What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
There is No One Righteous
So, what now? The Jews were given a tremendous advantage over all other nations when God entrusted her with the oracles of God. Does this mean, then, that Israel is “better off” than other nations (in the sense of “justified”)? “No, not at all.” Paul knows very well that Israel was chosen freely by the grace of God apart from any merit, as the Lord made abundantly clear. For example, consider Deuteronomy 7:6-8:
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Consider also Deuteronomy 9:3-7:
Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the LORD your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the LORD has promised you. Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.
The Lord makes it clear here that the only reason He is still keeping His Word to Israel is because He, the Lord, is faithful—not because Israel is faithful. God is righteous, and God will vindicate His own Word. These passages must have been banging around in Paul’s mind as he carefully arranges his thoughts and presents his theology of the “righteousness of God” to the Romans.
Paul knows very well that Israel has no right to boast of moral superiority over Gentiles, and he knows this from the oracles that were entrusted to Israel. Israel’s scriptures plainly show from the beginning that the Jews were not “better off” than the Gentiles. Israel’s scriptures preserved the record of her own sins. Indeed, Israel’s stewardship of the oracles meant that she carried her indictment in her own bosom. Israel’s condemnation flowed out of her advantage. To whom much is given much is required. This means that Israel actually stood more condemned that the Gentiles because knowing to do good and failing to do it is a sin in itself. The fact that Israel was given the Law at Sinai only intensified her condemnation. So, are the Jews better off because of their advantage? In the final analysis, “No, not at all!”
Of course, we must observe that Paul’s comments about the condemnation of Israel are not a matter of “us vs. them.” Rather, Paul includes himself with the Jews (seeing that he is a Jew!) in his comments on Israel and her guilt: “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” Paul may see himself as Nathan the prophet in one sense, standing boldly in the face of hypocritical Israel when they call for judgment upon the Gentiles; but in another sense Paul clearly stands and falls with Israel in her sin.
In the next few verses Paul brings his argument in chapters 1-3 to a crescendo. He reminds us that he has already “charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” The principal point to be made here is that all humanity stands condemned under the law. No one will be justified by the works of the law. As Paul brings this point into closer focus, he recites a catena of scripture passages to support his argument. As a faithful Jew, Paul believed that his doctrine must be biblical if it is to be considered at all. So, he quotes:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
“These are the things that the Law said, not me!” Paul seems to be saying. And “whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law,” which would be the Jews, the same Jews that are attempting to disqualify Paul’s Gentile converts from full inclusion in the New Covenant community because they—the Gentiles—do not keep the law. What an irony! The very ones who have set themselves up as the gatekeepers to the house of God are themselves more condemned by the law than anyone else.
If the Gentiles are refused admittance to the house of God because they do not keep the law, then what should be said about the Jews who have broken the law more than anyone? It should be said that they are no “better off,” that they have no more right to the promises of God than anyone else. If legitimate claim to the promises of God can only be made by faithful law-keepers, then no one can make that claim. No one has kept—no can keep—the law! But this is where grace comes in. Paul will show us how God has justified both Jews and Gentiles by grace through faith in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
This means, then, that Israel—indeed, all humanity—has no right to boast. As Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped.” Boasting figures prominently in Paul’s thought, here and elsewhere. In fact, it is striking how much scripture addresses the idea of man’s boasting. It seems that boasting is one particular sin for which God has little tolerance. The boasts of the wicked provoke God to quick anger.
Here, the boasting Paul condemns is the boasting of Israel that they are “Jews,” that they “rely on the law and boast in God” (2:17; see also 2:23; 3:27). It is somewhat ironic that those who are called by the name of “praise” (the name “Jew” is derived from “Judah,” which means “praise”) are condemned as boasters. They, who should be praising God for His salvation to the ends of the world, are occupied rather with idle boasts about their exclusive privilege and doing everything in their power to preserve it.
The Jews were called to manifest the praises of God to the world so that the entire world might believe and be saved, but Israel had forsaken this calling and was occupied rather with hopes that the pagan nations would be destroyed. Israel’s exile had hardened her heart toward the nations so that her mission was compromised through pride and unbelief. Israel no longer understood her mission and destiny within the universal purpose of God. Thus, the people who should have been lifting praises to the glory of God were heaving up pretentious boasts.
Think about this. Let’s say you rise early on a Saturday morning and prepare to leave the house for several hours to run a few errands. You wake your eldest son and give him instructions about watching his younger siblings while you are gone. You give him a crisp, new twenty-dollar bill and tell him to use this money to purchase lunch for himself and the rest of the children. You return home later in the afternoon, and hear a ruckus going on in the back room. You pause at the door to hear what is being said, and you are amazed to hear your eldest bragging to the other children about how he was given twenty dollars for lunch, and no one else was given anything. He laughs and pokes fun at the other kids who are hungry and starting to get rather cranky by now. He boasts that he is favored by the father, the rest of the kids are despised and rejected, and the money is his to use as he pleases. There is no doubt that you, too, would become somewhat cranky. In fact, your wrath would probably be revealed from the doorway against the unrighteousness of eldest sons who hold twenty dollar bills in unrighteousness!
This is a crude illustration of what had happened to Israel. They had been given a mission to the world, and they had been given circumcision and the Law of Moses to set them apart for this task. The entire point of the law was to separate Israel out for her specific mission. Her food laws, her unique calendar, her Sabbaths, etc, were all given to set Israel apart from the world so Israel might minister to the world. (This is why Paul asserts that these Jewish distinctive are no longer useful in the New Covenant age when the gospel is preached to all nations.) And now, she is using the very thing she was given to serve the nations—circumcision and the Law of Moses—to boast about her exclusive rights to the glory of God. Israel’s boasting became a mockery of her mission.
The law declares the guilt of all men so that boasting may be stopped and that “the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The law is the formal indictment of all mankind. Israel bears the weight of this indictment as the priestly representative of all nations before God, but the whole world shares in Israel’s condemnation. As we shall see later, God has placed the entire world under condemnation so that He may place the condemnation of the world upon Christ as the atonement for the world. God condemned the whole world that He might save the whole world.
Finally, Paul declares, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law given to Israel is the indictment upon every “human being.” In the reading of the law, the charges against man are unsealed and read in an open court. The law brings knowledge of sin. The law reveals man’s weakness. However, the law of itself cannot save, which is the point that Paul has already introduced and will develop more fully later on. Therefore, if the law cannot justify us before God, then how shall we be vindicated—acquitted of all charges—before God? That is what we shall find out.