7. Study and Exposition of Romans 3:1-8
“Charles Darwin died in April 1882. He wished to be buried in his beloved village, but the sentiment of educated men demanded a place in Westminster Abbey beside Isaac Newton. As his coffin entered the vast building, the choir sang an anthem composed for the occasion. It’s text, from the book of Proverbs, may stand as the most fitting testimony to Darwin’s greatness: ‘Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and getteth understanding. She is more precious than rubies, and all the things that thou canst desire are not to be compared to her.’”
So wrote Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent Harvard paleontologist, professor of geology, and ardent evolutionist in Discover magazine in 1982.
Darwin was not buried in Westminster Abbey because he was a staunch defender of the faith. While he was not a friend of the church, neither was he an atheist. Continues Gould, “He probably retained a belief in some kind of personal God—but he did not grant his deity a directly and continuously intervening role in the evolutionary process.”
Darwin was, however, buried at Westminster because of the profound contribution he made to science. Again, quoting Gould, “Educated men demanded” he be laid there.
All this is not to name Darwin as the lone culprit responsible for the crisis of faith precipitated by evolutionary science. It is merely an illustration full of ironies and one grand truth. It is ironic that his final tribute was a scriptural anthem. Likewise ironic is that his final wishes were not honored and he was buried within the church. Even the choice of Scripture in the anthem is ironic: Proverbs, and the pursuit of wisdom.
The Grand Truth, however, is that Scripture and God have the last word. Darwin’s burial inadvertently acknowledges that faith has the last say over men and their ideas.”35
This is perhaps the central truth of Romans 3:1-8: “Let God be proven true!” Let God have the last word!
B. Translation of Passage in NET
3:1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? 3:2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3:3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 3:4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and all mankind shown up as liars, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.” 3:5 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.) 3:6 Absolutely not! For otherwise how could God judge the world? 3:7 For if by my lie the truth of God enhances to his glory, why am I still actually being judged as a sinner? 3:8 And why not say, “Let us do evil so that good may come of it?” (as some who slander us allege that we say. Their condemnation is deserved!)
C. Full Exegetical Outline
Idea: Though there is advantage in being a Jew this does not mean that unfaithfulness and sin will render God unfaithful or that such behavior will not go unpunished, even if it does demonstrate the righteousness of God.
I. The fact that God does not automatically bless circumcision does not mean that there is no value in being a Jew for the Jews have indeed been blessed, having receiving the very oracles of God (3:1-2).
A. What advantage does the Jew have or what is the value of circumcision (3:1)?
B. There are many advantages to being a Jew including the fact that they have been entrusted with the oracles of God (3:2).
II. The unbelief of the Jews does not nullify God’s faithfulness, but rather God will be justified in his words and prevail when he judges, just as it says in Psalm 116:11 (3:3-4).
A. Will Jewish unbelief lead to God being unfaithful (3:3)?
B. God will be proven true and every man a liar (3:4).
C. God will be proven true and every man a liar for this is what Psalm 116:11 says (3:4).
III. The belief that God is unrighteous because he punishes us for sin—sin which enhances his truthfulness and glory—is false for it renders impossible the judgment of the world and leads to the just condemnation of those who argue: “Let us do evil that good may result” (3:5-8)!
A. Even if our sin demonstrates the righteousness of God, he is not unjust to inflict wrath on us (3:5-6)
1. What shall we say if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God (3:5)?
2. God, who inflicts wrath, is not unrighteous, is he (3:5)?
3. If God were unrighteous, how could he judge the world (3:6)?
B. Those who think they can lie and do evil in order that God’s glory might be enhanced and good may result deserve condemnation (3:7-8).
1. Why am I still judged as a sinner when my lie enhances the glory of God (3:7)?
2. Those who say, as they have about Paul, “let us do evil that good may result,” deserve condemnation (3:8).
D. Simple Point Outline
Idea: Privilege and Responsibility—Twin Pillars Undergirding a Healthy Christian Perspective
I. There Is Advantage and Value in Being a Jew (3:1-2)
A. Being A Jew (3:1)
B. The Oracles of God (3:2)
II. God’s Faithfulness in the Midst of Jewish Unfaithfulness (3:3-4)
A. God Is Faithful and True No Matter What (3:3)
B. The Use of Psalm 116:11 (3:4)
III. God Righteousness Enhanced by Sin (3:5-8)
A. Yet He Justly Inflicts Wrath (3:5-6)
B. Yet He Justly Condemns (3:7-8)
E. Exposition Proper
Since the Jew is just as guilty as the Gentile (2:1-5; 17-23) and cannot simply appeal to the token of circumcision to secure immunity from judgment (2:24-29), the question might reasonably be asked—with the intention of impugning God’s character and plan—what advantage is there, then, in being a Jew or what is the value of circumcision? After all, it seems as if Paul just got finished saying in 2:1-29 that there is no advantage whatsoever. Paul answers this question and other related ones in 3:1-8 by saying that there is great advantage in being a Jew but it does not lie in a de facto exemption from judgment—even if that sin magnifies God’s righteousness.
The implication in the above argument is that Paul is still dealing with the Jews in 3:1-8. Some, however, argue that the Jews are in view only through verse 4a. But the most likely and natural antecedent for the pronouns “our” (3:5), “we” (3:5), and “my” (3:7) is the Jews of 3:1-4. Further, the accusation that Paul’s “law-free” gospel leads to greater sinfulness in 3:8 undoubtedly came from Jews who clung to the Law of Moses. Finally, the logic of the paragraph as a whole develops in keeping with the questions asked in 3:1-2—questions which revolve around being a Jew. Therefore, we regard 3:1-8 as dealing with Jews.
3:1-2 In 2:1-29 Paul criticizes the Jew for his misunderstanding of circumcision and for his arrogant hypocrisy. With such a negative analysis, one wonders whether there ever was any advantage in being a Jew. Lest certain people conclude incorrectly, however, Paul turns his attention to this urgent question in 3:1-8. In short, though his denuinciation was severe in 2:1-29, the apostle nonetheless says that there are benefits for those who are God’s chosen people; there is value (ἡ ὠφέλεια, hē ōpheleia; cf. 2:25) to circumcision.
The expression there are many advantages (πολὺ κατὰ πάντα τρόπον, polu kata panta tropon) literally reads “much according to every way.” This does not mean that the Jew had advantages in every way without exception, since this interpretation would practically render 2:1-29 and the criticism there obsolete. The point that Paul is making, rather, is that the Jew had advantages in many different kinds of ways. For example, the apostle says, of first (πρῶτον, prōton) importance, they have been entrusted with the oracles of God (ἐπιστεύθησαν τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ, episteuthēsan ta logia tou theou). God considered it a trust and took the risk to give Israel a revelation of himself and his purposes.
The oracles of God refer to God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament and may have a particular focus on God’s statements about how he chose Israel to be his people (Exod 19:3-6) and the promises he made, especially those to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 15; 17; 11:1) and David (2 Sam 7:8-16; Ps 89; Isa 55:3; Rom 1:3-4; 15:12). The expression might also include the Law of Moses which would place Paul in agreement with the Jew who says that in the law “we have the essential features of knowledge and truth” (2:20).
3:3 Paul now asks a question: If some Jews did not believe, will their unbelief nullify God’s faithfulness? Note the ironic contrast between God entrusting (ἐπιστεύθησαν, episteuthēsan) oracles to the Jews and some of them not believing, i.e., trusting the God of those oracles (ἠπίστησαν, ēpistēsan).
The question is, what in particular did they not believe? The straight forward answer is, “they did not believe the oracles.” But the oracles are not ends in themselves, but rather they speak to the promises and purposes of God. This may indicate an oblique reference to Christ. Thus, it is entirely reasonable to argue that the Jews’ failure to believe the oracles of God is particularly evident in their failure to accept Christ—the Ultimate fulfillment of the promises contained in the oracles (Rom 10:4; 15:12).
But notice that Paul says only some (τινες, tines) did not believe. In light of passages like 11:25 and the dismal overall reaction of the Jews to Christ, we may say that Paul is being gracious here by deliberately understating the case. Indeed, most did not believe God. In any event, there is a believing Jewish remnant at the present time for which Paul is thankful and to which the early chapters of the book of Acts testifies (11:5; Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4).
3:4 The answer to Paul’s question in v. 3 comes in v. 4: it is an emphatic “absolutely not.” There is no way possible for the unbelief of the Jews to nullify or render inoperative the faithfulness of God. God will be true to what he has said. This will be demonstrated in the final judgment.
The purview in v. 4 does not exclude judgment in the present, but the focus is on the final judgment when God will be shown to have been true all along and every man, particularly the Jew, shown to have been faithless and a liar. Paul says that the Jew talked a better game than he ever played, thus he will be shown to have been a liar. The term true (ἀληθής, alēthēs) means that God will act consistently with what he has said he will do. This includes blessing Israel as well as judging her, as the subsequent quotation from Ps 51:4 indicates (Ps 51:6 MT).
The quotation from Ps 51:4 is taken almost verbatim from the Greek OT (Ps 50:6 LXX), with only minor modifications. In Psalm 51 David humbly cries out to God for forgiveness because of his sin with Bathsheba. The point of v. 4 is that David admits he is a sinner against God and therefore God is proved right when he speaks and justified when he judges. Paul says that even the king of Israel, David himself, who enjoyed an excellent overall reputation in first century Judaism, had to be judged for his sin. Thus God is true to bless and to punish no matter who the offending party is. The Jew, then, who thinks that God is unjust and unfaithful when he makes promises to his people on the one hand, and then judges them for sin on the other, is sadly mistaken. In fact, this state of affairs actually proves that God is true and that men are liars.
3:5-6 In 3:5 Paul anticipates what one of his Jewish friends might say and frames the objection in light of a purely human argument, that is, an argument that sounds typical of the kinds of things men say in general. Someone might try to argue that “if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, why is he still just when he inflicts wrath on us?” The obvious answer to this argument—an emphatic denial of its conclusion—comes forcefully in v. 6.
Paul refers here to the righteousness of God (θεου~ δικαιωσύνην, theou dikaiōsunēn). It is unlikely in this context that he is referring to God’s saving activity which formed part of the meaning in 1:17. Neither is he referring to forensic justification or the status of those whom God saves by the power of the gospel. The context is entirely too negative for such interpretations. The best understanding of the expression here in 3:5 is as a reference to the perfect moral character of God, his perfect holiness. The point Paul is making, then, is that man’s sin only serves, by way of sharp contrast, to demonstrate the blinding holiness of God. This means that God is in no way unrighteous (ἄδικος, adikos) when he inflicts wrath (ἐπιφέρων τὴν ὀργήν, epipherōn tēn orgēn). Ultimately, on the day of wrath, when he calls all men to give an account, the truth of his righteous character will become universally known (Rom 14:10; Heb 4:13).
3:7 The hypothetical argument laid out in 3:5 is repeated in a slightly different form and with greater emphasis in 3:7. Here the point is not simply that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by my unrighteousness, but rather that my lying or falsehood enhances (ἐπερίσσευσεν, eperisseusen; lit. “overflows” “abounds”) the truth to his glory. The implication is that the glory of his righteousness is realized in ways it otherwise would not be. But while Paul says that it is true that our unrighteousness magnifies and makes visible the sterling character of God, it does not follow in any way, shape, or form, that we should not therefore be judged as a sinner. We most certainly should be, and indeed we will be.
3:8 The punctuation in this verse is difficult to establish with certainty, but the NET Bible has admirably captured what is perhaps the best rendering.
The overall point of the verse, though the Greek is somewhat tangled seems fairly clear enough. The first part of the verse is a rejoinder to the objection outlined in the previous verse. In other words, if a person is going to argue that their sin enhances God’s glory, then why not do more evil so that good (τὰ ἀγαθά, ta agatha; i.e., the realization of God’s glory) may be even more abundant? Such an argument in God's moral universe is absurd to say the least.
Nonetheless, there were certain Jews who had accused Paul of actually teaching this doctrine. This is undoubtedly due to his treatment of the Law and the feeling that if one does away with the Law—like Paul had supposedly done—then sin will run rampant. But Paul never taught the unqualified removal of the Law, only a different understanding of its role in salvation and sanctification (cf. Rom 3:21; 7:6, 12; 13:8-10).
Paul's final comment about such “human” arguments is unambiguous: the condemnation (κρίμα, krima) of those who argue that we should commit sin so that good may come is deserved (ἔνδικον, endikon; cf. Heb 2:2).
F. Homiletical Idea and Outline
Idea: Be Careful How You Think about Sin!
I. Understand The Blessing of Being a Christian (3:1-2)
A. You Bear the Name Christian (3:1)
B. You Have Received the Word of God (3:2)
II. But Also Understand God’s Faithfulness and How He Judges Unbelief and Sin (3:3-8)
A. Lest We Think God Is Unfaithful When He Judges Unbelief (3:3-4)
B. Lest We Think Our Sin Is in Any Way Profitable Before God (3:5-8)
1. For God Is A Just Judge (3:5-6)
a. The Argument (3:5)
b. The Verdict (3:6)
2. For God Will Judge People as Sinners (3:7-8)
a. The Argument (3:7-8a)
b. The Verdict (3:8b)
G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology
Romans 3:1-8 contributes to our understanding of sin (hamartiology) and how God will deal with it. We are not to think for one minute that even though our sin demonstrates the infinite righteousness of our perfect God that we are therefore excused in some way from judgment or have thus been given license to sin. Paul reserves strong language for those who follow this train of reasoning. No matter how much glory God receives as a result of our sin, sin will always be punished and God will always remain just.
We need to briefly spell out, however, a more integrated view of the Pauline concept of judgment. First, the deciding factor in judgment concerning our eternal destiny is our relationship to Christ and his saving work. If we have trusted in him (3:21-26) we are saved and saved eternally (Rom 8:38-39). God will, however, discipline us for our sin in the here and now, and we will lose reward at the final judgment (1 Cor 11:30; cf. Heb 12:1-11).
If, on the other hand, we have not trusted in Christ and have no personal relationship with him, we will be judged for our sin with eternal consequences (2 Thess 1:8-9; cf. John 5:28-29). Hell is a reality which eternally demonstrates God's holy justice and which is created for those who just can't stomach having to think about God (so C. S. Lewis; cf. Rom 1:18-20).
H. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission
In our churches we need to ensure that we are not excusing sin under the pretense of grace. This does not entail the idea of “running around” looking for others’ sin, but it does mean staying close to the Lord and keeping a clean slate before him, both in the church and in the world (Ephesians 5:3; 1 Peter 3:15-16)! It also entails the idea of leaders carrying out church discipline in a loving and impartial way.
35 R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1998), 239-40.