NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXX)
We can see why the Apostle Paul feels that those believers who practice such bias are not living up to God’s expectations. In fact, they are wasting God’s grace. How could they expect the world to do what was right when they were not being righteous themselves? Even though Paul does not use it here, the words Isaiah spoke would certainly be apropos: “Listen to me, all who hope for deliverance, who seek the Lord! Consider the quarry from which you were mined, the rock from which you were cut!”1 This no doubt may have prompted Paul to tell young Timothy: “You are God’s man. Run from all these atrocious things, and work instead at what is right and good, learning to trust Him and love others and to be patient and gentle.”2
But even more harmful was the fact that everyday etiquette, tact, virtues, and integrity were being trampled underfoot; even the expected Christ-like characteristics they gained through their new birth and sanctification were either being ignored or misused. And sadly, Paul saw this as being even more harmful to the Roman church when it came to how Jewish believers were treating Gentile believers. He addressed this same problem in Galatia: “The Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would save the Gentiles also, through their faith. God told Abraham about this long ago when he said, ‘I will bless those in every nation who trust in me as you do.’ And so it is: all who trust in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received.”3 Paul then goes on to offer his list of the righteous things a sanctified believer should exhibit in his character and actions and calls them the fruit of the Spirit.4
I’m sure the Apostle Paul was aware that his argument and rationale may have been somewhat puzzling to the church in Rome. So he asks a rhetorical question for them, “What does all this mean?” Early church scholar Origen feels we can find the answer when we understand that it’s one thing to pursue righteousness and another thing to have it implanted within. We know that when someone studies and follows one reference source to another they are said to be pursuing the subject. When we use this same analogy with Gentiles who did not have the tablets of the Law, it is clear that they were not in pursuit of righteousness. Nevertheless, they derived some concept of right and wrong from the natural laws revealed to them. Therefore, they were much more disposed to accept something told to them by faith. So when they heard the message of Christ through the Gospel they accepted it with fewer obstacles than did the Jews.5 Some would argue with Origen’s idea; natural law cannot come close to producing what the Law God gave to Moses achieved.
Perhaps that’s why Pelagius gives a different point of view. He says that Paul is imagining here what a Jewish critic might say: If the fact, if it is true that it does not depend on the one who wills or the one who runs, then why is it that the Gentiles found righteousness? How was it that they who never sought it before found it, while Israel who sought it all along could not find it? The Apostle might reply to such a question by saying: the Gentiles believed as soon as they heard the Gospel, but the Jews refused to believe even though they heard it first. This is even more remarkable since they were “the called” through Abraham. You see, righteousness is acquired through faith, and you Jews have refused to believe.6
John Calvin sees Paul here begging the question of why did all this happen. Why was Israel, who had the Law given to them by God through Moses, now removed from their place as the firstborn in the family of God, and the Gentiles, who had no laws to follow place ahead of them by God’s favor? Was it the case of Jacob and Esau repeating itself? The way Calvin sees it, it was the result of God’s predestination process. Calvin feels that Paul sees predestination as God’s way of sorting out from the Jews every one who murmured against Him, just as He did in the wilderness. He wants them to know that the reasons for this are easy to understand. But what did Paul’s opponents do, they developed their own plans and then tried to put them ahead of the predestination of God. Paul had previously taught that predestination was to be counted as the first cause. And the fact that this is superior to all other causes, we can see how the corrupt and wicked minds of the ungodly caused them to question the judgment of God.7 Calvin goes on to explain that it was Paul’s objective to exalt the grace of God alone, that no other reason might be sought for in the calling of the Gentiles but this, – He moved to embrace them while they were still unworthy of His favor.
As to the second cause, nothing appeared more senseless, or less appropriate than to believe that the Gentiles, who, having no interest in righteousness, who rolled in the passions of the flesh, should be the first to partake of salvation, and to obtain righteousness. Just as illogical would be to say that because the Jews labored so hard to obtain righteousness through the works of the law, they should be excluded from the reward of righteousness. Paul wants to give a straight answer. So he says very plainly that the righteousness which the Gentiles attained was by faith. As such, it depended on the Lord’s grace and mercy, and not on man’s own merit. And the reason the Jews missed the righteousness they sought for was because they wanted to get credit for obtaining it. They wanted to be justified by what they did, not what God did. What they either didn’t realize or refused to accept is that no person can completely satisfy the Law enough to acquire the salvation they need. That’s why Christ’s fulfillment of the Law became their stumbling-block, while for the Gentiles, He became their steppingstone.8
Adam Clarke says that we may speculate that the Apostle could have expressed himself in answering these questions in the following manner: I have already vindicated the rejection of the Jews and the election of the Gentiles. It was solely dependent upon Divine truthfulness and justice. So let’s turn our attention to what caused all of this to happen. In the first place, what might be the reason for the calling of the Gentiles and the rejection of the Jews? Paul’s answer could be: My true opinion on the calling or inviting of the Gentiles is this: they had no expectation of becoming part of those who enjoyed the privileges of God‘s in His kingdom. Consequently, they spent no time searching for or trying to obtain such blessings on their own. But in spite of this, they have been justified and counted worthy to receive the remission of sins, and enjoy the privileges of God‘s people. Not because of anything they did to make themselves worthy in obedience to the Law. It was purely by the grace and mercy of God that they were given enough faith to believe. So by embracing the plan of salvation found in the pages of the Gospel, they were adopted into the family of God. To make it as clear as possible, the Gentiles were called to salvation, they did not find it on their own.9
Robert Haldane asks a rhetorical question: What is this discussion all about? He then draws the following conclusion: Those Gentiles called by God, of whom the Apostle spoke about in verse 24, who were not living righteous lives, but had yielded their passions to every kind of wickedness, still ended up obtaining true righteousness. We must call this an astonishing instance of divine grace and mercy. For how else could people who were God-haters and guilty of all sorts of abominations, as Paul outlined them in the first chapter of this Epistle, become God-lovers and partakers of that righteousness which corresponds to all the demands of the law? What makes it so astounding is that the nation of Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, thereby ended up having attained nothing. Whatever objection someone may raise to this doctrine the Apostle Paul is teaching here, he offered clear evidence in the case of the Gentiles by using the example of Jacob and Esau, with which he pointed out the purpose of God according to election. Once made, it is unchangeable. It has been and always will be that salvation is by Him who calls, not those who ask to be called.10
Albert Barnes feels that the Apostle Paul has no intention of suggesting that Gentiles had no concerns about right and wrong. Nor would he eliminate any chance that they had discussions among themselves about them. But when compared to the Jews, they were far behind. One reason is that they did not see it as a reason to justify themselves before God. They were also not driven by prejudice and pride to prove they were better than others as the Jews did. They had no code of conduct such as the Law of Moses to subscribe to with the intention of justifying themselves through obedience and performance. Oh yes, they were excessively sinful, and one missing characteristic among them was righteousness based on law.
Yet they did have their set of moral laws, such as was common to most societies. These forbid stealing, lying, cheating, murder, false witness, etc.11 This was their attempt at weaving righteousness of their own making. Regardless of how immoral a person may be, they still have a set of standards to govern their own version of righteousness, much like any moral person. As such, they are both confident in their standards of righteousness. But it is just such self-composed righteousness that keeps them from coming to the cross of Christ. They must renounce their improvised righteousness and be willing to approach the cross as lost, stained sinners, and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ in order to be justified by Christ’s righteousness and receive the gift of forgiveness and eternal life.12
Charles Hodge points out some doctrinal aspects of what Paul is describing here. He says that going against one’s conscience is often a greater obstacle to salvation than carelessness or habits. In other words, being a hypocrite. Christ said that publicans and harlots would enter the kingdom of God before the Pharisees. Because of that, even thoughtless and sensual Gentiles proved susceptible to the Gospel and were more frequently converts to Christ than the Jews who were wedded to inaccurate views of the plan of salvation.13 Hodge goes on to say that no man should think that error in doctrine is a slight practical evil. No road to perdition has ever been more thronged than that of false doctrine. Error is a shield over one’s conscience and a blindfold over one’s eyes.
Charles Spurgeon advised his congregation that for thousands of years Gentiles worshiped idols that looked like animals made from blocks of stone and granite. Their philosophy of life was planned immortality. The way they lived was offensive to God, yet even they attained righteousness by faith. When the Gospel was being preached among the Gentiles they believed in Jesus and were saved. Meanwhile, Israel kept striving for righteousness through the Law. So they used many ceremonies and external washings, and wearings of phylacteries (Scriptures in a box tied to their foreheads or wrists) and robes bordered with pomegranates. Does this seem strange then that Gentiles who were so outwardly sinful, who were utterly ignorant of God’s righteousness, perhaps even indifferent to it, were led by the grace of God to seek righteousness in the right way, namely, by faith in Christ? No! That’s the only it can be received as a gift.
1 Isaiah 51:1
2 1 Timothy 6:11
3 Galatians 3:8-9
4 Ibid. 5:22-23
5 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Calvin: ibid.
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 190
10 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. ci t., p. 493
11 See the Code of Hammurabi.
12 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 514