by Rachel Tulloch
A reflection on Romans 3:9-31
Wine Before Breakfast
Originally Delivered October 10, 2006
It was all over the news when the gunman entered the one-room Amish schoolhouse killing five girls and wounding several more. This was evil. I remember clearly when I was told that four men had grabbed my 14 yr. old friend on her way home and dragged her to a deserted field to assault her.
This was evil. When we think about events like this which seem all too frequent in our world, evil is easy to identify and easy to become angered at. We look at those who commit these horrible things and quote along with Paul,
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
And, at the time Paul wrote this letter, many of the Jews were quite happy to affirm these things about the Gentiles in general. For them too, evil was something that could be easily identified and condemned. “The wicked” which are being referred to in most of the psalms Paul is quoting here in vs. 10-18 were of course Gentile pagans.
But by including a quote from Isaiah 59, Paul turns things on their heads just as he has been doing so carefully since the first chapter. He joins the prophets and insists that Israel itself was caught right in the middle of the mess.
Isaiah 59 is the only quote here that originally referred to the chosen people, but Paul lumps these quotes all together and applies them all right across the board. There is no one righteous, not even one. Evil is not just something “out there” which we can point to, but we are all caught up in it, every last one of us.
When The Times invited well-known authors to write essays on the theme, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Christian journalist GK Chesterton’s response was the shortest of all. He wrote
But we seem to find this evil so much harder to identify. It is much easier to locate the problem outside ourselves, in another person, another group, another religion, another system, another nation.
Now, Paul is not locating sin purely in individual guilt here. The brokenness of the world affects all of creation; it affects our structures and institutions as well. But he wants it to be perfectly clear that there is no one who is not complicit in this. There is no one righteous, not even one.
How do we respond to this?
Is it one more religious guilt mechanism to manipulate us and hold us captive? Or, rather, should we be thankful that we are all in this broken mess together?
It can be liberating to realize that the way things are is not the way they are supposed to be—not in our lives or our communities or the structures and powers that hold us in bondage.
Jews and Gentiles, us and them, Canadians and Afghans, you and me – we’re all in this together! But, thankfully, we are not only in the sin thing together.
Not only have we all fallen short of the glory of God – the glory we were meant to display as God’s image-bearers on this earth – not only are we all broken and sinful and complicit in violence and injustice.
But the good news in this passage is that we are all in the justification thing together too. We are all justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. We are all dependent on God to set things right.
As powerful as our unfaithfulness is, and Paul has not shrunk from describing that in detail the last few chapters, God’s faithfulness is more powerful still. And Jew and Gentile alike are in this together.
There is no distinction – all have sinned and all are justified freely by his grace.
So, this is primarily about the faithfulness of God, not about us. And this faithfulness is located in Jesus Christ. We failed to bear God’s image, we fell short of his glory, but Jesus lived as faithful humanity. Israel also fell short in its mission to the world, but Jesus lived as faithful Israel. And God presented him, this Jesus, as a sacrifice of atonement.
Verse 25 says it was because of God’s “forbearance” that he passed over the previous sins. God was patient with people. Nonetheless, if God had only passed over sins, and had not arrived to “demonstrate his justice”, this patience might just as well have been abandonment.
Because of the depth of our brokenness, because of how messed up Paul has shown that we are, being left to ourselves would have been our destruction. But God did not leave us to destroy ourselves and others and his creation. He has come to set things right.
In order to be righteous to us who are not righteous it meant suffering. In order for him to be faithful to us whose feet are swift to shed blood, it meant we would shed his blood. In order to be with us who are broken and dying, he would be broken and die.
This is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ; this is the justice of God.
God has not left us but has come to us. God has come to set things right. The way things are is not the way things will always be.
But is Paul saying something else to us here as well?
If we focus on the faithfulness of Jesus, are we not also called to embody that faithfulness in our lives and in our communities? We are called to have this faith too. And that means unity.
If Jews and Gentiles are in the sin thing together and the justification thing together, what could be important enough to keep them apart? They are both justified by the same faith. While Jews had often used Torah and circumcision as boundary markers, to separate and define themselves over and against the other nations, Paul will have none of this boasting. It is excluded. Justification by faith is the basis for a profound sense of unity.
Sadly, as God’s people, we have often taken what was meant for inclusion and used it to exclude. How often has justification by faith replaced the law as our own boundary-marker, to mark who’s in and who’s out?
How many times have we used it for division instead of for unity? Although there are some very healthy signs in the church today, I think we’d all agree that we have a long way to go.
To those who are on the outside, God’s faithful “I love you” draws them in. To us who are, perhaps smugly, on the inside, God’s faithful “I love you” should compel us to respond to others in the same way.
Maybe we too, could use this passage as the rally call for inclusion and unity.
Paul asks the question, Is God not the God of Gentiles too? Of course, of Gentiles too. Perhaps this is a good question for us to practice as well. Is God not the God of that person, that group, that denomination, that nationality? Of course. And we are all justified by the same faith.
Do we then negate “justification” by this faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold it.