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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Romans 3

 

 

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Verse 1

‘What advantage then does the Jew have? Or what is the profit of circumcision?’

The question then arises that if the Jew who is unrighteous has no special privileges because of his unrighteousness (Romans 2:11-13; Romans 2:21-24), and if physical circumcision loses its validity for man when he is unrighteous (Romans 2:25-29), what are the advantages (to perisson - here meaning to have what is beyond what others have) of being a Jew and what profit is there in being circumcised? This is the first question put by his imaginary opponent, phrased, of course, by Paul. Many Jews believed that the advantage was that, whatever they might suffer in this life, they would have eternal life because God was bound by His covenant.


Verses 1-8

If This Be So What Advantage Is There In Being A Jew? (3:1-8).

In a series of questions Paul now takes up the points just made, the claimed advantage of being a Jew (Romans 2:17-20) and the claimed advantage of circumcision (Romans 2:25-29). His reply is that both are true simply because it was to the Jews that God had entrusted the oracles of God. It was through those oracles that man could know righteousness. They had thus had the advantage of the given word of God, first through Moses and then through the prophets, for over a thousand years. It should have made them aware of God’s righteousness (Romans 3:4) and of their own unrighteousness (Romans 3:5; Romans 3:10-18) and of the need therefore to genuinely seek God’s way of atonement, initially through the system of offerings and sacrifices, and now through the One Whose death has made provision for ‘the sins done aforetime’ (Romans 3:25). In Romans 3:10-18 he will use those same oracles in order to prove that all are under sin, whether they be Jew or Greek.

However, underlying what he says here is an important principle. He is not just wanting to bring the Jews into the common condemnation but is also underlining the fact of God’s pure righteousness which must deal with sin as it is. Nothing must be allowed to evade the fact that God must call it into account and punish it accordingly, and that was true for all, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:9).

An important question to be solved in these verses is as to when Paul is speaking and when it is his opponent. But even when that is decided we must recognise that in the last analysis it is Paul who has framed the questions being asked. Thus we can see Paul as teaching even in the very questions.

The question and answer method is interesting. It occurs throughout the first half of the letter (Romans 3:1 ff; Romans 4:1 ff; Romans 6:1 ff; Romans 6:15 ff; Romans 7:7 ff) and suggests that Paul has vividly in mind his arguments with Jews and Christian Judaisers who had brought these charges against him (something specifically stated in Romans 3:8). He wants them to be nailed down once and for all.


Verse 2

‘Much every way. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.’

Paul’s reply is simple, that it was because they were Jews and because they were circumcised physically, demonstrating that they were at least outwardly within the covenant, that God had entrusted to them ‘the oracles of God’. No more amazing gift could be conceived. As Moses had said, what other nation had had such a privilege? (Deuteronomy 4:8). And the truth was that if they had had faith in them, and had fully responded to them, all would have been well, they would have experienced the righteousness of God by faith as they truly responded to Him by obedience and through the sacrificial system and ordinances.

‘First of all.’ We should probably translate as ‘primarily’, the idea being that on a list of privileges this must come first. But it may be that Paul was intending to provide such a list as is found in Romans 9:4, only to go off on a tangent.

‘The oracles (logia) of God.’ Logia is not limited to sayings (as is evident in Philo) and this therefore indicates the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. (Compare Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). For the supreme importance of having these oracles compare Deuteronomy 4:8; Psalms 147:19-20.


Verse 3

‘For what if some were without faith? Will their want of faith make of none effect (render inoperative) the faithfulness of God?’

Taking this as the question of the supposed antagonist, the questioner is now arguing that the unfaithfulness of some among the Jews did not render inoperative God’s faithfulness (the use of only ‘some’ being without faith does of course go against what Paul has previously said. His point has been that all were faithless). Surely, they were saying, God would still be true to His word and promises even if many among the Jews failed. And in Jewish eyes this meant that He would continue to favour Jews at the judgment. So he asks, ‘Will their want of faith make of none effect (render inoperative) the faithfulness of God?’ Surely, he is saying, God will remain faithful to His covenant whatever some Jews might do. And they were right. But where their premise failed was in that they overlooked the fact that they had ALL failed.

If, however we take them as Paul’s words, then he is arguing that the faithlessness of many Jews who did not respond to God’s revelation (and who had rejected their Messiah), did not demonstrate that God had been unfaithful or prevent His faithfulness from operating (something he will prove in chapters 9-11 where he points out that God always has His chosen remnant to whom He is faithful). Indeed His judgment of those unbelieving Jews would rather demonstrate His faithfulness, for that was what He had promised in the covenant, blessing and cursing (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). So the implication is that this argument basically underlined their own unrighteousness and unbelief, rather than challenging His faithfulness, for His faithfulness was still operative in salvation towards those who did believe, while it was also being operative in respect of those who would be judged. The former would be blessed and the latter cursed in accord with Deuteronomy 28.


Verse 4

‘Let it not be. Yes let God be found true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That you might be justified in your words, and might prevail when you come into judgment.”’

The thought that God might be unfaithful was inconceivable to Paul. His reply to the expressed doubt is vehement. ‘Let it not be’ (or ‘certainly not’). Such a thing could not possibly be true. For the fact was that God would be found true to His faithfulness, even if it meant seeing every man as untrue (a liar).

Indeed the assurance of God’s faithfulness was demonstrated in those very oracles which the Jews prided themselves on having received, for they declared that God Himself would be acknowledged as righteous (justified) whatever happened, and would be triumphant when He tried others (or alternately would win the case if He was brought for trial). And that could only mean that what He did was right. The citation is from Psalms 51:4.

The strength of Paul’s feeling is brought out by his added statement, ‘let God be found true, but every man a liar’. There was absolutely no truth in the suggestion that God had been found not to be faithful to His promises, even if it meant calling all men liars. Above everything else God was and will be true to what He is.


Verse 5

‘But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who visits with wrath? (I speak after the manner of men.)

OK, says the theoretical questioner, if that is so it means that our unrighteousness is commending the righteousness of God. And that being so surely it is unrighteous of God to visit us with wrath. The idea that this suggestion could be made so appals Paul that he immediately assures his readers that he is speaking ‘after the manner of men’. He does not want them to think that he has any doubts on the matter.

We can see here the subtlety of Jewish thinking. They considered that by their unrighteousness Jews were actually highlighting the righteousness of God, as He forgave them their sins and received them into eternal life regardless of their behaviour (something already refuted in chapter 2). Thus why should God be wrath with them? One thing that they overlooked here was that God’s wrath was not just His reaction to them as such. It was His reaction to sin because of His very nature. He was of such a nature that He would not overlook sin in anyone.


Verse 6

‘Let it not be. For then how will God judge the world?’

Paul’s reply is then again to refer indirectly to Scripture. What has been suggested could not possibly be true because Scripture says that God will judge the world (e.g. Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4; Job 8:3; Job 34:10). And He could not justly judge the world if the argument in Romans 3:5 was carried through. In other words God must visit all men who are unrighteous with wrath, because it is His very nature. And there can be no exceptions. The judge of all the earth must do right.


Verse 7

‘But if the truth of God through my lie abounds to his glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?’

But the questioner persists. Surely if the consequence of the Jews being untrue highlights the fact that God is true and therefore abounds to His glory, it would be unjust of God to see them as sinners, for in the final analysis what they were doing would result in something good. It is now apparent that the questioner has got away from the question of sin and its seriousness by getting tangled up in a specious rational argument. The argument is really that the end justifies the means. It revealed quite clearly that the questioner had no idea of the holiness and righteousness of the God with Whom they were dealing, a God Who must call into account people for what they ARE.


Verse 8

‘And why not (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil, that good may come?” whose condemnation is just.’

Paul now makes clear that he has had enough of such nonsense. Why not, he asks, then say ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ something that was self-evidently wrong. The condemnation of anyone who spoke like that or acted like that could only be right. We learn here also that people were actually claiming that that was what Paul taught. Paul does not argue about that. He simply commits such a false claim to God. (But we can see how his teaching that salvation was through the grace of God, and through benefiting from the righteousness of Another, so that God was able to declare as righteous the ungodly, could have been twisted to give this significance, false though it would be).


Verse 9

‘What then? Are we better than they? No, in no way, for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin,’

Those who had been listening to this argument may (at least theoretically) have been beginning to think, well surely this makes us better than those Jews? Paul quashes that idea immediately. ‘What then is our conclusion? Are we better than they? No in no way --.’ And he points out that he has already dealt with such an argument by his earlier charge that both Jew and Gentile are all under sin. All are in the same position. He will now go on to prove this from Scripture.


Verses 9-20

Both Jew And Gentile Are In The Same Position. All Are Under Sin (3:9-20).

Paul does not want any of his readers to think therefore that this puts them in a better position than the Jews, for as he has already demonstrated they are all ‘under sin’. So he continues to underline that fact by the citing of a miscellany of their own Scriptures, coming finally to the conclusion that the whole world is under judgment, and therefore guilty in the eyes of God.


Verses 10-12

The General Description Of Man’s Sinfulness (3:10-12).

These verses are very much a rough paraphrase of Psalms 14:1-3 which runs as follows in MT:

There is none who does good. The Lord looked down from Heaven on the children of men to see if there were any who did understand, who did seek after God, they are all gone aside, they are together become filthy, there is none who does good, no, not one.

In LXX it reads, “There is none who does goodness, there is not even so much as one. The Lord looked down from heaven on the sons of men, to see if there were any that understood, or sought after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become good for nothing, there is none who does good, no not one.

It will be noted that there is little difference between his words and theirs but that, where there is, Paul’s paraphrase is closer to LXX. The main difference lies in the fact that he omits ‘God looking down from Heaven to see if --’, replacing it with ‘there is’. The alteration from ‘good’ to ‘righteous’ is probably Paul’s in order to bring it into line with the subject that he is dealing with, the righteousness of God. The emphasis then is on the fact that there is none righteous in God’s eyes. There is none who is ‘in the right’. But this necessarily follows if they are not righteous.

The point of the citation is in order to bring out man’s universal sinfulness. All are included as sinners. None as they are in themselves do what is righteous, not even one. None understand. None seek after God. All have turned aside from the true path, all have become profitless, useless, good-for-nothing. None do good, no not one.


Verses 10-18

‘As it is written,

There is none righteous,

No, not one,

There is none who understands,

There is none who seeks after God,

They have all turned aside,

They are together become unprofitable,

There is none who does good,

No, not, so much as one. (Psalms 14:1 b, Psalms 14:2-3)

Their throat is an open sepulchre,

With their tongues they have used deceit, (Psalms 5:9)

The poison of asps is under their lips (Psalms 140:3),

Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, (Psalms 10:7)

Their feet are swift to shed blood, (Psalms 59:7-8)

Destruction and misery are in their ways,

And the way of peace have they not known. (Isaiah 59:7 ff)

There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (Psalms 36:1)

It will be noted that this citation is in fact a miscellany of quotations taken from different parts of Scripture, and that it can be divided up into two sections. The first section is a general description of man’s sinfulness ending up with the fact that not a single person does good. It is a paraphrase of Psalms 14:1 b, Psalms 14:2-3. The second section is a series of citations which particularise individual sins.


Verses 13-18

All Men Have Committed Particular Sins (3:13-18).

He then goes on to demonstrate this with regard to particular sins. It will be noted that the first four lines are related to sins of speech, and the next three to sins of violence, whilst the list ends up with the claim that there is no fear of God before their eyes, for if there was they would not commit such sins.

Their throat is an open sepulchre,

With their tongues they have used deceit, (Psalms 5:9 LXX)

The poison of asps is under their lips (Psalms 140:3 LXX),

Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, (Psalms 10:7)

Their feet are swift to shed blood, (Psalms 59:7-8)

Destruction and misery are in their ways,

And the way of peace have they not known. (Isaiah 59:7 ff LXX)

There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (Psalms 36:1)

It is noteworthy that the list begins by dealing with sins of the tongue, sins of which all are guilty. The idea of the throat being an open sepulchre reflects ‘uncleanness’. Open sepulchres were to be avoided for that reason. Thus the idea may be that out of men’s mouths came what was unclean and would defile others. But the idea may also possibly be that whereas sepulchres normally hide their corruption and uncleanness, being closed up and sealed, man, by what he says, opens up his corruption and uncleanness for all to see and hear. In this gossipers and backbiters may well be especially in mind. There may also be the indication that such a person’s words are a trap for the unwary, for a careless man could easily fall into an open sepulchre.

This is then especially related to their tongues using deceit, in order to deceive men and corrupt them, and bring them down. All of us are at times glib with our tongues, and all of us at some time seek to deceive others (although we often excuse it in ourselves). So man with his mouth and his words is seen as working untold harm in the world (compare Romans 1:29-30). The poison of asps under their lips emphasises the fact that their words are poisonous and destructive. Here the thought is mainly of the maliciousness of men and women, a maliciousness which can result in cruel and hurtful words, backbiting, slanderous accusations, and the murdering of other people’s reputations by gossip and tale bearing.

Their mouths being ‘full of cursing and bitterness’ brings out their attitude towards their fellowmen. They seek to bring curses on them and speak bitterly of them. Such people curse and swear and reveal their own bitterness of heart in the bitter things that they say. But, as James points out, with the same tongue they bless God and curse men, and he adds, ‘my brothers, these things ought not to be’ (James 3:9-10).

It will be noted up to this point that the emphasis has been on the effect of what people say. For what people say is of such importance that Jesus said that, ‘For every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment’ (Matthew 12:36). Compare ‘The tongue is a little member -- set on fire of Hell’ (James 3:5-6). No wonder James says that if anyone does not sin with his tongue, he is a perfect man (James 3:2).

‘Their feet are swift to shed blood’ (Proverbs 1:16; Isaiah 59:7). Their feet being swift to shed blood indicates an unhealthy eagerness for violence. Men move at a run because they are so eager to hurt and kill each other. Here the emphasis is on people’s violence and its consequences.

‘Destruction and misery are in their ways’ (Isaiah 59:7). Here the concentration is on the harm that people do to each other, and the misery that people bring to each other, by the way in which they behave. Men who meet up with them can expect nothing but harm and belligerence. For they know nothing of the path of peace.

‘And the way of peace have they not known’ (Isaiah 59:8). Such people have no desire to bring peace into the world in which they live, nor to seek peace. Rather they bring trouble and distress. It was in contrast to this that Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called sons of God’ (Matthew 5:9).

‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Psalms 36:1). This final statement both sums men and women up and is a final indictment on them. They live without regard for God and for His judgment, and that fact comes out in their lives and in the way that they behave. All this is of course the very opposite of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’. And they do all this because they do not truly ‘believe’. For if they did believe they would fear God and avoid such things.


Verse 19

‘Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God,’

The main emphasis here is on the Law as representing the Scriptures (it includes the citations above which come from the Psalms and Isaiah). But that it applies also to Gentiles is because the law that they have written in their hearts (Romans 2:14) can be seen as coming from the same source, that is, from God. In Jeremiah 31:31 the law written in men’s hearts is the Law of God. They are therefore caught up in the condemnation of God’s Law whether they wish it or not. All are under the Law in one way or another. So in the end it covers the Law of Moses, and the inner law of the Gentile (Romans 2:14), the main emphasis being on the Law, which is the Scriptures (compare how Jesus can speak of the whole Scriptures as ‘the Law’ - Matthew 5:18; John 10:34). The first speaks to the Jews, the second to the Gentiles, but the Scriptures speak to all. All are under one law in the end, for it is God’s Law. We can compare how in Isaiah 2:3 the word of the Lord streams out to the world. And that law prevents them from speaking in their own defence as they recognise that through it they are revealed as guilty. No one has any excuse to make. Every mouth is stopped. For everyone is ‘under the Law’ (responsible for obedience to it) and, having failed, the whole world is brought under the judgment of God. ‘There is not one in the right, no not one’.

Note carefully the picture of the law court where the accused is brought up short. What is in mind in all this is how a man stands before his judge, the Judge of all the world. What will be given will be a legal verdict. The accused will either be declared as ‘in the right’ or he will be found guilty. And Paul has demonstrated that all will be found guilty.


Verse 19-20

Thus The Law Ensures That All Are Found Guilty Before God (3:19-20).

The consequence of all that has been described is that all men without exception are found by ‘the Law’ (the Scriptures) to be guilty before God. There is none righteous, no not one.


Verse 20

‘Because by the works of the law will no flesh be justified (accounted as in the right) in his sight, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.’

And this results from the fact that no flesh can be seen as ‘accounted as in the right’ in His sight by keeping ‘the works of the Law’, simply because no man can achieve the perfection required. Such a position cannot be achieved by observing the works of the Law (works done in obedience to the Law) for the simple reason that no one can keep them completely (compare Psalms 143:2). What the Law does admirably, and what it has always done, as well as being a guide to living (James 1:22-25), is to make man aware in his heart of the fact that he has sinned (1 Timothy 1:9). His word is like a fire, and a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29). It discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). It makes men aware of their guilt.

Of course the Law in itself was never intended originally to be a way by which men could achieve eternal life. In so far as it became that it was the invention of a later age. It was intended rather to turn men to God in repentance and faith, as they looked to Him for His compassion and mercy. The stipulations of the Law represented the stipulations required of them by their Suzerain Lord, as the One Who had by grace redeemed them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-18). Having been redeemed, and having thereby become His, they were to obey His stipulations. Their failures, if accompanied by genuine repentance, would then be dealt with through the sacrificial system. But that did not operate automatically. It required a right attitude of heart (Isaiah 1:11-18). There was no thought of them earning eternal life by simply observing it.

To be ‘justified’ means to be ‘accounted as in the right’, whether genuinely so or not. It is a legal term and refers to a judicial verdict passed on men which declares them to be totally vindicated (dikaio-o only ever has that meaning). The court declares them free from all charges. They are seen as ‘in the right’ in the eyes of the law. It says nothing about what they actually are in themselves. (Thus the wicked can be ‘justified’ for a reward - Isaiah 5:23 LXX Proverbs 17:15 LXX).


Verse 21

‘But now apart from the law a righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets,’

This righteousness of God that God has provided is apart from the Law. It is not obtained as a result of observing the Law. It has no connection with the Law. And yet it has been made clear by both the Law and the prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures). And in the prophets this righteousness of God transcends the Law for it is on a par with God’s own righteousness. It is supplied by God, Who comes to His people with a righteousness which will make them fully acceptable to Him. It is that righteousness, which completely fulfils all God’s holy demands, the demands which God gives to us. And here in fact it is seen to be the consequence of Christ Jesus having redeemed us and having been put forth as a propitiation though faith in His blood (Romans 3:24-25).


Verses 21-25

God Has Provided A Way By Which Men Can Be Accounted As In The Right Before God (3:21-4:25).

Paul has spent a considerable time, from Romans 1:18 onwards, in demonstrating that all are under sin (weighed down under it and condemned by it). And he has shown that this includes the common herd of idolaters (Romans 1:18-27); the generality of people (Romans 1:28-32); those who for one reason or another see themselves as above the norm (philosophers, judges, Rabbis, Jews - Romans 2:1-16); and especially the Jews with their wild claims (Romans 2:17 to Romans 3:8). He has demonstrated that all as they are in themselves come under the condemnation of God. None can claim to be in the right on the basis of their own lives (Romans 3:9-20). Now Paul seeks to demonstrate the difference that has been made by the coming of Christ, for in Christ God has provided a righteousness which is sufficient to ‘put in the right with God’ all who truly believe in Him. In Romans 1:17 Paul had told us about it, but in order for us to appreciate it fully it was necessary for us to recognise man’s condition. Now that he has achieved that he will expand on Romans 1:17, ‘therein is the righteousness of God (which makes men accounted as righteous) revealed from faith unto faith’.


Verse 22

‘Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them who believe, for there is no distinction,’

And this righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. The reason for adding ‘to all who believe’ is in order to include the Gentiles. ‘Faith in Jesus the Messiah’ may well otherwise have been seen as exclusive to the Jews. But here it is made clear that it is for all. And this is so, whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For all have the same need, and there is no distinction between them. (This is assuming that ‘there is no distinction’ applies to the word ‘all’).

Some, however, argue that the two references to faith make one of them redundant and therefore see the verse as signifying that the righteousness of God is ‘through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ and is given to all who believe. The theology of that is perfectly acceptable and in accordance with Romans 5:19. The main problem with that view is that it gives a meaning to pistis which is different from all the other uses of it in the passage, and is different from Paul’s overall usage. It would therefore require compelling reasons for it to be acceptable, and there are none.

Some see ‘for there is no distinction’ as meaning that there is no distinction between the way that we are condemned (by being declared as having sinned and come short of the glory of God) and the way that we are justified (by being declared righteous). In both cases it is a judicial verdict. And that is undoubtedly true. But in context the most suitable antecedent is undoubtedly ‘all’


Verse 23

‘For all have sinned, and are falling short of the glory of God,’

The reason why this righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is necessary is now given. It is because, as had been demonstrated in Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20, all have sinned and are continually revealing it by falling short of the glory of God. Note the change of tense. All ‘have sinned’ (compare Romans 5:12), thus being in a state of sin, and they are now continually falling short of His glory. Here the ‘all’ is universal. It covers all men and women. The equating of sin with falling short of the glory of God brings out the root nature of sin. It is to come short of what God intended, and still intends, that we should be. It is to come short of absolute perfection, to come short of divine purity. It is to come short of God’s moral glory. It is to fail to be God-like. Any man who claims that he has not sinned must recognise that he is talking about achieving complete God-likeness. For the glory of God is His glory as revealed in the beauty of holiness (1 Chronicles 16:29; Psalms 29:2). We may consider in relation to this verse Isaiah 43:7, ‘I have created him for my glory’, in other words so that through his perfection God might be glorified.

We may see examples of this in Isaiah 6:1-7 where Isaiah experienced the glory of the LORD and cried out, ‘woe is me, for I am totally undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’. And again in Job 42:5-6 where the sight of the glory of the LORD made Job aware of his utter sinfulness, so that he cried out, ‘I abhor myself, and repent in sackcloth and ashes’. Compare also, ‘let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD Who exercises covenant love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD’ (Jeremiah 9:24). See also Psalms 90:16-17. So the glory of God is found in His love, justice and righteousness.

These ideas may be related to the Jewish tradition that in the Garden Adam shone with the glory of God, something which he lost when he sinned, thus indicating that all fall short of man’s original innocence, an idea to which all Jews would have given consent. But it is questionable whether Paul has this in mind here.

Others see doxa tou theou as signifying ‘the praise of God’ (compare John 12:43) or ‘the approbation of God’. The idea then is that they are falling short of being what God can praise (compare 1 Corinthians 4:5), which really contains the same idea as above.


Verse 24

‘Being justified (accounted as in the right) freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,’

But on receiving the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (Romans 3:22), any one of the ‘all’ who have been demonstrated as sinful (Romans 3:23), is immediately ‘reckoned as righteous’ before the Judge of all men. And this is through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, something which is available freely, at no cost, as a result of God’s undeserved favour and compassion revealed in action towards him (that is, it is of God’s grace). The verb dikaio-o means ‘to reckon as righteous those on whom judgment is to be passed’, regardless of what the person might be in himself. It refers to a legal verdict. It never means ‘to be made righteous’. It is a forensic term.

This passage is so important that perhaps we should analyse its contents in some depth. Our being accounted as ‘in the right’ before God’s judgment throne at this present time, and therefore as being fully acceptable to God, is granted to us:

· ‘Freely.’ It is at no cost to the recipient, and we could translate ‘as a gift’. No payment or exaction of any kind is required (compare Isaiah 55:1-2). No standard of works has to be achieved. Nothing has to be contributed by the sinner. (It is precisely because of this idea that men made the claim that Paul allowed men to continue in sin so that grace might abound - Romans 6:1).

· ‘By His grace.’ It is given as a direct result of the direct action of God acting in undeserved love and favour. Man has no part in it except to respond. Grace is not a something that God gives (except in a secondary sense), it is God Himself acting in undeserved favour and love towards us.

‘Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.’ It is through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Redemption involves the activity of someone who sets out to deliver, and accomplishes it, usually by the payment of a price. ‘Christ Jesus was made unto us -- redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). The price for our redemption is paid by another Who has ‘given His life as a ransom instead of (anti) many’ (Mark 10:45; compare 1 Timothy 2:6). We ‘are bought with a price’ (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 3:13; 2 Peter 2:1; Revelation 5:9; Acts 20:28), the price of blood (Romans 3:25; compare Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:9). And because of this we can be ‘declared righteous’.

We may ask, to whom was the price paid? And the answer is that it was paid to God Himself as the Judge of all men. Justice required that a price be paid for sin. The paying of the price satisfied the demands of justice. And it was accomplished through God the Saviour of all men setting forth Jesus Christ on our behalf, to take on Himself the penalty that should have been ours.

· ‘Which is in Christ Jesus.’ All this comes to us through the activity of the Messiah Jesus on our behalf. It is He who pays the price of deliverance, and then brings it about in men. And it comes when we put our trust in Him as our Saviour and receive forgiveness and are made one with Him (Ephesians 1:7).

· ‘Whom God set forth to be a propitiation.’ But it was the whole of the Godhead Who were one in sending Him forth in public display, and this was in order that He should be a propitiation, or a propitiatory sacrifice made on our behalf, a sacrifice that fulfilled the demands of justice and therefore averted God’s antipathy to sin. Prominent in the action was God the Father. ‘He Who spared not His own Son but gave Him up for us all --.’ (Romans 8:32). And as a result, when we become Christ’s the antipathy of God against sin, His wrath (Romans 1:18), is removed from us because our sins are atoned for. We are seen by Him as holy. And this because He (Jesus Christ) bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24), being made sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

· ‘Through faith.’ And this benefit is obtained freely (as a gift) through responsive faith.

· ‘In His blood.’ And that faith must be in His offering of Himself as a sacrificial offering on our behalf (1 Corinthians 5:7; John 1:29; Hebrews 13:12). It must be in Him as the crucified One Who has died for us and is risen again (1 Corinthians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

This work of God can be, and is, presented in a number of ways. One way is to see Jesus Christ dying as our substitute. This is unquestionably true in Mark 10:45. Because Jesus has died in our place as ‘a ransom in the place of many’ (lutron anti pollown) and has borne our sin, we can be accounted as righteous and go free, as a result of the fact that He paid the price instead of us. Another is to see Him as our representative Who has incorporated us into Himself. We see ourselves as ‘in Christ’, which is a regular New Testament idea. And as a result, being one with Him we are seen as having gone to the cross with Him. We have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20; Galatians 3:13; Romans 6:1-11), because He was crucified as our ‘representative’. When He died, we died there with Him. Thus with the punishment for all our sin being borne by Him as the One Who has absorbed us into Himself, we have paid the price of sin in Him and can go free, to commence our new lives for Him. He is our Elder Brother Who partook of flesh and blood so that through death He might deliver all who fear death (Hebrews 2:11-15).

Imagine a scene in a court room. A young man stands in the dock. He is accused of the most abominable of crimes, and he knows that he is guilty. He is aware that a death sentence hangs over him. The previous day the prosecutor, unable to keep the scorn and anger from his eyes, had laid out the charges against him. He has been aware of the anger even in the judge’s eyes. All are against him. And now all the evidence is to be introduced against him. He is without hope, and he awaits the proceedings with dread. The prosecutor comes forward. But now he is no longer angry, he is smiling. He declares to the court that all charges have been dropped. The young man’s elder brother has taken the full blame for the crime. He has pleaded guilty and has been justly sentenced and executed. The young man can leave the court room with no charge lying against him. As far as the prosecution is concerned he is free to go. The judge also is now smiling. He declares the young man to be ‘justified’ in the eyes of the court. He can leave without a stain on his character. All he has to do is believe it and go free. Everyone gathers round to pat him on the back. The judge comes and shakes his hand. He is aware in his heart that he is guilty. But the whole court has declared him to be ‘accounted as righteous’, because his elder brother has borne the shame and ignominy of the crime. That is ‘justification’. It is to him who works not, but believes in Him Who ‘reckons as righteous the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5). His faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:5).


Verse 25-26

‘Whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God, for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season, that he might himself be just, and the justifier (reckoner as in the right) of him who has faith in Jesus.’

For God set Him forth as a propitiatory sacrifice (compare 1 John 2:2), appropriated through faith in His sacrificial death. The idea here is that something was required in order to satisfy God’s antipathy to sin. Sin had to be punished. A price had to be paid. And it was because of this sacrificial death that God had been able righteously to pass over ‘sins done aforetime’, the many sins of believers from the time of Adam. And it is also because of this sacrificial death that He is even now at this present time able to remain totally righteous while at the same time declaring as ‘in the right’ the one who has faith in Jesus, even though he be ungodly (not in present behaviour and attitude but condemned as such because of his past life - Romans 4:5). As a consequence of this His antipathy to our sin is removed, because our sin has been transferred to Jesus Christ. God no longer counts anything against us. It is a sacrificial death that covers all men for all time when they come to believe in Him. He ‘perfects for ever those who are being sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:14).

This offering of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice is in order to ‘show God’s righteousness’. It was necessary that He be seen as ‘just’. That is why He could not simply forgive without any necessity for the paying of a price. His righteousness and holiness must be displayed in what He did. And the question was, how could He be seen as ‘just’ while reckoning as righteous the ungodly? The answer lay in the shedding of Christ’s blood on our behalf. Because He took the sentence of death on Himself for us, being made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), bearing our sin (1 Peter 2:24), we who are ungodly and under sentence of death may go free. The justice of God is fully satisfied with what He has done. He can thus ‘account as righteous’ the ungodly who believe in Him (Romans 4:5; Romans 5:7). So now those who are in Him can be ‘reckoned as righteous’ because of their faith in Him, with His death being reckoned to them because they are now in Him (Galatians 2:20).


Verse 27

‘Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.’

What then of the Jews glorying/boasting in their special status? Or Gentiles glorying in their asceticism or benevolence which they considered made them deserving of God’s favour? Both are excluded. And on what principle are they excluded? Not on the principle of works, for that would give men the opportunity for glorying/boasting. It is wholly on the principle of faith, on the principle of being a receiver of all that God gives by accepting it freely as a free gift by faith. No man can boast at having been given a free gift. That does not mean that God looks on our faith and sees it as replacing our works. Rather it indicates that faith is the means by which we accept His free gift. There is no merit in such faith whatsoever.


Verse 28

‘We reckon therefore that a man is justified (reckoned as in the right) by faith apart from the works of the law.’

So Paul can now come to his important conclusion. And that is that a man is accepted as righteous before God, not on account of His works, (nor even on account of his faith), but as a result of that man’s response of faith to His free gift of righteousness. Any connection with the works of the Law is totally excluded.


Verse 29

‘Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,’

For if salvation were to be by the works of the Law, which included circumcision, it would mean that God was only the God of the Jews. But Paul immediately raises an objection to this idea. He answers it by a counter-question. Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? And his answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’. God is God of both Jew and Gentile.


Verse 30

‘If so be that God is one, and he will reckon the circumcision as in the right by faith (out of faith), and the uncircumcision through faith.’

And the grounds for his confident answer is that God is one. This was indeed what the Jew boasted about constantly, ‘YHWH our God, YHWH is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). Well, says Paul, if He is One then He is God over all and will deal with all on the same terms. He will reckon the circumcision to be in the right by faith, and the uncircumcision to be right through faith. All will be dealt with in the same way.

This fact that God is God of both Jew and Gentile will be emphasised in the next passage where Paul calls on the example of Abraham, ‘the father of many nations’. He is thus here preparing the way for that thesis.

It may be asked whether we should distinguish ‘out of faith’ from ‘through faith’. If there is a distinction it probably lies in the idea that the Jews were reckoned as right ‘by faith’, and the Gentiles ‘through the same type of faith’. But the distinction is probably not intended to be seen as important.


Verse 31

‘Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? Let it not be. No, we establish the law.’

He now deals with a final objection. Is he not making the law of none effect by making salvation obtainable through faith? And his reply is that, far from that being true, on the contrary he is establishing the Law. For on any other way of salvation the breaking of the law would be being treated as of secondary importance, such breaches having to be overlooked. It would have its teeth drawn. It would be unable to condemn. But salvation by faith gives the law its full status as condemning all who fall short of it. The axe then falls, but it falls on Christ. Furthermore the Law is then also given its true status as being a ‘schoolmaster to lead us to Christ’ (Galatians 3:24). In ancient days the Law turned men’s thoughts to the necessity of the sacrificial system though which they could obtain atonement for their failures. Now it is intended to turn their thoughts to Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Romans 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/romans-3.html. 2013.

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