Most of us, if not all, have had religious tradition handed down to us and have been taught false, religiously minded ideas about the law in teaching that actually encourages us to embrace the law as a useful guide to Christian living. What could be farther from the truth? ~ Mick Mooney, God’s Law Apart From Grace, p. 35
One of the weird things about law is that just the fact of adhering to a certain set of standards—whether you can actually keep them yourself or not—makes you more apt to feel superior to those who don’t acknowledge your particular code. Look around at our culture, and you can see that it’s true. The ultra-conservative Christians act as if they’re superior to the general less-moral population, and the liberals act as if they’re the ones higher on the evolutionary scale. Vegans believe they are superior to meat-eaters, and so on. You don’t even have to be all that extreme; if you believe in a certain set of moral principles, however “normal” they may be, you will tend to believe that you’re superior, even if you fail to keep your own moral code.
The 1st Century Christians were no different. What Paul tries to point out in the first few chapters of Romans is that 1) God’s law is apparent to everyone; 2) You can’t become righteous by keeping the law anyway; and 3) everyone fails to keep God’s law, so we’re all toast regardless of whether we try to follow laws or not. What we have is a level playing field, Jews, Gentiles, whatever. Righteousness is not a matter of keeping the law—any law—but comes as a gift of God’s grace.
So, whenever someone uses a law—any law—to judge someone else, they first must subordinate themselves to God’s law, for which they will fail, rendering themselves ineligible to judge anyone else. So, for example, using Romans 1 to judge gays doesn’t work. All you have to do is turn to Chapter 2, verse 1, and see that any attempt to judge anyone else means you’re actually engaging in self-condemnation.
Romans 2 is deadly. It’s clear we are all condemned. It doesn’t even help if we were to be circumcised as a Jew, or not; for the circumcision that matters is not physical but spiritual.
Now by the end of Chapter 2, the Jewish Christians must have been feeling pretty bad, for Paul seems to be telling them that their Jewishness is essentially worthless. Moving into Chapter 3, Paul says that being a Jew is important because it shows the faithfulness of God; however, that doesn’t make them any better off (v 9), because as I said, we’re all toast under the Law, whether it’s written or natural.
The Good Stuff
Now Paul gets to the good stuff when he gets down to verse 21:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
(Romans 3:21-25 ESV)
This is a pretty meaty section, and unfortunately, verse 23 is often taken out of context, actually separating the phrase “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” from “and are justified by his grace as a gift.” To me, to separate these 2 phrases is unconscionable. But of course, it’s hard to get some “sinner” to feel really bad about his lot in life when he’s also told that his justification—in other words, his state of being declared righteous—has been given to him as a gift.
Why withhold the Good News? For one reason, it’s really hard to control someone once you tell them that their righteousness is solely resulting from the work of Jesus, not by their own work, or by obedience to any law or religious system. And as Paul had written to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” This is scary stuff to someone who feels a need to control you. As Mick Jagger sang, “I’m free to do what I want, any old time.” (He of course was not entirely correct, as the so-called “freedom to sin” is not freedom at all.)
In case there’s any doubt, in verse 28 Paul lays it out clearly: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
But in the closing verses of Chapter 3, it starts to get a bit confusing as Paul also says that we don’t overthrow the law by faith, but uphold it. Paul is not hinting that we can gain anything by keeping the law; to the contrary, justification by faith affirms the fact that we cannot obtain righteousness through keeping the Law. For it is the Law that condemns us, that declares our unrighteousness and our need for grace. As Paul explains later, in Chapter 5, the Law was actually given so that our sin would increase! This only makes sense, as the more laws we have, the more we find that we are breaking. The Law is important, but only for the purposes for which it was given; and it wasn’t given to make us righteous.
For that, we need grace.
I don’t read this as Paul claiming that the Gentiles were achieving some level of righteousness by obeying the law. In v.14, Paul says that when Gentiles do live according to God’s natural law, they prove it exists. However, when he says that “their conflicting thoughts accuse them” he suggests that they fail in keeping it perfectly, so that (v 12) they will either perish without the law or judged by the law.
In the last section on circumcision, Paul makes a rhetorical argument that true circumcision (which some Jews viewed as their “ticket to heaven”) is a matter of the heart, not the flesh. In the next chapter, he clarifies that regardless of being Jew or Gentile, “all have sinned” and condemned by the law, and that there is no righteousness achieved by keeping the law.