Justification, Righteousness, and Other Little Words
Romans 3:19-24, 27-28
February 22, 2015 (1 Lent)
These days I find myself turning off the news reports more than I used to. It’s just too hard to listen. The news about the execution by immolation of the Jordanian pilot reminded me of an essay by Phillip Yancey about post-apartheid South Africa.
In 1995, the late South African President Nelson Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the official government panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would hear the testimony of the victims of apartheid violence and offer forgiveness to its perpetrators. Mandela created the TRC to defuse the cycle of violence and revenge that he knew too well. The rules of the TRC were simple: is a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. There was obvious injustice in this willingness to let criminals go free, but Mandela knew that his country needed healing more than it needed justice.
At one hearing, Yancey reports, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident in which he participated in the shooting of an 18 year old boy. Eight years later, he and others returned to the same house and executed the boy’s father in the same way the Jordanian pilot was recently killed.
The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked her. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded in agreement.
Then she added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.
Justice was not done in South Africa that day, nor in the entire country during months of agonizing procedures by the TRC. Something beyond justice took place.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” Paul writes in the 12th chapter of his Letter to the Romans. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And then he quotes Deuteronomy “Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.”
Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome is probably the last of his letters in our Bible, and it is perhaps the greatest and most influential of all his writings. Certainly it is the most theologically influential. It has inspired several great religious thinkers, and through them, the great reformations of Christianity over the centuries.
- Augustine was moved by it and developed the doctrine of Original Sin from it.
- Martin Luther found spiritual rebirth through it, and led the protesting movement that produced Protestantism.
- John Wesley’s transformative experience came after hearing a preacher speak on the Letter to the Romans, and Methodism developed as a result of that transformation.
- The great 20th century German theologian Karl Barth woke the ivory tower theologians from their academic sleep with his interpretation of Romans in light of the growing Nazi power of his homeland.
We will be getting just a taste of this profound, important – and occasionally incomprehensible – book of the Bible in our Lenten worship services. And Gateway group members will be tackling it in their small group sessions. This morning we had our first Overview Session and I hope I didn’t terrify them all. Usually I hand out a 3 or 4 page summary of the book of the Bible that we’re studying. The summary of Romans was 8 pages long, and that was basically just the first 8 chapters!
So here we are in chapter 3. Paul has spent the first 2 chapters making sure that none of his hearers or readers has a leg to stand on when it comes to feeling good about themselves. You Gentiles, he says, may not have had the Law, the Torah, to guide you – but God reveals what is good and right in the natural world, and you have not followed those rules. You Jews, he says, have even less of an excuse. You have the Law, and yet you have not remained faithful to it. “There is no one who is righteous,” he quotes the Psalms, “not…even…one.”
While Paul’s complex language and ancient rhetorical techniques might not appeal to all of us, we know that the world is a mess. That’s why we turn off the news reports. And it doesn’t take much thought for most of us to admit that at least some of that mess has our fingerprints on it. Maybe not the mess that makes the news, but who among us can say we have nothing at all to do with environmental damage, or racism, or family strife?
Sometimes we can draw a straight line from something we did to some harm that happened to another. Most of the time, the lines are messier than that. We are part of systems that are broken, so we are not the only ones responsible. Or it’s not that we did something; it’s that we failed to act when an action might have helped someone else, or we tried to help and we made things worse.
So we arrive with Paul at that deeply uncomfortable spot: there is no one who is righteous, not…even…one. And we cannot move ourselves past it. Each one of us listening to this letter is staring at our shoes and wishing it would be over soon.
And then he says “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Romans 3:21). And we have to wonder, “Is this good news…or bad news?” If no one is righteous, not even one, then a righteous God might just decide to give up on the human project altogether.
Paul continues, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22b-24).
And now you might truly give up all hope and decide to spend your Sunday mornings at the local Starbucks reading the newspaper where the news might be bad, but the words, at least, make sense. Because these words don’t.
Justification, righteousness, redemption, atonement, sacrifice. What do they mean? How do they apply to me, to us? What good news, if any, is hidden in this theological jargon?
Bill Chu and Galen Goodwin will be preaching with me as part of this series on Romans, and I can’t predict what their messages will be. But I think it’s safe to assume that all of us will be unpacking a lot of vocabulary. Every human enterprise has its own lexicon – technology, food, law, education, music, medicine – theology is no different. And as many of you might know from the vocabulary spheres you inhabit, often the long words can be boiled down to much shorter ones.
- In medicine, if something is contraindicated, it’s a bad idea.
- In music, ritardando is slow down, and molto ritardando is slow down more.
- In education (I just learned this!), an extended learning opportunity is homework.
- In the legal world, arbitrary and capricious means wrong.
So here’s the short, quick version of the three Pauline vocabulary words that you need to know to make sense of today’s passage:
My theology professors might take away my degrees for saying this, but the fact is that two of our words mean basically the same thing. “Justification” and “righteousness” aren’t identical, but they’re darn close. And for our purposes, that’s good enough. And the best way to know what they mean is to think of justification as justified…you know, what you do to the margins of your word document to make it look official. (It’s so much easier to explain this now that we almost all use computers to write!)
When we justify our margins we even everything out, we make the ragged edges smooth. That’s what God does to us when God justifies us. God evens out everything in our ragged lives. Where we have made jagged swerves toward good and bad, God applies a steady line of good. Where we are inconsistent in our ethics and inconstant in our faith, God makes it all right. That’s another way of thinking of righteousness – being put in right relation with God by God.
Redemption is also easier to grasp when you think of it in ordinary terms. When you redeem something, you recapture its value. Think of a coupon or a returnable bottle. The store or the manufacturer buys them back from you. They are worth something.
In Christ Jesus, God redeems not coupons or bottles, but people. Paul didn’t have to look far for an example. He himself had tried to do the right thing and ended up persecuting the church. The book of Acts tells us that when the deacon, Stephen, was martyred, the men doing the killing laid their cloaks at the feet of the young man we know as Paul, and he “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). The world is this way, and it should not be. Paul had been on the wrong side of God’s righteousness. And God’s response? The Lord Jesus found him on the road to Damascus and redeemed him for something better.
Jesus’ whole ministry was dedicated to this kind of buying back.
- He healed people and gave them back to their families.
- He ate with tax collectors and other sinners, people everyone else had already written off as a loss, and gave them back their value.
- In his life, his death and his resurrection, he restored all of us to our true worth, so that we could love God and our neighbors, passing the deal of a lifetime on to them.
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now evened up, made right with God, by his grace as a gift, through the buy-back that is in Christ Jesus.”
But the most important words in this passage from Romans are not “justification” or “righteousness” or “redemption” or even “sacrifice by atonement” (which we’re not going near in this sermon, or we’ll be here past noon). The most important words are two very short ones, one syllable each “But…now…”
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…through faith in - or through the faith of - Jesus Christ. Which means “But now…apart from law…there is grace.”
But now. All of what these words means are not just for back then, they are for now, for us! This new relationship that God makes happen through Jesus is in the present tense.
This is God's power of reformation and transformation, as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth all realized. We don’t have to try harder in order for this transformation to happen. In fact, our striving has hidden and distorted the very justification of our lives that we seek. To be "justified by God's grace as a gift" is God's work, not ours.
But now, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more: no amount of spiritual exercises or practices or renunciations; no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries or divinity schools; no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.
But now, there is nothing we can do to make God love us less: no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even executions in the name of religion.
But now, God’s even-ing-out has been revealed, coming through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…. Our ragged margins are straightened out; we are made right with God; we are bought back and given the value that rightly belongs to us, the inestimable value of beloved children of God.
Brothers and sisters, from nursery school on we are taught how to succeed in the world.
- The early bird gets the worm.
- No pain, no gain.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch.
- Demand your rights.
- You get what you pay for.
We all know these rules because we all live by them. We work for what we earn; we like winning; we insist on our rights. We want people to get what they deserve – for the good they have done and the evil they have done.
Yet what we hear from Paul, as we hear from Jesus, is that we do not get what we deserve. We deserve punishment – all of us – and get forgiveness. We deserve wrath, and get love. We deserve debtor’s prison and get instead a clean credit history. We sit in the witness stand expecting the worst, and instead God comes to us as a mother, arms open to embrace us, so we can know the forgiveness is real.
Mary Hinkle Shore, Commentary on Romans 3:19-28, Posted on WorkingPreacher.org, October 27, 2013. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1838
David Tiede, Commentary on Romans 3:19-28, Posted on WorkingPreacher.org, October 30, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1109
Philip Yancey, Grace Notes: Daily Readings with a Fellow Pilgrim. Zondervan, 2009.