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 2:28-29, Seek this: heart touched by Spirit

One of the fascinating things about professional football is that on Monday morning the great performances and the poor ones are first presented as matters of physical reality — touchdowns scored or fumbles — and then attributed to something inside the athletes. We may hear that our team played like they did not care or that a certain star showed tremendous heart.

Why is this so? Because we know from experience that what is true on the inside determines what is seen on the outside.

(ESV) Romans 2:28-29

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

While Romans 2:28 is fairly clear as it stands, some grammar helps us understand it better. The sentence breaks into two clauses — each stated negatively — whose subjects are Jew and circumcision. The first clause represents the Jewish view during the first century: circumcision identifies the Jews, those assured of heaven.

James Dunn presents the reasoning of that day:

Even though it was known that other peoples practiced circumcision . . . circumcision was nevertheless recognized to be a rite which marked out the Jews . . . . This can only be a reflection of the high evaluation placed on circumcision by the Jews themselves in defining their national and religious distinctiveness.[1]

To the correctness of the Jews’ belief Paul very clearly says, “No!” To understand why, we must first notice that one word is repeated: “outwardly . . . outward” (2:28). The underlying Greek word was used in 1:19 for those things God made plain to all humanity. To put the religious concept of circumcision into our time, imagine that all a man had to do to get to heaven was have a simple surgical operation and recover for two or three days. Does that make sense as a way to be acquitted of guilt before God? Not only is the idea ridiculous on its face, it makes no provision whatever for women. That is a rather significant omission. (Smile)

Douglas Moo explains the literary relationship of verse 28 to verse 29: “Paul argues by means of a contrast, with two denials in v. 28 being matched by two assertions in v. 29.”[2] The true Jew is the one changed inwardly. The true circumcision is the one of the heart done by the Spirit.

The word “inwardly” (“a Jew is one inwardly” 2:29) translates a Greek phrase that means “in the hidden place or in secret.”[3] That is exactly how the same phrase was used by Jesus for giving in secret (Matt. 6:4) and praying in secret (Matt. 6:6). So, a deeper way of looking at one contrast between 2:28 and 2:29 is that it compares what is in the open (fleshly circumcision; 2:28) with what is in secret (the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit; 2:29).

Dunn does the best job of presenting the contrasts in 2:28-29, and his Greek phrases will be presented in English for the sake of comprehension:

in the open in the flesh by the letter (from man)

in secret of the heart by the Spirit (from God)

Dunn skillfully observes:

As the summation of his indictment of the Jewish [opponent], this is what constitutes Paul’s critique of his own native religion: it puts too much stress on the outward and visible, on the physical kinship and ritual and in consequence treats the law superficially. What makes the true Jew, the Jew whom God praises, is precisely that which can never be measured in physical, visible and ritual terms — it is something hidden, of the heart, by the Spirit.[4]

Looking more broadly at Paul’s theology in all his letters, Pauline scholar Herman Ridderbos says, “For Paul, even when he speaks of being a Jew in the heart and the Spirit, faith in Christ and his gift of grace are all-important, and therefore natural descent from Abraham is no longer a determinative factor for belonging to the people of God.”[5]

God sees in secret.

Grant Osborne points the way for application of this lesson: “The message is just as important for our day as it was for Paul’s. It is just as easy today to center on the external (church attendance, activity or external piety) rather than on one’s relationship to God.”[6]

What are some possible reasons that both the first-century Jews and some of us today focus on external things rather than our relationship to God?

God has a word for those who are just going through the motions: “You will sow but not reap; you will press olives but not anoint yourself with oil; and you will tread grapes but not drink the wine” (Micah 6:15, HCSB).

But for those who seek God with a whole heart, he says: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19). Let your actions show you belong in the latter group.

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


[1] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988) 120.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 173.

[3] BDAG-3, kruptos, hidden, q.v.

[4] Dunn, Romans, 124.

[5] Herman Ridderbos, Paul, Trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) 334-335.

[6] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 78-79.

Exposition of Romans 2:26-27, We will reap what we sow

The Bible repeatedly teaches that people’s deeds deserve more attention than their words. For example, Jesus said, “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them — this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12, HCSB).

When Jesus taught the parable of the merciful Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he made clear that behavior that pleased God was not the exclusive preserve of the Jews. But they did not take the point. Are we doing any better?

(ESV) Romans 2:26-27

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

These two verses are harder than they look. Thomas Schreiner presents the issue like this: “Is the obedience of the Gentiles (1) hypothetical, (2) the obedience of those who have responded to the light they have received, or (3) the obedience of Christian Gentiles?”[1] Clearly the case involves both Jews and Gentiles who have some knowledge of the Law of Moses, including the well-known rite of circumcision.

Douglas Moo takes view (1) by saying, “Paul’s way of putting the matter in this context could, of course, suggest there actually are people who meet this requirement for salvation, but his later argument quickly disabuses us of any such idea (cf. 3:9, 20).”[2] Many agree with Moo out of concern that no basis be granted for salvation based on human works rather than on God’s grace.

But such theological considerations may be taken too far even though they are motivated by sound doctrine. Schreiner, joined by C.E.B. Cranfield,[3] takes view (3) that Paul is speaking of believing Gentiles:

The Spirit’s work on the heart logically precedes the observance of the law by the Gentiles. Autonomous works are rejected, but works that are the fruit of the Spirit’s work are necessary to be saved. Paul is not speaking of perfect obedience, but of obedience that clarifies that one has been transformed.[4]

I join Schreiner’s conclusion by way of view (2) leading to (3). Some among the Gentiles respond to what they know about God: examples include Rahab (Josh. 2), Ruth (Ruth), Cornelius (Acts 10), and Lydia (Acts 16:14). God responds to such people with more of his light and grace. Like Abraham, David, Paul and many others, these people are not perfect, nor did any of them keep the law in every point. Instead, what happened to them is exactly what is described in Rom. 2:26; they were regarded by God as belonging to the people of God. This is an act of God’s mercy and grace.

The Greek verb (logizomai) translated “be regarded” (2:26) occurs nineteen times in Romans. In 2:26, the verb logizomai means, “as a result of a calculation evaluate, estimate, look upon as, consider.”[5] Schreiner analyzes the form of logizomai used in 2:26 in the following way: “The future tense of [the verbal form] implies that such a reckoning will occur on the day of judgment, while the passive voice intimates that God does the reckoning.”[6]

Because of God’s act of reckoning [logizomai], what we have in 2:26-27 is not salvation by works but salvation by God’s gracious dealing with those who seek him. Consider these verses:

(NET) But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited [logizomai] as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

(ESV) Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6b).

In his conclusion (2:27), Paul returns to his theme that Jew and Gentile stand before God on the same basis; circumcision and law make no difference unless one adds faith that leads to obedience.

The fix is not in

God is paying attention to our actions because his judgment is not whimsical. His judgment is based on reality and truth. Paul says: “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows” (Gal. 6:7, NET).

1. Think in detail about the activities of your life over the last three days. How would God assess each of the actions you have taken?

2. The fact that all of our deeds are judged impartially affects what we believe, how we worship and whom we consider to be believers. For example: no one will go to heaven simply because they believe in the trinity or because they are Baptists or Roman Catholics or because they are nice people. Discuss the implications of this idea.

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven — only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21, NET).

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


[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 139.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 171.

[3] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 173.

[4] Schreiner, Romans, 145; see 140-145 for the entire argument.

[5] BDAG-3, logizomai , look upon as, q.v.

[6] Schreiner, Romans, 141.