17 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
*Paul’s teaching impugns God’s justice* (5-6). Perhaps the reference to God as judge (4) leads Paul to mention his justice, which is displayed in his judgments. In this case the objector is making the general point that *our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly*. The more unrighteous the criminal is, the more righteous the judge appears. Or the objector may be alluding to God’s righteousness revealed in the gospel (1:17), his way of salvation. In this case he is arguing that the more sinful we are, the more glorious the gospel seems. Either way, according to Paul’s teaching, says the objector, our unrighteousness benefits God, because it displays his character all the more brightly. This being so, *what shall we say?* Shall we conclude (as, according to the Jewish objector, the logic of Paul’s position demands) *that God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us* (5a)? God’s wrath is certainly on the immoral Gentiles (1:18) and will fall on the critical moralizers (2:5); but will he really bring it on his own people, the Jews? Would it not be unfair of him to punish them for something which is to his advantage? Even as he expresses this tortuous reasoning, Paul feels embarrassed and adds apologetically in parenthesis: (*I am using a human argument*) (5b).
He goes beyond an apology, however. He continues with another categorical denial (*Certainly not!*) and then asks his heckler a counter-question. If he really were unjust, *how could God judge the world?* (6). Paul takes it as axiomatic both that God is the universal judge and that therefore, as Abraham said, the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gn. 18:25). To impugn God’s justice is to undercut his competence to judge and so to show up the absurdity of the original question.
*Paul’s teaching falsely promotes God’s glory (7-8). Someone might argue*, Paul continues and goes on to develop the previous argument. In doing so, he also impersonates the objector by using the first person singular. *If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness*, just as our unrighteousness displays God’s righteousness more brightly (5), *and so increases his glory*, then surely God ought to be pleased, even grateful? Am I not doing him a service? This being so, Paul’s teaching prompts two subsidiary questions. First, *why am I still condemned as a sinner* (7), if my sin is to God’s advantage? How can God condemn me for glorifying him? Secondly, *why not say* (as, Paul adds, he is *being slanderously reported as saying* and as *some claim that* he does say), ‘Let us do evil that good may result’?* This is the cry of the antinomian, who rationalizes his lawlessness: ‘If evil behaviour causes good consequences, such as manifesting God’s character and so promoting his glory, then lets increase evil in order thereby to increase good. The end obviously justifies the means.’ C.H.Hodge puts it well: ‘According to this reasoning, says Paul, the worse we are, the better: for the more wicked we are, the more conspicuous will be the mercy of God in our pardon.
This time Paul does not answer the questions which his teaching is supposed to raise. For they do not merit a serious refutation; they are self-evidently perverse. It is enough to say of these objectors that *their condemnation is deserved* (8). For no good results can justify the encouragement of evil. Evil never promotes the glory of God.
We note from this passage (3:1-8) that Paul was not content only to proclaim and expound the gospel. He also argued its truth and reasonableness, and defended it against misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Whether these Jewish objections were genuine (because he had actually heard them advanced) or imaginary (because he had made them up), he took them seriously and responded to them. He saw that the character of God was at stake. So he reaffirmed God’s covenant as having abiding value, God’s faithfulness to his promises, God’s justice as judge, and God’s true glory which is promoted only by good, never by evil.
We too in our day must include apologetics in our evangelism. We need to anticipate people’s objections to the gospel, listen carefully to their problems, respond to them with due seriousness, and proclaim the gospel in such a way as to affirm God’s goodness and further his glory. Such dialogical preaching has a powerful apostolic precedent in this passage.