NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson VI)
Anglican theologian Charles Ellicott poses an important question: “How were we freed?” It is precisely on this point where the Law of Moses shows its impotence in getting rid of sin. It starts with the counteracting influence of sinful tendencies that occupy the human flesh. Thus, it was also for exactly this reason that God intervened by sending His Son in a body of flesh exactly like ours in which these good and bad inclinations reside. This was necessary in order for an offering to be made that served to expiate human sin. This way, sin was dethroned and expunged from the flesh in which Christ was incarnated.1 Frédéric Godet notes that the flesh, which previously led our sinful tendencies to victory, can now be seen lying helpless in defeat and ready to be evicted.2
Karl Barth expounds on this by asking, “What was it that the law could not do?” He notes, as we will read later on, that it could not promulgate the death sentence on sin. As Paul just wrote, it could not set people free. That is to say, the law could not set human feet upon the rock of Eternity and rid them of the sentence of death which had been pronounced over them. This means that no religion is capable of altering the fact that the behavior of mankind is conduct outside of God’s will. All that religion can do is to expose the complete godlessness of human behavior. Barth takes a scholarly approach by noting that concrete human beings involved it all it desires and wants to do, finds religion an exercise of the flesh. By that Barth means, the pervasiveness of the worldly nature in all humans causes them to desire the crown and applause that comes with human achievement. But unfortunately, a religion built on the exercise of the flesh can neither overcome the worldly spirit in human nature, nor transforms it into something holy no matter how many rites, rituals, sacraments, or ceremonies they are subjected to and participate in.3
Verse 4: So now, that which was right in God’s laws can be obeyed by us, if we follow after the Holy Spirit and no longer obey the old evil nature within us.
Here we see one of the main pillars of God’s plan for salvation: God’s reconciliation with mankind after Adam and Eve’s betrayal in the Garden of Eden. But first, they had to be shown how impossible that was by simply following the written and verbal rules He gave to Moses. Once they saw that, they realized they could not make things right with Him on their own. With this revelation, they would be more open to accepting a Savior who could rescue them by His power and authority. God wanted to save His creation, not destroy it. And everything He did was based on love. When Paul wrote the Galatians, who were being influenced to add good works to their salvation by grace, he told them what type of righteousness God was looking for.4 This could only be achieved through the work of the Spirit in the believer’s life. He tells them: “We get our new life from the Spirit, so we should follow the Spirit.”5
Paul wanted the Colossians to know that in addition to making things right with mankind, God also wanted to redeem them from being carriers of sin’s virus infected by Satan’s venom. He chose a way that would easily identify them as belonging to Him. Paul wrote: “He has made you His friends again. He did this by the death Christ suffered while He was in His body. He did it so that He could present you to Himself as people who are holy, blameless, and without anything that would make you guilty before Him.”6 In other words, God did not open the door to His presence and then pushed people through like spoiled brats being removed from conditions that threatened their well-being. Instead, He broke the chains that bound them and pointed to an open door through which they could willingly go and gladly serve Him out of love and gratitude.7
Three very gifted early church scholars had much to say on the way God condemns our sin by helping us guard the treasure of His love and walk according to the Spirit. For instance, Ambrosiaster notes that sin was condemned by our Savior in three different ways. In the first place, He condemned sin in that it is something every person should turn away from. Next, Christ destroyed sin on the cross because by its power people were involuntarily being held in bondage and headed for hell because of Adam’s sin. Once that was accomplished, sin dared no longer to hang around someone’s neck who had traded it in for a cross. Finally, God eradicated sin’s dirty fingerprints from the record in the case of those who had received God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Early church scholar Ambrosiaster believes that all sinners should have been condemned for their sin. But God forgave them and condemned their sin in Christ instead. So by following our Savior’s example, we can say that we are finished sinning because we are finished with sin.8
During the same period as the three early church scholars mentioned above, the great early church preacher Chrysostom wanted people to know that Paul demonstrates that while we are motivated to remove the filthy rags of sinful deeds, we must also be ready to adorn ourselves with the pure garments of holiness. The One we serve may be willing to give us a crown, but to retain it is our responsibility. Christ made the crown of righteousness possible by fulfilling the demands of the law on our behalf, and by doing so removed the curse we were under as sinners. So let us no not betray so great a gift, but do all we can to guard this great treasure until one day we lay it down at His feet. In Chrysostom’s eyes, Paul demonstrates for us that being baptized to show that God saved us but then afterward failing to display a life worthy of that gift makes our baptism meaningless. For once we vow our total obedience to Christ, we must do everything we can and use every means possible to protect the righteousness Christ gained it for us so that it may continue living in us. He paid to great a price for our justification. So to take something so priceless and treat it as though it were worthless is unconscionable.9
This is followed by Augustine who contends that since the wisdom of this world has been expunged and destroyed in the born-again new creation in Christ, the required righteousness of the law is fulfilled when a person walks according to the yearnings of the Spirit, not according to the desires of the flesh. That’s why Christ correctly said we should not think that He came to do away with the Law of Moses or the writings of the early prophets. He did not come to invalidate them but to make them complete.10 Therefore, the love of God has come into our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who was given to us.11 God has made our souls pure by obeying the truth revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.12 When we only fear living right in God’s eyes instead of real love for Him, then what Christ did to fulfill the Law is not fulfilled in us.13
Reformer John Calvin takes on the prevailing theology of the church in his day by pointing out that some preach that those renewed in the Spirit of Christ have fulfilled the law on their own. This conjecture is totally alien to what Paul taught. That’s because, as faithful believers travel through this world they never become so proficient that justification through the law is completed by what they do. This must also be applied to receiving forgiveness. When the obedience of Christ is accepted by God for us in place of our own, then, and only then, is the Law satisfied. That becomes the basis for our being counted as righteous, provided we continue to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh. In other words, Christians must live like believers, not like sinners. Calvin sees Paul joining three things together: believers will always have imperfections, will have to deal with them on a daily basis, but the mercy of God is available to pardon and forgive any shortcomings. They can then be renewed in their spirit by the Holy Spirit to carry on their mission.
That’s because those who walk after the Spirit do not pretend that they have wholly rid themselves of all the passions and lusts of the flesh, nor do they claim that they have been sanctified unto perfection. Rather, that they diligently seek, with the Spirit’s help, to subdue and crucify the flesh so that their love for God reigns supreme in their lives. Their greatest desire is to be a child of God that is easily recognized in a world of sinners. Their reverence for God is such that they will do anything to take away from the flesh its sovereignty over their spirit. They know that not all their sinful tendencies have been conquered, but they have firmer control over them. In other words, the Christian life for a believer is not a stroll down the highway of holiness free from all worries and cares of life. It is a daily battle through an obstacle course to overcome those forces against their making it to the end.14 So with these forces within them, it requires that their spiritual nurture maintain law and order against the tendencies of their sinful nature to keep them away from temptation.15
At this point, John Bengel points out in the previous verse that while the Law was powerless to carry out the needed solution for sin, God had the right to declare a person righteous if they fulfilled the demands of every Law. As we know, no person from the moment the Law was given until the arrival of the Messiah had ever been able to accomplish this feat. So now, by living in Him, we are able to satisfy the demands of the Law. However, there was a real polar shift in the direction of how this is done. Before, it was attempted in the flesh to meet all the demands of the Law to the letter through good works. But now, because of Christ, the demands are met through the spirit of the Law in obedience to Christ. In other words, by doing what Christ instructs us to do, as believers we are fulfilling the law through Christ. As Bengel sees it, the One who had never been a sinner and Who always acted right, could not be prosecuted by the law or make any claims against Him. So if that same One now lives in us, by walking to the cross and then walking out of the tomb, His victory is carried over into our hearts because He did it on our behalf.16
1 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Galatians 5:22-23
6 Colossians 1:22
7 Cf. Deuteronomy 30:19
8 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 13
10 Matthew 5:17; Romans 13:10
11 Romans 5:5
12 See Galatians 5:22; 1 Peter 1:22
13 Augustine on Romans 48
14 2 Timothy 4:7
15 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 289