Through chapters two and three of Romans, there are seeming paradoxical and contradictory statements made by the apostle concerning the advantage that the Jews have over the Gentiles in having the written code and circumcision. We find first in Romans 2:13 the declaration that “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the law who will be made righteous.” Following this there is the condemnation of Jews who esteem themselves as teachers because they know the will of God and know what is excellent because they are instructed from the Law, but, though these know the law, they dishonor God by breaking the very law that they boast in and therefore cause the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles by their hypocrisy. Therefore because they break the law, their circumcision is regarded as uncircumcision (v. 2:25), and those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law are considered circumcised (v. 2:26), because circumcision and Jewish-ness is not an outward manifestation nor is it based upon physical descent exclusively, but it is a matter of the heart by work of the Spirit of God.
It is in chapter 3 that Paul makes his two seemingly contradictory statements. First he writes, “What advantage has the Jew? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (vv. 3:1, 2). Okay, therefore the Jews’ having the oracles / the word of God is an advantage. Case closed. But then the apostle makes this statement a few verses later, “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” (v. 3:9). In other words, oracles or no oracles, the state of Jews and Greeks are the same. Why?–Sin. Sin is the great equalizer. Sin has so captivated all men, both Jews and Greek, to such an radical degree so as to make written code / Scriptures of no benefit by itself. This is why apostle follows with this statement with the all familiar declaration of man’s natural state: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (v. 3:10-12), and why the apostle writes earlier, “Circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit” (v. 2:29). For just as no one is righteous on his own accord, so no one can circumcise his own heart to obedience. It is the Spirit’s work alone, not according to man’s will or exertion (cf. Jn. 3:6-8; Rm. 9:16).
It is for this reason also that after the apostle’s glorious passage concerning the necessity of the proclamation of the Gospel in Romans 10:14, 15 that he follows it with this explanation concerning Israel’s rejection of the Gospel: “So faith comes from hearing, but hearing through the word of Christ” (Rm. 10:17). So as circumcision of the heart is accomplished by the Spirit, so too the ability to hear and thereby have faith is created by the word of Christ. The apostle puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4 concerning the work of the Father:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (vv. 4-6).
Therefore it through both the preaching of the word of God (or oracles in chapter 3) and through the sovereign work of the Triune God alone is saved. For this reason, the apostle does not contradict himself in saying that on the one hand the Jews had a great advantage in possessing the oracles of God and on the other hand saying that the Jews in spite of the oracles had no advantage over Gentiles who had never heard the name of Yahweh. The state of man is such that no man, even a man who possessed and knew the Scriptures, can be saved apart from the regenerative work of God. That is also why the apostle writes prior to the above passage from 2 Corinthians 4, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (vv. 4:1, 2). In other words, if it is God who saves souls, there is no reason why the Gospel should be neatly wrapped and sold. The charge given is to preach the Gospel, in season or out season, and allow God to accomplish the growth (cf. 2Tm. 4:2; 1Cor. 3:6).
Why is it this way? The apostle gives this explanation in Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” He gives no further explanation than this, but flows into praise and adoration. We ought to do the same:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.