Most interpreters recognize that Rom. 3:21-31 is a crucial text in Paul’s pastoral letter to the Roman Christians. While 3:21-26 typically receives the most attention because of its apparently heavy-duty theological orientation, Paul makes a few pivotal arguments in vv. 27-31.
Paul’s presentation here reminds us that his primary concern in this letter is to foster unity in the church in Rome. Jewish and non-Jewish groups in the Roman church are increasingly divided. Jews are drawing on their historic role as the people of God to endorse their claims to privilege and priority in the church.
Paul sees this as “boasting,” fostering destructive communal dynamics. He reminds everyone that their justification before God comes on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus for everyone who believes. Both Jews and non-Jews are justified as a gift.
His two arguments here follow a similar pattern—he makes an assertion and then grounds it on justification having no reference to Jewish (or any other ethnic) identity.
In v. 27, he claims that boasting is excluded by reading Scripture to foster a community of faithfulness and then backs that up with justification by faith without reference to Jewish identity (v. 28). In v. 29, he makes his second argument and again grounds it by restating that justification comes by faith without reference to whether or not one is Jewish.
But what is Paul doing by appealing to God’s oneness in vv. 29-30?
Paul is going right to the heart of Jewish identity here, building his argument on the Shema, the prayer / confession that Jews utter in the morning and evening. It comes from Deut. 6:4-9, and in its shortened form, it is simply, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
It’s a confession of the absolute uniqueness of the God of Israel and his universal supremacy. This conviction is at the heart of Israel’s Scriptures. The gods of the nations are mere pretenders while the God of Israel is the Most High God, highly exalted above all gods.
The Psalms contain variations on this central tenet of Israel’s faith, mentioning constantly that the God of Israel is the “Great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), and that “he is exalted above all gods” (Pss. 95:3; 97:9).
These notes emphasize that the God of Israel is not merely a regional deity, having sovereignty over the little sliver of land called “Judea.” He is, rather, the Creator God who rules over the whole of creation, and he is on a mission to reclaim all of it for the glory of his name.
Paul draws upon the Shema in vv. 29-30 to address the Jewish Christians’ claims to privilege. He puts the question to them in v. 29: “is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?”
He’s asking them whether God’s sovereignty extends to non-Jews as well as Jews. The answers is obvious—of course it does!
Paul is implying here that the Jewish Christians in Rome are violating Israel’s confession of God’s universal kingship. Because God is the Great King over all the earth, the universal sovereign, it is not the case that those of Jewish identity (those who are “of the works of law”) have priority with God.
That is, claiming that Jews have an inside track with God is, ironically, to claim that the God of Israel is not the Great King over all the earth, a denial of the fundamental conviction of Israel’s faith.
The God of Israel, however, is not a regional god. He is the God of Israel, the Creator God, the Great King over all the earth—both Israel and the nations. Because of this, salvation has no reference to one’s ethnic identity. Justification before God is enjoyed by everyone and anyone who is “in Christ,” participating in the faithfulness of Jesus by faith.
The reading of the law that shapes and fosters this reality is a reading of the law that generates, constrains, and fosters faith/faithfulness. In Paul’s words, by a “law of faith.”
These arguments lead naturally to Paul’s point in v. 31 about “establishing the law.” Because he builds his presentation precisely on the faith of Israel, there is no ground whatsoever for the Jewish Christians in Rome to object.
The unity of Jew and non-Jew among God’s people in Rome flows directly from the identity of the God of Israel and a reading of the law in line with the aims of the Spirit.
Again, Romans is not an abstract systematic theology but a vigorous pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain unity in the face of emerging divisions. Reading Romans as Paul meant for its first recipients to hear it sheds light on how practical it was then and how relevant it is now.
In a racially and socially divided up America in which many of us currently live, work, and minister, such a reading of Romans has the potential to provide power to transform our still-segregated churches so that we truly can make manifest that God is not the God of the upper-middle class only, nor the God of white American evangelicals only, nor the God of any other singular group. The God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, is indeed the Great King over all the earth.