Boasting in the Law – Romans 2:17-24

The Law-keeping Jew is guilty of the very sins of which he accuses the Gentiles, and is therefore under God’s judgment. A Jewish opponent in the Second Temple period may have thought that circumcision and keeping the Law was sufficient to avoid the wrath of God being revealed (1:18). In this paragraph, Paul continues to engage a hypothetical dialogue partner who might think obedience to key boundary markers of Judaism will be of some benefit on the Day of Judgment. Paul argues here it is not at all sufficient to avoid judgment, since being circumcised means nothing if the righteous requirements of the Law are not fully kept.

RomansBut did Jewish in the Second Temple Period rely on the Law for salvation? One of the challenges of the New Perspective on Paul is the traditional reading of Judaism as a “works for salvation” religion. Pharisees are often described as legalists who were always trying to justify themselves or boasted about their personal holiness before God. This impression does come from some texts in the Gospels. Jesus condemns the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as making the Law a heavy burden for people and in Luke 18 a Pharisee in a parable boasts about his fastidious law-keeping in his prayer at the Temple.

But as E. P. Sanders famously declared, the Judaism of the Second Temple period was not a “works for salvation” religion at all. God’s gracious choice of Israel as his people and his gift of the covenant was want made the Jews God’s people and their appropriate response was keeping the Law. No Jew thought they were earning salvation by keeping the Law, it was simply their responsibility as God’s chosen people. Sanders pointed out that the common legalistic view of Judaism had more to do with Luther’s response to Roman Catholicism and the subsequent Reformation theology than Paul’s dialogue with Jews in Romans.

Yet Paul seems to claim here his opponent relies on the law and boasts in God. It is true some streams of Second Temple Judaism did see the Law as a guarantee of salvation. 2 Baruch was written about thirty years after Romans as a response to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The writer of this apocalypse seems to say keeping God’s statutes will preserve the Jewish people, implying the recent destruction of Jerusalem was the result of unfaithfulness.

2 Baruch 48:22-23 In you we have put our trust, because, behold, your Law is with us and we know that we do not fall as long as we keep your statutes. We shall always be blessed; at least, we did not mingle with the nations.

The Greek verb Paul uses in Romans 2:17 translated “rely” (ἐπαναπαύομαι) has the sense of comfort or support, sometimes “rest.” To rely on the Law is to think of it as providing security. Certainly the 2 Baruch quote above supports Jewish reliance on the Law for their blessing and security. Even in the Old Testament, there was always an “if” to the Mosiac covenant; if you keep the Law you will be blessed. The alternative was the curse of the Law, non-blessing and eventually exile from the Law.

This reliance on the Law is combined with boasting in God. Jeremiah 9:23-24 and Deuteronomy 4:7-8 both celebrate the special relationship between God and Israel. Paul agrees the Law is “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (v. 20), but one cannot rely on the Law when God’s judges because (as he will argue in this paragraph), not even the Jews who possess the Law keep the Law. After all, the Jews are still in exile and they are not experiencing the blessing of God!

What is Paul doing in Romans 2? Is he over-stating the Jewish boast in the Law? Is he making a straw-man argument against Judaism? Even if he is, this over-reliance on religion seems to be a very applicable point to contemporary church. Even if Paul was not addressing a specific thread of Judaism in his day, this condemnation of boasting may very well speak powerfully to the church today.

4 thoughts on “Boasting in the Law – Romans 2:17-24

  1. If there were some Jewish believers in the Second Temple period that relied on the law for their salvation, I think Paul is doing right by addresses this issue even if he may have over stated his point. Another potential reason is that since Rome is such a large city, this letter would have been pasted along to other churches in the area. Thus Paul takes a stand on the truth, that the law has no power to save. The law is there to give the knowledge of sin, not save them from sin. Even if Paul were over stating this point, he was inspired to write this for a reason, and I would agree that this can, and does apply to the contemporary church. Paul may have been writing this to the church in Rome, but God knew this application will carry throughout the centuries and even today.

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  2. This blog post really opened my eyes to the assumption we have about Judaism and their “obsession” over the Law. I never really tried to read into why I thought Jews obsessed over the law I just assumed since it was everywhere in the Bible. However, the reason behind their call to the Law makes sense. Jews follow the law because of What God did for them and as a call of obedience to him, not for salvation inheritance. This new revelation opens my eyes to see the bigger picture of the Jews and of Israel. I never really thought much importance about the Jews although it is essential to know about them for they are God’s chosen people. This article is giving me more insight and depth of the Bible and more faith in God the Father.

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  3. I think that because of the legalistic Pharisees and other members of the Jewish community who were probably more strict about following the Law there probably was groups of Jewish/Gentile people who assumed that by doing the Law a person could gain salvation. For example: Even though the bible is clear about the issue of “one” baptism, many churches and people think that water baptism is necessary for salvation even though we know that isn’t true. but whole groups of people believe it because someone said it and it became a practice and people followed suit. that same could have been said in Rome with people and following the Law to gain salvation. I think that Paul is making a clarifying point that probably needed to be said because like GRANZZ said in their post above the letter was going to multiple churches and many believers needed to hear that the Law did not have the power to save. Paul later clarifies this in chapter 3:27-31 and in chapter 4 again through his example of Abraham and his salvation through faith. It was Abraham’s faith that saved him because he did not even have the Law.

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  4. In Romans 2, it seems like Paul is covering his bases in an attempt to build up the audience to the point he will make in the next chapter, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (3:20). It is as if to say “The Law doesn’t save you whether you are a Jew or not, and either way, you Jews don’t follow the Law well enough to have confidence in your conduct.” He is explaining that it doesn’t matter who you are/were before you learned and understood about Jesus, only that now you must understand he is the only thing that can bridge the gap between you and God. It doesn’t have to do with your religious respect and confidence in your works, because nothing can atone for every sin except Jesus.

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