The popularity of gymnastics in the Olympic Games is legendary. Many of us follow those events closely, and they always get prime-time positioning on television.
Much less attractive are the verbal gymnastics of special-interest groups who portray issues as if their side had a corner on the truth and the opposition was against Mom, apple pie and football. Those gymnastics often come to center stage when religious views are discussed.
Is it fair or sensible in such an argument to pit the special interests of a group against the interests of God?
(ESV) Romans 3:5–8 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.
Paul had to deal with some serious arguments in explaining the gospel — such as God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel — but he also had to contest some fundamentally silly arguments raised by special-interest groups. Grant Osborne describes the basic counterargument from Paul’s Jewish opponents: “If sin does highlight the righteousness of God (v. 5) and bring him glory (v. 7), then we should try to sin even more so as to bring even more good out of it (v. 8).”
This is similar to a systemic or even ecological argument that goes like this: sin is part of the whole ecological system of God and man, and sin even serves a constructive purpose in the system by making God look good by comparison. So, it would be unrighteous of God to inflict wrath on us as sinners since we are actually doing him good.
Wow! Using this type of reasoning, we could argue that cancer is a good thing because it keeps so many oncologists employed.
The real problem is not that such arguments are silly and may rightly be mocked. The real problem is that such ideas constitute blasphemy by attacking God’s character! Paul says, “Their condemnation is just” (3:8).
Now you may be thinking it unlikely that anyone would make such an argument. If so, you underestimate the ingenuity of the ancient rabbis. Paul has just quoted Psalm 51:4 in Romans 3:4b. That Psalm contains David’s remorse for his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11). C.E.B. Cranfield describes how the rabbis explained David’s sin. They argued that the young king looked back to Genesis 8:21 where God said, “. . . the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” David reasoned — as the ancient rabbis imagined — that if he did not take the beautiful Bathsheba, then God’s statement would be falsified! So, David took her and murdered her husband only to protect God!
Since Paul is dealing with the Jews, his most theologically powerful opponents — both inside the church and outside of it — his reference in 3:5 to “our unrighteousness” probably refers to the failure of the Jews to live up to their covenant obligations. We will apply these ideas to contemporary Christians at the end of the lesson.
The phrase “righteousness of God” in 3:5 also needs clarification, because it does not mean the same thing as it did in 1:17. Douglas Moo says, “’God’s righteousness’ here designates God’s faithfulness to his own person and word, particularly, as v. 4b reveals, as this is revealed in his judgment of sin.”
Paul points out that if God does not inflict his wrath on the unrighteous (3:5), then he is in no position to judge the world (3:6). If God allowed the Jews to rebel against him without experiencing his wrath — presumably on the basis of possessing the law and circumcision — this would be such a breach of justice as to disqualify God from judging the Gentiles. But all Jews held that God must judge the Gentiles in keeping with Old Testament revelation (e.g. Gen. 18:25). Paul relies on that universally-held doctrine in 3:6.
Verses 3:7–8 make clear that the Jewish objectors were angry about the idea that God would judge them for their sins and also at Paul for teaching a doctrine that they thought encouraged the practice of sin. In their view, how could those sinners who put their faith in Jesus Christ succeed when law-keeping Jews had failed? Paul says, “Their condemnation is just” (3:8).
To be sure, Paul will return to give a much deeper answer to those who challenged God’s faithfulness to Israel in Romans 9–11. For now he continues on track to show that all Jews and Gentiles are sinners before God’s justice.
Are Christians exempt?
Moo speaks of our situation in plain terms: “All too often we Christians have presumed that God’s grace to us exempts us from any concern about our sin. . . .We want to ‘stand on the promises’ — and this is entirely appropriate. But we must not forget that God promises (in the NT as well as the OT) to rebuke and chastise his people for sin as well as to bless them out of the abundance of his grace.” Ouch! It seems that Christians also take part in religious gymnastics.
Have you ever found yourself presuming that (1) God’s grace to us exempts us from concern about our sin, or (2) God’s grace excuses our sin so it is not that bad? How does either of those concepts show up in your life?
Peter agrees with Paul’s conclusions when he says:
For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners?
(1 Pet. 4:17-18, NET)
Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 84.
 C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 183, footnote 5.
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 190.
 Moo, Romans, 196-197.