Romans 3

The apostle’s statement at the end of Romans 2 had laid down with irresistible force for the conscience that God will have reality rather than form. Let the Jew then beware. This gives occasion to objections which are met in the earlier part of Romans 3:1-8.

“What therefore [is] the superiority of the Jew, or what the profit of circumcision?” To this or at least the former of these questions the apostle replies, “Much in every way; for, first, because they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” In its proper place he enumerates the various high distinctions of Israel; but here he singles out, as foremost, that which had been their constant, and most precious privilege, the possession of God’s written word; and the rather too as this was most suited to demonstrate their moral delinquency. For what use had they made of it? Where was the fruit of so great a favour?

Here again there is an anticipation of any argument founded, however unreasonably, on Jewish refractoriness which knew that the glory of God can never fail. “For what if some believed not? shall their unbelief make void the faith of God? Let it not be, but let God be true and every man false, even as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy words, and overcome when thou art judged.” God holds fast infallibly to His truth, and men fail in faithfulness because of want of faith, which is insensible to sin, trusts self and has no confidence in God. That there is any, the smallest, failure on God’s part he indignantly repudiates, and insists that He at least be vindicated to man’s shame and confession of his own evil; even as David found his only resource in acknowledging his sin to God, clearing Him at all cost to himself. Indeed this is the secret of blessing for the sinner; and the willingness to own his ruined estate God operates in the heart by the revelation of His own grace. Our sins justify His words.

Of this the objector would again take advantage by contending that God could not then consistently punish us. Hence the apostle cuts off such misuse of the truth by what follows. “But if our unrighteousness commend God’s righteousness, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who inflicteth wrath? I speak according to man. Let it not be: since how shall God judge the world?” This last was an axiom with the Jew, who was willing enough to allow justice in dealing with the earth at large (as, e.g., Abraham had entrenched himself on it in favour of exempting Lot from the destruction then impending over the cities of the plain). Impossible that there can be unrighteousness in God. But this very consideration was fatal to the fond delusion of self-security to which an unrighteous Jew yielded. God brings Himself glory even in face of man’s iniquity; but iniquity is none the less, nor the less surely to be judged of God for all that. Hence he allows the objection to betray its own heinousness and leaves it when thus self-exposed without an answer, as necessarily condemned even by the most ordinary natural conscience. “For if the truth of God abounded in my lie to his glory, why any longer am I too judged as a sinner? and not, even as we are slanderously reported, and even as some give out that we say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ — whose judgment is just.” Such reasoning resembled what was falsely put into the mouth of the Christian, and proved too truly of the Jewish adversary that, in seeking to escape the conviction of his own hopeless exposure to God’s judgment, he was obliged, as with the stiffest legalist is so often the case, to slip into principles of very gross antinomianism. It must always be thus, where men, cloaking their sins, hope for mercy from God; and the more inconsistently, as they ignore His grace and confess that He is the judge of all.

Next, from verse 9 the general argument is resumed, all the stronger for the interruption which rebuked the vain struggles and detailed cavils of the Jew. “What therefore? are we better? Not at all; for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles to be all under sin, even as it is written, There is none righteous, not one; there is not the [man] that understandeth; there is not the [nation] that seeketh God. All went out of the way, thus then they became unprofitable; there is none that doeth kindness, there is not so much as one. Their throat [is] an open grave; with their tongues they used deceit; venom of asps [is] under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; swift [are] their feet to shed blood; ruin and misery [are] in their ways, and no way of peace they knew. There is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that whatever things the law saith, it speaketh to those that are in the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world come under judgment with God; because by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him, for by law is knowledge of sin.” (Ver. 9-20.) The Jew then is no better. The Gentiles were utterly degraded and guilty, as we saw in Romans 1; the Jews had brought shame on the Lord in proportion to their exceeding privileges. To clench this last point the apostle cites from the Psalms and prophets, especially Psalm 53 and Isaiah 59. Righteousness, intelligence, and even desire after God were not to be found, but all gone aside, and useless morally. Nay, every whit of them was corrupt or violent, — throats tongues, lips, feet, eyes. And this, as is remarked: was God’s estimate, not of men merely but of the Jew, and addresses itself to those under itself as no Jew would deny.

The overwhelming conclusion, then, is that every mouth is closed and the whole world comes in guilty before God. The Jew never doubted the wickedness of the idolatrous Greeks, Romans, or other Gentiles. This to him was patent and unquestionable. But the flattering and most mistaken inference of immunity he drew from his own position, as having God’s law and ordinances. No, reasons the apostle, this demonstrates your guilt to be even greater than the heathens, if you are no less immoral than they; and that such is the fact certainly flows from the revealed sentence of the law on the people who have that law.

Thus all stand inexcusable in their guilt before God; and this, because law-works cannot justify — still less of course the works that man’s mind suggests, or that the will of others may extort. If any works could justify anybody, those of God’s law must be the surest benefit to the Jew. But the truth is that no flesh shall be justified from any such source in His sight; for contrariwise law never produces holiness but is only the means of arriving at a full knowledge of sin.

There is another point I would notice as to the two chief portions which the apostle quotes from the Old Testament. The psalm and the prophecy already referred to terminate respectively — the former, with an earnest wish that the turning-point for Israel were come out of Zion, their captivity giving place to the long-looked-for joy and deliverance — the latter, with the declaration that the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and the covenant of blessing be theirs for ever. That is, both texts in their original connection close their sad account of Israel’s sin with the yearning after, and the distinct prediction of, the kingdom of God restored to Israel with all accompanying blessedness and glory. But in the New Testament they are followed by the indiscriminate grace of God to every sinner that believes in Christ. In the former it is redemption by power; in the latter it is redemption by blood, which is come in meanwhile, before the Redeemer appears in power and glory, as He will soon.

Hitherto it has been for the most part negative statement or argument. The proof is complete that the Jew has righteousness for God no more than the Gentile, whom no Jew could doubt to be hopelessly ruined in sin, as indeed the state of the heathen, before the gospel testimony went forth, was to the last degree deplorable. But it had been shown from their own Psalms and Prophets that Israel was wholly evil in the sight of God; and to demonstrate this the Apostle needs nothing but the admitted postulate that, whatever things the law says, it speaks to those that are under the law; i.e., the Jews. Thus, both being demonstrated to be mere sinners (the Jews who had most pretension by the most sweeping and express testimonies of their own boasted divine oracles), every mouth was stopped, and all the world obnoxious to God’s judgment. Law made its possessors no better, could not justify, but only give full knowledge of sin — sorrowful result for the sinner!

Then, what law could not do, God does by His good news. “But now without law God’s righteousness is manifested, being testified by the law and the prophets, even God’s righteousness through faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all that believe.” What fulness of truth, and what a compressed and precise expression of it! Man’s righteousness was nowhere among the Gentiles. It had been asked for by the law among the Jews; but the law received no answer save of guilt. Those among them whose conscience was upright acknowledged that all their righteousnesses were as filthy rags, and that their iniquities, like the wind, had taken them away — that for their sins and for the iniquities of their fathers, the Jews had become a reproach to all that were about them. In the very writings which confessed their ruin the prophets spoke of Jehovah bringing near His righteousness. “My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth.” “My salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” “My righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation.” “My salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed.” (Isaiah 46, 56; Daniel 9:16, 24.) So, in the types of the law, the entire sacrificial system sets forth a righteousness of God outside man, yet most truly for him, which meets its only adequate significance in the mighty work and death of Jesus. But the law and the prophets were only witnesses, testifying that this divine righteousness was not come, but coming; the shadows of a substance not yet present, the prediction of what was to be, and then near to come. Now it is come and manifested. It is quite independent of law, on the wholly different principle of grace, though the law as well as the prophets bore an anticipative witness to it. Law (not in its types, but in its proper character) appeals to the individual’s own obedience, knows nothing of a substitute. Grace always supposes the intervention of God Himself in His Son, who in the cross establishes the right of God to bless him that believes in Jesus. It is not simply His prerogative of mercy; it is His righteousness. For the blood of the only acceptable victim is shed, the sacrifice is offered, the judgment of the sins has fallen on Him, He has accepted it all. This then is the new sort of righteousness; not man’s, which, if it existed, must be according to the law; not the sinner’s, of course (for he, being a sinner, has none which can avail), but God’s, according to the types of the law and the declarations of the prophets, now no longer hidden or even promised, but manifested. He who believes God’s testimony in the gospel to Jesus Christ His Son, confesses his sins and trusts God, not himself; he sees and owns what God can righteously do for him through the cross, and thus shares in His righteousness.

The manuscripts differ as to the text here. Some of the most ancient (the Sinai, Vatican, Alexandrian, and Rescript of Paris, beside some juniors, versions, and fathers) omit καὶ ἐπὶ πάντας (“and upon all”). But I agree with the judgment of those who retain the received text in this, and I have little doubt that the words were omitted through the eye or ear resting on one πάντας so as to overlook the other. Possibly indeed one scribe or more may have designedly left out the clause, fancying it to be a mistake from not apprehending the scope, and conceiving, like some commentators (e. g., Dean Alford), that there is no real difference of meaning in the prepositions. But this is incorrect. There is no difference of words in scripture without a different sense, though sometimes the shade is so fine as to be more easily felt than expressed. Here the distinct force of the clause is plain and important. The former ( εἰς πάντας) marks the direction of God’s righteousness. It is not, like the law, restricted to a single nation; it addresses itself “unto all” men without exception; but the benefit depends on faith in Jesus Christ, and hence it only reaches and takes effect “upon all that believe.” This distinction is of great practical value; but it turns mainly on the difference of the prepositions. Divine righteousness was in principle applicable to all, but in fact applied only to all believers.

It was no question of right in man, but in God, and this through Christ’s redemption. “For there is no difference; for all sinned, and do come short of the glory of God.” When man was innocent, he simply enjoyed the creature gifts around in thankfulness to Him who had set him in the midst of all and over all which God had pronounced “very good.” But when he sinned, God appeared and could have no test to try him by short of His glory, which drives out sinful man from before His face. Hence the necessity for divine grace if he is to be justified. This accordingly is the immediate topic of discourse: “being justified [i.e. all who are being justified] gratuitously by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiatory through faith in his blood, for a declaration of his righteousness on account of the praeter-mission of the sins that had been before in the forbearance of God, with a view to the declaration of his righteousness in the present time, in order to his being just and justifying him that is of faith in Jesus.”

Thus the utter sin of man makes it an absolute necessity that, if he is to be justified at all, he must be justified gratuitously by God’s grace. The question of desert or previous fitness is excluded. This suits the grace and majesty of God quite as much as the abject need of man. His grace moreover does no dishonour to His holy and righteous character, but the very reverse; and all through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. What is the ransom He purposed and has found? Christ a propitiatory through faith in His blood whom He set forth for a declaration of His righteousness. For God passed over the sins of believers in Old Testament times, looking forward to Christ’s blood to vindicate Him, and forbearing all the while. But now it is not a matter of forbearance. The debt is cancelled, the blood is shed, His righteousness is no longer in prospect, but brought in and manifested, and God is proved to be just in justifying him that believes in Jesus. (Ver. 26.)

This therefore exalts God and His Son, but leaves no room for the boasting of those who trust in themselves that they are righteous. “Where then [is] boasting? It was excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by [the] law of faith. For we reckon that a man is justified by faith without works of law. Is he the God of Jews only? [Is he] not also of Gentiles? Yea of Gentiles also; since God is one who shall justify [the] circumcision by faith and uncircumcision through their faith? Do we then make void law through faith? Far be it: but we establish law.” (Ver. 27-31.) The principle of faith shuts the door against glorying in one’s own works, because it means justification by faith apart from works of law. But the moment it is allowed that this is God’s sanctioned way, He is certainly not God of Jews more than of Gentiles, but is one and the same to both, who will justify circumcised persons not by law as they expect, but by faith, and if uncircumcised have faith, through it He will justify them also.

Is this destruction of law as a principle? The very opposite. Law never had such a sanction as in the gospel proposed to faith, whether one looks at the sinner totally condemned under it or at Christ made a curse on the cross. On the other hand, those who would treat Christians as under the law for their rule do enfeeble its authority, because these are taught to hope for salvation at the same time that they fail to meet its requirements. This is not to establish law, but to make it void.