Bad news, good news

Paul’s gospel started a heated discussion that in some ways persists to this day: what is the point of being a Jew?

This may seem to be a pointless and unhelpful discussion, perhaps we should just accept that God has finished with the Jews and there is now only one category to think about – all of mankind. After all doesn’t Paul say that God has ‘made the two one.’ Indeed God has done this but whilst in the present time the two are one, distinctions remain. A man and a woman are made one by means of marriage but that does not mean that both partners become men (or women)! – Distinctions remain.  If we can fathom out this distinction between Jews and Gentiles, much of the bible will fall into place. This is an important discussion today and was an important discussion in the time of Paul too, if we get this issue sorted out, the bible will make much more sense.  Let’s keep a keen eye out in this chapter to discover  how Paul explains this.  But at the same time we must not miss Paul’s main argument! – How God is at work to rescue both Jews and Gentiles from sin and bring them into a relationship with himself.

  1. Jewish advantage

As we will see later in this chapter all human beings suffer from the same condition: sinfulness. In spite of this, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles remains and there is some advantage for Jews. Verse 1 and 2 says: ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.’ It’s not difficult to work out what Paul means: the Old Testament concerns Jews and was given to Jews. To be in possession of God’s account of how the world came into being, how sin entered and how God set out a rescue plan is of infinite value!  But didn’t these wretched people crucify and reject the one promised to them? Yes indeed they did. Shouldn’t God therefore forever withdraw his promises to them for their unfaithfulness? Here’s what Paul says: ‘what if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all!’ That’s pretty emphatic. God has made a series of promises to this group of people and Paul is completely emphatic that even if the Jews are unfaithful, God is faithful to his promises.

God’s promises to Israel began with Abraham. The promise is described in several chapters in Genesis and involved promises for Abraham personally (make his name great, give him many physical descendents, make him the father of many nations, give him the land of Caanan and bless those who blessed him and cruse those who cursed him), promises for Israel nationally (to become a great nation of Abraham’s physical descendents and to be given the land of Caanan for ever). Finally there was a promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s physical line of descent. As we turn the pages of the bible from Genesis onwards we see other promises of God to Israel: promises through Moses, to David and promises concerning habitation of the promised land, as well as a promise of an internal transformation – the New Covenant. Now here’s the key point that Paul makes: Israel may have been (and may still be) unfaithful, but God is not!

Many non-Jews have sought to re-interpret God’s promises to Israel: they’re just an allegory or they need to be re-interpreted in the light of history. Paul seems to have something to say to this in verse 4, he quotes Psalm 51:4 ‘So that you may be proved right with you speak and prevail when you judge.’ My observation is that when people start to play around with God’s words the result is confusion and loss of truth. Someone has said ‘God says what he means and means what he says.’ I rather like that and I suspect that Paul was trying to convey this very thought. However things may look, whatever the pressure to bend meanings we must always accept that God will be ‘proved right when he speaks.’  This may seem like an arcane debate, but actually it’s greatly encouraging: God is faithful! If he says he will do something,  whatever the conditions, whatever our actions, we can be sure that his word will not fail. We will often let him down but he will not let us down: mess with his words and you will miss this great truth.

There were some in Paul’s time who claimed that Israel’s failures were no bad thing because they showed up God’s righteousness more clearly – therefore any wrath coming on Israel was not fair! Their faithfulness was doing God a favour.  Grigori Rasputin was a Russian mystic who claimed to be a monk and ended up having significant influence on the politics of Russsia at the time of the first world war and the Russian revolution. He was described as being ‘a complex figure, intelligent, ambitious, idle,  generous to a fault, spiritual, and – utterly – amoral.’ He seemed to believe that there was merit is committing immoral acts in order to receive the benefits of God’s forgiveness: the worse the act – the bigger the forgiveness. Some people argued this way with respect to Israel as well as personal unfaithfulness (see verse 7). Indeed  Paul himself was accused of such an attitude – verse 8: “why  not say – as some slanderously claim we say – ‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is just!”  It’s clear that such an argument (the worse I am the better it is to see God’s glory) is ridiculous and not at all acceptable for Paul.  So the Jews as an ethnic people had an advantage having been entrusted with the very words of God, they had proved to be unfaithful, but what about personal sin, did the Jews have any advantage in this respect?

  • No one is righteous

Verse 9: ‘What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are under the power of sin.’ So there it is, there are distinctions between Jews and Gentiles but there are some things common to both: both are under sin. Paul makes his point by quoting a series of passages from the Old Testament. First up is Psalm 14: 1-3: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’  That’s pretty emphatic! Paul then quotes 5 additional passages each of which speak of man’s sinfulness: e.g. tongues practise deceit (Psalm 5:9), lips are like the poison of vipers (Psalm 140:3), mouths are full of bitterness and cursing (Psalm 10:7), people are quick to make ruin and are lacking in peaceful intentions (Isaiah 59: 7-8) and finally people have no respect for God (Psalm 36:1). It’s a sorry list, but this is what we are. In some ways Paul’s use of these passages seems a bit harsh – are people really so bad? Mercifully we have social conventions and laws which keep many of these behaviours in check, but now and then we see what people are really like. You may recall in August 2011 there was a riot in Tottenham (which was precipitated by the shooting of Mark Duggan), the news went around social media very quickly that the Police were taking a ‘hands off’ approach and very quickly otherwise law abiding young people took to the streets and started  looting and destroying property. Five people were killed and £200 million pounds worth of damage was done, there were 3000 arrests. Many people asked why? Paul has the answer, we are fundamentally sinful. In those summer days back in 2011, it seems that in the minds of many people, the social taboos of criminality and the threat of the law were removed – the result was that the underlying condition of human beings was exposed: sinfulness.

 We are all good at making excuses! Every time we do something wrong we can usually find a reason: that irritable attitude when we snapped at one of our loved ones was because we had a bad nights’ sleep, the slanderous comments about a work colleague? He deserves all he gets! But there are no excuses. The Jews have their laws and everyone else has a conscience and a law written on their hearts – there really is no excuse. When the law speaks the mouths filled with excuses will be silenced and the ‘whole world (is) accountable to God’ (v19).  So why have the law? The law raises awareness of sin, but it doesn’t deal with the problem. Paul says that ‘no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.’ In the aftermath of those riots in 2011 many young people came face to face with the law. Our politicians wisely showed little mercy and the full force of the law was applied. It surely came as a shock to many, but the law had the effect that many people became conscious of their wrong doing: surely a good thing however painful.

  • A solution in sight

The law shows up sin and when every human being measures themselves against the law they are found wanting. But there is a solution. Righteousness can be known, but not through the law: the law can only ever show up unrighteousness. So how can we know righteousness? Verse 22 gives the solution: ‘This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’  In these few words Paul gives the solution to all of mankind’s problems! Righteousness does not come through law, but it does come through faith! The object of the faith is Jesus Christ and the means by which this comes is belief. This is the gospel: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice that this is not an impossible task. It is within reach of everyone – there is no demand for special efforts and works, just faith and belief. But if we are in such a dreadful state how could we possibly exercise faith, how could we raise ourselves up to believe, aren’t we helpless and in a corpse-like state? God is gracious, by his Holy Spirit we read in John that he will bring us under conviction: ‘he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.’ (John 16:8) – the rest is up to us, will we respond in belief or in unbelief.

Now the Jews and Gentiles may well have asked if there was to be any discrimination in this opportunity for righteousness? Paul gives the answer in verse 22b-24: ‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ That’s clear we’re all in the same boat, we have all sinned, we all fall short of the perfect mark – but when we have faith in the Lord Jesus, Paul says we are justified by his grace. No doubt you have heard the definition of ‘justified’ : ‘just as if I’d never sinned.’ That’s it! We’re declared righteous in God’s sight through the merits of Jesus. This is not so much an imparted righteousness (we don’t all of a sudden become perfect) – it is more of an imputed righteousness, when God reckons us he reckons us as righteous. One day God’s work in us will be complete and we will be fully changed, but for now we have to struggle with the old sin nature and the new nature (more of this later in Romans). This status of justification brings us the benefit of ‘redemption’ – deliverance from sin and its penalties. The picture here is in a slave market – we are the slaves. The purchaser redeems us from the status of slaves to free people – this is redemption. How does this come about? ‘God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood.’ The law needed to be satisfied, it needed to be atoned for. Jesus’ sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice that satisfied the demands of the law. So what makes us right? Our adherence to the law? Our good deeds? Our prayers?  – none of these, we are incapable, but Jesus being the perfect man is capable and as we have faith in him so our sins are paid for.

Before Jesus came it seemed as though God was ignoring the sins of mankind – but he was being patient until the day that Jesus would satisfy all the demands of the law. (v 25).

Now many Christians feel a sense of superiority – they would never do those dreadful things described in chapter 1! But there is to be no boasting. No one is justified by ‘being good’ and fulfilling the law, it’s impossible. People are justified by faith apart from the law – it’s God’s gift and if it’s a gift no one ought to boast or feel superior. Both Jews and Gentiles are rescued by the same means; faith in Christ; ‘since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith (v 30). ’

Paul closes this chapter by airing the idea that all of this might be considered by some to undermine the law, but no says Paul quite the opposite: the law is upheld. It seems almost too good to be true! We are sinners, the law judges us and we deserve God’s judgement. But the penalty has already been paid by Jesus on the cross. To receive the benefits we just need faith. More of this in chapter 4…