The Epistle to the Romans, though not the highest in its character of truth, more comprehensively than any other sets forth God’s glad tidings, and this with a method and depth which attest not merely the style of Paul but the wisdom of the Holy Spirit who inspired the great apostle of the Gentiles. His Son (for so the apostle preached Him from the first, Acts 9:20) is the object of faith, come of David’s seed according to flesh, marked out Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection of the dead. Thus the connection with the Old Testament is maintained, while the way is open for a new order of things through resurrection wherein guilt was removed, sin judged, and life manifested victorious over the enemy in his last stronghold of death, yea, with a title superior to God’s eternal judgment.
Then, after presenting himself suitably as apostle by call to those called at Rome, he testifies his thanks for their faith, and his great desire to see them, whatever the hindrances till then, for their mutual refreshment. He desired fruit there as elsewhere, being debtor to all. He was not ashamed of the gospel (or glad tidings): it is God’s power to salvation to every believer, because divine righteousness is revealed in it by faith to faith, as the prophet declared in a dark day for Israel. Thus, if the Son is the object of faith, the believer has part in God’s righteousness.130 Man had no righteousness for God, who reveals His to man; and hence it is a question of believing. For His wrath is revealed from heaven against all impiety and unrighteousness of men holding the truth in unrighteousness: the one embracing every shade of heathenism or ungodliness; the other especially Jews or, as we can now add, Christendom. How deep the need, how grave the danger, of sinful man!
To the end of chapter 1 the Gentiles are convicted of their impiety in a brief but appalling sketch, confirmed too truly by all that remains of antiquity, utterly depraved not only by their lusts and passions but yet more by their idolatry which sanctioned, yea provoked and even consecrated, their worst evils. It will be observed therefore that the apostle does not trace the ruin to the beginning of the world, but only since the flood when men inexcusably slighted the testimony of creation, and, knowing God, glorified Him not as God, but professing to be wise became fools, and setting up idols were given up by the one true God above them, whom they would not serve, to become slaves of every vileness below them.
The opening of chapter 2 looks at the moralists, at men, Gentiles or Jews, who speculated on good but were a prey like others to the wickedness they condemned, despising the riches of God’s goodness as they forgot His judgment, with whom is no respect of persons, those who sin without law perishing also without it, and those who sin in it to be judged by it in the day when God judges the secrets of men, according to the apostle’s gospel, by Jesus Christ. Here he names the “Jew first” and the “Greek “in judgment, as before in the administration of the gospel. For judgment takes account of all things, and hence of superior advantages, each giving account according to his light and receiving according to his deeds. For salvation is according to grace, reward or judgment according to works. Thus both tests are applied, what they fell from, and what God will bring in at Christ’s coming and kingdom. And as wrath revealed from heaven stood in contrast on God’s side with earthly judgments in providence, so here on man’s side does the judgment of the secrets of the heart.
The Jews are then distinctively and expressly brought forward, who with better light were no better morally, for the name of God was blasphemed on their account. So far is circumcision from availing them against their base inconsistencies that it becomes contrariwise uncircumcision; even as uncircumcision keeping the requirements of the law should be reckoned for circumcision, judging such as with letter and uncircumcision transgressed law. Sin is shewn to be the great leveller, as righteousness does not fail to exalt. A transgressing Jew was as bad as, indeed worse than, a Gentile; a Gentile who wrought righteousness no less acceptable than a Jew. God will have moral reality; and this, wherever found, alone secures His praise.
This raised the question, in chapter 3, of the superiority of the Jew, or of the profit of circumcision. The apostle allows it in every way, and first in being entrusted with the oracles of God. But man’s unfaithfulness in no way hinders the certainty or the justice of God’s judging the world. Nor do outward privileges in any wise suppose or secure a better condition, though aggravating responsibility. And the fact that, what the law or Old Testament says, it speaks to those under it (that is, to the Jews), totally convicts them; for it declares in the plainest terms that there is none righteous, none that understandeth, none that doeth good, all gone out of the way, and no fear of God before their eyes.
Thus, as the beginning of the argument proved the Gentiles ruined, so does the end the Jews: the result is, every mouth stopped and all the world under judgment to God. What is His sentence? Is there no mercy? There is His righteousness by Christ Jesus, righteousness which justifies the believer. Doubtless by works of law no flesh shall be justified, for by law is knowledge of sin, the very reverse of sins forgiven or of righteousness.
Law therefore cannot help Israel, still less a Gentile. What is the resource then? The apostle returns to the thesis which preceded his reasoning, and, with so much the more evidence of its urgent necessity, affirms that now apart from law God’s righteousness is manifested. A truly wonderful statement, in which we have the relation of the gospel to the Old Testament, its universal direction, and its application in fact as being contingent on faith, while it meets all on the ground of sheer ruin and so of pure grace. It proclaims the work of the Lord which answers to the mercy-seat with the atoning blood of Jehovah’s lot sprinkled on and before it, thus laying a righteous ground both to justify the forbearance of God in dealing with the saints of old or their sins in past times, and to display now that God is just, while He justifies him that believes in Jesus. By faith boasting is thus excluded, and God is shewn to be the God who justifies both Jew and Gentile while law itself is established instead of being made void.
There is nothing to hinder our understanding dikaiosune Theou in its usual sense of an attribute or quality of God, because it is also dikaiosune ek pisteos, for indeed it is revealed in the gospel for us to believe, and therefore we could profit by it on no other principle. It is of course choris nomou, “apart from law” (Rom. 3:21), which, if obeyed, would have been man’s, not God’s, righteousness. The dorea or free giving of righteousness (Rom. 5:17) is perfectly consistent with this: God’s grace was the source of this gift; it was no question of one’s work or fitness as under law. So Romans 10:3, Philippians 3:9, are both thoroughly in harmony with the fact that the apostle speaks of divine righteousness, or God’s consistency with Himself in justifying the believer through the redemption that is in Christ. Undoubtedly it is a righteousness of which He is the author (as Phil. 3:9 teaches), and which He approves; but it is below the mark merely to say this. For if man be imagined to have obeyed the law, it would have been a righteousness available before God; and man would have lived instead of dying. But this would have been neither eternal life in the Son, nor God’s righteousness, but man’s. Hence the definition of Luther, Calvin, Beza, Reiche, De Wette, etc., is unsatisfactory, as Luther’s version, which is a paraphrase expressive of it, is erroneous. A righteousness which God might give or approve need not be His own, which the apostle over and over declares it to be. Of course it is not divine justice abstractly (which is perhaps the unconscious difficulty of most who approach the subject), but God just in virtue of the Saviour’s work. How does He estimate it, how act on it, for the believer? The infusion of divine righteousness has no just sense, or it appears to confound justification with life; whilst the idea that it means mercy is a poor evasion which weakens the grand truth that not His love only, but His justice justifies the believer in Jesus.
The remarkable fact may here be noticed that confessedly the majority of commentators, who shrink from the plain meaning of the phrase in Philippians 1:17, and even in chapter 3:21, 22, confess that in verses 25, 26, it does signify, not God’s mercy, nor His method of justification, or act of justifying (which in Greek is expressed by dikaiosis), nor that righteousness which is acceptable to God, but His justice. Here this is allowed to be the proper meaning of the terms, and what the context demands. Not merely did justice seem compromised by pretermission of past sins, and therefore require vindication, but the work of Christ had so glorified God in the judgment of sin that it was only just for God to remit sins, yea, to justify him that is of faith in Christ Jesus. And so, it cannot be denied, the apostle but explains what he means by dikaiosune Theou, when he adds that God set forth Christ a propitiatory, or mercy-seat, that He might be just and justify the believer.
If then it be so, that dikaiosune Theou can only mean God’s righteousness where it is fully expounded (as in verses 25, 26), how unreasonable to give the same phrase a different force in the same context! (Verses 21, 22, just before.) If this be owned, with what consistency can one question its meaning in chapter 1:17? Even chapter 3:5 makes this apparent, for there beyond controversy the phrase means the consistency of God with His character (that is, His righteousness) in judging the world which rejects Christ, as the other passages shew His righteousness in justifying those who believe in His name. Compare also Matthew 6:33, James 1:20. Elsewhere (save in 2 Cor. 5:21, which stands alone in using the abstract for concrete, but otherwise strengthens the same truth) the terms in the Epistles of Paul signify God’s justice in justifying those who, resting by faith on Jesus and His blood, are accepted in all the value of His acceptance before God.
Chapter 4 confirms the principle of faith for justification by the example of Abraham, backed up by David’s testimony in Psalm 32; and this before the law or even circumcision. Thus, if the Jews contended for the inheritance by law or ordinances, they must shut him out who had it by promise, and therefore by faith: if they were his children really, they must receive all from God on a ground that ensures the promise to all the seed, Gentile no less than Jewish; and the rather, as in his case and Sarah’s they were as good as dead, and their accomplishing of the promise out of the question, that God alone might be looked to as able to quicken the dead; just as we, Christians, believe, not here simply on Jesus, but on Him that raised from among the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered for our offences and raised for our justification.
The consequences of being thus justified by faith are stated in the first half of chapter 5: peace with God, His actual grace or favour, and the hope of His glory in which we boast; nor in this only, but in tribulations because of their effect experimentally; yea, finally, boasting in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom now we have received the reconciliation.
But the work of Christ goes much farther than the remission of sins or the display of divine love to us in view of guilt, however important it is that we begin with this. Pardon refers to our sins which must otherwise be dealt with in the day of judgment; but there rises also the question of our nature or actual state, not merely of our bad works, but of the sin that produced them. Here it is not personal guilt, nor Jews and Gentiles convicted as before, but the race with its head, and the sin which came in by that one man, though each also has his own sins. This clearly brings us up to Adam, though (thank God) also in presence of Christ, the law which came in meanwhile and by the bye only shaping sins into offences and causing them to abound. Now, if a single man righteously involved all his family in sin and death, who can dispute the righteous title of God that the grace of another man, Christ, should abound to His family for eternal life? Such is the argument from chapter 5:12.
If grace be so rich in every way and for ever, should we continue in sin that grace may abound? It is a denial in effect of Christianity: so we learn in chapter 6. We that die to sin, how shall we longer live in it? We were buried with Christ by baptism unto death, that we should walk in newness of life. Our old man was crucified together that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin. For he that died is justified from sin. Thus we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Sin shall not have dominion, for we are not under law but under grace. Shall we sin then because we are thus? Certainly not. We were slaves of sin, but now, freed from it, we have become slaves of righteousness and of God, have our fruit unto holiness, and the end, worthy of His grace, eternal life.
Chapter 7 handles the question of freedom from the law, as it was already shewn that grace strengthens against sin, instead of making it a light or open matter. The married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he is alive: death severs this bond. So are we made dead to the law by the body of Christ, that we should belong to another who has been raised from among the dead in order that we might bear fruit to God. We were in the flesh, but now are cleared from the law, being dead to that wherein we were held, so that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in oldness of letter. Observe however that it is not by abrogation of the law but by our death to it that grace acts.
Not that the law is sin, but sin, getting an occasion or point of attack by the commandment, works every lust, deceives, slays, and also becomes exceeding sinful. But though renewed, the person finds himself without strength, discerns evil in his nature as distinct from himself, delights in the law of God yet sees another law in his members bringing him into captivity, and so learns in conscious wretchedness the value of Christ for deliverance no less than pardon, though this in no way alters the two natures.
Chapter 8 closes the discussion with the fullest statement of the results of Christ’s work in death and resurrection for the Christian. Three divisions present themselves: first, the deliverance pursued even to the raising of the mortal body, the Spirit being regarded as characterizing that life and state; secondly, the relations of the Holy Ghost to the Christian as acting in, with, and on him in power and person; and, thirdly, God for us in the face of every trying experience and all hostility from the creature, fully and triumphantly securing us.
First, what a status for those in Christ! The necessary action of their new nature, the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, bespeaks their deliverance from the law of sin and death; as again God has already condemned in the cross sin in the flesh, not merely in its outbreak, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For there are persons characterized by each in life and character, the mind of the one death, of the other life and peace; and this, because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, and they that are in it cannot please Him, while Christians are not in it, but in Spirit, and so, Christ being in them, they hold the body as dead on account of sin, as the Spirit is life on account of righteousness. But even their mortal bodies will be raised on account of His Spirit that dwells in them. Secondly, the Spirit is a Spirit of sonship and an earnest of the glory that is coming, and we meanwhile groan by the Spirit, and God thus finds the mind of the Spirit, not selfishness, in us, while He makes all work for good. Thirdly, along with God’s purpose of conforming us to the image of His Son in glory, we have divine power assuring us; so that, come what will, nothing shall separate from His love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Chapters 9-11 follow the doctrine, and have for their object to conciliate the special promises to Israel with the indiscriminate grace to sinners as such without exception in the gospel.
In chapter 9 the apostle shews that not he, but the Jews, could be more justly censured for making light of the peculiar privileges of Israel; as in truth he loved them quite as fervently as Moses. It was a question of God’s call in Isaac. Nay, more, we see fleshly right still more manifestly excluded by the blessing of Jacob in disparagement of Esau, and this before the birth of the twins. It is a question thus of sovereign grace. Did they then complain of God’s unrighteousness? It was all for Israel, that sovereignty of God: else what had become of them ruined before the golden calf at Sinai, had not God said, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy “? On the other hand, Pharaoh is the witness of His hardening and judgments. Does man yet find fault because God acts as He will? This is met by asserting God’s title to judge man, and rebuking man’s pretension to judge God. He has power; but how does He use it? With the utmost long-suffering toward the vessels of wrath, and in the richest mercy to its vessels, the latter being in themselves no better than the former. Thus mercy calls Gentiles who had no privileges and Jews who had lost all. Hosea and Isaiah, more than once, confirm all, shewing not only Gentiles called but Israel stumbling at the stumbling-stone laid in Zion, while faith only would not be ashamed.
In chapter 10 the apostle expresses his heart’s desire on their behalf for salvation. But their zeal was not according to knowledge. They were ignorant of, and did not submit to, God’s righteousness, seeking to establish their own. For Christ ends law (and all such efforts are legal) for righteousness to every one that believes. They speak incompatibly, that which is of law, and what is of faith; but God’s righteousness is that of faith, Christ being the ground of it, and salvation the result, which therefore is as open to the Gentile as to the Jew who believed. Hence a testimony was sent out by God; and if few Jews received it, none the less did it go out unto all the earth; and here testimonies thicken from law and prophets to shew God found by Gentiles, and Israel disobedient and gainsaying.
Chapter 11 proves that the rejection of Israel is neither complete nor final, corroborated by the olive tree which lets us see the cutting off that awaits unfaithful Christendom no less surely than what befel the Jew, but that the Redeemer would yet come out of Zion turning away ungodliness from Jacob, and so all Israel be saved, coming in at length as an object of mercy no less than a Gentile. This drew out the transports of the apostle, as he thought of the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge.
From chapter 12 we enter on practical exhortations formally. The apostle beseeches the saints by the compassions of God to present their bodies a living sacrifice, without conformity to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their mind, to cultivate a sober, not a high, mind, as God dealt to each. For we being many are one body in Christ, and members one of another, with gifts differing which each should occupy himself in. More general calls follow, grace here too reigning through righteousness in the walk and spirit, widening toward men at large, which draws out the caution against avenging ourselves: rather should we, as God does, overcome evil with good.
Chapter 13 exhibits the relation of the saints to outward government in the world; subjection to what is thus set up of God, whatever it be, in the world, so that to oppose the authority is to resist His ordinance, on account not only of wrath but of conscience also; and on this account paying tribute and to all their dues, owing no man anything but love, the fulfilment of the law. And this too, urged the more by the nearness of the day, in the light of which we should walk, remembering that the night is far spent, and not gratifying flesh which loves the dark.
Then in chapter 14 follows the duty of brotherly forbearance, rendered at Rome in those days the more incumbent because of so many Jews and Gentiles meeting together there as Christians. The weak, as they are called, who were burdened with scruples, were not to judge the strong, who knew their liberty; neither were the strong to despise the weak. Conscience must be respected; Christ is Lord of dead and living; and to God every one of us must give account. Rather let one judge to put no stumbling-block in a brother’s way, nor thus for meat destroy him for whom Christ died. Peace and edification should be sought, but also a good conscience, for whatever is not of faith is sin. The beginning of chapter 15 concludes this question with Him who pleased not Himself, but bore the reproaches men cast on God, thus entitling the Christian to all the comfort of the scriptures which speak of Christ, and strengthening us to receive one another, as Christ did, to God’s glory.
Next we have, from verse 8, a statement of God’s ways in the gospel justified by the Old Testament, and of his own ministry among us Gentiles, as a reason for thus exhorting them, though giving them credit for goodness and knowledge and ability to admonish one another. From Jerusalem and in a circle round to Illyricum he had fully preached the gospel and so aiming, not where Christ was named, but where they had not heard of Him; and, now that his work was done in the East, his old and strong desire to visit the West, after a deacon’s service for the poor of the saints in Jerusalem (for nothing comes amiss to love), revives the hope to see the Roman saints on his way to Spain. But God had plans of His own; and if Paul was not saved from unbelieving brethren after the flesh in Judea, it was but to give him more the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings who was delivered to the Gentiles by the Jews.
Chapter 16 finishes with commendation of a sister Phoebe, servant of the assembly at Cenchrea; salutations minute and varied in the appreciation of all that was lovely and of good report; and warnings against those who make divisions and stumbling-blocks contrary to the doctrine they had learnt. To turn away from such men eaten up with self-importance is the best answer to their kind speaking and fairness of speech. Here as elsewhere we should be wise to what is good and simple to evil. The God of peace will see to all that is above us, bruising Satan under our feet shortly. How much do we not need the grace of our Lord with us now!
The apostle’s amanuensis, Tertius, adds his salutation, as do a few others. The Epistle closes with a doxology wonderfully suited to all we have had before us, yet intimating truth not here developed in harmony with which was his preaching. In the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians is this hidden mystery fully set out, the Epistles to the Corinthians acting as a link of transition, but each in due place and season, and all important for the saint and for the church. To the only wise God through Jesus Christ be glory for ever. Amen.
130 Had a Jew unswervingly obeyed the law, it had been human righteousness and himself accepted accordingly. But in the cross of Christ we see not merely the Father glorified in obedience but God glorified as to sin, so that He is righteous now in setting Christ at His own right hand and justifying us accordingly by and in Him. This is divine righteousness.