Why Did Paul Say, “Let God Be True...”?
“What does the passage mean, ‘let God be found true, but every man a liar’ (Romans 3:4)?”
In the first two chapters of his letter to the Roman saints, Paul has discussed the spiritual plight of both the Gentiles (chapter 1), and the Jews (chapter 2). Both segments of humanity, he argued, had serious spiritual problems, and were accountable to God for their conduct. The Hebrews were in greater jeopardy, however, because of an advantage they possessed over the Gentiles.
What was this advantage? The matter is addressed at the commencement of chapter 3. One tremendous advantage the Jews had over the Gentiles was in the fact that Jehovah had entrusted to the Hebrew nation the “oracles” of God (v. 2).
The term “oracle” derives from the Greek word logion. In scripture, the expression consistently has to do with a “divine utterance.” It is employed in this fashion in the Greek Old Testament (see Numbers 24:4; Deuteronomy 33:9), and such is also the case in the New Testament. The word is found four times in the New Testament. Twice it refers to the Mosaic revelation as given to the Jews (Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2), and twice it alludes to inspired Christian teaching (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11).
In the text under present consideration, “oracles” denotes the body of Old Testament literature, with perhaps special emphasis upon the promises to Israel contained therein (cf. Romans 15:8).
In Romans 3:3, the apostle anticipates an objection that might be raised by some. What if, after all that Jehovah did on behalf of the Jews, they resisted his loving overtures and refused to believe? What then? Would their lack of faith nullify the faithfulness of the Lord?
The rendition, “God forbid,” is not an accurate reflection of the original text. The Greek is me genoito — literally, “may it not be so” — one of the strongest expressions of negation possible (cf. Paul’s use in vv. 6, 31; 6:2,15, etc.).
As one scholar observes, it states the apostle’s “repulsion” that anyone might draw such a conclusion from his previous argument, i.e., that the Lord’s plan somehow was proved false because of a Jewish rejection (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p. 482). In our parlance, it might be rendered, “Absolutely not! No way!”
It is out of this background that Paul then says, “let God be found true, but every man a liar” (ASV). A more recent version has it, “Let God be true though everyone were a liar” (ESV).
Neither of these renditions appears to capture the full flavor of the apostle’s point of emphasis, which is this. God is to be recognized as “true” (truthful) no matter how many fallible and rebellious men disagree with him, dispute him, or viciously oppose him. His integrity is everlastingly stable, no matter how jaundiced a view that men may hold regarding him. The statement is an idiomatic affirmation that Jehovah remains right if any man, indeed if all men, were to contest him.
Interestingly, in support of his proposition that God’s integrity remains intact in spite of the conduct of men, Paul quotes a segment of David’s confession in Psalm 51:4 (following his sin with Bathsheba). After acknowledging that he had transgressed the law of God, the shepherd king suggests that his punishment (see 2 Samuel 12:9-14) was administered “that you [God] might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge.”
Though David initially resisted repentance by seeking to conceal his sin, eventually he bowed his head over a broken heart and acknowledged that the Creator was right, and he had been wrong. From this ancient example one should learn not to question his Maker.
Some practical applications of the principle might be stated as follows.
- Though a thousand scientists assert that the universe made itself (or that it is eternal), the inspired record of Jehovah’s creative activity (Genesis 1) remains accurate.
- A legion of skeptics may charge that the suffering of this planet negates the existence of a powerful and benevolent God, but his wisdom and moral integrity remain inflexible and the revelation of his righteous judgments will be acknowledged ultimately (Romans 2:5; 14:11).
- Superficial theologians argue that salvation will be universal, or that “grace” will be bestowed unconditionally, but such baseless theories will never negate the truth of God that Christ is the author of eternal salvation only to such as obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9).
- Though every religionist in the world should advocate the lie that there is no resurrection, no judgment, no eternal heaven or hell, such misrepresentations will never negate the truth regarding these matters as set forth in the Lord’s steadfast word.
A Concluding Thought
Before we depart from our discussion, we must call attention to a common abuse of this context. Some, under the influence of John Calvin, have attempted to use Romans 3:3 to buttress the theory that a child of God can never fall from grace. They reason in this fashion. Even if the believer renounces his faith, God will remain faithful, bestowing the salvation he once promised, irrespective of the Christian’s apostasy.
Such a view reflects an egregious perversion of this text. If the quibble had any merit, it would teach as well that all Jews who have rejected Christ are not to be held accountable for such, since God’s “faithfulness” to the nation must be preserved.
Moreover, this Calvinistic view conflicts with a host of biblical texts that clearly affirm that a child of God can forfeit his salvation if he chooses to do so (Galatians 5:4; 2 Peter 2:1). Even when such happens, the Lord’s nature is not compromised.