SERMON FOR JUNE 14, 1998 FROM ROMANS 3:1-8
This morning, we make our way into chapter three of Romans. Let’s read verses 1-8. Paul says, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. 3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? 4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge." 5But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" 8Why not say--as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say--"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved.”
What on earth is Paul saying here? This text has been called the most difficult in the entire book of Romans. Part of the reason for the difficulty is way Paul has chosen to communicate what he is trying to say. He is carrying on a hypothetical discussion with someone who repeatedly questions, even distorts a position he has taken. In order for us to take the first step in understanding this text, we have to remind ourselves what Paul has been saying that would spur such a rapid fire list of questions. Remember that in chapter two, Paul has made the point that simply because the Jews given the law and have been circumcision that in no way shields from the wrath of God. In saying this, he seems to be leveling the differences between the Jew and the Gentile in terms of their relationship to God.
This was a radical thing to do. He says in 2:9, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Instead of receiving preferential treatment from God, Paul says the Jew who does evil will stand in line in front of the Gentile when it comes to the judgment. In 2:27 he says that the uncircumcised Gentile who obeys the law will “condemn” the circumcised Jew who does not obey God. Finally, in 2:28 he says that a true Jew is one who obeys the law which means that it is possible for a Gentile to be a “true Jew.” To the Jew hearing this, it seems that Paul is completely sweeping away all distinction between the Jew and the Gentile--that being part of God’s chosen people makes no difference at all.
In chapter three, Paul anticipates a string of questions raised in response to what he has said in chapter two. He uses this “question and answer” format to safeguard people from misunderstanding what he has said with respect to the Jews and to rebut ridiculous and false implications that his opponents had been spreading about his teaching on the Jews which was apparently well known. That’s what the first part of chapter three is about. He deals with all these issues in much greater detail in chapters 9-11, but he feels compelled to give an immediate response because he has just given this radical teaching on the Jews. The question he asks in verse one in light of this apparent leveling of the Jews and Gentiles is, “What advantage, then Is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” He gives a very brief answer in verse two, “Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.”
A key phrase in that text for understanding much of what follows is the phrase, “the very words of God.” Other translations render it “the oracles of God.” What is meant by that? The context gives us a help, here. In verse three, Paul mentions the Jews “lack of faith” and God’s faithfulness in relationship to the “words of God.” That would indicate that Paul is speaking of the “word of promise.” With that clear, the rest of this very difficult text is a bit easier to understand. What I would like to do is to trace for you verse by verse what Paul is saying here and then extract principles we can apply to our lives. This gets a bit complicated, but if you will hang in there and follow Paul’s argument, I trust there will be blessing here.
In verses one and two, Paul draws a balance to what he has said in chapter two. He in no way wants to communicate that being a Jew is of no advantage. The advantage he cites is that of all the people of the earth, God gave the physical, biological children of Abraham his covenant promises. They were a special target of His grace by his sovereign will--they received His promises. In verse three, Paul anticipates another question to what he has said in chapter two and these verses in chapter three. In chapter two, he argues that obedience is the crucial element and that the Jews have not been obedient to the word. Verse three says, “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?” So here God has entrusted his promises of blessing to the Jews and the Jews have not obeyed his word. The question Paul answers is: “Doesn’t that reflect negatively on God?”
To state the question differently, “Here, God has provided a covenant relationship, complete with covenant promises and the vast majority of those who whom He has given them have been disobedient and are, according to you, Paul subject to God’s wrath. God gives them these promises, but they will taste God’s wrath anyway. If that’s true, then doesn’t that mean that God is not faithful to his promises?”
That’s the objection Paul anticipates from the Jews in response to what he has said up to this point. He answers that objection in verse four, “Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar.” Paul says in effect, the fact that the Jews have not been faithful in no way impugns God--it doesn’t call HIS character into question. The problem is not with a gracious God who graciously calls people into covenant with Him and issues promises to those people. The problem is with the people who fail to walk according to the covenant and therefore fail to receive the promises. The fault is not with God giving promises, the fault is with the people who disobey God and thereby fail to receive these promises.
Do you hear the underlying presupposition of the objection? The underlying presupposition (its actually a lie) which the objectors believed was this; the primary reason God calls people into relationship with Himself is so that they can be blessed. Do you hear how man centered that is? It makes the covenant relationship all about the wants and desires of man. It portrays God as a soft, sentimental being who decides unconditionally bless a certain group of people irrespective of how they behave toward Him. Even more, this lie holds that God exists to bless people who he has called into covenant with himself. With that understanding, for God to punish those who disobey, is to denying Himself and the man-centered purpose of the covenant. Those who enter into covenant with God are those who have tapped into an unconditional, unqualified fountain of blessing--they have hitched a ride on the ultimate spiritual gravy train. It makes God out to be a spineless grandfather figure who spoils his kids rotten. This is wrong for many reasons but primarily because the purpose of both the old and new covenant was, is and always will be to glorify God. When God enters into relationship with man, its not primarily for man’s blessing, but for His glory. It manifests His grace and His mercy and His holiness and His justice to humanity and to the heavenly hosts who look on at his interactions with His covenant people. The covenant is centered in God and His glory, not man. We see this in verse 25 as it relates to the New Covenant. He says, “God presented [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice [or righteousness].” Why did God open a New Covenant through the blood of Christ? The first answer to that question is to demonstrate His righteousness.
So, when the Jews violate the covenant, he is not being unfaithful to his promises by bringing his wrath on them. God has not lied to the Jews by promising them blessing through the covenant and ultimately delivering His wrath. The covenant breakers are the ones to blame because they have failed God--God has not failed them. That’s Paul’s point.
In the second half of verse four, Paul quotes David in Psalm 51 to further support God’s right to punish his covenant people. David has just confessed that He has sinned against God and he declares that he is fully deserving of God’s judgment when he says, “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” David is saying, “I know that because of my sin, you are totally justified in judging me--I offer no defense--I understand you are perfectly within your rights to execute judgment on me--My sin completely vindicates any judgment you issue against me.” Paul uses this quote from David to say, “the sin of the Jews not only does not nullify God’s faithfulness, it justifies God’s judgment.” Their sin, far from detracting from God’s character, allows another aspect of it to be manifest--His justice. The sin of the Jews enables God to show forth His justice by bringing His wrath on them. For Paul, God’s righteousness embraces BOTH his mercy in blessing people within the covenant, AND his punitive punishment to those who do not obey. There are two sides to this coin.
In light of that, in verse five, Paul anticipates another objection to this argument. He says, “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing His wrath on us.” These people thought they had trapped Paul in a contradiction. They were saying, “How can God bring wrath on those people who, by their sin, highlight God’s righteousness?” This same objection is simply restated in verse seven. “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases His glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Its basically the same argument. If the Jew’s spiritual darkness only shows, by contrast God’s brightness, then how can God inflict wrath on those whose sin only bring God’s righteousness into sharper focus? They would say, “Paul, You’re so concerned about God’s glory--if the sin of the Jews actually enables God to be glorified, how can he judge them for that?”
Paul responds in verse 6 by saying, “Certainly not! If that is so, how could God judge the world?” Paul shows the absurdity of their position. He says, “”If God should not judge the sin of the Jews because their sin shows his righteousness...then with that reasoning, He should never judge anyone in the world because by that understanding, sin is ultimately a good thing and why would God judge a good thing?” He reduces this argument to the absurd. Finally, in verse eight, Paul carries this foolish objection to its logical conclusion which some were doing. He says, “Let us do evil that good may result.” “Hey, if my sin exposes God’s justice and glorifies him, then lets sin all the more so that God in His justice can be glorified.” Its the same logic as saying to Evander Holyfield, “Since you can be glorified as a boxer by responding to how people hit you--your prowess will be demonstrated if I sock you, how about I hit you in the mouth,ok?...wouldn’t that be a good thing?” We’ll see Paul address the same kind of foolish argument when we get to Romans six when his detractors wonder whether it would be good for us to sin a great deal so that God’s grace will abound.
Another reason why this whole line of questions, arguments and objections is so off base is even more basic. It completely forgets the fact that God, along with His covenant-promised blessing, it also issued promises of cursing when, through disobedience, the Jews walked outside the covenant. When God punishes disobedience, he is not being unfaithful to his promises to bless his people. On the contrary, he is be faithful to curse those who he has promised to curse. His punishment on sin is simply a fulfillment of his promise to bring a curse on those who disobey within the covenant. If He did NOT punish them, THEN He would be unfaithful!
That is the essence of Paul’s statement here in verses 1-8. The next question is: how does this apply to us? Is this merely about Paul answering the objections of some Jews who objected to His understanding of them? What does this text have to teach us who live in 1998? First, it teaches us: We must have a balanced, biblical perspective of the Jewish people. The church of Jesus Christ has been very poor historically in knowing how to biblically relate to the Jewish people. At one extreme is the satanic, anti semitism which wrongly labels them as Christ-killers. Tragically, this view has been held by some very prominent church leaders over the centuries. At the other end of the spectrum is the view held by some in the church that the Jews are not obligated to accept Jesus as their Messiah. This view holds that the Old Covenant is enough to get them into heaven. That negates the coming of Christ. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” That is just as true for the Jews as it is for anyone else.
Another wrong opinion held by many lies some where between reviling the Jews and exalting them. This is the view which is completely indifferent to them. This view fails to appreciate the blessedness of the Jews in God’s plan. This attitude certainly doesn’t square with Paul’s attitude when he says that the Jews that the Jews are advantaged, “much in ever way.” Paul develops what that means in Romans 11, but the balance Paul strikes is this. On the one hand, the Jews must obey God like all covenant people and the beginning of obedience is accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and receiving a circumcised heart. In that sense there IS a leveling between the Jews and Gentiles.
But, we are to always remember the unique place the Jews occupy in salvation history. In Romans 11, Paul uses the illustration of an olive tree. He compares the Jewish people with the root of the olive tree. He says that some of the branches of the tree have been broken off so that the Gentiles might be grafted into this olive tree. He says to the Gentiles, “You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” In other words, the work that God has done for the Gentiles is possible only because of the work He first did in the Jews. There is one tree. His work in the Jews was foundational--it was the root. The work he is doing now among the Gentiles is built upon the foundation of the work He has done with the Jews. That means in some sense we are beholden to the Jews and the grace God has shown them in preparing the way for us. That’s balance as it relates to the Jews and that is what Paul is so strenuously trying to communicate to his Jewish opponents.
A second and final application to this text is this: we must never impugn God for the failure of His covenant people. Paul wants to be careful to make clear that the fact that the Jews had failed to be faithful, that does not reflect poorly on God. This has so many layers of application for us. Its easy for some people who really want to see God magnificently manifest in his church and who seldom do to begin to doubt God. Think about it. Here are the Jews. God sends them his word, His law, His priests, His sacrificial system, His prophets. He was so faithful to the Jews. Yet, by the time Jesus is born, the whole thing as a system is corrupt--its like a whitewashed tomb. God rejected it. Now, here we are 2000 later, with better covenant promises, the best High Priest, the blood of Jesus to cleanse us, the prayers of Jesus to protect us and presence and manifold ministry of the Holy Spirit to empower us. Consistent with this incredible equipping of the church are the incredibly high expectations of the church we see in the New Testament. Let me ask you, with all that, do we see the reality of Christ’s power in our lives or the church the way we should? Do we see the expectations of the New Testament being fulfilled in the church? Occasionally, we see a spark, a hint of reality, but we don’t see the dynamism we would like to.
Whose fault is that? Its not God’s. He has done and is doing His part. He has given us high octane jet fuel to empower us on both a personal and corporate level. If we are sputtering around like an old jalopy, that’s not on God’s ticket--that’s our fault. God was faithful to do everything the Jews needed to be the people of God. Today, in the church God has been faithful to do everything necessary for us to look and act like the transformed people of the risen Christ--carrying out his ministry and manifesting His character. If the church does not do that, it doesn’t impugn God. He will receive glory whether His people are faithful or not. If the church, by His grace manifests His righteousness, He is glorified. But if elements of the church fail to display His righteousness, He is glorified by displaying his righteousness by judging those who live in disobedience. He is glorified either way. He will not put Himself in a position where His glory is in jeopardy.
The encouragement here for us individually and corporately is this. We can be who God has called us to be!!! We can carry out the ministry of Christ and manifest His character because we can totally bank on God being faithful to do what He needs to do. We can hope in God with perfect legitimacy. The Bible tells us that when His people have been obedient, God has lavished his blessing on them. We can trust that, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin and heal their land.” God is faithful. The question is: will we be faithful? Let’s pray.
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