Many first-century Jews believed that their status as the physical descendants of Abraham gave them an automatic advantage before God with respect to their righteousness. In other words, while these Jews would have acknowledged their sin verbally, in reality they did not believe they were actually sinners, or at least they did not think that their sins would exclude them from God’s kingdom. After Paul’s conversion to Christ, he did not believe that Jews were inherently more righteous than the Gentiles, but we see him make reference to this common Jewish assumption at different points in his writings. For example, in Galatians 2:15 the Apostle says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Paul is not denying the sinfulness of Jews in this text; rather, he is appealing to common knowledge as he writes to the Gentiles in Galatia. Even they knew that many Jews regarded only Gentiles as true sinners.
Given that common belief, Paul’s argument in Romans 2:1–3:20 had to have been particularly jarring for many first-century Jews. Having established the sinfulness of the Gentiles in 1:18–32, Paul spends most of chapters 2–3 explaining that the Jews are just as guilty before God as the pagan Gentiles are. It is not that there are no advantages to being a Jew, for the Jews possess the oracles of God. The Lord revealed Himself to the Jews under the old covenant in a way that He did not reveal Himself to the Gentiles. But with respect to righteousness, Jews have no better claim than non-Jews. “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9).
In 3:9–18, Paul collects several Old Testament texts from books including Psalms, Proverbs, and Jeremiah to show that Jews are not any less sinful or less guilty before our Creator than the Gentiles are. Sin is a universal condition. Every naturally conceived descendant of Adam, Jew or Gentile, has broken God’s law and is worthy only of death. But that the Jews are also sinners is particularly important for understanding how the problem of sin and unrighteousness is finally solved. The Jews possess the law of God, and yet they are no more righteous than the Gentiles are before the Almighty. This shows us that however God saves sinners, it cannot be through their own keeping of the law. That is because no sinner can keep the law perfectly, and perfection is what God demands if one is to be justified or declared righteous by keeping the law (2:13). If one is to be justified by the law, mere possession of it is not enough.