Paul is walking the world through the meaning of honest confession before God. The unbelieving Gentiles don’t want to honor God as God, or give Him thanks, and so Paul set the grandeur of God right in front of them, as displayed in every created thing. The Jews don’t want God, and so Paul condemns them according to the standards of Torah, the same Torah that they thought they were so pleased with. He is driving to the conclusion of the first part of his letter, which is the sinfulness of every man. But human pride doesn’t want to talk about human sin, and would much rather talk about divine sins. And so Paul takes a moment to swat at the gnat that some call the greatest philosophical problem ever—the problem of evil.
“But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just” (Rom. 3:5-8)
Summary of the Text
Some men can be counted on to get huffy with this kind of Pauline talk—every man a liar, and so forth. And so they determine that the best defense against the ultimately holy God is a good offense, and they come up with stumpers for the Q&A after the evangelistic presentation. First, they say, if our unrighteousness sets off God’s righteousness, putting it in a good light so to speak, then what must we say? Speaking carnally, is God unrighteous when He takes vengeance (v. 5)? Of course not, Paul says. First, he is speaking “as a man,” that is, carnally and as one of his questioners. That would mean that God couldn’t judge the world (v. 6). And since it is a non-negotiable reality that God will in fact judge the world, the question must be bogus. Philosophy doesn’t judge God’s day of vengeance. God’s day of vengeance judges philosophy, and while He is at it, philosophers also. Paul then repeats the same argument in different words—if my lie glorifies God by setting up a glorious contrast with His truth, then why does He then get to judge me as a sinner (v. 7)? Hmmmm? And some of them have take their incoherence to the next level, which was probably the whole point, slanderously representing Paul as arguing that we should do evil so that God will be glorified (v. 8). Given the way Paul phrases this, this utterly unserious argument is being attributed to him. Those who do this are under a just condemnation (v. 8).
The Calvinistic Straw-man
The apostle Paul had to deal with it, and so there is no real reason why we who have learned from him should not have to deal with it also. The teaching that God is exhaustively sovereign (a teaching that is pervasive in Romans) is a teaching that is easy to twist, caricature, misrepresent and slander. The move is a simple one. You take the teaching, cash out what you believe the logical implications to be, turn white in the face, and then attribute those appalling conclusions to those who hold to the premises that you have just mangled. This is a mistake in argumentation that Paul links to damnation (v. 8). At the same time, Calvinists need to remember the golden rule. If you don’t like it on the receiving end, then don’t like it on the giving end.
Is God unrighteous when He takes vengeance (v. 5)? Absolutely not, Paul says. Is it up for discussion whether or not God will judge the world (v. 6)? No—Paul does not reason to the conclusion that God will judge all creatures. He does that elsewhere, reasoning from the fact of the resurrection to the conclusion that Jesus will judge (Acts 17:31). But the fact that God in heaven is the judge of all nations is his premise here (v. 6).
God is the only lawful possessor of wrath, and no man may step in as His deputy without God’s express teaching in Scripture. In the book of Romans alone, God’s wrath is clearly displayed (1:18; 2:5; 2:8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4-5), His judgments are just and sure (1:32; 2:2-3; 2:5; 5: 16-18; 14:10 ), and His vengeance is honored (3:5; 12:19). But here is the problem. Man is in the dock, and man therefore wants (desperately wants) God to be in the dock. But think about it for just a moment. If man is to be judged by God, where does the standard for judgment come from? From God’s holy, infinite, and entirely righteous character. If God is to be judged by man, where does the standard for judgment come from? And how incoherent is that? “Who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why has thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay . . .? (Rom. 9:20-21). Our problem with all of this—Hell, damnation, wrath, judgment, or vengeance is not that it all just “too unjust.” Don’t we know our hearts any better than that? Our problem with God’s judgment is not the potential for grave injustice, to guarded against by us (!) and policed by us (!), but rather its much more frightening prospect of real justice.
Grace Is Not a Lowered Bar
Knowing this about God’s righteous character is not a set-up for theological paranoia. Those who understand it all that way do not understand it. High views of the triune God’s righteousness will lead directly to higher views of His grace and mercy. We now have “peace with God”(5:1). There is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (8:1).
In this book of Romans, Paul’s quesrioners are worldly men, and they do theology like a cheeky sophomore. And one of the most natural worldly tendencies out there is the attempt to magnify God’s grace by minimizing His holiness and consequent wrath. But doing that will not give you the faith once delivered, but rather a pile of mush. It is that impulse that drives every form of theological liberalism, including the forms of it that are rampant in the evangelical world today.
Lowering the bar to shouts of “grace” will only have the result of trying to make God’s kindness to us something that He owes us, rather than as something that overflows from the good counsel of His will and very nature of His being. He doesn’t owe us a blessed thing. He doesn’t owe us forgiveness, or cleansing, or salvation, or a place in heaven. He doesn’t even owe us a participant ribbon. He gives us all these things, but not because we are entitled to them. There is no entitlement here, only free grace.
I emphasized the word triune a short while ago. If there is no God, or there are many gods, there is no such thing as justice. If God is a solitary Being, a unitarian god, then we are all crushed under the weight of something called justice. Men who beat their wives worship that kind of god. But our triune God, the living God, is the only one who can rule a universe in which mercy and truth may kiss each other (Ps. 85:10).