We are reading through Romans in our family bible time, and having read the first three chapters so many times in my life, one thing I noticed this time is how strong the theme is that Paul is making through all three chapters. He is keen to point out and stress that it’s both Jews and Gentiles, the whole world is condemned under the law of God, but then at the end of chapter 3, how there is a justification of all who have faith in Christ.
He starts out with the most simplistic level of humanity in chapter 1, that they know God through the creation, yet reject what little they do know about God and Paul points out that they make a bunch of gods up like a bird god, or tree god (animism). Paul notes that God gives this category of Gentiles over to depravity and then in chapter 2 he starts bringing it on around to show the Jews that they are not faring any better in any sort of “righteousness” competition with them. Setting themselves up as superior, even teachers of righteousness to the rest of humanity, yet, they are failing to be righteous under the law as well.
Chapter 2 is important in another way, because Paul starts by laying down the general principle of doing what’s right causing things to go well for you and doing what’s wrong causing things to go bad for you. Then he defines the law as the ultimate standard of righteousness and takes it further, pointing out that if you obey it as you should, it leads to justification and eternal life, but if you obey unrighteousness, you get God’s wrath. These are the terms of the covenant of works.
Then you have the great separator verse in 2:13 “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
This verse is a sort of litmus test to see if someone tends to head back towards a Roman Catholic view of justification, or if they follow Calvin and the majority in Reformed history and understand this is not pointing out a condition of obedience added to our faith in order to attain final justification (heaven).
Here Paul is pointing out to the Jews who thought they were doing okay with God, because they were a Jew, they had been circumcised, and they had the law. But Paul points out that it’s not just hearing the Law that would justify a person, you’d have to do it, and as Jesus points out, you’d have to do it better even than the Pharisees to attain heaven (Mat 5:20). You’d have to do it perfectly! (Mat 5:48), so Jesus points out that the law is bad news to those who are not perfect, those who fail to perfectly fulfill it, in thought, and deed.
But back in Matthew, Jesus himself points out the gospel that Paul is keen to teach later in Romans. That Christ is the one who came to fulfill all righteousness under the law for us. (Mat 5:17).
In the later part of Romans 2 Paul continues to bounce back and forth between talking about how Gentiles, when they do, the right thing are responding to the law written on their hearts (Rom 2:14-16), which is an important point, because he is still in the process of making a great argument that he finishes up in chapter 3, starting at verse 9.
In comparing the situation, the Jews and Greeks (aka the rest of humanity) are in, under God’s condemnation for being law breakers, he says “are we Jews any better off?”. Then with an emphatic “NO”, he goes into that famous quote of Psalm 53, “no one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God…”
This is such a harsh set of accusations made here in Romans 3 that our tendency is to think that, since we ourselves are pretty good people, it’s reserved for the really bad people in the world. The Adolph Hitlers of the world, the really bad “given over” Gentiles in chapter 1. Yet, Paul makes no distinction like that, his point is that it is about Gentiles and Jews, that “no one is righteous”.
His argument all along includes the visible church (or the OT equivalent), and I would say even the invisible church are included in this, because in and of ourselves, we have earned God’s wrath (though we are not under the Law as a Covenant of Works), and Paul makes it all very clear, what he has been setting up all along that “whatever the law says, it speaks to those under the law.” (Rom 3:19) He is including Jews and Greeks as being under the law, and under condemnation. [Note: we could certainly read Romans 3:9-20 in our churches today for the first use of the law part of the liturgy, and even make the pronouns personal. That would certainly be quite a blow against our own tendency to self-righteousness.]
Again, how are the Greeks under the law, since they did not have it taught to them as a Jew did? Well, remember in chapter 2, Paul points out that they have it written in their hearts, and so it is the law of the conscience. Everyone being offspring of Adam, we (all humanity) have the law written on our consciences.
Romans 3:19 Paul makes clear something has been building up to and trying to point out. That the law shuts every human being’s mouth if they try to declare they are righteousness, and makes us accountable to God. In verse 20, the point is that no one will be justified in God’s sight by personally fulfilling the laws requirements. We are all therefore under condemnation, according to the standard of the law.
This is the guilt section of Romans, as Paul establishes the guilt, grace, gratitude pattern of argumentation that we see the Heidelberg catechism arranged in.
Continuing his argument of everybody being condemned into the gospel, stating in verse 23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (all humanity) he then turns and says the good news that “all are justified by His grace as a gift”. Then he says how that gift is appropriated in verse 25 “by faith”.
All are condemned under the law, and all are given what Paul later in Romans 5:17 declares as “the gift of righteousness” through faith alone in Christ alone. That is faith apart from works, because remember, by works we stand condemned. Our works are never added to faith, but faith is the alone instrument given. Faith in Christ is the alone way of attainment of the righteousness that God requires, because Christ is the only one who has fulfilled all righteousness. This is the good news.