Studies in the Epistles of Paul
From guilt to grace
In Romans 2, Paul explains that both Jews and Gentiles need the gospel — everyone needs salvation, or rescue from judgment. Although some Jews claimed to have an advantage in salvation, Paul explains that Jews are not immune to sin and judgment. Everyone is saved in the same way. So how do people become right with God? Paul explains it in chapter 3 — but first he has to answer some objections.
Any advantage for Jews?
Paul had preached in many cities, and he knew how people responded to his message. Jewish people often responded by saying: “We are God’s chosen people. We must have some sort of advantage in the judgment, but you are saying that our own law condemns us.” Paul asks the question that they do: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” (3:1). What’s the point of being a Jew?
Paul answers in verse 2: “Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” The Jews have the Scriptures. That is an advantage, but there is a downside to it — those who sin under the law will be judged by the law (2:12). The law reveals requirements that the people do not meet.
So what’s the advantage? Paul will say more about that in chapter 9. But here in chapter 3 his goal is not to explain how special the Jews are, but to explain that they, just like everybody else, need to be saved through Jesus Christ. He’s not going to elaborate on their privileges until he has explained their need for salvation — they haven’t kept the law that they boast about.
So Paul asks: “What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness?” (3:3). Will the fact that some Jews sinned cause God to back out of his promises?
“Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar” (verse 4). God is always true to his word, and even though we are unfaithful, he is not. He won’t let our actions turn him into a liar. He created humans for a reason, and even if we all fall short of what he wants, his plan will succeed. God chose the Jews as his people, and they fell short, but God has a way to solve the problem — and the good news is that the rescue plan applies not only to Jews, but to everyone who falls short. God is more than faithful.
Paul then quotes a scripture about God being true: “As it is written: ‘So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge’” (verse 4). This is quoted from Psalm 51:4, where David says that if God punishes him, it is because God is right. When God judges us guilty, it is because we are guilty. His covenant with Israel said that there would be unpleasant consequences for failure, and indeed, there had been many such times in Israel’s checkered history. God had done what he said he would.
Reason to sin?
Paul deals with another objection in verse 5: “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.)” Here is the argument: If we sin, we give God an opportunity to show that he is right. We are doing God a favor, so he shouldn’t punish us. It’s a silly argument, but Paul deals with it. Is God unjust? “Certainly not!” he says in verse 6. “If that were so, how could God judge the world?” God said he would judge the world, and he is right in doing so.
Paul paraphrases the argument a little in verse 7: “Someone might argue, ‘If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’” If my sin shows how good God is, why should he punish me? In verse 8 Paul gives another version of the argument: “Why not say — as some slanderously claim that we say — ‘Let us do evil that good may result’”? Paul stops dealing with the argument and repeats his conclusion by saying, “Their condemnation is just!” These arguments are wrong. When God judges us as sinners, he is right. The gospel does not give any permission to sin.
All have sinned
In verse 9 Paul returns to his discussion: “What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage?” Are we Jews better off than others? “Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.” Jews have no advantage here, because we are all sinners — we are all under an evil spiritual force called sin. God does not play favorites, and he does not give salvation advantages to anyone.
In a rapid-fire conclusion, Paul quotes in verses 10 to 18 a series of scriptures to support his point that everyone is a sinner. These verses mention various body parts: mind, mouth, throat, tongue, lips, feet and eyes. The picture is that people are thoroughly evil:
- There is no one righteous, not even one [Ecclesiastes 7:20];
- There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
- All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
- There is no one who does good, not even one [Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3].
- Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit [Psalm 5:9].
- The poison of vipers is on their lips [Psalm 140:3].
- Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness [Psalm 10:7].
- Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and The way of peace they do not know [Isaiah 59:7-8].
- There is no fear of God before their eyes [Psalm 36:1].
Those scriptures are true about Gentiles, some Jews might say, but not about us. So Paul answers them in verse 19: “Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law.” These Scriptures (the law in a larger sense) apply to people who are under the law — the Jews. They are sinners. Gentiles are, too, but Paul doesn’t have to prove that — his audience already believed that.
Why do the scriptures apply to the Jews? “So that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” Humanity will stand before the judgment seat of God, and the result is described in verse 20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by the works of the law.” By the standard of the law, we all fall short.
What does the law do instead? Paul says: “Rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” The law sets a standard of righteousness, but because we sin, the law can never tell us that we are righteous. It tells us that we are sinners. According to the law, we are guilty.
A righteousness from God
Paul introduces the good news in verse 21 with the important words “But now.” He’s making a contrast: We can’t be declared righteous by the law, but there is good news—there is a way that we can be declared righteous: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Here Paul gets back to what he announced in Romans 1:17, that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness.
Since we are sinners, we cannot be declared righteous by observing the law. It must be through some other means. God will declare us righteous in a way other than through the law. And although the law does not make us righteous, it does give evidence about another means of righteousness: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ1 to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (3:22). This righteousness is a gift! We do not deserve it, but God gives us the status of being counted as righteous. He gives this to all who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was faithful, we can be given the status of being righteous.
This pathway to righteousness gives no advantage to the Jew — all are counted righteous in the same way. There is no difference, Paul says, “for all have sinned” — both Jews and Gentiles have sinned — “and [everyone] falls short of the glory of God.” When our works are judged by the law, we all fall short, and no one deserves the salvation that God has designed for us. But our weakness will not stop God’s plan!
“All are justified [declared righteous] freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (verse 24). Because of what Jesus did, we can be made right, and it is done as a gift, by God’s grace. We are not made sinless and perfect, but in the courtroom of God, we are declared righteous instead of guilty, we are accounted as acceptable to God and as faithful to the covenant. Whether we feel forgiven or not, we are forgiven because Christ paid our debt in full.
What permits God to change the verdict? Paul uses a variety of metaphors or word-pictures to explain this. Jesus has paid a price to rescue us from slavery. He has bought us back; that is what “redemption” means. That is one way to look at it, in financial terms. Courtroom terms have also been used, and in the next verse Paul uses words from Jewish worship:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith.” God himself provided the payment, the sacrifice that sets aside our sin. For “sacrifice of atonement,” Paul uses the Greek word hilasterion, the word used for the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant, a place where Israel’s sins were atoned every year on the Day of Atonement.2
Because of his love and mercy, God provided Jesus as the means by which we can be set “at one” with him. That atonement is received by us through faith; we believe that Jesus’ death did something that allows us to be saved. Paul is talking about three aspects of salvation: The cause of our salvation is what Jesus did; the means by which it is offered to us is grace; and the way we receive it is faith.
God provided Jesus as an atonement, verse 25 says, “to demonstrate his righteousness” — to show that he is faithful to his promises — “because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Normally, a judge who let criminals go free would be called unjust (Exodus 23:7; Deuteronomy 25:1). Is God doing that? No, this verse says that God is not unjust when he justifies the wicked because he has provided Jesus as a means of atonement.
He is within his legal rights, to use a human analogy, in letting people escape because their sins have already been compensated for in the death of Jesus Christ. Even for people who lived before Christ, the payment was as good as done. In one sense, that applies to everyone, to the whole world: sins are paid for even before people become aware of it and believe it. But only those who believe it can be freed from the fear of punishment.
Romans 3:26 says that God “did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God demonstrates that he is just even when he declares sinners to be just. He has “earned the right” to count us as righteous.
All are equal
“Where, then, is boasting?” Paul asks in verse 27. Can the Jew boast about advantages over Gentiles? When it comes to salvation, there’s nothing to boast about. We can’t even boast about faith. Faith does not make us better than other people — we are only receiving what God gives. We can’t take credit for that, or brag about it.
Boasting “is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith” (verse 27). If people were saved by keeping the law, then they could brag about how well they did. But when salvation is by grace and faith, no one can boast. Paul is making two points that reinforce each other: That no one can boast, and that righteousness is by grace rather than by the law or by works. It takes faith because we don’t have the physical evidence to prove that we are righteous—all we have is the promise of God in Jesus Christ.
In verse 28, he says it again: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Being counted right with God on the day of judgment can never be on the basis of the law. The law can’t do anything except point out where we fall short. If we are going to be accepted by God, it will not be on the basis of the law, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
“Is God the God of Jews only?” Paul asks. “Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God” (verses 29-30). God is not the exclusive possession of the Jews. According to the gospel, God “will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” He makes Jews righteous in the same way that he makes Gentiles righteous, and that is through faith, not through the law.
“Do we…nullify the law by this faith?” Of course not, Paul says in verse 31. “Rather, we uphold the law.” The gospel does not contradict the law, but it puts law in its proper place. The law was never designed as a means of salvation. But the salvation it hinted at is now available to all through Jesus Christ. Paul does not yet say how we “uphold the law.” For that, we will have to continue reading in his letter.
Things to think about
- Did the Jews, by having the Scriptures, have an advantage in salvation? (verse 2)
- Does our sin give God an opportunity to be more gracious? (verse 7)
- Are people really worthless, no one good for anything? (verses 10-12)
- If the law can’t declare us righteous, what is it good for? (verse 20)
- In verses 22, 24, 26 and 28, Paul tells us how we are justified or declared righteous. What does he stress by repetition?
- How does Jesus’ sacrifice demonstrate God’s justice? (verse 25)
- How does Paul want us to respond to this chapter?
1 The NRSV footnote on verse 22 says the Greek words can also mean “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is theologically correct that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus, through his obedience (see Romans 5:19). The only reason that we can have faith in him is because he was completely faithful. But in order for us to experience the results of his faithfulness, we also need faith in him, in what he did. We do not need to resolve the question about the best translation of Romans 3:22 at this point. It is possible that Paul’s original readers were not completely sure of what Paul meant with this phrase. Paul may have given them a phrase that required them to continue reading to get the whole picture.
2 The cover of the ark was the location of atonement, but it was not a place of sacrifice. It may therefore be better to translate hilasterion as “place of atonement,” as done in the NRSV footnote. Some translations use the word “propitiation,” a word Greeks used to describe someone appeasing the anger of the gods. But this would mean that God supplied something to appease his own anger, which implies that he didn’t really want to be angry, but had to perform a ritual so he could get his original wish. This puts God into a convoluted position; it is simpler to say that God provided a means of atonement, because his original wish was atonement, being in fellowship with the humans he had created.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2003, 2012