NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson XVIII)
In one of his letters, early church scholar Ambrose wrote this: “Sin abounded by the Law because by the Law is the knowledge of sin, and thus it began to be injurious to me to know that which through weakness I could not avoid; it is good to foreknow in order to avoid, but if I cannot avoid, to have known it was injurious. Thus the effect of the Law was changed to me into its opposite, yet by the very increase of sin, it became useful to me, because I was humbled. Wherefore David also said, It is good for me that I have been humbled. For by my humiliation I have broken those bonds of that ancient transgression, whereby Adam and Eve had bound the whole line of their posterity. Hence too the Lord came in obedience that He might loose the knot of disobedience and of man’s transgression. And so, as by disobedience sin entered, so by obedience sin was remitted.”1
Then, Augustine shared his understanding of what Paul was writing here: “By this Paul has clearly indicated that the Jews did not know by what dispensation the law had been given. It was not given in order to bring life, for grace brings life through faith, but the law was given to show with what great and tight chains those who thought they could fulfill all righteousness in their own strength were bound. So sin abounded, both because desire grew more ardent in the light of the prohibition and because the crime of trespass affected those who sinned against the law.”2
“The Way” reformist John Calvin saw this was as follows: “After sin has held men sunk in ruin, grace then comes to their help: for he teaches us, that the abundance of grace becomes for this reason more illustrious. — that while sin is overflowing, it pours itself forth so exuberantly, that it not only overcomes the flood of sin but wholly absorbs it.”3 Then Adam Clarke notes: “Without this rule of right, sin can only be known in a sort of general way; the innumerable deviations from positive righteousness can only be known by the application of the righteous statutes of which the law is composed. And it was necessary that this law should be given, that the true nature of sin might be seen, and that men might be the better prepared to receive the Gospel.”4
On the subject of sin being such an evil thing, Robert Haldane says that it was overcome by God’s amazing grace: “This was another effect of the entrance of the law, that as, by the clear light it imparts, sin would abound in all its extent and enormity, so grace might be exhibited as abounding above sin. The grace of God, dispensed from His throne, not only pardons the most numerous and most heinous sins but also confers eternal life upon him who has sinned. It restores him to communion with God, which by transgression had been forfeited, re-establishing it not only in a far higher degree but in a manner so permanent as never again to be interrupted.”5
In his sermon on this subject, Charles Spurgeon said: “It was the practical result of the giving of the law that men became greater sinners than they were before, and it was the design of the law that they should see themselves to be greater sinners than before. The law is the looking-glass in which we see our spots, but it is not the basin in which we wash them away. The law has a provoking power, for such is – the perversity of our nature that, no sooner do we hear the command, ‘You shall not do so-and-so,’ than at once we want to do it. Our nature is very much like quicklime. Throw cold water upon it, and straightway it generates heat; acting, as it were, against the nature of that which is thrown on it. So, the more God says to a man, ‘You will,’ the more the man says, ‘I will not;’ and the more God says to him, ‘You will not,’ the more man resolves that he will. ‘The law entered, that the offence might abound.’ It reveals the depravity and disobedience of human nature, and lays us low before God as convicted criminals.”6
F. F. Bruce speaks here about the intrusion of the Law: “The verb ‘came in’ is literally rendered ‘came in beside’ (‘intruded into this process’); it is used in Galatians 2:4 of the ‘false brethren’ who ‘slipped in’ or ‘infiltrated’ (pareiserchomai) as spies into the Apostolic company. The sense of verse 20 reproduces that of Galatians 3:19: ‘Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions (‘to make wrongdoing a legal offence’), till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.’ Law increased the trespass by providing opportunities for violating a multiplicity of specific commandments; there may be the further suggestion that it ‘also increases sin in the sense that it makes men sin more.’ In any case, both epistles imply that the law of Moses is a parenthetic dispensation in the course of God’s dealings with the human race.”7
Verse 21: Sin once ruled over us by its power of death. But God gave us more of His grace so that grace could rule over us with eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, by making us right with Him.
Now the Jewish leaders in the Roman church are given a declaration by Paul of how the sentence of death over Adam’s descendants, and their alienation from God, was removed by the issuance of grace to all of those who came into the family of God Jesus because He brought them back into fellowship with Him. This was part of John’s gospel where he makes a similar statement: “That is, the law was given to us through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”8
In this narrative, Paul may be drawing more from his Jewish learning than on any new revelation. They also taught about the power over mankind of what they call “Evil Inclination or Evil Impulse.” In one place we read: “If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the Evil Inclination will have no power over them.”9 They go on to discuss the matter, and whether knowingly or unknowingly, they talk about how the death of Messiah the son of Joseph,10 brought an end to the Evil Inclination, and this should not be a reason for mourning but of rejoicing, because the power of Evil Inclination has come to an end.11
And in a collection of the teachings of the Jewish fathers by Rabbi Nathan we find it said that the Evil Impulse is king over man’s two hundred and forty-eight limbs. When he goes off to some good deed, all his limbs begin to drag. For the Evil Impulse within man is monarch over his two hundred and forty-eight limbs, while the Good Impulse is like a captive in prison, as it is said, “True, he rose from prison to be king; yet, while ruling, he became poor.”12 That is to say, the Good impulse.13 So in his own way, Paul shows that the Evil Impulse came from Adam while the Good Impulse came from Christ. They cannot exist in the same heart and mind with mutual cooperation because they are diametrically opposed to one another. Therefore, one will gain control over the other.
As a result of receiving such unmerited grace, Paul tells Titus to inform his congregation on how they should conduct themselves as believers, and to do so in everything they do, so that they can prove that the teaching of God our Savior is good. That is the way we should live because God’s grace has come. That grace can save everyone.14 Not only that, but the writer of Hebrews adds this: “With Jesus as our high priest, we can feel free to come before God’s throne where there is grace. There we receive mercy and kindness to help us when we need it.”15 And the Apostle Peter is also struck by the power and benefits of grace, especially during times of trial and hardship. He writes: “Yes, you will suffer for a short time. But after that, God will make everything right. He will make you strong. He will support you and keep you from falling. He is the God who gives all grace. He chose you to share in his glory in Christ. That glory will continue forever.”16
We see an excellent example in Abraham’s faith being tested by his willing sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. Faith by itself would have been insufficient. He would have been comfortable to stay at home with his faith, not wanting to risk the loss of his only legitimate son. However, to have done so would have left any proof of how real his faith really was up in the air. But his walking up Mt. Moriah with Isaac as the intended sacrifice, was only made possible because of his faith they would walk back down together. Abraham’s faith in the unseen was wonderfully augmented by his unhesitating response to God’s call. So we can see that real faith then, is more than just believing, it is acting with confidence on what we believe.
A number of early church scholars weigh in on explaining what Paul is talking about here. For instance, Origen speaks about the two kingdoms: “Paul shows that there are two kingdoms in man. In one of these, sin has taken control and leads to death. In the other, grace, reigns through righteousness and leads to life. For it is grace which expels and ejects sin from its kingdom, i.e., from our members.”17 Then, Ambrosiaster writes: “Sin reigned when it saw that it was driving sinners into death, in which it rejoiced, in much the same way as grace will reign in those who obey God.”18
A contemporary scholar of Ambrosiaster’s explains how believers should no longer be receptive to sin: “Paul says that just as sin once ruled us even against our will, because we were so used to it, so now our zeal for God reigns and will reign in us forever. Since we have been made worthy of eternal life through the resurrection and live in true and certain righteousness, we shall no longer be receptive to sin.”19 And Pelagius sees this as the beginning of the reign of grace. He writes: “Just as the reign of sin was established through contempt for the law, so also the reign of grace is established through the forgiveness of many sinners and thereafter through the doing of righteousness without ceasing.”20
1 Ambrose: Letter 73.8 to Irenaeus
2 Augustine: On Romans 30
3 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 228
6 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
7 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 136–137
8 John 1:17
9 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sukkah, 52a
10 Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph) was also called Mashiach ben Ephraim. It was prophesied that he would come first before the advent of Mashiach ben David, to prepare the world for the coming of the kingdom of God. See Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sukkah, folio 52b
12 Ecclesiastes 4:14 – Complete Jewish Bible
13 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan: Translated from the Hebrew by Judah Goldin, Yale University Press, 1955, Ch. 16, p. 83
14 Titus 2:10-11
15 Hebrew 4:16
16 1 Peter 5:10
17 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
18 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
19 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.