The Faithfulness of God and the Faithlessness of His People
Scripture: Romans 3:1–20
1 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. 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.”
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.
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.”
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. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
I was at my neighbor’s house when I noticed he was working on a crossword puzzle. I didn’t know people still did those! But there he was, diligently working to solve it. It occurred to me that everyone likes puzzles, in one form or another. Some like jigsaw puzzles—the more pieces to the puzzle the merrier! Others like mystery novels, which are all about solving a series of puzzles. Life is full of puzzles: problems to solve, obstacles to overcome. And one of the things that we like about puzzles is the relationship between things that don’t at first seem to go together, but when they do, a beautiful picture emerges that delights the senses.
I’d like to think that the Apostle Paul would have enjoyed a good puzzle. Because when he says in Romans 1:16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel, I think he was speaking out of the delight he found when he saw how the pieces of a really big puzzle come together in the gospel. Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation. And Paul could see that power more clearly as the pieces of the puzzle came together in the gospel of Jesus.
Consider this puzzle: God will be true to his promise to save his world, but he will never be unjust in his dealing with sin. Paul saw in the gospel how this is true. And if we can see what he saw, I think we will not be ashamed of the gospel either but will be all the more eager to proclaim it.
So let’s consider this morning from the passage before us three puzzles that the gospel begins to solve for us. Here are three relationships that are puzzling until we see how the gospel puts them together: the relationship between God and his people, between God and human sin, and between God and his law.
God and His People
As we turn now to the third chapter of Romans, we can see that Paul has to deal with some questions that are raised from what he has said so far. The first one is, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” (v. 1). In other words, what is the relationship between God and his people, Israel?
Who Cares About Israel?
We ended in chapter two with the outrageous argument that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly” and that a true “Jew is one inwardly” (Rom 2:28-29). It would seem that Paul sees no significance in ethnic Israel. So that is the reason the question is raised.
It is a question you may not be asking when you ponder the gospel. Many people today are tempted to conclude that the church has replaced Israel in the divine economy and that there is no value left in Jewish ethnicity.
But this is not at all how Paul answers. He says in verse 2 that there is a Jewish advantage, indeed, “Much in every way.” He only gives one example of Israel’s advantage here, but he will come back to this issue later in Romans and give more examples. The example he cites here of Jewish privilege is the fact that it was the Jews who “were entrusted with the oracles of God” (v. 2). Paul certainly has in mind the entirety of the Old Testament, but in calling them the “oracles of God,” he was given them a unique status. The Old Testament gives us the special revelation of God. Though the Old Testament is essentially the story of Israel and God’s interaction with them, it is also the special revelation of how God is bringing salvation to Israel and through them to all creation. So, yes, of course there is a Jewish advantage.
Salvation Is from the Jews
Go back for a moment to Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria recorded in John 4. Jesus told her that the Jews “worship what we know,” and then he said this: “for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). Here in Romans Paul is making it clear that he is in agreement on this point. It is in Israel that God makes his saving plan known. It is in Israel that “the historical matrix” of “God’s saving revelation” emerges. So, to be a Jew is to be in the center of the story of redemption, for God has promised to bring rescue for the world through the Jewish race.
So we see that this issue is even more important than trying to harmonize Jesus and Paul. If in fact there is no Jewish advantage over Gentiles, then what does this tell us about God’s gospel? Throughout the Old Testament the emphasis has been on Israel as God’s chosen people through whom God would bring blessing to the world. Can the Old Testament no longer be trusted? Or has God broken his promise to Israel? The real question before us, then, is whether God can be trusted.
What if we were to find out that the local church is irrelevant to God’s mission in the world? It would not just be a shame for those of us who have invested so much time and money into this institution. It would also mean that we would have to read our Bibles differently, concluding either that we’ve been misled by what it tells us about the church or that God has now changed his mind about it. Could we then trust our Bibles anymore? Could we even trust God?
God Is Always Righteous
But this raises the problem again that Paul highlighted in chapter 2. “What if some were unfaithful?” he asks in verse 3. Israel’s story tells us that this was indeed the case, and this faithlessness is met by the righteous judgment of God. Merely being a hearer, but not a doer, of the law, will not result in justification but in judgment. And simply being a Jew, a member of God’s covenant with Israel, did not spare anyone from his wrath against sin. So it would seem then that the ongoing problem of sin in Israel, of their faithlessness toward God, has put God in an awkward position. If he does not judge them for their sin, simply because they are Israelites, this would call into question his justice—he would not be an impartial judge. But to punish Israel for their sin would call into question his faithfulness to his promise to bring salvation to the world through Israel. How can God bring life to the world through a people who have been sentenced to death?
It would seem then that the faithlessness of Israel has nullified the faithfulness of God. Again, put the question to the church and you might feel the weight more. If God’s promise is “through the church” to demonstrate his own “manifold wisdom,” (Eph 3:10), if God has so attached himself to sinful people like this, then how will God be seen as wise when the church is so foolish?
It really is a problem. It’s the reason many say they are good with God but have no need for the church. This sounds right to so many people, but what about God can one trust if we no longer see any value in the people whom God calls the bride of Christ?
To this question, Paul’s answer is emphatic: “By no means!” (v. 4). A question like this, while appearing rational, forgets something crucial about the nature of God. God cannot be limited or controlled by that which is outside of himself or his own will. So God is faithful, God is true, even if no one believes him. So while it must be true that “salvation is from the Jews” since this is what God has promised, it is still true, first and foremost, that “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psa 3:8). The story of salvation may be tied up with the story of Israel, but the story of salvation is primarily God’s story. Its success does not depend on the faithfulness of anyone other than God.
God and Human Sin
This takes us to another puzzle that Paul addresses next. At the end of verse 4, he cites from Psalm 51 where David confesses his sin with Bathsheba and asks for God’s mercy. David says his sin, like all sin, is fundamentally a sin against God alone. Therefore, God is justified in his words and God prevails in his judgment against sin. In other words, the faithlessness of Israel does not show us that God is unfaithful. It shows us the opposite. In God’s judgment against sin, we see more (not less) evidence of God’s faithfulness, more evidence of his righteousness. But this raises more questions in verses 5-8, questions about the relationship between God and his judgment of sin.
Is It Unrighteous to Punish Sin?
There are three main questions, all related to each other, in these four verses. The first is in verse 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?”
The question is this: Let’s assume that human unrighteousness, and in particular the unrighteousness of Israel, does not nullify God’s faithfulness but actually manifests it. Ok, so if God is shown to be the righteous one because he punishes sin, then can he really be righteous for punishing the thing that displays his righteousness?
If this is puzzling to you, it may be because you see the obvious self-contradiction in the question. It is a logical fallacy, a circular argument. “Since we need criminals to have criminal justice, it is unjust to punish criminals.” Paul all but apologizes for even giving it the time of day when he says at the end of verse 5, “I speak in a human way.” It is an “astoundingly weak” argument, but some people want to use weak arguments like this in their reasoning about God. For the second time in our passage Paul uses the strong negation, “By no means!” or “God forbid!” in the King James Version (v. 6). He rebuts the question by asking, rhetorically, “For then how could God judge the world?” It is just a fundamental certainty of theology that God is the absolute judge of the universe, or he could not be God in any meaningful sense.
Why Not Do More Evil?
The next two questions come together in verses 7-8 and, though related to the absurd first question these are a bit more challenging to resolve. You may not have ever reasoned about God, like verse 5, but you almost certainly have reasoned like what we read in verses 7-8. Or, if you haven’t, then you probably have not grasped the radical gospel of God and his grace.
So, verse 7: “But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” In other words, how can God righteously judge anyone for their sin if such sin serves the purpose of magnifying God’s glory, specifically the glory of his absolute justice? On the one hand we have God who is faithful, true, and righteous; on the other hand, we have all humans, including the Jews, who are faithless, liars, and unrighteous. And the argument Paul has been making is that the gospel highlights and even magnifies these polar opposites. So, the objection comes, if the magnification of human sin is useful for magnifying the holy character of God, how can God condemn me as a sinner?
The question comes primarily from a Jewish objector who would not accept that they are every bit as sinful as the Gentiles, without any ability to live up to God’s holy standards expressed in the Law. That’s what Paul has argued in chapter two, and this would be highly offensive to a devout Jew. It’s highly offensive to pretty much anyone today, too, and especially offensive to religious people. It leads to the explicit question in verse 8. Well, then, “why not do evil that good may come?”
Have you ever asked a question like that? If you understand the gospel, it should bring a question like that to your mind. If the gospel is correct, and none of us can even begin to live up to God’s standard of holiness, then what’s the point of even trying? Why not just give up and do what comes most naturally to us—evil, if Paul’s gospel is to be believed—since good apparently comes from it?
The Scandal of Grace
I remember one time we were exploring the radical grace of God in Christ with a small group in which a friend of mine, who is an atheist, was listening. We were noting the total depravity of all humans and the total necessity of God’s grace. My friend objected, “Hey, we don’t need less effort at doing good in this world!” Paul apparently heard that objection quite often himself. He says in verse 8 that some people slanderously charge him with teaching this, if not explicitly, then at least by implication.
He’ll deal with this issue more thoroughly in chapter 6, but for now he simply dismisses the charge, since it is probably not being asked genuinely but with cynicism and rejection. We get nowhere by attempting to play these kinds of mind-games or word-games with God, rejecting the gospel of grace with the absurdity that it somehow means we end up sinning for God’s benefit.
But see why such objections are raised? It’s because the gospel of grace is so scandalous. It’s gloriously good news, but not until it hits us hard on the nose between the eyes. In the gospel, Paul has said, the righteousness of God to save has been made plain—we like that part. But in the gospel, the righteousness of God to judge, what the Bible calls the wrath of God, has also been made plain. And we don’t care for that part so much, especially if we are at zero advantage over anyone else of escaping that wrath.
God and His Law
But are we at zero advantage in the face of God’s righteous wrath? That’s the question before us in this text. And it leads us to our final puzzle, that which concerns the relationship between God and his law. If anyone has any advantage in the face of God’s righteous judgment against sin, then surely one will find that advantage in the keeping of God’s law. Remember, Paul has said, “the doers of the law” are the ones who “will be justified” (Rom 2:13). But what we find in verses 9-20 is quite startling.
The Law Is Good but Not Advantageous
When we look at God’s law, what we find is that while it is good, it provides no advantage for anyone when it comes to the righteous wrath of God. This has been Paul’s sustained argument since at least Romans 2:12, and it is a point we need to hear and be convicted by repeatedly. Why? Because most of us probably think we have an advantage, even if it’s only marginal. Many Jews certainly thought they did, but Paul denies it outright in verse 9. “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” His answer: “No, not at all.”
Now wait just a minute! In verse 1 he said the Jew is very much at an advantage, but now it seems he is saying the opposite. But we probably should translate the Greek here, “Not altogether” or “Not in every respect.” When it comes to the matter of human sinfulness, no one is at any advantage, Paul says, because “we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.”
He then cites from various Old Testament scriptures to prove his point. There is no one who is righteous, for everyone has turned away from God (vv. 11-14) and the evidence is palpable in the violence acted out against one another (vv. 15-17). When God is not feared, one’s neighbor is not loved; and where we see violation of human dignity it is just the working out of the rejection of God.
The Law Brings Us Under Guilt
So when we look at God’s law, what we must see is how guilty we are before him. This is what Paul says in verse 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.” There is no advantage before God’s righteous judgment because our guilt is proven beyond all possibility of doubt, and we are all merely awaiting sentencing and judgment.
This is what God’s law is supposed to do, but too many of us keep on talking, keep on objecting. It’s an indication we are not trusting in the gospel of grace. We are still fixated on merit. How many of us are still hung up in the thinking that when things go well for us it is because we are blessed and when things do not go well for us it is because God is angry at us? It’s a sure sign that we are operating on the basis of merit. Why can God’s blessing not be found in pain and why can we not see the deadly danger that is hidden in much of our prosperity? It’s because we evaluate our lives on a system of works and reward: The Lord gives when he’s happy at us and takes when he’s angry. Instead, if we are operating on grace, our response must be, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes—in his sovereign freedom—so blessed be the name of the Lord!”
The Law Is Powerless to Save
Verse 20 brings our passage to a close. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” It is true that “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” as Romans 2:13 states. But this verse is also true because the law is not able to give to us what it demands. The law is powerless to save. But it is not therefore pointless. It prepares us to receive the only power that can save.
That power becomes explicit in the last verses of chapter 3 that we will study next week. The solution to the puzzle will be made explicit. But we won’t be able to receive this power for salvation if we don’t first consider the gospel puzzles we’ve encountered in these verses.
It is when we see the relationship that God has with his people, we see that the gospel of Jesus promises us what was promised to Israel: a restoration of earth, resurrection from the dead, eternal life—yes, in heaven, but only because heaven is now on earth.
It is when we see the relationship that God has with human sin, we see that Jesus promises to set us free from sin, but that it is precisely in this freedom that God is most glorified in us.
And it is when we see the relationship that God has with his law that we will finally see that Jesus is the end of the law because in our union with him we find the power to truly be changed into his image.
When we put the pieces of the puzzle together, it is Jesus and his gospel that is seen most clearly. For that, we will wait until next week.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, One-volume ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 95.