I have a friend who says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus Christ is coming back to earth. The bad news is, boy, is He mad!”
Now the apostle Paul was not using the ‘good news, bad news’ idiom of our times in Romans 3, but this chapter certainly can be described as containing some good news and some bad news. The bad news is not introduced in chapter 3, but in chapter 1. The bad news is that everyone fails to meet God’s requirements for righteousness, and thus, all fall under divine condemnation. In chapter 3, Paul forcefully concludes his argument that no one can satisfy the requirements of God, summing up and resting his case in verses 9-20.
Unlike the news reports which we read and view on TV, there is a positive side. Although man cannot produce sufficient righteousness to please God, God has provided a righteousness which is available to all men on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the gospel which Paul presents in the last half of chapter 3. So it is in this chapter that we gratefully move from the bad news of condemnation to the good news of justification.
Before Paul brings down the final curtain in his presentation of the sinfulness of man, he deals with two objections which could be raised by his Jewish opponents. One deals with the privileges of the Jews, the other with the righteousness of God in condemning the Jews.
The Jew objects in this fashion to Paul’s argument: “From what you have said in chapter two, Paul, there is no practical benefit to being a Jew at all.” We might expect Paul to answer “yes” to this objection. Especially so if we adhere to covenant theology, which does not like to distinguish between Israel and the church. If Israel and the church are forever fused into one entity, and if all the promises of God to Israel are thus ‘spiritually fulfilled’ in the church, Paul would nearly have to agree that Judaism offers no benefit any longer to the Jew.
It would be inadequate for Paul to say that it was a privilege to be a Jew because they were formerly the custodians of God’s revelation. What profit is that to the Jew now? The advantage of being a Jew is that God still has promises, yet unfulfilled, for the nation Israel and they will be literally consummated. This we see in much fuller detail in Romans chapter 11.14
The Jew, then, has been entrusted with divine revelation, some of which has been fulfilled, but much of which is still to come. It is in these, as yet, unfulfilled promises that the Jew can take heart.
How secure are these promises, especially in view of the unfaithfulness of Israel? Let’s face it, Israel rejected their Messiah at His first coming. They put Him to death. Won’t this rejection and unbelief nullify these future promises (vs. 3)? Not at all, for God must be true to Himself, even though every man is a liar. God must be faithful, even if every man is unfaithful (vss. 4-5). So the true Jew can glory in the future blessings of God on the nation of Israel and can rely on the faithfulness of God, which is unaffected by man’s sinfulness.
If man’s sin provides the backdrop which accents the righteousness of God, then God is exalted and glorified by man’s sin. This is true, as the psalmist wrote, “… the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10a).15
Paul cringes at the suggestion of this heretical thought, but knows it is in the mind of his opponent. Why, then, should God punish me for my sin, when I am really causing God’s glory to abound? “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? I am speaking in human terms.” (Romans 3:5).
Paul quickly brushes aside this bit of wishful thinking. The Jews were unanimous in their commitment to the fact that God should judge the sins of the Gentiles. Paul simply takes his opponent to the illogical conclusion of his self-defense by pointing out that if God were to follow this principle He would judge no one, even the Gentiles. And no Jew was willing to go this far. There are other reasons Paul could have expounded on, but this was sufficient to silence his objector.
The Jew had pressed this point even farther by suggesting that Paul’s gospel of salvation apart from the Law incited men to do evil in order that God would be praised: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and some affirm that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8).
Such an accusation was so incredible Paul refused to give it more than a moment’s notice. Anyone who makes such a statement evidences the fact that they deserve to fall under the wrath of God.
The Jews, then, do possess unique and unfulfilled promises to look forward to as a nation. These privileges should not in any way give the false hope of special privilege so far as their standing before the judgment bar of God is concerned. Concerning the matter of personal righteousness before God, the Jew is just as lost, just as condemned as the Gentile.
To summarize and emphasize the condemnation of both Jew and Gentile, Paul draws together a series of quotations, primarily from the Psalms, all of which substantiate his contention that no man can win God’s approval by means of his own righteousness.
Verses 10-12 give a general overview of man’s depravity, stressing the universality of God’s condemnation of men. Thus the repetition of the expression, “not even one.” “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
The force of these verses is that man can never be pronounced righteous in the eyes of God. He does not seek God; he is incapable of knowing God, and he does not do good.
All of this is viewed from the divine perspective. This is not to say that a man never does any thing good and kind for his fellow-man. Paul is not saying that men have no good thoughts or aspirations as judged by men. He is saying that man has nothing to commend himself to God. Man is incapable of doing anything to please God and to earn His approval, for man is born an enemy of God.
There are many who are outwardly religious and considered pious and devout, but they are not truly seeking God. They are creating a god of their own making. They worship the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18ff.). There are those who strive to keep God’s commandments, but none have managed to keep them at every point, and are thus guilty of failing at all points (James 2:10). The epitome of man’s sinfulness is trying to be like God, without God (Isaiah 14:14).
Verses 13-18 move from the general to the specific, describing the depravity of man as it is evidenced by the various members of his anatomy. From head to toe, from the inside out, man is characterized by sin:
Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:13-18).
The corruption of our hearts has contaminated our tongues. Our speech gives us away; it reveals our enmity with God. Israel complained and murmured against Moses and against God (Exodus 16:2ff.). In Numbers 21 we read of the complaining of the Israelites. God sent a plague of serpents upon them, I believe, to instruct them that the tongue can be like the fangs of the serpent spreading deadly poison. With this, the Psalmist and Paul seem to agree.
With our mouths we spread poison and with our feet we run to do evil. Destruction and misery is the work of our hands. We know not the ways of peace. Surely the centuries of war have made this clear. Mankind collectively is in bad shape; only the most rosey-eyed optimist could deny this. But man individually is also in no condition to stand before a righteous and holy God and claim a righteousness worthy of eternal life.
A defensive Jew might attempt to blunt the point of Paul’s argument by pressing a technicality. Most of the Old Testament quotations originally had reference to the Gentiles and not the Jews. All well and good. But the Law, that is the Old Testament scriptures, were directed primarily to those under the Law, that is, the Jews. Whatever reference there may be to the Gentiles it certainly applies equally to the Jews. So that Jews and Gentiles are equally condemned by the Old Testament scriptures.
The Jews had distorted the purpose of the Law. It was never intended to commend a man before God, but to condemn him. Like the blood-alcohol test is designed to prove men are drunk, so the Law is designed to prove men are sinners, under the wrath of God. The Law provided a standard of righteousness, not that men could ever attain such human righteousness, but to demonstrate they are incapable of doing so and must find a source of righteousness outside themselves. That is the point of all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. When the Law revealed a man’s sin, God provided a way of sacrifice so that a man would not need to bear the condemnation of God.
The Law was never given to save a man, but to show man that he needed a Saviour. “Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
The Roman poet Horace, laying down some lines of guidance for writers of tragedies in his day, criticizes those who resort too readily to the device of a deus ex machina to solve the knotty problems which have developed in the course of the plot. ‘Do not bring a god on to the stage,’ he says, ‘unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it’ (nec deus intersit, nisi dignus uindice nodus inciderit).16
Surely man’s problem as Paul summarized it is one that needs God to solve it. James Stifler suggests in his commentary on Romans that there is a ‘sigh of relief that can be heard’ in the particle ‘but’ which introduces verse 21.17 Surely this is the case, for what a relief it is to know that God has provided a solution for man’s dilemma of sin.
The dilemma of man is such that he is incapable of releasing himself from the shackles of sin. He must be saved by someone other than himself and by someone who does not suffer from the same malady. One drowning man cannot help another. What man cannot do (provide a righteousness acceptable to God), God has done in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the good news for which we have waited.
A Preliminary Definition of Righteousness. The righteousness of which Paul writes in verses 21-26 may be defined as: The gift given to every man who trusts in Jesus Christ which enables him to stand before the Holy God uncondemned and in His favor. This righteousness of God is described in verses 21-26.
(1) The source of righteousness is God. Paul wrote, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Romans 3:21, cf. also v. 22). This righteousness is that which is provided by God and not produced by the efforts of men. It is the righteousness of God.
(2) This righteousness, though not produced by the Law, was promised by it. From this same verse (v. 21), we can see that in one sense this righteousness of God is related to the Old Testament Law and in another it is totally distinct. It is related in that it was predicted in the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Further, the Old Testament Law is a valid standard of righteousness, so when our Lord came to the earth as a man the Law pronounced Him to be righteous, according to God’s standards. Not one charge of sin could be made against our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Law of the Old Testament (John 8:46).
But this righteousness of God which Paul writes about is completely independent from the Law in that it cannot be attained by men and their futile efforts to satisfy the requirements of the Law. So the righteousness of God comes not from Law-keeping, as the Jews erroneously supposed.
(3) The righteousness of God is retroactive. The righteousness of God is retroactive in that it is sufficient for the sins of men who lived in previous ages. “… This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:25). Paul’s argument about the retroactivity of God’s righteousness subtly undermines the false hope of the Jew in attaining righteousness by Law-keeping. Since the righteousness of God is retroactive and saves those who had faith in God in the Old Testament age, then Law-keeping not only fails in the present age; it has never saved men.
(4) God’s righteousness vindicates Himself. Stifler has written, “The chief question in saving man is not how the man may be accounted just, but how God may remain so in forgiving sins.”18
With reference to God’s character under the Old Testament economy, God appeared to ‘look the other way’ when men sinned. It appeared that God was less than just in dealing decisively with man’s sin. When God’s wrath was poured out on His Son, Jesus Christ, there was not one shadow of doubt left as to how God felt about sin.
A number of years ago, I was a school teacher with a reputation for being the toughest disciplinarian in school. One woman bus driver at least thought so and brought a couple of boys to my room who had thrown rocks at the bus. I paddled these two boys, but was informed that there was yet one culprit who had not yet been brought to justice, and this lad was the principal’s son. I had a long talk with the principal, who implied that perhaps his son should be exempted because he had a glass eye. Since he did not have a glass bottom, I went to his room and paddled him, too. Until this boy was paddled, there was a cloud of suspense which hung over the school. Would Mr. Deffinbaugh paddle the principal’s son, or would he make an exception? How quickly the cloud was dispelled with the crack of the paddle.
So it is with God’s character. God’s character was in question. For hundreds of years, God had passed over sins previously committed. He could not be just and overlook sin forever. Sin must be punished. When the wrath of God was poured out on His own Son, God’s righteousness was vindicated once for all. This is not only so in reference to past sins, but also to present sins. God simply cannot overlook sin. If He were to pronounce men righteous without a payment for sin, He would contradict His own character, His holiness and justice. The justice of God demanded a payment for sin. So the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ vindicated God’s character by satisfying the requirements of justice and holiness.
(5) The righteousness of God accomplishes man’s salvation. The revelation of God’s righteousness not only vindicates God, but it saves men. This salvation is described in three dimensions in verses 21-26.
The first term, ‘redemption,’ in verse 24 describes salvation in terms of the slave-market. Redemption refers to the payment of a purchase price which liberates the captive. When a man went to the slave-market and paid the price of the slave he redeemed the slave. The death of Christ on the cross and the shedding of His blood was the payment of our redemption price. We, just as Israel was redeemed from the slavery of Egypt, have been redeemed from the bondage of sin.
The second term, ‘propitiation,’ takes us to the temple. This word is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the ‘place of propitiation’ or the ‘mercy seat’ which covered the ark in the Holy of Holies. In this sense our sins have been covered or blotted out by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. But propitiation also conveys the idea of appeasing. God’s wrath has been legitimately aroused by man’s sin. This wrath has been appeased by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s holy anger has been satisfied in the work of Christ.
The final word, ‘justification,’ takes us to the courtroom. This is a legal term which means to pronounce righteous. If God were to judge us according to our own righteousness, He would have to declare us as unrighteous and wicked. But when we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our substitute—the One Who died in our place and Who offers His righteousness in place of our wretchedness—then God declares us to be righteous on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ.
By the terminology of the slave-market, the temple and the court room, we see this righteousness of God described in terms of its effect on the believing sinner.
(6) God’s righteousness is available to all men, and appropriated by faith. God’s righteousness is true to God’s character in that it is available to all men without distinction. Just as there is no distinction with God in universally condemning all men as sinners, so God does not show partiality in offering it only to the Jews.
Just as the righteousness of God is not allotted to men on the basis of their race, so it cannot be earned or merited by man. It is given by grace as a free gift: “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Your salvation is not without cost, for it cost God the death of His Son, but it is without cost to you for there is nothing you could ever do to earn it. The gift of God’s righteousness must be accepted by faith, not earned by works: “Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe …” (Romans 3:22).
The problem for most people is not that becoming a Christian is too difficult; it is that it is too easy. We want desperately somehow to contribute something to our salvation. But the Word of God tells us that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). The more we offer our works to God the greater the offense to Him.
What kind of righteousness are you relying on for your eternal salvation? The rags of your own works, or the riches of Christ’s merit. You don’t have to walk the aisle or raise your hand to become a Christian. All you need to do is acknowledge the wretchedness of your righteousness and trust in the righteousness which Jesus Christ offers in its place—a God-kind of righteousness which results in eternal life. Stop trusting in yourself and lean only on Him. That’s the good news of the gospel. Come to think of it, none of Romans 3 is bad news for the Christian.
The third chapter closes with two implications of this God-kind of righteousness. First of all there is no basis for boasting on the part of the Jew, for salvation is received as a gift, not as a reward. Also, the Jew cannot boast because salvation is offered to both Jew and Gentile on the same basis—faith.
Second, the Gospel of the Righteousness of God in no way nullifies the Law, for it is still a valid standard of righteousness, and it never was intended as a means of salvation. The Law reveals our condemnation, and our condemnation compels us to reject the filthy rags of our righteousnesses and trust in Christ.
The last verse of chapter 3 is really a transition to chapter 4 where Paul will show that his gospel is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament.
14 Dr. Ryrie says in a footnote on Romans 3:2 concerning ‘the oracles of God’ with which Israel was entrusted that these are “The promises of God to the Jews, found in the Scriptures.” Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), p. 267.
Stifler’s quotation of Dr. Adolph Saphir is also helpful. “The view that is so prevalent, that Israel is a shadow of the church, and now that the type is fulfilled vanishes from our horizon, is altogether unscripturaL. Israel is not the shadow fulfilled and absorbed in the church, but the basis on which the church rests (Rom. 11). And although, during the times of the Gentiles, Israel, as a nation, is set aside, Israel is not cast away, because Israel is not a transitory and temporary, but an integral part of God’s counsel. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. Israel was chosen to be God’s people, the center of his influence and reign on earth in the ages to come. The church in the present parenthetic period does not supplant them. The book of the kingdom awaits its fulfilment, and the church, instructed by Jesus and the apostles, is not ignorant of this mystery” (Christ and the Scriptures, p. 64). James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 50-51.
15 I must disagree with Dr. Ryrie when he writes in his Study Bible concerning Romans 3:5, “Does God use man’s sin to glorify Himself? No, otherwise He would have to abandon all judgment.” Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 267.