NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XII)
Verse 18: “They have no reverence for God.”
Apparently, that was this situation in Rome. When you combine corrupt attitudes and destructive action, the result is a Godless morality among the people. What a perfect diagnosis of Paul’s world and today’s world; foul talk, lies, personal attacks, cursing, bitterness, destroying people’s reputations by innuendo, causing havoc, and discord; people who don’t know how to live in harmony because they have no fear of God’s judgment. This type of behavior was once confined to the wicked and criminal elements of the lower class, but today it is common in so-called polite society. Being vulgar has become the new norm because people think it’s funny. We see it expressed in motion pictures, television, and the news. Pretty soon it will move in next door and then creep into our own homes if we don’t declare ourselves off limits through the power of the Holy Spirit. Others should know, that when they come into our sanctuaries or our homes, they are treading on holy ground.
Paul uses the words of David that come from one of his psalms: “Deep in the hearts of the wicked, a voice tells them to do wrong. They see no need of reverence for God.”1 David goes on to say that this total lack of reverence for God is compounded by the fact that they see life a certain way. Cheating makes their life easy – that is, until their crimes are uncovered. Then they claim it was not intentional. Solomon also had a few words to say about people who lived their lives in a fog of lies and deception. They believe they can love God and still enjoy the wrongs they do. He writes: “To respect the Lord means to hate evil.”2 The way the Hebrew reads allows for it to be rendered this way: “Reverence for Adonai is hatred for evil.” Solomon goes on to say: “Respect for the Lord will cause you to avoid evil.”3 When you do this, says Solomon, then you will have no envy for the way sinners live. In fact, those who always respect God will become your example to follow. This will guarantee your future.4
This may have been what persuaded one thief on a cross next to Jesus to tell the other thief: “You should respect God. All of us will die soon. You and I are guilty. We deserve to die because we did wrong. But this man has done nothing wrong.”5 And to guarantee his future, this thief then turned to Jesus and said: “Remember me when you begin ruling as king! Then Jesus said to him, ‘I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”6
In Paul’s effort to identify those who should never be eulogized nor emulated by believers he quotes the Psalmist in calling them people who have no fear of God. In the Hebrew text of Psalm 36:1 the Hebrew word used is translated mostly into English as “fear” or “dread.” But not in a negative sense such as terror, but in a positive sense of reverence for power and authority. But in his Greek text, Paul uses a word from which we get our English word, “phobia.” It carries with it the connotation of alarm due to the potential of coming under its control.
Early church scholar Origen shares his thought on this subject: “If someone is always thinking of what will please or displease God, then it can be said that the fear of God is always before their eyes. But such a person must be experienced and diligently instructed in the law of God so as not to be afraid when there is no reason to fear. For the fear of God must always be placed before our eyes: not the eyes of the flesh—for it is not something visible or corporeal that we are talking about here—but the eyes of the mind, to which an understanding and awareness of the fear of God are evident and by which we can discover what ought and ought not to be feared. The one who fears God does not fear the powers of this world.”7
Then, in the writings of Ambrosiaster we read: “Since people of this kind have no sense, they have no fear of God. For ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,’ says Solomon.8 But Scripture here did not say that they did not have the fear of God. It said: ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ For seeing how evil their works were and not being horrified by them, they are said not to have the fear of God before their eyes.”9 To this, we add the words of Pelagius: “Paul concludes with the fear of God because if the people had always kept that before their eyes, they would not have transgressed, for a servant will not dare sin when his master is present.”10 To better understand what these scholars are saying we should read “respect” instead of “fear” for God.
Reformist John Calvin gives an extensive exposition on the verse: “David says in Psalm 14:1, that there was such perverseness in men, that God, when looking on them all in their different conditions, could not find a righteous man, no, not one. It then follows that this evil pervaded mankind universally; for nothing is hidden from the sight of God. In the other Psalms he speaks of the treachery of his enemies, while he was exhibiting in himself and in his descendants a type of the kingdom of Christ: hence we have in his adversaries the representatives of all those, who being alienated from Christ, are not led by His Spirit. Isaiah expressly mentions Israel; therefore his charge applies with still greater force against the Gentiles. What, then? There is no doubt but that the character of men is described in those words, in order that we may see what man is when left to himself; for Scripture testifies that all men are in this state, who are not regenerated by the grace of God. The condition of the saints would be nothing better, were not this depravity corrected in them: and that they may still remember that they differ nothing from others by nature, they do find in the relics of their flesh (by which they are always encompassed) the seeds of those evils, which would constantly produce fruits, were they not prevented by being mortified; and for this mortification they are indebted to God’s mercy and not to their own nature. We may add, that though all the vices here enumerated are not found conspicuously in every individual, yet they may be justly and truly ascribed to human nature.”11
John Bengel agrees with the translation we have given for this text and says: “Psalm 36:1, — (there is no fear), let alone any love, of which man in his natural state knows much less… Paul has written out a part of the words and intimates that all the rest are to be sought for in the same place — (before their eyes). The seat of reverential awe is in the eyes.”12
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke also shares his perspective of how these verses apply to his time: “There is no fear of God before their eyes – This completes their bad character; they are downright atheists, at least practically such. They do not fear God‘s judgment, although His eye is upon them in their evil ways. There is not one article of what is charged against the Jews and Gentiles here that may not be found justified by the histories of both, in the most ample manner. And what was true of them in those primitive times is true of them still. With very little variation, these are the evils in which the vast mass of mankind delight and live… O Sin, what have you done! How many myriads of souls have you hurried, unprepared, into the eternal world! And where did this spring from? From that, whence come all wars and battles; the evil desires of men; the lust of dominion; the insatiable thirst for money; and the desire to be sole and independent. This is the sin that ruined our first parents, expelled them from paradise, and which has descended to all their posterity; and proves fully that we are their legitimate offspring; the fallen progeny of fallen parents; children in whose ways are destruction and misery; in whose heart there is no faith; and before whose eyes there is nothing of the fear of God.”13
Albert Barnes also sees it this way: “There is no fear of God – Psalm 36:1. The word ‘fear’ here denotes ‘reverence, awe, veneration.’ There is no such regard or reverence for the character, authority, and honor of God as to restrain them from crime. Their conduct shows that they are not withheld from the commission of iniquity by any regard to the fear or favor of God. The only thing that will be effectual in restraining people from sin will be a regard to the honor and Law of God.”
Barnes then goes on to make the following remarks: “In regard to these quotations from the Old Testament, we may make the following remarks. (1) It may be observed that the apostle has given a view of human depravity which is very striking. He does not confine it to one faculty of the mind, or to one set of actions; he specifies each member and each faculty as being perverse and inclined to evil. (2) If such was the character of the Jewish nation under all its advantages, what must have been the character of the pagan? (3) What a melancholy view we have thus of human nature. From whatever quarter we contemplate it, we come to the same conclusion. Whatever record we examine; whatever history we read; whatever time or period we contemplate; we find the same facts, and are forced to the same conclusion. All are involved in sin, and are polluted, and ruined, and helpless. Over these ruins we should sit down and weep, and lift our eyes with gratitude to the God of mercy, that he has pitied us in our low estate, and has devised a plan by which ‘these ruins may be built again,’ and lost, fallen man be raised up to forfeited ‘glory, honor, and immortality.’”14
Charles Hodge has this to say: “This is taken from Psalm 36:1: ‘The dictum of depravity concerning the wicked man is, There is no fear of God before his eyes.’ That is, his depravity proves or reveals that he does not fear God… The course of wicked men, as previously described, is proof that they are destitute of the fear of God. And by ‘the fear of God’ we may understand, according to Scripture usage, reverence for God, piety towards Him; or fear, in the more restricted sense, dread of His wrath. In either way, the reckless wickedness of men proves that they are destitute of all proper regard of God. They act as if there were no God, no Being to whom they are responsible for their conduct, and who has the purpose and power to punish them for their iniquity.”15
While it is certainly a case of someone having no respect or reverence for God, by the way, they speak, live, and act, there is something even more sinister in those who have a total lack of veneration for God and absolutely no fear of His judgment when they set out to destroy and remove all evidence of God in society and people’s lives. There certainly is a big difference between the spirit of atheism or agnosticism and the spirit of antichrist.
1 Psalm 36:1
2 Proverbs 8:13
3 Ibid. 16:6
4 Ibid. 23:17
5 Luke 23:40-41
6 Ibid. 23:42-43
7 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
8 Proverbs 1:7
9 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 239
13 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 124