Why Is God Justified in Romans?: Vindicating Paul’s Use of Psalm 51 in Romans 3:4

I’m excited to announce my newest article has been published. It is titled “Why Is God Justified in Romans?: Vindicating Paul’s Use of Psalm 51 in Romans 3:4”. It appears on pp. 291–314 of Neotestamentica 51.2 (2017).

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The Function of Psalm 51 in Romans 3?

Here is a snapshot of the article:

The relationship between Romans 3:4 and Psalm 51:4 (Psalm 50:6 in the  Septuagint (LXX)) has long puzzled scholars. Many suggest that Paul’s use of Ps 51:4 either seems not to fit the logic of Romans 3 or does not reflect the psalmist’s meaning. This article offers an interpretation of Romans 3:4 that eliminates the apparent tension between the two texts. It clarifies Paul’s meaning in Romans 3 by reinterpreting Psalm 51:4 in its context.

Both Psalm 51:4 and Romans 3:4 refer to God’s saving righteousness. The conclusion that Romans 3:4 speaks of God’s saving righteousness is not unique to this study. However, typical arguments in favor of this view are susceptible to significant criticism. Specifically, they do not demonstrate how the whole of Psalm 51 shapes Paul’s argument, and/or they do not explore the possibility that Psalm 51 also refers to God’s saving righteousness.

This article addresses both issues. After reviewing the theological and exegetical significance of Romans 3:4, four major questions that challenge readers today will be surveyed. Next, an integrated exegesis of both passages, showing how Psalm 51:4 sheds light on Romans 3, will be presented.

For those who don’t have Romans 3 and Psalm 51 (Ps 50 LXX) memorized, I’ve put both passages at the bottom of this post.

The Challenge of Interpreting Romans 3:4

In brief, I show how conventional interpretations of Romans 3:4 and Ps 51:4 are highly problematic. Accordingly, four challenges confront interpreters of Rom 3:4.

First, Paul uses the phrase ὅπως ἂν, which normally conveys purpose. However, scholars routinely ponder, “How can both Romans and Psalms express purpose?”

Second, among commentators, there is the pitfall of inconsistency when explaining God’s righteousness in Rom 1–4.

Third, readers are challenged to integrate the purported meanings of Rom 3:4 and Ps 51:4 in their respective contexts.

Fourth, interpretations of Rom 3:4b should fit the immediate setting of Romans, since v. 4b follows from the prior context.

The Key to Interpreting Romans 3:4

Most people understand God’s righteousness in Rom 3:4 and Ps 51:4 as punitive, referring to God’s judgment against sin. As I show, this reading is flawed on multiple levels. Both Psalm 51:4 and Romans 3:4 refer to God’s saving righteousness.

I suspect the main reason people overlook this view is they miss the structure of Ps 51:1–4. I’ve divided the passage below so you can see the critical conjunctions.

Psalm 51:1–4 (Ps 50:3–6 LXX)

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy, and according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my lawless deed. Wash me thoroughly from my lawlessness, and from my sin cleanse me,

because my lawlessness I know and my sin is ever before me. Against you alone did I sin, and what is evil before you I did,

so that you may be justified in your words and be victorious when you are judged.

Most people link the third unit (“so that…”) with the second unit (“because…”). However, we have multiple reasons to believe that the purpose clause in v. 4b modifies the prayer(s) repeated in vv. 1–2 (“Have mercy on me….”).

In other words, both clauses (vv. 3–4a; v. 4b) explain why God should answer David’s prayer. Why does David need God’s mercy? Because he sinned against God (vv. 5–6a). Why should God cleanse him? Because God will be shown righteous (v. 6b).

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Our reading of Rom 3:4 has systemic effects on the meaning of God’s righteousness in Romans 3 and the rest of the letter. For more, check out the article and let me know what you think.

Just in case you want to see how Paul quotes Ps 51:4, here you go.

Romans 3:1–8

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.”

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.

An Overview of the Argument

Here is an outline of the article.

I. Why is God Righteous?

II. The Significance of Romans 3:4

III. Contrasting Perspectives on Romans 3:4

A. Challenges when interpreting Romans 3:4

B. Why does Paul use Psalm 50LXX in Romans 3:4?

IV. Why is God Justified in Psalm 50:6LXX?

V. How Psalm 50LXX Interprets Romans 3:4

VI. Verse 4 Leads to Romans 3:5–8

VII. Conclusion

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