Commentary on Romans 3:1-20

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision?

Paul frequently uses the words “what, then,” in Romans to raise questions about what he has taught and so further his argument. While it is possible that Paul “quotes” a real interlocutor, it is more likely that he himself poses these questions to his readers. In other words, Paul is not so much reproducing for his readers an argument between himself and another person as he is posing questions and objections to himself in order to make his views clear to the Romans. Remembering Paul’s own rich Jewish heritage, we might even regard the dialogue as one between Paul the Jew and Paul the Christian. In chap. 2, Paul, writing from the vantage point of the fulfillment of salvation history in Christ, has asserted that possession of the law and circumcision–in a word, being Jewish–makes no essential difference for the day of judgment. The question in v. 1 is therefore entirely natural: “What, then, is the advantage of being a Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?”1

2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

Many advantages of the Jew are listed in 9:4-5: “To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever!” In this passage Paul focuses on being entrusted with the oracles of God in the form of the Scriptures (cf. Deut 4:8; Ps 147:19-20).

Rom. 3:3 suggests that the promises of salvation for Israel are uppermost in Paul’s mind. The advantage should not be restricted merely to the possession of the Scriptures and the stewardship required because of their possession. This would scarcely advance the argument beyond chapter 2 since the possession of the law by Israel, although an advantage in some respects, ensures only that Israel will be judged because of their failure to obey it. Rather, Paul declares something more profound about the “saving advantage” that ethnic Israel possessed: they had promises from God ensuring them of future salvation.2

3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?

That some did not believe (were unfaithful) implies that some did believe (were faithful). Chapter 2 indicates that many Jews failed to obey the Law of Moses, while chapters 9-11 indicate that most Jews had failed to believe in Christ, the fulfillment of the OT covenant. Both kinds of unbelief are in view in verse 3. God’s faithfulness is contrasted to the faithlessness of the Jews.

4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being shown up as a liar, just as it is written: “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”

The phrase “every human being shown up as a liar” is from Ps 116:11. God will remain faithful (true) to his promises even if every person is a liar (faithless, unreliable).

The phrase “so that you will be justified in your words and will prevail when you are judged” is taken from Ps 51:4. Another translation is: “so that you will be justified in your words, and that you might triumph when you judge.”3 In that verse David confesses his sin with Bathsheba and pleads for forgiveness. The section quoted by Paul describes God’s righteousness in judgment. Any judgment upon David would be just. Up to this point in the chapter Paul has focused on God’s promises of salvation. He now notes that God is also faithful to his promises when judging the disobedient because God’s word promises judgment for disobedience, not just blessing for obedience (cf. Neh 9:32-33).

As Paul has shown at length in chap. 2, the special place of the Jews in God’s plan does not protect them from the judgment of God. In 3:1-4, Paul reaffirms their special status by appealing to the invariability of God with respect to his word. But he also reminds us that this word includes warnings of judgment as well as promises of blessing. It is “the Jew first,” but in judgment (2:9) as well as blessing (1:16; 2:10).4

5 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.)

The precise meaning of this verse is difficult to determine. Schreiner starts by noting that Paul has been teaching (Rom 1-3) that human beings are unable to keep God’s law (8:5-8) and that their election by God is their only hope for salvation (Rom 9-11). Schreiner understands the objection in verse 5 to be saying: “Paul, your gospel teaches that the unrighteousness of Jews has a good end, in that it highlights God’s righteousness and justice in judging sinners. But the flaw in your theology is that the corruption of the Jews is so radical that the only way God can fulfill his saving promises to them is by a sovereign divine choice (cf. Rom. 9-11). If Jews can do nothing to contribute to their own salvation and are fundamentally corrupt, then is not God ‘unrighteous’ (adikos) to inflict his wrath on them?”5

6 Absolutely not! For otherwise how could God judge the world?

Paul’s point appears to be that if God were said to be unjust in bringing his wrath upon unrighteous Jews, the corollary would be that he could not judge the (Gentile) world either. It is, however, a sine qua non that God is the judge of the whole world (cf., e.g., Pss 7:6; 9:7; Isa 2:4; 34:8). It is also a given in the OT that the judge of all the earth will do right (cf. Gen 18:25).6

This issue is picked up again in chapters 9-11.

7 For if by my lie the truth of God enhances his glory, why am I still actually being judged as a sinner?

The logical progression of the passage in verses 7-8 is uncertain. The main issue is whether these verses (a) contain objections to Paul’s teaching or (b) contain Paul’s reply to his objectors. Moo states that verse 7 does not naturally follow from verse 6 and reads more naturally as a reiteration of the objection from verse 5. The first person singular is a rhetorical variant of the first person plural in verse 5. Verses 5-6 contrast human unrighteousness with God’s righteousness and verses 7-8 contrast human falsehood with God’s truthfulness.

8 And why not say, “Let us do evil so that good may come of it”? — as some who slander us allege that we say. (Their condemnation is deserved!)

The “and” at the start of verse 8 suggests this verse is a continuation of the objection in verse 7. Paul indicates that he has been falsely charged with advocating immoral behavior so that God’s glory could be enhanced. Strangely, he does not answer the objection.

Why, then, does Paul not answer the objection? A very common suggestion is that Paul does so, but not until Rom. 6–note the similarity between what is said here and 6:1: “should we continue in sin in order that grace might increase?” However, 6:1 is the question of a Christian in light of the abundance of God’s grace; the objection here is posed by a Jew, questioning whether his or her actions really have any meaning in light of Paul’s assertion that even sin leads to God’s glory. And Paul’s response in Rom. 6 is not really appropriate to the issue raised here. We must suppose, then, that Paul intends the very absurdity of the objection to imply its dismissal. The viewpoint taken by the Jewish objector, that it would not be right for God to punish his people for their sins, is implied to be fallacious, and, indeed, blasphemous, by the absurd conclusion to which his objection leads.7

The “their” who is condemned could be the people who do evil so that good may come of it and/or those who slander Paul.

The closest, and most natural, antecedent is the subject of the main clause in v. 8–those who object that Paul’s doctrine encourages the practice of sin. But, since these people are expressing essentially the same viewpoint as the “I” in v. 7, Paul’s sentence of condemnation embraces the objectors in vv. 7-8 as a whole. Paul, then, both rejects the excuse put forward in v. 7–God is “just” to judge the sinner whose “lie” brings God glory–and imposes the sentence appropriate for the “blasphemy” of those who have maligned Paul and, by implication, the God who has manifested his righteousness in Christ.8

9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin,

The meaning of the Greek translated “Are we better off?” is difficult to determine. The “we” can probably be identified as the Jews since they have been the subject of discussion in verses 1-8. The meaning of the Greek verb proechometha (“better off”) is not clear. The question could be “Are we Jews surpassed [by the Gentiles]?” or “Do we Jews have an advantage?” That the Jews have a salvation-historical advantage, according to verses 1-2, makes the latter question the more likely alternative. Regardless, the answer to question is “no” because Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.

At first sight, it might seem that this answer conflicts with what Paul has said in vv. 1-2. But Paul is making complementary, not contradictory, points. The Jews have an unassailable salvation-historical advantage: God has spoken to them and he has given them promises that will not be retracted (vv. 1-2). But, as Paul has repeatedly emphasized in chap. 2, the Jews have no advantage at all when it comes to God’s impartial judgment of every person “according to his or her works.” And this is the issue that Paul is addressing in v. 9, as his explanation of his negative response indicates: “we have already accused all people, whether Jews or Greeks, of being under sin.” Paul is referring to the comprehensive indictment of humanity in 1:18-2:29, as first the Greek or the Gentile (1:19b-32) and then the Jew (2:1-29) were brought before the divine bar and found wanting. We have, then, in this statement, Paul’s own comment on his purpose in this section of his letter. All people who have not experienced the righteousness of God by faith are “under sin”: that is, they are helpless captives to its power.9

Schreiner emphasizes that sin is a power and not only a kind of action:

For instance, sin is described as reigning (5:21), enslaving (6:6), ruling (6:12), and exercising lordship (6:14). People are described as slaves to (6:16, 17, 20) or freed from (6:18, 22) sin. Sin as a power cannot ultimately be separated from acts of sin. The catena in verses 10-18 bears this out. Sin as a power rules over all people, but it manifests itself in specific acts, as verses 10-17 attest. The anthropological dimensions of the Pauline doctrine of sin here should not be overlooked. Paul had a darker view of human ability than some Jews in that the latter believed that human beings had the capability to observe the law. Judaism acknowledged that all people without exception were sinners. But Paul thought that sin had wrapped its tentacles so tightly around human beings that they could not keep the law. This state of affairs obtained not only for the Gentiles but also for the Jews, who were God’s covenant people.10

10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”

The statement, ‘there is no one righteous’, comes from Ecclesiastes 7:20: ‘Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous; no one who does what is right and never sins’, and the claim that ‘there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God’ draws upon Psalm 14:2 (LXX 13:2): ‘The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God’, and Psalm 53:2 (LXX 52:3): ‘God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God’, while the quotation, ‘All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one’, comes from Psalm 14:3 (LXX 13:3): ‘All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’, and Psalm 53:3 (LXX 52:4): ‘Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’.11

As is the case with most of the quotations in this series, Paul’s wording agrees closely with the LXX. But there is one important difference: where the Psalms text has “there is no one who does good,” Paul has “there is no one who is righteous.” Granted the importance of the language of “righteousness” in this part of Romans (cf. 3:4, 5, 8, 19, 20), the word is almost certainly Paul’s own editorial change. It will thus carry with it Paul’s specifically forensic nuance (cf. 1:17). What he means is that there is not a single person who, apart from God’s justifying grace, can stand as “right” before God. This meaning is not far from David’s intention in the Psalm, as he unfolds the myriad dimensions of human folly.12

13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.”

The quotations in verses 13-17 provide descriptions of representative sins instead of focusing on the universality of sin. This verse juxtaposes Ps 5:9 and Ps 140:3. The phrase “their throats are open graves” either denotes inner corruption from which hurtful speech flows or the deadly effects of speech.

14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

This statement is from Ps 10:7.

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.”

Verses 15-17 are based on Isa 59:7-8 (verse 15 may be based on Prov 1:16).

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

This citation is from Ps 36:1. The root of sin is a failure to fear God.

In verses 10-18, Paul quotes a number of OT passages. In their original contexts, the passages do not say there are no righteous persons at all. Rather, the texts distinguish between the righteous and the unrighteous. This has led G. Davies to wonder whether Paul is really saying all people without exception are sinners. Schreiner explains why Davies’s position is wrong:

Although Davies’s solution is initially plausible, it should be rejected. Dunn argues perceptively that Paul uses the OT texts in a more sophisticated way. Those texts that distinguished between the righteous and wicked are now turned against Jews who believed they were righteous, in order to prosecute the theme that all are guilty before God. By abolishing the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, Paul overturns the Jewish concept of covenantal protection. The sin of the Jews places them in the same situation as the Gentiles: guilty before God. The indictment of “all” as sinners is confirmed by the remarkable emphasis on universality noted earlier. To say that “all” are under sin, both Jews and Gentiles (v. 9), and to exclude everyone in such emphatic terms from being righteous, understanding, and so on surely suggests that Paul is speaking universally. Indeed, we shall see that the all-pervasiveness of sin continues to be prominent in verses 19-20. Thus we can be assured that Paul intends to say that all without exception, including the Jews, are sinners and guilty before God.13

Kruse adds:

Paul’s purpose in listing these quotations is to say that as a people Jews are no better than Gentiles. Paul would certainly know of the many righteous persons spoken of in the OT, not least Abraham, to whom he refers in the next chapter (4:1-25). However, it must be said that such ‘righteous’ persons are not the morally flawless, but those who have responded with repentance to the goodness of God. Not one of them would have been declared righteous by God because of their peerless behavior. Thus Paul’s conclusion that follows in the next verse stands.14

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

In the context of the previous OT quotations, the “law” means all of Scripture. Those under the law are the Jewish people.

The hina (in order that) conveys purpose, indicating why the law was given to the Jews. The purpose explicated is rather surprising. The law was given to the Jews so that “every mouth should be closed and the whole world answerable to God” (pan stoma phrage kai hypodikos genetai pas ho kosmos to theo; cf. Job 40:4-5). How could the whole world be liable to God’s judgment because of a law given to the Jews? The answer is not that difficult. If the Jews, who had the privilege of being God’s covenantal and elect people, could not keep the law, then it follows that no one, including the Gentiles, can.15

“Paul’s point is that the Jewish law, by condemning Jewish failures, silences all claims by Jews to be superior to Gentiles.”16 If the Jews, God’s chosen people, will be accountable then so too will the Gentiles, who cannot claim God’s special favor, be accountable.

The terminology of this clause reflects the imagery of the courtroom. “Shutting the mouth” connotes the situation of the defendant who has no more to say in response to the charges brought against him or her. The Greek word translated “accountable” occurs nowhere else in the Scriptures, but it is used in extrabiblical Greek to mean “answerable to” or “liable to prosecution,” “accountable.” Paul pictures God both as the one offended and as the judge who weighs the evidence and pronounces the verdict. The image, then, is of all humanity standing before God, accountable to him for willful and inexcusable violations of his will, awaiting the sentence of condemnation that their actions deserve.17

20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

This verse, an allusion to Ps 143:2, draws 1:18-3:20 to a close. The future tense of the verb “to declare righteous” indicates that the final judgment is in view.

“Works of the law,” then, as most interpreters have recognized, refers simply to “things that are done in obedience to the law.” Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” instead of the simple “works” because he is particularly concerned in this context to deny to Jews an escape from the general sentence pronounced in v. 19. But, since “works of the law” are simply what we might call “good works” defined in Jewish terms, the principle enunciated here has universal application; nothing a person does, whatever the object of obedience or the motivation of that obedience, can bring him or her into favor with God. It is just at this point that the significance of the meaning we have given “works of the law” emerges so clearly. Any restricted definition of “works of the law” can have the effect of opening the door to the possibility of justification by works–“good” deeds that are done in the right spirit, with God’s enabling grace, or something of the sort. This, we are convinced, would be to misunderstand Paul at a vital point. The heart of his contention in this section of Romans is that no one is capable of doing anything to gain acceptance with God; this is why for everyone faith in Christ is the only possible way to God. In this verse, Paul does not spell out the “logic” of why works cannot justify. But the context, where the principle that “doers of the law will be justified” has been enunciated (2:13), and where it has been shown that all are under the power of sin (3:9; cf. 3:10-18), suggests that it is because no one is able to do the law sufficiently well to gain favor with God.

The last part of v. 20 supports Paul’s contention in the first part of the verse by setting forth what it is that the law does accomplish (as opposed to that which it cannot accomplish). The law does not justify; rather, “through” it comes “knowledge of sin.” Since “knowledge” in the Bible can sometimes designate personal experience of something (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21, where Christ is said not to have “known” sin), “knowledge of sin” might mean the actual experience of sinning. On this view, the law, because it encourages people to perform good works, entices them to seek to determine their own destiny and to “boast” in their accomplishments. Thus are people (and especially Jews) led by the law into sinning. This conception, which is particularly associated with Bultmann and his followers, is a basic misrepresentation of Paul. He does not view the attempt to do the law as bad, nor is the doing of the law wrong. It is people’s failure to do it that creates the problem. “Knowledge of sin,” on the other hand, does not simply mean that the law defines sin; rather, what is meant is that the law gives to people an understanding of “sin” (singular) as a power that holds everyone in bondage and brings guilt and condemnation. The law presents people with the demand of God. In our constant failure to attain the goal of that demand, we recognize ourselves to be sinners and justly condemned for our failures.18

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 180-181 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3232-3236 
  3. Moo 1996, 186 
  4. Moo 1996, 188 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3374-3378 
  6. Kruse 2012, 162 
  7. Moo 1996, 195 
  8. Moo 1996, 196 
  9. Moo 1996, 200-201 
  10. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3549-3557 
  11. Kruse 2012, 166 
  12. Moo 1996, 203 
  13. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3612-3621 
  14. Kruse 2012, 169 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 3630-3636 
  16. Kruse 2012, 170 
  17. Moo 1996, 205 
  18. Moo 1996, 209-210 
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