Exposition of Romans 3:5-8, Twisted arguments cannot defend our sin

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 working for the devil. 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).”[1]

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![2]

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. I 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.”[3]

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 Gods 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.”[4] 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 Pauls 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, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 84.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 183, footnote 5.

[3] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 190.

[4] Moo, Romans, 196-197.

 

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 Paul’s day right to object? God’s 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 this lesson’s verses as well as the verses for the next lesson:

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? Paul’s lengthier response in Romans 9-11 is anticipated here: God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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).

Paul’s 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 Bible’s 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 bothbelieve 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 Paul’s rhetorical questions tend to confuse you more than help you, the NLT fairly renders them as statements: “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 God’s 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 Testament’s assertion that God is faithful at all times. Osborne says, “Behind the term true is the Old Testament term [in Hebrew] 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] God’s judgments will in all cases be vindicated.

Semper Fi Ultra!

Christians have a critical stake in the issue of God’s 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 God’s 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” (Psalm 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.

Exposition of Romans 2:6-11, God does not play any favorites

When the kids chose up teams in your school, did they choose you first? In my school it was always the favorites who were chosen first, and certain people got left for last every time. If you were one of the fastest, smartest, best looking, and most sociable, life was good. The alternative was painful — a lesson learned from a distance.

Playing favorites is also common among adults. How about with God? Does he play that way too?

(ESV) Romans 2:6-11

He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

Keep in mind that Paul is still in the midst of addressing the argument of the Jews that their special status as children of Abraham and recipients of the Law ensures the salvation of every Jew. Paul is tearing away that illusion. In the passage of Scripture above, he does so using a literary arrangement known as chiasm, as shown below:

A God will judge everyone equitably {verse 6

B Those who do good will attain eternal life {verse 7

C Those who do evil will suffer wrath {verse 8

C Wrath for those to do evil {verse 9

B Glory for those who do good {verse 10

A God judges impartially {verse 11[1]

Grant Osborne points out that Paul is trying to demonstrate divine justice by showing how God judges fairly with both Gentiles and Jews.[2] This accounts for the phrase “the Jew first and also the Greek” (2:10), which overtly shows that both Jew and Gentile stand in the same relationship of responsibility to God.

In short, verses 7 and 10 refer to those who are justified by faith and prove it through a life of obedient works before God. C. E. B. Cranfield says, “Paul was probably actually thinking only of Christians; but there is little doubt that, had he been asked whether what he was saying also applied to OT believers, his answer would have been affirmative.”[3] There is more than one way to reach this conclusion. Douglas Moo holds that Paul is teaching here (2:6-11) that God will impartially judge all men by their works; later, Paul will show that no one can reach a positive verdict in that way (3:9; 3:19-20); later still, Paul will show that faith in Christ enables the believer to have good works as the fruit of faith.[4] So, Moo effectively arrives at a similar conclusion by a different thought process.

Verses 8 and 9 refer to those who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (1:18) and prove it by doing those evil deeds outlined in Romans 1:18-32. The nature of the works depends upon the human heart behind them; the works provide an image of the heart. Be sure to notice the chilling vocabulary of Romans 2:8-9. God’s wrath is bad enough; his fury is worse than unthinkable!

Critical to Paul’s argument is the fact that God impartially judges the works — and thus the heart behind them —without regard to whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile. God does not play any favorites.

The verb used in 2:11 confirms what has been said above about God showing no partiality in judging the works of Christians. That is exactly how the same verb is used in Eph. 6:9, Col. 3:25, and James 2:1.

Only one name to know: Jesus

Think carefully about Gods impartiality! This means that the rich have no advantage over the poor; the powerful have no edge on the weak, and the socially-connected have no insider pull. Jesus said the same thing in these words: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

1. Read Matt. 7:1-2. How do these commands guide you in the same direction as Paul's words in Rom. 2:6-11?

2. Since every human is judged on the same basis before God, how does this influence the way you make choices and behave?

During Prohibition the only way to get into many private clubs was to know the right name to give at the door. Heaven is the most exclusive club of them all, and the only name to know at that door is Jesus. If Jesus knows you, you enter without question. If not, there is another door — you do not want to see what goes on in there!

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 

[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 135, citing K. Grobel.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 63.

[3] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 152.

[4] Moo, Romans, 142.