Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Early church scholars give their views on what Paul is saying here about a final judgment. In Ambrosiaster we read: “Those who doubt that there will be a future judgment of God through Christ, and who for that reason despise His patience, do all they can to discredit it as being real and certain. For they believe in wickedness. It is wickedness to deny what God has foretold. Paul mentions three things which are fitting punishments for unbelief – wrath, fury, and tribulation. The focus of wrath is not in the one who judges but in the one who is judged. God is said to get angry and to take vengeance, but in reality, the nature of God transcends such passions. But this is said so that we should believe that God judges sin and that He will finally get even.”1

Then, the great preacher Chrysostom makes this point: “Paul deprives those who live in wickedness of any excuse and shows that it is from divisiveness and carelessness that they fall into unrighteousness.… Their fall is voluntary; their crime is not of necessity.2 And Pelagius offers this: “Those who are frequently overcome by hatred and fall into quarreling should be careful and afraid of persisting in so harmful a habit, in case the punishments mentioned are visited upon them. It has already been pointed out that a man is divisive when he tries to defend something against his conscience. Such people do not believe the truth of the gospel and approve of wickedness. They have abandoned the Creator and diligently serve the creature instead.”3 Pelagius points out that Paul says God’s response to this will be one of “indignation” and “retribution.” These are the words that Paul chose to explain the severity of God’s judgment, but we must keep in mind this is already established law, not something God will decide on as punishment when the time comes.

John Calvin gives his explanation of what Paul is saying here: “Contention is mentioned here for rebellion and stubbornness; for Paul was contending with hypocrites who, by their gross and unresistant self-indulgence, played [around] with God. By the word truth, is simply meant the revealed will of God, which alone is the light of truth: for it is what belongs to all the ungodly, that they always prefer to be in bondage to iniquity, rather than to receive the yoke of God; and whatever obedience they may pretend, yet they never cease perversely to clamor and struggle against God’s word. For as they who are openly wicked scoff at the truth, so hypocrites fear not to set up in opposition to it their artificial modes of worship. The Apostle further adds, that such disobedient persons obey or serve iniquity; for there is no middle course, which those who are unwilling to be in subjection to the law of the Lord can take, so as to be kept from falling immediately into the service of sin. And it is the just reward of outrageous licentiousness, that [it is] those become the slaves of sin who cannot endure the service of God.4 It should be noted here that Calvin was not talking about the world, but about the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages.

John Bengel says that Paul shrunk directly from saying that God would render to those who are contentious, death or eternal damnation. In Bengel’s words: “He, therefore, leaves it to the conscience of the sinner.5 In other words, a case of “cause and effect.” Let’s say it another way from everyday life. If a person is warned over and over not to put a metal object into a wall socket, but they continue to do so, they will receive the shock of their lives. Perhaps, a shock that will end their lives. It’s not the power plant’s fault, even though they generate the electricity that flows through the wires into that socket. So it is with God. He has warned over and over that the wages of sin is death, so when someone finally earns that salary, it is not God who caused it, it is disobedience receiving its due payment.

Henry Alford focuses on the character of those who participate in such folly. He writes: “(Literally) those who are self-seeking; those who live in, act from, are situated in, and do their deeds from a spirit of ambitious seeking of their own interests, – for such is the meaning of the original word… [They hinder] the truth which they possess from doing its work, by self-abandonment to iniquity.6 It cannot be more clearly said that all the heartache, suffering, pain and punishment that falls on a sinner is earned by them for being disobedient and insistent on doing things their way instead of God’s way. And as Jesus told Nicodemus, the only way for a sinner to turn this around is first to be born again.

Verse 9: There will be tribulation and anguish to everyone who does evil—to the Jews first and also to those who are not Jews.

The apostle Paul’s effort here is proactive in nature. He wanted the believers in Rome to know the danger before they might decide to wander away from the truth, not after the fact. Solomon tells us what Wisdom wanted everyone to know: “I tried to help, but you refused to listen. I offered my hand, but you turned away from me. You ignored my advice and refused to be corrected.”7 Perhaps this is why we feel pity instead of sympathy for someone who gets into trouble after being told ahead of time that it was a dangerous thing to do.

Paul does not go into detail to explain what he meant by Jews first and then Gentiles. But there are several possibilities. It may be to illustrate that Jesus came first with God’s message of salvation through grace to His own people, the Jews, then to the non-Jews. It may also signify that because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah, the Jews would experience God’s wrath before the day when it would be levied against non-Jews. In any case, it’s best to let Paul speak for himself on this subject.

Jesus gives us an example of this when He warned various cities where His miracles were performed, but they refused to recognize Him as God’s Son. John tells us: “Jesus criticized the cities where He did most of His miracles. He criticized these cities because the people there did not change their lives and stop sinning. Jesus said, ‘It will be bad for you Chorazin! It will be bad for you Bethsaida! I did many miracles in you. If these same miracles had happened in Tyre and Sidon, the people there would have changed their lives a long time ago. They would have worn sackcloth and put ashes on themselves to show that they were sorry for their sins. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be worse for you than for Tyre and Sidon’.”8

Jesus reveals another facet of the idea that those who know more will be judged with greater harshness than those who know less. Our Lord uses a parable about some servants who were told to work hard while their master was away so that when he returned they could show him what they had accomplished for his estate. Jesus speaks about the servant who did not take this advice: “That servant knew what his master wanted him to do. But he did not make himself ready or try to do what his master wanted. So that servant will be punished very severely! But what about the servant who does not know what his master wants? He also does things that deserve punishment. But he will get less punishment than the servant who knew what he should do. Whoever has been given much will be responsible for much. Much more will be expected from the one who has been given more.9

We see this same concept when Luke tells us about Peter’s message in the Temple area after the lame man was healed. Peter said: “God has sent His special servant Jesus. He sent Him to you first.”10 And the apostle Paul saw this same distinction when he traveled with Barnabas to Antioch in Pisidia and told the people there: “We had to tell God’s message to you Jews first, but you refuse to listen. You have made it clear that you are not worthy of having eternal life. So we will now go to those who are not Jews.”11 Later, when Paul went to Corinth, he tried his best to convince the Jews in the synagogue about Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah. But Luke tells us: “But they disagreed with what Paul was teaching and started insulting him. So Paul shook the dust from his clothes. He said to them, ‘If you are not saved, it will be your own fault! I have done all I can do. After this, I will go only to the non-Jewish people’.”12

Several early church scholars offer their comments. Ambrosiaster says, that “tribulation” refers to the punishment which the condemned sinner will suffer. Evil is not just a matter of deeds but of unbelief as well.… Paul always puts the Jew first, whether he is to be praised or blamed, because of his privileged ancestry. If he believes he will be all the more honored because of Abraham, but if he doubts he will be treated all the worse, because he has rejected the gift promised to his forefathers.13

Then Chrysostom shares this: “Having shown the extreme seriousness of the disease … Paul goes on to give the Jew the greater burden in the tribulation. For the Jew has enjoyed a larger share of instruction and so also deserves to suffer a larger share of the punishment if he does wrong. The wiser or mightier we are, the more we will be punished if we sin.”14 And Pelagius adds: “The apostle threatens the soul with punishment because of heretics who say that only the flesh does wrong and that the soul cannot sin. Or perhaps “soul” refers to the whole man.1516

John Calvin makes this observation: “I have no doubt Paul simply places the Jew in opposition to the Gentile; for those whom he calls Greeks he will presently call Gentiles. But the Jews take the precedence in this case, for they had, in preference to others, both the promises and the threatenings of the law; as though he had said, ‘This is the universal rule of the divine judgment; it shall begin with the Jews, and it shall include the whole world’.”17 In other words, Paul is not placing the Jews first out of bias or as the worst offenders. Rather, the apostle John offers the best explanation: He came as the Messiah to His own people first, but His own people rejected Him.18 However, Charles Hodge makes this note on what Calvin had to say about the judgment beginning with the Jews, and extending to the Gentiles. “The Jew shall not only be punished as certainly as others but more severely, because he has been more highly favored. ‘The Jew first,’ is equivalent then to the Jew especially. The same remark applies to the following verse. If the Jew is faithful, he shall be specially rewarded. What is true of all men, is especially true of those to whom God has revealed himself in a peculiar manner.19

1 Ambrosiaster: on Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.

2 Chrysostom: On Romans 5

3 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.

4 John Calvin: On Romans, loc, cit.

5 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 224

6 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 17

7 Proverbs 1:24

8 Matthew 11:20-22

9 Luke 12:47-48

10 Acts of the Apostles 3:26

11 Ibid. 13:46

12 Ibid. 18:6

13 Ambrosiaster: on Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.

14 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 5

15 See Genesis 46:27; Acts of the Apostles 7:14

16 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.

17 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.

18 See John 1:11

19 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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