Sin’s Dominion over the Jew (2:17-3:8)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 2:17-3:8; Sin; Jews; Condemnation
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10


Here Paul indicts the Jew as guilty of sin and worthy of condemnation. The Jew is specifically named in 2:17; 2:28-29; and 3:1. Paul does not explicitly charge the Jew from the outset, nor does he refer to him as being “without excuse.” Nevertheless, the progress of his argument makes clear that the Jew is not inherently acceptable to God, but justly under the same condemnation as the Gentile and the moralist. Paul anticipates (and systematically undermines) the Jew’s two major sources of assurance of acceptance in God’s sight: knowledge of the law (2:17-24) and circumcision (2:25-29).

The Inadequacy of Knowing the Law (2:17-24)

Many Jews of Paul’s day undoubtedly considered their salvation secure because of their relationship to the Old Testament law. This relationship was one of intimate knowledge (vv. 17-18), producing a sense of confidence (vv. 19-20). The “typical” Jew was aware that, unlike most Gentiles, he had a deep understanding of God’s revealed will, thus placing him in a position to guide, enlighten, and teach others (vv. 19-20).

Paul’s charge to the Jew is essentially that of hypocrisy: Though he excels at expounding the law to others, he fails to obey it himself (v. 21). While disapproving of stealing, adultery, and idolatry, he commits the same acts or others that reveal the same rebellious attitude (vv. 21-23). Therefore, Paul’s argument against the Jew is an extension of his indictment of the moralist. No one—including the Jew who has been exposed to divine law—is entirely consistent with his own moral code.

The Inadequacy of Being Circumcised (2:25-29)

A second source of self-assurance for the Jew is the fact that he has experienced circumcision—a physical sign of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. But, says Paul, this rite is insufficient to secure God’s acceptance. Circumcision accomplishes nothing apart from complete observance of the law (v. 25; cf. James 2:10-11). Righteous behavior is more important than being circumcised (v. 26). By implication, obedient uncircumcision stands in judgment of sinful circumcision (v. 27).

Paul concludes his evaluation of circumcision by discussing the nature of true “Jewishness.” Being a Jew is not primarily a matter of external, physical distinctiveness (i.e., circumcision), but of internal, spiritual transformation (vv. 28-29). In stating this, Paul hints at the fact that becoming one of God’s people is not a matter of natural birth or ritual observance, but a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit which is conveyed through faith on Gentiles as well as Jews.

The Jew’s Position before God (3:1-8)

Paul’s argument leads him to anticipate the Jew’s objection, “If exposure to the law and the rite of circumcision are unable to produce salvation, is there really any benefit to being a Jew?” (3:1). His answer is unequivocal: The Jew’s position is one of significant advantage, primarily because it leads him to become familiar with God’s revelation (v. 2). It remains special despite the fact that many who possess it fail to appropriate God’s righteousness through faith (v. 3). God’s design is effective because He is true; He will always be found faithful to His own promises (vv. 3-4; cf. Ps. 51:4).

In 3:5-8 Paul addresses a second objection: “If sin highlights God’s righteousness, is He just in judging it?” Here Paul’s imaginary opponent has been cornered. No longer denying his failure to live up to God’s standards, he seeks to excuse himself on the pretense that his sin has brought God glory (v. 7). Paul grants that God’s glory is clearly visible against the backdrop of human sin; nevertheless, one should not do evil in order to bring ultimate good (v. 8).


This passage unquestionably focuses on unbelieving Jews, yet it remains relevant to Gentiles (both believers and unbelievers) as well.

  • Religious knowledge and experience do not lead to righteousness. Unbelievers may claim to merit eternal life on the basis of many things (baptism, church attendance, knowledge of the Scriptures, etc.), yet nothing but Christ’s work is sufficient to accomplish salvation.
  • Believers should not hide behind the veil of theoretical religious knowledge. Truth is not merely to be known, but to be lived. We are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
  • The fact that religion cannot save should not lead us to reject it outright. Membership in Jewish society was profitable in that it exposed the Jews to God’s revelation. Likewise, church participation can provide the basis for coming to a genuine faith in Christ. Just as the Jews’ rejection of the covenant did not invalidate God’s promises, so the hypocrisy of a handful of professing Christians does not prevent us from learning truth in a church community.
  • We should acknowledge the seriousness of sin without implying that God is threatened by it. God abhors sin because it is contrary to His character and design. We should never do wrong under the presumption that it will somehow lead to right. Nevertheless, our failures do not invalidate God’s faithfulness. Though our sin brings Him great displeasure, it redounds to His glory as well. In His sovereignty, our rebellion exalts his righteousness by way of contrast. In addition, it provides a context in which His grace is displayed.