Monday, June 10, 2019

Intermission: Answers to Objections – Rom. 3:1-8




At this point in his gospel presentation, the apostle pauses to deal with some objections to what he has already said.  No doubt this is the result of many years of interacting with Jewish interlocutors in synagogues across the Roman Empire.  This, by the way, is one of the benefits of doing something like this over and over again.  As a teacher, I can attest to the benefit of teaching a class multiple times, one of the benefits being able to anticipate problems students will have.  It’s hard to do this without teaching experience.  Paul was an experienced teacher, and so he presents his reply to possible objections people (in particular his Jewish brethren) might raise.


One of the immediate lessons we can glean from this is that there will always be objections to the Christian message, no matter how well we present it, no matter how engaging or compelling our presentation is.  The fact of the matter this is more than a debate on the intellectual level.  We need to remember that.  There are issues at stake here that will call out all the opposition an unbeliever can muster.  By nature, we want to justify our self-sovereignty.  We want to be king over our lives, we want to call the shots, and any attempt to curtail our autonomy we will meet with determined resistance, unless we have been born again.


So Lesson One is that we shouldn’t be surprised when people object to the gospel, even when they react violently against it.  Nor should we interpret opposition to the gospel as a weakness of the gospel.  The problem is not with the gospel itself but with hearts that hate the God of the gospel (cf. 2 Cor. 4:1-6).


But Lesson Two is that we should be prepared to deal with objections, and to meet them as we are able.  The apostle Paul wrote to Titus that the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9).  And this means that we must be students of the word.  I know of some non-Christians who are better students of Scripture than some Christians.  That is shameful.  This is so necessary, not only for our own benefit, but also because often the problems people have with the truth is that they misunderstand what Scripture actually teaches.  We will never be able to correct misapprehensions unless we know what it says.


However, this doesn’t mean that we always have to have an answer to every objection that people raise to the gospel.  There are going to be times that, no matter how much you study, that you are not going to be prepared for a particular objection.  The thing to do at that moment is simply to admit that you don’t have an answer, not to pretend that you have when you don’t.  (And then go seek out the answer!)  We need show humility in our interactions with those who don’t believe what we believe.  That in itself can go a long way to establishing a relationship with the unbeliever so that our gospel becomes more meaningful when we do share it. 


Another lesson (Lesson Three) we can learn from this is the importance of understanding the objections that are posed to the Christian message.  It bothers me when I hear pat answers to complicated issues.  It is sometimes clear that Christians haven’t really thought through a problem and then they give an answer which just tends to confirm to the minds of unbelievers that Christians are simplistic people who can’t give an intelligent answer to objections.  But more than that, it gives the impression that Christians really don’t care much about the problems that unbelievers are wrestling with, and that in turn gives the impression that believers don’t care much about their unbelieving friends.  Paul was not like that.  He clearly understood the objections and knew how to answer them.  Part of this was due to the fact that he was educated inside the very system to which he was responding.  Another part of this was due to long experience.  But surely part of it came from the fact that the apostle really cared about those to whom he was speaking and therefore gave thoughtful answers to their questions.


At the same time I do realize that are times when the objector to the Christian message isn’t objecting because he or she wants an answer to their questions but just because they hate the message and it doesn’t matter what you say, they are not going to believe it.  This is what our Lord was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Mt. 7:6).  There is a time when you do not answer a fool in his folly, lest you end up being like him (Prov. 26:4).  At that point, you are under no obligation to keep trying to respond to them; the wise thing is to simply leave them in their self-deception.  However, we need to be very discerning and not to cut someone off too soon; it is better to be patient than to be provocative.


Now, what were these objections which the apostle answers?  There are three that Paul responds to here in this text, one in verse 1, one in verse 3, and one in verse 5.  They are objections raised by his Jewish friends in the context of what he has said in chapter 2.[1]  


Objection 1: Aren’t you undermining the wisdom of God?


“Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?” (verse 1).  The underlying assumption behind these questions is that Paul’s teaching nullifies the Old Testament promises to the Jews and God’s election of Israel.  This is a response to Paul’s teaching in the previous chapter.  Let’s recall what he has said there.  Fundamentally, he has argued that having the law is not enough to guarantee salvation.  Having the law as the Jews did, a gift from God through Moses at Mount Sinai to the nation of Israel, is not a sign that every individual Jew will be saved.  Nor is the law powerful enough to guarantee conformity to its precepts.  It can command but it cannot create a heart that is enabled to obey its precepts.


The coup de grace to the misplaced confidence of many of Paul’s brethren came in verses 25-29.  He says three things.  First, in verse 25 he says that Jews who do not obey the law are in the same category as the uncircumcised.  To the Jew, that meant one thing: those who don’t obey the law are under condemnation.  Then, in verses 26-27, Paul has argued that the Gentiles (the uncircumcised) who obey the law are in the same category of the circumcised and will judge Jews who fail to obey the law.  In other words, those who keep the law, even though they are not circumcised, are blessed by God.  Finally, in verses 28-29 the apostles argues that a true Jew – one who has the blessing of God, one who is saved – is not just connected to Abraham by physical descent, but is one whose heart reflects the spiritual reality to which circumcision points.  The point is that the law itself is not enough to guarantee that to every physical descendant of Abraham.


Therefore, when some Jews heard this, their immediate response was, “This means that God’s covenant with Abraham didn’t do anything!  For this means that there is no advantage to the Jew in virtue of being a Jew.  And surely that is wrong.”  We must remember that circumcision was given by God.  The force behind this argument is that God doesn’t give things to no effect.  The covenant that God made with Abraham surely carried with it enormous benefits and set the Jews apart from everyone else.  Surely this was indisputable.  But Paul’s argument made it sound like God’s covenant carried with it no advantage and that the Jew was no better off than the Gentile.  Another way to put this is that it seemed as if Paul’s position made God unwise in his dispositions toward Israel, in giving them a law which was in the end a useless thing.


The apostle’s answer comes in verse 2: “Much in every way.  To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  Paul notes that there are many of advantages that the Jews have, in contrast with other nations.  He does not list them all here – that awaits 9:1-3 – but he does mention one specifically.  The great advantage that the Jews had over the other nations was that they had the word of God written for them in the pages of the OT.


I want to emphasize what the apostle says here about the OT.  He calls it the “oracles of God.”  In the ancient world, oracles were divine utterance.  In other words, the OT was not just a human attempt to understand the divine.  The OT was God’s word.  It did not just contain God’s word, but it was God’s word to Israel.


Paul’s argument in chapter 2 in no way minimized this incredible privilege.  It is true that he claims that the Gentiles had God’s law written on the heart, but this is not the same kind of blessing as having God’s word written down in Scripture.  General revelation and common notions about God and his law that are ours by virtue of being created in the image of God do not match the superiority of having God’s word for us in the pages of the OT and NT.  The main reason behind this is that general revelation is impotent in revealing God’s saving character to us and it is impotent in correcting the idolatry to which we are naturally so prone.  More importantly, what separates special from general revelation is that God’s saving work has always been attached to his written revelation.  This is surely what is implied in our Lord’s words to the woman at the well in Samaria: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).  Note that our Lord connects correct worship (a product of having God’s word) with salvation.


Paul’s argument therefore in no way minimizes the wisdom of God in bringing Israel into covenant with him, for in doing so they had access to his word which was of inestimable value.


Objection 2: Aren’t you undermining the faithfulness of God?


The next objection comes in verse 3: “What if some were unfaithful?  Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?”  The KJV translates verse 3 as, “For what if some did not believe?  Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”  The reason for the difference between the two translations lies in the fact that ancient Greek used the same word for “faithlessness” and “unbelief.”  The reality is that often you cannot separate the two.  If we are unfaithful to God’s word ultimately it is because we don’t really believe what God said.  


Nevertheless, the basic problem is this.  In chapter 2, Paul had claimed that the Jews did not keep the law, that their lives were fundamentally out of sync with God’s will for their lives.  Because of this they were exposed to God’s wrath.  Now to many of Paul’s Jewish brethren this meant that God was stepping back from his promise to Abraham.  This meant that God was unfaithful to his promises to save Israel.  Paul’s position on the faithlessness of Israel implicated God as being faithless, and this just could not be.  This is a serious objection, one that the apostle will answer in more detail in chapters 9-11, but here he gives a hint of the fuller answer in those chapters.


His answer comes categorically in verse 4: “By no means!”  Then, “Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’”  Paul does not give a full response, but just simply at this point agrees that God could never be faithless to his promises.  God’s word is always true, even if no one believes it and even if no one obeys it.  


To underline his point, the apostle quotes Psalm 51:4, which is quite pertinent to his overall argument.  It paralleled this debate precisely: David had sinned against God and as a result was judged quite severely by God – to which David came to see that since sin is against God, God is just in his judgments.  So here is  a Jew – a very preeminent Jew – King David, who acknowledges that God’s judgment against a Jew is just, and so his sin and God’s judgment upon it did not invalidate the faithfulness of God but also served to make it more conspicuous.  This verse proves that God can judge his chosen people without nullifying his promises to them.


Objection 3: Aren’t you undermining the glory of God?


Here is the last objection, which comes to us in verse 5: “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say?  That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?  (I speak in a human way.)”  In the book of Isaiah, Israel’s faithlessness becomes an opportunity for God to show his faithfulness in saving Israel: “The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.  He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak” (Isa. 59:15-17).  It seems that Paul’s Jewish interlocutor is arguing that God will not judge Israel because of her faithlessness because Israel’s faithlessness serves as a foil for the glory of God’s righteousness in saving Israel.  It is not right for God to inflict wrath on those who will give him glory.


Paul’s response is given in the following verses 6-8.  In verse 6: “By no means!  For then how could God judge the world?”  The “world” here is a reference to the Gentiles.  In other words, this argument is not valid because if this were so, then God could not judge anybody – not even the Gentiles – for then all would be glorifiers of God.  Of course, Paul’s Jewish brethren agreed with him that God’s judgment was falling on the Gentiles nations that did not know God.  So he takes this point of agreement and uses it against them.


Furthermore, in verse 7, Paul continues by saying that they couldn’t judge Paul himself, whom the Jews regarded as a speaker of lies by preaching the gospel, for if their argument is valid, then his lie also contributes to the glory of God.  Finally, in verse 8, Paul contends that this argument, taken to its logical extreme, would serve as an excuse for the most hateful antinomianism. 


Paul’s objector had posed problems to the gospel related to God’s wisdom, his faithfulness, and his glory.  The apostle took these objections seriously and took the time to respond to them.  He will elucidate further answers in chapters 9-11.  Let us be like the apostle in this respect.  Don’t shy away from objections to the gospel, but learn to respond to them with patience, with humility, with love, and with truth.


Final Considerations


As we close our remarks on this passage, I want to come back to Paul’s opening reflection on the advantage of having God’s written word.  What was true of Israel is true today of the church which holds the completed canon of Scripture in the OT and NT.  One of the greatest privileges that can be given to man is to be entrusted with the word of God.  


We should therefore treasure it, like the Psalmist: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Ps. 119:72).  And, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Ps. 119:162).  I think it is important to see that the entire Psalter begins with a reflection upon the blessedness of the man who loves and lives God’s word.  


Have we rightly appreciated the fact that God speaks to us in the pages of Scripture?  John Paton, a  missionary to cannibals on the island of Aniwa in the South Pacific, one time wrote some instructions on a piece of wood and asked an aged chief to take it to his wife on another part of the island.  “But what do you want?” asked the chief.  “The wood will tell her,” Paton responded.  “Whoever heard of wood speaking?” the chief asked, nonplussed.  The account continues:


John read out to him what he had written on the piece of wood and then explained that God spoke to his people in the same way through a book, the Bible.  If the chief learned to read, John told him, he would be able to hear God speaking to him from the page of the book in the same way that Mrs. Paton had heard John when she looked at the piece of wood.  From that day onward, Namakei was eager to help John learn new words.  He could hardly wait for the day when he would be able to hear God speaking to him from the pages of a book.[2]


One of the wonderful things about God’s word is that it is absolutely reliable.  We can have complete confidence that it is true.  This is surely an implication from verse 4.  Let God be true and every man a liar.  It doesn’t matter what men say, God’s word is true.  As the hymn puts it, “How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in his excellent word!”


But we can abuse the great privilege in at least two ways.  We can abuse it when we refuse to accept all of Scripture, and pick and choose what we want to believe.  But “all Scripture is given by inspiration” (2 Tim. 3:16, KJV), not just some of it.


We can also abuse it when we turn it to purposes which are counter to its aim.  For example, when we use Scripture as a cover for our sin, as Paul indicates in verse 8.
  

But these wrong responses are the result of refusing to submit our hearts and lives to the authority of God’s word.  It is only as we bow the knees to the supremacy of God over our lives in his word that we will respond to it as we ought.  My friend, what an amazing privilege you and I have to hold God’s word in our hands!  May we also hold in our hearts as we ought, loving it, cherishing it, and obeying it.



[1] Though I don’t follow it in every respect, I am indebted to John Piper for his exposition of this passage.  See https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/let-god-be-true-though-every-man-a-liar.
[2] Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got this quote.  It is from a biography of John Paton (though not the autobiography, which is duly famous).

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