A Concise Commentary
From The Grace New Testament Commentary (Revised Edition)
By Zane Hodges
The Decisive Witness of Scripture against Humanity (3:1-20)
3:1-2. There is much advantage from every point of view (in every way) for Jews. But Paul is not interested in pursuing all the advantages that are alluded to by the words much in every way. The primary (first) advantage, and the one he intends to dwell on, is the fact that they were entrusted with the declarations of God.
Thus, the surpassing importance of Biblical revelation is highlighted by Paul. The chosen race was uniquely privileged to have entrusted to them what God had been pleased to reveal. Paul will now go on to make the point that this entrustment was valuable, quite irrespective of Jewish response to these declarations of God.
3:3-4. Paul asks, For what if some did not believe? From the NT vantage point, the problem of Jewish unbelief in the Lord Jesus Christ was finally a problem of unbelief in their own Scriptures.
After observing that the Jews who did not believe in Him actually “search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life,” Jesus Christ added, “these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). Subsequently He stated, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).
Does such unbelief call God’s faithfulness into question? In view of Israel’s unbelief—is God through with that nation? Will He abandon His many promises to them as a national entity? Or as Paul here frames the question, Their unbelief can’t annul the faithfulness of God, can it?
It is inconceivable, Paul affirms, that human unbelief could annul the faithfulness of God. Indeed, even if every man [is] a liar, still God will be true; that is, He will keep His Word and be faithful to His commitments. That truth, in brief, is Paul’s conviction about Israel. God will be true to them.
Jewish unbelief had led them away from God’s purpose and blessing. But, by being true to His commitments, God would be justified [vindicated] in [His] words since He would fulfill them. Thereby also He would conquer when [He was] condemned.
Thus despite the present situation, God’s ultimate triumph and vindication were assured. God would be faithful to His people, and eschatologically He would be magnified in them.
3:5-6. If God’s truthfulness and fidelity (that is, His righteousness [= His right behavior]) stand out as a result of man’s own unrighteousness, is God really justified if He brings wrath to bear? If He is glorified by man’s failure, why does He punish that failure?
The Greek word translated demonstrates might also be rendered recommends. Man’s failure is so acute that it is like a glowing recommendation for God’s contrasting righteousness.
We surely would not say, would we, that God who brings wrath to bear is unrighteous? Such an idea is a purely human one (I am talking in a human manner) and it is also unthinkable (Far from it!).
Paul trumps this idea with yet another question: Otherwise how will God judge the world? The idea seems to be that if we claim that it is unfair for God to bring His present wrath to bear against manifest human sin, we would also be denying His right to judge the world in the future. If the fact that our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God undercuts contemporary wrath, it also undercuts future judgment.
3:7-8. The argument Paul is refuting is that if God’s truth is magnified by my untruth (i.e., my lie in denying His revealed truth), then why would my lie constitute me as a sinner in the judgment? Paul is still thinking here of the unbelief referred to in v 2, so that when the Jew expressed a belief contrary to his own Scriptures, that false belief would be a lie. The basic thought seems to be that God’s truth is enhanced by my untruth to His glory, and Paul is not concerned with the details of how that occurs.
If one took the approach Paul is referring to, he would be denying God’s right to judge a person as a sinner if the sinful actions had somehow redounded to God’s glory. But this premise could lead to yet a further (ludicrous) distortion, in which one might say, “Let us do wicked things so that good things may happen.” Paul himself had been charged by some as teaching this very thing. This claim he regards as slanderous.
This whole line of thought is obviously wrong on its face, and Paul simply states that those who make such claims deserve the judgment passed on them. In Paul’s view, such people are already under sentence of judgment because of the manifest untruth of such claims. God’s right to “judge the world” (v 6) cannot be denied. To Paul, the whole argument is not only flawed, but perverse.
3:9. Paul has affirmed that there are advantages to being a circumcised Jew, chief among which is the possession of the written revelation of God, including the law. That advantage is not annulled by the fact that the Jews fail to believe their own Scriptures, since their unbelief only enhances the perfect truthfulness of God. Yet this enhancement of “His glory” in no way nullifies God’s right to be man’s Judge. But could the Jew argue that this “advantage” (having the revealed Scriptures, or Torah) constitutes a defense against divine condemnation at the final judgment (cf. v 13)?
Paul answers, Not at all! By no means are Paul’s words designed to temper what he has already said, for we have previously charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.
As a matter of fact, the Scriptures that the Jews are so privileged to have are the very instrument by which they and the Gentiles are emphatically condemned. Paul will now, for the first time, offer Scriptural evidence for this by quoting a withering Biblical indictment of mankind.
3:10-18. To drive home the truth of universal human guilt before God, Paul now adduces the ultimate proof—the Word of God. No single Scripture is referenced here, but rather Paul draws up a catena of Scriptural statements (Pss 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; 53:1-3; 140:3; Eccl 7:20; Isa 59:7-8; Prov 1:16). Thus we hear the agreed voice of the OT about the sinfulness of the world.
Paul does not quote verbatim from the OT. His aim was not exact quotation, but an accurate representation of the Biblical testimony he cites. Paul probably quoted from memory.
The collection of OT citations in vv 10-18 constitutes a portrait of man as he really is. The catena has two major subdivisions—namely, vv 10-12 and vv 13-17. In the former verses, the stress is largely on what man does not do (sins of omission), thus exposing man’s deficiencies. In the latter verses, the statements are mainly descriptions of sinful words and deeds that he does do (sins of commission), exposing man’s depravities.
Man is deficient in terms of basic character, that is, he is unrighteous (“There is none righteous”). This deficiency is explicitly universal since there is “not even one” who could be described as righteous. [Paul is here paraphrasing Eccl 7:20 in language like that found in Psalms 14 and 53.] As a natural consequence, men are deficient in spiritual perception (“There is none who understands”), and, as a further result, man is deficient in spiritual devotion (“There is none who seeks God”). Whatever man’s religious inclinations may be, these do not manifest themselves in a diligent pursuit of a genuine knowledge of his Creator. Paul would no doubt have acknowledged that people may seek God in sporadic or superficial ways.
In place of a search for God, human beings “have all turned aside” to empty, futile pursuits, with the result that “Together they have become useless.” Man’s self-directed efforts apart from God are profitless when summed up and weighed in the divine scales.
Not only is mankind collectively useless, but there is not a single individual who does “good…not even so much as one.” Thus, the main point of v 12 for Paul would be that, whether considered together or individually, mankind is hopelessly unprofitable and produces nothing truly worthwhile. In other words, everything is tainted by sin.
But man is also guilty of sins of commission (vv 13-17). To be noted here is the stress on various parts of man’s body—his throat (v 13a), tongue (13b), lips (13c), mouth (v 14) and feet (v 15). By inference, we gather that the members of man’s body are the vehicles through which his sinfulness comes to reality, and this subtly prepares the ground for Paul’s later discussion about the sinful orientation of our own physical bodies (cf. esp. 7:21-25; 8:10).
To begin with, “Their throat is an opened tomb.” The implication is that men’s corrupt words, which come out of their throats, are like the stench of an open sepulcher, the unmistakable evidence of death within. Moreover, the words that are formed by “their tongues” express “deceit” all too readily, while “under their lips” lies conceal venom (“the poison of asps”), painful and poisonous to those who hear them.
Finally, “their mouth is full of a curse and bitterness” (i.e., “full of a bitter curse”). Thus, from throat to tongue to lips to opened mouth, the words of men exhibit their deep sinfulness. Man’s corrupt words are accompanied by equally corrupt actions (vv 15-17).
Paul’s catena now focuses on those actions. The spiritual “death” disclosed by “a throat [that] is an opened tomb” leads in action to the physical death of others, since “their feet are swift to shed blood.” And on that pathway (“in their paths”), men leave not only the blood of their victims but also “ruin and misery” for others (one thinks readily of the effects of warfare). Moreover, these effects are continuous inasmuch as “the path of peace they have not known.” Men may pursue peace, but the path to that experience eludes their grasp. Their sinfulness invites unremitting conflict at every level of experience.
The bottom line is this: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” When all is said and done, mankind refuses to determine its course with reference to the wishes of its Creator.
In a sense, therefore, v 18 is both a summary of vv 10b-17 and an explanation for those verses. Man’s words and actions both display, and are rooted in, a tragic loss of the holy fear that is indispensable to the blessing of every human creature. Here we almost return full circle to the “slide” into depravity that was initiated by the solemn fact that “when they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were they thankful” (1:21). From that deadly root has grown the poisonous plant of humanity’s desperate wickedness.
What then is the conclusion? Paul now states it in 3:19-20.
3:19-20. The Scriptures address those who are under the law (i.e., the Jews), but in the process of addressing them, the law condemns them along with all humanity.
The net result of this Scriptural testimony is that every mouth, whether Jewish or Gentile, is shut and left without any capacity to counter this condemnation. By that same testimony, as well, all the world has become accountable to God. God’s just punishment of man’s sinfulness is already in operation through His present wrath and will culminate when man is condemned at the final judgment.
Since the law’s condemnation is universal, it follows that by the works of the law no flesh will be justified before Him. Not for a moment does this truth clash in any way with Paul’s earlier assertion that “it is the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13) because it remains true that this principle applies to any who can be so described. But in that passage Paul was discussing the principle by which God will judge mankind. What Paul states now is the reality. All men are sinners and so they can never find justification by the works of the law.
What the law really does, in fact, is to expose humanity’s wickedness, because through the law comes the knowledge of sin. The conviction of sin is precisely the effect God designed for the law, because if man’s hopelessness under the law is truly understood, then he is prepared for God’s provision.
In the light of the whole discussion of 1:18–3:20, therefore, it may be said that God’s wrath that is presently visible in the world is an unmistakable indicator of humanity’s unrighteous state. Eternal judgment is the natural outcome to which that “unrighteousness” is leading mankind. But the outcome of this judgment is a foregone conclusion, since in the judgment only the doers of the law will be justified, not its mere hearers. Since there are no such persons, mankind’s situation looks hopeless indeed. It is even implicit that man must somehow find a way to escape the final judgment, impossible as that seems.
Paul now turns to God’s solution.
God’s Righteousness Is Available by Faith (3:21-22a)
3:21-22a. Despite human unrighteousness, God has another kind of righteousness that is available to mankind, one testified to by the law and the prophets.
In the major section starting at 1:18, Paul began by declaring the wrath of God that is revealed from heaven. Now, however, something else is declared to be revealed—righteousness. Furthermore, this revelation is not to be discerned from human experience, as was the case with wrath (cf. 1:19-32). Instead it is a matter that God has communicated in His inspired word, namely the law and the prophets.
As a result, God’s righteousness about which Paul is now speaking is a matter of faith. Hence, after mentioning this righteousness, Paul goes on immediately to define it more precisely: that is,
God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus justification by faith is not at all a human idea, but a divine idea.
But not only is this righteousness one that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, it is also one whose potential scope is universal so that it is for all.
But although God’s righteousness is intended for all (without distinction), it is actually bestowed upon all who believe.
Christ Is the Mercy Seat for All Men (3:22b26)
3:22b-23. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile inasmuch as all have sinned. It should be noted that Paul in no way qualifies this reality by any phrase like “a great deal” or “too much.” From Paul’s point of view, the mere fact of sin is enough to condemn all mankind.
It follows inevitably from this simple fact that all also fall short [present tense] of the glory of God. The sense of the phrase the glory of God must not be separated from Paul’s thought in the immediate context. To sin is to flagrantly miss the lofty moral standard of that glorious righteousness. But by implication, if one is granted God’s righteousness, one is raised thereby to a level consistent with His glory. Man’s plight is hopeless unless or until he can receive a righteousness compatible with the glory of God.
3:24. Since “all have sinned,” men can only be justified freely by His grace. God’s righteousness comes freely, and it comes only by His grace. Paul therefore begins his discussion of the doctrine of justification by sharply defining its means in contrast to the ineffectual nature of “the works of the law,” by means of which there can be no justification (v 20).
This is possible through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Here then for the first time in Romans, Paul refers directly to the death of our Lord. Paul employs the term redemption, a word especially connected in Greco-Roman society with the ransoming of prisoners of war or the freeing of slaves. The implication here is that Christ Jesus has bought us out of some form of servitude. Paul will make this concept clearer as he proceeds.
It should also be noted that the redemption Paul speaks of is in Christ Jesus. As Paul will now go on to show, this redemption is not simply procured by Christ Jesus, but is actually found in Him.
3:25. It is, in fact, the very Person of Jesus Christ that God has set forth as a Mercy Seat. Other translations read “propitiation” (NKJV, NASB, HCSB) or “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV) rather than Mercy Seat. But the primary use of the word in the Greek OT (LXX) is the mercy seat.
Jesus Christ is a Mercy Seat…only through faith. His role is to be a “meeting place” between God and man whenever man exercises faith in God’s Son (cf. John 14:6).
The next words, by means of His blood, could be connected with the words through faith, so that we might read the two phrases together as through faith in His blood (so KJV, NIV, HCSB). But Paul nowhere else speaks of faith in His blood. Rather, our Lord has become a Mercy Seat, where God and man can meet, precisely by means of the shedding of His blood for the world’s sins.
The sacrificial work of Christ on the cross is, first of all, a proof of God’s righteousness in passing over, in the forbearance of God, the sins previously committed. Paul here refers to the sins that men did before Christ was crucified. The public death of His Son was a vindication of God’s merciful dealings with sinners in all the preceding ages. Thus, it was a proof of His righteousness in so conducting Himself with mankind.
3:26. God, in the death of Christ, proved and vindicated His righteousness at the present time. If God’s “forbearance” in the past is shown to be righteous, ipso facto, He is shown to be righteous in what He presently does. The cross of Christ is a seamless garment that demonstrates God’s righteousness in dealing with the sins of all of human history, whether past or future at the time of the cross (John 1:29).
The result is that God can be righteous and justify the person who has faith in Jesus.
Paul believed that (1) God, apart from man’s works, justifies the one who believes in Jesus; and (2) the cross is the basis for this justification and shows it to be a fully righteous act.
Here it is important to say that for Paul these are absolute realities totally independent of anything man does before or after faith.
The famous statement that “we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” is a Reformation idea, not a Pauline one. This idea can be found nowhere in Paul.
The synergism of faith and works in salvation is differently expressed in Protestant and Catholic theology, but its fundamental character is essentially the same: namely, no true justification without good works. Paul knows nothing of this.
Paul concludes the long Greek sentence that began in v 23, saying that the righteousness of God comes to the person who has faith in Jesus (cf. Phil 2:9-11; Acts 4:12).
Faith-Righteousness Vindicates the Law (3:27-31)
3:27. So where is boasting? It is excluded. Boasting is excluded by the very principle of faith. The sort of law that excludes human pride is definitely not the principle of works which, in fact, invites boasting (see Eph 2:8-9). On the contrary, the only “rule” that excludes human pride is the law of faith, that is, the “rule” that men are justified only by “faith in Jesus” in contrast to justification by “the works of the law” (3:20).
An error often found in contemporary discussions is that “works of gratitude to God” are somehow “immune” to the temptation to boast. But this is contrary to both experience and Scripture (e.g., Luke 18:9-14). Man is perfectly capable of bragging that his works demonstrate that he is one of God’s “elect.” Justification by faith alone blocks this all too human failing.
3:28-29. The key point, Paul states, is that we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
The words apart from the works of the law refer to any and all acts of obedience to the law’s commands. It is not just the law as a system that Paul excludes from Christian soteriology, but also the works of the law that are excluded (cf. 4:4). Paul will not allow human deeds any role at all in man’s justification.
This principle is in fact a universal one. Since the works of the law are irrelevant when a man is justified by faith, such justification is available to all mankind, whether they possess the law or not. God is not the God of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles. He is the God of all mankind.
3:30-31. Alluding to the familiar Jewish declaration (the Shema, Deut 6:4) about the oneness of God, Paul declares that there is one God for all humanity who will justify any human being by means of faith.
So do we annul the law by faith? The most obvious objection to Paul’s doctrine from a Jewish viewpoint would be that God’s standards are thus ignored and rendered invalid. Paul’s reply (Far from it!) emphatically disclaims such a result.
On the contrary, Paul claims that we establish the law. Paul does not here, or elsewhere in Romans, elaborate this observation. If it is true, as he has affirmed, that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20), then the law’s revelatory role in regard to sin is fully respected by the corollary truth that “by the works of the law no flesh will be justified before Him” (3:20). Therefore, to uphold it in this way is to establish the law.
Only the abandonment of the law as a means for, or an aid to, justification properly validates the full integrity of God’s righteous standards.
Zane Hodges was a Bible teacher and Professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was promoted in 2008.