I highly recommend, first of all, that you read the recent blog post at HonorShame.com: “The meaning of Romans 3:23”. The author‘s explanation of this often-quoted verse brings out the honor-shame dynamics in the context of Romans 1–3.
The author points to the fact that Romans 3:23 speaks to the sinfulness of peoples (Jews and Gentiles)—more than to the general sin of individual persons. The blog post provides helpful background information for my blog post below.
For the sake of convenience, a key paragraph from the HonorShame.com blog is provided below. (Remember, this is about the verse, Romans 3:23—“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”)
Simply put, all does not mean “every single, individual person.” Rather, all means “both Jews and Gentiles,” or “every ethnicity.” Or most succinctly, it means “all peoples,” instead of “all people.” The primary categories in Romans 1-3 are groups, not individuals. Romans addresses the relationship between two groups of people. Group A consists of ethnic Israelites, “the circumcised,” “the Jews,” “those under the nomos/Torah.” Group B is the Gentiles, “the uncircumcised, “the Greeks,” “those without nomos/Torah. So, when Paul says “all” he has in mind both of these groups—Jews and Gentiles. The use in Romans 3:23 means “all peoples” more than “every individual.”
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the doctrine of justification by faith is tethered to the global mission of God—the blessing of salvation for all peoples. We’ll look at two passages in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome—Romans 3:28–30 and Romans 4:16–18, plus Galatians 3:7–9. All of these passages deal with justification by faith and the all-peoples mission of God.
This blog post is part one. We examine Romans 3:28–30 …
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Explicit and positive
We start with the obvious. The verses contain a truth that is both explicit and positive concerning the all-peoples emphasis. God will justify persons from among both Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles (the uncircumcised). Together, this represents all the peoples of the earth. God will bless all peoples. No people group is excluded from God’s blessing. It connects with God’s original promise to Abraham to bless all the peoples of the earth through his family (Gen 12:3, 15:5, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14).
To emphasize the radical nature of God’s gift-of-salvation-offered-to-all-peoples, Apostle Paul asks: “Or is God the God of the Jews only?” (Paul is identifying the default Jewish attitude that God belongs to the Jews only—the basis for Jewish “boasting”.)
Then Paul answers, “Yes, of Gentiles also”. Concerning this answer, Robert Jewett writes:
Paul contends that the relationship of the “Gentiles” and the “Jews” to God is now exactly the same … God is the God of both ethnic groups. The revolutionary equality of all nations before God that flows from the Christ event is emphatically stated by Paul’s response to the interlocutor’s question: ναὶ καὶ ἐθνῶν (“Yes, [God] also [belongs to] Gentiles).
Note well the explicit-positive principle: All nations are equal before God. It is a revolutionary idea. Paul was articulating a Christ-centered gospel which was utterly fresh—a brilliant, positive hope in his world of the Roman Empire. It challenged the status quo of empire-adoring Romans … of ethnically proud Jews … and of culturally elitist Greeks. Can you hear this gospel speaking to our world as well?
Implicit and negative
And now, the not-as-obvious. There is an all-peoples emphasis in Romans 3:28–30 that is more implicit and negative. It is implicit in the phrase, “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”. Jewett, commenting on Rom 3:28, writes:
God’s granting of righteousness through faith in the crucified Christ counters the seemingly universal tendency to claim honor on the basis of performance or social status. It eliminates claims of cultural or ethnic superiority.
In the book Saving God’s Face, Jackson Wu also addresses the ethnic issues of Jew and Gentile in the doctrine of justification by faith as taught in Romans and Galatians. After a lengthy nuanced discussion covering various perspectives, Wu concludes:
“[T]his gospel message (Gal 3:8) inherently necessitates forsaking the primacy of ethnic identity. The gospel directly challenges ethnocentrism; it is no mere corollary or application.
Wow. “The gospel directly challenges ethnocentrism; it is no mere corollary or application.” Do you hear the force of these words? Ethnic, tribal or national identity is to be secondary to the believer’s primary identity as citizen in God’s kingdom, family member in the household of God (Eph 2:19). I believe it is this, our most-honorable identity in Christ, that subverts ethnocentrism and is part of the core of the gospel.
What is the implicit and negative all-peoples emphasis? It is that faith in the crucified Christ “directly challenges ethnocentrism” and “eliminates claims of cultural or ethnic superiority”. Faith in the crucified Christ necessitates forsaking ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism, cultural elitism, racism—this is what we are to negate through the gospel.
It includes and excludes
Of course, the gift of salvation in Christ includes the personal gain of eternal life and the hope of heaven. But what if we embraced a fuller meaning of justification-by-faith in Rom 3:28–30 as described above? If we did, the gift of salvation might profoundly impact the believer’s relational world when it excludes from the believer—attitudes of cultural, national, tribal, or ethnic superiority.
An audacious thought: Could this all-nations, global gospel have prevented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when a majority of the nation was considered Christian? Could this all-nations, global gospel have a profound impact today in America—in our deeply polarized social and political climate?
Every expression of elitism, racism, and nationalism will one day fall in submission to the Lordship of Christ. This is part of a gospel expressly designed by God to bless all the peoples of the earth.
Conclusion: Could it be that the Western, individualistic legal-framework gospel emphasizes personal conscience and individual conversion—while at the same time, it unduly marginalizes the relational, social significance of the all-peoples, all-ethnicities gospel? Is this because in Western theology, the common understanding of justification by faith is missing the ethnic, relational, or social dimension of what Apostle Paul intended?
Next post: Part two—Romans 4:16–18 and Galatians 3:7–9
1. Robert Jewett confirms this exegesis: “To fall short is an honor issue and it resonates with the competition for honor within and between groups in the Greco-Roman world. . . . Despite the claims of Jews and Greeks to surpass each other in honor and despite their typical claims that the other groups are shameful because of their lack of wisdom or moral conformity, Paul’s claim is that all fall short of the transcendent standard of honor.” In Jewett: Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 280.
2. Ibid., 299.
3. Ibid., 298.
4. Jackson Wu: Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series), (Pasadena: William Carey International University Press, 2013), 276–7.