(I’m taking part in a Twitter Bible reading group covering Romans to Revelation over the second half of 2014. Today (July 16th) is Romans 3, and I have too many thoughts simply to share via Twitter. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)
There’s a lot going on in this chapter; Paul is making an argument for the Gospel, the Christian faith, and it’s worth spending a bit of time on the steps leading to this. So this post is a bit longer than my usual ones – sorry!
This chapter starts with an interesting question, and I want to explore the answer a bit more than Paul does here. In chapter 2, he says that God judges impartially, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, for both Jews and non-Jews (Greeks / Gentiles) – in other words, regardless of national or religious identity. He also notes that Gentiles may do what the (Jewish) law requires (i.e. in terms of doing good), without sharing the Jewish religion.
So he asks, quite reasonably, “what’s the advantage of being a Jew?” (v1). Or, as we might put it today, if it is possible to be good without religion, why be religious? Paul’s answer is that “the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation [or, “the oracles”] of God” (v2).
In theological language, you could say that this constitutes a ‘special revelation’ to add greater depth to the ‘general revelation’ of God in the universe, which Paul describes in 1:19-20. By observing the universe, it may be possible to infer the existence of God, but what is God like? and what does that mean for us?
My understanding is that religious beliefs, practices, and experience help us to know more about God, and about how we should live. This means that religious people should have more knowledge and greater motivation to do the right thing. The sad thing is that in reality we don’t.
However, just because people who believe in God are often not much better than those who don’t, this doesn’t mean that belief in God is wrong, or that God himself is somehow wrong. This is what Paul is getting at in vv3-4. It means that those who believe (like myself) have a greater challenge, otherwise as Paul said in 2:24 “The Gentiles [i.e. non-believers] blaspheme the name of God because of you”.
Our religious identity should therefore help us to live good lives, and that is its advantage, its point.
(These verses anticipate a more detailed argument in chapter 6, so I won’t comment on them here.)
Paul puts together a string of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (what most Christians now call the Old Testament) to support his case that “No one is righteous – not even one” (v10). I find it interesting that some of these verses in their original context are not about ‘everyone’, but specifically about ‘the wicked’, often in contrast to ‘the righteous’ or ‘the godly’.
For example, “Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. / Their tongues are filled with lies.” (v13) is from Psalm 5:9 (the Greek version; Hebrew has ‘flattery’ instead of ‘lies’). Yet this specifically refers to “enemies”; the psalmist asks God to “declare them guilty” (Ps5:10) while noting that “you bless the godly” (Ps5:12).
Paul is making a particular point here. Having made the case in ch2 that everyone (Jew or Gentile) can be good or bad, what he’s saying here is that no-one is good all the time – and by using these verses which originally applied to ‘the wicked’, he’s saying, in effect, that all of us should be classed with them.
But there’s an issue here that it seems Paul has forgotten about: what about the good that we do? Does that not count at all? Only a few verses earlier he wrote that “there will be glory and honour and peace from God for all who do good” (2:10) and even that God “will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good” (2:7).
But now Paul writes that the purpose of the law “is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God” (v19). The concept of righteousness has shifted a little; it’s not about ‘doing right’ but about ‘being right’, and “no no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands.” (20)
I think it might be helpful to fill in a bit of the argument here, which is that however much good we do, that in itself is not enough to be “right with God”. And if we rely on our good works, we’re almost in the position of trying to bargain with God, to reduce our relationship to a transaction; and that is the wrong attitude.
This is not to say that what we do is not important; much of the later chapters of Romans will show this – and see verse 31 below.
Paul is now getting to the heart of the Gospel, having laid the groundwork. And I would like to suggest that what he’s doing here is to explain how God can “give eternal life to those who keep on doing good”, when at the same time “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of the glory of God” (23).
“God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law” (21) – and note, again, that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good, it means again that doing good is not enough. Instead, Paul says that “we are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (22) and then “God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous” (24).
Being made right isn’t something we do – it’s something that God does for us. Actually, this isn’t something completely new. One of Paul’s list of quotations about ‘the wicked’ is from Psalm 5, and there in v7 the psalmist says “Because of your unfailing love I can enter your house”. He knows that he is considered fit to be in God’s house only because of what God does for him.
The new element in Paul’s argument is that this declaration of righteousness comes through “faith in Jesus Christ”. A couple of things to say about this:
First, when we read Romans 1 I tweeted on v17 (“it is through faith that a righteous person has life”) and made the point that faith here isn’t about doctrine, a set of beliefs, or creeds; it is about trust and allegiance. In fact, Paul was quoting from the prophet Habakkuk, who used a word that is often translated as “faithfulness”.
Second, this is one of the verses that is used to argue for the exclusiveness of Christianity, i.e. that it is only by “placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (explicitly) that we can receive righteousness, and that anyone who doesn’t, can’t. I have to admit that I struggle with this interpretation, as it would seem to write off much of the world – those who lived before Jesus, and those who never heard about him, for example; not to mention those who only hear in the context of ‘Christian’ teaching which puts a whole new set of rules and conditions in place which people don’t want anything to do with.
Is it possible that we can read these words as primarily about an opportunity, a way of expressing religious identity, purpose, experience that does what I suggested Paul meant in vv1-4? And is it possible that we can refrain from passing judgement on those who reject this message, yet still have some form of faith – in a concept of God, in the value of humanity, in the meaning of life – that drives their (good) behaviour; in other words, that we do not limit God’s declaration of righteousness?
One of the issues that the New Testament writers explore is the question of how we can be made righteous by “faith in Christ Jesus”. These verses are one way of doing this, using the language of sacrifice, expiation, propitiation, atonement, paying the penalty. The ideas would have made sense to both Jews and Greeks, even if the application to Jesus himself was novel.
There are many Christians who look to this as the only, or at least the primary, way of describing how faith in Jesus puts us right with God; and some insist that those who don’t accept it are not Christians, do not have the ‘proper’ faith in Jesus, and hence would not be declared righteous. Put simply (and perhaps crudely), the argument goes: I have done wrong, i.e. commited sin; that sin has to be punished / paid for; I can’t pay the penalty myself; Jesus pays it by taking my punishment.
I sometimes think that there is a risk of being too literal with this picture. At its worst, I worry it actually goes back to a transactional model of God, and that it could be seen as limiting God’s ability to forgive. In the Gospels, Jesus frequently pronounced people’s sins to be forgiven, without mentioning payment or punishment.
So I think this image is not helpful for everyone, and isn’t something to be used as a test of ‘true’ faith.
Paul concludes this part of the argument by repeating the ideas that it is not our own efforts that achieve righteousness, so in particular it isn’t something we can “boast” about (27). He also says:
“If we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.” (31)
Again, faith here is not a set of beliefs, but is about trusting in God; and, especially for Paul and other Christians, putting that trust in Christ. It is where we put our trust that enables us to do the right things and receive the reward; once again “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”