So what happens to boasting? It is ruled out! Through what sort of law? The law of works? No; through the law of faith! We calculate, you see, that a person is declared to be in the right on the basis of faith, apart from works of the law. Or does God only belong to Jews? Doesn’t he belong to the nations as well? Yes, of course, to the nations as well, since God is one. He will make the declaration “in the right” over the circumcised on the basis of faith, and over the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then abolish the law through faith? Certainly not! Rather, we establish the law.” (Rom 3:27-31)
“So what happens to boasting?” Why the Apostle Paul asks this question at this point in the letter I haven’t quite figured out yet. It appears to connect to a passage earlier in the letter: “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth …” (Rom 2:17-20). In this passage Paul is speaking to his imaginary diatribal partner, as he often does in chapters 2-4. Most commentators identify this person as a representative Jewish moralist; but after having re-read this letter multiple times, I still find attractive the proposal that Paul’s diatribal partner is a Christian Jew who is actively seeking to convert the Gentile believers in Rome to full incorporation into Judaism (see “Why Did St Paul Write his Epistle?” and “What Did the Teacher Teach?“). Paul has run into these counter-missionaries in Galatia and knows their message and tactics. This hypothesis explains why Paul spends so much time explaining to the Gentile believers in Rome why the Torah does not and cannot righteous. It also allows us to posit that Paul is not directly attacking Judaism—the Epistle to the Romans is not an anti-Jewish tract. Paul is arguing neither against rabbinical legalists (though I’m sure that some of his fellow Jews could be described as seeking to earn their eternal salvation through their works, just as many Christians can be so described) nor against Jewish chauvinists (though I’m sure that some of his fellow Jews despised Gentiles because they lived outside the covenant). His principal purpose (or at least one of his principle purposes) is to encourage the Gentile Christians to remain steadfast in the gospel of Christ and not to be bamboozled or intimidated by the nomistic message of the counter-missionaries.
N. T. Wright notes that English translations of kauchaomai (boast) and its cognates can be misleading. “In contemporary English,” he writes, ” it [“boast” or “boasting”] is almost always negative, whereas Paul is not only capable of using it in a positive sense (e.g., 5:11), but is here [Rom 2:17] both reporting and commending the attitude of ‘the Jew’ as good and God-given” (NIB, X:446).
“So what happens to boasting?” asks Paul. Exekleisthe! Excluded! There can be no boasting in Torah or in ethnic, cultural, or national identity (or anything else), because God has accomplished humanity’s rectification through the faithfulness and atoning death of his Messiah. In the words of Frank Matera: “In light of Christ’s shameful death on the cross, it is apparent why Paul insists that there is no place for boasting before God. If God has justified humanity on the basis of Christ’s death, in which all of humanity was complicit because of sin, then no one can boast before God. Paul’s affirmation that there is no place for boasting, then, becomes the way in which he affirms that redemption is God’s work” (Romans, p. 104). Or if there is to be boasting, then let it be a glorifying of the Crucified: “As for me, God forbid that I should boast–except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
On the basis of the faith of Christ, therefore, God has now joined Jew and Gentile in one confession, one baptism, one Eucharist. The one God is not the God of the Jews alone. He is the God of all humanity. The covenantal sign of circumcision has been transcended. The people of God has been reconstituted around Jesus Christ, which is now known by its faith in the faith of Christ. God is now justifying the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Does this mean that Torah is now abolished? “Certainly not!” the Apostle replies. “We are confirming Torah.” How this is possible Paul will explain later in his letter. What is important, though, is for the Gentile believers in Rome to understand that they need not submit to the commandments of Torah in order to enjoy the salvation of Christ. They are already living under Torah, the Torah of faith.