It was ordered in the wisdom of God that no apostle should plant the gospel in the imperial city. Rome cannot boast truthfully of a church apostolic in its origin, like Jerusalem, Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, and many more less considerable. We know that on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost was first given, there were Roman Jews, sojourning in Jerusalem, who heard the gospel there. (Acts 2; compare also Rom. 16:7.) These may have carried the glad tidings westward, if not before, at least when the persecution that arose on the case of Stephen scattered all save the apostles. We are sure that some who were then dispersed went to Phenice and Cyprus as well as to Antioch, and that at this last place they preached to Greeks and not to Jews only.
But whatever the particular means used to make known Christ there, it is certain that till Paul wrote and afterwards came to Rome, no apostle had visited that city. Yet an evidently considerable number of saints were there; and, in my judgment, the epistle itself affords clear and full indication that they consisted of persons from among Jews as well as Gentiles.
These were among the circumstances which drew out an epistle from the great apostle which yields to no other in importance. Hence have we here so comprehensive a treatise, and withal so fundamental; not on Church relationship, but man’s state as a sinner, and then his justification by the work and death and resurrection of Christ; that is, the privileges of individual saints through redemption, as well as the total ruin of man and his need of this mighty intervention of God in the gospel. Had the apostle laid the foundation of the work at Rome, had he gone there, as he had ardently wished, to impart some spiritual gift, we could scarcely have had such a development as we now possess. For in either case he would naturally have taught them face to face what is now embodied for ever in the epistle. Before he could pay them a visit and establish them orally, their state called out this remarkable fulness of truth from the rudiments of truth upwards. Their mingled composition of Jews and Gentiles required the question of the law to be solved as to both justification and walk, as well as the reconciliation of the actual display of indiscriminate grace in the gospel with the special promises to Israel. It demanded a full explanation of human responsibility, whether in Jew or in Greek. For the same reason too it was needed, here especially, to set forth chiefly in exhortation the general walk of the Christians in relation to each other and to the powers that be (at that time heathen), with the peremptory claims of holiness on the one hand, and on the other the true nature and limits of brotherly forbearance in things indifferent.
The salutation or address of the apostle is unusually full. “Paul, a bondman of Jesus Christ, a called apostle, separated unto God’s gospel, which he promised before by his prophets in holy scripture, concerning his Son, that came of David’s seed as to flesh, that was marked out God’s Son in power as to spirit of holiness by resurrection of [the] dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom we received grace and apostleship, for obedience of faith among all the nations, in behalf of his name; among whom are ye also, called of Jesus Christ: to all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints, grace to you and peace from God our Father and [the] Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ver. 1-7.)
“Bondman of Jesus Christ” is the boast of one who knew the true holy liberty of grace as perhaps no other heart was taught and enjoyed so well. This was a general designation and should be true, is true, of each Christian. But. Paul next speaks of himself as a “called apostle.” Apostleship was not successional like a Jewish priest, nor elect of the assembly like the seven who cared for tables at Jerusalem: still less was it a question of self-assumption He was an apostle by calling as the saints were called. (Ver. 7.) No doubt, from his mother’s womb Saul of Tarsus had been separated, as he was afterwards called by God’s grace. But here it appears to me that the separation was more distinctly “for God’s gospel,” and therefore may refer rather to Acts 13:2. God’s glad tidings is a precious truth, the direct and explicit contradiction of man’s natural thought of Him who gives to all liberally and upbraids not. Doubtless this can only be in and through Christ; still it is God who loves, gives, sends, it is His gospel. What a blessed starting-point for the apostle! What an exhaustless fountain-head!
But if the fulness of spontaneous and active love in God toward man be a truth ever new by reason of the constant prevalence of human thoughts even in the saints, it was no new thing to God. (Ver. 2.) It was late in the world’s history when this gospel went forth; but He had promised it before through His prophets in holy writ — through the prophets who ever appear of old when all on man’s part was hopeless. So one of the earliest that wrote prophecies said, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help. I will be thy king; where is any other that may save thee?” So another, the last of them, wrote, “I am Jehovah, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Had the Jews, had the priests even, despised His name? “From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, my name shall be great among the Gentiles.” Such is a sample of what He proclaimed beforehand through His prophets. Space would fail to cite even a small portion. What went before as far as this verse notices was God’s promise (for the law is not yet touched on); His gospel is not promise but accomplishment. Before Christ and His work, it could not be more than promised. Now, whatever be the promises, in Him is the Yea and in Him the Amen.
How can these things be? What can account either for such precious promises, or for the still more precious accomplishment on which God’s gospel is founded and goes forth to man? The answer is clear, worthy, and amply sufficient. All turns on the Son of God: His glad tidings are concerning Him. (Ver. 3.) His person comes before us here in two ways: first, as born of the seed of David according to the flesh which He had condescended to; secondly, as defined or declared Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection. These two views of our Lord are respectively in relation to what we have just seen, — the promises and the gospel. The true Beloved, the Son of David, came, object and fulfiller and fulfilment of every promise of God; but man, and especially the people who had the promises, received Him not, but cast Him out even to death, the death of the cross. God, infinitely glorified therein, raised Him up who had already raised dead persons, and will raise all. “For as the Father raiseth up the dead and quickeneth, even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.” Thus in every way resurrection marks Him out as Son of God in power, pre-eminently so when He rose in His own person after being crucified in weakness, and this according to the Spirit of holiness which characterized Him all the days of His flesh. Thus, as the coming of Christ was the presentation of the promise, God’s gospel supposes not only the divine glory of His person but the mighty power of His resurrection which demonstrates the value and efficacy of His death. (Ver. 4.) In life sin and Satan touched Him not, who ever walked in the Spirit and according to the word of God; on the cross, made sin for us, He annulled him who had the power of death, though resurrection alone adequately determines His power and glorious person.
Jesus consequently, risen from the dead in power, acts as Lord and Christ, “our Lord,” “by whom we have received grace and apostleship.” (Ver. 5.) It is He who sends from on high. As once on earth, Lord of the harvest, He sent forth first the twelve and afterwards other seventy also; so ascended He gave gifts to men. Nor was it only that the apostolic call was itself a mark of grace. In Paul’s case the grace that arrested and quickened him to God was at one and the same time with the choice of him as a witness to all men of what he had seen and heard. Such a call could not, so to speak, but be of deeper character and larger sphere than that of others who had been appointed of the Lord while here below. Hence it was “for obedience of faith” (not exactly that which faith leads and strengthens to, but faith — obedience, the heart bowing to the divine message of His grace) “in all the nations” as the scene of testimony. Taken out from among the people and the nations, to these last the Lord sent him, as we are told in Acts 26. Again, we are here told, it was “for” or “on behalf of the name of Christ.”
Such was his passport: what was theirs? “Among whom are ye also, called of Jesus Christ.” They were among the nations, and his commission was toward all the nations. Was he a called apostle? So were they saints, not by birth nor by ordinance, but by the call of Jesus Christ who had called him as apostle. (Ver. 6.)
This entitled Paul then to address “all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints;” this made it his heart’s joy, as it was the Holy Ghost’s inspiring him, to wish them “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ver. 7.) These privileges they had tasted already through the faith of Christ; but the apostle owns himself their debtor and proceeds to put to their account that which would enrich them exceedingly. May we too enjoy increasingly Him who is their source through the One who alone can make Him known!
Take any part of the Old Testament and compare it with these opening words. How evident and immense the difference, aim, character, and scope! One may well wonder this never occurred to those who would assimilate the testimony of God and state of man before and after the coming of Christ. What is there, for instance, like it in the five books of Moses, or the historical books that follow? In vain do you search the Psalms and other poetical books for a parallel. Not even the prophets describe or predict such a state of things. Glorious things are spoken for Israel; mercy from God which will not fail to reach and bless the poor Gentiles; deliverance and joy for the long-travailing earth and lower creation in general: — all this and more we have abundantly from the prophets and even in the Psalms. But there is nothing resembling the tone even of the Apostle’s salutation and preface to the Roman saints, any more than what meets us in the rest of the epistles of the New Testament. A new thing was before God here below, answering to a new thing, the greatest of all, in heaven — His own Son, as man who was risen and gone on high after having expiated our sins on the cross. From this, as the central object, the Holy Ghost works, sent down to make God known in Christ come and gone, and to give believers a part in the infinite work Christ has effected for them. This revealed object conforms the hearts that know it, though not all equally, yet all in measure after its own nature. Such is Christianity.
Here, as everywhere in the epistles, illustrations, examples, and proofs abound; not that there was not faith before, not that the Spirit did not at all times work suitably to God’s character and dealings. Hence there never was a day of difficulty or darkness of old which did not give occasion for some worthy display of God’s wisdom and goodness, and this through, as well as to, those that knew Him in His grace. But these displays were of course according to the task He had then in hand, whether before the flood or after it, whether in the time of simple promise or after the law was given, whether amidst the sorrows of the captivity or when the Messiah was presented to the responsibility of the returned remnant in the land. Certainly for saints now as of old there are objective truths, there are traits of inward experience and of outward practice, which always abide in substance. But this identity in much that is of no small moment only makes the fact the more striking that there are differences of incalculable importance, not merely for us but as connected with God’s glory. Who could conceive before redemption such feelings, thoughts, language as we have here before us? Who that has the smallest spiritual perception could think of Enoch or Noah, Isaac or Jacob, Moses or Joshua, David or Solomon, Isaiah or Jeremiah, yea even Peter or John in the days of our Lord’s ministry, uttering such words as these to saints at Rome, many of them Gentiles? “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all that your faith is proclaimed in the whole world. 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 at the time of my prayers entreating, if by any means now at length I shall be prospered by the will of God to come to you: for I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift in order to your being established; that is, to be comforted mutually in you by the faith in each other, both yours and mine.” (Ver. 8-12.)
Entirely independent of fleshly tie or national connection or a school of opinion or any other relationship of time, it was a bond which, resting on the unseen and eternal, knit the heart of him who wrote to souls for the most part never seen before. An affection ardent and sustained continually bore them on his heart before God and delighted in the good report of their faith announced in the whole world, as it then might easily be from that seat of central authority which made its will and mind felt to and beyond the extremities of its vast empire. Hence his longing to see them for no selfish interest but for their spiritual blessing through the faith which produces and reproduces joy now in the midst of rejection, and blessing that will never fade or be forgotten. Such were among the effects of God’s gospel now realized in and expressed by him who, without that blessed knowledge of Christ, had been the fiercest zealot of the straitest sect of the Pharisees, persecuting to prison and death all that dared even of his own nation to call on the name of Jesus of Nazareth; now the untiring herald of divine grace, in that same Jesus dead and risen, as unlimited as the sin and misery of man; the warm sympathizer with God-given faith in all who bore that despised name. He himself was emphatically a man of faith — faith working by love which sought not theirs but them, not this world’s ease or honour but God’s will and glory in the good of souls, everlastingly indeed but now also, not as if it were a doubtful essay but a willing blessing from the God whose grace he knew for himself and could count on for all His children.
Fervour of affection too was natural, so to speak, to one thus living with God, “my God,” while in this world, joy (not in iniquity, as wretched flesh delights in what is of and like itself, but) in what was of God “through Jesus Christ,” though only known by report everywhere. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed in the whole world.” He could appeal to God for the best of all evidences of his thankfulness to Him for it, and love to them. “For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” His mention of them was incessant, always beseeching on occasion of his prayers, that, if God so pleased, he might somehow be permitted now at least to visit them. What evident and godly sincerity! What motives wrought of the Spirit in one who owned himself the chief of sinners, and less than the least of all saints!
Mark the change of expression here in passing. It is the gospel of God’s Son now, not simply of God, however beautiful this was in its place. (Ver. 1.) But now the apostle is not thinking of the source which characterized the glad tidings, but of the manner and means in which His grace wrought to deliver the lost. It was therefore the gospel of His Son as well as His own. Here, too, the apostle names his own serving God “in my spirit;” i.e., not with mere outward works or a bare sense of imperious duty, but with inwardly active and intelligent devotedness in the glad tidings of God’s Son.
One of this world’s sages has dared to impute to the holy apostle pious craft and holy flattery; but this was, no doubt, a judgment founded on his own spirit and his incapacity of appreciating the delicate feelings which grace renders easy and habitual. Not so: though the apostle had his commission from the Lord to the Gentiles as such, he would exercise it according to Christ. It is the tact of tender love toward those who were saints of God in such a place, not the manoeuvring of a skilful party-leader, which we see here, when he tells them of his strong desire to see them — that he might impart some spiritual gift in order to their establishment: that is, as he explains, to be mutually comforted among them by each other’s faith, both theirs and his. Yet the will of God governed his steps, whatever might be his affectionate longing after their good.
Nor was it a new thing, this desire to see them. “Now I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, that I often proposed to come to you (and was hindered hitherto), that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among the other Gentiles. Both to Greeks and Barbarians, both to wise and to unintelligent, I am debtor; so, as far as concerns me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that [are] in Rome.” (Ver. 13-15.) Whatever might be the special preoccupation which hindered the apostle’s execution of what was in his heart, God manifestly did not mean the great western city, the capital of the world, to have an early visit of one in Paul’s position. If he owned the debt of love to all nations and conditions, certainly Rome could not but have attractions, especially as some already called out from the world were there. On his part, then, there was no reluctance but all readiness to go to Rome.
Let none imagine that the grandeur of that great city kept him back through awe of it or shame of Christ. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, both to Jew first and to Greek.” (Ver. 16.) All else was but man, or appealed to man. The gospel was God’s power for saving, not a mere rule to condemn. Consequently it went out to every one that believes, Jew or Greek, though to Jew first who had the law and the promises too. Such was the order even for the great apostle of the uncircumcision, at least while the first tabernacle subsisted.
“For God’s righteousness is revealed in it by faith unto faith, even as it is written, But the just shall live by faith.” (Ver. 17.)
This verse is so important in itself, of so large a bearing on the epistle as well as the doctrine of the gospel elsewhere, and withal so perplexed by the conflicting thoughts even of true believers, not to speak of theologians of all schools, that it demands and will surely repay our careful consideration in dependence on our God.
The first thing to be remarked is that
δικαιοσύνη does not mean justification, but here at least, as in most passages where this phrase occurs, righteousness, and this justifying. It is therefore kept distinct by the apostle from
δικαίωσις (Rom. 4:25; Rom. 5:18.), which expresses the act of justifying, or the effect — justification; as
δικαίωμα sets forth accomplished righteousness in justification or in judgment, righteous requirement whether morally or as an ordinance or decree. (Luke 1:6; Rom. 1:32; Rom. 2:26; Rom. 5:16, 18; Rom. 8:4; Heb. 9:1, 10; Rev. 15:4; Rev. 19:8.) Thus
δικαιοσύνη retains its regular signification of habit or quality of righteousness.
Next, observe that it is
Θεοῦ, God’s righteousness, not man’s — divine righteousness revealed in the gospel, not human righteousness required in the law. There is no question here either of infusion or of imputation. As for infusion,2 it is wholly wrong; as to imputation, it is a precious truth insisted on in Romans 4, where the apostle draws from the case of Abraham that the believer’s faith is reckoned for (or as) righteousness. For God in His grace can afford to justify the ungodly soul who believes on Him — can and does reckon righteousness to him apart from works, according to Psalm 32.
Here, however, the apostle does not enter on an exposition of the ground on which God could consistently with His character justify a sinful man. But as he had declared he was not ashamed of the gospel because it is God’s power for salvation to every believer Jew or Greek, so he now explains that it has this saving character because God’s righteousness is revealed in it “by faith,” and consequently “to faith.”
In Titus 2 the apostle looks at the source of the gospel. It is the grace of God. Lost man needs that saving grace which is only in God and has now appeared free and full in Christ Jesus and His redemption. But here in Romans 1 the stress is on His righteousness, not on His mercy, though indeed it is the richest mercy, but it is much more. In the gospel is His righteousness revealed. The awakened sinner does repent, does detest his sins, judges himself as wholly and nothing but evil in God’s sight, and so humbly, thankfully casts himself on Christ. But in the gospel is revealed not the victory of the soul striving against sin, but God’s righteous consistency with Himself in revealing to the believer a salvation entirely outside himself and therefore
ἐκ πίστεως, by or of faith, out of that principle and no other. Sovereign grace alone could have thought of it, or given it thus freely to him who deserved nothing less; but the conscience of the sinner touched of the Spirit could not have peace whilst a charge of guilt remained. The righteousness of God, without the gospel, would and must have made a short work of the guilty — most have judged them at once and for ever. But the gospel is God’s power for salvation because in it is His righteousness revealed in the way of faith. Were it by works of law man must win and merit life, but it is wholly in contrast with such a scheme, and man, being guilty and so lost on any such ground, disappears, save as the object of God’s salvation which now triumphs in the blessed fact that it is His righteousness also. Hence it is of faith that it might be according to grace, and so open to any and every believer; for as we are told elsewhere (Gal. 3.) “the law is not of faith;” and it works wrath. (Rom. 4.) Clearly, then, there is great precision, as ever in the language of Scripture. Human righteousness is expressly excluded, as it would be indeed inconsistent with the entire context, which supposes man to be lost, if it were only because the gospel is God’s power for salvation: and which immediately after (ver. 18 et seqq.) proceeds to demonstrate the universality and completeness of man’s ruin. The gospel is the revelation of divine righteousness.3 It is God who justifies, and He is just in justifying, him who believes.
It is of immense moment to see this great truth. It is not merely a righteousness which God provides and gives, or which avails with Him,4 though both be quite true. The meaning is, what the words say — “God’s righteousness” — without for the present going farther. Who doubts the force of God’s power just before, or God’s wrath just after? Why should men stumble at the similar phrase between? Romans 3:21-26 is explicit enough to help to a definite judgment.
One reason of the difficulty is that some never seem to think of righteousness apart from imputation; and as we cannot speak of imputing God’s righteousness, so they, in their own mind, change the expression of Scripture and prefer to express their thought as the “imputed righteousness of Christ,” which again leaves room for other consequences. Now as a principle we must hold to the superiority of Scripture and the forms which the inspiring wisdom of God has given to His own truth. That Christ was absolutely and perfectly righteous every Christian believes; that imputation has a most weighty place in the matter of our justification is to my mind both undeniably certain and essential to the gospel. Nevertheless, the truth remains that, where God’s righteousness occurs in Scripture, imputation is not employed. Nor do I believe it could be; because as God’s righteousness could not be inherent, so on the other hand imputing God’s righteousness has no meaning.5 Here it is His righteousness revealed in the gospel. Chapter 3 shows how this can be righteously. Being not merely deficient but guilty sinners, we cannot be justified without the blood of Christ dying in atonement for our sins. Hence, therefore, entirely apart from law, divine righteousness is by faith of Him who thus wrought redemption, and God is just and justifies him who is of faith in Jesus. But God was so glorified in the cross of Christ, that He raised Him up and seated Him in glory at His own right hand — not only forgave us, but seated us in Christ in heavenly places. This is God’s righteousness, which is revealed to faith. Nothing less is righteously due to Christ because of His redemption work. It is the contrast of law — work in all respects. God is righteous in treating not Christ only but the believer in Him according to the worth of redemption in His own eyes. By virtue of His work God accounts us righteous who believe; we are made the righteousness of God in Him.
At Sinai, in the law, man’s righteousness was claimed but found wanting. In the gospel God’s righteousness is revealed, complete and perfect. Promised before, it was only revealed when all was accomplished which is its ground. Being revealed, it is a question of faith, not of desert nor victory, nor power within, but contrariwise of looking out of self to God’s righteousness in Christ.
As divine righteousness is revealed by faith (
ἐκ πίστεως), so is it unto or for faith (
εἰς πίστιν): the one excluding works of law as the way or principle on which it is revealed; the other including faith wherever it may be, and whatever the measure. It is singular that the Authorized Version should give “from faith” here and “by faith” for the same phrase in the same verse. The former appears to me objectionable in this connection; because it insinuates the idea of growth from one degree of faith to another, as some ancients and moderns have avowed. On the other hand, to take
ἐκ π. (by faith) with
δ. Θ. (God’s righteousness) is due perhaps to the difficulty some have found in assigning to each phrase its own definite value.
Again, the reader must beware of the notion which some found on the present tense of the verb
ἀποκαλύπτεται, as if it warrants the idea of a gradually more complete realization of the state of justification.6 I do not doubt that faith grows and so apprehension and enjoyment of our blessing in Christ, but the thing revealed in the gospel to faith is complete: divine righteousness repudiates any other thought, whatever may be the measure in which the heart apprehends it.
Not even a Jew could deny that the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) affirms the same principle; and the slight difference from both the Hebrew and the Septuagint bears witness, it seems to me, that these words are cited for so much and no more: “even as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
The apostle next proceeds to show what it was that made the gospel so necessary to man and so suitable to God. The gospel is God’s power to salvation, and so a revelation of His righteousness,
ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν. When man evidently had, or was convicted of having, no righteousness for God, He revealed His own in the gospel, which was consequently open for faith wherever it existed, being by faith, and not by works of law, to which the Jew laid claim. To this truth also the prophet Habakkuk gave his emphatic testimony.
That God should thus deal with man was absolutely needful if man were to find salvation. “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven upon all impiety and unrighteousness of men that hold the truth in unrighteousness.”
The fathers and the children of Israel were not without experience of divine wrath on earth. They had seen it consume the cities of the plain of Sodom. They had known His wondrous chastisements in the field of Zoan till the waters of the Red Sea, rebuked for their sakes, covered their proud enemies, so that not one was left. They had felt its edge when the Lord created a new thing, and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed up quickly Korah, Dathan, and Abiram with their company. Man, the race, had already proved it indeed in the flood which took them all away, save those secured in the ark. But these and other kindred acts of judgment of old were providential and earthly. There was as yet no revelation of God’s wrath from heaven. These divine actings were visible in their effects if not arresting men before the eyes of their fellows on earth.
Now, concurrently with the glad tidings, not exactly therein, divine wrath is revealed from heaven (ver. 18.). This is in no way executed yet, but it is being revealed; and man, being sinful, is seen to be utterly, manifestly, unfit for God’s presence. God Himself is no longer hidden. He has been manifested in flesh: the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.” His nature thus disclosed is absolutely intolerant of sin, as it must be also of sinners, but for His righteousness revealed in the gospel, which justifies the believer by the faith of Christ. Still the same Christ, whose atonement is the groundwork of the gospel, makes known God as He is, and nowhere more proved to be at war for ever with evil than in the cross, where Jesus who knew no sin, yet made sin for us, tasted not death only but the divine abandonment, that our sins might be dealt with according to the unsparing judgment of God. Hence, along with the gospel, there is revealed His wrath from heaven, which goes far beyond any conceivable temporal strokes of His hand on earth; for these (though of course a testimony to, and as far as they went in harmony with, this nature) were but a part of His governmental dealings, not the full expression of His nature as when we come to the expiation of Christ.
Hence this divine wrath revealed from heaven has for its object every kind of godlessness (
πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν) and especially men’s unrighteousness that hold the truth in unrighteousness. It is no longer a particular nation under a law which judged acts of transgression, though it gave the knowledge of a sinful root underneath, while the rest of the nations were comparatively overlooked. ‘Hear this word that the Lord hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:1, 2.) The veil is rent; and God shining out, as it were, discerns and judges all everywhere inconsistent with Himself. At the same time He sends in the gospel a free and full remission of sins to every believer. Thus, while every form of Gentile evil is morally judged as contrary to God’s nature, the Jew, if unrighteous, is implied from the outset to be in a yet more awful condition. “Salvation is of the Jews.” They had the promises, and the law, and in part at least the truth. But the language is so comprehensive as to be quite as applicable, if not more so, to the professing Christian now with his enlarged light, grace, and the truth more fully revealed in Christ. Increase of privileges, if abused, is but increase of condemnation. And what more just, the enemies of God themselves being judges and the cause their own? Thus it seems to me that
πᾶσαν (“all”) extends to the second part of the description as well as to the first, and embraces every sort of unrighteousness where men hold the truth in unrighteousness, no less than every kind of impiety. Such men might not be strictly impious; they possess the truth; but along with this, being unrighteous, they cause the truth and name of God to be thereby blasphemed.
Some find a difficulty in the last clause, and, assuming that
κατεχόντων, if here taken in the sense of “holding,” must have it only in the lowest degree, they contend for the meaning of “holding back” or restraint as in 2 Thessalonians 2:6, 7, which they persuade themselves is suitable to our context. My conviction is that
κατέχω retains here its usual emphasis of possession or holding fast, where moral things are in question, and that this is necessary to the solemn lesson here conveyed. For the apostle is speaking of God’s wrath as against not merely all impiety in general but specifically men’s unrighteousness who ever so stubbornly keep the truth in unrighteousness. God is not mocked. His Spirit is the Holy Spirit as well as the Spirit of truth. He must have the truth held in righteousness; for otherwise it is not Christ, the Second Man, but only the first man in another shape, and in a shape pre-eminently hateful to Himself. How many feel keenly, dispute hotly, and in other days have contended in deadly warfare for the truth they held, whose works denied God, being abominable, disobedient, and to every good work reprobate! The Jews were a standing witness of this perilous religion then: Christendom, Popery, Protestantism, the truest dogmatic reaching you please, is not a whit safer now, where the professor does not pursue holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
Nothing can be simpler and more certain than this truth, once it is stated and understood. But the value of it is apparent from the fact that the Fathers so-called, almost if not quite unanimously, overlooked and denied it. Their system, even that of pious and able men like Augustine, was that the wicked, though lost, would derive some considerable assuagement during their everlasting punishment because of their baptism. Most fatal and offensive error! The very reverse is true. “That servant which knew his lord’s will and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew it not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Again, this verse is not, as some suppose, limited as a preface to the proof of Gentile depravity; it is rather the thesis in brief, which is opened out in the rest of Romans 1, 2, 3, down to verse 21, which resumes the treatment of God’s righteousness, and begins the details of that which we had in Romans 1:17. I understand, therefore, that verse 18 gives first the general description of human ungodliness in every phase, and then the unrighteousness which was at that time most conspicuous in the Jews who combined with practical injustice a tenacious hold or possession of the truth: the former demonstrated to the end of Romans 1; the latter (after the transition of Rom. 2:1-16.) pursued from Romans 2:17 to Romans 3:20. Had this two-fold aspect been apprehended in the verse before us, the rendering of the Authorized Version would not have been deserted for “restraining the truth by unrighteousness,” which is a sense framed to meet the condition of the heathen who were supposed here to be alone in the apostle’s view. The same misconception wrought mischief in lowering the character both of the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven, and of the truth in order to meet paganism. Admit the universal scope of the moral description with a specific reference to those who held the truth in unrighteousness, and the sense which results is as easy as it is all-important, the fitting introduction to the entire episode that follows till the apostle takes up his proper theme, God’s righteousness revealed in the gospel.
The apostle next proceeds to set forth the proofs of the guilt of men, because of which the wrath of God awaits them. And first he takes up impiety, or the evil which characterized the vast majority of the world, as later on he addresses himself to that subtler iniquity which consisted in holding the truth along with practical unrighteousness, then found among Jews as now in Christendom. This division of the subject, it will be seen, is not only closer to the language of the context but it preserves us from the mistake of such as attribute a knowledge of “the truth” to the heathen as such. In fact verse 19 begins with the earlier of the two classes of evil we have seen distinguished in verse 18, and the subject is pursued to the end of the chapter. It is distinctively the Gentile portion, and presents the moral ground which necessitated and justified the unsparing judgment of God.
Two reasons are assigned why His wrath is thus revealed upon all impiety. The first (ver. 19, 20.) is their inexcusable neglect of the testimony of creation to His eternal power and divinity; the second (ver. 21.), their abandonment of the traditional knowledge of God they had as late as the day of (not Adam, but even) Noah. Thus man was unfaithful to knowledge he possessed and to evidence around him.
“Because what is to be known of God is manifest among them, for God hath manifested it to them. For the invisible things of him from the world’s creation are perceived, being understood by his work, both his eternal power and divinity, so that they should be inexcusable.” The general force is plain. A few expressions may call for more detailed explanation.
Τὸ γνωστόν means here, I think, not the knowledge (
ἡ γνῶσις) or what was known of God, but, as the English Version, “that which may be known” of Him. It is the knowable rather than the known. The evidence was ample and distinct, but their eyes were dull. Next, I see no sufficient ground to take the phrase
ἐν αὐτοῖς in an emphatic sense, but in one more general. Had self-knowledge been appealed to, as many conceive, it appears to me that the proper word for subjective knowledge must have been employed, and, further, the reflexive pronoun. It was expressly an objective character of knowledge which lay open in the midst; and this is confirmed by the added intimation — “for God manifested it to them,” not the action of conscience, which finds its more appropriate place in Romans 2 where moral perception and conduct is discussed.
But how did God manifest to men what may be known to Him? This is answered in verse 20. For His invisible things, not all of course, but His eternal power and divinity, since the creation of the world, are perceived, being mentally apprehended by His works. The things He made were before all eyes, and, as we know, did not fail to produce convictions far above the ordinary strain of human thought prostrated by superstition and bewildered by philosophy: so much so that even the famous positivist of ancient times could not write his treatise on the world without affirming that “God, though He is invisible to every mortal being, is seen from the works themselves.”
ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου, “from the world’s creation,” can signify the foundation or source of the suggestion as easily and surely as the earliest starting point of time; but the latter seems to me preferable here, because the things made by God are immediately afterwards named as furnishing the groundwork for the mind to infer their Maker by.
Again, it is notorious that
θεῖος, divine), here translated “Godhead” in the Authorized Version, has a wholly different force from
Θεός, God) in Colossians 2:9. In the latter case it would quite fall short of the apostle’s object to predicate divinity of the person of Christ: all the fulness of the Deity, or Godhead in the strictest sense, he says, dwells in Him bodily. In the former case, there is no such distinct personality supposed, but the more general sense that man may gather of a nature not creaturely but creatorial as evidenced in His works, the fruit of His power. It is a real, though the lowest, kind of testimony.
The next ground is not the knowable but the positively known. “Because, having known God, they glorified him not as God, nor were thankful, but became vain in their reasonings, and their unintelligent heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into7 a likeness of an image8 of corruptible man and birds and quadrupeds and reptiles.” (Ver. 21-23.) A traditional knowledge of God is in question; and as the former regarded man with evidence from the beginning calculated and adequate to indicate a divine First Cause, so the objective knowledge of God here spoken of was the portion of man even after the flood: indeed not till after that mighty event do we hear of idolatry. But man was unequal to the task of preserving the holy deposit; and this, because of his moral state. When they did know God, they neither glorified Him as such, nor were they thankful. This left room for vain reasonings, which again darkened the heart instead of leading it into light. It was the self-sufficiency, and so the folly, of the creature. For light is only seen in God’s light, and man must sink into darkness when not morally elevated by looking up to One above him. The humbling proof appeared too soon; and philosophy but sealed the evil to which superstitious fear led the way. An unacknowledged Supreme was rapidly forgotten, and the glory of the incorruptible God exchanged for a likeness of an image of corruptible man, yea, into objects ever lowering till creation’s lords, now the victims of this debasing delusion, worship the most loathsome reptile which eats the dust.
How admirably these few words refute the theory of progress in which the would-be wise have indulged in ancient and in modern times: a theory as contrary to their own vaunted reason as to fact. For what a Being could He be who would leave His intelligent and morally responsible creature, man, to grope his cheerless miserable way from the horrors of nature worship, and the darkness of polytheism, to juster notions of Himself and His attributes! Where is the wisdom, where the love, where the justice of such a scheme? The error consists in reasoning from progress in material things, or even from the intellectual domain, to moral condition: progress in those Scripture admits since the fall which means the very reverse in this. No: man departed more and more from God till the flood; after it he gave up the knowledge of God for the worship of the creature. The race fell into ever increasing error and evil, till a partial revelation by Moses and the complete manifestation of God in Christ judged morally the heathen world, proving its declension, not progress, its insensibility to right reason, and its departure from true traditions into the degradation of idolatry.
The consequence of idolatry is invariably under the moral judgment of God utter uncleanness among its votaries; and this in all its varieties but perhaps most conspicuously, as a divine retribution, among those who set up the human form, — “corruptible man,” — though it was certainly not wanting where they worshipped that which was beneath man, birds, quadrupeds, and reptiles, alone or combined.
“Wherefore also God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness to dishonour their bodies among them [-selves], who changed the truth of God for falsehood and venerated and served the creature more than the Creator who is blessed for ever, Amen.” (Ver. 24, 25.) If the soul abandons the truth of God, all is wrong, whatever appearances may say for the present. This was the great falsehood. Not to be in dependence and obedience is to be false to the relationship of a creature. Yet is there a step still farther down in evil, — the giving to the creature the honour that belongs to God only. It is exactly, and in this order, what Satan did, who was a liar from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, for there was no truth in him. Fallen man does his own will and is simply thus the slave of Satan. It may be in lusts, or in a religion of his own imagination, the one evidently degrading him, the other promising to elevate. But in truth it is Satan’s, not God’s promise, and is the full absolute lie which seals him up in all moral degradation not only for mind but for the body also. Such was heathenism, from which Judaism was powerless to deliver man, though a witness against his state. For God as yet dwelt behind a veil, and if at times He disclosed His way without a veil, it was but angelically, which is only a healing testimony to the sin-sick and not the quickening power needed by man, by all dead in trespasses and sin. (Comp. John 5.) God revealed in Christ, and this in eternal life as well as redemption, alone meets the case. Such is Christianity as now brought home and enjoyed in the power of the Holy Ghost, who accordingly puts more abundant honour on our uncomely parts and for the first time develops the vast importance of the body in God’s service. See Romans 6, 12; 1 Corinthians 6, 15; 2 Corinthians 5, etc.
“On this account God gave them up unto passions of dishonour; for both their females changed the natural use into the contrary of nature, and likewise also the males, leaving the natural use of the female, burned in their desire toward one another; males with males working out unseemliness, and fully receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was due.” (Ver. 26, 27.) In this graphic but most grave sketch of the humiliating picture, which the classics fill up in so different a tone (for “the unjust knoweth no shame”), the weaker vessel comes first, as indeed the shamelessness was there most apparent and human depravity proved most complete and hopeless. The apostle does not deign to characterize them (though the greatest and highest, sages of earth, monarchs, conquerors, poets, philosophers, and what not) as men and women, but as “females” and “males,” characterized by ways below the brute, given up of God, and even now enduring the meet reward of their deeds.
“And even as they approved not to have God in knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do things unbecoming; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, guile, ill-disposition; whisperers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boasters, inventors of mischiefs, disobedient to parents, without understanding, perfidious, without natural affection, unmerciful; who, well knowing the righteous decree of God that those who do such things are worthy of death, not only do them but also take complacency in those who do them.” (Ver. 28-32.) What pit of immorality can be lower than this last?
ἀδόκιμος is here as elsewhere translated “reprobate,” as this well suits the phrase and contrasts their not approving to retain God in their knowledge with His giving them over to a “disapproved” mind. But it may rightly bear an active sense, and would then mean an “undiscerning” mind, as the sentence on their presumption in rejecting God after pretending to test and try the matter. It will be observed that in verse 29 I have omitted on good external authority
πορνείᾳ (“fornication”), as the internal appears to me to turn the scale against it. As for the resemblance to
πονηρίᾳ, it might act either in giving room to its insertion by mistake, or to its omission. But I think that the first class consists of personal evil; the second of that which is relative; as the third brings out, not roots of moral pravity, abstractedly viewed, whether personal or relative, but developed wicked characters, and this in an order neither unsystematic nor difficult to discern.
Ἀσπόνδους is deficient in authority, being omitted in the best and most ancient manuscripts. “Implacable” is therefore left out of verse 31. It was probably introduced here because of its connection with
ἄστοργοι in 2 Timothy 3:3.
2 This is the Romish or Tridentine doctrine, which, though it uses the phrase “righteousness of God,” means thereby inherent righteousness wrought by the Spirit of God in the heart of man, expressly “non qua ipse justus est, sed qua nos justos facit, qua videlicet ab eo donati renovamur spiritu mentis nostrae, et non modo reputamur sed vere justi nominantur et sumus,” etc. Thus justification, being confounded with practical holiness, is really set aside. (Can. et Decr. Conc. Trid. Sessio VI., capp. vii. xvi.) Bellarmine is very explicit to the same effect. (De Controv. Tom. IV, de justif. ii. passim.)
3 The peculiarly anarthrous form of the proposition must strike any careful reader. This is owing to the fact that the apostle is describing the character of the gospel, not explaining as yet how God can so act (as he does in Romans 3:24-26, and elsewhere).
4 Δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ = neither ἡ ἐκ Θ. δ. nor δ. παρὰ Θ.
5 It may be well to add that some, having the sense that there is and must be practical reality in those who stand in true relationship with God, have from time to time clouded this subject and slipped to either side of the truth; and I refer to this the rather because there exists much want of scriptural intelligence, as well as ignorance even of facts easy enough to ascertain. Thus in and even before 1550 there broke out a serious feud among the Lutherans, which, though not confined to the point of divine righteousness, nevertheless had this for one of the most serious questions in dispute. Andrew Osiander (Professor of theology at Konigsberg, a man of mystical turn of mind and fond of bold and novel speculation) taught that it is only through the eternal and essential righteousness which resides in Christ as God or in His divine nature united to the human, that man obtains righteousness. Of this divine righteousness he partakes by faith. Thereby Christ dwells in man, and with Christ divine righteousness: in virtue of which righteousness, present in the regenerate, God regards them, though sinners, as righteous in the name of that righteousness. (See J. L. Moshemii Institt. H E. Saec. xvi. Sect. iii. pars ii. § 35.) This naturally and justly aroused the opposition of Melancthon; but Osiander’s death did not end the mischief, — for Stancar (Professor of Hebrew in the same place, and of turbulence equal to his colleague) fell into an opposite extreme and almost as dangerous. For if Osiander excluded the manhood of Christ, his antagonist excluded the divine nature from redemption. Evidently, however, Osiander’s doctrine is substantially that of the mystics, and confounds life, or the new nature, with the believer’s justification. There is not the smallest resemblance between it, and that which has been expounded in the text. It is God’s righteousness inherent or infused in the believer’s heart, not revealed in the gospel. In fact, there was the activity of a mind which saw that the believer partakes of the divine nature but confounded this with the wholly distinct truth that he is accounted righteous according to the acceptance of Christ Himself before God. In short, Osiander abused regeneration to deny justification or imputation of righteousness, and confounded union with Christ, as many do now, with both. This may be seen in Calvin’s Institutes, Book III., chapter xi., § 11. The following extract may be useful in showing how far those who have talked of Osiander have either understood his doctrine or are free from the snare into which he fell. “Ridet eos Osiander qui justificari docent esse verbum forense: quia oporteat nos re ipsa esse justos: nihil etiam magis respuit quam nos justificari gratuita imputatione. Agedum si nos Deus non justificat absolvendo et ignoscendo, quid sibi vult illud Pauli? Erat Deus, etc., 2 Cor. 5:20, 21. Primum obtineo justos censeri qui Deo reconciliantur; modus inseritur quod Deus ignoscendo justificet: sicuti alio loco justificatio accusationi opponitur; quae antithesis clare demonstrat sumptam esse loquendi formam à forensi usu.” I purposely quote Calvin’s reproof of the Lutheran for his mockery of imputation under the plea that we must be in reality just, which is indeed to deride a capital truth of the gospel. No Christian doubts, on the other hand, the value or necessity of practical righteousness apart from justification. (See Phil. 1:9-11.)
6 Calvin may illustrate the danger of this; for he draws from it, that as our faith makes progress and advances in this knowledge, so the righteousness of God increases in us at the same time. What can be looser than such language?
7 Or, “for.”
εἰκών are not the same and are both needed to complete the apostle’s thought. The one means a thing made like, or likeness; the other, a representative or image, whether externally resembling or not. This explains why the forms of
ὅμοιος are never used of the Son in relation to the Father; for He, who was God in the beginning before creation and yet with God, could not be said to be merely like God. But when incarnate He could be, and is said to be, the image of the invisible God. On the other hand, it was no derogation but the highest distinction for God to say of the first Adam that He would make him “in our image, after our likeness;” i.e., representing Him here below, and withal sinless morally like as He was. The tracing of the application both in Genesis and in the New Testament is deeply interesting and will prove how little the Fathers or modern books based on their ideas have caught the truth conveyed. They exalt the first man as unduly as they lower the glory of the Second; and this through the influence of Platonism. Fallen as he is, man is still God’s image. To curse him is to curse one that was made after His likeness. In the resurrection the saint will be like Christ and conformed to His image as the Firstborn among many brethren.