Romans Week 3
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Dogmatic and Constructive Theology
Read this week’s Scripture: Romans 2:17-3:31
When individuals or groups operate from the understanding that they are special or important, they soon begin to believe it and act accordingly. Immediate examples in our culture are those who experience fame and celebrity. As soon as the media hype reaches a frenzied pitch, the “glamour girls” or the “go-to guys” on the team start to believe that, in fact, they are important.
You know things change when people opt to avoid referring to themselves in the first person and move to the third person. Rather than saying “I don’t do that,” some of these folks move to say “So and so doesn’t do that” with “so and so” being the person’s full name. It really is a bizarre phenomenon.
Taking the Jews to Task
When religious language is thrown into the mix, the difficulty of these situations becomes even more complicated. People are special not because they are beautiful or talented but because (wait for it …) God favors them. The assumption is that some people are tighter with God than others, and that certain perks or benefits naturally ensue from such an arrangement. Now the vanity is not simply related to the person in question, but it somehow has the approval and blessing of an eternal, transcendent deity.
In the second half of Romans 2, Paul directs himself specifically to Jews: “[Y]ou call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law” (2:17–18). Paul is not holding back here. He takes the Jews at Rome to task in a way that is even stronger than some of what he has to say about Gentiles earlier in the epistle.
Why the sharp language? Let’s remember that Paul is a Jew and is talking as a Jew to other Jews. As is often the case, we are tougher with our own. Paul maybe even enters into a bit of sarcasm when he says that his audience believes that they instruct the blind, teach children, instruct the foolish, and so forth. Colloquially stated, Paul thinks that some of these folks, his fellow brothers and sisters, are full of themselves! They think they’re the cat’s meow!
But when the truth is otherwise, it is plain for all to see. Paul continues: “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery?” (2:21–22) And so forth. Paul calls out people by using the second-person pronoun here. “Hey, you; yeah, I am talking to you” kind of language.
What Paul is pointing out is something that he may have known too well in his own case: Knowledge of what is right does not guarantee that one lives in conformity to the right and that one is compelled by the right. The high standards of the law accompanied by the sense of privilege associated with being the primary custodians or stewards of the law is a mix that can breed hypocrisy — big-time hypocrisy, the kind of hypocrisy that is obvious to anybody. It does not take a genius to recognize when a person says one thing and does another.
And if this hypocrisy had simply to do with the character of superstars or celebrities, that would be one thing; however, with religious identity thrown into the mix, everything about this religious identity can also be called into question. “For as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (2:24) [see Author’s Note 1]. If Jewish Christians say one thing but do another, this casts a bad light not only on themselves but also on their God and their life together.
The same principle applies today. When people find out we are Christians, the way we conduct ourselves will reflect well or poorly on the faith we claim. And given that the world likes nothing better than a juicy gossip story, many are chomping at the bit to show how hypocritical we are so as to argue for the falsehood of the faith. Is that a lot of pressure? Yup, it sure is, but it is unavoidable.
Circumcision and Uncircumcision
Paul continues by discussing a pivotal sign of Jewish religious identity — namely, circumcision. Although not a popular practice in the Ancient Near East, circumcision was for Jews a pivotal practice of self-identification. If hypocrisy is more generally a lacking correspondence between words and actions, so too can circumcision then be an occasion in which the sign does not correspond to the reality that it is to signify.
Given this possibility, Paul’s “square one” line of questioning and reasoning takes a dramatic turn. He asks some of the most basic questions he possibly can. Does physical circumcision make one a Jew? What, after all, constitutes a Jew? His answer is downright shocking.
“For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart” (2:28–29).
To our ears that have come to find melodious and pleasing the ideas of interiority, individuality, and spiritual authenticity, these claims sound fairly bland. But for Jewish identity, one that was constructed around physical evidences and outward observances, Paul’s words sound like the proverbial nails on the chalkboard. How could Paul, as a Jew, say this?
It would seem that he is calling into question everything that makes Jews what they are. It sounds as if he is saying all that has gone before — whether temple sacrifices, holy day observances, or the like — are worth nothing if all that matters is interiority and spiritual things.
At this point, a terrible condition of the mind emerges with relative frequency. I term this condition “extreme-itis.” There is no known instant cure for this disease, but a desire to learn, and an open and patient disposition, help tremendously. “Extreme-itis” rears its ugly head when people are upset that a very important part of their understanding is called into question; rather than suspending judgment, folks with severe cases of “extreme-itis” tend to, well, jump to extremes as a way of refuting the line of inquiry. Given Paul’s rhetorical flair here, it seems he is anticipating folks with “extreme-itis.” In fact, given his claim of being falsely accused in 3:8, it seems he has seen his fair share of patients.
If the true Jew is the one who is so inwardly and if true circumcision is a matter of the heart, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1). Paul’s fictional interlocutor has a bad case of “extreme-itis.” This interlocutor cannot grasp the important nuance that Paul offered beforehand. “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25, emphasis added) [see Author’s Note 2].
Law and Judgment
What Paul means by “law” here is a very complex issue in its own right, but let’s just say he’s talking about the instructions and codes given by God to Israel for the purpose of ordering their life together in a way that can glorify and honor God. If defined this way, the law is a gracious gift from God for the people’s benefit; however, knowing the law brings with it the responsibility of performing it, and if it is known cognitively but not embodied and performed actively, then judgment has to follow.
How could it be otherwise? Without judgment, the law would simply be an option that people sometimes follow and sometimes don’t, all the while allowing their wills and desires — and not God’s will and God’s desire for the people — to reign supreme. It is much easier to perform a single, one-time act (like circumcision) than it is to attend to the law continually so as to live in it (meaning, sacrificing one’s will before God’s will). The prophetic utterance rings true here when God says through God’s prophet that obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22)
Paul’s fictional interlocutor misses all of this; rather, this patient is still concerned with the externals and of how to make sense of formal Jewish identity given what Paul has said. “Are you saying,” the interlocutor seems to ask, “that being Jewish in the way I and many others before me have understood it matters nothing now?” Paul admits that the Jews had a role to play, and an important one at that. They were entrusted to be the custodians of God’s oracles.
And yet they fell short time and time again in their obligations as these custodians. Still, God used them, and so the patient with “extreme-itis” (who by now needs to be admitted into the ER) starts conjuring some crazy ideas.
- Crazy idea #1: God is unjust in judging Israel if he uses Israel, both when Israel obeys and disobeys, to accomplish his ends.
- Crazy idea #2: If God’s glory is demonstrated all the more by my sin, then why not give God more opportunities to show God’s wonderful grace?
At this rate, the funeral for this patient might as well be planned: order the flowers and get the casket with the plushy stuff on the inside.
What Paul’s fictional interlocutor is missing is the significance of Jewish identity, which involves the God-given role of being a light for the nations. As these passages make clear, Israel has failed in this call. What is needed is something else: someone, who can
- be faithful to the promises (covenant) of God,
- stand righteous before the charges of sin,
- deal adequately with the power of sin by stifling it, and
- provide a way for redemption and healing that is of the kind that is needed by all, both Jew and Greek [see Author’s Note 3].
All of these themes point to the “righteousness of God,” God’s covenant fidelity, God’s faithfulness to restore that which is broken, as God’s righteousness and fidelity are materially demonstrated in the person and work of Christ.
Justification by Faith
Finally, a rising crescendo here is Paul’s phrasing that “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28). This thought was helpful for Martin Luther as he struggled with his salvation during the 16th century. Many people have read Romans in light of Luther’s concerns.
But it is important to ask the question that was raised by a famous scholar a few decades ago — namely, was Luther’s problem in the 16th century really Paul’s problem in the first? [see Author’s Note 4] Luther’s problem was the struggle to find the mechanism or manner by which we can stand before a holy God with all our faults and shortcomings on full display.
From a cursory reading of Romans 3, this was not Paul’s concern, for Paul was worried about how it is that we can understand the negotiation of a religious identity (being Jewish) in light of its radical reformulation in light of a new, pressing concern (the expanding of the gospel to include the Gentiles). Salvation is not primarily about who we are or what we do, but about who God is and what God is doing, both inside and outside the church. The focus has to be on God, this One who is God both of Jews and Gentiles.
Questions for Further Reflection:
- The first part of this reading involves Paul’s admonition of Jews who have allowed self-righteous attitudes and behaviors to take root in their lives, resulting in a religious privileging that alienates others. In what ways have you encountered religious self-righteousness in your own life or in the life of your church? How does Romans 2 challenge such attitudes and behaviors?
- Given the context of Romans, why does Paul make a point to emphasize a “circumcision of the heart”? What are the implications of this concept in your own life of faith?
- The Lectio writer notes, “It is much easier to perform a single, one-time act (like circumcision) than it is to attend to the law continually so as to live in it (meaning sacrificing one’s will before God’s will).” In what specific ways might we attend to the law continually, and thus live into it?
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