In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul addresses the failure of all humanity to obey and glorify God due to our slavery to sin, that spirit of rebellion that has indwelt us ever since the fall. In 3:9-18, Paul concludes that all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin’s power, that no one does good or seeks God, and that therefore all flesh will not be justified by their works before God. We cannot be saved by our own efforts, nor can we deliver ourselves from the power of sin. Unless God acts, our condition is hopeless, and in fact, apart from the drawing of the Holy Spirit we do not even desire to be saved from our condition. Not only can we not do enough good works to earn or merit salvation, we cannot really do anything that is truly good in the eyes of God. Of course we imagine that we do good things and we may even help others and even benefit them by our actions. but they are not truly good works, since God alone is good (Mark 10:18), and the moment we take any credit for our own goodness, the works are corrupted. Our “good” works are only good if it is God doing the works through us, and only if God alone receives the glory for them. So Jesus says: “So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). As Paul says in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9).
In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes the works of the nations. In fact, this passage is basically a conventional Jewish attack upon the idolatry and immorality of the nations. But Paul does not say that he is only addressing Gentiles here, since Israel itself had “mingled with the nations and learned their works, and served their idols, which became a snare to them (Psalms 106:35-36). In this way, Israel rebelled against the Spirit and provoked God to anger (106:32-33), and as a result they became unclean in their practices, and played the whore in their deeds (106:39). So Israel was not holy and distinct from the nations in her works, but falls under the same judgment as the nations: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things” (Rom 2:1). So Paul tricks the Jew who believes himself to be superior to the Gentiles because they have the law, since he fails to keep it himself.
In Romans 2:12, Paul introduces the law into the discussion for the first time. The law was meant to distinguish Israel from the nations by making her a holy and righteous people. Merely possessing the law will not be enough, one must do or keep the law in order to pass final judgment (2:13). God will judge those who have His law by that law and He will judge those who do not have the law by the inner law of conscience that He has given to all humanity (2:12, 14-15). Paul says the requirements of God’s law are written on our hearts, with our consciences bearing witness as to the moral quality of our lives (2:15), showing that we inherently know the difference between right and wrong, even though we may be misinformed as to the exact nature of right and wrong. We fail to live up even to the standard of our conscience, let alone to God’s perfect law! Even though the conscience is not perfect and can be corrupted, nevertheless, all human beings know right and wrong and know when they have wronged another person and when others have wronged them. We are moral beings by our very nature, able to discern right and wrong and make moral choices, which is the essence of being persons and which distinguishes us from mere animals who act from instinct without moral consciousness. So a day is coming when all the innermost secrets of our hearts will be laid bare and we will answer to God for all the things we have done (2:16) and the standard He uses to judge us will be the level of knowledge which we possessed in this life. All know right and wrong at some level, so Gentiles who do not have the law are not at a disadvantage.
In verses 17 to 29, Paul turns to the specific case of the Jews, who were under the illusion that because they were God’s chosen people and because they possessed the embodiment of God’s will in the law, they would not be held to as high a standard as the rest of the world, since they were favored by God. But this is not so, according to Paul. If anything, they will be held to the highest standard of all, since even while possessing such knowledge, they still failed to keep the law. Amos says to the nation of Israel: “You alone have I chosen out of all the nations of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2). The more knowledge we possess, the more responsible we are before God to produce fruit. Thus, the Jews have no grounds to boast about having the law, since they break it (2:17-24), causing God’s name to be blasphemed or treated as worthless by the Gentiles. Why should the nations pay attention to a God that the Jews don’t think worthy of obeying (2:24)? What counts is not an external circumcision of the flesh, a mere outward keeping of the law’s ritual requirements, but the inward keeping of the law’s inward spiritual intent, the result of having one’s heart circumcised (2:25-29). Circumcision was an outward symbol of having been separated from the world as a member of God’s people, so that unless one is also inwardly separated from the spirit of the world in one’s heart, the outward symbol is meaningless. What the Jew failed to understand was that it was necessary not only to possess the law and keep its external requirements, but to keep it in the most deepest inward spiritual sense. God does not show special favor because one is externally a member of Israel or the church: it is true inward obedience that matters.
If God does not show special favor to Israel at the final judgment, wouldn’t God be unfaithful to His promises, specifically to save Israel (3:1-8)? This question may not seem important to most of us, since most of us are not Jews, but the question of God’s faithfulness is of prime importance. If God cannot be trusted to keep His promises to the Jews, how can we trust Him to do anything for us Gentiles? If God is unfaithful, how can we trust Him to be out-poured love for us and to save us? So Paul says: “Let God be true and every man a liar” (3:4). God’s faithfulness and justice may never be questioned, for unless we can trust Him to be both completely just and merciful in His ruling of the universe, we have no hope. So God is showing His faithfulness to Israel when He judges her for her sins, because He promised that there would be certain consequences for disobedience. If God did not judge sin, He would be like the unreliable and unloving parent who refused to give his children consequences for their misbehavior. Ultimately those children will destroy their own lives because the parent refused to do the hard thing by laying down and carrying out consequences for disobedience. If God saved people despite their disobedience, where would His love and justice be? So God, to be faithful, loving and just, must carry out the consequence He laid down for sin, the sentence of death which He threatened as the wages of sin (see Rom 6:23).
So Paul concludes that Jew and Gentile alike are under a sentence of condemnation (3:9). No one is righteous, no one seeks or fears God, no one does good, but rather all have become useless vessels (3:10-18). But since it is true that everyone in the whole world has failed to keep God’s requirements, and since it is also true that God will judge everyone according to what they have done, how will anyone avoid eternal death? How will anyone be saved if judgment is according to works? One might expect that humanity would do better once they were given the explicit laying out of God’s requirements in the law, but such is not, in fact, the case. Even with explicit knowledge of God’s will, humanity has not done better, but worse! Through the law we become conscious of sin (3:19-20)! The law only reveals the rebellion that lurks in the depths of the human heart. It cannot save us from our sinful condition. Therefore, no one will be declared righteous at the final judgment on the basis of keeping the law, because an external law cannot change the condition of the human heart. If even with the help of the law the Jews are exposed as rebellious and sinful, how much more we Gentiles who were never under the law! So in giving the law to the Jews, God takes away our excuse that we never knew God’s will in order to keep it, for even when we have a knowledge of God’s will, we still fail to do it.
How will we escape such a hopeless situation? Paul has exposed our absolute powerlessness to save ourselves, a powerlessness that is universal and without exception: everyone is a slave to sin. Since God will judge us according to our deeds, how will anyone be saved? In Romans 3:21-8:39, Paul will give a two-fold answer to this dilemma. First he will show how God will deliver us from the consequences of our sin, namely the sentence of condemnation and death (3:21-5:21), and then he will show how that it is the Spirit of Christ who delivers us from the power of sin (6:1-8:39), so that we might confidence at the final judgment, since it is He who is living our lives through faith (Eph 3:17) and as He is, so also are we in this world (1 John 4:17).