This passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans is but a part of his long, involved discussion of law and faith. The specific context lies in questions in the early church about the status of Jewish and Gentile Christians before God. Did the ceremonial and moral laws of the Jewish Scriptures (for Christians, our Old Testament) give the Jewish people a privileged status and right relationship with God, if they scrupulously obeyed those laws? Did Jewish Christians similarly gain a privileged and right relationship with God through both faith in Jesus and observance of the laws? Did Gentile Christians have to put their faith in Jesus and keep the laws to have a good and right relationship with God?
While that precise context with its questions may not be immediate for many of us today, the more basic matrix behind it does apply. Must we earn our relationship with God? Can we earn our relationship with God? We cannot consider these questions in depth here. We can, however, identify and take to heart three relevant principles threading through this particular passage and through Paul’s longer discussion in Romans.
1. All are in the same position before God: we are all sinful. We fall short of God’s glory and the creaturely good he intended us to inhabit. We have cut ourselves off from God and from what God wants us to be. Hence, not one of us lives perfectly and fully into that good.
2. All can be saved from our sinful, cut-off plight through Jesus. God has not abandoned us, though we have abandoned him. In great love and mercy, God sent Jesus to rescue us. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, reconciles and restores us to God.
3. All can experience this salvation through faith in Jesus, not through ceremonial or moral performance. We do not, indeed cannot, earn what comes only as God’s gift: namely, life in Jesus.* We receive this gift, both humbling and heartening at once, through faith – where faith is our whole-self posture of trusting Jesus utterly and solely for life and love.
This is good news beyond our deepest despair or boldest imagining – life with God through faith in Jesus! This is what threads throughout Paul’s examination of law and faith in Romans. This is what we stand and thrive upon, as individual believers and as the community of Jesus-followers.
* Later in Romans, Paul will focus on how we express our life in Jesus through worship and ethics.