In our passage for study, Paul continues to contend with Jewish believers, and their Gentile disciples, who see their Christian lives advanced by obedience to the law of Moses. Paul's argument is that a person who is right with God, on the basis of their relationship with Jesus, automatically possesses the fullness of new life in Christ, and this apart from law-obedience. Paul's argument has prompted two major objections against his teachings, namely, that he devalues God's covenant with its divine law and that he promotes libertarianism, that is, by devaluing the law he promotes sin. Paul now raises these two objections and gives a summary answer - he will deal with both these issues latter in his letter. He then returns to his core argument: all humanity is without excuse before God, for all have sinned and therefore all face the condemnation of God, and this includes those who strive to keep the law, for the law was never intended to restrain sin and promote holiness, rather, it was designed to expose sin and thus our need for a savior.
v1-4. Since Paul makes the argument himself, we are not sure of the exact wording of the objections, but the first may go something like this: "In your teaching, Paul, you suggest that God's righteous judgment, of blessing or cursing, is irrespective of a person's submission to the law. In arguing this way you devalue Jewish heritage, undermine the value of circumcision." Paul agrees with his opponents that there is value in Jewish heritage. For example, Israel was entrusted with the covenant, but the covenant came with responsibilities. The covenant promises both blessings and cursings, so if a person places themselves under the law of Moses, but then fails to keep it, they then, like everyone else in the world, face divine condemnation.
v5-8. The second objection may go something like this: "Your teaching, Paul, implies that a person's failure to obey the law promotes God's faithfulness, it promotes his mercy and forgiveness. If this is the case then it would be unjust of God to judge a person when they break the law. In fact, the implication of your teaching is, 'let us sin so that grace may abound'". In verse 8 Paul actually quotes the words used by his detractors and describes their argument as very "human" - shifty to say the least. Free grace (although it wasn't free for Jesus) doesn't mean free to sin. By proclaiming the righteous reign of God, the setting-right of all things by God in the faithfulness of Christ apart from submission to the Mosaic law, the law-bound believers in the church at the time ("the weak", 15:1) felt that Paul was undermining the law's purifying (sanctifying) role. They argued that the logic of Paul's position served only to promote license, leading young believers to think that sin is not really a problem because it shows up the grace of God. As Paul puts it, "those who promote such a stupid argument are deservedly condemned."
v9. So, do Jewish believers and their Gentile converts, have an advantage over Gentile believers who do not submit to the law of Moses? The answer is "not in every respect", but when it comes to sin, they stand equally condemned before God. This is all that matters in end.
v10-18. Paul now quotes the Old Testament to support his contention that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, including those who submit to the law of Moses.
v19. Law-bound believers may feel that their strict adherence to the law blesses them, promotes for them the promised Abrahamic blessings, yet, as the "law" makes clear to those "under the law", God's judgement begins with his household. There is no exception for sin.
v20. In reality, no person can claim God's favor by submitting to the law's requirements. The only thing the law does is to expose our sinfulness and thus, our state of loss.
A letter appeared recently in a local newspaper attacking those who supported the views of a right-wing politician. The letter came from a "Christian" who expressed disgust at the "racist" views expressed by many who had written to the paper over the preceding weeks. As far as she was concerned, God would "judge" all of them.
She was right to be offended, but the trouble is, God will judge every person, and every one of us will be found wanting. Yes, even churchies who are sure that their commitment to Biblical ethics gives them a superior standing in the sight of God, compared to the unwashed hoards of those who are less committed than they, those who are not regular at church, don't attend Bible study or prayer meetings, who don't tithe, or even worse, are divorced, or even worse than that, have racist tendencies. The trouble is, Biblical ethics can only do one thing for us, and that to remind us that we are sinners and in need of a saviour who can renew us from within.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Switch Paul's argument from the pious godly Jewish believer to the pious godly believer in the church today. Remember, all of us are, to some degree, that person. Discuss the results.