Faith that Works: Paul’s Defense in Romans 3

(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 …

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.
This entry was posted in Faith That Works, Grace, Romans, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Faith that Works: Paul’s Defense in Romans 3

  1. Jerry says:

    When we can see our relationship with God as one of love since He pours His love into our hearts through His Spirit, what you write here is not a difficult concept. If we see our relationship with Him as one of law-keeping with more attention to the details of the method of observance than to “the tenor of these words” (Exodus 24:27, KJV), understanding Paul’s argument here will be extremely difficult.

    That is why many people, for example, come to the Lord’s Table with more fear they might do something wrong than with joy to be at the table to remember Him.

  2. Ray Downen says:

    With due respect to those who believe in salvation by faith alone, I want to state that the gospel of Jesus does not ever in any revelation claim that salvation is by faith alone. If any Bible student wants to understand conversion to Jesus, they need to look first to the examples given by Luke in Acts to see how conversion occurs. And in not one of those examples will they learn that salvation is by grace through faith alone. It’s not apostolic doctrine which speaks of salvation by faith alone. Instead, those who sought to join with Christians were told that there were things to DO rather than only to believe (faith).

    Key to understanding apostolic teaching concerning conversion is Acts 2:38. The apostle who had just been baptized in the Spirit by his Lord spoke for the Lord to tell inquiring believing seekers that in order to be saved they had to do something. How foolish it is then for some of us to claim there’s nothing sinners need to do in order to be saved except “only believe.” But that is what Jay has clearly taught in this essay.

  3. Ray Downen says:

    Jay wants to redefine faith, but faith does NOT include action based upon faith. We respond to the gospel, if we believe it, by acting as the gospel calls for sinners to act. But the action is not faith. Faith is what we believe. It’s internal. Obedience which saves is external. It’s based on faith, but it is not itself faith. Repentance has a definite meaning. It does not include faith although it is caused BY faith. Baptism is a particular act which the inspired apostle says is essential for entrance into the kingdom of the Christ. Baptism is because of faith. But it is not faith. Faith is mental. It’s what we believe, not what we DO.

  4. Price says:

    Ray.. your first post…I totally disagree with… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Eph 2:8-9.. Here faith is clearly contrasted with works…and we are saved by Faith NOT by works… it just doesn’t get any more straight forward than that.

    Ray..your second post. I agree..somewhat… Faithfulness, if I properly understand Jay’s intent, sounds good but it’s a backdoor works theology, IMHO. We are called to be obedient and therefore we must do our best but our best isn’t good enough to save us. Never has been, never will be. Grace isn’t partially earned anymore than it’s fully earned..It isn’t earned at all. It’s free to receive or reject..but it’s free.. Or it wouldn’t be Grace.

  5. laymond says:

    Price, can you give us a quick explanation of how one is saved by faith, and faith in what? In other words how does it work.?

  6. Royce Ogle says:

    Romans 4:2-4, Galatians 3:5-7, John 11:25-27. There are many others. John 1:11-13, John 5:24, John 6:35, 40, 47, John 7:39, John 20:31, Acts 10:43. There are many others. It’s pretty convincing. I think once I counted about 80 passages that tell the same truth.

    1st John 5:9-12 says sums it up well.

    “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

    I think those who preach salvation by faith in Jesus are on pretty solid footing. I am gladly one of them. Each person can choose to believe this record or to say it isn’t true. I don’t much like the odds of ignoring it.

  7. Norton says:

    Some will not teach the unwatered down version of Romans 1-8 because they are afraid the hearers will misunderstand it to be teaching license to sin. Their fears are well founded. Some misunderstood Paul to be teaching a license to sin in his day, and so will some today if we teach the same thing. However; we shouldn’t teach a watered down message because we are afraid people will misunderstand it if we teach the real thing.

    Start teaching Romans in your adult class and you will get a lot of comments starting with “Yeah but”. One of the most oft heard “yeah buts” is “Yeah but Abraham obeyed God by moving to Cannan before he was credited with righteousness”. They seem to be suggesting that Paul forgot that fact, and therefore his teaching needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For me its irrevelant to Paul’s discussion in Romans, that Abraham or anyone else may have obeyed God before they came to fully believe.

  8. Price says:

    Laymond… I can’t give you an explanation of how we are saved by faith….that’s because we aren’t saved by faith… We are saved by Grace.. .God does the saving…We can’t save ourselves… We accept the free gift THROUGH faith…that is we accept as true and place our trust in what we can’t really know. Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. ….No man has seen God.. I haven’t seen heaven…(although I think I passed through hell on a couple of occasions) I’ve not seen life after death… But, based on the evidence before me, I believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, I believe He is God’s Son, I believe that He offered Himself up as a sacrifice for sin including mine, that He was killed, buried and rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of God the Father… I accept what I believe He did for me by faith and according to God Himself, that’s how I am saved…

    He has another word called Obedient… Not to be confused with Faith…One is full of stuff to do (works), the other is specifically excluded from works by God Himself…

  9. Price says:

    Norton…what do you think causes people to believe that Abram acted before he believed? I don’t see that in the passage but I could have missed something…

  10. Jerry says:

    While Abraham may have “obeyed” God prior to Genesis 15:6 where it says he believed and God credited it to him as righteousness, his obedience was very imperfect.

    God had told him while he was still in Ur to leave his father’s house (Acts 7:2-4). Did he do that? No, he took his father with him and stayed in Haran until after his father died. (“Let me first bury my father????”) Even when he left Haran, did he leave his family? No, he took Lot along with him, apparently treating him somewhat as a son. We all know the trouble that caused! Then in Genesis 16, he attempted to “help” God by accepting Sarai’s suggestion that he take a concubine and have a son that way. Again, disastrous results followed.

    Yes, Abraham was “obedient” – but very imperfectly. His faith – and his obedience – were not static throughout his life. He grew in both of them.

    And so should we.

  11. Norton says:

    Abraham did act in obedience before he came to fully trust God’s promises, as Jerry explains. My point was that many people in the CofC have a very hard time believing Paul when he said that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness, but not his works. They want to find some works of obedience that may have saved Abraham that Paul didn’t mention.

  12. Price says:

    Norton, I don’t doubt that Abraham’s faith increased as he continued to walk with God..That’s true with us all.. But, I also know that it took some amount of trust, belief, faith, whatever you want to call it for Abraham to pick up and move. Whatever incomplete, junior varsity faith he had…was enough for God to declare him Righteous…Before he moved… That encourages me..

    Now what Abraham had that most don’t have is a direct voice from God. (They don’t have it because they have hardened their hearts. He’s still speaking) Not sure how it came about but Abraham knew. If God Almighty asked you to get up and move…my guess is that you’d do it… I know I would…

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