When we gather around the meal table of the Roman church and hear “But they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), we are forced to hear Paul within the contextual realm of both Jews and Gentiles being encompassed by the covenant through the same means. They are justified in connection with Jesus, as God graciously expands the reach of His covenant---stretching out the curtains of the grand, covenant tent, as expressed so beautifully by Isaiah. Furthermore, Gentiles, without Judaizing (becoming Jews by adopting the covenant markers of Judaism – circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary restrictions), also experience the redemption that has long been cherished by Israel, which, when this term is employed by a member of Israel, is a reference to the experience of exodus-ing from out of a state of exile, with this exodus always being a movement that includes a journey towards, a return to, or a restoration of sovereignty in, a land of promise.
The redemption of exodus, which is tightly connected to the Red Sea and also symbolized by baptism (especially that of John the Baptist, as he was recognized to be leading a new exodus movement, recapitulating the entrance of the people into the promised land through baptism in the Jordan River, which was doubly symbolic, serving also as a reminder of the Red Sea crossing), was a defining portion of Israel’s story. Part of the story that Israel told about itself was that of the Egyptian exodus, and rightly so. It was a dramatic story of the intervention of the Creator God on their behalf, and is intimately tied to the story of their election as the special, covenant people of that Creator God. It is important to also note that Paul locates the story of Jesus in continuity with Israel’s history, and sees it as the climax of their story. Of course, we know that it is impossible to understand the story of Jesus, or to attach any significance to His ministry, death, or Resurrection, apart from its being set within the story of Israel and its covenant relationship with their God, as the story stretched back to Adam. That said, because Israel identified itself as an exodus people, who had experienced God’s redeeming activity on their behalf numerous times, the fact that Gentiles are now included in talk of those that experience redemption, with redemption being used by an Israelite and therefore carrying the freight of Israelite sensibilities, becomes yet another mark of their being adopted into the ranks of the people of God’s election. Gentiles are now free to attach themselves to Israel’s story and tell it as their own.
When we detach verses twenty-three and twenty-four from out of their context, to read and hear Paul’s statements from within our individualistic, historically disconnected concern with a personal salvation experience, they sound nice, but we miss so very much. Truly, when we read “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” we can take some comfort. Unfortunately, if we tear these words from their historical and cultural context, without allowing the history of Israel and its covenant to define them (instead, we define them based on our own conceptions, which might actually have no connection with Paul’s conceptions or those of his audience), we miss out on the full spectrum of meaning contained by “all,” “sin,” “glory,” “justified,” and “redemption.” Ultimately, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when utilizing or proffering constructs such as the “Romans road to salvation,” as this tends to lead people away from the Gospel message of “Jesus is Lord,” with the range of kingdom and covenant concerns therein entailed, and toward a selfish concern with the eternal destiny and situation of one’s personal soul.
Having provided his “thesis” concerning the nature of justification, and having done so within the parameters of Jew and Gentile concern, as we move along to the twenty-eighth verse, we should not be surprised to hear Paul return to explicit mentions of Jew and Gentile. Paul writes “For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law” (3:28). That statement, of course, demands to be heard as a component of the narrative that Paul has structured, so, as elsewhere, this verse is not to be lifted and applied in isolation. Therefore, it is worthwhile to reiterate and expand what is being said. The statement of verse twenty-eight, more fully unpacked, is “we consider that a person is said to be a part of the covenant people of God through the confession of a trusting loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King, with this loyalty extended to the Creator God via the loyalty to Jesus; and it is no longer necessary for any person to demonstrate this loyalty by circumcision, Sabbath keeping, or food laws, which is currently being utilized as the identifier of the people of the covenant, but no longer.” To drive home the point that, through his talk of justification, Paul has been concerned with Gentile inclusion and the elimination of the barriers that have been used to keep the covenant exclusive to Jews and to prevent Gentile participation unless they were willing to Judaize, he goes on to write “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too! Since God is one, He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-30).