Reconciling God’s Judgment and Justice
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 3:1–8
We all know what it’s like to have someone ask you an awkward question that you’d rather ignore. I have a child who is a master of the awkward question. He’s a people watcher, and if someone looks strange or they are wearing something odd, he’s not afraid to ask about it. We’ve fielded questions about weight, skin color, tattoos, smoking, and pretty much every other sensitive subject.
It has created some awkward moments for Mom and Dad. There have been many times we’ve wanted to stuff the question back in his mouth. Most of the time, it’s because we are embarrassed, but sometimes it’s a tough, awkward question to answer.
Similarly, sometimes people ask questions about the Bible or about theology that we don’t naturally want to discuss. Maybe it’s a controversial issue that gets people fired up such as debates about Calvinism vs. Arminianism or debates about eschatology.
Or you may dodge other questions because they seemingly attack the foundations of our faith, and you don’t feel like you can give a good answer. You’d rather ignore those questions than answer them. Sadly the sincere doubter is left without answers but with remaining doubts.
Thankfully, Paul was not one to run from a good question, even if it was challenging. In our text for today, he answers 4 difficult but important questions/objections to the doctrine of Romans 1–2 (read text). This is a tricky passage to follow, but you can immediately recognize that Paul opens a big can of worms, and he addresses some very important issues at the center of our faith. The first question Paul addresses is…
I. What benefit is there in being a Jew (vv. 1–2)?
Most of us are not asking this question, but any Jew of Paul’s day would have asked this exact question after reading Romans 2. This is because Paul argued that the Jews will not get preferential treatment at the final judgment. Instead, both Jews and Gentiles will be judged fairly based on the revelation they have received, and most Jews will be condemned to hell just like the Gentiles.
And in a surprising twist, Paul argues that Gentiles who have a circumcised heart by the work of the Spirit will even stand over the Jews at the last day. That’s a devastating claim for a Jew to hear. Therefore, Paul rightly anticipated that his Jewish readers would be asking the questions of 3:1. In other words, Paul just said that having the Law and circumcision won’t get the Jews preferential treatment at the judgment.
But the Law said that the Jews were God’s chosen people and that God uniquely set his love on them. Is Paul denying all this? Paul answers in v. 2. Here’s my summary of Paul’s answer…
Yes, having God’s Word and being responsible to proclaim it are tremendous advantages. The “oracles of God” describe God’s speech or God’s words. These words are an incredible blessing that Romans 1 said that many people have never enjoyed.
However, God audibly spoke to Israel on Mt. Sinai and then wrote down his Law. Then he inspired numerous prophets and biblical authors to record the remainder of the Old Testament. The result was that God gave the Jews a book unlike anything he gave to anyone else.
Moses celebrated this privilege when he said, “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lordour God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today” (Deut 4:7–8)?
Similarly, “He declares His words to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His ordinances, they have not known them. Praise the Lord” (Psalm 147:19–20)! So, God absolutely gave the Jews a unique blessing through the Scriptures.
As well, “entrusted” indicates that God also gave Israel the unique honor of proclaiming his Word to the nations. We saw in 2:19–20 that the Jews took great pride in this responsibility.
So, Paul answers this first question with an absolute yes. The Jews won’t get a free pass at the final judgment, but they were certainly blessed in this life.
We are also blessed to have God’s Word in our hands. There are few greater blessings we enjoy than the privilege of meeting God and hearing from God in Scripture. It’s also great honor to be entrusted with proclaiming God’s Word to our neighbors and to the nations. Don’t ever get so used to having a Bible that you forget what it is. It is God’s speech to you. Then read it, study it, meditate on it, obey it, and then proclaim it.
Another appropriate application is that you should give thanks if God allowed you to grow up in a Christian family and a gospel preaching church. Sometimes, we are very good at spotting all that was wrong in our upbringing and complaining about it, but we ignore all that was good.
I don’t doubt that there were problems because every church and every family have problems, and some are worse than others. But children and teens, if you are growing up under the sound of the gospel, or, adults, if you had the privilege of doing so, you are blessed, and you should give thanks. God says he has given you a great advantage. Then v. 3 raises a 2nd question…
II. Does Israel’s sin mean God was unfaithful to his covenant (vv. 3–4)?
Once again, I think we can all understand why the Jews were asking this question following Romans 2. God had made incredible promises to Israel including a great kingdom. Last Sunday night we talked about the fact that God promised to eventually save the entire nation. But Paul just said that most of them had violated the covenant, and that they would be condemned at the final judgment.
And if this is so, wouldn’t it mean that God has not kept his promises to Israel. Wouldn’t it mean that God is unfaithful? People today ask similar questions all the time. Anytime life gets difficult, or things don’t go the way we planned, we are tempted to question God’s goodness and faithfulness because we think we deserve better. Paul answers in v. 4.
The Answer: He first answers, “May it never be.” The KJV has “God forbid!” Paul uses this phrase several times in Romans when addressing challenges to the gospel. You could also say, “Perish the thought” or “Absolutely not.” Paul is denying in the strongest terms possible that there is any possibility that God could be unfaithful. God never changes, he is always true to his promises, and he is always good.
He then expands on this by adding, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” That is a wonderful statement. Sometimes our circumstances create an overwhelming fog and we can’t imagine how God could be faithful. Sinners boldly declare that the darkness of our world denies God’s faithfulness. He’s either not able to solve it, or he is not good.
But Paul gives us a wonderful anchor, “Let God be true…” I love how Habbakuk 3:17–18 express this, “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls,yet I will exult in the Lord,I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” You won’t always understand God’s ways, but you always know that he is faithful. Don’t lose this anchor.
This statement is also an important anchor whenever our world attacks the accuracy and authority of Scripture. Sometimes, they make impressive scientific claims which they say disprove what the Bible says about creation or history. They make powerful emotional appeals claiming that biblical morality is outdated or even evil. They’ll boldly tell you that they’ve proven that the Bible is not true, and neither is the God of the Bible.
Of course, there are reasonable answers to all their objections. But even if you don’t know what those answers are, remember Romans 3:4. People can be wrong even when they are very confident in what they say, but God is never wrong. Believe this book, and always bind your logic to the foundational truth claims of Scripture.
But Paul’s main concern is God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel. When Paul says that God is “true,” he is first saying, God will keep his covenant. The OT was clear that Israel was not under Roman rule because God failed but because they sinned. And just a few years prior they had crucified their Messiah. They were liars, not God.
Despite all of this, notice what Paul says in Romans 9:4–5; 11:25–29. God will fulfill his promises to Israel. He will stir a national revival in the Kingdom, and he will fulfill every promise because God is always true.
Then a 2nd answer that Paul gives is that God demonstrates his faithfulness in judgment, not just blessing. This is important because like Israel we often have a narrow view of justice. We want God to be just and faithful when we think we deserve something good. But we conveniently lose interest in justice when we sin. But Paul reminds Israel and us that God demonstrates his faithfulness in judgment just as much as in blessing.
He proves this by quoting Psalm 51:4. David wrote this psalm after Nathan confronted his sin with Bathsheba and announced God’s judgment. David said that God demonstrated his justice in judging David. Therefore, Paul’s point is that Israel’s present judgment demonstrated God’s faithfulness just as much his future blessing would.
Again, we don’t like this kind of faithfulness as much as the type that brings blessing, but we must remember that God’s judgment is always just, and it demonstrates his faithfulness.
So, although from a human perspective, Israel’s plight appeared to deny God’s faithfulness, this was not so. God is always faithful. It’s up to us to embrace all of God’s faithfulness, not just the pleasurable parts. Revelation says that someday we will worship God for his judgment, not just his mercy. We must work to maintain the same perspective today. The 3rd question is…
III. If God is glorified by our unrighteousness does that make him unrighteous (vv. 5–6)?
The Question (v. 5): This is a tough but really important question. Paul just said in v. 4b that God manifests his righteousness by judging human sin. And v. 7 goes so far as to say that God is glorified by judging our sin. If that surprises you, notice what he says in 9:21–23.
Paul clearly believed that God is glorified in his judgment of evil. Of course, that makes sense on paper, but it’s hard to stomach when God glorifies himself in judging your sins or the sins of someone you love.
And Paul’s Jewish opponent feels the same way. He doesn’t like the thought of God glorifying himself by judging Israel. But I believe his objection probably goes a step further.
This man believes he is a good person, and he can cooperate with God in his salvation by his good works. But Paul taught that we are all depraved sinners with no ability to please God on our own (3:10–11).
But if Paul is correct, and sin is inevitable, then this man is asking, “What right does God have to judge us for things we can’t help but do?” That would be like a 3rd grade teacher demanding that her class read Moby Dick in a day and then suspending them for not finishing the project on time. How is it fair for punishing someone for not doing the impossible? That’s a good question. Paul begins to answer in v. 6.
The Answer (v. 6): Once again, Paul begins with “May it never be.” In other words, “We have no right to question God’s righteousness. Perish such a blasphemous thought.”
Frankly, this is all the answer we really need. It’s not my place as a finite sinner to tell an infinite God what is just and unjust and then to sit in judgment over his actions. So, if I have a problem with God’s ways, the problem is not with God; the problem is with me.
That’s one of the major lessons that Job learned. God never told Job why he did what he did, but he did tell Job that he had no right to judge God. Job responded, “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me” (Job 42:3b–4). This sort of humility before God is vitally important.
But God often graciously gives us a little more, and Paul does just that in v. 6b. In this statement Paul draws on an assumption he shared with his Jewish opponent. Namely God will judge the pagan Gentiles. In fact, the Jews very much looked forward to this judgment because it meant the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Just think of Jonah sitting outside Nineveh waiting for God to destroy it.
In light of this we should assume that the Jewish objection in v. 5 is primarily concerned with judgment on the Jews. He didn’t mind God judging pagans, but he is specifically asking, “How is it fair for God to glorify himself by judging the Jews?”
Paul responds, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” If God is unfair in judges the Jews, that means he is unjust; therefore, he would be in no position to judge “the world,” meaning the Gentile world.
The broader point is that you can’t pick and choose where you want God to be just. He’s either always just, or he is entirely untrustworthy. But people want to pick and choose. They really want God to be gracious to them, but they want him to kick the snot out of that jerk they don’t like.
Maybe we aren’t good judges of justice, and we should just leave justice to God. I don’t have to understand all of God’s ways, but I can rest in the fact that they are good and perfectly right. The 4th question is…
IV. If God is glorified by our unrighteousness, should we sin more (vv. 7–8)?
The thought is similar to v. 5. I believe that the Jew is ultimately objecting to Paul’s doctrine of depravity and what it means for God’s judgment of the Jews. He objected to the idea that he was a sinner who couldn’t please God and stood hopelessly condemned and in need of salvation by grace alone. This sounded crazy to him.
He expresses his befuddlement with what he believes are two necessary implications of Paul’s gospel. First, v, 7 asks, “If God is glorified through the sin of hopelessly depraved sinners, then how is it just for God to judge them?”
The thought is similar to what I said earlier about asking 3rd graders to read Moby Dick in a day. How can God set people up for failure and then judge them for it? It seems absurd.
Then the opponent thinks he has nailed Paul to the wall with the implication of v. 8. “If our sin creates a sharp contrast with God that glorifies his righteousness, why try to be righteous. We should sin more to make God’s righteousness clearer.” The opponent doesn’t believe that, but he thinks he is pointing out the absurdity of a gospel based in grace, not works.
You may have a hard time following all of that, but these same basic ideas are common today. For example, many people object to the doctrines of total depravity and election by saying that they make God’s judgment unfair.
And whether they say it out loud or not, many people have used the freeness of God’s grace in the gospel to mean that they don’t have to give up their sin or pursue holiness. “If I already have my ticket to heaven, then why not enjoy my sin while I can?” So, how does Paul answer these objections?
The Answer: “Their condemnation is just.” That’s a pretty sharp response isn’t it? Paul’s saying, “Anyone who accuses God of injustice or who uses the gospel as justification for ungodliness, deserves to go to hell.” So, at least at this point, he does not tease out any sort of complete answer to the questions; he just says that they are absurd questions.
That’s not to say that he couldn’t have given more complete answers. For example, let’s go back to my 3rd grade illustration and talk about why it is invalid. Specifically, no one will be condemned for things they couldn’t do; instead, they will be justly condemned for what they did do. Unsaved humanity is not feverishly trying to finish Moby Dick in a day. No, they live in rebellion. That’s why they will be justly condemned.
And chapter 6 will give a robust answer to the objection of v. 8. Paul will argue that spiritual transformation is at the very core of the gospel’s intent. To use God’s free grace as an excuse to sin calls into question whether or not you’ve truly experienced that free grace.
Therefore, Paul’s curt answer in v. 8 is not an attempt to dodge the questions, but it is a strong rebuke for anyone who takes it upon himself to stand in judgment on God and his ways. It is not my place to judge God or to tell God what he should and shouldn’t do. Again, I can’t help but think of Job 38–41. God rebukes Job for claiming to sit in judgment on God.
So, let’s take a moment to consider the main objection in vv. 5–8. Sinners often object to the idea that God would prioritize his own glory over our good. They accuse God of being selfish or arrogant, but they do not realize how foolishly arrogant they are for thinking they are that important. God is infinite, so we are infinitely smaller. God is right to prioritize his glory.
Furthermore, they miss the fact that God’s pursuit of his own glory is the pursuit of man’s greatest good. We think we need a pain-free, comfy existence, but there is no greater good we can enjoy than to know the glory of God. So, any attempt to pit God’s glory against our good is simply foolish. As a general rule for doing theology, the bigger your God is, the better.
All of this is really helpful as we try to process all the darkness of life in a sin cursed world. We are natural worshippers of human comfort, so we tend to think God is good when I’m comfortable, and God is mean when I’m not. But the Bible is abundantly clear that seeing God, knowing God, and being transformed into the likeness of God is of far greater value than comfort.
From there, embrace the honor of glorifying God through suffering. God can bestow few greater honors on his children than to call us to display his glory to others through removing our comfort. When people see you declare by your life and your words that Jesus is better than whatever comfort he removes, you serve them well, and you please the Lord. Embrace this honor; don’t run madly away from it.
Another important application of all this is humbly submit your logic to the boundaries of Scripture. Some of the worst ideas ever imagined came about exactly after the pattern of Paul’s opponent. Someone latches onto a truly biblical idea, but they don’t bind that idea to the rest of biblical revelation. Instead, they fall in love with their own logic and sentiment. Just because something is logical does not mean it’s biblical. Check everything by Scripture and humbly stay within the boundaries of God’s Word.
Finally, hold fast to God’s character even when you don’t understand his ways. It’s easy to interpret bad circumstances as reflecting a bad God, and it’s easy to interpret God’s patience as God’s approval. On and on we could go. You will not always know what God is doing, but God tells us in his Word who he is. Stay anchored to this book, and trust him with what he hasn’t told you.