Paul’s letter to the Romans (3:1-4:25)

Read time: 8 minutes

Romans 3:1-4:25

As an apostle of the gospel of God concerning his Son, Paul has argued so far that the Greek-Roman world, as he has encountered it in the course of his missionary journeys from Antioch to Athens, faces a day of God’s wrath or judgment. This constitutes the historical horizon of the letter.

It will be a judgment of the Greek religious culture described in Romans 1:18-32. The Greeks have committed the cardinal error of worshipping the created object rather than the creator and, therefore, have been handed over by God to the dishonouring of their bodies, debased passions, and an unfit mind. Presumably, Paul highlights same-sex sexual activity in 1:26-27 rather than general sexual immorality (porneia) because he regarded it as the peculiar hallmark of such a deeply misguided civilisation.

His attention then switches to the Jew who sets himself up as a judge of these impious and immoral Greeks and yet is hardly any better behaved. Paul has become convinced that his own people will be judged first, then the Greek. It is of no value to be named a Jew—and be circumcised, observe the Sabbath and food laws, etc. —if there is not a corresponding circumcision of the heart: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart,” the Law says, “and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16).

Then in chapter three Paul explains to his readers why the Jews will be held accountable first.

The need for a valid benchmark of righteousness

Israel has been “entrusted with the oracles of God,” but that does not mean that God will not act righteously and “inflict wrath” on his people when they sin. Indeed, he must do so if he is to “judge the world” beyond Israel. Here’s the logic: if the God of Israel is to judge the Greek world with integrity, he must first judge his own people, who by having and keeping the Law should have constituted in their corporate life a benchmark of right worship and right behaviour for the nations.

When Paul says, “we stated earlier that Jews and Greeks alike are under sin,” the argumentative force falls on the Jews who have habitually excused themselves. The chain of scriptural quotations in Romans 3:10-18 conveys the thought that throughout its history Israel has acted unrighteously, without fear of God.

The point is that “whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19). The Law—as quoted—speaks to those under the Law, the Jews, so that the God of the Jews may plausibly overthrow the old system and install something new in its place.

That’s a tricky claim to make when the reputation of this God has been trashed among the nations by the disgraceful behaviour of the people who boast in their relationship to him.

So God is in the right to judge his people: it has become an eschatological necessity if he is to hold the pagan world accountable for its error. But there is, if you like, a deeper righteousness of God to reckon with: his age-old and irrevocable commitment to the promise made to the patriarchs. So how does he square that circle? On the one hand, the Jews have become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22); on the other, God is committed to keeping a holy and righteous priestly people for his own possession. That will require a rather novel and bewildering intervention.

Oh, and one last thing. The plan is not just to punish the Greek world and leave it at that. The plan is to annex the Greek world and install a new régime.

This whole programme, in effect, comes under the rubric of the “righteousness of God” from Paul’s perspective—God acting consistently and coherently in order to fulfil a historical purpose:

  1. to judge the idolatrous and morally and socially bankrupt system of the Greeks;
  2. to judge and perhaps abolish the failed Torah-based benchmark of the synagogues;
  3. to solve the conundrum or dilemma at the heart of the programme;
  4. to establish a new network of righteous communities, grounded in the promises made to the patriarchs, a new priesthood for the ancient world;
  5. finally, to inaugurate the rule of Jesus over the nations for the age to come and to “justify” or vindicate all those who, at great cost, believed in this very different future.

The righteousness of God apart from the Law

So now we get to step three: the solution to the conundrum or dilemma at the heart of the programme.

Israel in the land and—perhaps more importantly for Paul—in the diaspora has failed to present to the world a religious and ethical righteousness according to the Law. As a result, Israel is condemned by the Law.

In passing, the opposite hope, that Israel would in the end be justified by Law observance, is expressed in the Qumran documents:

Now this is the Last Days: when those of Israel shall return to the L[aw of Moses with all their heart] and will never turn aw[ay] again. … Now, we have written to you some of the works of the Law…. Understand all these things and beseech Him to set your counsel straight and so keep you away from evil thoughts and the counsel of Belial. Then you shall rejoice at the end time when you find the essence of our words to be true. And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him, to your own benefit and to that of Israel. (4Q398 f11_13:4-5, f14_17ii:2-8)

Paul maintains, to the contrary, that the rightness or righteousness or integrity of God has been demonstrated apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (3:21-22). God has found an unconventional, unprecedented solution to the eschatological problem: he has put forward Christ Jesus “as a propitiation or expiation through faith or faithfulness in his blood” (3:25). In response to the faithfulness, obedience, suffering of Jesus, God has overlooked the previously committed sins of Jews like Paul (he is still speaking as a Jew on behalf of his people) in order that he might righteously or fairly or with integrity justify the “one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

I will just note in passing the extensive scholarly debate over whether pistis Iēsou/Christou refers to the faithfulness of Jesus or the faith that people have in Jesus. I certainly think it is right to bring the concrete faithfulness and obedience of Jesus into focus, but the difference in meaning seems not to be great, at least at this level of analysis.

It is also important, I think, to recognise the limited scope of the language of redemption and atonement in Romans 3:25. It is not the individual sinner at any moment in time, in any place, who is redeemed by the death of Jesus but the people of God in the first century, facing a day of God’s wrath.

There is no atonement for Gentiles in Jewish thought. The reference is to the deliverance of a community from the historical consequences of its defiance of the living God in the run-up to the “eschatological” transformation of the Greek-Roman world. Keep in mind the narrative framework provided by Habakkuk 1-2.

However, if it is no longer the Law but pistis Christou by which people will be “justified” or judged to be in the right in this period of eschatological upheaval and transition, then it becomes possible to include Gentiles in the synagogue-replacement communities as a concrete sign that God is not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles (3:29-30). Membership of the people of God as an eschatological or prophetic community is fundamentally determined by the stance taken vis-à-vis the crucified and risen Lord. The churches consist of Jews and Gentiles in anticipation of a day when YHWH alone will be worshipped by the nations in the name of his Son.

Abraham was justified by what sort of faith?

Having insisted that the God of the Jews is also God of the Gentiles, Paul takes the argument back to Abraham, because in his mind what is primary and determinative in this whole story is not Moses and the Law but Abraham and the promise.

Here we have the original pattern for the argument about justification by faith. Abraham had faith, and this, rather than anything he did—anything analogous to works of the Law—was counted to him as righteousness. The question that usually does not get asked in all the debates over justification is what was the object of Abraham’s faith. What did he have faith in? Not merely in God but in a future outcome: that he would have “offspring” and that his offspring would inherit the world (4:13). Abraham was justified because he believed in a promise.

This future orientation needs to be retained. What we have here is neither the Reformed argument about the justification of the individual nor the New Perspective argument about membership of the covenant community but an eschatological argument about the inheritance of the world.

What is in view is a day of the Lord when the old régimes will be swept away and a singular “offspring” of Abraham (cf. Gal. 3:16), a root of Jesse, will be acclaimed as Lord by the nations (Rom. 15:12). Who will be found to have been in the right on that day? Those who all along believed that Jesus was delivered up for the trespasses of his people and raised for the sake of the justification of those who have the eschatological faith demanded by the current circumstances (4:24-25).

Since Abraham was judged to be in the right before he was circumcised, belief in the promise has priority over possession of the Law. This means for Paul, on the one hand, that the authentic Jew is the one who walks in the footsteps of the faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised; and on the other, that the uncircumcised who believe in the promised new future are justified without being circumcised—the evidence being that they have received the same Spirit, though I am running ahead of myself now (4:11-12).

In this section: