NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson IV)
If every preacher were to backslide, and every theologian proves to be a heretic, and every evangelist found to be a fraud, it still would not change the Word of God nor would anyone have an excuse to disbelieve the promises of God. As Jesus said, heaven and earth may pass away, but the validity of His word would never expire. Mankind has, and will, fail. But until God Himself fails, His gospel will still remain binding. One day, we will all be judged on what God reveals we did, whether what we said or did proves to be true or false. But we will all be judged by One who cannot lie, and every word He has ever spoken remains forever true.
Paul argues here, that God’s holiness is not made more prominent just by comparing it to our own depravity. Likewise, His honesty will never receive greater respect just because we admit to being liars. In addition, the glory of the Lord does not shine any brighter when we place it against the backdrop of our scarlet sin and shame. As Paul says, he is trying to reason on a human level with these people. He was trying to get the Jewish believers in Rome to see that by sinning and then seeking God’s forgiveness was not the way to show the greatness of God’s love. Otherwise, God would be put in the unenviable position of having to cancel His punishment of sin so that His forgiveness would bring Him greater honor and praise. Paul wanted them to know that God’s holiness is brightest when, like a glittering jewel, it is placed in a beautiful setting, and is displayed in our consecrated lives to reflect the sunshine of His love. His truthfulness and honesty are honored with reverence best when it becomes our daily compass for living. The Lord’s glory is like a new star in the midnight sky when it glistens off a faithful servant willing to give his life for the Master. Be not deceived, God cannot be mocked.1
Paul made mention of this same truth when he wrote the Galatians. He told them: “We Jews came to Christ to be made right with God, so it is clear that we were sinners too.”2 In other words, just because they felt they were right when God looked at them through the law, they found out they were wrong when God looked at them through Christ. So that raised the question, did the coming of Christ then make all Jews sinners? Paul answers, “No!” The law is what made them all sinners because it showed them the wrong they were doing when they tried saving themselves. But Christ came to save them if they would simply give up the law that couldn’t save them and accept Him as their Savior. Paul says: “I died to the law so that I could live for God. I have been nailed to the cross with Christ. So I am not the one living now—it is Christ living in me.”3 So now Paul is trying to get the same point across to the Roman believers that he made with the Galatians when he wrote “If following the law is how people are made right with God, then there was no reason for Christ to die.”4
That’s why the Jewish leaders in the Christian community in Rome had to decide what was right, their thinking, or God’s Word. Certainly, they remembered what Moses said: “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just. A trustworthy God who does no wrong, He is righteous and straight.”5 This no doubt led one Psalmist to exclaim: “The Lord is good! There is no end to His grace. We can trust His faithfulness forever and ever!”6 And another proclaimed: “The main thing about Your Word is that it’s true, and all Your just rules are permanent.”7 One thing I learned quickly, when I took the leap of faith and began using computers back in the mid-1980’s, that is: the constant upgrades had to be installed if I wanted to keep my machine current and efficient. But isn’t it amazing, God has yet to issue an upgrade to His centuries-old Word, and it is as meaningful today as when it was written.
That why Jesus made it clear to all who came to hear him at Aenon, an area near Salim, near the Jordan River8 “The one who comes from above is greater than all others… Whoever accepts what He says proves that God speaks the truth.”9 That’s why Paul could assure the Corinthian believers: “As surely as God is trustworthy, we don’t say ‘Yes’ when we mean ‘No.’”10 No wonder the author of Hebrews had the courage to say: “These two things will never change: God will never lie when He says something, and He will never go back on His promises.”11 The Psalmist put it this way when comparing man’s word with God’s Word: “Compared to God, they are nothing — no more than a gentle puff of air!”12 Why is that important? Because with His spoken word the universe was brought into existence, and with His breath, the human soul was created.
Then the Apostle Paul uses what David says to prove the point he is trying to make here about his word against the word of some Jewish leaders in the congregation at Rome. Their teachings are based on the Law, but his teaching is based on the Gospel. So when tested against each other, which one will be proven true: God’s Word or man’s word? In Jewish thinking, this simply involved winning the argument based on better reasoning and logic. There was an instance of such overcoming when Rabbi Hanina ben Antigonus was part of the discussion among Rabbis involving cleanliness. When Rabbi Hanina offered his reasoning, a well-known teacher pointed out that: “Rabbi Hanina ben Antigonus won his case against the other Rabbis.”13 In other words, Rabbi Hanina’s facts proved to be more valid, reasonable, and justified than those of the other teachers. Thus, Paul was using David’s words to point out that you cannot successfully argue with God. He will always win!
Several early church scholars share their views on what Paul says here. For instance, Chrysostom gives his viewpoint: “Paul is saying something like this: ‘Even if every one of the Jews was an unbeliever … God would be even more justified.’ What does the word ‘justified’ mean? It means that if there were a trial and an examination of the things which God had done for the Jews and also of what they had done to Him, the victory would be with God, and all the right would be on His side.”14 Then another early church writer makes this comment: “God is said to be true because He does not give to sinners what He has promised to the saints.”15
Then Jerome offers an interesting perspective: “If everyone who utters a lie has already destroyed his soul, and all of us are liars, are we all going to perish? What Scripture says … we should interpret as referring to heretics.… The doer of the deed has indeed killed his own soul, but the heretic—the liar—has killed as many souls as he has misled.”16 And a contemporary scholar of Augustine’s makes this point: “‘Every man’ means the majority. Paul’s opponents had quoted this text as if David had meant: ‘For this reason have I sinned, that thou might appear just in judging me.’ But the true meaning is that God promised to punish sinners without showing favoritism and that some thought His delay in doing so amounted to a lie. God prevails when He judges the deeds of those from whom no one thought vengeance would ever be exacted. Or it may also mean that God has shown that He is concerned about mankind … and that He has overthrown those who wrongly suggest that He is not interested in human affairs.”17
John Calvin makes his position clear: “Since these two things stand together, yes, in accord, that God is true and that man is false, it follows that the truth of God is not nullified by the falsehood of men; for except he did now set those two things in opposition, the one to the other, he would afterwards have in vain labored to refute what was absurd, and show how God is just, though He manifests His justice by our injustice. Hence the meaning is by no means ambiguous, — that the faithfulness of God is so far from being nullified by the disloyalty and apostasy of men that it thereby becomes more evident. ‘God,’ Paul says, ‘is true, not only because He is prepared to stand faithfully behind His promises, but because He also really fulfills whatever He declares; for He so speaks, that His command becomes a reality. On the other hand, man is false, not only because he often violates his pledged faith, but because he naturally seeks falsehood and shuns the truth.”18
Calvin then goes on to say: “The application then of this passage is as follows: Since all the sins of mortals must serve to illustrate the glory of the Lord, and since He is especially glorified by His truth, it follows, that even the falsehood of men serves to confirm rather than to subvert His truth. Though the word “judged” may be taken actively as well as passively, yet the Greek translators, I have no doubt, rendered it passively, contrary to the meaning of the Psalmist.”19 The Hebrew text in this psalm reads: “justified in passing sentence.”20 Clearly, God’s grace is always at work, even when people do wrong because His main goal is to save, not destroy. And for that, we should thank Him every day.
John Bengel makes the point that in any courtroom the judge does not make his judgment of guilt or innocence based on his own righteousness but on the Law. However, God exercises the right to make His judgment to manifest His own righteousness, as well as the unrighteousness of mankind. In that case, God is both Judge and Jury. So there is no appeal to any power outside of God’s jurisdiction. Therefore, says Bengel: “It is unutterable condescension in [demanding] God to come down and plead His cause with mankind.”21
Charles Ellicott agrees in this way: “Psalms 51, in which the quotation occurs, is commonly (in accordance with the heading), ascribed to David after his sin with Bathsheba. The effect of this sin is to throw out into the strongest clarity the justice of the sentence by which it is followed and punished. The original is, ‘That You might be just in Your speaking; that You might be pure in your judging.’ St. Paul adopts the rendering of the Septuagint Version, who make the last word passive instead of active, thus making it apply, not to the sentence given by God, but to the imaginary trial to which by a figure of speech that sentence itself is supposed to be submitted.”22
1 Galatians 6:7
2 Ibid. 2:17
3 Ibid. 2:19-20
4 Ibid. 2:21
5 Deuteronomy 32:4 – Complete Jewish Bible
6 Psalm 100:5
7 Psalm 119:160
8 A place on the River Jordan near Salim, where John baptized (John 3:23). It was located in the Beth Shan [Beit She’an] Valley, about six miles South of Beth Shan, according to church historian Eusebius.
9 John 3:31, 33
10 1 Corinthians 1:18
11 Hebrews 6:18
12 Psalm 62:9
13 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Tohoroth, Masekhet Niddah, folio 52b
14 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6
15 Pseudo-Constantius: Holy Letter of St. Paul on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Jerome: Homilies on Psalm 2
17 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 See Psalm 51:4
20 Ibid. – Complete Jewish Bible
21 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 234-235
22 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.