Romans: God Is Not Fair (Romans 3:1-20; The Law Cannot Save)

(Rom 3:1-2 ESV) Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

In the preceding verses, Paul demonstrates how the Jewish people failed to be a light to the nations and, further, how the only circumcision that really matters is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. Does that mean that there’s no advantage to being a Jew? God elected the Jews! Does being a Jew make a difference?

Paul responds to his rhetorical questions by pointing out the huge advantage of having the scriptures. Paul later expands on this list in Romans 9 —

(Rom 9:4-5 ESV)  4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.  5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

When it comes to knowing God and having a relationship with him, the Jews had a huge advantage. They had thousands of years of life with God not shared by the Gentiles. They were part of a culture centered on the worship of God. They had the scriptures and the prophets. This is a big, big deal.

(Rom 3:3-4 ESV) 3 What if some 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 then asks whether the unfaithfulness of the Jews means that God will no longer keep his promises. In human law, the obligation of one party to perform is contingent on the other party performing. But Paul replies that this is not the nature of God — who honors his covenant even if the Jews didn’t hold up their end. Paul expands on this in Romans 9 – 11.

Now, notice that Paul speaks of the “faithfulness of God.” The Greek is PISTIN TOU THEOU = “faith of God.” We translate “faithfulness” because PISTIS (PISTIN in the accusative) can mean either “faith” or “faithfulness.” And Paul is certainly speak of God keeping his promises.

Therefore, the ESV translates APISTIA as “faithlessness,” even though the same word is translated “unbelief” in other places —

(Rom 4:20 NIV) Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,

(Rom 11:20 ESV) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.

(Rom 11:23 ESV) And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.

And that should cause us to question how correctly we’ve understood Paul’s vocabulary. The identical word sometime means “faithlessness” and at other times means “unbelief” in the very same book. We’ll return to this question as we go.

(Rom 3:5-8 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?  7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come? — as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

In Rom 3:3, Paul contrasted Jewish “faithlessness” with God’s “faithfulness.” We now see two more opposites: Jewish “unrighteousness” contrasted with God’s “righteousness” and Jewish “lies” contrasted with God’s “truth.”

Paul raises the obvious objection: If man’s faithlessness, unrighteousness, and lies produce an outpouring of God’s grace, why isn’t God pleased with our sins?! Paul wrestles with this question throughout Romans, returning to in Romans 6 and not fully answering it until Romans 8.

For now, Paul declares simply that God will judge the world — his point being that sin (in general) will be punished. Obviously.

Paul then declares that his opponents accuse him of teaching license, that is, that God’s grace permits us to do evil. Paul declares such people to be justly condemned.

Now, for those of us in the Churches of Christ, this is a big, big issue. When I began teaching my understanding of grace many years ago, I suffered the identical accusation. I’m not alone. It’s typical of many conservative writers and preachers in the Churches of Christ to accuse those who preach grace of authorizing license or antinomianism. After all, the argument goes, if God will forgive sin, why not sin all the more?

And Paul says those who make such an argument will be condemned. That’s scary.

Consider such examples as

Liberals and other “antinomian” folk (those who do all they can to get away from obeying the Law of Christ) have forever sought to undermine “thus saith the Lord” by searching for loop-holes or otherwise alleging that “Jesus didn’t really mean that,” or “that was different than now,” or some other foolish justification for sin.

Here’s another example

Man has ever sought to be free of divine restraint. In the early days of the church, a philosophy known as “antinomianism” was prevalent. It was the ideology that argued: “We are not under law.”

The concept is not dead even today. There are some, even in the church of the Lord, who allege that we are under grace – not law.

Here’s one more

Personally, I resent the efforts of some present-day brethren who say that historically, preachers and teachers among churches of Christ have never really preached nor understood the grace of God.  These critics demonstrate both their arrogance and ignorance in making such charges. Somehow, these brethren have suddenly “discovered” grace for the rest of us poor, unenlightened souls.  Yet, their “discovery” is not Biblical grace at all.  Their brand of grace allows them to take liberties where God has not granted license.  They use grace as a cover for sin and disobedience.  Their “discovery” of grace is really a self-authorized liberty to ignore God’s plan of salvation and the scriptural patterns God outlines for His church.  We would all do well to be wary of any teacher who is so arrogant as to think he has discovered for the rest of us such a profound Biblical truth.

When the scriptural doctrine of grace is preached and leaders of the church respond with accusations of license and antinomianism, well, Paul’s condemnation is very plain and entirely consistent with what he writes in Galatians at much more length. I can only plead with those who accuse teachers of grace as permitting sin to put their pens down and prayerfully, carefully work through Romans and Galatians. Let the scriptures speak to your hearts. Please!

(Rom 3:9-18 ESV) 9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,  10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”  14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”  15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;  16 in their paths are ruin and misery,  17 and the way of peace they have not known.”  18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

And so, although the Jewish nation had monumental advantages in knowing God, those advantages aren’t the same thing as actually knowing God. Indeed, Paul says, he’s previously demonstrated that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” He then cites a series of Old Testament passages that accuse the Jewish people of being utterly sinful. It’s great to be a “people of the book” but only if your studies produce knowledge of God himself.

In other words, no one merits sin at a personal level because we all violate that portion of God’s law that we know — and even the pagan who has never heard of God or Moses has a moral code that he violates. Moreover, the Jews can’t rely on God’s promises to Abraham, because the nation of Israel has failed to be a light to the nations. Indeed, the nation has repeatedly become so sinful that God very nearly destroyed it.

What Paul doesn’t say, but what we know, is that in a couple of decades God would do it again. Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans in a catastrophe just as horrible as its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. By quoting pre-Exile declarations of the prophets, Paul is saying that the current Jewish people are in the same sad state as the Jews at the time of Nebuchadnezzar. They need a Savior. And they need to repent — of nationalism, of finding comfort in the sword and city walls, and instead turn to the true image of God, the one that hangs on a Roman cross.

(Rom 3:19 ESV)  19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

Paul now addresses human accountability — a question he’ll return to in Romans 5. The “whole world” may be held accountable because the whole world is “under law.” It may be that a given Gentile only knows a small part of God’s law, but by instinct, training, culture, or internal moral compass, he knows enough to condemn himself. Thus, the whole world is accountable.

(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.

Paul is thinking of Adam and Eve, as he further explains in chapter 5. When we gain knowledge of good and evil, we learn God’s law, and therefore we are held accountable for sin. In fact, when we know more of God’s law, we sin more in the sense that we become accountable for more.

Thus, the giving of the Law — the Torah — allowed the Jews to become more obedient, but also made them even more accountable! Their superior knowledge did not save them because their obedience could never catch up with their knowledge. Indeed, greater study only led to greater accountability! There has to be a better way!

The next post addresses the better way.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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