Text: Romans 3:1
Introduction: The epistle to the Romans, sad to say, is one of the most neglected books of the Bible. Why? Due to its overt doctrinal content and the tightly argued style of the Apostle Paul it does not lend itself to the popular forms of “ministry” that has taken evangelicalism by storm. John MacArthur laments, “An overpowering surge of ardent pragmatism is sweeping through evangelicalism. Traditional methodology—most notably preaching—is being discarded or downplayed in favor of newer means, such as drama, dance, comedy, variety, side-show histronics, pop-psychology, and other entertainment forms. The newer methods supposedly are more ‘effective’—that is, they draw a bigger crowd. And since for many the chief criterion for gauging the success of a church has become attendance figured, whatever pulls in the most people is accepted without critical analysis as good. That is pragmatism…The experts are now telling us that pastors and church leaders who want to be successful must concentrate their energies in this new direction. Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy and authoritative. Above all, keep everyone entertained. Churches following this pattern will see numerical growth, we’re assured; those that ignore it are doomed to decline.”[i]
We note from this passage (3:1-8) that Paul was not content only to proclaim and expound the gospel. He also argued its truth and reasonableness, and defended it against misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Whether these Jewish objections were genuine (because he had actually heard them advanced) or reflected his own views that he came to grips with after his conversion, he took them seriously and responded to them. He saw that the character of God was at stake. So he reaffirmed God’s covenant as having abiding value, God’s faithfulness to his promises, God’s justice as judge, and God’s true glory, which is promoted only by good, never by evil. “We too in our day must include apologetics in our evangelism. We need to anticipate people’s objections to the gospel, listen carefully to their problems, respond to them with due seriousness, and proclaim the gospel in such a way as to affirm God’s goodness and further His glory. Such dialogical preaching has a powerful apostolic precedent in this passage.”[ii]
I. Some Jewish Objections: The Apostle has to this point established the fact that all people (Jews as well as Gentiles) are sinners and as such subject to the judgment of God. In this regard the Jew really has no advantage, but he does have other advantages.
A. What About the Abrahamic Covenant?: How will Paul answer this question? Israel has turned against the promised Messiah, denounced Him, crucified Him, and is persecuting with deadly venom His followers. Further, Christian churches are rising throughout the world, composed not only of believing members of the ancient theocracy but also of believing Gentiles, and the latter have equal standing in the new fellowship of the one body, the church. What answer will the apostle give to the question that he himself has framed, a question which in his struggles with the stiff-necked among his own people on the street corners of the principal cities of the ancient world, must have been triumphantly and disdainfully thrown at him constantly?
B. The Answer (Romans 3:2): There is no vacillation in his reply. In fact, the very brevity of its three words, “much every way” (four in the original text), adds tremendous force to the answer. With the nation in a spiritual shambles of rebellion against Jehovah and with Christian churches everywhere, there is even now much advantage to the Jew. What is that advantage? The answer, it is clear, is important. In the first place, the apostle says, to mention a preeminent advantage, to Israel has been entrusted “the oracles of God.” But, what are “the oracles of God”? There is no unanimity here among the commentators, although all are convinced that the expression has some direct relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Barrett feels the words refer to “the whole Old Testament,”[iii] in the light of the parallel in 9:4. Murray agrees, referring the expression to “the Old Testament in it entirety.”[iv] In a long and useful article on the expression Warfield reached the conclusion that it meant oracular utterances, divine communications in written form, and, in addition, he acknowledged that it could in this place refer to certain portions of the Scriptures more particularly.[v] The apostle’s statement, or question, in verse three also confirms the fact that Paul had the Old Testament promises chiefly before him. He asks, “For what if some have not believed?” Now the reference to unbelief is far more appropriate when directed to specific promises than to the whole Bible, or the entire Old Testament. Even the backsliding, unbelieving Jews of the Old Covenant days did not disbelieve the Scriptures. They had misinterpreted the Messianic promises, but they had not rejected the Old Testament revelation itself. We conclude, then, that by the expression, “the oracles of God,” Paul refers to the Messianic revelation of covenants, Law, cultus, especially promises, and above all, the Messiah Himself. This is their “advantage,” and their “profit,” and it is no wonder that Paul calls it, “much every way.” Of these things they were the stewards (cf. Isa. 42:1-7; 49:5-6; Acts 15:13-18; Rom. 11:11-15; Matt. 21:43). The promises are a commitment, a trust for the benefit of the world.
II. But Will Not Jewish Unbelief Annul the Promises?:
A. The Question (Romans 3:3): Again the apostle suggests an objection to his own conclusions. “It is true that to Israel were extended the oracles of God,” the imaginary objector might admit, “but, Paul, Israel has fallen into disobedience and rejection of the promises. Does not their own unwillingness to receive the promises effectively annul them?” The “for” introduces the argument by which Paul answers the unexpressed objection, “But what about Israel’s unbelief?” Paul’s reply, spelled out in full, would be something like this: “Her unbelief does not affect the validity of the promises. For (to amplify) what if some have not believed? Their unbelief will not make void the faithfulness of God, will it?” The objection, therefore, in Paul’s eyes is a direct challenge to the character of God. It is an attack upon His veracity. The Authorized Version’s “faith” is clearly faithfulness here (cf. Gal. 5:22). God’s faithfulness to His promises is in view.
B. The Answer (Romans 3:4): Paul’s answer is really very simple: God will keep His word. And, in the final analysis, the whole question of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises rests upon the veracity of the Godhead. The answer, in its form, is threefold. First, the question is rejected as abhorrent. The words, “God forbid,” a free rendering of the Greek may it not come to be, is equivalent to the Latin ad profanum! or the English, “To the devil.” In our colloquial speech it might be paraphrased, “Impossible!,” or, “Good heavens, no!,” or “Are you crazy?” Second, Paul adds that the faithfulness of God is to be maintained even if, when men contend with Him in court, the maintaining of it demands that in every case a guilty verdict be returned against man. If it is necessary to affirm that all men are liars, still God is true. One can see that Paul does argue by syllogistic reasoning that God is true to His Word. Finally, Paul appeals to Scripture to support his case. The text is Psalm 51:4, a passage in which David pictures himself in a heavenly tribunal before the divine Judge. There he makes his confession of guilt and acknowledges the veracity of his legal Adversary. David is unfaithful, but his Judge is proven righteous and clear of guilt. So with God and the promises to Israel; He is faithful to them, though at the moment Israel stands guilty of unbelief and under judgment. In the future they shall possess them (cf. 11:25-27). Charles Hodge, in some doctrinal comments upon the section, has touched upon the question that must be in the mind of every thoughtful reader of these verses. “God is faithful to his promises,” the Princeton theologian wrote, “but he never promises to pardon the impenitently guilty.”[vi] But now we must turn to deal briefly with the false inference or erroneous application of the statements Paul has made in Romans 3:1-4. The brief paragraph of verses five through eight is quite obviously structured around the two questions of verse five, which are answered by another question in verse six, and the two questions of verses seven and eight, which are answered in verse eight by a simple, vigorous, and emphatic concluding clause, “whose judgment is just.” There is little difference between the questions of verse five and those of verses seven and eight, perhaps only a slight difference of emphasis, the former looking more particularly toward God and the latter toward man.
III. Is God Unjust to Punish the Unjust?:
A. The Godward Question (Romans 3:5): The apostle writes, “But if our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God, what shall we say? God, who inflicts wrath, is not unjust, is He? (I speak after the manner of men.) The “but” introduces the objection of the imaginary opponent in diatribe fashion. Paul has laid himself open to the objection by the citation of Psalm 51:4, where David pictures himself in a heavenly tribunal before the divine Judge. There he makes his confession of guilt and acknowledges the veracity of his legal Adversary. David is unfaithful, but his Judge is proven righteous and clear of guilt. Thus, David’s unrighteousness has been the occasion for the demonstration of the righteousness of God. Does this, then, mean that, if God inflicts wrath, He is unjust in doing so? After all, David’s unrighteousness has commended, has shown up, God’s righteousness. It is more likely that Paul’s thoughts have returned to the ideas of 3:1-4 and Jewish unbelief in the light of the promises. If Jewish unbelief has served to highlight God’s faithfulness to His promises, in that He will still fulfill those promises, how can God in righteousness inflict wrath on those who are the instruments of the demonstration of His justice? What Paul calls “our righteousness” is called in a moment “my lie” (cf. vv. 7, 4, “liar”). The apparently plausible and logical question is answered with another, phrased negatively. “God, who inflicts wrath, is not unjust, is He?” It is obvious that God’s justice cannot be questioned. Only human thinking and speaking would attempt that. The last clause of verse five is an implicit insight into Paul’s attitude towards human reason. The apostle does not write, “I speak according to the sinful, or ungodly”; it is, “according to man,” or simply as a man. The work of human reason as Calvin points out, is “ever to bark against the wisdom of God,”[vii] always railing against the truth of God, which it does not and cannot understand (cf. I Cor. 2:14). Only when we submit our reason to the Spirit of God and the Word of God are we able to understand His mysteries.
B. The Apostolic Answer (Romans 3:6): Paul now speaks as a Christian apostle, and his initial response to the plausible objection is an outright rejection of the reasoning as ungodly thinking. God forbid! Now, it might seem to some that the apostle begs the question in his additional words, “For otherwise how will God judge the world?” As Murray says, “For of what avail is it to affirm that God will judge the world if the question is: how can God be just in executing judgment if his righteousness is commended by our unrighteousness? Categorical assertion of the thing to be proved is no argument!”[viii] In this case, however, the apostle’s argument is sound because it rests upon what is to his mind an unquestioned truth, universal judgment. About that doctrine there can be no question, for the Scriptures speak fully and explicitly on the point (cf. Heb. 6:2; Acts 17:31). Any argument, no matter how plausible, that violates the plain teaching of revelation is wrong. In this case the teaching that God will judge all men is “axiomatic,” “a fundamental certainty of all theological thinking.”[ix]
IV. Is it Right to Judge Sinners Who Glorify God?:
A. The Manward Question: With a different emphasis Paul, offering arguments an objector might pose to his doctrine of God’s determination to fulfill His promises even in the face of human sin and disobedience, continues the discussion. Putting words in the sinner’s mouth he asks, “If God’s truth is increased and God’s glory advanced by means of my lying, then why am I brought to judgment, Why may I not just do evil that good may come?” The apostle has inserted a parenthesis in the last question, asserting that this is the very charge brought against him and his followers, namely, that they practiced this very doctrine, “Let us do evil that good may come.” “The slogan,” Murray adds, “pointedly sets forth the underlying assumption with which Paul is dealing from verse five onwards.”[x] The apostle has the last judgment primarily in mind, as the future tense in “shall judge” (cf. v. 6) indicates. In verse seven the present tense of the same verb is rendered in the Authorized Version by, “am I judged.” The present is written from the standpoint of that future time and should be taken that way. It is futuristic in sense.
B. The Apostolic Answer (Romans 3:8c): The logically absurd conclusion of his opponents, that sin enhances the glory of God and, therefore, precludes judgment, is not only inconsistent with the future judgment, but also destructive of all morality. Such reasoning leads to the impious conclusion, “Let us do evil that good may come,” a sentiment slanderously attributed to the apostle and his followers. Paul in one cutting stroke, as short as the question is long, rejects the thought and those who propound it. “Why is he so brief?” asks Barth, adding, “Because fools, and inconsistent fools in particular can and should be answered briefly. And in that long question everything is foolish, everything is wrong.”[xi]
Conclusion: Evil is evil, no matter what God may bring from it. Speaking of these who object to divine judgment upon their sin, Calvin writes, “And their perverseness was, on two accounts, to be condemned,–first, because this impiety had gained the assent of their minds; and secondly, because in traducing the gospel, they dared to draw from it their calumny.”[xii] There is a fine irony in the final statement that is obscured by the Authorized Version’s rendering. The word krima (KJV, “damnation”) means judgment, not damnation. Paul concludes his charges against those who object to judgment as sinners by saying, “whose judgment is just.” This final word is directed to the Jews particularly, as the context indicates. They thought they were excused from divine judgment and free to judge the Gentiles, but they overlooked the justice of God. Thus, Paul has very skillfully returned to the charge with which he began the section on the sin of the Jews, “Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practice the same things” (Rom. 2:1).[xiii]
[i] John MacArthur, Jr. Ashamed of The Gospel (Crossway, 1993), p. 45.
[ii] J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), p. 98.
[iii] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (SPCK, 1957), p. 65.
[iv] John Murray, The Epistle to The Romans (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 93.
[v] B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (rpt. P&R, 1970), pp. 351-407.
[vi] C. Hodge, A Commentary On Romans (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1972), p. 75.
[vii] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries VIII (rpt. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 60.
[viii] Murray, p. 99.
[ix] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans I (T&T Clark, 1975), p. 184.
[x] Murray, p. 97.
[xi] K. Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans (John Knox, 1960), p. 40.
[xii] Calvin, p. 123.
[xiii] I owe the substance of this outline to my late prof. of theology Dr. S. Lewis Johnson’s lectures of Romans.
We have here a book that will disappoint no one who looks for the fruits of ripe and thorough scholarship. Dr. Wines has given ten or twelve years of the best part of his life to the careful investigation of this subject. The treatment, we are told, is an attempt to analyze and develop systematically, the civil polity of the Hebrew Lawgiver. The substance of the book was originally delivered in the form of lectures in various theological seminaries and other places. We remember with what singular interest we listened to them, some years since.
The reader will see, therefore, that this work, though learned, is not designed exclusively for theologians and students; it is a book to be read as well as studied; and there is not a layman in the Church, or a citizen in the republic, to whom it might not be interesting and profitable.
The work indeed is especially pertinent to the legislator, the civilian, and political economist, for as it has been well remarked, Statesmen and legislators, equally with theologians, moralists and lawyers, will find the study of the Mosaic legislation a rich source of knowledge and wisdom. This code contains, undeniably, the germ of almost everything precious in modern civilization. It is a common fountain, from which the mast enlightened nations of subsequent ages have drawn their best principles of political, civil and criminal law. It abounds in shining specimens of philosophical, statesmanship and legislative policy. In short, it is a system of legislation which embodies and applies with an admirable skill and efficiency, most of the great principles of just, wise, and equal government.
Our wants in this direction should be, at least in a measure, supplied by American scholars. Granting the large liberty to draw from the exhaustless storehouse of French and German learning, our text book should, to a greater extent, be supplied by those who, having been educated under the influence of American institutions, understand the genius and necessities of our people. We look with hope to the time when the export of a critical literature, the product of accomplished scholarship, shall commence. As an earnest of that happy future, we welcome such a work as the Commentaries of the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews.
This volume appears opportunely. We have fallen upon times, where infidelity puts on its most deceptive guises. The gross and unblushing impiety of a former age, that could write its abuse of revelation without even a copy of the sacred volume, has given place to a more refined and cultivated skepticism, making many pretensions to scholarship and critical learning. And it is noticeable that all the more extensive and popular forms of infidelity seem to tend naturally to the undermining of inspiration. Scarce any thug would tend to produce a deeper respect for the Scriptures than a thorough understanding of the principles of the Hebrew commonwealth.
In the Introductory Essay on Civil Society and Government, timely, when so much is said of the principles of legislation, and so many attempts are being made to modify constitutions, the author proceeds to analyze and develop the Mosaic Code, regarding it as containing the seminal principles of all true legislation and government, and suggesting the elements of all necessary human laws and civil organizations.
The Presbyterian and Quarterly Review (March 1854)
Hardback; 642 pages