“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).” – Romans 3:5

It’s hard not to read this verse and not think of Paul’s words later in Romans: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24)

Both of these verses – two of the most complicated and complex that we find in Scripture – prompt the same basic question: “If our unrighteousness is the necessary background against which God displays his wisdom, love and mercy in salvation, how can God judge us (humanity) for what therefore obviously has a good end?”

The issue in Romans 3 centers on the faithfulness of God towards unfaithful Israel. Time and time again Israel is the beneficiary of God’s pursuing love, grace and redemption in spite of their shameful adulterous affairs with idols and wickedness. This cycle of faithful commitment to the people of God through His covenant stimulated a false confidence in the sign of God’s covenant (circumcision) and their efforts to keep the law, leading God’s people (Israel) to put their hope in outward adherence to the law (including circumcision) without an inward affection for it (2:28-29). For Paul, what matters, as it regards God’s judgment, is not adherence to some outward standard, but rather the inward disposition (circumcision) of the heart.

This prompts the question: What then is the advantage of being a Jew? This question is rooted in the covenant experience of ethnic Israel. God initiated and established a covenant relationship with Israel (Deut 17:6cf). God’s righteousness was clearly displayed in fullness through His faithfulness to His covenant people, even though they were notoriously unrighteous. In this pursuit God received maximum glory in revealing the perceived positive scope of His character (wisdom, love, mercy, compassion, etc) in response to unrighteousness. This is the question of Romans 3:5. If the end (God’s glory and magnified righteousness) is most clearly seen through the means of sin (unrighteousness), how then can God execute wrath against His covenant people?

What we need to understand is that though God is pleased to extract good from evil, this kindness by God does not nullify the evil will and desire of its author (human sin) (Rom 2:4-5). In humanity’s attempt to manipulate God’s purposes and relegate God to a status on par with our expectations for how God should govern the world, we demand to know how God can judge sin if sin actually lends itself to that which in the end is beneficial, namely the display of God’s righteousness and glory. In the human mind, if God extracts good from evil, shouldn’t we then sin more so that God will be glorified to the greatest end (Rom 6:1cf)? Paul sees this kind of thinking as foolish. Why? Because God is Creator. He is good. He is just and His judgments are right (Gen 18:25; Ps 50:6; 58:11; 94:2). It is for this reason that the condemnation of the unrighteous is just (Rom 3:8). The fact that God is most glorified against the backdrop of evil does not necessarily mean that men should not be held accountable for their sin. In actuality, because God’s holiness is most clearly seen against the backdrop of sin, this makes His judgment and wrath all the more necessary, because it is then that the light of the supreme worth and majesty of God’s holiness dispels the darkness of sin in such a way as to crush any moral excuse and brings man into full account for his lawlessness.

God’s righteousness is not incomplete in its glory or display in itself. In other words, it is not manifest only in our unrighteousness; God’s righteousness is whole within its expression in the Trinity alone. However, it is more clealry revealed (to us) through our unrighteousness. This should deepen our affection for the beauty of the gospel. Christ, who knew no sin, the fullness of Triune righteousness, became sin, so that you and I, by faith, might become the sons and daughters of God, the righteousness of God in Jesus. It is in the gospel that the glorious grace and beauty of Jesus’ righteousness is manifest within the lives of unrighteous, rebellious sinners, whom God redeems and transforms into the image of His Son, to share in the righteousness of God by faith, in love. This is grace. This is love. This is the gospel.

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