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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Romans 3

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-31

The Law of Faith

Romans 3

What advantage then hath the Jew? ( Romans 3:1). Somebody must have an advantage. All men cannot begin at the same point. What is the advantage which God has allotted to some? Is it a vital difference, or is it only an initial privilege, carrying with it a great responsibility, and meant to be shared by all the world? Is God a partisan, a darling-maker? Has he made some men to be saved, and others to be damned? The Apostle undertakes to discuss these great questions, and to discuss them in a way which has been in too many instances absolutely misunderstood. It is amazing to find how often the Apostle has been taken in the exactly contrary sense to that which he meant to establish. There is nothing narrow about Paul; he has no heaven filled with little darlings, pet saints—favoured ones, on whom God for some inscrutable reason has set peculiar marks of favour. The Apostle says God is no respecter of persons. The Apostle is not indiscriminating; he knows that the Jews had advantages, and great advantages; but he acknowledges these, and then proceeds to show that the Jews were as bad as anybody else. The Apostle is very erratic in all this epistolary discussion: he cannot keep to the point two moments. The genius of his mind is revealed in this epistle characteristically. He will not follow out any one line of thought; the Apostle"s was a fervent, erratic, ardent, and often uncontrollable genius. The Apostle Paul had not time to finish sentences; he scarcely began one sentence before he saw the opening of another, and he plunged after it by no recognised law of movement. In this very chapter he says "in the first place," but he never says "in the second place"; he forgets that he had proposed to himself an arithmetical enumeration. The book is the better for this. It is not mechanical; it is not a piece of art in clay: this is a mind on fire, a mind let loose amid the radiant mysteries of God; and now the mind is here, and now there, and before anything is rounded into spherical, completeness and harmony, the mind bounds off again in some other direction; so that chapter iii. is completed in chapter ix.: and yet who would not rather have this Paul-like rush and tumult of thinking, with its million points of suggestiveness, than some smooth and easily forgotten insignificance? Those who have a partisan heaven have no vindication of it in the Epistle to the Romans , and yet it is on that epistle they have built their little pantheon. If they do meet Paul face to face one of the parties will be ashamed. If ever there was an epistle written by the human hand that was meant to commend the universality of the Divine love and the universality of the Cross of Christ, it is the Epistle to the Romans. And yet some men have leased this epistle for a given period of years, and have let out heaven in small parcels to people on whom they have fixed their indiscriminating and worthless affection.

"What advantage then hath the Jew?... Much every way: chiefly [literally, in the first place] because that unto them were committed the oracles of God,"—not oracles in the Pagan sense of dim, mysterious, ambiguous utterances of which nothing could be made, but the utterances of God, the flashing words, the life-giving syllables, the treasury of wisdom. Somebody must have these in the first place. The mountains have great advantages over the valleys, because they catch the first sunlight, but they grow nothing: the plough has not wrought its mystery of tillage on Alpine heights; it would be out of place there, and the snow-peaks would resent the intrusion. Yet it is on them that the dawn first alights; the valleys have to wait. Somebody must begin first. It is so with liberty: why not with grace? All nations do not enjoy an equal extent of freedom. The nations that do enjoy the freedom are not put in possession of it as a selfish franchise and inheritance and family estate. Every nation that is inspired with the spirit of philanthropy as well as with the spirit of patriotism holds its liberty for the world; opens its door widely that every runaway who has brought with him a good character may find hospitality and security. The time was when men could say, the moment the slave touches British soil his trammels drop from him and he stands up a man. This freedom is held in trust. Our liberties are not to make us self-conceited but to liberalise us, and make us feel that we have a gospel for all who are in bonds. It is a great responsibility to have the first laws, the first light, the first liberty, the first inkling of the right relation of things. That advantage brings with it its responsibilities. No man can rightly hold a liberty and keep it to himself. In the apostolic times they had all things common, and we must have them all common now; not in the little detailed pedantic sense, but in the greater meaning of the words. He who has liberty has it for all men; he who has knowledge is but a trustee of his knowledge, that he may deal it out to those who are in ignorance and long to be instructed; he who is strong holds his strength for the weak. Whenever you see a nation beaten down by a strong arm you have a right to interfere; whenever you see a child cruelly ill-treated by a ruffian, that child becomes yours by the right of its helplessness. Parenthood is created by great necessities. No strong man is at liberty to take his strength away unused and unimpaired when he has seen the weak smitten and the helpless oppressed. The Jews were treasurers, the Jews were librarians; the Jews had the oracles, or utterances of God, not to keep, but to publish. They did not understand them, but their not understanding the scope of their mission in the world does not reflect on the benevolence and the love of the all-saving Father. Possibly, the Apostle thinks, you may object to this reasoning because some Jews are unbelieving—"for what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?" The doctrine of the Apostle is that the unbelief of some does not destroy the value of the faith of others. He is not laying down here a maxim which requires a trained sagacity to penetrate and understand. The Apostle here writes the alphabet of things. We do in commerce precisely what the Apostle is doing in what may be termed theology. Because there is one fraudulent person in the city, is the city thereof wholly given over to dishonesty? On the contrary; the dishonesty of the few may be a foil throwing up into keener expressiveness the righteousness and honourableness of the many. Because there is falsehood in some, is there truthfulness in none? Because some are selfish, are all wanting in benevolence? There is a public health which, as we have seen, is perfectly consistent with countless instances of personal disease. There is a national honesty, so that a nation as a nation shall have a great reputation among the nations of the earth for honesty, although within that nation itself there may be many who are through and through eaten up with the disease of dishonesty. So there may be a faithfulness where there is much faithlessness; there may be a real Christianity though there are many professing Christians who are but actors before God, and whose clumsy action is laughed at by mocking angels. It is so with the Church. There is a real Church of Christ upon the earth, though many who are in it have no right to serve at its altar and to proclaim its name. So the Apostle says, "What if some did not believe?" Undoubtedly there were unbelieving Jews, rebellious hearts, wills that went away from God in self-seeking, and hungered after darkness and evil, as if they could banquet upon the midnight and revel in the wilderness: shall we, says the Apostle by inference, reject the idea that God is building a nation, because some individual units which he wished to handle are refractory, recalcitrant, impracticable?

"What then? are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]?" Everything depends upon Paul"s answer to that inquiry. He puts the question, he must give the answer. What is the question?—"Are we Jews better than they Gentiles?" "No, in no wise." Yet this is the man who is supposed to favour a partisan heaven, and to put into heaven whom he pleases; this is the man who is supposed to set one nation on the right hand and another nation on the left hand, without reason, without sound argument, or without condescending to consult the spirit of honesty. Paul has charges against his friends; Paul has been "slanderously reported" of by many theologians. He wanted if possible to enlarge heaven, to make room for Africa and the islands of the sea, and the benighted places of the earth; nor would he rest until he had told every living soul that God wanted that soul at home. The Apostle does not treat his fellow Jews daintily; he pays them no special compliments; he does not say, Gentlemen Jews, you are all right, you have no care or thought about this matter; you are sure of heaven whatever comes of these aliens and wanderers, these outcasts and desperadoes. Paul rather says, "We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin." So that the advantage was not one of nature; the Jews were not made of better clay; the advantage did not refer to vital partialities: the Jews had the book first, but it was meant to be read, believed, and honoured by the Gentile. In a sense, therefore, the Jew is the servant of the Gentile; he had a priority of responsibility, but not the exclusiveness of privilege. Paul writes an indictment of the human race in Romans 3:10-18 :—

"As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes." ( Romans 3:10-18)

That is his impeachment. The charge is not made against Jews as Jews, nor is it made against Gentiles as Gentiles; it is made against Jews and Gentiles as men. How energetic he could be! "There is none righteous, no, not one." What of that white-robed priest that stands there as if an incarnation of righteousness? He is as bad, originally, natively, as the man who has not yet begun to pray. "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." Nor is the charge metaphysical, remote, dealing with certain subjectivities that lie beyond common knowledge and general apprehension. The men are not sinners only, they are criminals; "their throat is an open sepulchre," a yawning chasm, opening its jaws in the hunger of hell; "with their tongues they have used deceit:" rather, "with their tongues they are using deceit": the action is immediate and continued; there is no escape from the grammar in the verb which the Apostle used. We may throw our accusations into the perfect and the pluperfect, anyway to get rid of them, by depositing them in some grammatical hole, but the Apostle"s verb is a verb of continuance:—they are using, now using, always using, deceit; they are a lie. "The poison of asps"—the poison bag is under the particular tooth with which they bite most severely. This was Paul"s conception of human nature. No wonder he wanted a real Gospel. Some of us prefer Paul"s account of human nature to any other. I should be glad to contradict the Apostle if I could do so honestly, but I am bound when his accusation has ceased to roll its thunders to say, There is one man at least of whom that is a full-length portrait. Modify the letters as you may, twist the account into new shape as you may be able ingeniously to do, you cannot alter the heart of it; the whole accusation is in one sentence—"there is no fear of God before their eyes"; and lost reverence is lost character; a lost standard of righteousness, living and eternal, is a lost manhood.

The Apostle now proceeds to say a good deal about law. Perhaps we have been misled as to the meaning of his reasoning by this little word "the"; strike out that word, and the whole argument is made broader and stronger. "Now we know that what things soever the law saith"—read, "Now we know that what things soever law saith." "Therefore by the deeds of law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by law is the knowledge of sin." The Apostle is not referring to anything that is written and is to be found within four corners, he is referring to a certain epoch in the evolution of human nature and human thought; he is referring to the particular time when men began to shape their conduct by statute and precept and code of behaviour, as that they should rise at this hour, and work so long, and within the given hours should do so many deeds, and that such deeds should be rewarded, and such other deeds should be punished: that is law: a mechanical contrivance, an arrangement of discipline, an economy by which men try to train themselves. The thought was a noble one; and it loses nothing of its nobility from the fact that it is not complete in itself. Here is human nature beginning to see that disorder will not do; tumult, incohesiveness, mutual repulsion will no longer satisfy the growing instinct and the growing intelligence of man: there must be something constructive, architectural; some things must be elevated into honour, and other things hitherto permitted must be trampled under foot as base: here we open the page that begins the development of law, order, cosmos, the shaping and regulation of things. The Apostle does not condemn this, but looking upon it he says, you will find this utterly insufficient when you come to vital matters: the law can have no reference to yesterday; law can only begin when itself is made known; the law we did not know yesterday we cannot be judged by: "By law is the knowledge of sin." Law catalogues human actions, enumerates them, indicates their quality, points out all their issue and meaning; without the law there is no sin; sin is the transgression of law; now, continues this mighty reasoner, if you want your souls made right you will have to drop all your little codes of discipline, all your pedantic arrangements, and mechanical contrivances, and rise from law to faith,—a mystery, a miracle, not to be explained in words, but to be felt after the soul has taken that infinite leap.

Thus the Apostle"s argument is cumulative and historical. He begins at the beginning; he knows that the Jews have certain advantages of a temporal kind, he then proceeds to outline human nature as it appears to the eyes of God; then he puts the great question, How to escape from this nature into the new nature? And in that action he lays down the rule or doctrine that all further progress, all upward movement is to be inspired by, directed by, and crowned by, the action or Ministry of Faith. He will not allow the Jew to come in by one way and the Gentile to come in by another way; he does not say to the Jew, You shall come up the front avenue, you shall drive to the portals of your father"s house in chariots drawn by steeds of fire, wearing harness of gold; and you Gentiles must come in at midnight by some unfrequented path, that will be pointed out to you by some condescending person. He says, "There is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." How is it to be then? To be? By ransom, by sacrifice, by propitiation, "through faith in his blood." Are there those who would have it explained? They must be denied. Are there those who think of blood, in some narrow, common, vulgar, debasing sense? Then they do not take God"s view of the meaning of the term blood: this is not a murder, it is a sacrifice; this is not a measurable quantity of hot fluid rushing from the fountains of life, this is an offering—never to be explained in cold words, yet to be felt when the heart is most tender, penitent, broken, self-helpless; when the heart is in that receptive mood it will know the meaning of the words, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Where is boasting then? Gone! Who can find it? None. By what law is it excluded? The law of works? No, but by the law of faith,—the new law, diviner, higher, larger law. You thought law was a matter of conduct and discipline, and you based certain measurable economies upon law; now you must grow into the further truth that the true law is faith, and faith is the true law. "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid." Where that word "God forbid" occurs substitute the word "impossible,"—a thing necessarily excluded from the whole line of thought and action. "Yea, we establish the law:" it is because we have come into a higher law through the medium of the lower law, and that lower law has often been a necessary medium, lying on the way to the higher law, the broader and grander law. We do not work now against our strength, as if spending ourselves in fruitless labour; we are not Sisyphus-like, rolling up a stone which comes back faster than we can roll it; on the contrary, having now the spirit of faith, the inspiration of faith, we come back upon all the moralities, and do them easily, musically, lovingly; we establish the law, because we live under the ministry of a higher inspiration. If any man wants to get rid of law he cannot be a Christian: if any man says, Now I can come from the Cross of Christ to do the law more easily and lovingly and obediently,—then we know that he has tasted the bitterness of death with Christ, and has tasted with him the joy of resurrection.

Thus Paul is an Evangelist of the world. He will have all men to be saved. "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also." Is that a man likely to partition heaven off into so many tents and arbours for the accommodation of certain inhabitants of Europe to the exclusion of the whole population of Africa? Is that a man who was likely to say to the Gentiles, Nothing can be done for you; the whole universe was constructed for the Jews, and to the Jews it must be given. Hear him: "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also." Yet this is the man whose name is often quoted as sanctioning the blasphemy that God has predestined some men to be lost.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Romans 3:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/romans-3.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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