Paul now anticipates an objection that would come to him, something along this line. There are advantages to the nation of Israel in receiving God’s Law on Mount Sinai, of which one advantage was that they received God’s oracles. With this gift from God, there was responsibility to live in accordance with the contents of that gift. Yet, Israel, as a nation, failed to live as they should. Taking notice of Paul’s point in chapter 2, Paul assumes an objection offered to him: If Israel’s hypocrisy is going to elevate the Lord (and His justice) even more, then would the Lord be unjust in condemning the nation? This is the essence of how chapter 3 begins. Paul flatly rejects this and turns the approach around on them when he said, “Then why am I (Paul) still judged (by you of Israel) as a sinner?” if this is going to elevate the glory of the Lord even more (3:1-8)?

Since Paul took the force of their objection away, let see what the Scriptures attribute to those who live under its authority (3:9-18). Not only are all in the world under sin, but even the Law of Moses that you, as a nation, tightly cling to shows this to be the case. In my estimation, the 9 Old Testament passages can be broken into 3 headings: 1) the path of man walking alone (3:10-12), 2) the nature of man walking this path (3:13-17), 3) the effect of their choice (3:18).

In essence, the advantage of receiving God’s Law at Mount Sinai was to make clear that even those who lived under its authority (the Jewish nation) are guilty of sin. If they are guilty, how much more are those who received no corresponding Law from God? When Paul said “by works of the Law no flesh is justified in His sight” (3:20), he means that those who live by the Law can’t be pleasing to the Lord by mere “obedience” to the commands of the Law, as if one was able to tally up more days of obedience than disobedience. Those who thought this way missed one of the points of the Law, that is, to bring to one’s knowledge what sin is, a violation or transgression of God’s revealed Law.

The Law does more than this; the righteousness of God is seen in the Law and the Prophets (3:20-31). From the vantage point of rabbinic tradition, there is nothing greater than the Law as given by God to Moses, therefore, God’s righteousness is revealed within[1] and not outside of it. While this is the rabbinic perspective, Paul preached this was not the case. God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus, the Law and Prophets attesting to God’s righteousness in prophecy. The Law, given exclusively to the Israelite nation, only judged those under its authority to be guilty of sin. While sin existed prior to the Law, it was when the Law was given that accountability was demanded (cf. Acts 17:30). By this I mean, the Israelite nation now had a codified law from God by which he would be judged, in contrast to anything associated with a “moral law of the heart” or some non-codified (unwritten or unrevealed) law. Also, under the banner of the Law the Seed of David (Jesus) came to redeem those under the authority of the Law (1:3-4; cf. Gal. 4:4).

The Law shows what sin is, the consequences of being guilty, and that it applies to the nation of Israel. This makes it clear the nation (including the individuals within the nation) are guilty of sin and in need of redemption. The Gentiles had no corresponding Law or revelation from God (as far as the Bible teaches). Since all are guilty of sin (3:23), all (Jew / Gentile) who come to Jesus will be redeemed; as in the Law there was a “Day of Atonement”, so in the New Covenant Jesus is our “day of atonement.” This demonstrates the righteousness of God in His desire to seek and save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10).  Since God is Lord of both Jews and non-Jews, the Jewish community can be assured the Law they embraced through the many years played a pivotal role in God’s plan to redeem man, this was the advantage given to the Jewish people (cf. Exodus 19:6ff).

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

  1. Even though the Israelite nation was guilty of hypocrisy, there was still a benefit in them receiving God’s word. There was profit in God’s command for each male born to receive God’s covenant of physical circumcision. Unfortunately, this blessing (privilege) turned into hypocrisy; they had uncircumcised hearts. This generated bad faith or a failed faith. Second, there was an advantage to Israel in that Israel received God’s Law which, by itself, no other nation on earth could ever say. Israel, however, failed the Lord in the advantage given them because they failed to see what the Law taught (cf. John 6:44-45), they failed to see they were themselves guilty of sin, as the Gentiles were. Even though they received God’s Law, this did not make them better spiritually than any others around, only more privileged, and more responsible because they were in position to know what God expected of them (3:19).[2]
  2. How could Gentiles be in sin unless there is a law over (or given to) them to violate? Before the Law of Moses, all were guilty of sin and fell short of the glory of God; this applied to all those who lived in the days of Noah, Abraham, and Joseph – all of which received no corresponding Law like Moses did on the mountain; as far as the Record is concerned, the only “law” they had was a “patriarchal law”, one not revealed in the Bible. Regarding the Gentiles, especially after the time of Moses, God did not call them to account for their sin like He did the Israelites after His revealing the Law to Moses on the mountain.
  3. The Law of Moses declared the individual and the nation guilty of sin; Paul’s focus is on his brethren (the nation) “according to the flesh.” Unlike the Gentiles, Jewish guilt was made known to them through the revelation of God’s Law. Romans 3:9-18 illustrates this.[3] The path man walks of his own accord (3:10-12) The death man sprays in the vilest evils of his mouth walking according to his own accord (3:13-17) The fearlessness (foolishness) of man in his walk (3:18). In 3:20, the Holy Spirit gives the first indication of the Law’s purpose: guilt is associated with a violation of God’s will. This sort of violation has teeth that sinks greater with its bite than one who violates his or her own conscience. Thus, Israel is guilty. One’s righteousness was not in the possession of God’s covenant (circumcision) and having the Law of Moses revealed to them. Righteousness was the result of one’s heart response to God’s will through obedience to the Law as part of that nation. Justification before God was in relation to one’s personal faith, such as that which Abraham had.[4]
  4. The Law God gave to Moses was God’s teaching to a nation how to live, how to worship, and how to address sin when it must be addressed. The Law of Moses taught what the nature of sin is, which is a failure to do what God said. One could not do what God said if there was no faith in the doing of that which God said.[5] The Law of Moses was not a system of faith that justifies (cf. Acts 13:39) because, in the history of justification, Abraham was justified before the Law was revealed to Moses / Israel.
  5. Through the Law and Prophets there was a continuing call for Israel (as a nation) to repent because many would do the commands in outward form,[6] but they had no faith in the doing of it. This call to repentance was for them to continue to exist as a nation (in contrast to be taken into captivity), not be saved from sin. An Israelite might convince others he was doing what God said, but since the Lord knows them that belong to Him (2 Tim. 2:19) and He looks on the heart (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7), then those so operating could never get their feigned efforts by the Lord.
  6. Though the nation did not repent, the individuals within the nation could if they chose to. Since righteousness was not through the Law, how was one declared righteous before God? One could be pleasing to the Lord if it was by faith they chose to live and obey the holy will of God. This was taught as far back as Deuteronomy 10:12-13. It was the Law and Prophets that got to the heart of the problem in the nation’s existence; if the nation experienced anguish, then individuals comprising that nation did the same. While the physical nation could not be saved, the individual could be.[7]
  7. Through the Law and Prophets, the Lord’s promised Son (seed) of David was to come to the nation of Israel (cf. Psa. 2; Isa. 2:1-4; 4:2-5; et al.), giving them the first opportunity to embrace the Lord’s redemption. This was realized in Jesus (cf. John 1:45). When Jesus came, giving evidence of his credentialed claims (John 5:31-47), the nation rejected Him, killing Him, then burying Him in a tomb carved out of rock; with the nation rejecting Jesus, God rejected the nation. They hoped to put to rest any claims of Jesus, but in this they had no success. Instead, He was resurrected, and Paul preached His message. In 3:22, it is Jesus who is the righteousness of God. Thus, those who would be pleasing to God must go through Jesus (cf. John 14:6). Jesus is the Father’s righteousness, witnessed by the Law and Prophets.
  8. “Deeds of the law” (3:20, 28, NKJV, KJV) or “works of the law” (ESV, ASV). The EMTV (English Majority Text Version) uses “works of the law” in 3:20, 28, and 9:32. Moffatt renders the same phrase “on the score of obedience to law” in 3:20. To what is this referring? The only “law” under discussion is related to the Mosaic Law, as mentioned in 3:19, and as quoted in 3:10-18. There is no discussion here relative to New Testament law (cf. James 1:25) or civil law. The word “works” (ASV) is used by Paul in Romans 10x (if I counted correctly). In the following passages, it has exclusive reference to the Law of Moses (3:20, 27, 28; 4:2, 6; 9:32; 11:6). In the following passages, it refers to what an Israelite does in general (2:6; 9:11; 13:12). The Expositor’s Greek Testament commentary says it is “primarily the Mosaic law” (2.608). In fact, it is more than primarily, it is exclusively that because the context demands this interpretation. Paul is not talking about the principle of law or the holy commands that have come from the Almighty. The Jewish community looked at the Law as an “end-all”, there is salvation in no other system than that contained within the Torah, or the Law of Moses. In their commentary on Jeremiah 31:34-35, the rabbis state that the nation of Israel “remains eternally His Chosen People” (p. 277). With respect to Jeremiah 31:30-33, “God will engrave the existing Torah upon the hearts of the Jewish nation, thereby creating an everlasting and loyal bond between Him and Israel” (p. 275).

[1] Rabbi Rambam sets forth at great length the “unanimously held view that every letter and word of the Torah was given to Moses by God; that it has not been and cannot be changed; and that nothing was ever or can ever be added to it” (Chumash xix). Concerning the Torah, “[t]he letters are eternal for they are the will of the Eternal” (xxiii).

[2] Compare this with the rabbinic words: “Thus, even though he and Sarah were naturally incapable of having children together, they were superior to the stars and would have children…by comparing Israel to the stars, God indicated that when Israel does God’s will, they are above all others…” (Chumash, p. 67)

[3] This is not to say the Gentiles were not guilty of the same approach, only that with a revealed law from God, God made these matters explicitly known to His selected (chosen) nation. Compare God’s purpose to the nation in Exodus 19:5-7.

[4] Nations are not saved, people are.

[5] Some elaboration here. When I say, “do what God said”, I mean doing what He said from the heart of faith, trusting Him because one knows His will and seeks to please Him. If one is ignorant of God’s will (Law), there is no way that person can be pleasing to the Lord (cf. Eph. 5:17), even though he does much good in the community in which he lives.

[6] I did not use the word “obey”

[7]  Salvation is a spiritual concept; thus salvation was related to spirituality; the nation of Israel, a physical and national concept had no role in the spiritual realm.