While sitting next to my brother in church this past Sunday morning (I still make it every now and again, especially when visiting family), I noticed his Bible was opened to a passage once quite familiar to me; to wit, the first few chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and particularly the tail end of Romans 3.
For those who are not familiar with the New Testament, suffice it to say that Romans is a critical text therein. Among the canon of Paul’s letters at least, Romans reigns supreme, given how beautifully it lays out in snapshot the heart of Christian theology (see, e.g., Romans 1:17 – “The just shall live by faith”). Not only was it pivotal at the time – some scholars think that Romans was, despite the name, a rough sketch of Paul’s later pitch to the early (Jewish) church leaders in Jerusalem to help resolve a schism over whether to accept Gentiles into the Christian community qua Gentiles (see Acts 15 for the gory details) – but it has been historically impactful as well, shaping the theology (and thus worldview) of Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, among others. In short, no small potatoes.
In any case, Romans 3 is a transition point in the letter. Paul had just spent the first few chapters indicting the world, Jew and Gentile alike, for its moral and spiritual failings. He cranks it into high gear in chapter 3, stitching together a number of Jewish Scriptures to paint a dim picture:
There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.
No doubt, this is a pessimistic view of the world. Whether you share in this view (which I do, concurring with Reinhold Niebuhr that “[t]he doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith”), no doubt this terrestrial realm has its fair share of darkness and evil. Regardless, in Romans 3:21, Paul asserts that hope pierces the darkness:
But now…the righteousness of God has been revealed…[namely,] the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ, unto everyone who believes.
The prepositional phrases in this short segment of text are variously interpreted, with some translations rendering the text, either implicitly or explicitly, “the righteousness from God through faith in Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, at least by my lights, these translations obfuscate the point of the text. Paul is not talking about something coming from God, but rather is discussing the character of the deity himself. And he is contrasting that with this world of woe, as depicted in the first three chapters of the letter. It is God’s own perfection which shines into this darkness as a beacon of hope, doing so through Jesus’ own fidelity to the commission he received upon the occasion of his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. On account of that fidelity, this hope is now made available to all those who believe this to be true. Granted, this position is debated (what isn’t, theologically?), as well as theologically loaded; but just run with me here for a second, as it is not the ultimate point.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (you know, Donald Trump’s famous “2 Corinthians“), Paul is defending himself and his teachings to the Christians in that city, who had strayed from his earlier instruction (just read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to get a sense of what was up) in favor of more ecstatic religious practices and more culturally-compatible forms of the teachings of Christianity. Paul is begging his spiritual “children” in Corinth to pay attention to him once more and turn back to first principles. In the middle of laying out what his own mission to the Corinthians was in order to convince them to do so, Paul drops this gem at the end of chapter five:
The one who did not know sin [i.e., Jesus] was made [into] sin for us, in order that we might be[come] the righteousness of God in him.
In its terse beauty, I think the weight of this passage is often missed. Though the notion of sacrificial substitution – i.e., Jesus embodying all the evil in the world in order to relieve the world of its burdens – is powerful, that is not the point of the verse. Rather, Paul is stating unequivocally that – on account of the aforementioned “faith of Jesus Christ” who became “sin” on behalf of a “sinful” world – he and his cohorts would be the very righteousness of God. This hope that shines in the darkness, that presents a lifeline from all the various things that beset us in life (in Christian theology, this is referred to in shorthand as “sin,” to which Paul here refers) – Paul and his counterparts have become that to those to whom they were called to minister.
That’s some radical incarnational theology no matter how you slice it. But still left unsaid is, what is this “righteousness of God” that was revealed through the faith of Jesus Christ and that Paul was becoming on account of that? No doubt the answer is manifold, but the Gospels give us one particularly crystal-clear picture of what this looks like.
The Gospel of Luke, in chapter 4, recounts the moment when Jesus made his “debut” of sorts back in his own hometown after being baptized. Back in his old synagogue, but being in many ways a very new man, he stood up to read from the book of Isaiah, who was one of the Hebrew prophets regularly read aloud in synagogue. He landed on a particularly poignant passage in what is now Isaiah 61, which contains a promise of hope to the exiled and persecuted people of Israel:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
That’s it. The righteousness of God as revealed through Jesus’ fidelity to his vocation is this message to the world – good news to the impoverished, freedom to the imprisoned, sight to the blind, relief to the oppressed, etc. The promise originally given to Israel-in-exile is now given to the world-in-exile. To boot, those who believe, like Paul, are called to “become” this, made possible by Jesus’ own life and conduct.
This is who we are to be. If the righteousness of God – made available to a disordered and dysfunctional world through an itinerant Palestinian Jewish preacher – means anything, it is the promise of hope to those who most desperately need it. And that message is to be embodied by those for whom Jesus was “made into sin,” in Paul’s phrasing – i.e., those who, through their own faith, might “become the righteousness of God.”
No wonder C.S. Lewis spoke of the “weight of glory.”