We learned from the end of chapter two that not all Jews are Jews, along with the corollary that not all Christians are Christians. But keeping up with the apostle can be a strenuous effort sometimes, and we now learn in the first part of chapter three that the Jews who are not really Jews are nevertheless . . . Jews. And the same goes double for Christians.
“What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged” (Rom. 3:1-4)
Summary of the Text
Chapter two concludes with Paul offering the definition of the true Jew, the inward Jew. But now, without missing a beat, he returns to the conventional use of the word Jew. It is as though he is asking that if a bunch of Jews aren’t really Jewish, then what good does it do them being Jewish? We would say, having thought we got his point, “well, no good at all.” But what does he say? “Much every way” (v. 2). The chief reason there is profit in external circumcision (the kind of Jewishness he is talking about now) is that the externally circumcised were entrusted with the oracles of God, the Scriptures (v. 2). Some did not believe, and Paul responds to that with a so what? Can the unbelief of covenant members undo the covenant? No way (v. 3). Their unbelief cannot make “the faith of God” without effect. One important question here is whether this is subjective (God’s faith, or perhaps faithfulness) or objective (the faith that God established, i.e. the Christian faith). But in any case, can a Europe filled with baptized infidels undo the glorious truth proclaimed in baptism? Not a bit of it, and God forbid. Every last covenant member could be a skunk, and God remains true (v. 4). Our task is not to conform the sacrament to the behavior of people, but rather to conform the people to the nature of the sacrament. And then Paul quotes Psalm 51:4, to powerful effect (v. 4).
Begin With Paul’s Conclusion
The first thing to note is that Psalm 51 was composed after David had received the rebuke of Nathan for his sin with Bathsheba. That was the occasion. What is the psalm about? It is about true confession, internal cleansing, and the comparative value of the externals in God’s sight. David pleads for cleansing and forgiveness (vv. 1-2). He confesses his sin honestly and in the right direction, so that God would be justified when He speaks, clear when He judges, and might conquer when He is judged (vv. 3-4). David, a covenant member, was conceived in iniquity (v. 5). God wanted David to possess truth in the inward parts (v. 6). For that to happen, God must do the cleansing and restoring (vv. 7-12). After this, and only because of this, teaching the transgressors and sinners can occur (v. 13). God is rightly praised when men are truly forgiven (vv. 14-15). God wants sacrifices in the heart, not on the altar (vv. 16-17). God is invited to build His city (v. 18), and after that He will be pleased with the external sacrifices (v. 19). The distinction between an outward Jew and an inward one was, again, gleaned from the Old Testament. Heart circumcision was required in the Old Testament, as we saw last week, and here we see God’s rejection of mere external conformity to His sacrificial law.
A Brief Aside
Paul says here that the chief value of institutional Jewry was the fact that they possessed (and transmitted to us) the oracles of God, the Scriptures (v. 2). He echos this same thing again later in an expanded list—they had the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship of God, the promises, the fathers, and the privilege of being the people of the Christ (9:4-5). But here in chapter three, he places possession of the Scriptures in the chief place—and we can see a number of the blessings named in chapter nine as subsumed under that.
That being the case, then why has the Church today relinquished control of the Scriptures, the full corpus of the oracles of God, turning them over to an alliance of big business and textual critics in the academy? Whose idea was that? And why do we persist in acting like it was a good one?
Let God Be True
Paul sets up a parallel between vv. three and four. In verse three the two elements are “unbelief” and the “faith of God.” In verse four they are “every man a liar” and “God true.” We should therefore understand unbelief being equivalent to man lying, and the faith of God as the equivalent to God being true. And when Paul caps it off with his citation Psalm 51, the whole thing should come into focus. God being true despite the sinfulness and lies of covenant members does not primarily mean that God wins “the argument” (although He does always win the arugment). It means that despite our sinfulness and uncanny ability to get everything wrong, He will still win the world. Remember how Psalm 51 ends—with pure worship in the world, pure internally and externally both. The result of God remaining true to David despite David being untrue to God is that transgressors are taught and sinners are converted.
God does not need our bright and shiny righteousness in order to advance His kingdom. What He wants is for us to acknowledge what we are by nature, which is iniquitous from conception (Ps. 51:5). He wants us to acknowledge what we are by choice and action—which is transgressors in need of forgiveness (Ps. 51:1-2). Remember that Paul is quoting this psalm after Romans 1 placed all the unbelieving Gentiles under the condemnation of sin, and Romans 2 placed all the unbelieving Jews under the condemnation of sin. He is writing this on the threshold of his point in Romans 3, which is that Gentiles and Jews are in the same terrible fix. David, one of the greatest covenant kings in the history of God’s covenant people, confessed that he was conceived in sin, and that the amniotic fluid in which he was formed was the fluid of iniquity. So stop trying to protect God’s reputation by hiding your sin. He doesn’t care. Christ died for sinners, and God is reconciled. We should therefore stop trying to win the “I-didn’t-have-to-be-forgiven-for-as-much-as-you-did” contest.
True confession means acknowledging what your sin actually was, and doing so with complete honesty before God (1 John 1:9), and it also means acknowledging the true identity of the one insulted by the sin. David says “against three, thee only, have I sinned.” Mark that. David was guilty of adultery, disloyalty to a faithful subordinate, then murder, and then a political cover-up and scandal. Lots of other people were involved, but against “thee only have I sinned.” But take heart—all sin is aimed at God, seeking to topple Him from His throne. But He is true, even if you are full of lies. You might as well come quietly . . . cleansing awaits.