Here, in verse nine, Paul asks the question, “Are the Jews better off?” This seems to be a contrary answer to a similar question in Romans 3:1. Those advantages focus on God’s gracious gift to Israel. They had advantages, but had squandered them. In this present question, Paul is asking in terms of the advantage of being justified. In this, the Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles. Both are condemned under sin (verse 9). Paul had explained this condemnation of the Gentiles in chapter one and the Jews in chapter two. The Jews had boasted that, as God’s people, they were in possession of the Law, that they were approved, and the Gentiles were left wanting. How wrong they were!
Protestants have largely seen justification as a law/court idea, a metaphor from the penal system. The term does have the connotation, but it is both that and more. The idea of justification and that of righteousness are connected. Righteousness in Scripture picture refers to a relational status with God. It does not coney the idea of sinless perfection, but rather a right standing with God. Righteous people are those who confess their sins. In Abraham’s case, being righteous is almost used as a synonym for being “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). This conveys the idea of being in right relation with the Father as a faithful son. The term also carries the idea of having your sins forgiven or not imputed.
It is impossible that justification can come from works, even works of the law. The problem with this lies in the problem of merit. Obedience is our duty, so how can we merit anything by doing what we should Luke 17:10 says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Merit simply turns God into a banker. The problem with this is, we have no collateral! Instead, the Bible uses the concept and terminology of sonship and inheritance, but we tend to think in terms of wage, workers, and merit. The medieval church’s soteriology became greatly confused with the idea of merit. We are sinners, and it is impossible to merit anything from God.
In the first place, we are God’s enemies. Scripture makes it clear that sin and condemnation are universal. The Jews had applied the term “enemies of God” only to the Gentiles, yet not realizing that, outside of Christ, we are all without hope. They had misinterpreted their own Scriptures that had been given them from God. Paul is speaking universally of sin, to all who are not justified by faith alone; however, the Law silences all boasting by showing that all are guilty of sin. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (verse 20). The Law requires complete and full obedience to God’s revealed covenant, including love of God and neighbor. No sinner can possibly attain to this. But, as the Law had done its work, so now God’s righteousness was manifested apart from the Law as witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.
Paul goes on in verse 21 to speak of the “righteousness of God.” This phrase can have several connotations. It can be God’s fight of forgiveness and right standing for believers in Christ, the righteousness which pleases God. However, it appears here that Paul is referring to God’s own covenant faithfulness, or as John Calvin translates this, “by the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe.” In other words, the righteousness of God is manifested by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and received as a gift by all who believe.
In conclusion, the Father has shown himself to be utterly true to His covenant promises by means of sending His faithful Son, Jesus, who did and was as God’s Son all that Israel (as God’s son) had failed to do and to be. And, all of this was on behalf of we who believe. What marvelous and gracious good news this is!