Romans 3:9–20 (ESV) — 9 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, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 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. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
In our text today, Paul brings to a close the arguments he began in 1:16.
- It might do us good to outline Paul’s points up until now.
- Reference Outline.
1:16-17 – Saving Righteousness of God
- Divine Activity – Covenant Faithfulness
1:18-32 – Judging Righteousness of God on Gentiles
- 18-23 – Reason
- Failing to Glorify God
- 24-32 – Results
- Spiritual Corruption
- Physical Corruption
- Fellowship Corruption
2:1-5 – Judging Others Incurs God’s Judging Righteousness
- Hypocrisy – “Practice” What is Judged
- Tread on God’s Patience
2:6-11 – “Apodidimi” (Reward) of God is Impartial
- Judging Righteousness Given to Unrighteous
- Saving Righteousness Given to Glory Seekers
2:12-13 – Future Justification (?)
2:12-3:8 – Judging Righteousness of God on Jews & Undercutting of Jewish Privilege
- 12-16 – Gentiles Have Law – “By Nature” Law
- “doers of the law” vs. “hearers of the law”
- 2:17-23 – “Boast in” Law but Lawbreakers
- Dishonors God
- 2:24-29 – “Circumcision” Law
- Circumcision of Flesh (man-centered)
- Circumcision of Heart (God-centered)
- 3:1-8 – Jews as Unfaithful “Entrustees”
- Given Much & Entrusted But Failed
- But…God is Faithful
Armed with this summary…
- We can now better understand Paul’s closing arguments.
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,
Paul has clearly been teaching that…
- Gentiles fall under God’s judging righteousness.
- Jews fall under God’s judging righteousness.
- So to say that he has “already charged” is an understatement.
- He has pounded home this point over and over.
What is less clear is what Paul means with the first part of this verse.
- “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all.”
The reason this should cause us pause and demand our attention is this…
- In verses 1-2, Paul says this, “…what advantage has the Jew…Much in every way”.
This seems to be a contradiction.
- Are Jews Better Off/Advantaged?
- “No, not at all” vs. “Much in every way”.
What is the solution to this apparent problem?
We need only look at our outline to make the necessary distinction.
- Paul is talking about two different things.
- Jews were privileged as God’s elect – in that they were given much.
- However, this made them no “better off” – i.e. righteous and justified.
- God’s judgment is impartial toward Jew and Gentile.
Douglas Moo sums it up well:
“Whatever historical privileges the Jews may have, these do not place Jews in a superior position in God’s judgment” – Doug Moo.
BTW – Robert Jewett provides another option here.
- He says given Greek grammar options vs. 9 can rightly be translated with a negative connotation.
- In other words, instead of Jews “better off” – its Jews “not better off”.
- Supporting his case is the literal meaning of the Greek word translated “better off”.
- It literally means “to be outdone”, “bettered” or “excelled” by something or someone (BDAG & Jewett).
- In our context, the something else would be the Gentiles.
This option plays out as follows:
- Paul is revealing that his diatribe “opponent” (the judge from 2:1) has begun to come around.
- He has understood that the Jew is not better off than the Gentile.
- And this, coupled with the fact that they have blasphemed the name of God and so failed as “entrustees”, leads the opponent to ask – are Jews “outdone” or “excelled” by Gentiles.
- Paul’s answer, No!
- Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat – all are “under sin” (vs. 9), “none is righteous” (vs. 10).
In the NT, “under sin” is uniquely Pauline.
- He uses it twice in Romans and once in Galatians.
- Remember, Paul has to redefine Judaism in light of Jesus Christ.
- This Greek phrase could be evidence of this endeavor.
So what does Paul mean that Jews and Greeks are “under sin”?
- Most are in agreement that it means at least two things.
- (1) Paul is speaking of the sin as an act – disobedience.
- (2) Paul is speaking of sin ontologically as a thing with power!
It is the second meaning that is unique to Paul.
“Paul’s understanding that all people, Jews as well as Gentiles, were not just sinners but helpless pawns under sin’s power, distinguished him sharply from his Jewish contemporaries” – Douglas Moo.
The implication of this truth – that all are under the power of sin – is profound.
- Anyone who has “not experienced the righteousness of God by faith is ‘under sin’” – Douglas Moo.
- There is nothing a person can do to remove him or herself from its power.
- There is no escape from sins power without “intervention” – Robert Jewett.
Remember, Paul is heaping this truth upon all that he has taught thus far.
- The law doesn’t put right.
- Circumcision doesn’t put right.
- Obedience doesn’t put right.
- Why – because all are under sin!
- We are all in “Union with Sin” and its power and dominion – including death.
10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Paul then goes on to quote from six OT passages to show the evidence that all our “under sin”.
- Importantly he begins this litany of despair with a concept he has mentioned before.
- The righteousness of mankind.
Paul has had much to say about God’s righteousness – both the saving and judging varieties.
- But what is the righteousness of man?
One might be tempted to say that the righteousness of man is the opposite of verses 11-18.
- So perhaps the righteousness of man is:
- Understanding and Seeking God.
- Turning to God.
- Good Works.
- Speaking Holy Things.
- Doing Holy Things.
- Fearing God.
There are a couple of obvious problems with this, however.
- This would imply that the righteousness of man comes from things man can do.
- And Paul has already said that, “None is righteous, no, not one” (vs. 10).
- We simply don’t do righteous things.
The other problem with this approach is that Paul has just declared that all are “under sin”.
- In Romans 6 he will expand on this.
- He will say that we are slaves to sin’s power and dominion.
- So, the righteousness of man is not something that those “under sin” can have!
It’s almost as if Paul is talking about something that doesn’t actually exist.
- And yet, it is something we need to avoid God’s judging righteousness.
At this point, we should be feeling very troubled and almost without hope.
- How do we “get righteousness” or get “in the right” with God? (N.T. Wright)
- Clearly, to get the righteousness that we don’t have, we need someone else’s.
And how does that happen?
- We need the “intervention” that we mentioned earlier.
- We need to be justified!
- We need to be removed from the power of sin and imputed with God’s alien righteousness
- Praise God for Romans 3:21 and following!
19 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. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Paul changes it up a bit in these last two verses.
- He has something very important to say about the law.
- And he couches his comments in law court language.
The courtroom scene plays at as follows:
- Those “under the law” – the Gentiles and their “by nature” law and the Jews and their “boast in” law – are in the dock (N.T. Wright).
- The dock is where the accused sits in a trial.
Shockingly, the law stands in as a witness against those who are under it.
- The law actually “speaks” (vs. 19) or testifies against them – Gentile and Jew.
- And “whatever the law says” (vs. 19) it demonstrates irrefutably the guilt of those in the dock.
So if anyone is going to rely on the law to be declared right before God, there is a serious problem.
- “If ‘the Jew’ [for example] appeals to the covenant status which is marked out by possession of the law, the law itself replies, ‘You have broken me’” – N.T. Wright.
Paul goes on to say that because of the law’s testimony…
- “every mouth may be stopped” (vs. 19).
“Every Mouth May Be Stopped”:
It is important here to fully appreciate “every mouth may be stopped” (vs. 19).
“In Paul’s world, if you were on trial and had nothing more to say in your defence, you put a hand over your mouth as a sign. Sometimes court officials would strike the prisoner on the mouth to indicate that their mouths ‘should be stopped’, in other words, that they were obviously guilty and should not be attempting to defend themselves (this happened to Jesus in John 18:22, and to Paul in Acts 23:2). So when Paul says ‘that every mouth may be stopped’ he is imagining not only that the Jews have joined the Gentiles in the dock but that all of them together are left without any defence.” – N.T. Wright.
We actually see this elsewhere in the N.T.
- John 18:22 (ESV) — 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”
- Acts 23:1–2 (ESV) — 1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
The point here is that when the law speaks our guilt becomes plainly evident and there is no recourse!
- As a result, we are all “held accountable to God” (vs. 19).
- The righteousness of man is shown to be a manmade illusion!
- Galatians 3:21b (ESV) — 21b For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
Having lost our case in the law court – undone by the very thing we thought would save us…
- Paul declares our final fate.
- Because of the testimony of the law, none “will be justified in his sight” (vs. 20).
- We have no righteousness; we sin and we are under sin’s dominion.
- Obedience, “works of the law” (vs. 20), as a basis for justification is non-existent.
- Our only fate is God’s judging righteousness, wrath and condemnation.
BTW – How do we reconcile the following statements?
- “…by works of the law no human being will be justified” (vs. 20) / “…but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13).
There seem to be only two viable answers.
- (1) 2:13 is referring to future justification and 3:20 is referring to present justification (N.T. Wright).
- (2) 2:13 is a theoretical; Paul doesn’t mean it.
- We need to insert an unstated assumption of Paul between the two, “no one can do the law” – Douglas Moo.
Where do we go from here?
- What is the remedy for this hopeless situation?
- We will end with Paul’s own words.
- Romans 1:16–17 (ESV) — 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”