One can well imagine that the Jews did not appreciate the teaching of the apostle Paul. Those who depended on their own efforts and ceremonial rites to gain favor with God certainly would not have appreciated Paul’s dismantling of their system of self-righteousness. It was one thing for Paul to point out the wickedness of the Gentiles, but to place the Jews in the same camp? Never! What was the point of the Old Testament? No, the Jews were convinced that they had an advantage over the Gentiles because they were God’s covenant people.
All the things the Jews considered as advantages centered on the Old Testament. They had been entrusted with the very words of God. What advantage did the Word of God give, however, if the Jews failed to respond to it? On rare occasion had the Gentiles received that Word. Whereas the city of Nineveh believed the word of God and repented when Jonah brought it to them, the Jews believed that they were saved simply by having that Word in their possession. While they acknowledged the privilege of the Word, they refused to put their faith in that which the Word taught. They failed to use the Word to bring them into a proper relationship with God. The sin of the Jews was that they believed their election was certain because of their privileges.
Many Christians fall into the same trap as did the Jews. They believe that, because they have the advantage of Christianity, they automatically are granted salvation. They frequently attend church, participate in the sacraments, and regularly volunteer. Some assume their salvation because, after all, they are baptized. Young people who make profession of faith often see it as their golden ticket to heaven. Couples will ask to have their babies baptized even though they seldom come to church. Churches often think their responsibility is done once young people have “graduated” from catechism and made profession of faith. Few churches offer Bible studies geared to help young adults in their spiritual growth. All too often, we presume our election, as did the Jews, trusting the advantages that we have received rather than placing our hope and trust in solely in the sacrifice of the crucified and risen Savior. Anticipating the hostility his writing would receive, Paul answers in advance the objections that the Jews would bring.
Objection 1 (vv. 1–2): The Racial Advantage
The first objection Paul addresses is that the Jews would accuse him of undermining God’s covenant relationship with them. In Chapter 2, Paul had pointed out the advantages given to the Jews. He agrees that they are greatly privileged. However, with those privileges come certain responsibilities.
The sin of the Jews was that they regarded the covenant God had established with them as a source of pride. Through it, they assumed their salvation. Like the Jews, Christians are granted many privileges. We have the Word of God and the sacraments. We worship regularly in beautiful buildings and have established a marvelous education system for our children. We take great pride in our Christian schools, especially the sports programs.
Compared to many Christians throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith, most readers of The Outlook are extremely blessed. The promises of God are continually set before us. So much so, that we often take them for granted.
We forget, as did the Jews, the tremendous responsibility those blessings place upon us. Instead of assuming or presuming upon the grace of God, we are to receive them in faith through the Holy Spirit. Christians must be humbled into service to God out of a gratitude to Him for His salvation.
Paul explains that all the privileges God gives to His covenant people do not exclude them from judgment. The descendants of Abraham certainly received much more from God than any other race on the earth. Unfortunately, they stood condemned by the very privileges given to them.
Objection 2 (vv. 3–4): God’s Faithfulness
Paul then acknowledges that his Jewish readers might consider Paul to be accusing God of being unfaithful. “After all,” they would argue, “the unfaithfulness of some Jews does not release God from His promise to our God.” Their logic was as follows:
God had chosen to save them by making them His people, in distinction from all the Gentiles.
God had set them aside to be His people.
God is faithful to His people.
Therefore they would be saved. God’s faithfulness was a guarantee of their salvation. Any lack of faith on the part of the Jews would not invalidate the faithfulness of God toward His people.
Paul assures his readers that God is absolutely faithful, even if it means declaring every human being a liar. The faithfulness of God must be a truth that cannot be argued! If God were unfaithful in any way, every moral and religious foundation would collapse. All of Christianity depends on the faithfulness of God!
What the Jews (and often many Christians) fail to acknowledge is that God is faithful not only to those who receive His promises in faith but also when He punishes disobedience and sin. Paul solicits the support of David in his claim by quoting Psalm 51:4. God is faithful when He saves; God is faithful when He punishes. His judgment is always right.
It is precisely God faithfulness to His Word, His holiness, and His justice that makes Him trustworthy in spite of our unfaithfulness. Those who reject His Word and fail to put their faith in the means of salvation God has provided will see eternal damnation. Those who trust that the promises of God have been fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, are granted eternal life. Their salvation is secure.
Objection 3 (vv. 5–6): Conflicting Righteousness
This objection addresses those who would claim that Paul presented a twisted view of God’s justice. They would argue that if God proves faithful, He cannot judge properly. It is an argument many still use today. It goes like this:
God made moral demands on the human race.
God knew the human race could not keep those demands.
Therefore God is unjust in His demands.
Paul rejects this logic with all the contempt it deserves. If there is a world, there must be a God who created it. If there is a God who created the world, then each human being would be accountable to that God. If we are accountable to God, God must have some sort of standard that he has set up to which we are accountable. That standard is His law. Surely, if the Jews saw the Gentiles—who do not have the law—as guilty, how much more so the Jews who did have the law.
Objection 4 (vv. 7–8): Human Logic
Following closely on the heels of the previous objection, some Jews might argue that Paul’s teaching promoted sinful living. After all, if I, being a Jew, am set apart by God for salvation, meaning that God has chosen to save me, then why shouldn’t I sin all the more? If the unrighteousness of the Jews (due to unbelief) highlights the righteousness of God (salvation in Christ), would it be fair to punish the Jews for something that glorifies God in the end? My sinfulness would make God look good in that He would stoop to save a wretch like me. Doesn’t a salvation by grace alone through faith alone cause people to abandon their moral responsibilities?
Paul’s very direct response to this preposterous logic is, “Their condemnation is deserved.”
Conclusions from the Objections
Having shown the foolishness of human argumentation, Paul shifts to the truth of Scripture. Where else should one go for good, sound logic but to the very Scriptures in which the Jews boasted? The bottom line, according to Paul, is that no one is righteous in and of himself. No one—neither Gentile nor Jew. Quoting from the Psalms, Paul advances his argument even further.
No one is righteous. Human righteousness (if there is such a thing) is like Monopoly money and cannot be used in God’s bank. Any righteous act we may perform is so tainted with sin that it merits us nothing.
No one understands God. The wisdom of God is foolishness to man. He has offered the perfect plan of salvation through His son, Jesus Christ, and by our very nature we reject it.
Everyone has turned away from God. Sin has separated the entire human race from God. It penetrates every aspect of our being as pointed out by the different parts of the body mentioned in the Psalm Paul quotes.
The reason Paul must belabor this point is because mankind is too foolish to acknowledge his own spiritual depravity. While we may be quick to point out the faults of others, we see ourselves as religious people. We certainly are better than most, we declare. No matter how we try to justify ourselves, we are guilty before God. “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend on one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). The intensity of God’s perfect law and our selfishness are at total odds with one another.
Both Jews and Gentiles—all of us—have to realize our helpless, lost, condemned condition. Every mouth must be silenced and held accountable to God. We are “without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). Until we can acknowledge this as true, we will continue to pursue our own righteousness, and the “but now” of verse 21 will be foolishness to us.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What advantages did the Jews have over the Gentiles? Did any of these privileges make them better than anyone else?
2. Since we are saved by God’s election (rather than our qualifications) what kind of response should we give?
3. How does God’s faithfulness remain intact despite the lack of faith in those He has set apart (first the Jews, then those baptized)?
4. To whom/what is God faithful?
5. Does our sin highlight God’s righteousness?
6. Can you give examples of persons or movements in history that condoned the doing of evil in order that good might come out of it? Are there ways in which we are guilty of this, as well?
7. Why do Christians need to be reminded of their sinfulness? Can sin be stressed too much? Can it be stressed in the wrong way?
8. What is Paul concerned with in this entire passage?