By Mark Scott
Every so often we notice a high watermark in the Bible. After all, the Bible is not flat. Certain passages of Scripture are quite telling and microcosms of the whole story of the Bible. Some examples might include Abraham’s test of faith in Genesis 22, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, or the golden text of the Bible in John 3:16-21. In the writings of the apostle Paul, those telling passages include 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, Ephesians 2:1-10, and our text today.
In recent years Pauline scholarship (The New Perspective on Paul research) has resurrected an old debate about God setting the world right by the faithfulness of Jesus or faith in Jesus. Which of those prepositional phrases is theologically correct? The debate does matter in helping us articulate how to tell someone the plan of salvation. But at the end of day God set the world right by both. God acted on our behalf by faithfully fulfilling his promise through Christ. But we must appropriate that gift of salvation by our faith in Christ. It is both/and; not either/or.
Our study of Romans has brought us to the point of conviction. The world is guilty of high treason against its Creator. How can things be set right? What is God’s role in setting those things right?
Faith of Christ
God presented Christ. He sent Jesus to be the expression of his faithfulness to Israel. Jesus faithfully fulfilled his saving mission. In fact, this new way of having things set right was actually anticipated in the Old Testament—the Law and the Prophets testified to how God would make things right. The contrast with the old way is captured in the phrase, But now. This is similar to “But . . . God” (Ephesians 2:4) and “But now” (v. 13).
God’s righteousness (his standard or justice) was given to the world through the faithfulness of Jesus. It is appropriated by faith. Both Jews and Gentiles can appropriate it because both groups need it. For all have sinned and fall short (are continuing to lack) the glory of God.
Paul went to his thesaurus to try to describe what happened the day that Jesus died on Calvary. He pushed language to the breaking point to describe God’s faithfulness in Christ. Paul went to the courtroom and picked up a legal term (justified), to the marketplace and picked up an economic term (redemption), and to the temple and picked up a sacrificial term (sacrifice of atonement or propitiation). All of these words paint pictures and make analogies to describe the faithfulness of Jesus to God’s mission. It all happened freely by God’s grace, but it was not cheap. It cost Jesus his blood.
Jews and Gentiles were in a dilemma due to sin, but God was also in a dilemma. How could God stay true to his character (sin demands punishment) and yet come to the aid of his creation? He had been patient in working his plan because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. The dilemma was solved by Jesus offering himself. Sin could be punished with its due penalty—death. But due to Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s mission and taking on that punishment, the sinner is set free (justified, redeemed, and propitiated).
Faith in Christ
Do humans cast a vote in salvation? Most assuredly. We cannot save ourselves, but we must appropriate this great Christ event by faith. We accept the testimony of those who witnessed these events. We respond to God by receiving Jesus for who he said he was—the Son of God. We commit to Christ and begin to obey everything he taught. This is not viewed as a work on our part (John 6:29). It is trust in the person of Christ and in the work that he did on Calvary.
Paul circled back to the tension in the church between Jew and Gentile and said some strange things about the law and faith. If this getting the world back through sacrifice is God’s business, can Jew or Gentile boast? Obviously no! But does this mean that the law (or the principle of faith) played no role for the Jew or Gentile in salvation? Obviously no! Jews and Gentiles are not saved by works of the law. Faith cannot leapfrog the law, but by placing faith in Christ and in his faithful work, all people can realize the fulfillment of the law in Jesus—much like an apple blossom fulfills itself in an apple. This sets things right.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.