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IMPORTANT NOTICE: Dr Pett’s commentaries on Genesis and Exodus are now available in print from Amazon, Bluebox Publishing, and other Booksellers. More to follow.
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons) DD.
There is no letter or book in the world to equal the one that we are about to consider, for it is a detailed explanation of the Good News of God which is the power of God which results in salvation for all who believe (1.16), coming from the pen of an inspired writer.
Its scope is immense. Its first eight chapters, which contain the essence of that salvation, commence with a view of the parlous state of the world, and of man in his rebellion against God (1.18-32). All is in darkness. But it ends with a description of the triumph of God’s purposes with regard to His elect (8.28-39). All has become light. And this because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. His words thus reveal how out of man’s darkness God brings light to those whom He has chosen. And in between is the glowing account of the effectiveness of Christ and His cross, and of the Holy Spirit, in bringing about man’s salvation.
This letter was written by Paul to the Roman church in 57 AD just prior to his journey to Jerusalem where he hoped to deliver the money that he had collected from the Gentile churches on behalf of their Jewish brothers and sisters in Palestine who were facing severe drought. He was, however, aware of the dangers that faced him in Jerusalem and asked the Romans to pray for him, that he would be delivered from the enmity of the Jews, as it was his intention to visit them (the Roman Christians). In the event he went to Rome in chains.
Rome was the only church to which Paul wrote for which he had had no part in its foundation. It had probably originally been started by Christian Jews and proselytes who returned to Rome after Pentecost (Acts 2.10-11), and many Christians would later have moved to it as the hub of the Roman empire, some of whom were known to Paul, as is evident from chapter 16. He was therefore not aware of any major problems there, and was able to concentrate in his letter on giving a full presentation of the Gospel of God (chapters 1-8), and an explanation of God’s dealings with the Jews (chapters 9-11), while at the same time indicating that Jewish Christians (of which there were many in Rome) and Gentile Christians should have forbearance for one another and for each other’s religious foibles (chapters 12-15). The letter contains a special emphasis on the name of God, the noun God being used more often per 100 words than in any other of the larger New Testament books. God was very much at the centre of Paul’s thinking.
It should be noted in passing that there is no hint in the letter of Peter being in Rome at the time, something which, given the greetings at the end of the letter, refutes conclusively the suggestion that Peter was in Rome at this time as its bishop. Indeed Rome would have no single overall bishop for another hundred years, as is evident, for example, from the opening to the letter of Clement from the Roman church to Corinth and from the words of Justin Martyr.
This Letter was written by Paul to the church in Rome, and its whole stress is on ‘the Good News of God’. It commences with a description of that ‘Good News (Gospel) of God’, which is what the letter will be all about, and it stresses that there are two important things to bear in mind when we consider it:
1.1 ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God,’
Paul opens the letter in the usual form of those days, and describes himself under three designations in order to commend himself to his readers:
The Good News Of God (1.2-6).
What that ‘Good News of God’ was is now made clear, as is the fact that it had been promised beforetime through God’s prophets in the Holy Scriptures. In other words Paul was stressing that this Good News was not some novelty like many of the ideas that were spreading about. Rather it had been well prepared for through the centuries that had passed. It was founded in sacred history. And it was Good News concerning God’s Son, Who was humanly speaking a son of David, but Who was also powerfully declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead.
1.2 ‘Which he promised beforetime through his prophets in the holy scriptures,’
Paul was concerned to stress that this Good News of God had not arrived unannounced. It had been promised beforetime through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures (the Old Testament). Thus it was not something novel, but was something promised and prepared for through the inspiration of God’s revered messengers of old. These great and holy men of old had pointed forward to Jesus Christ, preparing the way before Him, just as heralds would proclaim the coming of a king. And it was promised in the Holy Scriptures, the widely honoured sacred book of the Jews (the Old Testament) which was seen as containing God’s revelation to man. It bore the authenticity of firmly testified prophetic promises given through revered men of old, and contained within the sacred book of the Jews, a book which was honoured, even in the Gentile world.
The fact that this Good News was promised by God in His Holy Scriptures will be brought out throughout the letter:
Thus the whole of the letter to the Romans is undergirded by the Holy Scriptures.
1.3 ‘Concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh,’
This message was ‘concerning His Son’. The phrase ‘His own Son’ contains within it the certainty of Christ’s Godhood. Compare John 5.17-18 where Jesus, speaking of God as ‘His own Father’, was seen as having thereby made a claim to be equal with God. This was thus no ordinary Good News. It was Good News concerning God’s only co-equal Son.
And this Son was ‘born of the seed of David according to the flesh.’ In other words He was born into the world as the promised, truly human, long anticipated, coming King of the house of David. That was His status humanwise. In Him the hopes of the nation of Israel were coming to fruition. In inter-testamental terms He was the Messiah, the Christ. The importance of this lay in the fact that it connected Him with all the promises concerning the coming Davidic king contained in the Scriptures, commencing with the promises first made to David himself (2 Samuel 7.16), and continuing throughout the prophets (Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-5; 55.3; Jeremiah 30.9; 33.14-30; Ezekiel 34.23-24; 37.24-28; Micah 5.2; and so on).
But the addition of ‘according to the flesh’ (it would normally have been enough to say ‘born of the seed of David’) immediately draws our attention to the fact that a greater announcement is coming. For while the Gospel of God certainly reveals that He was truly human (‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us - John 1.14), that He was ‘born according to the flesh’, it also prepares us for something more outstanding. He was not only just a human being. In His human nature He was born of the seed of David, but He is now to be revealed as a greater than David, and as having pre-existed David.
1.4 ‘Who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord,’
For His greater manifestation came in that He was powerfully declared (or, more strongly, ‘appointed’ - see the use in Acts 10.42; 17.31) to be the Son of God, in an act of power which revealed His own power. He was declared to be ‘the Son of God with power’, the Son of God powerful enough to bring about the resurrection. And His true divine Sonship was therefore made known by His immensely powerful resurrection from the dead, a resurrection in which He proclaimed the death of death, having triumphed over it once for all (1 Corinthians 15.20-28). Through it He also declared the defeat of the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2.15). Satan would be bruised under their feet shortly (16.20). All that could prevent the salvation of His people was dealt with through His resurrection, and what had preceded it, something which demonstrated Who He really was, the Saviour of the world (1 John 4.14).
‘According to the spirit of holiness.’ This stands in apposition to ‘according to the flesh.’ In His flesh He was revealed as the son of David. In His spirit, a ‘spirit of holiness’, He was revealed as the only Son of God. (Compare how Paul describes himself as acting in a spirit of servitude - verse 9). That being so, as the former refers to His essential humanity we must surely see the latter as referring to the divine element in His make-up. It was ‘the spirit of holiness’, that unique spirit which was manifested in Him, totally pure and totally righteous and totally powerful over death (‘death could not keep its prey, He tore the bars away’), that revealed Him to be the Son of God. For in Himself He had the power to lay down His life, and He had the power to take it again (John 10.18). He was in other words the Lord of life (John 11.25). This was what revealed Him to be the only, unique Son of God. This was what revealed Him to be ‘our LORD’, a title that constantly parallels ‘God’ in the New Testament and indicates the same thing. There is One God and one LORD. It is, equally with ‘God’, the title of deity (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8.8. And note also Philippians 2.11 where it is announced of Him in His manhood by the resurrection). He is the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2.8; James 2.1).
We do not necessarily by this have to exclude from our reckoning the power and working of the Holy Spirit, indeed we must not. ‘The Spirit of holiness’ could have been seen as a Hebraism for ‘the Holy Spirit’ (and is so seen by many), although the distinction of expression maintained by Paul (he never uses the term ‘Spirit of holiness’ elsewhere) confirms that we are to view it uniquely. Thus we may certainly see the Holy Spirit as acting alongside Christ’s Spirit (and with the Father) in the resurrection of Christ (see 8.9-11 where Christ and Spirit inter-react). But that it is Christ’s Spirit which is primary comes out in the contrast with His flesh. The association of Jesus’ ‘spirit of holiness’ with the Holy Spirit would not be a blurring of distinctions, but a bringing out of the mystery of the Godhead, for where One acts, all act (e.g. 8.8-9). The Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit (and the Father - John 5.17, 19) act as One, and their working cannot be differentiated. It is we who, in our technical way, sometimes unwisely seek to over-emphasise the distinctions (although to make the distinction is necessary). But it is because of His ‘Spirit of holiness’ that Jesus can drench men with ‘the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 3.11), while Himself coming to dwell within them (John 14.15-18, 23).
‘By the resurrection from/of the dead ones.’ (For so it can be more literally translated). Acts 26.23 uses this phrase in such a way as to demonstrate that it refers primarily to the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15.23). He was the firstfruits of the resurrection, the One Who arose from among the dead. But it is also a reminder that when Jesus rose it was not only Him Who was to be seen as rising. Intrinsically it guaranteed the resurrection of all who would become His, of all who truly believed in Him, who then partook in His resurrection spiritually (John 5.24; Ephesians 2.1-10), awaiting the day of physical resurrection (Romans 6.4-11). All who would belong to Him in essence rose with Him (8.1; 1 Corinthians 15.23). Thus every spiritually resurrected saint (see 6.4, 11, and compare Ephesians 2.1-10) reveals the Lordship of Christ. His resurrection encompassed them all. In other words His deity is equally revealed by His own resurrection and by the resurrection of those whom He came to save.
So the resurrection of Christ is seen as having introduced a new era. By it He has been manifested as, and declared to be, God’s only Son, and by it He has broken the powers of death and Hell, those elements which stood in the way of our enjoyment of an eternal inheritance. Because He lives we can live also (John 14.19). Indeed, as we shall see, this is what the letter is all about, for whilst our acceptability with God (our ‘justification’) is undoubtedly something which is at the heart of the letter, it is the final result of that justification in our transformation and glorification which is its final goal (chapter 8).
And Who is this unique and powerful Son of God? He is ‘Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Firstly He is ‘Jesus’, Who will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1.21). He is true man and true Saviour. Secondly He is ‘the Christ’, promised and prepared for by God’s word and by the prophets, and now manifested to the world. And above all He is ‘our LORD’, Lord of the Universe, co-equal with God the Father (John 5.19-23; 14.7-9; Colossians 1.19; 2.9), Creator of all things (John 1.3; Colossians 1.16; Hebrews 1.2-3), and of us, and the One Who has bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6.19-20).
1.5-6 ‘Through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake, among whom are you also called to be Jesus Christ’s.’
And, says Paul, it is through ‘Jesus Christ our LORD’ that ‘we’ (the Apostles) received ‘grace and Apostleship’ with the aim in view of ‘obedience springing from faith’ occurring among all the Gentiles. Having been raised in power Jesus had commissioned His Apostles, and sent on them the promised Holy Spirit, so as to prepare them for the task ahead, the bringing of men to the obedience which springs from faith ‘in Jerusalem, and in Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth’ (Acts 1.8).
‘We received grace and Apostleship’. The word ‘grace’ (charis) here signifies the undeserved gift arising from God’s favour which was bestowed on them, in other words the gift of the Holy Spirit. They experienced God acting in ‘grace’ (unmerited favour). It was through His enlightening that they were being led into all truth (John 14.26; 16.13). It was through His power that the Apostles were empowered and given the ability to proclaim His word effectively (Acts 1.8). Again we remember that Paul received this power later than the rest of the Apostles (Acts 9.17). But as Paul would say of his opponents later, ‘we will know not the word of those who are puffed up but the power, for the Kingly Rule of God is not in word but in power’ (1 Corinthians 4.19-20). To him the gift of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit, was the One Who gave him power. The word ‘Apostleship’ indicates the unique authority that the Apostles were given to act and make decisions in Jesus’ Name (John 1.22-23; Matthew 18.18), and to oversee the establishment of the new ‘assemblies’ that were being set up (see e.g. Acts 8.14-15).
‘Unto obedience of faith.’ Christ’s purpose in giving this grace and Apostleship was so that by them ‘obedience of faith --- for His Name’s sake’ should be aroused in men and women as they responded to Christ. Through the preaching of the Apostles men would come to faith in Jesus Christ with the consequence being that they would begin to obey Him because He had become their LORD (‘for His Name’s sake’). They would come under ‘the Kingly Rule of God’. Note how even so early in the letter Paul establishes the fact that obedience must spring from faith. A faith which did not produce obedience was to be seen as a useless and ineffective faith. And this in preparation for teaching ‘justification by faith’, a phrase which indicates that getting right with God results wholly from faith, and is apart from works.
Finally this was to be ‘among all nations’. The aim was a worldwide spread of the Gospel. No limit was put on what the Apostles would achieve. And all this was ‘for His Name’s sake’. It was in order that men might honour His Name and demonstrate it by their submissive response, so that His Lordship was revealed openly. Representing the true Israel the Apostles were being called on to fulfil the task that had once been Israel’s, to so walk and teach among men that men would truly respond to God. The light was going out to the Gentiles from Israel (Isaiah 42.4, 6; 49.6).
‘Among whom are you also called Jesus Christ’s.’ Prominent among those of the nations who would come to Jesus Christ are the Roman believers to whom he is writing. They, along with all who believe in Christ, are ‘called Jesus Christ’s’, because He has put His hand and seal upon them.
The Recipients Of The Letter (1.7).
After the long but important description of the purpose of the letter, we now learn who are to be its recipients. It is addressed to the church in Rome.
1.7 ‘To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’
Having established what the Gospel of God was, and what its effectiveness was expected to be, Paul now makes clear to whom he is writing. It is to all who are in Rome who are ‘beloved of God’ and ‘called to be saints (holy ones)’. Note how ‘being beloved by God’ results in ‘being called to be holy ones’. Those whom He foreknew, setting His love upon them, He destined to be conformed to the image of His Son (8.29)
‘Beloved of God.’ Compare Deuteronomy 33.12; Colossians 3.12 What a privilege was theirs (and is ours). They are those on whom God has set His love. There in the midst of that great city, with its emphasis on the worship of Roma, and on the divine honours due to the emperor, and on the many pagan religions which were practised there, were the small pockets of believers who kept themselves unspotted from the world and were ‘beloved of God’, and were ‘chosen and precious’ (1 Peter 2.4). As he will say later, ‘God commended His own love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (5.8). They were thus those who were sinners who had been redeemed by the blood of Christ.
‘Called to be saints.’ And as a consequence of God setting His love on them, and their being called to be Jesus Christ’s, they were called on to be separated totally to Him. They were called on to ‘be holy like God is holy in all manner of living’ (1 Peter 1.15-16). The word ‘saints’ means those who are set apart to God, ‘sanctified ones’. This was something that was expected of all believers. That was why God had set His love on them, in order to make them His sanctified ones. It is why in Colossians 3.12 the Christians are called ‘holy (sanctified) and beloved’.
So having been ‘called to be Jesus Christ’s’ (verse 6) they are now ‘called to be sanctified ones’ of God. To belong to Jesus Christ is to belong to God.
Note On Sanctification.
The basic idea behind ‘sanctification’ is that of ‘setting apart as holy to God’. The Bible speaks of a ‘sanctification’ which is positional, (the initial setting apart which makes the object ‘holy’ from then on), and a ‘sanctification’ which is life-changing, transforming the one so set apart so that he becomes truly God-like. To sanctify means ‘to set apart for a holy purpose, to make holy’ and from the Christian point of view that means to "make God-like in purity, goodness and love". This is clearly something that only God can do for us. First He sets us apart as His own (2 Timothy 2.19). Then He works in us to make us pleasing to Him (Philippians 2.13). Thus the Bible tells us that once He has made us His Own, once we truly believe in Jesus Christ, we are put in the position of ‘having been sanctified’ (aorist tense, once for all - 1 Corinthians 1.30; 6.11), and therefore as having been ‘set apart’ for God once for all by the birth of the Spirit (John 1.12-13; 3.1-6; 2 Corinthians 5.17; 1 Peter 1.23; James 1.18; 1 John 2.27). This is because we are made holy ‘in Christ’ with Christ’s holiness, by being made one with Him and thus covered with His purity (1 Corinthians 12.12; Ephesians 5.25-27; Colossians 3.3). He is our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1.30). This is why we can approach God so confidently. It has put us in a state whereby we ‘are sanctified’ and accepted as holy in His presence (Acts 20.32; 26.18; Romans 15.16; 1 Corinthians 1.2; Hebrews 10.10 which are all in the perfect tense - ‘having been sanctified and therefore now are sanctified’ - past happening which continues to the present).
But the result of being put in this position is that we will now be ‘in process of being sanctified’ (set apart by being made holy) by Christ Jesus and the Spirit. The purity of Christ, which has been set to our account, must now become an actuality. We must therefore go through the process of ‘being set apart for God’ by being constantly changed by the Spirit (present tense - Hebrews 2.11; 10.14; compare Romans 6.19; 6.22; 1 Thessalonians 4.3; 2 Thessalonians 2.13, and see 2 Corinthians 3.18; Philippians 2.13). If we are His He will carry out this work in us. This is the same process as ‘salvation’ although from a slightly different point of view. We are saved through God’s work of sanctification, which like salvation is ours by faith. And this will finally be brought to completion when we are finally ‘sanctified’ at the coming of Jesus Christ, when we will be presented perfect before Him (Ephesians 5.25-27).
End of note.
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Having defined to whom he is writing Paul now gives them his usual greeting wishing them ‘grace and peace’ from ‘GOD our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ’. ‘Grace’ (charis) was very similar to the normal Gentile greeting (chairein). ‘Peace’ (shalom - peace, well-being) was the usual Jewish greeting. He wants both sections of the church to be aware of his love and concern for them. But these initial words have here been taken up and given a full Christian meaning. They cease to be mundane. ‘Grace’ is an indication of God’s positive undeserved favour, offered in Christ and bringing rest to the soul. ‘Peace’ is a reminder of the availability of peace with God (5.1) and peace from God, available in Christ.
Note the close association of ‘GOD our Father’, and ‘the LORD Jesus Christ’. They are ‘one GOD and one LORD’ (1 Corinthians 8.6), the combined divine source of grace and peace, an idea already previously expressed in his earliest letter (1 Thessalonians 1.1, 3). Note also how ‘our Father’ echoes the teaching of Jesus about ‘your Father’, a phrase found in Matthew’s Gospel twenty times.
Paul Explains To The Roman Christians His Desire To See Them And The Reason For It (1.8-12).
Paul stresses to the Roman Christians that he thanks God for the effectiveness of their testimony and unceasingly prays for them, desiring to meet up with them so that he can share with them in discussions about their mutual faith, their faith and his. He is conscious that he has been given a unique understanding of the Gospel, but he is humble enough to recognise that he can learn from them too.
1.8 ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world.’
He wants them first of all to know that he thanks ‘my God’ through Jesus Christ for all of them, because he is aware that their faith is spoken of throughout the world. ‘My God’ brings out the very personal feeling that Paul had for God. It also occurs in 1 Corinthians 1.4; Philippians 1.3. He saw Him as ‘my God’, not because he was excessively possessive, but because his heart was so warmed towards Him. He felt in close association with Him.
And he thanked Him ‘through Jesus Christ’. This use here in Romans of the idea of Christ’s mediatorship as related to his thanksgiving is unique. It is not introduced in his thanksgivings elsewhere. It probably arises in this case because of the nature of the introduction above, with its emphasis on ‘the Son’. He is continuing the emphasis on the Father’s association with the Son, and on the fact that the Gospel of God is concerning His Son.
What he thanks God for is that ‘their faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world.’ Whilst the words may contain a little flattery (he was trying to win their hearts so that they would give his words a fair hearing), they do also indicate the fact that the church in Rome was well known and well spoken of throughout the world with which Paul was familiar.
‘Your faith.’ What is being spoken about is the strength of their trust in Jesus Christ. All knew of the vibrant faith of those in the church at Rome. And it had to be vibrant in order to survive what was brought against it.
It is important to note the phrase ‘throughout the whole world’. It is, of course, not literally true. There were many parts of the world where the Gospel had not reached. It was speaking rather of the world known to Paul. We can compare how ‘all the earth’ came to hear the wisdom of Solomon’ (1 Kings 10.24), that is all the world as known to the people of Jerusalem. The same proviso applies there. It means the world as known to the writer. This should always be borne in mind when we come across the word ‘world’ in the New Testament and especially in Revelation. It is referring to the world known to the writer.
1.9 ‘For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers,’
The use of this minor oath, calling on God as his witness, confirms how desirous Paul was to win the hearts of the Roman church. He was aware that many voices came to Rome and he was concerned that his voice should be heard above them. So he stresses before God that he ‘serves God in his spirit in the Gospel of His Son’. There is an echo here of the words of the introduction. Just as Jesus Christ was revealed as acting ‘according to the spirit of holiness’ (verse 4), so Paul acts ‘in his spirit’ which is a spirit of servitude to God. He is the servant of the Holy One. And He is so in ‘the Gospel of His Son’, that is in the Gospel of God, the Good News whose source is God, which is concerning His Son (verses 1, 3).
And it is because of his spirit’s servitude to God that he unceasingly makes mention of them always in his prayers in order that he might at some stage be able to come and see them. He acts under divine compulsion as God’s hired servant. Note how his prayers are ‘unceasing’ (they occur day by day) and ‘always’ (he never misses a day). Assuming it to be true, and the oath confirms it, we have an indication here of the depth of Paul’ prayer life even in the midst of a busy schedule which included arranging the details of the Collection for the saints in Judea and planning the journey to Jerusalem.
1.10 ‘Making request, if by any means now at length I may at some time be prospered by the will of God to come to you.’
And his continuing request to God is with a view to at last being able to visit them ‘by any means’. It is quite clear that he has a real sense of the urgent need that there is for him to assist the Roman church. He is, however, also aware that it is not going to be easy for him to fit it in. He has much to do. ‘Now at length -- at some time’ (ede pote) brings this out.
‘By the will of God.’ He assures them that he does nothing of his own will. He is only concerned for the will of God. His future is heavily committed into God’s hands, and he recognises that God’s will may not be the same as his own. Compare James 4.13-15. So he is submissive to the will of God. He recognises that God might step in and alter his plans.
1.11 ‘For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, to the end you may be established,’
And we now learn why he wants to go to Rome. It is because he wants to ensure that they are established as a result of the impartation to them by him of ‘some spiritual gift’, that is, a gift coming from the Spirit and wrought by the Spirit. Such gifts are outlined in 12.6-8. They include gifts of ministry and service, prophesying, serving, teaching, liberal giving, administering, showing cheerful compassion. And he wants to impart such gifts to them, one here and one there. He wants every one of them, as a result of his coming, to be exercising at least one of these spiritual gifts so that they might go forward with confidence, useful and established firmly in the way of Christ. Whether they were to be conveyed through his ministry, or by some other means, he did not say.
1.12 ‘That is, that I with you may be comforted in you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.’
But lest they misunderstand him and feel that he is being arrogant, he immediately qualifies his words by pointing out that he does not just see himself as the giver, and they as the recipients. He also wants to receive from them. He and they are to comfort and strengthen each other by each other’s faith. It is, indeed, often the faith of the one who appears least which is the greatest encouragement.
Paul Describes How He Feels A Sense Of Indebtedness To Proclaim The Good News To All, Including Those In Rome, And Gives The Essence Of That Good News. It Is The Power Of God Unto Salvation To All Who Believe (1.13-17).
The burden that Paul has to proclaim the Gospel is well brought out here. He feels under a great burden of debt to all men of whatever kind to bring to them the Good News of salvation, and that includes those in Rome. He is a debtor because he has God’s commission. He owes it to them because that is the purpose for which God has called him. And he is not only indebted, he is also ready. Indebtedness is accompanied by readiness and eager willingness. For he wants to assure them that he is not ashamed of that Good News which is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. And that is because it reveals ‘a righteousness of God available through faith which is given to those who believe’.
1.13 ‘And I would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters (brethren), that many times I purposed to come to you (and was up until now hindered), that I might have some fruit in you also, even as in the rest of the Gentiles.’
Lest they feel that his protestations about his wanting to visit them are rather weak (if he did why hadn’t he done so already?), he assures them that he had purposed to come to them many times in the past, but had each time been prevented from doing so by something unavoidable, something arising from his responsibility to care for the churches for which he was primarily responsible. He does not want them to be in any doubt about the matter (‘I would not have you ignorant’). For as the Apostle to the Gentiles he is eager to have some fruit in Rome, as he has had among the rest of the Gentiles. Rome was the hub of the empire. It was natural that he should want to have his part in planting seed there, and seeing the church firmly established. It was important for the whole worldwide church.
1.14 ‘I am debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.’
Indeed he feels under a great burden of debt to all men. He has received such a wonderful revelation and commission from God that he recognises that it has put him under an obligation to share it with others. It is a debt owed to all, whether sophisticated or unsophisticated, wise or less wise. None are exempt. And it is a debt owed by all who receive salvation to those who have not yet received it. Having been saved we come under an obligation to bring others to Christ.
When he speaks of the Greeks he is not simply speaking of people who came from Greece. Through the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek influence and Greek culture had permeated the known world, and especially the great cities. Greek was spoken everywhere. And when Alexander’s empire broke up the Greek culture and language remained. It was something men treasured and were proud of, to such an extent that they looked down on people who could only say, ‘bar-bar-bar’ (Barbarians), which was what the non-Greek languages sounded like to them. So Paul is here speaking of both the sophisticated and educated of ‘Greek’ culture, and the unsophisticated Barbarians.
There was also a class of people within the empire who saw themselves as ‘wise. They enjoyed the works and teaching of the philosophers, and looked down on those who neither read them nor understood them, seeing them as ‘foolish’ (compare Acts 17.21). In their own way they were as separatist as the Pharisees, although for different reasons. But Paul wanted to stress that the foolish had as much right to the Good News as the wise, and in 1 Corinthians 1-2 he makes clear that it tended in fact to be the foolish who responded to the Good News (although not exclusively) for the wise were too self-satisfied with their own supposed wisdom.
1.15 ‘So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.’
And it was this great burden of indebtedness that made him ready, and even eager, to proclaim the Good News to those who were at the heart of the empire in Rome. This was, however, subject to divine permission. He would not put his own desires before the will of God. He would eventually receive that permission, but it would be in a way that was totally unexpected (Acts 23.11).
1.16 ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.’
That readiness to proclaim the Gospel was in no way diminished by the thought that Rome might mock his Good News, and see him as ridiculous. Indeed he probably saw it as inevitable. For who in Rome would see the crucifixion of an unknown Judean prophet as of any significance? But this in no way made him ashamed of his message, for he knew that his Good News was ‘the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes’. He knew that in the death of that unknown Jewish prophet, and through His resurrection life, lay the hopes of mankind, for He was no mere prophet but the LORD Jesus Christ Himself, the only Son of God (1.4), Who had within Himself the ‘Spirit of Holiness’ (the truly divine spirit), and he was aware that through His immense power revealed in His resurrection, the very power of God to give life and deliver from death, men could find eternal salvation by truly believing in Him.
‘The gospel -- is the power of God unto salvation.’ What is meant by the Gospel has already been described in verses 2-4. It concerns the One Who was born humanly speaking of the seed of David, but Who was declared to be God’s powerful only Son through ‘the spirit of holiness’ within Him, as revealed in His resurrection from the dead. He had come with all the operative and explosive power (dunamis - dynamite) of God in order, by the exercise of that power, to die and rise again, thereby making it possible for those who unite with Him to also rise, firstly in terms of a newness of life received in this life (6.3-11), and then in new resurrection bodies, which are holy as He is holy, at the last day (8.10-11). And this power unto salvation was revealed by preaching concerning the crucified One. ‘It is ‘the word of the cross’ which is the power of God ‘unto salvation’ to those who are being saved (1 Corinthians 1.18).
‘Unto salvation.’ It was the power of God ‘unto salvation’. It is important to recognise that salvation means far more than just being sure that we will ‘go to Heaven’ when we die. It involves divine deliverance and transformation, and in the end glorification (8.29-30). It involves radical change within. We must not see salvation as something passive, as a ‘thing’ simply accepted and stored up for when it is needed. It is rather speaking ‘of God acting powerfully to save men and women’, of God ‘coming in salvation’. And His purpose is to save men from both the penalty and the power of sin. He comes in order to make men acceptable to Him judicially, and in order to transform their lives. It is a transformation that must begin in this life, when we are made ‘new creations’ by Him (2 Corinthians 5.17; Ephesians 2.10; John 3.1-6) and receive newness of life (6.4) and it will finally result in our being presented perfect before God, ‘holy, unblameable and unreproveable in His sight’ (Colossians 1.22; Ephesians 5.27; Philippians 3.20-21). We should note in this regard Ephesians 5.25-27. ‘Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it in order that He might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present it to Himself --- holy and without blemish’. We should note that the work is Christ’s not ours. Jesus is the physician who has come to heal those who are sick (Mark 2.17), and His salvation through His saving activity results in our being fitted to live together with Him through all eternity (1 Thessalonians 5.9-10).
Brief Note On Salvation.
In the New Testament salvation is a mighty activity of God which does not fail in its purpose in each individual involved. It is true that it saves us from Hell, but that is merely the negative side. Its aim is mainly in order to save us out of the degradation into which sin has brought us. Its purpose is to save us from ourselves so that we might become like He is (8.29; 1 John 3.2). Thus the New Testament teaches different aspects of 'salvation'.
Thus in one sense salvation can be seen as one overall experience commencing from the moment of believing and not ceasing until the person is presented before God holy and without blemish, a process guaranteed from start to finish in those whom the Father has given to His Son (John 6.37, 39, 44; 10.27-28), and in another sense it can be seen as an experience that is being undergone which will not cease until it is completed. For it should be noted that salvation is God’s work and not ours (Hebrews 13.20-21). And He does not fail in His purpose. See especially John 10.27-29; 1 Corinthians 1.8; Philippians 2.6; Jude 1.24-25.
End of Note.
‘To everyone who believes.’ What is meant by believing is best gathered from John 2.23-25. There we learn that Jesus did not ‘believe Himself unto them’. He was not willing to entrust Himself into their hands. And that is what saving faith involves, an entrusting of ourselves into the hands of our Saviour so that He might carry out His work of forgiveness and restoration. It is handing ourselves over to His Saviourhood and Lordship. We do not ‘do’ anything. The doing is by Him. We are saved by putting our trust in the LORD Jesus Christ and what He has promised to do for us, in expectant faith.
In the New Testament the difference between intellectual assent and true saving faith is often (although not always) depicted by means of a preposition following the verb. Thus pisteuo epi (to believe on) or pisteuo eis (to believe into). And intellectual assent is seen as insufficient to save. We can believe a host of things about Jesus Christ and what He has done, but until there is in some way a personal commitment of ourselves to Him, a commitment to Him in His saving power, it is unavailing. The faith that saves is a faith that produces transformation, and this not because the faith itself transforms, but because it commits itself into the hands of the One Who does the transforming work, the ‘Saviour’.
There is a tendency among some people to speak of Jesus Christ as being ‘my Saviour but not my Lord’. That is a completely untenable position. We come to Jesus as our LORD Jesus Christ. Anything less is impossible. What they mean, of course, is that they have not yet allowed His Lordship to exercise influence over their lives. But that is a dangerous position to be in. If they are truly His then they can be sure that Christ will have begun His work within them, and if He has then they will soon discover its impact and respond to His Lordship, and if He has not done so their position is perilous indeed. They are not ‘being saved’.
‘To the Jew first, and also to the Greek.’ Here the ‘first’ refers to a precedence in time, not in importance. Paul is emphasising here that God’s purpose of salvation extended firstly to the people whom He chose out to be the vehicles of His truth. That it came to them first is apparent from Scripture, for the Old Testament is primarily about God offering ‘salvation’ to the Jews. But because of this the Jews were the natural ones to approach with the saving message of Christ, for they had already been basically prepared and were knowledgeable in the Scriptures. That is why Jesus initially went to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10.6; 15.24). It was not until after His experience with the Syro-phoenician woman that He extended His ministry to Gentiles who must have formed part of the crowds who gathered to hear Him as He operated in what was mainly Gentile territory. The Apostles also initially restricted their ministry to Jews and proselytes. Thus for the first few years the church was wholly Jewish. It was the true Israel being established by the Messiah and arising out of the old. They saw themselves as the true Israel in contrast to the rejected Israel which had become as ‘one of the nations’ (Acts 4.25-27). And this situation continued until Peter’s experience with Cornelius in Acts 10. In the same way Paul went initially to the Jews until he too found himself rejected by them and turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13.14-15, 43, 46-49).
And the reason for this is clear, it was because Jesus had come to establish a new, renewed Israel. He was establishing in Himself ‘the true vine’ (John 15.1-6) as against the false vine (Isaiah 5.1-7). They were to be His new congregation, replacing the old, founded on His Messiahship (Matthew 16.18). The ‘church’ (ekklesia - ‘congregation’) of ‘called together ones’ was seen as the true Israel, the remnant chosen by God, with those who refused to believe in their Messiah being rejected and ‘cut off’ (11.17-28). The church were the ‘Israel of God’ where neither circumcision nor uncircumcision meant anything, because what mattered was the new creation (Galatians 6.15-16). (See also Galatians 3.29; Ephesians 2.11-21; 1 Peter 3.9). But as the prophets had forecast, the light was eventually to go out to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6), who would be incorporated into Israel. They also became part of the true Israel. Thus Peter could write to the whole church as ‘the Dispersion’ (a term which normally indicated Israel spread worldwide) and James could speak of them as ‘the twelve tribes’ (1 Peter 1.1; James 1.1). Both letters show quite clearly that they were not written only to Jewish Christians, which indicates that these terms referred to the whole church.
As we go through the letter the emphasis on salvation will continue. Thus:
b). It will reveal that, having received that ‘justification’, from that time on God will be at work on us through life’s experiences and the working of the Holy Spirit (5.1-5), in connection with His risen life (5.10). And all this will be on the basis of our having been accounted as righteous (justified) in Christ, with the result that we are delivered from His wrath (God’s aversion to sin which brings judgment), and reconciled to Him (5.9-10).
And it will do all this because in it is revealed the effective powerful working of the saving righteousness of God which is experienced by faith, and imputes and applies righteousness, to all who believe (1.17a). For it is through faith that those given His righteousness, and taken up into the righteous working of God, will ‘live’ (1.17b).
1.17 ‘For within it is revealed a righteousness of God from faith, unto faith, as it is written, “But the righteous will live by faith.” ’
We should note immediately here the co-relation between ‘salvation’ and ‘the righteousness of God’. The Good News is ‘the power of God unto salvation (verse 16) - for therein is the righteousness of God revealed (verse 17)’. Salvation and God’s righteousness go hand in hand. This immediately turns our minds to Scriptural passages which equate the two as God comes to His people in salvation and in His righteousness (e.g. Isaiah 46.13; 51.12; etc). The stress is not only on the fact that God saves, but also on the fact that He does so righteously in accordance with what He is. Paul then interprets that as signifying that if God had not brought us righteousness as a gift to be set to our account there could have been no salvation. For what is being underlined is that God is righteous, and that there could therefore be no salvation without righteousness. In other words, when thinking in terms of a righteous God salvation and divine righteousness, are ‘soul-mates’. If we are to be saved it must be in righteousness, and God must in some way bring to us righteousness, because God, being God, must save righteously.
So the content of the Good News is now made clear. It reveals a righteousness of God resulting from faith (out of faith), which is offered to those who believe (unto faith). Or alternately a righteousness of God which is the consequence of ‘ever-increasing faith’ (‘out of faith unto faith’). But what is this ‘righteousness of God’ to which Paul refers? It clearly has in mind that God is truly righteous, that is, is fully ‘right’ in all that He is and does. But equally clearly there is more to it than that. For this ‘righteousness of God’ here referred to is not simply seen by Paul as an attribute of God, but as something which God actually applies to believers. This comes out in that it is immediately applied in terms of Scripture to believing man as a consequence of his faith. For Paul directly connects it with the Old Testament dictum that ‘the righteous by faith will live’ (1.17; compare Habakkuk 2.4). And as he will bring out later he sees this righteousness as a gift from God associated with the grace of God (5.17). It is a righteousness which is applied to man without him having to do anything towards it, while he is still ungodly (4.6). Yet that it is somehow God’s righteousness is equally very important, for only that righteousness could be truly acceptable to God. It is in no way the righteousness of men, or indicative of or resulting from, man’s actions, for if it were it would be defiled. It would come short of what God requires. Man’s only part in it is to receive it.
Nor, we will learn later, does it signify a righteousness indicative of man’s behaviour, a righteousness which he builds up with God’s help. It is not ‘of works’ (3.28; 4.4-5). This comes out very specifically in Paul’s use of the term in Romans (see note below), and in the fact that it would be contrary to the intrinsic meaning of the verb dikaio-o, together with its related nouns and adjectives, which imply a righteousness which is in some way reckoned to a man’s account (see 4.3), making him legally acceptable in the eye’s of God’s justice, not a righteousness which is wrought within him. The dikaio-o group are forensic terms speaking of how a man is looked on by his Judge, not of how he actually is in himself. Indeed the verb dikaio-o, which like all o-o verbs in the moral dimension signifies ‘to deem, to account, to reckon’, can regularly be translated as ‘deem as righteous’, ‘reckon as righteous’ (4.5). It is describing a judicially declared righteousness, not an actual state (thus similarly ‘the wicked can be justified for a reward’, they can be declared righteous by a judge even when they are not). For man’s need is to be ‘put in the right with God’ legally, in the eyes of the Judge of all men. And that is what this righteousness achieves.
Of what then does this ‘righteousness of God’ consist? It is revealed to be the righteousness made available through Christ’s sacrifice of Himself (3.24-28). It is in essence His righteousness. It is ‘through the one act of righteousness (of Jesus Christ)’ that the free gift comes to all unto justification of life’ (5.18). It is ‘through the obedience of the One’ that the many can be ‘made’ (constituted, designated, appointed) righteous (5.19). ‘Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to all who believe’ (10.4). It is ‘the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all who believe’ which results in men being freely accounted as righteous through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (3.22, 24). Indeed, ‘If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, and the Spirit is life because of righteousness’ (8.10). In the words of Paul elsewhere, ‘Christ is made unto us righteousness’ (1 Corinthians 1.30). We are ‘made the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). And it is apparent from the latter that we are ‘made the righteousness of God in Him’ by being incorporated into Him in all His righteousness, in the same way as He is united with our sin. Thus to put it in the simplest of terms, it is the righteousness of Christ set to our account.
Note On The Righteousness of God.
In the light of Old Testament usage we are justified in seeing in the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ more than simply a description of one of God’s attributes (His rightness in all that He purposes and does in accordance with the righteous requirements of His own nature), even though that must always be seen as present in the background. For in both the Psalms and in Isaiah ‘His righteousness’ often parallels ‘His salvation’ and appears to signify ‘righteous deliverance’ with the idea probably being that He acts righteously on His people’s behalf, and upon His people, in fulfilling His covenant promises of deliverance and bringing them in line with His covenant.
Consider, for example, in the Psalms:
It will be observed in each case that righteousness (righteous deliverance?) and salvation are almost synonymous ideas, with the possible reservation that ‘righteousness’ includes the added extra of the fulfilling of His covenant faithfulness.
Again in Isaiah we find:
The central thought in all these verses is of God’s righteousness being revealed in that He acts righteously in deliverance, although the detail is never specified. As we can see this is also linked with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the coming of a Redeemer, and the inculcation of faith in men’s hearts in response to His activity. These are all ideas which are prominent in Romans. And it is contrasted with God revealing Himself in vengeance, again an idea found in Romans. This presents a strong case for seeing ‘the revealing of the righteousness of God’ as indicating the revealing of His covenant faithfulness in His saving activity as He acts to save and vindicate His people.
On the other hand the final verse in the series does add a new dimension in terms of the thought of His people being ‘clothed with the garments of salvation’ and ‘covered with a robe of righteousness’, with the idea of this being that they are adornments which reveal celebration because of their new relationship.
To these verses may then be added the following:
In these verses we have specific reference to the ‘accounting as righteous’ of His people, rather than to their specifically being delivered, although no doubt as a part of their deliverance.
At first sight the idea of ‘God’s righteous deliverance’ might appear to fit excellently with the words, ‘therein (in the Gospel) is the righteousness of God revealed out of faith unto faith’ (1.17). For Paul is about to outline aspects of that deliverance. But we must immediately enter a caveat. For in 1.17 Paul immediately defines his meaning in terms of the Scriptural citation, ‘the righteous out of faith will live’ (or ‘the righteous will live by faith’), and this fairly and squarely equates ‘the righteousness of God out of faith’ with a righteousness which is bestowed in some way on those who believe. Thus he is incorporating the ideas in Isaiah 45.25; 54.17; 53.11.
What is more this distinction continues to be made throughout Romans. For this ‘righteousness of God’ which is shown forth is stated to be ‘the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all those who believe’ (3.22) as a result of their being ‘accounted righteous freely through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through His blood’ (3.24). It is thus a bestowed righteousness. And by it God reveals His own righteousness in passing over ‘sins done aforetime’, and in accounting as righteous those (of the ungodly) who believe in Jesus whilst Himself still being seen as righteous (3.26).
This idea of men being ‘accounted righteous’ or as having ‘righteousness imputed to them’, is then illustrated in the life of Abraham and in the words of David, and is prominent in the verses that follow. See 4.3, 5, 6, 9, 22. That this righteousness is ‘from faith’ comes out in 3.22, 26; 4.3, 9, 11, 13. That it is apart from works comes out in 4.5, 6. It is ‘accounted’ by grace, not merited. Thus what is prominent in Romans is a bestowed righteousness which is received by faith and apart from works, in line with the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53.11. This is doubly emphasised by the fact that those who are accounted as righteous are ‘the ungodly’ whose faith is counted for righteousness (4.6). They can be accounted as righteous even while they are ungodly, because it is on the basis of the sacrificial death of Christ (3.24-25). For ‘while we were yet weak --- Christ died for the ungodly’ (5.6).
This idea of the bestowal of righteousness is further emphasised in 5.17 where Paul speaks of ‘receiving the gift of righteousness’, something amplified by the words, ‘even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came on all men unto justification of life’ (5.18). which is further amplified by the words, ‘so by the obedience of One will many be made righteous’ (5.19; reflecting Isaiah 53.11). The righteousness that is gifted and received is the righteousness of ‘the One’, and it is the righteousness of One Who was fully obedient, the One clearly being the Lord Jesus Christ. And it should be noted further that what parallels ‘reigning sin’ in verse 21 is NOT ‘reigning righteousness’, but ‘reigning grace through righteousness’, the righteousness of the One previously described.
In this regard it should be noted that the main verb rendered as ‘account as righteous’ is dikaio-o, which in all its uses is a forensic term and refers to how a man is seen in the eyes of a court when pronouncing judgment. It says nothing about whether he actually is ‘righteous’ and nowhere means ‘to make righteous’. It signifies rather being seen as righteous from a legal point of view (whether righteous or not). And it is significant in this regard that men can be ‘justified’ (‘accounted as righteous’) by the wicked for a reward (Isaiah 5.23 LXX; Proverbs 17.15 LXX), just as God Himself can account as righteous those who are ungodly (4.5; 5.6), although in His case on the righteous grounds of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
So what is primarily in Paul’s mind when he speaks of the righteousness of God is the means by which men can be accounted as righteous and seen as judicially acceptable to God when they receive from Him the gift of righteousness, which is received by faith (1.17; 3.22, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4.3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 5.1), and bought for them through the shedding of His blood (3.24-25; 5.9). And he underlines the fact that it has nothing to do with how a man behaves (3.28; 4.2, 4-5, 6). It has nothing to do with his ‘works’. To seek to distinguish between ‘faith works’ and ‘law works’ has no support in Romans 1-5. It has in mind all works. All works are excluded. In Romans 1-5 a man can be accounted righteous solely on the basis of the work and righteousness of Christ, appropriated through faith, and not in any other way.
What, however, must be accepted, and is positively stated by Paul, is that once a man has been accounted as righteous by faith in Jesus Christ, it must result in a life of righteousness, as chapter 6 makes clear. And we may call these ‘faith works’ if we wish. But what is equally made clear by Paul is that this righteousness of life follows on from ‘justification’, and is not a part of it. It comes to us ‘having been justified by faith’ (5.1). It is a consequence of justification not a grounds for it. Thus in Paul’s argument from chapter 1 to chapter 8 the idea of justification (being accounted as righteous) and of ‘the righteousness of God’ does not appear after chapter 5 (except in the concluding remarks in 8.30, 33) simply because what he is describing in terms of the righteousness of God is the way of being ‘justified’ (fully acceptable as ‘in the right’) in the sight of God. With regard to what is described in chapter 6 onwards other terminology is used.
So we may conclude this note by stressing that while the idea of ‘His righteousness’ (the righteousness of God) in Isaiah was possibly of wider scope, probably on the whole including within it not only the making acceptable of Israel before God, but also their final actual transformation resulting from it, in Romans the idea is mainly restricted to the idea of the ‘justification by faith’ (5.1) which takes place at the beginning stage in the salvation process (8.29-30) prior to that transformation. Paul’s concern is with how the righteousness of God can bring about our acceptability with God now, in the light of the judgment to come. What follows that in sanctification and glorification he deals with using different terminology. This can only be seen as deliberate.
End of Note.
This righteousness of God is ‘from faith -- to faith.’ Many interpret this as signifying ‘the righteousness of God out of faith (resulting from faith)’ which is ‘revealed to faith’. For the phrase ‘the righteousness of God out of faith’ compare 9.30. However the closest parallel to the whole phrase is found in 2 Corinthians 2.16 where ‘from death unto death’ and ‘from life unto life’ may be seen as presenting the repetition of the words ‘death’ and ‘life’ as indicating a growth in intensity. If we apply that here we have the meaning, ‘from an evergrowing faith’. It makes little difference to the overall meaning. On the other hand, the uses in 2 Corinthians are not exact parallels with here. In ‘the savour of death’ the emphasis is on death as explaining savour, whilst in ‘the righteousness --- of faith’ the emphasis is on righteousness, not on faith as explaining righteousness. Thus we may well feel that the first interpretation fits the context better. What is of vital importance is that we see the connection between the righteousness of God and its reception by faith.
The Righteousness Of God And The Wrath Of God.
In the movement from verse 17, dealing with the righteousness of God, to verse 18, dealing with the wrath of God, we are faced with the starkest of contrasts. We move from brilliant light on the one hand into awful darkness on the other. In verse 17 all is light. Those who believe partake in and experience the righteousness of God. They are seen as righteous in His sight. Their future is bright and secure. And this partaking in His righteousness will form the basis of 3.24-5.21. In contrast those who do not believe are guilty of ungodliness and unrighteousness, and they are subject to the wrath of God. They walk in darkness. They have no light. Their future is bleak indeed. And this is because God has not come to them in righteousness. A description of their state forms the basis of 1.18-3.23.
We have already seen that in the Old Testament the righteousness of God is constantly placed in parallel with the salvation of God (e.g. Isaiah 45.8; 46.13; 51.5, 8; 56.1; 61.10). As He comes to save He also comes to ‘rightify in His sight’, if we may coin a word. And this righteousness is something that God applies to the believer (which is necessary, unless they are seen as righteous He cannot have dealings with them), and implants in the believer as He comes to save, for they become ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’ (Isaiah 61.3), and that not as a result of their own activity, but of God’s. It is all of God. We can compare the idea in 2 Corinthians 5.21 where Jesus is ‘made sin for us’ so that we might be ‘made the righteousness of God in Him’. We cannot define how Jesus could be ‘made sin’. It is beyond our conception. Certainly it did not mean that He had sinned. But it did mean that He was made deserving of punishment (even though we must accept that it was in our place). It suggests that it was more than imputed. It became a part of Him to such an extent that God had to treat Him as though He was sinful. And in the same way God’s righteousness becomes a part of us when we believe. It is not our righteousness that is in mind, and it does not mean that we can say that we are wholly righteous in practical terms, for we are not. But it does mean that God sees us in every way as righteous, because He sees us in terms of the righteousness of Christ (5.18-19), and that He then commences the work of making us righteous. This was the significance of the Old Testament ‘righteousness of God’. But it must be stressed that Paul never applies the term ‘the righteousness of God’ to God’s work of making us righteous. He limits it to God accounting us as righteous. God’s work of making us righteous is explained in terms of our dying with Christ and living in Him and of the work of the Holy Spirit (6-8), not in terms of justification and the righteousness of God.
In contrast to the righteousness of God is man in ungodliness and unrighteousness (1.18). As ungodly and unrighteous man is subject to the wrath of God (i.e. God’s response to sin as a result of His total aversion to sin), and Paul then goes on to detail how man’s state of ungodliness and unrighteousness came about. It came about because they did not believe, and it had awful consequences, for it resulted in God giving them up to uncleanness (1.24) and to an unfit mind (1.28). Yet in spite of this man did not see himself as unrighteous, and so Paul sets about demonstrating that he is.
The theme of ungodliness is especially apparent in 1.21-27, and is taken up in 4.5; 5.6 where we learn that it was while we were ungodly that Christ died for us. The theme of unrighteousness is taken up in 1.29, where it is specifically amplified in terms of a long list of sins; in 2.8 where it is contrasted with truth; and in 3.5 where man in his unrighteousness is compared to God in His righteousness. But we must not differentiate the terms too specifically. Ungodliness includes unrighteousness, and unrighteousness includes ungodliness. They are different sides of the same coin.
The Wrath of God Is Revealed From Heaven Because Of Man’s Ungodliness And Unrighteousness (1.18-21).
In stark contrast to the righteousness of God being revealed (verse 17), we have the wrath of God revealed from Heaven (verse 18). The point is that those who fail to respond and receive the righteousness of God will face the wrath of God. And there will be no excuses,. Indeed all are seen to be totally without excuse because ‘what God is’ is revealed in such a way that man has no excuse for not believing. It is thus not lack of evidence that is the problem but the lack of a heart open to the truth.
1.18 ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness,’
‘For --.’ This connecting word immediately lets us know why God has revealed His salvation and His righteousness. It is because of what man had become in his ungodliness and unrighteousness.
In contrast to those who have ‘experienced the righteousness of God’ by faith, and have thus enjoyed the experience of God-given righteousness, are those who are still languishing in ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’. They are both religiously and morally bankrupt (even though they may outwardly be highly religious or highly moral). They are both ungodly and disobedient to His truth. They have not become participants in God’s grace. They have not experienced His righteousness. And indeed it can be their own unrighteousness which is for them a hindrance to the truth.
We should note here that what hinders men receiving the truth is not lack of knowledge, or difficulty of understanding, or the absence of ‘proof’. The hindrance lies in their unrighteousness. For it is a consequence of their unrighteousness that they ‘hold down (keep suppressed, render inoperative) the truth’. They refuse to listen to the voice within. Unrighteousness causes blindness in the hearts of men because it makes them close their eyes. Man does not will to see. As Jesus Himself said, ‘If any man wills to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself’ (John 7.17). And the corollary is that those who are in blindness are those who do not ‘will to do His will’. They may protest that they want to do God’s will. But what they mean is that they want to do their own will which they see as God’s will. And because of this they close their eyes to God. They are not willing to ‘see God’. Against this deliberate unrighteousness ‘the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven’, in other words, He makes a response which is due to His total antipathy to sin. ‘The wrath of God’ is Scriptural terminology for God’s abhorrence of, and antipathy towards, sin, an antipathy which results in Him having to act against it in condemnation and judgment, because it is contrary to His very nature. It does not necessarily indicate what we mean by anger. It is a sense that is unique to a holy God.
But we may ask, ‘how is the wrath of God revealed from Heaven? It is revealed in a number of different ways:
So the wrath of God is both present and future. Men live under and experience His wrath now, and they will come under His wrath in the day of judgment.
1.19 ‘Because that which is known of God is manifest in them, for God manifested it to them.’
God’s wrath is revealed against such people because they have no real excuse for not seeing the truth. For what is known of God is manifest (made clear) in them, because God has manifested it (made it clear) in them. They have the voice of conscience within, the law written in the heart (2.15). That makes clear the difference between moral good and bad. They have the testimony of creation around them which God makes clear in their hearts, testifying to His eternal power and Godhead. Note the assumption that what is known of God is made clear within them. God has put His witness within man. Then why do they not accept? It is not because of their intellectual superiority, but because their unrighteousness ‘holds down, suppresses’ the truth. That is why some are aware of it and respond wholly to God, whilst others fail to see it and respond. It is not science properly so called which produces unbelief. Science is neutral with regard to God. It is man’s interpretation of that science, resulting from the unbelief that is the consequence of a sinful heart, that leads him astray.
1.20 ‘For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things which are made, even his everlasting power and divinity, that they may be without excuse,’
For what makes man totally inexcusable is that ‘the things that are made’ reveal to the open mind the invisible things of God (His goodness, wisdom, power, majesty, creativity, providential care) and have done so from the beginning. For in combination with man’s spiritual nature they make known His eternal power and Godhead. As we look at the wonders of creation, the evidence of ‘design’ in nature, its beauty, its diverse colours, its radiance, the scene from the mountain top, the wonder of men’s inexplicable bodies and minds (made even more inexplicable by the discoveries of micro-biology and the discovery of the human genome), and the wonders of outer space, we can only recognise that it is God Who has done this, a God Who is rational, interested in beauty, powerful, intricate, and yet Who brings comfort to the heart. As the Psalmist said, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork, day unto day utters speech, and the night-time is not silent’ (Psalm 19.1-2). And Jesus added, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not neither do they spin, and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these’ (Matthew 6.28-29). These ideas of design, magnificence and beauty should therefore fill us with awe and point our hearts towards God, and would in fact do so were we not blinded by sin. But the problem is that men do not want to know God. So instead men philosophise them away.
Man’s Rebellion Against God Comes To Its Inevitable Fruition (1.21-25).
Paul now demonstrates how man’s refusal to know God results in man’s fall into gross sin. We have already been told about the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men in verse 18. Paul now expands on that, dealing firstly with man’s ungodliness as manifested by his turning to idols, with its inevitable consequences, in verse 21-27. He will then move on to deal with man’s unrighteousness as manifested by a list of gross sins (28-30).
One consequence of man’s turning away from the true God is that men have to seek an alternative which will satisfy their inner cravings, which will fill ‘the God-shaped blank in every man’s life’. And for long centuries they did this by associating the supernatural with human and animal forms. They saw these humans and animals as in some way a representation of the divine. Today we tend to do it by exalting celebrities and giving them a form of worship. In either case they lead on to the debasement of men and women.
1.21 ‘Because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, nor gave thanks, but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.’
Note that it was not that men did not ‘know’ God. There was something within them which made them aware of Him. That is why there is so much religion in the world. But what they did not want was to be controlled by Him in their activities and behaviour. Thus they closed their minds to the knowledge of God as He is, and refused to glorify Him as God. Note that it is seen as deliberate. True knowledge of God was not seen as convenient. Nor did they render Him thanks. Note the emphasis on the fact that they were ungrateful. They took what He provided for granted, but would not acknowledge it. So instead they became vain and empty in their thinking and in their reasonings as they sought to find ways to satisfy the emptiness within, without recourse to God. But the result of rejecting the light was that their senseless heart was darkened. They found themselves struggling in the dark and sought to come up with a solution which would satisfy their desires and the desires of the masses, without having to face up to the truth.
The word for ‘vain’ is used elsewhere to indicate a ‘corrupt’ manner of living (1 Peter 1.18), while ‘vanity of mind’ results in men being hardened and giving themselves up to various types of sin (Ephesians 4.17-19). So their vain reasonings were not just empty or futile reasonings, they were positively sinful. A related word is constantly used in the Old Testament in connection with idolatry. Such sin led to idolatry.
1.22 ‘Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,’
Consequently they began to associate the divine with the world around and above them and set up images of earthly things, over which they could keep control and which they could manipulate, and they did it in order that men might worship these things. They sought to give an impression of wisdom. But in giving the impression of wisdom they became fools, something that was already recognised in Paul’s day. Men had been carried away by their own cleverness with the consequence that they had invented folly. Few philosophers encouraged idolatry, and thinking men laughed it to scorn. They saw the world as full of fools. See also Isaiah’s mocking remarks (Isaiah 40.18-20; 41.6-7; 42.17; 44.9-17). .
1.23 ‘And changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.’
So by setting up his idols man changed the invisible glory of the God Who could not suffer corruption, something revealed for example through His invisibility in the Tabernacle, and replaced it with the likeness of images in human and beastly form. Note the emphasis on the downward path. ‘The glory of the incorruptible God’ was changed into ‘an image’ which represented corruptible things. Then in many cases, in order to make these images impressive they had to make them huge. But it was all deceit. Priests even had secret ways into the Temples so that they could remove the food offerings and pretend that the gods had eaten them. They did not see themselves as deceptive, but as trying to inculcate faith. However, now at least they had gods whom they could control and who were not concerned about their moral behaviour.
It is very possible that here Paul had Genesis 1 in mind. There God, having created birds, beasts and creeping things, created man in the image and likeness of God, exalting him above all creation, in order that man might look off to Him. Here man has reversed the situation. He has created gods in the image and likeness of himself, and of the birds, four-footed beasts and creeping things which God had created, debasing everything including himself, so that he might not have to look off to God. Paul’s thought is probably also loosely based on Psalm 106.20, where, speaking of the incident of the molten calf in the wilderness, it says, ‘they changed their glory into the likeness of an ox which eats grass.’ They had replaced the glory of God for something that sustained itself on grass. This was typical of the actions of fallen man.
‘The glory of the incorruptible God.’ There were many times when God’s glory descended on the Tabernacle, leaving a firm impression of His glory, majesty and holiness, and of His ‘otherness’, something which was then recorded so that others might appreciate it too. At other times the people were awed at the thought of His invisibility, or at the thought that He was alone in majesty behind the curtain in the Holy Place, among them and yet remote and unique. But all knew that He did not wear out or grow old. It was very different with the images that they introduced into the Temple in the days of disobedience. They had to be replaced and disposed of. It was in the days of disobedience that the idea of the glory of God, and of His incorruptibility, were lost in nominal Yahwism, with all the focus being on the grotesque idols.
1.24 ‘For which reason God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonoured among themselves,’
And the consequence was that God gave them up, in the lusts (passionate desires for pleasure) of their hearts (minds, wills and emotions), to beastliness. They became what their gods were. And that involved them in uncleanness and dishonouring their bodies among themselves. The filthiness in man’s nature became unrestricted, and it soon became apparent in their ways of life. Sexual perversion and immorality became commonplace, and it could all be justified as ‘worship’ because it was regularly connected with the Temple. Sacred prostitutes were called ‘holy ones’. Today it is on the internet where men and women can satisfy their perverted lusts in a similar way.
Investigations into the beginnings of religion have indeed established this picture as true. Man initially believed in the equivalent of a spiritual ‘all-father’, and worshipped in a simple way. It was only later that this became embellished with idolatry and magic.
‘God gave them up --- to uncleanness.’ There can be no more chilling words than these, that God ‘gave them up’ (see also verse 28). He had had enough of their refusal to listen to Him, and so He allowed them to follow the desires of their own debased minds. He no longer intervened. But they did, of course, still have the testimony of nature, and of conscience, and of their own inner heart. It was just that they did not want to listen.
1.25 ‘In that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.’
And all this happened because man by his own choice exchanged the truth of God manifest in his heart for what was only a lie, a deceit, a pretence, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, the One Who is blessed for ever. When he became aware of God speaking within he quashed it, and found a substitute. The addition of ‘Who is blessed for ever’ is typically rabbinic, but emphasises the difference between the gods which will not last on the one hand, and the God Who is everlasting on the other. Only One is deserving of praise.
The Consequences Of Knowing God But Refusing To Countenance Him As God (1.26-27).
As a result of worshipping ‘suggestive’ images which over-exaggerated the sexual parts, and indulging in nature worship where copulation was seen as stirring the gods into similar action, men became more and more depraved in their sexuality. Temple adultery was commonplace, and homosexuality became rampant. Man was reaping the consequences of his actions.
1.26 ‘For this reason God gave them up to vile passions, for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature,’
Thus it was as a result of idolatrous worship, and what accompanied it, that men and women were given up by God to vile passions. There is a chilling note to this. God ‘gave them up’. They were so deep in sin that He no longer strove with them (compare Genesis 6.3). So the women changed the natural use into that which is against nature. We will not go into the vile practises which this signifies, save to say that they indulged in all kinds of perversions which can be found in picture and verbal form on some internet sites as men and women today indulge in similar activities, and they are then carried into practise as they meet together by arrangement. Man has not changed.
1.27 ‘And in the same way also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due.’
And in the same way men, ‘leaving the natural use of women’, indulged in sex with one another, burning with lust for one another, with men ‘working unseemliness with men’, by indulging in practising homosexuality. We have here a clear Biblical condemnation of practising homosexuality. Those who indulge in it are seen as walking in disobedience to God and as ‘unseemly’. The receiving ‘in themselves’ of the recompense which was their due may refer to sexually transmitted diseases and other problems, or may have the final day of judgment in mind. But either way the emphasis is on the fact that judgment inevitably follows. That this is an indictment of homosexuality cannot be denied, although it is paralleled by the sexual sins of the women. Both are equally sinful (as are the practises that follow in verse 28-32).
We must remember that in Paul’s days such homosexual practices were nothing new. They were widespread and not necessarily disapproved of by a society which was very liberal in its tendencies. It was a society which was as ‘sexually liberated’ as the Western world is today. Paul was not thus following the norms of his time. He was rather very much condemning the norms of his time. Although, of course, as is true today, there were many in the society who did disapprove. It was only among people like the Jews, however, that such things were frowned on by the whole of society. Paul’s indictment of these practises is therefore to be seen as all the more significant, for we must remember that Paul did not see himself as bound by Jewish practises. Yet he clearly saw any sex outside Biblical marriage (that is, outside of marriage of a man to a woman) as exceedingly sinful, and as basically disgusting (‘vile passions’, ‘changed their natural use’, ‘burned in lust’, ‘working unseemliness’), and this in words which typically of Scripture sought not to be too blatant.
The Consequences Of Refusing To Have God In Their Knowledge (1.28-32).
Paul now moves on from the results of ungodliness to the results of unrighteousness (compare verse 18). Men refused to have God in their knowledge. They ‘did not want to know’ because they did not want to submit to His demands. As a consequence God gave them up to an unfit mind so that they would do those things which were not fitting. In verse 24 He had given them up to the lust of their hearts. Now He gives them up to a reprobate (rejected after testing, unfit, spurious) mind. There is a clear intention of bringing out that God is active in punishing ungodliness and unrighteousness by disposing men and women to greater ungodliness and unrighteousness, so that in the end some at least will get sick of it.
This will be confirmed by what follows, a long list of the sins that reveal the bestiality of men’s minds. Regularly in Scripture the natural man is likened to a wild beast, while in contrast those who keep God’s covenant are described in terms of ‘a son of man’ (see for this especially Daniel 7). Here man’s beastliness is seen as coming out. It is only the man who obeys God, who retains the true image of God. It will be noted that no sexual sins are listed in verses 28-31, those having already been dealt with in verses 24-27 as especially heinous, because they replace the true worship of God. What follows are the kind of sins common to mankind, and they cover all aspects of human behaviour leaving none of us untouched. The point that Paul is bringing out is that without exception all have sinned in one way or another.
1.28 ‘And even as they did not think it worthwhile to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to an unfit mind, to do those things which are not fitting,’
Not only did mankind ‘know God’ but refuse to own His worth (verse 21), turning instead to idols (verse 23), they also considered that to keep the true God in their knowledge (epignosis - spiritual knowledge) at all was not worthwhile. Thus they not only blasphemed against Him with their false worship (verses 21-23), but also despised Him at the same time, by forgetting Him in their daily lives. As a result God once again ‘gave them up’ to the consequences of their sins, allowing them to develop unfit minds, minds which would be rejected after testing (adokimos). Note the play on the words dokimazo (did not approve, think it worthwhile) and adokimos (disapproved, rejected after testing). They did not approve and so, having tested them, He did not approve them.
The verb dokimazo means ‘to approve, to regard as worthy, to think of as worthwhile’. Thus they did not ‘approve’ of having God in their knowledge, which was why God did not ‘approve’ of them. The choice is open to us all. Either we retain God in our knowledge and commit ourselves to His ways, or we put Him out of our minds and are given up by Him to unfitness and disapproval. We cannot be neutral.
And the end result of God’s disapproval was that their minds became unfit, and they began to do what was not fitting. Not all followed the way of sexual perversion. But all became involved in at least one of the sins in the long catalogue of sins that follows. Many a person has come to the crossroads where they had to choose whether they wanted to retain God in their knowledge or not, and having rejected the opportunity have sunk into deep sin. Judas is the prime example.
1.29-31 ‘Being filled with all unrighteousness: wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, breakers of agreements, without natural affection, unmerciful,’
The consequence of their being given up to an unfit mind was that they were ‘filled with all unrighteousness’, the unrighteousness of verse 18. Instead of coming to God in faith and experiencing the righteousness of God they were ‘filled with all unrighteousness’. the unrighteousness of man. And we are now given a long list of the sins into which their unfitness took them. Such lists were a typical feature of the times in the philosophical world.
The first in the list is ‘wickedness’ (poneria). This word refers to those whose waywardness expresses itself in deliberately hurting others. It has in mind the desire to do harm to people, either by corrupting them or by doing violence to them. Next in the list is ‘covetousness - the lust to obtain’ (pleonexia). The Greek word is built up of two words which mean to ‘have more’. Such people are out to get what they can for themselves, often without regard for the rights of others. ‘Maliciousness’ (kakia). Kakia is the common Greek word for general ‘badness’. It describes the case of a man who is destitute of every quality which would make him good. It has in mind ‘the degeneracy out of which all sins grow and in which all sins flourish’. ‘Full of envy’ (phthonos). This kind of envy grudges everything to everyone. Such a person resents those who achieve what he cannot. He resents those who work hard and build up wealth, while he cannot be bothered to stir himself. So the emphasis in the first four words is very much on man’s behaviour and attitude towards his fellow-man.
‘Murder’ (phonos). We must remember that Jesus gave this word new meaning. It refers not only to the murderer, but also to the hater, and to the one who rages in his mind. ‘Strife’ (eris). What is in mind here is the contention which is born of envy, of ambition, of a desire for prestige and prominence. It always wants the best for itself and fights for what it wants regardless of others. ‘Deceit’ (dolos). The verb from which this comes is used of debasing precious metals and adulterating wines. It refers to the person who will happily use deceit to get his own way, the confidence trickster, the rogue builder, the dishonest salesman, the cheat. ‘Malignity’ (kakoetheia) has in mind having the spirit which puts the worst construction on everything. It means literally being evil-natured, having the spirit which always sees the worst in other people and interprets things in the worst way. It is the prime sin of the gossiper who destroys people behind their backs. ‘Whisperers and backbiters’ (psithuristes, and katalalos). These two words both describe people with slanderous tongues, but there is a difference between them. Psithuristes describes the man who whispers his malicious stories in the ear of anyone who will listen, who takes someone into a corner and passes on a character-destroying story. Katalalos, on the other hand, describes the man who shouts his slanders abroad, making his accusations quite openly. Again the emphasis in these words is on tendencies within man which make him behave as he does.
‘Haters of God’ (theostugeis). This describes the man who hates God because he is aware that he himself is living in defiance of Him. He sees God as interfering between himself and his pleasures, as the One Who wants to prevent him from doing what he wants. He would gladly eliminate God if he could, for to him the best world would be a godless one where everyone could do what they wanted (although he does not think of what the consequences of that would be). ‘Insolent’ (hubristes). Hubris refers to the pride that defies God, and to thoughtless arrogance. It has in mind the person who is sadistically cruel, and enjoys hurting just for the sake of hurting. It refers to the person who is so sure of himself that he has little regard for others. ‘Haughty, arrogant’ (huperephanos). This is the word which is used when we read that ‘God resists the proud’ (James 4.6; 1 Peter 5.5; Proverbs 3.34). Such a person has a contempt for everyone except himself. His whole life is lived in an atmosphere of contempt for others and he delights to make others feel small. ‘Boastful.’ (alazon). Alazon literally means ‘one who wanders about’. It then became the stock word for wandering quacks who boasted of cures that they had achieved, and for salesmen who boasted that their wares had an excellence which they were far from possessing. The Greeks defined alazoneia as the spirit which pretends to have what it has not. It has in mind the kind of man who boasts of deals which exist only in his imagination, of connections with influential people which do not exist at all, and of gifts to charities which he never actually gave. He constantly says that his house is really too small for him, and that he must buy a bigger one. His sole aim is to impress others.
‘Inventors of evil things’ (epheuretes kakon). This phrase describes the man who is not content with the usual, ordinary ways of sinning, but seeks out new vices because he has grown blase and is looking for a new thrill from some new sin. He continues to sink lower and lower. ‘Disobedient to parents (goneusin apeitheis). Both Jews and Romans set obedience to parents very high on the scale of virtues. Parents were seen very much as the first level of authority, controlling the waywardness of mankind. The honouring of the authority of parents was one of the Ten Commandments, whilst in the early days of the Roman Republic, the patria potestas, the father's power, was seen as so absolute that he had the power of life and death over his family. It was important because once the bonds of the family are loosened, wholesale degeneracy necessarily follows. ‘Without understanding’ (asunetos). This word has in mind the man who is unwise, who never learns the lesson of experience, and who will not use the mind and brain that God has given to him. ‘Breakers of agreements’ (asunthetos). Here the idea is of someone whose word cannot be trusted. Whatever agreement you come to with them you can never be sure that they will fulfil their obligations.
‘Without natural affection’ (astorgos). Storge was the special Greek word for family love. In Paul’s day family love was on the wane. Children were often considered a misfortune. When a child was born, it was taken to its father and laid at his feet. If the father picked it up it meant that he acknowledged it. If he turned away and deserted it, the child was literally thrown out. No night passed without there being thirty or forty abandoned children left in the Roman forum. The natural bonds of human affection were being destroyed. And even in our society today children are regularly treated inhumanely. ‘Unmerciful’ (aneleemon). At the time when Paul was writing human life was cheap. A slave could be killed or tortured by his master, for he was seen only as a piece of property and the law gave his master unlimited power over him. It was the age in which people found their delight in watching men kill each other at the gladiatorial games. Compassion was in short supply. In some parts of our country the same applies today. People are afraid to go out because of the gangs who roam the streets looking for trouble.
A perusal of this list will soon bring home to us sins of which each one of us is guilty to at least some extent. It is Paul’s deliberate attempt to bring out the horror of sin in the world, and to establish that all men are sinners.
1.32 ‘Who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they who practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with those who practise them.’
Paul then draws out that man’s sinfulness has indeed reached such a state that men not only do such things but also consent to them as a general practise. They are not only pulled down by sin, but they also in their minds consent to it. They even encourage others in similar sins. They live in a world of sin and treat it as commonplace. This is in complete contrast with the one who ‘with the mind serves the Law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin’ (7.25), who longs to be righteous even when he is behaving unrighteously.
This is also a reminder that if we know what God requires, and know that what others practise is sinful and therefore ‘worthy of death’, but do nothing about it, we share equal blame. Consenting to another doing something means that we are equally involved in it and are equally guilty. Indeed, we are more guilty. For consenting to such things in cold blood is more blameworthy than doing them under the control of passion.
Even Respectable Men, Judges, Philosophers, Rabbis and Jews Come Under God’s Judgment As Sinners (2.1-16).
Having demonstrated the sinfulness and inexcusability of the majority of mankind, Paul now turns to those who are, as it were, standing listening and nodding their approval. The philosophers had said the same thing as Paul had about the general populace. The judges recognised in what Paul had said what they had found to be true about the people who were brought before them. The Rabbis and Jews, maintaining their confidence in the Law, and seeing themselves as superior because of it, also approved. They would all have nodded their heads in agreement with Paul. But they were all sure that what he had said did not apply to them.
So Paul now turns his attention to them. He speaks to those who see themselves as having responsibility for the behaviour of mankind, both Jew and Gentile. There has always been disagreement about whether these early verses in chapter 2 are to be seen as spoken to Gentiles or Jews. That Jews are included is unquestionable because Paul speaks of ‘to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile’. But that phrase equally means that Gentiles are also included. And this is brought out by the fact that Paul carefully avoids using allusions which will pin down who is being spoken to. He is speaking to ‘moral men’ generally. He must thus be seen as having in mind all who looked down their noses at others from a position of supposed superiority.
His argument is quite simple, and it is that those who claim to act as judges of others in the way that these people did, nevertheless regularly indulge in similar sins themselves, something which makes them doubly without excuse in the sight of God. For by judging others they have removed their excuse of ignorance. They have demonstrated by their judgments that they do know what is right and wrong. And yet they still behave wrongly. They must therefore recognise that God shows no favours to His ‘fellow-judges’, and will judge truly. Why, says Paul, if they pass judgment on others, as they do, do they really think that they can themselves expect to escape God’s judgment?
This passage splits clearly into three sections, something brought out by the literary arrangement. In the first section (verses 1-5) we have challenges seemingly put to an individual in the form of charge (‘you are without excuse’) and question (‘and do you think, O man --?’ - ‘Or do you despise --?’), with the verbs in the singular as though addressing one person. In the second section (verses 6-11) we have a change of style , and a clear chiasmus which follows Old Testament patterns. In the third section (verses 12-16) the emphasis is on the fact that both Jew and Gentile will be judged by some form of law, ending with the warning of the coming judgment of all men by Jesus Christ. The three sections do, however, run into each other so that the whole passage also reads as one whole.
Paul Challenges All Who Judge Others To Consider What It Involves For Themselves (2.1-5).
2.1 ‘For this reason you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judges, for in that in which you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who are judging are practising the same things.’
‘For this reason’ refers back to the previous argument about the many sins of mankind, and especially to the final verses of chapter 1. He wants his readers to recognise that what he has said there also applies to judges and philosophers, to Rabbis and to Jews, to people who felt themselves superior, or who might claim that they did retain God in their knowledge, and who were therefore prone to judge others. For the truth was that in spite of their superior attitudes they revealed themselves by their behaviour to be as guilty of the unrighteousnesses he has described as others. For they themselves did what they condemned in others.
Consequently being a judge or self-appointed adviser was a dangerous position to be in, because it meant that they were passing moral judgments on people, whilst overlooking or ignoring the fact that they themselves were guilty of the same things. By judging others, therefore, they condemned themselves, leaving themselves totally without any excuse. As James would have reminded them, ‘be not many teachers knowing that we will receive the greater condemnation, for in many things we all offend’ (James 3.1-2).
Note that Paul’s questions are addressed in the singular, as though speaking to one man. But the phrase ‘whoever you are who judges’ brings out that it applies to the many. It has in mind all who pass judgment on others, each addressed personally.
2.2 ‘And we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practise such things.’
He then warns them to remember that there is Another Who will judge, Who will judge absolutely fairly and take everything into account. ‘We know.’ It is something recognised by all such judges. Outwardly at least it is the basis on which they all judge. But as the Judge of all He will carry it into effect. He will judge on the basis of the truth, on the basis of what actually is. He is the One Who ‘will by no means clear the guilty’ (Exodus 34.7; Numbers 14.18). As Abraham declared, ‘Will not the Judge of all the world do right?’ (Genesis 18.25). And this judgment will be applied to all who practise such things as have been described, without discrimination. For ‘All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13).
2.3 ‘And do you reckon this, O man, who judges those who practise such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?’
So let them just think about it. They have set themselves up as judges of others. Do they therefore really think that when they practise such things as they have condemned, they will escape unjudged? For God’s judgment will be especially hard on those who judge others and yet do the same things themselves, whether they be judge, philosopher, Rabbi or Jew. If they pass judgment on others and yet do these thing do they really then reckon that they will escape the judgment of God? That would be to render God unjust.
It is one of the signs of man’s depravity that men whose responsibility it is to maintain law and order, or who have the gift of speaking about the follies of mankind, or who are experts in the Law, can feel that they themselves are exempted from the strictures that they bring on others, even though they might indulge in the same sins. They feel that because they take a high moral tone they will somehow be excused, even though they fall short of what they require of others. One of the failings of the Jews was that they thought that because of their association with Abraham, and because they had the Law, they would be treated differently from others. Paul is saying, ‘no, that is not so’.
2.4 ‘Or do you despise the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?’
These men themselves do what they condemn in others, and yet somehow they feel that God will do nothing about it. They even argue that God is good and forbearing and longsuffering and will therefore condone their sins, the consequence being that they continue sinning without abatement, thus ‘despising’ His compassion. So he now calls on them not to treat casually ‘the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering’, by taking them for granted and assuming that they will go on for ever. They should recognise rather that God is like this, not because He is willing to allow them to carry on freely, but in order to give them a chance to repent. Indeed they should recognise that because they are themselves also guilty of things of which they accuse others, they will all the more be called to account.
In consequence, as a result of recognising and acknowledging the goodness of God which is giving them a second opportunity, they should be led to repentance. At present God in His rich goodness and longsuffering is being forbearing. Let them then look at His goodness and see that for them it is a call to repentance before it is too late. For one day that forbearance will cease.
The thought is not that they openly and consciously despise God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, but that they despise it in their hearts by neglect, not allowing it to count as important in such a way that it alters the way they live.
Paul is bringing out an important principle here. Men tend to think of the goodness and forbearance of God as something which indicates that they can carry on as they are because God does nothing about it. They see the goodness of God in showing forbearance and longsuffering as guaranteeing that they will not be called to account. Paul is now pointing out that their viewpoint is wrong. The reason for God’s delay is not because He does not care, but because He wants to give man time to repent. For there is an appointed day coming when God will call all men into judgment (Acts 17.31). When God will call into account the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (2.16). One would have thought that the Jews at least would have recognised this from their history. The prophets constantly warned of what would come. Lamentations and the destruction of the Temple was the proof that it did come.
2.5 ‘But after your hardness and impenitent heart you treasure up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
But rather than repenting their hearts are hard and impenitent. They ignore God’s pleadings and carry on in their old ways. As a result they are treasuring up for themselves wrath, a wrath which will be applied to them in the day of wrath and righteous judgment of God when God will render to every man according to his works. There is something very sad about the thought of a man hoarding up God’s wrath, like a squirrel hoards up nuts, without realising it. Every day he adds to his sins. And every day the burden of responsibility grows larger, and God’s antipathy towards him increases. Note how the hard and impenitent heart is in total contrast to the goodness, compassion and longsuffering of the God Whom they ignore. It is man who is hard, not God.
But he needs to remember that a day is coming on which every man will have to give account, a day of wrath and of the righteous judgment of God (1 Thessalonians 1.8; Acts 17.31; Hebrews 9.27). Then man will be faced up with his sins. Then the wrath that has been hoarded up will be applied. Then God’s righteous judgment will be exacted, and He will render to each according to their works, according to how they have behaved, according to what they have done. What has been done in the dark will be brought to the light, and what has been done in secret will be made known to all. And what is worse, it will come before the attention of a God Who is holy and righteous.
Note the idea of a building up of wrath. Everything that we do is to be seen as helping to build up that wrath, for by our actions we are increasing God’s antipathy against our increasing sinfulness. Unless we repent we are building up within ourselves a mountain of sin and guilt.
‘The day of wrath --.’ The phrase is based on Psalm 110.5 (see also Zephaniah 1.14-15; Revelation 6.17). Jesus applied this Psalm to Himself when demonstrating that He was greater than David ( Mark 12.36-37; Psalm 110.1), and the Psalm is about the triumph of the Davidic king, who is also priest after the order of Melchizedek (compare Hebrews 7), who will judge among the nations on the day of His wrath. So there is in this a clear pointing to Jesus.
God Will Be Impartial In Judgment (2.6-11).
As mentioned above this new section is in the form of a chiasmus. The chiasmus was found regularly in the works of Moses, and in other books of the Old Testament, forming an a b c c b a pattern or equivalent, with the repetition of a phrase sometimes coming in the second half (‘of the Jew first and also of the Greek’ - ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’). The chiasmus here is as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ God renders to every man according to his works, and in the parallel He shows no respect of persons. In ‘b’ and its parallel there is glory and honour for those who do good. In ‘c’ there is wrath and indignation for the factious, and in the parallel there is tribulation and anguish for those who work evil. Note also that central to the chiasmus is Paul’s thesis from 1.18-3.23, that all men obey unrighteousness and do evil and therefore come under judgment.
2.6 ‘Who will render to every man according to his works.’
In this verse the thought from verse 5 continues. At the day of wrath and of the righteous judgment of God all will receive according to what they have done, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5.10), ‘because God will render to every man according to his works’. This latter phrase comes directly from the Scriptures, so Paul is saying, ‘let the Jew recognise from his own Scriptures what the principle of judgment will be’ (see Psalm 62.12; Proverbs 24.12; Job 34.11; Jeremiah 17.10; 32.19), a position confirmed by Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 16.27). Then it will not be his relationship with Abraham which will matter. What will matter according to his own Scriptures is what he has done and how he has behaved. All will be treated on the same basis.
That this principle refers to good works as well as bad works comes out in what follows. But this does not conflict with the idea that righteousness is by faith, for the whole point of God coming to men with His righteousness is that they, having received His righteousness, will begin to be righteous. The point is that no man can be clothed in God’s righteousness without it deeply affecting him. In the end what we become is thus proof of what we really believe.
2.7 ‘To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life,’
For God will in that day render to those who by patient endurance in well-doing seek for glory (from God) and honour (in God’s eyes) and incorruption, eternal life. In view of the reference to incorruption, ‘glory’ here may have in mind heavenly splendour. But his picture here is of the ideal man whose whole heart is set on well-doing in the expectation of glory and honour from God, and of final incorruption. Such a man lives only to please God. His whole heart is set on God. He never strays from his course for an instant. His only concern is what is good and true and will please God. Such a one will receive eternal life. We notice, of course, that he is a believer, for only a believer would think in these terms. But he is also a dream of what man ought to be. He is the pattern that destroys all our hopes. For there is only One Who has ever truly lived like this from the cradle to the grave, only One Who by doing so has deserved eternal life, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Paul is therefore depicting a life which is outside the range of all but One. He is describing the ‘impossible’. The ones who come nearest to it are Christians who live in the Spirit, but they will be the first to say ‘ sinners, of whom I am chief’ (1 Timothy 1.15).
‘Eternal life.’ That is, the life of the age to come. It is not just speaking of living for ever but of having life more abundantly (John 10.10). In referring to this as a theoretical possibility Paul is following in the footsteps of His Master, for Jesus also, when asked how a man might receive eternal life, answered, ‘if you would enter into life, keep the commandments’ and listed a number of them including ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19.16-19), before making the young man realise that it was a hopeless ideal by calling on him to put it into practise.
In considering all this we must recognise what Paul is doing. He is not outlining the way to eternal life which he expects anyone to strive to achieve, but is building up his case that all men are equally sinful in God’s eyes. On the basis of this what he is describing is to be seen as in fact impossible. All these experienced legalists will immediately acknowledge that such men do not exist. The ones who will come nearest to the ideal are those who, abandoning any hopes in their own works, have received God’s righteousness and salvation.
2.8-9 ‘But to those who are factious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation; tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who works evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek,’
In contrast to this ideal man are those who are ‘factious’. The basic meaning of the word is to behave like a hireling, and NEB translates as ‘those who are governed by selfish ambition’. But its meaning had tended to be assimilated with ’eris (strife, contention), although 2 Corinthians 12.20 distinguishes the two words. The idea is that such people are in contention with what God requires of them, not wanting to obey the truth, but desiring to obey unrighteousness. Whatever their outward protestation, they want in their hearts to be allowed to practise the things described in 1.28-30. Thus they ‘work evil’. On them will come wrath and indignation, tribulation (affliction) and anguish. The wrath and indignation indicate the positive activity and attitude of God in judgment as He responds in judgment towards man’s sin, the tribulation and anguish indicate the consequence for the accused of the verdict that will follow. What is described is totally in contrast to the ‘eternal life’ notionally to be received in verse 7. And let the Jew not think that he will escape this verdict. For just as the Jews were first in receiving the message of salvation, so will they be first to receive condemnation, because having the Law, theirs is the greater sin. The putting of ‘the Jew first’ serves to confirm that Jews are very much in mind in these verses. And the point is that Jews will not be excluded from the judgment, rather they will be the first to be judged. But the verses also undoubtedly include all who put themselves above the common herd. The Greek (the hellenised man) is also included (‘also to the Greek’).
2.10 ‘But glory and honour and peace to every man who works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,’
But lest the Jew think that he is prejudiced against them by suggesting that they are first on God’s target list, Paul then points out that the same priority applies to those who work good. For, as he has already demonstrated in verse 7, to every man who works good there will be glory and honour and peace (wellbeing). Thus none who are truly God-like, if such there be, will lose out, and again the Jew takes precedence. But as we shall see, Paul will inexorably ram home his argument that none achieve this standard, for all have sinned (3.10-18).
2.11 ‘For there is no respect of persons with God.’
Whether Jew or Greek, judge, philosopher or common man, all will be treated the same. There will be no unjust partiality. The Jew therefore stands in no better case than anyone else. Nor does the philosopher. All will be examined on the same basis, without exception. God will not take into account whether they are sons of Abraham, or circumcised, or Sabbath-keeping, or knowledgeable about the Law, or famous for their philosophising. He will delve down into the inner heart to discover the truth about what they really are, as revealed by the things that they have done or said.
All Will Be Judged On The Basis Of Their Own Moral Code (2.12-16).
Paul now stresses that all men, as well as the Jews, have a moral code by which they live, and by which they will be judged, and that all will be judged by their own moral code. Thus none will have grounds to complain.
2.12 ‘For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without the law, and as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law,’
The principle is simple. All will be judged on the basis of whether they have sinned or not. Those who are Gentiles and have sinned outside the Law of Moses will perish outside the Law of Moses. They will be judged by the light that they have. But they will still be found guilty and punished. They will still necessarily perish because they have sinned. Similarly those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. They too will be found guilty and will perish.
2.13 ‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified,’
And this is because the question is not whether men have been willing to hear and listen to the Law being read out, thus being ‘hearers of the Law’, and have nodded their approval. That makes no man in the right before God. (Many Jews foolishly thought that it did, as indeed do some nominal Christians with regards to the Bible). What matters is whether they are ‘doers of the Law’ in other words are those who have done what the Law says. In mind here may be Leviticus 18.5, ‘you will keep my statutes and my judgments, which of a man DO he will live in them’, and Deuteronomy 27.26, ‘cursed be he who confirms not the words of this Law to DO them’. So it will only be the ‘doers of the Law’ who will be seen as ‘in the right’. They alone can and will be judged as righteous. The phrase ‘doers of the Law’ is also found at Qumran in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The principle of needing to ‘do the Law’ was therefore acknowledged by many contemporary Jews. But they still failed to do it.
So Paul points out that having the Law and hearing it read does not put people right in the sight of God. Many Jews assumed that it did. They thought that somehow it put them in a better position. Surely God would take into account the fact that they trusted in His Law? Paul rather, therefore, underlines the fact that what is important is actually being a DOER of the Law. He is saying, ‘What is the use of trusting in it if you do not obey it?’
Of course, as Paul will bring out later, that is the problem. No one has ever actually succeeded in a full ‘doing’ of the Law. He had made the attempt himself and had failed. Thus these words condemn all men and women as sinners. All are exposed as coming short of being ‘doers of the Law’. For as James would elsewhere remind us, we only have to come short on one point in order to be deemed a Law-breaker and therefore as guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2.10).
2.14-15 ‘(For when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law to themselves, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness with it, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them),’
Paul’s flow of argument suddenly comes to a halt as he recognises that someone will therefore object, ‘but if the Gentiles are not under the Law (verse 12), how can they be judged by the Law (verse 13)?’ So he now explains how that is so.
These two verses are to be seen as in parenthesis. They interrupt the flow of the narrative in order to explain how the Gentiles could be judged by law (verse 13) when they were without law verse 12. Why, says Paul, they do have law, for you will notice that the Gentiles who do not have the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, thus demonstrating that they have the equivalent in themselves, that they are following their own inner law, a law to which their conscience bears witness. Such people are a law to themselves. For by their moral actions and behaviour they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, and their conscience bears witness with it. This is demonstrated by the fact that they are constantly arguing the moral case for things, sometimes approving of them and sometimes disapproving. Sometimes accusing and sometimes excusing. In other words they demonstrate a moral dimension in their lives in which both positive and negative positions can be arrived at, showing that some kind of law is at work.
The idea of the law written in the heart is found in Jeremiah 31.33, but there the idea is of the living laws in men’s hearts replacing the written Law. It is, however, seen as the same Law. Here too we have a law written by God in their hearts, a moral dimension within Gentiles which guides their ways. And it is because they have this moral dimension ‘written within them’ that they can be judged by it and found guilty of breaking it.
Some do not see these verses as a parenthesis, arguing that the argument continues, but the end result is the same. Others consider that it depicts the Gentile who has become a Christian and thus has God’s laws written in his heart in accordance with the words of Jeremiah. They have lived according to conscience. But the fact that these Gentiles do it ‘by nature’ is against this suggestion.
2.16 ‘In the day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.’
This verse continues the thought in verse 13 where it is not the hearers of the Law who are to be seen as just in the eyes of God, but the doers of the Law, who, if they fulfil the Law perfectly, will be counted as in the right. We may then ask, ‘when will such a judgment take place?’ And Paul now tells us. It will be in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, in accordance with Paul’s Gospel, which is the Gospel of God (1.1), the Gospel of His Son (1.9). Note the emphasis on the fact that in that day nothing will remain hidden. All men’s deepest secrets, their hidden things, will be brought into the light, and men will be judged by them. What was done in the darkness will be revealed by the light. Man may look at the outward appearance, but God will look at the heart. They will be known as what they really are. Compare 2.29 where ‘the true Jew’ (who can be a Gentile), is one ‘hiddenly’.
We note also that this is the first mention of Jesus Christ since Paul’s argument began (indeed since 1.16). All the emphasis has been on ‘God’, for Paul has been facing both Jew and Gentile up with his arguments on the basis of what they know and accept. Now, however, his readers are suddenly faced up with the reality that, according to Paul’s Gospel, God’s judgment on men will be in the hands of Jesus Christ, the Son Who had lived among them but was also declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead (1.2). Having lived among men, and having endured as a man, He is seen as perfectly fitted to judge. This is fully in accord with what Jesus Christ Himself taught, that God has committed all judgment to His Son (John 5.22, 27).
The Special Case Of The Jew. Paul Is Answering The Question - ‘Does Not His Knowledge Of The Law And The Understanding That Goes With It, Along With The Fact That He Is Circumcised Into God’s Covenant, Put The Jew In A Special Position In God’s Eyes?’ (2.17-29).
The next hurdle that Paul had to do face was the claim of every Jew that, as a Jew he was privileged to have the Law and to be a teacher of men, and to have been circumcised into God’s covenant. Thus he saw himself as somehow superior and as special to God. He considered therefore that God would treat him on a different plane to that on which He treated others. The Jews would have agreed wholeheartedly that unless they became proselytes to Judaism all Gentiles came under God’s judgment. But every Jew considered that it was a very different case with regard to himself. He saw himself as one of God’s favourites. He was after all a member of God’s treasured possession, of God’s holy nation and kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.5-6). He was child of Abraham to whose descendants God had promised special favours (compare Matthew 3.9). He had been given the Law. He had been circumcised into God’s covenant. How then could God treat him as though he was merely on a par with the Gentiles? So Paul now addresses the Jew directly, and he commences by listing out his claims.
The Jew And The Law Of God.
2.17-20 ‘But if you bear the name of a Jew, and rest on the law, and glory (boast) in God, and know his will, and approve the things which are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide of the blind, a light of those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth,’
Here we have an impressive list of claims. The Jew claimed that:
It will be noted from this that there is no mention of any recognition on their part of a need to be obedient. It was all about their opportunity to have knowledge. They considered that that knowledge would somehow result in their being excused in the day of Judgment. Paul will, however, point out their error. Knowledge of what was good was an excellent thing, but if it was not followed up with obedience then it became a heavy weight around the neck.
We can, however, see from this why the Jews had such false confidence in their position. Nor would Paul have denied much of this, although he clearly saw them as drawing the wrong conclusions from it. Indeed he was ready to concede the superiority of the Law to anything that the Gentiles possessed (they were after all the Christian Scriptures). But what he argued was that this put the Jews in a position of greater responsibility to actually obey the Law, rather than a lesser one, and what he was very much against was the idea that their privileges made them untouchable by judgment. He would have argued that to be enlightened was good, but only if it then resulted in living according to that enlightenment, something which the Jews did not do. Otherwise their knowledge could only condemn them for not responding to the light that they had. He will go on now to bring this out.
2.21a ‘You therefore who teach another, do you not teach yourself?’
The question is sarcastic. They claim to teach others how to live, but they do not themselves live as they teach. Thus they seemingly fail to teach themselves.
2.21b ‘You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?’
For example they taught that it was wrong to steal, something that was central to the covenant. And yet they themselves stole in all kinds of ways, by sharp business practises, and as a result of their contempt for the Gentiles, not considering theft from Gentiles as really theft. Paul no doubt had examples in mind.
2.22a ‘You who say that a man should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?’
Another sin central to the covenant was adultery. Again Paul probably knew that adultery was fairly widespread among Jews, even the most strict. The pull of the flesh is strong.
2.22b ‘You who abhor idols, do you act as temple-robbers?’
The point here is that they claimed to abhor idols, and indeed in many cases did so, and yet themselves in some way benefited from heathen temples by illicitly making gains out of temple possessions. It is quite possible that Paul knew of instances where Jews, in areas where they had a strong community, had attacked heathen Temples, seeing them as a kind of sacrilege, possibly in retaliation for what was done to synagogues, and that they had then appropriated for themselves what they found there on the grounds that it was defiled, but could become undefiled in the hands of Jews. Indeed writing to Rome it is just possible that he had in mind the incident in 19 AD when a rich Roman lady converted to Judaism and was persuaded to give gifts to the Temple at Jerusalem, only to have her gifts misappropriated by the Jews concerned (Josephus ‘Antiquities’ 18.81 ff), thus robbing the Temple. It resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Rome. But the parallel with abhorring idols really requires the temples to be heathen ones. However, there may indeed have been incidents where Jewish traders handled goods stolen from temples in the course of business, and did a thriving trade, thus sharing in the guilt. Businessmen are notorious for excusing doubtful behaviour on the grounds that it is ‘good business’ ‘Temple-robbers’ simply suggests that they made illicit gains in some ways out of the temples, but its mention here suggests wide-scale practises. Acts 19.37 may indeed suggest that there were Jews who were temple-robbers.
Some, however, do see the temple in mind as the Temple in Jerusalem and relate it to the first part by making it mean that they abhor false religion, seeming to be very holy, but take dishonest advantage of their own Temple, revealing that they are unholy. This could then refer to robbing God by withholding tithes (Malachi 3.8) or by dishonest practises in the Temple like the ones that aroused the anger of Jesus (Mark 11.15-17).
2.23 ‘You, who are boasting in the law, are through your transgression of the law dishonouring God.’
This may in fact be a question (‘are you through your transgression dishonouring God?’) or a statement (’you are through your transgression dishonouring God’). But whichever it is, it is applying what he has said above. They boasted in the Law, and yet through breaking it they dishonoured God, for God would be judged by outsiders on the basis of whether teachers of the Law followed their own teaching of which they boasted. Their very boast concerning the knowledge of the Law was thus bringing God into disrepute because of their hypocrisy.
2.24 ‘For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, even as it is written.’
Indeed he declares that as a result of their activity the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles, and claims Scriptural support, without citing it. It may be that he had in mind Isaiah 52.5, ‘those who rule over them howl, says the Lord, and my Name is continually blasphemed all the day’. The Scripture might be seen as not applying directly for it has in mind that what causes the Lord’s name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles is that His people are ruled there by foreign rulers who intimidate them, but Paul’s point was probably simply that it was an instance of how His people could cause His name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. He could also have argued that they were actually where they were under foreign rulers because of their sins. The lack of direct parallel would explain why he does not cite it directly.
Because of the difficulty with the parallel some have suggested that Paul had in mind Ezekiel 36.20, ‘ and when they came to the nations to which they went they profaned my holy Name in that men said of them, “These are the people of the LORD and they are gone forth from the land”.’ But that falls at a similar hurdle of not being directly appropriate, and the Isaiah reference is much closer linguistically.
Will Not Circumcision Ensure That The Jew Is Treated Differently By God? (2.25-29).
The Jew then goes on to his second argument. If the possession of the Law and the benefits described above will not ensure that the Jew is treated differently by God, what then about the fact that he is circumcised? Is that not the mark of God’s special covenant relationship with him? In reply Paul would have agreed that circumcision was the sign of a special covenant relationship. What he would have disagreed with was the idea that God would as a result soften His attitude towards sin, something for which he would find good support in the Old Testament, especially in Lamentations. Indeed, he would argue that the covenant relationship makes greater demands on the Jew because he has thereby committed himself to obeying the covenant. The Gentiles had not committed themselves to anything. The Jew therefore has a greater responsibility to observe the Law, and if he fails to do so then he is liable to be ‘cut off from Israel’. There are a host of citations from Jewish tradition that suggest that Jews did see circumcision as affording special privileges regardless of behaviour. Paul condemns such an attitude outright.
Some reader may be saying, ‘well that is fine as regards the Jew, but what has it to do with us?’ One answer lies in the fact that to many baptism is seen as parallel to circumcision, thus in their case the same arguments can be applied to baptism. Baptism profits for someone who is truly responsive to God, but is of little value for someone who is not obedient to God. (As 1 Peter 3.21 says, its purpose is not a washing away of defilement, but the answer of a good conscience towards God). So in what follows we can read ‘baptism’ for ‘circumcision’. But it is of equal importance in bringing out that the Jew has no special position before God unless he is fully living in accordance with the covenant. As he will point out, the true Jew is the person, whether Jew or Gentile, who is truly circumcised in heart.
2.25 ‘For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision is become uncircumcision.’
Paul then puts circumcision in perspective. His reply is that circumcision does indeed profit those who are doers of the Law from the heart, for it marks them off as observers of the covenant. It is therefore of great value if they are FULLY observing the covenant into which circumcision has introduced them. As a consequence they would be gaining the full benefit from the covenant that God has made with them (see Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4; 9.26). On the other hand if they openly and deliberately transgress the Law in any way they are thereby rejecting the covenant relationship, and with the covenant broken their circumcision becomes of no value. It becomes just what circumcision was to most of Israel’s neighbours, something of no significance as far as God was concerned. For then it had ceased to be genuine covenant related circumcision, and had become the equivalent of non-circumcision. The Scriptural claim of the need to be circumcised in heart was proof of that. In other words the man who is circumcised should recognise that he has received a special privilege, membership of the covenant, and should as a consequence throw himself into obedience to the covenant, i.e. to the Law. Many Jewish teachers would have agreed with him in this, but only to a certain extent, for Paul’s thesis will then be that no one, neither Jew nor Gentile, is fully a doer of the Law, in which case circumcision is seen to be valueless.
2.26 ‘If therefore the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the law, will not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?’
This then leads on to a more startling claim by Paul, and that is that if the uncircumcision keep the ordinance of the Law, then his uncircumcision will be reckoned as circumcision. This may have had in mind the God-fearers, those Gentiles who had thrown in their lot with Judaism but did not want to be circumcised. Many of them were more dedicated to the covenant than circumcised Jews. Paul may be saying that if their hearts are right, and they are wholly committed to the covenant, it does not matter whether they are circumcised or not.
This would not be to say that they could be saved in that way once they had truly heard the Gospel, only that during the transitional period when men had not heard the Gospel, salvation in that way was a possibility. It would then make Paul’s statement meaningful, and at the same time illustrate the invalidity of circumcision without obedience.
On the other hand we may well see Paul as postulating a theoretical case as he has before, simply on the basis of logic, in order to illustrate the irrelevance of circumcision unless accompanied by full obedience to the covenant. His point would then be that a theoretical Gentile might observe the whole Law (although in practise that was impossible) and thus be reckoned as circumcised even though he was uncircumcised. He is not really demonstrating how an uncircumcised man can be acceptable to God, but simply demonstrating that circumcision of itself means nothing in such a situation. This would have come as a terrible shock to many Jews who placed great reliance on circumcision.
2.27 ‘And will not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge you, who with the letter and circumcision are a transgressor of the law?’
Then logically if someone was naturally uncircumcised because he was not a Jew, but fully fulfilled the Law, would he not be in a position to act as judge on those who had the letter of the Law and circumcision, but were transgressors of the Law? Thus the tables would be turned. It would not be the Jew who on behalf of God judged the Gentile (which was the Jewish viewpoint), but the Gentile who on behalf of a righteous God judged the Jew, in spite of the Jew having the Law and being circumcised. Paul’s whole point is that circumcision in itself does not put a person in a position of special privilege unless he ‘does what the Law says’.
It should be noted that, although he does not cite the fact here, Paul’s position is supported by the Old Testament where on a number of occasions the Scriptures emphasise that it is not outward circumcision that is important, but the circumcision of the heart (which is not strictly physical circumcision). See, for example, Leviticus 26.41; Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4; 9.26 where the command to circumcise the heart suggests that their physical circumcision is not enough for them to be truly in the covenant. What is required is a work in the heart, wrought by God.
With regard to the uncircumcised judging the circumcised compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 12.41-42; ‘the men of Nineveh will stand up in judgment with this generation and will condemn it’, for they had truly repented, unlike Israel. They were the uncircumcised who would judge the circumcised.
2.28-29 ‘For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew who is one inwardly (hiddenly), and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God.’
Paul now concludes his argument by describing ‘the true Jew’. Based on his arguments above, being a Jew is not something dependent on a man’s own outward claims or on the external evidence of circumcision. It is rather based on what he is hiddenly (there is no physical sign apart from behaviour), when he demonstrates a genuine response to God’s law. Thus we learn now that the true Jew is one who is circumcised in heart, in the spirit (in genuine spiritual response or in the Holy Spirit or both) and not in the letter (not just physically circumcised because it is written down in the Law), for such a man receives praise from God rather than from men (see 2 Corinthians 5.10). The man whose heart is right with God in the Spirit is the one who pleases Him. Here we have the clear indication that the true Jew is the believer in Christ through the Spirit.
This conclusion is of immense importance. It indicates that Paul sees all true Christians as true Jews (see Philippians 3.3), and conversely that unbelieving Jews had ceased in God’s eyes to be Jews because they had been ‘cut off’ (11.17 onwards). It is a reminder that it is Christ’s people who are now to be seen as the true Israel. Unbelieving Israel has been cut off (Romans 11.17 ff) and all true believers, whether Jew or Gentile, form the true Israel of God (Romans 11.17-28; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Ephesians 2.11-22; 2 Peter 2.9).
So Paul has demonstrated that neither possession of the Law nor physical circumcision put a man into a position of special privilege unless they are accompanied by full obedience to the Law, something which is impossible. Instead therefore it is necessary to be circumcised in heart ‘in the Spirit’ in order to be a true Jew.
‘Whose praise is not of men, but of God.’ There is a play on ideas here. The word Jew, signifying initially a man of Judah, contains within it the thought of ‘praise’ (see Genesis 29.35; 49.8). But Paul wants it to be clear that the only one who is a true Jew and who is really deserving of praise from God is the one who is ‘circumcised in heart’, in his spirit (or ‘in the Spirit’). He alone is the one whom God will praise (2 Corinthians 5.10).
If This Be So What Advantage Is There In Being A Jew? (3.1-8).
In a series of questions Paul now takes up the points just made, the claimed advantage of being a Jew (2.17-20) and the claimed advantage of circumcision (2.25-29). His reply is that both are true simply because it was to the Jews that God had entrusted the oracles of God. It was through those oracles that man could know righteousness. They had thus had the advantage of the given word of God, first through Moses and then through the prophets, for over a thousand years. It should have made them aware of God’s righteousness (3.4) and of their own unrighteousness (3.5, 10-18) and of the need therefore to genuinely seek God’s way of atonement, initially through the system of offerings and sacrifices, and now through the One Whose death has made provision for ‘the sins done aforetime’ (3.25). In 3.10-18 he will use those same oracles in order to prove that all are under sin, whether they be Jew or Greek.
However, underlying what he says here is an important principle. He is not just wanting to bring the Jews into the common condemnation but is also underlining the fact of God’s pure righteousness which must deal with sin as it is. Nothing must be allowed to evade the fact that God must call it into account and punish it accordingly, and that was true for all, both Jew and Gentile (verse 9).
An important question to be solved in these verses is as to when Paul is speaking and when it is his opponent. But even when that is decided we must recognise that in the last analysis it is Paul who has framed the questions being asked. Thus we can see Paul as teaching even in the very questions.
The question and answer method is interesting. It occurs throughout the first half of the letter (3.1 ff; 4.1 ff; 6.1 ff; 6.15 ff; 7.7 ff) and suggests that Paul has vividly in mind his arguments with Jews and Christian Judaisers who had brought these charges against him (something specifically stated in 3.8). He wants them to be nailed down once and for all.
3.1 ‘What advantage then does the Jew have? Or what is the profit of circumcision?’
The question then arises that if the Jew who is unrighteous has no special privileges because of his unrighteousness (2.11-13, 21-24), and if physical circumcision loses its validity for man when he is unrighteous (2.25-29), what are the advantages (to perisson - here meaning to have what is beyond what others have) of being a Jew and what profit is there in being circumcised? This is the first question put by his imaginary opponent, phrased, of course, by Paul. Many Jews believed that the advantage was that, whatever they might suffer in this life, they would have eternal life because God was bound by His covenant.
3.2 ‘Much every way. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.’
Paul’s reply is simple, that it was because they were Jews and because they were circumcised physically, demonstrating that they were at least outwardly within the covenant, that God had entrusted to them ‘the oracles of God’. No more amazing gift could be conceived. As Moses had said, what other nation had had such a privilege? (Deuteronomy 4.8). And the truth was that if they had had faith in them, and had fully responded to them, all would have been well, they would have experienced the righteousness of God by faith as they truly responded to Him by obedience and through the sacrificial system and ordinances.
‘First of all.’ We should probably translate as ‘primarily’, the idea being that on a list of privileges this must come first. But it may be that Paul was intending to provide such a list as is found in 9.4, only to go off on a tangent.
‘The oracles (logia) of God.’ Logia is not limited to sayings (as is evident in Philo) and this therefore indicates the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. (Compare Hebrews 5.12; 1 Peter 4.11). For the supreme importance of having these oracles compare Deuteronomy 4.8; Psalm 147.19-20.
3.3 ‘For what if some were without faith? Will their want of faith make of none effect (render inoperative) the faithfulness of God?’
Taking this as the question of the supposed antagonist, the questioner is now arguing that the unfaithfulness of some among the Jews did not render inoperative God’s faithfulness (the use of only ‘some’ being without faith does of course go against what Paul has previously said. His point has been that all were faithless). Surely, they were saying, God would still be true to His word and promises even if many among the Jews failed. And in Jewish eyes this meant that He would continue to favour Jews at the judgment. So he asks, ‘Will their want of faith make of none effect (render inoperative) the faithfulness of God?’ Surely, he is saying, God will remain faithful to His covenant whatever some Jews might do. And they were right. But where their premise failed was in that they overlooked the fact that they had ALL failed.
If, however we take them as Paul’s words, then he is arguing that the faithlessness of many Jews who did not respond to God’s revelation (and who had rejected their Messiah), did not demonstrate that God had been unfaithful or prevent His faithfulness from operating (something he will prove in chapters 9-11 where he points out that God always has His chosen remnant to whom He is faithful). Indeed His judgment of those unbelieving Jews would rather demonstrate His faithfulness, for that was what He had promised in the covenant, blessing and cursing (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). So the implication is that this argument basically underlined their own unrighteousness and unbelief, rather than challenging His faithfulness, for His faithfulness was still operative in salvation towards those who did believe, while it was also being operative in respect of those who would be judged. The former would be blessed and the latter cursed in accord with Deuteronomy 28.
3.4 ‘Let it not be. Yes let God be found true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That you might be justified in your words, and might prevail when you come into judgment.”’
The thought that God might be unfaithful was inconceivable to Paul. His reply to the expressed doubt is vehement. ‘Let it not be’ (or ‘certainly not’). Such a thing could not possibly be true. For the fact was that God would be found true to His faithfulness, even if it meant seeing every man as untrue (a liar).
Indeed the assurance of God’s faithfulness was demonstrated in those very oracles which the Jews prided themselves on having received, for they declared that God Himself would be acknowledged as righteous (justified) whatever happened, and would be triumphant when He tried others (or alternately would win the case if He was brought for trial). And that could only mean that what He did was right. The citation is from Psalm 51.4.
The strength of Paul’s feeling is brought out by his added statement, ‘let God be found true, but every man a liar’. There was absolutely no truth in the suggestion that God had been found not to be faithful to His promises, even if it meant calling all men liars. Above everything else God was and will be true to what He is.
3.5 ‘But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who visits with wrath? (I speak after the manner of men.)
OK, says the theoretical questioner, if that is so it means that our unrighteousness is commending the righteousness of God. And that being so surely it is unrighteous of God to visit us with wrath. The idea that this suggestion could be made so appals Paul that he immediately assures his readers that he is speaking ‘after the manner of men’. He does not want them to think that he has any doubts on the matter.
We can see here the subtlety of Jewish thinking. They considered that by their unrighteousness Jews were actually highlighting the righteousness of God, as He forgave them their sins and received them into eternal life regardless of their behaviour (something already refuted in chapter 2). Thus why should God be wrath with them? One thing that they overlooked here was that God’s wrath was not just His reaction to them as such. It was His reaction to sin because of His very nature. He was of such a nature that He would not overlook sin in anyone.
3.6 ‘Let it not be. For then how will God judge the world?’
Paul’s reply is then again to refer indirectly to Scripture. What has been suggested could not possibly be true because Scripture says that God will judge the world (e.g. Genesis 18.25; Deuteronomy 32.4; Job 8.3; 34.10). And He could not justly judge the world if the argument in verse 5 was carried through. In other words God must visit all men who are unrighteous with wrath, because it is His very nature. And there can be no exceptions. The judge of all the earth must do right.
3.7 ‘But if the truth of God through my lie abounds to his glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?’
But the questioner persists. Surely if the consequence of the Jews being untrue highlights the fact that God is true and therefore abounds to His glory, it would be unjust of God to see them as sinners, for in the final analysis what they were doing would result in something good. It is now apparent that the questioner has got away from the question of sin and its seriousness by getting tangled up in a specious rational argument. The argument is really that the end justifies the means. It revealed quite clearly that the questioner had no idea of the holiness and righteousness of the God with Whom they were dealing, a God Who must call into account people for what they ARE.
3.8 ‘And why not (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil, that good may come?” whose condemnation is just.’
Paul now makes clear that he has had enough of such nonsense. Why not, he asks, then say ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ something that was self-evidently wrong. The condemnation of anyone who spoke like that or acted like that could only be right. We learn here also that people were actually claiming that that was what Paul taught. Paul does not argue about that. He simply commits such a false claim to God. (But we can see how his teaching that salvation was through the grace of God, and through benefiting from the righteousness of Another, so that God was able to declare as righteous the ungodly, could have been twisted to give this significance, false though it would be).
Both Jew And Gentile Are In The Same Position. All Are Under Sin (3.9-20).
Paul does not want any of his readers to think therefore that this puts them in a better position than the Jews, for as he has already demonstrated they are all ‘under sin’. So he continues to underline that fact by the citing of a miscellany of their own Scriptures, coming finally to the conclusion that the whole world is under judgment, and therefore guilty in the eyes of God.
3.9 ‘What then? Are we better than they? No, in no way, for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin,’
Those who had been listening to this argument may (at least theoretically) have been beginning to think, well surely this makes us better than those Jews? Paul quashes that idea immediately. ‘What then is our conclusion? Are we better than they? No in no way --.’ And he points out that he has already dealt with such an argument by his earlier charge that both Jew and Gentile are all under sin. All are in the same position. He will now go on to prove this from Scripture.
3.10-18 ‘As it is written,
It will be noted that this citation is in fact a miscellany of quotations taken from different parts of Scripture, and that it can be divided up into two sections. The first section is a general description of man’s sinfulness ending up with the fact that not a single person does good. It is a paraphrase of Psalm 14.1b, 2b-3. The second section is a series of citations which particularise individual sins.
The General Description Of Man’s Sinfulness (3.10-12).
These verses are very much a rough paraphrase of Psalm 14.1c-3 which runs as follows in MT:
“There is none who does good. The Lord looked down from Heaven on the children of men to see if there were any who did understand, who did seek after God, they are all gone aside, they are together become filthy, there is none who does good, no, not one.”
In LXX it reads, “There is none who does goodness, there is not even so much as one. The Lord looked down from heaven on the sons of men, to see if there were any that understood, or sought after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become good for nothing, there is none who does good, no not one.”
It will be noted that there is little difference between his words and theirs but that, where there is, Paul’s paraphrase is closer to LXX. The main difference lies in the fact that he omits ‘God looking down from Heaven to see if --’, replacing it with ‘there is’. The alteration from ‘good’ to ‘righteous’ is probably Paul’s in order to bring it into line with the subject that he is dealing with, the righteousness of God. The emphasis then is on the fact that there is none righteous in God’s eyes. There is none who is ‘in the right’. But this necessarily follows if they are not righteous.
The point of the citation is in order to bring out man’s universal sinfulness. All are included as sinners. None as they are in themselves do what is righteous, not even one. None understand. None seek after God. All have turned aside from the true path, all have become profitless, useless, good-for-nothing. None do good, no not one.
All Men Have Committed Particular Sins (3.13-18).
He then goes on to demonstrate this with regard to particular sins. It will be noted that the first four lines are related to sins of speech, and the next three to sins of violence, whilst the list ends up with the claim that there is no fear of God before their eyes, for if there was they would not commit such sins.
It is noteworthy that the list begins by dealing with sins of the tongue, sins of which all are guilty. The idea of the throat being an open sepulchre reflects ‘uncleanness’. Open sepulchres were to be avoided for that reason. Thus the idea may be that out of men’s mouths came what was unclean and would defile others. But the idea may also possibly be that whereas sepulchres normally hide their corruption and uncleanness, being closed up and sealed, man, by what he says, opens up his corruption and uncleanness for all to see and hear. In this gossipers and backbiters may well be especially in mind. There may also be the indication that such a person’s words are a trap for the unwary, for a careless man could easily fall into an open sepulchre.
This is then especially related to their tongues using deceit, in order to deceive men and corrupt them, and bring them down. All of us are at times glib with our tongues, and all of us at some time seek to deceive others (although we often excuse it in ourselves). So man with his mouth and his words is seen as working untold harm in the world (compare 1.29-30). The poison of asps under their lips emphasises the fact that their words are poisonous and destructive. Here the thought is mainly of the maliciousness of men and women, a maliciousness which can result in cruel and hurtful words, backbiting, slanderous accusations, and the murdering of other people’s reputations by gossip and tale bearing.
Their mouths being ‘full of cursing and bitterness’ brings out their attitude towards their fellowmen. They seek to bring curses on them and speak bitterly of them. Such people curse and swear and reveal their own bitterness of heart in the bitter things that they say. But, as James points out, with the same tongue they bless God and curse men, and he adds, ‘my brothers, these things ought not to be’ (James 3.9-10).
It will be noted up to this point that the emphasis has been on the effect of what people say. For what people say is of such importance that Jesus said that, ‘For every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment’ (Matthew 12.36). Compare ‘The tongue is a little member -- set on fire of Hell’ (James 3.5-6). No wonder James says that if anyone does not sin with his tongue, he is a perfect man (James 3.2).
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood’ (Proverbs 1.16; Isaiah 59.7). Their feet being swift to shed blood indicates an unhealthy eagerness for violence. Men move at a run because they are so eager to hurt and kill each other. Here the emphasis is on people’s violence and its consequences.
‘Destruction and misery are in their ways’ (Isaiah 59.7). Here the concentration is on the harm that people do to each other, and the misery that people bring to each other, by the way in which they behave. Men who meet up with them can expect nothing but harm and belligerence. For they know nothing of the path of peace.
‘And the way of peace have they not known’ (Isaiah 59.8). Such people have no desire to bring peace into the world in which they live, nor to seek peace. Rather they bring trouble and distress. It was in contrast to this that Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called sons of God’ (Matthew 5.9).
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Psalm 36.1). This final statement both sums men and women up and is a final indictment on them. They live without regard for God and for His judgment, and that fact comes out in their lives and in the way that they behave. All this is of course the very opposite of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’. And they do all this because they do not truly ‘believe’. For if they did believe they would fear God and avoid such things.
Thus The Law Ensures That All Are Found Guilty Before God (3.19-20).
The consequence of all that has been described is that all men without exception are found by ‘the Law’ (the Scriptures) to be guilty before God. There is none righteous, no not one.
3.19 ‘Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God,’
The main emphasis here is on the Law as representing the Scriptures (it includes the citations above which come from the Psalms and Isaiah). But that it applies also to Gentiles is because the law that they have written in their hearts (2.14) can be seen as coming from the same source, that is, from God. In Jeremiah 31.31 the law written in men’s hearts is the Law of God. They are therefore caught up in the condemnation of God’s Law whether they wish it or not. All are under the Law in one way or another. So in the end it covers the Law of Moses, and the inner law of the Gentile (2.14), the main emphasis being on the Law, which is the Scriptures (compare how Jesus can speak of the whole Scriptures as ‘the Law’ - Matthew 5.18; John 10.34). The first speaks to the Jews, the second to the Gentiles, but the Scriptures speak to all. All are under one law in the end, for it is God’s Law. We can compare how in Isaiah 2.3 the word of the Lord streams out to the world. And that law prevents them from speaking in their own defence as they recognise that through it they are revealed as guilty. No one has any excuse to make. Every mouth is stopped. For everyone is ‘under the Law’ (responsible for obedience to it) and, having failed, the whole world is brought under the judgment of God. ‘There is not one in the right, no not one’.
Note carefully the picture of the law court where the accused is brought up short. What is in mind in all this is how a man stands before his judge, the Judge of all the world. What will be given will be a legal verdict. The accused will either be declared as ‘in the right’ or he will be found guilty. And Paul has demonstrated that all will be found guilty.
3.20 ‘Because by the works of the law will no flesh be justified (accounted as in the right) in his sight, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.’
And this results from the fact that no flesh can be seen as ‘accounted as in the right’ in His sight by keeping ‘the works of the Law’, simply because no man can achieve the perfection required. Such a position cannot be achieved by observing the works of the Law (works done in obedience to the Law) for the simple reason that no one can keep them completely (compare Psalm 143.2). What the Law does admirably, and what it has always done, as well as being a guide to living (James 1.22-25), is to make man aware in his heart of the fact that he has sinned (1 Timothy 1.9). His word is like a fire, and a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23.29). It discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4.12). It makes men aware of their guilt.
Of course the Law in itself was never intended originally to be a way by which men could achieve eternal life. In so far as it became that it was the invention of a later age. It was intended rather to turn men to God in repentance and faith, as they looked to Him for His compassion and mercy. The stipulations of the Law represented the stipulations required of them by their Suzerain Lord, as the One Who had by grace redeemed them out of Egypt (Exodus 20.1-18). Having been redeemed, and having thereby become His, they were to obey His stipulations. Their failures, if accompanied by genuine repentance, would then be dealt with through the sacrificial system. But that did not operate automatically. It required a right attitude of heart (Isaiah 1.11-18). There was no thought of them earning eternal life by simply observing it.
To be ‘justified’ means to be ‘accounted as in the right’, whether genuinely so or not. It is a legal term and refers to a judicial verdict passed on men which declares them to be totally vindicated (dikaio-o only ever has that meaning). The court declares them free from all charges. They are seen as ‘in the right’ in the eyes of the law. It says nothing about what they actually are in themselves. (Thus the wicked can be ‘justified’ for a reward - Isaiah 5.23 LXX; Proverbs 17.15 LXX).
God Has Provided A Way By Which Men Can Be Accounted As In The Right Before God (3.21-4.25).
Paul has spent a considerable time, from 1.18 onwards, in demonstrating that all are under sin (weighed down under it and condemned by it). And he has shown that this includes the common herd of idolaters (1.18-27); the generality of people (1.28-32); those who for one reason or another see themselves as above the norm (philosophers, judges, Rabbis, Jews - 2.1-16); and especially the Jews with their wild claims (2.17-3.8). He has demonstrated that all as they are in themselves come under the condemnation of God. None can claim to be in the right on the basis of their own lives (3.9-20). Now Paul seeks to demonstrate the difference that has been made by the coming of Christ, for in Christ God has provided a righteousness which is sufficient to ‘put in the right with God’ all who truly believe in Him. In 1.17 Paul had told us about it, but in order for us to appreciate it fully it was necessary for us to recognise man’s condition. Now that he has achieved that he will expand on 1.17, ‘therein is the righteousness of God (which makes men accounted as righteous) revealed from faith unto faith’.
3.21 ‘But now apart from the law a righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets,’
This righteousness of God that God has provided is apart from the Law. It is not obtained as a result of observing the Law. It has no connection with the Law. And yet it has been made clear by both the Law and the prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures). And in the prophets this righteousness of God transcends the Law for it is on a par with God’s own righteousness. It is supplied by God, Who comes to His people with a righteousness which will make them fully acceptable to Him. It is that righteousness, which completely fulfils all God’s holy demands, the demands which God gives to us. And here in fact it is seen to be the consequence of Christ Jesus having redeemed us and having been put forth as a propitiation though faith in His blood (3.24-25).
3.22 ‘Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them who believe, for there is no distinction,’
And this righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. The reason for adding ‘to all who believe’ is in order to include the Gentiles. ‘Faith in Jesus the Messiah’ may well otherwise have been seen as exclusive to the Jews. But here it is made clear that it is for all. And this is so, whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For all have the same need, and there is no distinction between them. (This is assuming that ‘there is no distinction’ applies to the word ‘all’).
Some, however, argue that the two references to faith make one of them redundant and therefore see the verse as signifying that the righteousness of God is ‘through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ and is given to all who believe. The theology of that is perfectly acceptable and in accordance with 5.19. The main problem with that view is that it gives a meaning to pistis which is different from all the other uses of it in the passage, and is different from Paul’s overall usage. It would therefore require compelling reasons for it to be acceptable, and there are none.
Some see ‘for there is no distinction’ as meaning that there is no distinction between the way that we are condemned (by being declared as having sinned and come short of the glory of God) and the way that we are justified (by being declared righteous). In both cases it is a judicial verdict. And that is undoubtedly true. But in context the most suitable antecedent is undoubtedly ‘all’
3.23 ‘For all have sinned, and are falling short of the glory of God,’
The reason why this righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is necessary is now given. It is because, as had been demonstrated in 1.18-3.20, all have sinned and are continually revealing it by falling short of the glory of God. Note the change of tense. All ‘have sinned’ (compare 5.12), thus being in a state of sin, and they are now continually falling short of His glory. Here the ‘all’ is universal. It covers all men and women. The equating of sin with falling short of the glory of God brings out the root nature of sin. It is to come short of what God intended, and still intends, that we should be. It is to come short of absolute perfection, to come short of divine purity. It is to come short of God’s moral glory. It is to fail to be God-like. Any man who claims that he has not sinned must recognise that he is talking about achieving complete God-likeness. For the glory of God is His glory as revealed in the beauty of holiness (1 Chronicles 16.29; Psalm 29.2). We may consider in relation to this verse Isaiah 43.7, ‘I have created him for my glory’, in other words so that through his perfection God might be glorified.
We may see examples of this in Isaiah 6.1-7 where Isaiah experienced the glory of the LORD and cried out, ‘woe is me, for I am totally undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’. And again in Job 42.5-6 where the sight of the glory of the LORD made Job aware of his utter sinfulness, so that he cried out, ‘I abhor myself, and repent in sackcloth and ashes’. Compare also, ‘let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD Who exercises covenant love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD’ (Jeremiah 9.24). See also Psalm 90.16-17. So the glory of God is found in His love, justice and righteousness.
These ideas may be related to the Jewish tradition that in the Garden Adam shone with the glory of God, something which he lost when he sinned, thus indicating that all fall short of man’s original innocence, an idea to which all Jews would have given consent. But it is questionable whether Paul has this in mind here.
Others see doxa tou theou as signifying ‘the praise of God’ (compare John 12.43) or ‘the approbation of God’. The idea then is that they are falling short of being what God can praise (compare 1 Corinthians 4.5), which really contains the same idea as above.
3.24 ‘Being justified (accounted as in the right) freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,’
But on receiving the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (verse 22), any one of the ‘all’ who have been demonstrated as sinful (verse 23), is immediately ‘reckoned as righteous’ before the Judge of all men. And this is through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, something which is available freely, at no cost, as a result of God’s undeserved favour and compassion revealed in action towards him (that is, it is of God’s grace). The verb dikaio-o means ‘to reckon as righteous those on whom judgment is to be passed’, regardless of what the person might be in himself. It refers to a legal verdict. It never means ‘to be made righteous’. It is a forensic term.
This passage is so important that perhaps we should analyse its contents in some depth. Our being accounted as ‘in the right’ before God’s judgment throne at this present time, and therefore as being fully acceptable to God, is granted to us:
‘Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.’ It is through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Redemption involves the activity of someone who sets out to deliver, and accomplishes it, usually by the payment of a price. ‘Christ Jesus was made unto us -- redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1.30). The price for our redemption is paid by another Who has ‘given His life as a ransom instead of (anti) many’ (Mark 10.45; compare 1 Timothy 2.6). We ‘are bought with a price’ (1 Corinthians 6.20; 7.23; Galatians 3.13; 2 Peter 2.1; Revelation 5.9; Acts 20.28), the price of blood (verse 25; compare Ephesians 1.7; 1 Peter 1.18-19; Revelation 5.9). And because of this we can be ‘declared righteous’.
We may ask, to whom was the price paid? And the answer is that it was paid to God Himself as the Judge of all men. Justice required that a price be paid for sin. The paying of the price satisfied the demands of justice. And it was accomplished through God the Saviour of all men setting forth Jesus Christ on our behalf, to take on Himself the penalty that should have been ours.
This work of God can be, and is, presented in a number of ways. One way is to see Jesus Christ dying as our substitute. This is unquestionably true in Mark 10.45. Because Jesus has died in our place as ‘a ransom in the place of many’ (lutron anti pollown) and has borne our sin, we can be accounted as righteous and go free, as a result of the fact that He paid the price instead of us. Another is to see Him as our representative Who has incorporated us into Himself. We see ourselves as ‘in Christ’, which is a regular New Testament idea. And as a result, being one with Him we are seen as having gone to the cross with Him. We have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2.20; 3.13; Romans 6.1-11), because He was crucified as our ‘representative’. When He died, we died there with Him. Thus with the punishment for all our sin being borne by Him as the One Who has absorbed us into Himself, we have paid the price of sin in Him and can go free, to commence our new lives for Him. He is our Elder Brother Who partook of flesh and blood so that through death He might deliver all who fear death (Hebrews 2.11-15).
Imagine a scene in a court room. A young man stands in the dock. He is accused of the most abominable of crimes, and he knows that he is guilty. He is aware that a death sentence hangs over him. The previous day the prosecutor, unable to keep the scorn and anger from his eyes, had laid out the charges against him. He has been aware of the anger even in the judge’s eyes. All are against him. And now all the evidence is to be introduced against him. He is without hope, and he awaits the proceedings with dread. The prosecutor comes forward. But now he is no longer angry, he is smiling. He declares to the court that all charges have been dropped. The young man’s elder brother has taken the full blame for the crime. He has pleaded guilty and has been justly sentenced and executed. The young man can leave the court room with no charge lying against him. As far as the prosecution is concerned he is free to go. The judge also is now smiling. He declares the young man to be ‘justified’ in the eyes of the court. He can leave without a stain on his character. All he has to do is believe it and go free. Everyone gathers round to pat him on the back. The judge comes and shakes his hand. He is aware in his heart that he is guilty. But the whole court has declared him to be ‘accounted as righteous’, because his elder brother has borne the shame and ignominy of the crime. That is ‘justification’. It is to him who works not, but believes in Him Who ‘reckons as righteous the ungodly’ (4.5). His faith is counted as righteousness (4.5).
3.25-26 ‘Whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God, for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season, that he might himself be just, and the justifier (reckoner as in the right) of him who has faith in Jesus.’
For God set Him forth as a propitiatory sacrifice (compare 1 John 2.2), appropriated through faith in His sacrificial death. The idea here is that something was required in order to satisfy God’s antipathy to sin. Sin had to be punished. A price had to be paid. And it was because of this sacrificial death that God had been able righteously to pass over ‘sins done aforetime’, the many sins of believers from the time of Adam. And it is also because of this sacrificial death that He is even now at this present time able to remain totally righteous while at the same time declaring as ‘in the right’ the one who has faith in Jesus, even though he be ungodly (not in present behaviour and attitude but condemned as such because of his past life - 4.5). As a consequence of this His antipathy to our sin is removed, because our sin has been transferred to Jesus Christ. God no longer counts anything against us. It is a sacrificial death that covers all men for all time when they come to believe in Him. He ‘perfects for ever those who are being sanctified’ (Hebrews 10.14).
This offering of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice is in order to ‘show God’s righteousness’. It was necessary that He be seen as ‘just’. That is why He could not simply forgive without any necessity for the paying of a price. His righteousness and holiness must be displayed in what He did. And the question was, how could He be seen as ‘just’ while reckoning as righteous the ungodly? The answer lay in the shedding of Christ’s blood on our behalf. Because He took the sentence of death on Himself for us, being made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5.21), bearing our sin (1 Peter 2.24), we who are ungodly and under sentence of death may go free. The justice of God is fully satisfied with what He has done. He can thus ‘account as righteous’ the ungodly who believe in Him (4.5; 5.7). So now those who are in Him can be ‘reckoned as righteous’ because of their faith in Him, with His death being reckoned to them because they are now in Him (Galatians 2.20).
3.27 ‘Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.’
What then of the Jews glorying/boasting in their special status? Or Gentiles glorying in their asceticism or benevolence which they considered made them deserving of God’s favour? Both are excluded. And on what principle are they excluded? Not on the principle of works, for that would give men the opportunity for glorying/boasting. It is wholly on the principle of faith, on the principle of being a receiver of all that God gives by accepting it freely as a free gift by faith. No man can boast at having been given a free gift. That does not mean that God looks on our faith and sees it as replacing our works. Rather it indicates that faith is the means by which we accept His free gift. There is no merit in such faith whatsoever.
3.28 ‘We reckon therefore that a man is justified (reckoned as in the right) by faith apart from the works of the law.’
So Paul can now come to his important conclusion. And that is that a man is accepted as righteous before God, not on account of His works, (nor even on account of his faith), but as a result of that man’s response of faith to His free gift of righteousness. Any connection with the works of the Law is totally excluded.
3.29 ‘Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,’
For if salvation were to be by the works of the Law, which included circumcision, it would mean that God was only the God of the Jews. But Paul immediately raises an objection to this idea. He answers it by a counter-question. Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? And his answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes’. God is God of both Jew and Gentile.
3.30 ‘If so be that God is one, and he will reckon the circumcision as in the right by faith (out of faith), and the uncircumcision through faith.’
And the grounds for his confident answer is that God is one. This was indeed what the Jew boasted about constantly, ‘YHWH our God, YHWH is one’ (Deuteronomy 6.4). Well, says Paul, if He is One then He is God over all and will deal with all on the same terms. He will reckon the circumcision to be in the right by faith, and the uncircumcision to be right through faith. All will be dealt with in the same way.
This fact that God is God of both Jew and Gentile will be emphasised in the next passage where Paul calls on the example of Abraham, ‘the father of many nations’. He is thus here preparing the way for that thesis.
It may be asked whether we should distinguish ‘out of faith’ from ‘through faith’. If there is a distinction it probably lies in the idea that the Jews were reckoned as right ‘by faith’, and the Gentiles ‘through the same type of faith’. But the distinction is probably not intended to be seen as important.
3.31 ‘Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? Let it not be. No, we establish the law.’
He now deals with a final objection. Is he not making the law of none effect by making salvation obtainable through faith? And his reply is that, far from that being true, on the contrary he is establishing the Law. For on any other way of salvation the breaking of the law would be being treated as of secondary importance, such breaches having to be overlooked. It would have its teeth drawn. It would be unable to condemn. But salvation by faith gives the law its full status as condemning all who fall short of it. The axe then falls, but it falls on Christ. Furthermore the Law is then also given its true status as being a ‘schoolmaster to lead us to Christ’ (Galatians 3.24). In ancient days the Law turned men’s thoughts to the necessity of the sacrificial system though which they could obtain atonement for their failures. Now it is intended to turn their thoughts to Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf.
What Paul Has Just Described Is Now Seen To Be In Accordance With Ideas Related To Abraham And David (4.1-25).
No one was of more importance to the Jews than Abraham. It was to him that God had given promises concerning both the land and the people (Genesis 12.1-3). It was because they were ‘sons of Abraham’ that they saw themselves as special. Indeed, many considered that because they were sons of Abraham God must look on them with favour and could never therefore reject them. That was why John the Baptiser had had to remind them that God could ‘from these stones raise up sons of Abraham’ (Matthew 3.9).
Their high view of Abraham comes out in Jewish literature. ‘Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life’ (Jubilees 23.10). ‘No one has been like him in glory’ (Ecclesiasticus 44.19). That these citations should not be taken too literally comes out in the fact that we do know of times when God would not have been pleased with Abraham. For example, when he deceived Pharaoh about his wife (Genesis 12.10-20). Or with regard to his treatment of Hagar (Genesis 16.6). Or when he deceived Abimelech about his wife (Genesis 20.2). But their general aim is in order to bring out the high level of Abraham’s conformity to the will of God. That would, however, have been Paul’s point. That even Abraham did come short of the glory of God.
We must remember that the large majority of Jews were not literally sons of Abraham, and that very few could trace their descent back very far. For, as the Old Testament makes clear, ‘Israel’ included people descended from Abraham’s multiplicity of ‘servants’ (of which 318 were fighting men); from a mixed multitude which left Egypt with Israel who were united with Israel at Sinai and would have been circumcised on entering the land (Exodus 12.38; Joshua 5); and from many who joined with Israel and became Israelites on the basis of Exodus 12.48. Thus Israel were not on the whole physical ‘sons of Abraham’. Those were very much a minority of Israel from the start, even though all Israel no doubt claimed to be. Sonship of Abraham in a natural sense was a myth. But from their own point of view the Jews were confident of their situation. To them therefore the example of Abraham was crucial.
Nor must we overlook the fact that in the following argument Paul is not trying to argue that certain things can be transferred from Israel to the church. The argument is between faith and works of the Law, not Israel and non-Israel. To Paul the church was Israel. It was founded on the Jewish Messiah, established on Jewish Apostles, and initially composed only of Jews. The church was the true remnant of Israel, ‘the true vine (John 15.1-6), the Messiah’s ‘congregation’ (Matthew 16.18). The inclusion of Gentiles who responded to the Messiah was simply a matter of incorporating proselytes into the true Israel, something which had always happened. That was why the question of whether they should be circumcised was seen as so important. All saw these Gentiles as being incorporated into Israel when they became Christians, the only question was whether they all needed to be circumcised. Paul’s reply was that they were already circumcised because they had been circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands in ‘the circumcision of Christ’ (the Messiah - Colossians 2.11). But he himself continually confirmed that the church was the true Israel and that it was unbelieving Israel that had ceased to be Israel (2.28-29; 11.17-28; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Ephesians 2.11-22; see also 1 Peter 2.9; 1 Peter 1.1; James 1.1). Thus that was not a problem to be dealt with here.
It will be noted that this chapter takes up many of the points previously stated in 3.27-30. Abraham has no right to boast (4.1-2, compare 3.27a). Abraham was justified by faith and not works (4.3-8; compare 3.27b). God accepts both circumcised and uncircumcised (4.9-12; compare 3.29-30). Both Jew and Gentile are involved together (4.16-18; compare 3.29). It thus sets out to demonstrate that these principles have been recognised in Israel from the beginning.
It is also important to note that what is stated in this chapter would not have the same force had it not been preceded by the arguments in chapters 1-3. For Paul and the Jews were looking at things very differently. Paul was seeing righteousness from God’s point of view, as something equatable with ‘the glory of God’ (3.23). To be truly righteous was to have lived fully according to the Law of God in every detail. It was to have not come short of the glory of God. To the Jews, however, righteousness involved obedience to the Law in so far as man was seen as capable. That is why the Jews could see Abraham as accepted by God as righteous. It was because Abraham’s life came so far above the norm. But even they would have hesitated to say that Abraham had never sinned. If Paul was right, and he has demonstrated it quite clearly in chapters 1-3, then Abraham’s righteousness could not in itself be sufficient to make him acceptable to the Judge of all men, for Abraham came short on a number of occasions. If, however, the Jews were right then Abraham might well have been seen by God as acceptable because of his godly life. Thus the question of how Abraham was justified before God was a crucial one.
The chapter can be divided into three parts, although having said that it must be recognised that the theme of verse 3 continues throughout the chapter binding the parts together, and it is again underlined in the concluding verses. The divisions can be seen as follows:
The Way Of Justification Through Faith Illustrated In Abraham And Announced By David (4.1-8).
Paul now demonstrates that Abraham’s acceptability with God was by faith, not works, something which is then further confirmed by David. This thus confirms that Abraham was not justified by his works. This went totally contrary to contemporary Jewish teaching which was that Abraham was justified by his works which were pleasing to God. And Paul stresses that it is on the basis of Scripture.
4.1 ‘What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, has found according to the flesh?’
Paul now relates what he has demonstrated, to the Scriptures concerning the life of Abraham. The unbelieving Jews (as opposed to the believing Jews who were Christians) saw Abraham’s life as the perfect example of the man who was acceptable to God because of his works, and this especially because of his willingness to offer up his son Isaac. In so far as they made any effort at all they thus strove to be like him. Paul now intends to dispute their position, and he begins with a question, as he does so often in Romans (2.3-5; 3.1-9, 27-31; 4.9-10; 6.1, 15; 7.1, 7, 13; 8.31, 33-35; 10.18-19; 11.1, 11; often accompanied by ‘let it not be so’). His question is, ‘What then has Abraham our forefather found?’
Our first problem here is as to whether ‘according to the flesh’ should be attached to ‘our forefather’, or to ‘has found’, or should be omitted altogether. Different manuscripts suggest differing alternatives. The first alternative, ‘Has found according to the flesh’ (that is, ‘what has Abraham found as a human being in accordance with his natural powers without the grace of God being active?’) is the reading of K, L, P, Theodoret etc. The second alternative, ‘Abraham our forefather according to the flesh’, (contrasting Abraham’s fatherhood with that of God’s), is the reading of Aleph, A, C, D, E, F, G etc. The third alternative is to omit it altogether. That is the reading of B, 47*, 1739 and possibly Chrysostom. Fortunately, whichever way we take it, it does not greatly affect the argument in verse 2.
Accepting the text as we have it above the question is, ‘what has Abraham found if we just consider him according to his natural abilities without the grace of God being active?’ And he concedes that, looking from a human point of view, Abraham could in fact have been recognised as ‘in the right’ by men, as they saw the tenor of his life. They might well, as the Jews had done, have concluded that he was blessed because of his works. That indeed is always man’s tendency, for man, especially in religious matters, almost always thinks of doing service and getting rewarded. He sees God as he sees himself.
4.2 ‘For if Abraham was reckoned as in the right by works, he has that in which to glory, but not towards God.’
But Paul reacts strongly against the suggestion that Abraham was reckoned as righteous by God because of his works. He declares that if Abraham really was reckoned as in the right by works, as the unbelieving Jews claimed, (he is making a concession, notice the ‘if’) it could only be in the eyes of men. He would then have a cause of boasting before men. But, Paul stresses, he would not have a grounds of boasting before God. For God requires, not partial, but total obedience. He will agree that in the eyes of men Abraham might well be highly esteemed and be seen as better than most men, so that he could glory/boast before men. But he will not for one moment concede that he had any grounds for boasting before God. This is a position which he now demonstrates from Scripture, which must be the final arbiter (as both Jew and Christian would agree).
Note how this argument reflects 3.27 ‘Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.’
4.3 ‘For what does the scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness.” ’
Having in verse 2 introduced the idea of God ‘reckoning’ something (counting it as so even if it is not) Paul will now refer to two Scriptures in which the word is used. The first relates to Abraham, who is the subject of his whole present argument. It is demonstrating that what he has been declaring is ‘in the Law’ (i.e. in the Scriptures), as he had claimed in 3.21.
He claims, the Scripture is quite clear on how Abraham was reckoned as righteous before God. It declares that, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15.6), and this before any of the events which would later be interpreted as being the cause of Abraham being acceptable before God (e.g. his being willing to offer him as a sacrifice in Genesis 22) took place. Here then was a clear statement in ‘the Law’ that Abraham was ‘justified (reckoned as righteous before God) by faith’. It makes clear that Abraham was reckoned as righteous solely on the basis of his believing God and His word.
We should note that faith and God’s sovereignty are the foundations of Abraham’s life. He had come to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees and Haran in response to God’s call, a call that totally resulted from God’s initiative, and was responded to by faith (Genesis 12.1-3). He experienced theophanies at times of God’s choosing, and entered into covenants which were brought to him on God’s initiative, and constantly believed and responded to His promises. In his life he revealed a constant trust in God. That indeed is what is revealed in Genesis 15. He also trusted and obeyed God when he was called on to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). There is nothing in the Genesis account, apart from his religious response to God through sacrifices, (which themselves were an act of faith), which suggests that Abraham acted as he did because he was seeking salvation. The initiative in his life is seen to be all of God. And it was that basic faith, as a response to the initiative of God, which we are now told was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’.
The verb ‘to reckon’ is an accounting term. It means to ‘set down’ in a course of dealing. The idea of such records is found regularly in Scripture. See for example, Malachi 3.16; Daniel 7.10; Revelation 20.12. It is the recording of what are seen as the actual facts (even though they might not be). Once recorded they were ‘written in stone’. It was regularly used in LXX with reference to the imputation of guilt (e.g. Leviticus 7.18; 17.4).
4.4-5 ‘Now to him who works, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt, but to him that who does not work, but believe on him who reckons as in the right the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.’
Paul now brings out the significance of that Scripture in respect of the matter they are dealing with. When it comes to man being rewarded for his works, the reward is not looked on as ‘of grace’ (freely given as an undeserved favour), but as of debt (it has been duly earned and the worker is thus receiving only what is due to him). In contrast we have the case of the man whose ‘reward’ is ‘of grace. He believes on Him who ‘justifies the ungodly while they are still in an ungodly state’, and his faith is reckoned for righteousness. The principle here is very important. The moment works enters into the equation to any extent then it puts God under an obligation. Thus ALL works have to be excluded. God does not owe us anything. He does not justify us because our faith makes up for what is lacking in our works. He justifies us when we truly believe in Him regardless of any works. It is all ‘of grace’ (God’s unmerited favour). And Paul underlines this by stressing that the one who is justified is so even though he is yet ungodly.
Note how boldly he declares that God justifies the ungodly while he is still ungodly. In that case there can be no question of the man being justified by his works. He is ungodly. He deserves nothing. Thus his being ‘justified, reckoned as righteous’, in other words his ‘justification’, could only spring from his response of faith towards a justifying God (Who is ‘just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus’ - 3.28). Note how this ‘ungodliness’ reflects 1.18. There has been great emphasis on how God has dealt with man’s unrighteousness. Here now is God’s answer to man’s proven ungodliness. It confirms his argument in 3.28 that, ‘We reckon therefore that a man is justified (reckoned as in the right) by faith apart from the works of the law.’
We may, of course, react against the suggestion that Abraham had been ungodly, but in that case we need to remember that initially he had no doubt been involved in the worship of idols, for we are told that ‘your fathers dwelt in the past beyond the River (Euphrates), even Terah the father of Abraham --- and they served other gods’ (Joshua 24.2). Thus Abraham had been brought up to worship false gods, until God called him and he believed and responded. It was when he was yet ungodly that God had initially called him. And it was then that God’s righteousness came to him and he was ‘accounted as righteous’.
‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness.’ We must not see this as signifying that God saw Abraham’s faith and approved of it and thus recognised him as righteous on the basis of his ‘righteous faith’, as though his faith was a work of which God approved, shining out above his other works. Rather the thought is that Abraham was reckoned as righteous by God because he responded in faith to God, disregarding all works that he had done. The verb chashab followed by the preposition ‘l’ always refers to something being reckoned to someone regardless of their right state. Thus Shimei asks David not to reckon his guilt against him but to treat him as though he were innocent (2 Samuel 19.20). Compare also Leviticus 7.18; Numbers 18.27, 30.
4.6 ‘Even as David also pronounces blessing on the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works, saying,
He then proceeds to amplify his argument with reference to David’s words in Psalm 32.1-2. David speaks on behalf of those who had come to God, calling on Him to ‘reckon them as righteous apart from works’, purely on the basis of His compassion and mercy. And what did God do in response their plea? He blessed them, and all who similarly called upon him. The word for ‘blessed’ indicates the highest state of felicity. He declared that their iniquities were forgiven and their sins covered, and that He would not therefore ‘reckon their sin against them’, which ultimately indicated that God would look on them as innocent, as reckoned as righteous, as reckoned as having not sinned. Here then, says Paul, we have another example of God’s methods which ties in with 3.28.
Note here that there can be no question of any works entering in. It is their sins that are not reckoned to them. They are forgiven and covered. And the implication is that this makes them acceptable to God. Note also what these words tell us about the character of God. They tell us that He is not only just and holy but is also merciful and longsuffering, and that He reaches out to the ungodly. They tell us that He is ever ready to receive those who come to Him through faith. No matter what their state may be at the time, if they come to Him in faith He will receive them and ‘reckon them as righteous’ (that is, will not reckon their sin against them) through faith in Jesus Christ.
The same was true of David. He was an adulterer and murderer. And yet he could say, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin.” In other words, he was conscious that he had been forgiven, and that he was accounted as righteous in God’s sight. And how was it so? By believing the words of the prophet who came to him with God’s offer of mercy. He believed God and was accounted as righteous.
Thus Scripture clearly demonstrates that for a man to be accounted righteous he must believe God when God speaks to him. ‘The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1.18). He must be accounted as righteous ‘by faith’, by believing. And if neither Abraham nor David could claim the ground of works, how can we possibly do so?
2). How Then Does Circumcision Affect The Issue As Illustrated In The Life Of Abraham? (4.9-12).
Paul now brings up with respect to Abraham the point that he had made in 3.30, where he had claimed that God ‘will justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith.’ Here he asks, ‘Is this blessing (the blessing of not having sin reckoned to them, and of having righteousness reckoned to them) then pronounced on the circumcision, or on the uncircumcision also?’ And his reply is that when Abraham believed God and was reckoned as righteous by faith he was not circumcised. Nor, he could have argued, was he circumcised until a good while after. Circumcision was nowhere related to his being accounted as righteous.
And we could add that that circumcision was not related to his being reckoned as righteous at any stage. It had rather to do with God’s promises to Abraham, not only about Isaac and his descendants, but also about Ishmael and his descendants. In other words circumcision was much broader than Israel. Paul does not bring that out (to him the church was Israel), but he does stress that Abraham be seen as the father of us all, both circumcised and uncircumcised. He would no doubt in support of this have pointed back to other promises that Abraham had believed, after he had responded in faith to God, namely that he would be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12.3). All that being so, circumcision cannot be seen as necessary in order for a man to be reckoned as righteous by God. Only faith is necessary.
4.9-10 ‘Is this blessing then pronounced on the circumcision, or on the uncircumcision also? For we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness. How then was it reckoned? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision,’
Paul now uses the life of Abraham to support his contention that the uncircumcised can receive the blessing of ‘being reckoned as in the right’ equally with the circumcised. For, he says, when Abraham was reckoned as in the right in 15.6 it was long before he was circumcised. Circumcision could not have been further from his mind. It was as an uncircumcised man that he was reckoned as in the right before God. Thus it is clear that God saw being reckoned as in the right before Him as having nothing to do with circumcision.
4.11 ‘And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned to them,’
What then was the purpose of circumcision? It was a ‘sign’ of the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 17.11). It was thus a sign that he was already reckoned as in the right, and it was a seal of the righteousness which had been reckoned to him while he was still in uncircumcision. And this was so that he might be the father of all who believe and are therefore reckoned by God as in the right, even though they be in uncircumcision. The argument here is against the Jewish claim that without circumcision it was not possible to be a son of Abraham. Against their view he is now arguing that Abraham is the father of all believers because God’s promise of future blessing for the whole world was to come through him and his descendants (Genesis 12.3). This in fact went contrary to the Jewish belief that no Gentile could call God their father, even when they became proselytes. They no doubt took this position because they argued that such Gentiles were not literal descendants of Abraham. But this only served to demonstrate the folly of their thinking because an examination of Scripture itself makes quite clear that comparatively few Jews are actually literal descendants of Abraham as we have seen above.
But Paul himself had no problem with seeing Abraham as the father of all believers, because in his eyes all believers were already a part of Israel. It was his opponents who argued otherwise, and whom he is trying to convince here. It should be noted that the fact that circumcision was the seal of the righteousness that Abraham had through faith clearly demonstrated that circumcision was not the grounds of it.
4.12 ‘And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision.’
Nor is Abraham to be seen as the father of all who are circumcised. (As Jesus would point out to the Pharisees who claimed to be sons of Abraham, ‘you are of your father the Devil’ - John 8.39-44). He is rather to be seen as the father of those of the circumcised who walk in the same steps of faith as did Abraham, and whose faith therefore is of a kind that results in them being reckoned as in the right before God. It would be wrong therefore to see circumcision as putting a man in the right in the eyes of God.
This, of course, ties in with his previous argument in 2.25-29 where he pointed out that the true circumcision were those whose hears had been circumcised, in other words those in whose hearts God had worked by His Spirit.
3). Abraham Illustrates The Fact That God’s Greatest Gifts Do Not Come To Us Because We ‘Obey The Law’, But Because We ‘Believe In The Lord’ (4.13-25).
The importance of faith in the life of Abraham is now brought out. For Paul here stresses that he lived a life of faith from the moment he began to believe, and continued to do so throughout his life, and he stresses that the promise to Abraham that he would be the heir of the world was made on that basis. Note that God’s promises are mentioned five times in the passage. It is clearly part of Paul’s thesis that Abraham was blessed because he believed God’s promises.
This is in contrast with the Jewish tradition which saw Abraham as being blessed because he had kept the whole Law even before it was given, and considered that in order to be a child of Abraham a Jew must take on himself the yoke of the Torah. "At that time, the unwritten law was named among them, and the works of the commandment were then fulfilled," (Apocalypse of Baruch 57:2), "He kept the law of the Most High, and was taken into covenant with God.... Therefore God assured him by an oath that the nations should be blessed in his seed," (Ecclesiasticus 44.20-21). Thus to the Jew the keeping of the Law was basic to Abraham’s life, and basic to salvation, and to entry into eternal life. But, as Paul is bringing out, it was not so in God’s eyes, nor was it true to the Scriptures.
4.13 ‘For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith.’
The ‘for’ may refer back to walking in the steps of the faith of Abraham while he was uncircumcised (verse 12), or to the whole previous narrative. Or it may simply be introductory. But the gist of the verse is clear, and that is that the promise given to Abraham that he would be heir of the world was not connected with obedience to the Law but was through the righteousness of faith (Genesis 15.6). Any connection with the Law has to be read in, because there is not even a hint of it, whilst the connection with the righteousness of faith is immediately apparent from the narrative.
‘Should be heir of the world.’ From the beginning the promise to Abraham was that in him and his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed (or would bless themselves - Genesis 12.3). In terms of those days that indicated that they would rule over them in some way. Their inheritance was to be the world. Thus Abraham was seen as ‘heir of the world’. The thought of an heir arises from the context in Genesis 15 which is all about the promise of Abraham’s heir who would, of course inherit the promises. As Isaac was Abraham’s heir, so Abraham was God’s heir. This promise of being heir of the world is further amplified in later promises where Abraham is to be the father of many nations, and the producer of kings (Genesis 17.5-6). But the promises were not made because of his own righteous living, they were made because God had chosen him and he was obedient to voice of the Lord. It was God’s choice of Abraham that was constantly seen as the basis for his behaviour, something which indicated that his blessing came through God’s sovereign grace (Genesis 15.7; 18.19). That that should result in godly living can then be accepted without question.
4.14-15 ‘For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect. For the law works wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.’
The promises were offered to Abraham for his ready acceptance through faith. Thus faith was the basis of his heirdom. That being so, if that heirdom goes to those who rely on observing the Law for salvation, faith is basically cancelled out. It is no longer required. It is rendered ineffectual, being replaced by law-keeping. And the consequence of that is that the promise which was offered to faith would also have been made of none effect. This would be so because those attempting to keep the Law would inevitably fail to fully keep the Law (as described in chapters 1-3). Thus they will be under wrath. For the Law works wrath, that is, it makes men’s sins specific and thus multiplies them. And a holy God will not fulfil His promises to those who are under His wrath. Compare Galatians 3.10, ‘cursed are all those who do not continue in the book of the Law to do them’ (cited from Deuteronomy 27.26). On the other hand because there was no Mosaic Law in the time of Abraham, those who lived then would not come under the constant wrath that resulted from the continual breaking of ‘the Law’, as it did not then exist. They would be ‘without transgression’, that is, not guilty of breaking the Law of Moses. The idea is not that they were sinless. It is that their approach to God was not based on Law but on faith.
4.16 ‘For this reason it is of faith, that it may be according to grace, to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed, not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.’
It is because the Law can only bring down on men the wrath of God that God’s promise had to be based on faith, so that the promise could depend on the unfailing grace of God. This alone made the promise sure of fulfilment. And it was a fulfilment that would be available to ‘all the seed’, that is all whom God had promised to bless through Abraham (the whole world - Genesis 12.3). But that being so, this sureness of fulfilment was now not just to be seen as available to those who were ‘of the Law’, if they believed, but was also to be seen as available towards all who believed God as Abraham believed God. And this was because the Scriptures say that Abraham is ‘the father of us all’, not just of those who called themselves the sons of Abraham.
4.17 ‘(As it is written, ‘A father of many nations have I made you’) before him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead, and calls the things that are not, as though they were.’
The Scriptural evidence is now given. ‘A father of many nations have I made you’. These words are found in Genesis 17.5. They would be literally true of the descendants of his many sons as they mingled with other peoples to form tribes, and they would be spiritually true of all who experienced the worldwide blessing that would come from Abraham through his seed (Genesis 12.3), a worldwide blessing which was a theme of the prophets (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6; and often).
And all this would be ‘before God’, Who ‘gives life to the dead, and calls the things that are not as though they were’. This last especially has in mind the son who would be born to Sarah who was little short of a miracle. Out of what appeared to be a hopeless situation God produced life from a dead womb, a son who at the time appeared to be an impossibility, that is, was a ‘was not’ who became a ‘was’ because that is what God can do.
But in the context it is also true of the birth and growth of the church, the true Israel of God (Galatians 6.16). That too is a miracle birth, brought about by the grace and power of God. For the reference to His ‘giving life to the dead’ must surely be seen as connecting with verse 24 where it was most literally fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, with the result that His people are ‘accounted as righteous’ (verse 25). Whilst the things which ‘are not’, which became the things that ‘are’, surely has in mind the new people of God, who were brought into being through Him (verse 25). ‘I will call them my people who were not my people’ (9.25).
4.18 ‘Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to what had been spoken, “So shall your seed be.” ’
Paul now makes the application to what followed in the life of Abraham, something which also resulted from his faith. For as a consequence of God’s promise he believed that he would be the father of many nations, even though it was ‘a hope believed against hope’, that is, a hope in what appeared to be impossible. He believed God’s promise that ‘so will your seed be’. Note that the citation is from Genesis 15.5 which was, of course, immediately followed by the statement that God reckoned Abraham as ‘in the right’ because of his faith.
4.19 ‘And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb,’
For even though he had to recognise that he was a hundred years old, and that Sarah’s womb was dead (incapable of giving birth), he still resolutely believed what God promised him. His faith did not weaken.
4.20-21 ‘Yet, looking to the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform.’
He looked to God’s promise, not wavering through unbelief, and grew strong in faith, giving glory to God and confident that what He had promised He was able to perform. And all this because of his personal faith and trust in God. Thus all the way through his life faith is what is seen to be the basis of Abraham’s life.
4.22 ‘Wherefore also it was reckoned to him for righteousness.’
And this faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. God saw him as right in His sight because he believed God (Genesis 15.6). This is the theme of the whole chapter up to this point (see especially verses 3, 9 which both cite Genesis 15.6).
4.23-24 ‘Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, unto whom it will be reckoned, who believe on him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,’
And this is now true also for all his spiritual sons. That faith was reckoned for righteousness was not just written for Abraham’s sake, it was written also for ‘our sakes’ (for the sake of true believing Christians). For in the same way as faith was reckoned for righteousness in Abraham’s case, faith will also be reckoned for righteousness in the case of all those who believe on Him Who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. It would appear here that Paul is seeing the birth of Isaac by a miracle, as being like a foretaste of the miracle of the resurrection. Both would result in a multitude of progeny.
4.25 ‘Who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our being accounted as in the right (justification).’
For this was why Christ died. He was delivered up for our trespasses, for all the ways in which we come short of the glory of God (3.23), and He was raised again so that we might be ‘accounted as in the right’ before Him. The referring of our ‘justification’ to the resurrection is unusual. It is normally connected with His death (3.24-25). But there is no difficulty in this, for the raising of Jesus from the dead was unquestionably seen as the moment when He was vindicated, and therefore as the moment when His righteousness became available so as to be reckoned to us. The resurrection was the seal on what He had accomplished. It was then that He was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead (1.4). It was thus the moment at which our being ‘accounted as in the right’ was made possible. Now He could visit us with righteousness and salvation (1.16-17). The association of His death and resurrection as being two aspects of our salvation will come out strongly in 5.10; 6.1-11.
The ‘literal’ Greek is:
The fact that He was ‘delivered up (handed over) for our trespasses’ is probably a reflection of Isaiah 53.12 LXX, where it says, ‘because of their sins He was handed over’. The second line is indicating the success of what He had done. His resurrection was the proof that His death had accomplished its purpose, and that His righteousness was available to be set to our account once we believed in Him. The promises to Isaiah were being fulfilled, ‘It pleased the LORD to bruise Him, He has put Him to grief, when You will make His soul an offering for sin (delivered up for our trespasses) He will see His seed. He will prolong His days (resurrection), and the pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand (the triumph of the Gospel and the redeeming of His people). From the travail of His soul He will see light (resurrection) and will be satisfied. By His humiliation will My righteous Servant make many to be to be accounted as in the right, and He will bear their iniquities’ (Isaiah 53.10-11).
Thus our justification, our being accounted as ‘in the right’, rests on both His death and resurrection. In that sense His resurrection was ‘because of our justification’, it was evidence that our justification had been accomplished. But that is probably not Paul’s prime meaning here. Here the second ‘because’ should probably be rendered ‘because of our need for’ or ‘because the means had been provided for’. He had made the righteousness of God which is from faith unto faith (1.17) available to all who believe.
Romans part 3
Romans part 4
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