I was reading the third chapter of Romans today. This is a section of scripture which many Christians coming out of the Reformation understand to be the core of the gospel. The first half of Romans, at least, is what it’s all about.
And I really can agree with them, though perhaps for different reasons. Let’s take a look:
What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written:
“ That You may be justified in Your words,
And may overcome when You are judged.”
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?
For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just.
So what is the question that Paul is fielding?
He begins the epistle a few chapters back by saying that the Gentiles are bad dudes, but some of them are fulfilling the law, even while not having it. How Gentiles “fulfill the law” is difficult to understand, but Paul seems to affirm as much in 2:27.
Chapter three is all about how bad the Jews are, but an extra element is added because the Jews are complaining about Gentiles being justified. What good is it being a Jew in the first place they ask? How come the Gentiles only came to work after lunch, but we’re all getting paid the same thing?
More particularly the Jews want to know how come God promised to be their God and yet so many of them have gone astray. What happened? Why did God let His people go? Still more probing they suggest that since God wanted the Mosaic administration to fail, they should be off the hook. What was supposed to happen happened right?
Paul says no dice.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.
As it is written:
“ There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
“ Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“ The poison of asps is under their lips”;
“ Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
“ Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known.”
“ There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
The Jews are as bad as anybody, and really God didn’t have to save any of them. That the quote from Psalm 14 is intended for Jews in particular is clear from the inclusio before and after it. Paul asks “Are we better than they?’ Are Jews better than Gentiles? One could imagine Jews thinking this. After all, they were the covenant people and not like “Gentile sinners.”
No way Jose.
The law speaks to those who are under the law, and it is common to include the Psalms under the term of “the law.” Jesus does it in the gospels, and the apostles do it in Acts. We already knew the Gentiles were bad news. The whole creature worship thing gave that away. But Paul’s point here is that the Jews are just as full of sin and deserving of God’s wrath. Being a Jew is not going to get you justified, nor will glorying or trusting in the law.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
And now look. God’s righteousness has done something that we didn’t think it was supposed to do. It broke our rules. It came apart from the law. God demonstrated and revealed His righteousness when Jesus Christ became the new mercy seat, topping off the ark of the covenant. His death was what confirmed that God did what He had promised to do. God is righteous and He is the one who righteous-ifies those who have faith.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.
So now nobody gets to boast because everybody has been shown to be bad. And just in case you want to get cute, this rule -”Don’t boast”- is not a new law by which you can put your trust in and in turn start the process anew. No, this is the law of faith. Believing God is what counts.
Indeed from all that’s been said we conclude that everybody is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law because if anybody, ever, was justified by the deeds of the law that would mean that God was the God of the Jews only.
And we know that isn’t the case. Well, at least now we do.
And everything we’re doing here simply establishes what the law was all about to begin with.
We can see that Romans 3 has everything to do with its specific context in redemptive history. It testifies to truths beyond that context, to be sure, but that context cannot be removed and the main point still remain. Justification is a justification of God as much as of anybody else, and the solution to all of this is Jesus’ death on the cross.