Romans 3:21-26 is the most significant text in the history of Christian theology, for it shaped Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Barth, and nearly every major theologian in history. It is true that today there is a significant questioning going on about what role this text ought to play in our theological schemes, but that questioning only shows the significance of this text. The text is pregnant with every theological baby in Paul’s book. I can’t do anything but offer a few theses about this text:
First, humans — Jews and Gentiles — are sinners because “all have sinned,” and in light of 5:12-21, we can assume that this “sin” is done both in Adam and in actual practice by each person. This is the point of 1:18—3:20 after all. Cracked Eikons need to be made “right” or “justified.”
Second, God’s “right-making” (or “righteousness” or “justifying work” or “making the world right” or “declaring one right with God”) – notice the preeminence of “right-making” as God’s act – comes to pass as previously made known in the Torah and the Prophets but humans are made right apart from observing that Torah. This right-making is God’s saving action to make humans right and to put the world to rights. The right-making is the same for Jews and Gentiles, because the possession and doing of the Torah has nothing to do with it.
Third, God’s “right-making” occurs in and through “faith in/of Jesus Christ.” Here we meet up with a contemporary problem: Does “faith of Jesus Christ” mean faith in Jesus Christ (Christians trust Christ) or the faith of Jesus Christ himself (Christ faithfully lives before God as the true Israelite)? One might be tempted to agree with Origen: the language is sufficiently ambiguous to permit both ideas at once. To the degree that Jesus is the Second Adam/Israel, it is his faithfulness to the covenant; to the degree that Jesus is our Substitute, it is our faith in Jesus Christ. However, that Paul continues on with “for all who believe” leads me to agree with Jimmy Dunn that what Paul has in mind is the disposition of believers: they trust in Christ for their right-making. Either way, in Christ this right-making occurs.
Fourth, this right-making by God is for everyone, both Jew and Gentile (and not just for Jews). And it involves being made right — and I take that in its biggest sense: with God, with self, with others, with the world. I’m not sure it would make sense in Paul’s cosmic scope to think this is only about being made right with God.
Fifth, back to a previous point: God’s right-making is a gracious act on the part of God. Here the very notion of divine or cosmic child abuse, brought into the discussion in a radical fashion, is repulsed once and for all times. The atoning work of God flows freely from the divine perichoresis of mutual, interpenetrating love and grace that inevitably flow into the cracks of cracked Eikons.
Sixth, the grace of God that does this right-making for cracked Eikons finds verbal expression in three metaphors, each of which plays its own language game and each of which overlaps with the other: God “declares/makes right” (justification), “redeems” (redemption), and God does this on the “mercy seat” (sometimes translated as “expiation” or “propitiation” but now best translated as “mercy seat”). Some translations have “sacrifice of atonement,” others “propitiation,” and yet others “expiation.” The term refers to the “mercy seat” in the Temple on which blood was sprinkled through an incense haze, and at which place God’s merciful forgiveness was granted on the Day of Atonement. Now the connotations of “mercy seat” can work in the direction of appeasing wrath, should one correlate the mercy seat with the theme of wrath in 1:18—3:20 and with the theodicy concerns of 3:25-26, or it can work in the direction of expiating sin, should one focus on 3:23. I see no reason, from context, to deny either element from the evocation of “mercy seat.”
Seventh, central to this gracious work of God is that it is accomplished through the life-giving death of Jesus Christ (“blood”).
And, as if to anticipate Anselm himself, eighth, God’s right-making is done in such a way that preserves two things: God’s own attribute of being faithful to his own justice and God’s own intent of “right-making.” That is, the atoning work of God is done in such a way that God neither broaches his own justice nor fails to show mercy – on the mercy seat known as Jesus Christ’s death, Paul is saying, love and justice lock themselves in gracious embrace and God rids his people of the sin problem created by Adam and Eve.
Impossible as it is to summarize Paul, even Paul in a few verses of soteriological flurry as we find in Romans 3:21-26, what we have is this: cracked Eikons – Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free – are made right, are forgiven of their sins and sinfulness, and the wrath of God from 1:18—3:20 is diverted, because God is gracious and merciful in sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to the world to die (give his life) so that they can be ushered into a community where things are put to rights. The focus here is that “being made right,” “being redeemed,” and “finding mercy” are accomplished not by observing Torah but by orienting one’s trust in and toward Jesus Christ, the one who died for others, who incarnates God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. Now this summary needs also to be enveloped in a sociological vision: making right is not just saving individuals, but making right in the sense of putting humans to rights by reconciling them to God, to self, to others, and to the world. Such is the scope of “justification” if we are fair with what Paul is saying in Romans 1:18–3:26.