Summary: The law is important, but only in the context of grace.
APART FROM THE LAW
TEXT: Is. 40:1-5; Rom. 3:19-24
In the New Testament portion of our Daily Walk readings, we are moving from the book of Acts, which told us about the formation of the early church, into the writings of Paul. The writings of Paul in the New Testament begin with Romans, but they are not in chronological order.
Paul wrote the book of Romans while staying in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth, about 57 AD. He wasn’t just writing for the fun of it. After establishing churches throughout Asia Minor, Paul wants to go on to preach the Gospel in Spain. But he needs a support base that is closer than Jerusalem. Paul wants the church in Rome to support his mission to Spain, and so he composes this letter.
But Paul is at a disadvantage. He did not found the church in Rome, Peter did. Paul has never even visited the Roman church, and they know of him only what they have heard from others…stories that were often conflicting and sometimes not flattering. They are not quite sure what Paul believes, especially related to his own Jewish faith.
And that’s why Paul’s letter to the church in Rome reads more like a theological treatise than a letter. He is writing to explain what he believes. He needs to show the Gentile Christians that he accepts there faith as it is and to show the Jewish Christians that he doesn’t believe God is just a fickle deity that has given them over for a new love. He believes that once they grasp the depth of his faith in a God who is a God for all nations, that they will support his mission to Spain.
And so Paul launches into some of his most famous writing. He begins in the first two and a half chapters by painting a pretty bleak picture of humanity. If he is going to show that God has offered redemption to all, then he has to show that all are in need of that redemption. That makes the first two and a half chapters pretty nasty reading. Sin is heaped upon sin. He points out that God’s word has been written in Creation itself and so nobody alive on the planet can say they didn’t know what God wanted from them.
But nobody does it. The Jews who had the law in writing didn’t follow it, and those Gentiles who knew God through Creation didn’t get it either. Everybody’s in this sin thing together, he says. Nobody is righteous…nobody. The Law doesn’t help a single bit, it only shows us how far off the mark we are. Great. If you’re really reading what he says, you pretty much want to go out and hang yourself by chapter 3 verse 20.
And that’s why Romans 3:21 has had such power across the ages. For those who take their faith seriously, who are merciless with themselves in trying to do what is right and good and true, they read those first 2.5 chapters and know the truth of them. Martin Luther, whose break from the Catholic Church started the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, began his revolt at Romans 3:21. Through the medieval Catholic system of confession and penance, he had been trying with everything within him to do what was right. He was a Catholic priest. He believed in Jesus with all his heart and soul. He also believed the teaching of the church that you had to atone for all of your sins or face the fires of hell.
And so he tried. He tried confession and penance, but he worried that he might have committed a sin unknowingly and therefore would fail to confess it, leaving it unforgiven. He was in the confessional booth so often with mundane matters that his confessor told him to go out and do something worth confessing! He tried the mortification of his flesh, literally beating himself senseless in the hopes of pleasing a God who would otherwise judge him unworthy of heaven. But, through all of it, he kept his nose in the Bible. At the time, only the priests were allowed to read the Bible for themselves…only they were allowed to interpret for the people in the pews. Luther took that charge and that privilege seriously. He read. He read with prayer. He read to understand.
And as he read through the first 2.5 chapters of Romans, he read of his own condition…the impossible demands of the law and his own inability to do what was right. The more you knew the law, the more you realized how many different ways there were to sin. Luther was living that and he was right with Paul’s every word.
Then he read Romans 3:21 and the “But now” shouted out like the trumpets of heaven. “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 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.”