2:12-16 God will judge people according to the light they have. Thus, those who sinned without the law (2:12)—that is, the Gentiles—will be judged according to the law that is written on their hearts. Although the Gentiles may not have had the Jewish law, they had their conscience, which was sufficient to either accuse or even excuse them (2:15). Gentiles have ignored their conscience and acted wickedly. But Paul highlights the opposite possibility, saying that the ability of the Gentiles to do what the law demands (2:14)—not perfectly, of course—even without God’s law, was meant to put the Jews to shame. The Gentiles’ obedience was an authentic witness to the Jews, who were often hearers of the law but not doers of the law (2:13).
3:1-2 Paul continues his hypothetical dialogue with his Jewish objector in chapter 3: So what advantage does the Jew have? If Gentiles can be circumcised in spirit without being circumcised in the flesh, what is the benefit of circumcision? (3:1). Why go through the painful procedure at all? More importantly, why go through the trouble of keeping the law if, as it seems, the law doesn’t really matter? Paul quickly corrects this line of thinking, pointing out that having the law was a unique privilege for the Jews—not a burden (3:2).
3:3-4 Paul’s objector fires back: If some (of the Jews) were unfaithful, will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? (3:3). The Jews were supposed to be a “light for the nations” (Isa 49:6), as Paul hinted at already (2:19). But if that light goes out, what hope is left? Isn’t God’s plan dead in the water? To this Paul responds with the most adamant denial possible in the Greek language: Absolutely not! (3:4). God’s faithfulness is not overcome by our faithlessness, however great it may be. As Paul puts it, Let God be true, even though everyone is a liar (3:4). Our very unrighteousness demonstrates God’s righteousness.
3:5-8 Paul’s objector retorts, But if our unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness, how can that be fair? (3:5). If by my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? (3:7). Don’t miss the indignation that these questions ignite in Paul (3:8); it shows that people really were asking them. Their attitude is the pinnacle of proud humanity: when God turns our evil toward his good plan, we ask to be let off for our evil. But just because God uses our unrighteousness to reveal his righteousness does not negate the fact that we broke the law.
3:9 Paul finally leaves his objector behind and returns to his main theme for this section—the impartiality of God. Before the impartial Judge, both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin. The Jews may have sinned by ignoring the law, but the Gentiles sinned by ignoring their conscience. We started on different paths, but we ended up in the same hopeless place.
3:10-18 None of us like to hear that our case is hopeless. The Jews certainly didn’t. So Paul has to prove it to them, using a parade of their own oracles to show that the whole world is guilty before God. He intentionally uses six body parts to illustrate his point: the throat is an open grave (3:13); there is deceit on their tongues (3:13); there is venom under their lips (3:13); the mouth is full of cursing (3:14); the feet are swift to shed blood (3:15); and there is no fear of God before their eyes (3:18). People use every part of their bodies, their minds, and their hearts to rebel against the Word and will of God. Paul could not be clearer: there is no one who seeks God (3:11). All of us stand under condemnation; all of us need salvation.