One difficulty that presents itself while working through a book like Romans in small segments is that it is very hard to find a place to stop . . . becauses Paul frequently doesn’t stop. This week we need to run a little ahead and stop in mid-thought, and next week we will back up in order to be able to finish the thought. And that thought revolves around the connection to being shut up under sin without one thing to say, on the one hand, and God’s intent to justify us fully and freely, on the other hand.
“What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one . . .” (Rom. 3:9-23).
Summary of the Text
Paul has been comparing Gentiles with Jews, and so he now asks if the Jews are better than the Gentiles (v. 9). The astonishing answer is that they are not—he has already proved that Jews and Gentiles are “all under sin” (v. 9). He then launches into a string of quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures that make the point bluntly enough. Verses 10b-11 are from Psalm 14:1-3, Ps. 53:1-3, and cf. Eccles. 7:20. The first part of the next verse (v. 13) is from Psalm 5:9. The second half of that verse (v. 13) is from Psalm 140:3. Verse 14 is Psalm 10:7. The next two verses are from Isaiah 59:7-8. The last component in this string of quotations is Psalm 36:1. The resultant picture is quite grim.
These citations are all from the law, and so Paul quite rightly points that they are directed to those who are in fact under the law (v. 19). The point of doing this is to shut every mouth, Jewish and Gentile mouths alike, and establish the whole world as guilty before God (v. 19). So this is why law is excluded as a way of justification for all men (not just for Jews). No flesh will be justified by law—law simply brings us a knowledge of the problem. The speed limit sign has no control over your gas pedal. But now there is a righteousness of God that the law and prophets testified to, but which is manifested “without the law” (v. 21). This righteousness of God is embodied in the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ (v. 22), and this righteousness of God is “unto all and upon all” that believe (v. 22). There is no difference in their gospels (v. 22) because there is no difference in their plight (v. 23).
Paul Cites the Contexts Also
Note first that for Paul “the law” which shut the Jews up under sin was not limited to the Torah—it included the entire Old Testament. His citations here don’t include anything from the Mosaic books, the Torah proper. He quotes from Psalms and Isaiah, and says that the result is moral instruction from “the law” addressed to Jews “under the law.”
Psalm 14 makes a distinction between the “workers of iniquity” and “my people.” The same in Psalm 53, although the initial judgment is made against all the “children of men.” The hat tip to Ecclesiastes 7:20 says that there is no such thing as a just man on the earth. Psalm 5 makes a distinction between those who do evil and those who put their trust in God. Psalm 140 makes a distinction between the wicked and the afflicted, poor, and righteous. Psalm 10 makes a distinction between the wicked on the one hand and the poor and humble on the other. The passage from Isaiah assumes an apostate and unfaithful Israel. Psalm 36 makes a distinction between the wicked and the “upright in heart.”
Put This Together
The string of citations is directed aimed by Paul at those “under the law,” and he says quite clearly that he is talking about them. This means that the primary application of these citations from the Old Testament are directed against Jews, against members of God’s covenant family. But what are we to do with all the references to the righteous and upright within Israel, standing in contrast to these wicked ones? Does this condemnation not apply to them? Not at all—they are righteous because they accept what Paul says here as being applicable to them. The wicked reject it—that’s how we can tell who they are. Paul makes a clear distinction within Israel between the sons of Sarah and the sons of Hagar. The sons of Sarah are those who admit that they are by nature sons of Hagar. We are (all of us) by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3)
All in the Same Boat
Paul expects us to reason from the Jews to the whole world by extension. If the Jews cannot be justified in this way, then nobody can be. God says these things to the Jews so that every mouth will be stopped, and the whole world will be guilty.
Knowledge of Sin
The law, whether found in the Torah, or cited elsewhere in the Old Testament, or seen in the stars, or found in the conscience of a Gentile, is incapable of bringing a declaration of righteousness. The law, in whatever permutation, is simply a messenger of trouble. It is not a savior. It is not a ladder to heaven. It is not a way of making you better than others. God gave it as a surefire instrument of making you worse (Rom. 3:20;Rom. 5:20). All you good little Christian kids, growing up in a conservative church with strong family values, take note.
The Righteousness of God
The righteousness of God is mentioned twice here (vv. 21, 22). One theologian in the school of thought called the New Perspective on Paul says that this cannot refer to the imputed righteousness of Christ, but rather must refer to the covenant faithful of God the Father keeping His promise to Abraham. But this is a false dichotomy. It must be both. If it were just the latter, then why would Paul have added “without the law” (v. 21). Why would God have to fulfill His promise to Abraham without relying on the law? This is talking about His righteousness becoming ours without us having to keep the law. And then his comment in v. 22 cinches the point. What is the destination of the righteousness of God? It is “unto all and upon all” that believe. What is the mediating mechanism of this righteousness of God’s? It is the faithful obedience (rightousness) of Jesus Christ.
All In the Same Boat
In his Institutes, John Calvin makes a wonderful point about the nature of self-knowledge. He says that we do not know ourselves rightly unless we have grasped two things. The first is the primal greatness of man—what we were created to be, and what we were before the Fall. The second is a knowledge of how great our fall has been. When we learn this, we have learned the first lesson of the gospel—all have sinned. All have fallen short of the glory of God. This truly humbles us, and prepares the way for us to be lifted up in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.