what shall we say?
That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?
7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory,
why am I still being condemned as a sinner?
8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people
slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
To discern Paul’s reasoning in this passage we must follow a trail through a dense forest with many forks and few signposts. One of the most difficult trails in this epistle, a scholar called it. At the trailhead we find only terse and choppy directions left by the apostle who blazed this trail. Fortunately, several commentators have made their way through and now serve to guide us.
Paul’s purpose is to deal with further potential criticisms. They involve God’s justice and grace and also a charge that Paul is guilty of antinomianism—excusing and encouraging sin. Alert to having his doctrine of grace misunderstood, he wants to forestall these objections. His method is a series of rhetorical questions in a continuation of diatribe.Jews’ faulty reasoning
Either Paul thought these issues could be raised or he was now confronting those who raised them. In the latter case, his opponents had heard him preach messages similar to his use of Psalm 51 in verse 4. There Paul asserted that David’s infidelity magnifies God’s fidelity. They saw an opening to claim that if sin showcases God’s righteousness, truth, and faithfulness, then God is wrong to judge those who are unrighteous. Those making this charge would be Jews who thought they should not be judged like other sinners.
As background, Paul understands Jews’ mindset the same way Jesus did. Luke 18:9–14 has the parable Jesus told of the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector stood far off not even lifting his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Paul understands how people who do not think they are sinners would respond to his teaching.An absurd charge
Everett Harrison paraphrases the issue Paul presents in verse 5. “Is it not possible (so the question goes) that since human failure can bring out more sharply the righteousness of God, the Almighty ought to be grateful for this service and soften the judgment that would otherwise be due the offender?” With this self-serving reasoning Paul’s critics insinuate that God is unrighteous to judge them (verse 5).
Paul will have nothing of the sophist logic that would brand God as unjust for inflicting his wrath on sinners. His reluctance—apology really—even to suggest such a thing is the point of his parenthetical “I speak in a human way.” Galatians 3:15 has the same expression.
Douglas Moo views verse 7 as a reiteration of this objection. In that verse Paul speaks rhetorically as the Jewish objector himself, Moo says. And by putting words in Paul’s mouth that he approves of evil so that good may come, they were guilty of slander (verse 8).
Jews need to understand that God’s judgment rightly falls on everyone, even his covenant people, for their sin. To charge God with unrighteousness for judging sinners is to question his ability to judge anyone (verse 6). The very thought is blasphemous, Moo states, because it puts God’s name in disrepute. God is righteous as both Redeemer forgiving sin and Judge sentencing sinners who refuse to put their faith in Christ.Opposition to gospel
This appears to be the critics’ ulterior motive. The line of attack is to accuse Paul of excusing sin because the gospel features God’s gracious forgiveness of sin. Wedded to their works, the Jews resisted the idea grace allows sinners to be saved through faith. Any charge the gospel promotes lawlessness Paul was quick to disallow (for his argument of faith versus works see chapter 4).
Richard Longenecker thinks it apparent that believers in Rome also were raising these criticisms, so Paul felt it necessary to address their misunderstanding as well. Objectors inside the church would be some Jewish Christians. Paul’s intent thus seems calculated to correct those who misunderstand and give everyone ammunition to fend off these objections to the gospel message.End does not justify means
Glorification of God’s righteousness is a supremely good end, but no one can use it to justify evil means. Nor does Paul claim to do so. Divine righteousness demands punishment of evil no matter its result. God’s actions are always true to his character.
Can Judas claim a reward from God for turning over Jesus to a crucifixion that atoned for the world’s sin? R. C. Sproul points to the wicked act of that traitor and says, “It is an irrational distortion of truth to conclude that, because God’s righteousness is enhanced indirectly by our unrighteousness, we are to continue doing evil that good may come.”
Although Jews are Paul’s primary target, his response has general application. Here Paul opposes “cheap grace for Israel,” as Joseph Fitzmyer puts it. We Christians have our own version of cheap grace when we rationalize our sin thinking we are free from its consequences. Paul deals with that matter in chapter 6 (see his opening question in 6:1).“Their condemnation is just”
This summative conclusion—the “justness” of God’s judgment—Moo considers a key theme of Romans 1:18–3:20. Richard Longenecker terms this last sentence the briefest and most bombastic of all Paul’s responses in this current passage. Deservedly so, he says.
Upon emerging from the forest we see a single signpost bigger than all the rest. Emblazoned on it are two arrows, one pointing to judgment and the other to grace.