In the first two chapters, Paul has been laying a foundation to show us that salvation is from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17). The purpose of his letter, he says, is to show how the Gospel applies both to Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 1:16). He begins the process by showing the common state of all mankind is to reject the testimony of God and to fall into the corruption of sin (Chapter 1).
In chapter 2 he begins to explain that this process takes place outside of the reception of the law; i.e. whether we have the law or not this principle universally applies. I also pointed out that Paul has not yet discussed the ‘original sin,’ rather he is making the basis of his teaching of the universiality of man’s sinfulness this: that each individual personally rejects the testimony of God to their hearts. What we learn from chapter 1 is that we fall into the corruption of sin (ALL of us) because God reveals Himself to our hearts, and when He does so we do not glorify Him as God, nor are thankful to Him (Rom. 1:21), this haughtiness and vanity toward the testimony of God, and our rejection of faith is what leads to the corruption spoken of in chapter 1.
As I pointed out, the basis of corruption described in Romans 1 can be summarized by a verse from the writing of John: ‘He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself; he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.’ (1 John 5:10); failure to believe the testimony of God: the rejection of faith leads to all sin and corruption. In fact this is seen in the original sin, Adam and his wife believing the lie of the serpent (‘Ye shall not surely die…’ (Gen. 3:4b) over the testimony of God (‘For in the day thou eatest thereof thou SHALT surely die.’ (Gen. 2:17b).
In these early chapters of Romans, Paul is laying a very complex theological groundwork which is easily overlooked in a cursory reading of the book. As I went through chapter 2 for example, you may have noticed that I have been more heavily emphasizing Paul’s SUBTEXT of righteousness by faith: as according his thesis of 1:17, and the overall messsage of the book of Romans: the direction that Paul is taking us in. Yet Paul’s early Christian audience has an understanding (and background) of Judaism, and is coming to the conversation under the pretext of the Law being our guide for righteousness.
Thus you’ll notice that Paul is actually making a particular emphasis in chapter 2 on WORKS, or righteous DEEDs (EX: v. 6, 13, 15, 21-23, 25), which may conflict with out understanding of his message of salvation through faith apart from the works of the law if we do not see what he’s doing (and he’s actually doing a lot more in this groundwork teaching than we probably realize). So let me point out a few of the things that he’s doing in addition to showing us that salvation is only through faith:
1) He is showing that under the law we MUST obey every letter and precept in order to be righteous;
2) He is begining to show that the law itself is actually a burden to attaining salvation
3) He is showing that the Jews’ understanding of their privelege with God is misplaced; they are not elected unto salvation simply because they’re Jewish (which is foundational for the content begining in chapter 9)
These points lay groundwork for the message of the entire letter, not just his main point of salvation by faith and not by works, but in this letter, we’ll find that Paul is also teaching the further rammifications of salvation by faith: the change in the dispensation; that Christ’s coming has established the era of the Church (rather than the nation of Israel) wherein ALL who put faith in Christ will be saved, and ONLY they who put faith in Christ will be saved. Actually, the later chapters are often largely misinterpretted because a number of the nuances of Paul’s teaching from the earlier chapters are unobserved.
Recall that Paul’s stated purpose for writing this letter was to present the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles (1:16).
As an appologist Paul is breaking down the defenses of the Jews against his message (the Gospel), just as he began by showing that those without the law are nevertheless under he pentalty of sin because they have defiled their conscience, thus convincing the Gentile of sin and in need of salvation, so he is also showing the Jew to be guilty of sin and in need of salvation – plainly stating they are no more favored in judgment than the Gentiles (Rom. 2:11); Paul understood that the Jews believed they’d be saved because 1) they were circumcised, and 2) they had received the law, and were thus favored by God (surely unto salvation). The Gentiles don’t necessarily assuume upon their salvation, so Paul in his message gives HOPE to Gentile of salvation by faith, but to the Jew tears down the assumption of salvation through the law – for it stands opposed to salvation through faith.
It is tempting to move on from the historic content that he is laying down here towards a more generic interpretation which we can more directly apply to our lives today (such as that we can equate the ‘law’ to ‘religion’, for example). In fact, it seems that the book of Romans (and other of Paul’s letters) are generally interpretted this way – and I think it is why the book is so highly misunderstood. While there certainly is a need to apply what we learn from scripture pragmatically, yet I would point out that the historic understanding (i.e. understanding specifically what Paul is addressing and why) does indeed provide us with practical application for today. AND that our not understanding it, generally, is presently leading to the devopment of widespread error in the Church.
So allow me to point out some of the historic and cultural context under which Paul is speaking, and begin to show that it does, indeed, apply to us today:
The belief of many Jews of the era who had accepted the notion that Jesus was the Messiah had not actually been converted to the Christian faith; that is, they may have acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah because He fulfilled the prophecies, but they did not believe in salvation through His sacrifice as the Apostles teach. Rather, they believed that Jesus demonstrated the perfection of the Law of Moses, and thus their salvation depended not upon faith in Christ, but upon following His example by living the Law perfectly as He did. This belief only further entrenched themselves in the Law. Specifically, there was an historical sect which you may (or may not) have heard of who were called the ‘Ebionites.’ The Ebionite teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, but not our sacrificial savior found its way into the formation of Islam which still teaches the same today (they believe Jesus was the Messiah, but not that he was crucified, and certainly not the only begotten Son of God); the historian Josephus, for example who corroborates certain biblical events seems to have held this view, stating plainly that Jesus was the Messiah (whereby some assume he was Christian), but also stating that salvation was to be found in adhering to the Law.
This teaching was prevalent in the Church of Paul’s day, as is obvious by the fact that he also wrote the book of Galatians, and of Hebrews both of which specifically and quite clearly address and debunk the teachings of these ‘Messianic Jews.’ Now, we could limit our view of Paul’s address to simply Ebionites but Paul doesn’t; he doesn’t call out a specific sect, rather, he speaks TO THE JEW. Also, he speaks specifically OF THE LAW (and the Old Covenant as well (see Galatins, and Hebrews).
So how does this historical context and understanding apply to us today?
Reversion to the law, and the old covenant is, frankly, a belief system being reprised in Christianity in our day (perhaps largely as a result of the establishment of the nation-state of Israel in 1948), as many Messianic Jews, and the ‘Hebrew Roots’ movement heavily stress the Law, Jewish culture, the old covenant, and political Zionism. Yet Paul throughout his writings, actually teaches against all these things (the law, the old covenant, political Zionism), the reason is that they hinder our reception of salvation through faith. One big doctrine which is being taught is that God will return his favor upon the Jews, and that in the end of days – perhaps after the rapture – that the Jews will again be saved on the basis of their genetics, and/or their reception of the law, and/or on the basis of the Old Covenant. Yet these teachings which are becoming popular today on the basis of the establishment of a nation called Israel, ARE THE EXACT SAME DOCTRINES Paul clearly teaches against in his own day (when as yet the historic nation of Israel had not been destroyed).
As we continue, we’ll see that this is a major theme in the book to the Romans, and a large part of the reason Paul makes so many statements upfront which would clearly be antagonistic to the Jews.
So in pointing out that hearing the law does not make one righteous, but DOING it, Paul sets a much higher standard for the Jew (who has received the law) to attain salvation. Likewise, he paralells this with his message to the Gentiles, and points out that those who have recieved the law, and those who have not have equal opportunity for salvation in God’s justice, BUT that those who have received the law have to perfectly obey the law, and if not they will be judged by it. Thus he paints those under the law to be DISadvantaged, rather than advantaged (as the Jews supposed themselves to be) by seeing the law as their salvation.
Now beyond making statements which would probably startle and likely offend many [even Christian] Jews such as: ‘There is no respect of persons with God’ (Rom. 2:11), and ‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law’ (Rom. 2:13) – he then takes the further step to really drive the point home, and ends the chapter by plainly stating that being culturally Jewish and genetically Hebrew doesn’t make one a True Jew at all, but that the True Jews are those circumcised in heart:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Rom. 2:28 & 29)
While he has been paralelling the Gentiles with the Jews through the chapter, thus making them equal, he now actually states that it may in fact be that the Gentiles are the true Jews.
Dang Paul, are you trying to offend everyone who’s reading this?!
But this does leave us wondering: if there’s no respect of persons with God (Rom 2:11), and so being Hebrew is without value for salvation; and it is not those who received the law who are righteous, but those who do it (Rom. 2:13); and the Gentiles who didn’t receive the law have an equal potential to be saved through obedience to their own conscience (Rom. 2:14-16), then WHAT THE HECK IS THE VALUE OF RECEIVING THE LAW IN THE FIRST PLACE?!
But Paul already knows this is what we’re thinking, so he starts chapter three by specifically addressing that question, let’s dive in:
1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?
2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.
What’s the advantage, what’s the priveledge? God brought His word to humanity trough the Jews and through (as he specifically reference the ‘circumcision’:) the Old Covenant. What priveledge is there to the Jew? That it is through them that salvation has come to all men!
Even as Christ, Himself, declared to a Gentile: Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship FOR SALVATION IS OF THE JEWS. (John 4:22)
God brought salvation to all humanity through the Jews; Jesus Christ came as a Jew, born under the covenant of Abraham (circumcised), born under the law. It was the Jews who brought us scripture. Even the New Testament was written by Jews (like Paul, himself).
3 For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
Paul brings us back, again, to faith – he really won’t let us move past it, he introduced the salvation of the Gospel at the begining as being ‘from faith to faith,’ (1:17) and he will show it to be so though the book.
The Jews had been given the advantage of the Law, but the problem for them in terms of salvation is the same that it is for the Gentile: unbelief. They received the Law, which was to lead them to faith but if they did not have faith, does that make God’s word to mankind void? Does it negate the plan of salvation He brought through the Jews?
4 God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
So if God promised salvation to the Jews, yet the Jews are not saved if they have not faith in the Messiah, has He lied? No, salvation by grace through faith was offered to the Jew FIRST, and also to the Gentile. What of the promises of God to the Jews under the law, and the old covenant? It all was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and is now superseded by a new and better covenant (Hebrews 8:6-13). God not only fulfilled, but then also superseded the promises of the Old Covenant. If any promisies were left (at any time) unfulfilled because those who were promised were not in faith, does it make the promise without effect? No, because the condition of faith weren’t met.
5 But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)
Now Paul steps back to address both Jews and Gentiles again, addressing the problem of sin in its greater entirety. He also points out tht he is using a human argument: If our sin shows how righteous God is, then how can God’s vengeance come upon us for showing His goodness through our evil? The natural human tendancy upon hearing that the wrath of God is coming is to justify ourselves. Since Paul has just concluded us all sinners (Jews and Gentiles alike), the human tendancy is to try to negate the wrath of God for it. Paul is not giving us anywhere to hide:
6 God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
How is God supposed to judge the world if we justify ourselves? We judge others, and know that justice must be done, so to assume that God’s wrath will not come on us because we are somehow able to argue away the offense of our sin – such as to point out that our sin contrasts God’s goodness thus showing God righteous – then the righteous judgment of God becomes impossible.
7 For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?
8 And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just.
Here he points out that such philosophy of self-justification tends towrd greater wickedness. If it is so that our sin glorifies God, then hadn’t we better sin the more that God may be glorified?
9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;
Yet he points out even those who wrongly hold such a view are no worse than we are, for all are under sin.
10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:
14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood:
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways:
17 And the way of peace have they not known:
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Now here Paul goes back to scripture to make his point; he shows the biblical universal Truth that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God… and this is written in the LAW. He says (again to the Jews): look, the law says we all are sinners, and it says that to YOU who rely on on the law for salvation (‘whatsoever things the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law.’)
So we see that Paul points out that the Law, itself affirms that all are under sin.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Now he makes an interesting statement, which is the basis for much of what follows: ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin.’ Here he creates a premise which he will kore fully expound specifically in chapters 5 & 7. Often these chapters are interpretted much differently, but the basis of Romans 7 is the conflict between the law and the flesh. We become aware of sin by the law.
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
Now the subtext of righteousness by faith rather than righteousness by the works of the law become the foretext. And this faith is for both Jew and Gentile; Paul says there is no difference between them. The only difference is in their route of approach (the Jews perhaps not seeing the need for faith because they had received the law; the Gentiles perhaps not seeing their need for faith because they had not known the law).
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Salvation is the same for both Jews and Gentiles, they need not live by the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. There is no difference.
27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:
30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.
31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.
Wow! Powerful, all are sinners, yet we all are justified freely by the grace of God through faith! So does that invalidate the law? No, actually it establishes the law! Wait… how? Well, we’ll get into that in the next chapter, but Paul has already given us a taste (3:21 – 21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;) the law and the prophets testify of this salvation, of the New Covenant that would be established by Christ, of living by faith. We are not to live by the statute of the law, but the law is 100% true.