Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Insufficiency of the Law

"Then what advantage has the Jew?"
It's a logical question given the kind of claims that Paul has made in Romans 2. In the verses leading up to this question in 3:1, Paul has talked about the possibility of Gentiles being a law to themselves and keeping the law without being circumcised. He has even said that such Gentiles are better off than Jews who have the law but fail to follow it. So its worth asking "Is there any advantage to being a Jew?" One could have easily misunderstood Paul as saying that Jews and Gentiles were just alike with absolutely no difference between them. Paul makes clear here at the beginning of chapter 3 that this is not the idea he intended to communicate. The Jews are still God's chosen people to whom were entrusted "the oracles of God".

But there is some sense in which Paul wants to communicate that Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing. Even though Israel is God's chosen people and hold certain advantages by virtue of their election, they are still basically in the same boat as Gentiles when it comes to being counted as righteous before God. That is what Paul has been saying for most of these three opening chapters and it is the point he is driving home in these verses. As he says in V.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."
Greeks, that is, Gentiles being "under sin" would have been a given in the mind of any first century Jew (as we saw in Romans 1:18-32). Paul spent all of chapter 2 arguing that the same is true for Jews as well, despite having the law. Just in case there is any doubt left on the matter, Paul adds a litany of quotations to his argument; quotations from Israel's very own Scriptures pointing out Israel's very own sinfulness. Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that however good and perfect a gift God's law might have been to Israel, Israel's own Scriptures testify to the reality that the law alone was not capable of assuring the righteousness of Israel. Page after page of Israel's own story speaks to the reality of Israel's idolatry, sinfulness, and injustice despite the presence of God's law to guide them. That is why Paul can say that even though there is an advantage to being a Jew, "both Jews and Greeks are under sin."

It is also why Paul closes this section by saying
"For by works of the law no human being will be made righteous in his sight for through the law comes the knowledge of sin." 
I suspect that this statement and much of this chapter are often read as a kind of eternal decree from God as if Paul were saying "No one will be saved by works because God said so (and God said so because God also said we are sinful thus our works are sinful)." In other words, we could read this chapter as a very blunt statement of the doctrine of original sin; that every human being is corrupted from birth and as a result even our best works will not justify us in God's sight. Without debating the merits of such a doctrine, I would argue that isn't exactly what Paul is saying here. Rather than repeating an eternal maxim from God, I think Paul is making an inference from human experience. He is essentially saying "Look, we know no one is going to be made righteous by works of the law because for hundreds of years of Israelite history the law has failed to make us truly righteous. In fact, the law's only real accomplishment has been to point out sin in all its sinfulness (something on which Paul will elaborate in chapter 7).  

In short, we are in need of something more than law. Even the law given by the creator of the universe was not enough to make us righteous. It couldn't prevent sin or produce justice. It couldn't make us whole. So if we are to be righteous before God, if we are to be made new and whole, we will need God to do something new, something in contrast to what has gone before, something more powerful than law. We need this:
"But now..."

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