In Romans, Paul says that Israel is under judgment, not because of some general failure to live up to the demands of an impossibly perfect law, but because they stumbled over the Messiah, the holy stumbling stone (Rom 9:32-33).
This insight is not new to Paul. Indeed, Jesus Himself identifies Himself as the occasion for Israel’s fall (cf Rom 11:11-12), as well. “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both Me and My Father” (John 15:24). It is their rejection of Christ which is their decisive sin, which is why Jesus goes on to say that the Spirit’s role will be to convict “the world” (kosmos) concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
And this role in convicting “the world” of sin, does not, as it turns out, revolve around some sort of Puritanesque “pounding the law home in order to drive the sinner to Christ.” Rather, Jesus says, the Spirit bears witness “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:9). Their great sin is unbelief (cf Heb 3:19).
And likewise, “concerning righteousness, because I go to My Father” (John 16:10); i.e. having been vindicated by My resurrection, I will ascend to rule at His right hand as His Messiah.
None of this, of course, is to pretend that first century Jews were remarkably holy and perfect until Christ came along. But in terms of the law, given to guide them under the old creation, many of them could indeed say that they were “blameless” (as Paul says regarding himself in Philippians 3, and as Luke says regarding Zechariah and Elizabeth in 1:6 of his Gospel).
But when Jesus the new creation Man arrives and does new creation works, the poverty of the old creation becomes clear, and those who prefer the old wineskins of life under Torah, as if it were something self-contained rather than having Christ as its true telos (goal), fall just as decisively as Adam did—the parallel indeed intended by Paul in Romans (note the fall themes in Romans 5, 11). Just as men in Romans 1 failed to give glory to God and the antidote is shown to be faith when Abraham gives glory to God by believing His impossible promise (Rom 4:20), so too it is again. Israel fails to give glory to God by believing His “impossible Son,” and thus become idolaters who worship Torah rather than God’s Messiah. The Spirit convicts “the world” of judgment, because now the ruler of that “world” has been judged, and the true Ruler has arrived (John 16:11). Israel has fallen, and is being judged, because she has resisted the King she has awaited.
No longer is Torah sufficient; in this time (to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright) “God has become king” in His Messiah, and salvation is found only in those who confess Jesus as Lord (King and Master) and trust in His resurrection (Romans 10:9).
This is the proper backdrop for understanding Romans 3:1-8. Those who have been entrusted with “the oracles of God,” i.e. His prophetic promises concerning His Son (cf Rom 1:2-3) have proven unbelieving (Rom 3:3). And so Paul draws from Psalm 51 to show that in the contest between Jesus and unbelieving Israel, God Himself is justified concerning His words (of promise)—when He is judged, brought to trial. The trial of Jesus was in fact the vindication of the promise of God concerning His Son.
And note well that while Paul quotes Psalm 51:4b, in 51:4a, David confesses: “Against You, and You only, have I sinned.” While David’s sin was against Uriah, in this case it is indeed God in the person of Christ who bears the unjust death imposed by the sinner.
All of which is to say that the wrath of God of which Paul speaks in Rom 3:5 is primarily the wrath of God revealed now, not from heaven against the unrighteousness of men who sinned in Adam (cf Rom 1:18), a wrath which remains upon the Gentiles. But rather here it is the wrath of God revealed in the Son who is Himself the revelation of the righteousness of God (1:17).
It is through this means that the mouth of Israel has been stopped, and she has come to stand alongside the Gentiles, so that the whole world may become exposed to the judgment of God (cf 3:20). The works of Torah, as it turns out, are the works of killing the Son of God, and through Torah has come the most horrific experiential knowledge of Sin imaginable (cf 3:21).
This is why all those passages from the OT which Paul cites in Romans 3:10-18 are in fact referring to the wicked over against the righteous. He is not playing fast and loose with the texts. He is showing that just as it has been over and over throughout the history of the world, so now here at “the end of the kosmos,” the whole world, represented by the representatives of Caesar, king of kings and lord of lords, and of Torah, has shed the blood of the Righteous; and in that very act, the righteousness of God (understood especially as His faithfulness to His promises concerning His Son) has been manifested (3:21).
And so what Paul writes in chapter two finds a new sort of fulfillment in a rather unexpected sense: Those who have sinned outside of Torah’s polity perish apart from it, and those who sin within Torah’s polity in fact enter into judgment by means of an ostensible “defense” of Torah (cf Rom 2:12-12; as Paul similarly puts it in Galatians 2:19, through Torah, he died to Torah; i.e. it was through Torah that Christ was condemned to death, and it was that act through which Paul was liberated from Torah to serve in freedom with the resurrected Christ).
Much more could be said. A lot of people suppose that Romans 2 demonstrates the universal judgment against Israel; and in turn some interpreters identify his argument as weak. Because after all, is he really claiming that Israel was made up of thieves, adulterers, and temple robbers—his examples in Rom 2:21-22?
But this, I think, is to miss the point. In chapter 2, Paul is identifying sins concerning which his fellow Jews would agree: sinning in this way would subject even Israelites to judgment. Paul therefore brings up these sins, not to make the absurd suggestion that all Israelites are guilty of them, but in order to make the point that, after all, even Israel can, in principle, be judged. But he is only setting the stage at this point; he is not yet making his charge.
It is only when Paul gets to Rom 3:1-8 (discussed above) that he gets to what his “real” charge is. The real damning thing for all Israel is not that she has broken sundry of the commandments here and there. The real damning thing is that she has disbelieved God’s promise, rejected His Messiah and (in her representatives) killed Him.
And nonetheless, the good news in all of this is that precisely through that “unrighteousness” God’s righteousness has been shown (3:5) and His truth established to His own glory (3:7).
As Paul will put it later, Israel stumbled, not with the simple purpose of falling, but for the life of the whole world (11:11-12).