Before the Council of Trent, Athanasius, Aquinas, Augustine, Chrysostom, and others had no problem elucidating ideas most clearly represented today by Reformed theologians. In Chapter 3, Paul substantiates his case that the Law cannot make Jews righteousness and the ramifications of this is that no one’s works make them righteous.
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
3:1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?
Paul’s question is essentially saying this: What is the benefit of being Jewish and having the Law if trying to follow the dang thing doesn’t make you right with God?
Paul does not give the answer to the question until much later in the chapter (Rom 3:19-20). Let’s keep the question in the back of our minds for the moment.
2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.
Advantage number one: They have the honor of having God’s revelation. I suppose it is not much of a real advantage per se, but a honor is nice I suppose.
Some Christians, not following the logic that Paul lays out in verse 2 being an answer to verse 1, quote the passage out of context and claim that it justifies the Protestant view of the Old Testament Canon which excludes Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, and other books. While this is a separate debate, what we may observe is that Paul is not passing comment on the idea whether or not a religious group that claims to be “Jewish” will for all time preserve the Scriptures. Modern and even medieval Jews share nothing in common with ancient Judaism. The Hebrew language itself has even changed and looks nothing like the ancient form. So, it is best not to read verse 2 as a comment concerning which books should be left in and out the Old Testament canon, because it has nothing to do with it.
3 What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? 4 May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written,
“That You may be justified in Your words,
And prevail when You are judged.”
Verse 3 obviously follows the logic of verse 2. Paul is saying, “Okay, if it is such an honor to have the oracles of God, why are there so many Jews who have the honor but through their own unbelief won’t be saved? What good is that honor? Doesn’t God promise to deliver Israel? Is God backing out of THE promise central to the entire Old Testament?”
We will find later that Paul rejects the ideas just communicated on Scriptural grounds, because not everyone who is Israel is really Israel (Rom 9:6)! For now, Paul’s response simply is that God promises in the Scripture that He will be justified in His words (the promises found in Scripture) when He is judged by man. Therefore, it is not God who is the liar but man–any interpretation of Scripture that turns God into a liar is itself a lie from the pits of Hell. Therefore, Paul is saying what he says is not a lie and the theoretical questions we just posed are in effect the wrong questions, because they justify man rather than God.
5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.)
In verse 5, Paul is speaking facetiously. If “our,” or Christianity’s, “unrighteousness” (the Christian claim that God will be found true in saving Israel in verse 3) demonstrates how God is righteous in condemning much of ethnic Israel (as well as gentiles in Rom 1) as sinners destined for punishment, what can Paul say? Nothing, he will not recant the plain truth of Scripture that “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Ecc 7:20). For God’s standard for righteousness is that the man does good and never, ever sins. It is then patently obvious that not only gentile dogs, but also Jews entrusted with the oracles of God that tell us this very thing are alike unrighteous and under God’s righteous condemnation.
6 May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?
If God were to be unjust in inflicting wrath upon such men, then God cannot possibly be the judge of the world. What sort of justice can there be if the judge isn’t just? Even anti-Christian philosophers like Kant were able to figure out that there must be a just God, because we can perceive the existence of morals. God cannot be judging unjustly, because the obvious existence of right and wrong must be derived from a source which knows these things perfectly, which is Him.
7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?
Paul defends himself by saying that through his supposed lie, which is really the truth, he defends God’s righteousness in judging sinful men. Call it a lie if you want, but if you do this you call God a liar, because the Scriptures bears it out that the Jews, with the oracles of God, are also held captive under sin and that their obedience to the Law cannot save them.
Why is Paul being judged as a sinner? It appears people accuse him of antinomianism as we can see in verse eight.
8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.
Paul’s critics cringe at the Gospel as laid out in Rom 1:17 that “the righteous man shall live by faith.” His critics are Jews, who like every false religion, believe that man must follow a set of rules to be right with God. These Jews take offense at Paul eviscerating such an argument. Paul shows, from the Scripture that all men alike are condemned by their own laws, both Mosaic and natural, because none of them actually live by all the rules.
Hence, these same Jews seeing the futility of being saved by their works, but instead by faith, they figure that this leads to a conclusion that they know to be false: why not sin so grace may abound? Paul takes offense at this conclusion that they draw from his teaching, because it is wrong. Just because we are not saved by works, that does not mean the faithful should deliberately sin. The condemnation of those who do not understand this is just.
For if the law of nature availed not, and the written Law was of no advantage, but both weighed down those that used them not aright, and made it plain that they were worthy of greater punishment, then after this the salvation which is by grace was necessary.
9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin
“We,” or the “Jews” are not better than “they” (the gentiles.) He reminds his audience of what he already wrote in detail in the first two chapters: Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin.
10 as it is written,
“There is none righteous, not even one;
Not just the gentile, but every single man on the Earth including the Jew is unrighteous. A lot of interpreters who find this obvious, plain conclusion distasteful try to go to Ps 14 to get the “context right.” The fourteenth Psalm will not help:
The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.
They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one (Ps 14:2-3).
In this Psalm, the atheist in his heart says there is no God (Ps 14:1) and God then looks down from heaven upon all the sons of men to see if any seek after God, any at all. He finds that none do, for all of them have become corrupt…God knows that they all have missed His mark for being righteous based upon their own merits.
Aquinas took this interpretation:
“No one is just” can be interpreted in three ways: in one way as meaning that no one is just within himself and of himself, but of himself everyone is a sinner and it is owing to God that he is righteous: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:6). In another way it means that no one is just in every way but has some sin according to Pr (20:9): “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean’?…the first two meanings seem to be more in keeping with the Apostle’s intent; and the same must be said for the following.
Rom 3:10 should close every mouth. There is no one who earns his way to heaven based upon his own goodness. Period.
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
No one should expect that unrighteous men can believe in God by seeking after Him, because there are no such things as “seekers.” All men who do not know Christ do not want to know Christ, for there is none who seeks for God whether they be false Christians, heathens, or Jews. Not only are all men alike unrighteous, these same men cannot believe apart from His grace for they left to themselves do not seek or ever find the One who can save them.
The Scripture says, “[A] natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14). Man cannot seek for God and there are none who understand, because natural men cannot make their brains do it. It is an impossibility. Spiritual things must be spiritually appraised, and that is only made possibly by having the Holy Spirit.
Hence, God can make a man, in accordance with his free will, seek after God for He changes the aptitudes of man by changing the man himself. A natural man cannot seek after God, but “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). A man with the Holy Spirit is qualitatively different than the default natural man and can thereby do what all other men cannot. This is because it is no longer the man that does it but the Spirit.
Rom 3:11 should silence Arminian and “synergistic” critics.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
And so all men, both Jew and Greek alike, apart from His grace by His Spirit live with no fear of God before their eyes. They essentially scoff like the fool saying that there is not a God, for they sin against Him as if His judgment does not exist. Their condemnation is deserved. The Jew cannot boast in the oracles of God, as the oracles of God plainly communicate that the above statements were written by Jews and apply to Jews, as they do to gentiles.
19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;
Chrysostom notes that by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, the Jews would see that they are included in these blanket condemnations. They are without excuse, the mouths of Jews are closed so that they may not boast, and now the whole world is accountable to God and liable to be condemned.
20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Paul now drops the bombshell to the Jews: the whole world is accountable because they are unrighteous. They are unrighteous because they cannot fulfill the Law. Every mouth therefore is silenced because by the works of the Law or law of nature, no one can be justified. The whole point of either law is to give us knowledge of sin! “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24).
Therefore, when our conscience tells us that we have done wrong and that God demands justice, the whole point of this is to look for forgiveness. The unbeliever will try to make his own way to heaven by doing more good than bad, or not caring about God’s righteousness whatsoever and hope that there is not a judgment. But, for those who have the Scripture and see that they are sinful because of what they have read in verses 10 to 18, how should they respond?
“[T]he Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22).
Therefore, the knowledge of God’s righteousness and our own unrighteousness should send us fleeing to the One who can make us righteous, Jesus Christ. Those who have faith in Christ and live by that faith are righteous in Christ and are saved!
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
While by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified, there is now apart from fulfilling all the works of the Law a manifestation of God’s righteousness. This manifestation is testified to in the whole Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets), and it is the righteousness of God through faith in Christ.
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
We may infer that as Luther taught, the righteousness of God is not our own. It is something we attain through Christ, so that believers enjoy an alien righteousness.
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers, and that righteousness being alien to us, is hardly a new, Calvinistic idea. Concerning 2 Cor 5:21 Augustine writes:
He does not say, as some incorrect copies read, He who knew no sin did sin for us, as if Christ had Himself sinned for our sakes; but he says, Him who knew no sin, that is, Christ, God, to whom we are to be reconciled, has made to be sin for us, that is, has made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him); He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed, by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin, by dying in the flesh which was the likeness of sin; and that although He Himself had never lived the old life of sin, yet by His resurrection He typified our new life springing up out of the old death in sin (Chapter 41, Handbook on Hope, Faith, and Love).
It is necessary therefore it is necessary to believe the Holy Scriptures to confess him who is the first fruit of us to celebrate the philanthropy of him who assumed our nature to be struck with wonder at the great dispensation to fear not the curse which is from the Law for Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law Hence the full accomplishment of the Law which was made through the first fruit must be imputed to the whole mass (Athan Synops Sacr Script lib vii in Epist ad Rom Oper vol ii p 125, see link here).
The modern Roman Catholic view is that believers are infused with Christ’s righteousness, and it is by this righteousness (and the deeds performed in love as an outworking of this righteousness infused by the Holy Spirit) that Christians are saved in the judgement of works. Because this righteousness is actually, being infused, the believer’s this means that the righteousness is not alien in origin.
However, Augustine and Athanasius would have none of this. Just as Christ’s being made sin was not His own, but ours, our being made righteous is not our own nor in ourselves, but in Him. So, believers are righteousness because they are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:4), not because the righteousness has been infused into them. If anything, they have been made in union with God and thereby benefit from the track record Jesus accrued by the full accomplishment of the Law! Thankfully, we do not stand upon our own track record, even if the infused grace of God has helped it along a bit.
It is worth saying that in all of this there is no distinction between Jew or Greek in this salvation, for both alike have fell short of the glory of God by sinning.
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
Being that all are under God’s condemnation for their works, their justification as righteous is purely a gift of God’s grace. It is not earned, or grace would not be grace.
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed
Grace is made available through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus because He satisfied God the Father’s requirement that there be justice for our sin by shedding His blood on our behalf. God did this to demonstrate that He is righteous and that sin is indeed punished. God’s forbearance is concurrent with His righteousness for Christians because God passed over the sins committed by those who trust in the blood of the Lamb. In the same way, those ancient Israelites who trusted God by putting the passover lambs’ blood on their doorways were themselves passed over by the angel who killed all the firstborn of Egypt.
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
“In the present time” is a euphemism that means “since after the crucifixion.” So, God has demonstrated His righteousness after the crucifixion by being the just (the One who punishes sin) and at the same time the justifier (the One who makes sinful people righteous.) His wrath is satisfied against not only sinners (who pay their own penalty) but those who have faith in Christ, for Christ pays their penalty.
All of this is accomplished for those who have faith. It must be emphasized that the moment one has faith, he experiences justification in its fullness on Earth. It is a sudden event. Why? Because upon faith our sin has been punished in Christ and at the same time we have been justified by God who declares us righteous by that same faith.
Chrysostom exegetes the passage as follows:
He does also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous. And it is to explain this, viz. what is declaring, that he has added, That He might be just, and the justifier of him which believes in Jesus. Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith: and shun not the righteousness of God (Homily 7 on Romans).
27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.
There is no boasting, because salvation is done by God’s work on the cross. By faith, the payment for sin on the cross is credited to man.
The “law of faith” is likewise called “the Law of the Spirit of life.” In Catholic theology, this involves essentially exchanging the Old Law and its Jewish rules for a new Law with its Catholic sacramentalism and moral good works. Aquinas comments, “And indeed, works are required in the New Law, namely, the works of certain sacraments, as commanded in Luke 22(:19), ‘Do this in memory of me’ and of moral observances: ‘Be doers of the word and not hearers only’ (Jas 1:22).”
According to Paul, this New Law “set[s] you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin” (Rom 8:2-3). So, the New Law should not be interpreted as a new set of rules in which man may follow to be in right relation with God, but rather a new mode to salvation: the Old being the observance of rules, the New being the recognition that God sent His own Son to make us in right relation with Him.
The New Law, therefore, pertains to what God has done for man, not what man can do for God. In order to follow the New Law/law of faith/Law of the Spirit of life one only needs to look to Christ. This Law is fulfilled by faith alone.
Augustine concurs with this:
[T]he righteous man may lawfully use a good law, and yet the law be not made for the righteous man; for it is not by the law that he becomes righteous, but by the law of faith, which led him to believe that no other resource was possible to his weakness for fulfilling the precepts which the law of works commanded, except to be assisted by the grace of God (On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 16).
This is not to say Christians are antinomian. Christians have the Holy Spirit and therefore are expected to live “Spirit-led” lives. They therefore have a desire for obedience to the moral precepts and New Testament ordinances (not only baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but traditional gender roles, head coverings, and etcetera). Paul, instead of giving a list of what is the New Law and how man must follow it simply says later that “the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4).
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
In support of our previous interpretation of verse 27 is how Paul immediately follows up in verse 28. The New Law is a law of faith where man is justified by faith apart from works of the Jewish Law specifically (though implicitly we know this speaks of the law of nature as well). Being that Paul just spent three chapters including both the Jewish Law and law of nature under the terms “Law,” it is important to remind ourselves that within this context Paul is saying that man is justified apart from works in of themselves. He says the same in Eph 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast…
This is not only the understanding of the Reformers, but also that of the early church:
He who with all his spirit has placed his faith in Christ, even if he die in sin, shall by his faith live forever (Jerome, In Isiam 46:24, PL, 24.704b, translated in Le Goff’s Birth of Purgatory).
What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent (John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians, 4.2.9).*
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.
Paul is reiterating that God shows no partiality, so He does not save Jews alone through the Law, but rather saves both circumcised and uncircumcised by faith.
31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
It is best to read this as an introduction into chapter 4. The Law is not invalidated now that it does not have to be followed in the sense the Jews understood it. Rather, it is established because the Law serves its actual purpose when understood in the Christian sense. That being, the Law convicts us of sin and it in its own words teaches us that the righteous shall live by faith. We will see this in Paul’s discussion of what the Law says about Abraham.
*This is as cited from Mark J. Edwards, ed., ACCS, NT VI: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 134. This citation also appears to be found in F. Field, ed., Interpretatio omnium Epistolarum Paulinarum per Homilias Facta (Oxford J. H. Parker, 1845-1862), 2:160). This more modern translation clears up how the quote is otherwise rendered in the Open Source translation found in Homily 4 accessible on New Advent or the Aquinas Study Bible: “What then? says a man, Hath He Himself hindered our being justified by works? By no means. But no one, he says, is justified by works, in order that the grace and loving-kindness of God may be shown. He did not reject us as having works, but as abandoned of works [i.e. not having good works to save ourselves] He has saved us by grace; so that no man henceforth may have whereof to boast” (Homilies on Ephesians, Homily 4).