A LECTURE NOTE FOR THIRD YEAR THEOLOGY STUDENTS OF
BIGARD MEMORIAL SEMINARY, ENUGU – NIGERIA,
BY REV. FR. DR. FRANCIS I. IGBOANUGO
If we may compare scripture with scripture, and take the opinion of some devout and pious persons, in the OT David’s Psalms and in the NT Paul’s Epistles, are stars of the first magnitude, that differ from other stars in glory. The whole scripture is indeed an epistle from heaven to earth: but in it we have upon record several particular epistles, more of Paul’s than any other; for he was the chief of the apostles, and laboured more abundantly than they all. His natural parts, I doubt not, were very pregnant; his apprehension was quick and piercing; his expressions were fluent and copious; his affections, wherever he took, very warm and zealous, and his resolutions no less bold and daring; this made him, before his conversion, a very keen and bitter persecutor, but when the strong man armed was dispossessed, and the stronger than he came to divide the spoil and to sanctify these qualifications, he became the most skilful zealous preacher; never any better fitted to win souls, nor more successful. Thirteen of his epistles we have in the canon of the scripture; many more, it is probable, he wrote in the course of his ministry, which might be profitable enough for doctrine, for reproof, etc. but, but not being given by inspiration of God, they were not received as canonical scripture, nor handed down to us. Six epistles, said to be Paul’s, written to Seneca, and eight of Seneca’s to him, are spoken of by some of the ancients (Sixt. Senens Biblioth. Sanct. Lib. 2) and are extant; but, upon the first view, they appear spurious and counterfeited.
Pre-eminence, Provenance and Dating of the Letter
This Epistle to the Romans is placed first, not because of the priority of its date, but because of the superlative excellency of the epistle, it being one of the longest and fullest of all, and perhaps because of the dignity of the place to which it is written. Chrysostom would have this epistle read over to him twice a week. It is gathered from some passages in the epistle that it was written AD 56, from Corinth, while Paul made a short visit there on his way to Troas (Acts 20,5-6). He recommends to the Romans Phebe, a servant of the Church at Cenchrea (Ch. 16), which was a place belonging to Corinth. He calls Gaius his host, or the man with whom he lodged (Ch 16,23), and he was a Corinthian, not the same with Gaius of Derbe, mentioned in Acts 20. Paul was now going up to Jerusalem, with the money that was given to the poor saints there, and of that he speaks (ch. 15,26). The great mysteries treated of in this epistle must needs produce in this, as in other writings of Paul, many things dark and hard to be understood, 2 Pet 3,16.
Purpose of the Letter
Regarding the purpose of the letter, scholars have adduced at least four related purposes for Paul’s writing to the Romans. These reasons can be classified as missionary, apologetic, pastoral (Dunn) and personal (S. Kizhakkeyil).
1. Missionary Purpose
This letter is seen to be missionary in purpose because, as an ‘Apostle of the Gentiles’, Paul is writing to the capital of the gentile empire (cf. Rom 15, 18-24.28; 11, 13-15.25-26). Other reasons could be to evangelize Rome itself (Rom 1,13-15), although he knew of the Christians in Rome (1,8); he sought to encourage the Roman Christians and to impart some spiritual gifts (Rom 1,11- 12); he wanted to make the Roman Church a support base for his planned mission to Spain (Rom 15,24.28); and he hoped to seek support from the Roman Christians by setting out the theology of the Gospel.
2. Apologetic Purpose
As Paul and the gospel he preached were under attack from his opponents, he presents his justification for his gospel and his own self-apologia/defence.
3. Pastoral Purpose
Paul might be writing to mend real or potential divisions among the Christians in Rome, recommending tolerance and charity of the strong towards the weak – acceptance of those who are weak in faith, belittling no one and avoiding passing judgment on those we consider to as non- practising (Rom 14, 1-15,6). Considering the new Christian community made up of Jews and Hellenists, the Jews could hardly understand the possibility of justification by faith without the works of the law, and the admission of Gentiles into the Church. Paul decided to set out his full understanding of the gospel in this epistle. Probably Paul wanted to show to others what the gospel that he preached was and how it should be expressed in the daily life of the community.
4. Personal Purpose
Paul wrote this letter as a means of presenting himself to the Roman Christians, as a prelude to his own visit to them. As he had by now become controversial, Paul was trying to give an authentic and acceptable account of his view of the gospel and its consequence. The Roman Christians had heard about Paul and his preaching, although they had not seen him. Paul’s adversaries had propagated false news and calumny against him (Rom 3,8), saying that Paul disregarded the Jewish law. Hence Paul was forced to do some damage control, pointing out his actual views about all the controversial topics spread among the Roman Christians.
Structure of the Letter
|1, 1-17 Introduction||1, 1-7 Address and Greeting
1, 8-17 Thanksgiving and theme
|1, 18-15,13 Body of the Letter||1,18-11,36 Doctrinal Section – the saving power of the gospel
12,1-15,13 Instruction Section – Live according to the demands of the gospel
|15,14-16,27 Conclusion||15,14-33 Paul’s travel plans and request for prayers 16,1-23 Conclusion
The method of this (as of several other of the epistle) is observable; the former part of it doctrinal, in the first eleven chapters; the latter part practical, in the last five: to inform the judgment and to reform the life. And the best way to understand the truths explained in the former part is to abide by the practice of the duties prescribed in the latter part; for, if any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, Jn 7,17.
I. The doctrinal part of the epistle instructs us:
- Concerning the way of salvation (i) The foundation of it laid in justification, and that not by the Gentiles’ works of nature (Rom 1), nor by the Jews’ works of the law (Rom 2-3), for both Jews and Gentiles were liable to the curse; but only by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3,21- 4). (ii) The steps of this salvation are (a) Peace with God (Rom 5); (b) Sanctification (Rom 6-7); (c) Glorification (Rom 8).
- Concerning the persons saved, such as belong to the election of grace (Rom 9), Gentiles and Jews (Rom 10-11). By this it appears that the subject he discusses of were such as were then the present truths, as the apostle speaks, 2 Pet 1,12. Two things the Jews then stumbled at – justification by faith without the works of the law, and the admission of Gentiles into the Church; and therefore both these he studied to clear and vindicate.
II. The practical part follows, wherein we find:
- Several general exhortations proper for all Christians (Rom 12).
- Directions for our behaviour, as members of civil society (Rom 13).
- Rules for the conducts of Christians to one another, as members of the Christian church (Rom 14-15,14).
III: As he draws towards a conclusion, he makes an apology for writing to them (Rom 15,14- 16), gives them an account of himself and his own affairs (vv.17-21), promises them a visit (vv.22-29), begs their prayers (vv.30-33), sends particular salutations to many friends there (Rom 16,1-16), warns them against those who caused divisions (vv.17-20), adds the salutations of his friends with him (vv.21-23), and ends with a benediction to them and a doxology to God (vv.24-27). We are, however, concerned with the doctrinal part especially justification by faith (Rom 3,21-8).
Schematic Display of the Content of the Letter
We present here a summary overview of the content of the letter and then go into details of the some portions, selecting a few theological topics for discussion.
|Address and Greeting God’s power of Salvation,
Through this expanded greeting Paul introduces
His themes of the gospel.
Humanity without Christ: Sin and judgment
|God’s Wrath against the Gentiles
No exception to the Jews from God’s Wrath 2,1-11 No partiality with God
2,12-24 The Torah will not save the Jews 2,25-29 Circumcision will not save them 3,1-8 God’s Promises will not save them
All are Guilty
Justification through Faith in Jesus
|God’s saving justice to all Through Faith in Jesus Christ
Scripture’s witness to righteousness by faith 4,1-8 Abraham justified by faith
4,9-12 Abraham justified before circumcision
4,13-17Abraham not justified by obedience to the law 4,18-25 Abraham’s Faith, a model of Christian faith
From Justification to Salvation; Hope of sharing in God’s glory through the love of Christ
|Hope of salvation through God’s love for us Christ superseding Adam
Dead to sin Freed from sin
Freed fro the Law
The Function of the Law The inner struggle
The Life in the Spirit Heirs of God
Glory as our Destiny
Sharing God’s Glory through the love of Christ
Israel in the History of Salvation
|The privileges of Israel
God’s Promises and an analysis of the OT Israel’s Failure
The salvation for all who believe in Jesus Israel without excuse
The remnant of Israel Israel’s future restoration
The status of Israel as the Chosen People The conversion of Jews
Hymn to God’s Mercy and Wisdom
Exhortation to live according to the Gospel
A living sacrifice acceptable to God Humility and charity and gifts of the Spirit Love in action
Submission to Civil Authority Love, the fulfilment of the Law Living in the light of the day
Tolerance and Charity
14,1-12 Avoid passing judgment on others 14,13-23 Freedom on food and drink
15,1-13 Christ’s model
Paul’s ministry so far Paul’s plan for the future
Commendation and Greetings A warning
Last greetings Concluding doxology
Paul, in this chapter, carries on his discourse concerning justification. He had already proved the guilt both of Gentiles (Rom 1,18-32) and Jews (Rom 2,1-29). Now 1. he answers some objections that might be made against what he had said about the Jews (3,1-8). 2. He asserts the guilt and corruption of mankind in common, both Jews and Gentiles (3,9-18). 3. He argues thence that justification must be by faith, and not by the law, for which he gives several reasons (vv.19-31). The many digression in his writings render his discourse sometimes a little difficult, but his scope is evident. Here the apostle answers several objections, which might be made, to clear his way. No truth so plain and evident but wicked wits and corrupt carnal hearts will have something to say against it; but divine truths must be cleared from cavil.
Objection 1. If Jew and Gentile stand so much upon the same level before God “what advantage then has the Jew?” Ans: The Jews are, notwithstanding this, a people greatly privileged and honoured, have great means and helps though this be not infallibly saving (v.2).
Objection 2: Against what he had said of the advantages the Jews had in the lively oracles, some might object the unbelief of many of them. To what purpose were the oracles of God committed to them, when so many of them, notwithstanding these oracles, continued strangers to Christ, and enemies to his gospel? Some did not believe (v.3)
Ans.: It is very true that some, nay most of the present Jews, do not believe in Christ: but shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? The apostle startles at such a thought: më genoito! (aor. opt. of ginomai), lit. “let it not happen”, may it not be! far be it!, far from it!, God forbid! The infidelity and obstinacy of the Jews could not invalidate and overthrow those prophecies of the Messiah which were contained in the oracles committed to them.
Objection 3: Carnal hearts might hence take occasion to encourage themselves in sin. He had said that the universal guilt and corruption of mankind gave occasion to the manifestation of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. Now it may be suggested that if our sin be so far from overthrowing God’s honour that it commends it, and his ends are secured, so that there is no harm done, is it not unjust for God to punish our sin and unbelief so severely?
Ans.: God forbid! Suggestions that reflect dishonour upon God and his justice and holiness are rather to be startled at than parleyed with. Get thee behind me, Satan: never entertain such a thought. “For then how shall God judge the world?” The sin has nevertheless of malignity and demerit in it though God bring glory to himself out of it.
Objection 4: The former objection is repeated and prosecuted (vv.7-8), for proud hearts will hardly be beaten out of their refuge of lies, but will hold fast the deceit. But his setting off the objection in its own colours is sufficient to answer it: “If the truth of God has more abounded through my lie, why should I be judged and condemned as a sinner, and not rather thence take encouragement to go on in my sin, that grace may abound?” an inference which at first sight appears too black to be argued, and fit to be cast out with abhorrence (3,8; cf. 6,1).
Answer: He says no more by way of confutation but that, whatever they themselves may argue, the damnation of those is just. Some understand it of the slanderers; God will justly condemn those who unjustly condemn his truth.
Having removed these objections, Paul revives his assertion of the general guilt and corruption of mankind in common, both of Jews and Gentiles, (vv.9-18). “Are we better than they, we Jews, to whom were committed the oracles of God? No, by no means. Or, “Are we Christians (Jews and Gentiles) so much better antecedently than the unbelieving part as to have merited God’s grace?” Alas, no: before free grace made the difference, those of us that had been Jews and those that had been Gentiles were all alike corrupted. “They are all under sin.” Under the government and dominion of sin as a cruel task-master, enslaved to it. And this he had proved, proëtiasametha. It is a law term: “We have charged them with it, and have made good our charge; we have proved the indictment, we have convicted them by the notorious evidence of the fact.” The Lord looked down, as upon the old world (Gen 6,5). And this judgement of God was according to truth. He who, when he Himself had made all, looked upon every thing that he had made, and behold all was very good, now that man had marred all, looked, and behold all was very bad. Let us take a view of the particulars, noting: 1. That which is habitual, which is twofold:-
- An habitual defect of every thing that is good: There is none righteous, none that has an honest good principle of virtue, or is governed by such a principle, none that retains anything of that image of God, consisting in righteousness, wherein man was created; no, not one. ii. There is none that understands, v.11; iii. None that seeks after God; iv. they have together become unprofitable, v.12; v. There is none that does good; no, not a just man upon the earth. Even in those actions of sinners that have some goodness in them there is a fundamental error in the principle and end; so that it may be said, There is none that does good. Malum oritur ex quolibet defectu –Every defect is the source of evil.
- An habitual defect to everything that is evil: They are all gone out of the way. The corruption of mankind is an apostasy. That which is actual. And what can be expected from such a degenerate race? He gives instances: (a) in their words, (vv.13- 14), in three things particularly: cruelty – their throat is an open sepulchre, ready to swallow up the poor and the innocent; cheating – with their tongue they slander, their deceit makes them devil’s children; cursing – reflecting upon God, and blaspheming his holy name (their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness). (b). in their ways (vv.15-17) – their feet is swift to shed blood; destruction and misery go along with them; and the way of peace have they not known. (c) The root of all this we have: there is no fear of God before their eyes, v.18.
From all this Paul infers that it is in vain to look for justification by the works of the law, and that it is to be had only by faith, which is the point he has been all along proving from 1,17, and which he lays down, v.28, as the summary of his discourse, with a quod erat demonstrandum – which was to be demonstrated. We conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law; not by the deeds of the first law of pure innocence, which left no room for repentance, nor the deeds of the law of nature, howsoever highly improved, nor the deeds of the ceremonial law (the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin), nor the deeds of the moral law, which are certainly included, for he speaks of that law by which is the knowledge of sin and those works which might be matter of boasting. Man in his deprave state, under the power of such corruption, could never, by any works of his own, gain acceptance with God; but it must be resolved purely into the free grace of God, given through Jesus Christ to all true believers that receive it as a free gift. If we had never sinned, our obedience to the law would have been our righteousness: “Do this, and live.” But having sinned, and being corrupted, nothing that we can do will atone for our former guilt. It was by their obedience to the moral law that the Pharisees looked for justification, Lk18,11. Now there are two things from which the apostle here argues: the guiltiness of man, to prove that we cannot be justified by the works of the law, and the glory of God, to prove that we must be justified by faith.
1. He argues from man’s guiltiness, to show the folly of expecting justification by the works of the law. The argument is very plain: we can never be justified and saved by the law that we have broken. A convicted traitor can never come off by pleading the statute of the very law that discovers his crime and condemns him: indeed, if he had never broken it, he might have been justified by it; but now it is past that he has broken it, and there is no way of coming off but by pleading the act of indemnity, upon which he has surrendered and submitted himself, and humbly and penitently claiming the benefit of it and casting himself upon it. Now concerning the guiltiness of man,
a. He fastens it particularly upon the Jews; for they were the men that made their boast of the law, and set up for justification by it. He had quoted several scriptures out of the OT to show this corruption: Now says he, “this that the law says, it says to those under the law” (v.19); this conviction belongs to the Jews as well as to others, for it is written in their law. The Jews boasted of their being under the law, and placed a great deal of confidence in it: “But,” says he, “the law convicts and condemns you – you see it does”. That every mouth may be stopped – that all boasting may be silenced. See the method that God takes both in justifying and condemning: he stops every mouth; those that are justified have their mouths stopped by a humble conviction; those that are condemned have their mouths stopped too, for they shall at last be convinced (Jude 15), and sent speechless to hell, (Matt 22,12). All iniquity shall stop her mouth, Ps 107,42.
b. He extends it in general to all the world: That all world may become guilty before God. If the world lies in wickedness (1 Jn 5,19), to be sure it is – May become guilty, i.e. may be proved guilty, liable to punishment, all by nature children of wrath (Eph 2,3). They must all plead guilty, those that stand most upon their own justification will certainly be cast. Guilty before God is a dreadful word, before an all-seeing God, that is not, nor can be, deceived in his judgment – before a just and righteous Judge, who will by no means clear the guilty. All are guilty, and therefore all have need of a righteousness wherein to appear before God. For all have sinned, (v. 23); all are sinners by nature, by practice, and have come short of the glory of God – have failed of that which is the chief end of man. Come short, as the archer comes short of the mark, as the runner comes short of the prize; so come short, as not only not to win, but to be great losers.
Come short of the glory of God could mean (i) Come short of glorifying God (cf. 1,21) They glorified him not in God. Man was placed at the head of the visible creation, actively to glorify that great Creator whom the inferior creatures could glorify only objectively; but man by sin comes short of this, and, instead of glorifying God, dishonours him. It is a very melancholy situation to behold the children of men who were made to glorify God, and think how few there are that do it. (ii) Come short of glorying before God. There is no boasting of innocency: if we go about to glory before God, to boast of anything we are, or have or do, this will be an everlasting self-deception – that we have all sinned, and this will silence us. We may glory before men, who are short-sighted, and cannot search our hearts, – who are corrupt , as we are, and well enough pleased with sin, but there is no glorying before God, who cannot endure to look upon iniquity. (iii) Come short of being glorified by God Come short of justification, or acceptance with God, which is glory begun – come short of the holiness or sanctification which is the glorious image of God upon man, and have overtaken all hopes and expectations of being gloried with God in heaven by any righteousness of their own. It is impossible now to get to heaven in the way of spotless innocency. That passage is blocked up. There is cherub and a flaming sword set to keep/guard that way to the tree of life.
c. Further to drive us off from expecting justification by the law, he ascribes this conviction to the law (v.20) For by the law is the knowledge of sin. That law which convicts and condemns us can never justify us. The law is the straight rule, that rectum which is index sui et obliqui – that which points out the right and the wrong; it is the proper use and intendment of the law to open our wound, and therefore not likely to be the remedy. That which is searching is not sanative. Paul makes this use of the law (7,9), Therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight. Note 1. No flesh shall be justified, no man, no corrupted man (Gen 6,3) for that he also is flesh, sinful and depraved; therefore not justified, because we are flesh. The corruption that remains in our nature will for ever obstruct any justification by our own works, which, coming from the flesh, must needs taste of the cask (Job 14,4). Not justified in his sight. He does not deny that justification which was by the deeds of the law in the sight of the church: they were, in their church-estate, as embodied in a polity, a holy people, a nation of priests, but as the conscience stands in relation to God, in his sight, we cannot be justified by the deeds of the law. He refers to Ps 143,2.
2. He argues from God’s glory to prove that justification must be expected only by faith in Christ’s righteousness. There is no justification by the works of the Must guilty man then remain eternally under wrath? Is there no hope? Has the wound become incurable because of the transgression? No, blessed be God, it is not (vv.21-22); there is another way laid open for us, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested now under the Gospel. Justification may be obtained without the keeping of Moses’ law, and this is called the righteousness of God, righteousness of his ordaining, and providing, and accepting – righteousness which he confers upon us, as the Christian armour is called the armour of God, (Eph 6,11).
a. Now concerning this righteousness of God, observe (i) That it is The gospel-way of justification is a highway, a plain way, it is laid open for us: the brazen serpent is lifted upon the pole; we are not left to grope our way in the dark, but it is manifested to us. (ii) It is without the law. Here he obviates the method of the judaizing Christians, who would needs join Christ and Moses together – owning Christ for the Messiah, and yet too fondly retaining the law, keeping up the ceremonies of it, and imposing it upon the Gentile converts; no, says he, it is without the law. The righteousness that Christ has brought is complete righteousness. (iii) Yet, it is witnessed by the law and the prophets; that is, there were types, and prophecies, and promises, in the OT that pointed at this. The law is so far from justifying us that it directs us to another way of justification, points at Christ as our righteousness, to whom all the prophets bear witness (cf. Acts 10,43). This might recommend it to the Jews who were so fond of the law and the prophets. (iv) It is by the faith of Jesus Christ, that faith which has Jesus Christ for its object – an anointed saviour which Jesus Christ signifies. Justifying faith respects Jesus Christ as saviour in all his three anointed offices, as prophet, priest and king – trusting in him, accepting of him, and adhering to him, in all these. It is by this that we become interested in that righteousness which God has ordained, and which Christ has brought in. (v) It is to all, and upon all, those that believe. In this expression he inculcates that which he had been often harping upon, that Jews and Gentiles, if they believe, stand upon the same level, and are alike welcome to God through Christ, for there is no difference. Or, it is eis pantas – to all, offered to all in general; the gospel excludes none that do not exclude themselves; but it is epi pantas tous pisteuontas, upon all that believe, not only tendered to them, but put upon them as a crown, as a robe; they are, upon their believing, interested in it, and entitled to all the benefits and privileges of it.
b. But now how is this for God’s glory?
i. It is for the glory of his grace, (v.24): Justified freely by his grace – dörean të autou chariti. It is by his grace, not by the grace wrought in us as the papist would claim confounding sanctification and justification, but by the gracious favour of God to us, without any merit in us so much as foreseen. And to make it the more emphatic, he says it is freely by his grace, to show that it must be understood of grace in the most proper and genuine sense. It is said that Joseph found grace in the sight of his master (Gen 39,4), but there was a reason; he saw that what he did prospered. There was something in Joseph to invite that grace; but the grace of God communicated to us comes freely, freely; it is free grace, mere mercy, nothing in us to deserve such favours: no, it is all through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. It comes freely to us, but Christ bought it, and paid dearly for it, which yet is so ordered as not to derogate from the honour of free grace. Christ’s purchase is no bar to the freeness of God’s grace; for grace provided and accepted this vicarious satisfaction.
ii. It is for the glory of his justice and righteousness (vv.25-26): Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation… Note 1. Jesus Christ is the great propitiation, or propitiatory sacrifice, typified by the hilastërion, or mercy-seat, under the He is our throne of grace, in and through whom atonement is made for sin, and our persons and performances are accepted of God, (1 Jn 2,2). He is all in all of our reconciliation, not only the maker, but the matter of it – our priest, our sacrifice, our altar, our all. God was in Christ as in his mercy-seat, reconciling the world unto himself. (2) God hath set him forth to be so. God, the party offended, makes the first overtures towards a reconciliation, appoints the days-man; proetheto – foreordained him to this, in the counsels of his love from eternity, appointed, anointed him to it, qualified him for it, and has exhibited him to a guilty world as their propitiation (cf. Mt 3,17; 17,5). (3) That by faith in his blood we become interested in his propitiation. Christ is the propitiation; there is the healing plaster provided. Faith is the applying of this plaster to the wounded soul. And this faith in the business of justification has a special regard to the blood of Christ, as that which made the atonement; for such was the divine appointment that without blood there should be no remission, and no blood but his would do it effectually. Here may be an allusion to the sprinkling of the blood of sacrifices under the law (cf. Ex 24,8). Faith is the bunch of hyssop, and the blood of Christ is the blood of sprinkling. (4) That all who by faith are interested in this propitiation have the remission of their sins that are past. It was for this that Christ was set forth to be a propitiation, in order to remit, to which the reprieves of his patience and forbearance were a very encouraging preface. Through the forbearance of God. Divine patience has kept us out of hell, that we may have time and space to repent, and get to heaven. Some refer to the sins that are past to the sins of the OT saints, which were pardoned for the sake of the atonement which Christ in the fullness of time was to make, which looked backward as well as forward. Past through the forbearance of God. It is owing to the divine forbearance that we were not in the very act of sin. Several Greek copies make en tëanochë tou Theou – through the forbearance of God, to begin v.26, and they denote two precious fruits of Christ’s merit and God’s grace: – Remission: dia tën paresin – for the remission; and reprieves: the forbearance of God. It is owing to the master’s goodness and the dresser’s mediation that barren trees are let alone in the vineyard; and in both God’s righteousness is declared, in that without a mediator and a propitiation he would not only not pardon, but not so much as forbear, not spare a moment; it is owing to Christ that there is ever a sinner on this side of hell. (5) That God does in all this declare his righteousness. This he insists upon with a great deal of emphasis: To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness. It is repeated, as that which has in it something surprising. He declares his righteousness. First, in the propitiation itself. Never was there such a demonstration of the justice and holiness of God as there was in the death of Christ. It appears that he hates sin, when nothing less than the blood of Christ would satisfy for it. Finding sin, though but imputed, upon his own Son, he did not spare him, because he had made himself sin for us (2 Cor 5,2). The iniquities of us all being laid upon him, though he was the Son of his love, yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him (Is 53,10). Secondly, in the pardon upon that propitiation; so it follows, by way of explication: that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth. Mercy and truth are so met together, righteousness and peace have so kissed each other, that it is now become not only an act of grace and mercy, but an act of righteousness, in God, to pardon the sins of penitent believers, having accepted the satisfaction that Christ by dying made to his justice for them. It would not comport with his justice to demand the debt of the principal when the surety has paid it and he has accepted that payment in full satisfaction (cf. 1 Jn 1,19). He is just, that is, faithful to his word.
c. It is for God’s glory; for boasting is thus excluded (v.27). God will have the great work of the justification and salvation of sinners carried on from first to last in such a way as to exclude boasting, that no flesh may glory in his presence (1 1,29-31). Now, if justification were by the works of the law, boasting would not be excluded. How should it? If we were saved by our own works, we might put the crown upon our own heads. But the law of faith, that is, the way of justification by faith, does for ever exclude boasting; for faith is a depending, self-emptying, self- denying grace, and casts every crown before the throne; therefore it is most for God’s glory that thus we should be justified. Note, he speaks of the law of faith. Believers are not left lawless: faith is a law, it is a working grace, wherever it is in truth; and yet, because it acts in a strict and close dependence upon Jesus Christ, it excludes boasting.
From all this he draws the conclusion (v.28). That a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
3. In the close of the chapter he shows the extent of this privilege of justification by faith, and that it is not the peculiar privilege of the Jews, but pertains to the Gentiles also, for he had said (v.22) that there is no difference: and as to this, (a) he asserts and proves it (vv.29.31) Is he the God of the Jews only? He argues from the absurdity of such a supposition. Can it be imagined that a God of infinite love and mercy should limit and confine his favours to that little perverse people of the Jews, leaving all the rest of the children of men in a condition eternally desperate? This would by no means agree with the idea we have of the divine goodness for his tender mercies are over all his works; therefore it is one God of grace that justifies the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith, that is, both in one and the same way. However, the Jews, in favour of themselves, will needs fancy a difference, really there is no more difference than between by and through, that is, no difference at all. (b) He obviates an objection (v.31) as if this doctrine did nullify the law, which they knew came from God: “No,” says he “ though we do say that the law will not justify us , yet we do not therefore say that it was given in vain, or is of no use to us, no, we establish the right use of the law, and secure its standing, by fixing it on the right basis. The law is still of use to convince us of what is past, and to direct us for the future; though we cannot be saved by it as a covenant, yet we own it, and submit to it, as a rule in the hand of the Mediator, subordinate to the law of grace, and so are so far from overthrowing that we establish the law.” Let those consider this who deny the obligation of the moral law on believers.
The great gospel doctrine of justification by faith without the works of the law was so very contrary to the notion the Jews had learnt from those that sat on Moses’ chair, that it would hardly go down with them; and therefore the apostle insists very largely upon it, and labours much in the confirmation and illustration of it. He had before proved it by reason and argument, now in this chapter he proves it by example, which in some places serves for confirmation as well as illustration. The example he pitches upon is that of Abraham, whom he chooses to mention because the Jews gloried much in their relation to Abraham, put it in the first rank of their external privileges that they were Abraham’s seed, and truly they had Abraham for their father. Therefore this instance was likely to be more taking and convincing to the Jews than any other. His argument stands thus: “All that are saved are justified in the same way as Abraham was; but Abraham was justified by faith, and not by works; therefore all that are saved are so justified;” for it would easily be acknowledged that Abraham was the father of the faithful. Now this is an argument not only à parì – from an equal case, as they say, but à fortiori – from a stronger case. If Abraham, a man so famous for works, so eminent in holiness and obedience, was nevertheless justified by faith only, and not by those works, how much less can any other, especially any of those that spring from him, and come so far short of him in works, set up for a justification by their own works? And it proves likewise, ex abundanti – the more abundantly, as some observe, that we are not justified, no not by those good works which flow from faith, as the matter of our righteousness; for such were Abraham’s works, and are we better than he? The whole chapter is taken up with his discourse upon this instance, and there is this in it, which has a particular reference to the close of the foregoing chapter, where he has asserted that, in the business of justification, Jews and Gentiles stand upon the same level. Now in this chapter, with a great deal of cogency of argument:
I. He proves that Abraham was justified not by works, but by faith (vv.1-8)
II. He observes when and why he was so justified (9-17)
III. He describes and commends that faith of his (vv.17-22)
IV. He applies all this to us (vv.22-25). And, if he had now been in the school of Tyrannus, he could not have disputed more argumentatively.
Here Paul proves that Abraham was justified not by works, but by faith. Those that of all men contended most vigorously for a share in righteousness by the privileges they enjoyed, and the works they performed, were the Jews, and therefore he appeals to the case of Abraham their father, and puts his own name to the relation, being a Hebrew of the Hebrews: Abraham our father. Now surely his prerogative must be as great as theirs who claim it as his seed according to the flesh. Now
what has he found? All the world is seeking; but, while the most are wearying themselves for very vanity, none can be truly reckoned to have found, but those who are justified before God; and thus Abraham, like a wise merchant, seeking goodly pearls, found this one pearl of great price. What has he found – kata sarka – as pertaining to the flesh, that is, by circumcision and his external privileges and performances? These the apostle calls flesh (Phil 3,3). Now what did he get by these? Was he justified by them? Was it the merit of his works that recommended him to God’s acceptance? No, by no means, which he proves by several arguments.
I. if he had been justified by works, room would have been felt for boasting, which must for ever be If so, he hath whereof to glory (v.2), which is not to be allowed. “But”, might the Jews say, “was not his name made great (Gen 12,2), and then might not he glory?” Yes, but not before God; he might deserve well of men, but he could never merit of God. Paul himself had whereof to glory before men, and we have him sometimes glorying in it, yet with humility; but nothing to glory in before God (cf. 1 Cor. 4,4; Phil 3,8-9). So Abraham. Note that he takes it for granted that man must not pretend to glory in anything before God; no, not Abraham, as great and as good a man as he was; and therefore he fetches an argument from it: it would be absurd for him that glorieth to glory in any but the Lord.
II. It was expressly said that Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness. What saith the Scripture? (v.3). In all controversies in religion this must be our question, what saith the scripture? It is not what this great man , and the other good man, say, but what the scripture says. Ask counsel at this Abel, and so end the matter (2 Sam 2,18). To the law, and to the testimony (Is 8,20), thither is the last Now the scripture said that Abraham believed, and this was counted to him for righteousness (Gen 15,6); therefore he had not whereof to glory before God, it being purely of free grace that it was so imputed, and having not in itself any of the formal nature of a righteousness, further than as God himself was graciously pleased so to count it to him. It is mentioned in Genesis, upon occasion of a very signal and remarkable act of faith concerning the promised seed, and is the more observable in that it followed upon a grievous conflict he had had with unbelief; his faith was now victorious faith, newly returned from the battle. It is not the perfect faith that is required to justification (there may be acceptable faith where there are remainders of unbelief), but the prevailing faith, the faith that has the upper hand of unbelief.
III. If he had been justified by work the reward would have been of debt, and not of grace, which is not to be This is his argument (vv.4-5): Abraham’s reward was God himself; so he had told him but just before (Gen 15,1), I am thy exceeding great reward. Now, if Abraham had merited this by the perfection of his obedience, it had not been an act of grace of God, but Abraham might have demanded it with as much great confidence as ever any labourer in the vineyard demanded the penny he had earned. But this cannot be; it is impossible for man, much more guilty man, to make God a debtor to him (Rom 11,35). No, God will have free grace to have all the glory, grace for grace’s sake (Jn 1,16). And therefore to him that worketh not – that can pretend to no such merit, nor show any worth or value in his work, which may answer such a reward, but disclaiming any such pretension casts himself wholly upon the free grace of God in Christ, by a lively, active, obedient faith – to such a one faith is counted as righteousness, is accepted of God as the qualification required in all those that shall be pardoned and saved. Him that justifieth the ungodly, that is, him that was before ungodly. His former ungodliness was no bar to his justification upon his believing: ton asebë –that ungodly one, that is, Abraham, who, before his conversion, it should seem, was carried down the stream of Chaldean idolatry (Josh 24,2). No room therefore is left for despair, though God clears not the impenitent guilty, yet through Christ he justifies the ungodly.
IV. He further illustrates this by a passage out of the Psalms, where David speaks of the remission of sins, the prime branch of justification, as constituting the happiness and blessedness of a man, pronouncing blessed, not the man who has no sin, or none which deserved death (for then, while man is so sinful, and God so righteous, where would be the blessed man?) but the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, who though he cannot plead, Not guilty, pleads the act of indemnity, and his plea is allowed. This is quoted from Ps 32,1-2, where one observes: (1) The nature of forgiveness. It is the remission of a debt or a crime; it is the covering of sin, as a filthy thing, as the nakedness and shame of the soul. God is said to cast sin behind his back, to hide his face from it, which, and the like expressions, imply that the ground of our blessedness is not our innocency, or our not having sinned (a thing is, and is filthy, though covered; justification does not make the sin not to have been, or not to have been sin), but God’s not laying it to our charge, as it follows here: it is God’s not imputing sin (v.8), which makes it wholly a gracious act of God, not dealing with us in strict justice as we have deserved, not entering into judgment, not marking iniquities, all which being purely acts of grace, the acceptance and the reward cannot be expected as debts; and therefore Paul infers (v.6) that it is the imputing of righteousness without works. (2) The blessedness of it: Blessed are they. When it is said, Blessed are the undefiled in the way, blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, etc. the design is to show the character of those that are blessed; but when it is said, Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, the design is to show what that blessedness is, and what the ground and foundation of it. Pardoned people are the only blessed people. The sentiments of the world are, those are happy that have a clear estate, and are out of debt to man; but the sentence of the word is, those are happy that have their debts to God discharged. O how much therefore is it our interest to make it sure to ourselves that our sins are pardoned! For this is the foundation of all other benefits. So and so will do for them; for I will be merciful (Heb 8,12).
Paul observes in this section when and why Abraham was thus justified; for he has several things to remark upon that. It was before he was circumcised, and before the giving of the law; and there was a reason for both.
I. It was before he was circumcised (v.10).
His faith was counted to him for righteousness while he was in uncircumcision. It was imputed (Gen 15,6), and he was not circumcised till Gen 17. Abraham is expressly said to be justified by faith fourteen years, some say twenty-five years, before he was circumcised. Now this the apostle takes notice of in answer to the question (v.9) Cometh this blessedness then on the circumcision only, or on the uncircumcision also? Abraham was pardoned and accepted in uncircumcision, a circumstance which, as it might silence the fears of the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, so it might lower the pride and conceitedness of the Jews, who gloried in their circumcision, as if they had the monopoly of all happiness. Here are two reasons why Abraham was justified by faith in uncircumcision:
1. That circumcision might be a seal of the righteousness of faith (v.11). The terms of the covenant must be settled before the seal can be Sealing supposes previous bargain, which is confirmed and ratified by that ceremony. After Abraham’s justification by faith had continued several years only a grant by parole, for the confirmation of Abraham’s faith God was pleased to appoint a sealing ordinance, and Abraham received it; though it was a bloody ordinance, yet he submitted to it, and even received it as a special favour, the sign of circumcision, etc. Now we may hence observe (i) the nature of sacraments in general: they are signs and seals – signs to represent and instruct, seals to ratify and confirm. They are signs of absolute grace and favour; they are seals of conditional promises; nay, they are mutual seals: God does in the sacraments seal to us to be to us a God, and we do therein seal to him to be to him a people. (ii) The nature of circumcision is particular: It was the initiating sacrament of the OT; and it is here said to be (a) A sign – a sign of that original corruption which we are all born with, and which is cut off by spiritual circumcision, – a commemorating sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, – a distinguishing sign between the Jews and the Gentiles, – a sign of admission into the visible church, – a sign prefiguring baptism, which comes in the room of circumcision, now under the gospel, when (the blood of Christ being shed) all bloody ordinances are abolished; it was an outward and sensible sign of inward and spiritual grace signified thereby. (b) A seal of the righteousness of the faith. In general, it was a seal of the covenant of grace, particularly of justification by faith – the covenant of grace, called the righteousness which is of faith (Rom 10,6), and it refers to an OT promise (Dt 30,12). Now if infants were then capable of receiving a seal of the covenant of grace, which proves that they then were within the verge of that covenant, how they come to be now cast out of the covenant and incapable of the seal, and by what severe sentence they were thus rejected and incapacitated, those are concerned to make out that not only rejected, but nullify and reproach, the baptism of the seed of believers.
2. That he might be the father of all those that believe. Not but that there were those that were justified by faith before Abraham; but of Abraham first it is particularly observed, and in him commenced a much clearer and fuller dispensation of the covenant of grace than any that had been before extant; and there he is called the father of all that believe, because he was so eminently justified by faith, as Jabal was the father of shepherds and Jubal of musicians (cf. Gen 4,20-21). The father of all those that believe; that is, a standing pattern of faith, as parents are examples to their children; and a standing precedent of justification by faith, as the liberties, privileges, honours, and estates, of the fathers descend to their children. Abraham was the father of the believers, because to him particularly the magna charta was renewed. (a) The father of believing Gentiles, though they be not circumcised. Zacchaeus, a publican, if he believe, is reckoned a son of Abraham (Lk 19,9). Abraham being himself uncircumcised when he was justified by faith, uncircumcision can never be a bar. Thus were the doubts and fears of the poor Gentiles anticipated and no room left to question but that righteousness might be imputed to them also (cf. Col 3,11; Gal 5,6). (b) The father of believing Jews, not merely as circumcised, and of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, but because believers, because they are not of the circumcision only but walk in the step of that faith – have not only the sign, but the thing signified – not only of Abraham’s family, but follow the example of Abraham’s faith. See here who are the genuine children and lawful successors of those that were the church’s fathers: not those that sit in their chairs, and bear their names, but those that tread in their steps; this is the line of succession, which holds, notwithstanding interruptions. It seems, then, those were most loud and forward to call Abraham father that had least title to the honours and privileges of his children. Thus those have most reason to call Christ Father, not that bear his name in being Christians in profession, but that tread in his
II. It was before the giving of the law (vv.13-16)
The former observation is levelled against those that confined justification to the circumcision, this against those that expected it by the law; now the promise was made to Abraham long before the law (cf. Gal 3,17-18). Now observe:
1. What that promise was – that he should be the heir of the world, that is, of the land of Canaan, the choicest spot of ground in the world, – or the father of many nations of the world, who sprang from him, besides the Israelites, – or the heir of the comforts of the life which now The meek are said to inherit the earth, and the world is theirs. Though Abraham had so little of the world in possession, yet he was heir of it all. Or, rather, it points at Christ, the seed here mentioned (cf. Gal 3,16), To thy seed, which is Christ. Now Christ is the heir of the world, the ends of the earth are his possession, and it is in him that Abraham was so. And it refers to that promise (Gen 12,3), In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
2. How it was made to him – Not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. Not through the law, for that was not yet given: but it was upon that believing which was counted to him for righteousness; it was upon his trusting God, in his leaving his own country when God commanded him (Heb 11,8). Now, being by faith, it could not be by the law, which he proves by the opposition there is between them (vv.14-15): If those who are of the law be heirs; that is, those, and those only, and they by virtue of the law (the Jews did, and still do, boast that they are the rightful heirs of the world, because to them the law was given), then faith is made void; for, if it were requisite to an interest in the promise that there should be a perfect performance of the whole law, then the promise can never take its effect, nor is it to any purpose for us to depend upon it, since the way to life by perfect obedience to the law, and spotless innocency, is wholly blocked up, and the law in itself opens no other way. This he proves (v.5), The law works wrath – wrath in us to God; it irritates and provokes that carnal mind which is enmity to God, as the damning up of a stream makes it swell – wrath in God against us. It works this, that is, it discovers it, or our breach of the law works it. Now it is certain that we can never expect the inheritance by a law that works wrath. How the law works wrath he shows very concisely in the latter part of the verse: Where no law is there is no transgression, an acknowledged maxim, which implies, where there is a law there is transgression and that transgression is provoking, and so the law works wrath.
3. Why the promise was made to him by faith: for three reasons (v. 16) –
a) That it might be by grace, that grace might have the honour of it: by grace and not by the law; by grace and not of debt, nor of merit ; that Grace, grace, might be cried to every stone, especially to the top stone, in this building. Faith has particular reference to grace granting, as grace has reference to faith receiving. By grace, and therefore through faith (Eph 2,8). For God will have every crown thrown at the feet of grace, free grace, and ever song in heaven sing to that tune, Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be praise.
b) That the promise might be sure. The first covenant, being a covenant of works, was not sure: but, through man’s failure, the benefits designed by it were cut off; and therefore, the more effectually to ascertain and ensure the conveyance of the new covenant, there is another way found out, not by works (were it so, the promise would not be sure, because of the continual frailty and infirmity of the flesh), but by faith, which receives all from Christ, and acts in a continual dependence upon him, as the great trustee of our salvation, and whose keeping it is The covenant is therefore sure, because it is well ordered in all things (2 Sam 23,5).
c) That it might be sure to all the seed. If it had been by the law, it would have been limited to the Jews, to whom pertain the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law (Rom 9,4); but therefore it was faith that Gentiles as well as Jews might become interested in it, the spiritual as well as the natural seed of faithful Abraham. God would contrive the promise in such a way as might make it most extensive, to comprehend all true believers, that circumcision and uncircumcision might break no squares; and for this (v.17) he refers to Gen 17,5, where the reason of the change of his name from Abram – a high father, to Abraham – the high father of a multitude, is thus rendered: For a father of many nations have I made thee; that is, all believers, both before and since the coming of Christ in the flesh, should take Abraham for their pattern, and call him father. The Jews say Abraham was the father of all proselytes to the Jewish religion. Behold, he is the father of all the world, which are gathered under the wings of the Divine Majesty – Maimonides.
Having observed when Abraham was justified by faith, and why, for the honour of Abraham and for example to us who call him father, the apostle here describes and commends the faith of Abraham, wherein note:
I. Whom he believed: God who It is God himself that faith fastens upon: other foundation can no man lay. Now observe what in God Abraham’s faith had an eye to – to that, certainly, which would be most likely to confirm his faith concerning the things promised: –
1. God who quickens the dead. It was promised that he would be the father of many nations, when he and his wife were now as good as dead (Heb 11,11-12), and therefore he looks upon God as a God that could breathe life into dry bones. He that quickens the dead can do any thing, can give a child to Abraham when he is old, can bring the Gentiles, who are dead in trespasses and sins, to a divine and spiritual life (Eph 2,1; cf. Eph 1,19-20).
2. Who calls things which are not as though they were; that is, creates all things by the word of his power, as in the beginning (Gen 1,3; 2 Cor. 4,6). The justification and salvation of sinners, the espousing of the Gentiles that had not been a people, were a gracious calling of things which are not as though they were, giving being to things that were not. This expresses the sovereignty of God and his absolute power and dominion, a mighty stay to faith when all other props sink and totter. It is the holy wisdom and policy of faith to fasten particularly on that in God which is accommodated to the difficulties wherewith it is to wrestle, and will most effectually answer the objections. It is faith indeed to build upon the all-sufficiency of God for the accomplishment of that which is impossible to anything but that all-sufficiency. Thus Abraham became the father of many nations before him who is believed, that is, in the eye and account of God; or like him whom he believed; as God was a common Father, so was Abraham. It is by faith in God that we become accepted of him, and conformable to him.
II. How he believed. He here magnifies the strength of Abraham’s faith. in several expressions.
1. Against hope, he believed in hope, (v.18). There was a hope against him, a natural hope. All the arguments of sense, and reason, and experience, which in such cases usually beget and support hope, were against him; no second causes smiled upon him, nor in the least favoured his hope. But, against all those inducements to the contrary, he believed; for he had a hope for him: He believed in hope, which arose, as his faith did, from the consideration of God’s all-sufficiency. That he might become the father of many nations. Therefore God, by his almighty grace, enabled him thus to believe against hope, that he might pass for a pattern of great and strong faith to all generations. It was fit that he who was to be the father of the faithful should have something more than ordinary in his faith – that in him faith should be set in its highest elevation, and so the endeavours of all succeeding believers be directed, raised, and quickened. Or this is mentioned as the matter of the promise that he believed; and he refers to Gen 15,5. So shall thy seed be, as the stars of heaven, so innumerable, so illustrious. This was that which he believed, when it was counted to him as righteousness (v.6). And it is observable that this particular instance of his faith was against hope, against the surmises and suggestions of his unbelief. He had just before been concluding hardly that he should go childless, that one born in his house was his heir (vv.2-3); and this unbelief was a foil to his faith, and bespeaks it a believing against hope.
2. Being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body (19). Note, his own body was now dead – become utterly unlikely to beget a child, though the new life ad vigour that god gave him continued after Sarah was dead, witness his children by Keturah. When God intends some special blessing, some child of promise, for his people, he commonly puts a sentence of death upon the blessing itself, and upon all the ways that lead to it. Joseph must be enslaved and imprisoned before he be advanced. But Abraham did not consider this sy katenoëse – he did not dwell in his thoughts upon it. He said indeed, shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? (Gen 17,17). But that was the language of his admiration and his desire to be further satisfied, not of his doubting and distrust; his faith passed by that consideration, and thought of nothing but the faithfulness of the promise with the contemplation whereof he was swallowed up, and this kept up his faith. being not weak in faith, he considered not. It is mere weakness of faith that makes a man lie poring upon the difficulties and seeming impossibilities that lie in the way of a promise. Though it may seem to be the wisdom and policy of carnal reason, yet it is the weakness of faith, to look into the bottom of all the difficulties that arise against the promise.
3. He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief (v.20), and he therefore staggered not because he considered not the frowns and discouragements of second causes; sy diekrithë – he disputed not; he did not hold any self-consultation about it, did not take time to consider whether he should close with it or no, did not hesitate nor stumble at it, but by a resolute and peremptory act of his soul, with a holy boldness, ventured all upon the promise. He took it not for a point that would admit of argument or debate, but presently determined it as a ruled case, did not at all hang in suspense about it; he staggered not through unbelief. Unbelief is at the bottom of all our staggering at God’s promises. It is not the promise that fails, but our faith that fails when we stagger.
4. He was strong in faith, giving glory to God, enedynamöthë – he was strengthened in faith, his faith got ground by exercise – crescit eundo. Though weak faith shall not be rejected, the bruised reed not broken, the smoking flax not quenched, yet strong faith shall be commended and honoured. The strength of his faith appeared in the victory it won over his fears. And hereby he gave glory to God; for, as unbelief dishonours God by making him a liar (1 Jn 5,10), so faith honours God by setting to it seal that he is true (Jn 3,33). Abraham’s faith gave God the glory of his wisdom, power, and holiness, goodness, and especially of his faithfulness, resting upon the word that he had spoken. Among men we say, “He that trusts another, gives him credit, and honours him by taking his word;” thus Abraham gave glory to God by trusting We never hear our Lord Jesus commending any thing so much as great faith (Matt 8,10; 15,28); therefore God gives honour to faith, great faith, because faith, great faith gives honour to God.
5. He was fully persuaded that what God had promised he was able to perform, plërophorëtheis was carried on with the greatest confidence and assurance; it is a metaphor taken from ships that come into the harbour with full sail. Abraham saw the storms of doubts, and fears, and temptations likely to rise against the promise, upon which many a one would have shrunk back, and lain by for fairer days, and waited a smiling gale of sense and reason. But Abraham, having taken God for his pilot, and the promise for his card and compass, resolves to weather the point, and like a bold adventurer sets up all his sails, breaks through all the difficulties, regards neither winds nor clouds, but trusts to the strength of his bottom and the wisdom and faithfulness of his pilot, and bravely makes to the harbour, and comes home an unspeakable gainer. Such was the full persuasion, and it was built on the omnipotence of God: He was Our wavering rise mainly from our distrust of the divine power; and therefore to fix us it is requisite we believe not only that he is faithful, but that he is able, that has promised. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness (v.22). Because with such a confidence he ventured his all in the divine promise, God graciously accepted him, and not only answered, but out-did, his expectation. This way of glorifying God by a firm reliance on his bare promise was so very agreeable to God’s design, and so very conducive to his honour, that he graciously accepted it as a righteousness and justified him, though there was not that in the thing itself which could merit such an acceptance. This shows why faith is chosen to be the prime condition of our justification, because it is a grace that of all others gives glory to God.
In the close of he chapter, he applies all to us, and, having abundantly proved that Abraham was justified by faith, he here concludes that his justification was to be the pattern or sampler of ours. It was not written for his sake alone. It was not intended only for an historical commendation of Abraham, or a relation of something peculiar to him (as some antipaedobaptists would understand that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of the faith, v.11, only to Abraham himself, and no other); no, the scripture did not intend hereby to describe some singular way of justification that belonged to Abraham as his prerogative. The accounts we have of the OT saints were not intended for histories only, barely to inform and divert us, but for precedents to direct us, for ensamples (1 Cor. 10,11) for our learning (15,4). And this particularly concerning Abraham was written for us also, to assure us what that righteousness is which God requires and accepts for our salvation, – for us also, that are mean and vile, that come so far short of Abraham in privileges and performances, us Gentiles as well as the Jews, for the blessing of Abraham comes upon the Gentiles through Christ, – for us on whom the ends of the world are come, as well as for the patriarchs; for the grace of God is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. His application of it is but short. Only we may observe:
I. Our common privilege: it shall be imputed to us, that is, righteousness shall. The gospel way of justification is by an imputed righteousness, mellei logizesthai – it shall be imputed; he uses a future verb to signify the continuation of this mercy in the church, that as it is the same now so it will be while God has a church in the world, and there are any of the children of men to be justified, but there is a fountain opened that is inexhaustible.
II. Our common duty: the condition of this privilege, is The proper object of this believing is a divine revelation. The revelation to Abraham was concerning a Christ to come; the revelation to us is concerning a Christ already come, which difference in the revelation does not alter the case. Abraham believed the power of God in raising up an Isaac from the dead womb of Sarah; we are to believe the same power exerted in a higher instance, the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Isaac was in a figure (Heb 11,19); the resurrection of Christ was real. Now we are to believe in him that raised up Christ, not only believe his power, that he could do it, but depend upon his grace in raising up Christ as our surety; so he explains it (v.25), where we have a brief account of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, which are the two main hinges on which the door of salvation turns.
1. He was delivered for our offences. God the Father delivered him, he delivered up himself as a sacrifice for sin. He died indeed as a malefactor, because he died for sin; but it was not his own sin, but the sins of the people. He died to make atonement for our sins, to expiate our guilt, to satisfy divine justice.
2. He was raised again for our justification, for the perfecting and completing of our justification. By the merit of his death he paid our debt, in his resurrection he took out our When he was buried he lay a prisoner in execution for our debt, which as a surety he had undertaken to pay; on the third day an angel was sent to roll away the stone, and so to discharge the prisoner, which was the greatest assurance possible that divine justice was satisfied, the debt paid, or else he would never have released the prisoner: and so the apostle puts a special emphasis on Christ’s resurrection; it is Christ that died, yea, rather that has risen again (8,34). So that upon the whole matter it is very evident that we are not justified by the merit of our own works, but by a fiducial and obediential dependence upon Jesus Christ and his righteousness, as the condition on our part of our right to impunity and salvation, which was the truth that Paul in this and the foregoing chapter had been fixing as the great spring and foundation of our comfort.
Excursus: “Justification” (E: Paul) by Richard B. Hays in ABD, vol. 3
Justification is a term that describes the event whereby persons are set or declared to be in right relation to God. The word is often used to summarize the central message of the gospel proclaimed by Paul. The noun dikaiosynë, which appears frequently in Paul and elsewhere in the NT, is more appropriately translated by the word “righteousness” or, as in common classical and Hellenistic usage, “justice”. Justification as a theological concept has its metaphorical roots in legal language. To be “justified” is to be proved right or innocent before the bar. In the scriptures, legal judgment is executed within the framework of the covenant with Yahweh; thus, righteousness in this context is a
relational term which means faithful adherence to the structure of obligations established by the covenant, and can be predicated of Yahweh no less than of the human covenant partners. God’s righteousness is manifest in his resolute faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. According to Encyclopedic Dictionary and Biblical Reference Guide, edited by Peter M. J. Stravinskas in the NAB, justification is “the sanctification of the human person through the gift of God’s life. The person enters into a state of friendship and communion with God. Justification is a gift from God which must be actively accepted by the individual. Justification occurs through Baptism when the individual enters into the community of God’s people”.
Paul on Justification by Faith
In the Pauline letters, there are a number of passages often regarded as citations of pre-Pauline liturgical or confessional traditions that refer to Christ as “our righteousness” (1 Cor 1,30) or to his death as a vicariously efficacious one whereby “we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5,21) or to baptism as the instrumentality through which “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified [edikaiöthëte] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6,11). Whether these formulations are pre-Pauline or not, they bear witness to the same sphere of Jewish-Christian theological conceptualities reflected in other NT writings. Justification is interpreted as God’s act of deliverance wrought through Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, whose sacrificial death avails for the salvation of the covenant people. This tradition is epitomized in the confessional formula of Rom 4,25, which (probably echoing Isaiah 53) acclaims “Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification [dikaiösis]”. This formula, by connecting justification with resurrection, underscores the connotation of “vindication” present in the terminology. None of these passages makes the characteristically Pauline linkage between justification and faith, nor is there any polemical antithesis here between Christ and the Torah.
Even the doctrine of justification by faith is presented by Paul as a commonly held conviction of early Jewish Christianity. In his account of the confrontation at Antioch, Paul represents himself as having said to Peter, “We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners, since we know that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have put our trust in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified out of the faith of Christ and not out of the works of the Law, because out of the works of the Law ‘no one shall be justified’” (Gal 2,15-16, citing Ps 143,2). According to Paul’s account of the matter, all parties were agreed on the affirmation that persons are justified dia pisteös Iësou Christou (“through the faith of Jesus Christ”); the controversy at Antioch concerned the social and ritual implications of this confession. Whether Paul’s claim is in fact true or whether it is a rhetorical tactic is difficult to say. Early Christians would generally have shared Paul’s belief that Christ’s death and resurrection were the basis of justification; it seems likely, then, that Paul’s original contribution to the discussion was his inference that this truth now abrogated any necessity for gentile converts to be circumcised and to obey the Jewish dietary laws. Consequently, the doctrine of justification by faith became Paul’s theological warrant for an understanding of the Church as a new people of God in which Jews and gentiles could be united in table fellowship.
The precise relation between faith and justification is a difficult exegetical issue. Traditionally, Paul’s expression dia/ek pisteös Iësou Christou in Gal 2,16 (cf. 3,22; Rom 3,22.26) has been understood to mean “through believing in Jesus Christ” (objective genitive). The texts would then establish a dichotomy between two different modes of human religious disposition: seeking justification through “works of the Law” versus through believing in Jesus Christ (cf. also Rom 4,1-8) for the antithesis between “works” and “faith”; the dichotomy would have appeared odd to
Jewish Christians, as attested by James 2,18-26. A number of recent studies1 have argued instead for an interpretation of dia/ek pisteös Iësou Christou as “through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness” (subjective genitive). On this reading, texts such as Gal 2,16 would juxtapose human striving to Christ’s accomplished act of obedient self-sacrifice. This interpretation would be consistent with the view of justification articulated in Rom 5,18-19: “Then as the trespass of one [Adam] led to condemnation for all, so also the righteous act [diakaiöma] of one [Christ] leads to the justification [diakaiösis] of life for all. For just as by the disobedience of one [Adam] many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one [Christ] will many be made righteous [dikaioi]”. Here Christ’s act of obedience is explicitly interpreted as vicariously efficacious for the justification of “many”. The differences between these interpretations of “faith of Jesus Christ” should not be exaggerated: both stress the death and resurrection of Jesus as the decisive act of God upon which justification depends, and both agree in regarding trust/faith as the appropriate response to this divine act. Furthermore, on either reading, Paul emphatically dissociates justification from the Law, which finally has no power to give life (Gal 3,21), and associates it with a relation to Jesus Christ. To do otherwise, in Paul’s view, would be to deny the efficacy or necessity of Christ’s death, and thus to “nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness [dikaiosynë] were through the Law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal 2,21).
In Galatians, confronting an acute pastoral crisis, Paul pushes this line of theological reflection to radical conclusions about the incompatibility of Torah and Christ: “…if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you…. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5,2.4). In the subsequent letter to the Romans, however, he steers a more moderate course, developing other lines of thought already foreshadowed in Galatians (cf. Gal 3,8-9; 3,23-25; 4,21): though the Law has no power to accomplish the justification of the ungodly, it already points toward God’s ultimate purpose, which has now been fully revealed in the gospel. The Law bears witness that God always intended to reveal his righteousness through Jesus Christ in such a way that Jews and gentiles alike will experience salvation, just as Isaiah prophesied (Rom 1,16-17; 15,8-12). Thus, Paul’s development of “the righteousness of God” in Romans deliberately picks up motifs from Deutero-Isaiah, portraying God’s righteousness as his covenant-faithfulness, which manifests itself in the act of eschatological deliverance. This is the meaning of Paul’s claim that although “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law” (i.e. in Jesus Christ), nonetheless “the Law and the prophets bear witness to it” (Rom 3,21-22), as the story of Abraham illustrates (Rom 4).
Once it is recognised that “the righteousness of God” in Romans is deliberately explicated in terms of this OT covenant conceptuality, it becomes apparent that the term refers neither to an abstract ideal of divine distributive justice nor to a legal status or moral character imputed or conveyed by God to human beings. It refers rather to God’s own unshakeable faithfulness. Piper interprets God’s righteousness as an “unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory” 2. Insofar as “righteousness” may be ascribed to the human beneficiaries of God’s grace (cf. passages such as Phil 3,9; Rom 9,30-10,4), this righteousness should be interpreted primarily in terms of the covenant relationship to God and membership within the covenant community.
1 S. K. Williams, The “Righteousness of God” in Romans JBL 99: 1980, pp.241-90; Again Pistis Christou, CBQ 49,
1987, pp.431-47; L. T. Johnson, Romans 3,21-26 and the Faith of Jesus. CBQ 44: 1982, pp.77-90; R. B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ. SBLDS 56: 1983, Chico, CA; Christology and Ethics in Galatians: The Law of Christ. CBQ 49:
2 J. Piper, The Justification of God, Grand Rapids, 1983, p.203.
In view of these exegetical observations, the traditional debate in Christian theology over whether justification is “forensic” or “ethical” demands reformulation. “Righteousness” refers to God’s covenant-faithfulness which declares persons full participants in the community of God’s people. This declaration has a quasi-legal dimension, but there is no question here of a legal fiction whereby God juggles his heavenly account books and pretends not to notice human sin. The legal language points rather to the formal inclusion of those who once were “not my people” in a concrete historical community of the “sons of the living God” (Rom 9,25-26). Justification is only one of the metaphors that Paul can use to describe this act of inclusion by grace; elsewhere he can speak, for example, of “adoption”, as in Gal 4,5 and Rom 8,15. On the other hand, though the gift of incorporation into this community neither presupposes a prerequisite moral uprightness on the part of the recipients (Rom 5,6-11) nor offers a magical transformation of moral character, participation in the covenant community carries with it a very definite normative demand for radical obedience to God (Rom 6,1-19; 12,1-2), because the very purpose of the covenant community is to manifest God’s righteous design for his human creatures.
This interpretation of justification as God’s act of claiming and vindicating a covenant community also precludes the individualistic error of treating justification as the believer’s personal experience of forgiveness and deliverance from a subjective sense of guilt. Stendahl has stressed the absence of these categories in Paul3. According to E. P. Sanders, Paul, in Romans, does not begin with a human predicament and then present justification as the solution to it. Rather he assumes as a starting point the kerygmatic proclamation that God has acted to justify Jews and gentiles alike on the same ground4. This proclamation raises the issue of God’s righteousness as a theological problem. If God justifies people apart from Torah, does that mean he has capriciously abandoned his special covenant relationship with Israel? The problem is one of theodicy: “What shall we say, then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” (Rom 9,14). The bulk of Romans then is a defense of God’s righteousness, as assertion that God is faithful to his promises precisely in the act of justifying people through Jesus rather than through Torah. Thus, Romans deals with “justification” on two levels: (1) the “justification” of persons who are placed in right covenant relation with God through God’s act in Christ and their response to it in faith; and (2) the “justification” of God’s integrity in so acting.
In the later NT epistles, there are two important passages that reflect a continuing concern about the Pauline formulation of the doctrine of justification. Titus 3,5-7 is a full and emphatic restatement of the doctrine, linking justification more directly with baptism than Paul did (but cf. 1 Cor 6,11) and reaffirming the Pauline denial of works as the means of justification: “…not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy … which he poured out upon us richly through Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” The diction is more inflated than Paul’s, and nothing is said here about faith, but the overall position is clearly a deft summary and extension of Paul’s characteristic teaching on justification, preserving the Pauline heritage in a later historical setting.
The Letter of James, on the other hand, contains a notorious passage (2,14-26) which has often been read as a frontal assault on the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2,24). Briefly it must be maintained that the understanding of “justification by faith alone” against which this polemic is aimed represents a
3 K. Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, (Philadelphia, 1976)
4 Cf. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Philadelphia 1977; Paul, the Law and the Jewish People, Philadelphia 1983).
caricature of the Pauline position5. Paul, like James, was insistent that faith is manifest in active obedience, and (interestingly) Paul never uses the expression “justification by faith alone” (sola fide is a slogan of the Reformation, not of Paul). The teaching of James is corrective against a distortion that Paul himself vehemently forswore (Rom 3,8; 6,1-2). We will probably never know whether that position was actually championed by a “hyper-Pauline” antinomian wing of the Pauline school or whether James has constructed a rhetorical “straw man,” representing his own misinterpretation of the Pauline tradition. In either case, the conflict between James and Paul on “faith and works” is more a matter of terminology than of theological substance. If there is a material difference between the two writers, it is to be found rather in the fact that James’ remarks never in any way link justification to God’s redemptive act in Christ.
“Justification” has its root in prophetic interpretation of God’s covenant with Israel. Particularly in Deutero-Isaiah, God’s righteousness provides the grounding for the hope of a future event whereby God will not only demonstrate his faithfulness to Israel but also extend salvation to the gentiles. Paul placed the idea of the righteousness of God near the centre of his own theological reflection and stressed its inclusive dimension: God’s eschatological righteousness revealed in Jesus Christ necessarily entails the justification of Jews and gentiles on equal terms. Paul’s understanding of justification must be interpreted resolutely in terms of OT affirmations of God’s faithfulness to the covenant, a faithfulness surprisingly but definitively confirmed through Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 15,8).
Rom 5,12 One Man’s Sin Means My Death?
Why should the sin of the first human being become the downfall of the entire race? Why should all subsequent human beings stand under God’s judgement against a basic sinfulness for which none of us is ultimately responsible? How, in the face of such claim, are we to believe that God is just?
This text has provided the basics for commonly held doctrines about the nature of human predicament. Many of the questions and problems that arise from it are in fact the result of improper interpretations or misunderstanding of the text itself.
The word sin (and its synonym, trespass) is the key word in Romans 5:12, just as it is in Paul’s description of the human condition in the first three chapters of the epistle. How are we to understand what Paul means by that term? What is his understanding of the origin of the human situation which he describes with this term?
Paul’s understanding of human sinfulness is expressed in two phrases: (1) ‘they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God’(Rom 1:28) and (2) ‘ you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God’ (2:17). Sin is seen as failure to accept our creatureliness, to acknowledge our dependence on our Maker, to recognize our limitations. ‘We are sinners’’ does not mean, primarily, that we have moral problems, but that in the deepest and final sense we are severed from relationship with God because of refusal or bragging.
Sin is not a genetic effect. The idea that sin is passed on genetically and thereby becomes the property of each individual through heredity ultimately led to a low view of sex. Sex came to be seen as the prime locus of human sinfulness-tolerated for the purpose of procreation, but not celebrated as a part of God’s economy for human wholeness and fulfilment.
Nor is sin a perverted inner nature. The problem with this understanding of sin is that it divides individual into a number of separate boxes. It arises from the idea that the Fall resulted in the perversion of one essential part of ourselves. A number of this candidates for this part have been proposed.
5 Cf. J. Reumann, Righteousness in the NT, with responses by J. A. Fitzmyer and J. D. Quinn, Philadelphia and New York, 1982).
For some, the perverted part is the will. For others, it is the emotions or passions. For still others, it is reason. The pervasive mood of anti-intellectualism in some Christian circles is traceable to such an understanding. Since the mind was affected by the Fall, our reasoning capacity is perverted and depraved and the quest of the mind cannot be trusted. But such a view does not do justice to all the biblical data. As total persons we are fallen and stand under the judgement of God. Both our heads and hearts stand under the signature of death. Both are dust.
We are sinners insofar as we are unrelated to God. The questions raised by that statement are: why are we that? Why is that our condition? Why do we find ourselves in such dilemma? Paul’s answer to such questions is found in Romans 5:12-13.
This text has traditionally been seen as the biblical foundation for the Christian doctrine of original sin: ‘ we all stand under the Fall of the first man; that is why we are in the mess we are in!’’ but this view is inadequate. For Paul does not say that we sin because Adam sinned. He does not say that we die because Adam sinned. What he does say is this: Sin (alienation from God) entered the stage of history in the first man’s rebellion (‘sin entered the world through one man’’). The result of that separation is disintegration and death. But the universal penetration of that condition is due to the fact that all the persons that have become revolutionaries against God (‘because all sinned’’) .
There is a two-sided perspective here in Paul that must be taken seriously if we wish to understand him adequately. On the one side of this dual perspective is the Hebrew idea of human solidarity, the recognition that each individual shares a common humanity. On the other side is the recognition of individual responsibility. By the virtue of the former, we are in bondage; by the virtue of the latter, we become responsible for participation in that bondage.
Human solidarity. Paul was heir to a tradition concerning the human condition that was deeply rooted in Jewish beliefs. That tradition recognized the intimate interdependence of individuals and the effect that such solidarity could have, both positively and negatively. The Old Testament concept that the sins of parents would have their effect down through several generations reflects the Hebrew idea of corporate solidarity. The immediate background for Paul’s statements concerning the relation between first man and the rest of humankind (Rom 5,12-21) can be clearly seen in a Jewish work of the first century A.D.:
[Adam] transgressed…. Thou didst appoint death for him and for his descendants…For the first Adam, burdened with evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who descended from him. Thus this disease became permanent. (2 Esdras 3:7, 21-22). O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. (2 Esdras 7:118)
Paul clearly reflects this Jewish understanding in Romans 5:12-13. Adam, the typical representative and first human being, yields to the temptation to determine his own existence and his own destiny (that is, he sins). The result of that self-determination is death. Death is the condition of separateness, since the creature apart from the Creator does not have life. Physical death is clearly a part of this picture in the Hebrew-Pauline understanding. Separation from the source of life results in decay and disintegration.
But both for the OT and for Paul, death is also an existential reality, a real condition of life. Thus Ezekiel receives a vision of “dry bones” that are representative of the failure of Israel to be and remain God’s people (Ezek 37). Hosea can speak of the resurrection of Israel from the grave of its national downfall (Hos 6,2). And Paul can speak of Christians as those “who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6,13). The uniform affirmation of this biblical tradition is that there exists a mysterious relationship between human self-determination and death and between the first man’s self-determination and our own death. We belong to one another, and the condition of one has inevitable consequences for others.
Sociological and psychological studies have confirmed that scriptural understanding of human solidarity. We have been shown how heredity, upbringing and environment play major roles in the formation of our personalities. I am, to a large degree, the product of my world. what I am in the present is a continuation of all that I have assumed – consciously or unconsciously – from my past. Thus the child raised in an environment with violent models is more likely to be involved in violent behaviour than those not raised with such models. The child of psychologically disturbed parents is more likely to become neurotic than the child of mentally healthy parents. The child who grows up in a broken home is less likely to become a whole, healthy person than one raised in a home with genuine love and caring from both parents in a consistent and stable relationship.
All of us are born into a human community that is overshadowed by the cumulative weight of human sinfulness, oppressive structures, prejudices and injustices. We are, all of us, more or less affected by the shadows that these clouds cast over our motives and orientations, our attitudes and priorities.
Individual Responsibility. In Rom 5,12-21, Paul not only reflects Jewish religious thought that we share a common humanity and that we are affected by that interdependence, but also reflects the Jewish belief that as individuals we are responsible and held accountable for the way we relate to that common humanity.
At the time of Ezekiel a protest was raised against the ancient Hebrew idea that the sins of parents will be visited upon the children and that the children will be held accountable for their parents’ transgressions. In Ezekiel 18 the prophet speaks the decisive word of God for individual responsibility:
Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right… he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father (Ezek 18,19-20).
This concept of individual responsibility made itself increasingly felt and is clearly enunciated in Jewish writings close to the time of Paul. In the Wisdom of Solomon, which dates from the first century B.C., the author discusses the presence of evil in the world in clear allusion to Genesis 2:
“Do not invite death by the error of your life, nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death…. But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death (1,12-13.16 RSV)”.
The parallel between this understanding of individual responsibility and Paul’s statement in Rom 5,12 is unmistakable. The same idea is voiced in a Jewish book of the first century A.D., the Apocalypse of Baruch: “Adam is therefore not the cause, save only of his own soul. But each of us has been the Adam of his own soul” (2 Baruch 54,19). Paul also affirms that each person continues the rebellion and self-determination of Adam in his or her own life. It is in that sense that each of us becomes a part of that fateful history that stands under the signature o death. Each individual participates in the Adamic humanity and becomes accountable to that participation. Death marches across the pages of human history because humans in their own individuality have sinned. They do what Adam did. And the attempt to determine our own existence, however that may work itself out in everyday living, leads to separation from God.
Paul, in this text, affirms both parts of Jewish teaching about the origin and nature of sin: we stand in mysterious solidarity with Adam (Eve and Adam) in sin; we are also individually responsible. There is a sense in which we are determined; there is another sense in which we are absolutely free. But since we are both, neither the one nor the other is the final word.
This Pauline understanding of sin as dynamic, relational reality leads directly to what is his final word; namely, that this paradoxical reality of our bondage to, and freedom from, sin is overcome in a new relationship – one with Jesus Christ. Through that relationship to God, and in Christ we become members of a new humanity.
Rom. 5,20 The Law Increases Sin?
On first reading, Rom 5,20 seems to suggest that the purpose of the law of God, given to Moses for the people of Israel, was to increase human sinfulness. But is it possible that the God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ deliberately acted in such a way that sin is increased? Doesn’t the revelation of God, from beginning to end of redemptive history as recorded in the Bible, tell about a God who seeks to bring his lost and fallen creation back into restored relationship with himself?
In order to hear Paul accurately, the context of this passage needs to be considered, as well as several other statements about the purpose of the law. In Rom 5,12-21 Paul presents the contrast between the devastating consequences of human sinfulness and the magnificence of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Sin entered the human sphere through Adam’s decision to reject god’s purposes, and it gained universal dominance through continuing human disobedience (Rom 5,12). Having established this, Paul recognizes immediately that though sin has been here from the start, the law was given much later (Rom 5,13). The point is this: Even though individuals could not be held accountable for a standard that did not yet exist, they are a part of a humanity alienated from God and his good purposes (Rom 5,13-14).
Within this understanding of the corporate responsibility, Rom 5,20 must be understood. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase” cannot mean that God intended to increase sin. The hina pleonasë (hina + aorist subjunctive) is consequent or consecutive (with the result that) rather than purpose clause – thus, with the result that sin increased rather than so that sin may increase. Paul has already shown both sin and its consequence, death, to be a universal reality. It cannot increase beyond this. What sin can be greater than that which separates the whole creation from its Creator?
Thus the meaning of the passage must be that the law was given to “increase the awareness, the consciousness of sin”. Its destructive, devastating nature is revealed for what it really is when the good intentions of God, expressed in the law, are violated. Throughout the OT, and in rabbinic interpretations of the narratives that tell of the giving of the law to Israel, it is clear that the law was actually understood as a gift from God. Paul shared this view (cf. Rom 7,10). But in disobeying the law humankind revealed the magnitude of its brokenness.
This understanding of Rom 5,20 is confirmed in several similar statements made by Paul elsewhere. In Rom 3,20 he says that “through the law we become conscious of sin.” In Rom 7,7-8 he clearly exonerates the law. It is not the law that leads to sin. Rather, it simply shows what sin looks like and how it expresses itself: “I would not have known what sin was except through the law”. Finally, in Gal 3,19, Paul asks the question “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” and then supplies the answer: “It was added because of transgressions.”
When all of these insights are taken together, it becomes clear that “increasing sin” does not refer to the accumulation of sins or to greater sins (as opposed to lesser sins). Rather, in light of both the law and God’s grace in Christ Jesus (Rom 5,20-21), human sin is exposed and revealed to our consciousness in all its magnitude.
Romans 6,2.7 Dead To Sin?
The basic dilemma expressed in this question and answer is the relationship between our new life in Christ – a life free from sin – and our actual day-to-day living, where sin in fact is all too often present. In order to grasp Paul in this matter, we must first attempt to understand his language about the nature of the believer’s relationship to Christ. The theme of Rom 6 is the contrast between existence characterized by death and one characterized by life. The former is in view when Christians permit their new life in Christ to be infiltrated by the forces of sin, by their former life “in Adam.” The latter is in view when Christians increasingly yield to the claims that Christ has upon them.
The way of belonging to the new humanity, established in Christ, is expressed by Paul in very mystical language. He speaks of believers as those who have been “crucified” and “buried” with Christ; as having “died” and been “raised” with him. These phrases suggest an intense union between the believer and Christ that we, who have been thoroughly conditioned by rationalistic, scientific and technological thinking, have difficulty grasping. Perhaps, Eastern mysticism and various cults with their meditation and inwardness prove so attractive because our civilized, acculturated form of Christianity fails to provide people with a sense of the mysterious, a sense of the “otherness” of the divine.
Paul’s idea of being in Christ, or being united with Christ, has often been referred to as “Pauline mysticism,” where “mysticism” designates a particularly intense relationship between the human and the divine. What was Paul’s understanding of the nature of the mystical relationship between the believer and the Lord?
In Rom 6,1-10, Paul tells us that entrance into the new humanity is by means of an intense union with Christ that he presents by use of baptismal imagery of immersion: going into the waters of baptism and emerging from them symbolizes one’s dying and rising with Christ. Further, the way of belonging to the new humanity is expressed in two ways:
1. By way of negation: we are dead to sin (Rom 6,2), no longer enslaved by sin (Rom 6,6), freed from sin (Rom 6,7) because the old self was crucified (Rom 6,6).
2. By way of affirmation: there is newness of life (Rom 6,4), union with Christ (Rom 6,5) and life with him (Rom 6,8) because a new self emerged in our being raised with him (Rom 6,4).
Now in these images what is extremely interesting, as well as puzzling, is that Paul presents them as statements of both fact and possibility. In the Greek language the indicative mood is employed to make factual assertions. In the context of this passage, Paul uses the indicative mood to assert without equivocation the fact that believers are dead to sin, freed from sin, crucified with Christ and so forth. Side by side with these assertions, Paul uses the subjunctive mood, which in Greek is used to express possibility, to express the hope that believers, as a result of being crucified and risen with Christ, might no longer be enslaved by sin (Rom 6,6) and might walk in newness of life (Rom 6,4). There is a real tension between the affirmation that we died to sin and are therefore free from its bondage, and the assertion that such freedom is always the only present as a possibility that must be actualized. How are we to understand this paradoxical juxtaposition of both fact and possibility? Perhaps another look at the baptismal imagery can help us, since Paul clearly associates baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ and with our dying to sin and rising to newness of life.
Baptism has been understood in the various Christian traditions as sacramental or mystical-spiritual or symbolic. In the first, the event is seen as actually mediating the saving qualities of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the second, the event is understood to signal the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ and an inner, spiritual union between Christ and the baptized person. In the third, the event is seen as an external symbol of movement from death to life, resulting from personal decision, commitment and faith.
This is not the place to argue the merits or demerits of these major positions and their variations. All of them have been supported with weighty theological arguments. But it may be possible to combine the deepest truths expressed in these various understandings in a way which also sheds new light on the paradox between fact and possibility in the life of the believer.
In Romans, Paul teaches that the work of God, accomplished in Christ and received by faith, leads to our justification or restored relationship with God. Since the sign of that transaction or restoration is baptism, it may be possible to view baptism in relational terms. In baptism we affirm that the life of the one who is baptized is henceforth to be determined by the fact that Christ died and was raised, that in relation with him as justified persons, we are delivered from the dominion of sin and freed for life.
The dynamic of such relational understanding allows us to deal with the paradoxical nature of new life in Christ, expressed so strongly in the indicative “He who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6,7 RSV) and the imperative “Let not sin therefore reign…” (Rom 6,12 RSV).
New life, says Paul, has become both a reality and a possibility. How do we know that? Paul’s answer is given in Rom 6,9-10. Christ is alive; death no longer has dominion over him. Therefore according to Rom 6,11, we affirm that in relation with him we are dead to sin and alive to God. The following passage (Rom 6,12-23) then speaks about the practical outworking of this life-giving relationship.
Let me illustrate this point from ordinary human experience. The relationship between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage exists on two levels. There is that reality which exists on the basis of their mutual commitment in love and interdependence. On the second level is the practical incarnation of that reality; that commitment in concrete acts in everyday living. Now it is clear that the relational reality, existing on the level of commitment, does not translate automatically or inevitably into the incarnational reality of everyday life. As C. S. Lewis put it, “[There is the possibility] of disappointment ….on the threshold of every human endeavour…. It occurs when lovers get married and begin the real task of learning to live together… [There is] the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”
In every relationship, there must constantly be movement from affirmation to incarnation, or else it is in difficulty. There are all sorts of threats and temptations that must be rejected again and again. To be married means that our lives are governed by the continual affirmation and incarnation of the commitments in that covenant. To be “in Christ,” to be united with him in death and resurrection, means that our lives are determined by the continual affirmation and incarnation of the commitments in that relationship. In our relationship with Christ we are free from the bondage to sin; yet it is possible even for the Christian to “let sin reign” (Rom 6,12).
What does our life look like when affirmation is not translated into incarnation? When our relationship with Christ does not impinge on our everyday living, then other relationships will then fill this vacuum. If it is not the Lord Christ whose mind is being brought to bear on our human relationships, then other lords will certainly bring their minds to bear on them.
Parents are models for their children, whether they like it or not. Our children sense very quickly who we are and what gods we serve. So the questions for me as a father are these: Do my children sense that my life is ruled by a higher kind of authority than tomorrow’s pay-check, the expectations of my neighbours, the priority of things over persons? Do they sense, as they observe my relations with their mother, that we share a real love, that we are truly there for each other, that we keep pace, in that relationship, with a “different drummer”? to the extent that they sense these things, my life is an incarnation of my relationship with Christ. To the extent that they do not observe these, my life is an incarnation of other relationships. Christian life is lived between the indicative (“You are raised with Christ”) and the imperative (“let not sin reign in your mortal body”). Only by the empowering presence of God’s Spirit can the imperative find realization in our living.
Freed From The Law – Christ is the End of the Law (Rom 7,4 cf. 10,4)
Romans 10,4, though not the only place where Paul deals with the law, raises more strongly than any other the question of the place of the law and its continuing validity for the Christian. This radical word about Christ as the end of the law – and similar expressions in other letters of Paul – has been the object of intense discussion throughout the history of the church, even beginning as early as Paul’s missionary journeys themselves.
On the face of it, we are confronted with the affirmation that the law no longer determines our relationship with God. To the thinking of many, this has been a hard saying, which is open to the charge of antinomianism, the rejection of any and all laws and regulations, especially absolute norms, for the moral life.
Since the early church used the Jewish Scriptures as their Bible and included them in the canon together with the Gospels and other apostolic writings, the question of the relation between the law of God and Christian faith is an extremely important one.
In attempting to understand this text and its implications, we need to consider three things. First, Paul’s understanding and experience of the law; second, his Damascus road experience as encounter with the Messiah of Jewish expectation; third, his new understanding of the law on the basis of the Christ event. Before we consider these three matters as a background for interpreting this text, a few words about Paul’s use of the term law are in order.
Paul uses the term in both the figurative and the literal sense. When he speaks of “another law at work in the members of my body waging war against the law of my mind” (Rom 7,23) or the law of the spirit of life (Rom 8,2), he is using the term figuratively to denote realities that are determinative for pagan or Christian life, like the Torah is determinative in the life of Israel. Apart from such usage, Paul only has the Mosaic law in view, that religious system with its cultic, ritualistic and moral obligations under which Israel lived its life since Moses. In this latter, literal sense, the term law in Rom 10,4 must be understood.
1. Paul’s Understanding and Experience of the Law
For Paul – “a Hebrew of Hebrews, in regard to the law, a Pharisee,… as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil 3,5-6) – the law was God’s law; it expressed God’s will and purposes for his people. To obey the law was to be obedient to the will of God. “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7,12). It is “spiritual” (Rom 7.14) because it comes from God (Rom 7,22), and its intent is to lead human beings to real life (Rom 7,10).
As a rabbi, Paul knew very well that the law, as a gift of God’s grace, was a privilege to possess (Rom 3,1-2; 9,4). But he also knew that this gift contained within it accountability. To “know [God’s] will,” to “approve of what is superior,” to be “instructed by the law” (Rom 2,17-18) – and therefore to qualify as “a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark” (Rom 2,19) – also meant that one was obligated to keep the law (Rom 2,17-24).
According to his own testimony, Paul believed that the keeping of the law was possible. With regard to its obligation, he was “faultless” (Phil 3,6). But that conviction was obliterated by his experience of Christ,
2. Paul’s Encounter With Christ
Beginning with the Damascus road experience – which Paul describes variously as that turning point where God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Gal 1,16) or that event where “Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3,12) – Paul’s understanding of the place and function of the law underwent significant transformation. It had been his passionate commitment to the law and the resultant zeal to uphold and defend it which led him to persecute the early followers of Jesus. There can be no doubt that he believed deeply that he was carrying out the will of God. But his encounter with the risen Lord opened his eyes to see him as the Messiah of God. In his zeal for the law he had actually opposed the purposes of God. He had resisted the inbreaking of the messianic age (1 Cor. 10,11) in the very act of trying to keep the law.
This realization takes on particular force when it is seen against the background of rabbinic views of history with which Paul was likely familiar. Within that tradition some rabbis held that human history was divided into three periods: (1) the period of “chaos,” lasting from Adam to Moses, when the law had not been given; (2) the period of “Torah,” lasting from Moses till the Messiah, when the law would reign; (3) the period of the Messiah. Now regarding this last period there was considerable discussion among the rabbis about the place of the law. According to some, the Torah was expected to cease in the messianic age; others held that the Messiah would perfect the law by giving it a new interpretation or that he would promulgate a new Torah.
Though the dominant thrust of the rabbinic tradition was that Torah would continue in and through the messianic age, that it was eternally valid, there are also many who thought there would be modifications, that some teachings would cease to be applicable, that others would acquire a new relevance, that the sacrificial system and the festivals would cease, and that ceremonial distinction between “clean” and “unclean” would no longer hold. Thus, a rabbinic tradition which both
affirmed the continuance of the law in the messianic age and recognized some form of cessation and/or modification forms the backdrop for Paul’s experience and new understanding. The messianic age had dawned. The torah could no longer be seen as before.
In addition to this rabbinic tradition, the attitude of Jesus himself to the law must have had some impact on Paul’s thinking. Though we cannot know to what extent Paul was informed about the precise content of Jesus’ teaching and actions, the general stance of Jesus with regard to the law was surely part of the traditions Paul received from his predecessors in the faith. and that stance contains elements which provide both continuity and discontinuity with common Jewish perceptions about the law.
According to Matt 5,17, Jesus did not come to abolish the law. Throughout the couplets which follow (“You have heard that it was said,…but I tell you”) it is clear that Jesus affirms the eternal validity of God’s will as expressed in the law, but that he also drives his hearers to the deepest and most comprehensive meaning of that will by transcending traditional and often limiting interpretations of the law. As Messiah he provides authoritative interpretation.
Further, according to Matt 5,17-18, the witness of the Gospels and the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus “fulfilled the law” in his life, death and resurrection. He is declared as the fulfilment of Scripture. In him, the purposes of God are accomplished. This general conviction is undergirded by the authoritative, sovereign way in which Jesus deals with specific and limiting dimensions of the law and sets his mission on a level of significance above the law. Thus, laws of separation between clean and unclean, of ceremonial defilement, of Sabbath observance are set aside in the pursuit of his ministry to sinners and ritually (ceremonially) “unclean” persons. “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John,” he said (Matt 11,13; Lk 16,16), indicating that a new reality, the messianic kingship, had entered the scene and was replacing the old order (Mk 1,15). With this background in focus, it is perhaps easier to grasp both the continuity and the discontinuity between Paul’s thinking about the law and that of his rabbinic contemporaries.
3. Paul’s New Understanding of the Law
Paul reflects acquaintance with the rabbinic discussion about the three periods of human history. But on the basis of his own experience of Christ and Jesus’ own stance toward the law, Paul intensifies and explicates particularly that strand of the tradition which envisaged either a cessation of the law or at least its transformation in the third or messianic period. He saw Jesus as “abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph 2,15). Through him “we have been released from the law” which once “bound us” (Rom 7,6).
Serving “in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7,6) and seeking to establish his own righteousness (Rom 10,3) had only brought Paul into opposition to the very purpose of God rather than into peace with God. In Rom 7 he shows that the law as expression of God’s will remains; that it reveals, as ever, human sin and rebellion against God. But he also shows that the law is powerless to bring about obedience. It is an external norm; it does not provide the power with which to achieve the norm. therefore the attempt to achieve righteousness based on the law (Rom 10,5) invariably ends in the experience of failure. Paul’s summation of this experience is caught up in the words “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?” (Rom 7,24).
His answer to that question is “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7,25). Why? Because “Christ is the end of the law.” The word “end” (telos) can designate either the “goal,” “outcome,” “purpose” toward which something is directed, or the “end,” “cessation.” Many interpreters believe that both meanings are caught up in this text. For Paul, the law “was our custodian until Christ came” (Gal 3,24 RSV). Its temporary function has now been accomplished; and Christ is therefore also the terminus, the cessation of the law.
But Paul is saying much more here than simply repeating the conviction of one aspect of his tradition and the witness of the early church that there is a cessation of the law in the messianic
period. He qualifies the conviction that the mosaic law has been completed and abrogated in Christ with the phrase “unto righteousness”. English translations have not served us well here, for they have generally blunted the connection between the statement “Christ is the end of the law” and the qualifying phrase “unto righteousness”.
The preposition unto expresses purpose or goal. Christ is not the end of the law in an absolute sense. He does not abolish the will of God as expressed in the law. Rather his coming signals its end with regard to the attainment of righteousness (that is, right relationship with God). He is the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom 1,17). His life is an incarnation of God’s relation-restoring action, God’s way of setting us right (Rom 10,3). Therefore, the law as a means of approach to God, as that which determines relationship with God, as that which was perceived in Paul’s Jewish tradition to lead to life on the basis of conformity, has been abolished.
A third phrase in this text adds a further qualifier to the assertion that Christ is the end of the law. Namely, he is the end of the law “for everyone who believes.” For it is only in the response of faith to Christ , in the humble submission to God’s righteousness (Rom 10,3) that the bondage of the law – consisting of its revelation of sin and its inability to help us beyond it – can come to its end.
A Slave To Sin? (Rom 7,14-19)
On plain reading, what we have in this text is the candid confession of a basic split within the person, of an inner division that leads to utter weakness. Paul’s final word about this condition is in Rom 7,24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” If this passage and the verses that surround it are a description of what the Christian life is all about, then they stand in stark contrast to the joy and freedom and newness Paul describes in Rom 5,6.8. Indeed, it would seem that the “good news” of the gospel, expressed with such exuberance in Rom 5,1.11, has become the “bad news.” For how can Paul say, in Rom 6,6, that “our old self was crucified with him” so that “we should no longer be slaves to sin,” and then go on to say, in Rom 7,25, that “in the sinful nature [I am] a slave to the law of sin”?
Yet despite these difficulties, the most common understanding of this text is that Paul is here speaking about an internal tension between the Christian’s higher and lower selves. Some have even used this text as a biblical warrant for sinful behaviour, as a cop-out from Christian responsibility. As so often, it is important that both the immediate and the wider context of this text be grasped if we are properly to understand Paul’s meaning. When we do that, it becomes difficult to maintain the usual understanding of the text.
Paul’s discussion of justification on the basis of God’s work in Christ (Rom 1-6) shows that the whole person is reconciled to God – body, soul, and spirit. Justification does not create a new moral or spiritual core within us which then has to fight it out with the rest of our being, our “baser instincts,” our “flesh” with its passions desires. That idea rests on both a misunderstanding of certain words Paul uses and an inadequate hearing of Paul’s intention, revealed in the structure of his argument.
The troublesome word in Rom 7,5-25 is flesh, a word used several times in association with the dominion of sin and death (Rom 7,5.18.25). It is the contrast between “flesh” and the “I” with its higher aspirations which is largely responsible for the view that Rom 7 talks about a divided self in which constant warfare is raging. When Paul speaks about “being in the flesh” throughout his writings, he is not talking about our physical nature as such, about physical passions and desires, but about a way of life, an orientation of life, a life lived apart from God’s purposes for us. The Ephesians are told that they have been made alive, released from “the passions of [the] flesh.” The passage then goes on to define “passions of [the] flesh” as “desires of body and mind” (Eph 2,1-3 RSV). This then defines the religious use of the term flesh, which for Paul included what in Greek thought was understood as the highest part of the human being, the mind.
A similar use of flesh is found in Rom 8. In drawing a contrast between two ways of life, Paul speaks of one way as “liv(ing) according to the flesh,” “set(ting) the mind on the flesh” (Rom 8,5-8
RSV). Then he says, “But you are not in the flesh.” Obviously, flesh is used here not with any physical, biological connotations. Rather, the religious use of the word flesh makes it possible for Paul to say that there was a time when “we were living in the flesh” (Rom 7,5 RSV) with the full recognition that Christians continue to be physical creatures.
When Paul, therefore, contrasts a “fleshly” with a “spiritual” way of living, he is not speaking about two distinct parts of the total self, but about two possible life-orientations of that total self. In the contrast between the “I” and “my flesh” (Rom 7,18 RSV), the “I” represents the total self insofar as it affirms the good, the will of God as expressed in the law; “my flesh” represents the total self insofar as it is powerless, dominated by sin, unrelated to God.
Besides these considerations of Paul’s terminology, the structure of the argument supports the thesis that Rom 7,7-25 is not a description of “life in Christ.” In Rom 7,5-6, Paul contrasts the former life (“while we were living in the flesh”) with new life (“but now” RSV). These verses serve as topical sentences for what follows: Rom 7,7-25 provides the interpretation of 7,5, while Rom 8 interprets 7,6. The former describes existence unto death; the latter, existence unto life.
Let us briefly trace the argument in Rom 7, 7-25. Since the law exposes our sinfulness, is the law therefore sin? By no means! For the law is holy and spiritual, just and good (Rom 7,7-14). The reason we are in bondage to sin is because we are “fleshly” (Rom 7,14 RSV – remember the discussion above about the term). Now Paul goes on in Rom 7,15-24 to explain what it means to be “fleshly, so under sin.” It means that we fail to accomplish God’s will, even though we acknowledge the goodness of God’s law, even though we intend to live our life accordingly (Rom 7,15-16). The self is so thoroughly in bondage to sin that one can indeed speak of a life in which the “I,” which acknowledges God’s law, is not in control (Rom 7,17-23). The result of such bondage is “wretchedness” (Rom 7,24). But now there is a new way: Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we are freed from this desperate condition in which, though we serve the law of God with our mind, our concrete, actual living is “fleshly,” dominated by sin (Rom 7,25 RSV). In the next verse (Rom 8,1), Paul begins the description of this new life in Christ, this new life of the Spirit.
What Paul has given us is a description of the ultimate futility of life lived in external conformity to law, even though that law is God’s law. Clearly, Paul’s encounter with Christ caused him to see his former life “under the law” as bondage from this new vantage point. Now, he wants his readers in Rome, as well as us, to understand that legalistic religion leads to death. Only the grace of God revealed and enacted in Christ Jesus sets us free from bondage to sin to experience the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8,21 RSV).
All Things For Good? Rom 8,28
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him”. The apparent discrepancy between this profound affirmation of faith and our human experience makes Rom 8,28 one of the difficult sayings of Paul. For how can we see the hand of God at work in the killing of a young child by a drunken driver? Where are God’s loving purposes revealed in the agony of a cancer victim’s last weeks? What measure of good can be discerned in the massacre of a Christian congregation by the Boko Haram Islamic sect or of innocent civilians by guerrillas? All these kinds of experiences and events seem to contradict Paul’s affirmation. It is therefore imperative that we understand what Paul is saying and how, in light of his own experience, he was able to say it.
Apart from anything else which might be said about this text, it is clear from the context that it expresses Paul’s deep faith and trust in the loving purposes of God. We must remember that this affirmation is not the result of abstract rationalization or theologizing. It is, furthermore, not a word that emerges from the lips of one whose life coasted along in serenity, uninterrupted by the stresses and strains, the pains and perplexities, the turmoil and tragedies that most human beings experience to one degree or another.
No, this word of confidence and hope is written by one who, according to his own testimony in an earlier correspondence, was “under great pressure” and “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1,8); he was “hard pressed on every side” and “perplexed” , “persecuted” and “struck down” (2 Cor. 4,8-9); he experienced “beatings,” “imprisonments,” “riots” and “hunger” (2 Cor. 6,4-5). It seems clear that we have in Rom 8,28 no “armchair theory,” but a profound affirmation of faith that emerges out of experiences which, on the surface at least, would not seem to support that affirmation.
What then is the “good” toward which God works? I believe we can only discover that when we take the whole context of the passage seriously. In Rom 8,1-18, Paul shows that Christians are people who are “in Christ” (Rom 8,1), whose existence is determined and empowered by the Spirit of Christ who dwells within (Rom 8,9-11). On the basis of this reality, we are “children of God” and “heirs with Christ” (Rom 8,16-17 RSV). We are therefore no longer in bondage to “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8,2).
But to be free from the enslaving realities of sin and death does not mean that we can live our lives unaffected by the continuing presence of sin and death in this world. and it is precisely this dual reality of “freedom from” as well as “continuing experience of” that Paul deals with in the second part of the chapter.
Paul concludes his description of “life in Christ” or “life in the Spirit” by affirming in Rom 8,17 that this new life is lived in the tension between present suffering and final glorification. That is to say, freedom from bondage to sin and death does not mean the absence of either the reality of sin and death or the experience of this reality in the present. The present reality of “peace with God” and “justification” (Rom 5,1) is but the first instalment of God’s gracious, redemptive action in Christ. There is much more yet to come. The “not-yet” dimension is already anticipated in Rom 5: beyond the present experience of being at “peace with God,” there is the “hope of [sharing] the glory of God” (Rom 5,2) and the expectation of being “saved through his life” in the final judgment (Rom 5,9-10). This “not-yet” aspect of God’s redemptive purpose is taken up again: in Rom 8,11 Paul points to the future resurrection of our “mortal bodies,” which in Rom 8,17 he refers to as our “glorification”. Then he goes on to show “our present sufferings” need to be placed in proper perspective in light of “the glory that will be revealed” (Rom 8,18).
In these verses our experiences, which do not seem “good” at all, are placed in the context of the totality of God’s creation, which “in eager expectation” (Rom 8,19) and which is presently “subjected to frustration” (Rom 8,20) and in “bondage to decay” (Rom 8,21). It is a creation which “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8,22) just as we human beings “groan” inwardly (Rom 8,22). And just as the total creation “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8,21), so we can anticipate “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8,23).
The proper attitude for our living between the first instalment of our redemption and its final culmination is hope and patience (Rom 8,24-25). Our present situation, says Paul, is a situation of “weakness” (Rom 8,26). If it were not so, patience and hope would not be necessary. Yet it is precisely in the midst of our weakness that the Spirit of God is present and working (Rom 8,26-27). Thus Rom 8,28 must be seen within the context of the redemptive purposes of God. In all things – in our suffering, groaning, hoping, waiting; in “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword” (Rom 8,35) – in all things God is working “for the good of those who love him.” That “good” is the final and complete realization of God’s love for creation, incarnated in Christ, from which nothing can separate us (Rom 8,39).
“In all these things,” Paul is convinced, we can be “more than conquerors” (Rom 8,37). Not on the basis of our efforts, nor on the basis of blind faith, nor through a kind of stoic resignation, but rather “through him who loved us” (Rom 8,37) and called us “according to his purpose” (Rom 8,28). That good and loving purpose finds its completion when the whole creation, including our bodies, is freed from bondage to decay.
Prior to this final act in God’s redemptive work, it is God’s love in Christ that sustains us and empowers us – even in the midst of our experiences of sin and death – “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom 8,29). God works in all things toward that good purpose. But only “those who love him” know that, because they are participants “with him” in the outworking of that purpose.
Predestination? Rom 8,29
Our verse appears to say that God predestined some people. Does this mean that God predestined who will be saved? Does it then also mean that he predestined who will go to hell? The passage in question comes in Paul’s letter to the Romans that deals with the relationship of Jewish and Gentile believers. The Jews viewed themselves as the elect of God, and they viewed Gentiles as those who could not possibly be chosen of God unless they became Jews (that is, became proselytes). Because of that attitude, some Jewish Christians argued that Gentile Christians needed to become Jews and keep the law if they really wanted to be saved, while others felt that while salvation was not at stake, without keeping the law one could not be fully pleasing to God. Paul opposes this teaching in Romans. In the first section of the book he has argued that Jews are just as lost as Gentiles, for it is not having the law that blesses one, but living the law. His main points are that both Jews and Gentiles needed Jesus’ death and that if one is committed to Jesus he has all of God’s salvation. Now in Rom 6-8 he is making three further points: 1. dispensing with the Mosaic law does not lead to more sinful living, for in Christ Christians die to sin as well as to the law; 2. the Mosaic law was not a solution for sin anyway, for it resulted in transforming innocent wrong into conscious sin; and 3. the Holy Spirit received through Christ is the solution to human sin, for while we have to cooperate with him, he is the one who makes us children of God. In the climax of his argument in Rom 9-11, Paul will conclude by showing the purpose of the Jewish nation and its relationship to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. We are, then, in the middle of these three sections.
In the first part of Rom 8 Paul has discussed the role of the Spirit in overcoming sin in Christians, ending with a description of the believer’s exalted status in Christ:
The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8,16-17).
As is often the case in Paul’s writing, he points not only to believers’ exalted status, but also to their present reality of suffering. Identification with Christ is not simply identification with the exalted Christ, but also with the suffering Christ. Since living Christians have not yet died, they tend to experience more of the suffering than the exaltation. This observation leads into a meditation on the meaning of Christian suffering (Rom 8,18-25) and how the spirit helps believers in the middle of their suffering (Rom 8,26-27).
Now we come to Paul’s point, made in part in this verse. Despite the present reality of suffering (although God through his Spirit is in it with us), God will work history for good for everyone who loves God. These “who love God” are those who are “called,” for it is not just the Jewish people who are called, but everyone who hears and responds to the gospel. Christians are not simply called and then dropped or forgotten about, but called in accordance with God’s purpose, which is God’s plan in history. Paul has already referred to this grand purpose in Rom 8,18-25: God has a future hope for Christians, and not only for Christians, but also for the whole of creation. However painful the present may be, it is part of God’s grand plan to redeem human beings from sin, to spread the gospel throughout the earth and to bring his redemption to those human beings who turn to him and to the creation itself.
Another way of putting this is that those whom God foreknew he predestined to be like his Son. The idea of knowing a person in Hebraic thought (in which Paul was immersed) is that of coming into relationship with a person (Gen 18,19; Ps 1,6; Jer 1,3; Hos 13,5; Amos 3,2; or negatively, Mt 7,23). Now we find out that it is not simply the physical children of Abraham with whom God has come into a relationship, but all of those who love God. Therefore the idea of “foreknew” is to come into a relationship with someone before some point in time. This “coming-into-relationship-before” can mean one of two things: 1. God chose this relationship with believers before they ever existed, for he has worked through the whole course of history for the salvation of such people and 2. God chose them as a group before they existed, for he also formed them and also sent the gospel to them. Yet, whichever of the two is the focus of Paul’s concern, it is not only that God chose them, but that he also has a plan for them, which is to be like his Son. Unfortunately for their comfort, this includes not only the glory of his Son, but also the sufferings of his Son. Thus Christians’ present sufferings for Jesus have a purpose: to make them like Jesus. In the next verse Paul will mention other benefits: how those who love God were called through the gospel, justified through the death of Christ and are certainly to be glorified when Christ returns.
Thus Paul is not answering our question about predestination at all. He is writing in a book addressed to the church in Rome. This means the letter is addressed to people who were already Christians. He is in the middle of a section where he has been talking about the sufferings of the Christian life. Now he is telling them the purpose of those sufferings. However unpleasant they may be (and give what non-Christians thought about Christians in the culture, they may have been very unpleasant indeed), these sufferings do not mean that God has forgotten them. “On the contrary,” Paul says, “when you were called in the gospel, it was part of a plan of God. That plan was not to leave you as you were. No, God according to his plan, entered into relationship with you in order to make you like Jesus. Part of that, of course, is suffering, but the other part is glory. So when the pal is complete you will stand before God fully justified and glorified, in the very image of his Son.” That is why in Rom 8,31-39 we get the exclamations of praise to God. Christians have not fallen out of his hand; even when they do not see him, he is bringing them on toward his glorious purpose for them.
So what is God saying about predestination? All those who love God are predestined. God has a previously thought out plan for them. And that plan is to make them like Jesus. In this security every lover of God can rest, even if their present life seems full of pain and chaos.