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More on the justification of Gentiles who do good works

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.