However, this interpretation mischaracterizes what Paul was telling the Romans. In order to understand Paul's message, we have to understand who he was writing to and, more importantly, why he was writing to them. Therefore, to properly understand his words, we must put them in their proper context.
In Chapter 1, verse 7 Paul states that he is writing this letter to those living in Rome who called themselves saints. The term "saint" was what the believers in Christ called themselves. But, as we read this letter, especially in the first six chapters, we see that Paul is speaking to a specific group of saints rather than to all the believers in general. He is addressing his remarks particularly to those Jewish Christians who were arguing that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised in order to become saved.
The basis for their argument was that God had instituted the practice of circumcision with their father Abraham and then commanded that this act was to be performed on all his male descendants (Lev. 12:3). To the Jews, this was understood as an outward marking, much like the branding of an animal, showing that they belonged to God. Since this practice was also included in the law God gave to Moses, these Christian Jews felt that it was a "law" that God's chosen people had to be circumcised. To their way of thinking, if a person wasn't circumcised then God didn't recognize them as belonging to Him.
From the time they were born, Jews were taught about the special promise God had made to Abraham and his descendants. As such, for centuries the Jews proudly proclaimed their heritage. To them it was a supreme honor to claim they were children of Abraham because it signified they were children of the promise, which to them meant they were better than everyone else in the eyes of God. And because of this feeling, they proudly braged and boasted about how Abraham was their father.
By comparison, the Jews felt that God despised the Gentiles because they were immoral heathens and idol worshipping pagans, especially considering the fact that the law of Moses taught that God was a jealous God who would not tolerate any other worship except to Him. Therefore, they believed that God would someday pour out His wrath and retribution upon the ungodly Gentiles for their wicked and blasphemous behavior. And it was this very idea that sustained the Jews as they lived under the powerful rule of the Gentile Roman Empire with their numerous pagan gods. The Jews clung to the hope that someday - and hopefully soon - God would come and destroy the Gentiles and then establish the Jews as the most powerful ruling nation on earth. Therefore, they eagerly anticipated the coming of a Messiah who would fulfill this promised event.
In the beginning, the gospel was preach almost exclusively to the Jews and the reason why there were those who accepted Jesus as their Savior was because He was a Jew - a descendant of Abraham. More than that, they accepted Him because they came to believe He was the prophesied Messiah that God would send to save His specially chosen people from their sins and their enemies. Therefore, when Christian believing Jews were told that the Gentiles were to be included in God's salvation, such an idea was almost repugnant to them. It went against all they had been taught about God's promise to Abraham.
To the Christian Jews, it was almost inconceivable to think that the Gentiles could be considered just as special to God as Abraham and his descendants were. Yet, when the Jewish leaders of the Christian faith, such as Peter, John, James, and the other apostles, who were all descendants of Abraham themselves, had decreed that the Gentiles could be part of God's salvation, they had no other choice than to accept the unacceptable. But that didn't mean they liked it.
Since it was so ingrained in the Jews that only the children of Abraham were entitled to God's salvation, and since it was a law that God's chosen people were to be circumcised as a mark of their special standing with Him, the Jewish Christian logically concluded that those Gentiles who came to believe in the Jewish Messiah had to be circumcised as a sign that God considered them to be children of Abraham, how be it, step-children. After all, as far as they were concerned, it was a law of God!
When Paul wrote his letter to the saints living in Rome, he did so to specifically address this very argument. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Paul's words, as we read them we have to keep in mind the point he was trying to make. To help us see this point more clearly, perhaps we can paraphrase and condense what he said. After his introductory remarks in chapter one, Paul begins chapter two by saying the following:
You have no excuse in passing judgment on others for how they are violating the law of Moses because you violate it just as much yourself. Don't you realize that when you condemn others for what they do you are condemning yourself at the same time because you do even worse?
You tell others how God's judgment will come upon them, but do you think that you will escape God's punishment? You say that the Gentiles show contempt for the law of Moses, but you show contempt for God's kindness, tolerance, and patience, which is what allows a person time to repent.
Because of the hardness of your hearts and your unrepentant attitude, you are bringing God's wrath upon you when the day of His righteous judgment comes where he will reward every man according to what they have done. Whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile, those who persist in doing that which is right will receive eternal life, but those who persist in disobeying the truth and do evil will incur God's wrath, and it will be poured out on the Jews first and also on the Gentiles, because God doesn't show favoritism.
You call yourself a Jew, and you brag about your relationship with God and how you alone are in possession of God's law that He gave to Moses. You like to think that because of this you are superior to others and you have become convinced that you've been appointed to be a guide for the blind, a light to those who walk in darkness, and a teacher to those you consider to be foolish and unlearned.
You tell others that they should keep the law of Moses, but do you keep it yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You tell others that they shouldn't commit adultery, but do you obey this law yourself? You condemn others because they worship false idols, but do you worship a false understanding of God's law? You brag about how you have God's law and the Gentiles don't but you then dishonor God's law by not living it. As it says in Isaiah 52:5 "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of your behavior."
You say that a person must be circumcised because it is the law, and that is true if you keep the law, but do you think your circumcision means anything to God if you don't keep the law God gave to Moses? Yet you condemn a person who hasn't been circumcised on the flesh of his body even though he keeps God's commandments. Does this make any sense? No, it doesn't.
Is someone a Jew just because he has been circumcised? Of course not! A person is a Jew because of what is on the inside of him, not because of what is done to him on the outside. In the same way, God praises the man who inwardly keeps the spirit of the law, not someone who merely keeps the outward letter of the law.
If what I say is true, then what advantage is there to being a circumcised Jew? There are a number of advantages. The most important is that the Jews have been given the very words of God. But what if someone isn't faithful to God's word? Does that mean God will not be faithful as well? Of course not! God is always faithful to us, whether we are faithful to Him or not. And it is because we are not always faithful in doing that which is right that we can better appreciate how faithful God is in continuously doing that which is righteous. If this weren't so, then how could He judge the world?
But someone might make the argument, "If my unrighteous behavior increases God's glory then why am I condemned for being a sinner?" In fact, it has been slanderously reported by some that us Christians believe that we should do evil so that good may result.
What are we to conclude then, that we are better than the heathen Gentiles that we can behave this way? Not at all! We have already been taught that both Jew and Gentile alike are under condemnation for their sins. As it is written in the scriptures, "There is no one who is righteous, no, not one. There is no one who understands or even seeks to find God. Everyone has turned away from God and has become worthless. There is no one who does good, not even one." (Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20). Do you think He is talking just about the Gentiles?
What kind of people is God talking about? Those who practice deceit. Those whose mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. God is talking about those whose feet are swift to shed blood, who bring ruin and misery everywhere they go because they don't know the way that leads to peace. These are the kind of people who have no fear of God. Are the Jews excempt from this kind of behavior? Not at all!
Now we know what the law says but how many people actually live it as they should? No one! Therefore, we don't become righteous because we live the law of God, but rather the law tells us what sin is so that when we sin we are not ignorant that we have sinned. Then how do we become righteous? Both the law and the prophets have testified that righteousness comes from God through our faith in Jesus Christ and it doesn't make any difference who believes in Him because both Jew and Gentile alike have all sinned and all of us have not measured up to the glory that God has. Therefore we are made righteous by God's grace which He has extended to us through the redemption that was made possible by Jesus Christ.
So then, what is the justification for our boasting in ourselves? Are we justified in boasting because we are excluded from God's punishments upon the wicked? Are we justified in our boasting because we keep the law of Moses? No! We are made righteous because of our faith in Jesus Christ and not because Abraham is our father or because we are circumcised as the law says.
Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, He is because there is only one God who will redeem and save not only the circumcised Jew who has faith in Him but He will also save the uncircumcised Gentile who has the same faith in Him. Does that mean we do away with the law of God because of our faith? Not at all! Instead, our faith actually confirms and strengthens the law because the law teaches us that we must have faith in God.
You say that you are the children of Abraham, but what do the scriptures say about how he became righteous in the sight of God? Did he boast that he was righteous because of his work of circumcision? No. The scriptures say, "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).
When a man performs a work he is paid a wage. This money is not given to him as a gift but is something he is owed. However, it is God who justifies the wicked and this is based on a man's faith in God, not because he worked to earn it. David said the same thing in Psalm 32:1,2 when he said, "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him."
Is this blessed condition that David speaks of just reserved for those who have been circumcised or is it also for those who have not been circumcised? To answer this question, let's look at our father Abraham. Did God consider him righteous before or after he became circumcised? It was before he performed this work! The act of being circumcised was merely a mark that God gave him that signified he had already become righteous while he was still uncircumcised. Therefore, Abraham is the father, not just of the Jews, but of all who believe in God, even those who have not been circumcised, for Abraham believed in God and was considered righteous while he was still uncircumcised. Therefore, he is the father of all those who walk in his footsteps of faith before he was circumcised.
It was not through the law of God that Abraham and his descendants have received the promise that they would be the heirs of the world. Rather, that promise comes through our righteousness, which comes through our faith in God. If this promise was made as a result of a legal law, then faith has nothing to do with the promise, and if that's the case, then the promise is worthless to us because we have all broken the law.
Therefore, the promise comes to us because of our faith so that it might be given through the grace of God to all of Abraham's offspring - not just those who have been given the law but to all of those who have the same faith that Abraham had.
When he was a hundred years old and there was no hope of him being able to have children, Abraham still believed God. Sarah's womb was dead and yet Abraham never wavered in his faith regarding the promise God had given him that his seed would be as the stars of the sky. Instead, his faith remained strong and he continued to give glory and praise to God, fully believing that God had the power to do what He had promised. This is why God credited him with being righteous.
But it is not just Abraham who is credited with righteousness, but the same applies to us who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, who believe that Jesus died for our sins and that He rose alive from the grave to make us righteous.
This is what Paul wrote in the first four chapters of his letter to the Romans. Even though he states that those who do good works will inherit eternal life (2:6,7) and that our faith establishes the law (3:31) yet Paul focused nearly all of his remarks on God's grace, faith in God and believing in Christ's atoning sacrifice for our sins. And the reason why he did that was because the Jews were not having a problem with doing works. What they were having a problem with was understanding the purpose of those works. The Jews felt that it was just by performing the works of the law itself - specifically, being circumcised - that saved them. Therefore, it would have been foolish for Paul to preach to them on the need to do works.
Instead, Paul made sure they understood that salvation is dependant on our faith in God, not just going through the motions of performing the rituals required in the law of Moses. He wanted them to know that even if we do not commit adultery, do not steal, are circumcised, and do good to others as the law requires, but if we don't have faith in God then none of these "works" has any power to save us from our sins. The only way our sins can be removed is by having faith in Christ's atoning death. This is what the Christian Jews in Rome apparently didn't understand, so that is what Paul emphasized.
However, when he wrote to the Corinthians, they had just the opposite problem. They had faith in the grace of God, yet despite their faith, they were still living their lives like the rest of the world. Therefore, in both of his letters to them, Paul stressed the importance of works because they were overly depending on the grace of God to save them. That's why he had to remind them, "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extorioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9,10). "As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain" (2 Cor. 6:1, NIV). "Examine yourselves, [to see] whether [or not] ye be in the faith; prove your own selves" (2 Cor. 13:5). "We pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. We pray this, not to show that our ministry to you has been successful, but because we want you to do [what is] right even if we ourselves [might] seem to have failed" (2 Cor. 13:7, NLT).
The apostle James similarly told the saints, "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (1:22). In the letter that Jude wrote, rather than speaking about the grace of God, he spoke out about those members of the church who were using the grace of God as an excuse for committing immoral sexual acts (Jude 1:4). It would have been just as foolish for Jude to preach about God's grace to these people as it was for Paul to preach works to the Christian Jews in Rome.
But, what makes it seem that Paul was continually preaching the doctrine of salvation by grace is that there were Christian Jews in nearly all the churches who had the same belief about circumcision that the Roman saints had. That's why when Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, he had to address the same problem he did with the Romans.
In his letter to Timothy, who was the bishop of the Ephesians, he warned him to watch out for those who "having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; Desiring to be teachers of the law [of Moses]; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm. But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully" (1:6-8). In his letter to Titus, who was the bishop of the Cretians, Paul warned him that "there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers [in the church], especially they [who are] of the circumcision (i.e., Jewish Christians), whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake" (1:10,11, emphasis added). Yet, even though he condemned those who believed in strictly following the law of Moses, Paul also instructed Titus to make sure "that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works" (3:8).
Although Paul preached against the need for circumcision, even though it was in the law of Moses, yet he also believed that "the law is good if a man use it lawfully" and that our faith in Christ actually establishes and strengthens the law. So what we see is that Paul tailored his message to the needs of the people he was writing to. To one group of saints Paul stressed the importance of faith and grace because that is what they were lacking in their understanding of the gospel. Yet, to another group he stressed the importance of doing works because that's where they were straying from the path that leads to salvation. When we fail to understand the context of Paul's words it becomes all too easy to misapply their meaning, which was the very mistake the Jewish Christians made in understanding the scriptures.
And that is yet another message we find in Paul's letter to the Romans.