The NPP and Romans 3:21, part 2
The fact that there is a way that you and I can be right with God that is not based on our law-keeping is the greatest news in all the world, because if there is not a way that you and I can be right with God that is not based on our law-keeping, then we’re all going to hell. For we have all failed to adequately keep the law, no human being can be justified by works of the law. So the announcement that there is a righteousness from God apart from law is the greatest news in all the world.
And yet I believe that this good news is at least obscured by some New Perspective scholars when they tell us that Romans 3:21 is not in fact about how we get saved, but just about the scope of God’s saving activity. In other words, “apart from law” does not refer to a way of salvation, it refers to the Gentiles. They are the ones who are apart from law and now God’s righteousness, God’s saving activity that reveals his righteous character, is being extended even to them. They reason that since verse 19 referred to Jews as those “under the law” then verse 21 refers to Gentiles who are “apart from law”
Look carefully at verse 21-22 of Romans 3. There is in this verse an example of chiastic parallelism.
Chiastic Parallelism in Romans 3:21a & 22a
apart from law righteousness of God
righteousness of God through faith
A chiasm is an ABBA arrangement of text, it’s called a chiasm because when you connect the related portions you get an X or the Gk letter “chi” This arrangement suggests that Paul intends “apart from law” to be understood as synonymous with “through faith”. So Paul is describing the way that a person is justified (apart from law), not just the people (Gentiles apart from law) who are now justified. As Paul will restate it in verse 28, “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”. Those two go together: by faith, apart from works of the law. So I believe that Paul is saying that an “apart-from-law-righteousness of God” is now revealed. He is not merely saying that a righteousness of God is now “revealed-apart-from-law”.We should not reach back to verse 19 to posit some more distant connection between Jews under the law and Gentiles apart from the law and discount the very tight connection this phrase already has with verse 22. And if you reach back to verse 19 to find some support for the new perspective interpretation, you’ll be reaching over an even more obvious connection between verse 21 and verse 20.
Obvious Parallelism in Romans 3:20a & 21a
For by works of law no one will be justified
But now apart from law the righteousness of God
So the phrase “apart from law” in verse 21 is not the opposite of “under the law” in verse 19. It is the opposite of justified by the law in verse 20.
Observe also the connection between the righteousness of God in verse 21 and the justification of man in verse 20. Both words contain the same Greek root dikaio-, righteous. Justify would be translated righteousify if we had such a word. And so the righteousness of God in verse 21 does not mean God’s attribute of righteousness revealed when he saves us. It is the righteousness with which he righteousifies us! It is his righteousness imputed, credited to us.
So beloved, let us sing it loud, let us sing it long. Let us sing it clear, let us sing it strong. This paragraph most certainly is about how you and I get right with God. You and I and every human being will receive the verdict of condemnation from God if we stand before him in our own righteousness. But now a righteousness from God apart from law is revealed. How shall we who deserve condemnation get right with God? Not by works of the law. Not by our efforts to do righteous things. No one will be justified that way. We get right with God by receiving the gift of the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. I say let us sing it, for it is amazing how many hymns have been written about imputed righteousness. It is a truth that causes the church to burst into song.
Here’s a hymn to sing:
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
O let the dead now hear Thy voice;
Now bid Thy banished ones rejoice;
Their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness.
Here’s another one:
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and offering to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.
Click here to hear a great musical rendering of the last one.