NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XVII)
Charles Spurgeon has an inspiring homily on this subject: “The gospel tells us about this living by faith, this believing, this receiving righteousness through believing, and not through working. This is the sweet story of the cross, of which Paul was not ashamed. It is through faith that a man becomes just, for otherwise, before the law of God he is convicted of being unjust: being justified by faith, he is enrolled among the just ones. It is through faith that he is at first quickened and breathes the air of heaven, for by nature he was dead in trespasses and sins. As it is by faith that we come out from the world and begin to tread the heavenly road, so it must be by faith that we walk all the journey through. Till we lay down this veil of flesh, till the angel of death shall rend the curtain and we shall see [Him] face to face, let us not hope to walk by sight or sense, but only by faith in the living God.”1
Then, Albert Barnes takes note of the difference between God’s righteousness and man’s righteousness. He writes: “The plan of God was to arrive at it [righteousness] by faith. Here the two schemes differ; and the great design of this Epistle is to show that man cannot be justified on his own plan, to wit, by works; and that the plan of God is the only way, and a wise and glorious way of making man just in the eye of the Law. No small part of the perplexity usually attending this subject will be avoided if it is remembered that the discussion in this Epistle pertains to the question, ‘how can mortal man be just with God?’ The apostle shows that it cannot be by works; and that it ‘can be’ by faith. This latter is what he calls the ‘righteousness of God’ which is revealed in the gospel.”2
John Stott offers a helpful interpretation of the quote from Habakkuk 2:4. He says: “The prophet had complained that God intended to raise up the ruthless Babylonians to punish Israel. How could He use the wicked to judge the wicked? Habakkuk was told that whereas the proud Babylonians would fall, the righteous Israelite would live by his faith, that is, in the context, by his humble, steadfast trust in God.”3 This has led many scholars to take the word “faith” here not only to mean faith in God and His Word, but the faith needed to remain faithful.
Douglas Moo also has an excellent section in his commentary on this discussion of righteousness and justification by faith in the writings of Paul that is much too long to include here, but as far as its vital role he has this to say: “Justification by faith is the anthropological reflex of Paul’s basic conviction that what God has done in Christ for sinful human beings is entirely a matter of grace (see especially 3:24; 4:1-8, 16).”4 In that sense, it is beyond the control and approval of man. Only God can justify, and He will only justify those drawn to Him by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul must have sensed the same confusion that would occur among those to whom he is writing in Rome, so he adds this explanation of how man’s efforts at righteousness had turned into unrighteousness:
Verse 18-19: We see God’s indignation sent from heaven against the ungodliness and unethical behavior of mankind who water down the truth about God. It’s not that they are truly ignorant about God because He has made His indignation plain for them to see.
Up until now, Paul has shown the positive side in his introduction of the Good News. But it would be absurd if God offered a plan of redemption and salvation if there was nothing to be redeemed and saved from. Why would the Gospel need any power if there was nothing that needed to be broken so people could be freed? That would be like a game where you could win a, “Get out of jail free” card, but there is no jail. Jail represents a form of punishment for wrongdoing. So with this verse, Paul develops his view of why mankind was in such dire need of salvation.
After establishing such a broad and sound foundation, it is interesting to see what he will now construct on this foundation of spiritual knowledge. We will discover that it is equally necessary for the Gentile and the Jew to recognize the same Jesus as their true Messiah. In the case of the Gentiles, it would require giving up their pagan habits and idolatry and taking hold of the plan offered to them by God to join the family of God. With the Jews, it would demand that they stop the impossible task of following the Law under the old agreement and accept the grace of God through Christ under the new agreement. In both cases, it would take faith.
Reformist Martin Luther makes this observation: “Here the Apostle begins to show that all men live in sin and folly, in order that they may realize that their wisdom and righteousness are in vain and they need the righteousness of Christ. This He illustrates, first of all, by describing the moral condition of the heathen.”5 In other words, the negative results that ensue after the sinful habits of sinners clearly show how abominable they are in God’s sight. That in itself should be a witness to them that there is a God, and that He loves what is right and despises what is wrong.
John Calvin speaks about the revelation of God’s displeasure from heaven against those who misinterpret the Gospel. Calvin writes: “Paul reasons now… that there is no righteousness except what is conferred, or comes through the gospel; for he shows that without this all men are condemned: by it alone there is salvation to be found. And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact, — that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of blasphemy, and of wicked and atrocious ingratitude.”6
John Bengel ties what Isaiah is quoted by Paul as saying here with what Isaiah said in verse 19. To this degree then, Israel did not sin in ignorance, but knowingly. By showing glory to them, they should have praised Him in thanksgiving. Furthermore, they should have rendered thanks to Him for His benefits in keeping them under His care as He led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. But instead of glorifying Him, they became vain in their own glory. Bengel goes on to say: “The heart, which through these vanities had become foolish, became too dark, losing the truth entirely.”7
H. A. Ironside remarks: “We have seen that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The apostle now proceeds to show the need for such a revelation, and piles proof upon proof, evidence upon evidence, and scripture upon scripture to demonstrate the solemn fact that man has no righteousness of his own, but is both by nature and practice utterly unsuited to a God of infinite holiness whose throne is established on righteousness…. In a masterly way, he brings the whole world into court and shows that condemnation rests upon all because all have sinned. Mankind is guilty, hopelessly so, and can do nothing to retrieve his condition. If God has no righteousness for him his case is ended.”8
Charles Hodge adds his thoughts to this: “The wrath of God is His punitive justice, His determination to punish sin. The passion which is called anger or wrath, and which is always mixed more or less with malignity in the human breast, is of course infinitely removed from what the word imports when used in reference to God. Yet as anger in man leads to the infliction of evil on its object, the word is, agreeably, to a principle which pervades the Scriptures, applied to the calm and undeviating purpose of the Divine mind, which secures the connection between sin and misery, with the same general uniformity that any other law in the physical or moral government of God operates.”9
Then Charles Spurgeon has this to say: “Those last words may be read, ‘Who hold down the truth in unrighteousness.’ They will not let the truth work upon their hearts; they will not allow it to operate in their minds, but they try to make it an excuse for their sin. Is there anybody here who is holding down the truth to prevent it entering his heart? I fear that there are some such persons, who have come here for years, and the truth has pricked them, troubled them, made them lie awake at night; but they are holding it down, like one who grasps a wild animal by the ears, and holds it down for fear it should bite him. Oh, sirs, when you are afraid of the truth, you may well be afraid of hell! When you and the truth quarrel, you had better end your fighting soon, for you will have the worst of it if you do not yield.”10
Albert Barnes also employs a comparison between man’s admiration for ethical law and divine law. He writes: “We admire the character of a ruler who is opposed to all crime in the community, and who expresses those feelings in the laws. And the more he is opposed to vice and crime, the more we admire his character and his laws; then why shall we be not equally pleased with God, who is opposed to all crime in all parts of the universe, and who determines to express it in the proper way for the sake of preserving order and promoting peace?”11
Douglas Moo makes this point: “Truth in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God’s just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it. In this case, as Meyer says, they ‘do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.’12”13
The phrase in our text: “who withhold the truth about God,” is rendered in the KJV as: “who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Methodist theologian Adam Clarke writes this: “In what sense could it be said that the heathen held the truth in unrighteousness when they really didn’t have the truth? Some think this refers to the conduct of their best philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca, etc., who knew much more of the Divine nature than they thought safe or prudent to explore; and who acted in many things contrary to the light which they enjoyed. Others think this to be spoken of the Gentiles in general, who either did know or might have known, much of God from the works of creation, as the apostle intimates in the following verses. But German Protestant theologian Ernst Friedrich Karl Rosenmüller and some others contend that the word “katechō” here does not signify to hold, but to hinder; and that the place should be translated, who through maliciousness hinder the truth; i.e. prevent it from taking hold of their hearts, and from governing their conduct.”
1 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
2 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 90
5 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 42
6 John Calvin: op. cit. Verse 18
7 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 216-217
8 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Charles Hodge: Ibid., loc. cit.
10 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
11 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer: Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1873, p. 76
13 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 103