Michael Bird on the “Gracism” of Romans 3:21–31
Aussie Michael Bird observes what many Americans often forget: “Blacks, whites, and Latinos are never more segregated than when it comes to attending worship services.” Sunday at 11:00 a.m. truly is the most segregated hour in America.
What we need is a healthy dose of “gracism.” Bird’s fresh look at Romans 3:21–31 will administer this vital antidote.
Gracism means that grace is both preached and practiced toward others. Gracism means that the most ruthless and efficient way to destroy our tribal enemies is by making them our brothers and sisters in Christ. (135)
What Bird reveals about Paul’s central passage on justification is a connection between grace and race in his central doctrine: “The denial of ethnic privilege and racial superiority is not merely an implication of justification by faith; rather it is a core element of the doctrine…” (134)
A History of Interpretation
Reading Romans in a way that explores “Paul’s attempt to bring unity to Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles through the gospel is not an innovation, but is common in the history of interpretation.” (133) Beginning with Pelagius, the 5th century British heretic.
After explaining how neither Jews nor Gentiles deserve salvation because they have knowingly transgressed against God, Pelagius explained how Paul showed “that they are equal, both having obtained [salvation] in a like manner, especially when in one and the same law it [was] foretold that both Jews and Gentiles were destined to be called to faith in Christ. Wherefore, humbling them in turn, he exhorts them to peace and [to] concord.” (131–132)
Augustine joined Pelagius by exploring Paul’s central question in Romans about whether the gospel came to Jews alone because of their law-centric merits, or whether justification was available to all nations outside of such works: “This then is what the apostle intended to teach: that the grace of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ came to all people. He thereby shows why one calls this ‘grace,’ for it was given freely, and not as a repayment of a debt of righteousness.” (132)
Bird notes how both Pelagius and Augustine observe Paul addressing the “interlocking issues related to Jewish ethnicity and moral effort, and the apostle denies that either is a cause of justification but only God’s grace.” (132)
Rounding out his history of interpretation, Bird engages with Markus Barth, who argued “justification by faith was for Paul an ecumenical doctrine that binds Jews and Gentiles together in Christ.” As Barth noted, “Paul fights for the rights of Gentiles—rights based on justification of Jews and Gentiles through Jesus Christ—to receive blessing through the Messiah of Israel and to believe in him without becoming Jews…” (133)
Bird’s point is that “gracism” readings of Romans—those that explore Paul’s attempt to bring unity to Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles through the gospel—are central to justification.
Justification Destroys “Ethnocentric Nomism”
Bird’s history lesson reveals something I hadn’t considered before: “justification by faith not only declares that we are in the right with God, but it also declares that we are right with each other.” (133)
He admits to being frustrated by recent Romans studies that seem to create a bifurcation between Jewish exclusivism and human sin. “Yet a holistic reading of Romans reveals that Paul addresses both matters: theologies of merit and ethnic superiority.” (120) Bird agrees with Barth that justification by faith and unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ are inseparable and identical.
Bird introduces a theological neologism here, insisting Paul is ruling out ethnocentric nomism, “the view that you have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian, where salvation is by performance of the law and limited to people of the law.” (121) Instead, Paul dismisses both merited grace and ethnocentric privilege: “[It] is not possible to segregate the issues of grace and race in Paul’s argument in Romans as they are intractably linked together.” (121)
This has great bearing on how we teach and live the implications of justification. Bird offers a few:
- “[Paul] reinforces his contrast between ‘grace’ and ‘works’ while also eliminating the possibility that God has limited his grace to one particular people.” (121)
- Our reflection on justification “needs to encompass wider the themes of election, adoption, and church unity;” (133)
- “a theology of grace will naturally and inevitably shape our churches toward the practice of racial and ethnic unity.” (133)
- “Grace and racial prejudice are mutually exclusive because justification creates a church, a new covenant community…” (134–135)
“Embracing grace means embracing a story that shapes and transforms an entire community. As God draws us to himself, so he also draws us closer to each other.” (136)
Engage Bird’s Romans commentary yourself to listen to the story, explain the story, and live the story of God in your community.