Romans 3:4 is a very interesting verse. It says,
Let God be true and every man a liar, as it is written, “That You may be declared righteous in Your words and may overcome when You are judged.”
The You and Your in these verses refer to God. Paul is quoting David’s confession to God in Psalm 51:4, where he says,
Against You and You alone have I sinned, And I have done what is evil in Your sight. Therefore You are righteous when You speak; You are clear when You judge.
Paul is quoting exactly from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text (hence the differences). What this verse is saying, as quoted in Romans, is that fallen man judges God. Sinners judge God for many things. They may blame Him for the evil, suffering, and injustice in the world. Or they may rail against His condemnation of certain lifestyles. Or they may slander God by saying that He is not righteous or good or all-powerful (the Epicurean paradox is a classic example of this). Fallen man is so blinded by pride that he judges God. However, Paul says that God will overcome when He is judged and He will be declared righteous by sinners. He must convince sinful and proud man that He is in fact righteous in His judgments. This is what Romans chapters 1-3 are all about. These chapters were written so that every mouth would be stopped (Rom. 3:19). Our mouth is stopped when we are subdued and convinced that we are wrong.
Romans 1-3 reveals God’s judgment on mankind generally, the self-righteous particularly, the religious specifically, and all the world totally. These chapters are part of God’s work to convince us that His judgment of us is righteous. These chapters are the worst news in the world—I am a sinner, I have sinned, and it is right for God to judge me. If we are convinced of that, our mouth with its excuses will be stopped. We won’t blame others, or the circumstances, or bad luck. We will admit that we are wrong and deserve God’s judgment. This was the point David reached in Psalm 51. He confessed that he had sinned. He didn’t blame the schedule, or the architecture, or Bath-sheba. He said “I have sinned”. And then he added the part Paul quotes, “Therefore You are righteous when you speak and clear when You judge”, referring to God’s word to him through Nathan the prophet (2 Sam. 12:7-14).
When the light of God’s law shines on us, all our arguments and rationalizations cease. We see ourselves as we really are. Then we justify God. We declare Him righteous. We own up to the worst news in the world. This is exactly what one of the criminals on the cross did. He said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are in the same judgment? And we justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for what we did” (Luke 23:40-41).
Commenting on this criminal, Watchman Nee said:
If he were to curse the magistrates as agents of the imperialists, and if he had not seen that what he suffered was what he deserved, he would not have seen who the Lord was. When we do not see ourselves, we do not see the Lord. When we see ourselves, we see the Lord. This is repentance.
We may say that faith is our looking up to Christ, and repentance is our looking at ourselves in the light of Christ.
The amazing thing is, as soon as we confess that we are sinners under the righteous judgment of God, the light of the gospel shines on us and we believe that the death of Christ on the cross was for our sins. We hear, “You shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). As soon as we accept the worst news in the world, God gives us the best news—you are redeemed, forgiven, justified. As soon as we justify God, God justifies us.
Paul goes on to say,
Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth as a propitiation place through faith in His blood, for the demonstrating of His righteousness… so that He might be righteous and the One who justifies him who is of the faith of Jesus. –Rom. 3:24-26
Witness Lee sums up the amazing truth in Romans 3:4 with this short but very helpful comment,
God must first convince us of His righteousness before we can repent and believe into Him. Thus, He is declared righteous by us before we are declared righteous by Him.
In this way, Romans 3 takes us all the way from the righteous judgment of God to the righteous justification of God, from mutual judgment to mutual justification.