A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 25, 2021.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:1–20).
Our passage begins with two questions: “What advantage has the Jew?” and “What is the value of circumcision?” Both are questions of identity, one of origin and the other of practice. The Jews were the descendants of Jacob, or Israel, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Through God’s covenant favor upon Abraham, his children inherited the God-ordained sign and seal of the covenant, circumcision, received specifically by every male child, prescriptively at eight days old. This Old Covenant sacrament was unique and defining, setting Israel apart from the pagan nations.
To understand the importance of this to the Jewish mind, think back with me to when young David inquired about the giant Goliath, he did not label him according to his stature or weapon but asked, “who is this uncircumcised Philistine?” (1 Sam. 17:26, emphasis added). It was a rhetorical question. Goliath was not a child of Israel. He did not bear the sign and seal of God’s covenant favor. He was David’s enemy, an enemy of God.
Therefore, Paul’s questions are not only stunning but offensive to the Jew: “What advantage has the Jew?” “What is the value of circumcision?” But Paul asks them anyway, as a Jew himself, not to demean but to discern. What advantage is there? Only the Jews could point to the pages of Scripture and show their family tree all the way back to the patriarchs. Only the Jews find their ancestors at Mt. Sinai when God revealed his glory and gave his law. Only the Jews received God’s covenant sign and seal of circumcision from generation to generation dating back to Abraham. And, as Paul begins, only “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
No one else in all the world received tablets of stone written on by the finger of God? While pagan religious writings were merely the result of human impulse, Israel was given prophets “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), delivering the very Word of God. No other people could make such a claim; no one else had received such a gift.
But Paul’s questions are not seeking information, are they? They are searching questions, leading the reader, whether Jew or Gentile, to consider: Does such favor negate faith? Does such a gift grant saving grace? Is the “uncircumcised Philistine” the only enemy of God? Could a child of Israel, a son of the covenant, a recipient of the oracles of God be one too? Or, if I may ask it another way: Is the law enough for the Jew? What need has the Jew of the gospel? What need have you?
Sin Is Sin
Did you know that Jewish sin and Gentile sin are the same? In fact, no matter your ethnicity, your gender, or even your religion, sin is sin. Of course, some would argue that sin is a religious construct, defined and adhered to within the framework of a specific religion. Others would have us eliminate the word sin and speak of a secular morality, culturally acquired, socially constructed mores. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt asks, “Where does morality come from?” He argues that morality is culturally derived “as a set of evolved intuitions” and is learned as these intuitions are applied “within a particular culture.” He states that it is a “simple fact” that you can go around the world and find that morality differs, “even within societies.”
Notwithstanding that Haidt and I may not share the same definition of “morality,” his opinion is not a “simple fact.” On the contrary, travel widely, learn about other cultures, study ancient literature, become a student of history, and you will find a remarkable similarity of morality. As C.S. Lewis observed,
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.
Objective morality has existed, does exist, and will exist, because it is not derived from “a set of evolved intuitions” nor learned as these intuitions are applied “within a particular culture. Objective morality exists, because sin is sin, and sin is sin because God is true.
God Is True
This does not mean that God is the author or approver of sin, nor does our sin glorify God in his righteousness, nor is good elevated in our evil. God is “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” He is not a god of our making nor is morality defined by mankind (past, present, or future) but rather according to God’s very being. He is the perfect standard of truth, because he is perfectly true, and sin is defined in opposition to him, as he has revealed himself. Therefore, sin is sin because it is “any lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God.”
When David repented of his sin of adultery and murder, he did not repent to Bathsheba in person or to the memory of Uriah, but to God, confessing, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). It is not a denial of his sin against his neighbor but an acknowledgement that God is true, each and every transgression of God’s law, any lack of conformity, is an offense to God, who will judge the world in righteousness. Therefore, whether Jew or Gentile, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
This is, however, contrary to popular opinion, because popular opinion is the majority human perspective. We think that most people do some good and some people do mostly good, which is true, relative to each of us. But that’s the problem: We are looking horizontally rather than vertically. I’m OK and you’re OK as long as it’s you and me (although I’m not too sure about you), but before God we are totally depraved.
So common is this problem that John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with this penetrating observation:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. . . . it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy – clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.
In the mirror of cultural morality, we look pretty good, if not great. In the mirror of God’s holiness, we look dead. In this mirror, we don’t like what we see, but Paul polishes the glass and tilts the mirror that we may see clearly who we really are before God. Drawing from the psalms and prophets, Paul points to the evidence of our thoughts, our words, and our deeds, revealing, “None is righteous, no, not one.”
In the secret life of the mind, we overestimate our ability to comprehend the things of God. We assume it is a matter of hard work, determination, education, and perhaps luck. But we are merely created beings and fallen at that. Before the eternal wisdom of God, “no one understands,” a truth further evidenced by our unwillingness, in fact our inability, to seek for God. We may pursue the worthy, but our pursuit renders it worthless. God is not the problem; we are: “None is righteous, no, not one. … no one does good, not even one.”
This truth is further evidenced in our words. Rather than life-giving, our words are condemning. Created to speak the truth, we lie; created to rejoice, we curse; created to praise, we bite, with the venom of our depravity. God is not the problem; we are: “None is righteous, no, not one. … no one does good, not even one.”
If our thoughts weren’t enough, if our words were not complete evidence, we are further condemned by our deeds. We may intend to love, or say that we love, but in our hearts we murder. Rather than the blessing we were blessed to be, we bring not delight but destruction, not ministry but misery. We want peace, may strive for peace, but know no peace. Why? As Paul quotes, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” God is not the problem; we are: “None is righteous, no, not one. … no one does good, not even one.”
Whether Jew or Gentile, we all are guilty of breaking God’s law, disobeying God’s commandments, sinning by commission and omission. The beauty of the law is that it reveals God’s perfection, but it also brings knowledge of sin. God gave the Jews his law, but is the law enough to save them from the wrath of God’s judgment? God has written his law upon our hearts, but is it enough to save us from the wrath of God’s judgment? What need has the Jew of the gospel? What need have you?
Grace Is Given
As sin is “any lack of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God,” we find that the law isn’t enough. We who are due God’s wrath for breaking his law need the gospel of his grace, and so he has given us this good news: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).
It is the gospel truth that “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 3:23-24a).
God responds not to our goodness, obedience, or works, but “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
We did not merit God’s grace or even produce our faith, but “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” saving us by his grace through his gift of faith (Eph. 2:4, 8-9). Therefore, both Jew and Gentile, need the gospel.
We need it for salvation. We need it for forgiveness. We need it to live out this faith we have been given. We need it every day. Our flesh will point us back to law, remind us our failures, relish in our disobedience, shackle us to our efforts. The gospel of God’s grace points us to Christ, reminds us of his sufferings, shows us his perfect obedience, and empowers us to live for him. Our flesh may lie that we are condemned by the law, but the gospel truth is: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Let us believe this truth, know this truth, live this truth, and let God be true.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 5.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 4.
 Art Lindsley, “C.S. Lewis On Absolutes,” Knowing and Doing (Fall 2002),
 “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.” The Westminster Confession of Faith 5.4 (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publication of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2007), 22-23.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 4. Ibid., 357-358.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 14, David Snoke, trans., The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English (Pittsburgh, PA: City Reformed Presbyterian Church), 3,
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1:35, 37.