Paul debates… himself

Romans 3:1-8

I really enjoy these passages in which Paul uses a style called “modified diatribe” or as I would say, a rant. In these verses, Paul gets into an argument with himself. To be sure, he is not confused about these issues, he instead is trying to anticipate common objections to the revolutionary statements he has made at the end of chapter 2, and in all likelihood these reflect arguments that he has had with prominent Jews in the past.

The first of these questions and answers is found in verses 1 and 2 where Paul asks the question: What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? (v. 1) and then provides the answer:  Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. (v. 2)

Since Abraham’s day, the Jews have had a special relationship with God, and it was to them that God provided His Word, and to them that He trusted that His Word would be protected and obeyed, which of course takes us back to the problem of their unfaithfulness. They had the relationship and the Word and the Law… and they didn’t keep it.

The next Q & A is in verses 3-4:

Q: What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? (v. 3)

A: Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written:

“So that you may be proved right when you speak
and prevail when you judge. (v. 4)

The question relates to the proposition that if God would punish His people for their disobedience, then God would be acting in a way that was unfaithful to His covenant promises in the Law, namely that He would be their God and they would be His people. Paul flatly rejects this premise in verse 4 (“Not at all!”) but that exposes a fundamental error in the understanding of many people, both then and now, who miss the fact that God made two kinds of promises in the Old Covenant, for as you read through the Law, you will find that it is full of “blessings and curses”.  There are promises of blessing for those who keep the Law, and curses, which are also promises, for those who break the Law. To put it another way, if a person kept the Law, they would be entitled to claim the promise of a blessing, but if they broke it, God promised to curse them, thus for God to provide the blessing and forget the curse would mean that He wasn’t faithful to the whole Law.

This is the point that Paul makes in verses 5-8:

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

Paul mentions in verse 5 that this is a human argument. As we read it, we might even think it is a frivolous argument, which it is. These are just the kinds of arguments that often trip us up; silly ones, based on human thinking that cannot begin to see things from any perspective other than a personal one; they are the kinds of arguments that children make!

In verses 9-20 Paul concludes this section, and we will have a look at it next time…

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