I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 54, Proverbs 5, and Romans 4–6.
Romans is just flat packed with theological profundities. Word for word, I am hard pressed to think of any other document with such depths. Not for nothing has it often been called the greatest letter ever written. Paul’s incredible intellect is on full display throughout the letter, dedicated entirely to one end: that his readers would see and delight in the work of God in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah through whom salvation came to all nations.
I read Romans 4–6 tonight, and I hardly know where to begin in responding to all the truths layered throughout these chapters. Paul spends most of these first chapters dwelling on the doctrine of justification. How, he asks, can unrighteous people stand before a holy God? And how can a holy God let them? These are not new questions for the Scriptures—they are, in some sense, some of the oldest. From the moment that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and in so doing sundered themselves from their maker, God has been showing mercy and restraint toward we people who are ever in rebellion against him. He made a way for often-failing Israel to nonetheless be in a covenant relationship with him throughout the Old Testament years, and he laid out the pattern: blood for blood, life for life, every sin requiring payment. Yet the blood of bulls and goats was not exactly a perfect substitute for a human being. God passed over sins because he was merciful and kind and longsuffering—but he is also just, and justice must be done.
It is with all this as a(n often-referenced) backdrop that Paul lays out his doctrine of justification. Having shown in chapter 3 that Jesus is the answer to the problem of sinful people standing before a righteous God, Paul arcs out and back again over and over again through these chapters to the glorious reality that in Christ, we stand perfectly justified before God. God counts us righteous because Christ was righteous on our behalf, died on our behalf, and was raised on our behalf.1
Paul goes out to Abraham’s justification by faith in God, hammering away at any notion that Abraham was justified by his circumcision or any other good deed and pointing instead to his trust in God, born out by obedience. Then he arcs back in to look at Jesus’ death and resurrection and our response of faith. Then he zooms back out again to the history of salvation in Adam’s trespass and back in to Christ’s work to redeem humanity in every way that it was cursed in Adam. In chapter 6, he applies these truths at a doctrinal level: justification is not license to sin, but grounds for and the basis of empowerment to obey. Paul returns to this theme at length in the end of the book, but he wants it made clear here: the death and resurrection of Christ do not give us cause to embrace antinomianism, but instead lead us to the obedience of faith, just as it did in Abraham.2
All of this discussion of what Paul says—good though it is—can mask the beauty and the magnificence of his proclamations, though. As John Piper has commented: the God revealed in these pages is worthy of more than mere intellectual analysis. He must be proclaimed, and Paul is proclaiming him—
It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Christ is risen from the dead! He has trampled down sin and death. He has made atonement for us. He has been born and lived and died a man, tempted like us in every respect yet without sin, but dying he did not stay dead! He has been declared the Son of God with power (Romans 1:4) and raised from the dead to show the surety of our faith and our hope. Hallelujah!
Romans 4:25 is one of those verses that surprises we crucicentric evangelicals: it says that Jesus was delivered up (i.e. to the cross) for our trespasses and raised for our justification. We have no justification before God apart from Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Indeed, the resurrection of Christ is woven through Romans as one of the central themes, too often overlooked by evangelicals, from the very introduction of the book (cf. Romans 1:4).↩
This theme of obedience also runs throughout the book. Again, evangelicals can be quick to point to the idea that we are saved by faith, apart from any work of the law, and given the rest of the book of Romans, this is a truth we heartily embrace, and in which we should rejoice. But the faith in view, as James reminds us in his epistle, is not a sort of abstract, intellectual affirmation or an emotional rush of good feeling toward God. It is belief that produces obedience; if it does not produce obedience, it is not real faith and we remain unjustified.↩