Newsletter Article for the September edition of The Hillside Messenger
Romans 3: “God justifies the sinner who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ”
In the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul has shown that all people, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, fall under God’s judgment on account of their sin. At the beginning of the third chapter he returns to this point, first asking what advantage the Jew has (v.1), and what benefit the Jew has by virtue of his circumcision. In answer to this, his first point is that there is a great advantage, which lies in the Jewish nation’s being entrusted with the oracles of God (v.2). The oracles of God are the Old Testament, as the Jews had it in the first century A.D., in particular, the Law, or Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and the Prophets. It was a great advantage for the Jewish nation to have received this divine revelation of God’s moral Law, as well as the prophecies calling the people to observe God’s commandments and predicting the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of the Christ, and his coming to judge the world. The Lord himself told the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar that salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22c), so indicating that God’s revelation given to the Jews and recorded by them shows the way to salvation. It does so by presenting God’s moral standards and through people’s awareness of these, the conviction of sin, by which the Holy Spirit brings them to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
St. Paul maintains this advantage the Jewish nation has in being entrusted with God’s word, in that the faithfulness of God in so entrusting his word to them was not rendered ineffective by the unbelief of some (v.3). St. Paul is viewing his own nation from the perspective that though many of them continue in unbelief and disobedience (a fact he again confronts in Romans 9-11), some Jews have come to faith in Christ and obedience to him. The unbelief of some, even if it were all, and not some Jews, cannot cancel or nullify the faithfulness of God, since God’s testimony remains true, even if every man is a liar (v.4). As evidence of God’s truthfulness, St. Paul quotes from Psalm 51:4, which is King David’s testimony to God’s just judgment and the truth of his charge against David.
A possible argument that now can arise, St. Paul counters decisively. Some might say that if man’s sin and wickedness only demonstrate by contrast the righteousness of God, could it not be the case that God is unjust to inflict wrath, or judgment, because of human wrongdoing? St. Paul replies with a strong negative, “By no means!” The reason is that if God were unjust, how would he judge the world (v.6)? Sin remains sin, and the sinner a sinner, even though God’s truth abounds the more for his glory through man’s sin (v.7). However, this does not mean that we can take the lawless attitude expressed in the words, “Let us do evil things, so that good things may come” (v.8), or as some believe today, “Let us sin more, so that we may receive more grace and forgiveness from God.”
St. Paul again asks the question whether the Jews are in a better position than the Gentiles. Some interpret this question as, “Are we worse off?” The Greek verb can be thought of as middle voice with an active meaning (“Are we better off?”), middle voice (“Do we hold up any excuse as a shield in front of ourselves?”), or passive voice (“Are we excelled?” or “Are we worse off?”) My preference is to interpret this verb as middle voice, meaning, “Do we have an excuse?” This fits well with the theme of the whole discourse in the remainder of the chapter. St. Paul answers this question with great certainty, “No, in no wise” (Romans 3:9a), since he has proved in the preceding chapters that Jews and Greeks (representing all nations) are under the power of sin, and therefore guilty of it.
St. Paul now builds proof of man’s sinfulness from Holy Scripture. We must note here that these quotations do not distinguish between Jew and Greek, or Gentile, in the matter of sin. All human beings are guilty of sin. The first verse from which St. Paul quotes is Ecclesiastes 7:20, which tells us that there is no righteous man on earth. The full verse adds there is no-one who does what is good and does not sin (Eccl.7:20b, NKJV). St. Paul adds to this the testimony of Psalm 14:1-3 that there is no-one righteous, no-one who seeks God, but “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:3). After that, comes Ps.5:10, which describes people whose throat is an open grave, who practice deceit with their lips. The descriptions of sinful behavior are associated with death and deceit, and the quotation from Psalm 139:4 that speaks of the poison of asps under their lips, implies mankind is controlled by the Serpent, the Devil, while Psalm 10:7 describes a mouth full of cursing and bitterness. As if this were not enough, verses are added to show man’s violence in shedding blood (Is. 59:7; Prov. 1:16) and how destruction and misery characterize his ways (Is. 59:7c), while people have no fear of God (Ps.35:2).
Now all this Scriptural testimony to man’s evil ways St. Paul attributes to God’s law, for he writes:
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
(Romans 3:19, KJV)
The witness of Holy Scripture (here various parts of the Old Testament, but mainly portions of the Psalms), through which the Spirit of God speaks, brings a charge against all people, the charge that we are all guilty of sin. Here St. Paul does not argue that those who were not subject to the laws of the Old Testament are not guilty of sin. His understanding is rather that the whole world is under God’s judgment, since all are subject to God’s universal law, and all must hear the verdict that they are guilty. No-one, he continues, can be justified in God’s presence on the basis of good deeds done to fulfil God’s law, since through God’s law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
Why is the above such an important part of the Gospel and its preaching? No-one will be convicted of sin, if we do not preach the truth of God’s judgment against sin, and man’s guilt as God’s verdict. No matter how much good anyone does or tries to do, he cannot extract himself from the predicament of guilt before God, and its accompanying sentence of eternal death in everlasting hell. But God, in his love, mercy, and grace did not leave mankind in this despair!
One of the most powerful phrases in this chapter comes at the beginning of verse 21: “But now…” If it were on the basis of God’s law alone and by good deeds done that a man is established in a right relationship with God, none of us would have any hope of eternal life. “But now” brings in a new dimension, a new reality, a reality that was brought about apart from law, the revelation of God’s righteousness, but the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament predicted it. This righteousness of God is revealed and received through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ expressed by all who believe, whatever their nationality v.22). On the one hand, all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). On the other hand, all are justified freely through the redemption that is in the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24). The death of Jesus Christ on the cross was proof of God’s designation of Christ as the means of expiation of sins (Romans 3:25), demonstrating his righteousness on account of the remission of all past sins through God’s forbearance (Romans 3:26). All this proves God’s righteousness, so that he may be just and the one who justifies whoever believes in Jesus. All human boasting or grounds for pride are excluded on the principle, not of good deeds, but of faith, since a person is justified, or set in a right relationship with God, by faith, apart from works of law. God, being God of Jews and of all other nations, justifies everyone through their faith. This does not mean that we replace law with faith; rather, we put law on a firmer footing. Christians must still aim to obey God’s commandments and be resolved to do so, but they are justified by God on the basis of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.