"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
In this chapter Paul gives a diagnosis of the human condition "under the power of sin" (3:9). In more than three dozen references to sin throughout the epistle he only twice speaks of particular acts of sin (3:25; 4:7). In all other cases Paul seems to be thinking of sin as a pervasive power that can only be overcome by the power of God. As we will see under Paul's use of the word flesh in 7:14-25, our instincts are warped by the sin that impacts us from all directions of the world around us.
3:1 If the reality of circumcision is a heart open to God (see 2:25- 29), what is the point in being circumcised? Some Christians like the Quakers and the Salvation Army have said the same of baptism. Why not allow everyone in the world to look to the agency of the Spirit without the tedious rituals, constraints, and hypocrisies of our denomination?
3:2 The answer is that the Jewish Church was marked off by circumcision and "entrusted with the oracles of God." Similarly the Christian Church is marked off by baptism, and we translate, publish, read, expound, commend, and make visible in our liturgy the Scriptures which God has entrusted to us for the whole world.
3:3-4 The Old Testament is the story of the Jewish nation. Every nation has a history, and God could have picked the Old Testament of any other nation. The Jewish story was chosen because the Son of God would eventually take birth among them. And the Old Testament has the merit of never whitewashing the power of sin among its saints, such as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. It also exposes for all to read the terrible results of the power of sin in a nation. But the failures of Israel do not in any way count against the faithfulness of God.
3:5-7 But if God's purposes are still achieved even when Jews (and Christians) have failed miserably, why should God assign wrath consequences if we behave badly? One answer is that the nations cannot learn from the Jewish (or Christian) Church if the bearers of the oracles of God (3:2) are not judged.
3:8 No parent will allow a child to think that, having been forgiven and still loved, the best way to enjoy the love of his parents is to do "evil so that good may come." Rather a child grows into the freedom in a loving family by learning the consequences of good and bad behavior. Similarly God intends to free us as children by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15,16; Galatians 5:1; as also in John 8:34-36). And we should assume that all the wrath consequences of a loving God are with that in mind.
3:9 This is the conclusion of Paul's first explanation (1:18-3:8). "We have already charged that all both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin." And the good news is that there is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (1:16).
3:10-18 As Paul will do again and again, he illustrates his point with a series of quotes from the Psalms and other Old Testament books. These are not used as proof texts, but to define sin as the failure to be righteous, to understand, seek after and turn to God, show kindness, and know the way of peace (see repentance in 2:4).
His use of the Septuagint Greek version, and his own freer translation from the original Hebrew, encourages us to use the translation that is most appropriate for our hearers.
3:19-20 All that law can do is point out our inability to please God. The solution is not to find rules to obey, but to turn to the power of God to work in our heart to put us right. Unfortunately when the New Testament was translated into Latin the Roman law court term justificio was used, and this came into our English versions with the words justify and justification. But throughout the epistle we will see that Paul is not concerned for a merely legal acquittal, but for us to be put right by the power of the Spirit.
So this illustrates that although translation from the original is necessary, it can also saddle us with ideas which may not have been in the mind of the original writers. This is why Bible translators need to compare the way the words work in our generation with the sense that seems to have been intended by each writer.
The word "faith" comes eight times in this section (3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 30, 31). The Holy Spirit is not mentioned because faith is a looking to Jesus Christ. But a life-giving faith in the Son of God includes an openness to his empowering (1:16). In the parable of the Vine the faith or abiding is in the Son, but it is the Holy Spirit, corresponding to the sap in the branch, who is the life-giving power for fruit bearing.(John 15:1-5) A branch can be connected with the tree without the tree being able to come into the branch. So the life-giving empowering of the Spirit will be the heart of the epistle in Romans 8:1-13.
3:21 Having come to a knowledge of sin (3:20), and knowing there is no way we can right ourselves, we wonder what good news God may have for us? We discover a way of being put right by God prophesied in some of the Old Testament books. We have already noted references to heart circumcision (2:25-29). There are also the great promises of what the Holy Spirit of God will do through the Messiah (Isaiah 59:21; 61:1-3; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Ezekiel 36:26- 27; 37:14; Joel 2:28-29).
3:22 So we accept God's way of putting us right through faith. In the next chapter we will see how Abraham was empowered by faith in God. Now since the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God we can more easily focus our faith on him.
3:23 In the introduction to 3:1-21 we saw how "all have sinned" does not refer to individual acts of sin, but to the outworking of the sin that grips our humanity. Instead of the perfections of God's kind of love as children of God, we fall short of that glory by our ordinary fleshly life (explained in 7:14-25) apart from the creative Spirit of God.
3:24 The only way to be put right and perfected to love is by the grace that is given to us freely by Christ Jesus. In our model that grace is the power of the Holy Spirit and it results in our redemption. Here the focus of redemption is not on the amount paid but on the fact that we are now freed (this is the sense of the Exodus redemption in Luke 1:68; see Hebrews 2:14-15).
3:25 Discussions of the meaning of the atonement throughout church history have focused on the problematic meaning of this verse. The NRSV "sacrifice of atonement" is one translation of the Greek term which could mean an expiation to propitiate an angry God, as in Greek religion. But how could we picture the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus propitiating the anger of God our Father? The cross of Jesus was certainly a sacrifice with deeper meanings which we cannot fathom, and which Paul does not explain. In this commentary we are concentrating on a result which Paul defines as "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5:5).
There are some mysterious words in John's Gospel, "For as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:39). With the death and resurrection of Jesus there is a change in the way the power of the Spirit impacts on the world. Obviously the Spirit was already moving in the lives of individuals in the Old Testament. After the crucifixion, resurrection , and ascension the Holy Spirit is now poured out in churches among all nations. But why did the cross of Good Friday have to precede the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost?
In the Introduction we noted that every key event in the life of Jesus (conception, baptism, temptation, preaching, casting out demons, healing) was by the Holy Spirit. The final sacrifice was an awful death as his life blood drained away. That perfect sacrifice was also offered by the Spirit. "How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works" (Hebrews 9:14).
In the Old Testament death (going down into sheol) had no way out. But Jesus did not need to die. Surely if Enoch and Elijah went straight to heaven without going through death, it would have been possible for the perfect Son of God to do so (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11) But Jesus went voluntarily into his own death, a death caused by the sin of our world, with faith in the power of the Holy Spirit (John 10:18) to take him through to the other side. By that sacrificial death and resurrection death has lost its sting, and "the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45, 55).
This explanation in terms of the Spirit certainly does not exhaust the full meaning of Christ's sacrificial death, or the mystery of the Greek word hilastyrion in 3:25. In the conclusion we will need to see how other results of the cross, for example those set out in the Epistle to the Hebrews, relate to the model we are using.
3:26 The end of the verse could also be translated "the one who has the same faith as Jesus." If this was correct it would mean that Christian faith is the same as Jesus' faith in the power of the Spirit. It is faith not only to take us through death, but to triumph in all the other traumas and evils this side of death. This will connect with the idea of baptism into Jesus' death in 6:3-6.
3:27-30 In the words of Harriet Auber's hymn about the work of the Spirit ("Our blest Redeemer"), "Every virtue we possess, and every victory won, and every thought of holiness, are his alone." That leaves no room for us to boast of our spiritual achievements (a fuller theology of this is set out in Ephesians 2:1-10). Also it means that all nations can be put right by faith alone without the rules of Jewish law (3:28-29; Galatians 3:1-5).
3:31 Does that overthrow the moral standards of the ten commandments? Certainly not. It is precisely by faith in the Son of God, and our openness to the power of the Spirit to change us, that we can produce the fruits that are required.