No One Has An Inside Track With God

Paul wrote Romans 1:18-3:20 to the Roman church with a pastoral intention.  He’s not necessarily laying the groundwork for a gospel presentation here, nor is he theologizing in the abstract about the sinful condition of all humanity.  It isn’t wrong, of course, to draw theological conclusions from Romans 1-3 about universal human sinfulness, but we must keep in mind that Paul’s immediate point is that God does not have any favorites in the Roman community.

No one has an inside track with God.

Paul begins by stating that God’s wrath is being revealed against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”  While Paul paints in broad strokes in vv. 18-32, he arrives at his point in Rom. 2:1.  Neither group in Rome should be passing judgment on the other.

In Rom. 2:1-13, Paul depicts the final judgment in terms of conformity to God’s design for humanity rather than conformity to standards of Jewish identity.  He does this to demonstrate that everyone—both Jews and non-Jews among the Roman Christians—is subject to the same judgment.  Being part of the historic people of God shaped by the Law is irrelevant at the final judgment.  What matters is participating in God’s program of restoring humanity.  If a person participates in this, he will participate in the coming restored order, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish.  If he does not participate in this but remains a selfish, disobedient person, he will be judged, whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish.

Paul again states his point: “for there is no partiality with God” (v. 11).  God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians.

Rom. 2:6-13, by the way, has given fits to interpreters in the Reformed tradition because Paul puts final judgment in terms of human action and plainly states that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (v. 13).  James, of course, wouldn’t lift an eyebrow, nor would those who rightly understand Paul.  Many, however, do everything they can to avoid reading Paul’s words plainly.  As I’ve said previously, Paul is not reflecting timelessly or abstractly on a theology of justification.  He’s writing a pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church in Rome that is facing communal breakdown because of racial tension.

In v. 13, Paul distinguishes those who are Jewish from “the doers of the Law.”  They aren’t the same.  It is one thing to be “of the works of the Law” or “a hearer of the Law” (to be ethnically Jewish), and quite another to be a “doer of the Law” (one whose genuine obedience to the Law is embodied by embracing non-Jewish Christians as equal siblings in God’s new family in Christ).

The gentiles Paul has in mind in Rom. 2:14-17 are the non-Jewish Christians in Rome.  While they do not have a historic relationship to the Law of Moses, their obedience to God in Christ is reckoned as just that.  It is the work of the Law within them even though they do not have a Jewish mode of life (i.e., they are not “of the works of the Law”).

In Rom. 2:17-29, Paul again makes the point that being Jewish does not give one an inside track with God.  The Jews in the Roman church, in fact, are just like the non-Jews in that they are part of a people with a long history of sin.

After all this negative talk about the Jews in Rome, Paul lets up a little in 3:1.  They are indeed in a position of advantage since they were entrusted with the Scriptures.  But does this mean that the Jews are better than the non-Jews in Rome (v. 9)?  Do they have cause for boasting?

“Not at all,” states Paul.  “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (v. 9), and the Law closes “every mouth” and makes “all the world” accountable to God (v. 19).  This explains Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:20 that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight.”  Paul is summarizing his argument that being Jewish does not give a person the inside track with God.

It is important for Paul to begin this letter by arguing that God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians.  Two factions are seeking to establish claims over-against the other.

Paul argues that both groups—the Jews and non-Jews—are accountable to God and will be judged if they are disobedient.  God’s future judgment is on the basis of obedience to Jesus and one’s ethnicity will be irrelevant on that day.  This is Paul’s point in Rom. 1:18-3:20.  Reading Romans a pastoral letter rather than as a theological treatise makes this plain.

I might also add that when read this way, Rom. 1:18-3:20 becomes immensely practical for churches dealing with internal tensions, conflict, or any other communal breakdown.  Romans, rightly read, is a rich resource for conflict-resolution.

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12 responses to “No One Has An Inside Track With God

  • Jonathan Demers

    i’ve been enjoying a second read through your work on paul. keep up the timely reflections!

  • lamehousewife

    Good. This sounds to me actually very Catholic: anyone who perseveres and responds to love will be saved, essentially (Catechism of the Catholic Church 837). I believe Christ expects more out of Christians, however, because we are given baptism in Christ, Scriptures, etc., all things that encourage us to spread the good news of God’s love for all mankind. I pray that we, by our common baptism, do not hide the tremendous gift we’ve been given. I, for one, would hate to hear Christ say to me: “I gave you love, where did you put it? Where is my love in return?” I hid it Lord because I was afraid that love was too demanding, I hope I do not have that excuse in the end. I think your relating this to cultural differences is tremendously important because people do tend to judge according to a superficial standard rather than according to love. Thanks for the reflection! God bless!

    • timgombis

      Cheers, lame! I’m not really trying to sound Catholic or Protestant, but (like everyone, I guess) just trying to represent what is there in the text.

      Quite honestly, though, it seems to me that so many unhelpful readings of Romans have resulted from interpreters (at least in my tradition) trying to make Paul sound as non-Catholic as possible. That’s no way to read biblical texts. In fact, that’s a great way to offend what the text itself is saying–don’t force Scripture to conform to any singular viewpoint. Every viewpoint needs to sit before Scripture and listen attentively.

  • Andrew

    “Neither group should pass judgement on each other …” The question is who were these two groups?

    If words have meaning, even Greek words, and Paul’s letter was the pinnacle of OT prophecy being fulfilled – our exegesis must be more precise (accurate) than ‘Jew and Gentile’.

    Is the notion ‘Gentile’ even warranted? This word apparently meaning “non-Israelite” doesn’t appear in the Greek. Instead, what appears are the words ἔθνη/ἔθνος. These words appear in the NT 164 times.

    Interestingly, these same words appear in the Greek OT (LXX) 964 times as a Greek translation for a Hebrew word גוי (which is also no encumbered with the meaning ‘Gentiles’). In the LXX the words ἔθνη/ ἔθνος are never once translated to mean ‘Gentiles’ (why do we capitalize this word anyway?). In every instance of the LXX ἔθνη/ἔθνος means ‘nation or nation’ nothing more – sometimes the nations of the House of Israel [Jer 3:17], sometimes non-Israelite nations [Eze 27:33], and sometimes both [Isa 27:5].

    Yet in the NT these words are encumbered a meaning found no where else, either in other ancient Greek literature, or the Greek OT. Its a circular argument to say Romans is about Jew and Gentile when translation presupposes this unwarranted meaning on the text.

    Similarly with the term ‘Jew’, much of the bible has the ‘Jews’ at war with the Israelites. Israelites were not necessarily ‘Jews’. Similarly once the Edomites (under John Hyrcanus) were forcibly converted to Judaism, most Jews weren’t necessarily Israelites either. Paul well understood this, as did the Christ.

    Who doesn’t understand this, are Christians who argue about Paul’s eschatology. To understand Paul’s eschatology ask – what were the two groups OT prophecy intended to unite? Answer this by reading:

    [Isa 5:7] which speaks of the vine and the branches
    [Eze 37:16-17] which speaks of uniting the House of Joseph with the House of Judah.
    [Jer 3:18] has the House of Israel and the House of Judah being joined (coming together)
    [Jer 31:27] has them being built up
    [Jer 31:31] has God establishing the New Covenant with them
    [Hos 1:6-7] ) which [1 Peter 2:10] quotes is the same

    [Matt 15:24] and [Matt 10:6] has Jesus agreeing.

    Point at a goat long enough and call it a sheep, eventually someone will believe you!

  • Andrew

    Here’s a handy tool for finding Greek words in the LXX:
    Greek Word Search tool for Bible

  • aubee91BradK

    Andrew, if you prefer to translate ἔθνη as “peoples” or “nations” how does this essentially change the meaning from translating it as Gentile? Are you trying to make the case that when Paul uses the term ἔθνη in Romans he is referring to Israel or the Hebrew people? You said yourself that the word means non-Israelite nations in the LXX of Eze 27:33 and Isa 27:5. But then you immediately turn around and say that “in the NT these words [ἔθνη/ ἔθνος] are encumbered a meaning found no where else, either in other ancient Greek literature, or the Greek OT.” Didn’t even the Hebrew word (goyim) that you mention the LXX translating as ἔθνη typically mean “nations other than Israel/Judah” by the first century AD? I am struggling to see what point you are trying to make here.

  • Andrew T.

    It’s fair to say Paul was addressing the division between two groups; no controversy there. We think we know these two groups comfortably, but that’s not the question.

    The question is whether we understand Paul the same way Paul intended to be understood; the question is also ‘is Paul being consistent with the OT he cites’. Frequently Paul cites OT prophecy about events during his lifetime, so that raises the question about whether we understand the context of the OT is being cited and whether we understand the ‘prophetic’ context of the historical events Paul reacted to.

    I personally believe truth bears scrutiny. I also believe there are clues suggesting our presuppositions (as Christians) are faulty. So why not question them? You ask what difference it makes .. It depends .. do we hope to build up theology based upon what is true? If so we must examine our presuppositions for warrant. If truth doesn’t matter however, it makes no difference.

    Take the criticism about simply eqivocating Jews with Israelites. Clearly OT prophecy was levelled at the House of Judah. Does it matter then many (most?) Jews weren’t Israelites? King Herod so called ‘King of the Jews’ for example wasn’t an Israelite being an Edomite, so does OT prophecy about the House of a Judah apply to King Herod? How about other Jews who weren’t technically Israelites? Paul would say ‘No!’ [Rom 9:13].

    How about the fact most Israelites of the House of Israel were never known as, or called ‘Jews’. Does it matter Joseph inherited the rights to the name Israel, Judah never did? [Gen 48:16] or that Israelites were almost always at war with ‘Jews’ of the House of Judah? Why record these details in the Bible if they have no purpose?

    I suggest it matters, ultimately, because it establishes whether the new covenant is a substitution for the old covenant, or whether it is a completion (perfection) of it. Answering this profoundly effects how we read and understand Paul.

  • Andrew T.

    aubee91BradK, I forgot to add ‘Gentiles’ and ‘nations’ do not mean the same thing in English at all – the former is embedded with theological baggage and the latter is not (so why not rid ourselves of the theological baggage in English where it is no where to be found in the Greek?)

  • Andrew T.

    .. and no, גּוֹי also does not mean anything other than ‘nations’ as well (at least in ancient times). For example, in [Gen 35:11] the ‘nation’ mentioned is the House of Judah (an Israelite tribe to become a nation) while the ‘company of nations’ is the House of Israel ( many Israelite tribes primarily under the leadership of the House of Joseph to become a company of nations).

    None of the גּוֹי (goyim) in [Gen 35:11] are Gentiles; but see that exactly proves my point .. you your self assumed something false in your reading of the word … which otherwise informs your reading of the text.

    This is exactly why we have to scrutinize our presuppositions.

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