In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul has placed every person on the same level. All are sinful and deserving of the wrath of God. Though he began his letter with good news, it has been all bad news since 1:18. In chapter 3, Paul explains the advantage the Jew has over the Gentile. It is the same advantage Christians now have over the unbeliever: the Bible.
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
Just as in chapter 2, Paul continues conversing with his imaginary Jewish opponent. The argument has funneled down to this: If chapter 2 is true – that the Jew is as condemned as the Gentile because of their actions – then what’s the point of being among the people of God? Why did God choose Israel if there is no advantage in relation to God? Paul answers: there is an advantage.
There is value in Jewishness, but that value is not found in the Jew himself. It is found in the God who chose him. Particularly, it is found in the “oracles of God,” the Scriptures, which the Jews were entrusted with. The oracles of God are the promises of God. Throughout the history of Israel, God gave them promise after promise. But the promises were all pointing to one thing – the coming of the Messiah. If the Jews ignore the Messiah, they ignore the Scriptures. They prove themselves unfaithful.
Paul asks the question: what if some of the Jews were unfaithful to God, as they obviously have been? What then? Does the faithlessness of the Jews nullify the faithfulness of God? In other words, does the faithlessness of the Jews ruin the reputation of God in the world? By no means!
There is a formula at work here that doesn’t seem to equate properly but in God’s economy, it sums to glory. God’s covenant + Israel’s unfaithfulness = God’s faithfulness. Paul’s point is that when the Old Testament speaks of God being true, it means that he is true to his word. He is reliable and trustworthy in contrast to Israel. The great hope of the world is not Israel. The great hope of the world is Jesus. God simply chose Israel to be the nation from which Jesus appeared to the world. In the same way that our country, or our people, does not nullify the truth of who we are, Israel does not nullify the faithfulness of God. If anything, it proves his faithfulness to his word. He will send a Savior, and that Savior will save his people.
Paul quotes Psalm 51:4, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” Whenever a New Testament author quotes the Old Testament, he is not alluding to only the quoted portion. He is alluding to the entire passage, the entire context. Psalm 51 is David’s confession. He committed adultery with Bathsheba. He had her husband killed. He stained the office of the King. Above all, he sinned against the Lord. Did David’s sin nullify the grace of God? Did David’s sin alter the great hope of the world? Did David’s sin obstruct the coming King of Kings? By no means!
David’s sin was punished. The child conceived with Bathsheba died shortly after birth. David’s sin was broadcast throughout the world. He was humbled. He came face to face with his transgressions and sins before the Lord. Paul quotes this verse from Psalm 51 because it is about God being true in his judgment of sin, and this is such a striking example. God’s truthfulness includes his judgment, not only his salvation. God doesn’t hold back on fulfilling any of his promises – good or bad. And in his judgment, he is keeping his word all the way to Jesus.
Paul continues, “If our unrighteousness (or David’s) serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?” Once again, by no means! All things serve God’s purposes – even our unrighteousness. God is the judge of the world. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25).
If our sin brings about God’s purposes, then why not sin? That’s the objection Paul faces. Why does it matter what we do if God is going to bring about his purposes anyway? Why not do evil that good may come? After all, isn’t that what Paul is teaching – that the law has no place in the Christian life? He’s not saying that at all. He is not tearing down the need for obedience but building the case for it. If God is just, all disobedience down to the smallest point will be judged by him. Belief in the truth of God’s righteousness leads to greater obedience, not less. But until we see the fullness of God in the person of Jesus Christ – including the wrath he poured out on him at the cross – we will not understand the urgency of making peace with God.
Robert Murray McCheyne, the 19th-century Scottish pastor, puts it bluntly,
“Dear brethren, I pray you in God’s name to think of this. If punishment comes from the righteousness of God, then there is no hope. If it were out of passion, then it might pass away. Often you observe a man whose face is red and swollen with passion, but it passed away. But ah! God’s wrath is not out of passion. If it were out of passion, surely God would have some pity when he saw the sufferings of the lost for many ages; but ah! no. From what then does it proceed? It proceeds from the rectitude of God. If God can cease to love righteousness, then the fire may be quenched. But as long as he is a righteous God, that fire will never be quenched. Oh! brethren, it is a foolish hope you entertain that the fire will be quenched. I have seen some on their death-bed thinking that the fire may be quenched. Ah! it is a vain hope, sinner. God will never cease to be a righteous God. God will do anything to save a sinner, but he cannot part with his rectitude in order to save you. He parted with his Son in order that he might gain sinners, but he cannot part with his righteousness. He cannot part with his government. He would need to call good evil and evil good first.”
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
While Jews have the advantage of the Scriptures, it does them no good if they do not believe and obey them. In that way, they are no better off because that are under sin just like the Gentiles. Being under sin is more than simply doing bad things now and then. Being under sin is being captive to sin. It is to be unable to not sin. Paul explains in verses 10-18 with quotations from the Old Testament. What he’s saying is not new news. It is old news applied to the present day.
Paul is ensuring we understand what sin is. He needs us to know the pervasiveness and devastating result of sin. Michael Bird helps us understand this.
“Paul has a lot to say about sin, its origins, its appearance, and its consequences. According to Romans, sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam, with the result of introducing condemnation and death to all of humanity and of constituting Adam’s progeny as sinners (5:15, 16, 19). As a result everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (3:23). Furthermore, because humans rejected God, God gave them over to sinful desires (1:24). In this economy of sin and judgment the wages of sin is death (6:23). On either side of the Jew/Gentile divide we find sin because sin was in the world before the law (5:13), those who sin apart from law will perish, and those under the law will have their sins judged by the law (2:12) since the law brings knowledge of our sin (3:20). Sin even uses the law to arouse sinful passions and to foster lawless behavior (7:5-7). Inevitably, then, Jews and Gentiles are both under the power of sin (3:9). Finally, faith is the antithesis of sin since whatever does not come from faith is sin (14:23).”
The law has been clearly broken by every human who has ever lived, with only one exception. When faced with that reality, our mouths are shut. We have no righteousness in ourselves to claim. There is no defense for what we have done against God. We have no excuses. We are guilty – all of us. We are held accountable to God. God is both the one offended and the judge.
Because of sin, obedience to the law isn’t something that exists. It can’t be done. Therefore, obeying the law for gaining righteousness isn’t possible. So, why put our hope in our obedience, as the Jews have?
Do you understand the depth of your sin? Do you see your guilt before God? Are you trying to justify yourself by works of the law? Paul is removing every ground for standing before God except for the grace of Jesus Christ alone. Only God can grant forgiveness. Is he willing to do so?
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Notice the transition in verse 21 – “But now.” Always pay attention to the “buts” in the Bible! Paul makes a shift beginning in verse 21. He shifts from sin to salvation. Our long nightmare is ending.
Martin Luther struggled to love God. He felt condemned before him. He tried to obey God. He tried really hard. But no matter how hard he tried, he saw that there were new layers of sin in his heart. He would confess so often and to such minutia that the priest told him to go away and come back when he had real sin to confess. Though he appeared to be ok before God, his heart told him he was condemned. He could not shake the feeling of unrighteousness.
As his struggle continued, he began teaching through the book of Romans. He came upon this passage in chapter 3 and God broke through. He saw in a fresh way how God justifies. His heart was freed. Then, he started the Reformation. Justification creates freedom that changes the world.
Luther called Romans 3:21-26 “the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, and of the whole Bible.” While this sounds like an overstatement, it is hard to argue against him. Romans 3:21-26 may very well be the most important paragraph ever written.
Thus far, Paul has labored to bring us to this point: Are we right with God? Ray Ortlund summarizes Paul’s point this way.
“Let me ask you right now, have you factored out of your relationship with God all the good you think you have coming to you and factored in all the good Christ has coming to him? Are you adding Jesus to your obedience, or are you trusting Jesus for his obedience? The Father said of him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:6). God has said that about no one else, and God said that wholeheartedly and publicly so that everyone could hear it and re-center our existence on Jesus alone. God is offering us his life, his obedience, his heroism. You can trade in your record for a better one. Will you let go of your mixed record and receive the perfect record of Jesus as your only claim to fame? It is so freeing to be right with God again –without having to measure up on your own.”
The law acted as a stage from which God unfolded his plan of salvation in Jesus. We needed to see our depravity before we could receive God’s saving grace. We are so dense that it takes disaster before we will reach for redemption. If everyone stands under the wrath of God as equals, then what God offers in the gospel is for everyone equally as well. We all need to be justified by God in Christ. We don’t just need a little Jesus added to our lives. We need a new life altogether. We need to be re-centered around him.
All have sinned and therefore cannot be righteous on their own merit. So, God in his mercy and grace justifies those who believe at the moment of their belief through the gift of faith in the successful work of Jesus on the cross. In the atoning sacrifice, all who once were condemned now are justified if they believe that God is gracious enough to forgive. The logic is clear: all sinned, Jesus paid the penalty for all sins; therefore all who believe in his work are justified by his work. The death of Jesus on the cross upheld God’s own righteous character in punishing sins and in being gracious to his people. Our only contribution to the gospel is our sin. EVERYTHING ELSE IS OF GOD!
PT Forsyth, in his book, The Cruciality of the Cross, said, “The prime doer in Christ’s cross was God. Christ was God reconciling. He was God doing the very best for man, and not man doing his very best for God.” No matter how hard we try, we will never reach the perfection God requires. We need God’s best, and that’s exactly what he gives in Jesus Christ. Why would we not say yes to him?
John Bunyan understood the same sense of condemnation before God that Martin Luther experienced. In his novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, he tells us of the main character’s conversion.
“Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came to a place somewhat ascending. And upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow and life by His death.” Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.”
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
If we are saved by Christ alone, apart from all our works, how in the world can we boast about what we’ve done? The law of works leads itself to boasting in obedience. But the law of faith excludes boasting because it is not our obedience at all. It is Christ’s obedience.
God passed over former sins committed under the law, but he has balanced the books in the death of Christ. The law does not – and never did – justify. Faith in God justifies. Here’s the great hope: no matter how awful you are, you can be saved by God because God saves awful people. He is the God of every person and saves all under the same grace. The law doesn’t die. The law is fulfilled because the law pushed us to Jesus. The world has been reconciled. God is a genius!