15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed 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.
Tribal identification offers a certain level of confidence for the average person. It allows us to create a division between those we deem “less than” and ourselves. Labels and distinctions are often methods we use to form identities for ourselves and they provide tools by which we can categorize others. These tribal identifications can be useful when the definitions are clear and universally accepted. They can also be dangerous when they are misunderstood or given too much credence.
Paul is a Jew. That is his tribal identification. A people group that was selected by God from all the nations of the earth, led by His voice and Law throughout their history, provided for by His miraculous hand and used as His representatives on the earth. Quite a pedigree indeed! There is a great deal to be proud of in this tribal identification. Paul states, “we are Jews.” In stating this identification, Paul is asserting his own superior pedigree above the “Gentile sinners” mentioned next. Indeed, the Jewish people were given the Law and the prophets (Romans 3:1-2). The Jews are the people who have been given the Law of God and are His chosen people.
Further, note that Paul says, “We ourselves are Jews BY BIRTH.” He did not join Judaism by choice. He was born into it. He also was favored to be Jewish from the moment he came into existence. Unlike the “Gentile sinner,” Paul and his brothers were chosen as Jews. While there are numerous benefits to tribal identity, there are also some requirements. For the Jew, circumcision is required. A man must be circumcised to be a Jew. It is the identifying act given to Abraham in Genesis 17 and a part of the law that the Jews were handed down in the desert in Leviticus 12:3. So important was this identifying mark that Exodus 12 commands that the slaves of the household and those who are merely interested in observing the Passover ought to be circumcised as well. Paul’s identity as a Jew demanded that he obey and observe certain parts of the law, for the law is for the Jews. Gentiles do not have the law. They are sinners, lawless and separated from the people of God.
What a terrifying identity to live in – one who is deemed a “Gentile sinner” before the judgment throne of God. A Gentile sinner has no hope of being accepted by God. He must become a Jew and even then he is only allowed admittance as a second class citizen and must obey the Law completely in order to be made righteous in God’s sight! In stark contrast to the Jew by birth, the Gentile sinner must accomplish an impossible task – they must become righteous after having been born unrighteous! This would be a horrific state indeed were it not for the next verse.
No tribal identification can make someone righteous. Righteousness is not achieved by the works of the law. Being a Jew, Paul had great confidence in the law and the works of the law, yet he was acutely aware of the truth that the law cannot and does not save a person. The only thing that does save a person is faith in Jesus Christ. Oh friend, can you not see that no amount of work can justify you before God!? He is holy and perfect. He has no fault within His being or actions. You stand before Him, a rebel to His perfection. What can you do to remedy such a sorry state? You can’t fulfill the law because you have already broken it in one place or another. You have one recourse of action. Throw yourself upon the mercy of Christ and trust Him to save you! Believe that Jesus, the Son of God: lived a perfect life, died on the cross to cover your sins, and rose again to bring life eternal to all who will trust Him! Salvation is at hand, just believe. No one is justified by works of the Law. Your tribal identity cannot save you. Your only hope is in Christ’s atoning work on the cross!
Paul recognized that salvation was beyond Judaism. Salvation comes from Christ and Christ is something more than Judaism. The law cannot save. Judaism and the religious systems and identities to which we cling so tightly offer no hope of salvation. While they may offer some enjoyment and understanding of how to live in this life, they offer no salvation. Only a complete surrender of identity to Christ will bring justification. “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Your own righteous deeds in obedience to the law cannot save. Being a Jew cannot save. Only Christ and His life will save!
Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!