If outward circumcision and being born a Jew do not accomplish justification or acceptability before God, then of what benefit are circumcision and being a Jew? Paul anticipates and states the objection than many Jews would have to what he has just said. And Paul does not hesitate to answer it clearly.
The Jew who is circumcised in his body has received great benefit from God. First, and surely foremost, the Jew has been entrusted with the oracles of God. The sacred Scriptures were given to Israel to keep until the time of Christ when the Word would be made available to all men through its preaching and teaching and copying down into various languages. That God chose Israel to bear His Word and His promises to be fulfilled in Christ to the Jews first and also to the Greeks is a special blessing indeed. All who cherish the Word shall recognize the great benefit of possessing it as God’s gift.
But Paul raises another objection, which he also answers immediately. If the Jews had the Word of God, and yet some did not believe in it, how then can God’s faithfulness be secured? Is it not that God is unable to secure the belief of the Jews? Or is it that God is not faithful to His promises made to the Jews? These questions are not to be shunned off as meaningless, but they have importance too for the Christian who also sees those in the Church fall away in unbelief. Is God unfaithful to the Church because some fall away?
Paul emphatically denies the affirmative conclusion to these questions. God is always true, though every other be found in deceit. He then quotes from Psalm 51:4, which testifies that God is righteous when He speaks and blameless when He judges. The failing of men to trust in the Word of God and to be conformed to the Truth is not attributable to God’s account. For though God is the cause of all things by virtue of His omnipotent will, He is not coercive of any man’s will, but does accomplish through human willing and by manifest and particular circumstances all that is in His design.
What is to be drawn from the fact that our unrighteousness shows forth the righteousness of God? Is God’s wrath unrighteous when poured out upon men, for how can wrath be poured out for something that reveals the righteousness of God? Paul continues to lay forth perceptively the objections of those whose ignorance or impiety cannot grasp the nature and being of God. The illogical conclusion that would affirm that God’s wrath is unwarranted if man’s sin reveals His righteousness presumes that an evil that leads to a good cannot be punished as an evil. Yet Paul shows the flaw in such a construction in the next verse.
Again Paul emphatically denies the illogical conclusion hidden in the interrogations of God’s righteousness. He does so with a series of his own questions, beginning with the question of how God could be judge at all if He did not pour out His wrath upon sin. Here we find the missing premise that completes the previous construction. On way that the evil of men reveals the righteousness of God is precisely in God’s righteous judgment of evil. In order to reveal Himself to be Good and Just, God must punish sin. If sin had not entered the world by God’s decree, then God would have no cause to exhibit His holy and righteous character, nor His just and sovereign attributes. Yet because of sin God’s righteousness is made manifest in His just condemnation. Yet not in this alone.
Here Paul raises a more particular version of the general complaint in verse 5. Perhaps it is not so unfortunate that God’s wrath is poured out upon other sinners, but what cause has He to judge my sin if by my lying His truth abounds and to His glory? If God is glorified by my sin by way of contrast, then am I not to be commended for providing the example by which God’s honor is recognized? But the same answer Paul gives in verse 6 applies here. God’s judgment upon sin is righteously revealed not only in judging sin as a general matter, but by judging the sin of every particular offender. Thus, no man escapes the judgment of God upon His sin, for God is not satisfied to overlook any sin without justly condemning it.
Paul continues to heap scorn upon the folly of impious objectors. For some in his own day were testifying that it must be a good thing to do evil if by it God brings about the good. Paul reaffirms the same that he first affirms—the condemnation of such sinners if just for God is just in punishing all sin by His righteous wrath.
But if Paul is addressing the folly of sophistical arguments, he is not unaware of the pious Jew. For no one is better than another simply by according more reverence or recording less sin. Paul returns to what he has laid in the first two chapters, that all men, Jews and Gentiles are under the penalty and curse of sin. For it has been assumed throughout that though keeping the Law perfectly provides righteousness before God, it is revealed that no man has ever kept the Law with his whole heart.
Paul presses home the point of sin with a quotation from Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3 that spans this verse and the next two. Then he quotes also from further Psalms and from Isaiah in verses 13-18. In this verse it plainly says that no one is righteous, not one at all. It is astounding that the Jews who had this testimony from God’s Word would consider themselves righteous according to the Law. Yet are we so different in our own way today? How frequently have I heard the boasts of Christians who seek the praise and honor for their efforts on behalf of God? And what more could such boasting spring from but a heart that seeks to please God and justify himself by means of duties done? Yet none today accomplish the Law perfectly anymore than the men of Paul’s day did. Christ alone is the righteous one who has completely fulfilled the Law.
As if it were not enough to know that we are without any righteousness, God’s Word condemns us in our ignorance of the Truth as well. No one has understood the mind of God unless God Himself has revealed His mind to that one. And we know from elsewhere in Scripture that God does not unite Himself with sin, so that those who know God, that is, those to whom God reveals Himself, must have been justified in Christ in order that God might testify by His Spirit to their mind, His Truth. For it also says that no one seeks after God, which means that it is God who searching out men to claim as His own, and in searching out men, He must also justify them, unite them with His Son, imputing His righteousness to them, and bringing them into sanctification and glory.
Not only have we failed in seeking God, but we have turned aside and sought to distance ourselves from Him and His righteousness. It is not as though we were lost and stood still waiting, and hoping to be found. Rather, we fled from God not only in our fear of His wrath, but also in our own hope of supplanting God from His rightful place as Sovereign over all, including our lives and our wills. In this fleeing from God we have not only become useless, but we have forsaken all good. For use and good are defined by God, and though we would serve the millions by sacrificing our effort and our lives, it could accomplish no use or good according to the righteousness requirements of God. Many despair in such an acknowledgement, for they see in it a tyranny and selfishness that they believe cannot characterize a loving God. Yet if God created the world for His glory, how can it be good when our works are done apart from considering His glory? What good are works done in the state of rebellion and autonomy? Surely it is we who are tyrannous and selfish for withholding from God what is rightfully His and keeping for ourselves the glory and honor and satisfaction of our works.
In light of this is it any wonder that the Scriptures call our throats open graves, our tongues deceitful, and our words poison? If we lack understanding and flee from God, what shall we say that does not reveal our rebellious nature? Even the praises we would heap upon God in our state of unbelief are but mockery in His ears for we are yet trusting in our own merits for righteousness. Let no one praise God if he is not also trusting in God for his justification, for the one who praises in vain is not only storing up wrath, but is increasing his self-deceiving trust in his own merit.
Cursing and bitterness flow forth from the mouth of unbelievers. Do we not see this most assuredly when calamity strikes, or when death comes, and pain? The confusion and anger that people feel in the midst of suffering is often openly directed at God. Even if not openly, the inward feeling of injustice that turns to anger and bitterness reveals a secret hatred for God. Believers may balk at this, but how is it that the command to take joy in suffering and to bless God in calamity are fulfilled in anger and bitterness? So we see that even believers are tempted to despise God and His graciousness when our lives are thrust into difficulty under the weight of sin and the wrath of God upon remaining sin in this world. But if calamity and suffering are able to bring the unbeliever to his knees in repentance (cf. Ninevah), it too can bring the believer to his knees in praise to God, that though we lack the understanding of the particular, we can rest in our understanding of the ultimate, which is God’s purpose to render all things good for those who love Him and are called by His name, and to bring about glory super-abounding over all sins that have been committed, in the day of final reckoning.
The work of unbelief also leads to enmity and violence. What humanism can secure perfect holiness? Can man bring about what only God possesses? Yet many believe that education and the amelioration of circumstances will lead to the end of violence, strife, and murder. Yet the Scriptures reveal that evil is not in our lack of good breeding, nor in the weigh of our circumstances, but in the very nature of our rebellion against God. For when sin has removed God’s place on the throne of the heart, who can but replace it but our own finite and selfish will? And in our finitude and our selfishness, even our best intentions often lead to the hurt and pain of others. How then can we consider ourselves righteous and God to blame when we deny Him for our own will, and yet He alone is able to accomplish all things?
Surely the outcome of rebellion is misery and destruction. If our best efforts and intentions still lead us into pain and death, why still do we cling to our own way? Is it not because our hatred of God is greater than our desire for peace? Is it not because our love for ourselves is more powerful than our guilt over sin? Who can suffer the indictments of God’s Word when they face themselves without a veil? Who can refuse the grace of God when they encounter the full impact of their choices and their consequent effects?
For if they would turn from sin and turn to God, if we would turn from the flesh and walk in the Spirit, all then would know the path of peace. God’s way brings about the peace that we long for and are yet incapable of attaining upon our own merits. The feeble will of man has not the power to remove sin from even his own heart, much less the hearts of others. We would rather despise the living God in our futility than to humbly repent, trust in Him, and walk meekly in His precepts.
In the full consideration of all these things what we are to conclude is that unbelief amounts to a lack of fearing God. When God is accounted low or not at all, who can fear His judgment? But when God is seen for who He is, all will bow to Him in the covering of Christ, or cower before Him in their naked shame. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, for wisdom sees God as He is, and not as we would have Him to be.
Thus Paul having quoted from the Scriptures speaks to those Jews who boast in the Law. The Law speaks to those who are under it, and it speaks with condemnation for all who have ever sinned. Therefore the Jew has not reason to boast in the Law, anymore than the Gentile has reason to boast in his ignorance, for both Jew and Gentile are held accountable before God and none can speak a word on his own behalf.
For the works of the Law are insufficient to justify anyone before God, for those who understand the full meaning of the Law are shown, as in a mirror, the depths and coverage of sin in their own beings. The Law that points out righteousness is the same Law that reveals our unrighteousness, for by making evident what sin is and its penalty, the Law stands as evidence and testimony against us in the courtroom of God. Yet in our understanding of the Law, if we understand it rightly, we are brought to a true and healthy knowledge of sin, and not only sin in general, but the sin that besets us. If one can read through these opening verses of Paul’s epistle and not feel the weight of sin and the fear of condemnation apart from Christ Jesus, what blindness indeed has God wrought in that one!