From Romans 3.1-26
In today’s passage Paul includes Jews like IJ in the dock of judgment and accountability for sin along with the unrighteous Gentiles. All seems lost. ‘But now’, Paul says. But now God manifests his righteousness. Above all, Romans is about God’s righteousness and how he fulfills his covenant promises of salvation, dealing with the sin of world. Sinners are made righteous in his sight and become part of his covenant people, the righteous.
I want to speak about how God demonstrates his righteousness in being faithful to his covenant promises and dealing with the sin of all those who believe Jesus is the risen Christ.
This post is part of my SIMPLY ROMANS series.
Passage and Comments
From the last post in this series, I’m sure you remember one key element of my argument is that in Romans 1-4 Paul is in dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor I have named IJ. The genre of this section of Romans is called diatribe.
At the start of today’s passage IJ responds to what Paul has said. He correctly understood Paul has undermined the assumed advantages in being a Jew. Even going so far as saying some Gentiles will condemn Jews. I explain this more in my series Dialogue with a Jew.
Let’s look at what is happening in the reading of the text.
Note the question and answer format running through this section. Scholars agree the section is diatribe, but tend to argue over who is saying what for various reasons which are hard to prove.
Generally I tend to believe IJ’s statements;
- Are questions,
- Oppose the main argument,
- Respond to criticism for his own sin and
- Defend the superiority and advantages of being a Jew.
Paul’s statements on the other hand;
- Answer questions employing a characteristic rejection ‘by no means’,
- Ask questions which promote the main argument,
- Highlight the Jews sin and weakness of his assumptions, and
- Defend the Gentiles.
I’ve argued all of Romans 1.18-4.23 is a dialogue with a Jew. There are other sections throughout Romans that have similar but smaller interactions with IJ.
- Rom 6.1-2f
- Rom 6.15-16f
- Rom 7.7-25
- Rom 9.14-15f
- Rom 9.30-32f
- Rom 11.1f
- Rom 11.11-12f
Paul has undermined the benefits of being a Jew. IJ is incredulous, asking what if there are any advantages in being a Jew. Paul says they have been entrusted with the ‘oracles’ of God. Most scholars seem to think he is referring to the Scriptures as the prophetic word of God (Rom 3.1-2).
IJ acknowledges some Jews are unfaithful (Rom 3.3). Its implied they break the law of Moses. This puts immediate doubt on whether they are the true circumcision, true Jews. Remember Rom 2.25-29.
God’s righteousness can manifest itself in several ways. I have briefly spoken about this in my page (God’s Righteousness) on the New Perspective. Here I believe God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to fulfill his promises. Bringing salvation to Abraham’s offspring and to bless all the nations.
So being a Jew, possessing the law of Moses and boasting in God doesn’t exempt the Jews from punishment for sin. But what does this mean for God? Will God remain faithful to his covenant promises even though some of the Jews, the traditional covenant members have broken the law?
God will stay true and faithful no matter what. How? We will find out soon enough.
IJ asks Paul if they are any better off being Jews if they sin. Paul responds no. The sin of the Jews shows they are still under sin. To be ‘under’ Sin implies they are under its dominion and power (e.g. Rom 2.12; 6.14-15; 7.14; 1 Cor 9.20-21). The charges laid against Gentiles associated with IJ (Rom 1.18-32; 2.1-5) and against the some (Rom 3.3) Jews by Paul (Rom 2.1-29; 3.1-8) suggest they are under Sin’s dominion and power.
The people of God are under God’s rule, not the rule and dominion of sin. People who continue in sin cannot be the people of God. Even the Jews.
To prove his point that the Jews are under the dominion of sin, Paul quotes a set of passages from Psalms and Isaiah (Ps 14.1-3; 53.1-3; Ps 5.9; Ps 140.3; Ps 10.7; Prov 1.16; Isa 59.7-8; Ps 36.1) which overall depict a human being (throat, tongues, lips, mouth and feet). Justin Martyr quotes Paul using the same passages in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew.
Paul says ‘whatever the law says’ (referring to the cantina) ‘it speaks to those under the law’ (the Jews who are under the law of Moses). Paul uses the cantina to draw the unrighteous Jews into the condemnation thought previously only to belong to the Gentiles. In light of the law and the knowledge it brings of Jewish sin, they must be held accountable to God’s judgment as well.
‘By works of law no human being (lit. ‘flesh’) will be justified in his sight’.
The ‘works of the law’ are the commands in the law of Moses which require observable deeds and actions (e.g. Circumcision, Festivals and Holidays, Worship and Sacrifice, Purity and Washings). I’ve written about these in my New Perspective page (Works of the Law) and I’m also following the several early church fathers on this point.
‘Flesh’. The sinful Jews are in the flesh. Often contrasted with the Spirit in Paul (e.g. Rom 8.4f; Gal 3.2-5; 5.19-26; 6.7-10).
‘Justified’. Paul echoes Ps 143.2 with a twist. ‘By works of law no flesh will be justified’. When Paul refers to ‘justified’ he could mean one of two things (NPP page again):
- When sinners become righteous in the sight of God by some sort of means, and
- When people or even God are identified as righteous by some sort of means.
Paul’s discussion addresses how the Jews (‘those under the law’) stand before God. In addition to being commands the Jews ought to do, the ‘works of law’ were thought to identify the Jews as righteous in God’s sight. But despite their practice of these commands – their sin (stealing, adultery and idolatry), as shown in the law highlights they too are under Sin’s dominion. They cannot be righteous in God’s sight.
The works of the law are not the way God identifies whether a person is righteous. No one will be justified by works of law.
Rather through the law comes knowledge of sin. The law in the immediate context refers to the story of the Jews, which speaks to them of their sin and rebellion against God. This is the nail in the coffin for IJ. Observance of the law of Moses, being a Jew, is not the way God views who the righteous are.
This is a really dense passage. The meanings of several of the expressions are debated.
First thing – Paul is still speaking to IJ, in front of the Roman believing audience.
‘But now’ Paul says to IJ. The two words show a change in the state of affairs.
Previously, unrighteous Gentiles have been condemned by Paul (Rom 1.18-32) and IJ (Rom 2.1-5). Although there are several yet to be explained instances where Gentiles are described as being obedient in contrast to the Jews.
Previously, sinful Jews have been shown as unfaithful to God’s covenant and are included in this judgment by Paul (Rom 2.1-3.20). The law – the story of the Jews – brings knowledge of their sin.
How will God manifest his righteousness despite Jewish sin?
The ‘righteousness of God’ has been manifested (Rom 3.21). Previously it was revealed in the gospel (Rom 1.16-17) and questioned when Israel was found unfaithful (Rom 3.5). Each passage shares the same meaning regarding the ‘righteousness of God’. NT Wright has given a helpful list of interpretations for this expression here.
In the earlier post I indicated Paul’s meaning here referred to God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises revealed in the gospel – the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and appearances.
The righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law [story of the Jews], although the law and the prophets bear witness to it. The law and the prophets of course expect the coming of the Christ.
The expression ‘faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ (Rom 3.22) which you probably see in your bible as ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ is transliterated from the Greek ‘pisteos Iesou Christou’. Three words are used: Faith – Jesus – Christ. ‘Pisteos’ and its close cognates can be rendered in English as ‘faith’ or ‘believe’ (e.g. Rom 1.8). It can also be rendered ‘faithfulness’ (e.g. Rom 3.3). The greek does not have the precision of meaning English does in this case. The key issue for interpreting which of the two Paul means is its association with ‘the righteousness of God’ manifested and revealed and later shown. ‘Pisteos’ must refer to something visible, an event or in this case Jesus’ faithfulness in the gospel story. This is the way it is revealed (Rom 1.17), manifested (Rom 3.21) and shown (Rom 3.26).
Paul introduces IJ to God’s righteousness. His faithfulness to his covenant promises, demonstrated in the faithfulness of Jesus the messiah, who brings blessing to all who believe he is the risen Christ.
‘There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. Both Gentiles and Jews have exchanged the glory of God for idols (Rom 1.23). Sin means falling short of the mark. All Jews and Gentiles have sinned and are subject to God’s just wrath. God must punish sin. Yet despite God’s holy wrath, God must act according to his faithfulness to his promises and his love for mankind. Bringing his love and justice together in one single act of obedience Jesus died on the cross (cf. Rom 5.19).
‘There is no distinction: all are justified by his grace as a gift.’ Paul’s use of ‘all’ does not mean that every person is justified. Rather that all nations, Jews and Gentiles are made righteous in God’s sight by God’s grace and gift in Jesus.
Paul is speaking about the way sinners become righteous in God’s sight.
Paul refers to the same event of justification in Rom 5.9,19; 6.7; 1 Cor 6.11; Tit 3.7; and Gal 2.21.
‘Sinners are justified by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. Redemption is bound up with slave market imagery and liberation. References to imagery associated with the slave market should also remind us of Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt.
Paul alludes to Jesus death on the cross. His faithfulness is his obedience to His father to the point of death (Phil 2.8)
Jesus’ death on the cross pays the price to buy his people out of slavery to Sin and into service of their new master and king (Rom 6). No longer under the power and dominion of Sin. Jesus’ sacrifice moves his new people into his dominion of grace and righteousness.
‘Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood’. Paul uses Greek term which has transliteration ‘hilasterion’ which could either mean:
- Jesus’ sacrifice proptitiates God’s wrath, or
- Jesus is the mercy seat (day of atonement) through which God atones for sin.
Both come from the Torah (Ex 25.17-22; 31.7; 35.12; 37.6-9; Num 7.89; Amos 9.1). I prefer the former because of the earlier and later allusions in Romans to God’s wrath (Rom 1.18; 5.9). This also aligns with Rom 8.3 and 2 Cor 5.21 where Paul says God gave Jesus as a sin offering for the sin of his people.
‘To be received by faith’. Paul doesn’t say what exactly the content of their faith is in this immediate context. He does refer to Christ’s death in the passage, but that doesn’t mean it is the primary object of saving faith. Paul gives a definite example of the content of saving faith in Rom 10.9-10. None the less.
When people come to believe Jesus is the risen Lord they receive the benefits of his sin atoning death.
Up till now God has been patiently waiting to deal with sin. People may have been forgiven in the past, through the Levitical sacrificial system for example. But forgiveness only comes through faith and trust in God and his merciful character. The kind of trust which through all salvation history receives the benefits of Jesus’ sin atoning death on the cross.
Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates before all the world, God’s righteous commitment to his covenant promises of salvation and his justice in punishing wrongdoing and sin (Rom 3.25-26).
It’s at this point, while Paul is explaining to IJ, what God has done through Jesus. That he focusses on the needs of his Roman believing audience.
God is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’ Through this last passage Paul has introduced the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and the faith believers have in him as the risen Christ. Faith in Jesus identifies people as righteous in his sight. Part of his made right people and family, the righteous.
I will address these issues in greater detail in the next and last post of this series.
Questions for us
As promised these questions help us consider the illocutionary acts involved in the performance of the text.
What do you think reading this section aloud would do to a group of believers?
While speaking to IJ, he now goes into some detail explaining how God has displayed his faithfulness to his covenant promises and his just dealing with sin.
Paul has earlier affirmed their faith (Rom 1.8). They may know these things about God and Jesus already. I will stress nowhere in the text to date has Paul condemned the Roman believers for sin. He is in dialogue with IJ.
Still, Paul’s statements to IJ about sin may remind them of their own former sins (cf. Rom 6.21). They may well be humbled. His statements also speak about the way God has dealt with their sins. They may thank God again for his gracious gift in Christ.
Paul’s statements about God’s righteousness vindicate God’s character, his faithfulness to his promises and his justice in dealing with sin. The believers would hold God in higher respect and awe.
The believers would see the Christ event as an epoch defining moment in world history.
How do you think the JEWISH believers would respond?
Jewish believers would of course be very interested in what Paul says to IJ. Paul’s statements about Judaism and God’s faithfulness to the Jews concern them.
They would recognise that some Jews do indeed live sinful lifestyles and agree with Paul’s judgment on them.
They would be less inclined to rest on their Jewish credentials (e.g. circumcision and the works of law) as the means by which they are righteous in God’s sight. Paul’s statements have nullified the value of their observance of the works of the law. They might question if they should continue observing them. Paul will later affirm to IJ, the Jews can still uphold the law (Rom 3.31).
Knowing about God’s promises to their father Abraham. They would understand God fulfilled those promises in Jesus. His life, death and resurrection.
No longer would they see the Levitical sacrificial system as the means of atonement. Rather they would understand Jesus’ blood propitiates God’s wrath and they have received the benefits of his sin atoning death when they came to believe he is the risen Christ.
In all they would move away from relying on the law and affirm their faith in Jesus.
How do you think the GENTILE believers would respond?
The Gentiles would be even less inclined from thinking they should become Jews to be recognised as God’s people. They may well acknowledge that some Jews sin in the way Paul describes and perhaps acknowledge this behaviour discourages people from becoming Jews.
They would recognise that God has dealt with their sins through Jesus death on the cross. They would be further affirmed in their common faith in Jesus.
What do you think the effect of saying this to an audience of Jewish and Gentile believers would have on their GROUP DYNAMICS?
Both Jewish and Gentile believers would begin to recognise that they share a common faith in Jesus and God he has dealt with their sin through his death. What they have in common should bring them closer together. Moving away from Jew – Gentile differences and closer together in shared faith.
Why do you think Paul crafted this performance this way? What was his intent?
Paul knows they share a common faith in Jesus. Paul has crafted the dialogue to put down Judaism, build respect for what God has done in Jesus and draw them together in faith.
Paul describes the event by which God has made them righteous in his sight. But in this passage Paul is speaking to IJ in dialogue. Very soon he will mention it again retrospectively to the Roman believers directly (Rom 5.8-9).
God is faithful to his covenant and promises. Despite the unfaithfulness of the Jews, he has sent Jesus the faithful messiah to do what they failed to do. This passage describes the supreme example of God’s commitment to his promises.
God is also just and he must punish sin. Jesus’ death highlights just how bad sin is. If God had to send his one and only son to die in our stead for our sins, then this should shape how we view sin. Sin is serious business.
God is certainly worthy of our loyalty, trust and thanks.
Faith in Jesus is the common ground all Christians share. I find many things can easily divide God’s people. Paul in this passage targets Judaism and the works of law. But I’m sure we can create many more reasons to divide and argue. Paul reminds us of our shared faith in Jesus and the benefits we all share in believing he is the risen Christ.
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