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The Only Way to Be Right With a Holy God: Romans 3

Updated on June 1, 2019
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I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

The Tragedy of Sin

I just read a story by an unknown author about a man who owned a large snake which he kept in a glass cage. As we know, when snakes get hungry, they often like to eat small animals like mice. To feed his snake, the owner went to the pet shop to buy a mouse for his hungry friend. He brought the poor unsuspecting creature home and put it in the cage with his snake. Fortunately for the mouse, the snake was sleeping at the time on a bed of sawdust which covered the floor of the snakes' dwelling.

Well the frightened mouse was in a dilemma and had to come up with a brilliant plan? So what did the creature do? He immediately started covering the snake with sawdust chips until he was completely buried. With that the not-so-brilliant mouse apparently thought that he had solved the problem.

The real solution, however, came from outside the cage. The man took pity on the little mouse and lifted him out and brought him to safety.

This is how the author ended his story:

"No matter how hard we try to cover or deny our sinful nature, it's fool's work. Sin will eventually awake from sleep and shake off its cover. Were it not for the saving grace of the Master's hand, sin would eat us alive."

That, in a nutshell, is Paul's view of sin in the first three chapters of Romans. In two earlier articles we have looked at the first 2 chapters of this great book. In the first article, entitled: When-a-Society-Abandons-God we examined Romans 1 in which we learned the major theme of the book. It is the righteousness which comes from God. Once again, it is the glorious message that God justifies sinners, or declares them righteous, by grace alone through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

I. Introduction to Romans 3

We see the theme stated in 1:16-17. Paul says:

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith."

Then he begins to prove that all mankind has sinned. He shows first that all people knew God in the beginning but glorified Him not as God. Instead they replaced Him with idols (18-23).

Verse 18 points out the wrath of God against sin. He hates it and is coming to punish all who practice it. The outcome of man's sinful behavior is that the Lord "gave them over" to their sins. That phrase is a translation of the Greek word paredōken which means that He handed over the prisoner to his sentence.

Chapter 1 of Romans is mostly discussing the pagan Gentile world. By Gentile Scripture means anyone who is not a Jew. This covers most of humanity. However, Paul also had a Jewish audience in Rome and they thought that their relationship with God and the fact that they had the Law of Moses would somehow keep them from God's wrath against sin. After all, they were God's chosen people.

So in the 2nd article, entitled Wrong Ways-to-be-Right-With-God ,we discussed Romans 2 and it's contention that the moralist, who is any person who thinks he is morally superior, is just as sinful as everyone else. This included the Jew as well.

The Gentile man, being created in the image of God, has a conscience which has some understanding of morality and recognizes the same moral issues as the Law. However, their conscience, as a whole, has been desensitized and they violate their own moral principles (2:14-16). So they cannot obtain righteousness by works.

However, the Jewish man who has the Law of the Lord, should theoretically have the advantage. However, they violated the very Law that they cherished and taught. And it is the doer of the Law and not just the hearer that is justified (Romans 2:13). So the Apostle tells his Jewish audience:

"For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you as it is written." (2:24).

So we come to the end of chapter 2 realizing that neither the Jewish heritage, nor their knowledge could bring about the righteousness that these people were looking for. And it certainly couldn't protect them from the Lord's wrath against the sinfulness of all humanity. Even their religious ceremonies, such as circumcision, which was given by God Himself, could not bring about salvation (2:25-29).

Now, as we enter into chapter 3, Paul continues his argument against the Jews and their inability to save themselves. He begins by answering some anticipated questions his Jewish audience must have had. In order for us to fully understand what is going on here, we have to imagine someone in Paul's audience who is blurting out questions to the Apostle, and he, just as quickly, answering him back.

II. Answering Objections About the Jewish Need for Salvation: 3:1-8

If you'll forgive me for paraphrasing here a bit in the next 8 verses, I wish to clarify the back and forth debate which is taking place in Paul's imagination as he answers some of the objections that have come up as he's preached the Gospel. Here is the interchange:

"But Paul!" a Jewish questioner might say, "If it's true that both Jew and Gentile alike are under sin and not every Jew is really God's chosen, then what advantage is there of being a Jew at all! And what benefit is it to being circumcised as a sign of God's covenant with us!"

The Apostle replies: "They have a great advantage in every way, because they were given the oracles of God!"

Oracles here is the Greek word "logion" often translated as "word." By that Paul means that the Jewish people were given important sayings or messages from the Lord. Here Paul uses this word to encompass the entire Old Testament. The Jews had received the very words of the one true God.

That is to say, the Jews had the advantage of having the Old Testament Scriptures which contained in them the truth about salvation. They had the Gospel in its most basic form (Galatians 3:8). Obviously they didn't have the full revelation found in Christ. But they had the prophecies which spoke of him. Unfortunately, as a whole, this advantage was squandered, because they didn't believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of these words given to them. (3:1,2).

"But Paul!" The questioner continues, " Doesn't what you are saying nullify God's promises to the Jewish nation. You are saying that not all believe and therefore aren't part of the Covenant people. Doesn't their unbelief nullify God's faithfulness to all of us?"

The Apostles answer is: "May it never be!" or "Perish the thought!" "Absolutely not!" Just because some didn't believe, that doesn't mean that God will not completely fulfill all of his promises to national Israel. Even if a few, because of disbelief, won't receive them, He will make sure that He upholds His end of the bargain and will bring about every commitment He has made with the nation.

Even if all mankind would believe that God had been unfaithful to His promises, that would only prove that God is true and all men are liars (3-4).

The next question someone asks assumes that Paul's message of salvation impugned or contradicted God's holiness.

"Now, Paul" he might say, "If my unrighteousness makes God look good, if it demonstrates His righteousness, then why is He getting angry? Isn't His wrath unrighteous?"

"This is so outrageous, Paul must qualify this statement : " I must tell you that I'm speaking in human terms here."

Once again Paul repeats the Greek words mē genoito or "may it never be" If God were truly unrighteous, how could He rightly be the judge of the world. It is crazy to think that your unrighteousness makes God unrighteous."

"What's even more crazy", Paul continues, "is that you are asking this question: "But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I still being judged as a sinner? My sin makes Him look good!" "Why is He mad at me!"
Paul goes on: "Why don't you just go all the way and say, as some of you already are slanderously telling others that I've told you: 'Let us do evil that good may come!"

Paul refuses to answer such a horrible lie and a twisting of the truth of the Gospel that he has been teaching. He simply states: "Their condemnation is just!"

III. The Jews Indicted as Sinners by Their Own Scriptures (3:10-18)

In the next section of the text, verses 9-20, Paul begins to use the Old Testament Scriptures themselves to indict the Jews of sin. Basically he uses their own Bible against them and lets God show them how unrighteous they really are. But not only the Jews. These Scriptures summarize how the whole human race can be shown to be utterly sinful.

Again we have a question from an imaginary Jewish person who argues:

"What then, are we, (the Jews), better than they?"

The question is fair since Paul just got finished saying that the Jews had an advantage having received the oracles of God. However, the answer isn't what the Jewish people wanted to hear. His answer is:

"Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin."

What follows is a whole string of Old Testament quotations to prove his point once and for all. He tells them:

"As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (3:10-18).

The verdict of Scripture is that the Jewish advantage is not an advantage at all in saving yourself. No man is capable of performing any works that can make them righteous in God's sight. So no one can save themselves.

So why was the Law given in the first place to the Jews if they were unable to keep it? That's what Paul is about to tell us.

IV. The Law Given to Prove Man to be a Sinner (3:19-20)

The Law was a wonderful gift of God if we understand that it was never meant to save anyone. However, it is a horrible taskmaster if one wants to receive righteousness from it. In fact it is an impossible taskmaster. No one is good enough to keep the perfect Law of the Lord. And they weren't meant to do so. So why was the Law given to the Jewish nation. Let's let the Apostle Paul himself tell us:

"Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).

When I think about this, it reminds me of my bathroom scale. Sometimes I get on it and, to my delight, I've lost some of the weight I have been wanting to lose. At other times I yell at it and tell it: "You're wrong! That simply cannot be what I weigh!" But while the bathroom scale is an excellent instrument to tell me where I am in terms of weight. It has absolutely no power to make me lose it. And it can't keep me from putting cookies, cakes and pies in my mouth. That's not what bathroom scales do. The Law is like that. It can point out my sin and tell me what sin is and even the consequences. However, it has absolutely no power to prevent me from sinning. That's not what the Law does.

The Jewish Law, given by a Holy God, effectively showed us all our need for the Gospel of Grace of God. We are justified or declared righteous, not by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is to this glorious truth that Paul turns in the last section of Romans 3.

V. God's Only Provision for Sin: Justification by Faith (3:21-26).

If we can summarize Paul's points up until now we might say that:

  1. The wrath of God for sin is upon man and is coming to man.
  2. The entire world is condemned as sinful.
  3. The Law was given to show how sinful we are.
  4. Good works will not help us avoid God's wrath and judgment.

So what is the one provision, given by the Lord Himself, that will make us righteous before a Holy God? Paul's answer: Justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Justification is a legal term that means "to be declared righteous." The fact is that the judge became the defendant and took upon Himself the wrath for sin that we should have received. He tells us:

"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Being justified freely as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." (3:21-24).

The entire verdict by God, the judge, includes a pardon from guilt and the penalty of sin which is death. But it also involves the imputation of Christ's righteousness upon us. He took our sins upon Himself and gave us his righteousness (II Corinthians 5:21). So justification not only means that, when God sees us, He doesn't see our sin, which is summarized in the phrase: just as if I'd never sinned. It also means that, when God the Father sees us, He sees the righteous things that Christ did on this earth. We don't just lose the bad, but gain the goodness of Christ. And all of this is God's gift to us for the asking (24).

But, not only did Jesus die for the sins of those in Paul's time and forward to ours. He also died for those people of faith earlier in history. Apparently, the Lord passed over the sins previously committed. (25-26). But in order to remain a just and Holy God, He couldn't do that forever. He applied Christ's sacrifice to those who had faith in the God of the Bible for all time as well. Christ's sacrifice for sin reached to the very beginning, when Adam sinned, and continues to reach us who believe in Him today and will continue until He returns.

In order to completely understand this passage, we need to define at least two more words that the great Apostle uses. He tells us that we have been "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (24). The word redemption here comes from the slave world. We were slaves to sin and death. A slave could be put up on the auction block to be bought and sold in the days of the Romans. Christ bought us off the auction block of sin and made us free to serve Him and to serve righteousness. Paul will develop this later in Romans.

The other term is propitiation. Verse 25 states that God the Father displayed Christ Jesus " publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith." The word carries with it the idea of appeasement or satisfaction for sin. Christ's death appeased the Father's holy and just wrath against those who believe in Him and provided the satisfaction for the penalty of sin in His own death upon the cross. We should be glad that God allows substitutes.

VI. Justification by Faith Upholds God's Law (3:27-31)

Romans 3 ends with more questions:

"Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No but a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith, apart from works of the Law." (27-28).

We can say that Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow."

If man could be saved by keeping the Law, then the Jews alone would be saved, for they received the one true Law of God. That is why the question:

"Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also. Since indeed God who will justify the circumcised (i.e. Jews) by faith and the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles) through faith is one." (29-30).

The last question that is asked in this chapter is:

"Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law (31).

Paul didn't want to be accused of being antinomian; meaning anti-law. Salvation by grace through faith doesn't put down the Law. Rather it shows why it was given in the first place and demonstrates its true importance.

Salvation by grace actually provided a payment for those who could never keep the Law on their own. At the same time, the Law was a tutor, teaching people of their total inability to please God. And it lead them to the only source of salvation, Jesus Christ. And once a person believes and is saved, he finally receives the capacity, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to obey God.

Christians, more than any other people, can truly say: "Thank God for His Law!"


There is a rather pithy poem attributed to John Bunyan which goes like this:

"Run, John, run, the law commands But gives us neither feet nor hands. Far better news the gospel brings: It bids us fly and gives us wings."

I don't know what you are relying on for your salvation today. But, as Paul has told us in Romans 1-3, we absolutely cannot save ourselves. Our only hope is to cry out in faith for the mercy and grace of Almighty God and rely totally upon the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins. We should never cease to be astonished and staggered by the amazing grace that we find in the cross. If we aren't, then we really don't understand what justification by grace alone,through faith alone, in Christ alone is all about. May we never stop proclaiming God's love to a lost humanity which is still under the wrath of God. For He is the only hope that any of us, or any of them, will ever have.

© 2019 Jeff Shirley


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