Category Archives: Biblical Commentary

Bad Examples of Women Pastors (But Great Examples of Godly Women)

“God made men and women different from day one of creation… sorry, day six. He meant for men to fill certain roles and women to fill certain roles. We are one body in Christ made of individual parts, each functioning in their own way. One person is not to infringe upon another or take it upon themselves to do the task given to someone else.”

In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The context here is church leadership, an instruction that continues into chapter 3. A woman is not permitted to be a pastor in a church (elder, bishop, overseer, etc.). Only a man can be a pastor.

This instruction is not limited to the time-period in which Paul was writing. It applies to all people in every place at every point in the history of the church. How do we know this? Because Paul goes all the way back to Genesis with his explanation: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (verses 13-14).

So the first reason the role of pastor is to be filled by a man is because Adam was formed first, and Eve was formed from Adam as his help-meet. The differences between the sexes and the different roles they are assigned are not a result of the fall. They were established at creation and have applied to all people in all cultures at all times.

The second reason a pastor is to be man is because Adam was not deceived by the serpent, but the woman was deceived and transgressed the law of God. This might seem unfair because Adam certainly sinned as well, and death came to all men because Adam sinned (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21). But Adam wasn’t deceived, and Eve was. So whether we’re talking about a perfect, sinless world, or the fallen, sinful one we currently inhabit, God intends that a man be the one to shepherd the flock of God (pastor means “shepherd;” see also 1 Peter 5:1-5).

Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak at church” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).

This doesn’t mean a woman is supposed to have duct-tape over her mouth from the moment she walks into church to the moment she walks out. The context is teaching the church, or administering the authority of the word of God over the gathered people of God. The role as overseer is set apart for specifically a man to fill.

This also doesn’t mean a church that obeys this instruction is oppressing women. Heavens, no! A woman sitting in that church during a gospel sermon is no more oppressed than any man in the congregation. The truth does not oppress those who listen to it — it sets them free (John 8:31). It is a woman’s delight to learn quietly with all submissiveness, and she does this in honor of the Lord.

Women serve an incredibly important role in the church. If a church was all men and no women, that would be a dysfunctional church (see Titus 2:1-8). The church is to be made up of men and women, young and old, complimenting one another in their strengths and weaknesses, working and growing together so that we may be a functioning body of Christ.

But each according to their own purpose. God made men and women different from day one of creation… sorry, day six. He meant for men to fill certain roles and women to fill certain roles. We are one body in Christ made of individual parts, each functioning in their own way. One person is not to infringe upon another or take it upon themselves to do the task given to someone else. We all submit to one another out of reverence to Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

Bad Arguments for Women Pastors
Over the weekend, a friend got into a discussion over this topic with a feminist, and the feminist retorted with a list of names — women of the Bible who were more than just “helps” but, in her view, were qualified to be pastors. That list was as follows: “Deborah, Hannah, Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Jael, Proverbs 31, Wisdom personified as woman in Proverbs 8 (present with God at creation), Phoebe, Lydia, Prisca, Mary, Mary Magdalene, [were] all just there ‘to help’?”

This is a very common tactic when arguing for why women deserve to be pastors: throw out the name of a woman from the Bible. Boom! But that name is always taken out of context. There are no examples of a woman serving as a pastor in the church. None of the apostles were women, for that matter. I can say “period” and leave it at that. The instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is clear.

But for the sake of teaching, I’d like to go through that list of names and explain why they’re actually bad examples. While they are not examples of women pastors, most of them are certainly great examples for being strong women of God.

The book of Judges captures a very dark time in Israel’s history. In those days there was no king in Israel, and the people did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6, 21:25). But God gave them judges to be their leaders, decision-makers, and deliverers.

The pattern of the story of Judges goes like this: the people sinned and worshiped false gods, the Lord sent an enemy to punish and oppress them, the people cried out for mercy, so God sent a judge to conquer their enemies and deliver a semi-repentant Israel. Wash, rinse, repeat. Three of the most famous judges were Samson, Gideon, and a woman named Deborah.

Deborah was a prophetess and a God-fearing woman who judged during a time when there were no God-fearing men. In Judges 4, Deborah confronted Barak, commander of the Lord’s army, who was reluctant to do what God had told him to do: gather his troops and fight the Canaanites. Instead, Barak told Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” So Deborah mommied him and led him by the hand to get him to obey God.

If you had been reading through Deuteronomy and Joshua, by the time you got to Judges 4, you’d recognize Israel’s digression in faith and obedience. In Deuteronomy 1:15, the tribes of Israel had wise and experienced men as heads over them. In Joshua 24:1, these men met with Joshua to renew their covenant before God. But within a generation, Israel began worshiping the Baals and forgot what the Lord had done for them (Judges 2:10-12).

It got to the point that the men weren’t doing what the leaders of Israel were supposed to do. So God placed a woman over them as though to say, “Sure, I’ll deliver you from your enemies. But to your shame, I’m going to send a woman to do what no man will do.” It was an embarrassment that Deborah was judge, not a high achievement (consider Judges 9:53 where it was to Abimelech’s shame that he was killed by a woman and not a man). In Deborah’s song of victory, she praised the tribes that stepped up to fight and lambasted those who stayed home (Judges 5:14-18).

Isaiah 3:12 says, “My people — infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them.” It is the judgment of God upon a nation when women occupy the roles that should be filled by men. Barak should have been the judge of Israel, following in the footsteps of Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar before him. But because he was kind of a weenie, God gave Deborah to do what Barak wouldn’t.

So using Deborah as an argument for why it’s okay for a woman to be a pastor really isn’t a good move. It would be to admit, “There are no godly men here, so a woman is going to have to do this job.” When a woman is pastor, the church is immature and disobedient, just like Israel was when Deborah was judge. She is a great example of a God-fearing woman. She is not an example of a pastor.

Read More

The post Bad Examples of Women Pastors (But Great Examples of Godly Women) appeared first on The Aquila Report.


(TMS) Top Ten Countdown: Online Theological Resources

During the final ten days of December, we will be posting our top ten articles from 2015. Today’s post came in at number 5. This article was originally published on July 17.

When it comes to Bible software, I use Logos more than anything else (though I know BibleWorks and Accordance are excellent too).

But what about free online resources? Thankfully, the web has made it possible for almost anyone with a computer to access hundreds of valuable study tools. For people who don’t have immediate access to a sizeable library, that’s great news.

If you’re an avid online Bible student, you are probably already familiar with the ten resources I’ve listed below. But these are the ones that I find most helpful in my own personal study.

Having said that, I’m always looking for new sites, to add even more richness to my online study time. So, if you think of one I’ve missed, be sure to add a comment and mention it.

My Top-Ten Favorite Online Study Resources

1. The John MacArthur Sermon Archive — When it comes to clearly and accurately explaining the Word of God, there is no pastor I trust more than John MacArthur. The fact that he has preached through every verse of the New Testament, and that all of those sermons are available for free online (both in audio and transcript form), means that this resource is as exhaustive as it is valuable. The topical Q&A section is also an expansive resource, giving practical and biblical instruction on a wide variety of issues.

2. The Theological Resource CenterThe featured resource on the site is a growing library of video lectures taught by the TMS faculty. These lectures can be watched, free-of-charge, by anyone with an internet connection. The site currently contains eleven full courses, consisting of more than 200 individual lectures. Over the next few months, the library will grow to include over 20 courses, offering hundreds of hours of seminary-level lecture content. When complete, this online video library will cover a wide range of topics including Bible Survey, Grammar and Exegesis, Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Biblical Counseling.

3. – This website came in handy even when I was a seminary student. I especially appreciated the interlinear Bible which worked great with the corresponding BST Greek and Hebrew fonts. While it is no substitute for Logos, this website provides a number of helpful study tools for free—including commentaries, concordances, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and lexicons. Similar sites include,, and

4. Online Commentaries – There are probably two dozen classic commentary sets available online. One of the most expansive lists of online commentaries (organized by book of the Bible) is found here. Though the majority of these commentaries are older (which is why they are now in the public domain), they still represent a wealth of insightful information about the biblical text.

5. – I appreciate two things about Bible Gateway. First, it is one of the easiest-to-use Bible searching websites. Finding passages of Scripture in multiple versions is quick and painless. Second, it is home to the online-edition of the IVP commentaries . This is one of the few modern commentaries available for free on the web.

6. Google Books– Of course, if I want to peruse modern commentaries (or other books) without going to the library, I use Google Books. I am a huge fan of Google Books; and if you’ve never used it before, you really should try it out. It is incredible. Admittedly, most of the modern books are limited to only a “preview.” But, you can still search the entire book; which makes it an extremely useful database. And, sometimes you find a gem, like the full version of John Broadus on Matthew or Martin Luther on The Sermon on the Mount.

Another nice feature (especially for seminary students) is that, if you cite a source from Google Books, you can cite the actual page in your footnotes, and not some long, messy URL.

On a side note, if a page is not viewable in Google books (because of the “preview” limitations), you can often find it at, using the “Look Inside” feature. Partnering the Google Books database with the database results in more information online and fewer trips to the library.

Google Scholar is a related resource from Google. This is not quite as helpful as Google Books, and it’s still in a Beta Version. But in essence, what Google Books is to books, Google Scholar is to journals. So, it can still turn up helpful information, especially if you’re looking for journal articles on a given topic. (Of course, a number of schools make their journals available on their websites. For example, if you’re looking to search TMSJ, you can just click here.)

7. iTunes U – So, technically, this resource utilizes iTunes and not your normal web browser … but it is an incredible resource nonetheless. A significant number of theological institutions (as well as other universities and colleges) have made lectures available for free download through iTunes. Now you can get a free seminary-level education while you commute to work or run on the treadmill.

I’ve personally benefited greatly from some of the Church History lectures that are available from various evangelical seminaries. And it’s fun to know I can “sit in” on a class at MIT or Harvard anytime I want–even if I don’t get official credit for it. (For theological students, another website that is similar to this is, though on a smaller scale, is

8. Christian Classics Ethereal Library – Speaking of Church History, an area near-and-dear to my heart, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library is undoubtedly the largest collection of historic Christian resources on the web. If I’m looking for something from the church fathers, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or Calvin, or the Puritans, CCEL is usually the first place I look.

(Of course, if I’m looking for stuff related to Charles Spurgeon, no site is better than Phil Johnson’s Spurgeon archive.)

9. – This site houses an expansive array of articles, organized by both topic and by book of the Bible. Contributors include well-known scholars like Daniel Wallace, Kenneth Boa, Darrel Bock, Eugene Merrill, and John Walvoord. (The site’s connection to Dallas Theological Seminary is no secret.) Also, this site is the home of the NET Bible, which is notable because of the translation notes that accompany the text.

10. – This site is somewhat similar to, though from a more Reformed perspective. Also, it serves largely as a topic-based portal—directing visitors to helpful articles on a wide array of subjects. The site includes an excellent database of sermon manuscripts, making it especially helpful for Bible study.

Well, there you have my top ten picks.

There are obviously many more websites that I could have mentioned. You’ll notice I kept the “blog” category completely off of this list. (Perhaps that is due to the fact that blogs tend to distract me from studying, rather than help me study.)

Having said that, I’m always looking to expand this list to include other great websites.

If you think I missed something, please share it with us in the comments section below.

The post Top Ten Countdown: Online Theological Resources appeared first on The Master’s Seminary.

TMS: A Biblical Response to Homosexuality – (6 articles from The Master’s Seminary Journal that address the issue of homosexuality from a biblical perspective)

1. God’s Word on Homosexuality: The Truth about Sin and the Reality of Forgiveness

Abstract: Through following a distorted meaning of “love,” some in the present day have condoned homosexual practice, without realizing that biblical love excludes homosexuality because of its sinfulness. Christians can best share the gospel with homosexuals by calling their lifestyle what the Bible calls it—sin. Genesis 1–2, Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 describe clearly the way that God has instituted marriage as a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. Genesis 19, Jude 7, and 2 Peter 2 illustrate how the Fall almost immediately eroded the purity of human sexuality, including a devastation of the divine institution of marriage. Leviticus 18 and 20 and Romans 1 lay out very plainly God’s instructions about how repulsive homosexuality is in God’s sight. Yet Isaiah 56 and 1 Corinthians 6 make plain God’s plan for homosexuals to find freedom and forgiveness through a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. The door is wide open for homosexuals and lesbians to accept God’s invitation.

2. The Church’s Response to Homosexuality

Abstract: A tidal wave of immorality has inundated the United States and the rest of the world, demanding that the church respond to homosexuality in four ways. First, it must expose the sinfulness of homosexuality as depicted in the NT. Second, it must clarify that the grace of God and forgiveness extends to homosexuals also. The NT also makes this clear. Third, the church must expel practicing homosexuals from its fellowship. For them to remain a part of the church activities is a blemish that cannot be tolerated because it would indicate moral compromise, a lack of courage in confronting sin, and a failure to exercise the biblical prerogative of excommunication. Fourth, the church must resist the assault of homosexuality on society as a whole. The purposeful effort to sell the homosexual lifestyle is organized and dangerous and needs a concerted resistance to halt that movement.

3. Christian Parenting and Homosexuality

Abstract: The difficulties encountered in parenting, including that caused by children’s depravity, are best resolved through implementing biblical principles. In a society that is permissive and even positive toward the homosexual lifestyle, Christian parents should adopt eleven biblical goals in rearing their children. (1) They should do everything to reflect God and His glory. (2) They should help their children understand the gospel so that they receive salvation. (3) They should protect their children from physical and spiritual harm. (4) They should instruct their children in the truths of Scripture. (5) They should interpret Scripture so as to give their children a Christian worldview. (6) They should prepare their children for the responsibilities of adulthood. (7) They should prevent their children from falling to temptation by teaching them the consequences of sin. (8) They should correct any tendencies their children display toward sinful activities. (9) They should provide for the physical and spiritual needs of their children. (10) They should provide positive behavioral examples for their children to follow. (11) They should establish clear lines of communication with their children. These goals will help them deal with the same morally degenerate world as existed during NT times.

4. Cultural and Medical Myths about Homosexuality

Abstract: Three questions need to be answered regarding cultural and medical myths about homosexuality: (1) Is there a “gay gene”? In giving a positive answer, some sources cite two categories, nature and nurture. Behavioral genetics have sought and allegedly found a source for homosexuality, but many scientists have strong questions about behavioral genetics. Various studies have failed to prove conclusively that a “gay gene” exists. (2) Is it possible for a person to change sexual orientation from being homosexual to heterosexual? The current consensus in the mental health profession is that attempts to convert a homosexual to a heterosexual are too likely to be harmful. A possibility of change has been demonstrated, but worldwide consensus continues to view such a change as impossible because of biological and psychiatric factors. Studies by Spitzer and Jones/Yarhouse have identified examples of change without harm to individuals involved. (3) How have homosexual activists impacted modern cultures throughout the world? Various pieces of legislation, both national and international, have put at risk anyone who dares to oppose homosexuality. Even some ecclesiastical leaders have softened their tone in speaking against this sexual deviation.

5. The Source and NT Meaning of Arsenokoitai with Implications for Christian Ethics and Ministry

Abstract: Traditional interpretation of rsenokotai (arsenokoitai, “homosexuals”) in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 refers to sexual vice between people of the same sex, specifically homosexuality. Some restrict the term’s meaning to “active male prostitute,” but stronger evidence supports a more general translation, namely “homosexuals.” More recently the definition “homosexual” has been opposed on cultural and linguistic grounds, the claim being that the term “homosexuals” is anachronistic. In addition, criticism of the traditional rendering says the term today includes celibate homophiles, excludes heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts, and includes female homosexuals. A concern for acts instead of the modern attention to desires was the only factor in the ancient world. The foregoing opposition to the translation of arsenokoitai by “homosexuals” has a number of debilitating weaknesses. Finally, this study argues that Paul coined the term arsenokoitai, deriving it from the LXX of Lev 20:13 (cf. 18:22) and using it for homosexual orientation and behavior, the latter of which should be an occasion for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5-6) and legislation in society (1 Tim 1:8-11).

6. God Gave Them Up: A Study in Divine Retribution

Abstract: Isaiah speaks of the judgment inflicted by God’s wrath as His strange act and His strange work. The Pauline picture of human history in Rom 1:18–3:20 tells more about God’s judgment and why it is “strange.” His threefold use of paredôken tells of God’s giving mankind over to deserved punishment, which is more than a permissive divine action and more than a privative action—a withholding of common grace. It must be a judicial act of God in imposing His wrath on mankind. The devolution in human history is reflected in the more recent tendency of society to accept the sin of homosexuality and other sexual deviations as a mere sickness and not as sin. Civilizations throughout the world, particularly in the United States, are hurrying to their destruction by neglecting the righteousness of God in Christ, thus bringing on themselves the judgment of God as described in Rom 1:18–3:20. This is God’s temporal judgment which is preliminary to His eternal judgment on a rebellious human race. Retributive justice is an attribute of God and a necessary feature of His actions toward unbelieving humanity.

The Apparent Paradox of Sanctification – John MacArthur


Philippians 2:12-13

Code: B140702

by John MacArthur

How do you overcome sin and live the Christian life?  Is defeating sin something God does in you, or do you defeat it by obeying the commands of Scripture? In other words, is the Christian life an exercise in passive trust or active obedience? Is it all God’s doing, all the believer’s doing, or a combination of both? Those questions are as old as the church, and the varied answers have spawned movements and denominations.

This is not an unusual issue when dealing with spiritual truth. Many doctrines involve seeming paradoxes. For example, Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man; and while Scripture was written by human authors, God wrote every word. The gospel is offered to the whole world, yet applied only to the elect. God eternally secures believers’ salvation, yet they are commanded to persevere.

Christians who try to reconcile every doctrine in a humanly rational way are inevitably drawn to extremes. Seeking to remove all mystery and paradox, they emphasize one truth or aspect of God’s Word at the expense of another which seems to contradict it. This is precisely how many Christians have handled the doctrine of sanctification. One view of sanctification emphasizes God’s role to the virtual exclusion of the believer’s effort. This is often referred to as quietism. The opposite extreme is called pietism.

The quietist sees believers as passive in sanctification. A common maxim is, “Let go and let God.” Another is, “I can’t; God can.” Quietism tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. A person who is utterly submitted to and dependent on God, they say, will be divinely protected from sin and led into faithful living. Trying to strive against sin or discipline oneself to produce good works is considered not only futile but unspiritual and counterproductive.

One champion of this view was the devout Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith, whose book The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life has been read by millions. In it she writes,

What can be said about man’s part in this great work but that he must continually surrender himself and continually trust? But when we come to God’s side of the question, what is there that may not be said as to the manifold ways, in which He accomplishes the work entrusted to Him? It is here that the growing comes in. The lump of clay could never grow into a beautiful vessel if it stayed in the clay pit for thousands of years; but when it is put into the hands of a skilful potter it grows rapidly, under his fashioning, into the vessel he intends it to be. And in the same way the soul, abandoned to the working of the Heavenly Potter, is made into a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the Master’s use. (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1952, 32. Italics in original.)

How a Christian can fall into sin is a difficult question for the quietist to answer. They are forced to argue that such a person obviously misunderstands the matter of complete surrender, and has taken himself out of the hands of the heavenly Potter. But that flawed answer brings God’s sovereignty into question—if the Lord is completely in control, how can a believer take himself out of God’s hands?

Pietists, on the other hand, are typically aggressive in their pursuit of doctrinal and moral purity. Historically, this movement originated in seventeenth-century Germany as a reaction to the dead orthodoxy of many Protestant churches. To their credit, most pietists place strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, self-discipline, and practical Christianity. They emphasize such passages as “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1) and “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17).

Unfortunately, this unbalanced view often leads to an overemphasis on self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power. As you might expect, pietism frequently leads to legalism, moralism, self-righteousness, a judgmental spirit, pride, and hypocrisy.

The quietist says, “Do nothing.”

The pietist says, “Do everything.”

In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul presents the appropriate resolution between the two. He makes no effort to rationally harmonize the believer’s part and God’s part in sanctification. He is content with the paradox and simply states both truths, saying on the one hand, sanctification is of believers (Philippians 2:12), and on the other hand, it is of God (Philippians 2:13).

The truth is that sanctification is God’s work, but He performs it through the diligent self-discipline and righteous pursuits of His people, not in spite of them. God’s sovereign work does not absolve believers from the need for obedience; it means their obedience is itself a Spirit-empowered work of God.

Today there is an intense debate within the church about this vital issue. The stakes are high—your view of sanctification informs and directs how you understand your new nature in Christ, how you evangelize others, pursue godliness, govern your heart and mind, how you raise and discipline your children, and how you understand and follow God’s commands in Scripture. For pastors and church leaders, your position on this issue will determine how you preach and teach, how you give counsel to troubled hearts, and how you engage in church discipline.

Neither quietism nor pietism represents the biblical path of sanctification. Both are spiritual ditches to steer clear of—they will impede your spiritual progress, and potentially obstruct it altogether.

In the days ahead, we’re going to examine the model of sanctification Paul presents in Philippians 2, and explore the dual realities of God’s sovereign work and man’s responsibility.


(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians.)

Available online at:
COPYRIGHT ©2014 Grace to You

Sin and the Work of the Spirit – John MacArthur


Code: B140630

by John MacArthur

There is colossal confusion about what it means to be a Christian. Through mass communication the culture receives conflicting messages about what defines authentic Christianity. Cults, charismatic speakers, and criminally convicted church leaders only muddle the confusion on a grand scale.

What’s perhaps worse than confusing the culture is giving false confidence to professing Christians and false doubts to true believers. False confidence comes from a gospel of cheap grace where one can believe without any cost to themselves (contrary to Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38). False doubts rise out of accusations of legalism and works-righteousness.

These problems are not new. Nearly as soon as the church began, counterfeit Christians brought confusion. The longest living apostle who witnessed counterfeits of every kind addressed these very issues under the inspiration of the Spirit.

The book of 1 John is about testing the authenticity of your faith. It’s about knowing what a true Christian’s life ought to look like, and carefully evaluating yourself according to the standard the apostle John spells out for his readers.

John’s portrait of true faith highlights the conflict between sin and saving faith. Over and over, he makes clear that true believers cannot and will not continue to live in open, unrepentant sin after salvation. That’s particularly clear in the verses we’ve been discussing over the last few weeks (1 John 3:4-10).

And as we come to the end of this passage, John presents us with one more reason that sin and saving faith are incompatible. The first two focused on the nature of sin and the work of Christ; today we focus on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

Old Sin Versus New Birth

No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)

The new birth—what John calls being “born of God”—epitomizes the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:3-8). The Spirit implants in those He regenerates the essence of His divine life, which John pictures as a “seed.” Just as a human birth results from an implanted seed that grows into new physical life, so also spiritual life begins when, at the moment of regeneration, the divine seed is implanted by the Spirit within the one who believes.

The instrument by which the Spirit gives new birth to sinners is the Word of God. As the apostle Peter explained to the readers of his first letter,

You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25)

The new birth is from imperishable seed, securing the believer’s salvation for eternity. It enlightens the mind so one can discern spiritual realities (1 Corinthians 2:10, 13-14). It gives believers the mind of Christ so they can understand the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:16). It liberates and energizes the enslaved will, previously unable to obey God but now freely able and willing to do so (John 6:44, 65; Colossians 2:13).

The new birth signals the end of the sinner’s old life. Those who were hopelessly corrupt become new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), buried with Him and raised unto a new life of righteousness (Romans 6:4; Ephesians 4:24). Therefore he states again that believers cannot practice sin because they are born of God.

God’s Work or My Work?

The new birth is also a monergistic operation, which means God’s Spirit alone accomplishes it (as opposed to synergistic, which means that human effort participates in the process). Paul’s language in Ephesians 2:4-6 is unmistakably clear in this regard:

God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Because unregenerate people are spiritually dead, they are unable to respond to divine truth. This doctrine of total depravity—better understood as the doctrine of total inability—does not mean that the unredeemed are as sinful as they could possibly be. Rather, it means that the fallen, sinful nature affects every area of life and renders them incapable of saving themselves. Thus the spiritually dead person needs to be made alive by God alone, through His Spirit. That same power energizes every aspect of Christian living (Ephesians 1:19-20; Colossians 2:12-13).

The Spirit-Empowered Result of Salvation

John concludes our passage with the summary statement of verse 10: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”

There are only two groups of people in the world: “the children of God and the children of the devil.” The first exhibits God’s righteous character through obeying His law; the second exhibits Satan’s sinful character by disregarding the Word and habitually sinning. No matter what people may profess, or what past religious ritual or experience they may point to, the true nature of their faith ultimately shows itself in how they live.

The popular gospel today has no time for that truth. It only wants to drum up an emotional moment and affirm people’s salvation on the basis of that moment rather than on the evidence of a transformed life. But a no-repentance, no-holiness, no-submission, no-transformation gospel is the devil’s lie to give false security to damned people.

If you truly love the Lord, your life will evidence the authority of His Word, the righteousness of His Son, and the manifest work of His Spirit. If it doesn’t, then you have good reason to question whether you truly belong to Him.


(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John.)

Available online at:
COPYRIGHT ©2014 Grace to You

Sin and the Work of Christ – John MacArthur


Code: B140626

by John MacArthur

What did Jesus set out to accomplish? Did His death and resurrection have any practical effect for this life, or was it all focused on eternity? Consider this: the holy Son of God set aside His glory, humbled Himself by taking the form of a man, lived a righteous life, and willingly surrendered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of others. Was all intended merely to forgive sin without removing it?

The apostle John wrote his first epistle to help his readers test the authenticity of their faith. These tests come down to examining whether Christ’s work has had its necessary effect on their lives. And in 1 John 3:5-8, he makes it clear that Christ’s work on our behalf ought to have a significant sanctifying impact in the lives of His people.

You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.

Christ’s Work on Our Behalf

Jesus came to earth “in order to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). He came not only to pay the penalty for sin and provide forgiveness, but also to take sins away altogether. As a result of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, believers have been set apart from sin unto holiness. The lawlessness that once characterized their lives has been removed.

Therefore, it is inconsistent with His redeeming work on the cross for anyone who shares in the very life of Christ to continue in sin. In other words, because Christ died to sanctify the believer (2 Corinthians 5:21), to live sinfully is contrary to His work of breaking the dominion of sin in the believer’s life (cf. Romans 6:1-15).

The truth that Christ came to destroy sin is not merely a future hope; it is a present reality. John is not saying—as some have tried to infer—that believers will eventually be delivered from sin when they die, and in the meantime can be as sinful as they were before their conversion. On the contrary, while sanctification may be slow and gradual, Christ’s transforming work in salvation is immediate (Philippians 1:6).

At salvation believers experience a real cleansing of and separation from their sins. On a practical level, that separation continues as they become more and more conformed to the image of Christ. Titus 2:11-14 summarizes well the present and future aspects of sanctification.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.

So the one-time work of Christ on the cross initiates His ongoing work in our lives. But what fuels that ongoing work? What transformation takes place that enables us to overcome sin in this life?

Our New Nature in Christ

John concludes verse 5 with the phrase “in Him there is no sin.” Jesus Christ is the sinless One (2 Corinthians 5:21). This truth has immense practical ramifications. “If you know that He is righteous,” John wrote earlier in the epistle, “you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29). When God’s saving power is applied to a new believer, they are born again—they receive a new nature. And like a newborn baby, they embark on a life of learning to live in God’s kingdom.

Then in verse 6 the apostle describes the character of the person saved through the work of Jesus Christ. “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” Abiding in Christ can be likened to dwelling in His kingdom, following His laws, and celebrating His victories. In short, the new nature draws one toward Christ and away from sin.

Years earlier Paul taught the same truth to the Roman believers.

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:4-7)

That description outlines key provisions of the New Covenant (Ezekiel 36:25-31), which Paul further elaborates:

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)

The emphasis of the apostle’s statements is on sanctification. True Christians have the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-17), receive a new heart (Acts 16:14), complete forgiveness (Colossians 1:14), and a transformed life (Colossians 3:5-10)—all evidenced in their new ability to obey the law of God.

Sanctification and Assurance

John taught that “no one who sins” (1 John 3:6) can also abide in Christ. It is not that people who become Christians will never sin again (1 John 1:8), but that they will not live as they once did, because “no one who sins” consistently or habitually in the pattern of the unregenerate “has seen Him or knows Him” (3:6).

John further cautioned his readers to make sure no one deceived them concerning a correct understanding of sanctification. Despite any deceptive teaching to the contrary, only the one “who practices righteousness” can have any assurance that he “is righteous, just as [Jesus] is righteous” (1 John 3:7).

John makes the obvious conclusion that because “the Son of God appeared . . . to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), it is impossible and unthinkable that true believers would continue in devil-like behavior. Today Satan is still opposing the plans and people of God (1 Peter 5:8), but believers are no longer his children or under his rule. We who know and love Christ have been freed from the captivity of sin, and the apostle John—through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—says we must live accordingly.

So far we’ve seen that a lifestyle of sin is incompatible with saving faith because sin is lawlessness, and true believers have had that defiant, lawless heart replace with a heart of repentance. Today we’ve seen how Christ’s work not only forgives sin, but initiates the life-long process of sanctification. John has one final argument for why sin is incompatible with saving faith, and it focuses on the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. We’ll wrap up this series with that last point next time.


(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John.)

Available online at:
COPYRIGHT ©2014 Grace to You

Lawless Christians? – John MacArthur


1 John 3:4

Code: B140624

by John MacArthur

Everyone sins, and everyone knows it. While it is true that fallen human nature minimizes or redefines sin, everyone knows they don’t meet the standard of perfection. Whether they call them “sins” or “mistakes,” everyone will admit to having lied, lusted, or lashed out in anger at some point in their lives—if not regularly.

That being the case, what is the difference between the sins of believers and unbelievers? When a believer sins, is it the same as when an unbeliever sins?

The Nature of Sin

The two primary biblical definitions of sin are “missing the mark” (hamartia) and “without righteousness” (adikia). At its core, sin is a transgression of God’s law; it is to think and behave as if there were no law. The apostle John emphasizes that lawless characteristic when he writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

John wrote his epistle to help believers test the authenticity of their faith (1 John 5:13). Unlike many today, John does not test saving faith on the basis of a signed card, a walk down the aisle, or even a prayer made in a moment of contrition. In the passage we’re considering in this series, he’s focused on the incompatibility of sin with saving faith, and he’s making three arguments for the holiness of believers.

John’s first argument is that sin is incompatible with the law of God. As we saw in 1 John 3:4, he explicitly equates sin with an attitude of lawlessness and rebellion against God (cf. Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21).

Diagnosing Unbelievers’ Sin

John’s description of sin allows for no exceptions or double standards. Everyone who habitually practices sin is living in an ongoing condition of lawlessness. That’s not to say that they’re sinning to the full extent of their depravity. The lawlessness John refers to is more of an attitude than an action. It’s not merely transgressing God’s law—it’s living with an indifference to the law, as if there was no law-Giver at all.

We must not underestimate the severity of the unrepentant sin that flows from unbelief. We can’t define sin in bits and pieces as individual acts alone. Of course each individual sin is a serious offense to God, but we also need to be able to recognize and biblically diagnose the profound lawlessness of the unredeemed heart.

Diagnosing Believers’ Sin

If you’re a Christian, you no longer have that dominant attitude of lawlessness. The truly penitent heart resolves to obey God’s law (Psalm 19:7-11), deny fleshly lusts (Romans 13:14), resist the world’s allurements (Titus 2:12), and willingly submits to the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ in all things. Those whom God has saved and transformed have traded slavery to sin for slavery to God, as Paul wrote:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)

That’s not to say believers never sin—no honest Christian would make that claim. But when we do give in to temptation, we experience godly sorrow, not an attitude that is cavalier and rebellious. The believer’s sin is not the product of a heart bent in defiant lawlessness.

Instead we’re heartbroken over transgressing God’s law. It’s the attitude David displays in Psalm 32 and 51, where he pleads for God’s mercy in the aftermath of grievous sin. We share the frustration with lingering sin that Paul expresses in Romans:

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. . . . For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:15, 18-20)

That penitent heartbreak comes from our love of God and His law. At salvation, each believer bows his knee to the lordship of Christ. It’s a commitment to obey Him, follow Him, and fulfill His law. The believer’s life is marked by willful, loving submission to God’s law in the pursuit of holiness. We understand that the law isn’t a system of works righteousness, or a legalistic set of outdated rules. It’s an expression of God’s holy character, and we join the refrain of Psalm 119, confessing “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).

Therefore, how could authentic believers live in open, unrepentant lawlessness? John says they can’t.

But the lawless nature of sin is only the first of three reasons John gives for his conclusion. Next time we’ll look at how sin is also incompatible with the work of Christ.


(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John.)

Available online at:
COPYRIGHT ©2014 Grace to You

Wrong Answers to the Right Question – John MacArthur


1 John 3:4-10

Code: B140617

by John MacArthur

What does saving faith look like? Does it produce a life marked by increasing righteousness, holiness, and good fruit? Or is salvation a momentary event that has no lasting impact in the life of a Christian?

We’ve been considering those and other important questions in the face of popular theological trends that drive a wedge between salvation and sanctification. The heart of the issue is determining the biblical marks of authentic faith—how does a saved person live his or her life? To that end, we’ve focused our thoughts on the book of 1 John—specifically 1 John 3:4-10.

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

Right away, some key statements jump out at us. The first is found in verse 6, where the apostle John writes that “no one who abides in Him sins.” This theme echoes throughout the passage, and John expands on it in verse 9 with the words “because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin.” At face value, it appears John is saying that sin is impossible for believers.

Those are astounding statements, especially considering 1 John 1:8. There he writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And again in verse 10, he writes, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” In the short space of a couple chapters, John makes what seem to be very contradictory statements about the existence of sin in a believer’s life.

There have been several theological attempts to harmonize John’s apparent contradiction. Some make the case that the sin John refers to in chapter 3 is only mortal sin. In fact, that’s the view of the Catholic Church, which differentiates between venial (forgivable) and mortal sins. But that’s a false, unbiblical dichotomy. All sin carries with it the same consequences (Romans 6:23).

Others argue that John is only referring to willful, deliberate sin. The idea is that Christians don’t actively commit sin; they merely suffer it. But the New Testament never depicts believers as helpless victims of iniquity. On the contrary, it teaches that believers sin because they choose to yield to temptation (James 1:14-15).

At one extreme end of the discussion, perfectionists would assert that believers can gradually overcome sin until they become completely sinless. In that system, the Christian lives in a constant struggle with sin, regularly losing and gaining ground against its influence, until he eventually reaches sinless perfection or loses his salvation altogether.

At the opposite end of the debate you’ll find the antinomian view. The term antinomian comes from the Greek word for law (nomos), and it refers to people who live without regard for the law of God. Antinomians believe that sin in the life of the believer simply doesn’t matter, since every aspect of his or her life is covered by grace. That corrupt view—which Paul taught against in Romans 6:12-18—is still popular today.

Modern proponents of cheap grace and easy-believism have their own means of explaining of John’s apparent contradiction. Some say the apostle was exhorting lawless, misbehaving Christians to rededicate their lives to the Lord and move from immature, carnal behavior to spirituality. With that interpretation, they attempt to tone down the letter and make it less definitive or harsh. But their arguments cannot account for John’s clear purpose for writing the letter—“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). The dichotomy John presents is not mature faith versus immature faith, but rather a saving faith versus a non-saving one.

Still others miss the meaning and application of the passage due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of saving faith. They incorrectly believe that repentance is nothing more than a synonym for faith, and therefore does not refer to turning from sin. Turning from sin, they say, is unnecessary for salvation. Saving faith, then, is nothing more than mere intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel. Pleading with sinners to repent from sin is tantamount to asking them to contribute works to their own salvation. Hence, they accept that salvation may make no change at all in a person’s doctrine or behavior. Even a lifelong state of carnality is not sufficient reason to doubt someone’s salvation.

All those popular views and interpretations attempt to harmonize the apparent contradiction in 1 John. And not one of them gets it right.

The true key to understanding John’s apparent contradiction is Greek grammar. In the passage above, John refers to sin in the present tense, indicating continuous, habitual action. In other words, John is not referring to occasional acts of sin, but to established and continual patterns of sinful behavior. Believers will sometimes sin (Romans 7:14-25)—even willfully—but they will not and cannot sin habitually and persistently as a way of life (cf. Romans 6:4-14; Galatians 5:24; Ephesians 2:10).

When the Holy Spirit draws sinners to God, regenerates them, and grants them eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, they are recreated (2 Corinthians 5:17). The nature of the new creature in Christ is to obey the Word, follow Christ, reject the temptations of the world, and display the fruits of righteousness in their lives (Romans 8:6; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 3:2). While the old nature is still present, there is a new desire, interest, and capacity to love and obey the Lord that wasn’t there before.

John’s apparent contradiction is no contradiction at all. In chapter one, he refutes false teachers who claim to have advanced beyond any struggle with sin (1 John 1:8-10). He goes on in chapter two to make it clear that if someone does not obey Christ’s commands (2:3) and live righteously (e.g., demonstrate love [2:9-10]), he is not a believer. In our passage from chapter three, the apostle reinforces the tests of faith he has already established. In doing so, he further refutes false teachers who minimize or deny the significance of sin. His teaching is just as vital today in the face of similar false teaching. Jesus sacrificed Himself not only to perfect people in the future, but to purify them in the present (Ephesians 5:25-27). Minimizing sin in the church goes against the very work of Christ.

In short, John’s point is that a lifestyle of sin is incompatible with true, saving faith. The life of the believer cannot be marked by patterns of unbroken, unrepentant sin. But John doesn’t leave us with that simple truth. He goes on in the passage to provide three reasons this reality is critical to understand.

We’ll look at the first one next time.


(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John.)

Available online at:
COPYRIGHT ©2014 Grace to You

God’s Faithfulness and Justice (Romans 3:1–8)

The Advantage of Being Jewish


Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged.” 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.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just. (3:1–8)

Looking at the rather tragic history of the Jewish people, one is not inclined to think there has been any advantage in being a Jew. In spite of the reality that they are such a noble strain of humanity and chosen by God, their history has been a saga of slavery, hardship, warfare, persecution, slander, captivity, dispersion, and humiliation.

They were menial slaves in Egypt for some 400 years, and after God miraculously delivered them, they wandered in a barren wilderness for forty years, until an entire generation died out. When they eventually entered the land God had promised them, they had to fight to gain every square foot of it and continue to fight to protect what they gained. After several hundred years, civil war divided the nation. The northern kingdom eventually was almost decimated by Assyria, with the remnant being taken captive to that country. Later, the southern kingdom was conquered and exiled in Babylon for seventy years, after which some were allowed to return to Palestine.

Not long after they rebuilt their homeland, they were conquered by Greece, and the despotic Antiochus Epiphanes reveled in desecrating their Temple, corrupting their sacrifices, and slaughtering their priests. Under Roman rule they fared no better. Tens of thousands of Jewish rebels were publicly crucified, and under Herod the Great scores of male Jewish babies were slaughtered because of his insane jealousy of the Christ child. In the year a.d. 70, the Roman general Titus Vespasian carried out Caesar’s order to utterly destroy Jerusalem, its Temple, and most of its citizens. According to Josephus, over a million Jews of all ages were mercilessly butchered, and some 100,000 of those who survived were sold into slavery or sent to Rome to die in the gladiator games. Two years previously, Gentiles in Caesarea had killed 20,000 Jews and sold many more into slavery. During that same period of time, the inhabitants of Damascus cut the throats of 10,000 Jews in a single day.

In a.d. 115 the Jews of Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia rebelled against Rome. When they failed, Emperor Hadrian destroyed 985 towns in Palestine and killed at least 600,000 Jewish men. Thousands more perished from starvation and disease. So many Jews were sold into slavery that the price of an able-bodied male slave dropped to that of a horse. In the year 380 Emperor Theodosius I formulated a legal code that declared Jews to be an inferior race of human beings-a demonic idea that strongly permeated most of Europe for over a thousand years and that even persists in many parts of the world in our own day.

For some two centuries the Jews were oppressed by the Byzantine branch of the divided Roman empire. Emperor Heroclitus banished them from Jerusalem in 628 and later tried to exterminate them. Leo the Assyrian gave them the choice of converting to Christianity or being banished from the realm. When the first crusade was launched in 1096 to recapture the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks, the crusaders slaughtered countless thousands of Jews on their way to Palestine, brutally trampling many to death under their horses’ hooves. That carnage, of course, was committed in the name of Christianity.

In 1254 King Louis IX banished all Jews from France. When many later returned to that country, Philip the Fair expelled 100,000 of them again in 1306. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain even as Columbus began his first voyage across the Atlantic, and four years later they were expelled from Portugal as well. Soon most of western Europe was closed to them except for a few areas in northern Italy, Germany, and Poland. Although the French Revolution emancipated many Jews, vicious anti-Semitism continued to dominate most of Europe and parts of Russia. Thousands of Jews were massacred in the Ukraine in 1818. In 1894, because of growing anti-Semitism in the French army, a Jewish officer named Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and that charge was used as an excuse to purge the military of all Jews of high rank.

When a number of influential Jews began to dream of reestablishing a homeland in Palestine, the Zionist movement was born, its first congress being convened in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. By 1914, some 90,000 Jews had settled in Palestine. In the unparalleled Nazi holocaust of the early 1940s at least 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated, this time for racial rather than religious reasons.

Although in our society anti-Semitism is seldom expressed so openly, Jews in many parts of the world still suffer for no other reason than their Jewishness. From the purely historical perspective, therefore, Jews have been among the most continuously and harshly disadvantaged people of all time.

Not only have Jews historically had little social or political security, but in Romans 2:17–20 Paul declares that, although they are God’s specially chosen and blessed people, Jews do not even have guaranteed spiritual security-either by physical lineage or religious heritage. Being born a descendant of Abraham, knowing God’s law, and being circumcised did not assure them a place in heaven. In fact, rather than protecting Jews from God’s judgment, those blessings made them all the more accountable for obedience to the Lord.

After having demolished the false securities on which most Jews relied, Paul anticipated the strong objections his Jewish readers would make. The truths he sets forth in the book of Romans he had taught many times before in many places, and he knew what the most common objections in Rome would be.

Paul had confronted Jewish objectors from the beginning of his ministry when Paul took the four Jewish Christians into the Temple to fulfill a vow, for example. The leaders seized him and cried out to the crowd that had gathered, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place” (Acts 21:28). It was because Paul had a reputation for teaching such things that the Christian elders in Jerusalem persuaded him to take the men into the Temple for purification, thinking such an act would convince the leaders that Paul had not forsaken the teaching of Moses (see vv. 21–24).

In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul said,

I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance. For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death. And so, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place. (Acts 26:19–22)

The apostle did not teach that Jewish heritage and the Mosaic law ceremonies were not important. Because they were God-given, they had tremendous importance. But they were not in Paul’s day, and had never been, the means of satisfying the divine standard of righteousness. They offered Jews great spiritual advantages, but they did not provide spiritual security.

After his conversion, Paul continued to worship in the Temple when he was in Jerusalem and faithfully practiced the moral teachings of the Mosaic law. He personally circumcised Timothy, who was Jewish on his mother’s side, as a concession to the Jews in the region of Galatia (Acts 16:1–3). He even continued to follow many of the ceremonial customs and the rabbinical patterns in order not to give undue offense to legalistic Jews, as noted in Acts 21:24–26.

But the essence of his preaching was that none of those outward acts have any saving benefit and that a person can become right with God only through trust in His Son Jesus Christ. It was that truth of salvation only by God’s grace working through man’s faith that the unbelieving Jews found intolerable, because it exposed the worthlessness of their traditions and the hypocrisy of their ostentatious devotion to God.

Self-righteous, self-satisfied Jews could not stand any attack on their supposed Abrahamic security and their man-made legalism. The apostle had learned from all these experiences that unbelieving Jews would always accuse him of teaching against God’s chosen people, against God’s promises to His people, and against God’s purity. It is therefore those three objections that he confronts in Romans 3:1–8.

The Objection That Paul Attacked God’s People

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. (3:1–2)

Paul’s accusers continually charged him with teaching that the Lord’s calling of Israel to be His special people was meaningless. If that were so, the apostle blasphemed the very character and integrity of God.

Paul knew the questions that some Jews in Rome would ask after they read or hear about the first part of his letter. “If our Jewish heritage, our knowing and teaching the Mosaic law, and our following Jewish rituals such as circumcision do not make a Jew righteous before God,” they would wonder, “then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?”

Many Scripture passages would have come to their minds. Just before God presented Israel with the Ten Commandments, He told them, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Moses wrote of Israel, “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples” (Deut. 10:14–15). In the same book Moses wrote, “You are a holy people to the Lord your God; and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (14:2). The psalmist exulted, “The Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession” (Ps. 135:4). Through Isaiah, the Lord declared of Israel, “The people whom I formed for Myself, will declare My praise” (Isa. 43:21).

Because of those and countless other Old Testament passages that testify to Israel’s unique calling and blessing, many Jews concluded that, in itself, being Jewish made them acceptable to God. But as Paul has pointed out, being physical descendants of Abraham did not qualify them as his spiritual descendants. If they did not have the mark of God’s Spirit within their hearts, the outward mark of circumcision in their flesh was worthless (Rom. 2:17–29).

Nevertheless, Paul continues, the advantage of being Jewish was great in every respect. Although it did not bring salvation, it bestowed many privileges that Gentiles did not have. Later in the epistle, Paul tells his readers, doubtlessly with tears in his eyes as he wrote, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh” (9:3–5).

The Jews as a people had been adopted by God as His children, with whom He had made several exclusive covenants. He had given them His holy law and promised that through their lineage the Savior of the world would come. The Jewish people were indeed special in God’s eyes. They were blessed, protected, and delivered as no other nation on earth.

But most Jews paid little attention to the negative side of God’s revelation to them. He proclaimed of Israel, “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth,” but immediately went on to say, “therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). With high privilege also came high responsibility.

In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a feast given by a king to celebrate his son’s marriage. Several times he sent messengers to the invited guests telling them that the feast was ready, but each time they ignored the invitation. Some of them even beat and killed the messengers. The enraged king sent his soldiers to destroy the murderers and set their cities on fire. The king then sent other messengers to invite everyone in the kingdom to the feast, regardless of rank or wealth (Matt. 22:1–9).

That parable pictures Israel as the first and most privileged guests who were invited to celebrate the coming of God’s Son to redeem the world. But when the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God opened the door to Gentiles, those whom the king’s messengers found along the highways and in the streets. I believe that the guests who attended the feast represent the church, people in general who acknowledge Christ as God’s Son and received Him as Lord and Savior.

Through Isaiah, the Lord lamented of Israel, “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Isa. 5:4). The answer, of course, was that there was nothing more that God could have done for His people. He had bestowed on them every conceivable blessing and advantage.

Becoming more specific regarding their benefits, Paul said to his hypothetical Jewish objectors, “You were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Logion (oracles) is a diminutive of logos, which is most commonly translated word. Logion generally referred to important sayings or messages, especially supernatural utterances.

Although oracles is a legitimate translation (see also Acts 7:38; Heb. 5:12), because of the term’s association with pagan rites, that rendering seems unsuitable in this context. In many pagan religions of that day, mediums and seers gave occultic predictions of the future and other messages from the spirit world through supernatural “oracles.” By observing the movements of fish in a tank, the formation of snakes in a pit, or listening to the calls of certain birds, fortune-tellers would purport to predict such things as business success or failure, military victory or defeat, and a happy or tragic marriage.

Such a connotation could not have been further from Paul’s use of

logion in this passage. His point was that the Jews were entrusted with the very words of the one and only true God, referring to the entire Old Testament (cf. Deut. 4:1–2; 6:1–2). God’s revelation of Himself and of His will had been entrusted to the Jews, and that gave them unimaginably great privilege as well as equally immense responsibility.

As the poet William Cowper wrote,

They, and they only, amongst all mankind,

Received the transcript of the Eternal Mind;

Were trusted with His own engraven laws,

And constituted guardians of His cause;

Theirs were the prophets, theirs the priestly call,

And theirs, by birth, the Savior of us all.

Tragically, however, Jews had focused much attention on their privileges but little on their responsibilities. During one period of their history they misplaced and lost the written record of God’s law. Only when a copy of it was found by Hilkiah the high priest during the restoration of the Temple did Judah begin again to honor the Lord’s commandments and observe His ceremonies for a brief time under the godly King Josiah (see 2 Chron. 34:14–33).

For many centuries before the time of Paul, beginning during the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews’ reverence for her man-made rabbinical traditions and interpretations had come to far outweigh her reverence for God’s written Word.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day prided themselves as being experts in the Scriptures. But when the Sadducees tried to maneuver Jesus into a corner by asking a hypothetical question about marriage in heaven, He rebuked them by saying, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures, or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24).

To a crowd of unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem the Lord declared, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (John 5:39). In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man died and went to hell. From there he cried out to Abraham to send a special messenger to tell his brothers the way of salvation. But Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, the Old Testament contained all the truth that any Jew (or any Gentile, for that matter) needed to be saved. Jews who truly believed the Scriptures recognized Jesus as the Son of God, because He is the focus of the Old Testament as well as the New. But most Jews preferred to follow the traditions of the rabbis and elders rather than “the sacred writings which are able to give … the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).

That same attitude has characterized much of Christianity throughout its history. The teachings and standards of a denomination or of an exclusive group or sect have frequently overshadowed, and often completely contradicted, God’s own revelation in the Bible.

Belonging to a Christian church is much like it was to be a Jew under the Old Covenant. Outward identity with those who claim to be God’s people, even when they are genuine believers, is in itself of no benefit to an unbeliever. But such a person does have a great advantage above other unbelievers if in a church he is exposed to the sound teaching of God’s Word. If he does not take advantage of that privilege, however, he makes his guilt and condemnation worse than if he had never heard the gospel. “For if we go on sinning will-fully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:26–27; cf. 4:2–3).

The Objection That Paul Attacked God’s Promises

What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged.” (3:3–4)

The next objection Paul anticipated and confronted was that his teaching abrogated God’s promises to Israel. As any student of the Old Testament knows, God’s promises to His chosen people are numerous. How, then, could Paul maintain that it was possible for a Jew not to be secure in those promises?

Paul’s answer reflected both the explicit and implicit teaching of the Jewish Scriptures themselves. God had never promised that any individual Jew, no matter how pure his physical lineage from Abraham, or from any of the other great saints of the Old Testament, could claim security in God’s promises apart from repentance and personal faith in God, resulting in obedience from the heart. Isaiah 55:6–7 provides a good illustration of an invitation to such obedient faith: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

As in the passage from Amos 3:2 mentioned above, many of God’s greatest promises were accompanied by the severest warnings. And most of the promises were conditional, based on His people’s faith and obedience. The few unconditional promises He made were to the nation of Israel as a whole, not to individual Jews (see, e.g., Gen. 12:3; Isa. 44:1–5; Zech. 12:10).

The apostle therefore agreed in part with his accusers, saying, What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? His opponents were perfectly right in defending the Lord’s integrity. No matter how men respond to His promises, He is absolutely faithful to keep His word.

Though certainly not intentionally, the idea in covenant theology that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan of redemption assumes God’s faithlessness in keeping His unconditional promises to Israel. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus Christ as her Messiah, God has postponed the fulfillment of His promise to redeem and restore Israel as a nation. But He has not (and because of His holy nature He could not) reneged on that promise. His prediction, for example, that He will one day “pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10) could not possibly apply to the church. And because such a renewal has never happened in the history of Israel, either the prediction is false or it is yet to be fulfilled.

Later in the epistle Paul strongly affirms that God has not rejected His people Israel (Rom. 11:1). A few verses later he declares, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ ” Lest he be misunderstood as referring to the church as the new Israel, Paul adds, “From the standpoint of the gospel they [Jews] are enemies for your [Christians’] sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (vv. 25–29).

The national salvation of Israel is as inevitable as God’s promises are irrevocable. But that future certainty gives individual Jews no more present guarantee of being saved than the most pagan Gentile.

The mistake of Paul’s accusers was in believing that God’s unconditional promises to Israel applied to all individual Jews at all times. But as Paul shows earlier in 9:6–7, when he writes: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ ”

The accusers were right in contending that God cannot break His word. If the blessings of a promise failed to materialize it was because His people did not believe and obey the conditions of the promise. But their unbelief could not prevent the salvation which God would ultimately bring to the promised nation.

But an even deeper truth was that, contrary to the thinking of most Jews, salvation was never offered by God on the basis of the heritage, ceremony, good works, or any basis other than that of faith. Paul therefore asks rhetorically, “The fact that Jews who did not believe forfeited their personal right to God’s promised blessings and barred themselves from the inheritance of God’s kingdom will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” His salvation will come to Israel some day, when all Israel will be saved.

Answering his own question, he exclaims, May it never be! The phrase mē genoito (may it never be) was the strongest negative Greek expression and usually carried the connotation of impossibility, “Of course God cannot be unfaithful in His promises or in any other way,” Paul was saying.

Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar. If every human being who ever lived declared that God is faithless, God would be found true and every man who testified against Him would be found a liar.

Summoning Scripture as he regularly did, Paul quotes from the great penitential psalm of David, Israel’s most illustrious and beloved king, from whose throne the Messiah Himself would some day reign. As it is written, “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged” (see Ps. 51:4). Because God is perfect and is Himself the measure of goodness and truth, His Word is its own verification and His judgment its own justification. It is utter folly to suppose that the Lord of heaven and earth might not prevail against the sinful, perverted judgment that either man or Satan could make against Him.

The Objection That Paul Attacked God’s Purity

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.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just. (3:5–8)

The third objection Paul anticipated was that his teaching attacked the very purity and holiness of God. The argument of his accusers would have been something like this:

If God is glorified by the sins of Israel, being shown faithful Himself despite the unfaithfulness of His chosen people, then sin glorifies God. In other words, Paul, you are saying that what God strictly forbids actually brings Him glory. You are saying that God is like a merchant who displays a piece of expensive gold jewelry on a piece of black velvet so the contrast makes the gold appear even more elegant and beautiful. You are charging God with using man’s sin to bring glory to Himself, and that is blasphemy. You are impugning the righteous purity of God. Not only that, but if man’s unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say about God’s judgment? If what you say is true, why does God punish sin? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He?

Again lest his readers conclude that he was expressing his own thinking, Paul immediately adds the parenthetical explanation that he was speaking in human terms, that is, according to the human logic of the natural mind. He was saying, in effect, “Don’t think for a minute that I believe such perverted nonsense. I am only paraphrasing the charges that are often made against me.”

To intensify the disclaimer, Paul says again, “May it never be! Obviously God does not encourage or condone sin in order to glorify Himself, for otherwise how will God judge the world?”

If Jews understood anything about the nature of God it was that He is a perfect judge. From the earliest part of the Old Testament He is called “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25). The psalmists repeatedly refer to Him as a judge (see, e.g., Pss. 50:6; 58:11; 94:2). A major theme of virtually all the prophets is that of God’s judgment-past as well as present, imminent as well as in the distant future. Paul’s very obvious point is that God would have no basis for equitable, righteous, pure judgment if He condoned sin.

In verses 7 and 8 the apostle reiterates the false charges against him in somewhat different terms. “You claim that I say, ‘If through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged a sinner?’ ”

That was clearly a charge of antinomianism (disregard of God’s law) of the worst sort. The critics were accusing Paul of teaching that the more wicked a person is, the more he glorifies God; the more faithless a person is, the more faithful he makes God appear; the more a person lies, the more he exalts God’s truthfulness.

Those were not hypothetical misrepresentations, as Paul makes clear in his next statement: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?” Paul’s enemies obviously had repeatedly charged that his gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone not only undermined God’s law but granted license to sin with impunity. In effect, they accused him of saying that, in God’s eyes, sin is as acceptable as righteousness, if not more so.

Although the scribes and Pharisees were themselves sinful and hypocritical to the core, they loved to condemn others for breaking the Mosaic law and the rabbinical traditions even in the smallest degree. Their religion was legalism personified, and the idea of divine grace was therefore anathema to them, because it completely undermined the works righteousness in which their hope was rounded.

The same legalism characterized the Judaizers, supposed Jewish converts to Christianity who insisted that Christians had to maintain all the Mosaic laws and ceremonies. Their charges against Paul’s gospel of grace were virtually identical to those of the scribes and Pharisees. The apostle therefore was attacked in much the same way both from within and without the church. It is therefore probable that Paul was addressing his arguments both to the Jewish leaders without and to the Judaizers within.

One of the most obvious characteristics of fallen human nature is its amazing ability to rationalize sin. Even small children are clever at giving a good reason for doing a wrong thing. That, essentially, was what Paul’s opponents charged him with doing-rationalizing sin on the basis that it glorified God.

Later in the epistle Paul deals in detail with this same issue. After saying that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” he quickly counters the false conclusion he knew many people would jump to. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be!” (Rom. 5:20–6:2). With all the forcefulness he could muster, the apostle denounced the charge that he condoned any kind of sin. Least of all would he presume to justify sin by the spurious and vile argument that it brought glory to God.

It is possible, of course, that some of Paul’s accusers wrongly associated his teachings with that of libertines in the church, such as those who were a blotch on the church at Corinth. Jude wrote of “certain persons [who had] crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).

For a professed Christian to live in continual, unrepentant sin is a certain mark that he is not saved. To be a Christian is to be under the lordship of Jesus Christ and genuinely desire to serve Him. As Jude makes indisputably clear, the person who tries to justify his sin by presuming on God’s grace is ungodly and denies Christ (v. 4).

Paul’s final response to his slanderous critics was short but pointed. Although he was not the least guilty of teaching antinomianism, he fully concurred that for those who do teach it, their condemnation is just.[1]


God’s Faithfulness and Justice (3:1–8)


The subject of the guilt of the Jews is continued, but now with a couple of new emphases: (1) the element of unbelief and (2) the claim of immunity from divine judgment on the strange grounds that God’s faithfulness is thrown into bolder relief by human failure. What reasonable basis remains for acting in judgment?


1 The opening question reflects the devastating attack the apostle has launched in the preceding chapter. “Circumcision” (the definite article is used) could serve to denote Israel (cf. 4:9), but here it refers to the rite of circumcision, as in 2:25–27.

2–3 In the light of Paul’s preceding argument (cf. the statement he will make in 3:9), one might well expect a negative answer to the question of v. 1. Surprisingly, however, Paul answers his question with the strong statement, “Much in every way!” He begins to enumerate the aspects of that advantage, “first of all,” but proceeds no further than his first point (for what he could have added had he continued, see the fuller list in 9:4–5). As Stuhlmacher, 52, puts it, “The relativizing of the special claims of the Jews in view of the final judgment according to works in no way means for Paul that Jews and Gentiles were equal in terms of the history of election.”

The chosen advantage noted here is that this nation has been “entrusted with the oracles of God” (NASB; NIV, “very words of God”). The Greek word for “oracles,” logia (GK 3359), is related to logoi (GK 3364, as used, e.g., in Jn 14:24) but has a specialized meaning in classical Greek, where it is used especially for divine utterances, often for those preserved and handed down by earlier generations. Jewish writers used it both for pagan oracles, which they considered false, and for revelations from the God of Israel. LXX usage makes it evident that two elements could belong to a logion: (1) a disclosure of what God proposes to do (especially in terms of prediction, as used in the LXX of Nu 24:16) or (2) a pronouncement of the duty laid on men and women in view of the divine will or promise (e.g., Ps 119:67 [LXX 118:67]).

To be “entrusted” with the divine oracles obviously means more than to be the recipient of them. It means more even than to be the custodian and transmitter of them. What is called for, in the light of the meaning of logia, is faith and obedience. Just at this point the Jews failed (v. 3). Paul has already dealt sufficiently with Jewish failure in terms of the law, but here he deals with it in terms of God’s revealed purpose. The statement that “some did not have faith” is reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 10:7–10, where the same author says that some became idolaters, some grumbled, etc. Actually, only two men of the exodus generation pleased God and were permitted to enter the Promised Land. Paul is recognizing the concept of the faithful remnant in Israel.

Is the rendering “did not have faith” acceptable here, or should one regard the NRSV translation, “were unfaithful,” as preferable? The problem is to determine which fits better with the contrasting term—“God’s faithfulness.” We should recall that the oracles of God summon both to faith (in their promissory character) and to faithfulness (in their legislative aspect). From the Jewish standpoint, a logion could involve both halakah and haggadah—something to be done and something to be believed. (Haggadah embraced the promises and much else.) But since Paul has dealt with obligation already in ch. 2, we should perhaps think here in terms of emphasis on the area of belief. Of course, the two concepts of faith and faithfulness are closely related. Barrett, 60, renders it “proved unbelieving,” which fits the context.

We should understand “God’s faithfulness” in terms of the covenantal aspect of God’s dealings with Israel. There are really two sides to this faithfulness—the one positive and the other negative, in line with a similar duality in connection with the righteousness of God (1:17–18). That the negative aspect is before us here is evident from the mention of his wrath (v. 5). This is in harmony with a frequent emphasis in the prophets. When Israel fractured the Sinaitic covenant, God’s very faithfulness compelled him to judge his people by sending them into captivity. The positive aspect (which we might have expected from v. 1 but which is deferred) will appear in the sustained discussion of God’s dealings with Israel (chs. 9–11).

4 As might be expected, Paul vigorously rejects any suggestion that God could fail in terms of his faithfulness. This is the first of ten occurrences in Romans of the expression “may it never be!” (mē genoito; NASB; NIV, “not at all!”), which Paul uses to make a vehement denial of a conclusion that must be resisted. God’s faithfulness is a fixed point in Paul’s universe: “The faithfulness of God is unchangeable” (Bengel, 40). The concept of God’s fidelity is carried forward by the use of a closely related term. He is “true” to his covenantal promises because he is true in himself. If one had to choose between the reliability of God and of human beings, one would have to agree with the psalmist when he declared in his disillusionment, “All men are liars” (Ps 116:11). One of the best men in Israel’s history, declared to be the man after God’s own heart, proved a disappointment. After being chastened for his sin and refusal to confess it for a long period, David was ready to admit that God was in the right and he was in the wrong (Ps 51:4—a psalm traditionally ascribed to David).

5–6 The supposition that human unrighteousness could serve to display God’s righteousness may have been suggested by the passage from Psalm 51 just cited. Is it not possible (so the logic runs) that since human failure can bring out more sharply the righteousness of God, the Almighty ought to be grateful for this service and soften the judgment that would otherwise be due the offender? The question is one Jews might well resort to in line with their thought that God would go easy on his covenant people. So Paul speaks for a supposed interlocutor. The mention of “wrath” ties in with 2:8–9.

Paul’s explanatory statement “I am using a human argument” is due to his having permitted himself to use the word “unjust” of God, even though it is not his own assertion (cf. 6:19). But God is not unrighteous. Paul responds to the suggestion with his strongest form of objection: “May it never be!” (v. 6; NASB; NIV, “Certainly not!”; see v. 4). “If that were so,” i.e., if God were unrighteous, he would not be qualified to judge the world. The idea is unthinkable—indeed, blasphemous—and there is no need to establish God’s qualifications, since the readers, at least, are not in doubt on a point of this sort about which Scripture is so clear.

7–8 Once more the apostle entertains a possible objection. The thought is closely related to what was stated in v. 4, as the similarity in language indicates. Though the construction is somewhat rough, the general sense is clear enough. Speaking for an objector, Paul is voicing the hoary adage that “the end justifies the means”: “Let us do evil that good may result” (v. 8). He has evidently had to cope with this in his own ministry, and he will be dealing with it again in a different context (6:1). Here he is content to turn the tables on the objector. If any claim that their falsehood, which throws into sharp relief the truthfulness of God, promotes God’s glory and should therefore relieve the sinner of condemnation, let them ponder the apostolic verdict—“their condemnation is deserved” (v. 8).


4 The infinitive κρίνεσθαι, krinesthai (GK 3212), should probably be taken as a middle rather than a passive (see Cranfield, 1.182; Bruce, 96), so that the second line of the quotation runs, “and may prevail when you judge.”

5 David Daube (The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism [London: Athlone, 1956], 396) has examined the expression κατὰ ἄνθρωπον λέγω, kata anthrōpon legō, lit., “I speak according to man” (NIV, “I am using a human argument”) in the light of rabbinic usage and has concluded that it is a technical term in Paul’s writing. Daube writes, “It constitutes an apology for a statement which, but for the apology, would be too bold, almost blasphemous.”[2]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 163–175). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 61–64). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Specific Guilt of the Jews (Romans 2:17–29)

Romans 2:17–29


Paul turns now to the question of the advantage of the Jews in terms of their possession of the law and the distinctive mark of circumcision. This advantage (cf. 3:1) is seen as offset by their boastfulness and fruitlessness.


17–24 Here Paul again engages in dialogue with a representative Jew, making effective use of a superb, razor-sharp irony. He begins by building up this person, citing his various distinctives and appearing to appreciate them (vv. 17–20), only to swing abruptly into a frontal assault by exposing the inconsistency between his claims and his conduct (vv. 21–24). The Jews were characterized by their reliance on the law, given by God through Moses. The law came to Israel as the result of a relationship with God enjoyed by no other people. In Paul’s time, some of the leaders of Judaism were making such extravagant statements about the law as to put it virtually in the place of God. Many Jews were obsessed with the law to the extent that salvation was wrongly thought to be dependent on obedience to the law. Concern to obey the law could easily become central and obscure the grace of God’s covenantal love. This tendency became even more developed after the fall of Jerusalem, when the law constituted the rallying point for a nation that had lost its holy city and its temple.

Paul concedes that the use of the law will bring knowledge of God’s will and recognition of its superior teaching. Paul refers to it as “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (v. 20). But this is not all, for the Jews think that this advantage makes them superior to the Gentiles. This is what Paul speaks to. We can paraphrase here, “You come to the Gentiles and propose yourself as a guide for their blindness, when, as a matter of fact, as I have already shown, they have a light and a law as well as you. You come to the Gentiles as though they were dumb and childish, giving you the whip hand (as a trainer), which you thoroughly relish. To you they are mere infants, knowing next to nothing.” By employing terms actually used by the Jews for the Gentiles, one after the other—not once suggesting that the Gentiles have anything to their credit but invariably magnifying the Jews—Paul is now in a position to expose Jewish pride and boasting as totally unfounded.

21–24 Abruptly the shadowboxing with Paul’s opponent turns aggressive and the blows become lethal as the Jew is confronted by the disparity between what he or she would teach others as the will of God and his or her own manner of life. The thrust loses nothing of its forthrightness by being posed in a series of questions, for the effect is to turn the complacent opponent back on himself or herself to search his or her own soul.

The indictment is summarized by the general charge of breaking the very law the Jew boasts of (v. 23). There is a tragic irony in the fact that the Jew who boasts in God’s law ends up dishonoring God and breaking the law. The reference to robbing temples (v. 22) is obscure but may have in view the expropriation of monies or goods from pagan shrines. The failure of the Jews is so notorious that even non-Israelites notice the discrepancy. At this point, Paul introduces a quotation (Isa 52:5; cf. Eze 36:22) about the Jews causing the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. God had been obliged to chasten his disobedient people by permitting them to go into captivity, where their captors made sport of their God, who apparently was unable to prevent their deportation (cf. Eze 36:20–21). Then, as in Paul’s day, the fault lay not with God but with his people, who had refused to obey his law.

25–27 If the law was the major distinctive of the Jews, a close second was circumcision. As with the law, so with circumcision: the nation was guilty of placing unwarranted confidence in the rite. Jewish tradition pictures Abraham as sitting at the gate of Gehenna to ensure that no circumcised person be allowed to enter perdition (Gen. Rab. 48). The view that only those who were circumcised shared in the world to come was commonly held. Circumcision was to Jewry what baptism is to those who maintain baptismal regeneration. In dividing men into two classes, circumcised and uncircumcised, the Jews were in effect indicating those who were saved and those who were not.

But Paul’s contention is that circumcision and observance of the law cannot be separated. If one has the symbol of Judaism and lacks the substance, of what value is the symbol? Symbols are of value only when there is a reality to which they correspond. Circumcision profits, but only if the law is observed (v. 25). The latter is precisely the issue. Lack of obedience to the law nullifies the significance of circumcision. If Gentiles should manifest success in observing the law, the lack of circumcision is surely not so important as to discount their spiritual attainment (cf. the line of thought in 2:14). In fact, says Paul, one can go a step further (v. 27) and say that the circumcised may find himself on a lower plane than the despised Gentiles, because if the latter obey the law that the Jews take for granted instead of taking it seriously, then the Gentiles will in effect “condemn” the Jews. This does not involve the bringing of any charge but is a specialized use of the word krinō (“judge,” GK 3212) to indicate the effect created by some who surpass others despite an inferior status or limited advantage (cf. Mt 12:41). Such Gentiles appear in a more favorable light than the Jews.

The meaning of dia grammatos kai peritomēs (lit., “through having the letter of the law and circumcision,” v. 27) is difficult. Calvin’s attempt, 56, to handle the matter by combining the two to make them mean a literal circumcision in contrast to what is spiritual is hardly satisfactory. When Paul wants to make explicit the fact of literal circumcision, he uses the qualifying phrase “in the flesh” (v. 28; NIV, “physical”). The basic problem, however, centers in the force of the preposition dia, which when it occurs with the genitive, as here, is normally rendered “through.” But is “through” to be taken as instrumental or in the less common sense of indicating attendant circumstance? An example of the latter usage is in Romans 4:11, where Abraham is spoken of as the father of all who believe “through” uncircumcision, i.e., “while” not being circumcised. Clearly this refers not to instrumentality but to the status of these people at the time they believe. Thus the common interpretation is the NIV’s “even though you have the written code and circumcision.” The factor that makes one hesitate is Paul’s shift from nomos (law, GK 3795) to gramma (letter, GK 1207). One can detect in Paul’s use of the latter term in v. 29 and in 2 Corinthians 3:6 a somewhat pejorative connotation—what is written, laid down as law, but lacking any accompanying enablement. If taken in this sense here, something of the force of instrumentality may be detected.

When we are told in v. 27 that the Jew dia grammatos kai peritomēs is a transgressor of the law, the dia cannot just be translated “in spite of,” as though to denote an accompanying circumstance; it must also be given an instrumental significance. It is precisely through what is written and through circumcision that the Jew is a transgressor. He is to see that his true position involves possession of the gramma and the peritomē (GK 4364), but with no genuine fulfillment of the law, since neither what is written nor circumcision leads him to action (cf. TDNT, 1:765).

In the immediate context (v. 23) Paul also uses dia with the instrumental sense in raising the question of the Jew’s dishonoring of God “by breaking the law.” The transgression of the law is common to both statements.

28–29 That this portion is intended as a conclusion to the discussion of the law and circumcision is evident, for both are mentioned, though the law is referred to only in terms of “letter” (NIV, “written code”) as in v. 27. There was plenty of background for Paul’s appeal for circumcision of the heart (e.g., Dt 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:25–26). A real Jew, says Paul, is one who has circumcision of the heart, accomplished “by the Spirit, not by the written code” (cf. 2 Co 3:6). How striking this is! The law is part of the Scripture that the Spirit has inspired, yet there is no hint here that the true Jew is one in whom the Spirit has made the teaching of the law dynamic. By the avoidance of any such suggestion, Paul prepares the way for his treatment of the law in ch. 7. He goes on to note that Jews transformed by the Spirit would really be living up to the name they bear, for “Jew” (Ioudaios) comes from Judah, which means “praise.” They would be praiseworthy in the eyes of God, fulfilling what the law requires but cannot produce (cf. 8:3–4).

Paul writes, of course, as a Christian Jew, as one who has suffered much for his faith from his countrymen. But these closing verses of ch. 2 show that for all the bluntness of his references to the Jews he is not motivated by a desire to belittle his nation on account of the treatment he has received. He rather seeks their highest good (cf. 9:1–3; 10:1). From Paul’s argument it follows that the criteria which mark out one who is truly a Jew can equally be satisfied by (physically) uncircumcised Gentiles. It is not an exaggeration to say that Gentile Christians have become “honorary” Jews, having been brought into the family of God’s people by virtue of their faith in Christ (cf. 4:16–17).

It is worth stressing that Paul is speaking salvation-historically in this chapter. None of these verses should ever be used against the Jews or Judaism in an anti-Semitic fashion. Stuhlmacher, 50, notes, “As spoken by the Jew, Paul, over against Jews, their original purpose is not to declare the election of Israel simply null and void, but to direct the Jews to the reality of the coming God.”

In 3:1–8 a new factor is introduced: Israel’s failure to respond to God in terms of trust and obedience, justifying the visitation of his wrath on them.


17 The view that a number of Jews were obsessed with the law to the extent that they regarded their salvation as dependent on observance of the law is a point forcefully denied by the “new perspective” (see Introduction, pp. 29–30).

22 “Do you rob temples [ἱεροσυλεῖς, hierosyleis]?” is not fully clear. A cognate of the same word occurs in Acts 19:37, “robbers of temples” (ἱεροσύλους hierosylous), where it covers sacrilege in the general sense of desecrating sacred things. Here a precise, strong contrast is intended. The Jews who have been taught to abhor idols are charged with laying hands on them for the sake of profit. This may sound inconceivable, but if the robbery was directed at the offerings brought to the idol, this was tantamount to robbing the idol and thereby desecrating the temple. Ancient temples were repositories of treasure and were therefore a source of temptation to the avaricious (cf. Josephus, Ant. 4:207).

24 See Edgar Krentz, “The Name of God in Disrepute: Romans 2:17–29,” Currents in Theology and Mission 17 (1990): 429–39.

25–27 On these verses, see Joel Marcus, “The Circumcision and the Uncircumcision in Rome,” NTS 35 (1989): 67–81.[1]


[1] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 58–61). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

False Security (Romans 2:17-29)

But if you bear the name “Jew,” and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (2:17–29)

People long for economic security, job security, marital security, national security, health security, home security, security of social position, and many other kinds of security. It is the natural impulse of self-preservation to want security. Yet, despite the claims of independence and self-sufficiency that many people make, they know instinctively that, in themselves, they are not completely secure.

A measure of economic security can be had from such things as having a long-term work contract, working for or owning a business that has proven to do well even in hard times, or by having a diversified portfolio of investments. A measure of home security can be achieved by burglar alarms, high fences, or watch dogs. A measure of national security can be had from a well-trained, well-equipped military force. But history and personal experience have proved over and over again that such things cannot guarantee absolute security.

When they bother to think about it, most people hope for some form of eternal security. If they do not believe in heaven and hell, they hope death will be the end of existence, that it will usher them into an impersonal, unconscious nothingness, or recycle them through another lifetime in an endless linking chain of lives better than the ones before.

But Paul has already declared unequivocally that, whether they realize or admit it or not, all men, even the most pagan reprobates, know something of God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:18–21). Every person, Jew and Gentile alike, has the witness of heart and conscience, by which he is able to discern basic right from wrong (2:14–15). And all people know to some degree that those who do not live up to God’s standards of righteousness are “worthy of death” (1:32). Most have this gnawing fear that God is going to judge their sin, that one day they will be held accountable for the way they have lived. And Scripture says they will live and die only once, “and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Therefore instinctively people hope that, in some way or another, they can escape that judgment. Whether consciously or unconsciously, religiously or irreligiously, they understand deep within themselves that they need to deal with their spiritual insecurity. They want the assurance that they will not be punished for their evil. In the attempt to do that, men have devised countless false ideas and philosophies to try to escape the punishment they innately know they deserve.

Some people build up a false sense of spiritual security by trying to convince themselves they are basically good and that a just God could not condemn good people to hell. They believe that their good works and intentions outweigh their bad ones and that, in the balance, they are pleasing and acceptable to God. Others believe that God is too loving to send anyone to hell and will ultimately save even the most wicked of sinners. Still others insist that there is no God and that the idea of a final divine judgment is therefore ludicrous. These beliefs are so common that those who put their security in them can find reassurance in the large numbers of other people doing the same. They even design religions to affirm these views.

Far from being cruel and insensitive, the Christian who exposes such false ideas of spiritual security does a great service to those he warns. If a person is to be commended for warning a family that their house is on fire or that a bridge they are about to cross might collapse under them, how much more is a believer to be commended when he warns the unsaved of their lostness and condemnation apart from Jesus Christ. No greater kindness can possibly be offered a person than that of showing him the way of salvation. But before he can have motivation for being saved, he obviously must be convinced that he is lost.

As the forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist preached a sobering message of repentance from sin (Matt. 3:2). Jesus began His own ministry preaching the same message (Matt. 4:17). Perhaps more than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount is an extended series of warnings about such false spiritual security. In that message the Lord declares unequivocally that men’s righteousness, attitudes, good works, relationships, professions, prayers, fasting, ceremonies, and generosity can never measure up to the standard of perfect holiness to which God holds them accountable (Matt. 5:48).

Jesus stripped naked the hypocritical and legalistic false securities of the Judaism of that day. He declared that those who trust in outward substitutes for true righteousness will one day say to Him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” But to such false disciples Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22–23). The person who builds his religious house on any self-made foundation is certain to have it washed away by the storm of God’s judgment (vv. 26–27).

Having shown how both the moral Jew and the moral Gentile alike will be brought before God’s great tribunal in the end times and have no basis for any sense of well-being and security (Rom. 2:1–16), Paul now focuses exclusively on the Jews, the covenant people of God. They had far greater light and blessings than the Gentiles. But as the apostle now points out, that greater privilege made them more accountable to God, not less, as most of them supposed. Before he explains the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, he shatters the idea of false spiritual security that most Jews had in their heritage (2:17a), in their knowledge (vv. 17b-24), and in their ceremony (v. 25–29).

The False Security of Heritage

But if you bear the name “Jew,” (2:17a)

The chosen people of God took great pride in the name Jew. In centuries past they had been referred to as Hebrews, so called because of the language they spoke. They also had long been called Israelites, after the land God had promised and given to them according to His covenant with Abraham. But by the time of Christ, the most common name they had was that of Jew. The term was derived from Judah, the name of one of the twelve tribes as well as the name of the southern kingdom after the division following Solomon’s death. But during and after the Babylonian captivity, it had come to refer to the whole race that descended from Abraham through Isaac.

The name represented both their racial and religious heritage, and in their own minds it denoted their distinctiveness from all other peoples of the world. Despite the bondage and oppression they had suffered at the hands of Gentiles for hundreds of years, and were presently still suffering, they wore the name Jew as a badge of great honor and pride. The name marked them off as the unique and specially favored people of God. The root meaning of Judah, and therefore of Jew, is “praised,” and the Jews of Paul’s day considered that to be a well-deserved title and description of themselves.

Jews had long since lost sight of the purpose of their unique divine calling, however, which was to be the channel through which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). They had no desire to share their God-given truths and blessings with the rest of the world, much less be used by the Lord as the means through which He would draw all nations to Himself. Jonah’s reluctance to preach in Nineveh because he feared they would believe in God and be spared judgment (Jonah 4:2) typified the attitude of many Jews toward Gentiles.

Instead of viewing those divine truths and blessings as a trust from a gracious and forgiving God, they viewed them as their right by merit. They believed they were specially blessed not because of God’s grace but because of their own goodness. They felt superior and proud. Instead of boasting in their great God and in His gracious revelation of Himself to them, they boasted in their own supposed greatness for having received it. John Murray observed that such an attitude “demonstrates … how close lies the grossest vice to the highest privilege and how the best can be prostituted to the service of the worst.”

The minor prophets repeatedly warned their fellow countrymen about arrogant boasting in their heritage as God’s chosen people, which caused many of them to think they could sin with impunity. As the heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, they believed they were automatically protected from judgment. But Micah declared that wicked, corrupt Jews who presumptuously said, “Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us,” would one day find their holy city of Jerusalem “plowed as a field” and left “a heap of ruins” (Mic. 3:11–12).

Pride in their being the chosen people of God made some Jews absolutely blind to reality, not only religiously but politically. On one occasion when Jesus was teaching “those Jews who had believed Him,” He said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). When some of the unbelieving Jewish leaders heard those words, they were greatly offended. They were so self-deluded about their superiority and independence that they retorted, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’ ” (v. 33). As the Lord explained, they completely missed His point. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He said, “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (v. 34).

Even if Jesus had been speaking politically, as those leaders assumed, their response would have been ludicrous. For the past 100 years they had been brutally subjugated to Rome, and immediately before that to Greece. And during more than a thousand years before that they had been in periodic bondage to Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.

The Jewish leaders’ main confusion, however, was spiritual. Being Abraham’s physical descendants did not make Jews his spiritual descendants. “If you are Abraham’s children,” Jesus told them, “do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” When they replied indignantly, “We have one Father, even God,” Jesus responded, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God. … You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. … Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:40–42, 44, 56). If the Jewish leaders had been spiritual heirs of Abraham and true children of God, they would joyously have received Jesus as their Messiah and King. Instead of receiving Him in faith, however, they sought to kill Him, reflecting the murderous character of Satan, their spiritual lord and father.

Infuriating the leaders still more, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (v. 58). The root meaning of Jehovah, or Yahweh, is “I am” (see Ex. 3:14). Jesus therefore not only claimed to have existed before Abraham was born, some 2,000 years earlier, but even applied the covenant name of God to Himself. Because they rejected Jesus’ claims to messiahship, the Jews considered His words to be inconceivably blasphemous, and “therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).

Jesus utterly undermined the Jews’ imagined security of racial and religious heritage. John the Baptist had done the same thing. While he was baptizing repentant Jews at the Jordan River, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism. But John scathingly rebuked them, saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.” Well aware that those religious leaders believed that merely being Jews protected them from God’s judgment, John added, “And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:7–9).

In a similar way, countless people since the time of Christ have considered themselves safe from God’s judgment simply because they have been born into a Christian family or have been baptized or belong to a church or have made a profession of faith. Some people consider themselves Christians virtually by default. In European countries that have been thought of as Christian for centuries, many citizens who do not specifically belong to another religion consider themselves Christians simply by virtue of their national heritage. Even in some countries of the Middle East, many citizens who are not Muslim think they are therefore Christian, simply because the other historically prominent religion in the country is the Eastern Orthodox brand of Christianity to which their ancestors adhered.

The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli took the position that if a child of believers died while in infancy it was within the Christian covenant, in other words, it was saved. He did not believe, however, that children of unbelievers were saved if they died in infancy. With an illogic that was not typical of his thinking, the great Puritan John Owen believed that infant salvation could be passed down two generations, from grandparent to grandchild, sometimes skipping the intervening generation. One wonders how the in-between parents, being themselves children of believers, could escape being saved.

The Roman Catholic church believes that infant baptism actually confers salvation. As one Catholic writer has said, “The faith which the infant lacks is replaced by the faith of the church.” Some Protestant denominations, though denying that infant baptism in itself has power to save, nevertheless maintain that the ritual has direct spiritual benefit for the child. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that through this sacrament God miraculously grants saving faith to the infant, who itself is incapable of believing. Others view infant baptism as a confirmation of the child’s salvation by virtue of its being born into a Christian family and thereby into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.

According to Scripture, however, a person who is raised in a Christian home and trained in a Christian environment is not saved by such a heritage, valuable as it is. Nor does baptism, or any other Christian rite in itself, possess or bestow any spiritual benefit. Apart from true faith held by the person receiving it, no ritual or ceremony has any spiritual value whatsoever. Baptism is not a sacrament and, without faith, it becomes a sacrilege.

Such ideas about covenant transferal of salvation and about the spiritual efficacy of baptism are merely extensions of the kind of thinking that caused the common Jewish belief in New Testament times that a person was saved simply by being a circumcised descendant of Abraham through the line of Isaac.

The False Security of Knowledge

and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. (2:17b-24)

The second false religious security Paul mentions is knowledge of God’s Law, which in this context represented what we now refer to as the Old Testament. This Law represented not only the Pentateuch, the five books of the Mosaic law, but also what were called the writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) and the prophets. This Law encompassed all of God’s revelation until that time: His revelation about His covenants, His blessings, His cursings, His warnings, His promises, His rites and ceremonies, His moral standards, and His teaching about Himself and about man and the plan of redemption.

In regard to the Jews’ knowledge of that divine revelation, the apostle mentions four aspects: what they learned of the Law (vv. 17b-18), what they taught about it (vv. 19–20), what they did in light of it (vv. 21–22), and what they caused by breaking it (vv. 23–24).

What They Learned About the Law

and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, (2:17b-18)

Taken by itself, this statement by Paul might seem to have been a commendation. But as he soon makes clear (see vv. 21–25), it was a strong indictment, because the Jews did not live up to the Law they knew so well and praised so highly. Most Jews of that day were proud and self-righteous about their heritage and had come to rely upon their knowledge of the Law and their boasting in God as means of satisfying the Lord. They loved to recite such passages as, “[God] 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” (Ps. 147:19–20).

But since it was impossible for anyone to keep all of God’s law perfectly, some of the rabbis began teaching that merely learning the facts of the Law was sufficient to please God. Weakening the purpose of the law still further, some taught that the mere possession of it, in the form of written scrolls, was sufficient. Still others taught that Jews were safe from God’s judgment simply because, as a people, they were the specially chosen recipients and custodians of God’s Law.

The Old Testament makes its purpose quite clear, however, and it repeatedly warns against Jews placing their trust in outward ceremonies and objects, even those, such as the priestly sacrifices and the Temple, which God had ordained. Through Jeremiah, the Lord said,

Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (Jer. 7:3–7)

In other words, spiritual safety and security was not in the Temple but in God Himself and in faithful obedience to the divine truth and righteousness which His Temple represented.

When ungodly Jews would boast in God it was really a means of boasting in themselves, in the unique privileges and blessings they thought were theirs by fight rather than by grace.

Self-righteous, presumptuous Jews were satisfied simply to know His will, without obeying it. They knew what God required and what He forbade, what He commanded and what He prohibited, what He approved and what He disapproved, what He rewarded and what He punished. But rather than saving them, that knowledge became a judgment against them, because they refused to live by it and refused to accept the remedy for such failure.

They were also willing to approve the things that are essential. Dokimazō (approve) carried the idea of testing in order to prove the value of something, such as precious metals. In other words, the Jews had the means not only to know what was right and wrong but to discern what was the most important part of God’s law.

Jews were also continually being instructed out of the Law. Katēcheō (being instructed) is the term from which catechism is derived. It had the general meaning of oral instruction of any sort but was especially associated with teaching by repetition. Both at home and in the synagogues, Jewish boys in particular were systematically and thoroughly instructed out of the Law. Not only rabbis but also many other Jewish men memorized large portions of the Old Testament, which they often recited in public as a demonstration of piety.

It is ironic that ancient Jews considered wisdom to consist of acting according to the knowledge one had, whereas the ancient Greeks simply equated wisdom with knowledge. By New Testament times, however, many Jews, especially the religious leaders, had, in practice, accepted the Greek view of wisdom. Whether they did so intentionally or not, the consequence was that they felt content with merely knowing God’s law and had little desire or motivation to obey it. They knew much but obeyed little.

What They Taught About the Law

and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, (2:19–20)

The Jews not only felt secure in what they knew but also in what they taught. Considering themselves to be the most religiously wise, they naturally thought themselves to be the most competent teachers of the spiritually unwise, namely the Gentiles, who did not have the benefit of God’s written revelation.

But Israel’s continued unfaithfulness to God and disobedience of His Word disqualified her as an example and teacher to the unenlightened Gentiles. And when Jews made an occasional convert to Judaism, they made him worse off than he was before. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” Jesus said, “because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). Instead of leading Gentiles to trust in the true God and become obedient to His will, the Jewish leaders engulfed converts in the vast rabbinical system of man-made, legalistic traditions.

In Romans 2:19–20, Paul mentions four specific areas in which many Jews considered themselves to be spiritually superior teachers.

First, Paul said, “You are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind.” Jews in general, and the scribes and Pharisees in particular, considered themselves to be superior mentors of the community in spiritual and moral matters. They saw themselves as religious guides to their unlearned Jewish brethren and especially to the spiritually blind Gentile pagans. But because of their arrogant pride and blatant hypocrisy, Jesus charged them with being “blind guides” (see Matt. 23:24–28). Far from being qualified to guide others, they were themselves in desperate need of guidance.

Second, Paul notes that most Jews considered themselves to be a light to those who are in darkness. Actually that was precisely the role God had intended for Israel. He had called His people to be a spiritual light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6). As noted above, it was through them that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).

Jesus declares His disciples to be “the light of the world” and charges them to put their light on a lampstand, where it can be seen and will do some good. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven,” He said (Matt. 5:14–16). That has always been God’s intention for His people. He gives them light not only for their own spiritual benefit but also for the spiritual benefit of the rest of the world, before whom they are His witnesses.

Third, the self-righteous Jew prided himself as being a corrector of the foolish. Again the primary focus was on the Gentiles, even the wisest of whom most Jews considered to be foolish in the area of religion.

Fourth, the self-righteous Jew thought of himself as a teacher of the immature. The idea is that of teaching very small children, in this case, children in the Jewish faith. In light of the context, it is likely that the term immature here represents Gentile proselytes to Judaism, who needed special instruction. They not only needed to learn God’s law but also needed to rid themselves of the many pagan ideas and practices in which they had been brought up.

Through God’s unique revelation of Himself and of His will to Israel, Jews had in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth. Morphos̄is (embodiment) has the basic meaning of an outline or sketch. It therefore seems better to translate the word here as “semblance” or “appearance,” because throughout this passage Paul emphasizes the religious superficiality of most of the Jews of his day. He uses the same word in 2 Timothy 3:5, where he warns of men in the last days who will hold “a form [morphōsis] of godliness, although they [will] have denied its power.” In both passages the idea of counterfeit is implied.

The Jews did indeed through the Law have the revelation of divine knowledge and … truth, but their understanding, teaching, and exemplifying of it had become so incrusted with rabbinical tradition that God’s true Law was generally unknown and disregarded.

What They Did in Relation to the Law

you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (2:21–22)

A third area of false security was related to what most Jews did in response to the law they claimed to know and teach. Paul here contends that their understanding and teaching not only fell far short of God’s law but that they themselves disobeyed it. Even when they taught the truth, they taught it hypocritically. Just as Satan sometimes disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), false teachers sometimes teach the truth for their own selfish and perverse ends.

In theological terms, their preaching reflects orthodoxy (right doctrine), but their living does not reflect orthopraxy (right practice). They are much like corrupt police officials or judges, whose lives are in direct contradiction of the laws they have sworn to uphold and enforce. And because of their greater responsibility, they bring upon themselves greater punishment when they break those laws.

The psalmist sternly warned ungodly men who presume to teach in God’s name. “To the wicked God says, ‘What right have you to tell of My statutes, and to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you. When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you associate with adulterers. You let your mouth loose in evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son’ ” (Ps. 50:16–20).

Even teachers who are true believers are held especially accountable for living out what they teach. James therefore gives the somber caution: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

Like the wicked teachers the psalmist castigated, the hypocritical Jew of Paul’s day would often teach another person the truths of God’s Word but would fail to teach them to himself. Even less would he obey those truths himself Such men were typified by the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “They say things, and do not do them” (Matt. 23:3).

Paul mentions three areas of their spiritual and moral hypocrisy: stealing, adultery, and sacrilege. You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? he asks. Despite the clear pronouncements of the Mosaic law against theft, it was very common in ancient Judaism. Isaiah rebuked those who “turned to their own way, each one to his unjust gain” (Isa. 56:11). Ezekiel denounced those who “have taken bribes to shed blood; … taken interest and profits, and … injured [their] neighbors for gain by oppression” (Ezek. 22:12). Amos wrote of those who stole by making “the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger” and by cheating “with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5). Malachi accused his fellow Jews even of robbing God by withholding some of the tithes and offerings owed to Him (Mal. 3:8–9).

When Jesus cleansed the Temple during the last week of His earthly ministry, He censured the money changers and sacrifice merchants for making His Father’s house “a robbers’ den” (Matt. 21:13; cf. John 2:16). On another occasion He scathingly condemned the scribes and Pharisees-the self-appointed authorities on righteousness-for devouring “widows’ houses” under the pretense of serving God (Matt. 23:14).

The second area of hypocrisy related to sexual sin. You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? As with stealing, the clear implication is that they practiced the very evil they condemned in others. Many Jewish men tried to circumvent the Mosaic command against adultery by divorcing their wives and marrying another woman to whom they were attracted. But Jesus declared that divorce and remarriage on any ground other than sexual infidelity results in adultery just as surely as if no divorce is involved (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Adultery can even be committed without the physical act. “Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her,” He said, “has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

The third area of hypocrisy related to sacrilege. You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? The root word behind bdelussō (abhor) means “to stink, to reek.” Although Israel had fallen into idolatry repeatedly during the period of the monarchies, since the Babylonian exile Jews have never practiced that evil to any significant degree. During the Greek and Roman occupations after their return from Babylon, Jews developed a strong abhorrence for anything remotely resembling idolatry. Because some Caesars had declared themselves to be gods, Jews even loathed handling Roman coins, because Caesar’s image was inscribed on them (see Matt. 22:19–21).

To rob temples may have referred to Jews who robbed their own Temple in Jerusalem. As noted above, they often robbed God by withholding part of their tithes and offerings. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, some Jews also robbed the Temple in other devious ways. He reports that on one occasion a group of Jewish men enticed a wealthy Roman woman into giving a large sum of money to the Temple. But instead of putting the money in the Temple treasury, they divided it among themselves.

But Paul’s reference to abhorring idols suggests that he had something else in mind in regard to temple robbery. The Mosaic law strictly forbade Israelites from making personal gain from the idols they seized after conquering pagan enemies. “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7:25).

Although by New Testament times the nation of Israel had long since ceased conquering Gentile territories, it is possible that individual rogue Jews plundered pagan temples for purely mercenary reasons. The statement by the town clerk at Ephesus that Paul and his associates were not robbers of temples (Acts 19:37) suggests that it was not uncommon for Jews to be guilty of that offense. It is possible that, despite the clear Mosaic prohibition, the offending Jews rationalized such theft by thinking they were doing God a favor by striking a blow at paganism. But Paul condemns their hypocrisy. Their motive was not religious, but mercenary.

What They Caused by Breaking God’s Law

You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. (2:23–24)

The indictment of verse 24 makes clear that the question in verse 23 was rhetorical. Many hypocritical Jews were blatantly breaking the divine Law they so proudly boasted in, and in doing so, they brought dishonor to God.

Every sin dishonors God. David confessed, “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4). Sin committed by those who claim God’s name dishonors Him the most. Quoting Isaiah 52:5, Paul strongly rebuked hypocritical Jews by declaring that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.

The principle applies even more strongly to Christians, because they not only have greater spiritual light through the New Testament but have greater spiritual resources to obey that light through the indwelling Holy Spirit. When a believer falls into sin, his witness is ruined and the name of His Lord is sullied before the world. Those who claim to be Christians but persistently live in sin give evidence that they carry the name of Christ in vain. And because there is no difference between their standard of living and that of the world, the Lord’s name is blasphemed.

The Lord lamented to Ezekiel,

Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds; their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity. Therefore, I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land, because they had defiled it with their idols. Also I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the lands. According to their ways and their deeds I judged them. When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, “These are the people of the Lord.” (Ezek. 36:17–20)

When those who go by God’s name are openly sinful, or are exposed as being privately sinful, God and His Word are understandably ridiculed by the world. The unbeliever has no reason to repent of his sins and turn to God for salvation if he sees professed believers committing the same sins.

Unfortunately, God’s name is also ridiculed when the world sees His people being chastised for their sins, as in the case of ancient Israel just cited. Failing to comprehend the purpose of the chastening, the world reasons, “If God makes His own people suffer in that way, why should anyone want to believe in and serve Him?”

And on the other hand, when God chooses to withhold chastening for a time, the world may conclude that He is either too impotent to control and correct His people or that He approves their sinful acts and is therefore Himself evil. In that way His name is blasphemed worst of all.

It would be better for many Christians, true believers as well as false, to hide their religious profession. Their living is such an obvious contradiction of Scripture that the cause of Christ is mocked and scorned by the world.

Because of the Jews’ exclusive serf-righteousness, many defamatory legends grew up about them in Gentile lands where they lived. They were accused of sometimes sacrificing a Gentile in their religious rites and of being descended from a band of leper slaves who managed to escape the rock quarries of Egypt. Unfounded as such stories were, their origin is understandable. The Gentiles were simply returning in kind the contempt that most Jews had for them.

The False Security of Ceremony

For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (2:25–29)

Proceeding to a third type of false security (circumcision) in which many Jews placed their trust, Paul clarifies the true significance of that rite.

God had instituted circumcision as a mark of His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, declaring that “every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations” (Gen. 17:10–12). Centuries later, when for some reason Moses failed to circumcise one of his sons, his wife, Zipporah, performed the rite herself, thereby protecting Moses from the Lord’s wrath (Ex. 4:24–26).

No doubt this surgery was symbolic of the sinfulness of man that was passed from generation to generation. The very procreative organ needed to be cleansed of a covering. So man at the very center of his nature is sinful and needs cleansing of the heart. This graphic symbol of the need for removing sin became the sign of being a Jew.

But as important as circumcision was as an act of obedience to God and as a reminder to Jews of their covenant relation to Him, the rite had no spiritual power. Circumcision is of value, Paul explains, only if you practice the Law, that is, live in obedience to God’s will. To the faithful, obedient Jew, circumcision was a symbol of God’s covenant, His blessings, His goodness, and His protection of His chosen people.

But if you are a transgressor of the Law, Paul warned, your circumcision has become uncircumcision, that is, valueless. A Jew who continually transgressed God’s law proved that he had no more saving relationship to God than a pagan Gentile, whom Jews often referred to as the uncircumcised.

Important as it was, circumcision was only an outward symbol. And rather than freeing Jews from God’s law, circumcision made them even more responsible for obeying it, because that ritual testified to their greater knowledge of their sin, of God, and of His will in regard to them.

Circumcision was, in fact, more a mark of judgment and obligation than of salvation and freedom. It was a constant reminder to Jews of their sinfulness and of their obligation to obey God’s law. Speaking about the Judaizers, who were corrupting the church by teaching that Christians were obligated to keep the Mosaic law, Paul wrote, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Gal. 5:3). Circumcision was a mark of legal obligation.

Long before Paul’s day the rite of circumcision had become so shrouded in superstition that ancient rabbis formulated sayings such as “No circumcised Jewish man will see hell” and “Circumcision saves us from hell.” The Midrash includes the statement “God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised would be sent to hell. Abraham sits before the gate of hell and never allows any circumcised Israelite to enter.”

But the prophets had made clear that mere physical circumcision had no spiritual power or benefit. “ ‘Behold the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised-Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Ammon, and Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart’ ” (Jer. 9:25–26). Disobedience to God put the circumcised Israelites in the same category of judgment as the uncircumcised Gentiles.

On the other hand, Paul continues, If the uncircumcised man keeps the requirement of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?

The apostle’s point is that the substance of pleasing God is obedience to His will, of which circumcision is but a symbolic reminder. Sincerely keeping the requirement of the Law because it is God’s will is of great value, whereas circumcision without obedience is of absolutely no value. If the uncircumcised man, that is, a Gentile, keeps the requirement of the Law, God will look on him just as favorably as on a circumcised Jew who keeps His law-counting the believing Gentile’s uncircumcision as if it were true circumcision.

Paul’s next devastating salvo at the Jew who had false trust in his Jewish privileges was the declaration that the obedient Gentile who is physically uncircumcised not only pleases God but figuratively will sit in judgment on disobedient Jews, who though having the letter of the Law and physical circumcision are a transgressor of the Law. It is not that such Gentiles will perform the actual judgment, which is God’s prerogative alone, but that their faithful obedience will stand as a rebuke to the faithless disobedience of hypocritical Jews. To the Philippian Gentile church Paul said that the unsaved and disobedient Jews who rejected the gospel of grace were “dogs, … evil workers, … [and] false circumcision” (Phil. 3:2).

Theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “Whenever true religion declines, the disposition to lay undo stress on external rites is stressed. The Jews when they lost their spirituality supposed that circumcision had the power to save them.” Apostasy always moves the religious focus from the inward to the outward, from humble obedience to empty formality.

In verses 28–29 Paul summarizes his demolition of false trust. First, he reiterates that Jewish heritage, wonderful as it was, had absolutely no spiritual benefit if it stood alone: He is not a Jew who is one outwardly. As John the Baptist had pronounced many years earlier, God could raise up physical descendants of Abraham from stones if He so chose (Matt. 3:9). Making much the same point, later in his epistle Paul contends that “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Second, Paul reemphasizes the truth that ceremony is of no value in itself, saying, neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.

Putting those two truths together, the apostle says that the true child of God, epitomized by the faithful Jew, is the person who is one inwardly. The true mark of God’s child is not an outward symbol, such as circumcision, but a godly condition of the heart.

Third, Paul restates the truth that knowledge of God’s law has no power to save a person. Salvation comes by the Spirit of God Himself working in a believer’s heart, not by the mere letter of His Word, true as it is.

The praise that the true Jew, the true believer, receives is not from men, who are more inclined to ridicule God’s people than to praise them. The true believer’s reward of praise comes directly from God, his heavenly Father.[1]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 145–161). Chicago: Moody Press.

None Justified by Good Works (Romans 3:20)


Romans 3:20

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

In the New International Version of Romans, the word therefore has already occurred two times: once in Romans 1:24, where Paul speaks of God’s having given mankind up to its wickedness (“Therefore God gave them over …”), and once in Romans 2:1, where he speaks to the morally sensitive but unbelieving person (“You, therefore, have no excuse …”). However, in the Greek manuscripts, the proper and strongest word for “therefore” (dioti) occurs for the first time in Romans 3:20, which is our text. Dioti literally means “on account of which thing” (dia ho ti). So it is appropriate that it is found here, where it marks a conclusion based on all that has been said in the first major section of Paul’s letter.

From Romans 1:18, where the argument began, and up to this point, Paul has been proving that the entire race lies under the just condemnation of God for its wickedness. His argument is an all-embracing negative, which precedes the even greater positive statements of Romans 3:21 and what is to follow. How is this great argument summarized? Quite simply. Paul says that no one will be saved by good works: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

But why? Why is it that no one will be saved by good works? If not the utterly immoral person, why not at least the virtuous pagan or the religious Jew? Why not you? Why not me? Paul’s answer takes us back over the chief points of the preceding chapters.

Wrath: The Rejection of God

The first plank in Paul’s argument is one we have already looked at several times in various forms. It is that, far from pursuing God and trying to please him (which is what most of us mistakenly think we are doing), the entire race is actually trying to get away from God and is resisting him as intensely and thoroughly as possible. You remember from our previous studies how Paul says that we “suppress” the truth about God, much of which is revealed even in nature, not to mention the written revelation of God, which is the Bible. But because we do not want to serve a deity who is like the One we know is there—the God who is sovereign over his creation, altogether holy, omniscient, and immutable—we suppress the truth about this true God and try to construct substitute gods to take his place. And, says Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all [this] godlessness and wickedness” of mankind (Rom. 1:18).

“But what about the good things human beings do?” asks someone. “You can’t deny that people are often kind and helpful to one another or go out of their way for others. Don’t these things count for anything?”

Let me answer this question by an illustration from a book by Robert M. Horn, a staff member of British InterVarsity (the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). It is entitled Go Free! The Meaning of Justification, and the illustration is borrowed in turn from a book by Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination), who borrowed it from W. D. Smith (What Is Calvinism?). These writers imagine a sailing ship manned by a crew of pirates. The pirates are on good terms with one another. They work hard at their jobs, are honest among themselves (according to a certain “pirate code”), help one another, and even defend one another. Their hard work really is hard work. Their kindness to each other really is kindness. But all these “good” actions are also and at the same time “bad” or wrong behavior, because they are aimed at maintaining themselves in violation of international maritime law. Their good deeds are highly selective; they do not help everyone, only themselves or those like themselves. They actually rob, maim, and murder many other people. And even their kindnesses to each other grow out of their rebellion, expressing and actually reinforcing it.

Here is a more modern example. Some years ago Mario Puzo wrote a book called The Godfather, which later became a movie, and a sequel to the movie. The book was a study of the so-called Mafia, the powerful crime families who control much of the illegal gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, and other criminal activity in America and other parts of the world. This book and the films based on it showed the tremendous violence exerted by these crime families to achieve their goals. But what made the violence particularly shocking is that it seemed to exist alongside tender and otherwise noble feelings and actions of these figures. Mafia dons are often quite kindly family men. They love their wives and children. They are loyal to each other. They defend each other. In fact, they are ruthless in righting a wrong done to a member of their own crime family. Ah, but they are still crime-oriented, and the structure and ethical code of the family is created only to enhance their own well-being in violation of the law and at the expense of other people.

That parallels our situation in respect to mankind’s universal rebellion against God. We may do good things (at least “good” as they appear to us), but our good is actually bad, because it is designed to maintain our rebellion against the only sovereign God and his laws.

No Excuse: God’s Law Broken

The second reason why no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law is that no one actually does observe it. This is the explanation of the apparent contradiction between Romans 2:13, which says that “it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous,” and Romans 3:20, which says that “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law.” Both are true because, although anyone who perfectly obeys the law would be declared righteous—the righteousness of God requires it—in point of fact no one actually does this; rather, all disobey God’s law.

At this point Paul speaks in almost identical terms to both the Jew, who actually possessed the revealed law of God, and to the Gentile, who did not possess it. To the Jew he says, “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” (Rom. 2:21b–24). The point of these statements is that the laws these religious people broke are in their Scriptures. In fact, they are from the very heart of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is the Ten Commandments that say, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3), “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 14), and “You shall not steal” (v. 15). These were laws of which the Jews were most proud. But they had broken them, as indeed all human beings have.

It is exactly the same idea in the case of the Gentile. The Gentile of Paul’s day, the Greek or Roman of the first century, did not have the Old Testament law for the most part (though some did). But Gentiles had a code of ethics of their own. They knew that they should do good. They knew that they should seek the prosperity of other human beings. They knew that stealing and all other harmful practices were wrong. But they did bad things all the same, just as we do! Paul tells the Gentile, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1).

This means that whenever we are offended at another person’s actions, as we frequently are, we condemn ourselves before God. For what we find blameworthy in another, we also do. Is a person rude to you and are you offended? If so, your reaction condemns you, since you are often rude to other people. Are you angry when someone takes unfair advantage of you? You are right to be angry; a violation of fairness is wrong. But you still condemn yourself, because you are also unfair to others. You may not always admit it, but it is true. Whatever standard you raise by which you approve one set of actions and disapprove another set of actions in others—that very standard condemns you, because you cannot and do not live up to it.

So the second reason why no one will be declared righteous by observing the law is that no one actually does observe it. We fail to observe even the tiniest part, and we certainly do not observe the whole!

The Actual Case: Great Wickedness

The third reason why no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law is that, far from observing the law (or even trying to observe the law), we are all actually violating the law in every conceivable way and on every possible occasion and are therefore actively, consistently, thoroughly, and intentionally wicked.

This is the meaning of the two long lists of descriptive vices found in Romans 1:29–31 and Romans 3:10–18. Apart from these lists, a person might reluctantly admit that at least at times he or she breaks even the lowest possible standard for decent behavior and might say, “I do not pretend to be able to do even a single right thing all the time or in every possible situation.” But that is a far cry from admitting that one is thoroughly wicked in God’s sight. And as long as a person is unwilling to admit that, there is always the feeling that somehow (regardless of the person’s admitted shortcomings) the good that a person does will be acknowledged by God, and justification by good works will at least become possible.

But look at how God sees human beings: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29–31). It is from this viewpoint that Paul declares:

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.”

“Their throats are open graves;

their tongues practice deceit.”

“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”

“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery mark their ways,

and the way of peace they do not know.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10–18

These verses do not mean that every human being has done every bad thing possible, but they do mean that the human race is like this. We are members of that human race, and, if the truth be told, the potential for every possible human vice is in everyone. We may not get a chance to murder someone. We may not even be tempted to do so. But given due provocation, right circumstances, and the removal of the societal restraints provided to limit murderous acts, we are all capable of murder and will murder, just as others have. So also with God’s other commandments.

It is because of this inward potential that Scripture says, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5).

Circumcision: No Substitutes

The fourth reason why no one will be declared righteous before God by observing the law is that God is concerned with true or actual observance—that is, with the attitudes and actions of the heart—and not with any outward acts that appear pious but actually mean nothing.

The chief example of this wrongheaded attempt at justification is the faith that certain people have placed in circumcision. This was not a case of simple pagan superstition or of the mere traditions of the elders, because the rite of circumcision was prescribed for Israel by God in the Old Testament. It was a rite given to Abraham, who was to circumcise all the males in his household and pass on this rite to those who were their descendants (Gen. 17:9–14). Circumcision was to be a mark of membership in the special chosen family of God’s people. This was such an important requirement that later in Jewish history we find a scene in which God was displeased with Moses and was about to kill him, evidently because he had neglected to circumcise his own son. He was saved only when Zipporah, his wife, performed the rite for him (Exod. 4:24–26).

Circumcision is neither extra-biblical nor unimportant. It was an important rite, just as baptism, the observance of the Lord’s Supper, church membership, and similar religious practices are important today. But the error of the Jew (and the error of many contemporary Christians) is in thinking that a person can be declared righteous before God by these things. That is not possible. Sacraments do have value once one is justified; that is, they are valuable signs of something that has occurred internally (if it has occurred internally), and they are meant to remind us of that experience and strengthen it. But no one can be saved by circumcision or by any other external religious act.

Paul writes, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.… A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Rom. 2:25, 28–29a).

“But circumcision is commanded in the law!” says the Jew.

True, but not as a means by which a man or a woman can be justified.

“But aren’t we commanded to be baptized?” asks the Christian.

Yes, but as an outward sign of a prior, inward faith. It is not baptism that saves us, but God who works in us inwardly.

“But aren’t we told to observe the Lord’s Supper?” the believer wonders.

Yes, if we have been justified by faith in him whose death the communion service signifies. But to eat the bread, which signifies the Lord’s broken body, and drink the wine, which signifies the Lord’s shed blood, without faith in him is to eat and drink condemnation to oneself (1 Cor. 11:29).

God is not taken in by mere externals. There are no substitutes for faith.

The Law’s Good Function

I come back to our text, which says that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” We have been looking at the first part of this sentence, the negative, and we have gone back over the opening section of Romans to see why this great negative is true.

Yet this is only one part of the sentence. The first part of the sentence makes this definite negative statement, declaring that no one will be declared righteous by observing God’s law. It tells us what the law cannot do. By contrast, the second half of the sentence contains a great positive statement, telling us that, although the law is unable to justify anybody, all of us being sinners, it is nevertheless able to show where we fall short of God’s standards and thus point us to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom alone God provides salvation.

J. B. Phillips is an Englishman who has written a very lively paraphrase of the New Testament, called The New Testament in Modern English. Because he is an Englishman and not an American, Phillips has occasionally used British terms for concepts that would be described in an entirely different way by Americans. Therefore, for Americans at least, Phillips throws new light on key passages. This is true of Romans 3:20. In England what we call a ruler or yardstick is called a straightedge. So when Phillips came to this verse and wanted to show what the law does for us (even though the law is not a means by which we can be justified), he paraphrased the text by writing, “ ‘No man can justify himself before God’ by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands—indeed it is the straightedge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”

Apart from God’s law we may consider ourselves to be quite upright, model citizens who are fit candidates for heaven. But when we look into the law closely we soon see that we are not fit candidates at all. We are not upright. We are morally crooked. And we discover that if we are to become acceptable to the only upright, holy God, we must be changed by him.

One commentator has compared the law of God to a mirror. What happens when you look into a mirror? You see yourself, don’t you? And what happens if your face is dirty and you look into a mirror? The answer is that you see that you should wash your dirty face. Does the mirror clean your face? No. The mirror’s function is to drive you to the soap and water that will clean you up.

With that analogy in mind, let me give you a verse written by Robert Herrick, an English poet who lived about the time of William Shakespeare. It uses an image drawn from classical mythology in which the great Greek hero Hercules was sent to perform what was thought to be an impossible task: to clean up the immense, filthy stables of King Augeas. Comparing his heart to those stables, Herrick wrote:

Lord, I confess that thou alone art able

To purify this Augean stable.

Be the seas water and the lands all soap,

Yet if thy blood not wash me, there’s no hope.

That is it exactly. If you are placing your hope in your supposed ability to keep God’s law or even just in your ability to do certain good things, your case is most hopeless. Your heart needs cleansing, and no effort of your own can ever cleanse it.

Where will you find cleansing? You will find it only in Christ, to whom the law drives you. William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet, found cleansing there and wrote:

There is a fountain filled with blood,

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;

And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see

That fountain in his day;

And there have I, as vile as he,

Washed all my sins away.

I trust you also have found cleansing where Robert Herrick, William Cowper, and so many others have found it. The apostle Peter declared, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).[1]


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 328–336). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.