NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XIII)
Verses 19-20: What the law says is for those who live under the law. It eliminates anyone from making excuses. And it brings the whole world under God’s judgment because no one can be made right in God’s eyes just by following the law.1 The law only shows how sinful they are.
With Paul finishing his quote from the Psalms, and since he is writing to Messianic Jews living in Rome, it is important that we look at what their perception was concerning the word “law.” British theologian John Gill explains this way: “By ‘the law’ is meant, not the law of nature, nor the civil law of nations, nor the ceremonial law of the Jews, nor barely the five books of Moses, nor the book of Psalms, of the Prophets, or the Writings of the whole Old Testament; but moral law as it appears in the entire Word of God, which every man is bound to observe, of which all are transgressors, by which is the knowledge of sin, which no man can be justified by, and which Christ was made under, and came to fulfill.”2 These moral laws are best described by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount.3
We find instances where the law is referred to as a “saying.” Rabbi Jose says: “It is not the position that honors the man but it is the man who honors the position. For example: In connection with Mt. Sinai, as long as the Shekinah dwelt thereon the Torah declared, Neither let the flocks nor herds graze near that mount;4 but once the Shekinah had departed then the Torah said, When the ram’s horn sounds long, they will come up onto the mount.5 The same too we find in connection with the Tabernacle in the wilderness; so long as it remained in operation the Torah commanded, That they put out of the camp every leper;6 but once the curtains were rolled up both those with a running issue and the lepers were permitted to stand under it.”7
Furthermore, the Jews taught that the Torah is said to speak only when the speaker is identified. For instance: “It has been taught: Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rabbi Akiba: Why did the Torah order us to offer an ‘Omer8 on Passover? Because Passover is the season of produce. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, Bring before Me an ‘Omer’ on Passover so that your produce in the fields may be blessed. Why did the Torah order us to bring two loaves on Pentecost? Because Pentecost is the season for fruit of the tree. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Bring before Me two loaves on Pentecost so that the fruit of your trees may be blessed. Why did the Torah order us to pour out water on [the Feast of] Tabernacles? The Holy One, blessed be He, said, Pour out water before Me on [the Feast of] Tabernacles, so that your rains this year may be blessed.”9 This seems to be the same formula Jesus used when He spoke to the Jewish leaders who accosted Him: “Isn’t it written in your Torah, ‘I have said, “You people are Elohim [deities]”’?”10
Paul now explains his personal experience with what the Law had to say. He tells the Corinthians: “With people in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah, I put myself in the position of someone under such legalism, in order to win those under this legalism, even though I myself am not in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah.”11 And he says something similar to the Galatians: “Before this faith came, the law held us as prisoners. We had no freedom until God was finished showing us the way of faith that was coming.”12 Paul goes on to say: “God did this so that He could buy the freedom of those who were under the law. God’s purpose was to make us His children.”13
That’s why Paul says that all those trying to make excuses need to be shown that their arguments do not hold water, they are flawed. The wise man Job informed his friend Bildad: “How can a human being win an argument with God? Anyone who chose to argue with Him could not answer one question in a thousand!”14 In other words, when Scripture says you are wrong, then you are wrong. If ignorance of the law is no excuse, then how much less defense or alibi do you have if you already know the law? The law was not given to placate our conscience, but to probe our conscience for God to bring all of us to the realization that there are none with an excuse that they do not need salvation.
This is not a despairing thought at all! We are also made aware of redemption by this same process. Through the Law we are made aware of sin; in sin, we come to realize the need for salvation; when we accept that salvation, it exempts us then from the Law since the Law was enacted for the unrighteous. Therefore, without the Law, a person would be ignorant of sin and unaware of their need for salvation. So thank God for the Law that revealed our sinful nature; thank God for Jesus Christ who came not only to forgive us of our sins but to free us from living under the Law as the only way to secure salvation through good deeds. Now we live in Him, and our salvation is secure because He has met all the demands of the Law! So all we need to do is be obedient to Him.
Then Paul reiterates the necessity of Christ’s death in light of the fact there was no other way to achieve a reconciled status with God the Father. Paul made this same case to his listeners in Antioch of Pisidia: “Brothers, understand what we are telling you. You can have forgiveness of your sins through this man Jesus. That is, God clears everyone who puts his trust in this man, even in regard to all the things concerning which you could not be cleared by the Law of Moses.”15 Paul repeated this same message in his letter to the Galatians.16 He also touches on this subject when writing the Ephesians: “You have been saved by grace because you believed. You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. You are not saved by the things you have done, so there is nothing to boast about. God has made us what we are in Christ Jesus.”17 So what Paul is saying here is not a new revelation for the Romans it has been part of his preaching since the beginning.
Such thinking was also part and parcel of Jewish teaching since the days of Job. Back then we hear Bildad say to Job: “How can anyone claim to be right before God? No one born of a woman can really be pure.”18 And the reason why Christ’s sacrifice was so critical, is stated by the Psalmist: “Lord, if you punished people for all their sins, no one would be left alive.”19 No wonder Paul was making such a strong argument for the Messianic Jewish leaders in the community of believers in Rome to forsake their habitual reliance on the Law. Instead, put their complete trust and faith in the Word of God through Jesus the Christ.
Early church scholar Origen has some interesting things to say about what Paul states here concerning accountability. He writes: “Here we must consider carefully what this law is that speaks to those who are under the law. By what it says to them, it deprives them of every excuse so that they can find no hiding place for their sins. It is this which stops every mouth and makes the whole world accountable to God. Now if we want to take this as referring to the law of Moses, which without doubt spoke only to those who had been circumcised from their mother’s womb and had learned what the law was, how is it possible that by that law, which applies to only one nation, every mouth should be stopped and the whole world should be held accountable to God? What have the other nations to do with that Law, and why does it affect the entire world? And how is it that a knowledge of sin is said to have originated with the Law of Moses when there were many before his time who were well aware of their sins? From this it appears that the Apostle Paul is not speaking here about the Law of Moses but about the moral law which is written on the hearts of men.… This moral law speaks to all men who are under that law with the sole exception, it seems to me, of those children who are not yet able to distinguish good from evil.”20
And the great teacher Augustine also offers his commentary: “Some think that statements like this are an attack on the Law. But they must be read very carefully so that neither is the law condemned by the Apostle nor is free will taken away from man. Therefore, let us distinguish the following four states of human existence: before the law, under the law, under grace, and at rest. Before the law, we follow the lust of the flesh. Under the law, we are dragged along by it. Under grace, we neither follow it nor are dragged along by it. At rest, there is no lust of the flesh. Prior to being addressed by the law, we do not struggle, because not only do we lust and sin, we even approve of sinning.”21
Augustine then goes on to say: “Under the law, we struggle but are defeated. We admit that what we do is evil and that we do not want to do it, but because there is as yet no grace, we are defeated. In this state, we discover how far down we lie, and when we want to rise up and yet we fall, we are all the more gravely afflicted. The law is good because it forbids what ought to be forbidden and requires what ought to be required. But when anyone thinks he can fulfill the law in his own strength and not through the grace of his Deliverer, this presumption does him no good but rather harms him so much that he is seized by an even stronger desire to sin and by his sins ends up as a transgressor. So when the man who has fallen realizes that he cannot raise himself, let him cry to his Deliverer for help.”22
Augustine continues with this: “Then comes grace, which can pardon previous sins, give aid to the struggling, supplement justice with love, and take away fear. When this takes place, although fleshly desires continue to fight against our spirit in this life and try to lead us into sin, yet our spirit does not give in to these desires because it is rooted in the grace and love of God and ceases to sin. For we do not sin by having these perverse desires but by giving in to them.”23
Finally, Augustine notes: “These desires arise from the mortality of the flesh, which we inherit from the first sin of the first man, which is why we are born carnal. Nor will they cease until, by the resurrection of the body, we shall obtain the transformation which has been promised to us. Then we shall be in the fourth state, where there is perfect peace. Perfect peace is the state in which nothing will resist us because we do not resist God. Free will existed perfectly in the first man, but in us, prior to grace, there is no free will which would enable us not to sin but only enough that we do not want to sin. But grace makes it possible not only for us to want to do what is right but actually to do it not in our own strength but by the help of our Deliverer, who at the resurrection will give us that perfect peace which is the consequence of good will.”24
1 Psalm 143:2
2 John Gill: Commentary on the Bible, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Matthew 5-7
4 Exodus 34:3
5 Ibid. 19:13
6 Numbers 5:2
7 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet, Ta’anth, folio 21b; See also Masekhet Shabbath, folio 25a
8 An omer is approximately 6 bushels
9 Babylonian Talmud: ibid., Masekhet Rosh HaShanah, folio 16a
10 John 10:34 – Complete Jewish Bible
11 1 Corinthians 9:20
12 Galatians 3:23
13 Ibid. 4:5
14 Job 9:2-3
15 Acts of the Apostles 13:38-39
16 Galatians 2:16
17 Ephesians 2:8-10a
18 Job 25:4
19 Psalm 130:3; 143:2
20 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Augustine: On Romans 13-18
22 Augustine: Ibid
23 Augustine: Ibid.
24 Augustine: Ibid.