God: Faithful, True, and Just
Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Lesson 13: Romans 3:3-8
Something was lacking in Israel at the time of the New Testament. It wasn’t that they weren’t large enough or rich enough. It wasn’t that they lacked influence, or didn’t have their doctrines all spelled out. Though they had many errors, there were some who had stated things correctly. The problem was that they were not holy. They were not living in a way that truly honored their God, and set them apart as his people.
While we identify many problems in churches today, the most pressing problem is not that we aren’t large enough or rich enough. It’s not that we don’t have enough influence in our society, schools, businesses or governments. It’s not that we need to better spell out our doctrines, and better define our organization or methods. Though there are always imperfections in our understanding, there is a place were things are stated correctly. The problem is that we are not holy enough. We need to get our lives in order so that we truly honor our God according to the principles he gives us in his word.
In the first two chapters of Romans Paul showed from the Scriptures that all have sinned, both Gentiles and Jews, and are equally condemned before God. So then, what advantage is there in being marked out as a covenant child of God if it doesn’t liberate you from the final judgment?
Chapter 3 began by explaining the great advantage to the members of God’s covenant family. They have the Scriptures, the word of God. In this book God’s true character is spelled out and our duties to him are made clear. This book also points to the restoration that is possible by the gospel.
Even with the advantage of Scripture, instead of learning what God was really like, and learning how to be holy, Ancient Israel assumed their blessings assured them of eternal salvation without a Savior like the one promised.
What had happened to Israel, the people of the book?
Romans 3:3, “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?”
God made his covenant with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was renewed through Moses, King David, and the prophets. He would make their descendents a special nation blessed uniquely. Through them the Messiah would eventually be born. All this was clearly spelled out in God’s word which had been graciously given to them.
The problem was that Israel did not remain faithful to the covenant. In Acts 7:51-53 Stephen summarized that history to the Jewish leaders, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
Through their long history of unbelief and sin God had not abandoned them. He sent his prophets, and delivered them from their captivities. So why did God preserve Israel through all those times of rebellion?
She had not yet completed the purpose for which God had chosen them. By them was to come the Messiah who would reign on the throne of David forever, who would be the final Passover lamb to actually do what the other sacrifices only represented. He would suffer and die in place of his people to redeem them.
By the time Paul wrote to the Romans, the promised Messiah had come. The atonement had been made. The gospel message had been explained. God had completed the purpose of the Jewish nations as an image of the church to come. The church was now born. The symbolisms of it were no longer needed.
The time had come when their unbelief reached its absolute limit, the breaking point. Israel committed the final and ultimate breach of God’s covenant. She rejected and crucified the One God had promised from the beginning.
Their rejection of Messiah denied a major point of the law (if it is understood rightly). The law was intended to reveal God’s perfect holiness and fallen man’s inability to live up to it. It was designed to drive humbled sinners in repentance to the promised Christ. But the Jews changed the idea of the Messiah from a needed Redeemer, into a Jewish conqueror. They made the law into a way of salvation instead of what reveals the need for salvation.
Far from admitting that, the Jews saw the problem in a different way. Their question was, “If what you are saying is true Paul, that there is no special treatment for us Jews. Has God’s faithfulness to his promise to us been annulled? Was it no longer in effect?”
Paul dramatically denied that idea in his answer in verse four.
Romans 3:4, “Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: ‘That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged.’ “
Just what had God promised Israel? God had not promised them that each person would be exempted from judgment. God had not revealed his holiness as an optional thing which they were free to redefine. He said, “… You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy…” (Leviticus 11:44)
They had imagined that God’s covenant exempted them from that responsibility. They reduced the awfulness of sin into a minor issue. Jewish scholar Abarbanel once wrote, “If a Jew commit all manner of sins, he is indeed of the number of sinning Israelites, and will be punished according to his sins; but he has, notwithstanding, a portion in eternal life,” Many other statements of the Rabbis could be added saying the same thing.
When what we believe or practice differs from what God has said, God’s truth must prevail over man’s theories and excuses.
Paul quotes from two portions of Scripture that were familiar to the Jews. First he used Psalm 116:11 to remind them that lies are common to man, not to God. When what we say or do differs from what the Scriptures teach, we must abandon our position.
Then he quoted from David’s psalm of repentance, Psalm 51:4. He quoted directly from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament popular in his day. In Psalm 51:4 David prayed, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”
The problem was not that God did not live up to what he promised. It was that he never promised what they had imagined. The prophets often warned Israel that she had misunderstood God’s promises. Jesus gave a full explanation of how Israel had distorted God’s truth. Paul, the other Apostles and other New Testament writers continued that same lesson.
According to the prophets, and as Paul was teaching here, even Israel’s unbelief was part of God’s design. By their unbelief God revealed his mercy and revealed more of his plan. It was their unbelief that produced the atoning death of the Messiah on the Cross when their sin-blinded leaders demanded his crucifixion.
So a new objection is anticipated by Paul in this next section. If God used their unbelief and sin to further his plan and to reveal his glory, then how can he hold them guilty and condemn them?
How can God judge unbelief if he uses it to promote his plan?
Romans 3:5, “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.)”
Paul makes it clear that he is raising a hypothetical question. He is speaking not for himself now, not for God, but as one of their objectors might speak. So if Israel’s unbelief was all a part of God’s plan, how can God find fault with them?
This is the classic problem of the place of sin in the sovereign plan of God. “If God uses even our sin for good, then how can he rightly judge us?”
People creatively justify their sin by making it appear good and acceptable to God. Though this relationship between our sin and God’s plan isn’t directly explained in Scripture, it is the height of presumption to assume that no explanation exits.
The question, as Paul words it, implies the negative. God is not unjust or unholy when he uses man’s sin and rebellion to advance his plan.
Paul quickly and clearly lays aside that charge.
Romans 3:6, “Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?”
This question only becomes a problem for those who presume unfounded things.
The pantheist sees everything as nothing more than God acting. If God is the force in us that sins, then there can be no human responsibility, no just judgment, and no real acts of men. By this line of reasoning Hitler’s desire to purify the human race would justify his atrocities. By this line of reasoning we are wrong to arrest or punish criminals of any sort. By this line of reasoning no one should be judged by God for anything.
This is clearly false. Scripture shows that individuals are clearly held accountable for their immorality. Therefore the sins of people are their own acts, not God acting in them.
The religious humanist sees God as being controlled by man’s choices and actions. God is reduced to a beggar-deity hoping man will make the right choices so his plan will work out. By this line of reasoning man is god and is sovereign over the final outcome of all things. By this line of reasoning God does not direct anything to a planned outcome. By this line of reasoning nothing is certain and there is no wrong way for things to happen.
This is clearly false. Scripture shows that God has decreed all things eternally. He has also decreed that individuals will be held accountable for immorality. It is the sinner who is morally responsible for his acts which are really his, though God decreed them to happen as part of his perfect plan.
Assumptions like these attempt to gut the idea of holiness. They presume that God cannot hold us responsible since his plan never fails. The fact of God’s Sovereignty and Providence are clearly established by direct statements in the Bible. God calls us to be holy. We are to be specially his children, set apart from what we were before the transformation of our souls by grace, and from what we would continue to be aside from his power at work in us as his beloved children.
Since neither of these views is consistent with Scripture, man has no excuse for his sin. Israel has no exemption from judgment for her many sins, and for her recent rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah.
The unredeemed often blend biblical language with those pantheistic or humanistic theories. Men object to the biblical teaching that “no one is saved by his own choices or deeds.” They hate the doctrines of God’s grace and the stated fact of eternal election of some to life. They ask “How can anyone be blamed for rejecting the gospel if God has ordained all things?”
Why would men dream up such convoluted ideas as these to explain away plain biblical statements? Our fallen nature hates the truth, and love its sin. It wants the kind of God who doesn’t hold them accountable for their actions and attitudes. It wants the kind of power and enlightenment Adam and Eve hoped for in Eden, to be like God.
To sweep away such a plainly wrong notion, Paul points to one simple fact: God does judge men in the final judgment. If the Jews could say their sin is excusable because God uses their unbelief for good, then anyone could say the same thing. No one would be held guilty for any sin since all is part of God’s decree. That is obviously not sound reasoning. There is a judgment. Therefore their logic and the data they assume to be true must be flawed.
How ridiculous it would be if a child said, “Yes Dad. I did play out in the street today. I know that was bad and against your rules. But by such bad things you get to show what a loving and forgiving parent you are! If you punish me it will make me feel bad, and you don’t want that. So instead of punishing me you should maybe reward me for giving you such a good opportunity to show your kindness.”
Or if a convicted felon said, “Yes Judge. I did shoot that man while I was trying to rob him. But it’s by such things that we get to see our fine judicial system at work. You get to show what a loving, kind, wise, and fair person you are. These jurors get to be good citizens, and the whole idea of civil law ends up looking good. Perhaps we could write a book or go on talk shows together! Since what I’m doing can be used for good, then certainly I don’t deserve any punishment.”
Though parents and courts may bring good results out of our bad behavior, that does not excuse the bad behavior.
Certainly the same is true on a much higher plane with God. Though our Lord uses our sin and rebellion to move along his greater cause, this does not excuse the sin and rebellion. It still demands the death of the sinner, and his eternal separation from God.
Only if a perfect Savior pays the debt in the sinner’s place is the guilt removed. This removal of guilt is not an indication that God doesn’t care about our sin. The infusion of spiritual life when a sinner is redeemed ought to produce something wonderful. It is not to produce a care-free sinner unafraid to sin again and again. It is not to produce a judgment free society which we call a “church”. It is to produce people who are holy, set aside to honor God as his covenant people.
This is “scriptural optimism”. It is stated in clear language many times and summarized well in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
This does not mean that the sins of individuals become good. It shows that God in his plan uses even the sins of men for good, contrary to the nature of the act. Ancient Israel’s and modern man’s reasoning is wrong. We dare not presume that a loving God will not judge rebellion. The same Bible that teaches us that God is loving and has made a covenant, also tells us that his promise does not excuse us from accountability.
Only being born again by the work of the Savior can we be set free from our guilt. Those who are free, are also made alive, and will evidence it by their love for holiness.
Those who dig for philosophical excuses to sin without accountability show they have no place in his covenant except for taking advantage of and abusing its outward privileges. They heap judgment upon themselves by such conjectures.
Paul then takes this dangerous idea another step
to show how its implications are inconsistent.
Romans 3:7, “For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?”
If the Jews are so quick to excuse their own rejection of Messiah and their own sins, and if they presume that since their unrighteousness furthers God’s glory, then why do they find fault with Paul and his gospel? Isn’t Paul’s gospel, even if it’s a lie, a part of God’s plan and by their reasoning excusable?
This reasoning is clearly false. God judges all sin and all sinners. Judgment is a fact. The same Scripture that declares there is a God, tells us what kind of God he is and how his moral principles work. You can’t believe only the parts you like or you become the judge of all things over God.
The only hope anyone has is that Jesus the promised Messiah has suffered for him. That was the ancient promise. It was not that every Israelite would be exempted from judgment, but that all who show the evidence of grace in their hearts are judged innocent by imputation. The righteousness of Christ is declared to be theirs, and their sins are declared to be his. He suffered and died as the infinitely perfect sacrifice who alone could be their substitute.
It is not Jewishness that delivers men from judgment. It is the Savior. Salvation was not to make us able to sin and still be saved. Salvation is to make us holy even as the Lord our God is holy.
Paul took his reasoning one last step.
Romans 3:8, “And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? — as we are slanderous reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just.”
Why not go all the way to the extreme then, and do more evil to make more good. Some had obviously slandered the Apostle by actually saying that he taught this.
Those who misunderstand the purpose of God’s law will misunderstand the message of grace. Law does not save us. Neither by our obeying it to earn salvation (which no man can do sufficiently), nor by assuming that the covenant God makes with us frees us to sin without judgment. There is no legal code or promise of God that defends sin. The law always promotes holiness, even though it cannot produce it aside from the work of our Redeemer.
When we understand our lack of this important quality, we are brought by grace to the Savior Jesus Christ. He not only forgives and declares us holy, he also transforms us and makes us begin to grow in holiness.
So what marks out the true covenant child of God? What affirms that he is delivered from judgment by Christ? It’s not his circumcision or baptism. It’s not his pure theological correctness. It’s not his response to an altar call or an emotional decision he made. It’s not his heritage, culture, or family. the legitimate child of God does not try to philosophically justify his sins.
The mark that distinguishes us is Christ-likeness implanted into a changed human heart. We are called to be different than the fallen human race into which we were born. This practical side of holiness should be our goal, our passion, the test of all we allow to be part of our lives.
Paul summarizes the objections to what God has said with one terrifying thought: “their condemnation is just.” Though God uses even sin to advance his plan and to display his glory, that sin is still evil, and is not excused.
Our human creativity is able to make up complex excuses. We imagine all sorts of theories attempting to fill in what God has not made known. In our fallen nature we arrogantly reject his truth on the basis of our own foolish assumptions.
The Gospel promotes holiness. There are reasons for our rebellion, but there are no excuses for it. Those who are transformed by the Gospel will seek to be holy. They will see that their excuses for sin do not make it acceptable.
As you set important goals for yourself, for your family, for your job, for what you will leave behind in the memories of those you have loved and known, make sure that they are all directed toward holiness. We were created to bear the image of our Creator in the world he made. Individuals are redeemed to be restored to fellowship with God so they can display the grace, mercy, love, and power of their Redeemer.
This is our created purpose. It is that for which our Savior died. It is your vocation in every part of your life. Nothing else is more important. Nothing else will bring true inner peace and happiness.
(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)