The Jewish Advantage
In Romans 2:25 Paul tells us that circumcision profits a person only if they are able to keep the Law. Hence, Jesus was the only one who fully benefited from circumcision. Circumcision was meant to be an outward testimony of an inward heart circumcision. Jesus alone was without sin, making His circumcision a true and valid witness of the condition of His heart..
Since all other circumcised men had sinned, turning their circumcision to "uncircumcision" by the condition of their hearts, the question then naturally arose in 3:1,
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? 2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.
Men living a thousand miles away had little or no opportunity to learn the oracles of God, because travel was limited to a few traders, and lengthy trips took a long time. So there was great benefit in living in Judea, where the Law of God was readily available at the local synagogue. Judeans had a great advantage that others did not enjoy, even if they were all proven by those same Scriptures to be sinners, and even if their circumcision was an inaccurate testimony of their inward condition.
Agreeing with God's Judgments
3 What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? 4 May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, "That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail [win the case] when Thou art judged."
Paul was quoting from the Septuagint version of Psalm 51:4, which was part of David's prayer of repentance for his sin with Bathsheba. When confronted by the prophet Nathan, David did not deny his sin, but agreed with God. It was as if God had prosecuted David for breaking the Law, and David confessed and capitulated. God should always win His court cases so easily!
By extension, we too ought to agree with God and not deny that we are sinners, knowing that this does not nullify the faithfulness of God, but establishes it.
5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates [establishes or sets forth] the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath [condemns the guilty] is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) 6 May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world?
In God's court case (legal controversy) with mankind, our confession—that God is indeed correct in prosecuting man for sin—establishes "the righteousness of God." The word "righteousness" has to be viewed in its legal context and usage in Paul's day. It does not speak of holy perfection per se, but of being on the right side of a legal controversy in a court of Law.
When God justifies the righteous, the word picture in Paul's day was of God ruling in a man's favor in a court of Law. The Law pronounces one party "righteous," thereby "justifying" him, while the other party is found to be "unrighteous," and cannot receive justification, or receive "grace," a favorable ruling in his case.
It is important to understand these terms, not from our modern mindset, but from Paul's. The meaning of words tend to change with culture and time, so I find it most helpful to try to put myself in Paul's shoes and to understand his language, culture, and education.
So as Paul says in the verses above, God is a righteous Judge, whose judgments are correct every time. When the Law condemns a sinner for violating the Law, he should know that God is always right, even if our carnal minds disagree. Our disagreement with God is based upon our lack of understanding and our ignorance of the truth. If it were not so, God could not judge the world righteously.
We are not Fatalists
7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), "Let us do evil that good may come?" Their condemnation is just.
God has established in His Word that all men are liars that are in the process of learning truth. (In 3:13 Paul will quote Psalm 5:9, to prove his case.) But if we deliberately lie in order to prove the truth of God's statement, we are distorting the truth through fatalism.
There were fatalists in Paul's day, who used the truth of God to justify their own sin. Such fatalists falsely accused Paul of teaching such a thing, saying, "Well, if Paul's teaching is correct, and if there is no way that any man can keep the Law, then we may as well put away the Law and sin as we please."
Paul deals with this question more fully in Romans 6, where he again raises the question,
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
Understand that the biblical definition of sin is the violation of the Law (1 John 3:4).
As believers, we have been pronounced "Not Guilty" in God's court of Law—not because we were sinless, but because the penalty for our sin was paid at the cross. When He identified with us, coming in human form as the great Intercessor, we died in Him. This caused the Law to rule in our favor ("grace") and justified us as if we were perfect.
But this is no excuse for us "to continue in sin that grace might increase." If we continue to violate the Law as a way of life, then we prove our unbelief and manifest our lack of faith. Faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17), and hearing is established by our response of obedience. If there is no obedience to what we have heard, how then can we say we have faith?
So Paul correctly says at the end of 3:8 that those who hold the view that we may now "do evil that good may come" are justly condemned. "Their condemnation is just." (It is not their condemnation of us that is just, but God's condemnation of those fatalists that is just.)
The Universal Condition under Adam
9 What then? Are we [Christians] better than they [Jews] ? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written [in Psalm 14:1-3 and 53:2, 3], "There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one."
Paul quotes the Psalms to establish the universal condition of lawless men. He then continues by putting together a series of quotations from the Psalms. First he quotes from Psalm 5:9,
13 Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving...
The rest of verse 13 is from Psalm 140:3,
13 . . . The poison of asps is under their lips.
Then Paul brings in Psalm 10:7,
14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
Then he draws on Isaiah 59:7,
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 destruction and misery are in their paths, 17 and the path of peace have they not known.
Paul ends his barrage of Scriptural proof with Psalm 36:1,
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.
This is sufficient in Paul's eyes to prove the universal sinfulness (lawlessness) of men and establish the need for the grace of Christ.
Romans 3:19 continues,
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God."
Sin is the violation of the Law, and since all have sinned, the Law convicts every man of sin. Every mouth is closed, because no one can defend himself in the divine court, where all sin is reviewed with perfect clarity. Hence, the entire world is accountable to God. This is another way of saying the whole world is "under the Law." Anyone who violates the Law is "under the Law," that is, convicted by and subject to the penalty of Law.
Being Under the Law
In Romans 6:14, Paul says of believers, whose penalty has been paid by Christ's death on the cross,
14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.
This is part of Paul's discussion later, where he shows that Christians are not to continue violating the Law just because the cross of Christ has paid their penalty. Having been given a favorable court ruling (grace), shall they now think they can sin with immunity? God forbid.
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes,
20 Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Keep in mind that this is primarily part of Paul's discussion with a hypothetical rabbi. His point is that all mankind, including Jews, have violated the Law and cannot, therefore, be justified by the Law. That is, the Law cannot give grace (favor) to a sinner, regardless of his genealogy or calling.
The purpose of the Law is merely to define sin and to set the standard of righteousness, for it is the expression of the character of God by which we are supposed to live. We were created in the image of God, after all, and the entire divine plan is that we become the full expression of His image.
What is the Righteousness of God?
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
When Paul speaks of "the righteousness of God," he is not so much referring to God's personal, moral perfection but rather His righteousness as a Judge. In other words, He is righteous in His judgments. Men used to talk about righteous and unrighteous judges, based upon their incorruptibility, their knowledge of the Law, and their ability to making rulings according to the mind of God and the intent of the Law.
Thus, the righteousness of God is manifested in His righteous sentence upon all mankind. Paul is telling us that God is not unrighteous when He holds the entire world "without distinction" accountable to the Law. The rabbi might possibly object, thinking that Jews were not sinners like everyone else. But Paul shows that the Scriptures prove otherwise.
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [hilasterion, "atonement"] in His blood through faith....
Our justification, or acquittal, is given as a gift through faith in the work of the cross, by which He has paid our penalty to redeem us from the debt incurred by sin. Paul also uses the Greek term hilasterion, which was the Greek equivalent to "atonement" as used in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Of this word, Dr. Bullinger says in his notes on Romans 3:25,
"This word comes to us from the Sept. In Exodus 25:17 kapporeth (cover) is rendered hilasterion epithema, propitiatory cover, the cover of the ark on which the blood was sprinkled as the means of propitiation."
I prefer to translate hilasterion as "atonement." Propitiation is an English word that means to appease, which suggests an idolator appeasing his angry god. The blood of the goat on the mercy seat did not appease God, but covered sin, giving men a positional righteousness even before the second goat has removed our sin. This covering results in grace, not appeasement.
While a Jew in Paul's day, or a Christian today, might do things to appease God, it is because they entertain a wrong concept of God. They are still influenced by Jonathan Edwards' concept of "sinners in the hands of an angry God." But the wrath of God is judicial only. His personal character is only Love. As Paul will explain later, the wrath of God is designed to convict the whole world of sin and present the need for justification, redemption, and grace. The plan was not to destroy but to save.
Because God is a righteous Judge, He cannot be appeased with our gifts or bribes. God requires blood atonement, for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Hence, it is only by the blood of Jesus Christ that the requirement of the Law can be satisfied.
God's Tolerance of our Condition
Continuing now with the last half of Romans 3:25,
25 . . . This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance [anoche, "tolerance"] of God He passed over [paresis, "pass over, neglect, disregard"] the sins previously committed,
Paul obviously had in mind the atoning blood that was sprinkled upon the mercy seat to cover sin. On the Day of Atonement each year (Yom Kippur), the priests chose two goats and cast lots over them to see which would be killed, and which would be released. The blood of the one killed was sprinkled on the mercy seat to "atone" (cover) our sin. The second goat was not killed, but was sent into the wilderness to remove our sin.
Both goats prophesy of Jesus Christ, the first in His first work on the cross which covered our sin. The second goat prophesied of His second coming, in which He does not have to die again, and it is the work that removes sin from us.
It is for this reason that, as Christians, we are not yet perfected. Sin has not yet been removed from us, though our sin has been covered. Because it is covered, God is tolerating the presence of "sins previously committed" in His forbearance. He is able to forbear the sin that is still resident in us, because those sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. Hence, as we shall yet read in Romans 4, God has imputed us righteous, for God is calling what is NOT as though it were (4:17).
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
What is the demonstration of God's righteous judgment in dealing with sin? It is the divine plan that is two-fold—first to cover sin, and later to remove it. The principle of Law by which this is done is set forth in Leviticus 16 in the law of the two goats. This law was demonstrated each year on the Day of Atonement, and it prophesied of the two comings of Christ and the work that He was to do on each occasion.
In fact, the entire Old Covenant method of dealing with sin laid down those principles as types and shadows. Under the Old Covenant itself, sin was merely covered, while under the New Covenant sin is removed (in two stages, as previously stated). A Jew, whose sin was covered by the blood of bulls and goats, could not boast of perfection, for his sin had merely been covered—not removed.
27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Animal sacrifice never removed any man's sin. So a Jew could not boast of righteousness. Sacrifice was God's temporary way of covering sin until the True Sacrifice could be made. Meanwhile, animal sacrifice allowed God to "tolerate" sinners.
Did Paul Nullify the Law through Faith?
Paul's conclusions at the end of Romans 3 seem contradictory to those who do not understand his thought process and terminology. Not once so far has Paul said anything evil about the Law, nor has He claimed that it was to be set aside or put away. His true point is summarized perfectly in Romans 3:28,
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.
He does not cast out the Law, but puts it into its proper place. Israel was justified by faith in the blood of the Passover Lamb as they came out of Egypt. The Law came later at Mount Sinai to teach them obedience and a Pentecostal level of faith that comes by hearing and obeying. This secondary faith is not justifying faith, but faith-obedience, and it is designed to mature us and prepare us to enter our inheritance—the Promised Land.
Without the enhancement of faith brought through Pentecost, we would fail to inherit the Land, even as that Israelite generation failed. The Law has its importance, but we must separate it from our justification.
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of the ethnos also? Yes, of the ethnos also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by [ek, "from"] faith and the uncircumcised through [dia] faith is one.
The God who justifies the Jew is the same God who justifies all of the nations, all ethnic groups. The slight distinction between ek and dia in verse 30 suggests only their differing positions—one inside the community and the other on the outside. In other words, the Jew is justified from a position of faith that he ought to possess already through his study of the Word. The ethnos must learn faith as a new way of life, so they are justified through (by means of) faith.
This is not a crucial point, but Paul's terminology is quite technical to describe the two situations. His main focus is to show the universal need that all men have for justification, as well as the impartiality of God in offering justification to all men.
31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Paul was aware that many Jewish Christians (as well as non-Christian Jews) had accused him of teaching that the Law was put away. We read of this in Acts 21:21,
20 . . . and they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the ethnos to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
That was, of course, a half-truth. Paul did indeed teach that circumcision, when performed as a religious rite, was an Old Covenant vow that made their justification dependent upon their full compliance to the Law, even as their fathers had vowed in Exodus 19:8, "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!" As a mere custom, circumcision was as harmless as any other identifying mark.
Did Paul's teaching, then, cause Jews to "forsake Moses?" Well, again, that was another half-truth. If one considers "Moses" to be synonymous to the Old Covenant, of which he was the mediator, then, YES, they should forsake Moses and follow the Mediator of the New Covenant.
But if "Moses" is synonymous with the Law as an expression of the mind, will, and character of God, then, NO, they should not forsake Moses, for we read in Acts 7:37,
37 This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, "God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren."
To accuse Paul of forsaking Moses was overstating the case in order to prejudice men against Paul's teaching. Paul did not forsake Moses. Paul believed Moses when he spoke of Jesus Christ who would come after Him.
In fact, Moses deferred to Jesus in Deut. 18:15. This means that any Jew who refused to defer to the Mediator of the New Covenant was, in fact, forsaking Moses.
It is not too different from a devout Catholic who wants to do what Mary says. What did Mary say? "Whatever He [Jesus] says to you, do it" (John 2:5).
Moses never spoke contrary to Jesus, nor did Jesus ever speak against Moses. Neither did Paul, but Paul understood that one cannot remain under both covenants at the same time, regardless of how hard men tried to do so. To remain under both covenants is a distorted gospel, as Paul explained more fully in his epistle to the Galatians. One cannot be justified by both faith and works. A man cannot say, I am justified by faith AND by my ability to fulfill my vow of full obedience to the Law.
So when Paul wrote in Romans 3:31, "we establish the Law," take note of what he did NOT say.
He did NOT say, "We establish the Old Covenant."
He did NOT say, "We establish circumcision as a sign of our justification."
Instead, Paul affirmed the Law itself, which prophesied of Christ in every sacrifice and in every moral precept by which Jesus conducted Himself during His entire life and ministry.
The Law demands perfection. The Old Covenant vow may have been sworn with good intentions, but good intentions were insufficient without fulfilling those vows fully and completely. The only way to fulfill the Law's demands is to be in Christ (by faith), so that when Jesus Christ did all that the Law commanded, we got credit for His actions as part of His Body. In this way, the Law is fully satisfied with us, not on account of our own righteousness or ability to fulfill good intentions, but because of Jesus Christ's ability.
The divine plan retained the Law and fulfilled its demands. Never was the Law upheld more firmly than when Jesus submitted to its demands and died on the cross. His fulfillment of the Law gives no man a license to sin (i.e., to violate the Law). If we are part of the Body, then we will no longer follow the dictates of the old Adam, the man of sin within us. We will instead follow the leading of the Last Adam, Christ, the man of righteousness.