I don't know about you, but I have offered some terrible excuses for misbehavior in my life. I remember as a six-year-old, I was visiting my grandparents' house. They warned me not to bounce a ball in the basement - so of course, five minutes later, I had bounced the ball into the fluorescent light causing it to fall out and shatter on the ground. When confronted by my grandparents, I offered this reasonable defense, "Oh, I was just playing and the light fell out and smashed on its own."
The fact is, the human heart is full of excuses - even outrageous excuses - to escape our guilt. In this passage from Romans 3, Paul talks about how all of us (including those who think we are the most morally upright) stand condemned and need the forgiveness of God. And this honesty about our guilt is an important stage to go through before we can experience the forgiveness of God.
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 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."
5 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.) 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.
When shown that we do not meet a moral standard, it is the most human of responses to find fault with the standard, rather than with ourselves.
In Romans 3, Paul anticipates objections to his indictment that the whole human race is under the power of sin (Romans 1:18-2:29). His fellow Jews might protest that if Paul's argument is true - that they cannot fulfill the law - then God himself is somehow to blame. 'Why did God give us the law and circumcision at all?' they might ask (verse 1). 'If we cannot keep the standard, then isn't God unfaithful to us?' (verse 3).
These are pretty pathetic as objections go, but by no means uncommon. The human race has been shifting blame since the Garden of Eden, when Adam faulted Eve and Eve faulted the serpent. It's what the self-justifying, self-preserving human heart does when cornered by its sin.
In verses 5-8, the Jewish objections get even more bizarre. They venture the idea that if their unrighteousness reveals God's righteousness - in the sense that God's standard of justice is thrown into sharper relief - then perhaps God should not punish them, since in a way God needs them to reveal his justice (or so they think). Or if God's truth can only be known in contrast to their lies (verse 7), then why would God punish them for highlighting his goodness? Come on God, they say, if it weren't for our rottenness, how could anyone see your righteousness?
These tortured self-justifications remind me of one of my favorite TV characters, Michael Scott, the bumbling, inept office manager on NBC's The Office. In one episode, Michael is intimidated by his former protégé and now corporate boss, Ryan. Michael is supposed to implement a new website for the office, but is hopelessly unable to do it. Ryan pressures Michael to get his act together.
But Michael, rather than learning how to use the website, looks for legal loopholes to resist Ryan's directives; he finds one when he realizes that the new technology could be considered a form of age discrimination. So, Michael hastily schedules an emergency staff meeting and invites Ryan to attend. Michael declares, with all the haughtiness of a threatened bureaucrat, 'There has been a lot of talk about new ideas today. Well, new ideas are fine ... but they are also illegal! They are a form of - of ageism!'
Michael's behavior, while absurd, is unfortunately a picture of the absurdity of our resistance to God. If an office manager can be so clearly out of line when defying his boss, then how much more ridiculous does the human race look when we defy our Creator? Do we hold the key to cosmic justice? Are we in a position to be God's counselor? (cf. Romans 11:34) In his famous essay 'God in the Dock,' C. S. Lewis warns against this irreverent posture:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.
Contrary to the fancies of the modern mind, the Living God remains our Judge and we remain very much in the dock. Ultimately, not one of God's creations will evade, gainsay, rationalize, or cloud the perfect judgments of God. Creatures are just not in a position to judge their Creator.
That being the case, we do well to confess our sins in humility, and to attend with all diligence to God's offer of pardon. And in the subsequent chapters of Romans, we will see how lavish, how merciful, and how kind God's offer of forgiveness is.