NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XXVII)
Verses 28b-31: And so they end up doing the very thing that hurts them because they are filled with all sorts of godless living, wicked schemes, greed, hatred, endless desire for more, murder, violence, deceit, and spitefulness. And, as if that were not enough, they are gossiping, slanderous, God-hating, rude, egotistical, smug people who are always coming up with even more dreadful ways to treat one another. They don’t listen to their parents; they lack understanding and character. They are simple-minded, covenant-breaking, heartless, and unmerciful; they are not to be trusted.
Now Paul offers a long list of character flaws and felonies that these people seem to wallow in with no desire to escape although they are being pulled under into certain agony and death. What makes it so sad is that they know it is bad for them, yet they keep on adding more and more self-inflicted wounds. Paul does not list them in any order of priority or group them into identifiable categories. But we can see a trend: They begin with the way people think, then the way they feel, then; as a result, the way they treat others, and then what all of this does to their character and reputation.
Several early church writers speak concerning this aggregate of wicked tendencies. Ambrosiaster writes: “Paul put wickedness at the head of the list because he thought that evil and covetousness depended on it. He then added malice, from which flows envy, murder, strife, and deceit. After this, he put maliciousness, which generates gossip and slander.”1 And Chrysostom says: “Notice how everything here is intensive – ‘filled’ and ‘with all.’ Having named maliciousness in general, Paul goes on to discuss the particulars, and these too he mentions in excess – ‘full of envy,’ etc.”2 Then Pelagius points out: “Paul shows that wickedness and evil are the chief causes of the vices. Envy is rightly linked to murder since it is the chief cause for this crime. Strife exists when something is defended, not by reason but by a proud spirit. Deceit is secret malice covered in flattering speech. Maliciousness is a wish or a work of malice.”3
This same trio then comment on the consequences of having such tendencies. Says Ambrosiaster: “They were foolish and faithless and had no feelings either for God or for men. That is why they were heartless and ruthless. For someone who is cruel to his own family will be that much more cruel to others!”4 Then Chrysostom writes: “Christ Himself mentions this as the cause of wickedness, saying: ‘Because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.‘5 Paul says here that they were … traitors to nature. For most of us have a family feeling toward one another, which even the beasts share among themselves.… But these men became even more ferocious than the beasts. The disorder which resulted in the world by evil teachings he proves to us by these witnesses and clearly shows that in each case the malady came from the negligence of those who were disordered.”6 And finally, Pelagius opines: “Paul mentions all these sins, set out one by one, with respect to those who have been abandoned by God because they have abandoned Him. Let us, therefore, take care, lest we also are abandoned for embracing one of these evils.”7
A stoic Roman philosopher named Seneca, in his work on “Anger”, gives us a clear description of life in Rome during the time of Christ. He writes: “Every place is full of crime and vice; too many crimes are committed to be cured by any possible restraint. Men struggle in a mighty rivalry of wickedness. Every day the desire for wrong-doing is greater, the dread of it less; all regard for what is better and fairer is banished, lust hurls itself wherever it likes, and crimes are now no longer covert. They stalk before our very eyes, and wickedness has come to such a public state, has gained such power over the hearts of all, that innocence is not only rare – it is nonexistent. Is it only the casual man or the few who break the law? No! On every hand, as if at a given signal, people rise up to level all the barriers of right and wrong.”8
Reformer Martin Luther treats each one of these vices. But he seems to focus especially on the evil of what the King James Version translates as “maliciousness.” In Thayer’s Greek lexicon we find where Bishop Lightfoot denotes this as having a vicious disposition. Luther remarks: “Maliciousness is the perverse tendency in man to do evil despite the good which he has received; indeed he abuses even the good things which God gives him in the service of evil.”9 If there is anything that can get under a believer’s skin and cause the breakout of an indignant rash it is someone who takes something offered in love and kindness, and then uses it in a hurtful and malicious way.
John Bengel points out: “The whole enumeration is wisely arranged: nine members on the affections; two on language; three respecting God, oneself, and one’s neighbor; two on the management of affairs; and six respecting ties to relationships.”10 Bengel goes on to examine each one of these vices and feels that what bothers him the most is that so many of these are expressions and deeds intended to injure others to the delight of the perpetrator. Not only that but because such people seek satisfaction and contentment outside of God, it drives them into being greedy. As Bengel puts it: “He appropriates for himself the goods of others.”11 As a result of being so covetous, “They drive away from themselves everything that is good and beneficial.”12
Based upon this, we can certainly say that the term, “yesterday, today and forever,’ as ascribed to Jesus Christ, is also true when applied to sin. As it was in Noah’s day, David’s day, Christ’s day, Paul’s day, Luther’s day, Wesley’s day, so it is today. Satan’s intended influence never changes. It always eats and corrodes away until it lays bare the most evil and base inclinations of mankind no matter how much moral varnish and veneer has been applied. As long as God commands us to be holy, sin will deprive mankind of that goal unless its hold is broken by the power of Christ.
Albert Barnes in his notes, on this portion, gives us a chilling summary of the evil named in verse 31 as the lack of natural affection. He writes: “This expression denotes the lack of affectionate regard toward their children. The attachment of parents to children is one of the strongest in nature, and nothing can overcome it but the most confirmed and established wickedness. Among the ancient Persians, it was a common custom to bury children alive. In most of the Grecian states, infanticide was not merely permitted, but actually enforced by law. The Spartan lawgiver expressly ordained that every child that was born should be examined by the elderly men of the tribe and that if found weak or deformed, should be thrown into a deep cavern at the foot of Mount Taygetus. Aristotle, in his work on government, enjoins the exposure of children that are naturally feeble and deformed, in order to prevent an excess of population. But among all the nations of antiquity, the Romans were the most unrelenting in their treatment of infants. Romulus obliged the citizens to bring up all their male children, and the oldest of the females, proof that the others were to be destroyed. The Roman father had absolute rights over the life of his child, and we have abundant proof that that right was often exercised.”13 While such forms of infanticide are not practiced today, another has taken its place, and that is called “late-term abortion.”
John Stott gives us a good categorization of these evils: “Paul gives a catalog of twenty-one vices. Such lists were not uncommon in those days in Stoic, Jewish, and early Christian literature. All commentators seem to agree that the list defies neat classification. It begins with four general sins with which these people have become filled, namely every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. Then come five more sins which they are full of and which all depict broken human relationships: envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. Next, come a couple on their own, which seem to refer to libel and slander, although J. B. Phillips offers a characteristically imaginative translation: ‘whisperers-behind-doors’ and ‘stabbers-in-the-back.’ These two are followed by four which seem to portray different and extreme forms of pride: God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful. Now comes another independent couple of words, denoting people who are ‘inventive’ in relation to evil and rebellious in relation to parents. And the list ends with four negatives, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless, which Phillips rather neatly renders ‘without brains, honor, love or pity.’14”15
Verse 32: They know God’s law says that anyone who lives like that should die. But they not only continue to do these things themselves, but they also encourage others who do the same.
Here we see the very epitome of man’s depravity. It is one thing to be debased and not know the Laws of God, but it is worse to have knowledge of such divine prohibitions but remain unwilling to break the chain, and so continue on in such practices. But the most sinister of all is not only having knowledge of the rules against such things, but to ignore them; to be cognizant of a way to be set free, but spurn it, and to proselytize others to join in by making such lewd debauchery appealing and socially acceptable. But what seems lost to those who continue in these works of the flesh, is that God’s laws against them and His commandments prohibiting them are for man’s good. God’s opposition to such debauchery is not just to make Him feel good, but to save man from their own destructive behavior.
The Psalmist described such people like this: “You see a thief and run to join him. You jump into bed with those who commit adultery. You say evil things and tell lies. You sit around talking about people, finding fault with your own brothers.”16 And the Jews wrote about this in their Talmud: “A person does not incur suspicion unless he has done the thing [suspected]; and if he has not done it wholly he has done it partially; and if he has not done it partially, he has a mind to do it; and if he has not had a mind to do it, he has seen others doing it and enjoyed watching it being done.”17
For many of these despicable people Paul describes here, the one thing that seemed to placate their feelings of guilt and conviction was to get others to join them so that what they were doing began to look like reasonable conduct. No doubt this is why Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit. Paul wanted the Roman believers not to get drawn into such a trap. If God said it was wrong 8,000 years, or 4,000 years, or 2,000 years ago, it is still wrong today. Since God never changes, and His Word never changes, then right and wrong never changes.
1 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
2 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 5
3 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Ambrosiaster: ibid.
5 Matthew 24:12
6 Chrysostom: Ibid.
7 Pelagius: Ibid.
8 Seneca Essays: On Anger, Bk. 1, Ch. 2.8
9 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 49
10 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 219
12 Ibid., p. 220
13 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 See J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in Modern English
15 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Psalm 50:18-20
17 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Mo’ed Katan, folio 18b