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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Romans 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-7

Chapter 2

THE WRITER AND HIS READERS

Romans 1:1-7

PAUL, a bondservant of Jesus Christ. So the man opens his Lord’s message with his own name. We may, if we please, leave it and pass on, for to the letter writer of that day it was as much a matter of course to prefix the personal name to the letter as it is to us to append it. But then, as now, the name was not a mere word of routine; certainly not in the communications of a religious leader. It avowed responsibility; it put in evidence a person. In a letter of public destination it set the man in the light and glare of publicity, as truly as when he spoke in the Christian assembly, or on the Areopagus, or from the steps of the castle at Jerusalem. It tells us here, on the threshold, that the messages we are about to read are given to us as "truth through personality"; they come through the mental and spiritual being of this wonderful and most real man. If we read his character aright in his letters, we see in him a fineness and dignity of thought which would not make the publication of himself a light and easy thing. But his sensibilities, with all else he has, have been given to Christ (who never either slights or spoils such gifts, while He accepts them); and if it will the better win attention to the Lord that the servant should stand out conspicuously, to point to Him, it shall be done.

For he is indeed "Jesus Christ’s bondservant"; not His ally merely, or His subject, or His friend. Recently, writing to the Galatian converts, he has been vindicating the glorious liberty of the Christian, set free at once from "the curse of the law" and from the mastery of self. But there too, at the Galatians 6:17, he has dwelt on his own sacred bondage; "the brand of his Master, Jesus." The liberty of the Gospel is the silver side of the same shield whose side of gold is an unconditional vassalage to the liberating Lord. Our freedom is "in the Lord" alone; and to be "in the Lord," is to belong to Him as wholly as a healthy hand belongs, in its freedom, to the physical centre of life and will. To be a bondservant is terrible in the abstract. To be "Jesus Christ’s bondservant" is Paradise, in the concrete. Self-surrender, taken alone, is a plunge into a cold void. When it is surrender to "the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me," [Galatians 2:20] it is the bright homecoming of the soul to the seat and sphere of life and power.

This bondservant of His now before us, dictating, is called to be an Apostle. Such is his particular department of servitude in the "great house." It is a rare commission-to be a chosen witness of the Resurrection, a divinely authorised "bearer" of the holy Name, a first founder and guide of the universal Church, a legatus a latere of the Lord Himself. Yet the apostleship, to St. Paul, is but a species of the one genus, bond service. "To every man is his work," given by the one sovereign will. In a Roman household one slave would water the garden, another keep accounts, another in the library would do skilled literary work; yet all equally would be "not their own, but bought with a price." So in the Gospel, then, and now. All functions of Christians are alike expressions of the one will of Him who has purchased, and who "calls."

Meanwhile, this bondservant-apostle, because "under authority," carries authority. His Master has spoken to him, that he may speak. He writes to the Romans as man, as friend, but also as the "vessel of choice," to bear the Acts 9:15 of Jesus Christ.

Such is the sole essential work and purpose of his life. He is separated to the Gospel of God; isolated from all other ruling aims to this. In some respects he is the least isolated of men; he is in contact all round with human life. Yet he is "separated." In Christ, and for Christ, he lives apart from even the worthiest personal ambitions. Richer than ever, since he "was in Christ," [Romans 16:7] in all that makes man’s nature wealthy, in power to know, to will, to love, he uses all his riches always for "this one thing," to make men understand "the Gospel of God." Such isolation, behind a thousand contacts, is the Lord’s call for His true followers still.

"The Gospel": word almost too familiar now, till the thing is too little understood. What is it? In its native meaning, its eternally proper meaning, it is the divine "Good Tidings." It is the announcement of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour of men, in whom God and man meet with joy. That announcement stands in living relation to a bright chain of precepts, and also to the sacred darkness of convictions and warnings; we shall see this amply illustrated in this Epistle. But neither precepts nor threatenings are properly the Gospel. The Gospel saves from sin, and enables for holy conduct. But in itself it is the pure, mere message of redeeming Love.

It is "the Gospel of God"; that is, as the neighbouring sentences show it, the gospel of the blessed Father. Its origin is in the Father’s love, the eternal hill whence runs the eternal stream of the work of the Son and the power of the Spirit. "God loved the world"; "The Father sent the Son."

The stream leads us up to the mount. "Hereby perceive we the love of God." In the Gospel, and in it alone, we have that certainty, "God is Love."

Now he dilates a little, in passing, on this dear theme, the Gospel of God. He whom it reveals as eternal Love was true to Himself in the preparation as in the event; He promised His Gospel beforehand through His prophets in (the) holy Scriptures. The sunrise of Christ was no abrupt, insulated phenomenon, unintelligible because out of relation. "Since the world began," [Luke 1:70] from the dawn of human history, predictive word and manifold preparing work had gone before. To think now only of the prediction, more or less articulate, and not of the preparation through general divine dealings with man-such had the prophecy been that, as the pagan histories tell us, "the whole East" heaved with expectations of a Judaean world rule about the time when, as a fact, Jesus came. He came, alike to disappoint every merely popular hope and to satisfy at once the concrete details and the spiritual significance of the long forecast. And He sent His messengers out to the world carrying as their text and their voucher that old and multi-fold literature which is yet one Book; those "holy writings" (our own Old Testament, from end to end,) which were to them nothing less than the voice of the Holy Spirit. They always put the Lord, in their preaching, in contact with that prediction.

In this, as in other things, His glorious Figure is unique. There is no other personage in human history, himself a moral miracle, heralded by a verifiable foreshadowing in a complex literature of previous centuries.

"The hope of Israel" was, and is, a thing sui generis. Other preparations for the Coming were, as it were, sidelong and altogether by means of nature. In the Holy Scriptures the supernatural led directly and in its own way to the supreme supernatural Event; the Sacred Way to the Sanctuary.

What was the burthen of the vast prophecy, with its converging elements? It was concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Whatever the prophets themselves knew, or did not know, of the inmost import of their records and utterances, the import was this. The Lord and the Apostles do not commit us to believe that the old seers ever had a full conscious foresight, or even that in all they "wrote of Him" they knew that it was of Him they wrote: though they had insights above nature, and knew it, as when David "in the Spirit called Him Lord," and Abraham "saw His day." But they do amply commit us to believe, if we are indeed their disciples, that the whole revelation through Israel did, in a way quite of its own kind, "concern the Son of God." See this in such leading places as Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39; John 5:46, Acts 3:21-25; Acts 10:43; Acts 28:23.

A Mahometan in Southern India, not long ago, was first drawn to faith in Jesus Christ by reading the genealogy with which St. Matthew begins his narrative. Such a procession, he thought, must lead up a mighty name; and he approached with reverence the story of the Nativity. That genealogy is, in a certain sense, the prophecies in compendium. Its avenue is the miniature of theirs. Let us sometimes go back, as it were, and approach the Lord again through the ranks of His holy foretellers, to get a new impression, of His majesty.

"Concerning His Son." Around that radiant word, full of light and heat, the cold mists of many speculations have rolled themselves, as man has tried to analyse a divine and boundless fact. For St. Paul, and for us, the fact is everything, for peace and life. This Jesus Christ is true Man; that is certain. He is also, if we trust His life and word, true Son of God. He is on the one hand personally distinct from Him whom He calls Father, and whom He loves, and who loves Him with infinite love. On the other hand He is so related to Him that He fully possesses His Nature, while He has that Nature wholly from Him. This is the teaching of Gospels and Epistles; this is the Catholic Faith. Jesus Christ is God, is Divine, truly and fully. He is implicitly called by the incommunicable Name. {compare John 12:41, Isaiah 6:7} He is openly called God in His own presence on earth. [John 20:28] But what is, if possible, even more significant, because deeper below the surface-He is regarded as the eternally satisfying Object of man’s trust and love. {e.g., Philippians 3:21, Ephesians 3:19} Yet Jesus Christ is always preached as related Son-wise to Another, so truly that the mutual love of the Two is freely adduced as type and motive for our love.

We can hardly make too much, in thought and. teaching, of this Divine Sonship, this filial Godhead. It is the very "Secret of God," [Colossians 2:2] both as a light to guide our reason to the foot of the Throne, and as a power upon the heart. "He that hath the Son hath the Father"; "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father"; "He hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His Love."

Who was born of the seed of David, according to the flesh. So the New Testament begins; [Matthew 1:1] so it almost closes. [Revelation 22:6] St. Paul, in later years, recalls the Lord’s human pedigree again: [2 Timothy 2:8] "Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, is risen from the dead." The old Apostle in that last passage, has entered the shadow of death; he feels with one hand for the rock of history, with the other for the pulse of eternal love. Here was the rock; the Lord of life was the Child of history, Son and Heir of a historical king, and then, as such, the Child of prophecy too. And this, against all surface appearances beforehand. The Davidic "ground" [Isaiah 53:2] had seemed to be dry as dust for generations, when the Root of endless life sprang up in it.

"He was born" of David’s seed. Literally, the Greek may be rendered, "He became, He came to be." Under either rendering we have the wonderful fact that He who in His higher eternity is, above time and including it, did in His other Nature, by the door of becoming, enter time, and thus indeed "fill all things." This He did, and thus He is, "according to the flesh." "Flesh" is, indeed, but a part of Manhood. But a part can represent the whole; and "flesh" is the part most antithetical to the Divine Nature, with which here Manhood is collocated and in a sense contrasted. So it is again Romans 9:5.

And now, of this blessed Son of David, we hear further:-who was designated to be Son of God; literally, "defined as Son of God," betokened to be such by "infallible proof." Never for an hour had he ceased to be, in fact, Son of God. To the man healed of birth-blindness He had said, [John 9:35] "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?" But there was an hour when He became openly and so to speak officially what He always is naturally; somewhat as a born king is "made" king by coronation. Historical act then affirmed independent fact, and as it were gathered it into a point for use. This affirmation took place in power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, as a result of resurrection from the dead. "Sown in weakness," Jesus was indeed "raised in" majestic, tranquil "power." Without an effort He stepped from out of the depth of death, from under the load of sin. It was no flickering life, crucified but not quite killed, creeping back in a convalescence mis-called resurrection; it was the rising of the sun. That it was indeed daylight, and not day dream, was shown not only in His mastery of matter, but in the transfiguration of His followers. No moral change was ever at once more complete and more perfectly healthful than what His return wrought in that large and various group, when they learnt to Say, "We have seen the Lord." The man who wrote this Epistle had "seen Him last of all". [1 Corinthians 15:8] That was indeed a sight "in power," and working a transfiguration.

So was the Son of the Father affirmed to be what He is; so was He "made" to be, for us His Church, "the Son," in whom we are sons. And all this was, "according to the Spirit of holiness"; answerably to the foreshadowing and foretelling of that Holy Spirit who, in the prophets, "testified of the sufferings destined for the Christ, and of the glories that should follow." [1 Peter 1:11]

Now lastly, in the Greek of the sentence, as if pausing for a solemn entrance, comes in the whole blessed Name; even Jesus Christ our Lord. Word by word the Apostle dictates, and the scribe obeys. Jesus, the human Name; Christ, the mystic Title; our Lord, the term of royalty and loyalty which binds us to Him, and Him to us. Let those four words be ours forever. If everything else falls in ruins from the memory, let this remain, "the strength of our heart, and our portion forever."

Through whom, the Apostle’s voice goes on, we received grace and apostleship. The Son was the Channel "through" which the Father’s choice and call took effect. He "grasped" Paul, [Philippians 3:12] and joined him to Himself, and in Himself to the Father; and now through that Union the motions of the Eternal will move Paul. They move him, to give him "grace and apostleship"; that is, in effect, grace for apostleship, and apostleship as grace; the boon of the Lord’s presence in him for the work, and the Lord’s work as a spiritual boon. He often thus links the word "grace" with his great mission; for example, in Galatians 2:9, Ephesians 3:2; Ephesians 3:8, and perhaps Philippians 1:7. Alike the enabling peace and power for service, and then the service itself, are to the Christian a free, loving, beautifying gift.

Unto obedience of faith among all the Nations. This "obedience of faith" is in fact faith in its aspect as submission. What is faith? It is personal trust, personal self-entrustment to a person. It "gives up the case" to the Lord, as the one only possible Giver of pardon and of purity. It is "submission to the righteousness of God". [Romans 10:3] Blessed the man who so obeys, stretching out arms empty and submissive to receive, in the void between them, Jesus Christ.

"Among all the Nations," "all the Gentiles." The words read easily to us, and pass perhaps half unnoticed, as a phrase of routine. Not so to the ex-Pharisee who dictated them here. A few years before he would have held it highly "unlawful to keep company with, or come unto, one of another nation". [Acts 10:2; Acts 10:8] Now, in Christ, it is as if he had almost forgotten that it had been so. His whole heart, in Christ, is blent in personal love with hearts belonging to many nations; in spiritual affection he is ready for contact with all hearts. And now he, of all the Apostles, is the teacher who by life and word is to bring this glorious catholicity home forever to all believing souls, our own included. It is St. Paul preeminently who has taught man, as man, in Christ, to love man; who has made Hebrew, European, Hindoo, Chinese, Caffre, Esquimaux, actually one in the conscious brotherhood of eternal life.

For His Name’s sake; for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed. The Name is the self-unfolded Person, known and understood. Paul had indeed come to know that Name, and to pass it on was now his very life. He existed only to win for it more insight, more adoration, more love. "The Name" deserved that great soul’s entire devotion. Does it not deserve our equally entire devotion now? Our lives shall who belong to Him, His personal property, their motto also, "For His Name’s sake."

Now he speaks direct of his Roman friends. Among whom, among these multifarious "Nations," you too are Jesus Christ’s called ones, men who belong to Him, because "called" by Him. And what is "called?" Compare the places where the word is used-or where its kindred words are used-in the Epistles, and you will find a certain holy specialty of meaning. "Invited" is no adequate paraphrase. The "called" man is the man who has been invited and has come; who has obeyed the eternal welcome; to whom the voice of the Lord has been effectual. See the word in the opening paragraphs of 1 Corinthians. There the Gospel is heard, externally by a host of indifferent or hostile hearts, who think it "folly," or "a stumbling block." But among them are those who hear, and understand, and believe indeed. To them "Christ is God’s power, and God’s wisdom." And they are "the called."

In the Gospels, the words "chosen" and "called" are in antithesis; the called are many, the chosen few; the external hearers are many, the hearers inwardly are few. In the Epistles a developed use shows the change indicated here, and it is consistently maintained.

To all who in Rome are God’s beloved ones. Wonderful collocation, wonderful possibility! "Beloved ones of God," as close to the eternal heart as it is possible to be, because "in the Beloved"; that is one side. "In Rome," in the capital of universal paganism, material power, iron empire, immeasurable worldliness, flagrant and indescribable sin; that is the other side. "I know where thou dwellest," said the glorified Saviour to much tried disciples at a later day; "even where Satan has his throne." [Revelation 2:13] That throne was conspicuously present in the Rome of Nero. Yet faith, hope, and love could breathe there, when the Lord "called." They could much more than breathe. This whole Epistle shows that a deep and developed faith, a glorious hope, and the mighty love of a holy life were matters of fact in men and women who every day of the year saw the world as it went by in forum and basilica, in Suburra and Velabrum, in slave chambers and in the halls of pleasure where they had to serve or to meet company. The atmosphere of heaven was carried down into that dark pool by the believing souls who were bidden to live there. They lived the heavenly life in Rome; as the creature of the air in our stagnant waters weaves and fills its silver diving bell, and works and thrives in peace far down.

Read some vivid picture of Roman life, and think of this. See it as it is shown by Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, Martial; or as modern hands, Becker’s or Farrar’s, have restored it from their materials. What a deadly air for the regenerate soul-deadly not only in its vice, but in its magnificence, and in its thought! But nothing is deadly to the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul’s regeneration means not only new ideas and likings, but an eternal Presence, the indwelling of the Life itself. That Life could live at Rome; and therefore "God’s beloved ones in Rome" could live there also, while it was His will they should be there. The argument comes a fortiori to ourselves.

(His) called holy ones; they were "called," in the sense we have seen, and now, by that effectual Voice, drawing them into Christ, they were constituted "holy ones," "saints." What does that word mean? Whatever its etymology may be, its usage gives us the thought of dedication to God, connection with Him, separation to His service, His will. The saints are those who belong to Him, His personal property, for His ends. Thus it is used habitually in the Scriptures for all Christians, supposed to be true to their name. Not an inner circle, but all, bear the title. It is not only a glorified aristocracy, but the believing commonalty; not the stars of the eternal sky, but the flowers sown by the Lord in the common field; even in such a tract of that field as "Caesar’s household" was. [Philippians 4:22]

Habitually therefore the Apostle gives the term "saints" to whole communities; as if baptism always gave, or sealed, saint-ship. In a sense it did, and does. But then, this was, and is, on the assumption of the concurrence of possession with title. The title left the individual still bound to "examine himself, whether he was in the faith". [2 Corinthians 13:5]

These happy residents at Rome are now greeted and blessed in their Father’s and Saviour’s Name; Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. "Grace"; what is it? Two ideas lie there together; favour and gratuity. The grace of God is His favouring will and work for us, and in us; gratuitous, utterly and to the end unearned. Put otherwise (and with the remembrance that: His great gifts are but modes of Himself, are in fact Himself in will and action), grace is God for us, grace is God in us, sovereign, willing, kind. "Peace"; what is it? The holy repose within, and so around, which comes of the man’s acceptance with God and abode in God; an "all is well" in the heart, and in the believer’s contact with circumstances, as he rests in his Father and his Redeemer. "Peace, perfect peace"; under the sense of demerit, and amidst the crush of duties, and on the crossing currents of human joy and sorrow, and in the mystery of death; because of the God of Peace, who has made peace for us through the Cross of His Son, and is peace in us, "by the Spirit which He hath given us."


Verses 8-17

Chapter 3

GOOD REPORT OF THE ROMAN CHURCH: PAUL NOT ASHAMED OF THE GOSPEL

Romans 1:8-17

HE has blessed the Roman Christians in the name of the Lord. Now he hastens to tell them how he blesses God for them, and how full his heart is of them. The Gospel is warm all through with life and love; this great message of doctrine and precept is poured from a fountain full of personal affection.

Now first I thank my God, through Jesus Christ, about you all. It is his delight to give thanks for all the good he knows of in his brethren. Seven of his Epistles open with such thanksgivings, which at once convey the commendations which love rejoices to giver wherever possible, and trace all spiritual virtue straight to its Source, the Lord. Nor only here to "the Lord," but to "my God"; a phrase used, in the New Testament, only by St. Paul, except that one utterance of Eli, Eli, by his dying Saviour. It is the expression of an indescribable appropriation and reverent intimacy. The believer grudges his God to none; he rejoices with great joy over every soul that finds its wealth in Him. But at the centre of all joy and love is this-"my God"; "Christ Jesus my Lord"; "who loved me and gave Himself for me." Is it selfish? Nay, it is the language of a personality where Christ has dethroned self in His own favour, but in which therefore reigns now the highest happiness, the happiness which animates and maintains a self-forgetful love of all. And this holy intimacy, with its action in thanks and petition, is all the while "through Jesus Christ," the Mediator and Brother. The man knows God as "my God," and deals with Him as such, never out of that Beloved Son who is equally One with the believer and with the Father, no alien medium, but the living point of unity.

What moves his thanksgivings? Because your faith is spoken of, more literally, is carried as tidings, over the whole world. Go where he will, in Asia, in Macedonia, in Achaia, in Illyricum, he meets believing "strangers from Rome," with spiritual news from the. Capital, announcing, with a glad solemnity, that at the great Centre of this world the things eternal are proving their power, and that the Roman mission is remarkable for its strength and simplicity of "faith," its humble reliance on the Lord Jesus Christ, and loving allegiance to Him. Such news, wafted from point to point of that early Christendom, was frequent then; we see another beautiful example of it where he tells the Thessalonians [1 Thessalonians 1:8-10] how everywhere in his Greek tour he found the news of their conversion running in advance of him, to greet him at each arrival What special importance would such intelligence bear when it was good news from Rome!

Still in our day over the world of Missions similar tidings travel. Only a few years ago "the saints" of Indian Tinnevelly heard of the distress of their brethren of African Uganda, and sent with loving eagerness "to their necessity." But recently (1892) an English visitor to the Missions of Labrador found the disciples of the Moravian Brethren there full of the wonders of grace manifested in those same African believers.

This constant good tidings from the City makes him the more glad because of its correspondence with his incessant thought, prayer, and yearning over them.

For God is my record, my witness, of this; the God whom I serve, at once, so the Greek ( λατρευω) implies, with adoration and obedience, in my spirit, in the Gospel of His Son. The "for" gives the connection we have just indicated; he rejoices to hear of their faith, for the Lord knows how much they are in his prayers. The divine Witness is the more instinctively appealed to, because these thoughts and prayers are for a mission Church, and the relations between St. Paul and his God are above all missionary relations. He "serves Him in the Gospel of His Son," the Gospel of the God who is known and believed in His Christ. He "serves Him in the Gospel"; that is, in the propagation of it. So he often means, where he speaks of "the Gospel"; take for example, ver. 1 above; Romans 15:16; Romans 15:19 below; Philippians 1:5; Philippians 1:12; Philippians 2:22. "He serves Him," in that great branch of ministry, "in his spirit," with his whole love, will, and mind, working in communion with his Lord. And now to this eternal Friend and Witness he appeals to seal his assurance of incessant intercessions for them; how without ceasing, as a habit constantly in action, I make mention of you, calling them up by name, specifying before the Father Rome, and Aquila, and Andronicus, and Junias, and Persis, and Mary, and the whole circle, personally known or not, in my prayers; literally, on occasion of my prayers; whenever he found himself at prayer, statedly or as it were casually remembering and beseeching.

The prayers of St. Paul are a study by themselves. See his own accounts of them, to the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians, and Philemon. Observe their topic; it is almost always the growth of grace in the saints, to their Master’s glory. Observe now still more their manner; the frequency, the diligence, the resolution which grapples, wrestles, with the difficulties of prayer, so that in Colossians 2:1, he calls his prayer simply "a great wrestling." Learn here how to deal with God for those for whom you work, shepherd of souls, messenger of the Word, Christian man or woman who in any way are called to help other hearts in Christ.

In this case his prayers have a very definite direction; he is requesting, if somehow, now at length, my way shall be opened, in the will of God, to come to you. It is a quite simple, quite natural petition. His inward harmony with the Lord’s will never excludes the formation and expression of such requests, with the reverent "if" of submissive reserve. The "indifference" of mystic pietism, which at least discourages articulate contingent petitions, is unknown to the Apostles; "in everything, with thanksgiving, they make their requests known unto God." And they find such expression harmonised, in a holy experience, with a profound rest "within this will," this "sweet beloved will of God." Little did he here foresee how his way would be opened; that it would lie through the tumult in the Temple, the prisons of Jerusalem and Caesarea, and the cyclone of the Adrian sea. He had in view a missionary journey to Spain, in which Rome was to be taken by the way.

"So God grants prayer, but in His love Makes ways and times His own."

His heart yearns for this Roman visit. We may almost render the Greek of the next clause, For I am homesick for a sight of you; he uses the word by which elsewhere he describes Philippian Epaphroditus’ longing to be back at Philippi, [Philippians 2:26] and again his own longing to see the son of his heart, Timotheus. [2 Timothy 1:4] Such is the Gospel, that its family affection throws the light of home on even unknown regions where dwell "the brethren." In this case the longing love however has a purpose most practical; that I may impart to you some spiritual gift of grace, with a view to your establishment. The word rendered "gift of grace" is used in some places {see especially 1 Corinthians 12:4; 1 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Corinthians 12:30-31} with a certain special reference to the mysterious "Tongues," "Interpretations," and "Prophecies," given in the primeval Churches. And we gather from the Acts and the Epistles that these grants were not ordinarily made where an Apostle was not there to lay on his hands. But it is not likely that this is the import of this present passage. Elsewhere in the Epistle the word "charisma" is used with its largest and deepest reference; God’s gift of blessing in Christ. Here, then, so we take it, he means that he pines to convey to them, as his Lord’s messenger, some new development of spiritual light and joy; to expound "the Way" to them more perfectly; to open up to them such fuller and deeper insights into the riches of Christ that they, better using their possession of the Lord, might as it were gain new possessions in Him, and might stand more boldly on the glorious certainties they held. And this was to be done ministerially, not magisterially. For he goes on to say that the longed for visit would be his gain as well as theirs; that is, with a view to my concurrent encouragement among you, by our mutual faith, yours and mine together. Shall we call this a sentence of fine tact; beautifully conciliatory and endearing? Yes, but it is also perfectly sincere. True tact is only the skill of sympathetic love, not the less genuine in its thought because that thought seeks to please and win. He is glad to show himself as his disciples’ brotherly friend; but then he first is such, and enjoys the character, and has continually found and felt his own soul made glad and strong by the witness to the Lord which far less gifted believers bore, as he and they talked together. Does not every true teacher know this in his own experience? If we are not merely lecturers on Christianity but witnesses for Christ, we know what it is to hail with deep thanksgivings the "‘encouragement" we have had from the lips of those who perhaps believed long after we did, and have been far less advantaged outwardly than we have been. We have known and blessed the "encouragement" carried to us by little believing children, and young men in their first faith, and poor old people on their comfortless beds, ignorant in this world, illuminated in the Lord. "Mutual faith," the pregnant phrase of the Apostle, faith residing in each of both parties, and owned by each to the other, is a mighty power for Christian "encouragement" still.

But I would not have you ignorant, brethren. This is a characteristic term of expression with him. He delights in confidence and information, and not least about his own plans bearing on his friends. That often I purposed (or better, in our English idiom, have purposed) to come to you, (but I have been hindered up till now,) that I might have some fruits among you too, as actually among the other Nations. He cannot help giving more and yet more intimation of his loving gravitation towards them; nor yet of his gracious avarice for "fruit," result, harvest and vintage for Christ, in the way of helping on Romans, as well as Asiatics, and Macedonians, and Achaians, to live a fuller life in Him. This, we may infer from the whole Epistle, would be the chief kind of "fruit" in his view at Rome; but not this only. For we shall see him at once go on to anticipate an evangelistic work at Rome, a speaking of the Gospel message where there would be a temptation to be "ashamed" of it. Edification of believers may be his main aim. But conversion of pagan souls to God cannot possibly be dissociated from it.

In passing we see, with instruction, that St. Paul made many plans which came to nothing; he tells us this here without apology or misgiving. He claims accordingly no such practical omniscience, actual or possible, as would make his resolutions and forecasts infallible. Tacitly, at least, he wrote "If the Lord will," across them all, unless indeed there came a case where, as when he was guided out of Asia to Macedonia, [Acts 16:6-10] direct intimation was given him, abnormal, supernatural, quite ab extra, that such and not such was to be his path.

But now, he is not only "homesick" for Rome, with a yearning love; he feels his obligation to Rome, with a wakeful conscience. Alike to Greeks and to Barbarians, to wise men and to unthinking, I am in debt. Mankind is on his heart, in the sorts and differences of its culture. On the one hand were "the Greeks"; that is to say, in the then popular meaning of the word, the peoples possessed of what we now call "classical" civilisation, Greek and Roman; an inner circle of these were "the wise," the literati, the readers, writers, thinkers, in the curriculum of those literatures and philosophies. On the other hand were "the Barbarians," the tongues and tribes outside the Hellenic pale, Pisidian, Pamphylian, Galatian, Illyrian, and we know not who besides; and then, among them, or anywhere, "the unthinking," the numberless masses whom the educated would despise or forget as utterly untrained in the schools, unversed in the great topics of man and the world; the people of the field, the market, and the kitchen. To the Apostle, because to his Lord, all these were now impartially his claimants, his creditors: he "owed them" the Gospel which had been trusted to him for them. Naturally, his will might be repelled alike by the frown or smile of the Greek, and by the coarse earthliness of the Barbarian. But supernaturally, in Christ, he loved both, and scrupulously remembered his duty to both. Such is the true missionary spirit still, in whatever region, under whatever conditions. The Christian man, and the Christian Church delivered from the world is yet its debtor. "Woe is to him, to it, if that debt is not paid, if that Gospel is hidden in a napkin."

Thus he is ready, and more than ready, to pay his debt to Rome. So (to render literally) what relates to me is eager, to you too, to the men in Rome, to preach the Gospel. "What relates to me"; there is an emphasis on "me," as if to say that the hindrance, whatever it is, is not in him, but around him. The doors have been shut, but the man stands behind them, in act to pass in when he may.

His eagerness is no light-heartedness, no carelessness of when or where. This wonderful missionary is too sensitive to facts and ideas, too rich in imagination, not to feel the peculiar, nay the awful greatness, of a summons to Rome. He understands culture too well not to feel its possible obstacles. He has seen too much of both the real grandeur and the harsh force of the imperial power in its extension not to feel a genuine awe as he thinks of meeting that power at its gigantic Centre. There is that in him which fears Rome. But he is therefore the very man to go there, for he understands the magnitude of the occasion, and he will the more deeply retire upon his Lord for peace and power.

Thus with a pointed fitness he tells himself and his friends, just here, that he is "not ashamed of the Gospel." For I am not ashamed; I am ready even for Rome, for this terrible Rome. I have a message which, though Rome looks as if she must despise it, I know is not to be despised. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; for it is God’s power to salvation, for everyone who believes, alike for Jew, (first,) and for Greek. For God’s righteousness is in it unveiled, from faith on to faith; as it stands written, But the just man on faith shall live.

These words give out the great theme of the Epistle. The Epistle, therefore, is infinitely the best commentary on them, as we follow out its argument and hear its message. Here it shall suffice us to note only a point or two, and so pass on.

First, we recollect that this Gospel, this Glad Tidings, is, in its essence, Jesus Christ. It is, supremely, "He, not it"; Person, not theory. Or rather, it is authentic and eternal theory in vital and eternal connection everywhere with a Person. As such it is truly "power," in a sense as profoundly natural as it is divine. It is power, not only in the cogency of perfect principle, but in the energy of an eternal Life, an almighty Will, an infinite Love.

Then we observe that this message of power, which is, in its burthen, the Christ of God, unfolds first, at its foundation, in its front, "the Righteousness of God"; not first His Love, but "His Righteousness." Seven times elsewhere in the Epistle comes this phrase; rich materials for ascertaining its meaning in the spiritual dialect of St. Paul. Out of these passages, Romans 3:26 gives us the key. There "the righteousness of God," seen as it were in action, ascertained by its effects, is that which secures "that He shall be just, and the Justifier of the man who belongs to faith in Jesus." It is that which makes Wonderfully possible the mighty paradox that the Holy One, eternally truthful, eternally rightful, infinitely "law abiding" in His jealousy for that Law which is in fact His Nature expressing itself in precept, nevertheless can and does say to man, in his guilt and forfeit, "I, thy Judge, lawfully acquit thee, lawfully accept thee, lawfully embrace thee." In such a context we need not fear to explain this great phrase, in this its first occurrence, to mean the Acceptance accorded by the Holy Judge to sinful man. Thus it stands practically equivalent to-God’s way of justifying the ungodly, His method for liberating His love while He magnifies His law. In effect, not as a translation but as an explanation, God’s Righteousness is God’s Justification.

Then again, We note the emphasis and the repetition here of the thought of faith. "To every one that believeth"; "From faith on to faith"; "The just man on faith shall live." Here, if anywhere, we shall find ample commentary in the Epistle: Only let us remember from the first that in the Roman Epistle, as everywhere in the New Testament, we shall see "faith" used in its natural and human sense; we shall find that it means personal reliance. Fides est fiducia, "Faith is trust," say the masters of Reformation theology. Refellitur inanis hoereticorum fiducia, "We refute the heretics’ empty ‘trust,"’ says the Council of Trent against them; but in vain. Faith is trust. It is in this sense that our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, invariably uses the word. For this is its human sense, its sense in the street and market; and the Lord, the Man of men, uses the dialect of His race. Faith, infinitely wonderful and mysterious from some points of view, is the simplest thing in the world from others. That sinners, conscious of their guilt, should be brought so to see their Judge’s heart: as to take His word of peace to mean what it says, is miracle. But they should trust His word, having seen His heart, is nature, illuminated and led by grace, but nature still. The "faith" of Jesus Christ and the Apostles is trust. It is not a faculty for mystical intuitions. It is our taking the Trustworthy at His word. It is the opening of a mendicant hand to receive the gold of Heaven; the opening of dying lips to receive the water of life. It is that which makes a void place for Jesus Christ to fill, that He may be man’s Merit, man’s Peace, and man’s Power.

Hence the overwhelming prominence of faith in the Gospel. It is the correlative of the overwhelming, the absolute, prominence of Jesus Christ. Christ is all. Faith is man’s acceptance of Him as such. "Justification by Faith" is not acceptance because faith is a valuable thing, a merit, a recommendation, a virtue. It is acceptance because of Jesus Christ, whom man, dropping all other hopes, receives. It is, let us repeat it, the sinner’s empty hand and parted lips: It has absolutely nothing to do with earning the gift of God, the water and the bread of God; it has all to do with taking it. This we shall see open out before us as we proceed.

So the Gospel "unveils God’s righteousness"; it draws the curtains from His glorious secret. And as each fold is lifted, the glad beholder looks on "from faith to faith." He finds. that this reliance is to be his part; first, last, midst, and without end. He takes Jesus Christ by faith; he holds Him by faith; he uses Him by faith; he lives, he dies, in Him by faith; that is to say, always by Him, by Him received, held, used.

Then lastly, we mark the quotation from the Prophet, who, for the Apostle, is the organ of the Holy Ghost. What Habakkuk wrote is, for Paul, what God says, God’s Word. The Prophet; as we refer to his brief pages, manifestly finds his occasion and his first significance in the then state of his country and his people. If we please, we may explain the words as patriot’s contribution to the politics of Jerusalem, and pass on. But if so, we pass on upon a road unknown to our Lord and His Apostles. To Him, to them, the prophecies had more in them than the Prophets knew; and Habakkuk’s appeal to Judah to retain the Lord Jehovah among them in all His peace and power, by trusting Him, is known by St. Paul to be for all time an oracle about the work of faith. So. he sees in it a message straight to the soul which asks how, if Christ is God’s Righteousness, shall I, a sinner, win Christ for me. "Wouldst thou indeed be just with God, right with Him as Judge, accepted by the Holy One? Take His Son in the empty arms of mere trust, and: He is thine for this need, and for all."

"I am not ashamed of the Gospel." So the Apostle affirms, as he looks toward Rome. What is it about this Gospel of God, and of His Son, which gives occasion for such a word? Why do we find, not here only, but elsewhere in the New Testament, this contemplated possibility that the Christian may be ashamed of his creed, and of His Lord? "Whosoever shall be ashamed of Me, and of My words, of him: shall the Son of Man be ashamed"; [Luke 9:26] "Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord"; "Nevertheless, I am not ashamed". [2 Timothy 1:8; 2 Timothy 1:12] This is paradoxical, as we come to think upon it. There is much about the purity of the Gospel which might occasion, and does too often occasion, an awe and dread of it, seemingly reasonable. There is much about its attendant mysteries which might seem to excuse an attitude, however mistaken, of reverent suspense. But what is there about this revelation of the heart of Eternal Love, this record of a Life equally divine and human, of a Death as majestic as it is infinitely pathetic, and then of a Resurrection out of death, to occasion shame? Why, in view of this, should man be shy to avow his faith, and to let it be known that this is all in all to him, his life, his peace, his strength, his surpassing interest and occupation?

More than one analysis of the phenomenon, which we all know to be fact, may be suggested. But for our part we believe that the true solution lies near the words sin, pardon, self-surrender. The Gospel reveals the eternal Love, but under conditions which remind man that he has done his worst to forfeit it. It tells him of a peace and strength sublime and heavenly; but it asks him, in order to receive them, to kneel down in the dust and take them, unmerited, for nothing. And it reminds them that he, thus delivered and endowed, is by the same act the property of his Deliverer; that not only the highest benefit of his nature is secured by his giving himself over to God, but the most inexorable obligation lies on him to do so. He is not his own, but bought with a price.

Such views of the actual relation between man and God, even when attended, as they are in the Gospel, with such indications of man’s true greatness as are found nowhere else, are deeply repellent to the soul that has not yet seen itself and God in the light of truth. And the human being who has got that sight, and has submitted himself indeed, yet, the moment he looks outside the blessed shrine of his own union with his Lord, is tempted to be reticent about a creed which he knows once repelled and angered him. Well did Paul remember his old hatred and contempt; and he felt the temptations of that memory, when he presented Christ either to the Pharisee or to the Stoic, and now particularly when he thought of "bearing witness of Him at Rome," [Acts 23:11] imperial, overwhelming Rome. But then he looked away from them to Jesus Christ, and the temptation was beneath his feet, and the Gospel, everywhere, was upon his lips.


Verses 18-23

Chapter 4

NEED FOR THE GOSPEL: GOD’S ANGER AND MAN’S SIN

Romans 1:18-23

WE have as it were touched the heart of the Apostle as he weighs the prospect of his Roman visit, and feels, almost in one sensation, the tender and powerful attraction, the solemn duty, and the strange solicitation to shrink from the deliverance of his message. Now his lifted forehead, just lighted up by the radiant truth of Righteousness by Faith, is shadowed suddenly. He is not ashamed of the Gospel; he will speak it out, if need be, in the Caesar’s own presence, and in that of his brilliant and cynical court. For there is a pressing, an awful need that he should thus "despise the shame." The very conditions in human life which occasion an instinctive tendency to be reticent of the Gospel, are facts of dreadful urgency and peril. Man does not like to be exposed to himself, and to be summoned to the faith and surrender claimed by Christ. But man, whatever he likes or dislikes, is a sinner, exposed to the eyes of the All-Pure, and lying helpless, amidst all his dreams of pride, beneath the wrath of God. Such is the logic of this stern sequel to the affirmation, "I am not ashamed."

For God’s wrath is revealed, from heaven, upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of men who in unrighteousness hold down the truth. "God’s wrath is revealed"; Revealed in "the holy Scriptures," in every history, by every Prophet, by every Psalmist; this perhaps is the main bearing of his thought. But revealed also antecedently and concurrently in that mysterious, inalienable conscience, which is more truly part of man than his five senses. Conscience sees that there is an eternal difference between right and wrong, and feels in the dark the relation of that difference to a law, a Lawgiver, and a doom. Conscience is aware of a fiery light beyond the veil. Revelation meets its wistful gaze, lifts the veil, and affirms the fact of the wrath of God, and of His judgment coming.

Let us not shun that "revelation." It is not the Gospel. The Gospel, as we have seen, is in itself one pure warm light of life and love. But then it can never be fully understood until, sooner or later, we have seen something, and believed something, of the truth of the anger of the Holy One. From our idea of that anger let us utterly banish every thought of impatience, of haste, of what is arbitrary, of what is in the faintest degree unjust, inequitable. It is the anger of Him who never for a moment can be untrue to himself; and He is Love, and is Light. But He is also, so also says His Word, consuming Fire; [Hebrews 10:31; Hebrews 12:29] and it is "a fearful thing to fall into His hands." Nowhere and never is God not Love, as the Maker and Preserver of His creatures. But nowhere also and never is He not Fire, as the judicial Adversary of evil, the Antagonist of the will that chooses sin. Is there "nothing in God to fear"? "Yea," says His Son, [Luke 12:5] "I say unto you, fear Him."

At the present time there is a deep and almost ubiquitous tendency to ignore the revelation of the wrath of God. No doubt there have been times, and quarters, in the story of Christianity, when that revelation was thrown into disproportionate prominence, and men shrank from Christ (so Luther tells us he did in his youth) as from One who was nothing if not the inexorable Judge. They saw Him habitually as He is seen in the vast Fresco of the Sistine Chapel, a sort of Jupiter Tonans, casting His foes forever from His presence; a Being from whom, not to whom, the guilty soul must fly. But the reaction from such thoughts, at present upon us, has swung to an extreme indeed, until the tendency of the pulpit, and of the exposition, is to say practically that there is nothing in God to be afraid of; that the words hope and love are enough to neutralise the most awful murmurs of conscience, and to cancel the plainest warnings of the loving Lord Himself. Yet that Lord, as we ponder His words in all the four Gospels, so far from speaking such "peace" as this, seems to reserve it to Himself, rather than to His messengers, to utter the most formidable warnings. And the earliest literature which follows the New Testament shows that few of His sayings had sunk deeper into His disciples’ souls than those which told them of the two Ways and of the two Ends.

Let us go to Him, the all-benignant Friend and Teacher, to learn the true attitude of thought towards Him as "the Judge, Strong and patient," "but who will in no wise clear the guilty" by unsaying His precepts and putting by His threats. He assuredly will teach us, in this matter, no lessons of hard and narrow denunciation, nor encourage us to sit in judgment on the souls and minds of our brethren. But He will teach us to take deep and awful views for ourselves of both the pollution and also the guilt of sin. He will constrain us to carry those views all through our personal theology, and our personal anthropology too. He will make it both a duty and a possibility for us, in right measure, in right manner, tenderly, humbly, governed by His Word, to let others know what our convictions are about the Ways and the Ends. And thus, as well as otherwise, He will make His Gospel to be to us no mere luxury or ornament of thought and life, as it were a decorous gilding upon essential worldliness and the ways of self. He will unfold it as the soul’s refuge and its home. From Himself as Judge He will draw us in blessed flight to Himself as Propitiation and Peace. "From Thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation, Good Lord-Thyself-deliver us."

This wrath, holy, passionless, yet awfully personal, "is revealed, from heaven." That is to say, it is revealed as coming from heaven, when the righteous Judge "shall be revealed from heaven, taking vengeance". [2 Thessalonians 1:7-8] In that pure upper world He sits whose wrath it is. From that stainless sky of His presence its white lightnings will fall, "upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of men," upon every kind of violation of conscience, whether done against God or man; upon "godlessness," which blasphemes, denies, or ignores the Creator; upon "unrighteousness," which wrests the claims whether of Creator or of creature. Awful opposites to the "two great Commandments of the Law"! The Law must be utterly vindicated upon them at last. Conscience must be eternally verified at last, against all the wretched suppressions of it that man has ever tried.

For the men in question "hold down the truth in unrighteousness." The rendering "hold down" is certified by both etymology and context; the only possible other rendering, "hold fast," is negatived by the connection. The thought given us is that man, fallen from the harmony with God in which Manhood was made, but still keeping manhood, and therefore conscience, is never naturally ignorant of the difference between right and wrong, never naturally, innocently, unaware that he is accountable. On the other hand he is never fully willing, of himself, to do all he knows of right, all he knows he ought, all the demand of the righteous law above him. "In unrighteousness," in a life which at best is not wholly and cordially with the will of God, "he holds down the truth," silences the haunting fact that there is a claim he will not meet, a will he ought to love, but to which he prefers his own. The majesty of eternal right, always intimating the majesty of an eternal Righteous One, he thrusts below his consciousness, or into a corner of it, and keeps it there, that he may follow his own way. More or less, it wrestles with him for its proper place. And its even half-understood efforts may, and often do, exercise a deterrent force upon the energies of his self-will. But they do not dislodge it; he would rather have his way. With a force sometimes deliberate, sometimes impulsive, sometimes habitual, "he holds down" the unwelcome monitor.

Deep is the moral responsibility incurred by such repression. For man has always, by the very state of the case, within him and around him, evidence for a personal righteous Power "with Whom he has to do." Because that which is known in God is manifest in them; for God manifested (or rather, perhaps, in our idiom, has manifested) it to them. "That which is known"; that is, practically, "that which is knowable, that which may be known." There is that about the Eternal which indeed neither is nor can be known, with the knowledge of mental comprehension. "Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection?" All thoughtful Christians are in this respect agnostics that they gaze on the bright Ocean of Deity, and know that they do not know it in its fathomless but radiant depths, nor can explore its expanse which has no shore. They rest before absolute mystery with a repose as simple (if possible more simple) as that with which they contemplate the most familiar and intelligible event. But this is not to know Him. It leaves man quite as free to be sure that He is, to be as certain that He is Personal, and is Holy, as man is certain of his own consciousness, and conscience.

That there is Personality behind phenomena, and that this great Personality is righteous, St. Paul here affirms to be "manifest," disclosed, visible, "in men." It is a fact present, however partially apprehended, in human consciousness. And more, this consciousness is itself part of the fact; indeed it is that part without which all others would be as nothing. To man without conscience-really, naturally, innocently without conscience-and without ideas of causation, the whole majesty of the Universe might be unfolded with a fulness beyond all our present experience; but it would say absolutely nothing of either Personality or Judgment. It is by the world within that we are able in the least degree to apprehend the world without. But having, naturally and inalienably, the world of personality and of conscience within us, we are beings to whom God can manifest, and has manifested the knowable about Himself, in His universe.

For His things unseen, ever since the creation of the universe, are full in (man’s) view, presented to (man’s) mind by His things made-His everlasting power and Godlikeness together-so as to leave them inexcusable. Since the ordered world was, and since man was, as its observer and also as its integral part, there has been present to man’s spirit-supposed true to its own creation-adequate testimony around him, taken along with that within him, to evince the reality of a supreme and persistent Will, intending order, and thus intimating Its own correspondence to conscience, and expressing Itself in "things made" of such manifold glory and wonder as to intimate the Maker’s majesty as well as righteousness. What is That, what is He, to whom the splendours of the day and the night, the wonders of the forest and the sea, bear witness? He is not only righteous Judge but King eternal. He is not only charged with my guidance; He has rights illimitable over me. I am wrong altogether if I am not in submissive harmony with Him; if I do not surrender, and adore.

Thus it has been, according to St. Paul, "ever since the creation of the universe" (and of man in it). And such everywhere is the Theism of Scripture. It maintains, or rather it states as certainty, that man’s knowledge of God began with his being as man. To see the Maker in His works is not, according to the Holy Scriptures, only the slow and difficult issue of a long evolution which led through far lower forms of thought, the fetish, the nature power, the tribal god, the national god, to the idea of a Supreme. Scripture presents man as made in the image of the Supreme, and capable from the first of a true however faint apprehension of Him. It assures us that man’s lower and distorted views of nature and of personal power behind it are degenerations, perversions, issues of a mysterious primeval dislocation of man from his harmony with God. The believer in the Holy Scriptures, in the sense in which our Lord and the Apostles believed in them, will receive this view of the primeval history of Theism as a true report of God’s account of it. Remembering that it concerns an otherwise unknown moment of human spiritual history, he will not be disturbed by alleged evidence against it from lower down the stream. Meanwhile he will note the fact that among the foremost students of Nature in our time there are those who affirm the rightness of such an attitude. It is not lightly that the Duke of Argyll writes words like these:-

"I doubt (to say the truth, I disbelieve) that we shall ever come to know by science anything more than we now know about the origin of man. I believe we shall always have to rest on that magnificent and sublime outline which has been given us by the great Prophet of the Jews."

So man, being what he is and seeing what he sees, is "without excuse": Because, knowing God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor thank Him, but proved futile in their ways of thinking, and their unintelligent heart was darkened. Asserting themselves for wise they turned fools, and transmuted the glory of the immortal God in a semblance of the likeness of mortal man, and of things winged, quadruped, and reptile. Man placed by God in His universe, and himself made in God’s image, naturally and inevitably "knew God." Not necessarily in that inner sense of spiritual harmony and union which is [John 17:3] the life eternal; but in the sense of a perception of His being and His character adequate, at its faintest, to make a moral claim. But somehow-a somehow which has to do with a revolt of man’s will from God to self-that claim was, and is, disliked. Out of that dislike has sprung, in man’s spiritual history, a reserve towards God, a tendency to question His purpose, His character, His existence; or otherwise, to degrade the conception of Personality behind phenomena into forms from which the multifold monster of idolatry has sprung, as if phenomena were due to personalities no better and no greater than could be imaged by man or by beast, things of limit and of passion; at their greatest terrible, but not holy; not intimate; not One.

Man has spent on these unworthy "ways of thinking" a great deal of weak and dull reasoning and imbecile imagination, but also some of the rarest and most splendid of the riches of his mind, made in the image of God. But all this thinking, because conditioned by a wrong attitude of his being as a whole, has had "futile" issues, and has been in the truest sense "unintelligent," failing to see inferences aright and as a whole. It has been a struggle "in the dark"; yea, a descent from the light into moral and mental "folly."

Was it not so, is it not so still? If man is indeed made in the image of the living Creator, a moral personality, and placed in the midst of "the myriad world, His shadow," then whatever process of thought leads man away from Him has somewhere in it a fallacy unspeakable, and inexcusable. It must mean that something in him which should be awake is dormant; or, yet worse, that something in him which should be in faultless tune, as the Creator tempered it, is all unstrung; something that should be nobly free to love and to adore is being repressed, "held down." Then only does man fully think aright when he is aright. Then only is he aright when he, made by and for the Eternal Holy One, rests willingly in Him, and lives for Him. "The fear of the Lord is," in the strictest fact, "the beginning of wisdom"; for it is that attitude of man without which the creature cannot "answer the idea" of the Creator, and therefore cannot truly follow out the law of its own being.

"Let him that glorieth, glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth [Jeremiah 9:24] who necessarily and eternally transcends our cognition and comprehension, yet can be known, can be touched, clasped, adored, as personal, eternal, almighty, holy Love."


Verses 24-32

Chapter 5

MAN GIVEN UP TO HIS OWN WAY: THE HEATHEN

Romans 1:24-32

WHEREFORE God gave them up, in the desires of their hearts, to uncleanness, so as to dishonour their bodies among themselves.

There is a dark sequence in the logic of facts, between unworthy thoughts of God and the development of the basest forms of human wrong. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God:-they are corrupt and have done abominable works". [Psalms 14:1] And the folly which does not indeed deny God, but degrades His Idea, always gives its sure contribution to such corruption. It is so in the nature of the case. The individual atheist, or polytheist, may conceivably be a virtuous person, on the human standard; but if he is so it is not because of his creed. Let his creed become a real formative power in human society, and it will tend inevitably to moral disease and death. Is man indeed a moral personality, made in the image of a holy and almighty Maker? Then the vital air of his moral life must be fidelity, correspondence, to his God. Let man think of Him as less than All, and he will think of himself less worthily; not less proudly perhaps, but less worthily, because not in his true and wonderful relation to the Eternal Good. Wrong in himself will tend surely to seem less awful, and right less necessary and great. And nothing, literally nothing, from any region higher than himself-himself already lowered in his own thought from his true idea-can ever come in to supply the blank where God should be, but is not. Man may worship himself, or may despise himself, when he has ceased to "glorify God and thank Him"; but he cannot for one hour be what he was made to be, the son of God in the universe of God. To know God indeed is to be secured from self-worship, and to be taught self-reverence; and it is the only way to those two secrets in their pure fulness.

"God gave them up." So the Scripture says elsewhere. "So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lusts"; [Psalms 81:12] "God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven"; [Acts 7:42] "God gave them up to passions of degradation"; "God gave them over to an abandoned mind"; (Romans 1:26; Romans 1:28). It is a dire thought; but the inmost conscience, once awake, affirms the righteousness of the thing. From one point of view it is just the working out of a natural process, in which sin is at once exposed and punished by its proper results, without the slightest injection, so to speak, of any force beyond its own terrible gravitation towards the sinner’s misery. But from another point it is the personally allotted, and personally inflicted, retribution of Him who hates iniquity with the antagonism of infinite Personality. He has so constituted natural process that wrong gravitates to wretchedness; and He is in that process, and above it, always and forever.

So He "gave them up, in their desires of their hearts"; He left them there where they had placed themselves," in "the fatal region of self-will, self-indulgence; "unto uncleanness," described now with terrible explicitness in its full outcome, "to dishonour their bodies," the intended temples of the Creator’s presence, "among themselves," or "in themselves"; for the possible dishonour might be done either in a foul solitude, or in a fouler society and mutuality: Seeing that they perverted the truth of God, the eternal fact of His glory and claim, in their lie, so that it was travestied, misrepresented, lost, "in" the falsehood of polytheism and idols; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. He casts this strong Doxology into the thick air of false worship and foul life, as if to clear it with its holy reverberation. For he is writing no mere discussion, no lecture on the genesis and evolution of paganism. It is the story of a vast rebellion, told by one who, once himself a rebel, is now altogether and forever the absolute vassal of the King whom he has "seen in His beauty" and whom it is his joy to bless, and to claim blessing for Him from His whole world forever.

As if animated by the word of benediction, he returns to denounce "the abominable thing which God hateth" with still more terrible explicitness. For this reason, because of their preference of the worse to the infinite Good, God gave them up to passions of degradation; He handed them over, self-bound, to the helpless slavery of lust; to "passions," eloquent word, which indicates how the man who will have his own way is all the while a "sufferer," though by his own fault: the victim of a mastery which he has conjured from the deep of sin.

Shall we shun to read, to render, the words which follow? We will not comment and expound. May the presence of God in our hearts, hearts otherwise as vulnerable as those of the old pagan sinners, sweep from the springs of thought and will all horrible curiosity. But if it does so it will leave us the more able, in humility, in tears, in fear, to hear the facts of this stern indictment. It will bid us listen as those who are not sitting in judgment on paganism, but standing beside the accused and sentenced, to confess that we too share the fall, and stand, if we stand, by grace alone. Aye, and we shall remember that if an Apostle thus tore the rags from the spots of the Black Death of ancient morals, he would have been even less merciful, if possible, over the like symptoms lurking still in modern Christendom, and found sometimes upon its surface.

Terrible, indeed, is the prosaic coolness with which vices now called unnameable are named and narrated in classical literature; and we ask in vain for one of even the noblest of the pagan moralists who has spoken of such sins with anything like adequate horror. Such speech, and such silence, have been almost impossible since the Gospel was felt in civilisation. "Paganism," says Dr. F.W. Farrar, in a powerful passage, with this paragraph of Romans in his view, "is protected from complete exposure by the enormity of its own vices. To show the divine reformation wrought by Christianity it must suffice that once for all the Apostle of the Gentiles seized heathenism by the hair, and branded indelibly on her forehead the stigma of her shame." Yet the vices of the old time are not altogether an antiquarian’s wonder. Now as truly as then man is awfully accessible to the worst solicitations the moment he trusts himself away from God. And this needs indeed to be remembered in a stage of thought and of society whose cynicism, and whose materialism, show gloomy signs of likeness to those last days of the old degenerate world in which St. Paul looked round him, and spoke out the things he saw.

For their females perverted the natural use to the unnatural. So too the males, leaving the natural use of the female, burst out aflame in their craving towards one another, males in males working out their unseemliness-and duly getting in themselves that recompense of their error which was owed them.

And as they did not approve of keeping God in their moral knowledge, God gave them up to an abandoned mind, "a reprobate, God-rejected mind"; meeting their disapprobation with His just and fatal reprobation. That mind, taking the false premisses of the Tempter, and reasoning from them to establish the autocracy of self, led with terrible certainty and success through evil thinking to evil doing; to do the deeds which are not becoming, to expose the being made for God, in a naked and foul unseemliness, to its friends and its foes; filled full of all unrighteousness, wickedness, viciousness, greed; brimming with envy, murder, guile, ill nature; whisperers, defamers, repulsive to God, outragers, prideful, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, faithless, loveless, truceless, pitiless; people who morally aware of God’s ordinance, that they who practise such things are worthy of death, not only do them, but assent and consent with those who practise them.

Here is a terrible accusation of human life, and of the human heart; the more terrible because it is plainly meant to be, in a certain sense, inclusive, universal. We are not indeed compelled to think that the Apostle charges every human being with sins against nature, as if the whole earth were actually one vast City of the Plain. We need not take him to mean that every descendant of Adam is actually an undutiful child, or actually untrustworthy in a compact, or even actually a boaster, an άλαζν, a pretentious claimant of praise or credit which he knows he does not deserve. We may be sure that on the whole, in this lurid passage, charged less with condemnation than with "lamentation, and mourning, and woe," he is thinking mainly of the then state of heathen society in its worst developments. Yet we shall see, as the Epistle goes on, that all the while he is thinking not only of the sins of some men, but of the sin of man. He describes with this tremendous particularity the variegated symptoms of one disease-the corruption of man’s heart; a disease everywhere present, everywhere deadly; limited in its manifestations by many circumstances and conditions, outward or within the man, but in itself quite unlimited in its dreadful possibilities. What man is, as fallen, corrupted, gone from God, is shown, in the teaching of St. Paul, by what bad men are.

Do we rebel against the inference? Quite possibly we do. Almost for certain, at one time or another, we have done so. We look round us on one estimable life and another, which we cannot reasonably think of as regenerate, if we take the strict Scriptural tests of regeneration into account, yet which asks and wins our respect, our confidence, it may be even our admiration; and we say, openly and tacitly, consciously or unconsciously, that that life stands clear outside this first chapter of Romans. Well, be it so in our thoughts; and let nothing-no, nothing-make us otherwise than ready to recognise and honour right doing wherever we see it, alike in the saints of God and in those who deny His very Being. But just now let us withdraw from all such looks outward, and calmly and in a silent hour look in. Do we, do you, do I, stand outside this chapter? Are we definitely prepared to say that the heart which we carry in our breast, whatever our friend’s heart may be, is such that under no change of circumstances could it, being what it is, conceivably develop the forms of evil branded in this passage? Ah, who, that knows himself, does not know that there lies in him indefinitely more than he can know of possible evil? "Who can understand his errors?" Who has so encountered temptation in all its typical forms that he can say, with even approximate truth, that he knows his own strength, and his own weakness, exactly as they are?

It was not for nothing that the question was discussed of old, whether there was any man who would always be virtuous if he were given the ring of Gyges, and the power to be invisible to all eyes. Nor was it lightly, or as a piece of pious rhetoric, that the saintliest of the chiefs of our Reformation, seeing a murderer carried off to die, exclaimed that there went John Bradford but for the grace of God. It is just when a man is nearest God for himself that he sees what, but for God, he would be; what, taken apart from God, he is, potentially, if not in act. And it is in just such a mood that, reading this paragraph of the great Epistle, he will smite upon his breast, and say, "God, be merciful to me the sinner". [Luke 18:13]

So doing he will be meeting the very purpose of the Writer of this passage. St. Paul is full of the message of peace, holiness, and the Spirit. He is intent and eager to bring his reader into sight and possession of the fulness of the eternal mercy, revealed and secured in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Sacrifice and Life. But for this very purpose he labours first to expose man to himself; to awaken him to the fact that he is before everything else a sinner; to reverse the Tempter’s spell, and to let him see the fact of his guilt with open eyes.

"The Gospel," someone has said, "can never be proved except to a bad conscience." If "bad" means "awakened," the saying is profoundly true. With a conscience sound asleep we may discuss Christianity, whether to condemn it, or to applaud. We may see in it an elevating programme for the race. We may affirm, a thousand times, that from the creed that God became flesh there result boundless possibilities for Humanity. But the Gospel. "the power of God unto salvation," will hardly be seen in its own prevailing self-evidence, as it is presented in this wonderful Epistle, till the student is first and with all else a penitent. The man must know for himself something of sin as condemnable guilt, and something of self as a thing in helpless yet responsible bondage, before he can so see Christ given for us, and risen for us, and seated at the right hand of God for us, as to say, "There is now no condemnation; Who shall separate us from the love of God? I know whom I have believed."

To the full sight of Christ there needs a true sight of self, that is to say, of sin.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-1.html.

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