3:1-8 – Paul Counters Jewish Objections
Paul now makes clear his affirmation of his Jewish identity and his convictions concerning God’s truthful revelation in Israel’s scriptures. “What advantage has the Jew?” (3:1). Many! Crucially, God entrusted the Jews with scripture (“the oracles [logia] of God,” 3:2). God has revealed Godself through Israel’s history and scriptures – this is a huge advantage for the Hebrew people, though it is a gift with large expectations attached.
After Paul’s sharp critique of the idolatry of the judgers, reiterated with his strong words concerning the condemnation visited upon those who have been externally circumcised yet still are law-breakers, he needs to make clear that this unfaithfulness on the part of the covenant people will not stop God’s healing work in the world.
“Will their unfaithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God?” (3:3). Hardly. God remains truthful (this word again) even when lies characterize all too many human beings. God has called us to be God’s agents for God’s work, but God does not fail when we fail.
Paul delves into some complicated lines of argument here. “Our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God” (3:5). God’s truth shines all the brighter in contrast with human untruth. Is our injustice thereby serving God’s justice be making it more apparent? And if so, does that make God unjust for giving human beings up to wrath? “By no means!” (3:4).
It is important for Paul that God be understood as the judge of the world (3:6). And if God is the world’s judge, it is important that injustice reap its consequences. I would not read an angry God who directly intervenes to punish into these ruminations by Paul. More, he seems to have in mind the need to hold on to a moral universe. One danger is to believe that unjust people will be able to practice their injustice without consequences. The other danger is to forget that God is a merciful God who above all else in relation to human beings desires wholeness and restored relationships.
This is to say, the “justice of God” that Paul believes remains standing even in the face of human injustice, is the same “justice” we see throughout the Bible – God’s work to restore broken relationships, to bring healing where there has been alienation. Human tendencies to destroy relationships do not overcome God’s healing justice. Yet, there is no healing without “wrath” (that is, without negative consequences as a result of unjust acts). God is not “unjust” to “inflict wrath”; the wrath of God is part of God’s healing work. Because we do reap negative consequences as a result of injustice, we have more hope that we might be able to, at some point, to see God’s healing justice for what it is.
In the background here, we could look back at the dynamics related to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The injustice of the Powers in executing Jesus served the possibilities of healing by triggering the events leading ultimately to Jesus’ resurrection and God’s vindication of Jesus as God’s Son, the true King, the one who reveals God definitively. The negative acts led to God’s positive act – but they also illuminated that those Powers indeed were God’s rivals, not God’s servants as they claimed.
Perhaps we could say that the revelation of God’s wrath in relation to the idolatry of the lusters in 1:18-32 and in relation to the idolatry of the judgers in chapter two serves God’s justice (God’s work to heal) by making clear that these various forms of idolatry are indeed idolatry. The Empire’s elite claim to act on behalf of the gods. The judgers claim to act on behalf of God. In both cases, the revelation of God’s wrath in relation to what actually turns out to be injustice in relation to both populations may help to open people of faith’s eyes to truth. Seeing the truth, they may withstand the temptation toward idolatry and “honor God and give thanks to God” (1:21).
Saying all this, though, in no way is meant to let the idolaters off the hook. They remain responsible for their injustice even if God is using it to further God’s purposes (as with the ancient empires who were seen by prophets as agents of God’s wrath on Israel). Why is the idolater still condemned as a sinner (Paul’s “I” here may not be purely rhetorical given his own past as one who committed overt violence due to his idolizing the law and reducing Torah to legalistic rules)? Why not do “evil so that good may come?” (3:7-8). Paul does not argue against this way of thinking so much as simply refute it by stating its premises. “Their condemnation is deserved!” (3:8). Anyone who would argue in favor of doing evil has so misunderstood God’s ways that they would not be able to recognize God’s reality anyhow.
3:9-20 – None is Righteous
Paul is now heading toward his resolution of the argument – that God’s revelation in Jesus provides the true source of healing for all people. However, he wants to drive home the depth of the problem first.
Verse nine (NRSV) asks the question again, “are we better off?”, echoing 3:1 (“what advantage has the Jew?”). An alternative translation fits Paul’s argument a little better: “Are we (Jews) at any disadvantage?” with the answer being, no, we (Jews) are no better off or worse off, we tend towards idolatry every bit as much as Gentiles – though not more so. We are all basically on the same level.
“We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9). We need to remember here what Paul likely has in mind when he says “sin.” As we see earlier in Romans, “sin” is about idolatry that manifests itself in injustice. By being under the “power of sin” he has in mind sin as a force outside of us (though it taps into and exploits our inner flaws) that shapes us and distorts our way of seeing and seduces us into worshiping idols. And this “worship” of idols leads to injustice.
Paul’s concern (precisely echoing the prophets and Jesus) is with beliefs, ideologies, and social dynamics that lead people, in their desire for what they (with distorted sight) see as “good,” even godly, to hurt other people (with overt acts, with structural violence, or with neglect and disregard). When Paul says we are “all” under the power of sin, his point seems to be not so much that each individual is (he has already alluded to the existence of genuinely just people) but that Jews and Gentiles as distinct populations are each equally liable to being under the power of sin (that is, idolaters).
Paul’s concern here is not with personal salvation but with making clear the realities of idolatry and how these realities apply to Gentiles and to Jews. The assumptions the empire elite have about serving the gods for “good” and the assumptions the leaders of Israel have about serving God for good are both shown to be self-deception given the extent of profound injustice in both contexts.
What then follows in 3:10-18 is a collection of Old Testament proof texts that drive home the universality of human injustice. Again, that Paul already in Romans 1–2 has alluded to people who are “law-keepers” and given what is to come in the rest of Romans where he goes into some detail in (optimistically) outlining life lived in faithfulness to God, should make it clear that his concern here is not literally to argue that every person is a hopeless, out-of-control sinner. Paul knows that faithfulness is possible – and has happened.
Rather, Paul here is simply driving home the reality that just as God is not partial in seeing only one kind of person as just due to external factors (instead judging people’s “secret thoughts” and actual practices of justice), so also is the reality of living under the dominance of the power of sin spread equally among all kinds of people.
Following this litany of sinfulness, Paul returns to the law for his final comments before turning to his punch line concerning God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. At this point, as he is emphasizing here the failings of humanity, Paul focuses on the law’s negative aspects.
When he writes, “whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law” (3:19), he is simply saying that the law (here he probably means the written Torah) speaks to Jews. By “under the law” he means members in the covenant community of Israel that is explicitly committed to following the written law. His point in this verse is basically to underscore the universality of accountability before God. He seems to feel the need to emphasize this especially concerning Jews, harking back to his earlier point that the judgers are also liable to judgment. Being blessed as recipients of written Torah has in no sense lessened the level of accountability.
Perhaps we could find here a hint of the idea that part of why judgers judge others is an attempt to lessen their own level of accountability. It’s as if they say to themselves, We know we must be okay and will be guaranteed leniency so long as we are able to identify others who are obviously in the wrong.
Then, when Paul goes on to state in 3:20 that no one will be justified (made whole, restored to healthy relationships with God and other human beings) by “deeds prescribed by the law” (or, “works of the law”), Paul is emphasizing the peculiarly Jewish (and problematic) reduction of the law to particular rules especially useful for setting and sustaining boundaries (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher eating).
He found a problematic tendency in himself and in many in Israel for many generations – to think of the law in terms of these “works” and to understand “justification” (harmony with God and the community) in terms of success in practicing and enforcing these “works of the law.” Such a tendency leads to a sense of entitlement, of smugness and self-satisfaction, of hostility toward Gentiles (contradicting the call to bless all the families of the earth), and of having leverage over against God. Ultimately, as Paul portrays things in Romans 1–3, such trust in “works of the law” turns out to be a form of idolatry (reducing Torah to rules) that leads to injustice every bit as problematic as the injustice of the lusters/Empire elite. Paul himself practiced this terrible injustice when he violently persecuted followers of Jesus.
“Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20) may best be seen in relation to our earlier discussion of what sin seems to mean for Paul. The point would not so much be that the law gives us the knowledge that we as individuals fall short of perfection. Again, the law allowed for accounting for occasional failures as part of its whole-making emphasis. Rather, the point more would be that the law, properly understood, helps us see our idolatries. The law helps us see how we are failing to trust in God’s love and justice above all else.
The law helps give knowledge of sin (as idolatry) by providing various touchstones for when we cut ourselves off from God’s healing power. When there is injustice, that is a sure sign that our trust in God has wavered. When the communal wholeness prescribed by the law is violated, that warns us of the presence of idols in our midst. The law also points us to the reality of our liberator God who stands in contrast to all the other gods we are tempted to trust in.
3:21-31 – God’s Justifying Righteousness
[3:21-26]—Now we come to the punch line of Paul’s discussion in these first three chapters. Again, the presence of the term “righteousness/justice” (dikaiosunë) is front and center. One reason it seems important to translate it as “justice” is to make obvious the link between “justice” and “justification” that Paul emphasizes here. What “justification” has to do with needs to be understood as directly tied in with the “justice” of God that is manifested in Jesus Christ.
Paul makes two seemingly contradictory points when he says that the “justice of God” has been disclosed “apart from the law” in a way that is “attested by the law and the prophets” (3:21). His point would seem to be that, in some sense, the justice of God was never intended to be disclosed in the law – and that the law itself tells us this.
To make sense of this we need to reflect on what it is that is disclosed concerning the justice of God. First of all, let’s remember that “the justice of God” has to do with God’s whole-making work among human beings. What is being disclosed is how God brings healing to the world, how God restores broken relationships, and how God makes whole that which has experienced brokenness.
How does scripture (“law and prophets” = “oracles of God,” 3:2) portray God’s healing justice? Basically as God’s initiative to bring liberation (the exodus) prior to the explicit revelation of the commandments. That is, God’s justice has always been disclosed “apart from the law” – that is, prior to the law. The point of the law has always been to “attest to” God’s justice. It is because God’s saving justice has been disclosed as the first step in establishing wholeness that Israel is then called to follow Torah as a response to that first step (Ex 20:1-2).
When Paul asserts that the disclosure of God’s justice is “attested by the law and prophets” he is saying that scripture from the start has witnessed to how God discloses God’s justice – through acts of mercy and liberation. The law follows; keeping the law is the response expected of liberated people, the fruit of living with gratitude (and what is missing from the idolaters, 1:21).
So, the disclosure of God’s justice through Jesus Christ is in full continuity with the other disclosures of God’s justice. “Belief” here (3:22) is trusting in God as merciful. Those who do so trust will recognize in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the paradigmatic disclosure of God’s justice – but it is the same justice that was disclosed in the other stories told in scripture as well.
The phrase dia pisteeös Jësou Christou (3:22) perhaps is best translated, in this context, as “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The point, then, may be that Jesus’ faithfulness in his life, teaching, and willingness to face death discloses God’s justice.
Reading this phrase in this way underscores the continuity in God’s saving work that clearly, from chapters 1–3, seems to be Paul’s assumption. His critique of Judaism does not represent a sense on his part that we are now at a point of shifting from one faith system to another (from Judaism to “Christianity”) or from one economy of salvation (based on following the commands) to another (belief in Jesus as savior).
Rather, Paul’s critique links very closely with the prophetic critique that goes back almost to Israel’s beginnings: people are trusting in their own actions and in things other than God in order to assure their salvation rather than trusting in God’s mercy and healing love. Because people trust in things, they miss the point of the law (and other religious symbols) and see it as an end in itself rather than as something pointing beyond itself to God. The law has too easily been seen as the means to gain God’s favor and as the means to separate the “truly faithful” from the “unclean.” When this happens, the law becomes an idol and an occasion for violence.
However, this critique is based on the true meaning of the law. It is “attested by the law and prophets.” This is precisely the same critique voiced by Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and other of Israel’s great prophets – and by Jesus himself.
Paul emphasizes the abolishing of boundary markers as the basis for relationship with God when he asserts “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:22-23). Remember, he has spoken of “sin” in terms of idolatry. So here he is saying that the problem of idolatry cuts across any possible lines of distinction. The lusters are idolaters, but equally so are the judgers. They all “fall short of the glory of God” – that is, they are all unjust, they all violate the true meaning of Torah, they all fail to live with gratitude and respond to the truth God has revealed to everyone. That is, people from all categories. Paul has already made it clear that there some who do glorify God appropriately.
His point here has to do with the reality that ethnic identity or religious identification does not in themselves make people right with God. The problems cut across all these boundaries.
To make his point clear, Paul states flatly each person who is right with God is that way because God has “justified” them (made them whole) “by his grace as a gift” (just as scripture tells in relation to the gifts of the exodus, the giving of Torah, the gift of the land, and restoration following exile).
Here, though, Paul points to the paradigmatic expression of this justifying work, the witness of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ own life of freedom from the Powers and their lure to idolatry frees (“redeems”) all those who trust in his way as the true disclosure of God’s justice (3:24). The point would not be that Jesus provides a different means of salvation. Rather, Jesus is simply the most clear and profound expression of God’s work already seen in the liberating stories from Israel’s scriptures.
When Paul speaks specifically of Jesus’ blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” “put forward” by God (3:25), he refers to Jesus’ life (“the life is in the blood,” Lev 17:14) as a witness to God’s justice. Jesus’ life was a life of self-sacrifice wherein he persevered in embodying God’s justice in face of the injustice and violence of the Powers – even to the point of giving his life in witness to God’s justice.
God “put forward” Jesus’ self-sacrificial life in order to make clear to all with eyes to see the nature of God’s justice. When the Powers respond to this disclosure with murderous violence, they are exposed as idols. This exposure provides a means for liberation for their seductions. Then, the final expression of God’s commitment to Jesus as the expression of justice put forward by God comes when God raises Jesus from the dead, firmly establishing Jesus as the authentic revelation of the healing justice of God.
As Paul says, God “put forward Jesus” in order “to show his justice” (3:25). Jesus’ self-sacrifice was “effective” through his faithfulness (3:25). It was not that he was literally without sin and therefore perfect nearly so much that he was faithful, consistently and amidst all opposition showing God’s mercy and healing justice to those most in need due to the violence and injustice of the Powers and the idolaters.
“In God’s divine forbearance God had passed over the sins previously committed” (3:25). That is, God remained patience amidst the idolatries of Israel and the Gentiles, seeking always to work to free people from the bondages fostered by such idolatries. Now, in the unprecedented clarity of Jesus’ expression of God’s power, people are able to be freed from these sins.
God’s patience itself “proves” that God is just and that God seeks to bring healing to everyone, Jew and Gentile, who shares in Jesus’ faithfulness (3:26). Jesus models genuine justice and genuine gratitude and genuine trust in God. He makes clear that the Powers who divert people from such justice, gratitude, and trust are idols in rebellion against God. Therefore, all who follow the same path as Jesus will be made whole.
[3:27-31]—Paul now returns to the problem of the judger, whose sense of rightness with God is founded on their sense of superiority vis-à-vis those outside the formal people of Israel. “What becomes of boasting? It is excluded” (3:27). In this understanding of God’s justice, there simply is no place for ethnic or religious self-superiority. All have equally violated God’s law. All have equally practiced idolatry. And, most importantly, all have equal access to the healing justice of God through trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus.
This “boasting” is excluded by the true law (“the law of faith”), which is Torah as it was intended from the start. The point of God’s gift of Torah was to reinforce trust in God alone and faithfulness in the vocation of blessing all the families of the earth – not to provide for “works” (boundary markers) that would underwrite boasting, a sense of superiority that is revealed to be blatant hypocrisy in light of the “religious” people’s own injustices (e.g., Israel and Judah under the kings, Paul’s own violence in the name of the law of works).
Paul insists that a person is made whole (“justified”) through trusting in God and living a faithful life “apart from” strictly adhering to the boundary marker rules and boasting in one’s superiority to those on the other side of the boundary (i.e., “works prescribed by the law,” 3:28). “Justified” here, then, has to do with faithful living in the context of healed relationships with God and other human beings, living that manifests true justice.
Paul concludes this section by driving home again his beliefs about the universality of God’s healing intentions. He makes this affirmation, he believes, as a faithful interpretation of Israel’s scriptures. God certainly is the God of the Jews (Yahweh) but not only of the Jews. “Is he not the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29). None of Israel’s prophets would have disagreed with this; they drew directly on Torah to assert that Yahweh was transcendent, the God of all people, and not bound by the narrowness of the law-idolaters’ conception of God.
“Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through that same faithfulness” (3:30). Paul is not saying here that Jews and Gentiles alike must accept some doctrine about Jesus as divine or as the only valid sacrifice for sin. Rather, he is saying that whole-making (justification) follows, for both Jew and Gentile, from faithfulness to the true message of Torah (reiterated by Jesus): trust in the God of healing justice, not in idols, and live lives befitting such trust. And he has already made clear above that those with no knowledge of the written law are indeed capable of such faithfulness even if they may not know God’s name.
“Do we then overthrow the law by this faithfulness? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). This point cuts two ways. On the one hand, it is saying that “this faithfulness” is following God’s genuine will as expressed from times of old. On the other hand, it underscores the continuing validity of the law. To underscore the point one last time: the problem is not with the law, the problem is with how it is interpreted and practiced. As reflected in the message of the prophets and in the message of Jesus, Paul simply reiterates that the law is upheld by those who practice healing justice. That from the start was the point of God’s gift of Torah – and remains as valid as ever.