Romans 3:8, “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”
Because of his charge that first-century Jews had not kept God’s law with the perfection necessary to be declared righteous before Him (Rom. 2), Paul knew that some people would question the faithfulness and justice of the Lord. Though our Creator had pledged to save His people, they continued to suffer the conditions of exile, being dominated by the Roman Empire. Had God been unfaithful to His promises to save because the Jews had not upheld their end of the covenant? (Rom. 3:1–3). The answer is no, because God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises demands that He judge sinners when they fail to keep His law (v. 4). How, then, can the Lord be righteous? If people’s unrighteousness allows God to show forth His own righteousness in judging them guilty of sin, is it not unrighteous to condemn that which provides the backdrop against which the light of God’s holiness shines? How can sin be unrighteous if it promotes the good, namely, the revelation of His righteousness? Such questions are foolish and blasphemous, as they charge the Lord with sin (vv. 5–7).
In today’s passage, Paul turns to another objection to his teaching. We know that the objection he describes in Romans 3:8 was actually held by some of the Apostle’s contemporaries, as he tells us that the question summarizes a false charge that was current in the first century. Some charged that Paul promoted sin and encouraged Jews and Gentiles alike to transgress God’s law. After all, if the unrighteousness of men and women provides a context in which our Creator can show the glory of His righteousness as He judges sin, would it not be better to sin with abandon, because that would create a fuller context for the revelation of divine justice? More sin equals more righteous judgment equals more knowledge of God, which is a good thing, so the thinking goes (v. 8a).
As with the question about the Lord’s justice, Paul does not provide a full answer as much as he points out how foolish and depraved such a question actually is. Those who think that sin is something to be encouraged because the grace of God will be seen even more clearly have seriously misunderstood the gospel and the fact that grace is free but not cheap. Such individuals deserve nothing but the condemnation they will receive for such thinking (v. 8b). The Apostle will return to this idea later in Romans (see 6:1–14), but he raises it now to silence those Jews who would object that they are no better off than the Gentiles before the bar of God’s righteous judgment.
Telling people that they have not done and cannot do enough to merit the kingdom of God provokes all sorts of hostile reactions. Some question the Lord’s justice. Others accuse the preacher of telling people they should sin with abandon. We cannot prevent people from misunderstanding the gospel. We can strive for gospel clarity to help mitigate this, but what we can never do is change the gospel and remove its offense.