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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Romans 2

 

 

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Verse 4

AN INCENTIVE TO REPENTANCE

‘The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.’

Romans 2:4

‘The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.’ God is very good to us. He gives us time for repentance. He waits to be gracious. He spares men who provoke Him to anger every day, that He might see if they will return and repent. But God will not always wait.

I. Let the goodness of God touch your heart!—Think how good God has been to you—how many, no worse sinners than you, have been cut off in their sins, and you have been spared! ‘God spared not the angels which sinned; but cast them down to hell, and delivered them unto chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment’—yet He has spared you, although you have sinned so often and hardened your heart against His love. God struck down Ananias and Sapphira with instant death because they told a lie; how many lies have you not told, and yet God has spared you? Why?—that His goodness might lead you to repentance. Is it not by the goodness of God that we are all of us alive here to-day? Suppose you had died last night, what would have become of you? Where would your soul have gone? Or suppose in that illness, years ago, when you were really frightened about yourself, and thought you would never get better, suppose you had died then, were you ready? Would not you be even now among those who are, with the fallen angels, reserved unto judgment? with the rich man, tormented in the flame? If you had died, as some have died, as some of you might die almost at any time, with an oath on your lips, with a lie on your tongue, or roaring out some ribald song or jest as you reeled home from the beershop, where would you be now? Why are you spared? By the goodness of God, you are spared that you might have time to repent.

II. God’s goodness is shown also in His willingness to forgive us if we do repent.—We have every encouragement to repent given us by the goodness of God. Sinners need much encouragement to lead them to repentance. For repentance is a humbling and distasteful work. A man does not like to own even to himself that he has done wrong. He is afraid to call to mind his sins and to confess them to God. He would rather forget them as quickly as possible, and flatter himself with the vain hope that God has forgotten them too. He says to himself, ‘God is merciful, He will not be hard on me.’ But mark this, brethren, there is no encouragement in God’s Word to believe that God forgives, or ever will forgive, sin, until it has been repented of and confessed. But there is every encouragement to believe, and be assured that God does freely forgive us when we repent and confess our sins. It is not enough to say that we are sinners—that is easy enough, there is nothing humbling in it, because we comfort ourselves with the thought that we are only like other people. We must confess, not merely that we are sinners, but we must confess our sins.

III. The voice of Satan hinders.—But, ah! something whispers to you that it is too late for you to repent; that God would not forgive you; that you would be sure to go and do just the same wrong things again. Whose voice is it? Who is it that tempts men and women to sin, and then whispers into their ear doubts of God’s goodness, and tells them that it is too late? It is the voice of a liar—of the liar of all liars, the Devil. Don’t listen to that evil voice; don’t believe that lying whisper. Believe Jesus, Who says, ‘Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.’ Believe Him Who has silenced those lying whispers for ever by the beautiful story of the prodigal son, showing the readiness of God to forgive the penitent immediately upon his confession, by the father in the parable running to meet the poor lad as soon as he arose and went to his father to say, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ Do not let the malice of a lying Devil keep you back from repentance. Believe the good of God, and let it lead you to repentance. Never despair of the mercy of God. Have you committed the sins of adultery and murder, like David? and yet hear his witness to the goodness of God to the vilest sinners: ‘I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord; and so Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.’ Repent, then, at once, with humble confession of such sins as you can remember, and with a hearty resolution to forsake them by God’s help.

Illustration

‘During one of the London Missions a poor girl, living a very sinful life, went into one of the churches, and a Sister, who was there, went and spoke to her, as she did to many others like her, and entreated her to repent and leave her bad life. The girl refused; but next day she was riding in a cab which met with an accident. The girl was not hurt, but her little dog, which she held in her arms, was killed. The poor girl thought, “What if I had been killed instead of that little dog?” She saw so clearly in it the goodness of God leading her to repentance, that she went back to that church and declared herself willing to forsake her wicked course of life, and entered one of those refuges for fallen women, where they are sheltered from temptation, are taught the way of salvation, and have the means provided them of making a fresh start and gaining an honest living. “Was not this a brand plucked from the burning?”’


Verse 14-15

THE WITNESS OF CONSCIENCE

‘When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.’

Romans 2:14-15

Nothing is sadder than St. Paul’s impeachment of the heathen world as shown in this letter to the Romans. Its sadness arises from its absolute truth as witnessed to by the confessions of the heathen themselves. To St. Paul the heathen world appeared as if divided into two classes. Those who did by nature the things contained in the law, and those who deliberately shut their eyes to the truths which God had written on their hearts, and refused to listen to the voice of conscience which spoke within them.

I. What is conscience?—It may be defined as the testimony or secret judgment of the soul which approves of what it believes to be good, and condemns what it believes to be wrong. Or ‘that within me which says I ought or I ought not’ (Maurice on ‘Conscience’). ‘Conscience,’ says St. Bernard, ‘is the roll in which our dark sins are written.’ To speak more precisely, ‘Conscience is not merely that which I know, but that which I know with some one else. That other Knower Whom the word implies is God. His law, making itself known and felt in the heart’ (Trench: Study of Works). Thus St. Paul speaks of the conscience of the heathen bearing witness for or against them—for them if they are doing well, against them if they are doing evil. So do their own wise men. They speak of the testimony of a good conscience almost in the same words as the Apostle, and of the witness of an evil conscience in terms which show how fully they felt its power. They picture guilty men as tossing on their beds, restless and unquiet, conjuring up imaginary terrors, unable to drive away thought, alarmed at any sound, appalled by the avenging spirits of their victims. ‘Such,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘is the way with sinners. Everything excites their suspicion; they quake at every noise, they start at every shadow, they look on every man as an enemy’ (Hom. in Matt.).

II. Conscience is faithful, but stern and inexorable.—It comes to the sinner like the prophet of old with its inflexible ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ It points at him as did Nathan to David, and says, ‘Thou art the man.’ It is like an Elijah to Ahab, ‘Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?’ It is the ‘handwriting on the wall’ to sacrilegious Belshazzar. It is the evil genius that came to Cæsar in his tent. It is the shadow which dogs our steps. It is the livid Care which sits behind the horseman. It unfolds the record of the law, whether written in the heart as the law of nature, or in the revealed word. Its warning voice is to keep the sinner from transgression by pointing out to him the impossibility of escape from the consequences of his acts. Its approving voice is the witness of the Divine Spirit with the spirit of man. It is only in the last and saddest stage of all, when men are past feeling, that conscience is altogether silent—silent because God’s Holy Spirit, the co-witness, has deserted them; silent because of spiritual deadness.

III. Conscience is the same faculty, and its action is the same before as after the preaching of the gospel.—Hence the apologists of the Early Church claimed the philosophers as witnesses for truths, afterwards more fully revealed in the gospel. ‘All the truths,’ says Justin Martyr, ‘which philosophers and legislators have discovered and proclaimed they derived from the Word of Whom they had caught a partial glimpse’ (Apol. 2). These good men showed the work of the law written in their hearts; their conscience bore witness to the purity of their motives. What they needed was the rising of the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings to remove their perplexities, to solve their doubts, and to establish truth on a firm and imperishable basis, to make known to them a Saviour Who should also be their God.

Illustrations

(1) ‘Herod was a Sadducee; yet did his guilty conscience conjure up the murdered and martyred Baptist as risen again with renewed power in the person of Jesus Christ. Herodias had the same fears; “observe the terrors of a guilty conscience: Herodias was afraid that if the head of John were reunited to his body he would rise again, and again denounce her incestuous marriage with Herod” (Cornelius à Lapide). Caligula professed to be an atheist, but history tells that, Emperor of the world as he was, he hid his head or got under the bed when he heard thunder. Charles IX. of France, pale with fear and trembling at the recollection of the massacre to which at the instigation of his mother he had given a reluctant consent, was but another example of the truth that “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starting at the fancied apparition of the betrayed and murdered Banquo, and his guiltier wife in her sleep-walk gazing at her bloody hand, are true to the experience of human nature.’

(2) ‘An old writer tells us that near to the Pole, where the winter’s darkness continues for months together, the inhabitants, towards the end of this long night, betake themselves to the mountain-tops, striving who should gain the first glimpse of the orb of day. No sooner do they see it than they deck themselves in their best apparel and congratulate each other with the cheery words, “Ecce Sol, Ecce Sol.” (Behold the Sun.) The long night of darkness has now passed away, the Sun of Righteousness has risen, Ecce Sol, Ecce Sol. Light has come into the world—walk ye as children of the light.’


Verse 16

THE JUDGMENT

‘The day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.’

Romans 2:16

This verse should be joined to the tenth. That asserts an impartial judgment of Jew and Gentile. The intervening verses give a parenthetic series of reasons for this impartiality.

I. There is a day of judgment.—A fixed and definite time. When, is not known: but the fact is certain.

(a) Scripture testimony ample, varied, peremptory and express.

(b) Conscience confirms Scripture.

(c) Our natural sense of justice. Man’s instinctive feeling is that, if the world is under moral government, there must be a day of retribution and redress and recompense.

II. The matter of judgment.—‘The secrets of men.’ Apparently only a part; yet the chief part, and virtually the whole matter of judgment is men’s secrets. This embraces not only the inward and hidden things, but also the outward things as effected by the inward.

(a) Secrets. The things we have kept in our inmost heart.

(b) Outward actions will be tested and judged by the ‘secrets.’ It will be seen how far the inward and the outward corresponded, and a true moral value will be assigned to the outward deed, according to its ‘secret’ spirit. Many showy deeds will shrivel up and become only pieces of pride, vanity, selfishness, meanness. Many insignificant actions and endurances, unnoted of men, will be invested with unspeakable grandeur from the inner Christian principle from which they sprang.

III. The judge is God.—As Creator and Lawgiver He is Judge; but His judicial function He has delegated to Jesus Christ, the Mediatorial King (John 5:22-27). He judges by Christ Jesus. Therefore—

(a) There will be a visible transaction in judgment. It will be no invisible act, such as the judgment which a man’s conscience now passes on him; but a veritable, literal, matter-of-fact occurrence patent to all.

(b) There will be impartial justice.

(c) There will be no appeal. If God judges by Jesus Christ alone, the great white throne is the highest and last judgment-seat, from which a case cannot be carried to God Himself. If His judgment is impartial and according to truth, how can there be an appeal from His bar? How trying a position for impenitent sinners to face the Son of Man, Who came to save sinners! With what boldness and confidence may saved sinners face their Saviour as Judge!

IV. Judgment part of the gospel message.—It is the gospel to warn sinners of the coming judgment of their hidden thoughts, and to comfort saints by the prospect of the full revelation of their true character, and vindication of their righteousness. The gospel involves the idea and fact of a day of judgment as a fundamental element. Did not Christ come to save us from the condemnation of sin? ‘Abide in Him, that when He shall appear we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.’


Verse 28-29

COVENANT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

‘For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.’

Romans 2:28-29

If we were to read this passage of Scripture carelessly, in which explanation is given of the rite of circumcision, we might easily think that St. Paul meant, in these words, to depreciate circumcision, and treat it as if it were of no value. And in thinking so, we should, of course, be very much mistaken. St. Paul had no thought of depreciating circumcision; only of making it to be rightly understood. It had never been intended as a title to salvation in the future life; and in St. Paul’s time the mistake seems to have grown up among the Jews of thinking that it was. Now circumcision has passed away. The Jewish Church has been merged in the Christian Church; and the rite of circumcision has been replaced by Christian baptism.

I. Baptism an important matter.—We can easily understand from our Lord’s strict commands to perform it, that baptism is a matter of very great importance. If it had not been, our Lord would not have taken such great care that all His people should be baptized. ‘Teach them,’ He said to His disciples, but He also said ‘baptize them.’ There are sects that neglect to teach, and there are sects that neglect to baptize. The one is as wrong as the other. The Christians we read of in Holy Scripture were all baptized. St. Paul himself, when he had the vision of Christ, went to Ananias, and was baptized. Cornelius, when he was converted, was instantly baptized. The jailer at Philippi, frightened and repentant, ‘was baptized, he and all his, straightway,’ say the Scriptures. There are other similar instances which you can read for yourselves in your Bibles. In this sense all Christians understood Christ’s words for many hundred years after He ascended; and all Christian people were baptized then.

II. And what is baptism?—It is the washing or sprinkling with water of a child or a grown person in the name of the Holy Trinity, with special prayers and thanksgivings. That is baptism, as you see it administered so often here at church. That is the outward part of baptism, the part of it that you can see. But there is something in it that you cannot see, and that is the effect of baptism. What is it that baptism does for your souls? In baptism we are born into a new and regenerate state. We are publicly proclaimed to the members of Christ’s Church—and a germ or seed of good is implanted in our souls, which will, if we follow and obey it, finally transform us into the image and likeness of Christ, so that we shall be found fit at length for the society of God and of the angels in heaven.

III. Baptism, then, is a great privilege; but it is also a great responsibility.—God has given it to us, and we may use it well or ill. It may be to us the gate of glory and holiness unspeakable; but if neglected and disobeyed, it may be only an additional talent which we must answer for; and of which the misuse will be a weight to sink us deeper into condemnation. By baptism we claim God’s promises, and are brought into connection and covenant with Him. Baptism will not save us; but it will put us in the way of being saved. It will not save us, but it will give us valuable help towards obtaining salvation. There are people who misrepresent the Church’s doctrine of baptismal regeneration, as if it were meant that because a person was baptized, he must therefore of necessity be saved. That is not what is meant at all. Amongst those who will be lost at the last, there will be, I cannot but fear, many baptized persons—men and women who have received the Spirit of Christ and the help of Christ, who have been professing Christians, and yet have fallen away after all, and lost their birthright, and denied their Saviour.

IV. Let us all try, first, to value baptism rightly for the great benefits it gives; and second, not to rely upon it as sufficient in and by itself, and apart from a holy life, to save us—which it will not do. That would be to repeat the very mistake of the Jews about circumcision. But, on the other hand, we must not think it a small matter whether we are baptized or no. A person who wilfully neglects baptism (as some sects of Dissenters do) does two things. First, he flatly disobeys the ordinance of Christ; and second, he deprives himself of just the most powerful help and weapon he could possibly have in his strife against sin.

Illustration

‘“Let it be ours,” says Bishop Moule, “to reverence, to prize, to use the ordinances of our Master, with a devotion such as we might seem sure we should feel if we saw Him dip His hand in the font, or stretch it out to break the bread, and hallow it, and give it, at the table. But let us be quite certain, for our own souls’ warning, that it is true all the while—in the sense of this passage—that ‘he is not a Christian which is one outwardly, neither is that baptism, or communion, which is outward; but he is a Christian which is one inwardly, and baptism and communion are those of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter.’ Sacred indeed are the God-given externals of Christian order and ordinance. But there are degrees of greatness in the world of sacred things. And the moral work of God direct upon the soul of man is greater than His sacramental work done through man’s body.”’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/romans-2.html. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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