Meditations on Romans 3:1-8
Paul has established in chapter 2 that Jews are no better off than Gentiles in the sense that God shows no partiality to them simply because of physical lineage or heritage (Rom. 2:11). He was clear that the customs and traditions of Jews did nothing to merit righteousness before God. For example, Paul writes that “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Rom. 2:25). This outward sign did nothing for Jews as far as salvation from sin is concerned. Paul makes it clear through his refutation of circumcision making one righteous that being a child of God has nothing to do with tradition or physical birth. Just because one was born to Jewish parents didn’t make one a Jew since Jewishness is not external or outward, but “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” of the law (Rom. 2:29). The only outward work that is pleasing to God is obedience to the law of God by means of an inward change of heart. For a Gentile, though uncircumcised, is considered to be circumcised (meaning he or she is an heir to the promise of Abraham) by obedience to the God of the law (Rom. 2:25-26).
So, Jews are no better off than Gentiles in this sense, as God “judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16)–both Jews and Gentiles. With all of this in mind, Paul turns to a literary style of argument called a “diatribe”. A diatribe is a form of argument in which the writer sets up a dialogue between himself and a critic or objector. Paul, in Romans 3:1-8 is arguing with someone. The text is best interpreted and understood if we view it in this light–that Paul is possibly facing a counterpart in a council meeting and is having a heated argument. Or, we could view it as a dispute that Paul is having with himself. This is common among many of us as we do Bible study anyway, so this method may be more helpful. The old Paul, the Pharisee, argues with the new Paul, the slave to Christ. John Stott feels this option would be helpful in his commentary on Romans. However, for our purposes today, I feel it best for us to view this dispute as between Paul, the messenger with the gospel of grace and truth, presented with questions from a Jew, the one who revels in the law of God without experiencing the life changes the Spirit empowers through it.
The point of Romans up until now has been that all are in need of the gospel and that God freely gives of himself to both Jews and Gentiles to all who believe in Jesus Christ. As we look at this text, there is one line that really jumps out at me. The final line of this section of Scripture is startling to me. It is a short little sentence that would be easy to overlook. “Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). There are two things to notice from this verse of truth.
1. There will be condemnation for some.
Judgment will come. In this same set of Scripture, Paul affirms the reality that God will one day “judge the world” (Rom. 3:6). In Genesis 18:25, Abraham declares that God is “the Judge of all the earth”. He then concludes that this God who judges is just to do so. We have already seen earlier in Rom. 2:16 that God judges the secrets of men. There will be a day of judgment or day of Christ in which all men and women will be judged for even the careless words that they speak (Matt. 12:36). However, on this day of judgment there will be a great distinction between certain sinners and others. Some will be condemned and others will not.
Who will not be condemned? Those who are found to be in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Those who stand justified by the blood of Christ who purchased them as a ransom will not be condemned. Those who are saved from the wrath of God by his grace and through faith will not stand condemned. We will stand before the judgment seat of God and he will look at our guilt stained garments and declare us to be innocent as he coats us with the blood of Christ which will make that filthy garment as white as snow.
Who will be condemned? Now this is where our study takes off. This is where we will pitch our tent today. We must be careful where we walk for there are land mines everywhere on this land of impending condemnation. May we tread carefully and may our hearts be broken by the reality that there is heavy and ultimate condemnation awaiting some. May we see clearly what it is that leads to this condemnation and strive, by God’s grace, to avoid such atrocities and sin. They may be more common to us than we would normally think. If this is the case then may we repent with trembling and be ever grateful for the grace of God, which should and will empower us to be holy as the giver of such grace is holy. Be certain that you will encounter many this week that are heading toward condemnation by a just and holy God. Without his grace, there will be no excuses. May this examination of the Word transform the way you approach those in your life.
2. This condemnation will be just
The condemnation of the sinners who are represented by the diatribe Paul presents in Rom. 3:1-8 is completely just and righteous. This is a fair judgment by God. He gives these sinners exactly what they deserve. Their condemnation is just because God is holy and righteous and humans are sinful. In fact, Paul takes time in verses 9-18 to describe just how sinful and godless every man is. He concludes that no one is righteous and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). And the result of such sinfulness is divine punishment and wrath from God which remains upon all who have merely been born once (John 3:3, 36). The condemnation of any sinner is just as it is from a righteous God. And the justification of any sinner is nothing but pure unadulterated grace!
With these two truths at the forefront of our minds–that some sinners will be condemned and this condemnation will be just–we can now focus on the particular sinners Paul is answering in Romans 3:1-8. What attitudes do these sinners have? What objections do they make? Why is this sinful and deserving of condemnation?
After Paul has presented much data to support his claim that Jews and Gentiles are no different in their need for the gospel because of their equal fallen-ness under the law of God, he now opens chapter 3 with this diatribe of questions. I imagine this individual with whom Paul has debated to be very cynical–a cynical Jew who is very proud of his heritage and the culture he was raised in. He has a firm belief that he is right with God simply because he was born Jewish and that because he is in the physical line of Abraham, he is an heir to the promise of Abraham. Paul more elaborately addresses this problem in chapter 4. However, the heart of this Jew is hardened by all of this “equality with Gentiles talk” Paul is presenting. Remember from the end of Romans 2 that Paul has just said that some Jews are not truly Jews despite their physical circumcision and some Gentiles are in fact Jews despite the lack of physical circumcision. This seems to call into question the special position of Israel in redemption history. If Paul is refuting the great majority of the Old Testament and in fact the focal point of Old Testament theology, then the validity of his gospel can be called into question.
Objection #1: What advantage does a Jew have?
Can you see the dilemma? Paul has said that a Gentile can be a Jew by faith in the Messiah and a Jew may not really be a Jew. At first glance this seems to refute Old Testament biblical theology. This seems like a perfectly legitimate question at first. I mean, if Gentiles can be Jews by faith in the Messiah, then what benefit is there to be a Jew? The Old Testament seems to teach that the people Israel are God’s chosen people with a special purpose in his plan to redeem all peoples and glorify himself. Now is Paul saying this is completely pointless? Keep in mind that those who make such objections are in fact due just condemnation. That is where we are heading. (Just making sure we are rowing with our heads up).
Paul gives his answer. “To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2). He begins a list. The phrase, “to begin with…” insinuates that there will be more. However, Paul stops here. He continues and finishes his list in Romans 9:4-5. Here, Paul gives one reason that there is an advantage to the Jewish heritage in the plan of God’s redemption. Firstly, Paul says, Jews have been entrusted with the Old Testament Scriptures. 39 books of divinely inspired writing have been given to and “entrusted” to the Jewish people. Essentially, Paul is saying that indeed the Old Testament teachings on the special purpose of Israel are true and good. The issue now is that Paul seems to be using double-talk. He says that there is a special purpose in the plan of God for Israel and that there is an advantage to being a Jew, but at the same time says in Rom. 2:27 that Gentiles who are uncircumcised, but keep the law will judge Jews who break the law. For this debater, there can be no reconciliation of this apparent contradiction. Is it covenant security based on the Old Testament, or is it judgment and unbelief? Both just cannot be. All Jews, because of their place in God’s plan, must be right before God and not under judgment. The problem these Jews faced was coming to grips with the reality that it had nothing to do with their physical birth–it was a matter of the heart.
Objection #2: If some Jews are unfaithful then God must be unfaithful.
Paul continues with this dilemma by posing a question. “What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God” (v. 3)? The assumption is then made, considering Paul’s controversial gospel, that if there are some Jews who are unfaithful and under judgment, then God must be unfaithful since it is he who has established a covenant relationship with them. Paul is appalled at such a statement! “By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar” (v. 4). What is so appalling about this claim is that it is a direct attack on God’s character. This objection says that if some were unfaithful to God and he judged them, then he would be considered unfaithful too since his covenant would not be upheld. But the truth of the matter is that even if ALL (not just some) were unfaithful, God would still be faithful to uphold his glory and covenant.
Paul then gives support for his statement that God is true and will be faithful even if all are unfaithful and liars. He turns to Psalm 51. He quotes David in his prayer of confession and forgiveness to the Lord. Here is the context:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” – Psalm 51:4
Paul says in Romans 3:4, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” The context from David’s confession and plea tells us that the reason that God would be just to judge him is because his sin is directly against God (Ps. 51:4). This judgment is true to God’s nature and glory since he is utterly righteous and holy. His righteousness leads him to judge guilty sinners and this is in perfect accord with his covenant. For it is by faith that Abraham entered into the covenant initially and it is by faith that anyone–Jew or Gentile–enters into this covenant following Abraham, by faith. Therefore, anyone who does not have faith in God through the Messiah is a guilty sinner against the one true God and he is then just to judge and condemn him or her.
So, let’s break down Paul’s answers so far: Yes, Jews do have an advantage because they were entrusted with the Old Testament Scriptures. If they are unbelieving, however, they will be judged. God still remains true and faithful through this judgment of unfaithfulness. In fact, the sin of those that God judges, proves all the more his righteousness (see Psalm 51:4). God is proven just through our sin against him. The sin of Israel, therefore, magnifies God’s righteousness. This leads us to a third objection.
Objection #3: God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on Jews.
With all of Paul’s arguments in mind, the objector poses another question. “Okay, Paul, if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, then how could he inflict wrath on us? Would it not be unrighteous for God to inflict wrath on those who magnify his righteousness?” How great does this objection sound? It appears that the objector has put Paul in a pickle. Since the unrighteousness of the Jews (David as an example) only proves God to be all the more righteous, it would seem unrighteous for God to inflict wrath on the one’s who “glorify” him. How is Paul to respond? How are we to respond? Firstly, Paul was even embarrassed to include such a question in his letter as he qualifies it with the phrase (“I speak in a human way”). This was a word game that the objector attempts on Paul and he knows how ridiculous the objection is, but nevertheless he gives an answer. He just can’t pass on this one, no matter how insane the question. Paul responds by pointing out the ludicrousness of this statement. “By no means! For then how could God judge the world” (v. 6)? In his answer, Paul exposes how the question itself is self-defeating. These Jews believed that God would judge the world, and correctly so they did. In accordance with the oracles that had been entrusted to them, Abraham declared this very thing (Gen. 18:25). So, if it were true that God was unrighteous in his infliction of wrath upon Jews, then he must not be able to judge the world. How could God judge the world if he was unrighteous? The Jewish objector runs into a serious contradiction, as he fully believes that God will judge Gentiles and moralizers. God cannot judge the world if he cannot judge Jews. Therefore, their argument has no legs to stand on. God cannot be righteous to judge the world and unrighteous to judge the Jews. The truth that this Jewish objector is blind to and putting out of his mind is that God both is righteous to judge the world and the sins of the world magnify the righteousness of God.
This in no way implies that sins are glorifying to God. In fact that is simply ludicrous! It doesn’t even warrant an answer from Paul. He points out the folly of such a claim to close this segment of Scripture:
“But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?–as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” – Romans 3:7-8
How often do you hear this? If God has given me grace, then I can freely sin in order for God’s grace to abound. Paul handles this later in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 6:1). The devious objection here is that since sinners actually glorify God by their sin, they should keep sinning, for doing more and more evil brings about more and more good. This wicked word trick is worthy of only one response from Paul: “Their condemnation is just”.
Who are these that Paul is referring to? I posed this question at the beginning of our examination. Paul is referring to anyone and everyone who plays games with the Word of God. Those who try to force contradictions upon the infallible and inerrant Word of God are under just condemnation from a holy and blameless God. The objector of Romans 3:1-8 questions the very character of God and where there seems to be a contradiction, he attempts to exalt himself and his own traditions over the glory of the immortal God. So, what are we to do when we face difficult passages or passages that seem to contradict one another? We are not to exalt ourselves. We are not to interpret these texts in the light of our preconceived philosophical notions. We are not to assume God is a certain way based on our traditions. We must affirm and hold to the perfect and righteous character of God. When we begin trying to change God to fit our sinful lives, we become subject to his wrath and begin behaving like a sinner who is heading toward condemnation. Such behavior and thinking has no place in those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). This text teaches us that just condemnation falls upon those who come across two truths in Scripture that they have trouble or cannot reconcile and then they deny that they can be. If they cannot reconcile these two truths, then one of them or both must not be true. The grave danger in doing this and the reason that condemnation falls on them is that God’s very nature and character is brought into question. His trustworthiness is questioned. His faithfulness is questioned. It is an attack on his holy throne. God is utterly sovereign in all of life. We must submit to his sovereignty and supremacy over all things when we cannot reconcile two truths in Scripture. For this objector and all in his camp, the two truths were that God is true, faithful, and righteous while at the same time, he judges his own people Israel along with the Gentile world. These are two truths that they could not reconcile and so they denied that they could both be true. They then ended up challenging God directly. In the words of the apostle, “their condemnation is just”! This sort of behavior or way of approaching Scripture is unacceptable for a child of God.
Be Careful: You are Holding a “HOLY BIBLE”
I had a second grade girl ask me after I handed her a Bible, “Is this a holy Bible?” She asked because it didn’t have the words “Holy Bible” written on the front cover like our church pew Bibles do. Maybe we should realize what that little girl realized that day: that we are holding in our hands a holy Bible inspired by a holy God. He has revealed himself to us through this infallible word. May we be humbled by this and take our study of his Word more seriously. I will close with a word of encouragement and exhortation: Be careful in your study of the holy Word of God. The more you read and study seriously, the more likely you are to come across two texts that are difficult for you to reconcile. When this happens, do not respond like the Jews did to Paul’s presentation of the gospel. Do not respond with hardness of heart. Do not respond as one whose condemnation is just, for you are a child of God and set free from condemnation by the blood of Christ (Rom. 8:1). Rather, read carefully, study patiently, trust always, and pray persistently. With time, prayer, and further study, you will be able to reconcile them or at minimum affirm them. There is no shame in saying you do not understand, but you believe them both to be true. There is true joy to be found in careful study of the Word of God. Meditate on the glorious splendor and wondrous works of the Lord (Psalm 145:4)!