I've been mulling over Romans 2 and 3 today, after a Peter Comont preach at MRC last night. The main drift of the chapters is pretty clear. Having dished out some fairly heavy condemnation of humanity - and I think in particular Gentile society - in Romans 1, Paul goes on to hit the moralist in chapter 2. The temptation for the moralist - and he slides over the course of the verses to be talking particularly about the Jewish moralist - is to assume that they are better. This is the sort of person who can nod along with Paul's condemnation, confident that it does not apply to them. Paul's reply to the moralist is that they do just the same things. Not, perhaps, the identical crimes, but the same sorts of things, and moreover they do them without any sense of needing God's mercy. They sin with a high hand, and can expect judgement, with as little mercy as they are prepared to show to others.
The second part of chapter 2 has always seemed to me in the past to be Paul simply labouring his point, and in particular hammering it home to his former co-religionists. There is a bit of that. But what has struck me this time around is that Paul's imagined opponent relies on two main things - having the law, and having circumcision. Paul's point is that neither of these things are sufficient for justification. But I wonder whether I have always misunderstood his opponent's position. Having the law and being circumcised - that is to say, being a Jew. And that is grace. The person who relies on having the law and on being circumcised does not rely on themselves (this is particularly clear with regard to the latter) so much as on God's gift.
And so I think the beginning of Romans 3 is a dialogue that goes something like this:
"What is the use then, Paul, of being a Jew? What good is circumcision?"
(Note that Paul could say 'nothing', and indeed when the question is directly 'what good is it for justification?', he will indeed say 'nothing at all'. But at this point that is not what he says).
"It is an enormous privilege in every way! For starters, you have the Scriptures entrusted to you".
(This doesn't really get unpacked; I think Paul imagines himself being interrupted).
"Of course, but that is hardly the point of our discussion. You seem to be saying, Paul, that the unfaithfulness of some - perhaps even a majority - in Israel has completely undone the faithfulness of God; you seem to be saying that God's covenant faithfulness to Israel was always dependent on Israel's goodness".
(If Paul were saying this, he would of course be flying in the face of the prophets, and of Moses. The OT is full of the glorious truth that unfaithful Israel is chosen and upheld despite their unfaithfulness by God's faithfulness to them. But notice the plea that is being made here; it is an appeal to grace).
"Certainly not! God is faithful even if no-one else is. But his faithfulness may mean judgement as well as mercy".
(The latter is implied by the OT quotation. For more of God's ongoing faithfulness to Israel, we could jump to Romans 9-11).
The dialogue goes on, with Paul's opponent getting rather desperate and hard up for good arguments, as is often the fate of imaginary interlocutors.
To see that Paul is countering an appeal to grace (and there can be no doubt that he agrees with his opponent that law and circumcision, as the marks of Israel's election, represent grace) makes me think that the main point of these chapters, building up to the righteousness apart from the law which has now been revealed, are not so much about works versus grace, or works versus faith. They are about anything at all versus Christ. Even God's past grace, if it distracts from or detracts from Christ, is an unrighteousness, a filthy rag.
Faith alone is only true and important if it is faith in Christ alone.