Romans 2:17-3:20


In the previous two sessions, we have been focusing on that part of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he graphically documents the problem of human sinfulness.  This section of Romans is found in Romans 1:18 – 3:20.  In this section of Romans Paul establishes that:

  • Gentiles are guilty before God (1:18-28)
  • Jews are guilty before God (2:1-3:8)
  • All people are guilty before God (3:9-20)

In our previous study we focused on Romans 2:1-16 where Paul sets forth five basic principles of judgment.  Some scholars see Romans 2:1-16 as a transition passage between 1:18-28 where Paul establishes the guilt of the Gentiles and 2:17­-3:9 where Paul establishes the guilt of the Jews.  Certainly beginning in Romans 2:17, Paul focuses more specifically on the sin of the Jews before God.


He begins this section by listing some of the privileges that the Jewish people of the 1st century world were extremely proud.  In Romans 1:17-20, which is one long sentence conditional sentence, Paul lists six of the special of the privileges enjoyed by the Jews.  He does so to emphasize the increase responsibility that comes with these privileges.

  1. “…you bear the name ‘Jew’…” (v.17) – Jew literally means people of Judah.  It was first used in the Scripture in 2 Kings 16:6 (where the NASB translates it “Judeans”) and it was widely used during and following the Exile of Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.  While later in history in some settings the name was used with a negative connotation, in the 1st century the Jews were very proud of the name.
  2. “…you…rely upon the Law…” (v.17) – The verb rely upon carries the idea of finding rest or support in something.  The idea is they leaned on or depended upon the Law.
  3. “…you…boast in God…” (v.17) – The idea may be that they recognized their special relationship with God.  It was through the Jewish people that God chose to communicate His Law.
  4. “…you…know His will…” (v.18) – This is the logical corollary to the previous statements.  Because God chose to communicate His Law to and through the Jewish people, they obviously were privileged to have this special revelation of God’s will.
  5. “…you…approve the things that are essential…” (v.18) – Knowing His will, they were able to distinguish between right and wrong.  They were capable of making right choices and having right priorities.
  6. “…you…are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature…” (vv.19-20) – This is how the Jews would describe themselves.  Notice the words they chose for themselves (“guide…light…corrector…teacher…”) are positive and the words they chose for the Gentiles (“blind…darkness…foolish…immature…”) are negative.

The Jews would have readily agreed with the portrait of privilege Paul paints of them in Romans 2:7-20.  And, it is worth noting, the privileges experienced by the Jews in the 1st century are not unlike the privileges we experience as Christians.

  • We bear the name Christian which means Christ-like.  And like the name Jew, even though it has been used by some in a derogatory way, we proudly identify ourselves with that name. 
  • We have been entrusted with a special message, the message of the gospel.  We rely upon this message as the Jews relied upon the Law.
  • We have been commissioned to share the message entrusted to us to the world.

Thus, what Paul says to the Jews as a privileged people in the verses to follow can be applied to us as Christians as well.


In verses 21-29 Paul mentions two dangers that accompany religious privilege.  Many of the Jews in the 1st century succumbed to these dangers and many Christians in our day succumb to them as well.

  1. The danger of profession without practice (vv.21-24) – That is the stinging accusation Paul levels against the Jews.  In effect he says, “You profess one thing but do quite the opposite.  You have been given the privilege of being teachers of others but you have forgotten to teach yourselves!”  In verses 21-24 Paul throws out five questions, four of which are rhetorical, that expose the inconsistency between what they were professing and what they were actually doing.

·        “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” – This is kind of a thesis statement for the questions that follow.  Who would have the audacity to teach others and not apply the teaching to himself?

·        “You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal?” – This is a reference to the 8th commandment and there are many ways of taking from or withholding from others what is rightfully theirs.  Jesus criticized the Jewish leaders for failing to support their parents by simply claiming all their  possessions were dedicated to God, even though they kept  them for themselves!  (see Mark 7:9-13)

·        “You who say that one should not commit  adultery, do you commit adultery?” – This is a reference to the 7th commandment.  Jesus criticized the Jews for making a mockery of marriage and twisting the law to where a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. (see Mark 10:2-12)

·        “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” ­ - This is a reference to the 2nd commandment.  The phrase “rob temples” means to commit an irreverent act against a holy place.  It brings to mind the burning anger of Jesus at the Temple abuses of the Jews.  (see Mark 11:15-18)

·        “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking of the Law, do you dishonor God?”  - This is the one question to which Paul supplies the answer.  Verse 24 answers this question with an emphatic “Yes!”  Quoting from the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel Paul said, “‘For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written.”

  1. The danger substituting religious symbols for religious substance or outward ritual for inward commitment (vv.25-29) – Circumcision was the mark of the covenant God made with Abraham, the father of Judaism (see Genesis 17:7-14).  Circumcision was not the covenant.  It was the outward sign of the inward spiritual experience of being obedient to God.  However, by the first century, many Jews had forgotten, or at the very least minimized, the inward spiritual experience represented by circumcision.  They thought the outward act alone was sufficient to make them right with God.  In verses 28-29 Paul tells those who thought that way, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”  The original meaning of the word Jew is praise.  In Hebrew the word Jadah (Judah) means praise.  Thus the real Jew, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, is the one who is praised by God.


Having made the case for the guilt of the Jews before God, Paul anticipates some objections that Jewish people would raise to his argument.  In Romans 3:1-8 he has a conversation with an imaginary opponent who raises some questions about Paul’s teachings in relation to the Jews.  These are questions that no doubt had been asked of Paul in his many confrontations with the Jews.

  • Romans 3:1-2
    • Question:  If what you say is true, then what is the advantage of  being a Jew?
    • Answer:  There are many.  One is that Jews have been entrusted with the oracles of God.  There is some debate over the meaning of the phrase “oracles of God.”  Some say it refers to the Ten Commandments.  Others say it refers to the messianic promises in the Old Testament.  Still others say it means the entire Old Testament.  I think it is a reference to God’s special revelation the Jews received, both written and oral, through the patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, and ultimately Christ.  In Romans 9:1-5 Paul lists some other advantages of being a Jew.
  • Romans 3:3-4
    • Question:  If the Jews are unfaithful as Paul charged in the previous chapter, does that nullify the faithfulness of God?  The point of the question is that if God strips some Jews of the promise that was made to Abraham because they are unfaithful as Paul intimates in chapter 2, does that mean that God does not keep His promises?
    • Answer:  Paul’s answer is a strong negative.  “May it never be!” in verse 4 can be translated, “God forbid!” Even though humans are often untrustworthy or unfaithful, it is not that way with God.  He is always faithful.  He keeps His promises.  The point of the quote from Psalm 51 at the end of verse 4 is that God is not being unfaithful to His promises when He judges the unfaithfulness of men.  He is justified in His judgments.
  • Romans 3:5-6
    • Question: “Is it not unjust of God to inflict His wrath on us.”  The objector is saying that if man’s disobedience serves to highlight God’s righteousness, would it not be unjust of God to reward something (even disobedience) that makes His righteousness more clear with judgment?
    • Answer:  This argument is so absurd that Paul almost apologizes for making it with the phrase “I am speaking in human terms” in verse 5.  And then Paul answers with another very strong negative, “May it never be.”  The logical result of this absurd argument is that God could never judge wickedness.
  • Romans 3:7-8
    • Question:  “Why not sin more so God’s goodness and mercy will be highlighted?”  This is similar to the previous question.  And actually  some of  the legalistic Jews accused Paul of teaching this because they misunderstood his teachings about the mercy and grace of God.  The idea is that if grace and mercy is God’s response to our sin, would it not make sense to sin more so that we could receive more of the grace and mercy of  God?
    • Answer:  Actually, Paul did not even dignify that ridiculous reasoning with an answer.  He simply says those who think that way deserve the condemnation they will receive.



All People are Guilty Before God (3:9-20)

Having made the case for both Gentile and Jewish guilt before God, Paul completes this section that spells out our sin problem and thus our need for the gospel with a general statement about the guilt of  all people.  Stringing together a number of quotes from the Old Testament in the fashion of rabbinical teachers, Paul paints a graphic picture of our sin problem.

  • Romans 3:9-12 highlight the universal nature of our sin problem.  In this the Jew has no advantage over the Gentiles.  None are righteous in God’s eyes.
  • Romans 3:13-14 points out that our sin problem corrupts our speech.  Notice the references to the “…throat…tongues…lips…mouth…” in these verses.  Jesus said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” (Matthew 12:34)  Our sinful hearts will ultimately be expressed in what we say to and about others.
  • Romans 3:15-17 points out that our sin problem corrupts our actions.  Sin is at the heart of the destructive things we do.  The phrase in verse 16 “…destruction and misery are in their paths…” is a reminder that when we fail to deal with our sin problem, we leave in our wakes all kinds of turmoil.  But it does not have to be that way.  When we accept God’s forgiveness, allow Him to cleanse us, and make us new people, it is possible for “…goodness and mercy…” (Psalm 23:6) to follow in our wakes!
  • Romans 3:18 points out that sin corrupts the way we think.  The phrase “There is no fear of God before their eyes…” means that our thinking can become so demented that we believe that God does not see what we do or that He does see and is powerless to do anything about it.  Unchecked sin leads one to the point of having no reverence, no respect for God.
  • Romans 3:19-20 is a summary of  this entire section.  The Law, in which the Jews so proudly boast, serves the function of pointing out our sin but it is incapable of removing our sin.  There has to be another way to deal with our sin problem, and Paul begins exploring that in the next section of Romans.