Chapter 3 has been a great example of the depth of Paul’s message in the letter to the Roman churches. I’ve been challenged as I’ve prepared, seeking to effectively bring God’s Word to His church. The exercise has helped me to see in my everyday life a bit of Paul’s argument for salvation by faith, apart from works.
Paul has focused much of chapter 3 on our sin, and our need for salvation. The thought he has developed since chapter 1 is the universal need for forgiveness. No one has an advantage. No one has an excuse, and no one has the means to bridge the gap between God and humanity. To First Century Jews, especially those following the teachings of the Pharisees, this would have sounded a bit foreign. Their belief was that perfection could be achieved by those who were born into the covenant relationship between God and His chosen people. Their construction of stringent laws that “built a fence around the Torah” meant that, if you followed their rules, you wouldn’t break God’s rules. If you didn’t break God’s rules, they reckoned that they were perfect. The Law coupled with their righteousness meant they were perfect, and therefore in right relationship with God.
The point of Paul’s discussion of the law was to demonstrate that everyone had a need for forgiveness. No one could live perfectly. The law highlighted that need, and temple worship illustrated the need with the constant demand for sacrifices. That’s why Jesus taught about the need for forgiveness, and the lack of perfection. It was easy to believe that Gentiles weren’t right before God. The suggestion that Jews needed justification as much as Gentiles may have been more shocking.
Moving into the final verses of the chapter, Paul shifts from sin, to God’s provision for sin. As he moves to the illustration of Abraham in chapter four, he makes two points meant to clarify his point.
First, Paul wanted people to know that no one could brag about their righteousness or their salvation. He knew first hand from his own life that bragging and pride pervaded the ranks of the scribes and Pharisees. His own discussion of how his accomplishments before he came to Christ could be used to demonstrate his own higher position. Ultimately, however, Paul counted all these things as loss. He knew his own righteousness was nothing, and he knew he had no means of attaining holiness and forgiveness apart from Christ. Everyone is in the same predicament, and the only solution is Jesus.
Second, Paul wanted to bring clarity to his comments about the Law, covenants, and the Jews. Just because faith in Christ was the only way to appear righteous before God did not mean that the Law was obsolete. The Law still demonstrated God’s standard for holiness and our inability to attain it. The Law wasn’t to be blotted out, but upheld. The covenant relationship wasn’t a throw-away either. God’s special plan for the nations sprang from one special people. The new covenant in Christ didn’t replace it. It was the logical extension of God’s plan all along. This further revelation of the covenant relationship didn’t negate God’s relationship to the Jews. Jesus’ sacrifice for all our sins extended that special relationship to all who believed, regardless of their genetics. We can all be adopted into God’s family.
The point is simple, yet our modern interpretation is skewed. We hear the message as familiar. We hear forgiveness, yet we often miss the division. Paul speaks to this in detail because the church in Rome was made of a mix of Jews and Gentiles. He sought to bring unity to the church by explaining the equal need for forgiveness, and the equal standing before God. No bragging rights meant no grounds for division and animosity.
Paul’s concept is to bridge a divide. He addressed it more plainly in Ephesians. Jesus has broken down the walls of division and hostility. Jew and Gentile are no longer separated. Through Christ, no one must remain separated from God by sin. That, I think, is still an important lesson for us.