Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?–as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
The Advantage of Israel
So, then. If faithful Gentiles are as justified as faithful Jews and if law-breaking Jews are no better than Gentiles, then what is the value of being God’s chosen people? If the New Covenant wipes out the redemptive distinction between Jews and Gentiles, then what is the point of all the history contained in the pages of the Old Testament?
This really is the heart of the matter in Romans: Does the Christian faith invalidate the promises of God to Israel? Can the Gentiles be included in the New Covenant apart from circumcision and law-keeping without canceling the exclusive destiny of Israel? Can Gentiles share in the promises God made to Israel without becoming Jews? This is the nettle to be grasped, as some like to say.
So, Paul grasps it. He does so by asking two questions: (1) What advantage has the Jew? and (2) what is the value of circumcision? There is no doubt that God entered into a law-treaty covenant with Israel at Sinai and gave them circumcision as the sign of this covenant as He had done with Abraham. There is also no doubt that the Old Testament is filled to its bindings with statements about Israel’s exclusive destiny before God in and for the world. Israel was called to be God’s chosen people. Paul cannot—and would not—deny the advantage of being Israel or the value of circumcision. Indeed, he is determined to refute this charge before it is leveled by his opponents.
No, Paul will not deny the advantage of Israel or the value of circumcision. Rather, he simply intends to show that the advantage of Israel and the value of circumcision are fulfilled in Christ.
Paul answers the two questions with one statement, “Much in every way.” There is much advantage in being a Jew and much value in circumcision—yes, much in every way. Then, Paul gives only one very important reason—you might say the reason—for the advantage of Israel and the value of circumcision: Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God, the words that God spoke to His people to stand as a witness to and for the nations. The oracles of God are preserved as the Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets and all the writings bound together with them. Israel was expected to preserve the oracles of God and transfer them to future generations. Israel did this faithfully, and we now have a faithful record of God’s words to His people.
However, when Paul speaks of Israel being entrusted with the oracles of God, he means much more than merely preserving and propagating the words of God to future generations. To Paul, the oracles of God are God’s plan for the redemption of the world, and Israel was called to be the means of this redemption, the agent and executor of the plan. To be entrusted with the oracles of God is like a messenger being trusted with a top secret dispatch that must be delivered through enemy lines to a beleaguered garrison. The messenger must do more than merely hold on to the message and keep its contents safe. He must preserve the contents of the message, deliver it safely to its intended recipient and interpret the message to those who cannot read its words. Israel was called to all of this when she was “entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Israel was called to be a light to nations by being “the people of the Book,” the people that possessed the greatest law ever given. God expected Israel to hear the law and take it into her heart. Israel was called to live out the implications of the law and manifest the holiness of God to the world. Israel was commanded to internalize the law and become living expressions of its righteous commands. Israel was called to become “Word made flesh” in a sense. Of course, Israel could not do this because of the weakness of the flesh, as Paul will discuss in chapters 6-8. Incarnational living was not fully possible until the incarnation of God in Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. But just because Israel could not did not mean that Israel should not. Ponder that for a moment.
However, Paul cannot speak about Israel being entrusted with the oracles of God without immediately recalling Israel’s failure to keep this trust. “What if some were unfaithful?” Paul remembers Israel’s perennial backsliding, her repeated prostration before pagan idols during the time of the judges and kings. Paul remembers the Exile when God judged Israel and cast her out into the earth under the oppressive rule of Gentile principalities and powers. Paul remembers Israel’s continued faithlessness after the remnant returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, the shame of Ezra as he beheld the corruption of Israel through intermarriage with the pagan nations around them. Paul remembers the four hundred “silent years” between Malachi and John the Baptist, and most of all, he remembers the continuing Jewish rejection of Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Christ. Paul’s recollection cannot help but stagger beneath the overwhelming weight of Israel’s unbelief. “What if some were unfaithful?” Some certainly were!
And yet, Paul refuses to believe that Israel’s story is over. He cannot fathom the idea that Israel’s unfaithfulness will induce God to betray His own Word. Paul believes, and the rest of Romans will bring this quiet note of faith to a resounding crescendo, that God will be true to His Word in spite of—indeed, because of—Israel’s unbelief. In Romans 9-11 Paul will present the astounding claim that Israel’s backsliding was a part of God’s plan all along to demonstrate man’s inability to save himself apart from the indwelling life of God. God will save Israel, and God will save the world!
Moreover, Paul will show that Israel’s “falling away” has occurred so the sins of all nations could be gathered together and piled in a heap upon Israel as a priestly nation representing the world and thus narrowed and focused in atonement upon Israel’s scapegoat, Jesus Christ. Israel was called to be a living sacrifice for the life of the world.
Paul refuses to believe that Israel’s story is over because Paul trusts in the faithfulness of God. “Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar.” God is faithful no matter how much the people of God are not. Israel may have lived a lie and violated the terms of the covenant, but God cannot lie. He will do what He said He would do. His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel will surely come to pass—not because Israel is faithful, but because God is faithful. And this faithfulness, the trustworthiness of God, is the basis of salvation by grace. God will freely save whom He will because He is faithful, not because those whom He saves are. God will keep His promises and vindicate His Word for the sake of His own glory.
As noted above, the righteousness of God speaks of the “rightness” of God, the fact that God cannot lie, that His Word is right. It is God’s own faithfulness and righteousness that is vindicated, or justified, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is the justification of God.
The justification of God may seem like odd language to our ears, but Paul is very concerned to show that his gospel does not make a liar out of God. Paul does not propose some sort of “replacement theology” where Israel forfeits her promises through unbelief and is replaced in the salvific economy of God by some sort of Hellenized Christian church. Not at all. Paul strongly believes that the ultimate salvation of Israel will be the salvation of the world.
In order to drive the point home, Paul quotes from Psalm 51. Consider the quote in its context: “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.'” Paul is referring to the unfaithfulness of Israel. What if some within Israel were unfaithful? Does the faithlessness of Israel nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone within Israel were liars.
Then the quote: “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
David wrote these words after he was confronted by Nathan the prophet over his sin with Bathsheba. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to hide Bathsheba’s pregnancy and conceal their sin. Nathan exposed David’s sin in the dramatic telling of the story of stolen ewe lamb. David, missing the point of the story, was indignant against the man who stole his poor neighbor’s sheep only to discover in dismay that he was the man Nathan had in mind! David fell on his face in repentance, but God refused to defer His anger against David’s sin, and the illegitimate infant died in just a few days.
However, the story does not end there. “Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon. And the LORD loved him.” (II Samuel 12:24) The Lord loved Solomon and later chose him to be David’s heir. Moreover, God anointed Solomon to build His temple, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, and gave to the young king unprecedented wisdom to lead the people of God. As a further example of amazing grace, this son of Bathsheba the adulteress wrote much of the Wisdom literature we have in our Bible. What an incredible story of redemption!
(We could also speak of how the temple site was selected as a result of another of David’s spectacular sins, but space does not permit us to draw in this additional example of redemptive grace.)
Paul sees the story of David’s unfaithfulness as a model of Israel’s larger unfaithfulness. David sins. He conceals his sin with an even greater sin. He lives for at least nine months as if he had done nothing wrong, worshipping God with his lips but not his heart. Nathan the prophet confronts his sin in a parable, but David cannot see himself in the story. He indignantly pronounces the sentence of death upon the perpetrator, quick to judge evil in others, not realizing that he was pronouncing judgment upon himself. David repents, and God forgives his iniquity but refuses to defer judgment. The child dies. Then, God blesses David and Bathsheba with a another child, Solomon, and God loves the child, raises him up to be king, builder of the House of the Lord and writer of wise sayings and countless songs. This, in short form, is the larger story of Israel.
The central feature of this story is God’s promise to David that He would build his dynasty and there would never fail to be a son of David upon the throne of Israel. This great promise, described as “the sure mercies of David” (Isaiah 55:3; see also Acts 13:4 where Paul quotes this statement from Isaiah) is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which Paul referred to in Romans 1:3. This is why Paul insists that the faithlessness of Israel cannot overthrow the faithfulness of God.
God is “justified” in His words and “prevails” when He is judged. God is right when He judges David for his sin, but God is also right when He chooses out of His own grace to redeem David from his sins and keep covenant with him forever. All that God has done in David He will do in Israel. This is the message of Romans.
This leads us to consider an amazing idea: “Our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God.” God displays His own holiness against the ever-darkening backdrop of man’s sin. God permits man’s unfaithfulness so that the faithfulness of God made be clearer in contrast. As stated later, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. Paul frames this idea within a question rather than a positive statement, so he must assume that our train of thought is running on his track.
Of course, this leads to the question: “What shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?” If God permits unrighteousness in order to highlight His righteousness, then how can God justify His wrath upon us? More specifically, if God has allowed Israel’s faithlessness in order to demonstrate His own faithfulness to the world, then how in the world can God judge Israel for her unfaithfulness? If Israel is only playing a part in the drama that God wrote, then why should she be judged for playing that part particularly well?
Paul is keenly aware of the impending wrath that is about to crash down upon Israel. He knows that Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation. As Paul says elsewhere, the wrath of God has come upon Israel “to the uttermost” (I Thessalonians 2:16). All of this forces Paul consider the divine rationale behind it all. Paul will consider all of this in breathtaking detail in Romans 9-11. But the idea begins bubbling up to the surface now like the first sputtering bursts of an erupting geyser.
If Israel’s unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath on Israel? We must admire Paul’s willingness to address the hard questions head on. We should learn from his example. But even in his willingness to address the hard questions, he quickly makes clear that he intends no irreverence toward God: “I speak in a human way.” This humility is striking.
Is God unrighteous? Paul asks. “By no means!” comes the swift reply. “For then how could God judge the world?” It is not only Israel that faces the wrath of God for her sins so that “the righteousness of God [may be] revealed from faith to faith” and that “the wrath of God [may be] revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:17, 18); the entire world faces the righteous judgment of God. In other words, God is not being unjust to Israel when He judges her for her sins. He will judge the entire world by the same standard: the law of God. All shall stand condemned before that great tribunal. All shall find that their unrighteousness shows the righteousness of God. This, too, is the message of Romans. Paul will develop this further momentarily.
Then Paul frames the same question in a more personal way. Again, Paul is surely thinking of David. David’s lie ultimately ended up demonstrating the truthfulness of God in the wrath that fell upon him and his house and the mercy that extended to him and his family forever. God was demonstrated to be faithful in contrast to the faithlessness of man so that God alone would receive glory. So, Paul wonders aloud, “But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” Why should I be condemned for lying to the glory of God? That is quite a question!
Moreover, “And why not do evil that good may come?” If sin reveals the holiness of God, then let us sin as much as we can so God may appear that much more holy! It is obvious that Paul does not think this way, for he refers rather angrily to those who level this slanderous charge against him. But he is willing to confront the question. He does not think this way, but he realizes that some may—indeed, some have—misunderstood his argument in just this way. So, he raises the question to knock it down again.
One final comment. Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God. In Paul’s world, pagan oracles were often consulted to learn about the future. Certainly Paul is no fortune teller and the Scriptures are not tea leaves, but Paul does firmly believe that the destiny of Israel is written in the pages of the Word of God. The “fortunes” of Israel were written in the divine dispatch carried within her own scrolls, if only we can crack the code with the cipher of the Spirit. Paul will show that the surprising twist of destiny that Israel encountered in Christ is not really a surprise at all when the oracles of God are understood in light of Christ revealed by the Spirit.
The oracles of God predict Israel’s failure and redemption, and the Gentiles’ conversion to faith in the one true God. In other words, Paul insists that Israel was entrusted with preserving and presenting a story that contains the plot he is now rehearsing. Paul will show, by quoting the oracles of God, that Israel’s unbelief is not surprising to those who read the text of the Old Testament with a Spirit-led understanding. The story of Israel is all about the vindication of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is faithful and His Word is true.