Paul spent the first chapter of Romans humbling the Gentiles for their background and sinfulness. Paul spent the second chapter humbling the Jews for their inability to live up to the law and their dependence on physical circumcision over a circumcision of the heart. In the third chapter of Romans Paul is tying up loose ends and questions that could be anticipated since he would not be there in person to deliver this letter to the Roman Christians. The primary question would be – if the Jews and Gentiles are so alike in their sinfulness and need for faith is there any advantage in being a Jew? Paul answers the question in advance – “Much in every way! (3:2)” Even though the Jews were just as unrighteous as the Gentiles they were still entrusted with the words of God. This does not diminish the faithfulness or righteousness of God in any way.
Paul then anticipates another possible resonse (3:5-8). It is possible for someone to rationalize from what Paul wrote in Romans 2 that the Jews could then show God to be more honest or righteous by increasing their own sinfulness and unrighteousness. Paul confronts it head on that such thinking ultimately results in condemnation (3:8). Then Paul says something that seems contradictory – he asks the question again in 3:9 – “Do we have any advantage? Not at all.” But wait a minute Paul, I thought you said just 8 verses ago that the Jews did have an advantage. What Paul is saying here is that the Jews knowledge of the law (or very words of God 3:2) gives them a head start in the race but it does not make them superior to or better than the Gentiles. In fact, the playing field has been leveled by the reality that both Jew and Gentile alike are all under the power of sin (3:9). Paul points to a laundry list of Psalms to show that this is not a new idea that God’s people were sinful just like the rest of the world (Rom 3:10-18). Their own law backs up what Paul is saying.
In 3:21ff Paul is talking about the unfolding plan of God that is moving beyond the law, even though the law itself testified to it through the Torah and the Prophets (3:21). This unfolding plan includes the incarnation of Christ to come and bear our sins on the cross to pay the ultimate price so that Jesus might reconcile us to the Father through his sacrifice. The hope is that we would understand what God has done for us through Christ so that we could respond to God’s saving actions with faith. Obeying all the law does not and never did make someone righteous. Only God can make someone righteous. That is humbling to think that no matter how hard we try there is no righteousness apart from God.
Do all people who have ever believed at any point in time become righteous even if through a moment of momentary faith? Afterall, Paul writes, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (3:22). The idea of faith in the New Testament is believing in something so strongly that it moves someone to respond. It moves them to action. Let’s say you were told that your spouse would be returning from Iraq and that they would be at the airport noon on Thursday. I wonder where you would be at noon on Thursday? Why would we be there? Because we believe in the message so strongly and it is so important to us that it makes us willing to act as if those beliefs are true.
In 3:23 we get to one of the most quoted verses in the entire New Testament. People use this verse as a key verse in studying the Bible with a non-Christian in order to help them understand their need for repentance because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Important verse. Key verse. But let us also not take for granted the context. I realize that out of necessity we will continue to quote this verse out of context but let’s at least understand what that context is. This is the climax of all Paul has been working toward at this point. The Gentiles are unrighteous. The Jews are unrighteous. The playing field is leveled because all have sinned. I think we do this verse a misservice when we don’t quote 3:24 along with it, “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Sin is only half the picture. The redemptive power of Jesus that God has willingly and undeservedly given to us should make our jaw drop.
When you realize how God has given us his unmerited favor we are humbled. Paul’s intended effect on the quarreling Jew and Gentile Christians at Rome was that they were to see each other so eye to eye because of their own sinfulness and their own righteousness given only by God that there was no room left to boast (3:27).