NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson IX)
The prophet Isaiah saw something that gave him insight as to why people were not going to God for help. He said: “Look at the people going down to Egypt for help. They think the horses they get will save them. They hope the many chariots and powerful soldiers will protect them. But the people don’t trust the Holy One of Israel. They didn’t ask the Lord for help.”1 To put it another way, if people think they can solve their own problems why do they need God’s help? But what the people didn’t know was that God sees what’s down the road and He knows that mankind does not have the ability or power to save themselves from the assured destruction that is coming. Only He and He alone possesses the authority to save them from everlasting punishment. That’s why in the meantime, His grace has made it possible to find salvation now while it is available. That’s why Isaiah pleaded with his people: “You should look for the Lord before it is too late. You should call to Him now, while He is near.”2
Sad to say, their problem was they were doing things in reverse. Instead of running to the Lord, they were running away from Him. This was God’s lament to Moses: “They have very quickly turned away from what I commanded them to do. They made a calf from melted gold for themselves. They are worshiping that calf and making sacrifices to it. The people have said, ‘Israel, these are the gods that led you out of Egypt.’”3 We can equate this to what happened in 1859 when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced their theory of evolution in a book “On the Origin of Species.” After this, instead of ascribing all creation to God as before, it was accepted as a chance evolution of all species from one original primary organism. As such, evolution became the golden calf of modern mankind. Although it is still an unproven theory, the general public and scientific community have accepted it as fact.
Even Solomon noted this tendency when he wrote: “There is one other thing I have learned. God made people to be majestic, but they find many ways to be moronic.”4 That’s no doubt why Isaiah concluded that since man could not right himself and walk straight. He put it this way: “You don’t know how to live in peace. You don’t do what is right and fair. You are crooked, and anyone who lives like that will never know true peace.”5 Then, speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah said: “Just like sheep, we all wandered away, each one going its own way. Yet, the Lord put all our guilt on Him.”6
As Paul saw it, everything God made to be beautiful and be displayed as evidence of His glory and majesty now lay on the trash heap of man’s unproven ideas. But it started a long time ago. Even before Noah’s flood, we find this lament: “The Lord was sorry that He had made people on the earth. It made Him very sad in His heart.”7 But He did not give up on His creation. He sent His only Son to live among mankind in order to lead them back to greatness. Some were like the five bridesmaids in His parable about the wedding that were looking for the groom and went to meet him. But others were like the five foolish who neglected to carry enough oil and ended up being barred at the door.8
Origen gives his impression of the statement that no one has done good, not even one as a hard saying and difficult to understand. “How is it possible that no one, Jew or Greek, has ever done anything good? Are we supposed to believe that nobody has ever shown hospitality, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, delivered the innocent from the hands of the powerful or done anything similar? It does not seem possible to me that Paul was intending to assert anything as incredible as that. I think that what he meant must be understood as follows. If someone lays the foundation for a house and puts up one or two walls or transports some building materials to the site, can he be said to have built the house, just because he has set to work on it? The man who will be said to have built the house is the one who has finished off each and every part of it. So I think that here the Apostle is saying that no one has done good in the sense that no one has brought goodness to perfection and completion. If we ask ourselves who is truly good and who has done good perfectly, we shall find only Him who said: ‘I am the good shepherd.’ And again: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’9”10
With respect to Paul’s quote of Psalm 53 to show how corrupt people had become so that none of them were found by God to be seeking Him, Ambrosiaster says: “Do not be like Asa the king of Judah, who after receiving many blessings from God fell so far that when he suffered lameness in his feet he would not seek God even though there was a prophet present.”11 And Pelagius writes: “One who does not understand does not seek. Or perhaps it is that one does not understand because one does not seek. One seeks for God by inquiring after His will.… The sinner has not known the will of His master.12 ‘Know me, know my will,’ as the popular saying goes.”13
As a result of not seeking God’s help or advice, Paul points out that, as the Scriptures says of them, they all went down the wrong road. To this Pelagius says: “One who does not look for support is bound to fall away and become useless for the work for which he was made. But if there is no one who does good, in what sense does Paul later on accuse those who devour God’s people and ruin the needy? For they were not God’s people if they did not do good.… But this has more to do with the exposition of the psalm than with the Apostle’s concern here!”14
Then Ambrosiaster adds: “No one doubts that those who do not look to God for help are inclined to seek help from vain things, and vanity is an idol. Thus they become useless. Once that happens they cannot do good either, for those who have already fallen just go from bad to worse.”15 And then an early church bishop offers this: “Paul did not treat this passage as if it were prophetic but rather because what David said about transgressors was still a good summary of what was going on in Paul’s day. Even now we still cite texts of this kind in our sermons, because what they say can be applied to our congregations.”16
John Calvin finds Paul’s method of using Scripture one of his strongest points. Calvin writes: “He has heretofore used proofs or arguments to convince men of their iniquity; he now begins to reason from authority; and it is to Christians the strongest kind of proof, when authority is derived from the only true God. And hence let ecclesiastical teachers learn what their office is; for since Paul asserts here no truth but what he confirms by the sure testimony of Scripture, much less ought such a thing to be attempted by those, who have no other commission but to preach the gospel, which they have received through Paul and others.”17
John Bengel notes: “That all men are under sin, is very clearly proved from the vices which always, and everywhere, have been prevalent among mankind; just as, also, the internal holiness of Christ is displayed in the innocence of His words and actions. Paul, therefore, quotes with propriety David and Isaiah, although it is concerning the people of their own times that they complain, and that accompanied with an exception in favor of the godly [some of whom are always to be found], Psalm 14:4, etc. For that complaint describes men such as God looking down from heaven finds them to be, not such as He makes them by His grace.” Bengel goes on to comment on what it meant that they all turned away: “Declension [deterioration] supposes, that all had formerly been in the right path.— at the same time.— They have all become unprofitable. They have not the power of returning to do good. And on the contrary, in all these particulars they cling to what is evil, either secretly, or even openly. They have become unfit for any useful purpose.”18
Albert Barnes has quite a bit to say on this subject. When it comes to there being no one righteous to be found, Barnes says: “The design of the Apostle is not to prove that there were few or none pious. He is treating of the impossibility of justification by works, and alleges in proof that, according to the judgment of God in Psalm 14:1, there were none righteous, etc., in regard to their natural estate, or the condition in which man is, previous to his being justified. In this condition, all are deficient in righteousness, and have nothing to commend them to the divine favor. What people may afterward become by grace is another question, on which the apostle does not, in this place, enter. Whatever number of pious people, therefore, there might be in various places of the world, the argument of the Apostle is not in the least affected. It will hold good even in the millennium!”19
When it comes to there being no one who understands, Barnes notes: “In the Hebrew Psalm 14:2, God is represented as looking down from heaven to see, that is, to make investigation, whether there were any that understood or sought after Him. This circumstance gives not only high poetic beauty to the passage, but deep solemnity and awfulness. God, the searcher of hearts, is represented as making investigation on this very point. He looks down from heaven for this very purpose, to ascertain whether there were any righteous. In the Hebrew it is not asserted, though it is clearly and strongly implied, that none such were found. A fact the apostle clearly states… To understand is used in the sense of being wise; or of having such a state of moral feeling as to dispose them to serve and obey God. The word is often used in the Bible, not to denote a mere intellectual operation of the mind, but the state of the heart inclining the mind to obey and worship God.”20 As such, says Barnes they have all become unprofitable. He writes: “This word in Hebrew means to become ‘putrid’ and ‘offensive,’ like fruit that is spoiled. In Arabic, it is applied to ‘milk’ that becomes sour. Applied to moral subjects, it means to become corrupt and useless. They are of no value in regard to works of righteousness.”21
1 Isaiah 31:1
2 Ibid. 55:6
3 Exodus 32:8
4 See Ecclesiastes 7:29
5 Isaiah 59:8
6 Isaiah 53:6
7 Genesis 6:6
8 Matthew 25:1-13
9 John 10:11
10 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
11 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc, cit.
12 1 John 3:6
13 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 Pelagius: Ibid.
15 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
16 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, loc. cit.
17 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. pp. 237-238
19 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Psalm 107:43; 119:27, 100; Proverbs 5:5; Isaiah 6:10
21 Albert Barnes: ibid.