Romans 3:1-12.
Righteousness in God Alone   

Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.


As a Christian, do you have "the corner of the market" when it comes to righteousness?  Because you claim to be under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, does that make you "better" than anyone else?  Because you are a member of the ___________ church (you fill in the blank) are you closer to God than anyone else?

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans prior to visiting that young and vibrant Christian congregation.  It is apparent that Paul was quite aware of the state of the church, and based upon the instruction contained in the letter, he was aware of the issues and problems facing its people.  Though Paul rarely points to particular sins of any church body, he often provides emphatic instruction on problematic subjects, discussions that would not be included in the text were they not needed.  From Paul's letter we get a clear picture of the issues facing the Roman church as Paul addresses them.  We find that the issues they dealt were not unlike those we face today, and there is much to learn from Paul's teaching.

As Paul begins the letter, he wastes no time with petty small-talk, but dives directly into a discussion about the unrighteousness of natural man; that the state of mankind is depraved, yet in their depravity they have no excuse for their behavior.  Paul points out that God has revealed His presence to all people through His creation, and through their deepest understandings of the heart.  People know, without the instruction of any prophet or apostle, the difference between right and wrong, people always choose the sinfulness of wrong.  Still, in their deepest heart, they know God is wholly righteous.  Given a choice for righteousness, people cannot shed their sin nature, and as a result, when freed of self-control, exhibit all manner of depraved behavior.

When people come to the Lord in faith, God performs a transformation of their lives, as the Holy Spirit in their hearts leads them to reject a lifestyle that is characterized by sin and depravity.[1]  Those who have not placed their trust in God are without the Holy Spirit's indwelling power, and are left with a life that can only be described as depravity. 

As Christians reject the depraved lifestyle of a "sinner," does this choice for Jesus make them righteous?  Does their status as a saint make them better or of more value than those who are lost?  Are some "saints" more righteous than others?  It is the natural sin of man to desire ones self to be elevated above another.  Such self-elevation is motivated only by pride and serves to fail to love another.  It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize the sin in such an attitude.  Yet, that attitude prevails even in the church.  Some members consider themselves more spiritual, or more gifted, or more this, or more that, and use their self-assessments to despise others by their stratification. 

The early church had similar problems, partly resulting from the dichotomy of its congregation:  Jews and Gentiles.  The non-Christian Jews despised Gentiles, that is, all others who were not Jews, and the conversion to Christianity and its equal treatment of Jews and Gentiles was very difficult for the seasoned Jews to reconcile.  Even the apostles never fully overcame their prejudice, necessitating the call of Paul as a minister to the Gentiles, Paul a respected Jewish leader.

Romans 3:1.  What advantage then hath the Jew?  or what profit is there of circumcision?

Did the Jewish Christian have a special place at the throne of God?  As Paul addressed this issue in Chapter 2, Paul emphatically stated that God is no "respecter of persons."[2]  Coming out of that discussion, Paul turns directly to the Jewish membership of the Roman church, as he argues, if God is not a respecter of persons, then there is no distinction between the Jewish and Gentile church members.  It is apparent that the Jewish membership did not quite agree.  It was certainly the pattern across the early church, that internal strife was realized when its Jewish members looked down upon the Gentile brothers.  After all, weren't they the "chosen people"?  Paul addresses their self-righteous piety with a rhetorical question:  what advantage do you have in your circumcision?  Actually, for the Jew, there is a tremendous advantage when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ ...  it is just not the advantage that they are attempting to exercise.

Romans 3:2.  Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. 

The Jewish community has always had, and will always have a special place among those who place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  As the "chosen people," God chose Abraham and his descendents to be those through whom He would reveal Himself to mankind in a special and personal way.  As a nation, the Jews were anything but faithful, and served as an example of the inability for anyone to become righteous by keeping the 'law'.  However, God also promised that through Abraham the whole world would be blessed:  He revealed Himself through the prophets, and ultimately by His descending from His place in eternity and indwelling the man, Jesus, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Abraham.  No other people on earth had such an advantage when it came to knowing God and responding to Him in faith.  The same is still true today, and one of the most spiritually exciting experiences is that of witnessing the heart of a Messianic Jew:  a Jew who comes to the realization that Jesus is the Christ (Greek translation for the Hebrew name, Messiah), and places his/her faith in Him.  When the Gentile comes to Christ he brings nothing to the experience except his heart and life, certainly sufficient for a fulfilled experience with God.  However, when a Jew comes to faith he/she finds contextualization in all of their Hebrew training.  All of the messages of their Torah find fulfillment, just as Jesus said that He came to "fulfill the law."[3]

The Jews hold the Old Testament scriptures in high regard, and have worked hard to try to be obedient to its laws, but in so doing miss God's message of grace, and the prophesies concerning the coming Messiah.  Jews have the "oracles" or the prophesies of God in their hands, a proclamation of God's grace that God committed unto them, and commanded them to share with the world.  God's plan did not fail because of the Jews failure to serve as a nation of priests to the world.[4]  God's plan succeeded in the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, son of God and son of Abraham. 

God gives a measure of His grace when He adopts as a child every Gentile who comes to faith.  However, that same measure of grace is offered to the Jew who is transformed in a different way: like a caterpillar the early Jewish community crawled on the ground, immersed in the pagan perversion of its worldly neighbors until taken into exile in Babylon.  Like the caterpillar entombed in the chrysalis, the post-exilic Jew awaits the coming Messiah.  Then, when the Jew comes to faith in Jesus Christ, the chrysalis opens, the butterfly emerges, and God's angels shout His praises from one end of eternity to the other. 

Yes, there is an advantage realized by the Jew that the Gentile will never be able to share in.  It is an advantage that comes from a rich heritage of Godly patriarchs, and a culture that embraces God’s Word.  However, once the Jew and Gentile both find themselves sharing in the blessings of salvation, such distinctions between them must be bathed in love, not in pride.  Both the Jew and Gentile are still both sinners saved by God's love and grace, and neither deserves salvation in their own right.  Both are unrighteous before God prior to placing their faith and trust in Him.  Isaiah emphasizes this when he portrays his own Jewish righteousness, held in high regard by all Jews, as "filthy rags."[5]  This illustration is tempered in the English, but in the Hebrew refers to the blood-filled rags that an adult woman discards on a periodic basis.  This was considered in their culture as the most detestable of rags, necessitating ritual cleansing by the one discarding it.  Even in today's culture these “filthy rags” are controversial to discuss.  However, this is an excellent evaluation of the self-righteousness of man, whether Jew or Gentile. 

Romans 3:3-4.  For what if some did not believe?  shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?  4God 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.  

Paul found himself on controversial ground when He proclaimed the unrighteousness of all men.  The Jewish community of his day (as may also be the case today), proclaimed themselves righteous because of their Jewish heritage, basing their argument on their status as the "chosen people."  They argued that their righteousness was empowered by God's faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham.  This firm belief on the part of the Jewish community placed him at direct odds with them.  Their statement would be, "how dare you call us unrighteous, for by so doing you are calling God unfaithful."   Paul responds to this argument by contrasting God's faithfulness with man's unfaithfulness, and draws from Psalm 51:4, a Psalm of David that points out the unrighteousness of man.  The truth is simple:  God has always been fully faithful in His promises.  The promise He made to Abraham had several components.  God promised that Abraham would be the father of an uncountable nation.  Certainly when we consider that both the Jews and most of the Arab community are sons of Abraham, we find little grounds to challenge God's faithfulness to that promise.  The second promise was that through Abraham the entire world would be blessed.  God fulfilled that promise through the birth of Y'shua Meshia, Jesus Christ.  God's third promise was to give a land to Abraham's descendents, but this third promise came with a condition, a condition agreed to by the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai:  to obey Him, and serve Him as their God, and they would remain His people.  God did not break that covenant.  It was Israel who broke the covenant when they turned from God and followed after the pagan gods of Canaan.  They lost the land when the combined forces of Assyria and Babylon overran the nation and destroyed all but the faithful remnant that God preserved in Babylon.

To the Jew's demand that God would have to be unfaithful for apostate Jews to be considered unrighteous, Paul proclaims, "God forbid!"  Actually, the reference to God is missing in the Greek, and may attributed to a redaction (editing) by the writers of the King James translation.  To James' English culture, the exclamation, "God forbid" was the most emphatic language that could be used to translate the Greek word, mhgenioto, megenioto.  We should not be critical of the King James translators:  casual observation of other translations illustrate a similar difficulty in encoding the level of Paul's exclamation.  A literal English translation of this word might be "may it not be!", a translation formed from the individual parts of the word.[6]  This is a good example of the difficulty we have in translating ancient text from a distant culture.

It is not God who is the liar, but man.  It is not until we recognize our own unrighteousness can we ever come to God's throne of grace.  The self-righteousness of the Jew was a huge stumbling-block to their salvation.[7]   Quoting David, Paul agrees that the people convince themselves of their own righteousness, and will be overwhelmed at the final judgment.

The advantage given to the Jew, becomes a huge disadvantage at the final judgment.  The lost gentile faces the judgment with no hope.  The lost Jew faces the judgment with no hope, paired with the accusation, "why did you reject me when I gave you My Word?" Consequently, the Jew's holding their self-righteousness against God's faithfulness was something that motivated an emotional and emphatic response in Paul.

Romans 3:5-6.  But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say?  Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance?  (I speak as a man) 6God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? 

Still, speaking to the Jewish contention concerning their own righteousness, he speaks to another issue raised against his doctrine.  When we consider a comparison between two entities where one is "right" and the other is "wrong" we determine their differences by observation.  We can see the vast difference between man and God when we consider the unrighteousness of man and the unfathomable righteousness of God.  God cannot be unrighteous, nor can God be wrong.  Paul poses two questions.  The first, implies that our unrighteousness emphasizes God's righteousness.  "What shall we say" translates an idiom used by Rabbis in their preaching,[8] an idiom that points back to the application of the statement.  Should we continue in our unrighteousness so that God's righteousness can be furthered?  Obviously, there is nothing man can do to change the attributes of God, so the question is wholly without merit. 

Continuing with a second question, is God's vengeance upon the unrighteous an illustration of God's own unrighteousness?  To this question, Paul uses another idiom ("I speak as a man), that serves as an apology for even stating such an absurdity.  Paul found the question so offensive that he had to personally distance himself from it.  It is no surprise that he closes these two questions with an identical repeat of his "may it never be!"  God is in a position to judge the world because He stands as the only One who is righteous, and it is that righteousness of God that empowers Him to be the One and Only Judge. 

We have no authority to judge because of our own unrighteousness.  Paul makes this clear to the self-righteous Jews who so condemn those who are not Jewish.  As Jews entered the Christian church, like all people, they brought in their own baggage of presuppositions and preunderstandings.  Though God transforms the heart, He has more work to do in some people than in others.  The self-righteous Jew is a tough heart to change, and such an argument holds for Gentiles too.  Many a church is brought to its knees by self-righteous Christians who grant for themselves the Lordship of the congregation.  When this happens, the righteousness of God that is rightfully expressed in the Christian body is replaced by the self-righteousness of an individual who usurps God's authority to judge.  For the man, such an act is sinful, simply because that self-righteous man is still flawed by sin like every other man and is judged by that sin by a sinless God.  It is only by virtue of God's righteousness that He can judge the world.

Romans 3:7.  For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? 

Paul then changes his rhetoric and makes it personal, changing his point of reference to "my" and "I" as he brings his point to conclusion.  The Jews persecuted Paul as a heretic, one who incited the people against their Jewish heritage and blasphemed God by presenting an itinerant and controversial preacher as God.  From their position there was no greater heresy that anyone could proclaim.  However, if Paul was right, and his preaching was bringing glory to God, why would the Jews still consider him a sinning blasphemer.  Note that the grammar used clearly identifies that the judgment Paul refers to is that which was done at the hands of the Jews as he experienced persecution, not by God.  In this way, Paul turns the argument that the Jews used to defend their own righteousness back upon themselves.  Like the twist in a logical pretzel, Paul uses the Jew's own arguments to expose their own unrighteousness.   

Romans 3:8.  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. 

Consider this heretical concept: a greater sin, responded to by God with greater grace, makes sin preferable.  That is, "let us sin the more, so that Grace can abound![9]  This was a common doctrine in the early church, referred to as antinomianism.  Paul notes that some are slanderously reporting that this is his own proclaimed doctrine, defending for themselves a justification for the expression of their own unrighteousness.  People are free to live a life of depravity when they declare that evil promotes good.  The standard of morality is sacrificed for self gratification.  Today's pagan philosophy of relativism that denies the existence of absolute truth is based on a similar premise.  Paul's answer to antinomianism is simple:  their damnation is just.  Tough words.  When one lives a life of sin, defended by their own self-righteousness, they will be found wanting in the final judgment when the Holy Spirit is not found in them.  They will be judged by their rejection of God's grace.  The just and only judgment for their apostasy is separation from God for an eternity, the same desire that they had prior to the judgment.  Herein, Paul describes the contrast between the righteousness of man, and the righteousness of God:

Romans 3:9-10.  What then?  are we better than they?  No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 10As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 

As Paul is speaking to the self-righteous Jews who think they are better than everyone else (both within the church and without), he makes an important clarification.  As he contrasts "we," referring to those who have placed their faith and trust in God, with "they," who place their trust in their own righteousness, he asks, are "we" better than "they"?  Are those who are saved better than those who are unsaved?  Not only does he answer, "No", he uses another emphatic word that may be literally rendered, "not at all," "by no means," or in a more modern idiom, "No way!".  Paul states that there is no justification for any consideration of his own superiority, nor for a similar position by any Christian.  He has already argued that God is not a respecter of persons, and that all people are cursed by the sin for which they bear their own responsibility. 

Paul's quote is from Psalm 14:1, but a more literal agreement with Paul's citation can be found in Isaiah 41:26.  New Testament writers obviously did not use the King James Old Testament in their quotations, so we often find grammatical variations between the Old Testament text and the New Testament citations.  As is often the case, Paul quoted from the Septuagint,[10] a Greek paraphrase of the Hebrew Old Testament that was written during the inter-testamental period between the release from Jewish exile and the coming of the Messiah.

Romans 3:11-12.  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  12They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 

Paul continues quoting from the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 5:9 and 53:1.  Paul drives home the truth that no person can claim any form of righteousness on their own behalf.  If Paul had chosen to cite Matthew's gospel, he could have quoted Jesus' when He said, "there is none good but One, that is, God."[11] 

The only true righteousness that man will ever find is found in God, alone.  We are never in a position to consider ourselves better than anyone else for any reason whatsoever.  When one comes to faith in God, the Holy Spirit will lead the individual to exchange his/her self-righteous attitudes for the unfathomable love of God.  When we truly love someone else, the desire for our own elevation fades away.  We no longer look down at others, not because Paul teaches us not to, we do so out of God's love for others.  Paul's teaching is not a law to follow, it is rather a description of the fulfillment of God's working in the life of an individual.  We do not obey God because we have to, as was the position of the Jews, we obey God because we want to.  Recognizing the true and pure righteousness of God affirms in us our acceptance of His authority as the One Judge, and promotes our own humility as our own unrighteousness is exposed by the Light of His Word and the Holy Spirit. 

Let us always recognize our own state of unrighteousness, and never fail to thank God for what He did when He exchanged our unrighteousness for His righteousness on the Cross of Calvary.  Though we may choose to obey God, we still sin, and those sins are piled on those that we stored up for ourselves prior to our salvation.  But, when one comes to God in faith through Jesus Christ, one is covered by His sacrifice on the cross.  We see in the Old Testament how sacrifices were given in order to cover sins.  These offerings were a type, an example of what Jesus' purpose would be when He allowed Himself to be nailed to that cross.  He paid the penalty of all of the sins for all who place their faith and trust in God.  It was for us that He humbled Himself to be tortured and killed on a criminal's cross.  How can we claim our own righteousness when we fully recognize what God has done for us, even when we were immersed in sin?  Any righteousness we have belongs to God, and when we come before God in the final judgment the salvation will only come to those whose sins have been covered by the shed blood of Jesus, Christ.  It will be those who bring with them the power of the Holy Spirit in their hearts as they share with other Christians a common entry in the Lamb's Book of Life.[12]   The ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Only Jesus stands above it.


[1] The scripture uses the number six to represent sin: short of the mark of perfection symbolized by seven.  Completeness is represented by double repetition.  Consequently, we find total depravity represented in the number six repeated twice:  six-six-six, the "mark of the beast" of John's Revelation, the absence of the mark of Jesus: the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer.

[2] Romans 2:11.

[3] Matthew 5:17.

[4] Exodus 19:6.

[5] Isaiah 64:4.

[6] Berry, (1958).  p.  408.

[7] Isaiah 57:14, Ez.  3:20, 1 Cor.  1:23, et. al.

[8] Dorr.  (F 2005).  p.  44.

[9] Romans 6:1.

[10] A copy of the Septuagint can be obtained from http://septuagint.org/LXX/

[11] Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:8.

[12] Revelation, Chapter 20.