NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson VI)
Reformist John Calvin points out that Paul is bringing into the conversation some idea that was going around, not something he considered valid. Calvin writes: “There is, indeed, no doubt that this was an ordinary, anti-intellectual condemnation, as it will presently appear. That’s why Paul could not have pretended he didn’t notice it. But, that no one should think that he expressed the sentiments personally, he assumes that the person [asking the question] would be an uninformed individual. At the same time, by a single expression he touches sharply on human reason; whose work, as he intimates, is ever to bark against the wisdom of God. That’s why he does not say, ‘according to the ungodly,’ but ‘according to mankind,’ or as a man. And thus indeed it is, for all the mysteries of God are paradoxes for humans. Yet, at the same time, they possess so much boldness, that they have no fear to oppose God’s mysteries and audaciously to assail what they cannot comprehend. We are, therefore, reminded that if we desire to become capable of understanding them [God’s mysteries], we must especially labor to become freed from our own reason and to give up ourselves, and unreservedly to submit to His word.”1
Theologian John Bengel speaks about Paul’s quoted satire that we should sin so that God’s righteousness can be more easily seen. That’s why if God takes revenge for our sins, it proves that He is in fact unrighteous. Bengel says that although Paul shows that the Jews have a peculiar advantage [Romans 3:1], this does not prevent them from being called sinners. Someone, according to the principles of human nature, might reason this way: My wickedness is subservient to the Divine glory, and makes it the more conspicuous, as darkness does for light. Therefore, I should not be punished. Bengel then intimates that since the Jews acknowledge the righteousness of Divine judgment regarding the rest of the world; why shouldn’t there be the same ground for judgment for unbelieving Jews?2
Albert Barnes also notes Paul’s confession that he is using human logic here. So he writes that he hears Paul saying: “I speak after the manner of human beings. I speak from what appears to be a case of a human viewpoint, or as would strike the human mind. It does not mean that the language was such as wicked people were accustomed to using; but that the objector expressed a sentiment which to human view would seem to follow from what had been said [by Paul]. This I regard as the language of an objector. It implies a degree of reverence for the character of God, and a seeming unwillingness to state an objection which seemed to be dishonorable to God, but which nevertheless pressed itself so strongly on the mind as to appear irresistible. No way of stating the objection could have been more artful or impressive.”3
Great Christian orator Charles Spurgeon agrees by saying: “Paul spoke as a mere carnal man might be supposed to speak. If ever we are obliged, for the sake of argument, to ask a question which is almost blasphemous, let us do it very guardedly, and say something to show that we really do not adopt the language as our own, just as Paul says, ‘I’m quoting other people.’ If the very sin of man is made to turn to the glory of God, is God unjust in punishing that sin?”4 It is often very helpful to qualify such borrowed statements as being from “our opponents” or “our critics.” Spurgeon goes on to say: “God will judge the world, and He does judge the world even now. There are judgments against nations already executed and recorded on the pages of history. If God were unjust, how could He judge the world?”5
Theologian Godet has this to say: “From verse 4, it seems to follow that God wills the sin of man for His own glory. But in that case, has He the right to condemn an act from which He reaps advantage, and to be angry with him who commits it? This objection might be put in the mouth of a Jew, who, placing himself at Paul’s view-point, and hearing him say that Israel’s rejection of the Messiah will glorify God’s faithfulness, and contribute to the accomplishment of His plans, judged God highly unjust for being angry with Israel on account of such conduct. Our unbelief would then signify the unbelief of us Jews. But the contrast which prevailed in verse 4 was that between God and every man, and not between Jew and Gentile.”6 And Charles Ellicott adds that this kind of thinking comes from how man speaks about men, not how man should speak about God.7 Men are capable of using another persons misfortune for their own gain, but God is just and would not consider such injustice.
Reformist John Calvin then adds this clear summary: “For though there are found among men unjust judges, yet this happens, because they usurp authority contrary to law and right, or because they are inconsiderately raised to that [level of] distinction, or because they degenerate from themselves. But there is nothing of this kind with regard to God. Since, then, He is by nature a Judge, it must be that He is just, for He cannot deny Himself. Paul then proves from what is impossible, that God is absurdly accused of unrighteousness; for to Him peculiarly and naturally belongs the work of justly governing the world. And though what Paul teaches extends to the constant government of God, yet I allow that it has a special reference to the last judgment; for then only a real restoration of just order will take place. But if you wish for a direct refutation, by which profane things of this kind may be checked, take this, and say, ‘That it comes not through what unrighteousness is, that God’s righteousness becomes more illustrious, but that our wickedness is so surpassed by God’s goodness, that it is turned to serve an end different from that to which it tends’.”8
Albert Barnes raises this thought: “How could this be if it were not right for God to inflict punishment at all? The inference of the objector, therefore, could not be true; though the Apostle does not tell us how it was consistent to inflict punishment for offences from which God took occasion to promote His glory. It may be remarked, however, that God will judge offences, not from what He may do in overruling them, but from the nature of the crime itself. The question is not, what good God may bring out of it, but what does the crime itself deserve? what is the character of the offender? what was his intention? It is not what God may do to overrule the offence when it is committed. The just punishment of the murderer is to be determined by the Law, and by his own defect; and not from any reputation for integrity and uprightness which the judge may manifest on his trial; or from any honor which may accrue to the police for detecting him; or any security which may result to the commonwealth from his execution; or from any honor which the Law may gain as a just law by his condemnation. Nor should any of these facts and advantages which may result from his execution, be pleaded in bar of his condemnation. So it is with the sinner under the divine administration. It is indeed a truth that the wrath of man shall praise God, and that he will take occasion from people‘s wickedness to glorify himself as a just judge and moral governor, but this will be no ground of acquittal for the sinner.9”10
Verse 7: Someone might say, “But if I lie, does that not enhance God’s truth and bring Him even greater glory? So why then am I judged to be a sinner?”
Paul continues attacking this nonsensical argument that our wrongs make God look right. It’s like saying that the harder the test one fails, the more proven is one’s intellect. However, we then cannot automatically assume that the worse our failure, the more admired is the test-maker. But the real problem with such thinking is when the person says that even when flunking the test, one should not be given a failing grade. It is not man’s failure that prompts God to react with superiority, but such failure brings out God’s amazing grace. Not by overlooking our sin, but to extract the necessary punishment for that sin from the price paid by His Son on the cross. We might say that Paul is attacking here what we’ve come to know as: Once in grace, always in grace.
Perhaps they were basing their argument on what happened between Joseph and his brothers down in Egypt. After Joseph had received word that his father Jacob had died, his brothers went to him in fear, thinking that now he would punish them for what they did to him and then lying to father about it. But Joseph had this to say: “Don’t be afraid. I am not God! I have no right to punish you. It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. So don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” Since Joseph said kind things to his brothers, and this made them feel better.11
In other words, Joseph did not see them as sinners because all along God had planned to use their misdeed to promote His good deed of saving the children of Israel. When using this same logic, some could say that we should not think of Judas Iscariot as a traitor because God used him to have Jesus arrested. That would certainly open the door to exonerate the Jewish leaders and Pilate of any wrong doing in scourging Jesus and having Him crucified because it was all part of God’s plan for Jesus to die on the cross as our Savior. So then, why not absolve Satan of any sinister plot to cause the fall of Adam and Eve and their ejection from the Garden of Eden because it allowed God to initiate His plan of salvation. But these all miss the main point. Sin is sin, and sin must be punished, because if sin is not punished, then that would make God a liar. It is only the grace of God that allowed His Son to pay that penalty for those who believe. If, however, a sinner chooses not to believe in the death of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, then the intended punishment will be carried out.
Back in early 200 AD, church scholar Origen describes the situation in his day: “There are many religions in this world, many schools of philosophy, and many teachings which promote false assertions and are backed up with lying arguments. Those who invent them have a false reputation for wisdom—people of little or no authority. We should recognize them for what they are. Because of them, many false statements are commonly accepted as true. The whole world, including religion, is now burdened with lying opinions. Even the elect are being led astray if you can imagine that. The truth of God is now attacking and refuting every lie. Faith in God’s truth, God’s wisdom and God’s Word is undercutting all claims of false teaching. By each of these lies which had previously been asserted by men, the truth of God is abounding, by demonstrating their superficiality and by communicating the simple truth of faith in each and every case. In this way, says the Apostle, the truth of God abounds through the falsehood of men.”12 It makes you wonder how the church survived until this day. The answer is that someone always stuck to the truth. It took a reformation, a revival, and a refilling of God’s Spirit, but God knows as long as there are those who will stand up for the truth the church will march on until Jesus comes again.
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 235-236
3 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit. loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Psalm 76:10
10 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Genesis 50:19-21
12 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.