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Romans 2

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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(1-29) Though such is the guilt of the Gentile, there is no one to judge him, for he who would take upon himself to judge does the very same things himself. And the justice of God has only one standard by which all mankind alike will be judged—truth. Or has he any vain idea that he will escape? Does he count lightly and carelessly upon the long-suffering and forbearance of God? The proper object of that forbearance is to lead him to repentance. But he is hard and impenitent, and therefore all that is in store for him is, not pardon, but wrath. The judgment of God will be according to the strictest laws of justice. It will reward the good and punish the wicked. All the privileges of the Jew will gain for him will be that he should be the first to be either rewarded or punished. Neither Jew nor Gentile will have any advantage. The Gentile cannot plead his freedom from law, for he has a law written in his conscience; the Jew cannot plead his enjoyment of the Law, for he has broken all its provisions. These old ethnological distinctions are quite confused. The real distinction between men is purely spiritual. Jewish birth and its outward sign are nothing. Men will be judged by what they are at heart.

The argument of the chapter is continuous, and does not admit of any real break. Romans 2:1 is the link of connection with what has gone before; Romans 2:2-3; Romans 2:6-13 lay down emphatically the general principles of God’s judgment; Romans 2:14-16 apply these to the Gentile; Romans 2:17-24 apply them to the Jew; and Romans 2:25-29 reiterate the conclusion that Jew and Gentile are both as one in the sight of God.

The proposition with which the chapter begins, though general in form, is particular in substance. When the Apostle says, “Whosoever thou art that judgest,” he really means the Jews. The Gentiles, being the persons upon whom judgment is supposed to be passed, are excluded, and the class indicated by “whosoever” must therefore be the Jews. At the same time, the proposition is presented in a shape which transcends divisions of race. The special application to the Jew is suggested rather than expressed. This is eminently characteristic of the Apostle’s large and comprehensive way of handling history and the phenomena of humanity.

Verse 1

(1) Therefore.—The description just given of the state of one section of the human race contains implicitly the condemnation of the other; for it is equally applicable to both.

Wherein thou judgest another.—By the very act of sitting in judgment upon your fellow-man, you pass sentence upon yourself. You declare those acts to be criminal of which you are yourself guilty.

The words in the Greek, translated by “judge” and “condemn,” are related to each other much the same as the summing up of a judge is related to his verdict. In the first, sentence is in process of being passed, but there is still a possibility of acquittal; in the second, sentence has been definitely given in a sense adverse to the accused. “Another,” rather, strictly, the other, thy fellow, or neighbour.

Verse 2

(2) We are sure.—St. Paul assumes that this will be acknowledged as a general principle by his readers, whether Jew or Gentile, as well as by himself. There is still a strong under-current of allusion to the way in which the Jew was apt to fall back upon his privileges. “Do not think that they will save you from standing before precisely the same tribunal as the Gentiles.” The Jews, it seems, had an idea that the Gentiles only would be judged, while they would be able to claim admission into the Messianic kingdom as theirs by right of birth.

According to truth.—The principle on which God’s judgment will proceed will be that of truth or reality, as opposed to appearance, worldly status, formal precedence, &c. It will ask what a man is, not to what race he belongs.

Verse 3

(3) That thou shalt escape.—Emphatic. “Are you—because you are a Jew—to be the only exception to this rule?

Verse 4

(4) Riches.—In this metaphorical sense, with reference to the divine attributes, this word is peculiar to and characteristic of St. Paul. It is thus used twelve times in his Epistles, and not besides in the rest of the New Testament, including the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is one of those instances where the evidence of style is important. Of the twelve places where this use occurs, eight are in the Epistles of the Imprisonment, three in the Epistle to the Romans, and one in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The later and earlier Epistles are thus linked together. A similar use is not found in the Pastoral Epistles, but it should be remembered that arguments of this kind are more important on the positive side than on the negative. It is an inference of some strength that if a peculiar word or usage is found in two separate books, those books are by the same author, but the absence of such a word or usage goes a very short way towards the opposite negative conclusion if other resemblances on characteristic points are not wanting.

Forbearance and longsuffering.—We may compare with this the Sinaitic revelation given in Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering.” The moral character and relation to His people thus attributed to the Deity was a feature which specially distinguished the religion of the Old Testament from that of the surrounding heathen nations.

We may observe that the fallacy against which the Apostle is protesting in these verses is not yet extinct. The goodness of God—i.e., His disposition to promote the happiness of His creatures—is insisted upon as if it were unconditional, as if it were a disposition to promote their happiness simply and without any reference to what they were in themselves. We do not find that this is the case; but rather the constitution of nature, as well as revelation, tells us that happiness is annexed to certain acts and a certain frame of mind, and that it is withheld from all that is not consonant with this. The bliss of the Christian is reserved for the Christian, and is not showered promiscuously upon all men. Otherwise free-will would have no office, and righteous dealing no reward.

Verses 4-5

(4, 5) Another alternative is put forward, which has less to do with the distinction of Jew and Gentile, and in which the Apostle keeps more closely to the general form that his argument has assumed: “Or do you think to take refuge in the goodness, the benevolence and long-suffering of God?” True it is that He is good, and “willeth not the death of a sinner,” but His goodness is not absolute and unconditional. Its object is not to interfere with the just punishment of sin, but to lead men to repent of their sins, and so to obtain remission.

Verse 5

(5) The one condition upon which the goodness of God will come into operation, you directly contravene. Instead of being penitent, you are impenitent, and therefore the load of wrath which you have been accumulating against yourself remains unremoved. It is only waiting for the day of judgment to discharge itself upon you.

Treasurest.—The treasuring up of wrath is opposed to that heavenly treasure spoken of in Matthew 6:20. The guilt of man is accumulated little by little. I The punishment will be discharged upon him all at once, in one overwhelming tide.

Against the day of wrath.—Strictly, in the day of wrathi.e., wrath to be outpoured upon the day of wrath. “The great and terrible day of the Lord” is a conception running through all the prophetic writings. (Comp. also, in the New Testament, Luke 17:30; Acts 2:20; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12; Revelation 6:17; Revelation 16:14.)

Revelation.—There is a double revelation of God’s wrath, the one inchoate, the other final. The former revelation, that described in the last chapter, is seen in the depraved condition of the heathen world; the latter revelation is represented as a judgment or trial reserved for the consummation of all things.

Verse 6

(6) According to his deeds.—The Apostle here lays down with unmistakable definiteness and precision the doctrine that works, what a man has done, the moral tenor of his life, will be the standard by which he will be judged at the last day. There can be no question that this is the consistent doctrine of Scripture. (Comp. Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:31 et seq.; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7 et seq.; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:24; Revelation 2:23; Revelation 20:12; Revelation 22:12.) How is this to be reconciled with the main theme of the Epistle, the doctrine of justification by faith?

We may observe (1) that the theology of St. Paul has two main sides or elements: (a) that which is common to all the Jewish schools, developed in direct line from the teaching of the Old Testament, and (b) that which is peculiar to himself, or developed from minute and scattered germs in the Old Testament or from the teaching of our Lord. The doctrine of justification by faith belongs to the latter category; that of final recompense in accordance with moral action belongs to the former. Hence we are prepared to find a difference of terminology without any necessary divergence of idea. (2) If we accordingly separate the two doctrines, and look at each in the connection to which it properly belongs, we shall see that they correspond to a difference in the point of view, (a) The two great classes into which mankind will be divided at the judgment will be determined by works, by the tangible outcome of their lives. No opposition is thought of here between the inward and the outward. Of course such an opposition is possible, but it is not present to the mind of the writer. The rule followed is simply that laid down in Matthew 7:16, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The nature of his actions, as the expression of his character, will decide whether a man is to be classed among “the good” or among “the wicked.” But (b) if we isolate the individual, and consider him no longer in relation to other men and to the great classification of mankind, but in his own intimate relations to the Judge and to the judgment, a totally different train of thought is suggested. If the conduct of the believer is to be regarded merely in the light of obedience to law (in other words, as a question of works), then he can neither claim nor expect any reward at all. He has broken more commandments than he has kept, and to break the Law, though only on a single point, is to lay himself open to its penalties. In any case, the extent of the reward promised to him far exceeds in proportion the extent of his obedience. It cannot therefore be by works, but must be due to a divine act, and that act is conditioned by faith. In consideration, not of any fulfilment of the Law, but that the main tenor and direction of a man’s life has been right as proved by his faith in Christ, the grace of God is extended towards him, and makes up that in which he is behind. Though not deserving, in a strict sense, the bliss of the Messianic kingdom, the believer is, nevertheless, admitted to it on account of his faith in the great Head of that kingdom, and his participation through that faith in the Christian scheme. That scheme has been wrought out objectively, i.e., independently of him, but he by a subjective act, in other words, by faith, appropriates it to himself. (3) Bearing in mind this difference in the sequence of the thought, the apparent contradiction between the two doctrines is resolved. In the doctrine of final retribution there is no opposition between faith and works, in the doctrine of justification there is no opposition between works and faith. In the former, works may be regarded as the evidence of faith; in the latter, they may be regarded as its natural and necessary outcome. They may, it is true, be set in opposition, as we shall find them later on by St. Paul himself, but that is by a special abstraction of the mind. Works are there regarded as disconnected from faith, though in the nature of things they are rather associated with it. Works may be sincere or they may be hypocritical. They may have an inward foundation in the heart, or they may not. And the Apostle looks at them in both lights, according as the course of his argument requires it. That there is no radical opposition is clearly seen if we refer to the description of the last judgment in the Synoptic Gospels. There can be no question that in those Gospels the doctrine prominently put forward is that of retribution according to works, and yet it is most distinctly laid down that the works so insisted upon are not merely the outward tangible act apart from the inward disposition; on the contrary, when such works are pleaded they are expressly disowned (Matthew 7:23-24; comp. Matthew 25:44); and. on the other hand, we are left to infer that the righteous will have little ostensibly to allege in their own favour (Matthew 25:36-39). We are thus led up by easy stages to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, even out of the midst of that doctrine of retribution which forms the subject of the section on which we are now commenting.

Verse 7

(7) To them who.—Before the words “eternal life,” at the end of the verse, we must supply “He will render.” The phrase “glory, and honour, and immortality” is practically equivalent to “eternal life.” “Those who honestly seek for this life shall find it.” The stress is upon the words “by patient continuance in well doing,” From the point of view of rhetoric, no doubt exception might be taken to the tautology; but St. Paul was far too much in earnest to attend carefully to the laws of rhetoric, and it is just this spontaneity which is in great part the secret of his power.

Patient continuance.—A single word in the Greek, but rightly translated in the Authorised version, by (according to, by the rule of) patience (persistence or perseverance) in well doing (literally, in good work). In English we should naturally say, “in good works,” but the Greek, here as frequently, by the use of the singular and by the absence of the article, puts the abstract for the concrete, so covering every particular case.

Verse 8

(8) But unto them . . .—The scholar will observe that in the original Greek the construction is changed. At the end of Romans 2:7 is an accusative “(he will render) eternal life;” here we have the nominative, “(there shall be) tribulation and anguish.”

That are contentious.—An error in the Authorised version through a wrong derivation of the word. Strictly, To those who act in the spirit of a hireling; hence, according to the secondary meaning of the word, “to those who act in a spirit of factiousness and self-seeking.” It is, however, quite possible that the mistaken derivation may have been current in St. Paul’s time, as it was, no doubt, somewhat later, from Origen downwards. St. Paul, it is true, distinguishes between the proper word for “contention” and that used here (e.g., in 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20), but this would not exclude, it would rather seem to imply, not indeed a formal derivation, but some association of ideas. The shade of meaning will, perhaps, be expressed if we translate by some such word as “factiousness.” So in Philippians 1:16 (properly Philippians 1:17, the order of the clauses being reversed), “the one (the other) preach Christ of factiousness.”

Indignation and wrath.—The Greek equivalents for these two words are distinguished as the settled angry feeling from the passionate outbreak of anger.

The truth.—Here used in a moral sense, as almost equivalent to “rectitude,” “that which is right.” There is a tendency towards this meaning in Romans 1:18, “Who hold down the truth in unrighteousness,” though there “the truth” appears to mean rather “natural religion” in general. The ethical sense comes out clearly in John 3:21, “he that doeth truth,” opposed to “he that doeth evil.” These phrases, “obey the truth,” “obey unrighteousness,” in a plainer style, would be simply “do good,” “do evil.” It may be noted that St. Paul is fond of these quasi-personifications.

Verse 9

(9) Upon every soul of man.—The phrase is not quite the same as “upon every man,” but more special in character, indicating the part in which the punishment will be felt.

Verse 11

(11) Respect of persons.—Regard for the external circumstances of a man as opposed to his internal condition; here, especially, “regard for the circumstances of birth and race.” (Comp. Acts 10:34; Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; James 2:1; James 2:9.) It is interesting to observe the phrase appearing in such different quarters. The great result of the Christian revelation was to break down the belief in race-religions—the “middle wall of partition,” as St. Paul calls it.

The essential equality of Jew and Gentile before God is not affected by the precedence of the former in point of time or order, whether as regards punishment or reward.

Verse 12

(12) Jew and Gentile alike will be judged, each by the method proper to his case; the Jew by the written Law against which he has sinned, the Gentile by the unwritten law of conscience against which he too has sinned. The mere hearing of the Law will bring no exemption to the Jew; and, on the other hand, the Gentile, who, at the dictates of conscience, acts as if he were subject to law, shall have the full benefit that law can give him. In fact, his conscience is to him a law. He undergoes precisely the same conflict of self- condemnation and self-acquittal as one who has a written law to refer to. All this will be done, this strict measure of justice will be applied, at the last great day of judgment.

In the law.—Rather, in law. Here, as in the phrases which follow, “by law,” “the hearers of law,” “the doers of law,” “the Gentiles which have not law,” &c., the article is wrongly inserted by the Authorised version. Its absence shows that the Apostle Lad in mind, not the particular Mosaic law, but the abstraction of law. “Behind the concrete representation—the Mosaic law itself—St. Paul sees an imperious principle, an overwhelming presence, antagonistic to grace, to liberty, to spirit, and (in some aspects) even to life—abstract law, which, though the Mosaic ordinances are its most signal and complete embodiment, nevertheless is not exhausted therein, but exerts its crushing power over the conscience in diverse manifestations. The one, the concrete and special, is ὁ υόμος; the other, the abstract and universal, is νόμος” (Lightfoot).

Verse 13

(13) For not the hearers of the law.—The parenthesis should not be placed here (as usually in the Authorised version), but at the beginning of the next verse. The present verse is explanatory of that which precedes. “Judged, I say, by the Law; for they must not suppose that the mere fact of their being under the Law will exempt them from this judgment. The only exemption will be that which is given to those who have kept the Law, and not merely had the privilege of hearing it. And,” the argument follows—the Apostle digressing for a moment to pursue this point to its conclusion—“this exemption, may apply quite as much to Gentile as to Jew.”

Hearers of the law.—Strictly (as above), hearers of lawi.e., those who have a law to which they can listen, and by which they may be guided. (Comp. Acts 13:27; Acts 15:21, “Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath”; and for the opposition between hearing and doing, James 1:22-23; James 1:25.)

Verse 14

(14) A sort of parenthesis begins here. Romans 2:16 refers back to the main subject of the paragraph, and not to the particular point on which the Apostle digresses in Romans 2:14-15, the virtual operation of law among the Gentiles as well as Jews.

By nature.—Spontaneously; of their own motion; not acting under the coercion of any external rule, but simply by the promptings of their own conscience left to itself.

The things contained in the law.—Literally, the things of the law. In this one instance the article is used, meaning, however, not “the law of Moses,” but “of this law,” or “of such law”—i.e., the ideal law spoken of just before.

Verse 15

(15) Which.—Rather, Inasmuch as they.

The work of the law.—The practical effect or realisation of the law—written in their hearts as the original Law was written upon the tables of stone, (Comp. Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:3.)

Also bearing witness.—Or, witnessing with them, as margin. There is a double witness; their actions speak for them externally, and conscience speaks for them internally.

The mean while.—Rather, literally, as margin, between themselvesi.e., with mutual interchange, the thoughts of the heart or different motions of conscience sometimes taking the part of advocate, sometimes of accuser.

This seems, on the whole, the best way of taking these two words, though some commentators (among them Meyer) regard this quasi personification of “the thoughts” as too strong a figure of speech, and take “between themselves” as referring to the mutual intercourse of man with man. But in that mutual intercourse it is not the thoughts that accuse or defend, but the tongue. The Apostle is speaking strictly of the private tribunal of conscience.

Verse 16

(16) This verse takes up the main thread of the subject. “God will judge Jew and Gentile alike at the last day.” It cannot refer (as some would make it) to what immediately precedes, because there the Apostle is referring to the daily process that goes on whenever doubtful actions are submitted to the law of conscience, here he is speaking expressly of the final judgment held by God and not by man.

By Jesus Christ.—As the Son of God is the Mediator of salvation, so also is He the Mediator of judgment. The function of judgment is specially committed to Him. This is the consistent teaching of Scripture. (Comp. John 5:27, “the Father hath given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man”; Acts 17:31, “He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world . . . by that Man whom He hath ordained”; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10, et. al.)

According to my gospel.—How is this to be taken? To what is it that the gospel, as preached by St. Paul, testifies? It may be either to the simple fact that God will judge the secrets of men, or to the particular law or standard by which He will judge them. Probably, on the whole, the former is the preferable explanation. “In the day when, as I teach, God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.”

Verse 17

(17) Behold.—An interesting case of a corrupt reading which has found its way into the Authorised version. For “behold,” a decisive consensus of the best MSS. has “but if.” The corruption was very obvious and easy. Adopting “but if,” the answering clause of the sentence is to be found in the question, “Teachest thou not thyself?” Romans 2:21. The connecting particle “therefore” at the beginning of the same verse is merely resumptive, or, as it is technically called, “epanaleptic.”

Turning to the Jew, the Apostle breaks out into indignant and vehement apostrophe, “If you have the name of Jew, and repose upon the Law, and make your boast in God, and do all these other things—why then, while you profess to teach others, do you not teach yourself?” A fine specimen of the natural eloquence which the Apostle derives from intense feeling. The different features of the picture crowd into his mind to point the contrast between what the Jew claimed to be and what he was.

Restest in.—Reposest or reliest upon a law. A passive confidence in something external. “In the Law the Jew saw the Magna Charta which gave him his assurance of salvation” (Meyer).

Makest thy boast of Godi.e., of a peculiar and exclusive claim to His favour. (Comp. Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalms 147:19-20.)

Verse 18

(18) His will.—Literally, the willi.e., “the supreme will.”

Approvest the things that are more excellent.—Probably rightly given in the Authorised version, though the marginal rendering also is possible, “triest the things that differ”—i.e., “art able to discriminate between good and evil.”

Being instructed.—With reference to the constant reading of the Law in the synagogue.

Verse 19

(19) A guide of the blind.—Comp. Matthew 15:14, “They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind,” et seq.

Verse 20

(20) The form of knowledge and of the truth.—As we might say, “the presentation of knowledge and of truth.” Here not form as opposed to substance, but as implying substance—“presentation,” or “embodiment.”

Verse 21

(21) Therefore.—See above on Romans 2:17.

Verse 22

(22) Commit sacrilege.—Properly, rob temples—i.e., idol temples, with a pointed antithesis to that abhorrence of idols on which the Jew prided himself. This is certainly the last offence of which we should have expected the Jews of this date to be guilty, knowing the scrupulousness with which they shunned all contact with idolatry. They may, however, have thought the idol temples fair plunder. At any rate, it is clear that this charge was commonly brought against them. Comp. Acts 19:37, where the town-clerk of Ephesus specially acquits St. Paul and his companions of “being robbers of temples.” Josephus also (Ant. iv. 8, § 10) quotes as a precept of the Mosaic legislation, “Let no one blaspheme those gods which other cities esteem such; nor may any one steal what belongs to strange temples; nor take away the gifts that are dedicated to any god.”

Verse 23

(23) Dishonourest thou God?—This verse has been regarded, not as a question, but as a summary answer to the previous questions, “You, who make all this boast in the Law, by breaking the Law, dishonour God.” There is a certain force in this view, but the structure of the clause is so similar to those that have gone before that it seems best, perhaps, upon the whole, to take it in the ordinary way.

Verse 24

(24) Through you.Because of you.

As it is written.—From the LXX. version of Isaiah 52:5. The sense of the original is that the name of God is dishonoured by the enslavement and oppression of His people. A nearer parallel in sense, though more remote in words, may be found in 2 Samuel 12:14; Ezekiel 36:22-23. The Apostle is not careful as to the particular context from which he draws. He knew that he was giving the substance of Scripture, and he takes the aptest words that occur to him at the moment. Translated into our modern modes of thought, the formula “as it is written” at the end of the verse amounts to little more than “in the language of Scripture.” The intention, as so frequently with St. Paul, seems, as it were, to be divided between proof and illustration.

Verse 25

(25) Is made.Is become,ipso facto, “is reduced to the case of.”

Verses 25-29

(25-29) This section forms a connecting-link with the opening of the next chapter. “The characteristic mark and badge of the Jew has two sides, the one outward and formal, the other inward and real. Its essence consists in the latter, and without this inward circumcision the outward profits nothing. It is not necessary to be born a Jew to possess it.” Precisely the same language might be applied to the Christian sacraments, or to the privileges of any particular communion. Privileges they may be, but they depend for their efficacy entirely upon the disposition of the heart which underlies them.

Verse 27

(27) Judge thee.—Comp. Matthew 12:41-42, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it,” et seq. The idea is that of “putting to shame by contrast.”

By the letter.—The preposition here marks the condition or circumstance under which the action is done, and might be paraphrased, “with all the advantages of the written Law and of circumcision.”

Here, again, the sentence may not be a question, but an affirmation.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Romans 2". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/romans-2.html. 1905.
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