NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part IV)
The apostle Paul did not want the believers in Rome to forget the richness of God’s unconditional love and grace. When God introduced Himself to Moses on Mount Horeb in Sinai, He responded to Moses’ request that He define Himself. His reply was: “Yahweh, the Lord, is a kind and merciful God. He is slow to become angry. He is full of great love. He can be trusted. He shows His faithful love to thousands of people. He forgives people for the wrong things they do, but He does not forget to punish guilty people.”1 Yes, says the psalmist Asaph, “God was merciful. He forgave their sins and did not destroy them. Many times He held back His anger. He never let it get out of control. He remembered that they were only people.”2 In this way Paul admonished the Roman believers not to misinterpret God’s grace and patience as a lack of interest or care.
Instead, Paul invoked the same message the prophet Isaiah gave Israel: “The Lord is waiting to show His mercy to you. He wants to come and comfort you.”3 So Paul was also asking the Romans to do what Isaiah asked the Israelites to do: “Remember the kind things the Lord has done and don’t forget to praise Him. The Lord has given many good things to the family of Israel. He has been very kind to us. He has shown us mercy. He said, ‘These are my people. These are my real children.’”4
Paul was also able to tell young Timothy that he had experienced God’s patience firsthand: “I was given mercy so that in me Christ Jesus could show that He has patience without limit. Christ showed His patience with me, the worst of all sinners. He wanted me to be an example for those who would believe in Him and have eternal life.”5 No wonder Paul was writing to the Roman believers with such compassion and conviction. Instead of this being Paul’s version of Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,”6 it was, “Sinners in the Hands of a Patient God.”
The great preacher Chrysostom had this to say about where he saw Paul heading in this narrative: “Sinning, by itself, is not as serious as falling into the sins one has accused others of committing. See how Paul makes the whole thing more serious! For if you punish a person who has committed smaller sins … how will God not turn the tables on you and punish you who have committed greater transgressions?… And if you say that you know you deserve punishment but think that because God is patient with you that you will escape it and, therefore, do not take it seriously, this is all the more reason to fear and tremble! For the fact that you have not yet suffered punishment does not mean that you will not suffer it but that you will suffer more severely if you do not repent.”7
Augustine of Hippo adds his thoughts: “Is the fact that some persist in their wickedness any proof that God does not persist in His patience, punishing very few sins in this world, lest we fail to believe in His divine providence and, saving many for the last judgment, to justify His future decree?”8 At first, this idea of Augustine’s that God holds off punishing sinners in this world for their wrong doing because He already knows they will be held accountable in the world to come may seem like a stretch. But when taken in light of the Apostle John’s words: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but rather so that through Him, the world might be saved,”9 it seems to make more sense. Imagine, if you will, a fireman trying to save a person from a burning building that caught fire because of their own carelessness. Suddenly, he tells the other first responders to take a break while he goes into the inferno to confront the person inside who is close to being cremated. He wants to chew them out for playing with matches. Such an idea may be at the heart of what Augustine was trying to explain why God wants to save us more than punish.
Reformer John Calvin took this approach: “As orators teach us, that we ought not to proceed to give strong reproof before the crime has been proven, so Paul may seem to some to have acted unwisely here for having passed so severe a censure, when he had not yet proved the accusation which he had brought forward. But the fact is otherwise; for he adduced not his accusation before men, but appealed to the judgment of conscience; and thus he deemed that proved which he had in view — that they could not deny their iniquity if they examined themselves and submitted to the scrutiny of God’s tribunal. And it was not without urgent necessity, that he with so much sharpness and severity rebuked their fictitious sanctity; for men of this class will with astonishing security trust in themselves, except their vain confidence be forcibly shaken from them. Let us then remember, that this is the best mode of dealing with hypocrisy, in order to awaken it from its stupor, that is, to draw it forth to the light of God’s judgment.”10
Calvin goes on to comment on the fact that no one will escape the final judgment. He writes: “This argument is drawn from the less [to the greater]; for since our sins are subject to the judgment of men, much more are they to that of God, who is the only true Judge of all. Men are indeed led by a divine instinct to condemn evil deeds, but this is only an obscure and faint resemblance of the divine judgment. They are then extremely befuddled, who think that they can escape the judgment of God, though they allow not others to avoid their own judgment. It is not without an emphatic meaning that he repeats the word ‘man’; it is for the purpose of presenting a comparison between man and God.”11
Charles Hodge shares his observations on this subject: “The truth that God’s judgment is just, and will fall on those who themselves commit the sins which they condemn in others, is so plain, that the apostle cries out at the folly of those who seem to deny it. The emphasis lies on the word ‘you,’ in the middle of the verse. ‘Do you think that you, because you are a Jew, will escape the righteous judgment of God?”12 Hodge sees the apostle pointing out a sense of bias on the part of the Jewish members of the Roman community of believers. Since they did not come into the knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah out of the darkness from which the non-Jews were drawn, they, therefore, had an advantage. They thought that God would somehow treat them differently since they were heirs to the promise given to Abraham. Paul wanted them to know there was no such thing as a preferred sinner, just because they lived by a higher moral standard than others did.
Some modern Bible commentators say this: “Moral people are presumptuous in their thinking. They strive to live a principled life, but do not (usually) act like those in Romans One, yet assume that God will overlook their occasional moral lapse because they really do strive to be good. They do not have as many practical manifestations of God’s judgment in their lives as those who do not strive to be good, as seen in chapter 1. They mistake this lack of present judgment for God’s approval, and as proof that they will escape His eschatological judgment. That God does not vent His wrath upon them to a great extent in this life is designed by Him to cause them to recognize His goodness and turn to Him (repentance). But if they do not repent, they will face the righteous judgment of God.”13
Verses 4b: But you think nothing of His kindness. Maybe you don’t yet understand that God is being kind to you so that you will decide to change your lives.
The Apostle Paul knew that oft times believers became so comfortable in God’s blessings and favor that they began to take His goodness and kindness for granted. For some, to wake up in the morning in good health and strength is still not enough to start the day by saying “Thank You,” to the Almighty. He didn’t want the Roman believers to become so careless and ungrateful that they would start to believe that God owed it to them because they served Him. Old Testament saint Job, looked at it the right way. He told his friends that God could allow people to suffer the consequences of their sins without bothering to try and help them, but that’s not God’s way. Says Job: “God will do things for people again and again. He wants them to be saved from death so that they can enjoy life.”14
We also find that as the pilgrims were on their way to the Temple for the Day of Atonement, one of the hymns they would sing had these words: “Lord, if you punished people for all their sins, no one would be left alive. But you forgive people, so they revere and respect you.”15 That’s why Isaiah was able to tell the Israelites: “The Lord is waiting to show His mercy to you. He wants to come and comfort you. The Lord is the God who does the right thing so He will bless everyone who waits for His help.”16 And when it looked like the children of Israel were afraid to approach God for forgiveness, the Spirit gave the prophet Jeremiah this message: “This message is from the Lord. ‘I will stop frowning at you. I am full of mercy.’ The Lord says, ‘I will not be angry with you forever.”17 So Jeremiah encouraged them: “Just say, ‘Yes, we will come back because you are the Lord our God.”18
Jesus faced the same thing when He came to deliver the Good News of a new agreement being offered by God. When He pointed out all of their hypocritical ways and false doctrines, changing their allegiance from the word of God to the words of man, they were reluctant to accept His message. So Jesus told them the story of a man who had two sons, one of which stayed home and the other who went astray. When the wayward son realized his mistake, he came back to his father embarrassed because of his failure. He told his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But let me be like one of your hired workers.”19 But the reception he received was different than what he expected. “While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him coming and felt sorry for him. So he ran to him and hugged and kissed him… The father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him… My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’”20
1 Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18
2 Psalm 78:38-39; See 86:15
3 Isaiah 30:18
4 Ibid. 63:7-8
5 1 Timothy 1:16
6 Preached by Jonathan Edwards on July 8, 1741, at his church in Enfield, Connecticut.
7 Chrysostom: On Romans 5
8 Augustine: Letter 153
9 John 3:17
10 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.
13 Vanlaningham, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Job 33:29-30
15 Psalm 130:3-4
16 Isaiah 30:18
17 Jeremiah 3:12-13
18 Ibid. 3:22
19 Luke 15:19
20 Ibid. 15:20, 22, 24