NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson VII)
Early church scholar Pelagius, a contemporary of St. Augustine’s, commenting on Paul’s reference to the term “right time,” writes: “Why did Christ die for us when He had no obligation to do so if it was not to manifest His love at a time when we were still weighed down with the burden of sin and vice? It was the right time, either because righteousness had virtually disappeared and we were weak, or because it was the end of time (time had run out).1 Paul wants to point out that Christ died for the ungodly in order to commend the grace of Christ by considering His benefits and to show how much we, who have been undeservedly loved, ought to love Him, and so that we might see whether anything should be valued more highly than one who is so generous and holy. He neither valued His life above us ungodly people nor withheld the death that was obligatory for us.”2
Reformer John Calvin shares his understanding of this verse: “If Christ,” he says, “had mercy on the ungodly, if He reconciled enemies to His Father, if He has done this by virtue of His death, how much more will He save them when justified, and help those restored to favor keep what they received through His death, especially when the influence of His life is added to the virtue of His death.”3 In other words, if Christ Jesus had power even in death, how much more power does He possess being alive. The same can be said of believers. Since they were given the power to put their old carnal nature from Adam to death, how much more powerful will they be when their spiritual nature is made alive in Christ.
John Bengel writes that when our weakness had reached their height, then Christ died, at the time which God had predetermined, so that He died neither too soon nor too late, He was not held too long under death. Paul limits his expression and is unable here to speak of Christ’s death, without, at the same time, thinking of the wisdom of God, and of the resurrection of Christ. The question, why Christ did not come sooner, is not a frivolous one,4 just as the question, why the Law was not given sooner, is not a frivolous one (see verse 14).5
Revivalist Adam Clarke has much to say about what Paul is teaching here by following the structure of the verse. He writes: “I. They were without strength; in a weak, dying state: neither able to resist sin nor do any good: utterly devoid of power to extricate themselves from the misery of their situation. II. They were ungodly; without either the worship or knowledge of the true God; they had not God in them; and, consequently, were not partakers of the Divine nature: Satan lived in, ruled, and enslaved their hearts. III. They were sinners, aiming at happiness, but constantly missing the mark. And in missing the mark, they deviated from the right way; walked in the wrong way; trespassed in thus deviating; and, by breaking the commandments of God, not only missed the mark of happiness but exposed themselves to everlasting misery. IV. They were enemies, due to hatred, enmity, persons who hated God and holiness; and acted in continual hostility to both. What a degradation is here!”6
Robert Haldane states categorically that this verse introduces proof of God’s love for us. Having spoken of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, the Apostle here declares the evidence of this love. Haldane writes: “Though the Holy Ghost inspires our love to God, yet in doing so He shows us the grounds on which it rests or the reasons why it should exist. In making us love God, He makes us perceive the grounds on which we ought to love Him. This also shows us another important fact, namely, that the Holy Spirit works in His people according to their constitution or the nature that He has given them; and, in endowing us with proper feelings and affections, He discovers to us the proper objects towards which they ought to be excited. The word of God through the Spirit, both in conversion and growth of grace, acts according to the original constitution that God has been pleased to bestow on the Christians.”7
Albert Barnes notes: “This opens a new view of the subject, or it is a new argument to show that our hope will not make ashamed, or will not disappoint us. The first argument he had stated in the previous verse, that the Holy Spirit was given to us. The next, which he now states, is, that God had given the most ample proof that He would save us by giving His Son when we were sinners; and that He who had done so much for us when we were enemies, would not now fail us when we are His friends. He had performed the more difficult part of the work by reconciling us when we were enemies; He will not now forsake us, but will carry forward and complete what He has begun.”8
Barnes goes on to point out that this is important because although God never grows weak or weary, we do. On the subject of our being without strength, Barnes says: “The word used here asthenōnis usually applied to those who are sick and feeble, deprived of strength by disease.9 But it is also used in a moral sense, to denote inability or feebleness with regard to any undertaking or duty. Here it means that we were without strength ‘in regard to the case which the apostle was considering;’ that is, we had no power to devise a scheme of justification, to make an atonement, or to put away the wrath of God, etc. While all hope of man‘s being saved by any plan of his own was thus taken away; while he was thus lying exposed to divine justice, and dependent on the mere mercy of God; God provided a plan which met the case and secured his salvation. The remark of the Apostle here has reference only to the condition of the race before an atonement is made. It does not pertain to the question whether man has the strength to repent and to believe after an atonement is made, which is a very different inquiry.”10
Scholar Charles Hodge points this out to those who question what Paul is saying: “We are the object of God’s love, for Christ died for us. The gift of Christ to die on our behalf is everywhere in Scripture represented as the highest possible or conceivable proof of the love of God to sinners.11 The objection that the Church doctrine represents the death of Christ as exciting or procuring the love of an unloving God is without the shadow of foundation. The Scriptures represent the love of God to sinners as independent of the work of Christ, and prior to it. He so loved us as to give His only begotten Son to reconcile our salvation with His justice.”12 Hodge goes on to say: “If He loved us because we loved Him, He would love us only so long as we love Him, and on that condition; and then our salvation would depend on the constancy of our treacherous hearts. But as God loved us as sinners, as Christ died for us as ungodly, our salvation depends, as the Apostle argues, not on our loveliness, but on the constancy of the love of God.”13
In his sermon on this text, Charles Spurgeon says: “There was nothing good. We were ungodly, and we had no strength to mend ourselves or to be other than ungodly. The strength for reformation had all gone. The strength for regeneration we never had. We were without strength, and then Christ died for us – died for the ungodly. He did not regard us as saints, but as actually ungodly, when He died for our redemption. It was not man’s righteousness that brought Christ from heaven, but man’s sin, and the infinite compassion of God.”14
Then Frederic Godet offers this: “The incapacity of mankind for good, their moral sickness, arose from their separation from God, from their voluntary revolt against Him. This is what the Apostle brings out in the words: for ungodly ones, which indicate the positive side of human perversity. Their malady inspires disgust; their ungodliness attracts wrath. And it was when we were yet plunged into this repulsive state of impotence and ungodliness that the greatest proof of love was given us, in that Christ died for us.”15 To this, Charles Ellicott adds that the Greek lends itself to a more amplified rendition: “While we were yet in weakness [powerless to help ourselves], at the fitting time Christ died for (in behalf of, for the benefit of) the godless.” What a powerful gospel Paul had to preach to any self-righteous members of the church in Rome.
Baptist preacher Octavius Winslow makes this statement: “The Word of God, the only rule of faith and duty, distinctly and invariably represents the death of Jesus as a sacrifice, and the special and gracious design of that sacrifice, an Atonement for sin. If this is denied, how are we to interpret the following remarkable passages? ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes, we are healed.’16 ‘The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’17 Verse 6. ‘This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’18 ‘When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.‘19”20 Jewish New Testament scholar David Stern follows the same line as Winslow, and makes this point: “At the right time21 the Messiah died on behalf of ungodly people when they had no one else who could save them from the wrath to come.”22
Methodist preacher Joseph Benson shares his thoughts on this subject: “How can we now doubt God’s love, since when we were without strength – Either to think, will, or do anything good; were utterly incapable of making any atonement for our transgressions, or of delivering ourselves from the depth of guilt and misery into which we were plunged; in due time – Neither too soon nor too late, but at that very point of time which the wisdom of God knew to be more proper than any other; Christ died for the ungodly – For the sake, and instead of, such as were enemies to God,23 and could not merit any favor from Him: that is, for Jews and Gentiles, when they were all under sin. Christ not only died to set an example, or to procure the power for us to follow it, but to atone for our sins.”24
1 See Matthew 26:61; Mark 8:31; 1 Corinthians 15:4
2 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
3 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 See Hebrews 9:26; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:10; Mark 1:15; 7:6
5 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 256
6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 192
8 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Matthew 25:38; Luke 10:9; Acts 4:9; 5:15.
10 Barnes: ibid.
11 John 3:16; 1 John 3:16; 4:9, 10
12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Hodge: ibid.
14 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Frederic Louis Godet: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 Isaiah 53:5
17 Romans 5:6
18 Matthew 26:28
19 Romans 5:6
20 The Works of Octavius Winslow: Sermon titled: The Entire Pardon and Justification of the Believing Sinner,” op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Cf. Galatians 4:4
22 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
23 Romans 5:10
24 Joseph Benson: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.