In Romans, Paul described the righteousness of God reaching out to sinners of every ethnicity. Paul hoped that as the divergent Jew/Gentile population of the early church understood God’s indiscriminate kindness in Christ, they would humble themselves and present a united witness to the world. Despite the fact that the prophets warned Israel time-and-again against their haughty attitude as God’s chosen people, they continued to display an arrogant disposition toward God and the Gentiles. At the end of Romans 3, Paul set out his justification for writing so much about the sin of Jews and Gentiles: both groups needed to humble themselves under the righteousness of God—and cease from their boastful ways. He says, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith…Or is God for Jews only? Is He not also for Gentiles? Yes, for Gentiles too, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom 3:27, 29-30). Paul used the Old Testament in Romans 1-3 to help his readers understand God’s righteousness and human sinfulness.
(1) In Rom 1:17, Paul quoted Hab 2:4 to establish a scriptural precedent for faith as the means of righteousness before God. Habakkuk prophesied during a time of crisis in Israel. The Lord had raised up the wicked Chaldeans to come against His elect—and the Lord’s work made no sense to Habakkuk. The Lord told Habakkuk that the righteous one would live by faith in what God was doing to discipline His people despite the appearance of injustice on God’s part (Hab 2:3-4). Paul employed Hab 2:4 to help unify his Jew/Gentile audience in Rome. If all nationalities related to God by the same means, faith in Christ, then no nation could claim superiority before God. Jews could thus no longer boast in their historical privileges of election and possession of the law. Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:16-17, citing Hab 2:4).
(2) In Rom 2:6, Paul quoted Ps 62:12 to establish God’s fairness as a judge. In Psalm 62, the psalmist chided those who lied about him and hypocritically blessed him with their mouth while cursing in their heart (Ps 62:3-4). The psalmist concluded his poem trusting in God to repay each person according to their works (Ps 62:12). Following Paul’s indictment of Gentiles for their sin in Rom 1:18-32, he turned to confront the Jews in Romans 2. Paul chastised the Jews for their hypocrisy: they condemned the Gentiles for their sins but then walked in the same patterns of life as the Gentiles. If Jews thought they were saved because of lineage to Abraham or possession of the law, Paul stated otherwise. Citing Ps 62:12, Paul said that God “will repay each one according to his works” (Rom 2:6). God shows no favoritism, Paul said in Rom 2:11. The Jews’ boasting of possession of the law was actually grounds for their condemnation—since they failed to practice the law.
(3) In Rom 2:24, Paul quoted Isa 52:5 to condemn Jews for not accurately representing God before the Gentiles. In Isaiah 52, the prophet proclaimed that God would restore His people to Jerusalem. Historically speaking, Isaiah said that when Israel was in Egypt or in exile, God’s name was blasphemed. The Egyptians and Assyrians were the agents who blasphemed God by taking God’s people captive (Isa 52:1-6). Paul employed Isa 52:5 to confront the Jews because on account of their hypocrisy, God’s name had been blasphemed among the Gentiles (Rom 2:23-24). Paul thus turned Isaiah’s prophecy—originally pejorative against the Egyptians and Assyrians for their continual oppression of Israel—against the Jews, saying, “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Rom 2:23). Even circumcision—the identity marker of Israelite descent—was of no benefit if one did not observe the law (Rom 2:25). Paul’s point was that Jews were just as culpable as Gentiles—and likewise needed salvation.
(4) In Rom 3:4, Paul quoted Ps 51:4 to confirm God’s righteousness in condemning Jews because of their sin. In Psalm 51, David lamented his sin with Bathsheba. The author of 2 Samuel described David’s greed when the king looked at Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, took her, slept with her, had Uriah killed, and took Bathsheba to be his wife (2 Samuel 11). When Nathan confronted David in 2 Samuel 12, the Lord convicted the king of his sin and Psalm 51 provides a window into David’s repentant heart. David confessed that He had, ultimately, sinned against God alone and that God was right to condemn him for his evil acts recorded in 2 Samuel 11. In Romans 2, Paul argued that the Jews of his day exhibited hypocrisy when they condemned the Gentiles but practiced the same sins as the Gentiles. Though the Jews enjoyed historical privilege as God’s chosen people who had been entrusted with His word, God was faithful in condemning them because of their sin. In his use of Ps 51:4 (“that You may be justified in Your words and triumph when You judge”) in Rom 3:4, Paul portrayed God’s condemnation of Jewish sinners as a demonstration of His righteousness. In Romans 1-3, Paul established God as the righteous judge who evaluated every human based upon their works. Since Israel failed to be faithful with what God entrusted to them, God’s faithfulness would be demonstrated in condemning them.
(5) In Rom 3:10-18, Paul wove together passages from Psalms and Isaiah to portray the complete sinfulness of humanity. In what may have been especially difficult for Jewish ears, Paul backed his proposition of human depravity with a string of quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah. Paul assembled the Jewish Scriptures to testify that both Gentiles and Jews were guilty before God and in need of salvation in Christ. The descendants of Abraham could expect no favors from God. Paul proposed that the Jews’ total inability to keep the law would render them helpless before God on judgment day, and their mouths would thus be silenced before Him. Paul argued that far from being the means of justification, the law of Moses would be the grounds of condemnation for any who attempted to live by it, saying, “No flesh will be justified in His sight by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). Since there was no distinction in the way that sin had marred the spiritual condition of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul urged his audience that they could only be justified by trusting in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:22).