We are being offered a veritable feast by the lectionary during the season of Lent, through Hebrew Scripture passages which recall key moments in the story of Israel (Abraham, Moses, David, return after exile) as well as in Gospel narratives telling of the transformative encounters which Jesus had with a range of people (a Pharisee and a Samaritan woman, a man born blind and two sisters of a dead man).
Alongside this, the lectionary offers us a set of readings from Paul’s longest and most richly-developed theological letter, that which he wrote to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). After exploring the rationale for human sinfulness (Rom 5:12–19, Lent 1A), we have read of Paul’s use of Abraham as a model to explain how God “reckons us to be righteous” (Rom 4:1–5, 13–17, Lent 2A).
Today we are offered another passage replete with fundamental theological affirmations (Rom 5:1–11, Lent 3A) and in two more weeks we will hear yet another “purple passage” from Romans (Rom 8:6–11, Lent 5A). In the intervening week we are diverted in Ephesians, most likely because the passage illuminates the Gospel story of Jesus enabling the man born blind to see (John 9).
Whilst Romans 4 exhibits many signs of the diatribe style, as we have noted, Paul seems to set this to one side for a time. He will pick up the pattern of apostrophe (posing questions to a hypothetical listener) and speech-in-character (providing answers to those questions from an imaginary person) in the next chapter: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1–3).
He will extend that through the agonising of the following chapter: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” (Rom 7:7). He will pick this up again at the end of his lengthy argument begun in 5:1 when he exclaims: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Rom 8:31–34).
Paul uses these techniques because he is, in the depths of his being, what we would call a “pastoral practitioner”. He is a good theological thinker, but he is oriented at every point to the pastoral engagement that he has with people in the churches which (mostly) he has founded—the church in Rome being a key exception to this, since he writes to a community that he has not yet visited.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that he seeks to operate “like a father with his children” (1 Thess 2:11), “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). He tells the Philippians “how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8), and the Corinthians that “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor 2:4). And he assures the Romans that he prays that “by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Rom 15:32).
Amidst all the harsh rhetoric, direct intervention, and controlling instructions that pepper all the letters of Paul, this kind, compassionate, caring heart can be glimpsed. Paul does what he does for the sake of the people whom he serves. Rabbinic midrash and rhetorical diatribe a pre pressed into the service of compassionate care for his people.
But for the passage from Romans which we are offered this coming Sunday (Rom 5:1–11), the style changes. Rather than the diatribe style of question—response, shaped by the Pharisaic midrashic pattern of exploring key scripture passages, Paul seems to switch, to become a doctrinal pedagogue much as we find in later patriotic, medieval, and reformed writers.
In just eleven verses, Paul identifies and names a sequence of ten key theological claims—perhaps the closest he ever gets to becoming what we know as a “systematic theologian”. Paul mentions, in turn, justification by faith, peace with God, access to God’s grace, the glory of God, the place of sufferings, endurance, and hope, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the function of the death of Christ and the process of being justified by his blood, salvation from God’s wrath, and finally, reconciliation with God. They are each worth pondering.
Being justified by faith—or, in another English translation, being made righteous by faith—is the first concept which has pride of place in this passage—and, indeed, forms the basis for the theological argument that is developed throughout this Gospel. Paul’s opening statement is that, in the Gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith”, quoting a scripture passage to provide the basis for his assertion (Rom 1:17); that righteousness is explained at length through the ensuing chapters, canvassing a range of matters in the process.
Righteousness, of course, has its origins deep in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abram had been given promises by God but he expresses doubt that these promises would come to pass (15:2-3). God provides further reassurance; the multitude of stars in the sky is testimony to that (15:5). Abraham’s resulting affirmation of faith leads to the famous phrase, so central to Paul’s later argument about righteousness: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6; see Rom 4:3,9,22).
The psalmists regularly thank God for God’s righteousness (Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 33:5; 35:24, 28; 36:6; 50:6; etc) and note the importance of humans living in that way for righteousness (Ps 18:20, 24; 85:10–13; 106:3, 31; 112:1–3, 9), whilst the book of Proverbs advises that the wisdom it offers is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:3) and the prophets consistently advocated for Israel to live in accordance with righteousness (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4).
So “being made righteous with God” (Rom 5:1) is both a central element of Paul’s theology, and a strong thread running from Hebrew scriptural texts into the life of the early church.
Peace with God is the second element in this section. Paul regularly commences his letters with the formulaic “grace and peace to you” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; Phlm 3), but the peace spoken of at 5:1 goes deeper than this formula. God is “the God of peace” (1 Thess 5:23) who offers peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7). “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33) so believers are urged to live in peace (2 Cor 13:11). The Galatians are told that of the fruits of the Spirit is peace (Gal 5:22); the Philippians are informed that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).
Such peace is grounded in the understanding of God expressed in Hebrew Scriptures. The Psalmist prays, “may the Lord bless his people with peace” (Ps 29:11), celebrates that God “will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts”, such that “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 84:8, 10), and gives thanks that God “grants peace within [Jerusalem’s] borders” (Ps 147:4).
The vision of peaceful co-existence amongst all creatures is declared. by various prophets (Isa 2:2–5; Mic 4:1–5; Isa 52:7; 57:19; 60:17; 65:25) and amongst the names of the one whom Isaiah foresees as the hope for Israel’s future is “Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:2). Both Ezekiel (Ezek 13:8–16) and Jeremiah (Jer 14:13–22) decry those who cry out “peace when there is no peace”. Ezekiel states that God promises, “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them” (Ezek 37:26; also 34:25, and Zech 8:12).
This being-made-righteous and the consequent gift of peace comes, according to Paul’s comments later in this passage, through the death of Jesus on the cross. He uses a number of phrases to describe this death, and its “benefits” for believers. In verse 6, he notes that “Christ died for the ungodly”, and in verse 8, “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us”.
“Christ died for us” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters—so much so that it is regarded as a formulaic statement (an early credal affirmation?) which appears in various forms (Rom 6:10; 8:34; 14:9; 1 Cor 8:11; 2 Cor 5:14–15; 1 Thess 5:9–10; see also Gal 1:4; 2:20; Rom 7:4; 1 Thess 4:14; and the later formula of 1 Tim 2:5–6). Specifically relating the death of Christ to dealing with sin is also addressed by Paul in some detail earlier in this letter (Rom 3:9–26; 5:15–21; 6:5–14) as well more briefly as in other letters (1 Cor 15:56–57; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:22).
To explain how this death deals with our sins, Paul here specifies that “we have been made righteous by his blood” (Rom 5:9). This clearly relates to the practice of faithful Jews, who for centuries brought their sacrifice to the Temple, so that the priests could kill the animals brought as offerings to God. Shedding blood was integral to this process.
The Torah specifies that the priests should receive “a bull of the herd” as a sin offering, and “the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of the meeting … and dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord” (Lev 4:3–6). Some of the blood is also placed on the horns of the altar and the rest “he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering” (Lev 4:7).
Likewise, the priest was to “slaughter the guilt offering, and its blood shall be dashed against all sides of the altar” (Lev 7:2); to purify a leper, two lambs are offered, and the priest “shall slaughter the lamb … and take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed [the leper] and on the thumb of the right hand and on the big toe of the right foot” (Lev 14:13–14; so also 14:25).
So likewise for the bull on the Day of Atonement: “Aaron … shall slaughter bull as a sin offering for himself … and sprinkle the blood with his finger on the front of the mercy seat … seven times” (Lev 16:11, 14), and then do the same with “the goat of the sin offering” (Lev 16:15–19), before then releasing a live goat (the “scapegoat”) or “bear all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Lev 16:22).
The significance of the shedding of blood is clearly and strikingly articulated in the Torah: “the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Lev 7:11). When the blood of the animal is shed, that life is given as an offering to effect atonement. So, too, when the blood of Jesus was shed, his life functioned as an atoning offering for human beings.
The slaughter of animals and the sprinkling of blood thus signifies the sacrificial offering of a gift to God, seeking cleansing or forgiveness. Applying this common practice to Jesus makes sense in the context of the time—but it is an image which is far more difficult for us to accept and appreciate in the modern world, where we might feel that we have moved beyond such “primitive practices”, as some callously call those ancient practices.
What we can take from this language, perhaps, is the observation that sacrifice for sin, seeking to remove the tarnish of that sinfulness and find restoration and wholeness, was a dynamic signalled elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture—most clearly in that famous fourth Servant Song in Second Isaiah, which refers to the servant as the one who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:4–5). As “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, so “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain [to] make his life an offering for sin” (Isa 53:6, 10).
That same dynamic is at work every year in Australia, as those military people who have died in battle over the past century are remembered each ANZAC Day for their sacrifice and thanked for what they have bequeathed to our society. It is the same dynamic of sacrifices offered by some to ensure the safety of the many.
So, Paul is able to affirm that when Jesus died, it was to assure us of forgiveness, to deal with our sinfulness, and to restore us to the original state of goodness (Gen 1:26–31) that was God’s gift and intention for humankind.
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This passage is so beloved within the church, and was so highly regarded by the creators of the lectionary, that it appears again, slightly reduced in length, in the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, later in this year (5:1–8), as well as in an even shorter form in the readings for Trinity Sunday in Year C (5:1–5). So I am going to reserve my comments on the remainder of the elements I have identified in this passage until it returns, later this year, in the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost! I will leave you, simply, with Paul’s clear affirmation that, “since we are made righteous through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).