As he continues to build from his question of “what advantage does the Jew have…?” (3:1a), which has led to his declaration that “Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin” (3:9b), Paul accelerates the process of leveling out all people before God, thus contributing to his efforts towards Gentile inclusion under the covenant through the declaration of faith in Jesus rather than the works of the law (current covenant markers), as he pieces together disparate statements from the Psalms and from Isaiah, writing “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God” (3:10-11). This would certainly be more than a bit deflationary to his Jewish listeners.
He continues with “All have turned away,” as we note the importance of “all” to Paul both in Romans and in the remainder of the Pauline corpus (always remembering, in all that he writes, that he is the Apostle to the Gentiles), “together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (3:12). This is quite the accusation, and it probably deserves to be heard together with the ringing accusations of the first chapter, which can be applied to Jew and Gentile alike. Because these verses are prefaced by reference to “Jews and Greeks,” we also hear Paul co-opting words from the Psalms that were originally penned as polemics against the enemies of the king of Israel, so also enemies against Israel and Israel’s God, and re-deploying them as polemics against all peoples, both Jews and Greeks. All are placed under God’s judgment. Even in judgment, the equality of all peoples before God is paramount, regardless of the sources of equality. So, regardless of what Israel may say or think about itself, Paul, by utilizing the language used by members of Israel and reserved for their enemies or the enemies of their covenant God, groups Jews and Greeks together and universally insists that “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (3:13-14).
Borrowing from Isaiah, and from words directed to an Israel that was failing to live up to its covenant responsibilities, Paul adds: “Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known” (3:16-17). He rounds out his rhetorical flourish with a return to the Psalms and finishes with “There is no fear of God before they eyes” (3:18). So yes, even though Israel has their covenant markers, and by those covenant markers can be identified as members of the covenant, they are not truly participating with God under that covenant and are therefore truly indistinguishable, in God’s eyes, from Gentiles that bear no covenant markers. Consequently, a new covenant mark is needed and it is one that is going to apply to all people.
Having said what he has said, and having utilized the words from the Psalms and from Isaiah, Paul wastes no words, continuing on to write “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19). Generally, our focus when we look upon that verse is the law and the silencing of mouths, with this presumably directed to those who, because of the source of their righteousness (the covenant markers that indicates their status as “justified”), believe themselves to have some type of claim on God that is owing to the “good works” by which they believe themselves to have attained unto righteousness. Of course, we know that this idea of “good works” as a means to attain righteousness, set in juxtaposition to a position of “grace alone,” is a foreign concept that really has no place in consideration of the messages of Jesus and of Paul.
Perhaps, in accordance with what seems to be the general tenor and flow of Romans to this point, the focus should be more usefully directed towards the end of the verse and the whole world being held accountable to God? The “whole world” is significant, as is “held accountable.” Based on the “all peoples” focus of what had led to this statement, might we be better served if we hear Paul speaking towards a basis for justification (inclusion in the covenant people for the enjoyment of its promises and benefits) that is going to be on offer to all peoples? If we hear Paul in this way, then our thoughts are undoubtedly driven to the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as the basis (covenant marker) by which God has now chosen to hold the world accountable Of course, Paul has described this Gospel (Jesus is Lord) as “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16b), adding “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel” (1:17a).
If we believe this to be the case, and if we believe that this is Paul’s intention, and if we believe that the movement represented by this realization should be the recipient of our attention at this point in the letter, we are not at all disappointed to hear Paul say “For no one is declared righteous before Him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20). Indeed, as Paul elevates the Gospel as the basis on which the whole world (Jews and Gentiles) will be held accountable to God, he naturally diminishes the works of the law (then current covenant markers) as the basis for the declaration of “righteous” (justified---included in God’s covenant family), reiterating that it is through the law, with the covenant markers serving as knowledge-providing reminders of the whole of the law and as the reminder that Israel had failed to adhere to the law and therefore had failed to rightly bear the divine image (sin).