Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! 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.” 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.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. – Romans 3:1-8 ESV
As we begin chapter three, we must remember the words of Paul from chapter one: “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). Paul was quoting from Habakkuk 2:4, where God had said to His prophet concerning the nation of Babylon, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habukkuk 2:4 ESV). Faith has always been the means by which men gain access to the kind of righteousness God expects. It has never been based on human effort or achievement. All the way back in the book of Genesis, when God commanded Abraham to institute the rite of circumcision as a sign of His covenant with the people of Israel, He had said, “I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8 ESV). Circumcision was a sign of ownership, an outward symbol of their unique position as God’s possession. But it was not going to be circumcision that made them righteous, but their faith in the promise of God – that He would give them the land and make of them a great nation. In chapter four of Romans, Paul further explains the role of faith using Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation as an example. He clarifies that Abraham was justified before God, not because he had been circumcised, but because he had faith. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3 ESV). But Paul asks the question: “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” (Romans 4:10 ESV). In other words, Paul is asking whether God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness was pre- or post-circumcision. Was it the result of his adherence to God’s command? Paul answers his own question: “It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:10-11 ESV).
What’s the point? The point is that God has always measured man’s righteousness by faith, not works. The fact is, the Old Testament saints were expected to live by faith, just as much as we are. Paul says, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?” (Romans 3:2 ESV). Martin Luther writes in his commentary of Romans, “circumcision was of value to the Jews because they believed the divine promise (connected with it) and so they awaited its fulfillment” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans). Abraham was declared righteous because he had faith in the promises of God. Again, Paul writes in chapter four, “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13 ESV). The writer of Hebrews tells us, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV). “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (Hebrews 11:17-18 ESV). The kind of righteousness God requires has been and always will be based on faith.
The righteousness of God – the kind of righteousness He requires – is only available through faith in His promises. When God had told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3), Abraham had no way of knowing the full extent of that promise. But he believed. He had faith. And it was counted to him as righteousness. But there were many Jews who failed to trust in the promises of God, and who falsely believed that their righteousness before God was going to be based on their own effort or merit. So Paul says, “if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say?” (Romans 3:5 ESV). In other words, it is the very fact that some failed to have faith and lived in unrighteousness that reveals the truth or reality of God’s brand of righteousness. His righteousness is faith-based, not works-dependent. The Jews had been given the promises of God, but most of them had failed to believe. They put their faith in themselves, in other nations, in false gods, and in their unique position as God’s possession. But Paul reminds us that their unfaithfulness does not nullify the faithfulness of God. He will keep His promises. He will fulfill every word He said to Abraham. In fact, Paul writes in his letter to the believers in Galatia, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:7-9 ESV). The righteous shall live by faith.