Paul wrote Romans to make a case for the unity of all Jesus-followers in Rome. All those in Christ, Jewish and non-Jewish, are siblings in God’s one new family by the Spirit.
In Rom. 3:27-31, Paul sums up his case for unity using two arguments that undermine claims of Jewish privilege in God’s new family. I’ll look at the first of these in this post.
Paul wants the two groups in the Roman Christian community to stop passing judgment on one another (Rom. 2:1). Both groups must stop asserting claims of superiority over the other. They must embrace as siblings and welcome one another joyfully in Christ (Rom. 15:7-9). In the language of Rom. 3:27, he wants them to stop “boasting.”
After arguing that all in Christ are justified on the same basis, in v. 27 he asks, “where then is boasting?” What does he mean by this? Paul is speaking about the claims of privilege made by the Jewish Christians in Rome over-against the non-Jewish Christians.
Before they had been banished from Rome by Claudius, they held key positions of leadership within the Christian community. Since their banishment from Rome, however, the gentiles have taken responsibility in the community and have shaped communal patterns of life in ways unfamiliar to the Jewish Christians.
Now that they’ve come back, they’d like things to return to where they were five years before.
The Jewish Christians are likely using the Law to back up their claims. They have historic priority in the plan of God. They are God’s chosen people. Just read the Scriptures! They have been chosen as a light to the nations, as guides to the blind, as teachers of the ignorant! Surely they deserve to be returned to their honored positions of leadership in the community, making crucial decisions about the character of the life of the church.
This sort of boasting is driving the growing division in the Roman church.
For Paul, however, there can be no boasting of any group over any other. After all, both Jews and non-Jews are justified before God on the same basis (“by faith without reference to Jewish identity,” v. 28).
And this reality must shape how they read the Law in the fellowships.
When Paul asks, “by what kind of law?” he sets before them the question, “by what reading of the law?” Or, “what use of Scripture eliminates boasting in the church?”
He then contrasts two Scripture-reading strategies. On one hand there is reading the Law as a “law of works.” That is, a reading strategy that highlights the uniqueness Israel, bolstering the claims of Jewish church members over non-Jewish church members. The Jewish Christians are reading Scripture to highlight their priority in the people of God.
Pursuing that strategy results in division, discouragement, and destruction. One group will be triumphant and another will be marginalized and angry.
On the other hand, they can read the Law as a “law of faith.” That is, reading Scripture to foster communities of faithfulness to Jesus. This Scripture-reading strategy seeks to foster a flourishing community of mutuality in line with God’s new moves in Christ and according to the life-giving aims of the Spirit.
This strategy emphasizes the commonality of everyone in the community of Christ, marginalizes no one, and eliminates boasting.
What’s at stake, then, is how to read the Law as Scripture. Marshaling the law to support the claims of any group against others in God’s people leads to disaster, provokes fleshly responses, and divides a community.
Using Scripture to shed increasing light on the goodness of God, to transform relationships, and to gain new insights on God’s designs for communal flourishing, furthers the aims of God’s Spirit in the church.
Paul is not against the Law in Romans. He’s arguing against a fleshly reading of the Law—using Scripture to bolster one groups claims over another is a reading strategy that plays into the hands of the powers of Sin, Death, and Flesh. The inevitable result is an increasingly divided community.
Looking ahead, I think this is largely Paul’s point in Romans 7. Paul frames his discussion of the “I” in Romans 7 by referring to these competing reading strategies—these alternative uses of Scripture by the Roman community.
In Rom. 7:6, Paul contrasts the “newness of the Spirit” and the “oldness of the letter.” And in Rom. 8:2, he states that the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Paul is telling them that there is a way of using Scripture in a community that can actually be destructive, furthering the purposes of God’s cosmic enemies, Sin and Death.
I won’t give too much away here about what I think Paul is doing in Romans 7:7-8:1, but just to say for now that Paul perceives the problem in the Roman Christian community as one in which a certain Scripture-reading strategy unintentionally forms an alliance with the dark purposes of Sin to destroy the church in Rome.
Just think about how this sheds light on contemporary uses of Scripture by Christians. Do we ever use the Bible to beat each other up? Might we actually be using Scripture to further the purposes of God’s enemies, Sin and Death, rather than unleashing the redeeming and renewing power of God?