A Commentary by John Stott
Paul now re-opens his ‘diatribe’, which he continued throughout chapter 2 and which was clearly articulated in the four questions of 3:1-8. These related to his indictment that all human beings are under the judgment of God and that Jews are not shielded from it. Now he anticipates a fresh set of Jewish questions, related this time not to judgment but to justification, and in particular to justification by faith only.
Question 1: Where, then, is boasting? (27-28).
In the post-Sanders era, in which many scholars accept his thesis that first-century Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness, it has seemed to them necessary to reinterpret Paul’s rejection of ‘boasting’. If Judaism was not a system of merit, it cannot be this kind of boasting that Paul has in mind. It must rather be Judaism’s self-confident assumption of national, cultural and religious superiority. And indeed the Jews were immensely proud of their privileged status as the chosen people of God. They imagined that they were heaven’s protected favourites, which is why Paul characterized them as ‘relying’ on their possession of the law and ‘bragging’ about their relationship to God (2:17, 23 where the verb in both cases is *kauchaomai*, to boast).
But these external privileges were not the only object of Jewish boasting. Jewish people were also proud of their personal righteousness. Thus Paul himself, reflecting on his own pre-conversion career in Judaism, bracketed his Jewish inheritance (‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’) with his individual attainment (his zeal in persecuting the church and being faultless in ‘legalistic righteousness’) as together constituting the ‘flesh’ in which he put his confidence until as a Christian he began to ‘boast in Christ Jesus’ (*kauchaomai* again, Phil, 3:3ff.).
Boastfulness was not limited to the Jews, however. The Gentile world also was ‘insolent arrogant and boastful’ (1:30). In fact, all human beings are inveterate boasters. Boasting is the language of our fallen self-centredness. But in those who have been justified by faith, *boasting* is altogether *excluded*. This is not on the principle *of observing the law*, which might give grounds for boasting, *but on that of faith* (27), which attributes salvation entirely to Christ and so eliminates all boasting. For our Christian conviction is that a sinner *is justified by faith*, indeed by faith alone, *apart from observing the law* (28). Whether these ‘works of the law’, which Paul has in mind, are ceremonial (observing rules for diet and the sabbath) or moral (obeying God’s commandments), they cannot gain the favour or forgiveness of God. For salvation is ‘not by works, so that no-one can boast’ (Eph. 2:9). It is only by faith in Christ, which is why we should boast in him, not in ourselves. There is, indeed, something fundamentally anomalous about Christians who boast in themselves, as there is something essentially authentic, appropriate and attractive about their boasting in Christ. All boasting is excluded except boasting in Christ. Praising, not boasting, is the characteristic activity of justified believers, and will be throughout eternity (E.g. Rev. 7:10). So ‘let him who boasts boast in the Lord’, and ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:31; Gal. 6:14).
Question 2: Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? (29-30).
Jewish people were extremely conscience of their special covenant relationship with God, in which Gentiles did not share. It was to the Jews that God had entrusted his special revelation (3:2). Theirs to, as Paul will soon write, are ‘the adoption as sons…the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises’, not to mention ‘the patriarchs’ and ‘the human ancestry of Christ’ (9:4f.). What the Jews forgot, however, was that their privileges were not intended for the exclusion of the Gentiles, but for their ultimate inclusion when through Abraham’s posterity ‘all peoples on earth’ would be blessed (Gn.12:2f.).
This covenant with Abraham has been fulfilled in Christ. He is Abraham’s ‘seed’, and through him the blessing of salvation now extends to everyone who believes, without exception or distinction. If the gospel of justification by faith alone excludes all boasting, it excludes all elitism and discrimination also. God is not *the God of the Jews only; he is the God of the Gentiles too (29), since there is only one God* (it is the truth of monotheism which unites us), who has only one way of salvation. *He will justify the circumcised (Jews) by faith and the uncircumcised (Gentiles) through that same faith* (30).
This identical truth applies to all other distinctions, whether of race, nationality, class, sex or age. Not that all such distinctions are actually obliterated, for men remain men and women women, Jews are still circumcised and Gentiles uncircumcised, our skin pigmentation does not change, and we still have the same passport. But these continuing distinctions are rendered of no significant account. They neither affect our relationship with God, nor hinder our fellowship with one another. At the foot of Christ’s cross and through faith in him, we are all on exactly the same level, indeed sisters and brothers in Christ. ‘The message’, writes Dr. Tom Wright, ‘…is simple: all who believe in Jesus belong to the same family and should be eating at the same table. That is what Paul’s doctrine of justification is all about’.