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Bible Commentaries
Romans 3

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verses 1-8


(1-8) Continuing the subject, but with a long digression in Romans 3:3 et seq. The Apostle asks, What is the real value of these apparent advantages? He is about to answer the question fully, as he does later in Romans 9:4-5; but after stating the first point, he goes off upon a difficulty raised by this, and does not return to complete what he had begun. This, again, is characteristic of his ardent and keenly speculative mind. Problems such as those which he discusses evidently have a fascination for him, and lead him, here as elsewhere, at once to leave the immediate subject before him, and to enter eagerly into the discussion of them. A more lethargic or timid brain would be under no such temptation.

One real and solid advantage on the part of the Jew was that he was made the direct recipient of the divine revelation. This privilege of his is not annulled by the defection of a part of the people. It rests not upon the precarious fidelity of men, but upon the infallible promise of God. Yet is not the ultimate triumph of that promise any excuse for those who have set it at nought. They will be punished just the same, and rightly. Otherwise there could be no judgment at all. The casuistical objection that sin loses its guilt if it redounds to God’s glory, or, in other words, that the end justifies the means, carries with it its own condemnation.

Verse 2

(2) Chiefly.—In the first place; “secondly,” &c., was to follow, but does not, as the Apostle is drawn away to other topics (see above).

Unto them were committed.—This is paraphrastic. “Oracle” is the object, and not the subject, of the sentence. “They were entrusted with.”

Oracles.—A good translation; the Scriptures of the Old Testament as containing a revelation of God.

Verse 3

(3) For what if.-What (follows) if, &c. Or we may take the first two words by themselves, and throw the next two clauses together. How stands the case? If some rejected the faith, shall their rejection make void or defeat the faithfulness of God?
The Apostle considers an objection that might be brought against his argument that the divine revelation vouchsafed to them was a special privilege of the Jewish people. It might be said that they had forfeited and cancelled this privilege by their unbelief. He first reduces the objection to its proper limits; it was not all, but some, who were unbelievers. But granting that there were some who did not believe this fact would have no power to shake the eternal promises of God.

Verse 4

(4) Impossible! Rather let God be seen to be true though all mankind should be proved false, even as the Psalmist looked upon his own sin as serving to enhance the triumph of God’s justice. Speaking of that justice for the moment as if it could be arraigned before the bar of a still higher tribunal, he asserts its absolute and complete acquittal.

That thou mightest be justified.—Strictly, in order that, here as in the Hebrew of the Psalm. Good is, in some way inscrutable to us, educed out of evil, and this is clearly foreseen by God, and forms part of His design, though so as not to interfere with the free-will of man. Religion assumes that the two things, free-will and omnipotence, are reconcilable, though how they are to be reconciled seems an insoluble problem. The same difficulty attaches to every system but one of blank fatalism and atheism. But the theory of fatalism if logically carried out would simply destroy human society.

Psalms 51:0, in which the quotation occurs, is commonly (in accordance with the heading), though perhaps wrongly, ascribed to David after his sin with Bathsheba. The effect of this sin is to throw out into the strongest relief the justice of the sentence by which it is followed and punished. The original is, “That thou mightest be just in thy speaking; that thou mightest be pure in thy judging.” St. Paul adopts the rendering of the LXX., who make the last word passive instead of active, thus making it apply, not to the sentence given by God, but to the imaginary trial to which by a figure of speech that sentence itself is supposed to be submitted.

Verse 5

(5) But if our unrighteousness.—A new and profound question suggests itself to the mind of the Apostle, and his keen intellect will not let it go: “If the sin (here the unbelief) of man only tends to vindicate (commends or establishes) the righteousness of God, why should that sin be punished?” The mere raising of such a question requires an apology; it is only as a man might speak about man that he dares to utter such a thought. That, too, is an impossible objection, for if it held good there could not be any judgment. No sin would be punishable, for all sin would serve to emphasise the strict veracity of God in His denunciations of it, and therefore would ultimately conduce to His glory. It would thus cease to be sinful, and there would be nothing to hinder us from adopting the principle that is so calumniously attributed to us—that it is lawful to do evil that good may come. A calumny it is, and any such principle with all that appertains to it—i.e., with the whole of the preceding argument,—is justly condemned.

Verse 6

(6) For then how shall God judge the world?—St. Paul considers it a sufficient answer merely to propound this question. He and those to whom he was writing all assumed that there must be a future judgment.

The way in which Bishop Butler deals with the argument from necessity is very similar to this, substituting only present for future judgment. “It is fact that God does govern even brute creatures by the method of rewards and punishments in the natural course of things. And men are rewarded and punished for their actions—punished for actions mischievous to society as being so, punished for vicious actions as such—by the natural instrumentality of each other under the present conduct of Providence,” &c. Hence the necessitarian is in this dilemma: either his opinion is not true, or else it must be capable of being harmonised with these facts. The facts themselves are postulated.

Verse 7

(7) The truth of God.—In the first instance His veracity as involved in His threats and promises, and then those other attributes, especially justice, that are intimately connected with this. “Truth” is leaning towards its moral sense. (See Note on Romans 2:8.)

My lie.—The Apostle puts his supposed case in the first person. “Lie,” suggested as an antithesis to the word “truth,” just used, has also a moral signification. It is the moral deflection that follows upon unbelief.

Verse 8

(8) And not rather.And (why should we) not (say), as some persons slanderously affirm that we say, Let us do evil that good may come. Some such phrase as “Why should we say” must be supplied; “why” from the previous clause, “say” from that which follows. Or “(Why should we) not (do evil), as some persons slanderously affirm that we say, Let us do evil,” &c. The latter, perhaps, is best, as we might then suppose the word for “let us do” repeated precisely in the form in which it stands.

The Apostle does not care to answer this argument in detail; he will not dally with such a perversion of the moral sense, but simply says, “Whose condemnation is just.”
What pretext could any one possibly have for attributing such an opinion to St. Paul? The charge was no doubt utterly false as applied to him, but we know that his teaching was made an excuse for Antinomian excesses, which would not unnaturally be fastened upon the Apostle. Or, taking his teaching as it stands, we might well imagine the Jews or the Judaizing party arguing with themselves, “This man openly breaks the Law, and yet he claims to be in the right way, and that all will go well with him; is not this doing evil that good may come? Does he think to win the Messianic kingdom by the breach of the Law, and not by its observance?”

Verse 9

(9) Are we better than they?—“Can we claim a preference?” The form of the Greek verb is peculiar. It seems upon the whole best to take it as middle for active, which would be apparently unexampled, but is tenable as a question of language, and seems to be compelled by the context. There is no real opposition between the “by no means” of the reply and the “much every way” of Romans 3:2. There the reference was to external advantages, here it is to real and essential worth in the sight of God; as much as to say, “For all our advantages are we really better?”

Proved.—Adopt rather the marginal rendering, For we before charged both Jews and Gentiles with being all under sin.

The verses are a striking instance of the way in which the Apostle weaves together passages taken from different sources. It also affords an example of the corruptions in the text of the Old Testament to which this practice gave rise. The whole passage as it stands here is found in some manuscripts of the LXX. as part of Psalms 14:0, whence it has been copied not only into the Vulgate but also our own Prayer Book, which will be seen to differ from the Bible version.

The quotations have different degrees of appositeness, so far as they may be considered in the modern sense as probative rather than illustrative. The first, from Psalms 14:0, is couched in such general terms as to be directly in point; the second and third, from Psalms 5, 140, are aimed specially against the oppressors of the Psalmist; and so, too, the fourth, from Psalms 10:0, but in a more general and abstract form; that from Isaiah indicates the moral degradation among the prophet’s contemporaries that had led to the Captivity; while the last, from Psalms 36:0, is an expression applied, not to all men, but particularly to the wicked.

Verses 9-20

(9-20) Once more the argument returns to the main track, and at last the Apostle asserts distinctly and categorically what he had already proved indirectly, that the Jew is every whit as bad as the Gentile.

Verse 12

(12) They are together become unprofitable.—Here the adjective is used to express a state of moral corruption and depravity. “Together” means “altogether;” “the whole mass of mankind, with one consent, has fallen to ruin.”

Verse 13

(13) Their throat is an open sepulchrei.e., their speech is at once corrupt and corrupting. It is compared to a “yawning grave”—not merely to a pit into which a man may fall, but to a sort of pestiferous chasm yawning and ravening, as it were, after its prey.

They have used deceit.—Strictly, they were deceiving; a continued action brought up to the present time.

Under their lips.—As the poison-bag of the serpent is directly under the kind of tooth by which its venom is discharged.

Verse 14

(14) Bitterness.—Malignity; from the notion that venom was contained in the gall. (Comp. Acts 8:23.)

Verse 18

(18) The fear of God, which is properly a subjective feeling, is here projected, as it were, and regarded as an external rule of life.

Verse 19

(19) In order to bring home this testimony of Scripture more directly to the Jews, and to prevent any subterfuge by which they might attempt to shift the reference from themselves on to the Gentiles, the Apostle calls attention to the fact that the Law—i.e., the Old Testament, from which he has been quoting—speaks especially to those to whom it was given.

Saith . . . saith.—Different words are here used in the Greek; the first is applicable as much to the matter as to the utterance of that which is spoken, the second refers specially to the outward act by which it is enunciated or promulgated; this is addressed to certain persons.

Guilty before God.—Rather, guilty to God; the dative expresses the person to whom the penalty is due.

Verse 20

(20) Therefore.—Rather, because. All mankind alike owe the penalty for their sins. Because not even the Law can protect its votaries. It has no power to justify. All it can do is to expose in its true colours the sinfulness of sin.

The proposition is thrown into a general form: not by the works of the (Jewish) Law, but by “works of law”—i.e., by any works done in obedience to any law. Law, in the abstract, as such, is unable to justify. It might perhaps, we gather from later portions of the Epistle, if men could really keep it, but no law can be kept strictly and entirely.

Knowledge of sin.—“Full and thorough knowledge.”

In the state anterior to law, man is not supposed to know what is sinful and what is not. Conscience, gradually developed, comes in to give him some insight into the distinction, but the full knowledge of right and wrong, in all its details, is reserved for the introduction of positive law. Law has, however, only this enlightening faculty; it holds the mirror up to guilt, but it cannot remove it.

Verse 21

(21) But now.—In these latter days. The Apostle conceives of the history of the world as divided into periods; the period of the Gospel succeeds that of the Law, and to it the Apostle and his readers belong. (Comp. for this conception of the gospel, as manifested at a particular epoch of time, Romans 16:25-26; Acts 17:30; Galatians 3:23; Galatians 3:25; Galatians 4:3-4; Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:21; Colossians 1:26; 1 Timothy 2:6; 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 1:1; 1 Peter 1:20.)

The righteousness of God.—Rather, a righteousness of Godi.e., “bestowed by God,” “wrought out by Him,” as in Romans 1:17. The reference is again, here as there, to the root-conception of righteousness as at once the great object and condition of the Messianic kingdom.

Without the law.—In complete independence of any law, though borne witness to by the Law of Moses. The new system is one into which the idea of law does not enter.

Is manifested.—Hath been, and continues to be manifested. The initial moment is that of the appearance of Christ upon earth. The scheme which then began is still evolving itself.

Being witnessed.—The Apostle does not lose sight of the preparatory function of the older dispensation, and of its radical affinity to the new. (Comp. Romans 1:2; Romans 16:26; Luke 18:31; Luke 24:27; Luke 24:44; Luke 24:46; John 5:39; John 5:46; Acts 2:25; Acts 2:31; Acts 3:22; Acts 3:24; Acts 17:2-3; Acts 26:22-23; 1 Peter 1:10-11.)

Verses 21-22

(21-22) Such was the condition of the world up to the coming of Christ. But now, in contrast with the previous state of things, a new system has appeared upon the scene. In this system law is entirely put on one side, though the system itself was anticipated in and is attested by those very writings in which the Law was embodied. Law is now superseded, the great end of the Law, the introduction of righteousness, being accomplished in another way, viz., through faith in Christ, by which a state of righteousness is superinduced upon all believers.

Verses 21-26

(21-26) This then introduces the solemn enunciation, repeated more fully from Romans 1:16-17, of the great subject of the Epistle, the declaration of that new scheme by which, through Christ, God had removed the guilt which the Law (whether Jewish or any other) could not remove.

Verse 22

(22) A further definition of the nature of the righteousness so given to the Christian by God; it is a righteousness that has its root in faith, and is coextensive with faith, being present in every believer.

By faith of Jesus Christi.e., by faith which has Christ for its object, “faith in Christ.” “Faith” in St. Paul’s writings implies an intense attachment and devotion. It has an intellectual basis, necessarily involving a belief in the existence, and in certain attributes, of the Person for whom it is entertained; but it is moral in its operation, a recasting of the whole emotional nature in accordance with this belief, together with a consequent change in character and practice. (See Excursus B: On the Meaning of the word Faith.)

And upon all.—These words are wanting in the best MSS., and should be omitted.

For there is no difference.—The righteousness that God gives is given to all that believe, without any distinction of Jew or Gentile; for all equally need it, and it is free equally to all.

Verse 23

(23) All have sinned and come short.—Strictly, all sinned; the Apostle looking back upon an act done in past time under the old legal dispensation, without immediate reference to the present: he then goes on to say that the result of that act (as distinct from the act itself) continues on into the present. The result is that mankind, in a body, as he now sees them, and before they come within the range of the new Christian system, fall short of, miss, or fail to obtain, the glory of God.

Glory of God.—What is this glory? Probably not here, as in Romans 8:18; Romans 8:21, the glory which will be inaugurated for the saints at the Parusià, or Second Coming of the Messiah—for that is something future—but, rather, something which is capable of being conferred in the present, viz., the glory which comes from the favour and approval of God. This favour and approval Jew and Gentile alike had hitherto failed to obtain, but it was now thrown open to all who became members of the Messianic kingdom. (Comp. for the sense, Romans 2:29, and for the use of the word, as well as the sense, John 12:43, “they loved the praise [glory] of men more than the praise [glory] of God.”)

Verse 24

(24) Being justified.—We should more naturally say, “but now are justified.” The construction in the Greek is peculiar, and may be accounted for in one of two ways. Either the phrase “being justified” may be taken as corresponding to “all them that believe” in Romans 3:22, the change of case being an irregularity suggested by the form of the sentence immediately preceding; or the construction may be considered to be regular, and the participle “being justified” would then be dependent upon the last finite verb: “they come short of the glory of God, and in that very state of destitution are justified.”

Freely.—Gratuitously, without exertion or merit on their part. (Comp. Matthew 10:8; Revelation 21:6; Revelation 22:17.)

By his grace.By His own grace. The means by which justification is wrought out is the death and atonement of Christ; its ulterior cause is the grace of God, or free readmission into His favour, which He accords to man.

Redemption.—Literally, ransoming. The notion of ransom contains in itself the triple idea of a bondage, a deliverance, and the payment of an equivalent as the means of that deliverance. The bondage is the state of sin and of guilt, with the expectation of punishment; the deliverance is the removal of this state, and the opening out, in its stead, of a prospect of eternal happiness and glory; the equivalent paid by Christ is the shedding of His own blood. This last is the pivot upon which the whole idea of redemption turned. It is therefore clear that the redemption of the sinner is an act wrought objectively, and, in the first instance, independently of any change of condition in him, though such a change is involved in the appropriation of the efficacy of that act to himself. It cannot be explained as a purely subjective process wrought in the sinner through the influence of Christ’s death. The idea of dying and reviving with Christ, though a distinct aspect of the atonement, cannot be made to cover the whole of it. There is implied, not only a change in the recipient of the atonement, but also a change wrought without his co-operation in the relations between God and man. There is, if it may be so said, in the death of Christ something which determines the will of God, as well as something which acts upon the will of man. And the particular influence which is brought to bear upon the counsels of God is represented under the figure of a ransom or payment of an equivalent. This element is too essentially a part of the metaphor, and is too clearly established by other parallel metaphors, to be explained away; though what the terms “propitiation” and “equivalent” can mean, as applied to God, we do not know, and it perhaps does not become us too curiously to inquire.

The doctrine of the atonement thus stated is not peculiar to St. Paul, and did not originate with him. It is found also in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 20:28 ( = Mark 10:45), “The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many,” and in Hebrews 9:15, “And for this cause He is the Mediator of the New Testament, that by means of death, for the redemption (ransoming) of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” (Comp. 1 John 2:2; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Peter 2:24, et al.)

Verse 25

(25) Hath set forth.—Rather, set forth, publicly exhibited, in the single act of the death upon the cross.

A propitiation.—The Greek word properly means “that which renders propitious.” Here, “that which renders God propitious.” In some way, which is not explained at all in this passage, and imperfectly explained elsewhere, the death of Christ did act so as to render God “propitious” towards men. He became more ready to pardon as they became more anxious to be pardoned.

There is a remarkable use of the same Greek word in the LXX. version of the Old Testament to express the mercy-seat, i.e., the lid or covering of the ark which was sprinkled by the high priest with the blood of the victim on the Day of Atonement. Some have thought that there is a reference to this here. Christ is the mercy-seat of the New Covenant. It is upon Him, as it were, that the divine grace, drawn forth by His own atoning blood, resides. It would hardly be a conclusive objection to this view that, according to it, Christ would be represented as at once the victim whose blood is sprinkled and the covering of the ark on which it is sprinkled; for a similar double reference certainly occurs in Hebrews 9:11-12, where Christ is typified at one and the same time both by the victim whose blood is shed and by the high priest by whom it is offered. There seem to be, however, on the whole, reasons for supplying rather the idea of “sacrifice,” which is more entirely in keeping with the context, and is especially supported by the two phrases, “whom God hath set forth (i.e., exhibited publicly, whereas the ark was confined to the secrecy of the Holy of Holies), and “in His blood.” We should translate, therefore, a propitiatory or expiatory (sacrifice).

Through faith.—Faith is the causa apprehendens by which the proffered pardon takes effect upon the soul of the believer.

In his blood.—On the whole, it seems best not to join these words with “through faith,” but to refer them to the main word of the sentence. “Whom God set forth by the shedding of His blood to be a propitiatory offering through faith.” It was in the shedding of the blood that the essence of the atonement exhibited upon the cross consisted. No doubt other portions of the life of Christ led up to this one; but this was the culminating act in it, viewed as an atonement.

Verses 25-26

(25, 26) The death of Christ had a twofold object or final cause:—(1) It was to be, like the sacrifices of the old covenant, an offering propitiatory to God, and actualised in the believer through faith. (2) It was to demonstrate the righteousness of God by showing that sin would entail punishment, though it might not be punished in the person of the sinner. The apparent absence of any adequate retribution for the sins of past ages made it necessary that by one conspicuous instance it should be shown that this was in no sense due to an ignoring of the true nature of sin. The retributive justice of God was all the time unimpaired. The death of Christ served for its vindication, at the same time that a way to escape from its consequences was opened out through the justification of the believer.
Precisely in what sense the punishment of our sins fell upon Christ, and in what sense the justice of God was vindicated by its so falling, is another point which we are not able to determine. Nothing, we may be sure, can be involved which is in ultimate conflict with morality. At the same time, we see that under the ordinary government of God, the innocent suffer for the guilty, and there may be some sort of transference of this analogy into the transcendental sphere. Both the natural and the supernatural government of God are schemes “imperfectly comprehended.” In any case, Christ was innocent, and Christ suffered. On any theory there is a connection between His death and human sin. What connection, is a question to which, perhaps, only a partial answer can be given. Some weighty remarks on this subject will be found in Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Part II., Romans 5:0 (latter part).

Verse 26

(26) To declare.—The second object of the death of Christ was to remove the misconceptions that might be caused by the apparent condoning of sins committed in times anterior to the Christian revelation. A special word is used to indicate that these sins were not wiped away and dismissed altogether, but rather “passed over” or “overlooked.” This was due to the forbearance of God, who, as it were, suspended the execution of His vengeance. Now the Apostle shows by the death of Christ that justice that had apparently slept was vindicated.

Thus God appeared in a double character, at once as just or righteous Himself, and as producing a state of righteousness in the believer. Under the Old Testament God had been revealed as just; but the justice or righteousness of God was not met by any corresponding righteousness on the part of man, and therefore could only issue in condemnation. Under the New Testament the justice of God remained the same, but it was met by a corresponding state of righteousness in the believer a righteousness, however, not inherent, but superinduced by God Himself through the process of justification by faith. In this way the great Messianic condition of righteousness was fulfilled.

Verse 27

(27) It is excluded.—Strictly, It was excluded—at the moment when the law of faith—i.e., the gospel—was brought in.

By what law?—Properly, By what kind of law? Is this law which gets rid of boasting one which calls for works; or is it one that calls for faith?

The law of faith.—Another name for the gospel.

Verses 27-31

(27-31) A review of the consequences of this process of justification. How does it affect the pretensions of the Jew? It shuts them out by laying stress no longer on works, which were the proper fulfilment of the first law as it stood, but upon faith. Faith is the true medium of justification. And faith belongs as much to Gentile as to Jew. For faith is the appointed means by which all mankind will be justified; and they will all be justified before the same tribunal, whether they be circumcised or not. Still this involves no abrogation of the Law, but rather a confirmation of it.

Verse 28

(28) Therefore. . . .—There is a remarkable division of some of the best authorities in this verse between “therefore” and “for.” The weight of authority seems somewhat in favour of “for,” which also makes the best sense. That boasting is excluded is much rather the consequence than the cause of the principle that man is justified by faith. This principle the Apostle regards as sufficiently proved by his previous argument.

We conclude.—This conveys too much the idea of an inference; the statement is rather made in the form of an assertion, “we consider,” or “we hold.” “For we hold that a man (any human being—whether Jew or Greek) is justified by faith, independently of any works prescribed by law.”

Verse 29

(29) Is he not also.—Insert “or.” “Or are we to suppose that God is the God of (literally, belongs to) the Jews only?”—taking up the point in the last verse, that any man, simply quâ man, and without regard to distinction of race, was capable of justification.

Verse 30

(30) Seeing it is . . .—With a slight change of reading, if at least; if, as we are sure is the case.

The argument is strictly logical. If there is to be any distinction between Jew and Gentile, this can only be upon the assumption either that there are more gods than one by whom they will be justified, or that they will be justified by some different law, in some different way. But neither of these is the case. Therefore it follows that there is no distinction.

Shall justify.—The future signifies, “throughout the Christian dispensation”—wherever the Christian system extends.

By faith.Through faith. In the one case faith is regarded as the instrument, in the other as the means; but the two expressions come to be almost convertible. In like manner there is no essential difference indicated by the fact that the first noun has not the article, while the second has it. The former is more abstract—the quality of faith in man; the latter more concrete—faith as embodied in the gospel. The two prepositions, “by” and “through,” are in English nearly convertible, or differ from each other no more than “instrument” and “means.”

Verse 31

(31) Do we then make void the law.—In opposition to many commentators it seems right to take this as an isolated statement to be worked out afterwards (Romans 6:1 et seq.) more fully. It cannot, without straining, be connected directly with what follows. The Apostle deals with two objections to his theory of justification by faith: (1) that there ought to be a different rule for the Jew and for the Gentile; (2) that if not, the law is practically abolished. He meets this latter by a contradiction, saying that it is not abolished, but confirmed. This is, however, drawing upon the stock of conclusions in his own mind to which he had come by process of meditation; the detailed proof is reserved.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Romans 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/romans-3.html. 1905.
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