Demonstrating God’s Righteousness PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Sunday, 24 April 2011 18:49

“If our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say?” (Romans 3:5a).

Most commentators accept that in Romans 3:5a Paul offers a legitimate conclusion, but one whose implications must be carefully qualified. From the quotation of Psalm 51 in verse 4, it is argued, Paul draws the inference that the unrighteousness of Israel commends or establishes or contributes to the righteousness of God. Though this is true, so the argument goes, this does not mean that God is unjust to exert wrath, for then He could not be judge of the world (and every Jew knows He is). Nor does it mean that I escape being condemned as a sinner. Nor does it mean that we can do evil that good may come. Thus, 3:5a-8 is seen as Paul's rebuttal to several invalid inferences from the true premise in v 5a.

Problem is, Paul doesn't here show at all that these are invalid inferences. Or, rather, the only one that is shown to be an invalid inference is the first, in vv 5b-6. The others are simply raised as questions, and, while the answers may be obvious, this seems a pretty weak way to head off heretical inferences. Verse 7 is a pretty serious question, and Paul just raises it and moves on to the next question.

Reading the passage this way ignores the context of Paul’s argument. From the first verse of chapter 3, it’s clear that Paul is asking questions about Jewish privileges. In verse 3, he asks, Will the unfaithfulness of Israel nullify the faithfulness of God? Of course not is Paul’s answer. The inference would follow only if God's faithfulness to His promises to bring light and life to the nations depended more or less wholly on Israel. That is, this objection only makes sense if someone is operating on a massive kind of Pelagianism - not the feeble individualistic Pelagianism that says one can attain holiness by one's natural endowments, but the global, cosmic, hyper-Pelagianism that says that God cannot save except through Israel's faithfulness. That is to say, Paul seems to be addressing a belief that God is bound and hemmed in by His own commitment to Israel, that God is emasculated by His devotion to His bride.

Did any Jews actually believe this? Probably not in this form. Paul's argument seems a kind of reductio: He is offering an argument that Jews should accept. He expects his Jewish readers to see the Scriptural logic of his argument. Romans 2 has made it clear that Israel has massively failed to keep covenant with her Lord. She has been an unfaithful bride. But -- my fellow Jews, Paul says -- this of course does not mean that God cannot fulfill His purposes. An absurdity: That human resistance could nullify the promises of God, as if human faithlessness could keep God from being faithful, as if humans could keep God from being God.

The general point is clear: In the opening verses of Romans 3, Paul has a very specific topic in view - Israel's advantage and Israel's unfaithfulness, and turns it into a question of God's generic "fairness."

How should we read verse 5 in the light of this context? Here's a hypothesis, and I emphasize that it is a hypothesis: Paul denies the protasis in verse 5a. He does not believe that the unrighteousness of Israel commends or demonstrates the righteousness of God. On the contrary, the unrighteousness of Israel is the great challenge to the claim that God is righteous.

To be sure, he raises this question as a possible inference from the Psalm 51 passage, but he does not raise it as a valid inference. The statement of v 5a is the invalid inference, and the remainder of vv 5b-8 consists of arguments against the validity of this inference, arguments in the form of rhetorical questions that serve as reductios.

His arguments are, first: If God's righteousness were commended by the unrighteousness of Israel, then God would be unjust to inflict wrath on Israel. But we (Jews) know that God is not unjust to inflict wrath, since He is the Judge of the world. Thus, it cannot be the case that our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God.

Second, if my lie causes the truth of God to abound to His glory, then I could not properly be judged a sinner. But everyone is judged a sinner, as Paul has been at pains to demonstrate in the opening chapters of this letter. Since God does judge me to be a sinner, it cannot be the case that my lie causes the truth of God to abound to His glory.

Third, if our unrighteousness commended the righteousness of God, then it would follow that we should do evil that good might come. Doing evil to bring glory to God would be one example of a larger principle, that ends justify means. Some claim that we teach this, but this is a slander, and those who slander us this way stand condemned. In fact, we cannot justify evil by saying it produces good, and therefore it is not the case that Israel's unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God.

This line of argument is perfectly fitting for this stage of Romans. Paul has charged Jews and Gentiles with being under sin (Romans 1-2). He has said that the name of God is blasphemed because of Israel's sins. This is a huge crisis for the world because Israel was the elect agent for bringing light to the Gentiles. But it also throws God’s own righteousness into question. How can God be righteous so long as Israel continues in her sins? Paul’s answer is that God's faithfulness cannot be increased by the unfaithfulness of Israel, but, as Paul goes on to say, God’s work cannot be thwarted by Israel’s sin either. God is the Victor in the courtroom, and proved to be in the right.

But at the beginning of Romans 3, Paul pauses to insist that this does not mean that Israel's unfaithfulness is the means for God's faithfulness to be displayed. Rather, God's faithfulness will be vindicated in spite of Israel, apart from the law, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. God’s faithfulness will triumph over Israel’s unfaithfulness, in a massive cruciform display of the omnipotent righteousness of God.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 24 April 2011 18:51