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Understanding Romans 3:21-26 in Context

Romans was an important book in the sixteenth-century Reformation, as was the topic of how one was justified in the sight of God. And one part of the cultural revolution that occurs was over how sins were punished. For instance, here are a couple of Martin Luther’s theses:

– The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

– The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

Our passage in Romans 3 has something to say about that, but let’s remember some of the context.

Paul tells the Romans early on that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). It would be interesting to consider why Paul would even bring up the possibility of being ashamed of the Gospel, but we’ll leave that aside for now.

Paul also says that, in the Gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:17). That’s a wordplay and there is some debate on what Paul meant. I think he is referencing that God’s righteousness is revealed from God’s faithfulness to our faith. There are parallels in Romans 3 that I think point to that understanding.

But it is noteworthy that Paul goes on to say that not only is God’s righteousness revealed in the Gospel, but God’s wrath is revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18).

Now here is where I think we can go wrong and miss Paul’s point about how God wrath is involved in his Gospel. What follows from Romans 1:18 is not a description of God’s wrath but of the human behavior and unbelief that provokes God’s wrath.

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