Bible Passage: Romans 3:1-20

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

“So that you may be proved right when you speak
    and prevail when you judge.”

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Key OT/NT passages on how this passage fits within the Bible story as a whole

The OT focusses in on the nation of Israel, God’s historic chosen people. Throughout the OT we’re shown God’s mercy and kindness to this rebellious nation. They were a privileged people who had been promised a great people, land and blessing (Gen 12:1-3), they had also been given the law in a way which hadn’t been revealed to other nations (Psalm 147:19-20). However there was a conditional nature to some of the covenants in which God had made with the Jewish people (Deut 28), if the people obeyed they would receiving blessing, if they disobeyed they would receive curse.

Because of their heritage, many of the Jewish people in Paul’s day (not dissimilar to the Pharisees) believed that their background and religious history gave them a defence against God’s anger and wrath. Paul makes the argument that this is not the case!

Brief note on context/key themes of book

The book of Romans was probably written in Corinth in about AD 57, while Paul was in Corinth (see Acts 20:2-3). Two significant things are going on. First, Paul is looking for a church that will support him on his missionary journey to Spain (see 15:25). Secondly, he knew that the church in Rome was facing tension between Jew and Gentile – it seems that Claudius has expelled Jews from Rome from AD 49 to his death in AD 54, so it’s possible they have recently returned. His two intentions in writing the letter are to prepare the church to be mission partners, and teach them to live in harmony with one another. The way that he will do that is to teach and apply the gospel, which will build humility, and so prayerfully produce unity and mission-mindedness.

Structure of the passage

The structure of this section broadly falls into two parts:

1) The Legitimacy of God’s Judgement (v1-8)

This first section takes the form of an imaginary Q&A, the questions are those of a typical religious Jew and can be summarised as follows:

Q) Isn’t there an advantage in being Jewish? (v1-2)

A) Yes, in the fact that they were given the very words of God, but No, in their natural legal status before him

Q) Has God been unfaithful to his promises then? (v3-4)

A) No - God will be faithful in keeping his promises to rescue but that doesn’t negate his judgement (even on the religious person)

Q) Isn’t it unfair of God to judge us when we’re making him look good?

A) No, this is a human argument (i.e a ridiculous one) to claim that we should do evil to make God look better.

2) The Totality of Human Unrighteousness (v9-20)

This section forms the conclusion of 1:18-3:20 and seals the last corner on the escape hatch from God’s judgement! Using multiple OT references Paul demonstrates the utter bleakness of the human predicament of sin. Both Jew and Gentile without exception are under the power of sin (v9).

Being under the power of sin is universal (v10-12) and effects our speech (v13-14), and our conduct/actions (v15-17). Our attempts to keep God’s law are futile as ‘no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by works of the law‘ (v20).

Suggestions for any tricky bits?

Q) Is it really true that no one seeks God? (v11)

A) Although there’s a sense in which people pray, seek peace and blessing our hearts can only truly seek God when he has sought our hearts first.

Q) Is it really true that no one does good?

A) The doctrine of common grace teaches us that non-Christian people are capable of great acts of kindness and service (charity, fun runs etc) but none of these can help fix their relationship with God.

Summary of author’s main point

There is no one (not even the upright moral religious person) who has a defence against God’s righteous wrathful judgement.

Aim/purpose for original audience

To humbly own our complete lack of righteousness and to cry out to Jesus for his.

Aim/purpose for us today

To humbly own our complete lack of righteousness and to cry out to Jesus for his.

In the words of the hymn: ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling‘

Key area of application

No amount of hours of church attendance, leading of Bible studies, coming from a Christian background etc can make us right with God. The only answer is to be humbled by our unrighteousness and to repent of that and to rely on the one who was perfectly righteous on our behalf.