(Rom 3:8 ESV) 8 And why not do evil that good may come?–as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
Notice the charge Paul responds to: “why not do evil that good may come?” Why were such charges being made against Paul? Well, he’d just written,
(Rom 3:3-4 ESV) 3 What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
Paul says that the unfaithfulness and unrighteousness of the Jews redounds to demonstrate the faithfulness and righteousness of God. (Paul uses “righteousness” and “faithfulness” to refer to God’s honoring of his covenant with Abraham to save those with faith.)
Thus, he says, the Jews’ violation of their covenant with God demonstrates God’s commitment to the covenant, because God will save by faith not works.
“Their condemnation is just”
He also says in v. 8 regarding his accusers, “Their condemnation is just.” Pay close attention. Those who misinterpret “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” as license to sin are at risk of a just condemnation! Not because they use the verse to approve sin but because they accuse Paul of teaching license. The accusers are seeking to deny to others the joy of grace!
Why on earth would they be condemned? Well, for the same reason the false teachers in Galatia were condemned for teaching a false gospel. You see, both the Roman and the Galatian false teachers were arguing that salvation by faith leads to sin and therefore we should add God-given laws as essential to salvation. In particular, they were setting up certain boundary markers to distinguish the saved from the lost — and so they argued that faith in Jesus was just one of several markers.
In Galatia, they added circumcision and the celebration of special Jewish days — Sabbaths and feast days. In Rome, they seem to have added avoiding meat and special Jewish days (Rom 14) — at the least.
Today, we add a cappella singing, weekly communion, and a plurality of elders as “marks of the true church” — that is, laws that must be obeyed or else faith in Jesus is voided — even if those who violate these markers do so with the purest of pure hearts.
It’s not that celebrating the Sabbath, being vegetarian, or being circumcised damns. They don’t. But adding anything to faith in Jesus as essential to salvation risks condemnation — because as soon as we add obedience to this particular rule as a term of salvation, we’ve made faith insufficient, not only to save but to transform. We’ve undercut God’s entire redemptive scheme, substituting human wisdom for God’s. And that damns.
Abraham and David
V. 4 quotes —
(Psa 51:4 ESV) 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
This is David’s psalm in response to God’s forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba. David declares that God forgives his sin in order to demonstrate, not David’s righteousness, but God’s! But David was a man of faith.
(Rom 3:5-6 ESV) 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
But, Paul quickly clarifies, God will indeed judge the world, and he will indeed inflict wrath. (But, Paul, who suffers wrath if God saves the unrighteous?)
Paul then lists many Old Testament verses declaring the Jews to have been disobedient.
(Rom 3:20 ESV) 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
You see, we are only accountable for so much of God’s will as we know, and so the Law of Moses produced more knowledge of God’s will, making obedience all the harder.
The sad irony is that the better we understand God’s will, the more accountable we are to actually do it — and we can’t.
(Rom 3:21-22a NET) 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Paul now explains (Paul expects us to have an attention span that extends for chapters, not verse by verse) how God can hold people accountable, subject some to wrath, and yet save the unrighteous.
It’s very simple. If you believe in Jesus, you’re saved by God’s commitment to his covenant to save those with faith (as attested by the Torah, which includes the covenant with Abraham — and the prophet David, among many others) through the faithfulness of Jesus — his obedience to God and his fulfillment of Isaiah prophecy that the Messiah would suffer and die for our sins.
Therefore, even though we are unrighteous (in the sense that we don’t merit salvation), God saves us by the merits of Jesus. That makes us like Abraham and David. But God does not save all the unrighteous — only those with faith.
Why not sin that grace may abound?
Now, Paul has very subtly answered the question: Why not sin that grace may abound? — a question he returns to famously in Romans 6. Here he gives but a preview. And it’s lost in the English translation.
To access the faithfulness of Jesus, we must be “believe.” But to believe is to “have faith” — which in the Greek idiom, includes loyalty, submission, and repentance. Or, we might say, faithfulness.
Paul hints at what is to come by declaring —
(Rom 3:31 NET) 31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.
This is hardly self-explanatory — and is very confusing to many. But, of course, if Paul expects converts to obey God’s will, he can hardly dismiss the law as irrelevant. He must uphold it — but not at all in a legalistic sense.
How does that work? We need to turn to chapter 6 …