Paul senses questions being raised as he comes to the end of Romans 2 and begins chapter 3.Questions like; if God treats Jews and Gentiles alike, not showing favoritism, and if the only thing that makes one truly Jewish is an inward transformation by the Holy Spirit, then what advantage is there in being a Jew? Or to put it in other terms, what is the Old Testament all about? And why did God institute circumcision? If Paul is right, these things are pointless. Or since we know that what God does is not pointless and must have a proper purpose to it, isn’t it the case that Paul must be wrong in his conclusions – whether or not we can detect the weak point of his arguments?
This is a very important matter – for the Jews as well as for non-Jews. We have been talking about Jewish people’s spiritual advantages or lack of them. But, although the Jew’s apparent advantages are different from the Gentile’s, his situation and the Gentile’s are parallel. For we who call ourselves Christians must ask, “What advantage, then, is there is being a godly churchgoing person? What value is there in baptism, church membership, communion, or any other religious exercise if we are all under condemnation anyway?” “Do any religious people have an edge?” If we don’t, then why should we bother with religion at all? Let’s enjoy ourselves and sin right along with the heathen. If we do have an edge, then isn’t it the case that it is possible to please God by our religious practices and be saved by them after all?
Paul’s answer is that circumcision and being Jewish are true advantages, although they are not the kind of advantages we are thinking of if we wrongly suppose that one can be saved by them. Paul is answering the specific question “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew?” in Romans 3, it is not the whole list (which is found in Romans 9) but rather the matter of possessing the very words of God alone that he stresses. In fact, although he has also asked, “What value is there in circumcision?” he does not speak of the sacraments or any other external sign as an advantage in this context. Just Scripture! That is the chief item and in Romans 3, the only one. This is of immense importance to us, because it is the only blessing in this long list of Jewish advantages in which Gentiles share. We can say, “Ours are the Scriptures” – if we have been fortunate enough, as virtually all of us have been, to have been given the very words of God in our language.
Paul is answering an argument about the thoroughly religious person of his day, the Jew. However we need to apply it to the thoroughly religious person of our time also. The issue the apostle is dealing with here is of vital importance to everyone. No one is saved by such things as baptism, sacraments, or church attendance. No one is even saved by such an important thing as having – and yes, even studying – the Bible. But that does not mean that religious practices are of no use to us or that one is acting wisely if he or she abuses, neglects, or disregards them.
So…what advantage then, is there in being a godly, churchgoing “Christian” person? Let’s review three advantages: (1) Even if God never saves you by drawing you from the darkness of your sin to saving faith in Jesus Christ, you will at least sin less because of these advantages and therefore be punished less severely. We must understand that on the one hand there are genuine spiritual advantages (for those who will have them) and, on the other hand, that these in themselves do not save anyone. We must remember that our situation is desperate. We can do nothing for ourselves. Even knowing the truth does not save us, because in our unregenerate state we are unresponsive and even hostile to it. No one can be saved who is not born again, and the work of spiritual regeneration is God’s doing.
(2) Going to church and listening to the preaching of the Word of God, if you are in a good, Bible-believing church, will at least cause you to know the way of salvation even if you do not respond to it. A person might argue that knowing how to be saved and yet not responding to that revelation, in fact rejecting it, is not an advantage but a disadvantage in that it undoubtedly increases one’s guilt. This is true, of course. Moreover, it is compounded if together with your knowledge you also acquire the habit of thinking of yourself as a rather fine Christian specimen. You are worse off if you think that God must somehow think better of you just because you know much. But it does not need to work that way. In fact, it is meant to work quite the other way. Instead of becoming proud because of your knowledge, you should be humbled by it. Who can read the first three chapters of Romans intelligently and remain proud?
(3) The third great advantage of regular church attendance and, above all, faithful adherence to the preaching and study of the Word of God is that, although you cannot claim this as a right from God, it is through the reading and preaching of the Bible that God is most likely to save you. How is one born again, after all? Peter writes that we are “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23). To hear the Word of God is the most assured path to salvation. In the same way James wrote, “He [God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18).
If you are reading these words but are not born again, your condition is not good. You are lost and under God’s wrath. You are blind to God’s truth. You are spiritually bankrupt. But there is one thing; although you cannot save yourself, as long as you can hear this or any other gospel message, you are at least where Jesus is likely to go. He loves to bless the preaching and teaching of His Word. Therefore, though your condition may be desperate, it is no worse than any other lost sinner before he or she was saved. The mere hearing the Word is your advantage. Do not despise it and don’t say, “So, then, what advantage is there in religion?” There is a great advantage in it. “Much in every way!” (Rom. 3:2). Cling to it. Wring every possible “edge” from it. Who knows but that God will use the very Word you hear to save your soul?
Romans 3:1-2 Reflection Questions:
How often do you hear or read and study God’s Word?
Why is going to church important to you?
What does “being born again” mean to you? How do you know if you are or not, born again?
Are you proud or humbled by your knowledge of God’s Word?