions” were not sexual but ideological—and led to the same result, violence.

The words Paul quotes in 2:2, “we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accord with truth,” come from the judgers alluded to in 2:1.  When they embrace God’s judgment on others, the judgers actually condemn themselves because they too are unjust.  They mistakenly believe that in condemning the idolatry of 1:18-32 while remaining idolaters themselves they have God on their side.  In claiming that their judging accords with “truth” (2:2), the judgers actually align themselves with the “debased minds” who worship the creation rather than the creator and in doing so actually suppress the truth (1:18).

Paul had committed his own acts of violence in the name of the “truth.”  However, after he met Jesus he learned that violence is always a sign of falsehood.  The truth he thought he served was actually a lie.  The works of the law that he defended turned out to be idolatrous.  So, as a judger he was just as much of an idolater as the lusters who run the Roman Empire.

Paul makes affirmations about God in 2:4 that oppose all forms of idolatry.  The antidote to idolatry is recognition of God’s unconditional and abundant mercy.  God’s kindness comes first, then comes repentance.

The revelation of “the day of wrath” (2:5) may be understood in terms of the revelation of the true path to God through the witness of Jesus.  This revelation illumines how the various idolatries bring death.  When Paul writes of “God’s righteous judgment” in 2:5 he uses the same terms translated as “God’s decree” in 1:32.  The “decree” is what the lusters know but ignore in their injustice.  The “judgment” is what will be revealed to the judgers “on the day of wrath.”  This parallel usage implies that the injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of phenomena; both blind people to God’s authentic justice.  By denying the life-giving justice of God, both types of idolaters condemn themselves to experience this justice as wrath.

Condemnation comes to everyone who does evil—Jew first and also Gentile (2:9).  The description of the two types of idolatry encompasses all kinds of people.  Crucially, though, Paul immediately follows this terrifying word with a word of hope.  Salvation also comes to all kinds of people, Jew first and also Gentile (2:11).  Salvation enters through God’s chosen people and spreads to all the families of the earth.  The judgers (such as Saul the Pharisee) forgot that salvation for them was intended to lead to salvation for all, that God chose them in order to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3).

Paul associates “sin,” a term he introduces in 2:12, with the idolatry he describes.  He sets out the basic dynamic in 1:21: sin and idolatry arise when people live without trust and gratitude, become futile in their thinking and darkened in their minds, practicing injustice and the moving toward lifelessness.  “Sinning under the law” (2:12) seems basically to mean making an idol of some rule or other and using it to underwrite injustice (as with Saul the Pharisee).

Paul argues that the law itself is not the problem.  He affirms in 2:14 that some Gentiles “do the law” even while ignorant of the written Torah.  They do it “naturally,” the idea linking back to Paul’s allusion in 1:18-32 that it is unnatural to worship the creature, to be ungrateful, to practice injustice, and to exchange the creature for the creator.

The faithfulness or justness or authentic obedience of Gentiles who do not know the written Torah shows that “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15: to trust God, to live in gratitude, to do justice).  This comment echoes Paul’s earlier affirmation that “ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20).

In 2:23-24, Paul asserts that “boasters in the law” dishonor God.  For the judgers, the law had become a boundary marker.  As such, the law (reduced to works of the law) had become a tool for violence.  It had become a basis for asserting a cosmic division between circumcised and uncircumcised, rather than part of an affirmation of “the fundamental solidarity-in-difference of Jews and Gentiles as together creatures of the one God.”[12] When those charged with witnessing to God’s justice for the benefit of all instead witness to injustice, it is as if they are not part of God’s covenant people at all; their “circumcision has become uncircumcision.”

Paul asserts that some who are physically “uncircumcised” do indeed “keep the requirement of the law” (2:26), implying that “the requirements of the law” boil down to living with gratitude, generosity, and justice—or, as Paul writes later in Romans, the law boils down to loving one’s neighbor (13:8-10).  “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart,” Paul writes, in the sense that one’s actual circumcision is not about a physical ritual but about one’s genuine commitment to God’s love and justice, a commitment that finds expression in one’s actions.

Paul does insist that we are “all” under the power of sin (3:9), but in saying this he is not so much asserting that each individual is (he has clearly stated that some do keep the law) as arguing that the Jews and Gentiles are equally liable to be under the power of sin (equally likely to be either lusters or judgers).

Later in Romans, Paul illumines further the problems with the idolatry of works of the law in his agonizing reflections in chapter seven.  As Robert Jewett suggests, we best read Paul here to be reflecting his own experience as one who committed terrible acts of violence in the name of what turned out to be an idolatrous view of the law.[13]

The very act of striving to follow the letter of Torah leads to living in the “flesh,” unleashing one’s “sinful passions” (7:5).  These sinful passions led to Paul’s “zeal” when he practiced violence against followers of Jesus (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6).  When Paul writes, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be the death of me” (7:10), he has in mind how he applied the law in ways that deeply hurt others and thereby himself experienced death.  No wonder he was so profoundly shattered when he met Jesus and realized that the one he had persecuted was truly the Messiah of the God he had sought so zealously to serve.

Paul had staked his life on his responsibility zealously to enforce the “truths” of Torah—and ended up becoming a murderer who violated the truth of Torah as profoundly as anyone possibly could.  Paul states flatly, “sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11).  This truly happened in Paul’s own life.  His embrace of the legalistic approach to Torah couples with an embrace of the need to enforce works of the law with violence opened him to be dominated by the very power of sin he thought he was opposing.

The law itself is “spiritual,” of the Holy Spirit.  However, when Paul’s zealotry sought to use it as a basis for injustice, he showed himself to have been “sold into slavery under sin.”  As a consequence, Paul was utterly bamboozled concerning the true message of Torah.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  What he wanted to do was serve the God of Israel, faithfully practice Torah, and live a holy life.  However, he actually worshiped idols instead of God.  His mind was darkened.  He ended up not serving God but doing the opposite (“the very thing I hate”); he served an idol.

The more “successful” Saul the Pharisee was in persecuting and “faithfully” following his rigorous path, the more he sinned.  This turned out to be the wrong path.  It set him actively opposing God.  He indeed sought to follow the true and good law of God—and was shockingly deceived.  When his eyes were opened (Jesus’ revelation to him of Jesus’ true identity), Paul realized that the “true Torah” (as love of neighbor, 13:8-10) condemned what he was doing.

Paul dwelt in a “body of death” (7:24), both in the sense of being the cause of death to others and of being spiritually dead himself.  He needed to be “rescued.”  He needed outside intervention to save him when he did not even realize he needed to be saved.  He was subsumed in a “body of death.”  However, the rescue came, which is the story of Paul’s gospel.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our lord,” he concludes chapter seven (7:25).  Jesus intervened and shook Paul’s world to the foundations.  Through this rescue, Jesus made his own identity clear: God’s Messiah, the one worthy of trust who reveals the meaning of Torah.  When Paul trusted in Jesus and realized that Jesus’ God was his God, Paul did find liberation from the bondage that had turned him into a murderer.  As a consequence, he was transformed from an exclusivist persecutor to a person, in Miroslav Volf’s terms, “enriched by otherness.”[14]

The Universality of the Dominance of Sin

In his critique of the idolatry of the judgers, Paul does not reject Judaism.  He alludes to Abraham and Sarah’s calling when he answers his rhetorical question, “then what advantage has the Jew?” (3:1), with an emphatic “much, in every way” (3:2).  They were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2)—that is, they were given Torah and the calling to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).  That some of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents have been unfaithful does not annul the faithfulness of God.  God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through the people of the covenant remains in effect (Paul makes this point in Romans 9–11).

As bad as the idolatry of those who use Torah to justify sacred violence was, Paul makes clear here that this expression of sin is matched by the sin of the idolaters who give their loyalty to the Roman Empire.  People in both categories, Jew and Gentile, are all under the power of sin.  Paul underscores this point in 3:10-18 with a series of scriptural proof texts that lay out the universality of bondage to the power of sin.  This bondage creates the basic problem that humanity—Jew and Gentile—need salvation from.

Paul concludes his critique in 3:20: “For no human being will be justified in his sight [a quote from Psalm 143:2] by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  That is, no one will be made whole and gain salvation by using the letter of the law as the basis for condemning others in order to strengthen their own standing before God.  Paul here in a nutshell captures the folly of the path he himself had taken with his sacred violence against the followers of Jesus.  He thought he served God; in fact he assured his alienation from God.

The true law exposes the sins of us all.  It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols.  At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives.  This problem characterizes Jews and Gentiles alike.  This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (3:9) over all groups of people.  Being a member of the Empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah.  In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry.

Paul’s logic here follows this path: humanity is trapped in bondage to systems of injustice that claim to be our Benefactors and agents of God’s will.  This claim is false; such systems (be they Roman or Jewish) enslave rather than liberate.  We choose this bondage when we ignore God’s kindness and respond to what God does for us with ingratitude rather than gratitude.  This ingratitude toward God is manifested in human beings worshiping created things rather than the Creator.  This worship of created things may involve empire idolatry or it may involve Torah legalism and violent protection of the boundary lines of the religious institution.

In making this choice to worship created things we evoke God’s wrath.  Paul links God’s wrath directly with God’s justice, in some sense portraying them as two sides of one coin—God reveals justice to faithful people; God reveals wrath to idolaters.  Paul portrays this “wrath” as neither personal and punitive anger on God’s part nor as impersonal principles of holiness and retribution—both in tension with God’s mercy.  Rather, “wrath” refers to the process of God “turning us over” and allowing us to worship as we please with self-inflicted consequences.

Paul illustrates this problem as he himself experienced it in Romans seven.  He cries out in frustration, the good that I would do (to enforce the law, keep the faith community pure. and thereby honor God) turns out to lead to evil.  The trust in the law was trust in it as a basis for hating the neighbor instead of trust in the merciful God behind the law who commands love of neighbor (including enemies).  God’s wrath was seen in how this process of idolizing works of the law led to alienation and death instead of life.  As Paul reports his experience in chapter seven, he concludes with the core question relating to salvation:  Who will deliver us (7:24)?  How might we find liberation, redemption, transformation, salvation?  What is the good news in our present darkness?

The Resolution: Justice Apart from Works of the Law

Paul answers the question about deliverance in 3:21-31.  These verses provide a remarkable (and dense) summary of his understanding of salvation—that parallels what we have seen in the Old Testament and in the gospels.  In brief, like the Old Testament and gospels, Paul also emphasizes that salvation has simply to do with turning to God and trusting in God’s mercy.

The resolution to the problem of bondage to the power of sin comes “apart from law” (i.e., the law idolatry Paul has just critiqued.  He ended his critique by stating that justification will not happen based on “works of the law” (3:20).  It will not be circumcision nor zealotry in defense of the standards of the covenant community nor the proclamation of one’s identity as an Israelite nor ritual purity and over-againstness vis-à-vis Gentiles that will resolve the problem.

The resolution has to do with the justice of God, going back to the beginning of Paul’s argument where he proclaims that the justice of God is revealed in the gospel of salvation (1:16-17).  God’s justice is not something to fear or to counter-pose to God’s mercy.  It makes whole, bringing salvation as a gift.  In relation to the problem Paul has described, we could see God’s justice as God’s initiative to liberate human beings from bondage to the powers of sin.

This justice has been disclosed.  The Greek word, pephanerotai, echoes the term used in 1:17, apokalypsis.  God has disclosed or revealed the truth—the very thing idolaters suppress (1:18).  God will not be deterred by human obstinacy.  Humanity needs a breakthrough that will empower us to see the truth of God.  In seeing this truth, humanity will be able to understand God truly, the human situation truly, and creation truly—all bound together by God’s love.

This disclosure that Paul will describe “is attested by the law and prophets.”  This helps us understand Paul’s intentions.  He puts his understanding of the gospel in continuity with the biblical story—“the law and prophets” literally means the entire Bible.  We must remember this continuity as we go in to interpret Paul’s words here.  Whatever he goes on to say, he insists that his gospel directly links with the Bible’s message.

Paul fully affirms Torah (when properly understood as a gift from God calling for love of neighbor and not as a basis for sacred violence).  The contrast that he has in mind, then, does not center on a contrast between “Judaism” and “Christianity” or a contrast between Torah and mercy.  Rather, Paul means to contrast gratitude and wrath, to contrast justice and injustice.  Torah as properly understood sides with gratitude and justice over against wrath and injustice.

The “disclosure” that Paul will now turn to, then, does not disclose a new economy of salvation over against the old economy of the Old Testament.  Rather, the disclosure reiterates what has been disclosed from the start (this point will be made clear in chapter four when Paul presents pre-circumcision Abraham as the model of saving faithfulness).

The justice of God is seen in Jesus’ faithfulness (3:22).  Jesus discloses the true nature of God, the path to life, and the agenda of the Powers that seek to separate humanity from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).  Jesus’ faithfulness breaks the illusions that make idolatry possible (both in relation to Empire and in relation to Torah-legalism).  The contrast could not be greater for those with eyes to see.  Jesus’ path led to his being accused, condemned, and executed by the leaders of the Empire in Jerusalem and the leaders of the religious institutions—all of whom claimed to be Benefactors but turned out to be tyrants (see Mark 10:42-45).

God’s justice disclosed through Jesus brings salvation “for all who believe.”  What Paul refers to here is not so much doctrinal assent as the connection of heart and soul with Jesus and his way.[15] Those “who believe” are those who see Jesus and God for who they are, who see the Powers for what they are, and who commit their lives to the path of justice set out in Jesus’ life and enabled now by the presence of Jesus’ Spirit (see Romans 8:9-11).  This path involves trust in God alone as the true God.  Jesus models this trust when he rejected both empire and religious institutionalism in the wilderness shortly after his baptism (Luke 4:1-13).

This healing justice is made available to everyone “without distinction” since everyone needs it (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” 3:23).  The point here, again, is not about every single individual.  Rather, Paul emphasizes that neither “citizenship” in the Empire nor in ethnic Israel saves anyone—both communities are in bondage to the power of sin, as seen in their dependence upon injustice and violence to sustain their boundary lines and identity.

The key point in this passage, though, is what follows: “all…are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).  Paul earlier asserted the universality of bondage to sin in order now to assert the universality of liberation from this bondage.  Just as God called Abraham and Sarah as a gift, just as God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt as a gift, just God gave Torah as a gift, just as God sustained the promise through exile as a gift, so too now Paul reminds his readers of God’s mercy through the ministry of Jesus Christ as a gift—a gift that brings redemption from bondage to the power of sin.

Jesus himself lived free from this bondage.  He did not serve idols but lived in grateful service to the true God, worshiping the Creator rather than created things.  In doing so, he exposed the Powers for the false gods they are.  His self-sacrificial love even in the face of the deadly violence of the Powers stood at the center of this exposure.  And, crucially, God vindicates Jesus’ faithfulness by raising him from the dead, once and for all making the nature of truth faithfulness clear for all with eyes to see.  In this clarity lies the hope for liberation from bondage to the power of sin.

Paul emphasizes that God initiates the needed liberation—strictly out of God’s mercy.  Just as God “put forward” Moses and freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Paul asserts that God “put forward” Jesus to free Jew and Gentile alike from enslavement to the power of sin.  God is not the recipient of this act but the doer of it.  In no, according to Paul’s argument, does the liberation come from God’s own retributive justice.  Rather, the liberation comes as a gift that a merciful God gives as an expression of God’s restorative justice.

God puts Jesus forward as a “sacrifice of atonement” (3:25).  What does Paul mean by “sacrifice of atonement” (Greek: hilasterion)?  The meaning of this term continues to be highly contested.  Let’s just point here to some points about the broader context of Paul’s thought (with the assumption that his meaning here is not to be determined by focusing on this one isolated term).  God is responsible for this saving action, the one who offers the sacrifice (not the one who receives it).

How is Jesus a “sacrifice”?  Not as a blood offering to appease God’s anger or honor or holiness but as one who freely devoted his own life to persevering in love all the way to the end.  Thus, the “sacrifice” should be understood as Jesus’ self-sacrifice expressed in faithful living, his way of being in the world.  How does Jesus’ self-sacrifice act as an “atonement”?  Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals God’s saving justice (that is, God’s mercy) that is available to everyone (Jew first and also Gentile) with eyes to see and responsive hearts.

The “atonement” (at-one-ment, reconciliation) is not a sacrifice to God that satisfies God’s neediness (that God is not needy for sacrifices has been established back with Psalm 50).  The “atonement” illumines the truth that humanity has suppressed (Romans 1:18), truth that helps (or allows) sinners to see God’s welcoming mercy clearly.  This illumination makes “one-ment” with God possible—not from God’s side (God has always welcomed sinners) but from the human side (when we see accurately we will be freed from our fearfulness toward God that leads to ingratitude and trusting in idols instead of God).

The “sacrifice of atonement” is given “by Jesus’ blood” (3:25).  What does “blood” signify here?  Does God after all need a blood-sacrifice to satisfy God’s anger or honor or retributive justice or sense of “evenness”?  Hardly.  Since God never did need or even desire such a sacrifice, it is impossible to imagine that Paul has such a sacrifice in mind here.

We have seen in our earlier chapters that the Old Testament makes it clear that God does not need offerings—God is not “hungry” (see Psalm 50:1-15 and various anti-sacrificial references in the prophets).  Rather, the need for offerings rests on the human side.  Offerings are necessary to concretize for the human imagination the reality of God’s mercy and the expectations God has for life lived in light of that mercy.

Jesus himself made it clear that God desires works of mercy not ritual sacrifices that take the place of such works (see his quotes of Hosea in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” and his actions of by-passing the sacrificial temple system with his direct offer of forgiveness).

Paul has also made it clear in Romans 1–3 that God’s justice expresses God’s merciful will for salvation, not God’s retributive inclination to punish.  Paul does mention God’s wrath, but as we have suggested above, we best see this “wrath” as itself an expression of God’s forbearing love that allows human beings to choose to worship created things and become like them.

So, then, what does Paul mean by “blood” here?  It seems to symbolize Jesus’ life of self-giving, giving to the point of being killed by the Powers.  This “self-sacrifice” by “blood” is “effective through faithfulness” Paul states (3:25).  That is, Jesus’ faithfulness makes the sacrifice as he faithfully devotes his life to love of God and neighbor; our faithfulness in “taking up our cross” links us with Jesus’ self-sacrificial way of life and, hence, with his path of freedom from bondage to the powers of sin.

God “did this” (i.e., “put forward Jesus”) to show God’s justice.  Our sense of what Paul means here, of how “putting forward Jesus” expresses God’s justice, will be determined by how we define “justice” in this broader Romans passage.  Notice that in 1:16-17, Paul links the revelation of God’s justice directly with the bringing of salvation.  Here in 3:21-24, Paul links the disclosure of God’s justice directly with sinners being justified (made whole, saved) by God’s grace.

Clearly, the revelation of God’s justice in Jesus has to do with God’s healing and restorative work.  So, God “put forward Jesus” out of love in order to heal—not out of rigid holiness that requires a violent sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s honor or turn away God’s anger.  Jesus’ work expresses restorative justice, not retributive justice.  This “showing of God’s justice” leads to the direct consequence of reconciliation between former human enemies (Jew and Gentile) and between human and divine enemies (see Romans 5:1-10).

Paul now adds that in God’s “divine forbearance” God had “passed over the sins previously committed” (3:25).  God cares about healing more than punishment or more than having God’s honor satisfied.  Jesus’ own faithfulness had at its heart the welcome of sinners and the forgiveness of sins apart from temple sacrifice or rigorous adherence to Pharisaic oral laws.  In this welcome, Jesus embodied God’s “divine forbearance.”

By “putting forward Jesus,” God proves that God is “just” (3:26).  “Justice” here has to do with making things right, restoring relationships, creating wholeness—not with punitive, retributive justice.  Jesus’ own faithfulness in his life model what God’s justice is like.  As a “just” God, God heals and makes whole (“justifies”) those people who share in Jesus’ faithfulness (3:26)—that is, those who trust in and identify with Jesus’ own faithfulness, making his way their way.

Because God’s mercy serves as the basis for salvation, we have no basis for “boasting” (3:27).  By “boasting,” Paul has in mind the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that characterized his own life as a judger (or, we could say, a law-idolater).  These included exclusivist attitudes, practicing sacred violence, and self-righteousness about his ethnic and religious identity.  These were possible because of a sense of superiority that is absolutely contrary to the appropriate response to God’s mercy shown to sinners (which include Jews first but also Gentiles).

The “boasting” that is excluded here followed directly from trusting in works of the law.  These works are the opposite of faithful works—boundary maintenance with “necessary” violence as opposed to love of neighbor (friend and enemy).  The law that excludes boasting is the “law of faith” (or, we could say, the law of faithful acts of love and generosity).  The contrast Paul makes here has to do not with a distinction between ethics and belief (“works” vs. “faith”) but between exclusivism and inclusive, healing, restorative justice.

Paul offers an important summary statement that requires careful unpacking in light of what we have seen as his message in Romans 1–3: “A person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28).  By “justified by faith” Paul means how we are made whole through faithfulness.  This faithfulness involves trusting in Jesus in such a way that one commits oneself to following Jesus’ way of life.  The desire and ability to follow this way of life come from having hearts transformed by God’s love.  By “apart from works prescribed by the law” Paul means apart from the boundary marking idolatrous legalism that appropriates Torah for nationalistic and exclusivistic purposes that lead to injustice and sacred violence.

This interpretation of Paul’s notion of justification (which includes at its heart reconciliation among human beings, paradigmatically for Paul among those formerly at enmity—Jews reconciled with Gentiles and joined together in one community of followers of Jesus’ way) is confirmed by Paul’s rhetorical questions in 3:29.  God is not simply the God of Jews.  The election of Abraham and Sarah happened in order that their descendents bless all the families of the earth, not only the “chosen people.”  God is God of Gentiles also.  This assertion of Paul’s was not an innovation; he is insisting that this universality of God’s healing love is the true message of Torah and the prophets.

Paul concludes that God justifies (makes whole) in only one way (3:30).  God justifies on the ground of faithfulness.  This is true for circumcised and uncircumcised alike (a point emphasized in Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s justification in chapter four).  The emphasis on one method for justification reiterates what Paul wrote earlier: Justification is offered by God’s justice apart from the law but attested to by the law and prophets (3:21).  Justification has to do with faithfulness (Jesus’ and his followers’), not with ethnic identity, relation to the Empire, a punitive sacrifice, or doctrinal belief.

Justification and salvation are about a living relationship with God that is manifested in love of neighbor.  Paul makes this affirmation perfectly clear in 13:8-10 where he again presents himself as summarizing Torah.  Jesus famously, of course, already made this understanding perfectly clear when he responded to the question about how we attain eternal life with the reiteration of Torah and the prophets: love God with your entire being and love your neighbor at yourself (Matthew 22:34-40).  For Paul in Romans, the embodiment of this saving commitment to love finds its paradigmatic expression in the social wholeness of reconciled Jew and Gentile in the community of faith.

Paul’s final comment in our passage is to once more emphasize that the saving faithfulness he understands the gospel to be centered on does not stand over against Torah.  It is not even in tension with Torah.  This saving faithfulness is precisely what Torah itself calls for.  With this faithfulness, “we uphold Torah” (3:31).

God’s Saving Justice

According to Paul in Romans 1–3, the fundamental need humanity has is liberation or salvation from the power of sin.  He defines “sin” as being most basically expressed in the dynamics of idolatry, where human beings do not give God gratitude for what is but rather put their trust in created things setting off a dynamic of exchanging wholeness for brokenness.

Paul describes this bondage to sin/idolatry plague as being universal—equally characteristic of those whose idols lead to ultimate trust in the Roman Empire and a spiral down into self-destructive lust and injustice and violence toward others and of those whose idols lead to ultimate trust in the Law as a boundary marker that requires violence and injustice to defend.

These various expressions of idolatry leave human beings in bondage to whatever Power they give ultimate loyalty to—with the consequence of living lives characterized by wrath rather than genuine justice.  So, what is needed is something to break this spiral toward death—that’s the core element of Paul’s theology of salvation.

The resolution to this crisis of humanity may be found in God’s revelation of the true nature of humanity’s problem and God’s solution.  The resolution is a process of illumination, providing sight, breaking the hold of blindness that idolatry has on humanity with its misplaced loyalties.  God does this by showing the world through the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the true nature of reality and God’s relationship to it.  To embrace this revelation from God leads to freedom from bondage, salvation from the spiral of death, exchanging wrath for healing justice.

God’s present disclosure in Jesus of the truth of creation and present and future reality is at the same time the summation of the law and prophets and separate from the Law-as-idol that had demanded ultimate loyalty from Paul himself resulting in his own acts of blasphemous violence in his days of persecuting Jesus’ followers.  Paul understands Torah to be good and life-giving so long as it is understood as pointing without compromise toward love of neighbor (Romans 13:8-10)—but when it provides justification for violence in name of purity and exclusivity it becomes an idol.

For those who do recognize the revelation of God’s saving justice in Jesus for what it is, the only need is simply to trust that that revelation is true.  Such trust leads to salvation.  If it is authentic, it also leads to the believer participating in Jesus’ way.  Later in Romans Paul will describe this participation in terms of life in the Spirit and in terms of shared communal life characterized by mutual appreciation of various spiritual gifts, the rejection of vengeance, and the embrace of love of neighbor as the summation of life lived under Torah.

Paul makes very clear, in full continuity with the Bible’s salvation story as we have considered it up to now in this book, that the salvation he describes comes to humanity due to God’s initiative.  As Paul presents God here, God has no need for appeasement or satisfaction prior to revealing God’s healing mercy—the mercy exists without limit and is given unconditionally.  God is the actor in the process of salvation, not the recipient.  We see no hint here of anything being needed on God’s side of the human/divine relationship as a precondition for God’s saving work.

So, the “justice of God” that stands at the center of Paul’s theology of salvation clearly from start to finish is restorative justice, not retributive justice.  God seeks to help humanity see God’s true nature, creation’s true nature, as merciful.  God breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics in the witness of Jesus—seeking to convey to any with eyes to see and ears to hear that God’s welcome remains unconditional for all who turn toward it.

Paul adds no new spin to the Bible’s salvation story.  He reiterates what the call of Abraham, the exodus, the gift of Torah, the sustenance of the community in exile, and the message of Jesus have all (in harmony with one another) expressed: God is merciful and offers empowerment for just living for all who embrace that mercy and let it transform their lives.

God’s mercy frees people from bondage to the Powers.  Such freedom empowers people of faith to experience themselves and to be agents for others transformed living—moving from injustice and violence toward genuine wholeness and shalom.  And, Paul confirms God’s healing strategy as seen in Genesis 12 and witnessed to throughout the story wherein those human beings who trust in God’s way of wholeness embrace the vocation to be witnesses to this wholeness and thereby bless all the families of the earth.

Paul’s distinctive contribution to the biblical salvation story lies in his powerful portrayal of the problem of idolatry both in the Empire and in the faith community.  He witnesses, based on his own life, to the transforming power of God’s mercy embodied in the ministry of Jesus—and sustained in the presence of the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ among the community of his people.  Just as Paul, walking in the Spirit of the risen Christ, now powerfully practices shalom-making despite his earlier career of extreme and blasphemous violence, so too may all others who accept the disclosure of God’s justice in Jesus (and not in Caesar and not in works of the Law).

[1] The word translated “faith” here (pistis) is a key term for Paul.  It may be translated either “faith” or “faithfulness.”  The meaning of this term continues to be a point of intense debate.  In my view, trying to understand this term in the context of Paul’s overall theology, with this term Paul has in mind an way of life that encompasses trust in God, belief in the content of Torah and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and faithful living.  With this holistic meaning in mind, I prefer the term “faithfulness”—not in the sense of a legalistic and externally-oriented adherence to a certain set of rules but in the sense of an entire way of life (that imitates the way of Jesus in his ministry).

[2] Here we have a second crucial term with a contested translation.  Following writers such as N. T. Wright, Michael Gorman, and Neil Elliott, I prefer “justice” to “righteousness.”  Neither term precisely captures what Paul has in mind with dikaiosune and its various derivatives.  However, I believe that our term “justice” more easily captures Paul’s meaning than “righteousness.”  Regardless, part of my reason for preferring justice (and “injustice,” “just,” and “justification”) is that consistency in translating these terms helps us discern the development of Paul’s argument better than if we use the terms more common in recent translations (“righteousness,” “wickedness,” and “justification”) that obscure the direct connection among these various concepts in Paul’s argument.

Gorman writes: “Paul says that his gospel reveals the justice of God (Rom 1:17; 3:21), God’s dikaiosyne—a phrase often translated ‘the righteousness of God.’  We can certainly retain the noun ‘righteousness,’ but if we do, we should probably exchange the related verb ‘to justify’ for something like ‘to rightwise,’ ‘to set right,’ or even ‘to make righteous.’  However, these are all a little awkward, and they are subject to quite individualistic interpretation.  So we probably do better to keep the verb ‘justify’ and use the noun phrase ‘justice of God’—understood as God’s saving and restorative justice—to remind us of the close connection between justification and justice.  Moreover, ‘the (saving) justice of God’ reminds us also that Paul is saying that the gospel is about a special kind of divine character trait and activity—God’s justice—that is in some sense parallel to but radically different from other kinds of justice, such as Roman justice or American justice.  It is also important to note that ‘the justice of God’ does not mean God’s punitive justice” (Michael Gorman, Reading Paul [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008], 119).

[3] Paul reference to the “law” here in 3:21 echoes what he has just written in 3:20 that human beings will not be justified “by deeds prescribed by the law”—which is most likely a reference to the exclusivist, legalistic, and self-righteous approach to core commands by the “law-abiders” Paul has thoroughly critiqued beginning in Romans 2:1.  So he’s saying, “apart from the legalistic approach to the law.”

[4] Much of the debate about faith/faithfulness centers on this verse.  As indicated by the intensity of the argument, it seems clear that the appropriate translation here cannot be determined strictly on grammatical and philological grounds.  We need to look mostly at bigger theological concerns and the general development of Paul’s argument in this section.  I choose the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” option because it makes better sense in the context of Paul’s logic here to understand that what is crucial is how Jesus himself embodied the life of faithfulness—and is our model for what the life of God’s justice looks like.  Jesus’ faithfulness makes it possible for his followers to be faithful.

[5] This is a paraphrase emphasizing that “justice,” “just,” and “justify” are relational and restorative terms more than legalistic, forensic, and impersonal terms.  The justified person in Paul’s accounting is a person who has been made whole through trusting in and following after Jesus, finding healing from brokenness, alienation, and injustice (as Paul himself had)—not a person “declared” innocent or worthy of God’s love as a legal fiction.

[6] See the discussion below.

[7] James D. G. Dunn: “For Paul ‘the wrath of God’ denotes the inescapable, divinely ordered moral constitution of human society, God’s reaction to evil and sin.  God’s righteousness as creator, the obligation appropriate to him as creator, has determined that human actions have moral consequences.  Thus the consequence of disowning the dependence of the creature on the creator has been a futility of thought and a darkening of experience (1:21).  Focusing reverence on the creature rather than the creator has resulted in idolatry, debased sexuality, and the daily nastiness of disordered society (1:22-31).  God’s wrath, we might say, is his handing over of his human creation to themselves” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 42).

[8] Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 194-95; and Elliott, Arrogance, 78.

[9] Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 78-83

[10] James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective in Paul,” in Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 213: “Paul’s objection is not to ritual law, but to exclusivist or particularist attitudes which came to expression in and are reinforced by certain rituals.  Not the rituals as such, but the attitude behind them, expressed typically as a ‘boasting’ in works of the law (Rom 2:17-23; 3:27ff).”

[11] For a discussion of Paul’s conversion from violence to nonviolence, see Michael Gorman, “‘While We Were Enemies’: Paul, the Resurrection, and the End of Violence,” in Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 129-60.

[12] Douglas Harink, “Paul and Israel: An Apocalyptic Reading,” Pro Ecclesia 16.4 (2007), 376.

[13] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 436: “The ‘sinful passions that came through the law’ are to be differentiated from sensual passions or human weaknesses because the allusions to Paul’s own previous experiences as a competitively zealous Pharisee and an opponent of the church seems so clear.  How else is one to explain the extraordinary role of law in promoting sinful passions rather than, as traditionally believed, holding them in check?”

[14] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 51.

[15] This motif of participation in Jesus is central in Michael Gorman’s account of Paul’s view of salvation in Gorman, Inhabiting.

5 thoughts on “10. God’s Saving Justice: Paul and Salvation

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  4. Richard UK

    Thank you for this most interesting article.

    1. I agree whole-heartedly that God is concerned with restorative not retributive justice (though God’s apparent OT retributive commands remain unanswered – perhaps mimetic theory helps here?). Most significantly this rules out Penal Substitution in favor of Christus Victor. However PS theory surely always finds a way of returning as long as we translate dikaiosyne as justice rather than righteousness

    2. I can’t go with the NPP on ‘works of the law’ as limited to national boundary markers, I would suggest that Galatians, written to Gentiles, is much more profound than that, and excludes what is now called the third use of the law. It has the same parallel sweep as has Hebrews (written to Jews) which is of course nothing to do with ‘boasting’ or ‘exclusivity’ .


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