NO ONE RIGHTEOUS Romans 2–3
“No one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the Law; rather through the Law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20).All have sinned. So all are eligible for the salvation won by Jesus for sinners.
“Law” is one of the most complex concepts in Scripture. The Hebrew Torah may refer to the Pentateuch, to the entire Old Testament, to the Ten Commandments, to the whole body of God’s requirements for Israel, and to the way of life adopted by the covenant community. The Greek nomos, used here by Paul, has these meanings and more. So as we approach each section of Romans it’s important to ask what Paul meant when he spoke of the “law.” In Romans 2 and 3 the basic meaning of “law” is “God’s revealed requirements for righteous living.” Later in Romans the meaning of “law” will shift subtly, and often. Here, however, we need only keep in mind the “revealed standards” aspect of God’s moral law.
God alone is competent to judge (2:1–4), and He judges Jew and Gentile on the basis of truth (vv. 5–11). Gentiles sin against their conscience (vv. 12–16). Jews boasted of possessing God’s Law (vv. 17–20), but law is of no value to those who break it (vv. 21–29). Those entrusted with the words of God must respond with faith (3:1–8). Yet Scripture shows that no human being is righteous (vv. 9–18). Thus the law’s intent is to make man conscious of sin, not to be an instrument of salvation (vv. 19–20). Through faith in Christ’s blood we are given a righteousness apart from the law (vv. 21–26). Jew and Gentile are saved by faith (vv. 27–31).
Understanding the Text
“You are condemning yourself” Rom. 2:1–3. One of the hardest things we have to learn is that when we point a finger at others, we point four at ourselves! That’s what Paul said here. We look at another person’s actions, and we say, “That’s wrong.” And as soon as we do, we admit that moral standards exist. After all, we used some standard to determine he or she was “wrong”! So anyone who judges others, and we all do, says in effect, “It’s right to judge. Standards do exist.” Of course, once judgment is introduced, our own actions become subject to examination. And when God measures our actions, He uses a more demanding standard than we possibly could: truth. You might try that on a friend who pretends, as many do these days, that morality is personal and relative. Such folks will tell you, “What I do may be wrong for you, but it’s all right for me.” Well, if you ever hear a moral relativist condemn any action, say, “Gotcha! You just condemned yourself.” And then explain. By admitting that moral standards exist, that person made himself subject to judgment. By God. “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” Rom. 2:4–5. The next question folks are likely to ask is, if God judges sin, why doesn’t He do something about the real bad guys? Paul’s answer to this is a stunner. If He did something about the child abusers and rapists right now, He’d have to do something right now about you! God is holding back Judgment Day to give people a chance to repent. God’s failure to zap people when they sin isn’t evidence of His disinterest. It’s evidence of His kindness and love. How glad you and I can be that the Lord waited for us. Judgment Day will come. Let’s pray that before it does, many sinners will respond to the kindness of God and come to know the Lord. “Persistence in doing good” Rom. 2:6–11. Paul isn’t suggesting that doing good will get anyone to heaven. He’s just making it clear that knowing good isn’t enough. God judges what we do, without showing favoritism to the Jew or the Gentile. The philosopher Plato assumed that if a person knew the good, he would be sure to do it. It doesn’t take long to show how foolish that notion is. Just try for three days to do only what you know is good and right. And see how long before the gap between knowing and doing appears. It’s a fun challenge to pose to a person who claims he or she doesn’t need salvation. After a couple of days of trying to do only what he judges to be right and good, suggest he read Romans 2:7–8. “They are a law for themselves” Rom. 2:12–16. What if a person says, “God’s not fair. There are people all over the world who don’t even know what His standards are.” Paul’s answer was that God bends over backward to be fair. Those who don’t know God’s standards “are a law for themselves.” Every society and every individual has standards. They may not be God’s standards. But they are standards—and they fall into the same categories as do the standards expressed in Moses’ Law. There are sexual standards. There are standards governing how others should be treated. There are standards about work and payment. And so on. So, just to be fair, God is willing to judge men by their own standards, not His! It’s fair. But people still don’t have a chance. Even using the lowest of human standards, all have sinned! Every person’s conscience accuses him or her of falling short not just once, but many times. If we were completely honest with ourselves, and evaluated our own actions by truth, every one of us would confess, “I have sinned.” “You . . . brag about your relationship to God” Rom. 2:17–29. Paul knew that any Jewish reader of his letter would argue that a distinction should be made between Jews and Gentiles. What Paul said about folks being sinners might fit the Romans and the Greeks and the Scythians, and citizens of the good old U.S.A. But it doesn’t fit the chosen people! So Paul took a look at the basis of the brag. Yes, Israel knew God’s will and even approved of it. But the issue is, did the Jew do God’s will? Circumcision, that sign of membership in God’s covenant people, doesn’t help a person who breaks the Law. And uncircumcision doesn’t hurt the person who keeps it. What God cares about is the heart, and a person’s personal relationship not with the Law but with Him (see DEVOTIONAL). “God’s faithfulness” Rom. 3:1–8. God chose Israel, and generation after generation proved faithless. Did God fail? Not at all. God kept His promise and all who believed experienced His blessing. Don’t think if someone fails to respond to the Gospel that God has failed. God faithfully keeps His promise and welcomes all who come to Him by Jesus. “What shall we conclude then?” Rom. 3:9–18 Paul showed by argument that no one is righteous, and that all have sinned. Now he proved it, by quoting Scripture. Like D.L. Moody, we should be ready to say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” When God has spoken, there is no more to say. “Through the Law we become conscious of sin” Rom. 3:19–20. Some folks think of the Law as a ladder to climb, so we can approach God. It’s not. The Law is a mirror to look in, so we can see ourselves, and realize how much we need God to approach us in Jesus. “God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement” Rom. 3:21–26. The NIV translation here is weak, for the Greek hilaserion means not atonement but a “sacrifice of propitiation.” The sacrifice of Jesus satisfied the just requirements of our holy God. Jesus died not just to cover our sins, but to pay for them. In that great act which satisfied the claims of justice once and for all, God Himself was shown to be righteous. He did not just “overlook” sin. He imposed the penalty sin demands. But He imposed it on His own Son instead of on you and me. At last God is displayed as just in forgiving the sins of those who lived in the past—and in forgiving our sins. Even those we will commit in the future. How great God is. And how beyond imagination His love. “We uphold the Law” Rom. 3:27–31. How wonderful this principle of faith. It excludes boasting, for we are saved by God, not by anything we do. It opens the door of salvation to Gentile as well as Jew, for any human being who hears can believe. And it puts Law in its rightful place, not as a means of salvation, but as a revelation of the righteous standards of God. We believe in Law, and in righteousness. But we do not believe that keeping God’s Law can save, or make us righteous within. For that we look to Christ, and to Him alone.
Halfway Christians(Rom. 2:25–3:20)
In early American colonies founded by religious groups, the vote was often reserved for believers. But as new generations came along, all too often grandsons and granddaughters were not converted. How could a way be found for these folks to vote—and thus keep the wealth and power in the hands of established families? The answer was the “halfway covenant.” God, the theologians proposed, was committed to save the children of believers someday. So they were halfway in the church anyway. So if your parents were Christians in good standing, you could vote, even if you didn’t believe in Jesus yourself. People always seem to be looking for a “halfway” religion. The Jews of Paul’s time possessed the Law and circumcision. They were God’s covenant people, His chosen nation. Wasn’t that good enough? In this passage Paul said no. Not only isn’t it good enough; it doesn’t mean a thing (2:25–29). Jews had the advantage of circumcision and knowing the words of God. But that didn’t save them. Folks today too look for a halfway kind of Christianity. My parents were good Christians. Doesn’t that count? I’ve belonged to my church, the “true church,” since I was a child. Doesn’t that count? I tithe. How about counting that? Well, having Christian parents and being in church all our lives is certainly an advantage. But it doesn’t take us even halfway to salvation. Paul tells us why. Jews and Gentiles alike are all in the grip of sin (3:9). As the Scripture says, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (v. 10). The only thing that counts, the only thing that can save us, is breaking the grip of sin. And neither Mom and Dad, our racial heritage, or our church membership can do that. How glad we can be that Jesus Christ takes us all the way, not just halfway, to God. By Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through faith in Him, we become Chrstians indeed. All the way Christians. The only way.
Count on nothing but Jesus to save you.
“The Gospel is Good News. But Jesus never said it was easy news. The central truth of the cross is death before life, repentance before reward. Before His Gospel can be the Good News of redemption, it must be the bad news of the conviction of sin.”—Charles Colson