NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIX (Lesson XVIII)
Frédéric Godet has an interesting take on what Paul says here by citing the speck of irony he sees in the second part of verse 19. It is the Apostle’s call to those who are now in the service of their new Master of Righteousness. He wants them to be as active and zealous as they were in service to their old Master of Licentiousness. That old master is renown for promoting immorality, and lawlessness, sometimes going far beyond all rules. Immorality is characterized by personal degradation, and lawlessness is noted as contempt for the standards of right and wrong written on every person’s conscience. He says that this distinction seems to us more natural than that which was laid down by Professor Tholuck, who takes the term immorality in the strictly proper sense of the word, and who takes lawlessness to be sin in general.1 Says Godet: “The broad sense which we give to the word immorality appears clearly from 1 Thessalonians 4:7. The two expressions [immorality and holiness], therefore, each embrace, as it seems to us, the whole sphere of sin, but from two different points of view.”2
Karl Barth has an excellent commentary on “Grace” in this section. Among other things, he says that grace involves an existential relationship between God and man. This is bound to move them on from the “something they know” about divine truth to “something they do” about it. This comes from the fact that divine reality makes its demand on them. They must will what God wills, which they did not do before. They must serve righteousness with the same bodily members, and with the same visible concreteness, they did while living immorality in iniquity. They must bring sanctification into concrete existence by using those same instruments they used before to enjoy iniquity. Said Barth: “They must glorify God with their bodies, that is, in that same environment and under those same conditions in which they have hitherto done Him dishonor.”3
Verses 20-21: In the past, you were slaves to sin, and you did not even think about doing what was right. You did evil things, and now you are ashamed of what you did. Did those things help you? No, they only brought death.
Paul now puts the question in the hands of his readers to decide whether or not all the gratification they had by following the path of sin was worth the effort. Where did it get them? Where are the benefits? It is obvious that they’ve come to realize that it was all futile. They gained nothing. All it did was bring ruin instead of gain.
Solomon put it all in perspective when he said: “They filled their lives with what they wanted. They went their own way, and they will end up getting what they deserve.”4 Solomon goes on to make this observation: “Then they will say, ‘Why didn’t I listen to my parents? Why didn’t I pay attention to my teachers? I didn’t want to be disciplined. I refused to be corrected.’”5 The Apostle Paul wanted everyone to know this: “If you think you can fool God, you are only fooling yourselves. You will harvest what you plant. If you live to satisfy your sinful self, the harvest you will get from that will be eternal punishment.”6
The point of all this is that what’s done is done. So what hope can a person have if these things are still lying around like skeletons in the closet? The Patriarch Job confessed: “I am not worthy to speak! What can I say to you? I cannot answer you! I will put my hand over my mouth.”7 Then scribe Ezra admitted openly how he felt about the conduct of God’s people: “I fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God. Then I prayed this prayer: ‘My God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to look at you. I am ashamed because our sins are higher than our heads. Our guilt has reached all the way up to the heavens… And I am ashamed of myself. I am so sorry.
As I sit in the dust and ashes, I promise to change my heart and my life.’”8
The prophet Jeremiah lamented what he saw: “They should be ashamed of the evil things they do, but they are not ashamed at all. They don’t know enough to be embarrassed by their sins.”9 But then, he saw a change: “I wandered away from you. But I finally realized how wrong I was. So I changed my heart and life. I am ashamed and embarrassed about the foolish things I did when I was young.”10 This was the same response Paul was looking for. It echoes what God promised to all those who were repentant: “You will remember me, and you will be so ashamed of the evil things you did that you will not be able to say anything. But I will make you pure, and you will never be ashamed again!”11
Chrysostom offers this advice in a sermon he preached: “In the past, you did not split your service between righteousness and sin but were wholly given over to sin. So now that you have come over to the side of righteousness, you should do the same thing and give yourselves over entirely to righteousness, doing nothing at all that is wicked.”12 Along this same line, we find that one early church layman wrote that anyone who served the devil will not be interfered with by God. But when they are freed from the devil’s grasp, they are free to serve God with His help. He goes on to say that some thought they had full liberty while serving sin, but that was an error in thinking. True liberty can only come with the help of a liberator..13”14
Origen gives his view on what Paul says about how those things done in sin can only bring punishment. He suggests that anyone who after turning their heart and mind toward righteousness, will no doubt blush and chastise themselves when they think back on the life they lived before becoming a believer. What they did then was contributed to the power of sin, and “the end of those things is death.”15 Origen then asks, “But what death?” He concludes that it could not mean, “death that is common to all mankind.” Maybe it could be what the Scriptures call, “death brought on by sin:” “The soul which sins will surely die.”16 Or perhaps, it could be understood as referring to that death by which we die to sin with Christ in order to put an end to wickedness and evildoing. Thus it could be said, as it does here, “Death is their end.”
Says Origen: “Paul compares fruit with fruit. He declares that the fruit of sin, which we are now ashamed of because we have been set free from sin and become servants of God, ends in death whereas the fruit of righteousness, which leads to sanctification, continues in eternal life.”17 However, we must also look at how the word “death” was used as a wage of sin. First of all, staying in sin brought death to any hope of being redeemed and saved. Secondly, it put to death any hope of having eternal life in heaven with God. And thirdly, it signaled the death of any hope of being delivered from everlasting punishment.
John Calvin sees Paul’s wanting to explain the serious dichotomy between sin and righteousness by showing how contrary they are to each other. This would make it impossible for a person to devote themselves to one without completely forsaking the other. So, he sets sin on one side and righteousness on the other in order to show the results derived from serving one or the other. With regard to those who abandon themselves to sin, Calvin says: “This is the liberty of the flesh, which so frees us from obedience to God, that it makes us slaves to the devil. Wretched then and accursed is this liberty, which with unbridled or rather mad frenzy, leads us jubilantly to our destruction.”18 Calvin notes that Paul goes on to show that it is all a sham, there are no lasting benefits. Instead, it leaves the celebrant weak and empty-handed with no hope to recover their destroyed life.
John Bengel has an interesting thing to say about eternal life and eternal death. He finds that the epithet “eternal,” in verse 23, is never added to the noun “death.” This applies to those in whose case death yields to resurrected life, and those who go into everlasting fire, torment, and destruction. Bengel challenges anyone if they can think that it is by mere chance, and not design, that Scripture, when eternal life is expressly mentioned, never names its opposite, eternal death. Everywhere else, he says, it speaks of eternal in a different manner. In so many places, admits Bengel, Paul leaves it to the discretion of the reader to consider the equivalent phrase, “eternal destruction.”19 Says Bengel: “The reason for the difference, however, is this: Scripture often describes death, by personification, as an enemy, and an enemy to be destroyed; but it does not so describe torment.”20
Adam Clarke gives an interesting comment on the two types of servitude mentioned by Paul – sin, and righteousness. As far as Clarke is concerned, these two types of servitude are incompatible. He points out that since we cannot serve God and Mammon, surely we cannot serve Christ and Satan. For Clarke, we must either be sinners or saints; God‘s servants or the devil‘s slaves. It doesn’t work, he says, when even a good person may endeavor to sing along with the old song: “To good and evil equal bent, I‘m both a devil and a saint.”21 Clarke is not sure whether it would be possible to paint the complete saturation of sin in brighter colors than the Apostle Paul does here when he declares that sinners are completely devoid of righteousness. It sounds very much like what we read about before Noah’s flood: “The wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”22 And as the Psalmist declared: “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”23 Clark goes on to say that whatever sin may promise in pleasure or advantage, the end to which it necessarily tends is the destruction of body, the soul, and everlasting punishment.24
1 Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: Friedrich August Gottreu Tholuck (1799-1877), Sorin and Ball, Philadelphia 1844, loc. cit. pp. 63, 187, 217
2 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, loc. cit.
3 Karl Barth: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Proverbs 1:31
5 Ibid. 5:12-13
6 Galatians 6:7-8
7 Job 40:4; 42:6
8 Ezra 9:5-6
9 Jeremiah 8:12
10 Ibid. 31:19
11 Ezekiel 16:63
12 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 12
13 See John 8:33, 36; 1 Corinthians 7:22; 2 Corinthians 3:17
14 Prosper of Aquitaine: Grace and Free Will 9:5
15 Verse 21
16 Ezekiel 18:4
17 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
18 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 In other words: “I leave that person to his own foolish notion, that the phrases eternal destruction, etc., are equivalent to eternal death.”—ED.
20 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 275
21 The Poetical Works of the Reverend and Learned Ralph Erskine: George & Robert King, Aberdeen, 1858, The Believer’s Riddle: or, The Mystery of Faith – Poem by Ralph Erskine, Part III, sect. x, ver. 47, p. 210, the full verse is: “As all amphibious creatures do, I live in land and water too: To good and evil equal bent, I’m both a devil, and a saint.”
22 Genesis 6:5
23 Psalm 14:3
24 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.