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Bible: What Does Romans 3 Teach Us About Mankind's Total Spiritual Inability and Justification by Faith Alone?

Updated on September 15, 2016

The Oracles of God

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Greek Translation of the OT


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Romans 3: Total Spiritual Inability/Justification by Faith Alone

The Advantages of the Jew

Having concluded that God praises true Jews (who may, in fact, not be of Jewish heritage at all), Paul asks, in essence, "What, then, is so great about being born a physically circumcised Jew?”

His answer: It is a great privilege to have God entrust the nation with His promises (“oracles, Scriptures”) [vv. 1-2].

The apostle’s next two questions raise the fear (on the part of some) that the unfaithfulness of individual Jews would nullify God’s promises to the nation (v. 3); Paul strongly dismisses such perverse thinking (“Certainly not!” “May it never be!”) [v. 4a]

On the one hand, human beings oftentimes lie; God, on the other hand, always tells the truth, and people will find Him faithful to His word.

The apostle quotes the Septuagint (LXX) version of Psalm 51:4b—detailing David’s confession of his sin and God’s faithfulness to him (v. 4b)—as his proof text.

[David recognizes that his sin offended God alone. Thus, he can only blame himself and not God when the LORD renders His judgment (vv. 3-4)].

Is God Unjust To Condemn Sinners?

Paul raises a second objection in question form: “How can a just God inflict wrath upon creatures that unintentionally bring glory to Him through their lies, unbelief, and unrighteousness?” (v. 5)

The apostle again forcefully opposes the false reasoning purporting that God uses man’s sin to honor Himself (v. 6).

Verse 7 continues the same argument as verse five: “Why will God judge me a sinner if my lie increases His truth?”

Paul even records the slander of some Jews who accused him of encouraging people to do evil that God might overcome it with good; he concludes that these malicious opponents deserved judgment for such remarks (v. 8).

[The Lord did not cause the Jews to lie, wallow in unbelief, and act in unrighteousness just so He could bring glory to Himself; they will receive judgment according to their works.]

Are Jews Morally Superior to Gentiles?

Paul continues his logical argument, using the same teaching methodology as he had earlier: ask a question (or questions) and then answer it immediately (v. 9).

This time he raises the query: “Are we (“Jews”) better than they (“Gentiles”)?”

[Ryrie suggests that the verse should possibly be translated: “Are we Jews in a worse position than Gentiles?” (New Testament Study Bible, 267).

C. E. B. Cranfield discusses the textual variations and the problems of interpretation of the term proechometha, and concludes that the middle voice with an active force, “while not without difficulty,” is better (International Critical Commentary: Romans, 188-89).

That is, Paul’s meaning is, “Have we (Jews) any advantage over them (sc. the Gentiles)?”

Cranfield also construes that the “Not at all” interpretation for ou pantos is incorrect, and that “Not altogether” be substituted for it.

Paul had just argued in the first eight verses that the Jews did have a great advantage by possessing the Scriptures.

While advantaged in this respect, Jews are not so in “the matter of sinfulness, of having no claim on God in virtue of their merit” (190).

Paul seems to argue that, though they had privileges, Jews are no better people than Gentiles are.

In other words, everyone is “under sin.”]

Repentance and Faith

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Mankind's Total Spiritual Inability

Having asserted that all humanity falls under the dominion of sin, Paul links several OT passages to support the following four contentions:

(1) that no one is righteous;

(2) that no one understands or seeks the true God (vv. 10-11; cf. Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3);

(3) that all people have stopped following God’s way, and thus have become useless to Him; and

(4) that no one does good (v. 12).

After penning these statements about humanity’s general unrighteousness, the apostle focuses on individual parts of the body that sin has corrupted: the throat, tongue, and lips (v. 13), the mouth (v. 14), the feet (v. 15), and the eyes (v. 18).

The first four relate to the speech apparatus, which one can trace ultimately to the contents of the mind. Paul compares humanity’s collective throat to an open grave: an unclean place of defilement (v. 13a; cf. Ps. 5:9).

He points out that unsaved people habitually lie with their tongue (v. 13b), and hide deadly, poisonous words under their lips (v. 13c; cf. Ps. 140:3); their mouths contain an abundance of curses and bitter language (v. 14; cf. Ps. 10:7).

The fifth body part—“feet”—stands as a synecdoche (a part representing the whole) for the body; in other words, sinful humanity quickly decides to kill others (v. 15; cf. Is. 59:7-8).

Instead of seeking to negotiate for peace (reconciliation) between warring parties, sinners generally destroy other people and property, creating misery for multitudes (vv. 16-17).

The sixth feature that sin affects—“the eyes”—does not show proper respect for God; man looks arrogantly at God, not reverently (v. 18).

No One Will Be Declared Righteous By Trying to Keep the Law

Torah commands obedience from those who are under its dominion; its holy standard silences presumptuous human beings when they realize that they cannot keep it perfectly, and they come to know that they are culpable before God (v. 19).

In summary, the apostle asserts that God will not justify (declare righteous) any person who seeks to attain perfection by trying to keep the Law, for He purposed that His commandments should instead teach people that they are sinners and that they cannot earn justification (v. 20).

All Have Sinned and Fall Short of God's Perfection (Christ)

Paul announces that God has now revealed the thing to which the OT testified: God’s righteousness is a gift that human beings receive by trusting Christ, not by keeping the Law (vv. 21-22a).

No person has an advantage over any others in this matter; every individual has “missed the mark” (hamarton), and fallen short of the “bull’s eye” of God’s perfection (“glory”) [vv. 22b-23].

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Christ's Redemption of Believers and Propitiation of the Father

Christ Jesus purchases from the slave market of sin (“redeems”) those who exercise saving faith in Him; without any cost to them, He graciously declares them righteous (v. 24).

God displayed Jesus publicly as a sacrifice on the cross to demonstrate His righteousness.

As the Propitiation (“mercy seat”; see Heb. 9:5), Christ shed His blood to satisfy God’s holy demands—“the wages of sin is death” (6:23).

He also died to make a way for that same God to declare righteous those who believe that Jesus atoned for and paid the penalty for their past sins—sins for which their long-suffering Lord had deferred punishment (vv. 25-26).

By pointing out that the only way people can receive God’s righteousness (or be justified in His sight) is by trusting in the efficacy of Christ’s finished cross work on their behalf, the apostle effectively demolishes any belief that human beings can justify themselves before God by performing good works (v. 27).

People who believe Jesus paid the full price cannot (and will not) boast that they earned any part of their salvation.

Paul completely excludes any consideration of “the deeds of the law” when he discusses justification (or how a person is declared righteous).

Faith, and faith alone, justifies people before God (v. 28).

This justification pertains to all human beings, not just Jews; God will pronounce as righteous both Jews and Gentiles when they place saving faith in Christ (vv. 29-30).

Paul voices another possible objection from his opponents—that is, faith nullifies the Law—with which he strongly disagrees (“Certainly not!”) [v. 31a].

He argues that the Law fulfills its purpose (namely, teaching humanity about sin) when people acknowledge their sinfulness and turn to Christ for salvation (v. 31b).

© 2013 glynch1

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