Father Callan’s Commentary on Romans 3:21-31

TRUE JUSTIFICATION AND SALVATION ARE GRATUITOUS GIFTS OF GOD BESTOWED ON ALL WHO BELIEVE IN CHRIST

A Summary of Romans 3:21-31

The Apostle now proceeds to show in the rest of the present chapter that, since the advent of Christ, the justice of God, i.e., justification independently of the Law, has by the grace of God been made manifest through the preaching of the Gospel.  And this mode of justification independent of the Law, and due only to faith and the grace of God, is not something new and contrary to the Law, but rather all along has been witnessed to and foretold by the Law and the Prophets. As St. Augustine says: Novum testamentum in vetere latet, vetus in novo patet. This justification is new only in the clearer declaration of the condition by which it is to be obtained, namely, through faith in Christ, and in the universality of its extension, which is to all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews.


Rom 3:21. But now without the law the justice of God is made manifest, being
witnessed by the law and the prophets.


Now
, i.e., under the Gospel dispensation.


The justice of God
is the same as that spoken of in Rom 1:17, which is given to every man, Jew or Gentile, provided he duly believe in Christ. This and the following verse give the key to the main argument of the whole Epistle.


Rom 3:22. Even the justice of God, by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon
all them that believe in him: for there is no distinction:


Even
(δέ = de) does not indicate opposition but rather introduces a further explanation of what is meant by the justice of God, namely, that justice which is given by God to man through faith in Jesus Christ, or through the faith of which Christ is the object. Justification is attributed to faith as to its root and foundation, not as to its formal cause, which is grace. This faith, therefore, which is the root and beginning of justification, is not something natural in man, not the result of natural favors or gifts, as the Pelagians taught, but the product and fruit of the grace of God.


Upon all
. These words are wanting in the oldest Greek MSS. and in some versions, but they are generally regarded as authentic, since they are in full conformity with the Apostle’s mode of speaking. Likewise the words in him are not represented in the Greek of some MSS. and in some copies of the Vulgate.


Rom 3:23. For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God.

All, Jews and Gentiles, have sinned and are in need of justification (see Rom 1:18-3:20), which all may have through faith in Jesus Christ.


The glory of God
(δοξης του θεου) may mean the glory of the elect in heaven (Cornely); or, by a metaphor, it may signify the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, of which sinners are deprived. Probably the phrase means here the good opinion which God has of the just (Cajetan, Lagrange). Sinners by their lack of grace, are in need of (υστερουνται), i.e., they are without, the favor and good opinion of God.


Rom 3:24. Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption, that is in
Christ Jesus,

Here the Apostle tells us that the justification, offered to Jews and Gentiles, by which they pass from a state of enmity to a state of friendship with God is freely, i.e., gratuitously, granted to all through the grace merited by Christ’s Redemption. It presupposes no right on man’s part, and hence cannot be merited either by his preceding faith or good works, as the Council of Trent has declared (Sess. VI. cap. 8). Acts of faith, hope, fear and other good works which precede justification are, nevertheless, good dispositions, necessary in adults, that come from the mercy and grace of God (Conc. Trid., Sess. VI. cap. 6).


By his grace
. God is the efficient cause of justification; grace, its formal cause; and the redemption of Christ, its meritorious cause (Conc. Trid., Sess. VI. cap. 7).


The redemption
, i.e., the ransom that was paid by Christ for our delivery from the slavery of sin. Our justification is gratuitous as regards ourselves, inasmuch as we have been able to merit nothing towards it; but it is not so with regard to Christ who has purchased us at the price of His own precious blood (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:15; 1 Cor 6:20; Gal 3:13).


Rom 3:25. Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in his
blood, to the shewing of his justice, for the remission of former sins,

Rom 3: 26. Through the forbearance of God, for the shewing of his justice in this time; that he himself may be just, and the justifier of him, who is of the faith of Jesus Christ.

In these two verses St. Paul continues to explain the nature of justification. Christ has not only paid our ransom, but has also expiated for us.


25. Whom God hath proposed
(προεθετο), i.e., God in His eternal designs has determined to exhibit publicly, on the cross, Jesus Christ, as a propitiation, or victim of expiation, who, by virtue of the shedding of His blood, has satisfied for our sins, thus appeasing the wrath of God and reconciling man to God.


Propitiation
. The Greek word (ἱλαστήριον = hilastērion) may signify either a propitiation or a propitiator; and in this latter sense it is found in the Old Itala and Syriac versions, and it is preferred by some interpreters. Most probably, however, the term here means propitiation, or rather, an instrument of propitiation, or of expiation. God set forth Jesus as an instrument of propitiation and expiation towards Himself; and “through faith” the sinner has access to the fountain of expiation which is in the blood of Jesus Christ glorified. Faith is the means through which the fruits of Christ’s expiation are applied to men; the blood of Christ was the means by which God effected the propitiation.


26.  To the shewing
, etc. The purpose, or final cause of this expiation wrought by the blood of Christ was to manifest God’s eternal justice which, outraged by sin, demanded an adequate satisfaction, but which, in times past, was not sufficiently manifested, being held, as it were, in abeyance by His mercy and patience, thus permitting sins to pass unpunished, in order to exhibit more clearly in this present time that He is just in Himself (in demanding an adequate satisfaction for sin), and to render just him who believes in Christ. The Apostle, therefore, considers two epochs: (a) that before the time of Christ, the time of ignorance (Acts 17:30), when God, with the exception of a few instances, like the Deluge and the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, bore with sin in patience; and (b) that of the present time, after the coming of Christ, when God’s eternal justice is clearly vindicated by the bloody immolation of Christ on the cross, and the sins of men are washed away through faith in that same blood of Christ.

According to the foregoing interpretation “the justice of God” means both God’s attribute of justice (verse 25), which in times past was held in abeyance, but in the shedding of Christ’s blood has been clearly manifested and satisfied, and the justice (verse 26) which God communicates to man, rendering him just, free from sin. This seems to be the most probable interpretation of the phrase as it occurs in both verses. Certainly “justice” in verse 26 is wider in its meaning than in the preceding verse (cf. Rom 1:17). Also, according to the interpretation given, the remissionem of the Vulgate (verse 25) should be rather praetermissionem.


Rom 3:27. Where is then thy boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.

Having proved that justification is not from the works of man, but is entirely due to the goodness of God and the merits of the blood of Christ, the Apostle now asks the Jews what they have to boast of; and he himself replies that their cause for boasting has been excluded; it has no further place.


By what law
. Better, “By what kind of law,” he further asks, is boasting done away with? By the law of works, i.e., the Old Law? No, certainly not; but by the New Law, i.e., the law of faith, which makes justification depend on faith in Jesus Christ, which faith, being a gratuitous gift of God, renders our pride and boasting impossible.

The Old Law did not remove every cause for boasting, because it required works; but the New Law requires only faith (as already explained), and faith is a gift of God requiring only acceptance on man’s part. Of course the Old Law was at all times powerless to confer the help needed for its faithful observance. This help, through grace, is amply conferred by the New Law. As St. Augustine says, “The law of works is that which commands what is to be done; the law of faith is faith itself, which obtains the grace to do what the law commands. The law of works is the old law; the law of faith, the new law. The law of works contains the precepts; the law of faith, the help. The law of works gives us light to know; the law of faith, the power to perform,” etc. (De spiritu et littera, 13, 21).


Rom 3:28. For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of
the law.


For
. The connective γαρ ( = gar, “For”) is here preferred by many of the best MSS. to the ουν (oun = “Therefore”) of the ordinary Greek.  St. Paul is not deducing an inference in this verse, but is rather appealing to the doctrine already established. Throughout this whole chapter he has been opposing faith to the works of the Mosaic Law. Therefore we should translate λογιζομεθα not by “we infer,” but by “we think,” “we hold.”


A man,
i.e., every man, Jew or Gentile.


To be justified by faith,
i.e., faith is the source, the beginning of every one’s justification (see on verse 22; Conc. Trid., Sess. VI. cap. 8). It is well known that Luther added here the word only to faith, thus altering the text and creating between faith only and faith with works, an opposition which is found nowhere (Lagrange.).


Without the works
, etc., i.e., apart from the works of the Mosaic Law, or, for that matter, any other works performed by man alone, without the aid of grace. Justification comes only through faith, and faith is a gratuitous gift of God. Clearly there is question here only of works which precede justification and which are performed without faith or grace,—of which works, whether they be of the Law or purely natural, it is affirmed that they cannot be the source of man’s justification. Even those good works preceding justification that are the result of grace cannot be said to merit justification. Works which accompany or follow justification, and which are performed by the aid of grace, are most surely not thought of in this present verse.

The Apostle, therefore, addressing his Jewish and Gentile readers, is speaking in this verse only of works done by the sole help of the Mosaic Law and of the natural law, without faith and without grace. The Jews thought their observance of the prescriptions of the Law of Moses was the source of their justification, while the Gentiles attributed their call to the faith to their philosophy and natural virtues.

That St. Paul never meant to teach anything opposed to the necessity of good works is evident (a) from the preceding chapter where he says (Rom 3:13) “that only the doers of the law shall be justified”; (b) from the Epistle to the Galatians (Gal 5:6) where he says that the only thing that availeth in Christ Jesus is “faith that worketh by charity”; (c) from the first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:2) where he says that faith is nothing without charity.


Rom 3:29. Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes,
of the Gentiles also.

Rom 3:30. For it is one God, that justifieth circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.

29, 30. In these verses St. Paul calls attention to the fact that God is the God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and that, being One, He will justify all in the same way, namely, through faith. If justification depended on the works of the Law of Moses, then God would be the God of the Jews only, for whom He provided the means of salvation, namely, the Law, and not of the Gentiles, who were deprived of those means.


Justifieth
, justificat (verse 30), should be future, “will justify,” justificabit (δικαιωσει).  The Apostle is speaking about the means through which God in future will justify all men.

The difference in the phrases by faith (εκ πιστεως) and through faith (δια της πιστεως) does not mark any real distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The different prepositions are used only to vary the style. Furthermore, the Apostle elsewhere (Gal 2:16; Gal 3:8) says that the Gentiles are justified “by faith” (εκ πιστεως = ek pisteos).


Rom 3:31. Do we, then, destroy the law through faith? God forbid: but we establish the law.

This verse is better connected with the following, than with what precedes in the present chapter. From the doctrine of justification through faith, so far explained, it might seem that the law, i.e., the whole economy of revelation in the Old Testament, was useless and devoid of all authority. But the Apostle vigorously rejects such a false conclusion, and declares, on the contrary, that the Law and the Prophets have all along foretold this justification by faith, independently of the works of the Law. Therefore this new mode of justification does not destroy, but rather confirms the teaching of the Old Testament. “Of old the Law and the Prophets have rendered testimony to faith. Therefore, in receiving the faith we show the true role of the Law” (Theodoret).

 

There are other explanations of the phrase, we establish the law: (a) In maintaining that the promises of God are fulfilled, we confirm the prophecies (Orig., Ambrst.); (b) grace permits the accomplishment of the law (Aug.). According to Fr. Lagrange these two explanations are to be rejected. The following chapter will show how “we establish the law.”

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