NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson V)
Bible scholar Adam Clarke adds his thoughts on God’s unfailing promises : “Should any man say that the promise of God had failed toward him, let him examine his heart and his ways, and he will find that he has departed out of that way in which alone God could, consistently with his holiness and truth, fulfill the promise.”1 Then, theologian Frederic Godet comments: “The question thus signifies: ‘Can Jewish unbelief in regard to the Messiah invalidate God’s faithfulness to His people?’ The question might be asked in this sense: ‘If the Jews have not taken advantage of the salvation which the Messiah brought to them, will it follow that God has not really granted them all He had promised? Will anyone be able to accuse Him of having failed in His promises?”2
Albert Barnes has quite a few notes on this verse that make it impossible to include them all here. However, here is some of what he had to say about Paul’s emphatic “God forbid” that anyone would doubt God’s integrity and promises. He writes: “The sense is, ‘let not this by any means be supposed.’ This is the answer of the Apostle, showing that no such consequence followed from his doctrines; and that ‘if’ any such consequence should follow, the doctrine should be at once abandoned, and that every man, no matter who should be esteemed false rather than God. The veracity of God was a great first principle, which was to be held, whatever might be the consequence. This implies that the Apostle believed that the fidelity of God could be maintained in strict consistency with the fact that any number of the Jews might be found to be unfaithful, and be cast off. The Apostle has not offered an explanation of this or shown how it could be, but it is not difficult to understand how it was. The promise made to Abraham, and the fathers, was not unconditional but absolute, that all the Jews should be saved. It was implied that they were to be obedient; and that if they were not, they would be cast off.3 Though the Apostle has not stated it here, yet he has considered it at length in another part of this Epistle, and showed that it was not only consistent with the original promise that a part of the Jews should be found unfaithful, and be cast off, but that it had actually occurred according to the prophets.4 Thus, the fidelity of God was preserved; at the same time that it was a matter of fact that no small part of the nation was rejected and lost.”5
Thank God again that He is not moved nor been persuaded to do tit-for-tat with regard to His promises. There are times when the Lord says, “If you will…then I will.” But there are other times where He simply says, “I will,” without qualification. For instance, when Jesus gave His great commission He said, “You can be sure that I will be with you always. I will continue with you until the end of time.”6 But He did not say, if you stop baptizing and teaching then I’ll dump you and go find others to do your job. If He did that, could we ever find our way back to the truth? No! That’s why He will keep His promise, even if we don’t keep ours.
Verses 5-6: If we do wrong, does that show more clearly that God is right? Can we then say that God does wrong when He punishes us? (I’m repeating what I hear some people are saying.) Of course not! If God could not punish us, how could He be the world’s Judge?
Paul is putting up an argument here that may be hard for us to understand today because we don’t have the Jewish believers via-à-vis the Gentile believers as two major components of the Christian church. But what we do have are those who feel that they can earn their salvation through good works and those who say salvation is by faith alone. Also, those who were baptized as infants prior to having any knowledge of Christ, and those who were baptized as adults after surrendering to Christ as an act of their own will. The main point of Paul discourse is the discussion on whether the end justifies the means when it comes to making sure we do the right thing to receive compliments for our righteous living, or whether we are doing the right thing by honoring the One who saved us as a complement to God and the work of Christ on the cross. The Spirit and the Word have power enough to persuade hearers of the truth to accept Christ as Savior and have their sins covered by His blood. Therefore, regardless of the type of Liturgy, Sacrament, Rite or Ritual, every man must at one point come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. There are no other doors; He is the only one.
Paul then adds this qualifier: If God is not perfect and without error, then how can He judge us. Paul said that some people think that for God to punish His own is the wrong thing to do. But, He is not out to conquer us, only to change us. In the beginning, He made man in His own image. But Satan caused man’s image to change and become more like him. So God sent His only Son, the only One in His own image so that we could be changed back again into His likeness through His Son. When the children of Israel questioned God’s authority, He sent them this message: “Now, see that I, and only I, am God! There is no other God! I put people to death, and I let people live. I can hurt people, and I can make them well. No one can save another person from my power!”7 However, God did not say this to cause fear, but reverence. Judgment and punishment will come later.
In his vision of Nineveh, the prophet Nahum made this point: “The Lord is patient, but He is also very powerful!”8 The whole point was that God’s patience will one day be turned into punishment. So the best time to deal with our wrongs is now while grace is available. That’s why Paul told the believers in Thessalonica that they shouldn’t worry about being treated unfairly by the world, God will do what is right. In the end, they will be the ones punished while the faithful believer will be given relief.9
Paul was keenly aware that he was writing to the Messianic Jewish leaders of the community of believers there in Rome, and perhaps he was sounding more like a Rabbi than a Reverend. So he uses a qualifying phrase that is often found in Talmudic writings.10 It basically means, the language being used is a common one, not one expected of a professor or theologian. The NIV has “I am using a human argument.” Some scholars believe that it has more to do with Paul saying that what he was sharing came from human intuition under divine inspiration.
Yet, Paul was more or less letting them hear their own argument as it was fed back to them from an active listener. The question was whether God was right in disciplining His children when in fact their disobedience exposed His patience and grace. Paul says, “That’s nonsense!” God’s grace and mercy were measuring sticks. Not only was it used to calculate the amount of forgiveness applied when asked for, as well as the amount of punishment when ignored. This is what Abraham was appealing to when he asked God, “Surely you would not destroy fifty good people just to kill all a crowd of evil people.”11 And when Job was worried that he had become too big of a problem for God and that he had no chance of survival, his friend Bildad reminded him: “God is always fair. God All-Powerful does what is right.”12 Later on, another friend Elihu also pointed out to Job: “God is not only powerful, but He is fair. Do you think you can find fault with Him?”13
David also spoke from experience of God’s fairness and goodness: “He sees everything that happens. He watches people closely. The Lord examines those who are good and those who are bad.”14 In other words, God’s intervention is never a knee-jerk reaction. In fact, God is proactive. He already laid down the rules so His response should not come as a surprise. I’m sure that Paul was shaking his head when he was told that some of these Messianic Jews were actually thinking that God was pleased when His commandments were violated because it drew attention to their meaning and purpose. In other words, what good is a law if it is never broken so people can see the consequences? But Paul has an answer ready.
Early church scholar Origen made this comment: Paul says that it is wrong to say that God is unjust for bringing wrath on people. For how will the one who judges the world be thought to be unjust when his very title of Judge shows that He does nothing without judgment? And where there is judgment, it follows that there will be justice. For the words, judge and judgment are both derived from justice.15
Then early church preacher Chrysostom asks: “What does Paul mean? God honored the Jews, but they dishonored Him. This gives God the victory and shows the greatness of His love toward man, in that He continued to honor them in spite of what they were like. But if this is true of us (someone might say), why am I to be punished when I have contributed to God’s victory by dishonoring Him? Paul answers this by a corresponding absurdity. In effect, he says that if this man were the cause of God’s victory and he was punished as a result, it was an injustice. But if God is not unjust and the man was punished, then he could not have been the cause of God’s victory.… For God’s justice far exceeds what we think of as justice and is based on other indefinable criteria.”16
Then, other church scholars add their thoughts. Pelagius says: “Now the apostle begins to answer the objection. It is unjust if God punishes sinners merely in order to appear even more righteous.”17 And another scholar adds: “It is not that our wickedness increases God’s justice, but at that time when we come into judgment with God we shall be deprived of His promises as retribution for not having obeyed His commands.”18 And finally, Caesarius makes this comment: “When adversities come … or when by God’s just judgment hostility, drought or death is imposed, we should attribute this to our sins rather than to God’s injustice.”19 It’s another way of saying that God has done all that He intends to do to show mankind what He approves and disapproves of. So it’s up to them to either obey and receive the promise of everlasting life, or disobey and be given the punishment promised to all who reject His offer. So judgment is not meant as a negative action to destroy, but as a positive process to ensure that whose who accept God’s grace will be saved and given everlasting life.
1 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Genesis 18:19
4 See Romans 10:16-21; 11:1-36
5 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Matthew 28:20
7 Deuteronomy 32:39
8 Nahum 1:3
9 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7
10 Cf. Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Kerithoth, folio 11a
11 Genesis 18:25
12 Job 8:3
13 Ibid. 34:17
14 Psalm 11:4b-5a
15 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 6
17 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Pseudo-Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Caesarius of Arles: Sermon 70.1