Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Verses 2-3: I can say this about them: They really try hard to follow God, but they don’t know the right way. They did not know the way that God makes people right with Him. And they tried to make themselves right in their own way. So they did not accept God’s way of making people right.

I want to borrow some thoughts from John Gill who sees this chapter containing an account of the two types of righteousness – one of faith and one of works. He also finds in these verses a summary of the Gospel of Christ, a description of grace by faith, its nature, use, and how it was applied, and several testimonies concerning the calling of the Gentiles. Also, that the Apostle knew the Jews had not attained any righteous standing with God by way of the law but tripped over the stumbling-block of the Gospel because they took it to be offensive.

It is clear that Paul did not say this out of dislike or ill-will toward his fellow Jews. He expresses his sincere regard for them and the great respect he had for them, by calling them “brethren,” and by conveying his sincere feelings for their plight, by praying for their salvation. He also acknowledges their zeal for God, although he clearly points out that it was a misguided zeal. It was combined with their lack of understanding of God’s righteousness that resulted in all their misconduct in religious things, especially in the doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, to his regret, they continued to seek justification by their own good deeds and rejected the work of Christ on their behalf.

Paul’s revelation to his fellow Jews is like a two-edged sword. On the one hand, he will describe the joys and benefits of freely receiving salvation by grace, and on the other the futility and despair of attempting to earn salvation by works. After all, he was just like they are now at one time. His zeal for Pharisaical Judaism was so strong that he persecuted the new Christian movement, called The Way, in radical fashion.1 During his missionary journeys, there were many occasions when his fellow Jews would attack and attempt to harm him in a similar manner now that he was on the Christians’ side. But even more troublesome were those Jews who had converted to Christianity, yet insisted on keeping all the Jewish rites, rituals, and ceremonies as a supplement to their faith.

In fact, when Paul was in Jerusalem visiting with James and the Church elders, Paul told them all about his success among the Gentiles. But not to be outdone, they told Paul: “You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also become believers, yet they are all very insistent that Jewish believers must continue to follow the Jewish traditions and customs.2 A Jewish translation puts it this way: “…they are all zealots for the Torah.3 But bragging rights was not their main point. The leaders of the Jerusalem church were under pressure to make it a requirement for all new converts, including Gentiles. Paul would have none of it. This is what got him arrested and caused a riot.4

So in talking to these Jewish members of the Church in Rome, Paul shared his personal experience of being a zealot for what he thought was the truth, only to find out later he was way off course. He told the Philippians: “If anyone ever had reason to hope that he could save himself, it would be I. If others could be saved by what they are, certainly I could! I was a real Jew if there ever was one! What’s more, I was a member of the Pharisees who demand the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom. And sincere? Yes, so much so that I greatly persecuted the Church; and I tried to obey every Jewish rule and regulation right down to the very last point. But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile—now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone.”5

So with that background and experience, Paul was trying to persuade any of those who still held onto such misbeliefs to do the same thing he did. As he told the Philippians: “I have put aside all else, counting it worth less than nothing, in order that I can have Christ, and become one with Him, no longer counting on being saved by being good enough or by obeying God’s laws, but by trusting Christ to save me; for God’s way of making us right with Himself depends on faith—counting on Christ alone. Now I have given up everything else—I have found it to be the only way to really know Christ and to experience the mighty power that brought Him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with Him. So whatever it takes, I will be one who lives in the fresh newness of life of those who are alive from the dead.6

Paul knew it would not be the first or last time that they, even he, might meet Solomon’s definition of foolishness: “To act without knowing how you function is not good; and if you rush ahead, you will miss your goal.7 But, as Paul told the Corinthians, he had seen the light: “God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made us understand that it is the brightness of His glory that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.8 The Jews were still covering their eyes from the glory that shone on Moses’ face when he came down off Mt. Horeb, now Paul wanted them to see the glory of Jesus’ face now that He came down from Mt. Calvary. In the words of the song by country western singer Alan Jackson: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

But Paul is not out to condemn them without cause. He recognized that they, just as he, were doing all these things in ignorance. They were looking for righteousness in all the wrong places. They kept looking down instead of looking up. Archbishop William Newcome (1729-1800) of the Church of Ireland decided that the King James Version of 1611 needed some updating. So in 1796, he published what he called the “Improved Version” of the NT. The KJV translated verse 3 this way: “…have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” But Bishop Newcome rendered it: “…they have not submitted themselves to the justification appointed of God.”9 Archbishop Newcome felt that the reader needed to know that Paul was comparing man’s method of sinner’s saved with God’s method of saving sinners.

Paul goes on to mention that even though these people depended on their own good deeds to help them find favor with God, they really didn’t understand what deeds counted for righteousness. The Psalmist was very proud to extol the righteousness of God: “But I, I will always hope and keep adding to your praise. All day long my mouth will tell of your righteous deeds and acts of salvation, though their number is beyond my knowledge.”10 The Psalmist goes on to say that he depends on the power of the LORD God to help him as he tries to emulate the righteous character of God. Paul shared this same sentiment with the Corinthians when he told them: “In your eating, drinking, or anything else you do, do it for the glory of God.11 And to the Colossians, he wrote: “And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, and come with Him into the presence of God the Father to give Him your thanks.12 The problem with these self-righteousness people was that all of their good deeds for others were done to bring them honor and glory, not God.

No doubt Paul remembered what was said in Isaiah about the mission of the Messiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will place a righteous Branch upon King David’s throne. He shall be a King who shall rule with wisdom and justice and cause righteousness to prevail everywhere throughout the earth. And this is his name: The Lord Our Righteousness.13 So it is not our righteous deeds that count, it’s the righteous works of God that we are to carry out for His honor and praise because the Lord of Righteousness is living within us. Paul explained this to the Corinthians: “God made this sinless man [Christ] to be a sin offering on our behalf.14 I like the way the Lexham English Bible renders it: “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin on our behalf,

I’m sure the Apostle Paul was acutely aware of what God said to the Israelites about their pretending to be righteous in order to be seen as pious and be revered for their works: “I myself will expose your [so-called] righteousness because what you have done won’t benefit you.15 Later on, Isaiah confessed this on behalf of the Israelites: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we put on our prized robes of self-righteousness, we find they are but filthy rags.16

This condition was illustrated so clearly by the expert on Moses’ laws who came to Jesus and asked Him what must a person do to obtain eternal life. First of all, this lawyer was asking the question to test Jesus, not because he really wanted to find out the truth. So when Jesus told Him that in addition to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, he must love his neighbor as himself.17 The NIV translates verse 29: “But he wanted to justify himself…” The Living Bible renders it this way: “The man wanted to justify his lack of love for some kinds of people…”

On another occasion, Jesus was teaching about seeking worldly wealth instead of heavenly riches. So the Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, laughed at Him. Then Jesus looked at them and said this: “You wear a noble, pious expression in public, but God knows your evil hearts. Your pretense brings you honor from the people, but it is an abomination in the sight of God.”18 Perhaps Paul heard that some of the Jewish leaders in the Roman church wanted to be treated special because they not only confessed Christ but made a public spectacle out of their prayers and good deeds. Paul no doubt was reminded of what he told the Galatians: “Anyone trying to find favor with God by being circumcised must always obey every other Jewish law or perish. Christ is useless to you if you are counting on clearing your debt to God by keeping those laws; you are lost from God’s grace.”19 We can make this admonition relevant for today by simply substituting the word, “baptism” for “circumcision,” and the words, “Jewish law” with “Church ritual,” and come to the same conclusion about lost grace.

1 Acts of the Apostles 22:3-5; 24:14; Galatians 1:13-14

2 Ibid. 21:20f

3 Ibid. Complete Jewish Bible

4 Ibid. 21:28-30

5 Philippians 3:4-7

6 Ibid. 3:8-11

7 Proverbs 19:2

8 2 Corinthians 4:6

9 The New Testament in an Improved Version: Archbishop Newcome’s New Translation with a Corrected Text and Notes Critical and Explanatory, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, from the London Edition, Thomas B. Wait and Co., Boston, 1809, loc. cit., p. 362

10 Psalm 71:14-15 – Complete Jewish Bible

11 1 Corinthians 10:31

12 Colossians 3:17

13 Jeremiah 23:5-6

14 2 Corinthians 5:21

15 Isaiah 57:12

16 Ibid. 64:6a

17 Luke 10:25ff

18 Ibid. 16:15

19 Galatians 5:3-4

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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