Bible: Gospel of liberation from idols

July 10 — Romans 3:9-20; July 17 — Romans 3:21-31

Jul 4, 2016 by

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Romans 3 famously contains a dense theological argument.

Paul discusses the need for and provision of salvation in Jesus Christ. Paul has a simple purpose: That his readers, Jewish and Gentile Christians alike, find healing and witness in the heart of the world’s great empire to the transforming power of this gos­pel.

In Romans’ first two chapters, Paul introduces two kinds of idolatry: the lusts of the Romans and the works of the law of many Jews — both ways of asserting superiority.

When Paul summarizes his thoughts at 3:10, “there is no one who is righteous (or just), not even one,” he means not to insist that each individual person is a hopeless sinner (we saw at 2:14-15 that some Gentiles indeed “do instinctively what the law requires”) but to say that both kinds of idolatrous attempts to achieve superiority fail.

That is, both kinds of people worship idols. Both kinds live under the power of sin.

Paul speaks of himself when he thought he served God and the law by persecuting Jesus’ followers: “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law” (3:20).

But the law does remain helpful (3:20) as it helps us see when we worship idols (as it did in Amos when the prophet zeroed in on the false religiosity of the Israelites as contrasted with the law’s command to care for the poor, not exploit them).

This usefulness of the law surely continues in our day. Aren’t poverty, violence and oppression always signs that God’s law is being disregarded for the sake of some idol?

By developing this critique of idolatry and emphasizing that the problem affects all kinds of people, Paul’s agenda is not condemnation. Rather, it’s liberation.

Paul does not seek to impose on his readers feelings of guilt, shame and helplessness. Instead, he offers empowerment. This is because behind the problem lies the solution: We give up idols because God is merciful and trustworthy.

Paul starts his answer with a paradoxical statement: “The righteousness [or, better, “justice”] of God has been disclosed apart from the law, but it is attested by the law and prophets” (3:21). That is, the law [or, better, “works of the law”] as the basis for superiority and purity does not point to God’s justice. But the “law and prophets” [the biblical story of Israel] tells us that from the start.

The “justice of God” refers to God making things whole, bringing healing, liberating from bondage to idols. God did this out of God’s mercy before the commandments were given in Exodus. God did this in sustaining the promise throughout the story. And, now, profoundly, God does this in Jesus.

God “put forward” Jesus’ self-sacrificial life in order to make clear to all with eyes to see the nature of God’s justice (3:25). God has disclosed Godself as never before in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This revelation of the power of love stands in contrast with the “gospel” of the Roman Empire, which rests on power as domination.

The witness of the followers of Jesus that Paul wants to encourage is one that rests on humility about our human achievements. We have no place for boasting (3:27) — that is, no place for ethnic, political or religious superiority.

Paul concludes by affirming that God is the God of Jews and Gentiles (3:29). Just as there is no distinction in sinfulness, so there is no distinction in the gift of salvation. To trust in this gift upholds the law.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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