Exposition of Romans 3:1-4, God is reliable; humanity is not

The Jews misunderstood the Law of Moses as their assurance of salvation when in fact it was given to bring their flaws to the surface of their awareness. But instead of running to God for mercy, they reduced the law to a one-sided promise and wrapped themselves in a cloak of self-righteous pride.

By tearing away this faade, Paul brings out countercharges from his opponents that God is being both unfaithful and inconsistent. Are the Jews of Pauls day right to object? Gods faithfulness and constancy means just as much to us as it did to them.

(ESV) Romans 3:1-4

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.

The first eight verses of Romans 3 are considered some of the most challenging in the entire letter. Paul continues his imagined argument with a Jewish or Jewish-Christian opponent, a style known as diatribe.

Osborne does a great job summarizing the biblical text that includes todays verses as well as tomorrows verses:

The basic issue is this: if there is no advantage in being Jewish, and if God can reject one of his covenant people, then how can it be said that God is faithful to his covenant promises? Pauls lengthier response in Romans 9-11 is anticipated here: Gods response in judgment also constitutes being faithful to his promises. The covenant contained blessings and curses (= salvation and judgment here), and both are proper depending on the actions of the covenant people.[1]

Since the Jew has no special advantage over the Gentile during the judgment of God — thus has Paul argued in Romans 2 — why then would anyone think it preferable to be a Jew (3:1)? In light of all that is said in the Old Testament about the privilege of being Gods people, Cranfield points out a serious issue: The question raised is nothing less than the question of the credibility of God.[2]

The NET Bible does a great job translating Rom. 3:2 by saying, Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. It is no accident that Paul begins with Gods revelation in words because that is the gateway to so much more! Cranfield explains that the phrase the oracles of God is virtually identical to the Word of God.[3] But possession of that treasure makes the holders all the more responsible to heed the words!

The other advantages held by the Jews are not taken up in this context, but Rom. 9:4-5 names many more: the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. . . . the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! (Rom. 9:4-5, NET).

Pauls question in 3:3 is a rhetorical method of putting the blame where it belongs, but translators are unsure how to punctuate the sentence.

(ESV) What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?

(NET) What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?

For complex reasons, the NET Bibles punctuation should be preferred here.[4]

Cranfield points out the heavy density in 3:23 of words based on the Greek root underlying the noun for faith and the verb for believe and entrust. Moo brings this insight to bear on 3:3 by saying, These words point up the contrast between Israels faithlessness and Gods faithfulness.[5]

In case rhetorical questions tend to confuse you more than help you, the NLT fairly renders them more directly: True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? (Rom. 3:3, NLT).

Cranfield summarizes 3:3 by saying, It is unthinkable that Gods faithfulness to his covenant with Israel should be rendered ineffective even by the Jews unbelief.[6] Romans 9-11 shows how God will fulfill the covenant, just as he promised.

Humanity — here epitomized by unbelieving Jews — always has an excuse, a justification, an argument to shield itself from judgment. Paul seizes instead on the Old Testaments assertion that God is faithful at all times. Osborne says, Behind the term true is the Old Testament term for faithful (emet), meaning God is true to his promises.[7]

By their unbelief the Jews had failed to keep the covenants provisions, yet they still wanted its blessings! Paul says it was God who was keeping the terms of the covenant by invoking the curses on covenant breakers. Osborne says, God cannot be faithful to his covenant until he judges Israel; only then will he be proved right to his promises (and warnings).[8] Gods judgments will in all cases be vindicated.

Semper Fi Ultra!

Christians have a critical stake in the issue of Gods faithfulness toward the Jews. If God has broken his promises to the Jews, then his promises to us are meaningless. Not to worry! Paul makes it plain that doubting Gods reliability is pointless; worse, those who accuse God of breaking his promises are liars.

1. Name one or two key promises from God are you relying on.

2. Over the centuries believers have had to resolve the issue of Gods reliability; how do you suppose they did so? How did you resolve the issue for yourself?

David had it right; I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name, because of your loyal love and faithfulness, for you have exalted your promise above the entire sky (Ps. 138:2, NET).

 


[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 79.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 177.

[3] Cranfield, Romans, 178-179, footnote 1.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 183-184.

[5] Moo, Romans, 184.

[6] Cranfield, Romans, 181.

[7] Osborne, Romans, 82.

[8] Osborne, Romans, 83.