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Retelling Romans 3:1-20

So what then is the advantage of being a Christian? What value is there in being part of this group? Much – in every respect. First of all, Christians have been entrusted with teachings inspired by God.

Then what happens if some of them are not faithful to God? Their faithlessness doesn’t nullify God’s faithfulness, does it?

Not at all. God is true, and every human being a liar, as it is written (in Psalm 51:4), “you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

And if our unrighteousness in fact highlights God’s righteousness, then what shall we say? That God is unjust to be angry towards us? (This is how some people argue.)

Not at all. Otherwise, how could God judge the world?

But if the truth of God is highlighted by my lie, and so it works for his glory, then could I not ask why I am condemned as a sinner? Indeed, why not just say – as in fact some slander us by claiming that we say – “Let’s do evil so that good may come of it”? Those who speak thus are rightly condemned.

Let’s be honest – have we done better than others? Not entirely. That’s why we’ve charged both Christians and non-Christians with sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is none who understands, none who seeks God.
All have turned away,
together they become worthless;
there is none who does good - not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues deceive.”
“The poison of serpents is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet rush to shed blood;
calamity and misery mark their ways;
they do not know the way of peace.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

We know that what the Bible says, it says to and about the people who have the Bible, so that mouths may be shut and the whole world rendered accountable to God. For it is not on the basis of Christian badges of identity, or mere possession of the Bible, that all humankind shall be acquitted before God. The Bible should rather be making us aware of just how far short we fall.

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This continues my retelling of Romans, trying to make it address Christian readers in a manner that parallels what Paul was saying to his Jewish contemporaries, so that the meaning and impact may be grasped.

My rendering of the reference to “works of the Law” reflects this, and the perspective of James D. G. Dunn on that phrase, often referred to as the “new perspective on Paul.”

I tried to keep close to some traditional renderings of the passages from the Jewish Scriptures that Paul quotes, precisely because he is quoting.

My understanding is that Paul here is addressing those who suggest that their Jewish identity may not make them more righteous than others in practice, but it means that they can be confident of God’s forgiveness. This, Paul suggests, is equivalent to what some slanderously accused him of saying (presumably because of his emphasis on salvation “apart from Torah”), namely that one can “sin boldly” confident that God forgives. And so here too I hope that the Christian who puts themselves in the situation of Paul’s Jewish audience, and hears what he was saying to them, will grasp that an overly grace or election oriented Christianity may sound a lot like the view that Paul was arguing against. And yet they are likely to appeal not just to Paul but to Romans for justification for their stance!

  • markmatson

    very nice, as usual. I kind of wish, though,that “righteousness” and “unrighteousness” (in 3:5) had been contextualized or translated differently. To me these have become theological buzz words that often confuse rather than elucidate.

    Here I think RSV captures the “justice” aspect of righteousness: “But if our wickedness [or better injustice] serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say?”

    You are doing a great job in framing this, James.