One obvious retort to the argument that Paul allows for the existence of unbelieving righteous Gentiles who will be justified on the basis of their good deeds on the day of God’s wrath is that he goes on to state emphatically, quoting the scriptures, that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:9). That gives us the basic premise of Reformed theology:
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. (Westminster Confession 6.6)
Paul, however, is not propounding a Reformed anthropology here, he is rehearsing a lively and present dialogue with the Jews in the synagogues. The rhetorical need is to convict the Jews of their sinfulness and of the plausibility of the prophetic announcement that they too face the wrath of God.
The Jews in the synagogues agree with Paul (cf. Rom. 2:1) that their idolatrous Greek neighbours are under the power of sin, but he needs to persuade them that the Law itself places the Jews as a people under the power of sin. So when he says, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Rom. 3:9), the argumentative weight falls on “Jews.”
But there is a further distinction to be made, one which brings the catena or chain of Old Testament quotations in Romans 3:10-18 in line with the realistic and historical perspective of chapter two. If we suppose that Paul was not proof-texting arbitrarily but was fully aware of the contexts from which he drew these texts, I think he must have assumed a standard division between a dominant impious and unjust stratum of Jewish society and the righteous poor who suffered at the hands of the wicked.
Systemic iniquity in Israel
In order to demonstrate the point I will present the quotation and the larger Old Testament context from which it is drawn and then highlight the social-religious division which appears in every instance.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (3:10-12)
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD? There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge. Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Ps. 14:1-7; cf. Ps. 53)
The psalmist declares that no one does good, but these evildoers eat up God’s people; they are Jews who do not call on the name of the Lord; and God is with “the generation of the righteous” and the “poor.” That “there is none who does good,” therefore, is not in context an absolute proposition: it presupposes the wicked behaviour of some in Israel towards others.
That God looks down from heaven on the “children of man” may broaden the scope of the complaint, but this and related psalms have a clear narrative focus on Israel.
The Lord tests the “children of man”: he “tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:4-5). Whether this is a reflection on the condition of Israel or of all people, it allows for a distinction between the wicked who commit acts of violence and the righteous. The same can be said for Psalm 12: vileness is exalted among the children of man, but the poor and needy are not guilty (12:5, 8).
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” (3:13)
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. … But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favour as with a shield. (Ps. 5:8-12)
The reference is not to humanity in general but to David’s enemies, who do not speak truth, who seek to destroy, whose throat is an open grave, who flatter in order to deceive. These people are contrasted with the righteous who take refuge in the Lord and who love his name.
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” (3:13)
Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. … I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence. (Ps 140:1-3, 12-13)
Again, the quotation brings into play a narrative of deeply rooted injustice in Israel: violent men conspire to exploit the poor and needy, who are righteous and upright.
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (3:14)
…him whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness and deceit; under his tongue are grief and hardship. He sits in ambush with the rich, in secret places to kill the innocent. (Ps. 9:28-29 LXX = 10:7 Hebrew text)
The psalmist asks why God takes no action to curb the behaviour of the arrogant and impious sinner in Israel, who ensnares the poor, who expects to escape the wrath of God (Ps. 9:22-27 LXX). The sinner speaks against the righteous; he is like a lion waiting to pounce on the poor man and drag him off.
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (3:15-17)
Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. (Is. 59:7-9)
This is Isaiah’s denunciation of a people that has abandoned the ways of YHWH and has turned to violence and injustice (Is. 59:1-6). It is a systemic sinfulness that separates Israel from God: “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (59:2). The social practice of righteousness has broken down.
The Lord then sees that there is no human person available to intervene and rectify or make right the situation, so he determines to act himself. He arms himself with righteousness, salvation, vengeance, and zeal; he will judge his adversaries, he will punish unrighteousness in Israel; and “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (59:17-20).
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. … Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright of heart! (Ps. 36:1, 10)
In the psalmist’s experience, lastly, there are wicked and arrogant people who have no fear of God, who believe that their “iniquity cannot be found out,” and there are people who take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings, who know God, and who are “upright of heart.”
So not everyone was unrighteous after all
The story that emerges from all of these passages is pretty much exactly the story that lies behind the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. The righteousness of God is called into question by the fact that the wicked in Israel get away with murder; therefore, God will bring a pagan power to punish unrighteous Israel. But that leaves the problem of the fate of the righteous in Israel, who are victims of the wickedness that has become the defining characteristic of the nation:
So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Hab. 1:4)
So I would argue that in Romans 3:9-19 it is unrighteous Israel which stands condemned by the Law of Moses precisely because the impious rich and powerful, condoned by Jewish society as a whole, have persecuted the righteous. This is implicit here, but the argument will resurface later….
So perhaps all Israel would be saved, perhaps not
There is a final and, I think, very important observation to make. Two of the Old Testament passages quoted by Paul in Romans 3:10-18 provide the material that underpins the hope expressed in 11:26-27 that “all Israel will be saved”:
“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
This composite quotation has been constructed, with modification, from the Greek versions of Psalm 14:7 and Isaiah 59:20 (with a phrase also taken from Isaiah 27:9):
Who will give from Zion the salvation of Israel? When the Lord turns back the captivity of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad. (Ps. 13:7* LXX)
And the deliverer will come for the sake of Zion and he will turn away impiety from Jacob. (Is. 59:20* LXX)
The condemnation of systemic wickedness in Israel as a whole, therefore, already anticipated the later hope that all Israel—and not just a few—would be saved. It is Israel’s story that lies behind the fierce denunciation sin in Romans 3:9-18—a story of the failure of justice, the exploitation of the poor by callous and Godless elites. Whether the wrath of God would bring all Israel to repentance remained to be seen.