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Commentary On Romans by Jean Calvin

Romans 3:3-4

3. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?

3. Quid enigma si quidem fuerunt increduli? Num incredulitas eorum fidem Dei faciet irritam?

4. 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.

4. Ne ita sit; quin sit Deus verax, omnis autem homo mendax; quemadmodum scriptum est, ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas quum judicaris.

3. What indeed if some, etc. As before, while regarding the Jews as exulting in the naked sign, he allowed them no not even a spark of glory; so now, while considering the nature of the sign, he testifies that its virtue (virtutem, efficacy) is not destroyed, no, not even by their inconstancy. As then he seemed before to have intimated that whatever grace there might have been in the sign of circumcision, it had wholly vanished through the ingratitude of the Jews, he now, anticipating an objection, again asks what opinion was to be formed of it. There is here indeed a sort of reticence, as he expresses less than what he intended to be understood; for he might have truly said that a great part of the nation had renounced the covenant of God; but as this would have been very grating to the ears of the Jews, he mitigated its severity, and mentioned only some.

Shall their unbelief, etc. Katargein is properly to render void and ineffectual; a meaning most suitable to this passage. For Paul's inquiry is not so much whether the unbelief of men neutralizes the truth of God, so that it should not in itself remain firm and constant, but whether it hinders its effect and fulfillment as to men. The meaning then is, |Since most of the Jews are covenant-breakers, is God's covenant so abrogated by their perfidiousness that it brings forth no fruit among them? To this he answers, that it cannot be that the truth of God should lose its stability through man's wickedness. Though then the greater part had nullified and trodden under foot God's covenant, it yet retained its efficacy and manifested its power, not indeed as to all, but with regard to a few of that nation: and it is then efficacious when the grace or the blessing of the Lord avails to eternal salvation. But this cannot be, except when the promise is received by faith; for it is in this way that a mutual covenant is on both sides confirmed. He then means that some ever remained in that nation, who by continuing to believe in the promise, had not fallen away from the privileges of the covenant.

4. But let God be true, etc. Whatever may be the opinion of others, I regard this as an argument taken from the necessary consequence of what is opposed to it, by which Paul invalidates the preceding objection. For since these two things stand together, yea, necessarily accord, that God is true and that man is false, it follows that the truth of God is not nullified by the falsehood of men; for except he did now set those two things in opposition, the one to the other, he would afterwards have in vain labored to refute what was absurd, and show how God is just, though he manifests his justice by our unjustice. Hence the meaning is by no means ambiguous, -- that the faithfulness of God is so far from being nullified by the perfidy and apostasy of men that it thereby becomes more evident. |God,| he says, |is true, not only because he is prepared to stand faithfully to his promises, but because he also really fulfills whatever he declares; for he so speaks, that his command becomes a reality. On the other hand, man is false, not only because he often violates his pledged faith, but because he naturally seeks falsehood and shuns the truth.|

The first clause contains the primary axiom of all Christian philosophy; the latter is taken from Psalm 116:11, where David confesses that there is nothing certain from man or in man.

Now this is a remarkable passage, and contains a consolation that is much needed; for such is the perversity of men in rejecting and despising God's word, that its truth would be often doubted were not this to come to our minds, that God's verity depends not on man's verity. But how does this agree with what has been said previously -- that in order to make the divine promise effectual, faith, which receives it, is on the part of men necessary? for faith stands opposed to falsehood. This seems, indeed, to be a difficult question; but it may with no great difficulty be answered, and in this way -- the Lord, notwithstanding the lies of men, and though these are hinderances to his truth, does yet find a way for it through a pathless track, that he may come forth a conqueror, and that is, by correcting in his elect the inbred unbelief of our nature, and by subjecting to his service those who seem to be unconquerable. It must be added, that the discourse here is concerning the corruption of nature, and not the grace of God, which is the remedy for that corruption.

That thou mightest be justified, etc. The sense is, So far is it that the truth of God is destroyed by our falsehood and unfaithfulness, that it thereby shines forth and appears more evident, according to the testimony of David, who says, that as he was sinner, God was a just and righteous Judge in whatever he determined respecting him, and that he would overcome all the calumnies of the ungodly who murmured against his righteousness. By the words of God, David means the judgments which he pronounces upon us; for the common application of these to promises is too strained: and so the particle that, is not so much final, nor refers to a far-fetched consequence, but implies an inference according to this purport, |Against thee have I sinned; justly then dost thou punish me.| And that Paul has quoted this passage according to the proper and real meaning of David, is clear from the objection that is immediately added, |How shall the righteousness of God remain perfect if our iniquity illustrates it?| For in vain, as I have already observed, and unseasonable has Paul arrested the attention of his readers with this difficulty, except David meant, that God, in his wonderful providence, elicited from the sins of men a praise to his own righteousness. The second clause in Hebrew is this, |And that thou mightest be pure in thy judgment;| which expression imports nothing else but that God in all his judgments is worthy of praise, how much soever the ungodly may clamor and strive by their complaints disgracefully to efface his glory. But Paul has followed the Greek version, which answered his purpose here even better. We indeed know that the Apostles in quoting Scripture often used a freer language than the original; for they counted it enough to quote what was suitable to their subject: hence they made no great account of words.

The application then of this passage is the following: Since all the sins of mortals must serve to illustrate the glory of the Lord, and since he is especially glorified by his truth, it follows, that even the falsehood of men serves to confirm rather than to subvert his truth. Though the word krinesthai, may be taken actively as well as passively, yet the Greek translators, I have no doubt, rendered it passively, contrary to the meaning of the Prophet.

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