Let God be true, though every one were a liar. —Romans 3:4
God is faithful, true and righteous. That’s obvious here in Romans 3:1-8. And his perfections are so big, so all-encompassing, that he outflanks our evil. He knows how to get glory for himself out of our broken lives. It starts working for us when we stop accusing him and bow down and say to him, “Okay, you win. And I want you to win. Let me lose, for a change. It’s so much better for me to lose this argument I’ve been having with you all my life. You win!” That’s when we start changing – and living.
What is Romans 3:1-8 about? Last week we saw from Romans 2:17-29 that God’s people are set apart not by religious externals but deep within by a new heart, not by circumcision as surgery on the body but surgery on the heart by the Holy Spirit. So, what matters most is not that we’ve been baptized or confirmed, good as that is, but that the Holy Spirit has given us newness of life, a new passion for God. We saw last week the apostle Paul sitting at a table in an inn somewhere in the Mediterranean world having this conversation with a Jewish friend, Mr. Biblical Worldview. As this new paragraph opens today, we can see Mr. Biblical Worldview leaning forward and countering Paul’s point with an objection: “Paul, if Jewishness is not what matters most with God, then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? You yourself said that your gospel comes out of the Old Testament (Romans 1:1-3). God gave us Jewish people promises there in the Old Testament. Are you saying God can’t be trusted to keep his word?” It’s a good objection. It keeps the conversation focused on God. Here’s the question. Can God be trusted? Or is he letting us all down? Should God be accused of failure? It’s a question we all inevitably ask.
As Paul answers that question, here is where he is taking us: “. . . so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). Visualize it with me. God is sitting on his great throne as King of the world. Standing before him is the whole mass of the human race, every single individual throughout the length of history. You and I are there. Napoleon is there. Socrates is there. Mick Jagger is there. Your next-door neighbor is there. Mr. Self-Indulgence is there. Mr. Moral High Ground is there. Mr. Biblical Worldview is there. We’re all there. And from this massive gathering of human beings is arising a noise, the din of mutual accusations. Back and forth, there’s an argument going on, everywhere you look. Everyone is pointing the finger at someone else, saying, “If it weren’t for you, my life would be better.” And some of the accusations are fair. We let each other down at times. It isn’t surprising that anger and frustration and blaming are powerful forces moving through the human race. Look at history. Look at the world today.
But something even deeper is going on in every one of those human hearts. In the depths of every heart is an implicit accusation against God himself: “If it weren’t for you, my life would be better.” And although the people in that massive crowd are shouting at each other and pushing each other and trying to get even and settle scores, they are also casting sidelong glances up at God with angry looks, suspicious looks, wounded looks, defiant looks. Now, there is the human race – hostile to God, bitter toward God. But then God speaks, and all that rage falls silent. Every mouth is stopped. A hush falls over that crowd. It can happen for you and me today. We can stop being God’s judge and jury and place ourselves under his judgment, because that’s the only place of mercy – under the blood of Christ shed freely for sinners.
How do we get to that place of quietness before God? We place ourselves under the judgment of his Word. And the paradox is that that’s where his mercy overflows. C. S. Lewis helps us understand the change we need to go through in our thoughts and hearts, to get there and settle there. He put it this way:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge; God is on trial. He is quite a kindly judge. If God should have a reasonable defense for being a god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is on trial.
We have been conditioned to think this way. And not only is God on trial, we ourselves have little to answer for. We’re victims. We can justify ourselves. What wrong have we done? William Kilpatrick teaches at Boston College. He tells us,
A colleague… once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” they said – and apparently this was said without irony – “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Our culture of self-esteem lowers our self-awareness – and that puts God at a distance. Innocent people don’t need mercy. They can make demands. Only sinners can know God’s mercy. So the most urgently important discovery in all of life is to know who God really is and who we really are and how much he really loves us in our real guilt. It’s the gospel that takes us to that quiet place of humility and reverence and surrender to God, where we can experience his goodness. Let’s go there together today.
These eight verses are not easy to understand. Maybe the best way to summarize the meaning of Romans 3:1-8 is to show how it’s a dialogue between Paul and Mr. Biblical Worldview. Paul is writing in an interactive way. He is the putting the objections right out in front for us to see, then giving answers. So here’s how the paragraph unfolds, thought by thought:
Mr. Biblical Worldview: “So, Paul, what you’re really saying there in chapter 2 is that Jewishness is no advantage and circumcision means nothing and God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament are worthless and that God himself can’t be believed. You just said as much in chapter 2, didn’t you, Paul?”
Paul: “Being Jewish is a privilege in many ways. Here’s one. Our nation was entrusted with the Old Testament. God gave us the historical narratives to tell us where we came from, he gave us his laws to show us how to live, he gave us his prophecies to show us our destiny. He didn’t do that for any other nation but for us Jews only. What a privilege!”
Mr. Biblical Worldview: “Yes, it was a sacred trust. And some of us have failed God. But great is his faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies we see. He changes not, his compassions they fail not. As he has been, he forever will be, right Paul? So God’s faithfulness guarantees the safety of us Jews on the final day of judgment, doesn’t it? No matter what we do, our Jewishness is our ticket into heaven, isn’t it? After all, God won’t break his promises.”
Paul: “No way will God ever break his word! God will be true to his word and covenant, no matter what. Every single one of us could let God down and defect to the other side and blame him for it all and make up reasons to be unhappy with him, and God will still do the right thing. But Mr. Biblical Worldview, there’s something you haven’t seen yet. God is so right, so perfectly right, so consistently right, that his judgments are right too. God will be justified in his words and will prevail when he judges. His faithfulness is so faithful to God that human sin ends up magnifying God.”
At this point, Mr. Biblical Worldview thinks he has Paul. He thinks Paul has just exposed a vulnerable flank in his position. So Mr. Biblical Worldview presses in: “So you really do teach what people have told me you teach. You’re saying, Paul, that our unrighteousness glorifies God. Our sins make his righteousness stand out the more clearly. But if God is glorified by our sins, then don’t you end up saying that God is wrong to judge us for our sins? And what kind of message is that, Paul?”
Paul: “Away with that thought, Mr. Biblical Worldview. God will judge the world. Count on it.”
Mr. Biblical Worldview: “You still don’t get it, Paul. Your view of God’s faithfulness to sinners is dangerous. Listen to yourself. If our falsehood toward God ends up glorifying him, why should he disapprove of us? Why shouldn’t he reward us for our sins? If you’re right, every time we sin, we’re doing God a favor. Doesn’t your confidence that God will triumph even in our sins – doesn’t that bend sin around into a good thing? Why not sin all the more, ‘to the glory of God’? Paul, your concept of God is crazy.”
Paul: “You don’t understand the gospel at all. People who twist God into an excuse for sin deserve what they get.”
That is how the paragraph unfolds. But here is the most important thing for us to grasp today. It’s in verse 4: “. . . that you, God, may be justified in your words and prevail when you judge.” That’s a quote from Psalm 51. David is finally confessing his adultery with Bathsheba. Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying, “Lord, whatever comes of this episode in my life, whatever you decide to do with me, however this turns out, you will be justified and you will prevail, you will win, and you will deserve to win.” David went to that place of repentance. He stopped blaming Bathsheba. He stopped blaming God. He actually stepped around and took God’s side against himself. David put himself under the judgment of the Word of God, he agreed with God and disagreed with himself, and David rejoiced to see God winning the argument against David, and that’s where David finally found hope for his messed up life. Even his sin became a doorway to newness of life in the mercy of God.
Don’t try to defeat God. He’s all you have left. And he deserves to win. He is faithful. He is true. He is righteous. He will prevail. Why not let God win the argument? If we cling to our excuses and our victimhood and our righteousness, we stay stuck where we are. We push his grace away. But when we see ourselves realistically and see God realistically, we can fall into his arms. Christianity is not for good people. It’s good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He told us that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners who don’t have a leg to stand on. Those are the people Jesus came for. He came for you.
A sense of our own sin and of God’s righteousness – the surprise is, it’s the wardrobe into Narnia. And to live in that quiet place of joy and release, all we need to do is keep our empty hands held out. Let’s lose the argument. Let’s admit moment by moment that God is justified, he will prevail, and it’s perfect that way. He deserves to win. And let’s see what God will do for losers who have no complaints left, no demands – nothing but need.
Are you willing today to lose with God, so that you can find out how wonderful his grace really is? If God has a purpose of grace for you, there comes a time in your life when you fail. Inexcusably. Shamefully. The only human being who never failed was Jesus. But there will come a time for you, and maybe it has already, when you’ll look at yourself in shock and disbelief that you could be so stupid, and worse than stupid. Something important in your life – you’ll bungle it so horribly that it lies in broken pieces around your feet, and you can’t put it back together again. You will hurt people you love. And then you will face the most important choice in your life. The most important choice is not whether or not to sin. You will sin. We all do. But the most important choice comes after the sin. Will you deny it and evade it and not face up to it but soften it and excuse it and blame others and even blame God? And if God has a purpose of grace for you, he will be so faithful to you he will not let you win. He will not let you sweep it under the carpet. He will not let you hide in the darkness but will be faithful to shine the light of the gospel into your secrets and invite you to come out of hiding and be forgiven of it all.
Here’s what God wants you to do today. Throw down these weapons of warfare against him in our thoughts, wave the white flag of surrender and come out of hiding. Give yourself again to God. He is saying to you right now, “I won’t un-God myself for you or for anyone. I parted with my Son for you, but I will not part with my righteousness for you. I am God. My wrath is not a passing mood. My mercy is not a lowering of my standards. I am faithful. I am true. Do you think that in all my glory there might be room for kindness toward you? There is, more than you think. My kindness sent Christ to his cross, where my wrath and my mercy met and settled the only score that really matters, and to your advantage. Believe it, receive it, and stop fighting me. Let’s be friends again.”
Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve been hiding, will you believe that his dying love can give you your dignity back in that very place of guilty secrecy? Will you go deeper with him today and surrender yourself into his faithful care? Jesus said, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”