We continue by exmaining Paul’s view of judgement:
The first generation of Christians thought that Jesus return and thus God’s judgement was close. The questions the Thessalonians asked Paul that he answered in 1Thessalonians 4 that we already studied shows it (but many other passages reveal it too). But as years and decades rolled by, Christians had more time to think about God’s judgement especially in light of the Crucifixion/Resurrection duo. In their reflexion/investigation, that we have in the NT, the idea that God will repay each one according to his works is still in the air (Romans 2,6).
But it is greatly modified: through three and half chapters of his letter to the Romans (between 1,18 and 4,25) Paul describes God’s Justice starting from the OT view and putting it in the perspective of the Cross. The result is astonishing! Romans 3,21-28
But now, apart1 from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets.
The righteousness of God is through faith in [of] Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption2 that is in Christ Jesus. God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law?, By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
Reading v 21 we have to realize how awesome this sentence is. It states that the righteousness of God can be found somewhere else than in the (or a) Law! How can a jew say that God can also defines what is right in an other reference than a law? Paul says a bit later in v31: Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
v22 also is awesome! but needs its following context, otherwise it can be badly interpreted.
In v23 Paul says that because of sin everyone fall short of the Glory of God. Can falling short of the glory of God be considered as "a judgement"? No if we take it as a verdict, but yes if we take it as a consequence. The Glory of God is the presence3 of God. Falling short of the glory is to loose the presence, or the contact with God. So all of us need to be released from sin if they want to find back the glory/presence of God.
God freely offers this deliverance (v24). It is free for us, but not for God: its cost is the blood of Jesus.
Paul says twice that God presented Jesus (v25 and 26).
He presented him as mercy seat (greek ἱλαστήριον - hilasterion) which refers to the ark in the temple and described the exact place where God and humanity could get in contact. So Jesus is presented as the place of contact between God and man, the place where the glory of God can be found.
And God also presented Jesus to demonstrates his righteousness. But is it possible to say that God wanted to demonstrate that he is righteous? Is not being righteous one of his characteristics as God? This is here that God shows how humble he is and this is also here that we are called to realize how different God’s justice is from human justice. Think about this: if justice consists in repaying each one according to his or her deeds, then our God of grace is not just because according to this definition: grace in unjust! So Paul thinks that God had to demonstrate that grace does not lead to injustice, as God did not forget past & present sins, but that he forgives past & present sins.
Ans this is the blood of Jesus-Christ that proves that grace is justice. Not because someone paid for someone else (this would not be justice neither) but because it proves that the old scheme of God rescuing his people, that was already dipslayed in the OT narrative, is the true foundation of justice.
As we have said, when justice has been violated, it can only be restored. And the only way to restore justice when an irreversible (bad) action is done, is... forgiveness. And when it comes to sin, which is an impairment to our relationship with God, we need God’s forgiveness. The blood of Jesus is the proof of God’s will to forgive and to base justice on forgiveness not on repaying what we owe, i.e. not on retributive justice. Jesus died to give us assurance that God is with us and for us. (Romans 8,31-33).
I said that this scheme was already in the OT: in Judges 3,7–9 we read
The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; they forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and he sold them to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim,, and the Israelites served him eight years. The Israelites cried out to the Lord. So the Lord raised up Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s youngest brother as a deliverer to save the Israelites.
This pattern consisting in abandoning God then being abandoned by God and dominated by an another nation and then crying to the Lord to be delivered is repeated over and over again throughout the history of the Judges (3,2–15; 4,1–3; 6,1–6; 10,6–10) , but also throughout the history of Israel.
God’s patience, God’s kindness, God’s mercy are God’s justice. When God waits despite sin (Romans 3,25), he does justice. When he brings salvation, he does justice. When he forgives he does justice. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, God wants to show that his justice is not what we think justice is. And God’s justice is always available provided that we accept it the way it is and not as how we would like it to be.
For us, we cannot demonstrate our righteousness, for the simple reason that we are not righteaous! We can only accept rieghteousness as a gift from God. How to accept it? By faith: it is faith that justifies us, which means it makes us just :it restores justice in us.
It also means that we can refuse God’s gift of righteousness by the contrary of faith (as the Israelites in Judges). And how is characterized this "anti-faith"? if we look at Romans 3,21-26 again as in a photographic negative, anti-faith is characterized by:
- saying we have no sin (1John 1,8),
- and/or trying to demonstrate our righteousness (boast v27-28 — justify ourselves),
- and/or refusing our need of God’s forgiveness (often proved by refusing to get in a process of forgiving others — see Matthew 18,23-35).
All these negative attitudes toward truth leads us to try to get healed from sin damages by our own means, to resort justice and get saved by ourselves (v24 — we can be justified only by free4 grace).
Finally the principle of this passage is that judgment is not about what we have done, it’s not about sin in itself. But it is about grace and how we respond to it: accept it or refuse it. And that is not easy.
1 χωρίς (chôris) should not be translated by "without" even if it would technically be possible. This adverb comes from the idea of a "new land to be explored" so the idea of Paul is to show that it is possible to think beyond the law, and that the law is not the only standard, there is one that goes beyond it, that even the law talks about. This new land to be explored is faith.
2 ἀπολύτρωσις (apolutrôsis) means deliverance or release. Redemption is an old religious world that is difficult to understand today.
3 In Hebrew, the glory translate the word כָּבוֹד (kavod) that contains the idea of density, or weight. It is often associated with the cloud that was on mount Sinaï or in the tent or in the temple, places were God was meant to be.
4 Grace can only be free, it is part of its definition. Free grace is therefore a tautology. I added the adjective free to insist on the fact that humans cannot obtain it from their works as if they could undo the actions that led them to become unrighteous. Paul used the insisting tautology too.