God in the Dock (Romans 3:1-8)

Paul has argued that relying on ethnic pride does not work.  Your genes will not save you, nor your knowledge of The Law. We are judged by our actual righteous, the good that we do or don’t do. Therefore Jews and Gentiles alike face judgement day. So, if a Jew cannot claim an exemption, is there any benefit in being a Jew after all. Paul insists that there is. However, notice that his purpose in the chapter is to point us not to the benefits for specific human identities but back to God’s faithfulness and honour. How God treats his chosen people is seen as evidence about his character.

Paul structures the argument with a serious of hypothetical statements posed as rhetorical questions. These are all false and so the repeated phrase picked up throughout Romans is μὴ γένοιτο· meaning “surely not”, “no way”, “by no means”.  It is a way of emphatically rejecting ridiculous claims.

What the Text says

V1-2 begins with the question about what is the benefit of being a Jew both in terms of their law keeping and in their ethnic heritage with both represented by circumcision.  We expect him to say “There is none, the only benefit to be found is in the Gospel” but in fact Paul says that there is a great advantage.  Why? Well, first of all (though his thought process never returns to the possible list here), being entrusted with The Law is a privilege and we can’t diminish that fact.  This is something that God entrusted to them.

In V3-4 we meet our first μὴ γένοιτο· You see, if God entrusted the Law, this was an act of faithfulness and if some people failed to obey the Law, failed to benefit from the act, some people might imply that this questions God’s character and faithfulness. There are a couple of ways you could argue that.  First of all, does it mean, He had made a covenant with the people but then introduced an ineffective means for the blessings of that covenant to be realised. So has God been unfaithful?  Secondly, do the actions of the children who are meant to reflect the image of the Father undermine the reputation of the Father? God is meant to be faithful but his people are not.  So, is God’s faithfulness cancelled out by Israel’s unfaithfulness?“Surely not” answers Paul. In fact, on the contrary, the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the God who keeps his word not just in promising blessing but also warning about judgement is highlighted not diminished by the lies and unreliability of humanity.[1]

Paul then quotes Psalm 51 where David repents from his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite.  When our sin leads to God acting in righteous judgement then he is vindicated. It is God’s judgement against sin that proves his faithfulness, his righteousness, his reliability. God keeps his word.

Paul moves to his second rhetorical question in verse 5, surely if God benefits from our sin, if it serves to prove his righteousness, then he is unjust, it is unfair for us to be punished when he actually gets the benefit.  Notice Paul’s qualification “I speak in a human way.” In other words, this is the type of objection that sounds reasonable from a human perspective, noting that human reasoning has been affected by the fall. In the light of God’s revelation it in fact does not make sense.

V6 Paul then responds by saying in effect that this would make no sense because it would remove completely God’s ability to judge.  I think read in conjunction with the next verse that this is quite a compressed way of responding to a claim that people were making about his Gospel of Grace. So, there was an objection, that we need the law and that people could be expected to meet its standards completely, otherwise, it would be unfair to punish sin. So, in effect Paul first of all points out that the error he is accused of making would render his own argument illogical.

V7 Paul has been accused of an anti-nomianism (against law) where it is in fact better to sin in order to bring more glory to God. This is slander he says.  Therefore, “there condemnation is just.” This last point could refer specifically to those falsely accusing him or more widely and further back to those who lie. Even though their sin brings about God’s glory, God is still just to condemn them.

The Doctrinal Point

There is a doctrinal point here about the holiness of God, the sovereignty of God and the grace of God.  Paul is responding to an attempt to pit God’s grace against God’s justice and his holiness.  You see, it is possible for the holy God to deal justly with sin, just as it is possible for him to deal graciously with forgiveness. When God does these things, it does magnify his goodness and his greatness. Yes, he benefits. But of course it would be ludicrous to pretend that because God’s intervention brings him glory, therefore he has no right to condemn sin. That would be as ridiculous bluntly as saying that front line NHS workers have no right to complain about lack of PPE or their long hours because after all, it has made them into heroes and without the challenges of COVID they would not receive a round of applause on Thursday nights.

The point is this, yes God works good out of our wicked plans but that does not change the fact that the plans were evil and the consequences grievous.

Application

We live in a world that seeks to put God in the dock. It happens philosophically when people question the Christian claim to believe in a good and sovereign God. Our response to those questions should not be a philosophical debate but we need to turn people to the Gospel.

In day to day life though, there primary challenge is at a practical level.  It is often not that people want proof that there is a God. It is more that they want proof or evidence that he both has the right to and the ability to intervene in their lives. As people face suffering and as they try to make sense of evil in the world. There is also the challenge of people expressing anger and hostility to God.  Again, the answer to those challenges is the whole Gospel presentation as we see it in Romans 1-8.


[1] See on this Calvin, Romans and Thessalonians, 60. Also Moo, Romans, 185-186.

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