Romans 3 Commentary

Some Jewish objections (3:1-8)

Many Jews might argue with Paul by putting to him a fairly obvious question. If what he said was true, why did God choose Israel as his special people (3:1)? Paul replies that God chose them so that through them he could make himself known to the people of the world. The Old Testament Scriptures, for example, were given to the human race by way of the Jews (2). The sad truth is that many of these favoured Jewish people have proved unfaithful to God, but he is still willing to save them. In fact, their unfaithfulness only shows how faithful God is (3-4).

There are some, however, who dispute the truth of Paul’s teaching. They argue, irreverently, that if their unbelief has shown God’s righteousness more clearly, it has been of service to God, and God is therefore unjust in punishing them (5). Certainly not, replies Paul. If that were the case there could never be any standards of judgment. Consequently, God could never judge the world (6). If the Jews are going to argue like that, says Paul, why do they accuse him of being a sinner because of the things he teaches? By their argument, Paul’s ‘sin’ would help display God’s righteousness just the same (7). In the end this reasoning would lead people to the dangerous belief that they may do evil in order to get a favourable result (8).

All humankind is sinful (3:9-20)

From his discussion on the state of the Gentile and Jewish worlds, Paul concludes that the whole human race is under the power of sin (9). He quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures to show how sin affects every part of human life. Sin causes people to be rebellious against God, both in their thoughts and in their actions (10-12). It causes their speech to be harmful and destructive (13-14) and their plans to be violently selfish (15-17). They have no respect for God, but live to please themselves (18).

Those Scriptures were written originally not in relation to Gentiles, but in relation to Jews, to whom God had given his law. But if Jewish people are judged guilty because they could not keep God’s law, the Gentiles, who show the same characteristics, must also be under God’s condemnation. The whole human race is guilty, and the law can do nothing but show up that guilt. There is no possibility that a person can be put right in God’s sight by keeping its commandments (19-20).


Now that he has established that all humankind is sinful and under God’s condemnation, Paul moves on to explain the salvation that God has made available through Jesus Christ. The following outline introduces a number of ideas and words that Paul uses in this section.

God’s love

It is true that God loves sinners and wants to forgive them (2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 4:16), but genuine love also acts justly. It does not ignore wrongdoing. Suppose, for example, that a judge has before him a criminal who has rightly been found guilty. The judge places a fine on him and assures him that if he does not pay he will be sent to jail. The man has no money but pleads not to be sent to jail, so the judge, feeling sorry for him, forgives him and lets him go free. What the judge has displayed is not love, but an irrational emotion that is easily influenced regardless of what is right and just.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the judge acts out of genuine love. He places the same fine on the man and insists that it be paid. Being aware of the man’s personal circumstances, he feels sorry for him, but he knows that genuine love does what is right, even if it is costly. He therefore goes to the man


privately and, out of his own pocket, gives the man the money to pay the fine. The same judge who laid down the penalty has paid the fine on the man’s behalf.

This is what God has done for repentant sinners. He is a loving and forgiving God, but he does not ignore sin. He is just and holy, and he cannot treat sin as if it does not matter. He will do only what is pure and honourable, even though it may be costly to himself.

In order to save his guilty human creatures, God entered the stream of human life in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14; Phil 2:6-7). Though he lived in the world of human existence and experienced life’s hardships and frustrations, Jesus lived a perfect life. He never broke God’s law, in thought, attitude, intention or action (1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), and so was not under God’s judgment. Yet he willingly paid sin’s penalty on behalf of the guilty. That penalty was death (Rom 6:23), and Jesus died in the place of, or as the substitute for, guilty sinners (Rom 5:6; 1 Peter 2:24).

We can see now what divine love has done. God the righteous judge laid down the punishment for sin, but through Jesus’ death on the cross, he himself has taken that punishment. His justice is satisfied in paying sin’s penalty, while his love flows out in forgiving the sinner (2 Cor 5:21).


Paul uses the words ‘justify’ and ‘justification’ in what might be called a legal sense. The picture is that of a courtroom, where justification is that act of the judge by which he declares a person to be righteous, or in the right. It is the opposite of condemn, which means to declare a person guilty, or in the wrong (cf. Deut 25:1; Job 32:2; Matt 12:37). (The words ‘justify’ and ‘righteous’ are different parts of the same word in the original languages of the Bible.)

Concerning the relationship between sinners and God, justification means that God declares repentant sinners righteous before him. He makes them right with himself. Sinners are not made righteous in the sense that they are made into perfect people who cannot sin any more. Certainly, their lives will be changed so that righteousness, not sin, becomes their chief characteristic (as Paul will explain later in the letter; cf. Rom 6:1-2,15-19; 8:10,12-13). But the truth that is emphasized in justification is that repentant sinners are declared righteous. They are given a righteousness that is not their own. God gives them a new status through Christ, a new standing that makes them fit for the presence of a holy God (Rom 4:6-8;

  • Cor 5:21). God now sees them as being ‘in Christ’, and accepts them not because of anything they have done, but because of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection (Rom 3:27-28; 4:24-25; Phil 3:9).

Only through the work of Jesus Christ is God able to be righteous in justifying those who have faith in him. Jesus bore their sins in his body on the cross, so that God can give his righteousness to them (Rom 3:24-26; 1 Peter 2:24). And once God has declared them righteous, no one can condemn them as sinners or even lay a charge against them (Rom 8:33-34). God does all this freely by his grace, his good favour which they do not deserve (Rom 3:24; Titus 2:11; 3:4-7).

Justification is more than forgiveness

When people do wrong against us we may forgive them, but that does not declare them righteous.

When God forgives he also justifies. He does more than remove sin and hostility; he brings sinners into a right relationship with himself (Rom 3:25-26; 5:6-11; 8:1-2). Forgiveness is negative; justification is positive. Forgiveness removes condemnation; justification gives righteousness. Forgiveness is something that believers are always in need of because they are always likely to sin (Matt 6:12); justification is a declaration once and for all that God accepts them in his Son (Rom 5:1-2).

The forgiveness that believers need constantly concerns not their justification before God but their fellowship with God. Paul will explain later in his letter how believers have a constant battle with the evil effects of sin in the world. When they fail they may disappoint themselves and spoil their fellowship with God, but they can be assured that if they confess their sin God will forgive (1 John 1:9). Their justification, however, is never in question. Christ’s death deals with sin’s penalty for believers of all generations, past, present and future. Likewise it deals with the penalty for all the sins of individual believers, whether those sins be past, present or future (Rom 5:9,16).


Propitiation and reconciliation

Human sin has separated people from God and left them in a condition of spiritual helplessness where they are unable to bring themselves back to God (Isa 59:2; Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:3). God always has an attitude of wrath against sin, and nothing sinners can do is able to propitiate God (i.e. pacify him, quiet his anger, remove his hostility or win his favour).

Pagans would sometimes try to calm the wrath of their gods by offering sacrifices; they would try to propitiate their gods. But guilty sinners cannot act towards God like that. Nothing they do can turn away God’s wrath or win his favour. The only way God is propitiated is by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who has been ‘set forth as a propitiation’ (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10. RSV says ‘expiation’; NIV says ‘sacrifice of atonement’; GNB says ‘the means by which people’s sins are forgiven’).

Propitiation means, then, that God’s holy wrath against sin has been satisfied by the sacrificial death of Christ, and therefore God can show mercy on believing sinners. Once the cause of hostility (sin) has been removed, sinners can be reconciled, or brought back, to God. This is entirely the work of God. He replaces hostility with peace, and changes enemies into friends (Rom 5:10-11; 2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20- 22).


All that has been said so far is not true of the whole human race. It is true only of those who believe.

Salvation is available to all, but it is effective only in those who have faith. In other words, faith is the means by which a person receives salvation (Rom 1:16; 3:22,25). (In the Greek of the New Testament, ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ are different parts of the same word.)

When the Bible speaks about faith in relation to salvation, it is not speaking about some inner strength that enables people to triumph over difficulties. Faith is more concerned with helplessness than with strength. Faith is reliance. It is an attitude whereby people give up all their own efforts to win salvation, no matter how good they be, and trust completely in Christ, and him alone, for their salvation (Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9). It is not merely an intellectual acknowledgment of certain facts (though clearly believers must know what they are trusting in), but a belief wherein people turn to Christ and cling to him with the whole heart. It is not accepting certain things as true, but trusting in a person, Jesus Christ, and all that he has done through his life, death and resurrection (Rom 4:22-25; cf. John 3:14-15; 20:30-31).

A traveller waiting to board an aircraft may believe that it will fly, and may even understand how it flies, but that belief will not take him to his destination. He must exercise his faith in the aircraft by walking on to it. He commits himself to it, trusts in it, relies upon it. That is what the Bible means by faith. People not merely know about Jesus Christ, but trust in him. They rely upon what Christ has done for them, not on anything they do themselves. Faith in Christ means commitment to him. It takes people out of themselves and puts them into Christ (Rom 3:22; Gal 2:20-21; 3:26; 2 Tim 1:12; 1 John 5:12-13).

Yet faith in itself does not save. It is simply the means by which sinners accept the salvation that Christ offers. Salvation is not a reward for faith; it is a gift that no one deserves, but it can be received by faith (Rom 3:25, 5:15).

Faith is not something a person can boast about. All the merit lies in the object of faith, which is Jesus Christ (John 3:16). When the traveller walks on to the aircraft, he has not done anything to boast about. The power to get him to his destination lies in the aircraft, not in him, and he can do no more than put his trust in it. Faith is not trying, but ceasing from one’s own efforts. It is not doing, but relying on what Christ has done. It is not feeling, but accepting God’s promises as true and trusting in them (Rom 4:16; 10:4-5; Titus 3:4-5).

Since faith in Christ means committal to him, it involves turning from one’s self-centredness. It involves a complete change of mind, attitude and behaviour, a turn-around that the Scriptures call repentance. In explaining the doctrinal basis of the gospel for the benefit of the Roman church, Paul emphasizes the importance of faith (Rom 1:16), but when he preached to non-Christians in general he consistently emphasized that true faith is inseparably linked with repentance (Acts 20:21; cf. 3:19; 11:21; Mark 1:15).



Another word that the New Testament uses to picture salvation is redemption. In Bible times a slave could be set free from the bondage of slavery by the payment of a price, often called the ransom price. The slave was ‘bought back’, or redeemed, and the whole affair was known as the redemption of the slave (Lev 25:47-48). (The words ‘redeem’ and ‘ransom’ are related to the same root in the original languages.) God’s deliverance of Israel from the power of its enemies was also called redemption, the most notable example being his redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt (Exod 6:6).

Sinners are in bondage to sin and under sentence of death (John 8:34; Rom 6:17,23), but Jesus gave his life as a ransom to pay the price of sin and release sinners from its power (Matt 20:28; Rom 3:24; Eph 1:7). Again redemption is entirely the work of God. He buys sinners back, and the redemption price is the blood of Christ – his life laid down in sacrifice (Heb 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18-19). Christ has freed believers from the power of sin, and they must show this to be true by the way they live (Rom 6:16-18; 1 Cor 7:23; Heb 2:14-15).

Saved by grace, through faith (3:21-31)

The law cannot make people right with God (see v. 20), but God himself can. Because of Christ’s death, God can now declare sinners righteous and still himself be righteous in doing so. He gives sinners a righteousness that makes them acceptable to him. It is not their own righteousness, but comes from God through Christ and is received by faith (21-22). Since all have sinned, all can be justified, but only because of the grace of God and because of what Christ has done (23-24).

When Christ died on the cross, he took the punishment of sin that God’s holy wrath demanded. Now that God’s righteous demands have been satisfied, his grace can flow out in giving a righteous status in Christ to any who will receive it by faith. Even the sins of those who lived before the time of Christ were forgiven on the basis of Christ’s death. God accepted those who had faith in him. Their sacrifices could never remove sin (cf. Heb 10:4), but they could be an expression of faith by which they acknowledged their sin as being worthy of God’s punishment and called on God’s mercy to forgive them. God therefore accepted believing sinners, ‘passing over’ their sins, as it were, until Christ came and bore the full punishment (cf. Heb 9:15). Christ’s death is the basis on which God justifies all who have faith in him, whether they lived before or after the time of Christ (25-26).

This plan of salvation leaves no room for human boasting, because it depends not on anything that people might do, but entirely on what God does. All that sinners can do is trust in what someone else has done, and there is no cause for boasting in that. This is true for both Jews and Gentiles (27-30). The righteous requirement of the law is therefore upheld. The law demanded death for those who broke it; Christ died to meet its full requirements on behalf of guilty sinners (31).

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