Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Inbox: Paul Denies All Righteousness

Anonymous writes:

“Paul denies all righteousness in the Old Testament by misquoting the Psalms and using them to make up his new doctrines on sin.

In Romans 3:10, Paul says that Abel was not righteous as Jesus said, Samuel did not understand, Moses did not seek God’s face, that Abraham has turned away, that Elijah and Elisha were altogether worthless, that Boaz had no true kindness, that Enoch’s throat was an open grave, the venom of the asp lay behind Jeremiah’s lips, Deborah’s mouth was filled with cursing and bitterness, Esther’s feet were eager to spill blood at any time, that Solomon knew nothing of peace, that they all deserve to burn in hell forever and ever. Jesus’s instruction to keep the commandments were obsolete, that, but that it is faith alone without works that gets you into heaven, not loving attitude, not good intentions, not benevolence, but choosing the right religion. That’s Paul’s message, and it’s nothing that Jesus taught, which was trusting that which is haShem of Jesus (righteousness and love), not intellectual assent that somehow magically makes you a new person.”

There’s lots to process here (some of it is almost poetic), but at least three points on which our commenter and I disagree. I’ll leave the first paragraph alone, because it stands or falls on the truth or falsehood of the allegations made in the second paragraph.

I would break the latter down by asking and answering three questions, as follows:

1/ What is Paul Actually Arguing in Romans 3:10?

Godly Israelites Did Exist

Paul’s use of Psalm 14 (or 53, if you prefer) in Romans 3:10 is part of a sustained argument that begins in Romans 1, as I have shown here. His subject is not Abel, Samuel, Moses, Abraham, Elijah or any of the other Old Testament men and women of faith namechecked by our commenter. In fact, he has already established that godly men and women like these ancient Israelites exist in the last few verses of the previous chapter: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

So then, what he goes on to say is not about Samuel, Moses or Deborah or other faithful Israelites whose praise was from God. He is describing another kind of Jew entirely.

Another Kind of Jew

Now then, in chapter 3, Paul strings together this lengthy series of Old Testament quotations from various places in order to demonstrate that apart from this “inward circumcision”, which we will later find is really saving faith, both Jews and Greeks alike are under sin. Good works will not save either Jew or Gentile because nobody can perform them with 100% consistency. In Romans 3 he addresses the Jewish question, having answered the Gentile question in the previous chapters. We know this is what he is trying to demonstrate because he is responding to the rhetorical question “What then? Are we [Jews] any better off?” He then quotes from five different OT passages, some of which have to do with wicked Jews and others with wicked Gentiles.

Paul is showing that the whole tenor of Old Testament teaching is that men are estranged from God and equally “under sin”, whether they attempt to follow the Law (Jews) or not (Gentiles). Jews are not justified under the Law simply because they are born Jews, as these verses illustrate (some are godly, some are not); while Gentiles, who haven’t got the Law, are not excused by their ignorance because “there is none who does good” and “there is no fear of God before their eyes”. The apostle is neither misquoting nor misusing the OT texts to make his case.

The Case of Abraham

Moreover, we can be assured that Abraham does not belong on our commenter’s “hit list” above, because Paul discusses Abraham in the very next chapter, saying that Abraham’s belief in God was credited to him as righteousness. So Abraham at least had not “turned away”, and Paul is not silly enough to argue that he had done so in chapter 3, and that he had not in chapter 4. (Give the man some credit, or at least the benefit of the doubt.) And if Abraham’s faith saved him, then so did Abel’s, Enoch’s, Deborah’s, Moses’, and so on, just as Hebrews 11 lays out for us more explicitly. There is no textual or logical reason to imagine Paul is condemning such individuals in chapter 3.

In fact, if you keep reading past chapter 3, far from denying all righteousness in the Old Testament, Paul is actually arguing in Romans that the OT saints were declared righteous not on the basis of works, but on the basis of their faith.

2/ What Did Jesus Teach?

About Salvation and the Law

Our commenter maintains what Paul is teaching is “nothing that Jesus taught” and that he is making Jesus’ instructions to keep the commandments obsolete. And indeed, Paul’s teaching certainly expands on that of the Lord Jesus. How could it not? Almost everything Jesus taught was prior to the cross, and most of it was said not to Christians but to Jews under the Law of Moses in an effort to show the inadequacy of law-keeping as a means of getting right with God.

That said, Paul is not the least bit inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus. To understand that, we need to look at what Jesus actually said, and, more importantly, who he said it to. I repeat, his instructions to keep the commandments were NOT given to Christians, but to Jews who still believed law-keeping could save them. The best examples of this are found in the Sermon on the Mount, which takes the Law of Moses and ups the ante, making it absolutely impossible to keep with 100% consistency, at least if we take the Lord’s words literally. For example, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire,” or “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” or “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” By these exalted standards the first lustful teenage glance, the first verbal misstep, the first failure of charity, would finish you off with God. Any confidence in our ability to keep the Law to God’s satisfaction would be egregiously misplaced.

And here comes the clincher: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Good luck with that one. Game over, everybody’s out.

Sounds a little like Romans 3 to me.

Have you kept any of this with perfect consistency? I haven’t, and I doubt you have either. I doubt anyone in human history has. When one man told the Lord Jesus he had, our Savior raised the “works” bar still further: “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor; and come, follow me.” His point was that nobody on earth will ever be justified by keeping laws, because we all fall short of God’s righteous standard in one way or another. That includes men and women with a loving attitude, good intentions and benevolence. At some point, their works-keeping will fail them, and they will need something (or really Someone) else to bring them into relationship with God.

About Salvation and Faith

Furthermore, whether you are reading the synoptic gospels or John, you find Jesus teaching that salvation is to be had through faith rather than through law-keeping:

“The devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

“Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”

And John comments concerning his purpose in writing his gospel:

“These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The Greek word translated “believe” in Luke and John [pisteuĊ] is closely related to the word Paul uses in Romans for “faith” [pistis]. It is the same concept with the same object: Christ. The only difference is that Jesus told (primarily) Jews to believe in him for salvation prior to his death. Paul told Jews and Gentiles to believe in Jesus for salvation after his resurrection.

Jesus and Paul (and John, for that matter) are right in agreement here. I can’t see the problem.

3/ What is Faith?

Is the Pauline concept of faith merely intellectual assent that magically makes you into a new person? Not at all. Paul himself describes faith as involving the whole being, not just the intellect: “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says this about the Greek word kardia (“heart”):

“The word came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements. In other words, the heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life.”

So then, if faith is a function of the heart, it is not merely intellectual assent. That is a wholly inadequate view of faith.

On top of that, works do not justify, but faith and works are inseparable. Real faith always works. It can’t help it. We could go to James for that, but let’s stick with Paul since he’s the one under the magnifying glass here.

Abraham believed God, for which he was credited with righteousness. How do we know he believed? Well, he worked. He was declared righteous before he was circumcised … then, if we bother to look back to Genesis, promptly got circumcised in accordance with God’s command at the ripe old age of 99. Abraham was saved by faith, but he showed his faith by his works. His faith was not mere intellectual assent; it was a life-changing, transformative force.

In Summary

I believe our commenter misunderstands Paul’s argument in Romans 3 and unnecessarily sets him against the Lord Jesus. He is not the first to do this and he won’t be the last. Peter, who declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, put his stamp of approval on Paul despite the difficulty some readers had in understanding him. If we are going to reject Paul, we are rejecting the other apostles along with him.

If they didn’t understand and correctly interpret what Jesus taught … well, nobody did, and we certainly can’t.


  1. This is great. Romans is such a dangerous book to pull pieces from without understanding the whole argument, for the reasons you encountered in this commenter and more.

    Thanks for sending me over.

  2. My pleasure, sir. My ambition is to send more of our readers your way.

    What are you waiting for, folks? Go!