Justification By Faith In Romans Paul's Epistle Essay

Length: 10 pages Sources: 11 Subject: Mythology - Religion Type: Essay Paper: #53277519 Related Topics: Glory Road, Atonement, Isis, Roman
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Justification by Faith in Romans

Paul's Epistle to the Romans is not the only treatment of the concept of justification in the New Testament -- Paul discusses the concept in other letters as well -- but it is perhaps the most extensive. That is because the concept of justification by faith is central to Paul's overall argument in the Epistle to the Romans, and is thus introduced early in the letter, and discussed throughout the text. But for the more crucial question of justification by faith, larger doctrinal questions hinge upon one single verse of Romans, 3:28. In the New International Version, this reads "For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (Rom 3:28). What would a full exegesis of this single verse entail? I hope by demonstrating the context of Paul's statement here within the larger argument of the Epistle to the Romans that we can come to a full exegetical understanding of the three crucial elements of this verse: not just the concept of justification itself, but also what Paul means by "faith" and "the works of the law" in the context of the larger issue of justification. By proceeding step-by-step with an analysis of these three concepts separately, we may finally reach a conclusion in which the synthesis of these individual exegeses into one final exegetical interpretation of the verse as a whole, and therefore about Paul's conception of justification by faith.


The first step towards a full exegesis of Romans 3:28 will be to undertake a definition of what precisely Paul means by "faith." This is where the fuller context of the Epistle to the Romans attains paramount importance in understanding the concept. Paul begins the letter carefully and earnestly, and extends his message openly to Jew and Gentile alike, most likely because (as John Murray in his commentary has observed) there was tension with the Jews in Rome at the time of the letter's composition yet Paul "had not founded nor had he yet visited the church at Rome" when he wrote the letter (Murray 1997, 1). However this openness may also be a way of offsetting the beginning of Paul's argument at Romans 1:18, where he turns to the classic preaching subject of God's righteous wrath at sinners. He begins with an account of the lapse of an entire community into sinfulness, where they "became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles" (Rom 1:18). Of course the "mortal human being" calls to mind the Greco-Roman pantheon, not only with its all-too-human gods like Bacchus or Priapus, but also with its deified Roman emperors: it is worth recollecting that the Jews had risen up against Rome when the emperor Caligula had demanded that they place a statue of him in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, while the "birds and animals and reptiles" clearly seem to indicate the ibis and jackal and crocodile gods of Pharaonic Egypt, the pantheon of Isis and Thoth. These would be the two most obvious forms of apostasy from Judaism at the time of Christ, apart from basic atheism. Although Paul's statement here has sometimes been misinterpreted as a call for Christian iconoclasm, it is more clearly meant to be a condemnation of apostasy: in this, Paul fits in perfectly with the history of Judaism as presented in the Old Testament tout court, when we recall Northrop Frye's memorable claim that the most constant narrative element of the Old Testament is that for "Israel….the spirit of apostasy appears to be remarkably consistent" and that generally in the Old Testament this results in a scenario where Israel "deserts its God, gets enslaved, cries to its god for deliverance, and a 'judge' is sent to deliver it" (Frye 58). Paul begins with description of a


And from thence it seems, by the end of Chapter 1 of Romans, Paul thinks that basically all moral worth gradually deserts these people, who have first abandoned God. Thus, the primary issue here is one of faith in God in the most basic sense -- the acceptance of the monotheistic God of the Old Testament, as opposed to the polytheistic pagan pantheons. The first error of the community Paul is describing at the beginning to the epistle to the Romans is their failure to have the most basic faith in God. After all, Bruce thinks the centrality of the idea of faith to Paul is implicit in his biography; as Bruce puts it, "justification by faith was implicit in his Damascus-road experience. Paul, as we know, was suddenly converted to the service of Christ from a life in which the law had been the centre around which everything else was organized." (Bruce 35). The spectacle of a community who has fallen away from God through lack of faith is in keeping with Jewish tradition.

Yet even though this particular community -- and its moral decline through the acceptance of Roman and Egyptian gods and sexual practices -- is Paul's focus at the beginning, Paul is careful to expand the notion of God's wrath in the second chapter, in terms that are most commonly described as "original sin" (although Paul himself does not use that term here). As Paul puts it bluntly in Romans 2:11, "God does not show favoritism" and everybody is subject to God's righteous judgment. Paul's emphasis on the universality of sin here -- as he will later in Chapter 5 of Romans explicitly invoke Adam's transgression in Genesis -- also serves a strategic purpose, as Douglas Moo has noted, in terms of Paul's intention in this letter to smooth over the differences between the Gentile and Jewish followers of Christ in Rome, at a period of time when the Roman emperor Claudius (afterwards deified) issued a decree expelling the Jews from the city of Rome (Moo 1996, 4). Paul's message in the letter of salvation available to all is predicated, however, upon the explicit sense that all have sinned. And this is where the idea of justification becomes crucial, so to speak. This connects with what Dunn describes as Paul's "emphasis elsewhere [in the New Testament]…on justification as something believers already enjoy" (Dunn 97).


Paul first introduces the concept of justification in Chapter 4 of Romans, in his discussion of Abraham. We will return to the opening portion of this discussion, in which Paul discusses circumcision, later in our exegesis, but for now it is important to look at the way Paul defines justification. He does so by performing his own exegesis upon the text of Genesis, in which he notes that in the Torah it is written of Abraham that

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of man nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead -- since he was about a hundred years old -- and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet though he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he promised. This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness." The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness -- for us 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. (Romans 4:18-25).

Paul's argument here relies upon the specific wording of the text of the Old Testament, to tell us that it is phrased so specifically so as to indicate a specific moral: that righteousness, expressed purely through belief rather than action, is enough to earn God's approval. Of course, Paul does not go on to include in his exegesis here the later story of what God would ultimately demand of Abraham regarding this very child that was born to him in his old age, but that story involves actions rather than the mere persistence in the faith that God always keeps His promises even when it honestly looks like He is not (which is how it must have seemed to the hundred-year-old Abraham who had been promised a son). But this discussion is where Paul first introduces the notion of justification, where it seems to be a sort of companion to the idea of Christ's atonement: in the phrasing of Romans 4:25, Christ "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." Thus the notion of Christ's death to atone for our sins, which…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Bruce, F.F. Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

Dunn, James D.G Word Biblical Commentary Volume 38A: Romans 1-8. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Mariner Books, 2002.

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