More on the justification of Gentiles who do good works

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I really like this comment from Steven Opp—first, because it gives me an opportunity to address in a bit more detail the relation between the justification of Gentiles on the basis of what they have done and the justification of the people of God by faith; and secondly, because Steven is an evangelist and naturally wants to know whether the narrative reading is going to help him present the gospel to “a modern individual”.

So today more on those righteous Gentiles. The question of what an evangelist might do with this approach, if anything, we’ll look at in a day or two.

What about in Ch. 3 when speaking of both Jews and Gentiles Paul says no one is righteous, not one? Then he goes on to talk about Jesus. Is the difference that while no one is righteous (Ch. 3) the Gentiles do righteous things (Ch. 2), so you can be unrighteous but still do righteous deeds which effects how you are judged?

The first point to make is that Romans 3 is an argument directed against the Jew: “what advantage has the Jew… if our unrighteous serves to show… are we Jews any better off… whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law… what becomes of our boasting?” Yes, the Greeks were under sin, and God would judge the Greek world—no Jew would dispute that. But if God was going to hold the “world” accountable, he must first address the sinfulness of those to whom the Law spoke directly (3:19).

So Israel had to recognize that as a people they also faced the wrath of God, a central element in which, as it turned out, would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, and events through to the Bar Kochba revolt. The thrust of the quotations from scripture in 3:10-18 is not “all people are sinful” but “Israel is no less sinful than the Gentiles”. If you source the quotations, you will find that they all come from passages that speak of the unrighteousness of God’s people.

When we come to what is said about Jesus in 3:21-26, therefore, it reads in the first place as the solution to the sinfulness of Israel, which is why at the heart of it is atonement imagery. So the Jews could not boast—they were justified only by trust, apart from works of the Law (3:27-28). But this break from the Law meant that God could show himself also to be God of the Gentiles (29-30). Anyone could believe that God had made Jesus Lord.

So we are dealing in chapter 3 with the justification of God’s people, including, of course, those Gentiles who have attached themselves through baptism. (We have to keep in mind that at this stage the Gentiles were understood to have joined themselves to Israel’s story, they had become grafted on to the rich root of Israel’s fathers.) On what basis would they avoid destruction on the day of God’s wrath?

But this controversy is set against the backdrop of God’s judgment of the pagan world, which is explicitly a judgment according to what people had done, a judgment according to works (Rom. 2:12-15). Much of the old pagan system as described in Romans 1:18-32 would be overthrown; only what was righteous and honourable would survive. But as a precondition to this judgment much of the old Jewish system would also be destroyed; only those who trusted in the God who raised Jesus from the dead would survive to continue their corporate witness to the creator God.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 05/24/2012 - 11:17 | Permalink

I don’t think this works, Andrew. There is a constant shift of focus between Jew and Gentile in Romans 1-3, the passages you examine being no different. Eg.

Romans 1:18-32 — apparently Gentile, but Jews smuggled in as well in 1:22, 24 and 25 — with distinct echoes of OT sources.

Romans 2:1 — Jew; “therefore” also becomes contradictory if 1:18-32 exclusively addresses Gentiles

Romans 2:7 — sounds like Gentile

Romans 2:9-12 — Jew and Gentile

Romans 2:13 — Jew, but Gentile proselyte suggested

Romans 2:14-16 — Gentile  (picking up the previous comment)

Romans 2:17-25 - Jew

Romans 2: 26-27a - Gentile

Romans 2:27b-29 - Jew

Romans 2:13b (also picking up the implication of Romans 2:7) seems flatly to contradict Romans 3:20, unless Romans 2:14-15 is undesrtood as the new covenant working in the hearts of Gentiles — “written on their hearts” directly echoes Jeremiah 31:33. This kind of new covenant description of Jews in Romans 2:28-29, where the Spirit is introduced for the first time, makes best sense of the whole if Jews and Gentiles are seen as being described in remarakably close association.

Romans 3:8 — Jews, leading to Paul himself as a bearer of the new covenant.

Romans 3:9 — your interpretation of “better” as “better off than Gentiles” seems unusual, but it makes no difference: Paul sums up the whole train of thought with: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” — Romans 3:9

Romans 3:10-18 — there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for understanding this catena of verses to be directed exclusively at Jews, either from the OT sources, or more importantly from the way Paul uses them in the argument, which has consistently had Jew and Gentile in focus in their standing before God.

Romans 3:19 — not only Jews but “the whole world” is held accountable by the law, which does not justify/declare righteous, but brings consciousness of sin - 3:20.

This intimate similarity of the standing of Jew and Gentile before God now provides the contextual background for interpreting Romans 3:21-31, which describes the provision of justification for Jew and Gentile, because it is “apart from the law”, but testified by the Law and the Prophets (which for Paul, evidently have a worldwide significance).

Romans 3:22 — “All who believe” must mean Jew and Gentile, otherwise the next sentence — “There is no difference” does not make sense; it must mean “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile in this argument”.

Romans 3:23 — “All have sinned” continues to mean Jew and Gentile; there is no reason to limit its meaning to “all Jews” in the light of the previous “All”.

Romans 3:24 — The particularly Jewish concepts — justification, grace, redemption (recalling the Exodus) now apply to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is subversive and revolutionary.

Romans 3:25 — Continuing the atonishing inclusion of benefits from their Jewish origins to a Gentile context, Jesus is the hilasterion (mercy seat) “through faith in his blood”. Temple language is welded to Exodus (Passover) language (but not, as it is sometimes said, Maccabean martyr language).

Romans 3:27 — Jewish “boasting”, not of moral superiority, but of exclusive possession of divine favour, is removed because of justification by faith “apart from observing the law” — 3:28, and precisely because this included the Gentiles. Otherwise the question and statement which follow makes no sense: “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by that same faith” — Romans 3:29-30.

In other words, the interweaving pattern of Jews and Gentiles continues throughout chapter 3, and lays the foundation for looking at Abraham the Gentile in chapter 4. Chapter 4 would make no sense, in the flow of the argument, if Paul had been looking exclusively at Jews in Romans 3:21-31.

It’s for these reasons that Paul’s argument makes best sense if it is seen as universalising the provision of justification, through Israel to Gentiles. His assertion is that this is what the Law and Prophets were testifying would happen all along. It underlies the purpose of the formation of Israel as God’s people, and the enigmatic course of the OT narrative up to the coming of Jesus, and the narrative of Jesus himself, as exhibited in its whole-narrative and worldwide significance in Romans 3:21-31 and onwards.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, I agree that Paul has in view both Jew and Greek throughout Romans 1-3. As I said in the post, the premise of his argument is that Israel’s God is about the judge the pagan world, but this means that Jews can no longer afford to be complacent—God will not judge the Greek-Roman world without first holding his own people accountable, because they should have been a light to the blind, etc. That straightforward logic is enough to account for the fact that the Jews are smuggled into his critique of pagan idolatry and its ethical consequences in 1:18-32.

So in chapters 2-3 the argument is primarily directed against the Jew, but judgment against the Greek is necessarily in the background, hence the impression of alternation that you point to in chapter 2.

I do not think the argument that the Gentiles mentioned in 2:13-16 are Christians works. It is the work of the Law that is written on their hearts, not the Law, as we would expect from Jer. 31:33; the work of the Law is inspired by “nature”, not by the Spirit of God; and we would not expect Christians, who are no longer under condemnation, to be accused or excused according to conscience on the day when “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus”.

There is no contradiction between 2:13b and 3:20 because, according to my reading, the first passage has reference to God’s judgment of the pagan world, and the second has reference to the judgment of Israel, which, unlike the pagans, had the Law. 2:13b speaks of the justification of those who “do not have the law”; 3:20 speaks of those who have the Law and therefore have “knowledge of sin”.

Then, as I say, chapter 3 is addressed to Jews. Paul’s argument in 3:9-18 is that “we Jews” are no “better off” than the Gentiles—again it is an argument against Jewish presumption. The translation is the ESV. The verb is proechō, which means “to be in a better position, to have an advantage over, to be better off”. To support this particular argument against the Jews Paul quotes several Old Testament passages that speak of the sinfulness of Israel.

Yes, of course, the Greeks are also sinful, but that is not the point he is trying to make. For all their boasted elect status, the Jews have proved themselves to be as much enslaved to sin as the Gentiles; therefore, on the day of God’s wrath they will not be justified by works of the Law. All that the Law has done, in the end, is to reveal (for example, in the passages quoted in 3:10-18) that they are sinful and subject to judgment.

Therefore, Paul argues in 3:21-26, God has demonstrated his righteousness by acting outside the Law the redeem his people through the death of Jesus. Yes, this has implications for Gentiles, but that comes in right at the end of his argument. Because he has acted to save his people apart from the Law, Gentiles also get to participate. But it is a fundamental mistake to read the preceding argument through the lens of that addendum.

Hi Andrew,

I am not sure if you will read comment posting to such old post, but I have just recently discovered your site. My pastor is leading a small group reading Romans in Greek. He is a fan of NT Wright, but he doesn’t think Paul has the judgement of Jerusalem and the Greco-Roman world in mind in Romans. 

My question for you is about ‘the thrust of the quotations from scripture in 3:10-18 is not “all people are sinful” but “Israel is no less sinful than the Gentiles”. If you source the quotations, you will find that they all come from passages that speak of the unrighteousness of God’s people.’ 

It seems to me that the quotations of Ps 14:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, and 36:1 are all about the unrighteousness of the enemies of God’s people, with the exception of Isa 59:7-8 probably pointing to God’s own people. Therefore, all have sin?

I have read The Future of The People of God, and appreciate that you try to ground the biblical narrative back to its own historical time. I am interested to learn more about your narrative historical method. I am curious if there is any other scholar that takes the collapse of the pagan worship after the conversion of Constantine as a significant eschatological endpoint. If you can point me to some other resources other than yours, that will be great. Thanks, Jo


Hi Jo. I’m very happy to go back to old stuff. I’m repeating myself all the time any way. And thank you for reading the Romans book!

I’ll address the question about Romans 3 separately. Your question about “other resources” is the much harder one. New Testament scholars seem to find it very difficult to grant Paul the same historical outlook that they would happily ascribe to Jesus. I tend to find that it is historians rather than exegetes who get the point of my argument. There’s a nice quote from Peter Leithart in this post that touches on the matter, but it’s not really what you’re looking for.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thank you for your response.

Peter Leithart has a series of videos on Revelation from a few months back and still on going. He says that the catastrophic event Jesus and apostles taught is not limited to the destruction of Jerusalem, but also the whole Mediterranean system. He seems to lump your 1st and 2nd horizons together without distinguishing them. Maybe he has more details in his commentary on Revelation which I have not read. Here is his video

I have read your post on the problem of Romans road. I always have problem with evangelists insisting on people feeling the torment of guilt in order to be saved. Though Romans is not about how individuals get saved, do you have any post that is about how you think individuals get saved? How would you apply narrative historical method to personal evangelism? Thanks. Jo


He seems to lump your 1st and 2nd horizons together without distinguishing them.

It’s a good little video. Thanks for providing the link.

I think he distinguishes the two horizons, or at least the two events—not just the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple but also the passing away of the oikoumenē. The question is perhaps how much of a temporal distance was imagined between them.

No Jew would expect judgment on Jerusalem by Rome to be followed immediately by the overthrow of Rome—and Jesus had no interest in the overthrow of Rome at all.

Jewish apocalyptic literature tends to present an orderly sequence of events: unrighteous Israel is judged, the righteous come to rule, they defeat the oppressor and reign for a period of time, then there may be a final scenario—a final judgment and renewal of creation, or something like that. The Jews knew from Jeremiah and Daniel that these things take time.

The dating of Revelation is also relevant. I rather think that composition and redaction happened over a period of time, but if chapters 14-20 were written after AD 70, then the book is already dealing with a delay before Rome is held accountable.

do you have any post that is about how you think individuals get saved? How would you apply narrative historical method to personal evangelism?

There are four posts here that may be of help if you haven’t seen the already, but basically I would put it in terms of helping people to engage personally with the whole story, right through to its implications for the present. That means a lot of things at many different levels, but it includes the question of whether a person chooses to become part of this priestly-prophetic community of the living God, over which the risen Jesus reigns as Lord.