Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, a highly respected scholar and teacher of God’s Word, used to say to his students at Dallas Seminary, “Men, you need to be able to reason your way through the Bible, chapter by chapter.” I’m still working on that assignment, and I doubt that I will ever complete it to my satisfaction. I have found it especially valuable to be able to reason my way through various books of the Bible, chapter by chapter. It takes a good deal of effort to be able to do so, but it is certainly worthwhile.
One of the first books of the Bible that we should seek to be able to reason our way through is Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Romans is a book which has significantly impacted the lives of many people down through the ages (as we shall soon see in our study). Paul’s other epistles tend to be written to specific individuals, or to address certain issues or problems. They are either people-centered or problem-centered. They contribute greatly to our knowledge of God, and to our Christian walk. The Book of Romans is distinct in that it was written to a church that Paul had not personally founded. Indeed, Paul wrote to a church he had not yet even visited—the church in Rome. Paul would eventually reach Rome, as the Book of Acts describes, but in a very different way than we would have expected. When he writes this Epistle to the Romans, he does so in a very deliberate fashion, logically tracing out the Gospel from its necessity (man's condemnation as sinners, separated from God—chapters 1-3) to its day-to-day outworking in life (chapters 12-16).
If you can reason your way through Romans, you will have the Gospel under your belt. In another study of Romans, I have expounded the epistle in much greater detail (see “Romans: The Righteousness of God”). In this study, we shall cover the book much more briefly, in a mere 17 lessons (almost a record, for me). The benefit of this series is that it takes us through the Book of Romans at the rate of approximately one chapter per lesson. This facilitates our ability to think through the entire epistle a chapter at a time, thereby following Paul's argument from beginning to end.
As you begin this study, I would challenge you to review the Book of Romans often in your mind, seeking to trace its argument from the very first chapter to wherever your study has brought you. It is my hope that you will then seek to apply what you have learned in your own life, and to share the message of the Gospel it contains with those who are lost and without hope, apart from the faith this Epistle describes and defines. May God bless you in your study of this portion of His Word.
“There is no telling what may happen when people begin to study the Epistle to the Romans,”1 says the noted scholar F. F. Bruce in the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Romans. We must surely agree with the sense of expectation expressed by Bruce when we take a moment to reflect on the impact this book has had on men of the past.
Augustine sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius, desperately wanting to start a new life, yet reluctant to break with the old. This professor of rhetoric at Milan for two years, prompted by the words sung by a neighborhood child, took up the scroll at his friend’s side and began to read these words:
Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof (Romans 13:13b-14).
“No further would I read,” he tells us, “nor had I any need; instantly, at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”2
Augustinian monk and Professor of Sacred Theology in the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, began to expound this great epistle to his students.
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” he wrote, “and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God’ … Night and day I pondered until … I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”3
In a somewhat indirect way, the Book of Romans was the turning point for John Wesley.
In the evening of 24 May 1738, John Wesley ‘went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.’4
Lest all of these ‘conversions’ seem to come from the long ago and the far away, let me share with you the story of a young man who visited Believers Chapel in the midst of a series in the Book of Romans. At the end of the lesson, the person sitting next to this young man began a casual conversation. “Tell me,” the person asked, “how long have you been a Christian?” To which the young man responded, “About five minutes.”
If I began the series on ‘suffering’ with apprehension and ‘fear and trembling,’ I commence this study in Romans with anticipation and eagerness, wondering what great things God will do in each of our lives as this book becomes a part of our understanding and experience.
It is hardly possible to stress too vigorously the importance of the Book of Romans.
Coleridge referred to Romans as, “The profoundest piece of writing in existence.” Luther said it was, “The chief book of the New Testament. … It deserves to be known by heart, word for word, by every Christian.” According to C. A. Fox, “Chrysostom used to have it read over to him twice every week by his own express order. … Unquestionably the fullest, deepest compendium of all sacred foundation truths.”5
If Romans is the most significant book of the New Testament, how can we justify a mere 17 lessons in its study? It is my conviction that every Christian should know the argument of this epistle like the back of his hand. If you are to understand any book of the Bible you must be able to think your way through the book chapter by chapter. Although an intense and prolonged study of Romans would expose you to many of the rich details of the book, it would tend to be counter-productive in grasping the argument of the apostle. Our plan, then, is to dwell upon the development of Paul’s argument through the epistle, with the hope that having a framework for future study, you will go on to search the depths of this great presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So far as we know, Paul had never set foot in Rome until after this epistle had been written. If this is the case a word of introduction was certainly necessary for this letter to be received as it was and is, the Word of God. In the first seven verses, Paul described his relationship to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while in verses 8-15 he pursued his relationship with the Romans to whom he wrote. In verses 16-17, Paul introduced the theme of the epistle, the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the revelation of the righteousness of God.
As even a casual reading of the account of the conversion of Saul will reveal, Paul was not an apostle of Jesus Christ by his own initiative. Rather, he was an apostle by divine appointment. He was ‘called’ (v. 1) and ‘set apart’ (v. 1). As he wrote in Galatians 1, he was set apart while yet unborn (1:15).
The Gospel which Paul preached was not one of his own making. It was the message which was in fulfillment of all that the Old Testament prophets had promised (v. 2). It was, then, consistent with all that true Judaism believed and anticipated. It was not a revelation of something entirely new and unexpected, but a realization of that which had been promised.
The object of the Gospel was the person, Jesus Christ, Who came as the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the sin-bearer of the sins of the world (vv. 3-4). The incontestable proof of His authenticity was His resurrection from the dead. The resurrection was not, as some have maintained, an incidental and unnecessary addition to the Gospel; it was the foundation stone. Our Lord Jesus staked His entire ministry and reputation on this event, as His enemies knew all too well (cf. Matthew 27:62-66).
The scope of the Gospel which Paul preached was universal (vv. 5-7). The Jews wanted to keep the Gospel in their own little corner of the world. They wished to make it exclusively Jewish. If they could not succeed in doing so, at least they would insist that in order to be saved men must in effect become Jewish proselytes to Judaism (cf. Galatians, Acts 15:1ff.). Paul’s primary calling was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (v. 5). Paul’s concern for the salvation of the Gentiles explains, in part, his interest in writing to the Roman saints.
Since Paul had not yet visited Rome, it was necessary for him to pave the way for this epistle by expanding on his relationship to his readers. Although he had not yet set foot in Rome, he had a deep and abiding concern and interest in the spiritual well-being of these Romans.
Paul’s concern for the Romans was indicated by his prayer life (vv. 8-10). Paul greatly rejoiced in the fact that the faith of the Romans was being broadcast throughout the world. Although he did not know many of them personally, he did know of them, even by name, and unceasingly prayed for their growth, and for the privilege of visiting them.
Paul’s concern for the Romans was evident in his desire to be with them (vv. 11-12). As Paul wrote elsewhere, he may have been absent in body, but not in spirit (1 Thes. 2:17). As a minister of the Gospel, Paul greatly desired to go to Rome and be instrumental in the salvation of some. In addition, he would have been enabled to encourage and build up the saints. This was not to say that Paul’s visit would be one-sided and that he would not be blessed in turn, for they would also greatly encourage him.
Why, then, had Paul not yet visited this city? Not because he had no desire to do so, and not because he had not attempted to visit these saints. The only reason was that thus far God had prevented him from carrying out his intentions (vv. 13-15). As we know from later events in the life of Paul, God did intend for Paul to visit Rome, but in a way which we would never have expected. He went to Rome with all expenses paid as a guest of the Roman empire.
If in verses 1-15 Paul introduced himself to the Romans, in verses 16-17 he introduced the theme of his epistle. We might summarize this theme in this fashion—the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the Righteousness of God Revealed.
In verse 15 Paul expressed an eagerness to preach the Gospel—an eagerness all too frequently lacking in Christians today. What was it that made the apostle tick? What was the driving force behind Paul’s desire to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Paul has already stated that one reason is that he has been called by God to this task (v. 1). But in addition to this, there are two good reasons given in verses 16 and 17 which should motivate any Christian to share the Gospel with others.
(1) The Gospel Is the Revelation to Men of God’s Provision for Salvation (v. 16). In verse 16 Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” We are compelled to preach the gospel to men simply because it is the means by which men come to a knowledge of salvation. Later in this epistle, Paul wrote: “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard. And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). The only way men can come to salvation is by hearing the Gospel proclaimed. In addition, the Gospel itself is powerful to save. It is not our persuasiveness that saves men; it is the Gospel itself that is powerful. Proclaiming the Gospel is like letting a lion out of its cage. Once the lion is out, he needs no help from us. We as Christians are not called upon to defend the Gospel so much as we are to declare it. When it is turned loose, it will take care of itself.
(2) The Gospel Is the Revelation to Men of God’s Righteousness (v. 17). Every committed evangelical should be quick to admit that the proclamation of the Gospel is essential for the salvation of men, but all too few seem to comprehend that the proclamation of the Gospel is also the presentation of the righteousness of God. The Gospel declares men to be sinners under the wrath and condemnation of a righteous and holy God. God’s ultimate purpose is not so much to save men as it is to demonstrate and declare His righteousness, not only to men, but to the angelic hosts (cf. Eph. 3:8-10). If the proclamation of the Gospel declares the righteousness of God to men, God’s ultimate purpose in the world is realized. We can therefore proclaim the Gospel with confidence, knowing first of all that it is the Gospel itself which has the power to save men, and not we ourselves, and second, that God is glorified in our proclamation even when men reject our message.
There are two very significant applications to what Paul has written in verses 16 and 17. The first is that whenever we distort the Gospel of Jesus Christ we also diminish the righteousness of God as revealed in the Gospel. The tone of the Gospel today is nothing like what is revealed in Scripture. The modern ‘gospel’ portrays God as being more lonely and in need of our companionship than righteously angered by our sin. Man is not represented as a rebel under the wrath of God and destined for eternal torment, but rather as one who could use a little assistance in making his life more fulfilling and satisfying. In this kind of gospel, we defame the righteousness of God, rather than declare it.
The second implication I would draw from what Paul has said is that failing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with men not only withholds from them the only way of salvation, it also withholds from God the glory due to His name through the proclamation of His Gospel. When we keep silent with the Gospel we are robbing men of the opportunity to hear God’s provision of salvation, and we are robbing God of the glory due to His name through the preaching of the Gospel.
We are told that a good teacher begins by telling you what he is going to say, then he tells you, and finally he reviews by repeating what he has said. Before we begin to analyze the various parts of Romans, I want to preview the book with a survey of the argument of the entire work. It is possible, believe it or not, to summarize the message of Romans with five words: Condemnation (chapters 1-3a), Justification (chapters 3b-5), Sanctification (chapters 6-8), Dispensation (chapters 9-11), Application (chapters 12-16).
Someone has said that it is harder to get a person lost than it is to get him saved. There is a certain amount of truth in this statement, and it helps us to grasp why the apostle begins the book on a rather negative note. Man is brought to the realization that he is utterly and completely lost and destined to eternal condemnation due to his sin. The ‘righteousness’ which man offers to God as the work of his own hands is unacceptable to God. Whether it be the pagan in the jungles of Africa or the sophisticated Jewish priest, striving to keep the Law of the Old Testament, every man is in rebellion against God, and demonstrates his rebellion by rejecting the revelation which God has given to man of Himself.
The pagan. has rejected the revelation of the power and divine nature of God in creation. Instead of worshipping the Creator, he has chosen to worship the creation. Not only has this man twisted the revelation of God in creation, he has also corrupted and perverted the use of God’s creation. All of this is ample evidence which justifies the condemnation of God (Romans 1:18-32).
More enlightened sinners also fall under the wrath of God. They are quick to condemn others, yet they do not live up to the standards which they hold for the conduct of those they condemn. Worst of all is the self-righteous Jew who prides himself because of his possession of the Law, yet who fails to live according to its requirements (Romans 2).
Paul’s conclusion is summarized in chapter 3: “As it is written, There is none righteous, not even one. … Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:10, 20).
If man’s righteousness served only to condemn him before God, God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ saves men from the wrath of God. What men could never do to please God, God provided in Jesus Christ. He satisfied all the requirements of the Law. He bore the penalty and punishment for man’s sins. He provided a righteousness acceptable to God. “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe …” (Romans 3:21, 22a).
The principle of ‘justification by faith’ expounded by Paul in the third chapter is not in any way inconsistent with the teaching of the Old Testament. To demonstrate this, Paul, in the fourth chapter, used the example of Abraham to prove that even in the old dispensation men were saved, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith. Justification by faith is not only consistent with the past, it is persistent in the future. In chapter 5, Paul argues that God’s love in seeking us out for salvation while we were still His enemies assures us of the perseverance of our salvation now that we are His children.
The doctrine of justification states that we are saved from the penalty of our sins. The doctrine of sanctification goes further in assuring us that we are also saved from the power of our sin nature. This means that God has not only provided a remedy for past sins, but has also made it possible to live a life which is pleasing to Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter 6 Paul urged the Christian to live a godly life on the basis of his position in Christ. Since we have died to sin in Jesus Christ, we should no longer live in sin. Since we have been raised to newness of life in Christ, we should live righteously before men and before God.
Chapter 7 presents the real ‘fly in the ointment.’ Although we know that we should live righteously, we simply cannot do it. What we know we should do, we don’t. What we desperately want to avoid, those things we somehow seem to do. The problem is that the flesh is weak and incapable of producing righteousness. The flesh is subject to the stronger power of sin which still dwells in the Christian. In order to live a life pleasing to God, there must be a new source of power.
That power is not inherent in man. Just as a man or woman can do nothing to earn their salvation, so they can not produce righteousness in their lives, even as Christians. The solution to the dilemma is the provision of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. God has provided the Holy Spirit to produce in the life of the Christian practical righteousness:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
This Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly wonderful, but how does it relate to the Old Testament, to the Jews, to all of the prophecies concerning Israel yet unfilled? Has God given up on Israel? The answer to these questions is found in chapters 9-11.
In chapter 9 Paul began to answer the question from the divine perspective. God has always operated by the principle of election. The reason why so many Jews have not turned to faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah is because God has not chosen them. They trusted in the fact that they were the physical descendants of Abraham, but the history of the nation reveals that this has never been the basis for God’s choosing. God has chosen a small remnant, and to this remnant He will fulfill His promises.
While God had not chosen all Israelites for salvation, neither had these unbelieving Jews chosen to trust in Christ as their Messiah. They sought to establish their own righteousness before God rather than to accept the righteousness which God had provided in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:3, 4). While chapter 9 asserted that only those who were chosen could believe, chapter 10 assures us that all who call upon the name of the Lord for salvation shall be saved (v. 13).
While chapter 9 views the problem of Israel’s rejection from the standpoint of election and chapter 10 from the viewpoint of human rejection, chapter 11 draws the whole thing together by stressing the purpose of God in Israel’s rejection. God intended that the Jews would reject Messiah in order to save multitudes of Gentiles. But the salvation of the Gentiles will in turn provoke the Jews to jealousy which will incline them back to their Messiah. God is not through with Israel, but will in days to come restore them to their former place and will fulfill all the promises He made to them through the prophets. The rejection of the Jews has brought about the acceptance of the Gentiles; and the acceptance of the Gentiles will, in the providence of God, turn the Jews back to their Messiah. God is working all things together for our good and His glory!
The theological foundation has been laid. Now the apostle moves to the practical outworking of righteousness in the life of the Christian. The initial response of the Christian to the grace of God should be the dedication of himself to God as a living sacrifice. The only reasonable act of worship is that which begins with the sacrifice of self in devoted service to God. Since every Christian has a different capacity for service due to differing spiritual gifts, the Christian must first of all exercise his renewed mind in the contemplation of the capacities for service which God has given and then devote himself to those ministries.
Beyond our commitment of self-sacrifice and service in the area of our gifts, we also have responsibilities to the body of our Lord in general. We are exhorted to love one another, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Not only are we responsible to ‘one another’ we have an obligation to those who are our enemies. To these we are obliged to avoid retaliation and to do good to those who oppose us (Romans 12:17-21).
Our obligation is one that I view in concentric circles of responsibility. The center of our obligation is to God, in self-sacrifice and service. The ripple effect extends to the exercise of our gifts, the service of the brethren, even kindness to the lowly and our enemies. Beyond this there is the sphere of responsibility which we have to society and human institutions. We are obliged to express our submission to God by being obedient to the government which God has ordained. In addition to legal obligations, such as obeying the laws of the land and paying our taxes, we have moral obligations as well. Even when the state may legalize immorality, it is the obligation of the Christian to abstain from the evils of drunkenness, sensuality and lust (Romans 13:8-14).
The righteousness of God is to be exhibited in the lives of the saints in all of these areas previously mentioned, in personal service to God, in the exercise of our spiritual gifts, in ministry to one another, in kindness to all men, in obedience to the state and in keeping the moral law. In addition to these ‘clear cut’ responsibilities, the Christian is to demonstrate righteousness in what might be called the ‘gray’ areas of life—that is in the areas of dispute between Christians. How, for example, should a Christian respond to another brother who feels strongly that it is wrong to eat meat, or to one who feels it is wrong to drink wine? How should we relate to a believer who has strong convictions which we think have no biblical basis? Paul’s answer in chapter 14 and the first six verses of chapter 15 is that we should accept the ‘Weaker brother’ and conduct ourselves in such a way as to build him up and encourage him rather than to criticize, condemn and change him. The law of love dictates that we should avoid the exercise of any right which will cause another brother to stumble in his faith.
The final chapters of the book have been referred to as an epilogue. In the remaining verses of chapter 15, Paul speaks first with respect to the biblical basis for his ministry to the Gentiles (vv. 7-21) and then in regard to his plans for future ministry (vv. 22-33).
Chapter 16 is dominated by a wealth of personal greetings, revealing the intimate knowledge of the apostle with the needs of individuals in the body at Rome. Paul’s ministry was not primarily one directed to the masses, but to men and women individually. This conclusion reminds us of the great importance of people-to-people ministry.
We are conditioned to think of the Gospel in terms of ‘the gospels’ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but in my estimation, there is no statement of the Gospel more clearly and logically presented by the apostle Paul than in the Book of Romans. I hope you desire to study this book as much as I do to teach it. I pray that you will never be the same for having done so.
This past week the lot fell to me to be on jury duty. After a long morning of waiting in a smoke-filled room I jumped at the chance of getting out into the warmth of the sun during lunch hour. I sat down on a park bench outside the courthouse and continued to study for this message on Romans 1.
Just as I was beginning to get into my reading a couple of ‘knights of the road’ came with their wine bottle and sat down beside me. After I had declined ‘a little drink’ a time or two, they became curious as to what I was trying so hard to study. I told them I was preparing to preach a sermon on Romans 1. After some discussion, I read them these words from that chapter: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness …” (Romans 1:18).
It wasn’t too long before one of the men decided it was time to get up and go buy another bottle of wine, as they had already consumed the first. Now the man who got up and left said that he had a degree in engineering and had been making $144,000 a year. He said when he got to the top of the ladder of success and saw what it was like he decided he preferred life at the bottom of the ladder and has continued there ever since. He knew a great deal about Christianity and said his former wife was still prominent in Christian circles.
Now this text in Romans 1 is very relevant to these two winos for it depicts their situation to a ‘T.’ But it is important to us as well for it plainly answers one of the questions most frequently asked by the unsaved, “How can a God of love condemn to eternal torment those who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ?”
Romans 1 is also important to us because ever since the inception of the theory of evolution, some theologians have applied this erroneous theory to religion, positing an upward rise of religion from very primitive and pagan origins to that which is more refined and dignified. Religion, they would have us believe, began in the slime of polytheism and slowly emerged into monotheism.
Paul says this is not so, for in this first chapter of Romans he gives us a historical sketch of religion. He maintains that religion was at the beginning monotheistic, and that man, when he turned from God’s view of Himself in creation, twisted and perverted pure religion into various forms of error and confusion.
There is available to every man a certain knowledge of God. This knowledge is attainable by observing the handiwork of God in creation. Just as we can learn much of a writer by studying his work, or of a painter by his paintings, so, also, we can learn of God from His handiwork, His creation. We may learn, Paul says in verse 20, of God’s eternal power and of His divine nature. Who can look at the raging power of the Niagara Falls and not be struck with the power of the One Who created them? Who can study the power of the atom and not be impressed with the infinite power of the Creator? And who can ponder creation without concluding that someone far greater than mortal man was the originator of it all?
As the Psalmist put it long ago: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1, 2). The witness of creation to its Creator has been acknowledged by many great minds.
Dr. Horstmann testified, “My scientific conscience forbids me not to believe in God.”6
Pasteur concurred, “Just because I reflected I remained a believer.”7
Dr. A. Nueberg agrees when he says, “God is the cause of all things, and whoever thinks in terms of cause and effect thinks in the direction of God.”8
Even an unbeliever like Voltaire confessed, “I do not know what I should think about the world. I cannot believe this clock exists without a clockmaker.”9
Granted, there are some who are students of creation, but who do not seem to be able to look beyond to the Creator. They look at creation in the way a glass-maker analyzes the glass in a display window. They note its thickness and freedom from distortion. They observe the size and quality of the glass and the way it is framed. But they fail to look through the glass to the display behind, the true purpose of the glass being overlooked.10
Man's proper response to the revelation of God should have been worship and grateful acknowledgment: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks …” (Romans 1:21a).
Man’s response to natural revelation is three-fold. First of all is the initial act of rejection: Men simply refuse to accept God as He has revealed Himself. Paul tells us in verse 18 that men “… suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” They refuse God as He is. How often we consider the problem of the heathen to be lack of revelation. We somehow view God as withholding revelation essential to the salvation of the pagan. But Paul describes the heathen as having confined God's revelation to a box of their own making, and piling on the lid of the box their own sins. The pagan’s problem is not the sparsity of revelation, but the suppression of it.
Whenever we reject one explanation of the facts we must necessarily counter with an alternative. This is precisely the situation with the heathen. They have rejected God’s revelation of Himself and they have replaced it with another. The key word here is ‘exchanged’ (vv. 23, 25, 26). Instead of worshipping the God Who made man in His own image, they made gods in their image. They worshipped the creature rather than the Creator. Bad enough to conceive of God in terms of humanity, but they went far beyond this to represent God in terms of the beasts of the earth. The Greeks had their Apollo, the Romans the eagle, the Egyptians the bull, and the Assyrians the serpent. Paul may have been alluding to these ‘gods.’
Not only did the heathen exchange the truth of God for a lie, but they also exchanged the blessings of God in His provision for sexual fulfillment for that which is unnatural and disgusting. “… for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire towards one another …” (Romans 1:26b-27a). There is here, I believe, a deadly sequence of events. Rejection of God’s revelation leads to idolatry, and idolatry leads to immorality and man at last plummets into the grossest perversions imaginable.
If you have thought of the heathen as an idolater because he didn’t know any better, Paul insists that he is an idolater because he has refused to know better, suppressing God’s self-revelation.
We know that these verses in Romans chapter 1 are part of the section on condemnation. Paul is seeking to establish the fact that all men justly deserve the consequences of the eternal wrath of God. The thrust of these verses, however, is not primarily that God will judge the heathen because of his rejection of the truth, but rather that God is judging the heathen for his rebellion and rejection.
The wrath of God, then, is not merely future; it is also present. Men face the consequences for their sins in eternity but also in the present. Paul’s point in this section is not so much that God will punish men because of their idolatry and immorality, but that idolatry and immorality is itself punishment for rejecting divine revelation.
Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NIV).
If the key word for the rejection and sin of the heathen is “exchanged,” the key expression for the manifestation of the wrath of God in the present is “gave them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28). Because men rejected what was clearly evident about God, God gave men over to idolatry, immorality and perversion. As men practice these things they are getting what they deserve: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them” (Romans 1:24). “… receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Romans 1:27b).
To a great extent, the judgment of God is getting exactly what we want. Men reject God’s revelation of Himself and God gives men over to idolatry. Men reject God and His purposes for men and God gives man over to practice the unnatural. Not only is this so in the present; it will be so in the future.
In the time of the great tribulation, God will allow men to do as they please. He will remove all restraints. But men will learn that there is no joy or pleasure possible when each seeks his own pleasure at the expense of others. Men want God to leave them alone; they want none of His controls. So God removes His controlling and restraining hand (Colossians 1:16, 17) and the universe begins to fall apart at the seams (Matthew 24:29). Men wish God to leave them alone, and God gives them an eternity of separation from Himself (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
What an awesome thought. Hell is getting exactly what we want. And on the reverse side of the coin, how grateful we Christians should be to our heavenly Father Who has and will withhold much of what we ask for, for our own good.
Paul’s point is simply this: God is righteous in His expression of wrath on the heathen, for they have rejected God’s revelation of Himself in creation. The evidence of God’s wrath is seen in idolatry, immorality and perversion.
From this passage we may extract a number of important principles which apply not only to the heathen in Africa, but to us as well.
(1) God is just in condemning the heathen. Paul has proven that God is righteous and just in condemning the heathen, for they have rejected God’s revelation in creation. The revelation which the heathen rejected was not sufficient for salvation, but it was adequate for condemnation. If I were to ask you for a nickel and you refused, what good would it be to ask for a quarter, a dollar, or $1,000? Our response to God’s revelation in nature is evidence of our response to any amount of revelation. Our Lord said to the rich man in Sheol, concerning his lost relatives, “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Our response to divine revelation reveals the condition of our hearts toward God, and the condition of our hearts determines our response to any revelation we receive. The scribes and Pharisees refused to believe the claims of our Lord in spite of insurmountable evidence.
But what of someone who does respond positively to the revelation of God in nature? We would be correct to assume that those whose hearts God opens will be given the necessary revelation of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Such was the case with a man like Cornelius. He was told by an angel, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4b). Because he responded to the revelation of God that was available, God gave full revelation which led to the salvation of Cornelius and his household.
One further thing concerning the heathen which should be helpful. Since the Bible teaches that there are degrees of punishment for the wicked, proportionate to the amount of revelation they have received (Luke 12:47, 48), then it is an act of grace that God has not revealed more than He has to the heathen.
I must also say that although we should be concerned for the heathen across the sea, I am, as a good friend of mine would say, “More concerned about the pagan across the table, than the one across the sea.” For you, my friend, have far more knowledge for which you must give account to God.
(2) God punishes sin with sin. We have often been accustomed to thinking of sin in terms of drunkenness, immorality and perversion. Now, of course, this is sin, but the root sin is the sin of unbelief. Often the sins of immorality and perversion are in reality God’s judgment in the present for men’s rebellion against Himself. If the sin of unbelief results in the sin of immorality, we should also recognize that the morality of any person, any people, any nation will not be improved significantly apart from revival and conversion.
(3) Man is not religiously (or any other way) evolving upward, but downward. Paul’s historical sketch of heathen religion is evidence that man’s religion has degenerated in proportion to his rejection of God’s revelation.
(4) Idolatry and unbelief are evil bed-fellows. Paul indicates a direct relationship between unbelief and idolatry (vv. 21-23). We would not be correct in thinking, however, that idolatry is only practiced with images of stone or clay, for idolatry, at its heart, is fashioning God in our own image. Idolatry is sinful because it fails to do justice to God’s perfection. Idolatry misrepresents God, often distorting His character as a cartoonist characterizes the features of a prominent personality. But we distort God with wrong concepts and wrong theology just as much as we do with physical likenesses which have no resemblance. Theology is simply a word-picture of God. If we are wrong here, we are idolaters.
I say this because I often hear people say things like this: “I like to think of God as a God of love. I can’t conceive of this kind of God sending anyone to hell.” We have thus made God in our image according to our preferences. And at the same time we have turned away from the revelation of God in creation and in the Bible. Beware of theological idolatry.
(5) Homosexuality is an evidence of the wrath of God on sin. We all know of recent attempts to liberalize our thinking concerning homosexuality. Worse yet this is being done under the banner of Christianity.11 In no uncertain terms Paul has identified homosexuality as sin, and has also implied that the predominance of homosexuality in any society is a sign of God’s present and future judgment. It is historically the ear-mark of a decadent society.
When I think of this matter of homosexuality I cannot help but recall a letter to the editor in a recent issue of The Wittenburg Door:
You have often supported the cause of the Christian feminists with a compassion for them and their struggle with the Apostle Paul. It is my hope that you have the same compassion for the Christian gays which we represent. Homosexuality can be sinful, but it can be Christian as well. Any form of sexuality (homo or hetero) can be abused, but it can also be used for the glory of God and the blessing of God’s people. I would be interested in sharing more if you are interested. I only hope that you have some compassion for the gays who struggle with Paul and who love the Lord Jesus Christ.12
What is the basic issue involved here? The same as with the feminist movement. It is the issue of our response to the inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God. Their struggle is not with Paul alone; it is with the Word of God. Rejection of His Word opens the door to every kind of evil. Some have gone too far in teaching that since homosexuality is a manifestation of the judgment of God, the homosexual is beyond hope. This does not square with what Paul wrote elsewhere:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine).
The most cruel and inhumane thing we can do to the homosexual is to deny that his problem is one of sin. Medical science and psychiatry have almost no hope for the homosexual. But Jesus Christ died that we might be freed from sin. If homosexuality is sin, then, my friend, there is a sure solution.13
(6) An inference concerning infants who die. There is in these first chapters of Romans an inference concerning infants who die before they are confronted with the claims of Christ. In every instance, the apostle Paul defends the righteousness of God in condemning the sinner because he (or she) has had some revelation which has been rejected. I would understand, by inference, that an infant who has not had any revelation concerning God or the ability to reasonably respond to it would not fall under the condemnation of God. On the basis of Romans 5, I would understand children and imbeciles to be covered by the blood of Christ. We serve a God Who is gracious and compassionate, a God of mercy.
There is no question about it in the mind of Paul; even the ignorant heathen is found guilty of rejecting God and His revelation in creation. If there is no excuse for him, there will be no excuse for us, and this Paul will make plain in the next section.
10 “A glass window stands before us. We raise our eyes and see the glass; we note its quality, and observe its defects; we speculate on its composition. Or we look straight through it on the great prospect of land and sea and sky beyond. So there are two ways of looking at the world. We may see the world and absorb ourselves in the wonders of nature. That is the scientific way. Or we may look right through the world and see God behind it. That is the religious way.
“The scientific way of looking at the world is not wrong any more them the glass-manufacturer’s way of looking at the window. This way of looking at things has its very important uses. Nevertheless the window was placed there not to be looked at but to be looked through; and the world has failed of its purpose unless it too is looked through and the eye rests not on it but on its God. Yes, its God; for it is of the essence of the religious view of things that God is seen in all that is and in all that occurs. The universe is his, and in all its movements speaks of him, because it does only his will.” Benjamin B. Warfield, “Some Thoughts on Predestination,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1970), Vol. I, p. 108.
11 This is illustrated by a book which will be released this year by Harper entitled Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Note the comments of this review in The Christian Newsletter: “The authors claim homosexuality is morally permissible, even if not commendable, when confined to a covenant relationship where partners are faithful to each other. They stress that evangelicals have yet to deal adequately with the issue.
“In reinterpreting Bible passages on homosexuality, the authors take on the church’s historic understanding of the issue. They proclaim: l) the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality but “forced sexual activity” and inhospitality; 2) the Levitical injunction against homosexuality is as meaningless as injunctions against eating rare meat or wearing mixed fabrics; and 3) Paul’s admonishment against homosexuality was against a particular kind of homosexual act.
“Scanzoni and Mollenkott suggest that while homosexual relations may not be God’s ideal, some accommodation needs to be made in a fallen world. They write, ‘Stable homosexual relationships could be said to lie within the permissive will of God to persons incapable of heterosexual rezationships.’ While their conclusions are couched in ‘maybes’ and ‘could bes,’ their purpose is to loosen evangelicals from their traditional approach to a more ‘accepting’ position.” “Gleanings,” Evangelical Newsletter, Jan. 27, 1978, pp. 2-3.
13 “In verse 26 Paul speaks of homosexuality as a “degrading passion,” in verse 27, as an “indecent act” and “an error,” in verse 28, the improper activity of a “depraved mind,” and in verse 32, declares it is “worthy of death.” One is not a homosexual constitutionally any more than one is an adulterer constitutionally. Homosexuality is not considered to be a condition, but an act. It is viewed as a sinful practice which can become a way of life. The homosexual act, like the act of adultery, is the reason for calling one a homosexual (of course one may commit homosexual sins of the heart, just as one may commit adultery in his heart. He may lust after a man in his heart as another may lust after a woman). But precisely because homosexuality, like adultery, is learned behavior into which men with sinful natures are prone to wander, homosexuality can be forgiven in Christ, and the pattern can be abandoned and in its place proper patterns can be reestablished by the Holy Spirit. Some homosexuals have lost hope because of the reluctance of Christian counselors to represent homosexuality as sin.” Quote by Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 139.
When I was a youngster in elementary school I had the unique experience of attending school where my father was a teacher. I suppose in the eyes of some of my classmates that could be viewed as a somewhat privileged position. Fellow students would be reluctant to beat me up, even if I deserved it, for fear of facing the wrath of my dad.
There were times when, at least in my mind, the fact that my father was a teacher gave me some kind of an edge with other teachers. Some of them were personal friends of my father and so I knew them on a first-name basis, at least until I was instructed otherwise.
Then again I was aware that teachers were human and even had a weakness or two. I remember having a sheltered young woman as a teacher during her first year of teaching. She had ‘novice’ written all over her. Unfortunately, I did not have the wisdom or the humanity to come to her aid, and, in fact, was the ringleader in giving her a rough time. Some years later I had the unusual opportunity to go back to my home town and teach with some of my former teachers. They told me that every lunch hour they would emotionally prepare her to face me the coming period. I suspect this poor woman left the teaching profession, partly due to my influence.
But one lesson I learned very quickly about being a teacher’s kid; it didn’t impress my father. A friend and I had been selected as projectionists for our school, which enabled us to move freely about the school. One thing we were not supposed to do was to be in a certain wing of the school. One day we decided to do it anyway and were racing each other down the hallway. I skillfully manipulated a corner without overturning projector and cart only to end up running into my father. It was then I learned that my father was not impressed with the fact that I was his son. I can assure you my punishment was considerably more severe than any other student would have received. In fact my father thought that my being his son entitled him to expect more of me than the other students.
The Jews were as wrong in presuming upon their unique status as a nation as I was. They thought that their privileged position exempted them from the judgment of God. They thought their eternal salvation was secure, solely on the basis of their nationality, because they were the offspring of Abraham.
The reading of Romans 1 would not disturb the Jew; it would delight him. They relished the thought of the heathen, getting his due and spending eternity apart from God. It never occurred to the Jew until it was too late that in chapter 1 Paul was setting the trap for his smugly complacent Jewish readers.
Yes, the heathen did deserve the wrath of God, for they were guilty of rejecting and suppressing the revelation of God evident in creation (Romans 1:18-20). This revelation was not sufficient to save, but it was sufficient to condemn. By rejecting the revelation of God’s eternal power and divine nature, the heathen have revealed the condition of their hearts toward God. And the condition of our hearts determines our response to any degree of revelation.
Man’s present condition as described in verses 29-31 is not simply a result of his personal rejection of God, but is a manifestation of the wrath of God on all mankind because from the time of the fall of man, man has rejected God’s self-revelation and exchanged it for his own estimation of God. Because of men’s rejection, God has given man over to his own sinful passions. Thus man is the product of the rejection of his predecessors as well as his own response to God’s self-revelation (Romans 1:21-28).
In the first sixteen verses of chapter 2, Paul does not name his opponent, but establishes the principles of divine judgment by which the Jew is clearly condemned. In verses 17-29 the Jew comes under the spotlight of God’s judgment and is found guilty.
As we can easily discern, Paul does not immediately point his finger at the Jew as the object of his attention. But it becomes evident at verse 17 that this has been his purpose from the outset of the chapter. Some have understood the first 16 verses of the second chapter as directed toward the Gentile moralist, the up-and-outer. Such is not the case for Paul simply continues to lay the foundation for his pointed accusations at the end of this section on condemnation. Verses 1-16 provide a basis for evaluating the righteousness of the Jews. We shall focus upon five principles of divine judgment for by these five standards the righteousness of the Jew will be measured.
(1) God’s judgment of men is according to our own standards (Romans 2:1). The Jews have eagerly consented to the condemnation of the Gentiles. They even delighted in it. The Jew had gladly assumed the seat of the judge. He pronounced the Gentiles guilty of God’s eternal wrath. He sentenced them to eternal torment. In this the Jew has already condemned himself, for he has placed himself under his own standards. Our Lord taught, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1, 2).
By this our Lord meant that when we set ourselves over others as their judge, we have imposed upon ourselves the same standard of measurement. In our days of situational ethics and relativity, some tell us that they do not feel it is wrong to commit adultery or to steal. We can well afford to be broad-minded concerning our own conduct, but if we are consistent then we must agree that it is acceptable for others to steal from us or to violate the sanctity of our marriage.
God is not so interested in the standards we set for ourselves as those we set for others. It is by these standards that we ourselves will be judged by God. Very few of us would wish to be judged by these standards, but the Scriptures tell us this is the case.
Since the Jews have enthusiastically condemned the Gentiles, they have assumed for themselves the same standards. Shortly, Paul will bear down on these standards.
(2) God’s judgment of men is according to our works (Romans 2:5-11). All of us would prefer to be judged in accordance with what we profess rather than according to what we practice. There is a world of difference between what we say and what we do. If there is any doubt in your mind, simply ask your children. The Jew would have delighted to be judged by their doctrinal statements; in fact, that is what they relied upon.
Furthermore, the Jew expected to be judged according to his standing as a descendant of Abraham. They supposed that being the seed of Abraham was all that was required for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Paul blasted the false expectations of his Jewish readers when he wrote,
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:5-11).
But with all the emphasis in the Bible on faith, why is a man judged according to his deeds? Although a man is saved on the basis of faith, he is condemned on the basis of his works: “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Revelation 20:12).
You see, when a man or woman rejects the righteousness which God has provided as a free gift in Jesus Christ, he, in effect, chooses to establish his own righteousness, and this can be judged only on a performance basis. So Paul establishes that one principle upon which condemnation is administered is that a man’s righteousness is measured by his works.
We should say in agreement with James that the measure of one’s faith is his works. As James wrote, “… Faith without works is useless” (James 2:20b). The genuineness of our faith is revealed by the quality of our works. So a man is judged according to his works. The second principle, then, for the judgment of man is that he is judged according to his works.
(3) God’s judgment of man is according to the revelation we possess (Romans 2:12). If the judgment of God is to be fair, it must account for the amount of revelation that a man has. The revelation available to the heathen is that evident in creation, attesting to the eternal power and divine nature of God (1:20). The Jew, on the other hand, has the written revelation of the Old Testament. Not only is the nature of God described, but also His moral requirements are prescribed, and the way of salvation declared. God judges every man according to what he knows of divine revelation: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2:12).
(4) God’s judgment of man is impartial (Romans 2:3, 11). Somehow the Jew had it in his mind that God was playing favorites. The Jew thought he had a corner on the market when it came to salvation. Paul declares that the judgment of God is impartial and that the Jew should not expect special treatment:
And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:3).
For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11).
God does not play favorites; the fact that a man is a Jew will in no way influence the verdict of God. No one will go to heaven because Abraham was his father, nor will any one be kept out because he was not. God’s judgment of men is impartial.
(5) God’s judgment must not be confused with His longsuffering and mercy (Romans 2:4-5). While the wrath of God is presently evident upon the Gentile heathen (Romans 1:17, 27), the Jew may be tempted to misinterpret the momentary absence of judgment on the Jew. The absence of present judgment for sin is not to be understood as God overlooking the sins of His chosen people. God does not look down on the sins of the Jews, shake His head, and say in effect, “Boys will be boys.”
The manifestation of the wrath of God has been delayed because of God’s mercy and longsuffering. The delay is to give men the opportunity to repent, not to encourage them to keep sinning. To fail to repent is to spurn God’s mercy and to store up future judgment on ourselves.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:4-5).
These, then, are the principles which govern God’s judgment on men, and these are the standards by which the Jew, as well as the Gentile, is to be measured. In verses 17-29, Paul applies these standards and finds the Jew equally guilty with the Gentiles before God.
Paul sets out in these last verses of chapter 2 to point out all that the Jew relied upon for righteousness before God. He shows that these prove to be no means of providing righteousness, but rather are a millstone about their necks, making them more guilty than the pagans they so enthusiastically condemned.
(1) The Jew and the Law (Romans 2:17-24). If there was one thing the Jew prided himself on, it was his possession of the Law. It was delivered to Jews, through Jews. It had been preserved and passed down by Jews. The Jews felt that mere possession of the Law constituted righteousness.
Verses 17-20 grant that the Jew not only possesses the Law, but understands it so fully that they are able to communicate it to others. However, man’s righteousness does not result from possessing the Law; it comes from practicing the Law. So Paul turns the tables on his audience when he writes, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Romans 2:21-22).
The Law sets the standards of righteousness for men. Mere possession of that Law does not constitute men as righteous in the eyes of God. To be a custodian of God’s Law was indeed a great privilege, but Paul reminds the Jew that with this privilege comes that added responsibility of greater knowledge.
The Jews’ pride in the Law was ill-founded, for they did not keep the requirements of the Law. They not only failed to live by the Law, they failed to live righteously before the Gentiles. They who were so quick to condemn the Gentiles were slow to confess that because of their sinfulness and rebellion the name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles (Romans 2:24).
This quotation from Isaiah 52:5 was a reference to the fact that during the Babylonian exile of the Jews the humiliation of the nation, Israel, was such that the Gentiles mocked their God, Whom they thought was unable to deliver His people. The application to Israel’s present condition was similar. The rebellion of Israel against God again brought the disciplinary hand of God to the extent that the Jews and their God were lightly esteemed, even a mockery among the nations. Israel was to bring glory to God, but her rebellion and chastening made them a mockery. God’s name, which the Jews esteemed so highly that they would not even pronounce it, was a byword among the heathen because of Israel’s sin.
(2) The Jew and Circumcision (Romans 2:25-27). There are many through the history of mankind who have regarded religion as primarily a matter of ceremony and ritual. The rite upon which the Jew rested his standing before God was circumcision. This rite will be fully discussed by Paul in chapter 4, but here Paul makes the point that circumcision is an outward act which symbolizes some inward reality. The rite has no value without the reality.
Circumcision was the sign of the Old Testament covenant between God and His people. The covenant obligations of the Jew were prescribed by the Law. But in failing to keep the Law the Jews indicated their rejection of the covenant, and thus the rite of circumcision was a meaningless act. It is like one who puts on a wedding band as he makes a marriage covenant with his bride. The ring itself is nothing but a symbol. It has great value if the vows are kept, but it is an empty sham if the vows are violated and set aside.
As one may be married without the presence of a ring, so one may be in relationship with God without circumcision. Any Gentile who could keep the requirements of the Law would be reckoned as one who had received the rite of circumcision for the reality was present without the symbol. But the symbol apart from the reality is worthless.
(3) Spirituality versus Superficiality (Romans 2:28-29). The entire issue with the Jews can be summarized in terms of spirituality and superficiality. The Jew was relying on superficialities for his righteous standing before God. He relied on his physical relationship to Abraham, on a possession of the Law and in the practice of rites and rituals such as circumcision. But God does not judge on the basis of externals. Righteousness is a matter of the heart. As our Lord had said to the self-righteous Jews of His day, “And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness’” (Mark 7:20-22).
My friend, what is it that you are relying on for right standing before God? When you stand before Him, on what basis will you expect to spend eternity in His heaven?
By the keeping of some set of ethics? You will fail. The kind of righteousness which is necessary to please God is perfect righteousness. If you are trying to keep the Law of God you must keep it in every detail or you fail completely (James 2:10). Do you have some other standard of righteousness? You will not abide by it either, for none of us can live by the standards which we set for others.
Are you trusting in some rite or ritual for right standing before God? They are all meaningless without inner righteousness, demonstrated by our works. Have you been baptized? As a friend of mine says, “You can be baptized until the tadpoles know your Social Security number.” That will never get you to heaven. Have you been christened, confirmed, circumcised, canonized? None of these rites will get you one inch closer to heaven. Church membership, partaking of the Lord’s Table, all of these are of profit if they symbolize your relationship by faith to Jesus Christ.
My friend, if the Jew with all his misdirected zeal cannot be declared righteous before God, neither can you or I. The message of the gospel, the good news, is that what you and I can never earn, God has provided as a gift. If you have come to the point where you acknowledge that you have nothing to commend you to God, nothing which merits your eternity in the presence of God, then accept the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith. Trust in His sacrifice in your place, and in His righteousness in place of yours, and you will have eternal life.
There is a particularly relevant warning in this passage for those of us who have been exposed to the teaching of the Scriptures. God is not nearly as concerned with what we know about doctrine as He is with what we are doing with what we know. Let us not get puffed up about the knowledge we possess and look down our spiritual noses at the spiritually underprivileged lest we, like the Jews, be found guilty by God.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).
I have a friend who says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Jesus Christ is coming back to earth. The bad news is, boy, is He mad!”
Now the apostle Paul was not using the ‘good news, bad news’ idiom of our times in Romans 3, but this chapter certainly can be described as containing some good news and some bad news. The bad news is not introduced in chapter 3, but in chapter 1. The bad news is that everyone fails to meet God’s requirements for righteousness, and thus, all fall under divine condemnation. In chapter 3, Paul forcefully concludes his argument that no one can satisfy the requirements of God, summing up and resting his case in verses 9-20.
Unlike the news reports which we read and view on TV, there is a positive side. Although man cannot produce sufficient righteousness to please God, God has provided a righteousness which is available to all men on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the gospel which Paul presents in the last half of chapter 3. So it is in this chapter that we gratefully move from the bad news of condemnation to the good news of justification.
Before Paul brings down the final curtain in his presentation of the sinfulness of man, he deals with two objections which could be raised by his Jewish opponents. One deals with the privileges of the Jews, the other with the righteousness of God in condemning the Jews.
The Jew objects in this fashion to Paul’s argument: “From what you have said in chapter two, Paul, there is no practical benefit to being a Jew at all.” We might expect Paul to answer “yes” to this objection. Especially so if we adhere to covenant theology, which does not like to distinguish between Israel and the church. If Israel and the church are forever fused into one entity, and if all the promises of God to Israel are thus ‘spiritually fulfilled’ in the church, Paul would nearly have to agree that Judaism offers no benefit any longer to the Jew.
It would be inadequate for Paul to say that it was a privilege to be a Jew because they were formerly the custodians of God’s revelation. What profit is that to the Jew now? The advantage of being a Jew is that God still has promises, yet unfulfilled, for the nation Israel and they will be literally consummated. This we see in much fuller detail in Romans chapter 11.14
The Jew, then, has been entrusted with divine revelation, some of which has been fulfilled, but much of which is still to come. It is in these, as yet, unfulfilled promises that the Jew can take heart.
How secure are these promises, especially in view of the unfaithfulness of Israel? Let’s face it, Israel rejected their Messiah at His first coming. They put Him to death. Won’t this rejection and unbelief nullify these future promises (vs. 3)? Not at all, for God must be true to Himself, even though every man is a liar. God must be faithful, even if every man is unfaithful (vss. 4-5). So the true Jew can glory in the future blessings of God on the nation of Israel and can rely on the faithfulness of God, which is unaffected by man’s sinfulness.
If man’s sin provides the backdrop which accents the righteousness of God, then God is exalted and glorified by man’s sin. This is true, as the psalmist wrote, “… the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10a).15
Paul cringes at the suggestion of this heretical thought, but knows it is in the mind of his opponent. Why, then, should God punish me for my sin, when I am really causing God’s glory to abound? “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? I am speaking in human terms.” (Romans 3:5).
Paul quickly brushes aside this bit of wishful thinking. The Jews were unanimous in their commitment to the fact that God should judge the sins of the Gentiles. Paul simply takes his opponent to the illogical conclusion of his self-defense by pointing out that if God were to follow this principle He would judge no one, even the Gentiles. And no Jew was willing to go this far. There are other reasons Paul could have expounded on, but this was sufficient to silence his objector.
The Jew had pressed this point even farther by suggesting that Paul’s gospel of salvation apart from the Law incited men to do evil in order that God would be praised: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and some affirm that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8).
Such an accusation was so incredible Paul refused to give it more than a moment’s notice. Anyone who makes such a statement evidences the fact that they deserve to fall under the wrath of God.
The Jews, then, do possess unique and unfulfilled promises to look forward to as a nation. These privileges should not in any way give the false hope of special privilege so far as their standing before the judgment bar of God is concerned. Concerning the matter of personal righteousness before God, the Jew is just as lost, just as condemned as the Gentile.
To summarize and emphasize the condemnation of both Jew and Gentile, Paul draws together a series of quotations, primarily from the Psalms, all of which substantiate his contention that no man can win God’s approval by means of his own righteousness.
Verses 10-12 give a general overview of man’s depravity, stressing the universality of God’s condemnation of men. Thus the repetition of the expression, “not even one.” “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
The force of these verses is that man can never be pronounced righteous in the eyes of God. He does not seek God; he is incapable of knowing God, and he does not do good.
All of this is viewed from the divine perspective. This is not to say that a man never does any thing good and kind for his fellow-man. Paul is not saying that men have no good thoughts or aspirations as judged by men. He is saying that man has nothing to commend himself to God. Man is incapable of doing anything to please God and to earn His approval, for man is born an enemy of God.
There are many who are outwardly religious and considered pious and devout, but they are not truly seeking God. They are creating a god of their own making. They worship the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18ff.). There are those who strive to keep God’s commandments, but none have managed to keep them at every point, and are thus guilty of failing at all points (James 2:10). The epitome of man’s sinfulness is trying to be like God, without God (Isaiah 14:14).
Verses 13-18 move from the general to the specific, describing the depravity of man as it is evidenced by the various members of his anatomy. From head to toe, from the inside out, man is characterized by sin:
Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:13-18).
The corruption of our hearts has contaminated our tongues. Our speech gives us away; it reveals our enmity with God. Israel complained and murmured against Moses and against God (Exodus 16:2ff.). In Numbers 21 we read of the complaining of the Israelites. God sent a plague of serpents upon them, I believe, to instruct them that the tongue can be like the fangs of the serpent spreading deadly poison. With this, the Psalmist and Paul seem to agree.
With our mouths we spread poison and with our feet we run to do evil. Destruction and misery is the work of our hands. We know not the ways of peace. Surely the centuries of war have made this clear. Mankind collectively is in bad shape; only the most rosey-eyed optimist could deny this. But man individually is also in no condition to stand before a righteous and holy God and claim a righteousness worthy of eternal life.
A defensive Jew might attempt to blunt the point of Paul’s argument by pressing a technicality. Most of the Old Testament quotations originally had reference to the Gentiles and not the Jews. All well and good. But the Law, that is the Old Testament scriptures, were directed primarily to those under the Law, that is, the Jews. Whatever reference there may be to the Gentiles it certainly applies equally to the Jews. So that Jews and Gentiles are equally condemned by the Old Testament scriptures.
The Jews had distorted the purpose of the Law. It was never intended to commend a man before God, but to condemn him. Like the blood-alcohol test is designed to prove men are drunk, so the Law is designed to prove men are sinners, under the wrath of God. The Law provided a standard of righteousness, not that men could ever attain such human righteousness, but to demonstrate they are incapable of doing so and must find a source of righteousness outside themselves. That is the point of all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. When the Law revealed a man’s sin, God provided a way of sacrifice so that a man would not need to bear the condemnation of God.
The Law was never given to save a man, but to show man that he needed a Saviour. “Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
The Roman poet Horace, laying down some lines of guidance for writers of tragedies in his day, criticizes those who resort too readily to the device of a deus ex machina to solve the knotty problems which have developed in the course of the plot. ‘Do not bring a god on to the stage,’ he says, ‘unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it’ (nec deus intersit, nisi dignus uindice nodus inciderit).16
Surely man’s problem as Paul summarized it is one that needs God to solve it. James Stifler suggests in his commentary on Romans that there is a ‘sigh of relief that can be heard’ in the particle ‘but’ which introduces verse 21.17 Surely this is the case, for what a relief it is to know that God has provided a solution for man’s dilemma of sin.
The dilemma of man is such that he is incapable of releasing himself from the shackles of sin. He must be saved by someone other than himself and by someone who does not suffer from the same malady. One drowning man cannot help another. What man cannot do (provide a righteousness acceptable to God), God has done in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the good news for which we have waited.
A Preliminary Definition of Righteousness. The righteousness of which Paul writes in verses 21-26 may be defined as: The gift given to every man who trusts in Jesus Christ which enables him to stand before the Holy God uncondemned and in His favor. This righteousness of God is described in verses 21-26.
(1) The source of righteousness is God. Paul wrote, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Romans 3:21, cf. also v. 22). This righteousness is that which is provided by God and not produced by the efforts of men. It is the righteousness of God.
(2) This righteousness, though not produced by the Law, was promised by it. From this same verse (v. 21), we can see that in one sense this righteousness of God is related to the Old Testament Law and in another it is totally distinct. It is related in that it was predicted in the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Further, the Old Testament Law is a valid standard of righteousness, so when our Lord came to the earth as a man the Law pronounced Him to be righteous, according to God’s standards. Not one charge of sin could be made against our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Law of the Old Testament (John 8:46).
But this righteousness of God which Paul writes about is completely independent from the Law in that it cannot be attained by men and their futile efforts to satisfy the requirements of the Law. So the righteousness of God comes not from Law-keeping, as the Jews erroneously supposed.
(3) The righteousness of God is retroactive. The righteousness of God is retroactive in that it is sufficient for the sins of men who lived in previous ages. “… This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:25). Paul’s argument about the retroactivity of God’s righteousness subtly undermines the false hope of the Jew in attaining righteousness by Law-keeping. Since the righteousness of God is retroactive and saves those who had faith in God in the Old Testament age, then Law-keeping not only fails in the present age; it has never saved men.
(4) God’s righteousness vindicates Himself. Stifler has written, “The chief question in saving man is not how the man may be accounted just, but how God may remain so in forgiving sins.”18
With reference to God’s character under the Old Testament economy, God appeared to ‘look the other way’ when men sinned. It appeared that God was less than just in dealing decisively with man’s sin. When God’s wrath was poured out on His Son, Jesus Christ, there was not one shadow of doubt left as to how God felt about sin.
A number of years ago, I was a school teacher with a reputation for being the toughest disciplinarian in school. One woman bus driver at least thought so and brought a couple of boys to my room who had thrown rocks at the bus. I paddled these two boys, but was informed that there was yet one culprit who had not yet been brought to justice, and this lad was the principal’s son. I had a long talk with the principal, who implied that perhaps his son should be exempted because he had a glass eye. Since he did not have a glass bottom, I went to his room and paddled him, too. Until this boy was paddled, there was a cloud of suspense which hung over the school. Would Mr. Deffinbaugh paddle the principal’s son, or would he make an exception? How quickly the cloud was dispelled with the crack of the paddle.
So it is with God’s character. God’s character was in question. For hundreds of years, God had passed over sins previously committed. He could not be just and overlook sin forever. Sin must be punished. When the wrath of God was poured out on His own Son, God’s righteousness was vindicated once for all. This is not only so in reference to past sins, but also to present sins. God simply cannot overlook sin. If He were to pronounce men righteous without a payment for sin, He would contradict His own character, His holiness and justice. The justice of God demanded a payment for sin. So the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ vindicated God’s character by satisfying the requirements of justice and holiness.
(5) The righteousness of God accomplishes man’s salvation. The revelation of God’s righteousness not only vindicates God, but it saves men. This salvation is described in three dimensions in verses 21-26.
The first term, ‘redemption,’ in verse 24 describes salvation in terms of the slave-market. Redemption refers to the payment of a purchase price which liberates the captive. When a man went to the slave-market and paid the price of the slave he redeemed the slave. The death of Christ on the cross and the shedding of His blood was the payment of our redemption price. We, just as Israel was redeemed from the slavery of Egypt, have been redeemed from the bondage of sin.
The second term, ‘propitiation,’ takes us to the temple. This word is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the ‘place of propitiation’ or the ‘mercy seat’ which covered the ark in the Holy of Holies. In this sense our sins have been covered or blotted out by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. But propitiation also conveys the idea of appeasing. God’s wrath has been legitimately aroused by man’s sin. This wrath has been appeased by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s holy anger has been satisfied in the work of Christ.
The final word, ‘justification,’ takes us to the courtroom. This is a legal term which means to pronounce righteous. If God were to judge us according to our own righteousness, He would have to declare us as unrighteous and wicked. But when we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our substitute—the One Who died in our place and Who offers His righteousness in place of our wretchedness—then God declares us to be righteous on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ.
By the terminology of the slave-market, the temple and the court room, we see this righteousness of God described in terms of its effect on the believing sinner.
(6) God’s righteousness is available to all men, and appropriated by faith. God’s righteousness is true to God’s character in that it is available to all men without distinction. Just as there is no distinction with God in universally condemning all men as sinners, so God does not show partiality in offering it only to the Jews.
Just as the righteousness of God is not allotted to men on the basis of their race, so it cannot be earned or merited by man. It is given by grace as a free gift: “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Your salvation is not without cost, for it cost God the death of His Son, but it is without cost to you for there is nothing you could ever do to earn it. The gift of God’s righteousness must be accepted by faith, not earned by works: “Even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe …” (Romans 3:22).
The problem for most people is not that becoming a Christian is too difficult; it is that it is too easy. We want desperately somehow to contribute something to our salvation. But the Word of God tells us that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). The more we offer our works to God the greater the offense to Him.
What kind of righteousness are you relying on for your eternal salvation? The rags of your own works, or the riches of Christ’s merit. You don’t have to walk the aisle or raise your hand to become a Christian. All you need to do is acknowledge the wretchedness of your righteousness and trust in the righteousness which Jesus Christ offers in its place—a God-kind of righteousness which results in eternal life. Stop trusting in yourself and lean only on Him. That’s the good news of the gospel. Come to think of it, none of Romans 3 is bad news for the Christian.
The third chapter closes with two implications of this God-kind of righteousness. First of all there is no basis for boasting on the part of the Jew, for salvation is received as a gift, not as a reward. Also, the Jew cannot boast because salvation is offered to both Jew and Gentile on the same basis—faith.
Second, the Gospel of the Righteousness of God in no way nullifies the Law, for it is still a valid standard of righteousness, and it never was intended as a means of salvation. The Law reveals our condemnation, and our condemnation compels us to reject the filthy rags of our righteousnesses and trust in Christ.
The last verse of chapter 3 is really a transition to chapter 4 where Paul will show that his gospel is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament.
14 Dr. Ryrie says in a footnote on Romans 3:2 concerning ‘the oracles of God’ with which Israel was entrusted that these are “The promises of God to the Jews, found in the Scriptures.” Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), p. 267.
Stifler’s quotation of Dr. Adolph Saphir is also helpful. “The view that is so prevalent, that Israel is a shadow of the church, and now that the type is fulfilled vanishes from our horizon, is altogether unscripturaL. Israel is not the shadow fulfilled and absorbed in the church, but the basis on which the church rests (Rom. 11). And although, during the times of the Gentiles, Israel, as a nation, is set aside, Israel is not cast away, because Israel is not a transitory and temporary, but an integral part of God’s counsel. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. Israel was chosen to be God’s people, the center of his influence and reign on earth in the ages to come. The church in the present parenthetic period does not supplant them. The book of the kingdom awaits its fulfilment, and the church, instructed by Jesus and the apostles, is not ignorant of this mystery” (Christ and the Scriptures, p. 64). James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 50-51.
15 I must disagree with Dr. Ryrie when he writes in his Study Bible concerning Romans 3:5, “Does God use man’s sin to glorify Himself? No, otherwise He would have to abandon all judgment.” Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 267.
Fred Bowlby, owner of the local pub, The Pig and the Whistle, had become famous for his Doomsday Chair, a cane chair with gold cushion, chained to a fixture in a pub in West London. Any who dared to sit in this chair were offered free liquor. A city slicker had accepted the challenge and allegedly died on the spot. Charlie Skinner, the town drunk, probably had not intended to sit in the chair at all, but unknowingly sitting in the ‘killer chair,’ his body was found in the river, where he had drowned.
Father Duddleswell maintained that the absence of faith leads to superstition, and so he was challenged by the pub owner to sit in the chair. The father found numerous excuses, but the offer of one hundred pounds and considerable public pressure made it unwise to refuse. The father agreed to sit in the chair every day for a week at a designated time. When the week was over the father proudly took the chair home and displayed it in his study.
Praised for his courage by an associate, the father reluctantly confessed that he wasn’t courageous at all. The father had found an identical chair in the local antique shop, and with the help of the pub owner’s wife, had switched the two chairs in the middle of the night. The real chair he had buried in the garden.
It wasn’t long, however, before Fred Bowlby, the pub owner, came to the home of the father to make a confession. “As you know, father, that is not the Doomsday Chair,” he said, pointing to the chair displayed in his study. “You see, father, after Charlie Skinner drowned I found an identical chair at the antique shop and replaced the killer chair, for fear someone else might die.”
“And what did you do with the real chair?” the father inquired. “Well, I would have buried it in the garden, but my wife being a keen gardener, I knew she’d find it. So I took the real chair back to the antique store and told them I must return it since it didn’t suit the decor of my place.” Fred commended the faith of the priest, for even though it was not the real killer chair, he had acted with courage in accepting the challenge of the pub owner.
When Fred left, Father Duddleswell collapsed into his armchair, ashen-faced. Quickly he instructed his associate to dig another hole in the garden.19
Now few of us would desire the kind of faith illustrated by Father Duddleswell. But the faith illustrated in Romans 4 is another matter. This is the kind of faith by which a man is justified and declared righteous by God.
The first three chapters of Romans have been devoted to proving that all men rightly fall under the condemnation of God: the Gentiles because they have rejected the revelation evident in creation (1:18-20); the Jews because they failed to live up to the standards of the Law (Romans 2:17-29).
The bad news of universal condemnation (Romans 3:10-18) is overshadowed by the good news of a righteousness of God provided to all who believe in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). What man cannot do by his own efforts, God has done in the Person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. His death appeased the righteous anger of God toward the sinner. His death and resurrection provide the righteousness which men need to be declared righteous by God. Faith in Jesus Christ makes men righteous without Law-keeping.
To the Jews the good news of the gospel sounded like something entirely new. It appeared to be contrary to the Old Testament Law. This is why Paul asked, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Romans 3:31).
This objection to Paul’s preaching of the gospel of justification by faith is thoroughly set aside by the example of Abraham, who was regarded as the father of the Jews. If Abraham was justified by faith, then surely Paul’s teaching is neither new nor unfaithful to the faith of Israel in the Old Testament age. As we shall soon see, it was not Paul who had departed from the ‘faith of our fathers’ but the Jews.
Paul eagerly probed into the ‘roots’ of the Jews. What was the experience of Abraham in this matter of justification? Was he justified by faith or by works? “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (Romans 4:1). If Abraham were found to be saved by his works, then he would have something of which he could boast. And, of course, by implication there would be something in which the Jew could boast. The Jews did mistakenly suppose that Abraham was saved by works. Dr. A. T. Robertson informs us that the “rabbis had a doctrine of the merits of Abraham who had a superfluity of credits to pass on to the Jews.”20 But the Scriptures make it clear that Abraham could not boast before God because he was justified by faith, not works: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3).
If justification were on the basis of our works we would face several problems. First, man would have a basis for boasting. Surely this is wrong for we are created and saved in order to praise and bring glory to God, not to boast concerning ourselves. Second, we would then operate under a system of obligation, rather than under grace. Under grace God is free to give us what we do not, in and of ourselves, deserve, while under obligation, God must give us exactly what we deserve—and, who wants that? Third, it is contrary to both Old and New Testament Scripture, for in Genesis 15:6 we are told, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
David agreed with what the Scriptures record concerning Abraham’s justification by faith, apart from works, for he wrote, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven. And whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (Romans 4:7, 8).
This quotation from Psalm 32 stresses the negative side of the reckoning which occurs in the justification of the sinner. The sins of the man who trusts in God are not reckoned to him, but are forgiven and forgotten by God. Just as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us—that is, it is put to our account—so our own deeds are not held against us.
The word “reckon” is an accounting term and it refers to the actual accounting of something either to our credit or our loss. When we are justified by faith, our sins are not reckoned against us, as they should be, but the righteousness of Christ is graciously put to our credit.
I once knew an inmate in the Dallas County Jail who had some way or other induced the record keeper to write on his record that he was accused of another crime and would be coming up for trial soon. This was so he would not be shipped out to the state penitentiary. In the eyes of the law there was an offense charged against him. That offense was ‘reckoned’ to his account. But in David’s case, he had no accusations on his record, even though a sinner, because God had not imputed his sins to him.
So then both Abraham and David give testimony to the same truth: In the Old Testament men were not justified by works, but by faith.
That Abraham and David (and therefore all Old Testament saints) were justified by faith apart from works was a bitter pill to swallow for the Jews. But Paul is not willing to stop here, for there is much more to be learned from the faith of Abraham. At least the Jews could console themselves in the fact that Abraham was a Jew, and not a Gentile. If Abraham was saved as a Jew, then could the Jews not insist that every man must be saved as a Jew (cf. Acts 15:1f.)? Paul strikes this hope down by showing that Abraham was declared righteous while yet a Gentile.
At first glance we might be inclined to think that verses 9-12 are intended to prove that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works; specifically, not by the rite of circumcision. Although this is true, it is not the main point Paul is striving to prove. The point which Paul is driving at is the universality of justification by faith and that it is not for the Jews only, but for Gentiles.
Was Abraham saved as a Jew or as a Gentile? Was Abraham declared righteous as one who was circumcised or as uncircumcised? Abraham, in Genesis 15:6, was declared righteous on the basis of faith fourteen years before he was circumcised (compare Genesis 15:6 with 17:24). Technically, then, Abraham was saved as a Gentile, and not as a Jew, for he did not enter Judaism by circumcision, nor did he have the Law to keep. What a blow to the Jew who maintained that one could not be saved without becoming a Jew by circumcision and keeping the Law (Acts 15:1)!
What, then, is the value of circumcision? If entrance into Judaism through circumcision does not in any way contribute to one’s justification, what good is it? Circumcision is not the source of one’s salvation, but the sign of it. It is a symbolic testimony to what has happened inwardly in the man who has been justified by faith.
The mere presence of an inspection sticker on your car does not make that car road-worthy, but it does represent in a visible fashion its road-worthiness. On the other hand, putting an inspection sticker on a car with bald tires, a faulty muffler, and no brakes will be of little help in hazardous driving conditions. Circumcision was a seal which attested to the faith of Abraham. It signified that he was righteous in the eyes of God.
The outcome of all of this is that Abraham is the ‘father’ of all who are justified by faith. He is the father of those who are justified by faith and have not been initiated into Judaism and of all believers who are also Jews. Being a Jew or a Gentile has no bearing on one’s justification, nor does the keeping of the Old Testament Laws and rituals. The only determining factor is one’s faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
In verses 13-17 I see a slight shift of emphasis. The Jews were not only seeking individual righteousness and justification before God, but also participation in experiencing the promises of God to Israel as a nation. In verses 13-17 Paul makes it plain that just as justification is attained by faith, so are the promises of God realized by faith. If I recall correctly, the Jews believed that if there was but one day when the nation would abide within the Law, the Messiah would come. If the Jews thought that they were saved by faith, but received God’s blessing by Law-keeping, Paul lays this error to rest in these verses. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13).
There would be no need for faith if men became heirs through the Law, and the promise would be null and void, for the only thing the Law can produce is wrath and condemnation (Romans 4:14, 15). So that God can work in accord with the principle of grace, and so that men may have confidence of experiencing the promises of God, it is based upon faith and not on Law (4:16). Since the blessings of God are based upon faith and not on Law-keeping, they are assured to those who are of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles), through faith in Jesus Christ. Once again, Abraham is the father of us all, that is of us all who believe by faith in Jesus Christ.
So we must grant that everything we receive from God must be on the basis of faith, but was not the faith of Abraham vastly different from the faith required today? Not at all, Paul informs us, for it was a faith precisely like that required today.
“… in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17).
Jules Henri Poincare, who in extolling the memory of his distinguished friend, uttered these terrible words: “It matters little what God one believes in; it is the faith and not the God that makes miracles.”21
With this Paul does not agree, for he makes it plain that it is the object of our faith that makes all the difference between heaven and hell.
Abraham’s faith was in a God Who could create something out of nothing. So far as his chances of having a child, they were nil. He and Sarah were as good as dead. Yet Abraham trusted God to create something out of nothing, a son from an old man and a barren woman.
Abraham also believed in a God Who could raise the dead. This is evident in his faith in the promise to have a son of his own loins and Sarah, for they were both as good as dead so far as producing children was concerned. “And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19). Nowhere is this faith in God’s ability to raise the dead more evident than in Abraham’s willingness to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22).
In addition, Abraham’s faith was one that did not dwell on the obstacles to faith but on the object of faith. There is a minor textual difficulty in verse 19, some texts leaving out the word “not,” others inserting it. Some texts would thus read, “ he considered not his own body, now as good as dead.” The meaning here would be that Abraham did not dwell on the obstacles, but on God. Other texts say that “ he contemplated his own body now as good as dead …” We would then understand the emphasis to be on the fact that Abraham knew all too well the difficulties, but did not waver in his faith.
Either way, the point is that Abraham, in spite of tremendous human obstacles, trusted in God to do as He promised. His faith overlooked the obstacles and focused upon the object of faith, God. Because of this kind of faith, Abraham was justified before God.
Now Abraham’s experiences are not without application to us today. For it is the same kind of faith which God requires of men today. We must acknowledge ourselves to be just as helpless to enter God’s heaven by our own righteousness as Abraham was to become the father of a great nation. We must trust God to provide righteousness apart and in spite of us as Abraham trusted God to fulfill the promise of a son. So, also, we must trust in a God who has power over death and the grave. Abraham trusted in the God “who gives life to the dead” (v. 17). So we must trust in Jesus Christ Who was raised from the dead.
Now not for his sake only was it written that “It was reckoned to him,” but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:23-25).
So the kind of faith required of Abraham is precisely the same kind of faith required of men today. The Law is in no way set aside, rather, it is reaffirmed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s way of salvation has never been by works, and has always been by grace through faith.
(1) Salvation is not of works, and only by faith. It should be clear that man can contribute nothing to his salvation. It is all of God; all of grace. And let us not make one last effort of claiming any part in our salvation by supposing that faith is our work, for even this is the gift of God (cf. Eph. 2:8, 9; Acts 13:48, 16:14).
Only this week I talked with a man who felt that we must contribute something to our salvation. I told him that man’s sin is like having greasy hands. When I work on the car and have grease on my hands, everything I touch is stained with grease also. When I come in with greasy hands, my wife quickly informs me not to touch anything until my hands are clean. So man’s hands are smudged with sin and there is nothing but the blood of Christ which can cleanse them. If we try to approach God by means of the works of our hands, those works will be smudged with sin and unacceptable to God. We must do as the words of the song instruct us, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”
(2) Faith is the only way of receiving God’s blessing. Paul not only tells us that salvation is by faith, but also God’s blessings come only by faith. This past week all of us fervently prayed for a dear friend’s recovery. The answer to that prayer was not based upon our compliance with divine rules and regulations, but on faith. We often forget that the way of salvation is also the only way of blessing.
(3) The ‘sacraments’ do not convey grace as some would tell us; they symbolize grace. There are some who hold to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, insisting that a man cannot be saved apart from being baptized. This error is simply an updating of the error of the Jews, who insisted a man cannot be saved without being circumcised. Baptism is not the source of salvation, but simply a symbol of it. It is an outward act which symbolizes the fact that we, by faith, have been identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
The Lord’s Table, which we observe each week, will not in any way convey grace to you, my friend. It symbolizes the grace of God made available through Jesus Christ Who clothed Himself in human flesh and Who died in the sinner’s place, and Who offers the righteousness of God to all who believe in Him.
May God enable you to cast aside all confidence in any work which you may perform, and humbly accept the work which Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross.
My father, who happens to be here this morning, tells the story of the time I attended my aunt’s wedding. The wedding was held at the First Methodist Church Chapel on the S.M.U. campus. My two younger brothers were just babies and so they rode to the church with my parents, but I, being older, was allowed to ride with my great aunt Helen who was getting on in years. Well, we got to the S.M.U. campus, but the directions were somewhat foggy to great aunt Helen so we ended up not at the church but at Perkins Chapel where there was also a wedding being held. We went in and sat through the whole wedding and aunt Helen didn’t realize anything was wrong. Afterwards, we returned to my grandparents home for the reception. There, my father heard aunt Helen say, “Well, I recognized the bride’s father alright. The bride sure did look different, but wasn’t it a beautiful wedding?”
This humorous incident illustrates a less than humorous way that some people seek to approach God. They know that they are supposed to be sincere and to have faith but they seem to miss the point that their faith is only as good as the object of that faith. Placing faith in someone other than Christ is no more pleasing to God than going to the wrong wedding would be to the bride whose wedding you missed.
Paul, in Romans 1-4, has established the fact that men are saved by faith. Now, in chapter 5, Paul keys in on the object of that faith. In chapters 1-4 the verb and noun forms of the word faith are used 36 times, but after Romans 5:2 this word is not used again until chapter 9. However, the name of Christ, used only five times between the introduction of the book and Romans 4:24, is now suddenly used 10 times in this one chapter. The argument is clearly shifting from the means of faith to its object. Let’s go back and trace our argument to this point in order to put the object of faith in perspective.
Paul’s purpose in the first four chapters of Romans is to prove to his readers that the only way a man can be justified and thus obtain salvation and eternal life is through faith. It is impossible, says Paul, for man to be saved by his own endeavors. Having stated this position, Paul deals with three possible objections.
Taking the role of God’s prosecuting attorney, he meets the first objector, the pagan or natural man. This man’s argument says, “I do not accept the fact that man must be justified by faith for I was ignorant of God. Therefore, God is unjust to condemn me simply because I went my own way and did not obediently have faith in His Messiah. I should be pardoned and given eternal life because I was ignorant.” To this Paul answers, “You were not ignorant of God for all of creation proclaims His reality. You are to be judged on the basis of what you did with the little knowledge you had. You rejected even the little that God revealed to you. Therefore, God is just in condemning you. Guilty as charged.”
Now the second defendant steps up. He is a Jew and a moral man. His argument says this: “I reject the proposition that justification must be by faith. I don’t need God’s standards for salvation. I am moral and conform to my own standards as I think I should. I can gain salvation on the basis that I was moral and kept the standards I knew.” To this argument Paul replies, “God will judge you according to your own standards. However, you must keep those perfectly to be acceptable to God since your way of salvation makes no provision for forgiveness of sin. But you were not as good as you could have been for you did things you condemn others for doing. Therefore, God is just in condemning you. Guilty as charged.”
Now, Paul turns to the third defendant, the religious Jew. His argument is this: “I reject the fact that we must be justified by faith. As a Jew, I have many advantages. Because I am God’s chosen tool, I should be saved. God would be unjust in judging those He uses as tools in the world.” To this Paul replies, “The law was written to the Jew. But you have not kept the law. Since you refused to be God’s tool according to His revealed will, you forfeit your right to salvation on this basis. God is just in condemning you. Guilty as charged.”
So then in the first two chapters of Romans, Paul has declared that a man must be justified by faith and he has shown that neither ignorance nor morality nor the Law can provide a basis for man’s salvation.
Having shown man the extent of his lostness in chapters 1-2, Paul, in chapter 3, describes the beauty of God’s salvation by faith. Paul shows in chapter 3 that while man was as bad off as he could be and totally unable to make himself just before God, God had sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. This death God accepted as the full payment for the sins of all men. God in this became both just and the justifier of all who place their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul here shows that man’s only hope of getting to heaven is for God to provide the way. That way, says Paul, is by faith. Man, in his hopeless position, can place his faith in Christ’s provision for sin and be totally justified by faith.
But a Jew might say, “Isn’t this a new way of salvation?” In chapter 4 Paul says, “No, for the principle of justification by faith is the glue that holds the Old Testament together.” In chapter 4, Paul gives four reasons why the Old Testament would be a pack of lies without the principle of justification by faith. “First,” says Paul, “Abraham in the Old Testament was justified by faith. Second, circumcision was a sign of faith and only has meaning if we are justified by faith. Third, the promise God gave to Abraham is made good by faith. Finally, salvation in the Law was by faith.”
So then, Paul in the first four chapters of Romans has stated the principle that the only way a man can be justified is by faith. He has shown that the means of ignorance, morality and religion are insufficient for salvation. He has clearly shown that faith is the only way sinful men could be saved and illustrated that men of all ages were saved by this same principle.
Now in chapter 5, Paul shifts his emphasis from faith to the object of our faith to show us how our salvation by faith was accomplished. In verses 1-11, Paul will show that we are brought into fellowship with God through the Person of Jesus Christ. In verses 12-21, Paul will show that the work of Christ on the cross is the only rational means of justification and that all the benefits of salvation are provided to mankind through this one act. Let’s first look at verses 1-11.
If someone were to ask you, “What is the most sought-after possession in the world,” what would you answer? Some would say money, some would say wisdom, some would say beauty or popularity. But if you were to analyze these, I think you’d find that it isn’t money people want but rather what they think money will get them. It isn’t wisdom or beauty or popularity but it is the security and peace people believe these things bring. But do these things really bring what they advertise? King Fasel was the most wealthy man in the world, but today his body lies in an unmarked grave. Marilyn Monroe was the beauty queen of Hollywood, but she committed suicide. Leonardo Da Vinci was the most brilliant man of the Renaissance, but he died a discouraged man having admittedly failed in finding the purpose of life.
You see, it is not money, wisdom, beauty or popularity people want most. Just ask the people who have these and you’ll see they aren’t satisfied. Rather, the most sought after thing in the world is inner peace and security. This is the real need of every person. Inner peace is not the cessation of problems on the outside. Rather, it is the ability to remain stable because you can see the end of the problems and know that you will come out on top. The problem we as individuals face is that we are not able to control our circumstances completely. Furthermore, there is someone who is in control of our circumstances—God, and if He is against us, we have no chance of having inner peace. The only way we can have inner peace then is by making peace with God, but how can men who are sinners and stand in God’s wrath become reconciled, changed, to the point that God will make peace with them? Paul tells us in Romans 5:1-2 that Jesus did this for us. He died and paid for our sins. We are then justified, as proved in chapters 1-4, by faith in Him. Now, says Paul, those who believe can and do have peace with God through what Jesus has done.
Verse two gives us a picture of how this peace with God was accomplished when it says “Through whom we have obtained our introduction.” The Greek word for introduction means “to bring to.” It is not that we went to God but rather Jesus brought us to Him and reconciled us, made us right before God by His death. Our peace with God then is not obtained on the basis of what we do but on the basis of what Christ did for us. It is in His work, not ours, that we depend for eternal life and so our peace with God can never be lost for Christ’s work is already done and will never change.
(1) In verse 2, Paul says we can boast in the hope of the glory of God. In chapter 3, Paul has already shown that boasting or placing confidence in man’s works is out of order. But here, he tells us we can place confidence in the hope of the glory of God. Now the biblical definition of hope is “to plan on a future that is guaranteed to us.” That future as explained in Romans 8:30 is that we will be glorified, that we will be conformed to the image of Christ. Here, Paul is saying that we can boast about this because it is accomplished by Christ and not dependent on man’s works. So we can exult or boast in our position for we are at peace with God and assured of a future of glory.
(2) In verses 3-10, Paul tells us that we can boast or exult in our pressures. The Greek word for tribulation is “pressure.” It is an outside force that pushes on you and exerts pressure on you to yield and conform to it. Paul tells us that we can exult in these pressures as believers because of what they produce. The pressures of life, says Paul, are used by God to produce perseverance. This is the quality of a person who when faced with problems he has no control over and to which his only responses are either to endure with anger or to endure with patience chooses to endure with patience. Paul goes on to say that the practice of perseverance under pressure produces in us character which has been proven. Perseverance in trials proves that the godly qualities we practice are what we really are like, rain or shine. This proof of our growth toward godliness then encourages us all the more to trust in our hope—our plans for future glory that God has guaranteed us.
But someone might ask, “How do we know we won’t be disappointed? How do we know God will bring us through our trials to be conformed to the image of Christ and be saved forever?” Paul’s answer is, “We know because of God’s love for us.” Verses 6-10 comprise a profound passage which there is not time to do justice to in a short time. Please listen as we read them together and the import of God’s word brings this truth home to you.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man, though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His Life (Romans 5:6-10).
(3) Verse 11 gives us the third reason for boasting—that we have received reconciliation with God through the death of Jesus Christ. The word, reconciliation, means “to be changed.” Earlier in this book we learned that because of our sin, we were enemies of God. But Jesus’ death changed man as far as God was concerned. Now, God is free to be at peace with man without blighting His holy and just nature. It is important to note that the effect of Christ’s death toward man is called reconciliation—that is, that the effect was to change man in the eyes of God. The effect of Christ’s death toward God is called propitiation which means that God’s justice was totally satisfied. Reconciliation, the manward aspect of Christ’s death, is never said to save anyone. It only renders all men savable. Although as verse 10 tells us, reconciliation occurred while we were enemies, dead in our sin, 2 Corinthians 5:20 points out that we must receive that reconciliation to enjoy its benefits. (Read 2 Corinthians 5:20.)
So in verses 1-11, Paul has proclaimed that because of the object of our faith—Jesus Christ, and what He has done—we have peace with God and we can boast in our position, our pressures, and our possession of reconciliation.
Now we come to verses 12-21. We know from scripture that God, before the foundation of the earth, decided upon a specific plan of redemption and established the principles necessary for salvation. One of the principles He established as necessary for this plan was the principle of representative headship. By the term, representative headship, we mean that the actions of one man are imputed, put to the account, of those whom he represents. We practice this principle every day. The principle has both good and bad results for us and we tend to enjoy the good while seeking to deny the bad. In the United States, we are represented by our federal government. If they declare war on another country, we become enemies of that country even though we disagree with the government declaration. We have benefits from the actions of the government. We have some law and order, we have a defense against other aggressive countries, we have public roads, pot holes and all. But when April 15 rolls around, we are all ready to disclaim our relationship to our government. Nevertheless, we do have that relation and recognize it. This principle of representative or federal headship is also part of God’s plan of redemption. It is by means of this truth that Paul puts the capstone on his argument that salvation comes through the righteous act of the one man, Jesus Christ. Paul will do this by first proving the principle of headship from its bad effects and finally showing in its light the rational conclusion that salvation comes through one man.
As we begin this section there are two things to keep in mind. First, Paul has already spent four chapters establishing the necessity of faith for salvation. The word, faith, is not used again until chapter 9. It is assumed. Therefore, no statement in this section is to be assumed workable without the exercise of faith.
Second, it is important to note the emphasis of this passage. The word “one” is used twelve times in this passage and the terms “many” and “all” are used eight times. The major idea in the passage is that certain benefits or consequences come through one individual to a multiplicity of individuals. This is why Paul uses the term “the many.” What is important about this term is not the number or extent of those included but rather that there is more than one included— many are included. Now, it is clear that “the many” is in actuality “ the all” several times in the passage but this is not the point. The point is that the act of one representative was imputed to a multiplicity of individuals.
Now, let’s turn to our passage. In verses 12-21 we will see two important points made. Paul shows that the principle of representative headship is biblical. First, Paul sets out to show by the example of Adam that the principle of representative headship is biblical. (Read verses 12-14.)
First, Paul points out that sin came into the world through one man. It was not through Satan who first sinned in the creation. Neither does Paul attribute sin to women, the first human who sinned, but to Adam, a man, for as we shall see Adam’s act of sin was imputed to all mankind. Paul then notes that death entered the world through that one sin and spread to all because all sinned.
Now the question arises, “ How did all sin?” Paul’s answer is clear. He states that these were not personal sins because personal sins were not put to men’s account until the coming of the Mosaic Law. Nevertheless, men died because of their sin. The sin Paul speaks of is the sin imputed to all men because Adam, in God’s redemptive plan, was the representative head of all mankind.
Paul is saying, “There is a valid principle of headship in scripture. This is clear because we know death is a result of sin; all men before the Law died but not for their personal sins. Therefore, they died for the sin imputed to them from Adam.” So then, Paul has established that the principle of representative headship is operational in scripture.
Second, Paul points out that the basis of our faith is rational because our salvation corresponds in principle to our condemnation. Both, you see, were the result of one man’s action being put to the account of a multiplicity of persons.
Through ONE Transgression
Through ONE Righteous Act
Death came to many (v. 15)
Grace came to many (v. 15)
Condemnation came (v. 16)
Justification came (v. 16)
Death reigned (v. 17)
The righteous reign (v. 17)
All condemned (v. 18)
All justified (v. 18)
All made sinners (v.19)
All made righteous (v. 19)
Now we can see how verses 12-21 fit into the argument of the Book of Romans. In chapters 1-4, Paul declares and proves that justification is by faith in Christ. In chapter 5:1-11, Paul says since justification is by faith in Christ, therefore, it is He that brought us to God. Finally, in verses 12-21, Paul says since we have been justified by faith and brought to God by Him, therefore, He is our federal head just like Adam was. The implications of this are that everything He did, we did and this is the basis of chapter 6 which we will study next week.
So then, chapter 5 presents to us Jesus Christ, the object of our faith and declares to us that the benefits of salvation are totally the result of His righteous sacrifice as our representative head. The implication of chapter 5 is that faith is only as good as its object.
Last year, I told you the story of the robber who had been sentenced to die for his crime. While in the dungeon awaiting execution, he made a deal with his jailer through which he hoped to escape punishment. The robber was to pretend to die of sickness in his cell. The jailer would then have him buried but later come back and dig him up and the two would split the stolen money. All went as planned. The soldiers came, placed the robber in a casket with another body as was the habit of the prison to conserve work and money, and the casket was buried. The robber was elated at the ease of his escape. As he lay there chuckling to himself, his curiosity got the better of him and he pulled back the grave shroud to see who his coffin-mate was. To his horror, he discovered it was the body of the jailer who was to dig him up!
Now, I’d like to ask you, my friend, when death takes you, what are you trusting to save you from the wrath of God? Are you trusting money, beauty, wisdom, ignorance, morality, religion, good works? You see, none of these things will last any longer than you do. They will be buried with you. The only worthy object for your faith, you see, must be one who has come back from the grave and there is only one who has done this, Jesus Christ. We invite you this morning to receive your reconciliation with God by placing all your faith in the work of the one man, Jesus Christ. Then, you too, having been justified by faith, can have peace with God.
This sixth chapter of Romans and its proper interpretation is not only imperative for your sanctification, but also for your sanity. Several years ago I visited a young woman in the psychiatric ward of a Dallas hospital. As we sat at a table behind the locked doors under the scrutiny of professional attendants, I asked this young woman what her problem was. She acknowledged that she was totally frustrated in her attempt to follow the teaching of Romans 6. She had been striving to follow the formula which many have suggested from this chapter: know, reckon, yield. She said that she knew that she had died in Christ to sin, and she was trying as hard as possible to reckon it to be so and to yield herself to God. But somehow it always resulted in failure. Her frustration had finally led to a complete nervous breakdown. Much of her problem, I believe, was in failing to understand this chapter in proper relationship to chapters 7 and 8. And so, as we begin to study Romans 6, I urge you to study it carefully, not only for the sake of your sanctification but also for your sanity.
When I recall cases such as this young woman’s, even though it may be extreme, I am reminded of the tremendous burden of responsibility on the teacher of the Scriptures. Some people really do listen to what I say and attempt to practice it. Anyone who interprets chapter 6 as the method for experiencing the normal Christian life is bound for trouble in my opinion, for this sixth chapter is the introduction to Paul’s section on the process of sanctification. It does not give us the full solution to the problem of sanctification; it merely presents the need for sanctification. To put this in different words, it does not deal with the method of sanctification (know, reckon, yield), but with the motive for sanctification.
So in this sixth chapter of Romans we turn to the matter of the revelation of God’s righteousness in the life of the Christian, with the spotlight not on the ‘How’ of the spiritual life, but on the ‘Why.’
Since we are speaking of sanctification in chapters 6, 7, and 8 and will not have a full view of it in chapter 6 alone, it would be wise to pause briefly to define sanctification. Justification is the Process whereby God declares a person to be righteous on the basis of faith in the Person and work of Christ. Justification is the activity of God which liberates a person from the guilt of sin. Sanctification is the activity of God which liberates the Christian from the power of sin. Justification imputes the righteousness of God to man. Sanctification imparts the righteousness of God through man.
Traditionally, sanctification is categorized into three aspects.
(1) Positional sanctification is that state of holiness imputed to the Christian at the moment of their conversion to Christ. It denotes not so much one’s spiritual condition as his spiritual position. The Corinthian believers could thus be called ‘saints’ even though they were in a carnal state (1 Corinthians 1:2).
(2) Progressive sanctification refers to the process in our daily lives by which we are being conformed to the image of Christ. It is the process of becoming what we are in Christ. This involves the putting off of the old habits of lying, stealing, backbiting, etc., and putting on the Christ-like qualities of honesty, mercy, and love (cf. Colossians 3:1-10ff.).
(3) Ultimate sanctification is that state of holiness that we will not attain to in this life, but will realize when we are finally in the presence of God: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Sanctification, the putting off of the old man, and the putting on of the righteousness of Christ, is three dimensional: positional, progressive, and ultimate. The argument of the apostle Paul in Romans 6 is that we are obligated to experience progressive sanctification because of our positional sanctification accomplished on the cross of Calvary.
The sixth chapter begins with a question: “What shall we say, then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Romans 6:1). This question is somewhat prompted by Paul’s statement in chapter 5: “… but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20b). This question probably is best understood as arising out of the entire preceding section on justification by faith alone. This question would surely occur to the opponents of Paul’s gospel: “If salvation is all of God, all of grace, and appropriated on the basis of faith alone, without any human effort; if all of our sins necessitate and promote the grace of God—then why not continue to live as we always have (in sin), so that God’s grace may continue to abound?”
Paul’s summary answer is contained in verse 2: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). When the expression “May it never be” occurs in Romans, it is Paul’s vehement response to an improper conclusion based upon a proper premise. God’s grace does superabound man’s sin. Man’s sin does occasion the manifestation of grace. But we are not to continue the life characterized by sin at the time prior to our conversion. The reason is because such a practice would be inconsistent with our position in Christ. In Christ we are dead to sin. How, then, could we continue to live in sin? Such a practice would deny our position.
If you have come to Romans 6 looking for water, you will be disappointed, for Paul appeals to the position of the Christian as it is achieved by Spirit baptism as a reason why the Christian cannot live in sin as he formerly did. Paul begins, “or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3). We should not expect to find water every time the word baptism occurs, for there are numerous examples of ‘waterless baptism.’
John the Baptist declared, “As for me, I baptize you in water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not even fit to remove His sandals; He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
In secular Greek, the verb ‘ baptizo’ meant not only ‘to immerse’ or ‘to dip’ but also to “cause to perish (as by drowning a man or sinking a ship).”23 The baptizing work of the Holy Spirit joins us to the Person and work of Christ in such a way that we participate in His work on the cross. We died with Him.
So far as our justification is concerned we were joined to the Person and work of Christ so that we participated in the death of Christ for our sins. He died in our place as our substitute. But with reference to our sanctification, Christ died to sin. In Christ’s work of justification, He delivered us from the penalty of sin; but in the death of Christ was also accomplished our sanctification whereby He delivered us from the power of sin. This is the point Paul is making in verses 3-11.
Water baptism does not secure either justification or sanctification, but it does symbolize it. When we are submerged into the baptismal water, we symbolize the fact that we died and were buried with Christ. Just as we participated in the sin of Adam and its consequences many years ago, so by the baptism of the Holy Spirit we have participated in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
Our old self, what we were as a son of Adam, died to sin. That is, sin no longer has any claim or authority over us. Just as the Law has no authority over a dead man, just as collection agencies do not harass a corpse, so sin no longer has a claim on the one who has died.
As the sin-bearer of the world, sin had a just claim on Jesus Christ. Sin had a debt to collect. But when our Lord was crucified, He died to sin. Since sin has no claim on Christ, sin has no claim on those of us who have died to sin in Christ. Thus, our participation in the death of Christ to sin abolishes all claim sin once had on us.
But our identification with Christ does not end in death to sin; it extends to our participation in His resurrection to a new kind of life. Not only does sin have no claim on us, but in our union with Christ we have been raised to a newness of life. Sin no longer has dominion over us and we now have a new kind of life, a life which is capable of manifesting the righteousness of Christ. Positionally, we are dead to sin and alive to God. Practically we dare not fall back under the dominion of sin, but must manifest a newness of life (cf. Colossians 3:1-13).
On the basis of our position in Christ, Paul can not only cast aside any talk of continuing in sin, but can exhort us to demonstrate our position by the practice of personal righteousness:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-13).
As Paul will illustrate in the first verses of chapter 7 sin shall not rule over us, because we are no longer under the Law, but under grace (v. 14).
Not only are there theological or positional reasons why the Christian cannot continue to live in sin—there are practical reasons as well. One such reason is discussed in verses 15-23. The question is essentially the same as that in verse 1: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under Law but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:15).
Paul lays down a very significant principle in verse 16, and that is that we become the slaves of whatever we choose to obey. If we give in to sin and submit to it, we are the slaves of sin. If we submit to God and serve Him, we become His slaves.
While we were unsaved we had no choice, but were by our very nature the slaves of sin. The fruit of such service was hardly praiseworthy, for of the things we once did we are now deeply ashamed (v. 21). When we turned to God by faith in Christ and accepted the gospel, we were freed from servitude to sin and made servants of God.
We should not deceive ourselves by supposing that these two alternatives—slavery to sin, or slavery to God—are only two of many options for the Christian. In reality, we must be one or the other. We are never truly free, but are only free to choose whether we will be the slaves of sin or the slaves of God.
Lest we should give even a moment’s thought about serving sin, Paul contrasts the two kinds of servitude. There is the servitude of God and there is service to sin. While servitude to sin produces unrighteousness and that which causes shame, servitude to God produces the fruit of righteousness and sanctification. The end result of sin is death, while the outcome of righteousness is eternal life.
So not only does continuing to live in sin contradict our position in Christ as dead to sin and alive to God, and our profession of this at baptism, it violates every principle of common sense, since it constitutes us as slaves of sin, accomplishing shameful unrighteousness, and following the path which leads to death.
What we see in chapter 6 is not so much the method of sanctification as the motive for it. We must leave the life of sin behind and seek to offer our bodies to God so that His righteousness may be lived out in us.
We do learn from chapter 6 that the basis for our sanctification is to be found at the same place as we found the provision for our justification—at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as our Lord died for sin and was raised for our justification, so our Lord died to sin and was raised to live His life to God.
There is no work which you or I can perform which can earn our salvation. That work has been accomplished on the cross of Calvary. There is no work which you or I can perform to attain to sanctification. Our sanctification is accomplished only by our identification with Christ in His death to sin and in His resurrection to newness of life.
What troubles me is the interpretation of this chapter that sees it as the method of attaining sanctification, rather than as our motivation for sanctification. What we shall learn from chapter 7 is that although sanctification is absolutely necessary, so it is also absolutely impossible to accomplish through human striving and effort. Sanctification cannot be produced through revivals, consecrations and dedications. The beautiful message of Romans 8 is that what we cannot do in and of ourselves, God has already accomplished through the work of His Son, and this is appropriated through the Holy Spirit by faith.
Surely we must recognize first of all the necessity of sanctification for the Christian. All too often we present the gospel as though it were some insignificant modification or addition to the life of an individual. It is like another investment we add to our portfolio, or additional insurance in case our other policies fail.
The message of the gospel calls for a radical transformation of life. The call of the gospel is the call to repentance—to change. Acceptance of God’s provision of righteousness in Christ demands the outworking of righteousness in our lives and the putting away of sin. The great blemish on the testimony of Christianity has been the lives of those who have failed to realize that the gospel calls for radical change. Not a change which we initiate, but a change with which we co-operate.
Second, we should recognize the error of those who understand this chapter to teach that once a person has been united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, he or she is incapable of sinning. Not only does chapter 7 and much of the Scriptures refute this, but so does our experience. The consistent challenge of the New Testament is that our practice should conform to our position.
Finally, let us not seek some kind of formula—know, reckon, yield,—which all too easily is perverted into a kind of work which we perform in order to be sanctified. This chapter does not focus our attention on the how of sanctification so much as it does the why. Herein, we find not the method of sanctification, but the motive for it.
Two extremes must always be avoided in the Christian life. The first is what has often been called ‘antinomianism’ or ‘libertinism.’ Essentially, this error centers about the concept that the best law is no law at all.
Today antinomianism is found in a number of forms. Freudian psychology advocates it backhandedly by charging that the major cause of mental and emotional problems is to be found in the unrealistic and abnormal ‘Protestant puritanical ethic.’ This type of therapy attempts to solve psychiatric problems by convincing the patient that his or her guilt is the result of unrealistic and absurd standards of conduct. The rule book is simply rewritten, or thrown out altogether. Jay Adams accuses the Freudian of making an “archaeological expedition back into the past in which a search is made for others on whom to pin the blame for the patient’s behavior.”24
Orthodox Christianity has always been accused of advocating this heresy because of their conviction that men are saved totally apart from works and solely on the basis of faith. The ugly fact is that some Christians have actually advocated ‘antinomianism.’ They maintain that since we are no longer under Law, but under grace (cf. Romans 6:15), we go about our Christian lives ‘as the Spirit leads us,’ and that this leading is independent of any form of biblical absolute. Without exception, this has led to careless and sinful living.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the error of legalism. Legalism seeks to produce godliness through the keeping of a certain set of regulations and prohibitions. It equates finding favor with God with keeping the rules. Most often these rules are far more rigid than those of the Old Testament Law of Moses. In essence, legalism seeks to produce sanctification by works.
Legalism can appear to be a necessity. Put yourself in the place of the devout Jew who has been raised to revere and keep the Law. When a Jew was saved, it was only natural for him to continue to observe much of his Judaism. But when God began to save Gentiles and add them to the Jewish church to the point that they outnumbered the Jews, imagine the board meetings which these Jewish church leaders must have had. Could they trust that God would radically transform these heathen to the point that they would not undermine all that the church stood for?
Perhaps you and I could better identify if we visualized ourselves as a long-time member of a very conservative and very orthodox Bible church. Suddenly God begins to work dramatically in our community and saves dozens of hairy, unkempt, unclean hippies—and worst of all, they decide to join our church. The first Sunday they arrive in full force, and with bare feet and tattered clothes. Wouldn’t we seriously consider establishing some rules for those who were members of our church? Of course, we would. We would resort to some basic codes of conduct on the pretext of protecting the testimony of our church, and, of course, the reputation of the Lord. And, in so doing, we would have become a legalist, just as the Jewish Christians of the first century.
But legalism is both theologically and practically wrong. It not only violates the principle of grace, but it also doesn’t work. John Warwick Montgomery reports: “… ironically, therefore, separationism (we could say legalism here) usually produces exactly the evils it tries to counteract! The fundamentalist church in the town in which I grew up, by effectively keeping its young people from all forms of mixed entertainment, succeeded in having the highest illegitimate birth rate of any church in the community!”25
It is this matter of legalism which Paul lays to rest in Romans 7. We have seen all men, both Jews (chapter 2) and Gentiles (chapter 1) condemned to the eternal wrath of God, for they have rejected the revelation available to them. What men could not do by their works, God did in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (chapter 3). Justification is not by works, but on the basis of faith, just as the case of Abraham illustrated (chapter 4). Having described both the fruit and the root of justification (chapter 5), Paul moved on to the demonstration of the righteousness of God in the life of the Christian (chapters 6-8). In chapter 6, Paul established the necessity of sanctification. Theologically, it is the only practice consistent with our position in Christ, having died to sin and having been raised to newness of life in Jesus Christ (6:1-14). Practically, it is the only other alternative to the servitude of sin, for either sin or Christ will be our master (6:15-23).
In Romans 7, Paul deals with the Law and its relationship to sanctification. In verses 1-6, Paul will illustrate that we are free from the Law. In verses 7-12, Paul will come to the defense of the Law, as that which is holy, just and good. In verses 13-25, Paul will explain why it is impossible for the Christian to be sanctified by the Law. Here we will discover why legalism will never sanctify anyone.
The first word of verse 1, ‘or,’ indicates to us how closely tied these verses are to what Paul has taught in chapter 6. Our death in Christ constituted us as dead to sin, Paul taught in chapter 6 (verses 1-12). Now Paul illustrates how our death in Christ frees us from the Law. In verse 1, we find the principle; in verses 2 and 3, we have the illustration of this principle in the realm of marriage; and in verses 4-6, we are given the application of this to our sanctification.
The Principle (v. 1). The principle is this: the Law has authority and jurisdiction only over those who are alive. By implication, then, those of us who have been reckoned dead in Christ are no longer under the authority of Law.
The Illustration (vv. 2-3). Marriage is an institution governed by Law. The Law declares a woman to be an adulteress who marries another man while her first husband remains alive. But if her husband dies, the Law which bound her to that first marriage no longer has authority over her, and thus she is free to marry the man she chooses. Death releases the married woman from the Law pertaining to marriage.
The Application (vv. 4-6). No illustration is without its shortcomings, and this one is no exception. The analogy of the married woman does not precisely correspond to the death of the Christian to the Law, for the Christian died, but in the case of the married woman, it was her husband who died. Nevertheless, the point is clear. We died in Christ to sin and to the impossible demands of the Law which condemned us to death. Our death and resurrection in Christ has freed us from the jurisdiction and authority of the Law, and we are now free to choose another master, the Lord Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,26 to bear fruit unto God. How foolish to return to slavery to the Law and sin! How delightful the thought of servitude to God!
And so we see the implications of our death, burial and resurrection in Christ. We are released from the Law as a cruel taskmaster. We are free to become the servants of God.
But hasn’t Paul gone too far? Hasn’t Paul implied that the Law is not something good, but something evil? Isn’t this precisely what his Jewish opponents accused him of doing (Acts 21:28)? Anticipating this charge, Paul asks the question for his opponent in verse 7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?” Paul’s response is one of sheer amazement: “May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law …” (Romans 7:1b).
To think the Law to be sinful is like calling an x-ray evil, simply because it has some kind of relationship to cancer. An x-ray is good and beneficial simply because it exposes what is fatal to man if not dealt with. So, too, the Law exposes sin in man, which must be dealt with through the blood of Jesus Christ.
In these verses, Paul gives a specific illustration from his own experience. Had the Law not forbidden coveting, Paul would not have recognized the sin of covetousness in his own heart. Sin found a handle in the life of Paul through this commandment, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). Sin took up the opportunity provided by the entrance of the Law.27
Paul describes from his own experience how sin took advantage of the entrance of the Law. There are several ways of understanding what Paul describes, but the most natural explanation would seem to be that Paul relates his experience as a young Jewish boy when he became a ‘ son of the commandment’ at the age of 13. Until this time, Paul had not realized his own sin, but once he became aware of the requirement of the Law, “ Thou shall not covet,” all kinds of evil desires sprang up within him.
Apart from the Law, “sin was dead” (verse 8), not in the sense that it did not exist, but that it was inactive, until prompted by the Law. I once was given some sweet pea seeds that came originally from sweet pea seeds found in King Tut’s tomb. Now those seeds which originally came from that tomb had been dormant for thousands of years, but when they were put in the correct environment of soil and water, they sprang to life. So it is with sin. Sin had existed in the heart of Paul, but it was when he became conscious of the Law and its righteous requirements that this sin came to full bloom. The Law reveals sin.
In verses 7-12, we find a three-fold relationship between sin and the Law. (1) The Law defines sin; (2) the Law condemns sin; and (3) the Law provokes sin.
When Dan Tarbox was so ill for such a long period of time, we all knew that something was wrong, but no one knew what it was. What was needed was something that would present some symptoms or some sure indication of the source of his illness. It was an x-ray which finally exposed the growth around his lungs. Now treatment has begun. The cancer of sin would never have been exposed apart from the Law, and so the Law is revealed to be holy, and righteous, and good (verse 12).
If the Law is not the real villain of the story, what is? In verses 13-25, Paul pursues the real culprit and exposes it. In the process of putting the responsibility for evil where it belongs, Paul also continues to vindicate the Law as holy and good. Verse 13 raises the same basic question in slightly altered form: “Are we to say then that this good thing was the death of me?” (NEB). The essence of the question is this: All right, so the Law is not intrinsically evil. Nevertheless, it is responsible for death, isn’t it? Paul’s summary answer is that sin’s use of that which is really and truly good to bring about death is more proof of the exceeding wickedness of sin.
When I taught school in a state penitentiary in Washington, I had a young inmate tell me that he was certain that the study of psychology would be beneficial to him, even in the practice of crime. In fact, this young man was preparing to set up a consulting service in crime. He was learning all he could while in prison so that he could establish a business which would lay out bank robberies and the like for the less talented criminals. And for his services, he would of course charge a fee. Now we should not say that education was the real culprit, but rather that this man’s misuse of what is basically good shows him to be a real scoundrel.
Atomic energy is basically good, and it can be used to save countless lives and benefit millions. But when it is misused to destroy lives more quickly and efficiently than ever before dreamed, this tells us of the wretchedness which is within men, not about any evil in atomic energy. Sex is holy and good in terms of the purposes for which it was created by God. Men have abused and perverted it, and this reveals to us the wickedness of men.
So the Law is holy, righteous and good, and its misuse only proves the exceeding wickedness of sin.
When we come to the matter of sanctification, or the outworking of the righteousness of God in the life of the Christian, the root problem is not the Law itself, but that which makes the Law weak, the flesh. The problem of our sanctification is not to be found in the Law, but in man himself. Verses 13-25 reveal to us (1) the condition of the Christian; (2) the conflict in the Christian; and (3) the conclusions of Paul’s argumentation. Let’s look at these more closely.
The Condition of the Christian.28 The problem of the Christian is that he has within him two natures, each drawing him in a different direction. The sin nature Paul calls the ‘old man’ (Romans 6:6) or the ‘flesh’ (Romans 7:14,18). This nature is diametrically opposed to the new man, the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:17). Although the ‘old self’ has positionally been put to death in Christ, it is practically very much alive and well in the saint, prompting him to continue in sin. The normal Christian experience is to progressively lay aside the characteristics of this old self and to put on the qualities of the new man in Christ (Colossians 3:10ff.). The challenge of the New Testament epistles is to become what we are, and to lay aside what we were.
The Conflict of the Christian. The resulting dilemma of the Christian is that he finds himself torn in opposite directions. To every decision there are two opposing choices, two desires. The Christian is a virtual battleground on which two opposing forces wage a life and death struggle. The inner man or the new creation desires to serve God, but finds himself frustrated by the fact that the flesh, the old man, is dominated and permeated with sin. What he desires to do, he cannot. What Paul despises as a Christian, he does anyway.
Many have sought to avoid the obvious by insisting that these verses which describe this great conflict within the apostle depict a struggle in the apostle before his conversion. Let me mention several facts which leave no room for this explanation:
(1) The context is one of sanctification, not salvation. What purpose would a description of Paul’s preconversion struggles serve in the context of living out the righteousness of Christ as a Christian? The context demands that Paul’s struggle be the struggle of the saint, trying to live a godly life.
(2) There is a conflict. Conflict and agony over the commission of sin is not the experience of the unbeliever. Paul agrees with the Law; he desires to do what is right and pleasing to God. This is not the desire of the unbeliever. Paul hates the evil which he does. Can this be the case with the unsaved? The only sensible explanation for this struggle is that Paul struggled as a Christian.
(3) The change in tense supports Paul’s struggle as a Christian. When Paul spoke of the way the coming of the Law awakened sin like a sleeping giant in verses 7-11, the tenses of the verbs were past. But in his description of his struggle with sin, they are all present: “… the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh …” (Romans 7:14). The only reason for a change in tense is to make it plain that Paul now spoke of his struggle in the matter of sanctification.
(4) Our experience as a Christian corresponds to Paul’s. I have not known of a Christian who has not found real identification with the apostle in the struggle which he describes. Our experience as Christians trying to live godly lives perfectly fits that of Paul in these verses.
Some have tried another explanation to avoid admitting that Paul as a mature Christian could have such spiritual struggles with sin. They acknowledge that Paul is a believer here, but a carnal one. This was Paul in his early days as a Christian. They would say that every Christian must pass through Romans 7 in order to reach the victory of chapter 8. Now I would agree that before victory comes struggle, but I have to maintain that this struggle never ends in this life, and that the victories won are far from decisive or conclusive. I would agree with Stott when he states:
… this is the conflict of a Christian man, who knows the will of God, loves it, wants it, yearns to do it, but who finds that still by himself he cannot do it. His whole being (his mind and his will) is set upon the will of God and the Law of God. He longs to do good. He hates to do evil—hates it with holy hatred. And if he does sin, it is against his mind, his will, his consent; it is against the whole tenor of his life. Herein lies the conflict of the Christian.29
My friend, you and I will never get out of Romans 7 in this life. Hopefully, the old man will be progressively defeated, but he will not be irradicated until we leave this earthly tabernacle. I suspect that most of us have figured this out for ourselves already, but it is still so. That is why Paul concludes with a word of victory, combined with a description of continual struggle in verse 25: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”
The promise of Romans 8:1 is not that of no more sin, but of no more condemnation. No one would delight more than I in the total irradication of sin in this life, but no one is more convinced that it has not happened, and according to the Word of God, it shall not happen. No condemnation. That’s a promise we can live with!
There are two major conclusions which Paul drives home in chapter 7:
(1) The Law is holy, righteous, and good. The Law is good because it reveals the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of man. The Law drives us to Christ. The Law is also good, for I in my inner man agree with it and want to abide by it.
(2) The Law can never sanctify the Christian because of the weakness of the flesh. The Law cannot and does not subdue our sinful nature; it stimulates it. The only cure for the flesh is death, and this has already taken place on the cross. The power to live the Christian life is not found within myself, but in the Holy Spirit of God. This is the message of chapter 8.
(1) We must come to understand that sanctification, like justification, is the work of God. The greatest need of the sinner is to realize his utter depravity and the fact that he is hopelessly lost. Justification is the work of God on behalf of man, which is received by faith, apart from works. The greatest need of the saint is that he is totally incapable of living a life pleasing to God in the power of the flesh. He must then come to realize that in Christ, he died to sin and was raised to newness of life, and that God makes this possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.
(2) We must realize that the road to spiritual power is through self-despair.30 As Stott has said, man’s great problem has been too high an opinion of himself. And yet, in spite of this, so many today are appealing to Christians to live the Christian life in their own strength. The emphasis of most revivals, and nearly all re-dedication pleas is the emphasis of self. Sanctification is presented as the certain result of following a few simple steps. That is not, in my estimation, the teaching of the Word of God. The Christian life is a life of continual struggle, of victories and defeats, and Christian victory comes only when we totally distrust self, and rely on the provision of God. How frequently we throw works out the front door of justification, and invite them in the back door of sanctification.
(3) We should gain from Romans 7 a biblical understanding of the Law. The Law is not evil, but good. The Law has several functions. It was never given to save or to sanctify, but rather to reveal our sin and to drive us to Christ. It is as valid today and a standard of righteousness as it was in the Old Testament days. It reveals to us the righteousness and holiness of God (Hebrews 12:18, 29; Deuteronomy 28:58). In the New Testament, both the motive for keeping the Law, and the method of doing so have changed. The motive for Law-keeping is not in order to be saved or sanctified, but in order to bring honor and glory to the God we serve. The Method of Law-keeping is not that of self-works, but the provision of the power of the Holy Spirit. Freedom from the Law as a master does not mean the Law is evil; it simply means the Law is powerless because of the weakness of the flesh. The Law drives us to Christ, and Christ delivers us from sin.
27 The word ‘opportunity’ in verse 8 is used in the ancient Greek in a military sense of a ‘a base of operations’ and in a literary sense, ‘to take a hint.’ The Law gives sin the opportunity it has been waiting for. Cf. William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902), p. 179.
29 Stott, p. 76. Notice also this quotation of a statement by Dr. Alexander Whyte, who said: “As often as my attentive bookseller sends me on approval another new commentary on Romans, I immediately turn to the seventh chapter. And if the commentator sets up a man of straw in the seventh chapter, I immediately shut the book. I at once send the book back and say ‘No, thank you. That is not the man for my hard-earned money.’” Quoted by F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 151.
Without a doubt the eighth chapter of Romans is the high-water mark of the New Testament. “Spener is reported to have said that if holy Scripture was a ring, and the Epistle to the Romans its precious stone, chapter 8 would be the sparkling point of the jewel.”31
We gain a clue to the importance of this chapter simply by contrasting the conclusion of chapter 7 with that of chapter 8. Chapter 7 ends in agony, with the apostle describing the constant struggle going on within as he attempts to live a life which is pleasing to God in the power of the flesh. The conclusion of chapter 8 is a victorious shout of praise and confidence, for the apostle has proclaimed the sovereignty of God, not only in his salvation, but in his sanctification. What an exhilarating chapter this is. It begins with the words, ‘no condemnation’ and it concludes with ‘no separation.’ The victory of the Christian is absolutely certain, for the matter is in God’s hands.
In approaching this great chapter I have made the very difficult decision to maintain my present course of expounding one chapter each week. I have, therefore, decided to analyze this chapter by means of the telescope rather than the microscope.32 Both studies have their value. The study of the Book of Romans is something like the man who has purchased a new automobile. On the one hand, he desires to appreciate the car as a whole. He stands back to look at it. He drives it about the neighborhood, delighting in the approving looks of his friends. But on the other hand he desires to carefully inspect every detail of the car. He scrutinizes the engine to look for any loose nuts or leaks. He analyzes the finish for any minute imperfections. The problem is that you can’t very well do both things at once.
So it is with the Book of Romans. There would be great profit in weighing every word, and analyzing every phrase. One could very well spend a lifetime in this book and not come near exhausting its wealth. But our purpose in this study of Romans has been to grasp the flow of the argument of the book. Our goal is to look at the ‘big picture.’ In view of this goal, we shall focus on the argument of the entire chapter as it relates to the rest of the book. We will have to settle for a survey of the highlights in this gold mine of theological treasures.
With this in mind, we will approach this chapter with this question in mind: What do we find in Romans 8 that transformed Paul’s outlook from agony to ecstasy? Verses 1-27 describe the Holy Spirit as the source of sanctification, while verses 28-39 assure us of the certainty of sanctification.
Paul has already shown that all men fall under the condemnation of God, for all have some revelation which they have rejected (Romans 1-3a). Though man is totally incapable of earning acceptance with God, God has provided righteousness in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, Who died in the sinner’s place, and Who provides the one who trusts in Christ with a God-kind of righteousness. Thus, a man is justified by faith (Romans 3b-5). The position of the man in Christ who has been justified by faith is to be practiced by him, in keeping with his profession at baptism to have died to sin and to have been raised to newness of life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6). Although a godly life is imperative for the Christian, it is also impossible for him in the power of the flesh. Just as man could not please God as an unbeliever by trying to keep the Law, neither can he do so as a Christian. It is not the Law which is evil, but the flesh which is weak and overpowered by sin. What the Christian desperately desires to do, he does not; what he hates, he does (Romans 7).
The liberating message of Romans 8 is that God never intended man to live the Christian life by his own efforts and in his own strength. Provision for Christian living is in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s behalf is described in the first 27 verses of this chapter. We shall view this ministry of the Holy Spirit in four dimensions.
The first dimension of the work of the Holy Spirit is found in verses 1-11 where He is described as the Spirit of life and liberty:
For the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and of death (Romans 8:2).
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:11).
If I could summarize what Paul is saying in verses 1-11, it would go something like this: What the Lord Jesus Christ acquired by His death, burial and resurrection, the Holy Spirit applies through His indwelling ministry in the life of the Christian. What Christ has won for us positionally, the Holy Spirit works in us practically.
There is no condemnation to be dreaded by the Christian. Why? Because all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been dealt with on the cross of Calvary. Even the sins we commit as Christians are forgiven. But more than the fact that we have been delivered from the penalty of sin, we have also been delivered from its power. Since the Law was incapable of producing righteousness due to the weakness of our flesh, Christ redeemed us from bondage to the Law by His death. As Paul illustrated by the analogy of marriage in chapter 7, we have died to the Law in Christ. It no longer has dominion over us. The claims of the Law and of sin on the Christian have been fully met in the sacrificial death of Christ. This is the negative side. We have died to the Law and to sin’s authority over us.
On the positive side, God has made provision for the Christian to fulfill the requirements of the Law through the Holy Spirit’s power. “In order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). What could never be accomplished in the power of the flesh—the meeting of the righteous standards of the Law—can be achieved in the power of the Spirit.
The flesh cannot please God (verse 8) for several reasons.
(1) First of all, the flesh is hostile toward God. “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the Law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).
(2) The flesh is incapable of producing righteousness. That is surely the conclusion we must draw from chapter 7.
(3) The flesh can only produce death: “For the mind set on the flesh is death …” (Romans 8:6).
The Christian now has an alternative, for God has placed His Spirit within every Christian, and this Spirit is the source of liberty and of life: “However you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:9). One common characteristic of all true Christians is the fact that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We need not talk in these days of ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ for we have received Him, if indeed we are true Christians. Paul says to the Christian, “If you are a true Christian, then the Holy Spirit indwells you.”
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit Who indwells us is a life-giving spirit. He has power over death. The measure of the power of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the fact that He was the instrument through which the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead (v. 11). So far as our flesh is concerned, it is dead in its ability to produce the fruit of righteousness. But the Holy Spirit has power over death , so that He can give life to our mortal bodies. He can produce in us the righteousness God requires of His saints.
When we come to the subject of the ‘adoption’ of the Christian, we come at one and the same time to one of the most crucial, and yet one of the most neglected doctrines of the New Testament. J. I. Packer laments this tragedy when he writes:
It is a strange fact that the truth of adoption has been little regarded in Christian history. Apart from two last-century books, now scarcely known (R. S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, R. A. Webb, The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption), there is no evangelical writing on it, nor has there been at any time since the Reformation any more than there was before.33
Packer also reminds us that although the doctrine of justification is the primary and fundamental blessing for the Christian, it is not the highest blessing, the blessing of adoption.34 In justification, we are declared innocent of sin and righteous through the work of Christ. In adoption we are constituted sons of God. If justification makes us the servants of God, adoption makes us sons.
Let me illustrate it in this way. Suppose that I was an incorrigible criminal, standing guilty before a judge. It would be one thing for the judge to pronounce me innocent in the eyes of the law on the basis that my wrong doings had been paid for. But it would be something far greater for the judge to make me his own son and take me home to be a part of his family. The Holy Spirit is the source of our sanctification in that He is the Spirit of Adoption. This is the thrust of verses 12-17.
Paul informs us that we have absolutely no obligation to relapse into a walk according to the flesh; rather our obligation is to walk in the Spirit. Walking in the flesh produces death; walking in the Spirit, life (v. 13). Not only is the Christian characterized as one who has the Spirit dwelling within (v. 9), but in verse 14 the Christian is also one who is being led by the Spirit. As Warfield points out,35 this leading refers not so much to personal guidance in this context as it does to the process of sanctification. Every Christian is spirit-indwelt and Spirit-led. It is inconceivable for the Christian to continue to live willingly and persistently according to the flesh.
More than this, the Holy Spirit gives us the disposition of a son and not a slave: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit36 of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
The New Testament concept of adoption is somewhat different from that prevalent today:
The term ‘adoption’ may smack somewhat of artificiality in our ears; but in the first century AD an adopted son was a son deliberately chosen by his adoptive father to perpetuate his name and inherit his estate; he was no whit inferior in status to a son born in the ordinary course of nature, and might well enjoy the father’s affection more fully and reproduce the father’s character more worthily.37
The word ‘abba,’38 is the intimate family term for father that a baby would use to address its father. We would probably find its equivalent in the expression ‘daddy.’
The force of Paul’s words here is that the Holy Spirit not only joins us to the family of God, but that He continually assures us and reminds us of this relationship. The Holy Spirit brings to our attention our spiritual ‘roots,’ for who we are has a great deal of bearing upon what we do.
The Holy Spirit assures us of this intimate relationship of sonship in two ways. First, He gives independent testimony to our sonship in a way which is experiential and illusive of description. Second, He corroborates the testimony of our own human spirit, that we are a child of God (v. 16). The conviction of our own spirit would surely be related to the Scriptures, to our devotional life, and to the evidences and the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Needless to say, our realization of this testimony would vary in intensity at different times in our experience.39
To be a son of God is also to be an heir, and so Paul’s discussion of the Holy Spirit’s ministry relative to our adoption as sons flows easily into the hope of future blessings which we have as the children of God. The Christian life is obviously no bed of roses, no flower-strewn pathway. It is a life of suffering, a life of struggle. These sufferings, Paul tells us, are not to be compared with the glory which is to follow (verse 18). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Hope for He assures us that great glory awaits us.
We are not alone in this struggle and suffering. When Adam fell all of creation suffered in the wake of his sin. All of creation has been subjected to futility and frustration (v. 20). All of creation groans and anxiously awaits the restoration of all things. Certainly here is the explanation to the problem our world faces in the realm of ecology. All creation suffers from the sin of men. We strip away desired minerals and resources without sufficient concern for the effect of our actions on the environment. We pollute the environment with our rubbish. No wonder creation groans.
Though we should strive to express our stewardship over the creation in a more responsible way, total restoration will not occur until God Himself renovates the earth from the rubbish of man’s sinfulness and selfishness. Creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God (v. 19). By this, I understand that day to be when God will restore the earth to its original ‘paradise’ condition, and when the ‘sons of God’ will execute their dominion over the earth as God originally instructed (Genesis 1:26-28).
The struggle of the cosmos is a reflection of the struggle within the Christian. We are all too aware of the struggle of Romans 7, and we will continue to know this agony until we experience our full restoration and sanctification: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23).
Until we are given transformed or heavenly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:40, 50ff.), we will continue to be plagued by the flesh and its solicitations to sin. The indwelling Holy Spirit is God’s earnest agreement of a future and total restoration, a complete release from not only the power of sin, but from its presence. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian is like an engagement ring40 in that it gives substance to our hopes for better things in the future. Even in the midst of the struggles and suffering of this life, the Holy Spirit assures us of the blessings which are yet to come as the sons of God.
There is a song which I have heard on the radio which goes something like this: “I’m not what I oughta be, And I’m not what I’m gonna be, But thank God I’m not what I used to be.” In the crunch of the Christian’s experience of not being what we ought to be, and not yet being what we are destined to be, the Holy Spirit ministers to us as our helper, coming to our aid at points of weakness and inability.
And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
I understand the help of the Holy Spirit to be far broader than just helping us pray for those things which we cannot put into words. But this is surely a specific example of the helping ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some things simply cannot be put into words—any words (any language, native, foreign, or angelic). At these times when our humanity is stretched beyond the breaking point, the Holy Spirit ministers on our behalf, communicating for us the deepest longings and desires within us.
Here is the source of our sanctification. The Law can never sanctify, due to the weakness of the flesh.
A vine does not produce grapes by Act of Parliament; they are the fruit of the vine’s own life; so the conduct which conforms to the standard of the Kingdom is not produced by any demand, not even God’s, but it is the fruit of that divine nature which God gives as the result of what he has done in and by Christ.41
What the Law could not do through the weakness of the flesh, God has done through the work of His Son on the cross and through the appropriation of the results of that work by the Holy Spirit.
To run and work the law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings;
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.42
There is an expression that goes something like this: only two things in this life are certain, death and taxes. Now this may be true for the unbeliever, but for the true believer in Jesus Christ we must add at least one more thing—sanctification. That is the force in these concluding verses of Romans 8. All of the struggles, all of the turmoil, all of the agony, is a part of God’s plan to conform us to Himself.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
Verse 28 stresses that not only are all things for God’s glory, but also for the good of the Christian. Then, also, it is God who is active in all the affairs of our lives, for “It is God who causes all things to work together.” The events of our lives are no accident; they are the handiwork of the sovereign God. We are reminded that it is all things which work for our good. This must include those things which are pleasant as well as the unpleasant, the things we would call good, and those which we think bad. No circumstance fails to contribute to our good and God’s glory. Finally, we should see that all things work together. We cannot look at things in isolation, yet we are incapable of seeing from the beginning to the end, so we must trust in God to accomplish His good and perfect and acceptable will in His own way in our lives.
Verses 29 and 30 remind us that salvation from beginning to the finish is the work of God, and that He loses no one along the way. Those whom God foreknew are those whom God has chosen before the foundation of the world, before they did anything, good or evil. The basis of God’s free choice is grace, and not the merits of the chosen (for indeed we have no merit before God). God did not look down through the corridors of time and choose those whom He knew would come to trust in Him. The expression ‘to know’ often conveys the concept of choice (cf. Genesis 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5). To foreknow here and elsewhere (e.g. Romans 11:2; 1 Peter 1:20) can mean ‘to choose beforehand,’ and such must its meaning be here.43
The sequence of verses 29 and 30 is this: foreknowledge (that is election), predestination, calling, justification, glorification. Foreknowledge determines who God’s children will be; predestination determines what God’s people will be (conformed to the image of Christ); calling is that point in time when the unbelieving elect is irresistibly invited to be a part of God’s family; justification is the sinner’s participation in the benefits of the work of Christ on his behalf; glorification is the full future realization of all that God has purposed us to be. Glorification is spoken of in the past tense because of its certainty of coming to pass. We say to our children sometimes, “If you do thus and so, you’ve had it.” We do not say “You will have it,” but “You’ve had it” because it is a sure thing. So it is with our ultimate and final sanctification. There is no question of its coming to pass.
Do you see that from election to glorification it is entirely in God’s control? Our sanctification does not rely upon our faithfulness, for we would never make it. Our sanctification relies completely upon God, and what God determines will come to pass. Paul has not said that some of those whom God has chosen will be called, nor that some of those who are called will be glorified. From election to sanctification, it is the work of God and it is certain.
Our response to these things (vv. 31-39). The confidence of the Christian in the light of these certainties is expressed in verses 31-39 by a sequence of questions and answers.
(1) “What then shall we say to these things?” (v. 31). If God is on our side, who could be against us? This is not to say that there is no one against us, for Satan is our adversary. But if God is for us, who is Satan to oppose us? I did not have an older brother, but I was an older brother, and there is no greater security than being with big brother. If the sovereign God of the universe is for us, then there is no enemy that can harm us. If God’s power was sufficient to save us, if God’s love was strong enough to send His only Son to the cross, then there is nothing which He will not do for us as His sons (v. 32).
(2) “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (v. 33). God, the sovereign judge of the universe, has declared us to be righteous through the work of His Son. Who, then, would dare to accuse us before God?
(3) “Who is the one who condemns?” (v. 34). Would anyone dare to condemn us before the God Who has given His only Son to save us. He has borne our sins on the cross. There is no condemnation. Further, He is at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf.
(4) “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35). Is there anything in this universe greater than God? Is there any one greater than He? No! Indeed not. If this be true, then there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God. Our salvation, our sanctification, is as secure as the God of heaven is strong. It is with this confidence that we may live out our Christian responsibilities, knowing that God is the source of our salvation and our sanctification, and, therefore, it is sure.
(1) We should be thoroughly convinced that the salvation and the sanctification of the saint are fully the work of God. We cannot agree with Charles G. Finney who wrote: “It is self-evident that the entire obedience to God’s law is possible on the ground of natural ability. To deny this is to deny that man is able to do as well as he can. … It is, of course, forever settled, that a state of entire sanctification is attainable in this life, on the ground of natural ability.”44
I am convinced that the reason so many Christians throw in the towel in their spiritual lives is that they have been misguided into thinking that their spiritual life is within their ability. From Romans 6, we must conclude that we are responsible to live godly lives, but we are not able to do so, apart from the work of the cross and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
(2) We must realize that even with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, entire sanctification will not be reached in this life. That redemption of which Paul speaks in verses 18-25 is yet future. Though it be future, it is absolutely certain.
(3) Romans 8 gives us the assurance to live confidently and victoriously. Our confidence rests wholly on the sovereignty of God in salvation and sanctification. “Well did James Denney once observe that whereas assurance is a sin in Romanism, and a duty in much of Protestantism, in the New Testament it is simply a fact.”45 On the basis of this fact of assurance, we may live the Christian life confidently.
32 For a more indepth study on the Book of Romans, see Romans: The Righteousness of God, a 45-lesson series by this author on our web site at www.bible.org.
36 I would agree with the text of the NASB in not capitalizing ‘spirit’ here. Spirit has in some contexts (e.g. Numbers 5:14; 2 Timothy 1:7), the idea of ‘disposition.’ Although the Holy Spirit is the source of this disposition, He is not here identified by the word ‘spirit.’ It is the context which makes this clear.
38 “Abba is an Aramaic word (in the ‘emphatic state’) which came to be used among the Jews (and is used to this day in Hebrew-speaking families) as the familiar term by which children address their father.”
“On Abba, Father Luther says: ‘This is but a little word, and yet notwithstanding it comprehendeth all things. The mouth speaketh not, but the affection of the heart speaketh after this manner. Although I be oppressed with anguish and terror on every side, and seem to be forsaken and utterly cast away from thy presence, yet am I thy child, and thou art my Father for Christ’s sake: I am beloved because of the Beloved. Wherefore this little word, Father, conceived effectually in the heart, passeth all the eloquence of Demosthenes, Cicero, and of the most eloquent rhetoricians that ever were in the world. This matter is not expressed with words, but with groanings, which groanings cannot be uttered with any words or eloquence, for no tongue can express them’ (on Gal. iv. 6, Middleton’s translation).” F. F. Bruce, pp. 166-167.
39 “The witness of our spirit, he writes, becomes a reality as ‘the Holy Spirit enables us to ascertain our sonship, from being conscious of, and discovering in ourselves, the true marks of a renewed state.’ This is inferential assurance, being a conclusion drawn from the fact that one knows the gospel, trusts Christ, brings forth works meet for repentance, and manifests the instincts of a regenerate man.
“But [continues Haldane] to say that this is all that is signified by the Holy Spirit’s testimony, would be to fall short of what is affirmed in this text; for in that case the Holy Spirit would only help the conscience to be a witness, but could not be said to be a witness Himself … The Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit in a concurrent testimony. This testimony, although it cannot be explained, is nevertheless felt by the believer; it is felt by him, too, in its variation, as sometimes stronger and more palpable, and at other times more feeble and less discernible … Its reality is indicated in Scripture by such expressions as those of the Father and the Son coming unto us, and making their abode with us—Christ manifesting Himself to us, and supping with us—His giving us the hidden manna and the white stone, denoting the communication to us of the knowledge of an acquittal from guilt, and a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. ‘The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us’ (Romans, p. 363).” J. I. Packer, Knowing God, pp. 205-206.
43 “As for the words ‘whom he did foreknow,’ they have that connotation of electing grace which is frequently implied by the verb ‘to know’ in the Old Testament. When God takes knowledge of people in this special way, He sets His choice upon them. Cf. Amos iii. 2 (‘you only have I known of all the families of the earth’); Hosea xiii. 5 (‘I did know thee in the wilderness’). We may also compare Paul’s own language in I Corinthians viii. 3 (‘if any man love God, the same is known of him’); Galatians iv. 9 (‘ye have known God, or rather are known of God’).” F. F. Bruce, p. 177.
If Romans 8 has the distinction of being the high-water mark of the New Testament, chapter 9 has the dubious honor of teaching one of the most emotionally volatile doctrines of all the Bible, that of election. This chapter is so troublesome to some Bible teachers that they would prefer it not to be in Scripture. One of the pastors I regard most highly in terms of his ministry in my life told me that he would try not to teach on chapter 9, even if he were teaching through the Book of Romans chapter by chapter.
Romans 9 is vitally important to the Christian, not only in the sense that it provides a basis for the theological doctrine of election, but in that it has great bearing on our spiritual life. If salvation finds its origin in the will of the creature, rather than in the will of the Creator, then I can never be fully assured of my salvation, for I may someday lose my faith in God, or I may decide to reject my faith altogether. If the salvation of others is not in the control of God, then I have little reason to pray for the salvation of the lost.
But if salvation finds its origin in the will of God, then I know that I am forever secure as a Christian, for even though I may change, God is immutable. Since it was He Who purposed my salvation and He cannot change, then my salvation is as certain as the One Who is its source. If salvation is that which is determined by God, then I may come to Him in prayer with the confidence that He is both able to save, and that He takes pleasure in saving as well as in answering my prayers.
Romans 9–11 were vitally important to the apostle Paul as he penned this epistle. Paul was a Jew—today we would call him a fulfilled or completed Jew, but a Jew just the same. Paul had taught that the Christian faith was no innovation, certainly not opposed to Old Testament revelation, but rather the fulfillment of all that the Jews had hoped for. In chapter 4 Paul taught that Abraham himself was saved by faith and not by works, and that the kind of faith required for salvation today is precisely the same kind as that exercised by Abraham.
But herein lies Paul’s problem. If the gospel which Paul preached was the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament anticipated, then why was it that the Jews were missing out on its blessings? Why were scores of Gentiles who never had this hope coming to Christ while the vast majority of the Jews were still unbelieving, failing to realize the blessings of God?
Beyond this there is the question of the righteousness and integrity of God, for it would appear that He has purposed that which He failed to bring to pass. Then, too, the reliability of the Word of God is not beyond question, for all that the Old Testament promised to the Jew seemingly is being frustrated. To this problem, the apostle devotes himself for the next three chapters.
It must be emphasized here that chapters 9–11 are a package, and that the answer to the dilemma of the unbelief of Israel cannot be adequately answered by any one of these three chapters. Chapter 9 speaks to the unbelief of Israel by stating that God did not purpose to save all Israel. In other words, God didn’t choose those who disbelieve. In chapter 10 Paul presses on to state that neither did Israel choose God. In chapter 11 Paul shows how God purposed the unbelief of Israel to accomplish the salvation of the Gentiles, and that the hopes of the nation Israel are yet to be fulfilled, for the unbelief of Israel is neither complete nor permanent.
Romans 9:1-5 pose the problem which underlies the entire section. Why is Israel in unbelief in spite of all the privileges they experienced in the past, and in spite of the promise of blessing for the future? Verses 6-13 answer the question by insisting that God never promised these blessings to every physical descendent of Abraham, but only to those who were children of Abraham by faith. If the masses of the nation Israel are not saved because they are not elect, then there are two objections to the doctrine of election which must be responded to: the charge of injustice (verses 14-18) and the claim that man is therefore not accountable before God (verses 19-23). Paul concludes by turning the tables and asserting that the Word of God, far from being frustrated by the unbelief of Israel, was being fulfilled (verses 24-29).
Paul’s Sincere Sorrow (vv. 1-3). The charge of the Jewish community against the apostle was that he was no friend of theirs. They claimed that the gospel which Paul preached was opposed to all that Israel had stood for and hoped for. Paul does not begin to deal with the dilemma of the Jews until he has established the fact that he is no enemy, but a grieving friend; in fact, if he could do so he would be willing to suffer the wrath of God for his people if by this means they could be brought to salvation (v. 3).
Israel’s Failure Highlighted By Her Privileges (vv. 4-5). Israel’s unbelief was not so much to be considered ‘because of’ as ‘in spite of,’ for she had privileges no other nation could claim. They were ‘Israelites,’ and as such they could claim these seven particulars. (1) They could claim national adoption (cf. Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1); (2) they were eye witnesses of the revelation of God’s glory, such as the splendor of the theophanies and the shekinah glory; (3) they were the beneficiaries of the divine covenant46 made by God with His people; (4) they were the recipients and custodians of the Law of God given at Sinai; (5) they had the privilege of the temple service, the “prescriptions for divine worship”;47 (6) they also were the recipients of the many promises of God, many of which were yet future; and (7) they had a lineage that any nation could be proud of; their forefathers were the patriarchs, and they were the nation through whom the Messiah came.
In spite of these great privileges the Jews as a nation were not experiencing the blessings which one might rightfully expect. It is not explicitly stated but Israel’s problem is the widespread unbelief and failure to arrive at the blessings which they had been waiting for.48
On the surface of the issue it might seem to some that Israel’s failure is to be explained as God’s failure—that it is really the Word of God that has failed, since what it appears to have promised has not come to realization. Paul approaches the problem by first of all clarifying just what the Scriptures promised. The error of assuming God’s Word to be at fault is two-fold. First of all the Scriptures never promised blessing to every physical descendent of Abraham. Second, the basis of God’s blessing is not to be found in one’s physical relationship to a particular forefather, but rather to one’s spiritual relationship to God by faith.
As Paul introduces the subject of election, there is something we are to understand about it. The devout, but unbelieving, Jew not only delighted in it, but depended on it. The Jew was a devout believer in the doctrine of election—that is the doctrine of corporate election. They relished the thought that God had selected them from all the nations of the earth to be the recipients of all the blessings and privileges described by Paul in verses 4 and 5. They had no problem in viewing all the other nations as the ‘non-elect.’ They were perfectly content to relegate the heathen to hell.
Paul uses the theological position of the Jews as the starting point of his argumentation, but he presses their theology much farther than they intended. He takes the principle of election which they accepted on a national level, and applies it on an individual level.49 If Israel could delight in their national election, then their dilemma of why so many Israelites disbelieved could be explained on the basis of individual election. Why were so many Jews failing to arrive at God’s promised blessings? Because God hadn't chosen them to be blessed by salvation. While Israel’s erroneous claim on God’s blessing was based upon their ancestry and their works, the cause of blessing was God’s calling by free choice. Such a claim must be documented, so Paul turns to the example in Israel’s history of Isaac and Jacob.
The Example of Isaac, Not Ishmael (vv. 7-9). If blessing was guaranteed by physical relationship to Abraham, then many Gentiles would have the same claim as did the Jews for Abraham was the father of more than just Isaac. Ishmael would have equal claim to the blessings of the Jews if physical lineage was the sole cause of blessing. But as the Scriptures stipulated: “Through Isaac your descendants will be named” (Romans 9:7b, Genesis 21:12). Ishmael was the result of Abraham’s feeble efforts to bring about what God had promised, but Isaac was the product of God’s work in fulfillment of His promise of a son.
The Example of Jacob, Not Esau (vv. 10-13). To some, the example of Isaac might not be convincing because each child had a different mother. If this is a problem, it will be swept away by the example of Jacob and Esau, for they had the same father and mother; in fact, they were the offspring of the same conception, since they were twins.
Surely all must grant that God specified the blessing to come through the seed of Jacob, and not Esau. This confirms again that the blessings of God do not belong to men purely on the basis of origin. But what is the basis of God’s designation of Jacob over Esau? The Jews would claim that it was because of some obligation which God had to Jacob, but the Genesis narrative does not support such a claim. God’s choice was not conditioned by any human activity or instrumentality, but was determined solely on the free choice of God.
God’s choice was apart from custom or tradition, for tradition would have granted supremacy to the first-born child, Esau. Neither was God’s choice influenced by any good which would be done by Jacob, or any evil done by Esau, for Paul insists, “For though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls” (Romans 9:11).
Of course, God knew what Jacob and Esau would do, but His choice was not a result of this knowledge. Indeed God’s choice of Jacob was in spite of such knowledge, for he was a rascal.50
What, then, was the basis of God’s choice of Jacob over Esau? God acted not out of any obligation, but rather out of His sovereignty, and thus chose freely on the basis of His own will. The election of God is not based upon the works of the individual, but on the will of God. “… in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls” (Romans 9:11b). As the Scripture says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2f).51
Let us be sure we fully understand what Paul has said about divine election, for there are many misconceptions of this doctrine. Some would explain election in this way: God is voting for us; Satan, against us; and we must break the tie. Others have said that God has determined a certain number of elect, but not the specific individuals—that is up to us. Others seem to say that God has elected us ‘in Christ’ and therefore, whoever are in Christ are the elect. Again, this leaves the ultimate determination of who the elect will be to the elect themselves. This is the position, apparently, of W. B. Riley, when he states, “The soul’s election depends upon the soul’s choice. Thou, my friend are the only person who can settle this question of election. It is not settled in Heaven; it is settled on earth. It is not settled of the Lord; it is settled by man.”52
Even a casual reading of Romans 9 demands that we hold an entirely different position than those just mentioned, for the election of men to eternal salvation is the work of God, and I am grateful for it. If my election depended upon me casting my vote in favor of God, I would be forever damned, for my unregenerate will would always vote against God, for as an unbeliever I was dead in my sins, and by nature God’s enemy and a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:10-18). No other kind of election could be attributed to a God Who is truly sovereign than that which is described by Paul in Romans 9, for sovereignty implies absolute freedom and complete independence of action. God’s decisions are not contingent upon ours. Our decisions are contingent upon His.
Here, then, is the answer to the problem of Jewish unbelief. Israel’s unbelief was not a failure of the Word of God, but an outworking of the will of God. Israel failed because God willed it so. God’s reason for Israel’s unbelief will be explained in chapter 11, but for now we must accept the fact that God, far from being obliged to bless every Jew on the basis of his ancestry, is free to choose whomever He wills and to reject whom He wills. Such was evident from God’s previous dealings with the nation.
Perhaps one of the strongest lines of evidence for election being defined as God’s absolutely free choice of those who will be saved is to be found in verses 14 and 19. In these verses, two objections to what Paul has taught about election are raised. The first is, “It isn’t fair!,” and the second is “It (unbelief) isn’t my fault!” Now neither of these objections are valid unless Paul has indeed taught that God chooses men on the basis of His own free will, apart from man’s will or his works. If Paul wasn’t teaching the doctrine of election, then all he had to do was to answer these questions by saying, “You have completely misunderstood what I have been saying.” The fact that he answers these objections demands that we understand Paul’s teaching just as his objectors did—that of an act of God independent of men.
In fact, it is interesting that every time I have had the occasion to teach the doctrine of election it has never failed that the same objections that are raised in verses 14 and 19 are raised from the audiences I teach. It is, therefore, vital that we come to understand Paul’s defense of his position on the doctrine of election, for we, too, will need to use these same lines of defense to answer our objectors.
(1) It Isn’t Fair (vv. 14-18). Do you mean to tell me that if God has chosen me to be saved I will be saved in spite of myself, and that if God has not chosen me, there is no hope for my salvation? Why that isn’t fair at all! Why should one person go to heaven and another go to Hell, just on the whim of God. Put in its simplest form that is the objection of verse 14: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Romans 9:14). The problem is that the objector is arguing the point of justice, while Paul is speaking of mercy. Justice speaks of men getting what is rightfully theirs. God’s justice has already been discussed in chapters 1-3. The justice of God demands that the death penalty be paid by every man, woman, and child, for, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). If we demand that God be just and just alone then every soul would spend eternity in Hell.
Election has nothing to do with justice, it is a matter of mercy. We are speaking of the grace of God when we speak of election. Mercy withholds punishment which is rightfully deserved. The guilty criminal cries for mercy before his judge. Grace goes even beyond mercy in that it bestows that which is completely undeserved. Any man whom God chooses to save is a man who deserves to die, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The penalty which should be paid by the elect sinner has been paid by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. In addition to this, this sinner is declared righteous in the Person of Jesus Christ, and he is made a son of God and a co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:15-17). This is grace!
As someone has rightly said, “The question should not be, ‘Why has God not saved all men?,’ but ‘Why has God saved any?’” We do not deserve the grace of God, and we dare not call God unjust because He has withheld His grace from some and bestowed it upon others. I believe it was Bill Gothard who used the illustration (to prove a different point) of a man who walks down our block giving out $1000 bills—to every other house. Now what right do we have, if we have been passed over, to confront this man and charge him with injustice? How much time would a police officer give us if we tried to file a formal complaint? The issue is not one of justice, but one of grace.53 God is absolutely free to bestow His grace on whomever He chooses, and He is not one whit guilty of injustice for withholding it from any or all men.
Paul illustrates this point by contrasting God’s activity in the lives of two men who were contemporaries of each other, Moses and Pharaoh. To Moses, God exercised mercy, and toward Pharaoh God exercised His justice. God was just in both cases, and interestingly, God used both men to further His purposes. God raised up Moses to be a deliverer of His people and a type of Messiah to come. God raised up54 Pharaoh to display His great power and to proclaim His glory: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Romans 9:17).
Stifler reminds us that, “God’s glory is promoted in the overthrow of a sinner as much as in saving one.”55
To press this point further, the hardening of Pharaoh was an act of grace so far as the Jews were concerned, for it provided the occasion of their release. All Moses had asked for initially was to let the people of Israel go into the wilderness for a time to worship God (cf. Exodus 5:1). The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart occasioned the ten plagues, which more than answered the challenge of Pharaoh, “ Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice?” (Exodus 5:2). More than this, his unbelief brought about the release of the nation from its bondage. This is precisely what the unbelief of Israel is accomplishing today.56
(2) It Isn’t My Fault (vv. 18-23). But doesn’t the case of Pharaoh raise another problem? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that He accomplished His purposes, if God is truly sovereign and His will is inevitable, then how can He blame us for our rebellion? Far worse than the charge often heard, ‘the devil made me do it,’ is the protest found here, ‘God made me do it.’
This question Paul refuses to answer immediately and reserves his response to the charge until the next two chapters. What Paul does attack vigorously is the attitude which occasions such a response. “Do you realize, O man, what you are doing?” “You, have set yourself above God, and have gone far beyond your privileges as a mere creature, to challenge the Creator of the universe!” “You’re completely out of line!”
I am reminded of the Book of Job where Job begins to challenge the wisdom and the justice of God in dealing with him as He had. The final chapters record for us the rebuke of God, the Creator, of a mere creature. “Where were you, Job, when I placed the heavens?” “What part did you have in the creation of the universe?” “What did you contribute to My works?” It is at this point that Job places his hand over his mouth and remains silent.
It is at this point that Paul has figuratively placed his hand over the mouth of the objector, reminded him of who he is, and more important, Who he is objecting to. God is the potter; we are the clay. God is just in disposing of us just as He wills. And we have no right to challenge His sovereignty, but we must submit to it or be crushed by it. We can be either a Moses or a Pharaoh. As a Moses we are the recipients of God’s grace, and we are vessels which God will employ to demonstrate His mercy. If we rebel we will be used as Pharaoh, and by our hardening we will be vessels by which God will reveal His wrath on sin. Either way, God is free to dispose of His creatures, and either way we will bring glory to Him. But, oh, what a difference for us!
I am fascinated by Paul’s reference to the fact that both vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath are made from the same lump. The same lump (Romans 9:21) is not the lump of innocent and deserving individuals, but the same barrel of rotten apples.57 Each of us deserve the wrath of God, but God has delayed His judgment of all in order to reveal His mercy toward some.
Just as God had chosen to bestow His blessings on the nation Israel, now He is blessing the Gentiles. Just as He once selected individual Jews to receive His grace, so He is choosing out some of the Gentiles for blessing as well (Romans 9:23).
The original charge (v. 6) was that the Word of God was somehow failing due to the failure of the nation Israel to turn to her Messiah and her blessings. After correcting a misconception as to the basis for blessing (not physical descent, but faith; not on the basis of man’s will or works, but on the basis of God’s sovereign will) in verses 6-13, and then answering certain objections (verses 14-23), Paul now concludes this section by reminding his readers that both the hardening of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles was foretold in the Old Testament. The point is not that the Scriptures have been frustrated by Israel’s unbelief, but that they have been fulfilled. This Paul proceeds to show by quoting several Old Testament passages.
Salvation of Gentiles Foretold (vv. 24-26). Verse 24 returns the focus to the question at hand, the unbelief of many Jews and the salvation of many Gentiles. God’s choice of vessels of mercy was not intended to come only from the nation Israel, but from the Gentiles as well. The prophet Hosea spoke of this when he wrote: “I will call those who were not my people, ‘My people,’ and her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’ And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ There they shall be called sons of the Living God” (Romans 9:25, 26; Hosea 2:23; 1:10).
Hosea was the prophet who was to marry a harlot. His relationship with his adulterous wife was a picture of Israel’s infidelity to God. Because of the infidelity of Israel, God disowned them, so that they were no longer His people. But God also promised that after their chastening He would once again draw them to Himself and call them His people.
Technically, this passage referred to God’s relationship to Israel. But Paul saw in this passage a principle. This principle was that God was going to restore to Himself a people that was not His own (just as Israel had become). This principle could equally apply to the Gentiles as it could to the adulterous nation Israel.58
A Remnant in Israel Promised (vv. 27-29). In verses 27-29, Paul turns to the prophet Isaiah to show that God’s judgment demanded severe punishment on disobedient Israel, so that the vast majority of the nation would perish. But in this message of punishment was a ray of hope, for God promised to preserve a remnant, and in this remnant rested Israel’s hopes for future blessing.
The context of Isaiah’s prophecy was that of the apostasy of the northern kingdom of Israel and the judgment of God through the Assyrians. Although God’s judgment was devastating (‘quick and thorough,’ v. 28), there was the promise of the preservation of a small remnant, without which Israel’s hopes would have been destroyed.59
Again in this passage, Paul deals with the presumption of the Jews exhibited in the opening verses of this chapter that God was obliged to save all Israel. These verses in Isaiah confirm Paul’s contention that God’s covenant promise never contemplated the salvation of all Israel.
Why were so many Israelites failing to experience the blessing of God? Why were the Gentiles finding this blessing? Because the sovereign God is not obligated to choose on the basis of works or on the basis of ethnic origin. Just as God elected to bless the nation Israel above others, just as God chose Jacob and not Esau, Moses and not Pharaoh, so He has chosen only a remnant of the Israelites at the present time, while He is calling out a people to Himself from the Gentiles as well. God is not unjust in choosing some and rejecting others because it is an issue of grace and mercy, not justice. We dare not question the choices of the sovereign God lest we step far beyond our prerogatives as mere creatures. Even in the Old Testament, the things which are now taking place were predicted in principle.
There is much more at stake in these crucial verses than the defense of some theological doctrine, although that is certainly important. There is at stake the character of God and our proper attitude toward His sovereignty.
We should not leave this chapter without a spirit of wonder and adoration. We dare not focus on the question, “Why not others?,” but should exclaim “Why me!” The wonder of it all is that God chose us by His own free will, and in spite of what we are or will become. What a keynote for worship!
The doctrine of election is a doctrine of grace and of salvation. We should look on the bright side of it, and not endeavor to look on the dark side of it. The great Calvinist, Benjamin B. Warfield, underscored this when he wrote,
When Christ stood at the door of Lazarus’ tomb and cried, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ only Lazarus, of all the dead that lay in the gloom of the grave that day in Palestine, or throughout the world, heard his mighty voice which raises the dead, and came forth. Shall we say that the election of Lazarus to be called forth from the tomb consigned all this immense multitude of the dead to hopeless, physical decay? It left them no doubt in the death in which they were holden and to all that comes out of this death. But it was not it which brought death upon them, or which kept them in its power. When God calls out of the human race, lying dead in their trespasses and sins, some here, some there, some everywhere, a great multitude which no man can number, to raise them by his almighty grace out of their death in sin and bring them to glory, his electing grace is glorified in the salvation it works it has nothing to do with the death of the sinner, but only with the living again of the sinner whom it calls into life. The one and single work of election is salvation.60
Second, we should look at this doctrine of election as one of great comfort for it instructs us that our salvation is the work of God, that our salvation was initiated by an act of God and not by the activity of man. Our salvation is as secure as its foundations, and, my friend, there is no surer foundation for our salvation than the elective will of God. My will can change, but God’s cannot. Therefore, my salvation is as secure and certain as the immutability of God. If He does not change (and so the Scriptures say, James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), then my salvation is secure, for it began with His will and it rests on His immutability.
There should be comfort as well as far as our unbelieving friends and loved ones are concerned. If the salvation of my friends and loves ones depends either on my ability to convince and persuade, or their willingness to receive the gospel, Heaven help us. But if their salvation is in the hands of God, I have every reason for encouragement. First of all, God is able to save. Second, God is desirous to save (1 Timothy 2:4). Third, God loves to answer the prayers of His children. I would much prefer to plead with God for the salvation of the lost, than to rely on myself or on the receptivity of the lost.
I will never forget an experience I had when I was preaching on the East coast several years ago. I went to a certain church to preach and to consider ministering there. Before I went, I warned these Christians that I was a thoroughgoing Calvinist. They said in effect, “That’s okay, some of our best friends are Calvinists.” When I arrived, I was quickly taken to lunch with the leading man in the church movement in that area, and he was a believer only in eternal security—we would call him a one-point Calvinist. He refused to accept man’s total depravity, unconditional election, and so on. When he began to put me through my paces, I turned the argument on him and asked him this question, “Brother, why do you pray for the salvation of the lost? If your doctrine is true, then God has already done all that He can so far as man’s salvation is concerned. He died on the cross to make salvation possible for all who decide to vote for God. For what then do you pray, since God has done all He can and the rest is between you and the lost?”
How wonderful it is to know that God has not only made salvation possible, but that God actually saves men.
Now it is possible that you are thinking to yourself fatalistically, just as the objector in verse 19. If I am not saved, it is really God’s fault and there is nothing I can do about it. And furthermore, there is no sense trying to be a Christian either, because if I am elect I will be saved in spite of myself. God forbid! I must give you enough of a preview of chapter 10 to remind you that the reason you will go to hell is because you have refused to believe in Christ as your Savior. No one has or will ever come to Him for forgiveness of sins and eternal life who will be turned away. Our Lord Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
The apostle Paul wrote in chapter 10, “For whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). If you have never come to trust in Jesus Christ for your eternal forgiveness and salvation, trust in Him just now. We are saved by ‘calling on the name of the Lord,’ by acknowledging our sin and His righteousness in the Person of Jesus Christ. We are saved by trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf, apart from any contribution we could ever hope to make. And, ultimately, we are saved because God in His grace chose to open our hearts to respond to the gospel (Acts 16:14).
Finally, it would seem to me that there is nothing quite so telling about the spiritual condition of the Christian as his response to the sovereignty of God. The reason why so many Christians are repulsed by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is that this is not really the kind of God they want. They want a god of their own making, rather than a God Who is supreme and sovereign.
Ultimately, to reject the sovereignty of God is to express our own depravity and sinfulness. We do not like to think of a God Who is in complete control over us. We want to be the ‘captain of our souls’ and the ‘master of our fate.’ My exhortation to each of us is, ‘let God be God.’ And thank God that He is Who He is, sovereign, holy, immutable, and not subject to the whims of mankind. To God be the glory!
46 “There is very weighty evidence (P. 46, B,D, etc.) for the singular reading ‘the covenant,’ in which case the covenant at Sinai (Ex. xxiv. 8) would be meant. But the plural should probably be preferred (cf. Eph. ii. 12); ‘the covenants’ will then include those made by God with Abraham (Gn. xv. 18, xvii. 4ff.), with Israel in the days of Moses (Ex. xxiv. 8, xxxiv. 10; Dt. xxix. 1ff.) and Joshua (Dt. xxvii. 2ff.; Jos. viii. 30ff., xxiv. 25), and with David (2 Sa. xxiii. 5; Ps. lxxxix. 28); not to mention the new covenant, promised in the first instance to ‘the house of Israel and … the house of Judah’ (Je. xxxi. 31).” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 185.
48 We should not pass by verse 5 without noting the fact that this verse is perhaps the clearest statement from the pen of Paul on the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sanday and Headlam, after considerable discussion, affirm: “in these circumstances with some slight, but only slight, hesitation we adopt the first alternative and translate ‘Of whom is the Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.’” William Sanday, and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1968, reprint), p. 238.
49 It is assumed by this writer that although Paul’s starting point is that of national election, he shortly presses to individual election. This view is supported by many commentators. Murray deals with this question extensively and concludes that the election of which Paul speaks is individual for several reasons: (1) Paul’s use of the terms ‘election’ and ‘purpose’ in other passages is clearly soteriological. (2) Corporate election doesn’t answer the question Paul has raised, only individual election does. (3) In Romans 11:5, 7 the same term ‘election’ is used in contrast with ‘hardening’ and there election is clearly referring to individual salvation. (4) The clause ‘not of works, but of him that calleth’ refers to the effectual calling of the sinner to salvation through the work of Christ. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), Vol. II, pp. 15-20.
Note also this comment by Stifler: “The subject is not one about nations, but about individuals, not one about ethnic supremacy or leadership, but about personal salvation.” James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), p. 164.
50 “The selection then, was not made either on the ground of their character or on the ground of their works. To say that God foresaw the good character and good works of Jacob is to impart an idea that is repugnant to the logic of the statement here made by Paul and contradicted by the subsequent facts. Jacob’s history does not show him to be a better man morally than his brother; his very name indicates his character. … Human merit, present or foreseen, does not enter into God’s choice.” Stifler, p. 161.
51 “We must, therefore, recognize that there is in God a holy hate that cannot be defined in terms of not loving or loving less. Furthermore, we may not tone down the reality or intensity of this hate by speaking of it as ‘anthropopathic’ or by saying that it ‘refers not so much to the emotion as to the effect.’ The case is rather, as in all virtue, that this holy hate in us is patterned after holy hate in God.” Murray, Vol. II, p. 22. These words are a summary of Murray’s excellent argument on this point in pages 21-24.
53 “God’s grace is far wider than anyone could have dared to hope, but just because it is grace, no-one is entitled to it, and no-one can demand that God should give an account of the principles on which He bestows His grace, or that He should bestow it otherwise than in fact He does. Grace in its sovereignty may impose conditions, but it cannot be made subject to them.” F. F. Bruce, p. 191.
54 “In view of the preceding verse (Exod. 9:15), the verse quoted could be understood of the preservation of Pharaoh from being cut off from the earth in that particular instance by the pestilence of boils. But the term that Paul uses here, ‘raise up,’ is one that is used in the Greek Old Testament in the sense of raising up on the scene of history for a particular purpose (cf. Numb. 24:19; II Sam. 12:11; Job 5:11; Hab. 1:6. Zech. 11:16)” Murray, Vol. II, p. 27.
56 “Historically, Pharaoh supplied the occasion for the deliverance of the people; if there had been no ‘Pharaoh of the oppression’ there would have been no ‘Exodus, and the proclamation of the Exodus (in Scripture, and in the Passover service) would never have taken place. Paul’s interpretation of this history is as clear as the history itself, though it involves the transference of imagery from Pharaoh to Israel. In the present time, Israel (like Pharaoh in his) exists for a double purpose, (i) to provide the occasion or context for a divine act of deliverance—that in which men are freed from the law, and thereby from sin and death; (ii) to act so as to cause the publication of God’s act of deliverance through all the world—which took place precisely because Israel rejected the Gospel (xi. 11, 15, 19, 25). Thus, as Pharaoh’s plans were overruled to God’s ends, so Israel’s self-will is to be overruled to God’s ends; and his ends are merciful.” C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York, Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 186-187.
58 “There might appear to be a discrepancy between the purport and reference of these passages in the prophecy and as applied by Paul. In Hosea they refer to the tribes of Israel and not to the Gentile nations. There should be no difficulty. Paul recognized that the rejection and restoration of Israel of which Hosea spoke have their parallel in the exclusion of the Gentiles from God’s covenant favour and then their reception into that favour.” Murray, Vol. II, p. 38.
59 “In all cases, as Philippi says, ‘the fundamental thought is still this, that in the destruction of Israel and the salvation merely of a holy remnant, a divine judicial punishment is carried out.’ Here again Paul finds in escape from the Assyrian conquest an example of God’s government of Israel as it applies to the actual situation with which he is dealing.” Murray, Vol. II, p. 40.
C. H. Spurgeon was once asked if he could reconcile the two truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. “I wouldn’t try,” he replied, “I never reconcile friends.”
I am certain that many of you would desire me to attempt to relieve the tension which seems to exist between these two great doctrinal truths. I must confess that I spent some agonizing hours in my study this week trying to arrive at some penetrating new analysis of this perplexing problem which would resolve our difficulties, but no such revelations materialized.
What does impress me about the apostle Paul is that he, like Spurgeon, never attempts to reconcile the two. If I were writing Romans knowing that sovereignty and human responsibility posed such intellectual problems, I would have kept the two doctrines as far apart as possible, hoping that no one would sense their apparent incompatibility. But instead, Paul taught divine sovereignty in chapter 9 and human responsibility in chapter 10 without any word of explanation in between. In chapter 9, Paul explained the unbelief of many Israelites on the basis that God had not chosen them. In chapter 10, Paul proceeds to add that they did not choose God. Whatever difficulties it may create, Paul makes no effort to disarm the problem by defending one truth at the expense of the other, and neither, I must add, should we.
There is no abrupt shift from chapter 9 to chapter 10, for the argument of divine sovereignty flows easily into that of human responsibility. Verses 30-33 serve as the transition between Paul’s defense of divine sovereignty and his declaration of human responsibility.
How to be a Christian without being religious (v. 30). Verse 30 sums up the case so far as the Gentiles are concerned. Though they were not seeking righteousness, they obtained it by faith. Since the Gentiles were pagans and knew they had nothing to commend them before a righteous and holy God, they accepted God’s provision of righteousness in the Person and work of Jesus Christ by faith.
How to be religious without being a Christian (v. 31). On the contrary, Israel, who sought after righteousness, failed to arrive at it because they pursued the right goal through the wrong means. They tried to earn righteousness by the works of the Law.
The central issue: faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 32-33). The ingredient missing from Israel’s religion was faith. They had substituted their works instead, and this was unacceptable before God.
The whole issue came to a head in the Person of Jesus Christ. He was the end of the Law—both its fulfillment and its termination (cf. Col. 2:14)—for every believer. The Jews chose to retain the Law and to reject their Messiah. Christ is either a stone to occasion stumbling or a foundation upon which to rest. He will be one or the other to every individual. This is what Isaiah the prophet wrote in 8:14 and 28:16:61 “just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed” (Romans 9:33).
Paul begins his explanation of Israel’s failure as he did in chapter 9, with an expression of his deep and abiding love for his people. He is a ‘beloved enemy.’
Sometimes we hear the expression ‘Today has been canceled due to lack of interest.’ The problem with Israel was not in a lack of enthusiasm or effort. If sincerity and diligence were the way to heaven, Israel would be in first place, with many of the cults and “ism’s” of our day running a close second. Israel had plenty of zeal but it was misdirected due to a lack of knowledge: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
As we shall see later, this lack of knowledge was not due to a lack of revelation or innocent ignorance on the part of Israel. It was a willful and obstinate rejection of the truth as taught in the Old Testament and as further disclosed by our Lord Jesus Christ. It was the kind of ignorance which says, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up.” In seeking to earn their own righteousness, they stubbornly refused to submit to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Christ is, indeed, the end of the Law (v. 4) to all who believe, but the Jews preferred their interpretation of the Law to its true meaning and fulfillment.
Concerning the matter of eternal salvation, we know that there are not two ways to obtain it, but only one. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). But in the mind of the Jews there were two ways, each in competition with the other—the way of works (law-keeping) and the way of faith (Paul’s gospel). These two ‘ways’ are contrasted in verses 5-13.
The way of works is considered first in verse 5: “For Moses writes that the one who practices the righteousness which is based on Law shall live by that righteousness.” Although Paul’s use of the Old Testament passages in these verses is difficult to explain,62 his point is clear. The way of works maintains that life is obtained through the obedience of the Law. “How do I get to heaven?” we ask the devout (and unbelieving) Jew. “Keep the Law,” he replies.
But the way of faith has a far different answer:
“But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching (Romans 10:6-8).
The way of works wrongly supposes that man must initiate salvation by prompting God to act in his behalf. This is the basis for virtually all pagan religion. Often the gods are passive and must be persuaded to act. We think of the contest between Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. These prophets cut themselves to get the attention of their gods.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not so. We need do nothing at all to prompt God to save us, for it is God Who has initiated and accomplished our salvation. All we must do is to receive what God has offered in the gospel. We need not ascend into heaven as though we must solicit God’s help, for God has come to our aid by means of the incarnation. Nor do we have to ascend into the abyss to bring about our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. He has done this by His own power and on His own initiative.
Paul’s reference to bringing Christ down from heaven is not without very pointed application for these Jews who trusted in a Law-keeping righteousness, believed that if the nation Israel could keep the whole Law for one day, the Messiah would come. They really believed it was their obedience to the Law which would prompt Messiah to come to their aid.
Our salvation is not remote and removed and in need of our striving and effort. Rather it is before our very eyes. It is the salvation available in the message of the gospel and achieved on the cross of Calvary. It is, in the words of Moses, in our mouths and in our heart.
And what is the message of the gospel? “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). In this ninth verse, we learn several truths about the gospel. First, we see that it involves belief. The content of that belief is summarized by two expressions: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘God hath raised Him from the dead.’ The lordship of Jesus encapsulizes the fact that Jesus is Who He claimed to be, the Son of God (deity), the Son of man (humanity), Israel’s Messiah, sovereign, infinite, omnipotent God. In the expression ‘God hath raised Him from the dead,’ we are reminded not only of the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Christ for sinners, but also of His physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of our Lord from the dead was the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’ (Matthew 12:39-40), our Lord’s final authoritative vindication of all His claims.
Further, we learn that salvation involves both belief and confession, for salvation is neither head knowledge, nor lip service. We must believe God has raised Christ from the dead and we must confess Jesus as Lord. These should not be viewed as separate and opposing conditions for salvation, but as two elements of salvation. As James said, faith without works is no real saving faith, so Paul asserts that belief and confession go hand in hand. We should not forget, either, that the reason for the emphasis upon belief and confession is to be related to the quotation from Deuteronomy 30:14 where both the mouth and the heart are mentioned. With our heart we believe; with our mouth we confess; two dimensions of the same truth.
Verses 11 through 13 highlight another characteristic of the gospel of salvation by faith—it is universal in scope. The Jews trusted in salvation by works, in a righteousness attained by works. These were not just any good works, but the works demanded by the Law. Since Israel was the recipient of the Law and its custodian, they felt that only Israelites could thus be saved even by works. At the very least, Gentiles could be saved only by converting to Judaism and submitting entirely to the ordinances of the Law.
If the true gospel is the message of salvation by faith in the work of Christ in the sinner’s stead and without Law-keeping, then salvation is available to Jews and Gentiles alike. Gentiles do not need to enter heaven’s glory through the gate of Judaism. Instead, it is the Jews who must give up their ‘gate’ of works and enter through the ‘wicket gate’ of faith, to use the terminology of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The offer of the gospel is a universal one, proclaiming salvation to all who will believe, by faith, in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection for the sinner: “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him” (Romans 10:11, 12).
Now I want this to be very clear. Although Paul has said that only those will be saved whom God has chosen in election (Romans 9:15, 18, 21-23), nevertheless, the offer of the gospel is a universal one: “For whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13, Joel 2:32). This quotation from Joel is even more emphatic in the original text, for it should read, “For all whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Paul has said that even though God chooses those upon whom He will bestow the gift of salvation (chapter 9), men are responsible for their rejection of the gospel. So now we must go one step further. If the gospel is truly universal in scope, including both Jews and Gentiles, then it should be proclaimed universally. God is sovereign in the initiation and accomplishment of salvation, but man is responsible for its proclamation:
How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:14, 15).
In these two verses, we see both the duty and the beauty of those who herald the gospel. Men cannot believe in what they have not heard, and men cannot hear without a proclaimer. I am avoiding the word preacher simply because we have a ‘reversed collar’ stereotype of this word. Paul is speaking about anyone who shares the gospel, not just a ‘clergyman.’
It is true that God has determined the ‘ends,’ so to speak. He has determined, sovereignly and without any obligation to anyone, the salvation of some. But this does not allow us to be slack in the proclamation of the gospel. People will not be saved without a human instrument. Did you get that? Men and women will not be saved apart from human effort. Why? Because God has decreed it thus. God is sovereign not only in decreeing the ends, but also in determining the means to those ends. And, my Christian friend, you and I, according to these verses, are God’s means to the salvation of men and women. Could God have saved men in some other way? Of course! But He didn’t purpose to do so. The implication of a universal scope for the gospel is a universal proclamation. Faith comes through hearing the proclaimed word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This is a subtle defense for Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles.
In verses 16-21, our attention is again brought to focus upon the issue at hand—Israel’s unbelief. Although the gospel is universally preached, it is not universally accepted. This is especially evident in the present age with respect to the Jews: “However, they did not all heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” (Romans 10:16). So we are brought face to face with the reality of Israel’s unbelief. Is there not some reason, even some excuse, which could be offered in Israel’s defense? Two are suggested, and both are quickly dispensed with.
Objection 1: Did Israel really hear the good news? This is the question raised in verse 16: “But I say, surely they have never heard, have they?” Paul replies without hesitation or qualification, “Indeed they have” and using the language of Psalm 19 insists that the gospel has been thoroughly proclaimed to Israel. No Jew could claim ignorance. The gospel was too clearly heralded in the Old Testament and very clearly proclaimed in their own day.
Objection 2: Did Israel really know that salvation by faith would be believed by Gentiles and rejected by Israel? (Romans 10:19-20). Perhaps, although the gospel was made clear, it was not sufficiently evident that this gospel would be gladly received by Gentiles and violently rejected by Jews. “No such luck,” says Paul. This, too, was easily discerned from the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Moses wrote, “I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, By a nation without understanding will I anger you” (Deuteronomy 32:21, Romans 10:19).
The Jews prided themselves in their racial purity, but even a ‘mongrel nation’ such as the Gentiles had been prophesied to receive the gospel. The Jews pleaded a misunderstanding, but even a senseless people like the Gentiles were able to grasp the message. Israel claimed to ‘miss the boat’ while seeking God, but the Gentiles found salvation without even looking (Romans 10:20).
The sum and substance (v. 21). Israel is without excuse for her unbelief. It is not so much a matter of ignorance, but of obstinance. It is not so much a matter of misunderstanding, but of disobedience. Here is Israel’s real problem, obstinance and disobedience.
And it is just here, my friend, that our problem is to be found. Many of us may be thought to be very religious, but it is not religion that takes men to heaven. I have said at various times that hell will be populated with religious people.63 Religion is man’s effort to reach God, but the gospel message is that God has come down to earth and accomplished salvation for those who believe.
Often we are told that various individuals are so earnest and sincere in their beliefs, but it is not sincerity that saves, it is only Christ. If zeal and enthusiasm were the path to heaven, many cultists would be far ahead of the saints, but zeal without Biblical knowledge is spiritual suicide.
This passage reminds us of the great danger intrinsic to being a privileged people. Many of those things which we count as privileges can be a millstone about our necks. Israel mistook her privileges to be an indication that God saved men on the basis of family background. There may be someone hearing my words this morning who has grown up in a Christian home, and has somehow assumed their eternal salvation is assured because of their Christian background. These privileges never save, but they do spell out greater judgment, for you have more knowledge about the salvation of God. And on the basis of what you have been privileged to know, you will be judged (cf. Luke 12:47-48).
This text confronts us with what the Bible consistently maintains as the reason for men spending eternity in Hell. It is not primarily because God did not choose them (which is the point of Romans 9), but because they did not choose God. Hell is what we deserve.64 God condemns men to Hell because they have chosen to serve Satan rather than the sovereign God, they have chosen sin over righteousness, they have chosen to get to heaven on their terms, rather than on God’s. Condemnation is always traced to unbelief:
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18).
And you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life (John 5:40).
Finally, this passage reminds us that even though God has determined those who will be saved, we are responsible to proclaim the message of the gospel to all men. For those who disbelieve, our proclamation will render them without excuse. And in any case, God is always glorified by the proclamation of the gospel, for by it the righteousness of God is revealed (Romans 1:17).
61 When Isaiah wrote these words, Jerusalem was under seige by Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel. Isaiah’s message was to trust in Yahweh for salvation and not to try and accomplish their release by the making of alliances with other heathen nations. Yahweh was the rock upon which Jerusalem should place her confidence and not on foreign powers, lest this rock be a stone of stumbling for the Jews.
63 “He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious.” C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York, N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 30.
64 “But what does it mean to lose our souls? To answer this question, Jesus uses His own solemn imagery ‘Gehenna’ (‘hell’ in Mark 9:47 and ten other gospel texts), the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burned; the ‘worm’ that ‘dieth not’ (Mark 9:47), an image, it seems, for the endless dissolution of the personality by a condemning conscience; ‘fire’ for the agnonizing awareness of God’s displeasure; ‘outer darkness’ for knowledge of the loss, not merely of God, but of all good, and everything that made life seem worth living; ‘gnashing of teeth’ for self-condemnation and self-loathing. These things are, no doubt, unimaginably dreadful, though those who have been convicted of sin know a little of their nature. But they are not arbitrary inflictions; they represent, rather, a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications; nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty.
“We need, therefore, to remember that the key to interpreting the many biblical passages, often highly figurative, which picture the divine King and Judge as active against men in wrath and vengeance, is to realise that what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow. This appears in the story of God’s first act of wrath towards man, in Genesis 3, where we learn that Adam had already chosen to hide from God, and keep clear of His presence, before ever God drove him from the garden; and the same principle applies throughout the Bible.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 138-139.
J. I. Packer, in his significant recent book, Knowing God, condemns the current trend toward what he calls a ‘Santa Claus Theology.’65 This theology lays great emphasis on the goodness and love of God, but refuses to come to grips with His holiness, severity, and judgment. Commonly stated, this ‘Santa Claus Theology’ goes something like this: “I believe in a God of love and not in a God of hate and anger. The kind of God I worship would never allow anyone to spend eternity in hell.”
The Achilles’ heel of a ‘Santa Claus Theology’ is the fact of suffering and evil.66 If God is a God of love, a God who only bestows good and pleasant gifts, then what is the source of all the evil and tragedy and suffering on the face of the earth? If God is all good, then He must not also be all powerful or evil could not exist.
A couple of years ago, I attended the funeral of a young wife and mother of two children who had died a tragic death from cancer. The liberal minister who officiated at the funeral made this tragic statement: “I am convinced that the death of this young woman was not the will of God.” I must say I wanted to stand up and shout. So God was all love, therefore, He did not will for this woman to die. But, then, God was not all powerful or she would not have died, for a God who is all powerful accomplishes what He wills.
The God whom Paul served and of whom he wrote is described in the eleventh chapter of Romans as a God characterized both by His goodness and His severity. “Behold then the kindness and severity of God …” (Romans 11:22a). The specific issue at hand is the kindness and severity of God with regard to Israel and the Gentiles. At the present time, God is displaying His kindness to the Gentiles, while He concentrates His severity upon the Jews. The question underlying chapters 9-11 is “Why?” Why are the vast majority of the Jews failing to experience God’s promised blessings while many Gentiles are coming to faith in Israel’s Messiah and abounding in His kindness?
In Romans 9, Paul contended that it was not the word of God that had failed because God never promised blessing on the basis of works or physical descent, but on the basis of mercy, displayed on the basis of God’s sovereign and independent choice. In short, those Israelites who failed, failed because God didn’t choose to bestow mercy on them. In Romans 10, Paul added that correspondingly Israel rejected God. They refused the salvation offered by our Lord and His apostles.
In Romans 11, the curtain is removed so that we may behold the entire scene. God has temporarily hardened the Jews so that salvation may come to the Gentiles even as the Scriptures had stated. The salvation of Gentiles will provoke Israelites so that they will eventually turn to God. Israel’s failure is neither total (there is a faithful remnant) nor permanent. In God’s good time, Israel will be restored to a place of national prominence and blessing.
Romans 9 and 10 have explained to us why many Jews have failed to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. God has not chosen them, and they have not chosen Him. This we can live with. God had never purposed or promised to save every individual offspring of Abraham. But God had made promises concerning the nation Israel as a whole. What of these promises? Were they not to be honored? Were God’s dealings with the nation Israel throughout their history an exercise in futility? Are we to conclude, as some theologians teach, that God has no program for Israel as a nation, distinct from the church? This is the question of verse 1: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?”
The positive side of the answer to this question is recorded in verses 1-6. In verses 1-4 we are given three reasons why God has not forsaken Israel as a nation.
The Apostle Paul is a believing Jew (v. 1). Paul replies in astonishment, “May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1b). As a devout Jew, Paul could never delight in such a conclusion. Indeed, Paul himself was a forceful argument against any claim that God had rejected the nation Israel. Paul was a believing Jew.67 More than this, Paul in his pre-conversion days could make Bonnie and Clyde look like Jack and Jill. Paul had adamantly rejected the gospel and was guilty not only of persecution, but of shedding the blood of innocent saints.68 Paul could refer to himself in 1 Timothy 1:15 as ‘chief of sinners.’ If a rebel like Paul could be made to do a spiritual about-face, surely there is hope for Israel.
Israel has hope for a bright future because God foreordained this nation to privileges and blessings which cannot be revoked (v. 2). “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Romans 11:2a). This foreknowledge is that of God’s free choice in eternity past to create a nation on which He would bestow special privileges. It should be evident in this context that God’s foreknowledge is here far more than ‘knowledge of,’ but rather ‘prior choice of.’ Israel can be assured of future blessing because of God’s calling, and His calling and election are ‘irrevocable’ (verse 29).
Israel’s present situation can be likened to that in Elijah’s day (vv. 2b-6). Does it seem as though all Israel has forsaken God? So it seemed in the days of Elijah. Elijah was plagued by the ‘Lone Ranger Syndrome’: I alone am left. Paul might be tempted in this same direction, but for a reminder of what God told Elijah, “You may think you’re the Lone Ranger, but I have kept for Myself a faithful remnant of 7,000 who have not followed after Baal” (Romans 11:4, my paraphrase). God has always kindled the fires of Israel’s hope by maintaining a faithful remnant, through whom He can fulfill His promises. This is a remnant according to divine election (verse 5) and not according to works, for works and grace are incompatible with each other (verse 6).
And what of the rest? (vv. 7-10). Summing up the matter in verses 7-10, Paul says that Israel failed to arrive at that for which they sought. Those who were chosen obtained salvation, and the rest were hardened. This hardening was nothing new and unusual, but fully in keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures.
How can Israel fail to see what is so obvious? Simple; God has judicially blinded them, just as Isaiah described of his own day (verse 8). The same was true in Paul’s time, and, for that matter, in ours69 as well. Of this stumbling, David also wrote in the Psalms (verses 9 and 10). The Israelites had always been a stiff-necked and rebellious people (cf. Acts 7:51). After years of rebellion, God judicially blinded them so that it was impossible to turn and believe in Christ as their Messiah. No man, unaided by the Holy Spirit, can see God, but God has determined for the present to convert only a handful of the Jews.
We can find consolation in the fact of a small remnant of believing Jews who have come to faith in Christ, but is there no hope for the nation as a whole? Is Israel’s ailment terminal? “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall did they?” (Romans 11:11a) At long last with this question the whole counsel of God is placed before our eyes so far as the hardening of the Jews and the salvation of the Gentiles is concerned. In verses 11-15 we see the two-fold purpose of God as it relates to Jewish unbelief and Gentile conversion. In verses 16-24, we Gentiles are given a word of warning against pride and arrogance. Verses 25-32 contain the clearest possible promise of Israel’s national restoration.
Israel’s loss is the Gentile’s gain (vv. 11-15). The hardening of Israel was not a capricious act on God’s part. From eternity past, it was the will of God that through the disobedience and unbelief of Israel the Gentiles would come to faith in God. “But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles …” (Romans 11:11b).
But God’s purpose extends beyond Gentile conversion. The conversion of Gentiles is a back-handed blessing for the Jews in that it is intended to provoke them to jealousy. This was something the Jews of Paul’s day did not yet appreciate. They violently resisted Paul’s offering of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 22:21, 22). But to Paul preaching to the Gentiles had a double intent. First of all it resulted in the salvation of Gentiles. Second, it furthered God’s purpose of provoking the Jews to jealousy. In this way, the offering of the gospel to Gentiles was good for both Gentiles and Jews alike.
Presently, the Gentiles have much to gain by Israel’s unbelief. Ultimately, Israel has much to gain by Gentile belief. There is no need, however, for the Gentiles to dread the time when God once again restores the nation Israel to a place of faith, blessing and prominence. Paul’s argument in verses 12 and 15 is from the lesser to the greater. God had promised Abram that He would bless the entire world through his offspring (Genesis 12:3). True, God would bless Israel, but He would also bless the world through Israel. God blessed the Gentiles with salvation through the unbelief of the Jews. If the Gentiles could be blessed by the Jews due to their unbelief, imagine the blessing that will come through their faith and obedience! Surely, the Gentiles should not dread the day of God’s blessing on Israel, but should await it with eager anticipation.
A lesson to be learned by the Gentiles: A word of warning (vv. 16-24). Throughout verses 16-24, there is clearly implied a hope for the national restoration of Israel. The hardening of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles is compared to the process of grafting a branch into the trunk of a tree. Normally, grafting is done to make a useless tree productive. An old tree that fails to produce is pruned back so that the vitality of the stock is not wasted on unproductive limbs. Then a hearty, productive limb is grafted into the stock to produce good fruit. I have watched my father do this with useless apple trees, and I have eaten the excellent apples that have been produced by the grafted limbs.
But it is easy to see that this is not at all what Paul is describing. The stock of the tree is Israel; not faithless unbelieving Jews, but the patriarchs to whom God had made His promises, men who had trusted in God. These holy men assured the future of Israel as a holy nation (verse 16). So the tree is not itself unfruitful. The unfruitful branches, which represent unbelieving Jews, have been pruned away. Those branches which are grafted into the stock represent the Gentiles. But rather than being highly desirable and highly productive branches they are the branches of a wild olive tree (verse 24).
Do you see the difference between the normal grafting process and that which God has performed with His rich olive tree (the nation Israel) and the undesirable Gentile branches? God has done that which is highly unnatural.70 Rather than grafting good branches into a worthless stock, He has grafted worthless branches into a good stock.
It is precisely here that we can see Paul’s point. For in this analogy we find a word of encouragement and hope for the Jews, and a word of warning for the Gentiles. If God can graft wild olive branches into a cultivated olive tree, a process which is unnatural, surely He can much more easily graft in cultivated branches into a cultivated tree. If God can include Gentiles in the blessings originally promised to the Jews, how much more so can He restore Jews to these blessings? Here, then, is the word of hope for the Jews.
But on the other hand, there is a word of warning for the Gentiles. Just as the Jews became proud and arrogant about the blessings God had given them as a nation, so the Gentiles might foster such a spirit of arrogance. Such arrogance is based upon ignorance of the facts.71 The root sustains the branch, and not the branch the root (verse 18). The Gentiles are, so to speak, living off of the blessings of Israel as a kind of parasite, and there is no room for pride here. The limbs become a part of the tree by faith and dependence upon the stock. There is no basis for boasting, for our life and blessings come from God and not by works.
We must remember also that it was this very Jewish attitude of pride and arrogance toward their privileges which caused their severance from God’s blessing. If God removed the natural branches for such pride, surely He will not tolerate it in His grafted branches. They, too, can be removed. The blessing of God on the Gentiles should lead us to grateful praise and humility. The fall of Israel should prompt us to sorrow and godly fear.
So there is in this grafting analogy a word of hope for the Jews and a word of warning for the Gentiles. God deals with both on the same basis. Men are grafted in on the basis of faith and are removed on the basis of rebellion, sin and unbelief.
Full assurance of Israel’s recovery (vv. 25-32). Israel’s full and final recovery has surely been implied in the preceding verses, but lest there be any doubt that God is going to restore Israel to a place of prominence and blessing in fulfillment of His covenants with the patriarchs, the final recovery of Israel is clearly established in verses 25-32. “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
The failure of the nation Israel at present is only partial, for there is a faithful remnant of Jewish saints. But more than this, the failure of Israel is only temporary, for when the fulness of the Gentiles has come in God will once again cause His wayward nation to return to Him. He will remove their sins and will restore then to privileges and blessing (verses 26, 27).
The expression, ‘until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in’ is a difficult one which has created much discussion by the commentators.72 Although the precise meaning of the expression may be in doubt, the argument of Paul is crystal clear. God has decreed a dispensation in which the Jews are hardened and the blessings of the Jews are being poured out on the Gentiles. The Gentiles are having their day of salvation and blessing due to Israel’s unbelief. But the day of the Gentile will come to an end and Israel’s day is soon coming. The fulness of the Gentiles refers to that time when the day of the Gentiles ends and the restoration of Israel begins.
When Paul writes in verse 26 that “all Israel will be saved,” he does not mean that every individual Israelite will be saved, but that the nation in general will turn to God in faith and obedience.73 Although the Jews are at present the ‘enemies of the gospel,’ their hope lies in the fact that by virtue of their national election to prominence and blessing, they are ‘the beloved of God for the sake of the fathers.’ Israel’s national future is not conditioned by their faithfulness to God but is based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenants made with their forefathers. “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28, 29). Here is the key to Israel’s future as a nation;74 it is God’s faithfulness to His Word, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
God elected a nation to be the recipients of certain privileges and blessings through the offspring of Abraham. This elect nation was to bring blessing to all nations. The specific promises and blessings were stated and reiterated to the patriarchs. The promise of Israel’s hardening, chastening, and future restoration was made through the prophets. Israel’s future is as certain as the reliability of God, and His promises are irrevocable. There is no greater security than this!
Look back with me for a moment to review what God is doing by means of Israel’s hardening. He is giving the Gentiles the opportunity to cash in on the blessing of salvation and on the riches of God’s blessings to Israel. By the turning of the Gentiles to Christ, God is wooing unfaithful Israel to Himself. And in the case of both the Jews and the Gentiles, He has brought both to disobedience in order to bestow mercy upon them (verses 31 and 32).75
There is only one response appropriate to what Paul has taught us in chapters 9-11. It is not accusation, but acclamation. We cannot, we dare not, challenge the sovereignty of God. We must bow before it. The sovereignty of God is neatly summed up for us in verse 36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory, forever. Amen.” God is the source of all things. All things originate from His eternal decree. God is the efficient cause of all things. He is the One Who brings His will to pass. God is the goal of all things. He is the One for Whose benefit all things take place. We, like all creation, are here for God’s glory.
Our response to the sovereignty of God as expressed in history through the partial and temporary rejection of Israel and the salvation of Gentiles should be one of wonder and praise at the wisdom of the One Who has willed it so. Further, it should impress upon us our incapability and inadequacy to challenge the working and the will of God in the affairs of men. Could we ever advise a God like ours? Does He need our counsel or our approval? Let us bow, with Paul, in speechless praise, to the sovereign God Who does all things well.
First of all we should be reminded of the sovereignty of God, and of our proper response of praise and wonder and worship at the wisdom of God and at the mercy of God. These two terms, wisdom and mercy, should be the central themes of our thought as we study Romans 9-11.
Second, we should view chapters 9-11 as a beautiful illustration of Romans 8:28. God does cause all things to work together for the good of the elect and the glory of God. Jewish unbelief has prompted Gentile evangelism; and this Gentile evangelism will provoke the Jews to jealousy. Those things which ‘appear’ to be tragic and catastrophic are but a part of a much larger picture, which contribute to the accomplishment of God’s holy and perfect will, a will which for the Christian is always good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). Whenever we find ourselves in circumstances that appear to be counter-productive to our spiritual advancement, we must assume that our situation is like that of Israel described in Romans 9-11. That God is at work in a way which we could never have devised to promote God’s glory and our good.
Third, this passage should remind us of the absolute security of the individual believer. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Israel erred in supposing that God’s election of the nation as a whole implied His election of every physical descendant of Abraham. Paul showed such thinking to be spurious in chapter 9. Individual election is based not upon man’s ethnic origins, nor on his earthly works, but on the free and sovereign choice of God.
But God’s choice of Israel as the nation through whom He would bless the world and on whom He would bestow particular privileges and blessings was irrevocable. God did elect the nation Israel and He will stand by it. This is the hope of Israel.
But what applies to every Christian is the fact that we are individually the elect of God, and that His promises to us are as certain of realization in our lives as God is reliable. If God will keep His promises to faithless and unbelieving Israel, He will be sure to keep us in His love as well.
Finally, we must beware of adopting a ‘Santa Claus Theology.’ We cannot rightly reflect the character of God by only focusing upon His goodness apart from His severity. As Paul has written, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22a).
My unsaved friend, just as I can assure the Christian of ‘the absolute certainty of realizing God’s promises and blessings, I must ask you to contemplate the rebellion of unbelieving Israel and the consequences which unbelief brings. God’s blessings flow through faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. God’s severity is expressed through those who reject the righteousness of Christ and attempt to establish their own standing before God on the basis of works. Behold, the goodness and severity of God.
66 “This was inevitable, for it is not possible to see the good-will of a heavenly Santa Claus in heartbreaking and destructive things like cruelty, or marital infidelity, or death on the road, or lung cancer. The only way to save the liberal view of God is to dissociate Him from those things, and to deny that He has any direct relation to them or control over them; in other words, to deny His omnipotence and lordship over His world. Liberal theologians took this course fifty years ago, and the man in the street takes it today. Thus he is left with a kind God who means well, but cannot always insulate His children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, by an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm men in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life.” Packer, p.145.
67 “The appeal to his own salvation would be of marked relevance because of his previous adamant opposition to the gospel (cf. Gal. 1:13, 14; I Tim. 1:13-15). The unbelief of Israel (cf. 10:21) had been exemplified in no one more than in Saul of Tarsus. The mercy he received is proof that God’s mercy had not forsaken Israel. On this view, ‘of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin’ would serve to accentuate his identity as truly one of that race with which he is now concerned.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), Vol. II, p. 66.
69 “The image is that of men feasting in careless security, and overtaken by their enemies, owing to the very prosperity which ought to be their strength. So to the Jews that Law and those Scriptures wherein they trusted are to become the very cause of their fall and the snare or hunting-net in which they are caught.” William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1966, reprint), p. 315.
70 “St. Paul is here describing a wholly unnatural process. Grafts must necessarily be of branches from a cultivated olive inserted into a wild stock, the reverse process being one which would be valueless and is never performed. But the whole strength of St. Paul’s argument depends upon the process being an unnatural one (cf. verse 24, kai para fusin enekentrisqh"); it is beside the point therefore to quote passages from classical writers, which, even if they seem to support St. Paul’s language, describe a process which can never be actually used.” Ibid., p. 328.
71 “From this simile St. Paul draws two lessons. (1) The first is to a certain extent incidental. It is a warning to the heathen against undue exaltation and arrogance. By an entirely unnatural process they have been grafted into the tree. Any virtue that they may have comes by no merit of their own, but by the virtue of the stock to which they belong; and moreover at any moment they may be cut off. It will be a less violent process to cut off branches not in any way belonging to the tree, than it was to cut off the original branches. But (2)—and this is the more important result to be gained from the simile, as it is summed up in verse 24—if God has had the power against all nature to graft in branches from a wild olive and enable them to bear fruit, how much more easily will He be able to restore to their original place the branches which have been cut off.
“St. Paul thus deduces from his simile consolation for Israel, but incidentally also a warning to the Gentile members of the Church—a warning made necessary by the great importance ascribed to them in in verse 11f. Israel had been rejected for their sake.” Ibid., p. 327. I would agree with this statement by Sanday and Headlam with the exception. that the warning for the Gentiles is Paul’s primary thrust and that the consolation for Israel is incidental. This section is specifically addressed to the Gentiles (cf. verse 13).
72 Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957) p. 223; James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 195-196; Sanday and Headlam, p. 335; Murray, Vol. II, pp. 93-96.
73 “In what sense does Paul mean ‘all Israel’? ‘Israel as a whole’ or ‘each individual Israelite’? There is an interesting parallel to Paul’s words in Sanhedrin, x. 1: All Israelites have a share in the world to come. This statement certainly does not refer to each several Israelite, for it proceeds to enumerate a long list of exceptions: from ‘all Israel’ must be subtracted all Sadducees, heretics, magicians, the licentious, and many more. It means that Israel as a whole is destined for eternal life in the age to come. This, of course, does not prove that Paul’s meaning was the same; but when his two statements, about Gentiles and Jews, are taken together, it seems probable that he is thinking in representative terms (see on the rest of this paragraph, and on xv. 19); first the remnant of Israel, then Gentiles, finally Israel as a whole.” Barrett, pp. 223-224.
74 It is almost incredible that the renowned scholar F. F. Bruce could make this statement: “One further point: in all that Paul says about the restoration of Israel to God, he says nothing about the restoration of an earthly Davidic kingdom, nothing about national reinstatement in the land of Israel. What he envisaged for his people was something infinitely better.” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 221. Clearly, Paul is speaking of Israel’s national recovery, so that God’s promises to the patriarchs will be fulfilled literally through the nation Israel and not through the church.
75 “That is, God has brought men into a position which merits nothing but his wrath in order that his relations with them may be marked by nothing but mercy. God’s rejections, punishments, and abandonments (i. 24, 26, 28) are rightly understood as the foil of his mercy. Only sinners can be the objects of his mercy, and only those who know that they are sinners can know that they are loved. The righteous ‘need no repentance’ (Luke xv. 7) and cannot know what it is to be forgiven. Every man must be damned if he is to be justified.” Barrett, p. 227.
While he was president of Princeton Seminary, Dr. John Mackay was heard to say, “Commitment without reflection is fanaticism in action. But reflection without commitment is the paralysis of all action.”76
These two extremes have always threatened the ongoing ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. There are those who are content to learn doctrine but sense no urgency to put what they know into practice. On the other hand, there are the pragmatists who want to know only what seems to work. They are too busy to reflect upon the principles which underlie their activity. They are something like the young undergraduate from Melbourne, Australia, who was attending a conference in Sweden. When this student learned that a student protest had begun at his own university, he wrung his hands in dismay. “I wish I were back home,” he cried. “I’d have been in it. What’s it all about?”77
There are many Christians today who are up to their necks in activity and ministry, but who unfortunately have little idea what it’s all about. There are some brethren who would encourage us to get away from cold and sterile doctrine and saturate ourselves with experience. There are those Christians who are sincerely and rightly concerned with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden of the world, but they have given little or no thought to some basic issues such as the biblical principles relative to cooperation and affiliation with apostolic denominations and organizations in meeting their needs.
As we approach Romans 12, we see that Paul avoids both these extremes. He avoids the extreme of reflection without commitment by challenging every Christian to a life of service. He avoids the danger of activity without reflection by instructing us that the Christian experience is the outgrowth of a transformed mind, a thought-process molded not by the world, but by the Word of God.
Romans 12 begins the last major section of this great epistle. In chapters 1-3a, Paul began by demonstrating every man’s need of a righteousness greater than he can establish by his own works. In chapters 3b-5, Paul proclaims that a God-kind of righteousness has been provided in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. This is a righteousness acceptable to God and available to all men on the basis of faith, and not works. Chapters 6-8 instruct us concerning the necessity of sanctification. Although sanctification is positionally necessary (chapter 6), it is humanly impossible (chapter 7). The solution is to be found in the provision of the Third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit (chapter 8).
In chapters 9-11, Paul has turned his attention to a haunting question, the explanation of Israel’s failure in the light of God’s Old Testament covenant with Abraham and all of the promises of blessing upon Israel. In chapter 9, Paul reminds us that God never promised blessings for every physical descendant of Abraham and that God’s blessings were not based upon national origin or upon works, but on the sovereign choice of God in election. In chapter 10, Israel’s failure is related to her unbelief. She rejected the salvation offered to her by her Messiah, Jesus Christ. In chapter 11 we are comforted by the fact that Israel’s present rejection is neither total (there is a faithful remnant) nor permanent (her restoration follows the ‘times of the Gentiles’). God has used Israel’s rejection to bring Gentiles to salvation, and He will use Gentile belief to bring Jews to faith. So God’s purposes in history are being accomplished in a way totally unexpected and beyond our highest expectations.
Chapter 11 ends with a paean of praise to the wisdom and mercy of our God. But words alone are inadequate for the worship of such a God. Our response to the grace of God must extend to the worship of God by our works as well as our words. In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 12, Paul summarizes the acts of worship which the grace of God should inspire in the life of the Christian, the presentation of our physical bodies to God as instruments of righteousness and the transformation of our minds from a mind-set dictated by the world, to that declared by the Word.
Verses 3-8 focus our attention to the use of this renewed mind with respect to our spiritual gifts. The grace of God bestowed to us is also a grace to be bestowed through us by the use of God’s gifts. Verses 9-21 broaden the focus to the renewed mind as it relates to our response to people and life’s circumstances. Here the grace of God is to be reflected in our human relationships.
To return to the big picture for a moment, chapters 1-3a inform us that a God-kind of righteousness is required for salvation. Chapters 3b-5 instruct us that a God-kind of righteousness has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Chapters 6-8 tell us that a God-kind of righteousness can be realized in the Christian life through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s righteousness is vindicated in chapters 9-11, and in chapters 12-15 the righteousness of God is to be practically reflected in the life of the Christian.
Primary Features of Paul’s Call to Commitment in Romans 12:1-2. Familiarity often breeds contempt and since we have heard the words of Romans 12:1 and 2 so often, we might think we will learn nothing new from them. Because we have time to merely survey the major features of chapter 12 let me draw your attention to several dimensions of Paul’s call to dedication and service.
(1) This call is for dedication and service in response to divine grace. Paul has consistently taught that the distinguishing features of Christianity are grace and faith. The dedication of the Christian is urged ‘because of’ the mercies of God described in previous chapters. It is not ‘in order to’ win God’s favor, but to express our deep gratitude for this grace and submission to His sovereignty. The terms ‘urge,’ ‘therefore’ and ‘mercies’ suggest that here is no demand of the Law, but a beseeching of grace.
(2) Paul’s exhortation encompasses both an initial commitment and subsequent follow-up. Generally speaking, we hear these verses used as an appeal to re-dedicate our lives to Christ. Often, because the appeal is emotional and without a proper doctrinal foundation, the individual is urged to periodically re-dedicate his life to Christ again. The tense of the infinitive ‘to present’ is such that it should be a final and decisive decision, something like the marriage commitment.
While verse one lays stress upon an initial and life-long commitment, verse two emphasizes the continuing obligation of the Christian in the service of worship which we owe God. Just as the marriage commitment needs to be consistently carried out, so our consecration to God must be manifested moment by moment.
(3) The presentation of our minds and bodies to God is preliminary to specific divine guidance. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). All too often we desire God to submit His plan for our life as a proposal to us, and then we determine whether or not to ratify it. Such cannot be the case, for we see in these verses the principle of dedication before direction. Divine guidance comes as a result of dedication. God does not ‘cast His pearls before swine,’ nor does He reveal His directive will to the uncommitted.
(4) Dedication and service to God are an act of worship.78 Our Lord told the Samaritan woman that God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Paul concluded his defense of the righteousness of God in His dealings with both Jews and Gentiles with a paean of praise and worship. But worship extends beyond praise and adoration to service. I heard of a husband who told his wife that he loved her so much he would die for her. “That won’t be necessary,” she replied, “just pick up that dish towel and help me dry these dishes.” So, also, the service of the Christian is viewed as an act of worship: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1).
(5) The presentation of ourselves to God is a sacrificial act. In the Old Testament dispensation, men expressed worship and devotion to God by means of sacrifice. So the presentation of our bodies is couched in sacrificial terminology.79 The nature of our sacrifice is different from that in the past in that it is a ‘living sacrifice’ (verse 1). Although the commitment of our lives to God can be identified with a point in time, our sacrifice is continual. And service to God is truly sacrificial. That is, saying no to our own desires, preferences, and tendencies is a sacrifice. Serving others in preference to ourselves is a sacrifice. The dedication and service Paul pleads for is that which subordinates our own interests to God’s and to other’s. As someone has put it: God first, others second; and self last.
(6) Our dedication involves both mind and body. In the Greek world as in our own, there was a very real need for emphasis upon the need to present our bodies as living and holy instruments to God.80 There was a prevalent view that the body was evil and that the mind was good. Consequently, there was little concern given to the deeds performed in the flesh. But it is not our physical bodies that are totally depraved; it is all our old nature. The new life of the Christian should be manifested through the body.
Thomas Manton, the Puritan minister, who at one time was Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain, likened a disobedient Christian to a child suffering from rickets: “Rickets cause great heads and weak feet. We are not only to dispute of the word, and talk of it, but to keep it. We must neither be all ear, nor all head, nor all tongue, but the feet must be exercised!81
There was in Paul’s day (and is in ours as well) the opposite extreme of mere externalism and ritual where the body was employed without the mind. Paul calls for the dedication of both mind and body to divine service. Our dedication to God is based upon doctrine,82 rationally comprehended and responded to.83 As the NASV marginal note to verse 1 indicates, our dedication is a rational act of worship.
The late Dr. Rufus M. Jones used to tell the story of the man who protested, “Whenever I go to church, I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never have any use for anything above my collar button!”84
As we can see from this text, Christian dedication is not only based upon a mental apprehension of doctrine (eleven chapters of it!), but it is a life-long process of reshaping our entire outlook on life. We are to stop being squeezed into the mold of the world (to use J. B. Phillip’s terminology), and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Salvation commences the dawn of a new age to come. We have our citizenship changed from an earthly kingdom to a heavenly one. We are now strangers and pilgrims (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11; cf. Hebrews 11:13).
This calls for a change of allegiance, a new system of values. As we shall learn from chapter 13, it is no license to cast off the restrictions and regulations of civil government, but it does subject us to a higher law, the law of love.
The dedicated Christian is not one whose actions are shaped by his personal whims and desires, nor does he conform to the values and goals of the world about him. The Christian is one whose life is conformed to the Word of God and whose whole thought process is being re-shaped. Just as at the fall, man’s intellectual facilities were corrupted, so the Christian experience should be a life-long process of restructuring our thinking in conformity to God’s Word and God’s will.
Some commentators have found the connection between verses 1 and 2 and the rest of this chapter rather obscure. I understand the first two verses to be both an introduction and a summary of the final section of the epistle. Verses 1 and 2 are a call to dedication and service, while the remaining verses are a description of that service. These two verses are a general exhortation to the saint, while the remaining verses are pointedly and painfully specific.
But the connection between verses 1 and 2 and 3-8 is even more evident. We are exhorted to stop allowing the world to ‘squeeze us into it’s mold’ and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Verses 3-8 give us the first exercise of this new mind. It is no accident that the Greek root for ‘think’ is found four times in verse 3: “For I say to everyone among you by means of the grace given me not to overthink beyond what is proper to think, but to think so as to think soberly and sanely, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given to each of you” (Romans 12:3, my translation).
How does one find his life reshaped by a renewed mind? By using that mind and obeying its dictates. The first thing we are to do with our new mind is to think about the gifts God has given us for serving the body of Christ, the church. Let me make several observations about verses 3-8.
(1) The doctrine of spiritual gifts is both basic and crucial to our Christian experience. It cannot be without significance that the first topic Paul brings up for the Christian to apply in his life is that of spiritual gifts. The emphasis on spiritual gifts in the epistle of First Corinthians also informs us that it is a basic, foundational truth for immature Christians to grasp and apply.
(2) Spiritual gifts must be approached with a new mind. In approaching spiritual gifts, there are two extremes to avoid, one is wishful thinking and the other is false humility or unbelief. Some think of this matter of spiritual gifts in terms of what they would like to be—a Billy Graham or the like. That is not realistic thinking. Others are falsely humble or just plain unbelieving. “I don’t think I have any gift,” they would say. We must take an honest, biblical look at ourselves, keeping several things in mind.
(a) We must think in terms of reality. If we have no ability to communicate verbally, it is doubtful that we are gifted to preach. If we are completely repulsed by suffering and tragedy, it is unrealistic to think we have the gift of mercy.
(b) We must think in terms of grace. Spiritual gifts are a manifestation of God’s grace poured through us. Paul speaks through the grace (of apostleship) given to him (verse 3). He says in verse 6 that we “have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Even the word ‘charismata’ (verse 6) is a derivative of the word charis, grace. This means it does not come from us, but from God, not deserved, but freely bestowed. As we have freely received our gifts, so we should freely give of them to others.
(c) We must think in terms of service. It is obvious that gifts imply service to others. They are not given for our individual benefit primarily, but for the good of the body (verses 4-5). Our area of service is that sphere of activity for which our gifts equip us. We should not pattern our ministry after that of others, for each has his unique contribution to the body (verse 4).
(d) We must think in terms of faith. The Christian life is a life of faith. Grace is never appropriated by feverish activity, but by faith. So the grace of God manifested in terms of spiritual gifts is appropriated by faith. Although we dare not ‘over-think’ ourselves concerning gifts, neither should we underestimate what God can accomplish through us. Surely we would all agree that it takes much faith for us to conclude that God will use us to achieve His purposes.85
I understand the expression ‘as God has allotted to each a measure of faith’ (verse 3) to refer to the serving faith which God bestows on every Christian. Just as God gives the unbeliever saving faith to believe (Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 1:29), so He gives each Christian a measure of serving faith to trust Him to work through his life to bless others.86 Divinely speaking, our effectiveness is determined by God the Father (1 Corinthians 12:6), but humanly speaking, it depends on our faith (a faith which comes ultimately from God, verse 4).
(3) The list of spiritual gifts Paul gives is a partial one. Paul does not claim that the gifts enumerated in verses 6-8 are the only gifts available. A comparison with 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4 informs us that this listing is not complete. Indeed, all the gifts mentioned in the New Testament may not be a complete listing either. It is significant that the so-called charismatic gifts are not mentioned.
Before we press on, let us briefly define the gifts which are listed here.
The God-given ability to minister to the spiritual needs of the saints through ministering to their physical and material needs.
The God-given ability to communicate the truths of the Word of God.
The God-given ability to encourage and comfort.
The God-given ability to minister to others by meeting their material (or monetary) needs.
The God-given ability to motivate and mobilize the people of God.
The God-given ability to minister to the miserable.
(4) Spiritual gifts should determine our priorities. Look with me at verses 7 and 8a: “if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation” (Romans 12:7, 8a). The emphasis in these verses is that we are to devote ourselves to doing what we are gifted to do. If your gift is teaching, then teach. When there are too many things to do and too little time to do them, devote yourself to do what God has especially equipped you to do.
(5) Each spiritual gift has its own peculiar pitfalls. In these verses concerning spiritual gifts, we are instructed by inference that each gift has its own peculiar pitfalls. I would gather that the danger of the prophet was to abuse his prophetic gift by going beyond that which God had revealed and passing off his own ideas as God-inspired,89 a danger not entirely foreign to the preacher.
The one who gives is to do so with simplicity.90 Simplicity in the New Testament refers to both sincerity of motive and generosity. The giver is in danger of being miserly with his gifts or in giving for ulterior purposes, such as the recognition and praise he might gain.
The one who leads is to lead with diligence (verse 8). Especially in the Lord’s work there is the mentality that since it is the Lord’s work, any feeble effort is sufficient. It appears to be volunteer work, and whatever is voluntary need not be first-class. I have often heard the expression, “It’s good enough for a government job.” Such seems to be the danger for the Christian leader, especially when those who are to follow lack commitment.
Finally, the one who is gifted with mercy is in danger of developing a vinegar personality. Nothing is more neglected and more unnoticed than work among the unlovely. Often the work is unrewarding in terms of dramatic successes or grateful words of thanks. It is at times like this that we can do a work for God but with a begrudging attitude. Such work will not achieve its desired end.91
With respect to spiritual gifts we should understand that they are a manifestation of divine grace, appropriated by faith, given to every saint for the growth and maintenance of the body of Christ. We are to discover our gifts through the exercise of our renewed minds and to put our gifts to use, noting the dangers which attend each gift. In this way, the grace of God is ministered through the Christian to the body and the world.
Nowhere does the contrast between the world’s way of thinking and the transformed mind become more apparent than in verses 9-21. Here we see the new mind illustrated in Paul’s pointed guidelines for human relationships.
True Love (vv. 9-10). The love of the world seems to be amoral, often immoral. The love we see reflected in the television screen is a love of infidelity. This is not true love at all. True love is not divorced from morality. True love clings to what is good and hates evil. Situation ethics informs us that pre-marital sex is good if practiced in love. The biblical kind of thinking tells us that it cannot be love if it is outside the bonds of marriage.
Love expresses itself in the church by devotion to one another. It holds the other in honor, and gives to the other the place of preference. True love seeks the good of our brother, even at our own expense. The world’s love seeks personal gratification, even at the expense of others.
Endurance and Diligence (vv. 11-12). Christian character is contrasted with that of the world in that it endures hardship and difficulties. “… not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,” (Romans 12:11,12). There should be a diligence and zeal in our lives not typical of others. While Christians serve God with zeal, the world-at-large views them as fanatics. The Christian is characterized by hope; the world by despair. The Christian holds up in trials and tribulation; the unsaved folds up. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is the motto of the world. The Christian is diligent in his prayer life, while the unbeliever thinks it is a waste of time.
Sensitivity to People and Their Needs (vv. 13-16). The way of the world is to look out for old number one. As in the story of the Good Samaritan, the world walks on by the person in need, for he only represents a liability, a demand on our time and money. The world suggests we spend our time and money with those who can further our own interests. But notice the way of the Christian:
… contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation (Romans 12:13-16).
The Christian observes a material need and meets it (verse 13). The Christian opens his home to those who need hospitality. The way of the world is expressed by this ancient proverb: “A guest is like a fish. After three days he stinks.”
The Christian responds to ridicule and rejection by speaking a word of blessing, rather than a curse. The Christian is at ease with those of humble means and does not cater to the affluent.92 The Christian knows himself, his sinfulness and the waywardness of his heart. He is not proud, but humble.
Absence of Vengeance (vv. 17-21). The way of the world is all too evident in terms of our response to those who caused us hurt. Sock ’em!
“We communists have many things in common with the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Nikita Krushchev, ex-premier of Russia, once stated to American pressmen. He continued, “My sole difference with Christ is that when someone hits me on the right cheek, I hit him on the left so hard that his head falls off.”93
As Dr. MacIver, professor of political science at Columbia University, put it, “In war the principle must be, do to the enemy as he would to you, but do it first.”94
As Augsburger rightly comments, “That’s merely the savage law of retaliation. ‘Do back to others as they have done to you.’ Or even worse, ‘Do to others as you expect them to do to you.’”95
There is no place for this kind of thinking in the Christian’s life. We are to strive for peace to the extent that it depends upon us (verse 18). We are to recognize that vengeance is the Lord’s prerogative, not ours (verse 19).96 Our response should be to repay good for evil, not in order to cause our enemy torment, but to bring him to repentance and restoration.97
Several truths should be impressed upon our minds from this great chapter.
(1) The grace of God as evidenced in Romans 1-11 should motivate and compel us to a dedication of heart and mind. Have you ever decisively dedicated all you are and have to God? After conversion, that is the starting point of the Christian life. The guidance of God and the experience of the abundant life are dependent upon it. If you have never submitted all you are and have to God in gratitude for His eternal salvation and His infinite wisdom and grace, why not do it now?
(2) The doctrine of spiritual gifts is one which is too important and too fundamental to pass over lightly. Do you know your spiritual gift? Are your priorities determined by your gift? Are you an instrument of grace and blessing as you exercise your gift?
(3) The Christian experience is one that involves both body and mind. Our emotions do play a vital part in our worship, but if our worship and service is to be pleasing before God, it must be intelligent. In Christianity, we should never have to take our heads off and put them on the proverbial shelf. We should have our thinking transformed by the Word of God, and we should use our minds in a way never before experienced.
(4) The renewing of our minds takes place as we absorb the Scriptures. Paul wrote from chapter 12, verse 3 on, to tell us how our minds should think in terms of Christian living. You will never renew your minds by reading the daily newspaper or watching the ‘tube.’
May God enable us to live our lives in a way pleasing to Him.
79 “The language throughout this clause is sacrificial; not only the word ‘sacrifice’ itself, but also ‘offer,’ ‘holy,’ and ‘well-pleasing’ are technical terms. By ‘body’ Paul means the whole person, including its means of expressing itself in common life (cf. vi. 6, 12). The ‘mercies of God’ on the one hand move men to offer him what is essentially a sacrifice of thanksgiving; on the other, it is through these mercies, and not through any merit of their own, that men are able to bring a sacrifice to God.” C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 231.
80 “It is not without necessity that he should have placed in the forefront of practical exhortation this emphasis upon consecration of the body. The ethical ideal was to be freed from the body and its degrading influences. This view of the body runs counter to the whole witness of Scripture. Body was an integral element in man’s person from the outset (cf. Gen. 2:7, 21-23). The dissolution of the body is the wages of sin and therefore abnormal (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:19; Rom. 5:12). The consummation of redemption waits for the resurrection of the body (cf. Rom. 8:23; I Cor. 15:54-56; Phil. 3:21). Hence sanctification must bring the body within its scope. There was not only a necessity for this kind of exhortation arising from depreciation of the body but also because indulgence of vice closely associated with the body was so prevalent and liable to be discounted in the assessment of ethical demands.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdnans, 1968), Vol. II, p. 111.
82 “If there is a religion in the world which exalts the office of teaching, it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ. It has been frequently remarked that in pagan religions the doctrinal element is at a minimum—the chief thing there is the performance of a ritual. But this is precisely where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions—it does contain doctrine. It comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge, though a knowledge which is only attainable under moral conditions. … A religion divorced from earnest and lofty thought has always, down the whole history of the Church, tended to become weak, jejune and unwholesome; while the intellect, deprived of its rights within religion, has sought its satisfaction without, and developed into godless rationalism.” James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, pp. 20-21, as quoted by Stott, p. 20.
83 “The service here in view is worshipful service and the apostle characterizes it as ‘rational’ because it is worship that derives its character as acceptable to God from the fact that it enlists our mind, our reason, our intellect. It is rational in contrast with what is mechanical and automatic. A great many of our bodily functions do not enlist volition on our part. But the worshipful service here enjoined must constrain intelligent volition. The lesson to be derived from the term ‘rational’ is that we are not ‘spiritual’ in the biblical sense except as the use of our bodies is characterized by conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of God. Furthermore, this expression is very likely directed against mechanical externalism and so the worship is contrasted, as H. P. Liddon says, ‘with the external ceremonial of the Jewish and heathen cults.’” Murray, p. 112.
85 When we look back at the life of Gideon in Judges 6:36, 37, it was not a problem of divine guidance with which Gideon struggled, but a problem of faith. Gideon knew that God had purposed to liberate His people from the hand of the Midianites; what he could not believe was that God was going to do it through him.
86 “‘Faith’ here has a rather different sense from that which it has in the earlier part of the Epistle; here it denotes the spiritual power given to each Christian for the discharge of his special responsibility; cf. ‘according to the proportion of faith’ in verse 6 (NEB ‘in proportion to a man’s faith’).” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), pp. 227-228.
87 “For New Testament prophecy, see especially I Cor. xii and xiv, where it is distinguished from glossalalia, not mentioned here. It was expressed in inspired but intelligible speech, and sometimes though not always included prediction of future events (e.g. Acts xi. 27f.). Like Old Testament prophecy it was primarily an immediate communication of God’s word to his people, through human lips.” Barrett, pp. 237-238.
88 “Prophecy refers to the function of communicating revelations of truth from God. The prophet was an organ of revelation; he was God’s spokesman. His office was not restricted to prediction of the future although this was likewise his prerogative when God was pleased to unveil future events to him (cf. Acts 21:10, 11). The gift of prophecy of which Paul here speaks is obviously one exercised in the apostolic church as distinct from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the prophets occupied a position of priority that is not accorded to those of the New Testament (cf. Numb. 12:6-8; Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:21-24; Heb. 1:1; I Pet. 1:10-12). But the important place occupied by the gift of prophecy in the apostolic church is indicated by the prophecy of Joel fulfilled at Pentecost (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:16, 17), by the fact that prophets are next in rank to apostles, and that the church is built upon ‘the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 2:20). The apostles possessed the prophetic gift; they also were organs of revelation.” Murray, II, p. 122.
89 “The term in question occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is used elsewhere of mathematical proportion and progression, also in the sense of ratio and relation. The phrase ‘out of proportion’ also occurs. The idea of proportion appears to be the preponderant one. This meaning, if applied here, is relevant. The prophet when he speaks God’s word is not to go beyond that which God has given him to speak. As noted above, every gift must be exercised within the limits of faith and restricted to its own sphere and purpose. There is prime need that a prophet should give heed to this regulative principle because no peril could be greater than that an organ or revelation should presume to speak on his own authority.” Ibid., p. 123.
90 “The next gift mentioned is that of giving and the exhortation is that he do it with simplicity. The term sometimes means liberality (cf. II Cor. 8:2; 9:11,13). But elsewhere it means simplicity, in the sense of singlemindedness of heart, of motive, and of purpose (cf. II Cor. 11:3; Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22). It is not certain which of these meanings is here intended but there is much to be said in favour of simplicity … Giving must not be with the ulterior motives of securing influence and advantage for oneself, a vice too frequently indulged by the affluent in their donations to the treasury of the church and to which those responsible for the direction of the affairs of the church are too liable to succumb.” Ibid., pp. 125-126.
91 “Oftentimes the work of mercy is disagreeable and so it is liable to be done grudgingly and in a perfunctory way. This attitude defeats the main purpose of mercy. In Calvin’s words. ‘For as nothing gives more solace to the sick or to any one otherwise distressed, than to see men cheerful and prompt in assisting them; so to observe sadness in the countenance of those by whom assistance is given makes them to feel themselves despised.’” Ibid., p. 127.
92 “The vice against which the exhortations are directed is a common one and gnaws at the root of that community in the church of Christ on which the apostle lays so much emphasis. There is to be no aristocracy in the church, no cliques of the wealthy as over against the poor, no pedestals of unapproachable dignity for those on the higher social and economic strata or for those who are in office in the church (cf. I Pet. 5:3).” Ibid., pp. 137.
93 Nikita Krushchev, as cited by Steward Meachem in address given to Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship, Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio, March 31, 1960. Quoted by David W. Augsburger, Seventy Times Seven, The Freedom of Forgiveness (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1970), p. 118.
96 “Here we have what belongs to the essence of piety. The essence of ungodliness is that we presume to take the place of God, to take everything into our own hands. It is faith to commit ourselves to God, to cast all our care upon him and to vest all our interests in him. In reference to the matter in hand, the wrongdoing of which we are the victims, the way of faith is to recognize that God is judge and to leave the execution of vengeance and retribution to him. Never may we in our private personal relations execute the vengeance which wrongdoing merits.” Murray, II, pp. 141-142.
97 “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing this you will heap up burning coals upon his head.’ Again Paul turns to the LXX (cf. Prov. xxv. 21f.). In view of v. 21, it can scarcely be doubted that the ‘burning coals’ are the fire of remorse. If an enemy is treated in this way he may well be overcome in the best possible fashion—he may become a friend.” Barrett, pp. 242-243.
The Book of Romans is a declaration of the grace of God toward men. That grace was required because men are sinners, justly under sentence of condemnation because they have evidenced their enmity with God by rejecting the light they were given (Romans 1-3a). The saving grace of God has been provided in the Person and work of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, Who, as a substitute, bore the sins of men and Who offers in place of our wretchedness His righteousness (Romans 3b-5).
Since every Christian professes to have died to sin and to having been raised to newness of life in Christ, continuing to live in sin is both unreasonable and unacceptable (chapter 6). Although godly living is necessary, it is humanly impossible, due to the weakness inherent in the flesh (chapter 7). The grace of God is again revealed in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, Who empowers Christians to live godly lives (chapter 8).
The grace of God is unmerited favor, and consequently Israelites have been wrong to suppose that God is obliged to save every physical descendant of Abraham on the basis of ethnic origin or as the result of works. Although men may demand justice, they cannot demand mercy or grace (Romans 9). Unbelieving Israelites are justly condemned, not only because God has not chosen to save every Jew, but also because those who disbelieve have rejected God’s provision of righteousness in Christ, by endeavoring to establish their own righteousness by works (chapter 10). The grace of God has been made available to the Gentiles by Jewish rejection, but Israel’s rejection is neither total nor permanent. God is currently provoking the Jews to jealousy by the salvation of Gentiles, and He will ultimately conclude His program with the Gentiles and restore the nation Israel to its place of promised prominence and blessing (chapter 11).
In chapter 12 Paul begins to impress upon his readers the obligations of grace. In verses 1 and 2 he maintains that the only logical response to the grace of God is that of the sacrificial presentation of our lives to God in worshipful service. In verses 3-8, Paul informs us that our service is not only a response to grace, but a result of it. God has bestowed on every believer a measure of serving grace and by means of these spiritual ‘grace’ gifts, each Christian has a vital role to play within the body of Christ. In verses 9-21, Paul reminds us that we should also reflect the grace of God in our daily lives and relationships.
As we approach chapter 13 we come to the matter of our Christian obligations. In verses 1-7, our obligation to human government is discussed. Verses 8-10 describe our obligation to live by the law of love. Our obligations are underscored by the fact that we should be living as those who await the soon coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to establish His Kingdom on earth (verses 11-14).
The subject of the Christian’s obligations to civil government was far from academic in Paul’s day. The Lord Jesus Christ had been executed on the pretext of treason (John 19:12) and Paul himself had been accused of insurrection (Acts 16:20, 21).
The Jews of Paul’s day had many questions about the rights of the Roman government (cf. Matt. 22:16, 17; Mark 12:14, etc.). The Jews prided themselves on their independence (cf. John 8:33). Some of the Jews had incited revolt (cf. Acts 5:34-37) and it was a Jewish revolt which precipitated the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Roman government viewed Christianity as merely a sect within Judaism (e.g. Acts 18:12-17), and therefore viewed Christians with as much suspicion as the Jews. In Acts 18:2 we find a brief reference to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome. A reference in ancient literature provides an interesting commentary of this expulsion of the Jews.
Seutonius, in his Life of Claudius (xxv. 2), said that the emperor “expelled the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus” (a variant spelling of Christus).98 The point is simply that the Roman government was all too aware of a revolutionary sect within Judaism and since both Jesus and His followers were accused of attempting to overthrow Roman rule, any civil disobedience would be viewed with suspicion. To put the matter in its simplest terms, the Christian community had two strikes against them so far as Rome was concerned. They could not afford any unnecessary confrontations with Rome.
Up until now Paul had been the recipient of the privileges of Roman citizenship. It was under the protective banner of Rome that Paul preached. It was Roman soldiers that protected Paul from the hands of his Jewish opponents. But a time was soon coming when Christianity would no longer be viewed as a friend of Rome. When severe persecution began, it was vital that any such persecution occur for the right reasons.
Paul’s words on civil government were important to his readers for another reason. In chapter 12 Paul had instructed those who named the name of Christ as Savior to avoid retaliation and repaying evil for evil. The Christian is to leave room for divine retribution (12:19). Verses 1-7 of chapter 13 are a partial explanation of Paul’s instruction, for we are informed that civil government is one of God’s instruments through which divine retribution is administered in this life.
This passage in Romans 13 is of vital importance to the readers of the 20th century as well. In many countries of the world, it is expected that the individual citizen will make every effort to cheat the government out of its taxes. On April 15th in our country, there is much the same mentality. Such cannot, or at least should not, be the case of the Christian.
In America today, there seems to be the mentality that the only kind of government of which our Lord can approve is a democracy. In a day when new countries are established by revolution almost daily, we Christians must have our heads on straight to deal biblically with these situations.
This chapter has much to say to us by way of implication. Just one of the issues which Paul deals with by way of inference is that of capital punishment. Let us look to the Scriptures for a Word from God on these vital issues.
(1) The Precept (v. la). Paul’s instruction is very direct and uncomplicated: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1a).99 By this it is clear that Christians are to be in subjection to their government, national or local.
(2) The Premise (v. 1b). The reason why such a command can be given is found in the second part of verse 1: “For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1b). God is the source of all authority. The government authorities, then, exist by the authority granted them by the supreme authority, God Himself.
Now I want you to observe this verse closely, for it reveals to us what the basis is on which a government should be acknowledged and obeyed. It is not by virtue of its characteristics, whether it be democratic, autocratic or whatever. A government is not legitimate and duly constituted because its form precisely meets our preferences. A government is to be acknowledged and obeyed by virtue of its existence. “… those (governments) which exist are established by God.” This means that the government of Red China is ordained by God. It means that the government in Russia is established by the authority vested to it by God. This even means that the Nazi regime in Germany was there by the will (decretive) of God.
I want it to be very clear that there are no loopholes in this first verse. Every soul is to be in subjection to human government; any and every government, by virtue of its existence is, de facto, the government to which we must submit.
(3) The Principle Involved (v. 2). The principle of Paul’s argument is apparent: “Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:2). For a Christian (or any other person) to resist government is to resist the One from Whom authority has been granted. If God has ordained the existence of a government and we disobey it, we resist not only government, but God. For this we will suffer judgment.100
(4) The Purpose of Government (vv. 3-4). The reason for our obedience to government is not arbitrary, but is found in God’s purpose for government.
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (Romans 13:3-4).
There is no reason for the Christian to fear government for its purpose is to punish evil-doers and to reward those who do good. Since the Christian is to practice what is good and avoid evil, there should be no conflict between the Christian and government.
In verses 3 and 4 there are several inferences which are important to the Christian.
(1) There is a separation of function implied between the church and state. The government official is described as a minister of God, but only in the sense that he serves the purpose of God by restraining evil and rewarding good. The Christian is also a minister of God; not a minister of wrath (judgment), but of mercy (the gospel). Each has its legitimate sphere of activity. In fact, when the minister of government does his job well, it facilitates the minister of the gospel (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-3).
(2) We learn that fear of punishment is a deterrent to evil. “Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good …” (Romans 13:3b). Some are saying today that the fear of punishment has no effect on whether or not someone will commit a crime. Paul says that fear of punishment is a deterrent.
(3) We can see a somewhat subtle argument in support of capital punishment. “… for it does not bear the sword for nothing …” (Romans 13:4c). The bearing of a sword by civil magistrates symbolized their authority and, as well, their right to exercise the penalty of death.101, 102, 103 It seems likely that such is the sense implied here.
In Genesis chapter 9, God instituted the death penalty (verse 6). Some would argue that capital punishment, though practiced in the Old Testament economy, surely can find no place in our age. But the words of our Lord Jesus Himself vindicate this responsibility of government:
Pilate therefore said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11).
When our Lord stood before Pilate He expressly stated that the power of death was within the authority of civil government. Indeed, this authority was granted ‘from above.’
The real issue behind the matter of capital punishment is the character of God. Those who reject the possibility of civil government taking the life of a human being try to convince us either “that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as in the New Testament, or that God has somehow changed. But God is unchanging and He hates sin. His holiness demands a payment for sin, and in this life human government has been charged with the responsibility of avenging evil (v. 4).
(1) Motivation for Obedience (v. 5). In verse 5, we are given two reasons for civil obedience. The first has already been explained; it is the motivation of fear of punishment. This is the primary motivation of the unbeliever. We would see a great change in public morality if the legal penalty for sin were removed. Indeed, this is precisely what is occurring in our time.
But there is a purely Christian motivation for obedience, aside from the fear of punishment. This motivation is that of conscience before God. You see, if I am traveling down a lonely piece of road in the late hours of the night, I may be absolutely confident that there is no policeman in sight, but my conscience before God convicts me to do what is right because God knows all. My sin will never miss the scrutiny of His all-seeing eye. Even when fear of punishment is no factor, I do not desire to grieve my heavenly Father by civil disobedience.
On April 15th, I may be able to claim certain deductions on my income tax form which cannot be legally challenged. But God knows my thoughts and actions and motivation. I find in my own life that the fear of legal punishment in no way measures up to the fear of grieving God. All of our actions should be done as ‘unto the Lord.’104
(2) The Bottom Line—Pay Up (vv. 6-7). It seems to me that the bottom line of much of Scripture seems to find its way to our wallets. In verses 6 and 7, the apostle inform us that we are not only obliged to obey, but to pay governing authorities: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:6-7).
Just as a minister of the gospel is worthy of his hire (cf. 1 Corinthians 9), so a minister of God in civil government is deserving of financial remuneration. Government officials are devoted to the maintenance of justice and peace, so they must be financially supported. This support is derived from taxes, both indirect (tax) and direct (custom).105, 106, 107
Beyond the mere payment of taxes and external obedience, there is the need for a submissive spirit expressed by the giving of respect and honor to civic officials. We should render both respect and honor to civic officials by virtue of their position.
(3) A Lesson in Submission. There is here, I believe, a lesson to be learned about submission as it is required of children to their parents and wives for their husbands. This submission is one based upon position and not on personal writ. This submission is not primarily motivated by the one to whom we submit, but is an act of obedience and submission to our Lord Himself.
While verses 1-7 focused our attention upon the Christian’s obligation to submit to the powers that be, verses 8-10 direct our attention to our obligation to men in general. While our specific obligation to civic officials is to submit, our obligation to men in general is to love them. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8).
It seems unfortunate to me that this verse has been misapplied to condemn the practice of borrowing money. Such is the case with Phillip’s paraphrase of this verse: “Keep out of debt altogether except that perpetual debt of love which we owe one another.” Do not misunderstand me; I am not advocating indebtedness. “The borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Proverbs 22:7). But although Scripture does not recommend indebtedness, neither does it condemn it.108
What puzzles me the most is the inconsistent interpretation of those who understand this passage to condemn indebtedness and then proceed to qualify the type of indebtedness incurred. The paraphrase of such a view would be something like this: “Owe no man anything, except for non-depreciating items.” If we are to understand Paul to condemn the borrowing of money altogether, then at least let us be consistent in our application and refuse to borrow money for any and every type of purchase.
What I understand to be the most natural translation (and interpretation) is to see both verses 1-7 and verses 8-10 as speaking to our obligations. Paul is stressing in verses 8-10 our obligation to men in general. He is saying that our exclusive and primary obligation to men is to love them. The translation of Sanday and Headlam reflects this sense: “Let your only debt that is unpaid be that of love—a debt which you should always be attempting to discharge in full, but will never succeed in discharging.”109
Paul is not saying that we should never incur debts, but that we should quickly and speedily pay every debt except that of love. We should strive to love, but we should never consider the debt ‘paid in full.’
The ‘Law of Love’110 encompasses the whole Law of the Old Testament as it pertains to our obligation to our fellow man. The commandments mentioned in verse 9 are those of the second half of the decalogue which define our social obligations. Love never seeks the harm of our neighbor, only to accomplish that which is for his good. Therefore, to keep the ‘Law of Love’ is to keep the Old Testament Law which relates to our neighbor: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Romans 13:10).
Herein is found the error of Judaism. They had perverted the Law in such a way as to serve personal interests to the detriment of others (cf. Mark 7:6-13; esp. vv. 10-11). The heart of the Law was to regulate individual behavior to the benefit of society at large. The heart of Pharisaism was to twist the Law into the service of the individual at the expense of others.
In these verses also we are given a clue as to the rightful attitude toward the Law as it relates to grace. The question is really this: If Paul condemned works as a means to salvation and grace, why does he now command us to do very specific things? Aren’t the commands of the New Testament just a slightly modified repetition of the Old Testament Law?
We must remember that the requirements of the Law are not evil; they are holy and just and good (Romans 7:12). The Law was intended as a standard of righteousness. The Law as a standard or a goal is just as valid as it was in the Old Testament. It defines sin (Romans 7:7) and correspondingly defines righteousness.
The problem with the Law was that what it demanded it did not produce. It was an excellent goal, but did not provide the means. In this way it revealed man’s inadequacy to please God by his works.
The grace of God to the Christian is that God not only bestows on him salvation and forgiveness of sins, He also provides the motivation and the means to live a godly life—that is to keep the Law. Rather than by the striving of human effort, God produces love in the life of the Christian which motivates him to accomplish what the Law demands. In other words, God makes the heart delight in what the Law demands.111 The requirements of the Law are met, but in a different way than legalistic Law-keeping.
It is the Holy Spirit of God Who works within us to give us the love which seeks to bless others at our own expense. The Law is still valid as a standard by which to measure our expression of the righteousness of God, but it has never been, nor will it ever be, the means by which the individual may win God’s approval.
To be ‘no longer under Law, but under grace’ does not mean that there are no standards, no commands, no necessity of obedience. The New Testament is full of imperatives and God is just and righteous in expecting us to meet them, out of gratitude, out of a desire to worship Him in Christian service, and by the power God has provided in the Holy Spirit. He is at work in us ‘both to will and to do what is pleasing to Him’ (Philippians 2:12-13).
What Paul has said in verses 1-10 is now discussed from the standpoint of our motivation to keep our Christian obligations, both to civil government and mankind in general. This is reflected in the translation of verse 11 by the NASV: “And this do knowing the time …” Paul’s interest in these verses is not to explicitly outline the details of eschatology,112 but rather to motivate the Christian to diligence and obedience by a reminder that the return of our Lord is at hand. Truly our salvation (cf. Romans 8:18ff.) is nearer now than it has ever been. Paul speaks of the present age as ‘night’ and the future age of restoration as ‘day.’ We should awaken from the sleep of indulgence (v. 13) and indifference. We should take off the night clothes of our old self and put on our daytime garments of righteousness.
Not Catering, But Control (vv. 13-14). The last two verses should make every Christian uneasy, for they speak of the need for the Christian not to cater to the lusts of the flesh, but to control them. “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:13-14).
Those things which are condemned in verse 13 are excesses of the flesh. Paul, in verse 14, summarizes by calling them ‘making provision for the flesh, in regard to its lusts.’ The sins of the flesh which Paul specifies are indulgences, excesses. A little wine is not sinful (cf. 1 Timothy 5:23), but drunkenness is. Sex in marriage is holy (Hebrews 13:4, etc.), but promiscuity is evil.
There is probably no age in which excess has been so commercialized and emphasized as our own. We, as children of the ‘day,’ must put this kind of living aside, and be ready for our Lord’s return.
In the light of our Lord’s return, we have two pressing responsibilities:
(1) To submit to civil government. This responsibility can be summarized in three words: (a) Obey—keep the Law. (b) Pay—your taxes. (c) Pray—for those in authority (I Timothy 2:1-3).
(2) We are to love our ‘neighbor,’ and by doing this fulfill the requirements of the Law (cf. Romans 8:4).
It is apparent that Paul has written during a time when government was fulfilling its responsibility of restraining evil and rewarding righteousness. But what of the times when this is not the case? In view of the general nature of Paul’s exhortation, we will ask and answer several critical questions.
(1) Are there times when a Christian should disobey government?
Yes, if the government commands a Christian to do what is clearly contrary to God’s Word. When one disobeys, he must nevertheless submit to the punishment which government prescribes for this disobedience. Since government has the delegated authority of God, government’s authority is subordinate to God’s orders if they differ. Daniel (Daniel 6) disobeyed the law of the Medes and the Persians signed by Darius which forbade prayer for 30 days. He, however, submitted to the penalty for his actions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3) are a similar example. Peter and the apostles (Acts 5, note especially v. 29, 40-42) refused to obey the order that they “speak not in the name of Jesus.” Our Lord’s statement in Matthew 22:21 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” demonstrates the fact that the Christian finds himself in two spheres of authority. Whenever these two spheres of authority come into conflict we must say with Peter and the apostles, “we ought to obey God rather than men.”
(2) Should a government become corrupt and cease to fulfill its proper functions (i.e., to restrain evil and encourage good works), should the Christian engage in revolution to attempt its overthrow?
Instances can be found in the Old Testament in which the Lord instructs an individual to rebel against the existing government and overthrow it. One such instance is in 1 Kings 11 and 12 where God instructs Jeroboam through the prophet Ahijah to rebel against the united kingdom of Solomon and ten tribes from the kingdom. All of the instances such as this in the Old Testament to my knowledge are due to the direct revelation of God. To use these instances as arguments for rebellion today we would need to be consistent and require a direct revelation from God to do so. It is God Himself Who raises up kings and puts them down (Psalm 75:7).
We must also remember that God uses evil governments, as well as good ones, for His purposes (cf. Habakkuk 1:6-11, Exodus 7:1-7, Amos 6:14). Romans 13:1 seems to say that any government which exists is, by virtue of its existence, ordained of God. To resist any existing government, by attempting to overthrow it (if the above assumption is true), is to resist God (Romans 13:2). God has no difficulty in performing His will apart from our assistance.
In the Old Testament Saul was to have his kingdom taken away due to his disobedience (1 Samuel 15) and David was anointed as the new king (chapter 16). Although Saul was no longer fit to be king, David waited until God removed Saul, even though he had several excellent opportunities to remove Saul himself (cf. 1 Samuel 24:1-15; 26:6-12). It is God’s desire that we live a “tranquil and quiet life” (1 Timothy 2:2, 3). Revolution does not lead to tranquillity.
(3) Does Romans 13 or any other Scripture teach passivism toward government?
No. Remember Paul refused to leave the prison in Philippi until he was escorted out by the magistrates who had illegally beaten and imprisoned them (Acts 16). We uphold the law by insisting upon adherence to it, even by the law officials themselves.
(4) What should a Christian do when the government to which he is to be subject persecutes Christians unjustly?
The Book of Romans was written before severe persecution of Christians began, although Paul was writing with Nero in mind. The entire Book of 1 Peter is written with this very issue in mind. Nevertheless, Peter instructs: “Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evildoers and for praise to them that do well” (1 Peter 2:13, 14). Peter’s example is that of servants, who are to be in subjection to their masters, even the cruel ones (2:18). It is only when suffering unjustly that it is pleasing to God (v. 20). The supreme example for us to follow is our Saviour, Who died unjustly for our sins (1 Peter 2:21-25). The thrust of chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Peter’s first epistle is that we are to suffer patiently when persecuted unjustly. We should remember the Lord’s words, “A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you …” (John 15:20).
(5) Is it wrong for a Christian to be in politics?
In the Old Testament many men such as Daniel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah (not to mention the kings) were involved in the politics of their day. In the New Testament one would be harder pressed to find an individual deeply involved in politics—although it is readily conceded that an argument from silence is not very compelling. In the Old Testament theocracy, government and religion (church and state) were not separated as in the New Testament. The issue is one of priorities and personal convictions ultimately, as well as the individual leading of the Lord.
Civil government in the time of the Great Tribulation. We should take just a moment to consider the institution of civil government during the time of the Tribulation. Government was ordained of God in Genesis chapter 9 to restrain the evil intents of the hearts of men. To the present day, government to a greater or lesser degree continues to carry out this responsibility. This is the reason why Paul exhorts the Christian to submit to human government.
During the Tribulation, the restraining force of government (as God ordained it) will be removed (2 Thessalonians 2:6ff.) and Satan will be allowed to have his day. Government during this time will not exist for the purpose of preventing evil, but for promoting it. Such government should not be viewed as ‘authorized’ by God, but simply allowed in order to reveal what men are capable of doing apart from God’s restraining influence. If the violence we see today takes place in spite of human government, think what those days will be like. Thank God we shall not have to be a part of those evil days, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
It is my prayer that you have come to trust in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, Who died in your place and bore the penalty for your sins. He offers to you the righteousness which God requires for eternal life. He offers the riches of heaven in place of the torment of Hell. May God work in your heart to trust in Him.
99 The ‘governing authorities’ referred to here are not angelic powers as Oscar Cullmann has argued, but earthly rulers to whom we are to submit. Cf. Bruce, p. 236, fn. 1. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 244-245. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, pp. 147-148.
101 “In ancient and modern times, the sword has been carried before sovereigns. It betokens the power of capital punishment: and the reference to it here is among the many testimonies borne by Scripture against the attempt to abolish the infliction of the penalty of death for crime in Christian states.” Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), II, p. 447.
102 “God’s wrath, which belongs properly to the last day (ii. 5), is capable of being brought forward into the present (i. 18); one means by which this future wrath is anticipated is the magistrate’s sword. This last expression recalls the technical term ius gladii, by which was meant the authority (possessed by all higher magistrates) of inflicting sentence of death (cf. Tacitus, Histories, iii. 68).” C. K. Barrett, p. 247.
103 “The sword which the magistrate carries as the most significant part of his equipment is not merely the sign of his authority but of his right to wield it in the infliction of that which a sword does. It would not be necessary to suppose that the wielding of the sword contemplates the infliction of the death penalty exclusively. It can be wielded to instill the terror of that punishment that falls short of death. But to exclude the right of the death penalty when the nature of the crime calls for such is totally contrary to that which the sword signifies and executes. We need appeal to no more than New Testament usage to establish this reference. The sword is so frequently associated with death as the instrument of execution (cf. Matt. 26:52; Luke 21:24; Acts 12:2; 16:27; Heb. 11:34, 37; Rev. 13:10) that to exclude its use for this purpose in this instance would be so arbitrary as to bear upon its face prejudice contrary to the evidence.” Murray, II, pp. 152-153.
104 “Paul uses this word ‘conscience’ frequently and it is apparent that the meaning is conscience toward God (cf. Acts 23:1; 24:16; II Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 5:11; I Tim. 1:5; 3:9; II Tim. 1:3). The meaning here must be that we are to subject ourselves out of a sense of obligation to God. The thought then is that we are not only to be subject because insubjection brings upon us penal judgment but also because there is the obligation intrinsic to God’s will irrespective of the liability which evil-doing may entail. God alone is Lord of the conscience and therefore to do anything out of conscience or for conscience’ sake is to do it from a sense of obligation to God. This is stated expressly in I Peter 2:13: ‘be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ The necessity, therefore, is not that of inevitable outcome (cf. Matt. 18:7; Luke 21:23; I Cor. 7:26) but that of ethical demand (cf. I Cor. 9:16).” Murray, II, p. 154.
105 “The Roman magistrates, little though they knew it, were public servants not of Rome but of God; it was his work they did. In this fact lay their true authority, and their right to receive their ‘dues.’ Render to all men what is due to them. Pay the tax (or tribute, direct taxation) to him to whom the tax is due, the levy (indirect taxation, such as customs dues) to him to whom the levy is due; pay reverence to him to whom reverence is due, honour to him to whom honour is due.” Barrett, p. 247.
106 “The ‘tribute’ corresponds to our term ‘tax,’ levied on persons and property (cf. Luke 20:22; 23:2), ‘custom’ refers to the tax levied on goods and corresponds to customs payments.” Murray, II, p. 156.
107 “‘Render therefore to all (in authority) their dues.’ Omit ‘therefore.’ Four specifications are given: render ‘tribute,’ personal or property tax, to him to whom it is due; ‘fear,’ reverence (Meyer says ‘veneration’), to him who bears the sword for God; ‘honor’ to all his subordinates.” James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), p. 218.
108 “In accord with the analogy of Scripture this cannot be taken to mean that we may never incur financial obligations, that we may not borrow from others in case of need (cf. Exod. 22:25; Psalm 37:26; Matt. 5:42; Luke 6:35). But it does condemn the looseness with which we contract debts and particularly the indifference so often displayed in the discharging of them. ‘The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again’ (Psalm 37:21). Few things bring greater reproach upon the Christian profession than the accumulation of debts and refusal to pay them.” Murray, II, pp. 158-159.
110 This ‘Law of Love’ is initially directed to our love as Christians for ‘one another’ (verse 8), but it becomes more general in verses 9 and 10 to encompass ‘our neighbor.’ Thus the Christian is commanded to love his wife (Ephesians 5:25), his neighbor (Romans 13:9), and even his enemy (Matthew 5:44-45).
111 “But God demands much more of the believer than the state asks. The latter says, ‘Thou shalt not injure thy neighbor.’ God says, ‘Thou shalt love him as thyself’ and short of this love the civil law is not fulfilled. Love is not the ‘fulfilling,’ but the fulfillment of the law. This is impossible to men in their natural state, but not to him whose heart is made like God’s. It is by this simple but powerful principle of love that the Christian not only fulfills the law, but finds his freedom in it. Love takes the place of the letter and makes all moral duties not only light, but a delight.” Stifler, p. 219.
A man consulted a doctor. “I’ve been misbehaving, Doc, and my conscience is troubling me,” he complained.
“And you want something that will strengthen your willpower?” asked the doctor.
“Well, no,” said the fellow. “I was thinking of something that would weaken my conscience.”113
In Romans 14 the apostle Paul is dealing with matters of Christian conscience and personal convictions, especially as they relate to the relationships of the strong and the weak. Paul’s prescription in this chapter is far from that sought by the fellow just mentioned. He does not praise the overly sensitive conscience of the weak, nor does he condemn it. He accepts Christians where they are in their pilgrimage of faith and pleads with us to do the same.
Ray Stedman has said that the favorite indoor sport of Christians is trying to change each other. In Romans 14 Paul says we should not endeavor to change one another to suit our preferences, but instead we should change our conduct so as not to offend the weaker brother. Verses 1-12 deal with our responsibility to respect the convictions of one another rather than to revise them. Verses 13-23 instruct us to refrain from exercising our own liberties when they will harm another Christian.
The Issue at Hand. It is vitally important to our understanding of chapter 14 to be absolutely clear as to the issue at hand. The issue to which Paul speaks is the matter of personal convictions. Individual Christians will often differ over matters of conscience and of liberties. The differences of which Paul speaks are not over absolutes or fundamental doctrines of the faith. Specifically, Paul mentions the matter of eating meat or only vegetables (v. 2), of observing certain holy days (v. 5), and of drinking wine (v. 21).
While two Christians may disagree over whether or not a Christian should drink wine or eat only vegetables, no Christian should dispute the fact that lying, stealing, and immorality are sin. These are biblical and moral absolutes. No two Christians should differ over the virgin birth or the deity of Christ, the physical resurrection of our Lord or the substitutionary atonement. These are doctrinal certainties.
When we understand that Paul is speaking with regard to individual liberties, Christian rights, and personal convictions, then it is easy to see the difference in Paul’s attitude in Romans 14 as compared with Galatians 5 and Colossians 2. There were those who taught that it was impossible to be saved apart from the keeping of the Law. “And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1).
With these Judaizers, Paul was very severe, for their doctrine was false. Those in Rome of whom Paul spoke were not of this sort. They were not saying that they had to avoid meat in order to be saved; they simply felt it was wrong for the Christian to eat meat, just as it is wrong to lie or steal.
The difference between Paul’s response to the weakness of Romans 14 and the heresy of Galatians can be best illustrated by his actions with regard to the circumcision of Timothy and Titus. In Acts 16:3, Paul had Timothy circumcised so as not to offend the scruples and custom (and perhaps prejudices) of those who knew his father was a Greek. But in Galatians 2:3-5, Paul refused to circumcise Titus because there the heretics were insisting that circumcision was essential to salvation.
Paul is particularly gracious and gentle in his instructions concerning the weak brethren in Romans 14, and it is because there was no heresy here, only a difference of understanding in the matter of Christian convictions and Christian liberties. Although Paul deals decisively with moral sin and doctrinal deviation in the New Testament he pleads for understanding and love when it comes also to immaturity in the matter of Christian liberties.
The story has often been told of the culprits who entered a department store at night and stole nothing—they simply switched the price tags. Refrigerators sold for $9.95 while candy bars were $500.
While I was attending seminary several years ago, the most amazing realization of my study of the New Testament was that someone had switched the labels on the strong and the weak. I had always been taught that the strong Christian was the one who knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t smoke, drink, dance or go to movies. And she couldn’t wear lipstick or make-up. The strong Christian is “… someone who lives in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself.”114 The weak Christian was the one who spoke of liberty.
If this has been your understanding of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak,’ then you had better take a closer look at this chapter. The weak brother thinks it is wrong to eat meat, and so he eats only vegetables. The strong knows there is nothing intrinsically sinful about meat-eating (verse 2). The weak (we would assume) regards some days as more sacred, while the strong regards every day alike (verse 5). When I was a youngster, I can remember Christian friends whose parents thought it wrong to swim or water ski (or do anything fun) on Sunday. The strong knows he is free to drink wine in moderation (verse 21, cf. I Timothy 5:23), while the weak feels he must be a tee-totaler.115
I must go on to say that the weak Christian is not just the one who believes something which in fact is a Christian liberty is prohibited, but he is one who is inclined to go ahead and follow the example of the strong in spite of his scruples. The weak Christian, then, is not just the one who heartily condemns drinking wine, but who also might drink wine against his conscience because you or I do it. In my estimation, those who preach on the evils of wine so vehemently are not weaker brethren.116
The ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ have several distinct characteristics.
(1) They are weak in faith. Literally, they are weak ‘in the faith’ or ‘in their faith. I suspect that both elements are true. That is, the weak are those who have not yet come to the full realization of the freedom and the liberty which is a part of the faith. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
(2) They are correspondingly weak in their personal faith. A limited understanding of the nature and extent of grace limits subjective faith.
(3) The weak are prone to condemn the actions of the strong. As they have not yet come to understand Christian liberty, they do not accept it in others. The weak can be immediately recognized by the frown of contempt on their faces, and the “Oh, no!” look in their eyes.
(4) The strong are those who are more fully aware of the nature of grace and of the teachings of the word of God. They have a greater grasp of the faith (objective-doctrine) and so their faith (subjective-personal) is stronger.
(5) The strong are susceptible to the sin of smugness and arrogance. They can easily find contempt and disdain for those who cannot fully grasp grace. On their face can be seen the lofty, yet condescending, smile of contempt. Their eyes betray an expression of “Oh, really.”
A Word of Warning. To each of these groups, the strong and the weak, Paul has a word of warning and instruction. The instruction is to stop passing judgment on the convictions of the other, and to welcome them into warm fellowship and acceptance. “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1).
In verses 1-12, Paul gives us several good reasons why it is wrong for Christians to attempt to correct the convictions of other believers.
(1) Personal convictions are private property. Paul wrote in verse 5: “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” Again in verse 22 we are told: “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God …” Paul’s point is uncomfortably clear. Mind your own business! Christian convictions are private property. We are responsible for our own convictions, but not those of our brother.
(2) Our acceptance of men into fellowship should be no more restrictive than God’s. The strong were apparently guilty of getting together with the weak only to ‘straighten them out.’ The effect of the matter was that strong and weak Christians were not associating with one another, or accepting them. We cannot demand the other brother to conform to our convictions before we will fellowship with him simply because this would be inconsistent with the acceptance shown by God. “Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). If God has accepted our brother, as he is, then we must do no less. We should not try to change the one God has accepted as is.
(3) A servant is accountable only to his master. Some time ago, I was asked to preach at a Bible church in Washington State. Perhaps unwisely, I selected a topic that I knew could prove difficult for some to accept. I told the pastor before the sermon that my message might prove a little difficult. I’ll never forget the response of that man of God. “You’re the Lord’s servant, brother, not mine.”
That is precisely what Paul is trying to get across to us in verse 4: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls, and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4). If we busy ourselves in judging our brothers, we are taking upon ourselves the prerogatives of God, for He alone is their master.
In verses 6-12, the emphasis of Paul’s words is that the life we live, we live before God. When Paul says in verse 7, “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself,” he does not refer (here) to the impact we have on other men by our actions. Rather he stresses that nothing we do is done independently of God, that whether we live or die, we do so as to the Lord.
He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. … for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:6, 8).
If we wish to busy ourselves with the work of passing judgment, let us concentrate upon ourselves, rather than upon our neighbor, for at the judgment seat of God we will be judged for our own actions: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10).
The force of Paul’s argumentation is irresistible. The Christian has no business trying to conform his brother to his own personal convictions, since convictions are private property, since God has accepted him as he is, and since every servant is accountable only to his own master.
Paul’s words to this point have been painful, but he is not done with us yet. It is insufficient merely to cease in our efforts to mold our brother after our own image and convert his convictions to our own. We must go beyond this to a positive course of action which seeks to build up the weaker brother in his faith. What Paul is going to say is that we do not build up our brother by forcing him to come to our convictions, but by forfeiting our liberties for the sake of our brother.
The Right Verdict. Paul’s instruction to us is found in verse 13, where he writes, “Therefore let us not judge one another any more, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
It is hard to spot the word play of the apostle in verse 13, but in the Greek text, the words ‘judge’ and ‘determine’ are the same Greek word. We might render it something like this: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any more, but let us come to this verdict—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in our brother’s way.”
The Ultimate Issue Is Not One of Right or Wrong. The basis for Paul’s exhortation in verses 13-23 is that neither the exercise of Christian liberties nor the abstinence from them is intrinsically good or evil. The rightness or wrongness of these liberties is determined by our attitude toward them: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14).
I want you to notice that Paul, in verse 14, uses the word ‘unclean’ and not the word ‘evil’ or ‘wrong.’ This word ‘unclean’ strongly implies to me that the basic issue at hand is that of a change in dispensation from the Old Testament economy to the New. A Jew could not eat a bacon and tomato sandwich under the Old dispensation, but could under the New. To the Christian Jew, not fully liberated from the observance of Old Testament food laws, eating ham and eggs was unthinkable, and, in his eyes, a sin. Ceremonial laws and traditions, those were issues which brought about cracks in the unity of the body at Rome.
Judaism tended to associate holiness or uncleanness with the object rather than with the person. A certain day was ‘holy’ while another was common. A certain food was clean while another was unclean. But our Lord taught that it is not the object which defiles or purifies the man; it is what he is within that matters (Mark 7:1-15, esp. v. 15).
I must tarry a moment to clarify a very important point. For it is here that I must part ways with the situationalist. Situation ethics maintains that it is purely the attitude that counts. If you think that it’s right, it’s right. If you practice immorality in a loving way, then it is right. The question becomes: Is it the loving thing to do? Do you feel right about it?
There are two major differences immediately apparent between situation ethics and Christian ethics. First, situational ethics is applied to all areas of conduct. Situational ethics applies even where the Scriptures have spoken authoritatively. The Bible calls premarital sex sin (Hebrews 13:4), but situationalists often call it pure and wholesome. No matter how we feel about something that the Bible calls sin, it is still sin. Thus, situational ethics applies across the board, while Christian ethics applies to those things which are liberties for the Christian. While situational ethics takes the whole spectrum of human conduct and applies relative standards, Paul takes only the segment of things acceptable before God, but questionable in the eyes of some immature Christians.
Second, situational ethics works both sides of the street, while Christian ethics doesn’t. Situational ethics say, if you think it’s right for you, it’s right. They also say, if you think it’s wrong, then for you it is wrong. Paul never says that drinking wine is right because we think it is. Drinking wine is right because God says it is. The only situationalism present in Romans 14 is that something which is really a liberty for us is wrong whenever we think it to be wrong. If we sincerely believe eating ice cream is sinful for the Christian, it is wrong, not because God said so, but because we suppose so. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:22 says, “I have become all things to all men.”
A Matter of Low Priority. If the exercise of Christian liberties is not a matter of absolute right and wrong, neither is it a matter of great importance. Paul is pressing us in verse 17 to get the matter of our priorities straight: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). The heart of Christianity is not whether or not to drink wine or whether to eat meat or to abstain. The heart of the gospel is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy.
If righteousness, peace, joy and Christian unity (cf. v. 19; Romans 15:5, 6) is the essence of the Kingdom of light into which were called, then eating meat or not eating it is such a low priority it can be dispensed with without any real sacrifice, other than our own appetites and desires and preferences.
It’s Not a Matter of Right and Wrong—It’s a Matter of Love. Now let us return to Paul’s point. Since the activities in question are not in any way evil in and of themselves, there is no great benefit in either enjoying them or abstaining from them. The real issue is one of love. Love seeks to build up, never to tear down or to destroy. “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15). We are not to be preoccupied with our Christian liberties, but rather with love. Love never causes a brother to stumble, but seeks to strengthen the weak.
Words for the Strong (vv. 21-22). Paul’s admonition for the strong is expressed in verses 21 and 22: “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (Romans 14:21, 22). The strong Christian should never practice matters of Christian liberty (such as eating meat or drinking wine) and thereby cause another, weaker brother, to follow in his footsteps and fall into sin. The weaker brother who drinks wine, not because he is convinced it is his liberty, but in doubt and only because another Christian is doing so, is thereby sinning against his conscience and his God.
The strong Christian is obligated not only to abstain from the exercise of his liberties, but also from his efforts to convert the weaker brother to his point of view. If you have convictions, they are personal, so keep them to yourself (v. 22a). And be careful that what you claim as a liberty is just that (v. 22b).
Words for the Weak (v. 23). The weak is warned never to act out of doubt, simply because another Christian is doing it. “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To act apart from faith, that is, to act apart from sincere conviction and the confidence that you are doing so acceptably before God, is to act in sin.
Several things should be stated very clearly in order to avoid any misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching in this 14th chapter of Romans. The main point of Paul’s teaching is that every Christian should be free to hold his own convictions on matters of Christian liberty, but that no Christian is free to exercise these liberties at the expense of his brother’s spiritual welfare.
The devastating consequence for the weaker Christian of which Paul speaks is not the loss of his personal salvation, for that is eternally secure. The loss is that of the separation or alienation from God experienced as the result of sin. When the weaker brother drinks wine with a troubled conscience and only because his more mature brother does so, he is acting in doubt and thus sinning (v. 23). The grief or hurt (v. 15) of the weaker brother is the pangs of conscience with which he is inflicted due to violating his conscience and thereby sinning.
Paul’s teaching is that there is nothing categorically wrong with matters of Christian liberty and freedom. To take a specific illustration there is nothing intrinsically wrong with going to a theater to view a motion picture (i.e. going to movies). The mere act of going to a movie is not, in and of itself, wrong. Now going to an ‘X-rated’ movie is a horse of a different color. It is not the fact that it is a movie which makes viewing it wrong, but the fact that this movie entices one to think and commit immoral thoughts. Whereas movie-going per se is not wrong, going to certain movies is no question of liberty; it is a matter clearly dealt with on the basis of biblical principles.
It is not wrong to enjoy a good meal, but it is wrong to destroy our physical bodies by over-eating. It is not wrong to drink a glass of wine (except for an alcoholic, for whom this would inevitably lead to sin), but it is wrong to get drunk. It may not be wrong to enjoy a good smoke, but it is wrong to endanger the longevity of life due to cancer, or to allow our bodies to become the slave of food, or drink, or nicotine, or aspirin, or whatever. What may not be wrong categorically may be wrong on the basis of one or more clear biblical principles.
First of all, let me speak to any who may have delighted in what I have said because they view one’s spiritual relationship with God as a personal matter. “My relationship with God is a very personal, very private matter,” they tell us. All of which is a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about it, and furthermore, it’s none of your business!”
You will get to heaven only if you do so God’s way, by personal faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Substitute Who bore the penalty of your sin, and Who is God’s provision of the righteousness which you lack for eternal life. And if you do not want to talk about it, there is surely something wrong, for Paul wrote in Romans 10:9-10, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
The privacy of which Paul writes is the privacy of one’s convictions concerning personal liberties, not a privacy which excuses you from discussing God’s way of salvation, or your acceptance of Him.
Second, I see from this text that there is a desperate need among Christians for solid convictions. When Paul said in verse 5, “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind,” he instructed every Christian to have his own personal convictions. All too often in Christianity the new Christian is not encouraged to think for himself as the Bible directs him, but to simply stop conforming to the world and start conforming to the codes and values of the church and the Christian community. We need men and women of conviction!
Lest I have not said it enough, these convictions are not feelings (“I feel right about it.”) but convictions rooted in the mind, not in the emotions. “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Third, we find a guideline for conduct in questionable areas: If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty. Frequently, young people ask if God will let them do this or that, desiring to walk as closely along the border of sin without exacting its consequences. To doubtful acts Paul cries out, “whatever is not of faith is sin” (verse 23).
Fourth, we should expect Christians to differ. Or, to put it differently, Christian unity is not uniformity. Some seem to think that the unity of the body of Christ is to be expressed by unanimity. Paul says that true Christian unity is derived from unanimity on the fundamentals and loving acceptance where non-essentials are concerned.
It is my personal conviction that there has been far too much division among Christians on matters that are not fundamental to the Christian faith. Doctrinal differences that are not over fundamentals of the faith should not divide the Church of Jesus Christ. It was the apostle Paul himself, a man of great convictions, who wrote: “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Philippians 3:15). How often we have confused “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) with contending with the faithful.
Fifth, the principle of faith should be as readily applied to others as it is to our own lives. What we really doubt when we endeavor to forcibly convert others to our own convictions is God’s ability to work in the lives of others. But Paul wrote, “‘Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
Christian wife, can you trust God to work in your husband’s life in such a way as to give him the maturity and insight you have? Christian husband, can you do the same? The faith of the Christian is the faith which trusts God to enlighten other Christians according to His time frame and in accordance with His game plan for each individual.
May God give us a measure of His grace in dealing with the saints.
115 “If this theory be correct, then our interpretation of the passage is somewhat different from that which has usually been accepted, and is, we venture to think, more natural. When St. Paul says in ver. 2 ‘the weak man eateth vegetables,’ he does not mean that there is a special sect of vegetarians in Rome; but he takes a typical instance of excessive scrupulousness. When again he says ‘one man considers one day better than another,’ he does not mean that this sect of vegetarians were also strict sabbatarians, but that the same scrupulousness may prevail in other matters. When he speaks of oJ qronw'n thVn hJmevran, oJ mhV ejoqivwn he is not thinking of any special body of people but rather of special types. When again in ver. 21 he says: ‘It is good not to eat flesh, or drink wine, or do anything in which thy brother is offended,’ he does not mean that these vegetarians and sabbatarians are also total abstainers; he merely means ‘even the most extreme act of self-denial is better than injuring the conscience of a brother.’ He had spoken very similarly in writing to the Corinthians: ‘Wherefore, if meat maketh my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I make not my brother to stumble’ (I Cor. viii. 13). It is not considered necessary to argue from these words that abstinence from flesh was one of the characteristics of the Corinthian sectaries; nor is it necessary to argue in a similar manner here.” William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902), pp. 401-402.
116 Some would endeavor to use the word ‘grieve’ or ‘hurt’ in verse 15 to support their contention that if any brother is offended (upset) by our liberties, we should give it up. The word hurt here can not have such a meaning as Murray indicates (Vol. II, pp. 190-191). Murray concludes: “Hence a weak believer ‘is grieved’ when he has violated his religious convictions and is afflicted with the vexation of conscience which the consequent sense of quilt involves. It is this tragic result for the weak believer that the strong believer must take into account. When the exercise of his liberty emboldens the weak to violate his conscience, then, out of deference to the religious interests of the weak, he is to refrain from the exercise of what are intrinsically his rights. No charge could be weighted with greater appeal than ‘Destroy not by thy food that one on whose behalf Christ died’ (cf. I Cor. 8:11).” John W. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, p. 191.
One illicit method of learning something about the other person is to read their mail. Now I know that there are many times when we read Paul’s epistles that we suspect he has been reading our mail. But Romans 15 and 16 is one occasion in which the Spirit of God enables us to read Paul’s mail, and personally I’m excited about it.
You may be a bit surprised by this, having been inclined to think just the opposite. Bible students remind us that at verse 14 we have passed the teaching portion of the epistle and have come to a few personal concluding remarks. At the surface of the matter, we are inclined to agree with the commentators and settle back for a brief rest until we come to another epistle, supposing introductions and conclusions to be formalities, about as meaningless as our casual greetings: “Hi!” “How’s it going?” or “Good to see you.”
But this is not the case with this concluding section of the epistle to the Romans from the pen of the great apostle, Paul. Not at all! You see, we learn about as much about Paul from reading the body of his epistles as we do about the preacher from hearing his sermons. What we all want to know is, what is he really like? You learn about the preacher by inviting him to your house for dinner, or by visiting him in his home. You and I can learn what made the apostle Paul tick by looking closely into these ‘personal’ sections of his epistles. Here, as I have already said, we are truly reading Paul’s mail. Here we will learn much about how great Christian doctrine is applied to the realities of life. This is where the rubber meets the road.
In chapters 1-3a, Paul has demonstrated the need for a God-kind of righteousness. This is because all men are sinners who do not seek God, and who have rejected and revised whatever knowledge they had of Him. The righteousness which is acceptable to God (and which man cannot earn or merit) has been provided by God through the life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. This righteousness is appropriated by faith and not by works (Romans 3b-5). The new position of the Christian ‘in Christ’ demands a new kind of life, a life which cannot be lived in the power of the flesh (man’s natural abilities), but only through the provision of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6-8).
Somewhat parenthetical, but vital to the argument of Paul in this epistle, is an explanation for the failure of the Jews to come to salvation while religiously zealous, when the Gentiles are finding it, seemingly without even looking for it. Paul’s answer is that while Israel expected salvation by virtue of their ethnic origins and works, God grants salvation on the basis of mercy, not justice, and on the basis of faith, not works. Israel failed not only because God did not choose every Israelite, but because they did not choose Him. All of this was designed to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and by their conversion to provoke Israel to once again turn to their God (Romans 9-11).
In Romans 12:1 through 15:13 Paul deals with the Christian’s obligations to God and man in view of the divine mercy he has received. Our obligation to God is a sacrificial life of worshipful service. That service is to be manifested within the church by the exercise of our spiritual gift and within our human relations by the exercise of love (Romans 12). We are obligated to abide by the laws of the land and to live by the law of God (chapter 13). The law of love is exhibited toward our weaker brethren by allowing him to hold his own convictions on matters of Christian liberty, and by refraining from exercising any personal liberties which might occasion the stumbling of a less mature saint (chapter 14).
In the first 13 verses of chapter 15, Paul puts his finger on the central issue in the responsibility of the strong to the weak in the faith. He then gives three incentives for the strong Christian to give up his rights for the good of the weak. From verse 14 on, we are privileged to read Paul’s personal correspondence for great insight into that which makes a great man of God distinct from the ‘run of the mill’ Christian.
The Central Issue (vv. 1-2). Although 1 Corinthians was written to those who were obviously weak in their Christian faith, such is not the case in Romans, for here Paul speaks of himself and his readers as those who are ‘strong’: “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).117
The central issue of these first two verses is that we must set ourselves upon pleasing our weaker brethren rather than ourselves. At the heart of the friction which exists between the strong and the weak is selfishness. Paul does not demand that the weak ‘shape up,’ but that the strong ‘put up’ with those who are less mature. More than this the strong must be willing to lay aside personal liberties which do not help the strong get stronger, but which do hinder the weak.
At the heart of the matter is the issue of self-discipline and self-denial. This is evident in the epistle of 1 Corinthians (cf. especially 9:24-27; 10:1-13). The only reason why a strong Christian would refuse to yield to the sensitive scruples of the weak is because he is bent upon his own satisfaction.
Now the surrender of our Christian liberties to the weaker brother is not necessarily unconditional. First of all, it is the surrender of Christian liberties, not of Christian liberty. That is, we are to surrender the use of our rights which cause a weaker brother to stumble, not to surrender the liberty we have from the Law to legalism which insists on salvation by faith plus works. Second, we are to endeavor to please our neighbor in that which is both for his good, and for his upbuilding or edification: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification” (Romans 15:2).
Just as a wise parent refuses to give in to every whim of their children, so the wise Christian refuses to surrender to every whim of the immature. Only when our surrender of liberties builds up the weaker brother and is for his ultimate good, do we give in to his weakness. Here, as in every area of Christian experience, there are no formulas for us to follow which tell us when to surrender and when to stand fast. It is a decision of faith for which we must ask divine wisdom.
In verses 3-12, there are three specific motivations for the surrender of our personal liberties to our weaker brethren. In verse 3 there is the motivation we find in the example of our Lord. In verses 4-6 there is the motivation we receive in the exhortation of the Old Testament Scriptures. In verses 7-12 there is the motivation we find from the existence of a divine plan to save Gentiles as well as Jews.
(1) The example of Christ (v. 3). The first factor in Paul’s incentive program is a reminder of the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ.118 Our Lord did not choose to please Himself, that is, to satisfy fleshly appetites, but rather to suffer reproach and persecution of men in order to bless us with salvation. Most seem to emphasize the similarity of our situation with that of Christ. Thus, we are to choose to please others by our self-denial, just as the Lord Jesus Christ sought to please us by His self-denial.
Although this is certainly a valid emphasis, I would agree with Murray,119 that the emphasis here probably falls on the contrast inherent between our Lord’s self-denial and ours. Our Lord Jesus was willing to suffer the reproaches of dishonor toward God, reproaches totally unjust and unmerited. How can we even begin to compare the sacrifice of fleshly desires to that sacrifice of our Lord?
(2) The exhortation of the Old Testament Scriptures (vv. 4-6). Having just cited the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 69:9, Paul broadens his argument by insisting that it is precisely here where the value of the Old Testament Scriptures can be recognized.
That which we find in the Old Testament Scriptures is not without great importance in our own lives. It is not just a record of God’s dealings with men now long-departed, nor is it a reminder of the ‘long ago and the far away’; it is a great source of encouragement and hope: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
How can the Scriptures produce hope? And even more perplexing, what relationship does hope have to the present matter of surrendering Christian liberties? First, we must begin by defining the word ‘hope.’ Webster says, in part, that hope is, “… desire accompanied by anticipation or expectation.”120 Biblically, we would want to be more exact than this. Christian hope is the assurance of realizing a goal, yet future, but which is certain because it is promised by God and will be accomplished by Him.121
This assurance of future blessing is absolutely vital to the subject at hand. Paul is exhorting the stronger brother to forsake the enjoyment of certain liberties for the present time because it may cause a weaker Christian to stumble. Hope is what makes the Christian so distinct from those of the ‘now generation’ who suppose they ‘only go around once’ and thus must ‘grab all the gusto they can get.’ Christians don’t have to ‘grab for gusto’ as the television commercial suggests because we don’t go around only once. The confidence of greater blessing in the future enables us to forsake the relatively insignificant pleasures afforded by our Christian liberties. Just as the athlete has his attention fixed on the winning of a wreath and so denies himself of present luxuries, so the Christian with his eye fixed on the hope before him says no to what hinders his brother’s spiritual growth (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Hope, then, is essential in forsaking the pleasures of certain Christian liberties in the present. But how does the Old Testament help to produce hope? Chapter after chapter of the Old Testament Scriptures remind us of the great men of faith who, because of the hope set before them, denied earthly pleasures in order to experience the hope promised by God.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen (Hebrews 11:24-27).
It is little wonder that the little word hope is so frequently employed in this chapter. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Hope fastens our attention on future blessings far greater than the passing pleasures of this age, and the Old Testament Scriptures rivet our attention on Christian hope.
With this assurance the apostle shifts from the exhortation of verse 4 to petition in prayer in verses 5-6. He prays that the God Who is the source of perseverance and encouragement would glorify Himself by the united praise brought forth as it were by one mouth, the united praise of the strong and the weak.
(3) The existence of a people of God from among the Jews and the Gentiles (vv. 7-12). In verse 7 we are brought back to the central theme introduced in chapter 14, the acceptance of one another by the strong and the weak. “Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). The acceptance of individuals within the body of Christ should be no more exclusive than God’s acceptance of those who are His people. It is my personal ‘intuition’ (and no more than this!) that the real source of friction within the church at Rome had to do with differences which arose between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile believers. If there is any truth in this it would probably mean that the Gentiles tended to be the strong Christians (without any of the Jewish scruples about certain days or certain foods) while the weak, would be the Jews. Spiritual pride would then be mixed with racial pride and create a potential rift in Christian unity.
When Paul emphasizes the salvation of the Gentiles, in verses 8-12, he does so with a distinct purpose in mind. By reminding the ‘strong’ Gentile believers that God has chosen to save Gentiles he prompts a heart-felt sense of gratitude. But when Paul reminds these Gentiles that God’s primary purpose in history is to save Israel, he calls forth an attitude of humility. If the Gentiles wish to be proud of their being stronger than their weaker Jewish brethren let them remember that God’s primary interest has been in keeping His promises to the Jews. God has purposed that Jews and Gentiles rejoice in unison, so let them do so. “And again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people’” (Romans 15:10).
Paul concludes this section with another prayer, a prayer for hope, for joy, for peace, from God through the Holy Spirit. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Paul’s instructional task is completed with verse 13, but in the final half of chapter 15 we come to a much more intimate side of the apostle for here we get a personal look at Paul the missionary. In verses 14-21, we learn Paul’s philosophy of ministry. In verses 22-29 we read of Paul’s plans for ministry. In verses 30-33 we conclude with Paul’s petition for prayer for his ministry.
(1) Paul’s evaluation of the Roman’s maturity (vv. 14-15). The Roman saints were much different from those in Corinth, for Paul has no words of rebuke for them, but a sincere commendation: “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14). These Christians were mature and well-equipped for ministry. They were qualified to counsel and admonish one another.
Paul did not write to them because there was much revelation of which they were ignorant, but because they, like ourselves, were inclined to forget those truths so essential to practical Christian living. There is a real lesson here for many of us who are forever desiring to be taught some new truth, when God is concerned with our application of what we have previously learned.
(2) Paul’s evaluation of his own ministry (vv. 16-21). One of the things which Paul finds necessary to remind the Romans about is his own ministry and apostleship. His calling was to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Just as Paul had exhorted each of us to present ourselves to God as a sacrificial act of worship, so Paul sees his ministry as a priestly ministry, first of all offering himself to God in service, and then offering up the Gentiles (verse 16).
Paul was a man who knew how to handle success. There was much in his ministry of which to boast. Many Christian leaders today find much to boast about, but Paul’s boasting is of another kind. Paul knows that success is the result of divine grace. His ministry was marked by divine grace. He was accredited as an apostle by signs and wonders and miracles (v. 19), but this was the work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s ministry was characterized not by power alone, but also by great vision. Who of us could claim to have fully preached the gospel, even as far as Illyricum (our modern day nation of Yugoslavia). Paul’s vision was to be a pioneer, not to build upon other men’s foundations, but to blaze trails with the gospel of Jesus Christ. “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
In doing this, Paul saw himself fulfilling that which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet: “They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand” (Romans 15:21; Isaiah 52:15).
The greatness of the apostle Paul can be seen by his burning zeal. He is not content to ‘rest on his laurels,’ but now desires to go to the west, to Spain, with the gospel. Paul could not be true to his philosophy of ministry and visit Rome while parts of his world were left unevangelized. But now that there was no region untouched with the gospel (v. 23), he could look to Spain, and on his way, he could visit the saints in Rome.
There was yet one task remaining which would keep Paul from Rome. Early in his ministry Paul had been exhorted by Peter, James and John to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). The saints in Macedonia and Achaia, sensing their obligation to minister materially to those who had sent the gospel to them, delighted to make a generous contribution to those in Jerusalem and to send it with Paul (v. 26). As soon as this task was accomplished Paul would set out for Rome and then be sent on122 to Spain.
We would naturally be inclined to suppose that the greatness of Paul’s ministry could be deducted from what we have already read. That is, Paul’s greatness was the result of the Holy Spirit’s dynamic manifestation through the apostle and also of the breadth and intensity of Paul’s missionary vision. But there is one additional factor which provides, to a great extent, the key to Paul’s success as a missionary statesman. That key is found in verses 30-33.
Paul is thoroughly convinced that his ministry would be a complete failure without prevailing prayer, and not just his own petitions, but those of the saints in various churches on his behalf. “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Romans 15:30).
These prayers were to be specific and directed toward Paul’s particular situation. He was well aware of the dangers ahead in Jerusalem, and especially of the strength of his Jewish opponents. Paul asks not only to be delivered from his opposition, but also to be effective in ministering to the saints (v. 31). If God spares Paul from the enemy and gives him a fruitful ministry among the saints he will arrive in Rome in joy, eagerly anticipating a refreshing stay with them (v. 32).
One final word on the strong and the weak. The attitude of the strong Christian is to be that of our Lord Jesus Christ, a willingness to set aside personal pleasure for the spiritual well-being of the weak. But our duty of Christian love is to avoid only what will cause one to stumble and to practice that which will edify and build up the weaker brother in the faith. We are not to treat the weaker Christian like a spoiled willful brat but as a weaker brother.
I would like the thrust of our concentration to be upon those characteristics of Paul’s ministry which, humanly speaking, made him the man of God that he was, and his ministry the history-making effort the New Testament informs us it was.
(1) Paul had a ministry based upon biblical principles. It was a ministry that was biblically motivated. Paul viewed himself, as we all should do, as a priestly minister offering up his own life in service to God and offering up as well those whose lives he touched with the gospel as a sacrifice of praise to God (v. 16).
Furthermore, his was a ministry based upon biblical methodology. Over and over again today, I am faced by those in the ministry who are basing their ministry on pragmatism rather than on biblical principles. Paul had a biblical perspective of ministry. He knew that his ministry, as all things, was of God, through God, and unto God (Romans 11:36). His ministry was not of his own choosing—he was appointed as such by divine calling (vv. 15, 16). His ministry was through God, that is, it was carried out by the enabling power of God, by signs and wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 19). It was a ministry that was unto the praise of God. Paul did not boast in what he had done, but in what God had accomplished through him. The theme of Paul’s ministry was, to God be the glory.
(2) Because Paul’s ministry was a biblical one, it was also a balanced ministry. Paul ministered to both the Jews and the Gentiles. He ministered to both the strong and the weak. He ministered not only to the lost, but to the saved. He ministered not only to the spiritual needs of men, but to their material needs.
I must comment here that there is a great need for balance today in the matter of spiritual and material needs. Some today are telling us we should only seek to save the lost, while others, in seeking to tip the scales to a more even position, minister more to material needs. A biblical ministry will not exclude either ‘material’ or ‘spiritual’ ministry at the expense of the other.123 This is not illustrated only by Paul and the apostles, but also in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(3) These verses reflect Paul’s philosophy of ministry. The apostle purposed to preach the gospel where it had not yet been proclaimed. He did not criticize others who did so, but he had the spirit of a pioneer. He was a trailblazer.
(4) Paul’s ministry was one of priorities. Not only did Paul have biblical principles and his own personal philosophy of ministry—he also had priorities. He would not go to Rome or to Spain until he had fully preached the gospel in the regions in his priority target area. When his heart tugged toward Rome and Spain, he would not go until he had delivered the gift of the Macedonians and the Achaians to Jerusalem.
(5) Paul’s ministry incorporated planning. Principles and priorities are of little value without a plan. And yet so many Christians today seem to equate the ‘leading of the Spirit’ with spontaneity. They feel that spiritual Christians must always ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’ Not so with the apostle Paul. He was a man with very definite plans. Now I must hasten to add that Paul’s plans were flexible and subject to change. Paul may or may not have reached Spain. Paul did not reach Rome as he had expected. It is not wrong to plan; it is wrong to be presumptuous about the future (cf. James 4:13ff.).
(6) Paul’s ministry was undergirded with prayer. No one believed in the sovereignty of God more than Paul, but Paul was also a fervent believer in human responsibility. It was God Who saved the elect and hardened the rest (Romans 9:15, 18, 22-23), but no one would be saved apart from hearing the gospel (Romans 10:14-15). So God’s eternal decree has long ago been determined, but God has ordained that His purposes should be achieved through human responsibility, and one such obligation is that of prayer.
Paul was a great man of prayer himself, but he coveted the prayers of the saints on his behalf. My friend, if the apostle Paul needed the prayers of the saints, we need them more today. Not only should you be praying for your own needs and the needs of those who minister at home and abroad, you also need the prayers of your fellow saints.
Here then are some earmarks of a successful ministry. It should be based upon biblical principles. It should be based upon a personal philosophy and guided by priorities. It should include planning and prayer. Most of all it must be dependent upon divine grace. May God enable each of us to minister in this way.
119 “The frequency with which this Psalm is alluded to in the New Testament and its details represented as fulfilled in Christ marks it as distinctly messianic. The part quoted must be understood in the Light of what immediately precedes in the Psalm: “the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.” It is not our reproaches that are in view but the reproaches of dishonour leveled against God. These reproaches vented against God by the ungodly fell upon Christ. This is to say that all the enmity of men against God was directed to Christ; he was the victim of this assault. It is to this Paul appeals as exemplifying the assertion that Christ “pleased not himself.” We may well ask then: how does this feature of our Lord’s humiliation bear upon the duty of pleasing our neighbor in the situation which Paul has in view? It is the apparent dissimilarity that points up the force of Jesus’ example. There is a profound discrepancy between what Christ did and what the strong are urged to do. He “pleased not himself” to the incomparable extent of bearing the enmity of men against God and he bore this reproach because he was jealous for God’s honour. He did not by flinching evade any of the stroke. Shall we, the strong, insist on pleasing ourselves in the matter of food and drink to the detriment of God’s saints and the edification of Christ’s body? It is the complete contrast between Christ’s situation and ours that enhances the force of the appeal.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, pp. 198-199.
121 “(c) NT hope is a patient, disciplined, confident waiting for and expectation of the Lord as our Saviour. To hope is to be set in motion by the goal ahead, awaiting in this movement towards the goal. It demonstrates its living character by the steadfastness with which it waits, … by the patient bearing of the tension between the now, as we walk (for the moment) …, by … faith (2 Cor. 5:7), and our future manner of life (cf. Rom. 8:25; 1 Thess. 1:3). This waiting is something active, for it involves overcoming. Although the waiting may be painful, this too is reckoned positively as “travail” which announces “rebirth” (Matt. 24:8). Therefore those who hope are comforted and confident (2 Cor. 5:8; 2 Thess. 2:16; 1 Thess. 4:18). Hoping is disciplined waiting. Therefore, in 1 Pet. 1:13 the warning, “set your hope fully upon the grace …,” is preceded by “gird up your minds,” i.e. be ready for the onslaught. To this context belongs the fundamental renunciation of all calculations of the future, the humble recognition of the limits set to our knowledge, the submission of our wishes to the demands of the battle for life to which we have been appointed. The goal of our hope calls us to “watch and pray.” The man who competes for an earthly … crown makes the necessary sacrifices (1 Cor. 9:25). Hope becomes the motive for personal purity (1 Jn. 3:3), spurs us on to strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14) without which no man can see God. Filled with the longing to return home to his Lord, the apostle seeks his glory in pleasing him (2 Cor. 5:8f.). Hope requires us to hold fast our confession of it without wavering (Heb. 10:23) and to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us to give an account of our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). Finally, however, NT hope is a joyful waiting (Rom. 12:12) … It gives courage and strength. It protects the inner man as a helmet protects the head (1 Thess. 5:8). As a ship is safe when at anchor, our life is secured by hope which binds us to Christ, our great High Priest who has entered the sanctuary (Heb. 6:18f.).” E. Hoffman, “Hope,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), II, pp. 243-244.
122 “This phrase, ‘brought on the way,’ or sent forward, refers to a semi-official custom of the apostolic churches in furnishing an escort to go some or all the way with a departing minister or missionary. Paul is here most likely asking that one or more of the Roman brethren be sent with him to Spain. (See Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5; I Cor. 16:6, 11; II Cor. 1:16; Titus 3:13; III John 6.) The original word is technical and is used only in reference to this custom.” James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 239-240.
123 To be biblically accurate, it is wrong to distinguish between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ needs. Why would the ‘deacons’ of Acts chapter 6 have to be such highly qualified men spiritually (cf. v. 3) if their ministry to the widows was just ‘material’?
One of the tests of a man’s beliefs is what we might call the ‘people test.’ That is, how we relate to people to a great extent indicates the validity and value of our beliefs. I would, for example, immediately suspect the dogmas of a man who could make a statement like this: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.”124 You might be interested that this is a statement written to Pfister by Sigmund Freud. As a result of such a statement, I would be suspicious of anything Freud might advocate.
How different is the attitude of the apostle Paul toward his fellows. He is such a ‘people person’ that he sent personal greetings to twenty-six individuals and five households in the city of Rome—a city, I might add, Paul had not yet visited. Paul’s familiarity with this church and particular members of it is so intimate that a number of scholars have suggested this letter could not have been written to the unvisited church at Rome, but rather the familiar church of Ephesus.125
I have previously suggested that in verse 14 of chapter 15 we have come to the final section of this great epistle, and that here we are privileged to obtain a more intimate glimpse into the personal life of Paul. We are indeed reading Paul’s mail in chapter 16 as well. Verses 1-16 constitute words of personal greeting; verses 17-20 are final words of warning; verses 21-24 contain the greetings of those with Paul; and verses 25-27 conclude with a benediction of praise.
The Commendation of Phoebe (vv. 1-2). There is much which suggests that Phoebe, the sister from the city of Cenchrea, a port city of Corinth, was the bearer of this epistle of Paul. The real question which arises with the mention of this woman is the reference to her as a ‘deaconess’ (NASV, margin, v. 1) of the church. This passage is one of a very few biblical texts which are employed to substantiate the church office of deaconess.126
It would seem to me that several factors combine to militate against such a conclusion.127 First of all, the Greek word diakonos (servant) is a very general term, which is rarely used with the technical force of an ecclesiastical office in the New Testament. Out of approximately 30 occurrences of this term in the New Testament, 27 instances of diakonos are employed in the non-technical sense of a ‘minister’ or ‘one who serves.’ In only three instances does the technical sense emerge, and this with reference to male deacons. Approaching this term from a statistical perspective, we should expect to find the non-technical sense In Romans 16:1.
Second, the context demands nothing more than a general sense, rendered adequately as a servant of the church at Cenchrea. In verse 2, she is referred to as a helper of many, and of Paul. I cannot see an ecclesiastical office here. Third, biblical principles would prohibit a woman to fill any ecclesiastical office in which she would exercise authority over men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36). Finally, the existence of such an ecclesiastical office does not occur historically until sometime later than the New Testament period.128
I would hasten to say that the work of this woman Phoebe was a vital service to the body of Christ, and such work continues to minister to the saints today. Though there may be no official office associated with the task of the ministry of women, there is great need for it and great benefit derived from it. From the further description of Phoebe in verse 2, I would conclude that she may have been financially affluent and used her resources to minister to the church much as Lydia, described in Acts chapter 16 (verses 14-15).129
Because of her service to the church, Paul includes in his epistle a personal word of commendation. He exhorts the saints in Rome to receive her and minister to her in a way which is befitting to those who name the name of Christ (v. 2).
Greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, Romans (vv. 3-4). If verses 1 and 2 give us some insight into the ministry of a single woman in the church, verses 3 and 4 provide an example for the married woman. It is not without significance that out of the six instances in the New Testament where Priscilla and Aquila are named, four times Priscilla is mentioned first. It is possible that Priscilla had a more outgoing personality than her husband, or that she was more gifted than he. It has also been suggested that she may have been by birth a woman of higher social rank.130
From Luke’s account in Acts chapter 18 (verses 24-28), we are informed that both Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos more fully in the truths concerning the gospel. Here is a great husband-wife team, ministering together. They were apparently warmhearted people who gladly took people into their hearts and home, even when doing so might entail great personal danger. Although we do not know the specifics behind Paul’s statement concerning their ‘risking their necks’ for Paul’s life in verse 4, we do see this couple as a splendid example of ministry within the confines of the blue collar class.
Now there has been a great deal of conjecture made as to the identity of the remaining individuals, but little can be said of any of the rest with great certainty. I would suspect that we should conclude that those who are mentioned are not extraordinary people, but typical members of the Christian community such as you and me.
I suppose that you might wonder at the value of the recording of these names (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) for the Christian today. They may seem about as relevant to us as the names recorded in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ (which, incidentally, are of value as well). But there are several important observations that should be made concerning Paul’s reference to these individuals in the conclusion of his letter.
(1) Paul, contrary to what is supposed today, greatly valued women and the significance of their ministry. Within those named in chapter 16, probably eight were women. A special word of commendation was given concerning Phoebe. The mother of Rufus was claimed by Paul as though his own mother (verse 13). Priscilla was highly regarded with her husband. Paul viewed the ministry of women as that which should be greatly appreciated and commended.
(2) Paul was a ‘people person.’ Paul was a man who held Bible doctrine in highest regard, but not to the neglect of his brothers and sisters. Imagine Paul being able to refer to many of the Roman saints by name and yet never setting foot in Rome. Now I will grant that couples like Priscilla and Aquila were obviously highly mobile and that Paul had contact with them elsewhere, but this cannot be true of all that are mentioned.
How did the apostle become so intimately acquainted with individual Christians? Let me employ a little sanctified imagination and suggest some possibilities.
(a) Paul viewed ministry as a personal ministry, not just a platform ministry. By this I mean that Paul was deeply committed to minister to people as individuals and not just ‘en masse.’ Paul’s ministry was both public and private (Acts 20:20). It was not a cold and distant ministry, but involved his deepest emotions:
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11; cf. also Acts 20:19)
(b) Paul not only taught and ministered individually, he prayed individually and specifically (cf. Philippians 1:3-5; Colossians 1:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, etc.). Although the Scriptures do not say it precisely, I believe that when Paul prayed for the Roman saints he did not pray as we do for the missionaries and the lost: “God bless the missionaries everywhere, and please save those who don’t know you.” Paul prayed specifically, I believe.
(c) Paul wrote letters of admonition and instruction addressed to specific individuals, needs, and problems (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12; 5:1ff.; 6:1ff., etc.). Although Paul could not be physically present with the saints, he was present in spirit (1 Corinthians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:17).
(d) Paul did not think of the rewards of his ministry in terms of his monthly bank balance, but rather as measured by the salvation and sanctification of souls. Paul’s reward for ministry was people: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; cf. also Philippians 4:1).
May I be so bold as to suggest that we may greatly multiply our ministry by following Paul’s example. Let us consider the ministry we can have by writing. We may write to missionaries abroad and inform them of God’s working in our midst. We may ask them to write in response with prayer requests and testimonies of answered prayers. We may minister to those with deep spiritual needs by writing a note of thanks, or a simple word of encouragement. Sometimes we may need to give a gentle rebuke or a word of warning. We may pray for Christians individually, and for the lost specifically. We may seek out individuals to whom we are drawn and endeavor to meet specific needs. We may look for our rewards in terms of changed lives and grateful brothers and sisters in Christ. Our ministry is not to be so much program-oriented as people-oriented.
One of the factors which facilitated people-to-people ministry was the New Testament phenomenon of house churches (cf. v. 5). I am not advocating the sale of every church building, but I am resisting the trend toward centering the total church program toward large groups in the church building rather than in the homes. This is one of the primary reasons Community Bible Chapel has initiated the ministry group concept in our assembly. There is no better environment for person-to-person ministry than in the home.
(3) There was in the ancient churches of our Lord Jesus Christ a great sense (and reality) of unity and fellowship. Paul commends the saints at Rome to accept warmly a saint from Cenchrea (verse 1). All the churches were said to greet the saints at Rome (v. 16). Some of those mentioned by name traveled freely about the Christian churches and were deeply aware of their needs and ministries.
Within Bible-believing local churches today, there seems to be more competition than cooperation and unity. We are jealous of another church which has a more effective ministry than us in a certain area. We seldom tangibly express our Christian unity by joint fellowship and ministry. We think that the church in Dallas is only slightly larger than the membership of our church. What a tragedy! God’s church in Dallas includes every believer in Jesus Christ, rich or poor, black or white, charismatic or non-charismatic, high church or low church. May God move in our city to express the unity of all Christians regardless of which church we attend.
Some have felt the transition from verse 16 to verse 17 is far too abrupt. How could the apostle be so authoritative and austere? The reason is simply that there is a great imminent danger from those who are false teachers. “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17).
The nature of the heresy is that it is contrary to the doctrine taught by the Scriptures, and it is divisive (v. 17). The nature of the heretics is that they are very persuasive and that they prey upon the naive and immature (v. 18). In addition, they are men who are the slaves of their own appetites and desires. Our response should not be ridicule or burning them at the stake, but simply to keep away from them. Don’t associate with such persons (v. 17).
The reports Paul has received concerning the Roman Christians has been very positive and encouraging. Nevertheless, they need to strive to be wise concerning the good and naive concerning evil (verse 19). How easy it is to deceive ourselves by saying that we must study what is evil in order to be able to recognize and refute it. Not so. We can easily fall into evil by letting our minds dwell on it. Rather, we must be diligent in studying that which is good and profitable (cf. Philippians 4:8). In doing this, we will devote ourselves to that which is edifying and upbuilding. In addition, we will be able to discern that which is false due to our intimate acquaintance with the truth.
There is a battle currently being waged by Satan, but this will be short-lived. “And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). In terms which draw our attention to Genesis 3:15, we are promised that God will subject Satan under our feet. Victory is imminent!
Few would dispute the conclusion that Paul was writing in the spring of A.D. 58 from the city of Corinth, toward the end of his missionary journey just prior to his return to Jerusalem.131 There with Paul in the city of Corinth were a number of men who wished to extend personal greetings as well as the apostle. One of these men was Timothy (verse 21), another Tertius, who was Paul’s amanuensis or scribe (verse 22). Each of these men reflected Paul’s great love for the saints at Rome.
The one fact of which I am reminded in these verses of greetings from Paul’s friends is that Paul seldom ministered alone. He was nearly always accompanied by a group of men. Now to some extent Paul was multiplying his ministry by ‘committing himself to faithful men’ (2 Timothy 2:2) in order that they might minister. But Paul was committed not just to a ministry of discipleship which sought to pattern men after himself, but rather to a discipleship which sought to conform others to the image of Christ, and to make men His disciples. In order to accomplish this, Paul chose to work with a team of men, each of whom ministered to the others, and each of whom exercised his particular spiritual gift(s) to the edification of the rest and the propagation of the gospel.
When you come to the end of a great epistle like the Book of Romans, there is only one appropriate conclusion and that is a benediction of praise. In these last three verses, the apostle summarizes the major themes of the epistle.
(1) The Wisdom of God. We are reminded in these verses of the infinite wisdom of God. In the wisdom of God, He devised a plan whereby He would take rebellious and sinful men and give to them eternal salvation, yet without blemish to His attributes of justice and holiness. This He accomplished by the substitutionary death of His Son, Jesus Christ. He further planned to save both Jews and Gentiles. The rebellion and unbelief of the Jews has made possible the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. And the salvation of the Gentiles will provoke the Jews to jealousy, so that they will finally turn again to their Messiah.
The wisdom of God in saving Jews and Gentiles was not fully disclosed in the Old Testament. Though this mystery was spoken of by the prophets, their meaning was not made known until the coming of Messiah and the preaching of the apostle, whose calling was to make known the mystery of God’s plan to save men from every nation and to join them into one body.
(2) The Sovereignty of God. Not only is God all wise, He is all powerful. God is able to accomplish what His wisdom has planned. Paul says in verse 25, “Now to Him who is able to establish you …” If we have learned anything from the Book of Romans, it is that God alone is able to save and sanctify men. Our steadfastness is certain because our God is sovereign.
(3) The Grace of God. Perhaps the word which captures the theme of this epistle more than any other is the word grace. Grace, as we all know, refers to the unmerited favor of God whereby He has showered upon us blessings which we could never earn or merit.
In order to fix the message of this epistle in our minds, let us once again think our way through the book chapter by chapter and section by section.
(1) Condemnation (Romans 1-3a). Without grace man is in desperate plight. All men are sinners who have rejected and perverted the truth of God revealed to them. More knowledge simply brings greater guilt and condemnation. The Gentile pagan is guilty of rejecting the revelation of God in creation. He has chosen to worship the creature rather than the Creator (chapter 1). The Jewish pagan is far more guilty, for although he knows the Law of God and even teaches it to others, he fails to live by its standards (chapter 2). All are sinners, none is a God-seeker and thus all deserve eternal doom (3a).
(2) Justification (Romans 3b-5). The grace of God is revealed at man’s greatest point of need. The righteousness which God requires and man cannot produce by his best efforts, God has provided through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. He alone has satisfied God’s requirements of righteousness. He has suffered the punishment of God for our sins, and He offers in place of our filthy rags of self-righteous endeavor His own righteousness (Romans 3b). The justification which God offers men in Christ is by faith, not works, as the case has always been. This is illustrated in the life of Abraham (chapter 4). The fruit of justification is peace with God, even in the midst of life’s trials and tests (5a). The root of justification is the work of Jesus Christ. Just as one man sinned and thereby brought all who were his descendants into a state of sin, so one man, Jesus Christ, by His righteous life, death and resurrection, justifies all who are in Him (5b).
(3) Sanctification (Romans-6-8). The grace of God is not just needed for salvation. It is the grace of God which has brought us thus far, but it is grace that will also make us what we will be, what we should be. In chapter 6, Paul says that our practice (our practical Christian experience) must conform to our position (in Christ) and our profession (in baptism). Although we should live holy lives, this is humanly impossible due to the weakness of the flesh and the power of sin. What we desire to do we do not and what we despise we practice (chapter 7). At this point of human desperation, the grace of God is revealed and realized through the provision of the Holy Spirit Who enables us to meet God’s requirements for godly living (chapter 8).
(4) Dispensation (Romans 9-11). The grace of God is defended in the matter of Jewish unbelief. How could God be gracious when the Jews to whom God had made eternal promises of blessings were turning in unbelief and the Gentiles were being saved? Since God is dealing with men according to grace, He is under no obligation to save every Jew, but only those whom He chooses (Romans 9). Those who demand justice will get exactly what they deserve, and those who reject the righteousness of God in Christ by trying to establish their own will get what they insist upon. (Although men are eternally doomed because God has not chosen them (chapter 9), they are equally lost because they have not chosen God (chapter 10).)
God’s promises to Israel are a future certainty, for there is still a Jewish remnant with whom Israel’s hope rests. Israel’s hardening is neither total nor permanent. God has hardened the Jews to save the Gentiles. When His purposes for the Gentiles are realized He will once again bring salvation and restoration to Israel (chapter 11).
(5) Application (Romans 12-15). The grace of God does not nullify human responsibility. In Romans 16:26, Paul speaks of the obedience of faith. This obedience is our response to the biblical imperatives and injunctions found throughout the Scriptures. This obedience is not our effort to do something for God, but our submission to God’s activity through us. We are commanded to do certain things because God has given us the means (His Holy Spirit) to do them. We should read the Bible, pray, witness and so on because God has commanded it, and God will empower us to do it. (I must also say that we can do these things in the power of the flesh, and with no profit.)
The only reasonable response to the grace of God is submission and service (Romans 12:1-2). The grace of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ, but it is also to be reflected in the life of the Christian. Christians are individually stewards of divine grace in that we each possess spiritual (grace) gifts which we are to exercise for the building up of the body (Romans 12:3-8). The grace of God is reflected also in our human relationships (12:9-21).
The grace of God is to be reflected by our obedience to the ‘law of the land’ and by our expression of the ‘law of love’ (Romans 13). The law of love is also expressed by accepting the weaker brother as he is, and by refraining from the exercise of any liberty which would impair his spiritual growth (Romans 14:1–15:13).
My friend, have you experienced this grace? Have you come to the point of despair, realizing that you can never earn or merit God’s favor? All that is required for forgiveness of sins and eternal life has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Trust in Him and you will be saved.
My Christian friend, are you living in grace? Have you come to see that your Christian experience is as much a work of grace as your conversion? You can never repay the grace of God in salvation, nor can you live the Christian life apart from divine grace. May God grant you to live in the grace of God.
To God be the glory!
127 “It is common to give Phoebe the title of “deaconess” and regard her as having performed an office in the church corresponding to that which belonged to men who exercised the office of deacon (cf. Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:8-13). Though the word for “servant” is the same as is used for deacon in the instances cited, yet the word is also used to denote the person performing any type of ministry. If Phoebe ministered to the saints, as is evident from verse 2, then she would be a servant of the church and there is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office comparable to that of the diaconate. The services performed were similar to those devolving upon deacons. Their ministry is one of mercy to the poor, the sick, and the desolate. This is an area in which women likewise exercise their functions and graces. But there is no more warrant to posit an office than in the case of the widows who, prior to their becoming the charge of the church, must have borne the features mentioned in I Timothy 5:9, 10.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, p. 226.
128 “The word itself (diakonos) does appear to have been on the way to technical use by the time this epistle was written (xii. 7), but whether it was so used of women is not certain. I Tim. iii. 11 may describe female deacons, or possibly the wives of deacons. Deaconesses are mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 26, 57, iii. 7, 15), and earlier (c. A.D. 112). Pliny (Epistles, X. xcvi. 8) speaks of ancillis quae ministrae dicebantur. In the New Testament period the line between the ‘part-time helper’ and the minister set apart to the service of the Church was not so sharply drawn as it is today, and it may therefore be that the question whether Phoebe was a ‘deaconess’ or a valued church worker is wrongly put.” C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 282.
129 “The kind of help rendered by Phoebe is not intimated. She may have been a woman of some wealth and social influence and so have acted as patroness. Her services may have been of another kind such as caring for the afflicted and needy. Under what circumstances she was a helper of Paul we do not know. But her help may well have been of the kind afforded by Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:15).” Murray, II, p. 227.