Beyond the Lectionary Text: Romans 3
by Chelsey Harmon
No one will ever be able to accuse Paul of lacking passion. It oozes out of each of his letters in the New Testament. Sometimes though, when you’re passionate, your arguments don’t always make logical sense or flow smoothly from point to point. The opening of Romans is a good example of this. In Romans 3, for instance, Paul uses a well-known technique of his time to address his opposition. Called a diatribe, Paul tries to address all of the questions or refutations someone might make about his claims– portraying both sides of a conversation even though he’s the only one doing the ‘talking.’ Paul is motivated in his communication, hopeful that everyone will come to see the ways in which they are in need of Christ and all he offers. In other words, his heart is in the right place even if his reasoning is a little difficult to follow. Paul uses emphatic phrases, big questions, and lots of intellect to identify these supposed loopholes in his arguments. And, as if this diatribe technique weren’t complicating enough, Paul also begins a line of reasoning in chapter three that he does not pick up and finish until chapter nine! Thus, chapter three starts with a new line of thought that goes partially unresolved, while simultaneously continuing to build a case that started in chapter one when Paul began to address different groups of people’s faulty thinking. The strand that ties all of the pieces together is that each of the groups that Paul addresses have no idea how much they need Jesus: he’s spoken about the foolishness of secular religious sages, about those who boast in their moral rightness as the way to God, and now, in Romans 3, Paul sets his sights on the self-confident Jews– those resting on their ‘special’ status as members of God’s covenant community. Though the groups are separated by their mistaken motives and self-perceptions, Paul passionately argues that they (and we) share one identity: unrighteous sinners doomed without Jesus.
I find it best to parse Paul in small chunks…
The first section lays out the seeming implications of what Paul has said in the previous two chapters. As though he were the school teacher who decides to engage that one ornery student out to make him (the teacher) look silly, Paul provides a number of possible objections that a proud Jewish person might raise to the gospel.
Objection 1: What do you mean, Paul, is there NO advantage of being a Jew? Aren’t the Jews God’s chosen people?
Paul: Yes, actually, there is an advantage to being Jewish, but it’s not the advantage you think.
It is Paul’s intent to show how the old covenant is continued in the new covenant through Jesus, and that those under the old covenant had the knowledge that they needed to recognize Jesus for who he truly was- the Messiah. In verse two he lays it out: the advantage for the Jewish people is that they were given the covenantal responsibility of knowing God and keeping his word– the word which identifies Jesus as the Messiah. That knowledge is not the key to their security, but their responsibility. (A point he also makes with the other groups he addresses in Romans 1 and 2.) Later on, Paul will show how the law (God’s word) condemns not only the Jews who had it but did not understand what it meant, but everyone.
Objection 2: So if the people who ought to have known failed to believe in Jesus, does that mean that God has failed or isn’t actually trustworthy? If his chosen people don’t get it and can’t stay faithful, isn’t that a communication problem on God’s part? Or more precisely, if the people broke covenant, wouldn’t God break covenant too (and thereby be unfaithful to his people)?
Paul: NOT ON YOUR LIFE!
No matter what, Paul rightly argues, God stays true even when we fail him. Quoting from Psalm 51, a confessional psalm accredited to one of the most highly regarded Jews of all time, King David, Paul says that God judges us for our faith breaking, and he is right to do so because he (unlike us) is always faithful.
Objection 3: Oh! Well in that case, if our sin/unrighteousness only showcases God’s righteousness that much more, why would God want to get rid of it? Why would God punish something that shows how perfect and better he is than the rest of us?
Paul: People who think that way aren’t even worth arguing with.
For Paul, the idea that any evil can promote the glory of God is self-condemning. It’s not that Paul is arguing that our sins can’t be used to draw us to God—such as through the act of repentance. Instead, Paul finds the idea that our sins are the things that give God glory preposterous– especially when his otherness is seen much more fully in the way God keeps covenant with unfaithful.
So Paul returns to the question: is there any advantage to being a Jew? This time, instead of answering yes, he answers no! Anyone trapped by the assumption that they are a little closer to God on the holiness scale than their neighbour needs to read God’s word again. Quoting from upwards of nine different Old Testament passages, Paul spends the middle section of his diatribe placing (or should we say deflating) everyone on an even field.
Notice that “none is righteous, no, not one…” None/no one/not one are repeated six times (seven if you include the phrase “all have turned aside”). We are to understand that unrighteous is the universal human condition. Notice too how pervasive sin is to the human condition, as seen by the body parts mentioned in the selected quotations: no one understands, implying the brain; throats are open graves; venom is under lips; mouths are full of curses and bitterness; feet swiftly shed blood; the way of peace is not known, implying the soul; and eyes don’t see reasons to fear God. The universal human condition of unrighteousness oozes and effects every part of what it means to be human.
No one has been faithful. No one has kept the law. Therefore, keeping the law just won’t cut it. In other words, Paul argues to the self-confident Jews, being part of the covenant community and keeping your end of the covenant agreement by obeying God’s commands isn’t going to make you righteous because you have already failed. God, on the other hand, never has. So what good is the law? Though it cannot save us, the law helps us see our failure clearly, and perhaps return some of that fear of the Lord to before our eyes; it helps us identify the ways in which we need God’s forgiveness and redemption.
So what hope is there? Along with the confident Jew, the first twenty verses have laid us low. Is there anything that can lift us out of the pits we’ve dug ourselves? Yes! It’s not the law that will lift us, but God’s righteous one, Jesus.
The word of God given to God’s people to show them the way, pointed to the One who would come to fulfill the law, the One who stood blameless according to the law, the One who makes those who believe experience righteousness in a new way (apart from the law). Jew and Gentile alike access Jesus’ righteousness through faith, not works. We share in the condemnation, but we also share in God’s salvation gift of Jesus’ redeeming death on the cross.
Paul teaches us three key things about Jesus’ redeeming death at the close of Romans 3. First, God redeems his people– all of his people. Jesus does what the chosen people failed to do: share God’s blessings with the nations. Second, God satisfies his wrath on sin through the sacrifice of the cross. Third, God demonstrates his justice on sin through the cross. This third one gets a bit more explanation by Paul in verses 25-26. Paul says that God has been withholding punishment on sins (forebearance) so that Jesus could take all of their punishment. John Stott (in his commentary on Romans) explains well:
“God left unpunished the sins of former generations, letting the nations go their own way and overlooking their ignorance, (Acts 14:16; 17:30) not because of any injustice on his part, or with any thought of condoning evil, but in his forebearance (cf. 2:4), and only because it was his fixed intention in the fulness of time to punish these sins in the death of his Son.”
By doing so, God shows his justice in punishing sin and evil in the world while also making us justified in his presence. What’s the catch? Believing.
Any boasting we do is in the object and perfector of our faith: Jesus. It isn’t in what we know, or what we do, or even how our ethnic group fits in the story of God’s covenant relationship with the world. It’s in faith that doesn’t have time to be proud. It’s in faith busy keeping the law because the God’s word is the instructions for living that came with the gift of eternal life from God.
During the 2015 Republican primary campaign, Donald Trump found himself in a bit of a sticky situation regarding his take on seeking forgiveness for sins, which he calls “mistakes.” Trump’s views are not unique— he simply has a platform most people don’t, so one could easily quote him or share his sentiments without naming him. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, clarifying previous campaign trail comments, Trump said,
“I think repenting is terrific… If I make a mistake, yeah, I think it’s great. But I try not to make mistakes. I mean, why do I have to, you know, repent, why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you’re not making mistakes. I work hard. I’m an honorable person.”
This is what modern religious self-confidence sounds like. Trump expresses a self-confident religiosity that can be found all over North America. Hallmarks include being uncomfortable using the word “sin” when it’s applied to one’s self, and where being good is separated not only from the law of God, but from God altogether. Not to completely malign Trump, it should be noted that elsewhere he describes Communion as a form of seeking forgiveness, describing it as an act that makes him “feel cleansed.”