(Note: This is a revised version of an oral delivery and discussion at the ConneXion in Arborg on March 1, 2009. It is one session in a series of presentations on Romans. Presenters in the series included others from the ConneXion, as well as visiting presenters.)
We have looked at various parts of Romans already so we will just do a very quick and cursory review to set the stage for our look at chapter 3. Romans 1:16-17 are the key to the book:
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[c] just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."[d]
Then Paul talks about the wrath of God directed against wickedness, which Peter handled so well 2 weeks ago. After stirring up his readers about wickedness and the filthy way of life of "others" he turns the tables in chapter 2:
1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
It seems clear that Paul's intent in this part of Romans is to annihilate any confidence we have in any distinctions we perceive or posit between ourselves and the "others". Nothing gives us a head start with God in relation to "others", whether we call those "others" the lost, or the world , or any other designation that emphasizes a gap between us.
I want to take a bit of a closer look at 2:17-29 because this piece is the context for chapter 3. Paul's focus in this section is on the Jews and their confidence in their special status with God based on their being a chosen people with a special revelation from the God who chose them. The section targets the Jews, but we need to reflect on how this applies to us. Paul begins:
The Jews and the Law
17Now you, if you call yourself a Jew;
Paul is speaking very specifically to the Jews, but we believe that the Bible is God's word to us today. What terms would we use to highlight for ourselves that this text speaks to us? Terms like raised in church, Mennonite, and Christian are some examples that help us understand how this warning applies to us.
As we go on reading I will read very slowly to give us time to reflect on what the text is saying to us. I will try to read with pregnant pauses that leave room for fecund thought and I invite you to listen as the Spirit speaks between the lines, and then we will discuss your reponses.
if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Why does Paul talk about the embodiment of knowledge and truth? What does it mean for knowledge and truth to be embodied?
Knowledge and truth are not without corporeal substance. Knowledge and truth are not only intellectual categories, they include embodied, lived substance. You cannot know truth if you do not do truth. Knowledge and truth are embodied in the way you live, not merely testified to in what you say.
21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?
Recall Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. What does Paul mean with these questions? How do these questions relate to the "embodiment of knowledge and truth"? Knowing the law is good, but living the law must always exceed the law. Living the law means more than adhering to the technicalities of the law.
24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."[b]
God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because God's children are in a bondage of disobedience. Abraham kept going to Egypt thinking the living was better there, when God had given him the Promised Land. Israel was given land but went to Egypt to live, and ended up enslaved. When Isaiah is saying the words Paul quotes here Israel is in Assyrian captivity. God's promise to Israel was always blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience. The dire warnings issued to Israel concerning their fate if they did not continue to walk in Yahweh's ways are not appropriate for children's bedtime stories. The worst of Hollywood's degenerate filth hardly compares. And for the masses around Israel God's children are a reflection of Yahweh.
(Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:22-23)
25Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the[c] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
28A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
Knowledge and truth, and the law, must be faithfully embodied in order to be of any value. Adherence to technicalities is worthless, and what one is, is indicated in what one does. What sort of value is there in this embodied keeping of the law? Paul asks:
1What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.
3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness?
Based on the context, what do you think Paul has in mind when he talks about "faith" and "faithfulness"? Is there any faith that is not embodied? Clearly no. Faith not lived is not faith. It is a religion and a pretense and it is a keeping of the letter of the law, but it is not faith. Recall Romans 1:17 and compare with Habakkuk 2:4-5 Habakkuk is complaining because God uses faithless heathens to punish his own children, and this is God's response, speaking about those who come to trouble his children. The righteous, living his faith, will live very differently from the one who lives by his desires. So can our lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Will the fact that we do not live faith mean that God willl not be faithful either?
4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."[a]
This is a quote from Psalm 51, a psalm of David written as a response to the prophet Nathan who came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Our faith and our faithlessness prove God right in that good and evil are their own reward. God has made a world that is designed to run on the fuel of the good, and it sputters on the impurities of evil. Whether our faithful living contributes to the beauty and harmony of God's creation, or whether our sinfulness fouls the systems and wreaks havoc with the good creation, God is proved right either way.
5But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" 8Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved.
No One is Righteous
9What shall we conclude then? Are we any better[b]? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.
"Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" Is this text still speaking to us? Recall the terms we suggested earlier (raised in a church, Mennonite, Christian, etc.,) that highlight our inclusion in the message of this text. Could those same terms obtain here as well? If it is difficult for us to imagine our own complicity in sinfulness as equal to that of the "others" whom we often recognize as the targets of our evangelistic efforts, then it is clear that we do not begin to understand our own sinfulness.
10As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."[c] 13"Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit."[d] "The poison of vipers is on their lips."[e] 14"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."[f] 15"Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16ruin and misery mark their ways, 17and the way of peace they do not know."[g] 18"There is no fear of God before their eyes."[h]
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
The law can speak only to those under the law. Should we recognize the same for our Christian heritage? Does Christianity speak to those who share a heritage of religious Christianity, leaving room for the God who exceeds Christianity to deal without those outside this umbrella in whatever ways He deems just and faithful? The problematic posed by the question will not be uniformly perceived, but the answer may well shake foundations for us as severely as Paul's message riled the Jewish establishment. If it does not, we may simply be sharing the comfortable seat of the scribes and Pharisees.
The only thing the law can do for us is to show us what sin is and how sinful we are. Does the same hold true for our Christian heritage? The implication of Paul's words is that our religious heritage can only show us our sinfulness. Christianity cannot save us, it can only show us that we need salvation.
Romans 2:6 Psalm 62:12; Prov. 24:12
Romans 2:24 Isaiah 52:5; Ezek. 36:22
Romans 2:27 Or who, by means of a
Romans 3:4 Psalm 51:4
Romans 3:9 Or worse
Romans 3:12 Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20
Romans 3:13 Psalm 5:9
Romans 3:13 Psalm 140:3
Romans 3:14 Psalm 10:7
Romans 3:17 Isaiah 59:7,8
Romans 3:18 Psalm 36:1
Romans 3:25 Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin