Jewish and Christian Boasting in Romans
by Jimmy Akin
I. JEWISH BOASTING IN ROMANS
A theme in Romans that deserves special mention is boasting of one’s relationship to God. Many Protestants seize on passages in Romans which speak of Jews boasting and use them to argue that this describes a Jewish self-righteousness and an attempt to earn one’s place before God by one’s own efforts, claiming that the Jews were boasting in their own righteous deeds. As we will see, this is a first-class misrepresentation of the text.
While the idea of boasting normally connotes arrogance in English, this is not always the case in Paul’s thought.1 This raises the possibility that the Jew may not be here boasting in his own-self accomplishment — indeed, he is boasting “in God” or in his relationship with God, which in the Jewish mind is a relationship of grace. Thus the Jew may be “glorying in the Lord” (Jr 9:24), but his boasting is misplaced since he believes his relationship with the Lord is from Torah. The Jew may indeed be arrogant over the Gentile in believing that he has a grace-filled relationship with God through Torah, but it is not a boast of self-accomplishment, but a boast “in God,” based on one’s relationship with God (through Torah), as many contemporary commentators have noted (e.g., Sanders, Dunn, Zeisler).
Because of the difficulty some modern readers may have in understanding the difference between arrogantly boasting in self-accomplishment and arrogantly boasting in one’s relationship to God, an analogy may be helpful. Imagine two little boys bickering with each other. In the process of the conflict, one little boy adopts a superior attitude and says, “Well, my dad is better than your dad.” In this case, the child is arrogantly boasting of his relationship with his dad, even though he is not boasting of his self-accomplishment. He is not citing anyot; In this case, the child is boasting of his relationship with the parent — which he perceives as being brought about by his natural descent — in contrast to the imagined non-presence of the relationship between the parent and the adopted child. The argument is that because the one child lacks a certain quality (being a natural child), he must therefore lack the favored relationship that the first child has.
In this manner, a Jew might boast over a Gentile. The Jew might argue that he is a child of God — that he has a favored relationship with Yahweh — because he has a particular quality (being a son of Abraham, Ro 4:11-12, 9:7, Mt 3:9, or being under Torah, Ro 2:17) — while those who lack this quality must ipso facto not be the children of God. It is in this sense that the Jew is boasting in God in Romans, as is confirmed by the passages in the early chapters of Romans which speak of boasting.
In 2:17 the object of the Jew’s boasting was God, not his own self-accomplishment. Paul says: “But . . . you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and make your boast in God.” Here the object of the Jew’s boast is obviously God — Yahweh — not in his own self-righteous works. He is boasting to the Gentile saying, “My God is greater than your god,” not boasting in front of the Lord saying, “Look how righteous I am, God.”
Similarly, in 2:23 we see that the object of the Jew’s boasting is “the Torah.” Paul says, “You who boast in the Torah, do you dishonor God by breaking the Torah? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (Rom 2:23f).
Here the object of boasting is not the Jew’s self-righteous accomplishment of the Torah’s requirements, but the Torah itself. The Torah is an object of boasting in front of Gentiles because it is what the Jew perceives to be the thing that unites him to God. The Gentiles do not have Torah, hence they are not united to God. The Jew thus reasons in front of his Gentile neighbor, “How glorious is Torah! It is the thing which makes my privileged relationship to God possible!”
The fact that the Jew is not boasting in his own moral accomplishments is evident from the fact that Paul immediately after acknowledging the Jew’s boast in the Torah, he pricks the Jew’s conscience by pointing out that the Jew has broken the Torah. He says in effect: “Okay, so you boast about the Torah in front of Gentiles, do you? Well, do you dishonor God by breaking the Torah in front of Gentiles?”
In 3:27 we encounter another example of Jewish boasting in a privileged relationship with God. Paul says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? [On the principle] of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of Torah.”
Just prior to this Paul stated that Jews are also under the power of sin and that the Gentiles can be justified by faith in Jesus Christ (3:19-26). So how must Jewish boasting over Gentiles be evaluated? It is excluded. The principle of faith excludes boasting because according to the principle of faith anyone who has faith in Jesus is set right with God. That being the case, Jewish boasting in having a particular relationship with God through Torah is excluded.
Notice that Paul says the principle of works2 does not exclude boasting. This has implications for the kind of boasting that is in view. If the boasting was in one’s own righteousness, then Paul would have said that Torah does exclude such boasting, “[f]or even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the Torah” (Gal 6:13a) and “Jews . . . are under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9). If it was boasting in one’s own moral purity then Paul would say that the principle of works excludes boasting. But since he explicitly states that it does not exclude the boasting he is talking about, it must not be boasting in self-accomplishment that he has in mind. Instead, it is boasting “in God” and in the Jew’s privileged relationship with him.
Finally, the reference to boasting in Rom 4:2 confirms that this kind of boasting is under discussion. There Paul says, What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith without works. He does this by offering a common ground principle with which he expects his Jewish audience to agree: [I]f Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about (4:2a). This common ground principle would hold true regardless of how works are interpreted in it. If works are acts of self-accomplishment then a person who has been justified by works would obviously have grounds on which to boast. “Look what I have done!” such a person would have a right to cry. “See, I have justified myself before God!” Similarly, if works are, as we will maintain, the ceremonial acts prescribed by the Torah then a person justified by those would also have grounds to boast. He could say to a Gentile: “See: I am right with God, while you are not. I have obtained his favor by performing the ceremonies he prescribes.”
But Paul does not stop at this point. His next comment tells us what kind of works and what kind of boasting is being talked about, for Paul says that a person justified by works would have grounds to boast but not before God (4:2b). If the works and boasting Paul was talking about were of moral self-accomplishment then this last statement would make no sense. A person justified by works of moral self-accomplishment would have grounds to boast in front of God. He could look to God and say, “See, Lord, all of the wonderful things I have done which have earned me my place before you.”
Therefore Paul must not be talking about that kind of boasting or works. That kind would render unintelligible his statement about not being able to boast before God if one was justified by works. But the alternative reading makes perfect sense. If Abraham was justified by (ceremonial) works of Torah then Abraham could boast in this fact before Gentiles (“Abraham . . . [would have] something to boast about,” 4a), yet this would give him no grounds for boasting before God (“but not before God,” 4b).
This not only makes the argument intelligible, but perfectly suits it for the kind of common ground argument Paul is attempting. Any Jew thinking hearing Paul’s argument could be expected to say at this point, “Oh, yeah. That’s obvious, isn’t it. The fact Abraham would have had grounds to boast in front of Gentiles does not mean he had grounds to boast in front of God.”
A Jew would know that he (like any person) must adopt an attitude of humility, not boasting, before God. As the prophet says, “the Lord requires you . . . to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). This would strike every Jew as so obvious that it is axiomatic. Yet in their zeal to boast before Gentiles, it was a truth of which they had lost sight. Paul is thus calling them back to the true emphasis of their ancestral faith — humility before God, not prideful boasting before Gentiles. Paul’s point in turning in 4:3 to Genesis 15:6 is to make precisely this point. Abraham was justified in that passage by humbly trusting God, meaning an attitude of humble trust is what justifies, not performance of works of Torah.
This suffices for an analysis of Paul’s remarks on Jewish boasting. As we will see in 5:1-11, however, Paul also has something quite interesting and different to say about Christian boasting: He recommends it.
II. CHRISTIAN BOASTING IN ROMANS
While a discussion of Jewish boasting in front of unbelievers occupied Paul in Romans 2-4, in Romans 5 he takes up the parallel subject of Christian boasting in front of unbelievers.
Thus in Romans 5:1-2 he states: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, let us have peace with God3 through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and let us boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
Earlier Paul discussed improper Jewish boasting in God, which was improper because it was based on Torah (2:23). Now he discusses Christian boasting in God, which is proper because it is based on Christ (5:11). The goal of Christian boasting in God is to win people to the Christian faith (cf. 11:13). Paul tells us to boast in three things: our hope (v 2), our sufferings (v 3), and God himself through Christ (v 11).
The term in 5:2 translated “boast” is translated as “rejoice” by most Bibles, but it should be “boast.” It is the same word that already has been consistently translated as “boast” previously in Romans. Not only is it the established rendering of the term in this book, but it makes explicit the contrast between the Jewish boasting that Paul has previously discussed and the Christian boasting he now discusses.
The first thing Paul says we should boast about as Christians is our hope of sharing the glory of God. This is a statement to which much contemporary preaching needs to pay attention. As part of evangelism, we should boast in our Christian hope as a way of making Christianity attractive to others, who do not have this hope.
In 5:3 Paul goes beyond this and says, “More than that, let us boast in our sufferings . . . ” Human nature does not normally boast in sufferings, so we need to be encouraged to do so. Paul explains why in 3b-5: suffering triggers a chain of events that will end up fulfilling our hope (of sharing in the glory of God; v 2b). We will not be disappointed in this hope because God’s love has been poured (infused) into our heats through the Holy Spirit (v 5).
To illustrate how deep this love of God for us is, Paul points out that Christ was willing to die for us when we were still sinners (i.e., before we became Christians; vv 6, 8). This outstrips what one person will naturally do for another (v 7), showing the supernatural character of God’s love. Because of Christ’s blood and death we have been justified (v 9) and reconciled (v 10), so how much more will we be saved through Christ’s risen life from God’s wrath on the last day! Thus we should also not be afraid to boast of our sufferings as Christians.
However, we should especially boast in our relationship with God through Christ. In 5:11, Paul tells us: “[W]e also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.” This is the apex of Christian boasting.
Jewish boasting in God was misplaced because it thought one was justified through the Torah, but Christian boasting in God is appropriate because it recognizes that it is through Christ that we received reconciliation. Both Jewish boasting in front of unbelievers and Christian boasting in front of unbelievers are boasts in God rather than in our own righteousness, but Jewish boasting wrongly claims we are put right with God through the Torah, Christian boasting rightly claims we are put right with God through Christ.
Needless to say, we must never be egotistic when we do this boasting, but we should make the faith attractive to others by humbly showing how great is the grace God has given us.
III. THE EFFECTIVENESS OF JEWISH VERSUS CHRISTIAN BOASTING
The final reference to Christian boasting in Romans is in 15:17, where Paul says: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God.” The context makes clear what he is talking about:
“But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of preaching the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:15-19).
Paul again is not boasting of his own accomplishments. He is explicit about it: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me.” So his only boasting of his work is boasting “in Christ Jesus.” Rather than boasting of his righteousness in front of God, he is boasting of Christ’s accomplishments through him.
As he tells us earlier in Romans, he does this kind of boasting quite a lot: “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:13b-14).
In front of his Jewish brothers, therefore, Paul thus boasts of how many converts he has won to Christ and to God in an attempt to make them desirous (jealous) of having what Paul has — the Christian faith — so that they may be saved.
The issue of the conversion of the Gentiles was especially important to Jews of the first century. The conversion of the Gentiles to God had been repeatedly prophesied in the Old Testament, and first century Jews were striving to fulfill this prophecy by preaching about (boasting in) God in front of Gentiles. Jesus himself notes their zeal in doing this, saying: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matt. 23:15).
Yet despite the great Jewish effort (“travel[ing] over sea and land . . . “) expended in winning Gentile converts, it never bore much fruit (” . . . to make a single convert”). Jewish evangelism never took off the way Christian evangelism did, as indicated by the fact that the Roman Empire became Christian, not Jewish. It was thus through Jesus that the Old Testament prophecy of the conversion of the Gentiles to the God of the Jews was fulfilled (as some Jewish scholars today will admit, such as the orthodox Jewish rabbi Pinchas Lapide).
The reason that Jewish evangelism never took off the way Christian evangelism did was based in the kind of boasting in God the two groups were doing. Jews were boasting in God through the Torah — making one’s adherence to the Mosaic Law the condition for conversion to God — while Christians were boasting in God through Christ — making one’s adherence to Christ the condition for conversion to God. Needless to say, professing faith in Christ and being baptized was a much easier way to come to God than being circumcised and submitting to all the regulations of the Torah (written and oral) which governed Jewish life after conversion.
In fact, there was a large group of people in the first century known as “God-fearers” who were intellectually convinced of the folly of paganism and the truth of the Jewish religion, yet who could not bring themselves to convert by accepting circumcision and the regulations of the Torah. Thus the very thing which Jews held out as the basis for uniting with God itself became the barrier to effective evangelism.
So when the Christians came along proclaiming the sufficiency of Christ as the basis for union with God, they made converts by the dozens, and in three hundred years the Roman Empire, the archenemy of Jews and Christians alike, had formally embraced the worship of Yahweh and rejected the worship of other gods.
While this was still off in the future, Paul could (and did) go to his Jewish brethren and boast of how Christ had won many converts to God through him, and thus Christ, not Torah, was the real thing that drew people to the God of the Jews, and thus the real thing through which the long-prophecied conversion of the Gentiles was happening. Paul’s Jewish brothers had better get on board, he would reason, if they wanted to be part of God’s program of the ages rather than being left behind, clinging to the Torah as a way of union with God when it was never intended as that (Rom. 4).
Paul’s boasting thus reveals the problem with of the first-century Jewish boasting in God through Torah, and it also reveals a final confirmation of the fact that the boasting Paul discusses in Romans, whether Jewish or Christian, is not boasting in one’s own righteousness — contrary to the assertions of Protestant radio preachers. Every single passage in which Paul discusses boasting reveals it to be boasting in the greatness of God and how every human being who will can have union with him. As St. John puts it: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
1. Cf. 1Co 9:15, 15:31, 2Co 2:12, 14, 7:4, 14, 8:24, 9:2-4, 10:8, 13-16, 11:10, 2Th 1:4; cf. 2Co 10:16-17, Ro 15:17, 1Co 1:31, 3:21, 2Co 5:12.
2. See my parallel article The Works of the Law for the interpretive options on what these works constitute.
3. Protestants tend to mistranslate vv 1-2 by having Paul state “since we are justified by faith, let us have peace with God,” which they use to claim that peace with God is an automatic consequence of justification which can never be lost. However, in most manuscripts what Paul says is “Therefore, since we are justified by faith let us have peace with God.” Justification provides the basis of our relationship with God, and does make our initial peace with God, but we must continue to live at peace with God and at war with sin, rather than sliding back into our sinful pre-Christian lifestyle. Protestants have chosen a minority manuscript tradition, contrary to the manuscript evidence, for dogmatic reasons, to advance a confessional agenda.