Forgiveness of sins in Romans

The thesis I am exploring in these articles on the forgiveness of sins is that Jesus is primarily understood to have died for the redemption of Israel, as part of a corporate and political—rather than a personal and existential—narrative. The diagrams in this post illustrate the distinction. Jews and Gentiles, as individuals, receive forgiveness of sins, apart from the requirements of the Law, when they come to believe in this narrative about the unfolding kingdom of God and abandon their godless ways of life.

Paul does not speak of the forgiveness of sins as such in Romans, but his argument about justification and faith in chapters 3-5 obviously needs to be considered. I have set out previously my reasons for thinking that when he says in Romans 3:25 that God put Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood”, he means as a propitiation for the sins of Israel. I want to develop the case further here, though of necessity only in outline.

1. Paul is speaking as a Jew to Jews in this section (Rom. 3:1, 9; 4:1), and there is no reason to think that this rhetorical frame does not extend all the way through to the end of chapter 5. I agree with Käsemann and Barrett that much of the content of the opening chapters of Romans reflects the countless heated dialogues with the Jews that Paul would have had in the course of his apostolic ministry.1

2. The premise is that the Jews, despite all their advantages, have proved themselves to be no less sinful than the Gentiles; they are, therefore, also liable to the wrath of God (Rom. 3:5; cf. 9:22). If God is to judge the Greek-Roman world, he must first hold his own people accountable.

3. The Jews are not in the same position as the Gentiles: they are under the Law. The Law accuses them of sinfulness (Rom. 3:10-20). “The Law brings wrath; but where there is no Law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15; cf. 5:14).

4. God will not go down with the sinking ship of first century Israel. He has been shown to be righteous apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus (Rom. 3:21-22).2

5. Because this “righteousness of God” has been manifested apart from the Law, those who believe in the fact, whether Jews or Gentiles, may be justified by the grace of God, as a gift, freely, without works of the Law (Rom. 3:24, 28). This is effectively the argument that we find in Ephesians 2:11-16.

6. This justification of Jews and Gentiles alike by the grace of God is “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25). Here is the crux of the matter.

7. The argument needs to be followed through. Why did God put Jesus forward as a propitiation? Because up until that point he had overlooked previously committed sins, which had brought into question his integrity, his “rightness”. The reputation of Israel’s God in the ancient world had been seriously compromised, in the first place, by the spiritual and moral corruption of Israel (cf. Rom. 2:24), but, secondly, by the fact that he had done nothing to deal with this backlog of sin His people had gone unpunished for too long. It is important to keep this historical and eschatological dimension in view.

8. The word for “propitiation”, hilastērion, evokes the annual Day of Atonement ritual, when atonement was made for the priests and all the people of the assembly (Rom. 3:25; cf. Lev. 16:15-16 LXX). There is no basis in scripture, as far as I am aware, for extending the effect of the sacrifice beyond Israel.

9. A passage such as Psalm 78:8-10 LXX (= Ps. 79:8-10 in English translations; cf. 64:4; 77:38 LXX) also makes instructive background reading:

Do not remember our lawless deeds of long ago; let your compassion speedily preoccupy us, because we became very poor. Help us, O God our savior; for the sake of the glory of your name, O Lord, rescue us, and atone for our sins, for the sake of your name, so that the nations may not say, “Where is their God?”—and let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your slaves be known among the nations before our eyes.

Because of historic sins Israel has been overrun and humiliated by the nations (79:1-4). The Psalmist prays that God will atone (hilasetai) for the sins of the people—just as God put forward Jesus as an atonement—for the sake of his glory and reputation among the nations. This is exactly the sort of argument that Paul is making in Romans 3-5.

10. In other words, in the context of Paul’s argument here Jesus’ death is a propitiation for the former sins of Israel, for the redemption (apolutrōseōs) of Israel, so that YHWH would be seen to be righteous. Those who believe in this fact are justified—and more importantly, will be justified on the day of wrath.

11. Therefore, the Jews have no further reason to boast in the Law. They will be justified by believing that God has acted apart from the Law to deal with the problem of his people’s sin and shown himself to be righteous.

12. Gentiles who believe the same thing, who believe in the demonstrated rightness of Israel’s God, who repent of their sins, will be justified in exactly the same way. They will be found to be in the right on the day of God’s judgment on the Greek-Roman world. Gentiles are in the same position as Abraham: they have not sinned under the Law; they are not subject to the condemnation of the Law; they are justified simply by believing that God will keep his promise and give them the inheritance (cf. Rom. 4:13-17).

This lines up almost exactly with the argument in Hebrews 9:15: Jesus’ death, which is analogous to the sacrifice performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, redeems (eis apolutrōsin) Jews from transgressions (parabaseōn) committed under the first covenant so that those called might receive the promise of an age-enduring inheritance. The difference is that Paul takes into account the fact that Gentiles have also come to believe in what YHWH is doing for the sake of his people and for the sake of his own glory. But the atonement part has to do with Israel and the Law.

I would suggest that two further passages in this section of Romans presuppose the same argument, though taken out of context they might well read differently. First, if the clause “who was delivered up for our trespasses” (Rom. 4:25) is an allusion to “the Lord delivered him up to our sins” Isaiah 53:6, the point is further underlined that this was a death for wayward Israel. Secondly, speaking still as a Jew to Jews, in effect, Paul says in Romans 5:6-9: while we Jews were still weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies Christ died for us. Dunn finds here an echo of the accounts of the Maccabean martyrs, who died “for the laws and the fatherland” (2 Macc. 8:21; cf. 7:9), whose deaths, moreover, were a ransom (antipsuchon) and propitiation (hilastēriou) for the sin of the nation (4 Macc. 17:21-22).3 Such allusions again reinforce the national narrative.

So my view is that Paul is not simply teaching a doctrine of personal justification or salvation or forgiveness on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. He is telling a story about how YHWH is acting to justify himself, to show himself to be in the right, in the eyes of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Central to this “self-justification” on the part of God is the death of Jesus: what Jesus has done has shown God to be righteous. Those Jews and Gentiles who believe in this story, who trust that Jesus’ death really does have this significance, are justified—and will be shown also to be in the right on the day of God’s wrath, which is not far off (Rom. 13:11-14).

Comments

Very interesting. I see the story a bit differently than you because I see Israel as a means to the end of saving all men as opposed to Gentiles coincidentally being able to benefit from the salvation given to Israel. But, I still liked the article.

If you’d added a line about the first portion (and thus implicitly the second portion) of Romans 7 I think it would have fit your thesis tightly and would help people understand that tricky passage. I think some mention of the dynamic of Adam in Romans would be helpful.

I think you are starting to very powerfully get at the point of justification. Dikaiosune can mean either justification or righteousness depending on the translator’s whim throughout the NT and I think you’ve pointed out why it should probably be justification more often than we typically find.

Doug

I’ve read your argument carefully here Andrew.

You say:

Gentiles who believe the same thing, who believe in the demonstrated rightness of Israel’s God, who repent of their sins, will be justified in exactly the same way.

This is where things begin to go awry in your argument, and your choice of words attempts to obscure the fact. Gentiles do not, actually, “believe the same thing” in your argument. They do not believe, according to you, that Jesus died for them. According to you, Jesus died for Israel, not the Gentiles. Therefore they cannot “be justified in exactly the same way”, according to your argument. You are quite misleading here, in the way you present the case.

There is no justification, in the immediate contexts which you quote, for limiting “we”, “us” as used by Paul to “we Jews”, “those of us who are Jews”. You have to do a lot of importing of meaning from elsewhere to make “we/us” mean “Jews only” - and Paul simply does not provide grounds for that in the immediate context, or indeed anywhere else where he does the same. The context of his audience, a mixture of Jew and Gentiles at Rome, also presumes the opposite.

You misread Romans 3, where the catena of Psalms quoted by Paul does not restrict itself to Israel, as suggested by the introductory “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin”. This provides the context of the whole of the chapter following. According to v.19, the law is given (to Israel) that “the whole world (kosmos - yes, it really is this time) ‘may be’ held accountable to God”. The law has a universal function as well as an immediate function for Israel, in being designed to show the rest of the world what God was like, and place the rest of the world on notice of what God required from any who would be His people. The rest of the world certainly did take notice, according to the OT, and also to Paul’s presentation of them in Romans.

The “all who believe” in v.22b means Jews and Gentiles, being qualified by the following statement “There is no difference” - 22b. This can only mean there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles. This inclusive meaning is reinforced by the use of the same phrase explicitly including Jews and Gentiles in Romans 10:12.

All who believe what? It is “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe” - 22a. This means the direct application of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in the lives of all who believe. He was faithful not just towards believing Israel, but towards “all who believe”.

The object of faith is the Jesus who justifies “all (who) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” - v.23 (reprising vs.9-20 “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin”). This is the Jesus of v.25, the hilasterion, the means being “through faith in his blood”. Jews, perhaps above all being under the law, had been shown forbearance, God leaving “the sins committed beforehand (ie 3:10-18) unpunished” - 25b.

Jews and Gentiles are included on precisely the same grounds - “since there is only one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through (NIV ‘that same’) faith” - v.30.

There is no validity, in the context of any of the passages you quote here, for proposing one atonement for Israel alone, and something else (no atonement) for Gentiles. Paul goes out of his way to continue the argument in chapter 4, where Abraham’s faith represents Gentile faith, which “was credited to him as righteousness”, and which was exactly the same as Jewish faith - “The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us (Jews and Gentiles whom Paul is addressing in Romans) who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” - 4:23-25.

Throughout Romans 3, it violates the sense of the argument if Jews are said to be treated differently by God from Gentiles, by proposing that Jesus died for them but not for Gentiles. The object of faith was the same for both - Jesus who died on the cross and was raised from the dead for all. Distinctions would also violate the meaning elsewhere in the letters, where the cross is said to abolish dividing walls of hostility, simply because Jesus died for all, not exclusively for Jews whilst not for Gentiles.

Peter, the argument goes awry because you keep twisting it. Leave it alone. Stop taking things out of context. The “same thing” that the Gentiles believe is what was stated in point 11: “that God has acted apart from the Law to deal with the problem of his people’s sin and shown himself to be righteous”. Like the Jews they are justified for believing that God has acted to redeem his people and will make his Son judge and ruler of the nations. They believe that YHWH is the true God and will sooner or later take over the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. Obviously their perspective on this is different because they are not Jews.

It seems to me patently obvious that the argument from 2:17, if not from earlier, through at least to the end of chapter 4, is rhetorically addressed to a Jew: if you call yourself a Jew… You who boast in the Law… what advantage has the Jew… God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us… Are we Jews any better off… What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather. The fact that his readership was predominantly Gentile is beside the point. What Paul is doing is putting before them his argument with the Jews about the need for justification apart from the Law.

What I think Paul is saying in 3:9 is not that everyone sins but that the Jews have to face up to the fact that they are as sinful as the Gentiles. He appeals to the scriptures not to prove that Jews and Gentiles are sinful. Of course, Jews believe that Gentiles are sinful and are liable to judgment. That is taken for granted. What Paul needs to prove is that Jews are equally sinful and so must be held accountable, must be judged, before God can judge the world. The quotations in 3:10-18 are all directed at Israel. They prove Paul’s point. The Law speaks to those under the Law (3:19) and charges them with sin.

So Paul’s argument to the Jews is: 1) we agree that God will judge the world; 2) but Jews are also sinful; 3) Jews are condemned by the Law; 4) therefore, if God is to judge the world, he must first judge his own people; 5) if Jews are going to be justified on the day of God’s wrath, it will have to be apart from the Law; 6) so God has put Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel; 7) because Jews are now justified by faith rather than by works of the Law, it has become possible for Gentiles to believe in the same narrative (and in the same Lord) and receive justification as a gift—through the faithfulness of Jesus the righteousness of God has been established for all who believe in the fact, Jews and Gentiles. The argument is all of a piece, and it is directed at a Jewish hearer.

All who believe what? It is “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe” - 22a. This means the direct application of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in the lives of all who believe. He was faithful not just towards believing Israel, but towards “all who believe”.

I don’t follow you here. Paul does not say that Jesus was “faithful towards” anyone, Jew or Gentile. What Jews and Gentiles believe is that the righteousness of God has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus—that is, through his obedience unto death.

The object of faith is the Jesus who justifies “all (who) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” - v.23 (reprising vs.9-20 “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin”).

Paul does not say that Jesus justifies anyone. God justifies both Jews and Gentiles “by his grace as a gift” on the basis of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God put him forward as an atonement for the sins of those under the Law (cf. Gal. 4:5; Heb. 9:15), and now those who believe that God has shown himself to be righteous in this way are justified.

Paul goes out of his way to continue the argument in chapter 4, where Abraham’s faith represents Gentile faith, which “was credited to him as righteousness”, and which was exactly the same as Jewish faith - “The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us (Jews and Gentiles whom Paul is addressing in Romans) who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” - 4:23-25.

Chapter 4 continues the argument with Paul’s rhetorical Jewish opponent. It is the Law that is at issue, and Paul does not have to convince Gentiles in Rome that they do not need to be circumcised. This is not Galatians. So I think there is very good reason to suppose that, in the likely allusion to Isaiah 53 in 4:25, Paul means that Jesus was given up for the trespasses of us Jews and was raised for the justification of us Jews.

But in any case, the emphasis is on believing in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Abraham believed that God would keep his promise that his family would inherit the world, and this was counted to him as righteousness; he was justified. Likewise, Jews now (and Gentiles, though this is incidental to the argument at this point) believe that God has secured the future inheritance of his people (hence the title of my book: The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom ) by raising Jesus from the dead.

‘…4. God will not go down with the sinking ship of first century Israel. He has been shown to be righteous apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus…’ Correct and well stated. But unfortunately the adajcent ESV translation that pops up tells us that it is faith in Jesus that does the trick. (the old subjective/objective genitive question).

Quite. The debate over pistis Iēsous is probably not going to be settled easily, though I have presented my reasons in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom for preferring the subjective genitive here. But for my argument here, I don’t think it needs to be. Faith in Jesus was faith in the course of action that he followed, to the extent that his followers endured the same suffering, with the same hope of vindication. Israel’s God was justified and glorified not only by Jesus’ obedience unto death (cf. Phil. 2:6-11) but also by the obedience of those who identified themselves with him through baptism into his death—that is, those who had faith in him.