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Romans iii. 21-31

SO then "there is silence" upon earth, that man may hear the "still, small voice," "the sound of stillness" (1 Kings xix. 12),35351 Kings xix. 12. from the heavens. "The Law" has spoken, with its heart-shaking thunder. It has driven in upon the soul of man, from many sides, that one fact—guilt; the eternity of the claim of righteousness, the absoluteness of the holy Will of God, and, in contrast, the failure of man, of the race, to meet that claim and do that will. It has told man, in effect, that he is "depraved,"3636Depravatus: twisted, wrenched from the straight line. that is to say, morally distorted. He is "totally depraved," that is, the distortion has affected his whole being, so that he can supply on his own part no adequate recovering power which shall restore him to harmony with God. And the Law has nothing more to say to him, except that this condition is not only deplorable, but guilty, accountable, condemnable; and that his own conscience is the concurrent witness that it is so. He is a sinner. To be a sinner is before all things to be a transgressor of law. It is other things besides. It is to be morally 91 diseased, and in need of surgery and medicine. It is to be morally unhappy, and an object of compassion. But first of all it is to be morally guilty, and in urgent need of justification, of a reversal of sentence, of satisfactory settlement with the offended—and eternal—Law of God.

That Law, having spoken its inexorable conditions, and having announced the just sentence of death, stands stern and silent beside the now silent offender. It has no commission to relieve his fears, to allay his grief, to pay his debts. Its awful, merciful business is to say "Thou shalt not sin," and "The wages of sin is death." It summons conscience to attention, and tells it in its now hearing ear far more than it had realized before of the horror and the doom of sin; and then it leaves conscience to take up the message and alarm the whole inner world with the certainty of guilt and judgment. So the man lies speechless before the terribly reticent Law.

Is it a merely abstract picture? Or do our hearts, the writer's and the reader's, bear any witness to its living truthfulness? God knoweth, these things are no curiosities of the past. We are not studying an interesting phase of early Christian thought. We are reading a living record of the experiences of innumerable lives which are lived on earth this day. There is such a thing indeed in our time, at this hour, as conviction of sin. There is such a thing now as a human soul, struck dumb amidst its apologies, its doubts, its denials, by the speech and then the silence of the Law of God. There is such a thing at this hour as a real man, strong and sound in thought, healthy in every faculty, used to look facts of daily life in the face, yet broken down in the indescribable conviction that he is a poor, guilty, lost sinner, and that his overwhelming need is—not now, not just now—the solution of problems of being, but the assurance 92 that his sin is forgiven. He must be justified, or he dies. The God of the Law must somehow say He has no quarrel with him, or he dies a death which he sees, as by an intuition peculiar to conviction of sin, to be in its proper nature a death without hope, without end.

Is this "somehow" possible?

Listen, guilty and silent soul, to a sound which is audible now. In the turmoil of either secular indifference or blind self-justification you could not hear it; at best you heard a meaningless murmur. But listen now; it is articulate, and it speaks to you. The earthquake, the wind, the fire, have passed; and you are indeed awake. Now comes "the sound of stillness" in its turn.

But now, apart from Law, God's righteousness stands displayed, attested by the Law and the Prophets; but (δὲ)—though attested by them, in the Scriptures which all along, in word and in type, promise better things to come, and above all a Blessed One to come—(it is) God's righteousness, through faith in Jesus Christ, prepared for all and bestowed upon all who believe in Him. For there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, being justified3737Δικαιούμενοι: the present participle indicates rather the permanent principle of justification than its actual procedure, which is, in each case, a divine sentence of acceptance, an act, an event, single and apart. See on ch. v. 1. gift-wise, gratuitously, by His grace, through the redemption, the ransom-rescue, which is in Christ Jesus. Yes, it resides always in Him, the Lord of saving Merit, and so is to be found in Him alone; whom God presented,3838Ὃν προέθετο ὁ Θεός: it is possible to render, "Whom God designed," in His eternal counsel of redemption. But the context just below emphasizes the thought of "declaration," manifestation, explanation of the hidden Treasure. This seems to decide for the other rendering. put forward, as Propitiation,3939Ἱλαστήριον: elsewhere in Scripture Greek this word means the Mercy Seat, the golden lid of the Ark, above which the Shechinah shone and on which the blood of atonement was sprinkled. Here is indeed a manifest and noble type of Christ. But on the other hand the word ἱλαστήριον gets that meaning only indirectly. Its native meaning is rather "a price of expiation." And a somewhat sudden insertion here of the imagery of the Mercy Seat seems unlikely, in the absence of all other allusion to the High Priestly function of our Lord. 93 through faith in His blood,4040We may punctuate, "through faith, in His blood"; as if to say "He is Propitiation in (in virtue of) His blood; we get the benefit through faith." But this rendering seems to us the less likely, as the less simple. The construction, "faith in" πίστις ἐν τινί, is fully verified by Mark i. 15; "believe in the Gospel." His blood of death, of sacrifice, of the altar; so as to demonstrate, to explain, to clear up, His righteousness, His way of acceptance and its method. The Father "presented" the Son so as to shew that His grace meant no real connivance, no indulgence without a lawful reason. He "presented" Him because of His passing-by of sins done before; because the fact asked explanation that, while He proclaimed His Law, and had not yet revealed His Gospel, He did nevertheless bear with sinners, reprieving them, condoning them, in the forbearance of God, in the ages when He was seen to "hold back"4141Ἀνοχή: we think that the word here is a pregnant expression for "the time when God forebore." His wrath, but did not yet disclose the reason why. It was with a view, he says again, to this demonstration (τὴν ἔνδειξιν) of His righteousness in the present period, the season, the καιρός, of the manifested Gospel; that He may be, in our view, as well as in divine fact, at once just, true to His eternal Law, and Justifier of him who belongs to (τὸν ἐκ) faith in Jesus.


This is the voice from heaven, audible when the sinner's mouth is shut, while his ears are opened by the touch of God. Without that spiritual introduction to them, very likely they will seem either a fact in the history of religious thought, interesting in the study of development, but no more; or a series of assertions corresponding to unreal needs, and in themselves full of disputable points. Read them in the hour of conviction of sin; in other words, bring to them your whole being, stirred from above to its moral depths, and you will not take them either indifferently, or with opposition. As the key meets the lock they will meet your exceeding need. Every sentence, every link of reasoning, every affirmation of fact, will be precious to you beyond all words. And you will never fully understand them except in such hours, or in the life which has such hours amongst its indelible memories.

Listen over again, in this sacred silence, thus broken by "the pleasant voice of the Mighty One."

"But now"; the happy "now" of present fact, of waking certainty. It is no day-dream. Look, and see; touch, and feel. Turn the blessed page again; γέγραπται, "It stands written." There is indeed a "Righteousness of God," a settled way of mercy which is as holy as it is benignant, an acceptance as good in eternal Law as in eternal Love. It is "attested by the Law and the Prophets"; countless lines of prediction and foreshadowing meet upon it, to negative for ever the fear of illusion, of delusion. Here is no fortuitous concourse, but the long-laid plan of God. Behold its procuring Cause, magnificent, tender, divine, human, spiritual, historic. It is the beloved Son of the Father; no antagonist power from a region alien to the blessed Law and its Giver. The Law-Giver is the Christ-Giver; 95 He has "set Him forth," He has provided in Him an expiation which—does not persuade Him to have mercy, for He is eternal Love already, but liberates His love along the line of a wonderfully satisfied Holiness, and explains that liberation (to the contrite) so as supremely to win their worship and their love to the Father and the Son. Behold the Christ of God; behold the blood of Christ. In the Gospel, He is everywhere, it is everywhere; but what is your delight to find Him, and it, here upon the threshold of your life of blessing? Looking upon the Crucified, while you still "lay your hand upon your mouth," till it is removed that you may bless His Name, you understand the joy with which, age after age, men have spoken of a Death which is their life, of a Cross which is their crown and glory. You are in no mood, here and now, to disparage the doctrine of the Atoning Blood; to place it in the background of your Christianity; to obscure the Cross behind even the roofs of Bethlehem. You cannot now think well of any Gospel that does not say, "First of all, Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. xv. 3). You are a sinner, and you know it; "guilty before God"; and for you as such the Propitiation governs your whole view of man, of God, of life, of heaven. For you, however it may be for others, "Redemption" cannot be named, or thought of, apart from its first precious element, "remission of sins," justification of the guilty. It is steeped in ideas of Propitiation; it is red and glorious with the Redeemer's blood, without which it could not have been. The all-blessed God, with all His attributes, His character, is by you seen evermore as "just, yet the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." He shines on you through the Word, and in your heart's experience, 96 in many another astonishing aspect. But all those others are qualified for you by this, that He is the God of a holy Justification; that He is the God who has accepted you, the guilty one, in Christ. All your thoughts of Him are formed and followed out at the foot of the Cross. Golgotha is the observatory from which you count and watch the lights of the moving heaven of His Being, His Truth, His Love.

How precious to you now are the words which once, perhaps, were worse than insipid, "Faith," "Justification," "the Righteousness of God"! In the discovery of your necessity, and of Christ as the all-in-all to meet it, you see with little need of exposition the place and power of Faith. It means, you see it now, simply your reception of Christ. It is your contact with Him, your embrace of Him. It is not virtue; it is absolutely remote from merit. But it is necessary; as necessary as the hand that takes the alms, or as the mouth that eats the unbought meal. The meaning of Justification is now to you no riddle of the schools. Like all the great words of scriptural theology it carries with it in divine things the meaning it bears in common things, only for a new and noble application; you see this with joy, by the insight of awakened conscience. He who "justifies" you does exactly what the word always imports. He does not educate you, or inspire you, up to acceptability. He pronounces you acceptable, satisfactory, at peace with Law. And this He does for Another's sake; on account of the Merit of Another, who has so done and suffered as to win an eternal welcome for Himself and everything that is His, and therefore for all who are found in Him, and therefore for you who have fled into Him, believing. So you receive with joy and wonder "the Righteousness of God," His way to bid 97 you, so deeply guilty in yourself, welcome without fear to your Judge. You are "righteous," that is to say, satisfactory to the inexorable Law. How? Because you are transfigured into a moral perfectness such as could constitute a claim? No, but because Jesus Christ died, and you, receiving Him, are found in Him.

"There is no difference." Once, perhaps, you resented that word, if you paused to note it. Now you take all its import home. Whatever otherwise your "difference" may be from the most disgraceful and notorious breakers of the Law of God, you know now that there is none in this respect—that you are as hopelessly, whether or not as distantly, remote as they are from "the glory of God." His moral "glory," the inexorable perfectness of His Character, with its inherent demand that you must perfectly correspond to Him in order so to be at peace with Him—you are indeed "short of" this. The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of it; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they. So you thankfully give yourself up, side by side with them, if they will but come too, to be carried to the height of divine acceptance, by the gift of God, "justified gift-wise by His grace."

Where then is our () boasting? It is shut out. By means of what law? Of works? No, but by means of faith's law, the institute, the ordinance, which lays it upon us not to deserve, but to confide. And who can analyse or describe the joy and rest of the soul from which at last is "shut out" the foul inflation of a religious "boast"? We have praised ourselves, we have valued ourselves, on one thing or another supposed to make us worthy of the Eternal. 98 We may perhaps have had some specious pretexts for doing so; or we may have "boasted" (such boastings are not unknown) of nothing better than being a little less ungodly, or a little more manly, than some one else. But this is over now for ever, in principle; and we lay its practice under our Redeemer's feet to be destroyed. And great is the rest and gladness of sitting down at His feet, while the door is shut and the key is turned upon our self-applause. There is no holiness without that "exclusion"; and there is no happiness where holiness is not.

For we reckon,4242Reading γὰρ not οὖν. we conclude, we gather up our facts and reasons thus, that man is justified4343Δικαιοῦσθαι: the present infinitive, as in ver. 25, puts before us the permanence of the principle on which is based the definite act. by faith, apart from, irrespective of, works of law. In other words, the meriting cause lies wholly in Christ, and wholly outside the man's conduct. We have seen, implicitly, in the passage above, verses 10-18, what is meant here by "works of Law," or by "works of the Law." The thought is not of ritual prescription, but of moral rule. The law-breakers of verses 10-18 are men who commit violent deeds, and speak foul words, and fail to do what is good. The law-keeper, by consequence, is the man whose conduct in such respects is right, negatively and positively. And the "works of the law" are such deeds accordingly. So here "we conclude" that the justification of fallen man takes place, as to the merit which procures it, irrespective of his well-doing. It is respective only of Christ, as to merit; it has to do only, as to personal reception, with the acceptance of the meriting Christ, that is to say with faith in Him.


Then come, like a short "coda" following a full musical cadence, two brief questions and their answers, spoken almost as if again a Rabbinist were in discussion.

Is God the Jews' God only? Not of the Nations too? Yes, of the Nations too; assuming (εἴπερ) that God is one, the same Person in both cases; who will justify Circumcision on the principle of faith, and Uncircumcision by means of faith. He takes the fact, now ascertained, that faith, still faith, that is to say Christ received, is the condition to justification for all mankind; and he reasons back to the fact (so amply "attested by the Law and the Prophets," from Genesis onwards) that the true God is equally the God of all. Probably the deep inference is suggested that the fence of privilege drawn for ages round Israel was meant ultimately for the whole world's blessing, and not to hold Israel in a selfish isolation.

We cancel Law, then, by this faith of ours (διὰ τῆς πίστεως)? We open the door, then, to moral licence? We abolish code and precept, then, when we ask not for conduct, but for faith? Away with the thought; nay, we establish Law; we go the very way to give a new sacredness to its every command, and to disclose a new power for the fulfilment of them all. But how this is, and is to be, the later argument is to shew.


Detached Note to Romans III.

It would be a deeply interesting work to collect and exhibit together examples of the conveyance of great spiritual blessing, in memorable lives, through the perusal of the Epistle to the Romans. Augustine's final crisis (see below, on xiii. 14) would be one such example. As specimens of what must be a multitude we quote two cases, in each of which one verse in this third chapter of the Epistle proved the means of the divine message in a life of historical interest.

Padre Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), "Councillor and Theologian" to the Venetian Republic, and historian of the Council of Trent, was one of the many eminent men of his day who never broke with the Roman Church, yet had genuine spiritual sympathies with the Reformation. The record of his last hours is affecting and instructive, and shews him reposing his hope with great simplicity on the divine message of this chapter, though the report makes him quote it inexactly. "Night being come, and want of spirits increasing upon him, he caused another reading of the Passion written by Saint John. He spake of his own misery, and of the trust and confidence which he had in the blood of Christ. He repeated very often those words, Quem proposuit Deus Mediatorem per fidem in sanguine suo, 'Whom God hath set forth to be a Mediator through faith in His blood.' In which he seemed to receive an extreme consolation. He repeated (though with much faintness) divers places of Saint Paul. He protested that of his part he had nothing to present 101 God with but miseries and sins, yet nevertheless he desired to be drowned in the abyss of the divine mercy; with so much submission on one side, and yet so much cheerfulness on the other side, that he drew tears from all that were present."4444The Life of Father Paul the Venetian, translated out of Italian: London, 1676.

It was through the third chapter of the Romans that heavenly light first came to the terribly troubled soul of William Cowper, at St Albans, in 1764. Some have said that Cowper's religion was to blame for his melancholy. The case was far different. The first tremendous attack occurred at a time when, by his own clear account, he was quite without serious religion; it had nothing whatever to do with either Christian doctrine or Christian practice. The recovery from it came with his first sight, in Scripture, of the divine mercy in our Lord Jesus Christ. His own account of this crisis is as follows: 4545Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, written by Himself.

"But the happy period which was to afford me a clear opening of the free mercy of God in Christ Jesus, was now arrived. I flung myself into a chair near the window, and, seeing a Bible there, ventured once more to apply to it for comfort and instruction. The first verse I saw was the 25th of the 3rd of Romans; 'Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.'

"Immediately I received strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had 102 made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fulness and completeness of His justification. Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder. But the work of the Holy Ghost is best described in His own words; it is 'joy unspeakable and full of glory.'"

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