Apart from the Law

The Apostle Paul packs a mighty punch in his letters, even when delivered in small doses; this Sunday’s Second Reading, Romans 3:21-25, 28, is a short passage that delivers great power. It can be difficult today to understand the challenge of the theological issues buffeting the early Church, especially as related to the place of Christ in salvation history and the role of the Mosaic Law. It was not obvious to the earliest Christians that the Mosaic Law was redundant or obsolete, and, in fact, the Law of God does not simply "cease" in its significance or reality for Christians (see Rom. 10:4; cf. Matt. 5:17-20). Yet, Paul is quite clear that the Mosaic Law as practiced for centuries by Jews was no longer relevant in the same way for Christians. How could this be? How could the Law God gave to Moses lose its significance in light of Christ’s saving act? The discussion of the role of the Law in Paul’s theology has fueled a small industry, so stepping into the debate without taking account of all relevant qualifications leaves one open to charges of misinterpreting Paul’s understanding of the Law, Judaism, or later Christian formulations of how the Mosaic Law fits within the context of God’s eternal Law. For some scholars the issue is that Paul lacks clarity. There is clarity, though, in Paul’s claim that "the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law" (Rom. 3:21). God has worked in some new way through his Son, Jesus Christ, to allow us to share in God’s own righteousness. It is available "through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (Rom. 3:22). A couple of points about the Greek are necessary. The words translated as "faith" and "believe" in v. 22 have the identical root, pist-, which indicates that there is no heart/head distinction going on here: it is the whole person who responds in trust to Christ. The second point is that the words translated as "righteousness" and "justified" also have the same root, dikaio-, and it is necessary to see the connection between God’s "righteousness" and the Christian who is "justified." The Christian is justified through a participation in the salvific sacrifice of Christ, who was an "expiation, through faith, by his blood"(Rom. 3:25). The follower of Jesus, therefore, is "justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom. 3:28). Such justification is available to "all," as Paul states, which means that whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to respond to the ubiquity of sin (Rom. 3:23). Certainly this opened Paul up to a number of charges, such as one who destroys or tears down the Law, to one who cares not for behavior and opens the door to an antinomian free-for-all. The freedom that Paul claims Christ calls us to was not, however, an opportunity to give a "whatever" shrug to the Law, but a call to live in the Spirit and to be guided by the Love of God and neighbor, in which the whole Law was fulfilled (see Gal. 5:14). It was to follow the Law in a new and radical way. I have sympathy, though, for the first generations of Christians, especially those who had grown up in Torah-observant homes. The radical change that took place with the formation of the Church threw many certainties into the category of uncertainty. The solid, unchanging core was the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and the reality of Christ himself. The Church depended upon it then and must depend on it now, as every age throws up its own uncertainties. But, "the mystery of the Church’s participation in Christ is a literally inexhaustible resource for radical and fruitful change in its institutional life. If the aspirations and deep needs of the world for whose salvation the Church exists are a challenge, its radical capacity to respond to this challenge incomparably surpasses the capacities of any simply human agency or institution" (Ben F. Meyer, S.J., "The Perennial Problem of the Church: Institutional Change," 122). Paul’s teachings were a challenge to the first Christians, and to us I think, to rely fully on Christ for our righteousness and to respond to it with ever growing faith. John W. Martens
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