Saturday, July 27, 2013

Paul’s Prooftext that God is True, Romans 3:3-4

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For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged. (Romans 3:3-4)

Paul’s quotation to prove God is true seems very strange at first reading; it seems like the “thou” refers to man, which view doesn’t help his proof.  I suspected that it might be important to find where he was quoting, so I did a search for those words and found it was a quotation from Psalms 51:4. (And actually I need not have searched because there was a footnote indicating the reference, which I didn’t notice until later… Oh well.)

Psalms 51 happens to be the one in which David pleads for forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba.  The context of the bit Paul quoted clarifies greatly.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done this evil in thy sight:
that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest,
and be clear when thou judgest. (Psalms 51:4)

So Paul’s quotation of David shows that God is always true, while man lies.

There’s a little variation between David’s phrasing and the way Paul quotes the last bit.

David
Paul
"and be clear when thou judgest"
"and mightest overcome when thou art judged"

David’s is a parallel statement with his previous phrase about God's judgment always being justified by events, but Paul seems to expand the meaning to convey that man judges God and then ultimately God’s sayings are justified, clearing God’s name as a truth-speaker.

Okay.. David’s thoughts in Psalms 51:4 seem to demand closer examination, so I hope you don’t mind if I get just a little distracted..

There is something a little odd about David’s logic in Psalms 51:4.  It is as if he says, “God, I sinned against thee so that you would be justified when you speak.”  This has very twisted logic and I don’t think it is quite what David meant, if he had a true idea of the nature of his responsibility to God, especially in his repentance.  I think the truth is a bit deeper here.  A man doesn’t sin with the intent to prove God right; usually sin arises in an attempt to prove God’s warnings wrong.  God warns, man thinks the warning unwarranted, man does what he wants in an attempt to prove God wrong, and man ends up sinning just as God warned.   So, I think David is acknowledging that the Lord warned him ahead of time as he was contacting Bathsheba that he was acting badly and it wasn’t going to end well, but David said, “No, it’ll be fine; I’m not doing anything wrong.”  And then what-do-you-know, it turns out God was completely justified in His warning, and David found it was himself who had lied, lied to himself and God.  (This principle is what makes Paul’s use of the quotation a powerful proof that God is true, and his readers would be completely aware of the quotation context.)

Why did David say that he had only sinned against God when he had also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, and all those who saw his bad example and were affected by it?  I had to think about this for a while before I realized that David really did have a testimony of Christ’s atonement and he knew that Christ would suffer not only for David’s sins and grief and pain, but also for all the grief and pain that others suffered on account of David’s adultery.  So, ultimately David was sinning only against Christ, causing wound upon wound on Christ through all the people David had affected.

So, back to Paul.  Paul says,

For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged. (Romans 3:3-4)

If unbelief in God’s warnings can be shown to be lies of man (as David learned by sad experience with Bathsheba), then unbelief in God’s salvation can also be shown to be lies of man.  Just as God’s warnings are real, God’s promises of salvation and exaltation are real.  If others do not believe, it will not stop us from enjoying the fruits of our faith in Christ.