Romans 3:1-31

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In view of what Paul had said, some may have concluded that there was no benefit in having a Jewish identity. For this apparent reason, the apostle raised the question, “What, then, is the advantage of the Jew, or what is the value of circumcision?” (3:1)

In his response, the apostle did not diminish the advantage or value of having a Jewish heritage, but indicated that it was of great benefit (“much in every way”). The foremost reason for this was because the Jews had been entrusted with the “words of God.” (3:2) Of all people, they alone had a written record concerning what he had revealed to them through his prophets, making available to them a clear expression of his will and also what they needed to know to identify the coming Messiah or Christ.

One might reasonably conclude that having the benefit of God’s words should have been evident from their readiness to accept Jesus, but this was not the case. Addressing the unbelief of the Jews, Paul asked, “What then? If some did not believe, will their unbelief nullify God’s trustworthiness?” (3:3) Seemingly, the unbelief of those to whom God’s words had been committed suggested that these words and God himself were not deserving of trust. To counter this wrong conclusion, Paul continued, “Never may that be! Let God be proved true, but every man a liar, as it is written, ‘That you might be justified in your words and vindicated when you are being judged.’” (3:4) Never is God’s trustworthiness in doubt. The fault lies with humans. Their being “liars,” unreliable or untrustworthy, has no bearing on the dependability of God or his word. So their refusal to act on God’s word in faith only exposes their unreliability.

The quotation from Psalm 51:4 (50:6, LXX) confirmed this. According to the Masoretic Text, God is just when pronouncing his sentence and pure or blameless when rendering judgment. This differs from the reading of the Septuagint, which the quotation in Romans 3:4 follows. In the Septuagint and in Romans 3:4, the infinitive form of the word meaning “are being judged” is passive. In relation to “vindicated,” this could suggest that, when his words or actions are judged, God would be proved true. If this is the significance Paul wanted to convey, his point would be that a judgment of God, based on the unbelief of the Jews, would vindicate him as trustworthy. Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, despite the difference in the wording, contain an acknowledgment that what God expressed when judging the psalmist was right and, therefore, he and his word are deserving of complete trust.

Human unrighteousness, injustice, or lack of uprightness causes God’s righteousness or justice to be revealed in sharp contrast. This prompted Paul to ask, “What shall we say? Is God unjust when he inflicts wrath [wrathful punishment]?” When raising this point, the apostle did so according to human reasoning, or, as he worded it, “I am speaking according to man” (or as flawed humans might wrongly express themselves). Paul rejected the idea inherit in the question, saying, “Never may that be! How, then, is God to judge the world?” (3:5, 6)

The flawed reasoning about benefiting God through human moral failings would dispense with judgment. It would make it appear that condemnatory judgment should not be expressed against those whose wayward ways proved to be of no disadvantage to God. Such twisted reasoning would pervert justice.

Continuing with the faulty reasoning, Paul said, “But if, through my lie [failure, faithlessness, or unreliability], the truth [trustworthiness or dependability] of God abounds to his glory, why am I still being judged as a sinner? And [why] not [say], as we are blasphemed [falsely accused of teaching] and as some claim we [the editorial plural applying to Paul] are saying, ‘Let us do the evil things that the good things may come?’” (3:7, 8)

Certain ones appear to have misrepresented Paul’s teaching that the attainment of a proper standing with God did not result from striving to live up to the law but came about through faith in Christ. Flawless law observance was impossible, and so the apostle stressed that coming into an approved relationship with God was an expression of his favor or unearned kindness. Whereas Paul repeatedly emphasized that the cleansing effected through Christ and the individual’s faith in him and his sacrificial death required living an upright life, some twisted what he said, probably claiming that he promoted lawlessness by his focus on God’s grace or his unmerited favor. (Romans 6:15; 1 Corinthians 6:12; Galatians 5:1-4)

After referring to being slandered about doing evil so that good may come, Paul added, “Of whom the judgment is just.” (3:8) The antecedent for the Greek masculine plural pronoun in the genitive case (“of whom”) is not clearly apparent. It could refer either to those who slandered Paul’s teaching or to those who justified living sinful lives.

Translations reflect both meanings. “You might as well say, ‘Let’s do something evil, so that something good will come of it!’ Some people even claim that we are saying this. But God is fair and will judge them as well.” (CEV) “In this case, the slanderous report some people are spreading would be true, that we teach that one should do evil that good may come of it. In fact such people are justly condemned.” (NJB) “It would be the same to say, ‘We should do evil so that good will come.’ Some people find fault with us and say we teach this, but they are wrong and deserve the punishment they will receive.” (NCV) “Why not indeed ‘do evil that good may come’, as some slanderously report me as saying? To condemn such men as these is surely just.” (REB) “If you follow that kind of thinking, however, you might as well say that the more we sin the better it is! Those who say such things deserve to be condemned, yet some slander me by saying this is what I preach!” (NLT) “And why should we not say — for so they wickedly misrepresent us, and so some charge us with arguing — ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? The condemnation of those who would so argue is just.” (Weymouth)

The question, “What then?” relates to the thoughts Paul expressed concerning the sinful state among non-Jews and Jews. (3:9) This question is followed by a first person plural form of the Greek word proécho, which literally means “to hold before,” that is, to hold something before one for protective purposes. It can also denote “to be before,” “to be first, or “to excel.”

In the Vulgate, a form of the Latin term praecello appears and can mean “to excel” or “to surpass,” suggestive of having an advantage or being better off. Numerous modern translations have adopted this meaning, “Are we Jews any better off?” (REB) “Does it mean that we Jews are better off than the Gentiles?” (CEV) “Are we Jews then a march ahead of other men?” (J. B. Phillips) “Well then, are we Jews in any better condition than the Gentiles?” (GNT, Second Edition) The objection that has been raised in connection with these renderings is that, if (as commonly understood) the Greek verb is in the middle voice, no parallels for this significance in the middle voice have been found in other extant Greek writings.

There is a possibility that, in verse 9, the form of the word proécho is passive. In that case the meaning could be, “Are we excelled?” This would provide the basis for such renderings as, “Are we Jews more highly estimated than they?” (Weymouth) “Are we at any disadvantage?” (NRSV, footnote) “Does it mean that we Jews are worse off than the Gentiles? (CEV, footnote)

If the significance of the Greek verb relates to protecting oneself, the thought could be, “Are we protected [that is, from God’s wrath]?” If, instead of applying to the Jews, the first person plural verb is an editorial plural referring to Paul, he could be understood to be saying, “Am I protecting myself ?” The German Gute Nachricht Bibel represents Paul as asking whether he is protectively trying to avoid giving a clear explanation (Drücke ich mich um eine klare Auskunft?).

In view of Paul’s having indicated that there was a benefit in being a member of the Jewish people (3:1), it appears preferable to regard the question to relate to the Jews and specifically to the statement that follows in verse 9 (“Not at all, for above we have charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”). On this basis, the best explanation appears to be (despite the absence of grammatical support for it in other Greek writings) that, with reference to gaining an approved relationship with God, being a Jew did not constitute an advantage. Jews, like non-Jews, were under sin, unable to gain a proper standing before him through their own efforts.

The apostle then quoted a number of passages from the holy writings to prove this, introducing the quotations with the words, “as it is written.” He then continued, “No one is righteous, not even one. No one has understanding; no one is seeking God. All have deviated. Together they have become worthless. No one is doing kindness, not even one.” (3:10-12; Psalm 14:1-3 [13:1-3, LXX]; 53:1-3 [52:2-4; LXX])

In Psalm 14 (also 53), the corrupt ones are identified as enemies of God’s people (14:4; 53:4). Accordingly, Paul’s words, drawn from the expressions of the psalmist, confirm that non-Jewish peoples were not righteous but engaged in hurtful practices. The psalmist portrayed God as looking down from his heavenly position upon humans to determine whether any among them had understanding or acted wisely and were seeking him. In his quotation, Paul represents the situation according to the result of this penetrating divine examination. No one was upright; no one had understanding (the kind of understanding that recognizes the serious consequences from living a corrupt life). There was no one who wanted to seek God, desiring an approved relationship with him. All had deviated from the path of uprightness. They had become corrupt or worthless, without even as much as one practicing kindness or doing good.

“An opened grave [is] their throat.” (3:13; Psalm 5:9 [5:10, LXX]) In Psalm 5, the psalmist refers to fellow Israelites who had rebelled against God and whose words could not be trusted. Their throat, because of the words that flowed from it, was like an open burial place into which an unsuspecting person could easily fall and suffer serious injury. They used their tongues to flatter and to feign friendship while scheming to do harm.

“With their tongues, they have deceived. Poison of asps [is] under their lips.” (3:13; Psalm 140:3 [139:4, LXX]) The words of Psalm 140 (139, LXX) applied to Israelites who maliciously slandered the psalmist. Their hateful speech was deadly, as if the venom of vipers was under their lips.

“[Their] mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” (3:14; Psalm 10:7 [9:28, LXX]) “Bitterness” could refer to the malicious utterances proceeding from their mouths and which would make life bitter or distressing for those against whom they were directed. In Psalm 10, the focus is on the wicked and their hateful ways, and the context allows for the application to include peoples of non-Israelite nations. (Psalm 10:15, 16)

“Their feet [are] swift [literally, sharp] to pour out blood. Ruin and misery are in their ways, and they have not known the way of peace.” (3:15-17; Isaiah 59:7, 8) The quotation from Isaiah chapter 59 is part of the prophet’s exposure of Israel’s unfaithfulness. To attain their base objectives, lawless Israelites were quick to shed innocent blood. As they pursued their violent course, they caused others to experience ruin and suffering. Their hostile actions revealed that they knew nothing about what it meant to be at peace with God and fellow humans.

“No fear of God exists before their eyes.” (3:18; Psalm 36:1 [35:2, LXX]) Psalm 36 describes the actions of the wicked one, and so could be applied in a general sense to all who act in a corrupt manner. In the extant Septuagint text, the entire verse (from which Paul paraphrased only the concluding part) reads, “To sin, the transgressor declares in himself, there is no fear of God before his eyes.” This rendering suggests that, because of banishing any reverential regard for God, the lawless one is able to persist in sin. (See the Notes section for additional comments regarding the quotations.)

Paul referred to the collection of holy writings from which he quoted as the “law,” for these sacred writings had the force of law and provided dependable guidance. Probably including himself among the Jews to whom the “law” or the holy writings had been committed, he made the point that what the law says is addressed to those who are under it, silencing every mouth and proving that the whole world is answerable to God. Every mouth is silenced because those who are under the law cannot claim that they are without sin. The holy writings do not provide them with an excuse. Both Jews and non-Jews are exposed as sinners deserving of punishment for their wrongs. (3:19)

No one is able to observe the commands of the law flawlessly, and so no “flesh” can be justified before God. Humans simply cannot gain an approved standing before him by doing what the law says, for they cannot avoid falling short or missing the mark of faultless obedience. Accordingly, they are shown up as sinners, for the law clearly identifies what sin is and thus makes it possible for them to know or recognize sin. (3:20)

The “righteousness of God” is the righteousness of which he is the source. Through his unmerited favor, humans are granted this righteousness apart from law or without the flawless obedience to the law that would be impossible for them. The apostle Paul referred to this righteousness as “now” having been manifested, for it was not until Jesus came to the earth that how humans could obtain an approved standing with his Father was fully disclosed. Previously, however, the law and the prophets had provided testimony concerning this. (3:21) They pointed to the coming of the Messiah and that, through him, forgiveness of sins would be made possible. (Genesis 49:10; Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Isaiah 11:1-5; 53:2-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Zechariah 12:10-13:1; compare Acts 10:43; 28:23.)

It is through their faith in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished when laying down his life that humans are put right with his Father, coming into possession of his righteousness. This is true of all humans. In this regard there is no distinction between Jews and non-Jews, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:22, 23) They do not reflect the purity of the magnificent holiness of God, in whose image the first man was created.

As sinners, humans do not merit an approved standing before God. It is a generous divine gift that they can be justified or accounted as upright by God’s unmerited favor expressed through the “redemption in Christ Jesus.” (3:24) When laying down his life, Jesus provided the basis for redeeming sinners and having his righteousness accounted to them on the basis of their faith in him.

God set forth, offered, or made his Son available to humans as an atonement or expiation for their sins. They could avail themselves of this means of having their sins forgiven by faith in his blood, which he shed sacrificially for them. By making a provision for sins to be forgiven, God demonstrated his own righteousness although, in his forbearance, he had previously passed over or left unpunished the wrongs humans had committed. (3:25) The implication is that justice requires that penalties be imposed for wrongdoing. Sins are debts, and debts must be repaid. In keeping with his justice, God arranged for the full payment of the human debt load and in a manner that demonstrated his love. Accordingly, his exercise of forbearance respecting sins in the past did not call into question his righteousness or justice.

Commenting on the manner in which God deals with sinners since his Son’s death and resurrection, Paul referred to it as an arrangement “in the present time.” From then onward, God has continued to demonstrate his righteousness when justifying humans on the basis of their faith in Jesus. (3:26) In expression of God’s love, the debt of sin has been paid in full, and sinners or debtors can avail themselves of this benefit by trustingly accepting that their debt has been canceled.

The good standing before God that humans can enjoy is not one based on personal achievement, completely ruling out any boasting. Especially Jews may have felt that their fleshly distinction gave them a basis for boasting or pride, but Paul had shown that all humans were sinners, with no one having any meritorious standing before God. Through what law or on the basis what principle is boasting excluded? Paul answered, “Of works? No, but through the law of faith.” (3:27) Works depend on human effort, and can give rise to pride on the basis of outstanding achievement. Faith, on the other hand, is an acknowledgment of human helplessness and need. The contrast is between doing what the law required and putting faith or absolute trust in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death as God’s means for having sins forgiven. J. B. Phillips, in his translation, paraphrased the thought, “The whole matter is now on a different plane — believing instead of achieving.”

With apparent reference to believers, Paul continued, “We deem that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” (3:28) Being put right with God is not a matter of trying to attain the impossible, flawlessly living up to everything the law required.

If justification were just partially dependent on law observance, the Most High would be the God of the Jews only, for they alone were given the law. This appears to be the underlying reason for Paul’s words, “The God of the Jews only?” The apostle then continues, “Not also of the Gentiles? Yes, also of the Gentiles.” (3:29)

He is indeed only one God, with no sinful human or people having any special claim on him. The basis on which he justifies Jews (the circumcised) is faith, and he justifies the Gentiles (the uncircumcised) through their faith. The exclusive means for gaining an approved standing before God is faith in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished by laying down his life. (3:30)

This, though, does not mean that faith undermines law, making believers lawless persons. As Paul expressed it in answer to the question whether we believers make law ineffective through faith, “Never may that be. Instead, we establish law.” (3:31) Having been forgiven of sins on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, believers are motivated to live upright lives, appreciating the great love that has been shown to them. Moreover, law is just, and the arrangement for having sins forgiven is fair for everyone. No one has an advantage on the basis of race, nation, tribe, social standing, education, or anything else. When believers point to Jesus Christ as the sole means for gaining an approved standing with his Father, they are establishing law and revealing a just and loving provision. They are fulfilling the purpose for which the law was given and that purpose was to produce a holy people, a people whose lives reflect purity in attitude, word, and deed. (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16)


In Romans 3:10-18, the quotations do not correspond exactly to the extant Hebrew text nor to that of the Septuagint. Paul dictated his letter to the Romans, and so it is likely that he paraphrased the words as he recalled them. His use of the passages, though, harmonized with the original setting.

Fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus includes the words of Romans 3:13-18 in verse 3 of Psalm 13(14). This appears to have been a copyist’s addition taken directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans, for the wording is the same.