Harsh much, Paul? We were Jews from birth and not Gentile sinners? Well, isn’t that good for you, but what of the Gentile sinners? Who were the Gentile sinners? They were the very people whose freedom in Christ and whose justification by grace, through faith, without the works of the Old Testament Mosaic law, he is defending. So why call them that? Were not the Jews sinners? Surely they were. In fact, they were better sinners, because, while the law cannot save us—not because of its deficiency, but our own—it can certainly reform and refine us, so that we become reformed and refined sinners, better at hiding our impiety and putting up appearances. At this Paul’s foes were professionals. Paul is not looking down on the Gentiles whose salvation he defends and will in no way allow to be compromised with works of the law. No, Paul here is adopting the language of the legalistic Jews who were attacking the gospel and the Gentile’s legitimacy as Christians and children of God. These “Gentile sinners,” as such people would call them, Paul says are in fact the better Christians, not because they are any less sinners, but because they confess it and abandon themselves on Christ, His Word, and His righteousness for hope and salvation.
Paul is no less Jew than the Jews accusing him—that was the point of his conversion account being included. In fact, he had been outpacing them all in his Judaism. And so he knows of what he speaks concerning the law, and knowing of what he speaks, he makes clear that no one—no one, not even you—will be saved through the law, but only through Christ, who has kept the law for us and paid for our manifold and grievous transgression against it. The Gentiles do not need more works; the Jews need more faith, namely, God’s gift of faith in Christ Jesus, “in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
You see, as Christians we keep the law, not to be saved, but because we have been saved. We keep the law, not so God will love us, but because He has already loved us perfectly in Christ and created a love for Him in us, once His enemies by birth. We love, not to be righteous, but because we have been declared righteous. We serve, not to earn a wage, but because we have already received Christ’s merits and His reward. We obey, not to get to heaven, but because heaven is already ours, so that we now have a radically different obedience, the obedience of faith, which labors not to receive, but having already received its sole and greatest delight, Christ our Lord, crucified for sinners and raised for their justification and sainthood.
Have you had a rough patch lately? Have you doubted God’s Word? Have you strayed from His path? Have you broken His commands? Has guilt weighed you down, so that your heart feels cold and hopeless? Have you neglected His Word and instead paid unscrupulous heed to the cacophony of unreasoning and deceptive voices calling at you from our culture? The answer is not to suck it up and try harder. The answer is to stop trying to save yourself, to redeem yourself, to wipe the balance sheet clean. That is all Christ’s work, accomplished, done, for you. Hear His Word. Listen to His promises. Learn His voice. Plead His merits. Put on His righteousness. Lean on Him who stumbled under the cross for you with no one to lean on. You are saved, redeemed, made whole, renewed, not through the works of the law, which have no end and can only end in accusation and not atonement, but through faith in Christ Jesus, the Savior, your Savior, who justifies sinners and can do nothing with those who claim no sin, no need for mercy. Be a Gentile sinner, for Gentile sinners have no sin and will not be ashamed in Christ, who died for the ungodly, for us, who become godly, not through better efforts, but through passivity in His presence, through the reception of His gifts, Word and Sacrament.
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