Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Paul mentioned in verse 17 his joy that these Roman believers had been so faithful in following the teachings of Christ they received. In the King James Version, it reads, “form of doctrine.” Most scholars take this as a reference to the Gospel. The Gospel is the “doctrine” of the Scriptures. The complete Jewish Bible renders it, “pattern of teaching.” Some even suggest that it could also be taken as a mold such as that into which iron, plastic, gold, silver, etc., is poured. In that case, Paul is saying that he is happy that the believers allowed themselves to be smelted, cleared of all impurities, and poured into the form that brings them into conformity with the Gospel.1 It is the doctrine of Christ and His Apostles. It is sound, and according to godliness, it is a “form,” or contains a summary and a compendium of truth. But it is also a pattern or model according to which ministers are to preach, people should hear and receive, and both must practice.2

In Jewish writings, we find references to those compositions and guidelines that governed how things were to be done, whether it was a legal procedure, or involved a bill of sale. These were not understood as an exhaustive explanation of how Law was to be applied, but a summary of the most important points.3 Then we are told that all of this was passed on from generation to generation. But each generation was to ensure that what they received was guarded against misinterpretation. In their writings, it reads: “They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.4 So in the case of the Gospel, it was delivered from the Father to Christ, from Christ to His Apostles, by the Apostles to the saints, and from the saints to those who came after them. But the key point is that the mold of the Gospel has been cast and should not be altered or broken. That means the doctrine preached by believers of today should resemble the Gospel preached by Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament.

There is so much more joy living in the spirit of the law and doing the will of God out of love and choice, rather than living confined to the letter of the Law and doing things out of obligation and habit. But such love and freedom come with responsibilities. If the system is wrong and you err following the rules, then the system is to blame. But if the system is correct and you err trying to follow the rules, then you must admit and confess so that they are your errors. But thanks to God’s mercy, such errors can be forgiven.

The young Psalmist, who penned the longest hymn made this confession: “I do my best to follow Your commands because You are the one who gives me the desire… So I will live in freedom because I do my best to know your instructions.5 And Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, made this claim in his praise to God: “This was the promise God made to our father Abraham, a promise to free us from the power of our enemies, so that we could serve Him without fear in a way that is holy and right for as long as we live.6 That’s why Paul could confidently tell the Galatians: “We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So stand strong in that freedom. Don’t go back into slavery again.”7 Even the Apostle Peter echoed this truth: “Live like free people but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God.”8

In one of his sermons on this text, Chrysostom notes that after Paul shamed the believers by pointing our their slavery to sin and alarmed them by bringing up its punishment, Paul counterbalances this by mentioning the benefits they receive through grace. By doing this, he reminds them that they had been set free from an evil life and that it happened without any work on their part. Says Chrysostom: “For no human power could have set us free from such great evils, but ‘thanks be to God,’ who was willing and able to do such great things. And well he says that they were ‘obedient from the heart,’ because they were neither forced nor pressed but came of their own accord, with a willing mind.… This shows that they exercised their free will.9

Chrysostom goes on to explain two gifts the believer receives from God. First, freedom from sin. Then, being servants of righteousness, which is better than independent freedom. Chrysostom uses the following illustration to explain his point: “For God has done the same as if a person was to take an orphan who had been carried away by savages into their own country, and not only freed him from captivity but set a kind father over him and raise him up with great dignity.”10 Chrysostom paints an interesting and inspiring picture of a helpless person taken hostage, after which they were abused and misused. But by someone’s daring rescue they were miraculously delivered and brought back to good health So what would happen then if they turned around and willingly went back to their hostage takers to be enslaved by them again. Such are those who have been freed from sin by Christ who inexplicably goes back into sin’s bondage.

Reformer Martin Luther has an interesting paraphrase of what he feels Paul is saying here, especially the way it was taught in the Roman Catholic church: “From the teaching of justification by works you were led to a form of the Gospel. This wisdom of the flesh – is enmity against the Word of God. But the Word of God is unchangeable and invincible. Therefore, it is necessary that the wisdom of the flesh – be changed, give up its form, and that man accept the form of the Word. This takes place when through faith it is taken captive and overcome, and the believer confesses that the Word is true and reason false. This is the special mark by which the believer or saint is known.”11

John Calvin gives us some insight into his choice of grammar to help explain what Paul was saying. He begins by pointing out that the Dutch teacher and theologian Erasmus had followed one of the older versions of Romans, and chose to translate the Greek typos as “form” of doctrine. But Calvin felt it was better to rewrite it as “type” of doctrine. He concedes that even some may prefer the phrase, “pattern.” This same word is used to describe the nail prints in our Lord’s hands.12 Calvin has the same thought in mind when he states that for him, he understands it as a formed image or impression of that righteousness which Christ engraves on our hearts. It also corresponds with the prescribed rules of the law we are to follow in our actions, words, and deed, so that we neither deviate to the right or to the left.13 In other words, all the teachings of Christ that mirror the Law given to Moses must be observed under grace rather than under obligation. Calvin goes on to explain: “It must be observed, that no one can be a servant to righteousness except they are first liberated by the power and kindness of God from the tyranny of sin. So Christ Himself testifies, ‘If the Son shall free you, you shall be free indeed.’14 What are then our preparations by the power of free will, since the commencement of what is good proceeds from this manumission,15 which the grace of God alone effects?

John Bengel tells us that it is evident why Paul frequently mentions the gift of the Holy Spirit while proving that justification is by faith alone. He does so to counter the argument of those who are in doubt or error who see justification as a consequence of righteousness. Since righteousness flows from faith, adoption accompanies righteousness. Then, by the gift of the Holy Spirit comes the cry, Abba, Father, and with newness of life, follows upon adoption. However, faith and righteousness may not be clearly evident or perceived by our senses, so the gift of the Holy Spirit produces very conspicuous and prominent effects.16 Also, the surpassing excellence of these fruit conclusively prove that the works of mankind are worthless in securing justification.17

Adam Clarke also sees fit to offer a paraphrase. He says that this verse should be read as follows: “But thanks be to God that, although you were the servants of sin, nevertheless you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine that was delivered unto you; or, that mold of teaching into which you were cast.” Clarke notes that the Apostle does not thank God that they were sinners, but that, although they used to be, they were now the recipients of a Gospel they believe and obey. The Hebrew phrase in Isaiah is exactly the same as that of the Apostle here: “On that day you will say: ‘I thank you, Adonai, because, although you were angry at me, your anger is now turned away; and you are comforting me.18 Clarke then points out that the term: “Being then made free from sin,” is a term that refers to the freeing of slaves by their masters. As such, they were redeemed from the slavery of sin, and then became servants of righteousness. This introduces another figure of speech in which both sin and righteousness are personified. Says Clarke: “Sin can prohibit no good and profitable work; righteousness can require none that is unjust or injurious.”19

Robert Haldane reveals that some were saying in his day the same thing the opponents of Paul were saying back in his day. That is, since sinning gives God’s grace the opportunity to shine, then the more we sin, the greater glory God receives for His unending grace. Haldane notes that the Apostle Paul expresses his thankfulness to God that those who had been slaves of sin but were now servants of righteousness. For someone to suppose that sin could never be a matter to be thankful for, is on Haldane’s mind. He writes that this is: “The most palpable error, that could not be more remote from the meaning of this passage.” For Haldane, Christian compliance is obedience from the heart, while submission to sin is by force. In fact, any attempt at compliance by an unconverted person is agreement produced by some motive of fear, self-interest, or pressure, and not from the heart. Says Haldane: “Nothing can be more convincing evidence of the truth of the Gospel than the change which, in this respect, it produces on the mind of the believer. Nothing but almighty power could at once transform a person from the love of sin to the love of holiness.20

1 See Horae Homileticae: Or Discourses by Rev. Charles Simeon, vol XVIII Philippians to 1 Timothy, Sermon 2193

2 John Gill: On Romans, loc. cit.

3 See Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Gittin, folio. 26a; Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Bava Bathra, folio 44b

4 Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), Ch. 1:1

5 Psalm 119:32, 45

6 Luke 1:73-75

7 Galatians 5:1

8 1 Peter 2:16

9 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 11

10 Ibid.

11 Martin Luther: On Romans, loc. cit., p. 105 – As translated by Dr. J. Theodore Mueller with parenthetical notes added in the text as those expressions which appeared in the original work by Luther.

12 John 20:25

13 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. it.

14 John 8:36

15 Manumissioin is the term given to the act of emancipation from slavery.

16 Cf., [God] bare them witness [giving them the Holy Ghost], Acts 15:8.

17 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 274

18 Isaiah 12:1

19 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

20 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 261

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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