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Righteousness by Faith #26: Aren’t we better than those disgusting people?

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24

While searching for the right picture for this blog, I came across a poster showing a collection of women with messages on their T-shirts telling us what we could do with our morals and also claiming freedom for their bodies. They were young females with a no-holds-barred approach to cultural warfare.

It is so easy for me to view these women with an air of superiority disguised as sorrow for their brokenness and willful rebellion…They are young…They will eventually learn the error of their ways when life turns out to be more complex than their simple slogans suggest…They are foolish…Someday they will regret the shallowness of their thinking as they see their children make the same mistakes they are making now.

Except…they may not. And more to the point, I may not regret condemning them. I may secretly feel that I am taking the high road of one who is secure in his faith by not letting my disdain for them be seen by others. I can just shake my head and ‘pray’ for them.

If this makes sense to you, then you will get Paul’s point in these verses. His audience is made up of Jews and Gentiles. It was so easy for his Jewish readers to see themselves as superior to the Gentiles. In terms of belief in God, they had a longstanding covenant with Him, dating back over 1500 years.

But it really did not matter. No one has standing with God. In their own cultural ways, they have all rebelled against God. And for the Jews, it is their blindness to their own depravity that keeps them shaking their heads over the Gentiles all the while heading down their own path to destruction.

Sure, the women I mentioned are on their way to destruction. But so are the moralists. And the right- and left-wingers. And people who never miss a worship service. We are all in the same boat of rebellion, bailing out the water flooding our end of the ship while hoping the other end sinks, proving we were in the right.

If you were a Jew reading Paul’s words when they were hot off the press, you would have been more than a little peeved with him. He had started so well, pointing out how right God was to have wrath towards the Gentiles. They were, as Paul puts it so eloquently, “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:31) “Those Gentiles are definitely lost,” they must have thought as they shook their heads and ‘prayed’ for them.

But then, as the saying goes, Paul went from preaching to meddling. He exposes Jewish rebellion against God’s holiness, ending with the lament, “There is none righteous, not a single person.” (Romans 3:10)

In the past, I failed to see the power of that indictment. We are all included in the ‘unrighteous’ with all those who we secretly or not so secretly look down on. I get how the Jewish readers must have chafed at this truth. They were His chosen people, How could they be considered to be on par with the Gentiles? Yet, Paul is not accusing them. He is pointing to what God said across the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In other words, there are not two ways to righteousness, one for Jews and the other for the Gentiles. Every judgment you throw at them boomerangs back on us. Both groups enter into this righteousness by faith by the same door, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Almost all who read this passage today descended from the Gentiles. We may feel that Paul was right to stick it to his Jewish readers. But any sense of moral superiority—that somehow today we know better—is quite wrong. Furthermore, since we have been saved from condemnation, we who live out righteousness by faith need to remember that we are not superior to those who are still lost. Without the grace of God, we would be just as defiantly rebellious as anyone we shake our heads at.

-Steve Smith