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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Romans 2

 

 

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Verses 1-17

Chapter 6

HUMAN GUILT UNIVERSAL: HE APPROACHES THE CONSCIENCE OF THE JEW

Romans 2:1-17

WE have appealed, for affirmation of St. Paul’s tremendous exposure of human sin, to a solemn and deliberate self-scrutiny, asking the man who doubts the justice of the picture to give up for the present any instinctive wish to vindicate other men, while he thinks a little while solely of himself. But another and opposite class of mistake has to be reckoned with, and precluded; the tendency of man to a facile condemnation of others, in favour of himself; "God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are." [Luke 18:11] It is now, as it was of old, only too possible to read, or to hear, the most searching and also the most sweeping condemnation of human sin, and to feel a sort of fallacious moral sympathy with the sentence, a phantom as it were of righteous indignation against the wrong and the doers of it, and yet wholly to mistake the matter by thinking that the hearer is righteous though the world is wicked. The man listens as if he were allowed a seat beside the Judge’s chair, as if he were an esteemed assessor of the Court, and could listen with a grave yet untroubled approbation to the discourse preliminary to the sentence. Ah, he is an assessor of the accused; he is an accomplice of his fallen fellows; he is a poor guilty man himself. Let him awake to himself, and to his sin, in time.

With such a reader or hearer in view St. Paul proceeds. We need not suppose that he writes as if such states of mind were to be expected in the Roman mission; though it was quite possible that this might be the attitude of some who bore the Christian name at Rome. More probably be speaks as it were in the presence of the Christians to persons whom at any moment any of them might meet, and particularly to that large element in religious life at Rome, the unconverted Jews. True, they would not read the Epistle; but he could arm those who would read it against their cavils and refusals, and show them how to reach the conscience even of the Pharisee of the Dispersion. He could show them how to seek his soul, by shaking him from his dream of sympathy with the Judge who all the while was about to sentence him.

It is plain throughout the passage now before us the Apostle has the Jew in view. He does not name him for a long while. He says many things which are as much for the Gentile sinner as for him. He dwells upon the universality of guilt as indicated by the universality of conscience; a passage of awful import for every human soul, quite apart from its place in the argument here. But all the while he keeps in view the case of the self-constituted judge of other men, the man who affects to be essentially better than they, to be, at least by comparison with them, good friends with the law of God. And the undertone of the whole passage is a warning to this man that his brighter light will prove his greater ruin if he does not use it; nay, that he has not used it, and that so it is his ruin already, the ruin of his claim to judge, to stand exempt, to have nothing to do with the criminal crowd at the bar.

All this points straight at the Jewish conscience, though the arrow is levelled from a covert. If that conscience might but be reached! He longs to reach it, first for the unbeliever’s own sake, that he might be led through the narrow pass of self-condemnation into the glorious freedom of faith and love. But also it was of first importance that the spiritual pride of the Jews should be conquered, or at least exposed, for the sake of the mission converts already won. The first Christians, newly brought from paganism, must have regarded Jewish opinion with great attention and deference. Not only were their apostolic teachers Jews, and the Scriptures of the Prophets, to which those teachers always pointed, Jewish, but the weary Roman world of late years had been disposed to own with more and more distinctness that, if there were such a thing as a true voice from heaven to man, it was to be heard among that unattractive yet impressive race which was seen everywhere, and yet refused to be "reckoned among the nations." The Gospels and the Acts show us instances enough of educated Romans drawn towards Israel and the covenant; and abundant parallels are given us by the secular historians and satirists. The Jews, in the words of Professor Gwatkin, were "the recognised non-conformists" of the Roman world. At this very time the Emperor was the enamoured slave of a brilliant woman who was known to be proselyted to the Jewish creed. It was no slight trial to converts in their spiritual infancy to meet everywhere the question why the sages of Jerusalem had slain this Jewish Prophet, Jesus, and why everywhere the synagogues denounced His name and His disciples. The true answer would be better understood if the bigot himself could be brought to say, "God, be merciful to me the sinner."

Wherefore you are without excuse, O man, every man who judges; when you judge the other party you pass judgment on yourself; for you practise the same things, you who judge. For we know-this is a granted point between us-that God’s judgment is truth wise, is a reality, in awful earnest, upon those who practise such things. Now is this your calculation, O man, you who judge those who practise such things, and do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Do you surmise that some by-way of privilege and indulgence will be kept open for you? Or do you despise the wealth of His kindness, and of His forbearance and longsuffering-despise it, by mistaking it for mere indulgence, or indifference-knowing not that God’s kind ways lead you to repentance? No, true to your own hardness, your own unrepentant heart, you are hoarding for yourself a wrath which will be felt in the day of wrath, the day of disclosure of the righteous judgment of God, who will requite each individual according to his works. What will be that requital, and its law? To those who, on the line of perseverance in good work, seek, as their point of gravitation, glory, and honour, and immortality, He will requite life eternal. But for those who side with strife, who take part with man, with self, with sin, against the claims and grace of God, and, while they disobey the truth of conscience, obey unrighteousness, yielding the will to wrong, there shall be wrath and fierce anger, trouble and bewilderment, inflicted on every soul of man, man working out what is evil, alike Jew-Jew first-and Greek. But glory, and honour, and peace shall be for everyone who works what is good, alike for Jew-Jew first-and Greek. For there is no favouritism in God’s court.

Here he actually touches the Jew. He has named him twice, and in both places recognises that primacy which in the history of Redemption is really his. It is the primacy of the race chosen to be the organ of revelation and the birth place of Incarnate God. It was given sovereignly, "not according to the works," or to the numbers, of the nation, but according to unknown conditions in the mind of God. It carried with it genuine and splendid advantages. It even gave the individual righteous Jew (so surely the language of ver. 10 [Romans 2:10] implies) a certain special welcome to his Master’s "Well done, good and faithful"; not to the disadvantage, in the least degree, of the individual righteous "Greek," but just such as may be illustrated in a circle of ardent and impartial friendship, where, in one instance or another, kinship added to friendship makes attachment not more intimate, but more interesting. Yes, the Jew has indeed his priority, his primacy, limited and qualified in many directions, but real and permanent in its place; this Epistle (see chap. 11) is the great Charter of it in the Christian Scriptures. But whatever the place of it is, it has no place whatever in the question of the sinfulness of sin, unless indeed to make guilt deeper where light has been greater. The Jew has a great historical position in the plan of God. He has been accorded as it were an official nearness to God in the working out of the world’s redemption. But he is not one whit the less for this a poor sinner, fallen and guilty. He is not one moment for this to excuse, but all the more to condemn, himself. He is the last person in the world to judge others. Wherever God has placed him in history, he is to place himself, in repentance and faith, least and lowest at the foot of Messiah’s Cross.

What was and is true of the chosen Nation is now and forever true, by a deep moral parity, of all communities and of all persons who are in any sense privileged, advantaged by circumstance. It is true, solemnly and formidably true, of the Christian Church, and of the Christian family, and of the Christian man. Later in this second chapter we shall be led to some reflections on Church privilege. Let us reflect here, if but in passing, on the fact that privilege of other kinds must stand utterly aside when it is a question of man’s sin. Have we no temptation to forget this? Probably we are not of the mind of the Frenchman of the old regime who thought that "the Almighty would hesitate before He condemned forever a man of a marquis’ condition." But are we quite clear on the point that the Eternal Judge will admit no influences from other sides? The member of so excellent, so useful, a family, with many traces of the family character about him! The relative of saints, the companion of the good! A mind so full of practical energy, of literary grace and skill; so capable of deep and subtle thought, of generous words, and even of deeds; so charming, so entertaining, so informing; the man of culture, the man of genius; -shall none of these things weigh in the balance, and mingle some benignant favouritism with the question, Has he done the will of God? Nay, "there is no favouritism in God’s court!" No one is acquitted there for his reputable connections, or for his possession of personal "talents" (awful word in the light of its first use!), given him only that he might the better "occupy" for his Lord. These things have nothing to do with that dread thing, the Law, which has everything to do with the accusation and the award.

Before we pass to another section of the passage, let us not forget the grave fact that here, in these opening pages of this great Treatise on gratuitous Salvation, this Epistle which is about to unfold to us the divine paradox of the Justification of the Ungodly, we find this overwhelming emphasis laid upon "perseverance in good work." True, we are not to allow even it to confuse the grand simplicity of the Gospel, which is to be soon explained. We are not to let ourselves think, for example, that ver. 7 (Romans 2:7) depicts a man deliberately aiming through a life of merit at a quid pro quo at length in heaven; so much glory, honour, and immortality for so living as it would be sin not to live. St. Paul does not write to contradict the Parable of the Unprofitable Servant, [Luke 17:1-37] any more than to negative beforehand his own reasoning in the fourth chapter below. The case he contemplates is one only to be realised where man has cast himself, without one plea of merit, at the feet of mercy, and then rises up to a walk and work of willing loyalty, covetous of the "Well done, good and faithful," at its close, not because he is ambitious for himself, but because he is devoted to his God, and to His will. And St. Paul knows, and in due time will tell us, that for the loyalty that serves, as well as for the repentance that first submits, the man has to thank mercy, and mercy only, first, midst, and last:

"It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pitieth". [Romans 9:16] But then, none the less, he does lay this emphasis, this indescribable stress, upon the "perseverance in good work," as the actual march of the pilgrim who travels heavenward. True to the genius of Scripture, that is to the mind of its Inspirer in His utterances to man, he isolates a main truth for the time, and leaves us alone with it. Justification will come in order. But, that it may do precisely this, that it may come in order and not out of it, he bids us first consider right, wrong, judgment, and retribution, as if there were nothing else in the moral universe. He leads us to the fact of the permanence of the results of the soul’s actions. He warns us that God is eternally in earnest when He promises and when He threatens; that He will see to it that time leaves its retributive impress forever on eternity.

The whole passage, read by a soul awake to itself, and to the holiness of the Judge of men, will contribute from its every sentence something to our conviction, our repentance, our dread of self, our persuasion that somehow from the judgment we must fly to the Judge. But this is not to be unfolded yet.

It was, I believe, a precept of John Wesley’s to his evangelists, in unfolding their message, to speak first in general of the love of God to man; then, with all possible energy, and so as to search conscience to its depths, to preach the law of holiness; and then, and not till then, to uplift the glories of the Gospel of pardon, and of life. Intentionally or not, his directions follow the lines of the Epistle to the Romans.

But the Apostle has by no means done with the Jew, and his hopes of heaven by pedigree and by creed. He recurs to the impartiality of "that day," the coming final crisis of human history, ever present to his soul. He dwells now almost wholly on the impartiality of its severity, still bearing on the Pharisee’s dream that somehow the Law will be his friend, for Abraham’s and Moses’ sake.

For all who sinned (or, in English idiom, all who have sinned, all who shall have sinned) not law wise-even so, not law wise-shall perish, shall lose the soul; and all who in (or let us paraphrase, under) law have sinned, by law shall be judged, that is to say, practically, condemned, found guilty. For not law’s hearers are just in God’s court: nay, law’s doers shall be justified; for "law" is never for a moment satisfied with applause, with approbation; it demands always and inexorably obedience. For whenever (the) Nations, Nations not having law, by nature-as distinct from express precept-do the things of the Law, when they act on the principles of it, observing in any measure the eternal difference of right and wrong, these men, though not having law, are to themselves law; showing as they do-to one another, in moral intercourse-the work of the Law, that which is, as a fact, its result where it is heard, a sense of the dread claims of right, written in their hearts, present to the intuitions of their nature; while their conscience, their sense of violated right, bears concurrent witness, each conscience "concurring" with all; and while, between each other, in the interchanges of thought and discourse, their reasonings accuse, or it may be defend, their actions; now in conversation, now in treatise or philosophic dialogue. And all this makes one vast phenomenon, pregnant with lessons of accountability, and ominous of a judgment coming; in the day when God shall judge the secret things of men, even the secrets hid beneath the solemn robe of the formalist, according to my Gospel, by means of Jesus Christ, to whom the Father "hath committed all judgment, as He is the Son of Man". [John 5:27] So he closes another solemn cadence with the blessed Name. It has its special weight and fitness here; it was the name trampled by the Pharisee, yet the name of Him who was to judge him in the great day.

The main import of the paragraph is plain. It is, to enforce the fact of the accountability of the Jew and the Greek alike, from the point of view of Law. The Jew, who is primarily in the Apostle’s thought, is reminded that his possession of the Law, that is to say of the one specially revealed code not only of ritual but far more of morals, is no recommendatory privilege, but a sacred responsibility. The Gentile meanwhile is shown, in passing, but with gravest purpose, to be by no means exempted from accountability simply for his lack of a revealed perceptive code. He possesses, as man, that moral consciousness without which the revealed code itself would be futile, for it would correspond to nothing. Made in the image of God, he has the mysterious sense which sees, feels, handles moral obligation. He is aware of the fact of duty. Not living up to what he is thus aware of, he is guilty.

Implicitly, all through the passage, human failure is taught side by side with human responsibility. Such a clause as that of ver. 14 (Romans 2:14), "when they do by nature the things of the law," is certainly not to be pressed, in such a context as this, to be an assertion that pagan morality ever actually satisfied the holy tests of the eternal Judge. Read in the whole connection, it only asserts that the pagan acts as a moral being; that he knows what it is to obey, and to resist, the sense of duty. That is not to say, what we shall soon hear St. Paul so solemnly deny, that there exists anywhere a man whose correspondence of life to moral law is such that his "mouth" needs not to "be stopped," and that he is not to take his place as one of a "world guilty before God."

Stern, solemn, merciful argument! Now from this side, now from that, it approaches the conscience of man, made for God and fallen from God. It strips the veil from his gross iniquities; it lets in the sun of holiness upon his iniquities of the more religious type; it speaks in his dull ears the words judgment day, tribulation, wrath, bewilderment, perishing. But it does all this that man, convicted, may ask in earnest what he shall do with conscience and his Judge, and may discover with joy that his Judge Himself has "found a ransom," and stands Himself in act to set him free.


Verses 17-19

Chapter 7

JEWISH RESPONSIBILITY AND GUILT

Romans 2:17-29

"THE Jew, first, and also the Greek"; this has been the burthen of the Apostle’s thought thus far upon the whole. He has had the Jew for some while in his chief thought, but he has recurred again and again in passing to the Gentile. Now he faces the Pharisee explicitly and on open ground, before he passes from this long exposure of human sin to the revelation of the glorious Remedy.

But if you, you emphatically, the reader or hearer now in view, you who perhaps have excused yourself from considering your own case by this last mention of the responsibility of the non-Jewish world: if you bear the name of Jew, whether or no you possess the corresponding spiritual reality; and repose yourself upon the Law, as if the possession of that awful revelation of duty was your protection, not your sentence; and glory in God, as if He were your private property, the decoration of your national position, whereas the knowledge of Him is given you in trust for the world; and know the Will, His Will, the Will supreme; and put the touchstone to things which differ, like a casuist skilled in moral problems, schooled out of the Law, under continuous training (so the Greek present participle bids us explain) by principles and precepts which the Law supplies; - (if) you are sure that you, yourself, whoever else, are a leader of blind men, a light of those who are in the dark, an educator of the thoughtless, a teacher of beginners, possessing, in the Law, the outline, the system, of real knowledge and truth (the outline indeed, but not the power and life related to it):-if this is your estimate of your position and capacities, I turn it upon yourself. Think, and answer-You therefore, your neighbour’s teacher, do you not teach yourself? You, who proclaim, Thou shalt not steal, do you steal? You, who say, Thou shalt not commit adultery, do you commit it? You, who abominate the idols, affecting to loathe their, very neighbourhood, do you plunder temples, entering the polluted precints readily enough for purposes at least equally polluting? You who glory in the Law, as the palladium of your race, do you, by your violation of the Law, disgrace your God? "For the name of our God is, because of you, railed at among the heathen," as it stands written, in Ezekiel’s message [Ezekiel 36:20] to the ungodly Israel of the ancient Dispersion-a message true of the Dispersion of the later day.

We need not overstrain the emphasis of the Apostle’s stern invective. Not every non-Christian Jew of the first century, certainly, was an adulterer, a thief, a plunderer. When a few years later [Acts 28:17] St. Paul gathered round him the Jews of Rome, and spent a long day in discussing the prophecies with them, he appealed to them with a noble frankness which in some sense evidently expected a response in kind. But it is certain that the Jews of the Roman Dispersion bore a poor general character for truth and honour. And anywise St. Paul knew well that there is a deeply natural connection between unhallowed religious bigotry and that innermost failure of self-control which leaves man only too open to the worst temptations. Whatever feeds gross personal pride promotes a swift and deadly decay of moral fibre. Did this man pride himself on Abraham’s blood, and his own Rabbinic lore and skill, and scorn both the Gentile "sinner" and the ‘am-haaretz, "the people of the land," the rank and file of his own race? Then he was the very man to be led helpless by the Tempter. As a fact, there are maxims of the later Rabbinism, which represent beyond reasonable doubt the spirit if not the letter of the worst watchwords of "the circumcision" of St. Paul’s time: "Circumcision is equivalent to all the commandments of the Law"; "To live in Palestine is equal to the Commandments"; "He that hath his abode in Palestine is sure of life eternal." The man who could even for an hour entertain such a creed was ready (however deep below his consciousness the readiness lay) for anything-under fitting circumstances of temptation.

So it is now, very far beyond the limits of the Jewish Dispersion of our time. Now as then, and for the Christian "outwardly" as for the Jew "outwardly," there is no surer path to spiritual degeneracy than spiritual pride. What are the watchwords which have succeeded to those of the Rabbinists who encountered St. Paul? Are they words, or thoughts, of self-applause because of the historic orthodoxy of your creed? Because of the Scriptural purity of your theory of salvation? Because of the illustrious annals of your national Church, older than the nation which it has so largely welded and developed? Because of the patient courage, under contempt and exclusion, of the community which some call your denomination, your sect, but which is to you indeed your Church? Because of your loyalty to order? Because of your loyalty to liberty? Take heed! The best, corrupted, becomes inevitably the worst. In religion, there is only one altogether safe "glorying." It is-when the man can say from the soul, with open eyes, and therefore with a deeply humbled heart, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world". [Galatians 6:14] All other "glorying is not good." Be thankful for every genuine privilege. But for Christ’s sake, and for your own soul’s sake, do not, even in the inmost secret of your soul, "value yourself" upon them. It is disease, it is disaster, to do so.

And shall not we of the Christian Dispersion take home also what Ezekiel and St. Paul say about the blasphemies, the miserable railings at our God, caused by the sins of those who bear His Name? Who does not know that, in every region of heathendom, the missionary’s plea for Christ is always best listened to where the pagan, or the Mussulman, has not before his eyes the Christianity of "treaty ports," and other places where European life is to be seen lived without restraint? The stumbling block may be the drunken sailor, or the unchaste merchant, or civilian, or soldier, or traveller. Or it may be just the man who, belonging to a race reputed Christian, merely ignores the Christian’s holy Book, and Day, and House, and avoids all semblance of fellowship with his countrymen who have come to live beside him that they may preach Christ where He is not known. Or it may be the government, reputed Christian, which, amidst all its noble benefits to the vast races it holds in sway, allows them to know, to think, at least to suspect, that there are cases where it cares more for revenue than for righteousness. In all these cases the Christian Dispersion gives occasion for railing at the Christian’s God: and the reckoning will be a grave matter "in that Day."

But shall the Christians of the Christendom at home stand exempt from the charge? Ah! let us who name the blessed Name with even the least emphasis of faith, and loyalty, dwelling amongst the masses who only passively, so to speak, are Christian, who "profess nothing," though they are, or are supposed to be, baptised-let us, amidst "the world" which understands not a little of what we ought to be, and watches us so keenly, and so legitimately-let us take home this message, sent first to the old inconsistent Israel. Do we, professing godliness, show the mind of Christ in our secular intercourse? Do we, on the whole, give the average "world" cause to expect that "a Christian," as such, is a man to trust in business, in friendship? Is the conviction quietly forced upon them that a Christian’s temper, and tongue, are not as other men’s? That the Christian minister habitually lives high above self-seeking? That the Christian tradesman faithfully remembers his customers’ just interests, and is true in all his dealings? That the Christian servant, and the Christian master, are alike exceptionally mindful of each other’s rights, and facile about their own? That the Christian’s time, and his money, are to a remarkable degree applied to the good of others, for Christ’s sake? This is what the members of the Christian Society, in the inner sense of the word Christian, are expected to be in what we all understand by "the world." If they are so, God be thanked. If they are not so-who shall weigh the guilt? Who shall adequately estimate the dishonour so done to the blessed Name? And "the Day" is coming.

But he has more to say about the position of the Jew. He would not even seem to forget the greatness of the God-given privilege of Israel; and he will use that privilege once more as a cry to conscience.

For circumcision indeed profits you, if you carry law into practice; in that case circumcision is for you God’s seal upon God’s own promises to the true sons of Abraham’s blood and faith. Are you indeed a practiser of the holy Code whose summary and essence is love to God and love to man? Can you look your Lord in the face and say-not, "I have satisfied all Thy demands; pay me that Thou owest," but, "Thou knowest that I love Thee, and therefore oh how I love Thy law"? Then you are indeed a child of the covenant, through His grace; and the seal of the covenant speaks to you the certainties of its blessing. But if you are a transgressor of law, your circumcision is turned uncircumcision; the divine seal is to you nothing, for you are not the rightful holder of the deed of covenant which it seals. If therefore the uncircumcision, the Gentile world, in some individual instance, carefully keeps the ordinances of the Law, reverently remembers the love owed to God and to man, shall not his uncircumcision, the uncircumcision of the man supposed, be counted as if circumcision? Shall he not be treated as a lawful recipient of covenant blessings even though the seal upon the document of promise is, not at all by his fault, missing? And thus shall not this hereditary uncircumcision, this Gentile born and bred, fulfilling the law of love and duty, judge you, who by means of letter and circumcision are-law’s transgressor, using as you practically do use the terms, the letter, of the covenant, and the rite which is its seal, as means to violate its inmost import, and claiming, in the pride of privilege, blessings promised only to self-forgetting love? For not the (Jew) in the visible sphere is a Jew; nor is circumcision in the visible sphere, in the flesh, circumcision. No, but the Jew in the hidden sphere; and circumcision of heart, in Spirit, not letter; circumcision in the sense of a work on the soul, wrought by God’s Spirit, not in that of a legal claim supposed to rest upon a routine of prescribed observances. His praise, the praise of such a Jew, the Jew in this hidden sense, thus circumcised in heart, does not come from men, but does come from God. Men may, and very likely will, give Him anything but praise; they will not like him the better for his deep divergence from their standard, and from their spirit. But the Lord knows him, and loves him, and prepares for him His own welcome; "Well done, good and faithful."

Here is a passage, far-reaching, like the paragraphs which have gone before it. Its immediate bearing needs only brief comment, certainly brief explanation. We need do little more than wonder at the moral miracle of words like these written by one who, a few years before, was spending the whole energy of his mighty will upon the defence of ultra-Judaism. The miracle resides not only in the vastness of the man’s change of view, but in the manner of it. It is not only that he denounces Pharisaism, but he denounces it in a tone entirely free from its spirit, which he might easily have carried into the opposite camp. What he meets it with is the assertion of truths as pure and peaceable as they are eternal; the truths of the supreme and ultimate importance of the right attitude of man’s heart towards God, and of the inexorable connection between such an attitude and a life of unselfish love towards man. Here is one great instance of that large spiritual phenomenon, the transfiguration of the first followers of the Lord Jesus from what they had been to what under His risen power they became. We see in them men whose convictions and hopes have undergone an incalculable revolution; yet it is a revolution which disorders nothing. Rather, it has taken fanaticism forever out of their thoughts and purposes. It has softened their whole souls towards man, as well as drawn them into an unimagined intimacy with God. It has taught them to live above the world; yet it has brought them into the most practical and affectionate relations with every claim upon them in the world around them. "Your life is hid with Christ in God"; "Honour all men"; "He that loveth not, knoweth not God."

But the significance of this particular passage is indeed far-reaching, permanent, universal. As before, so here, the Apostle warns us (not only the Jew of that distant day) against the fatal but easy error of perverting privilege into pride, forgetting that every gift of God is "a talent" with which the man is to trade for his Lord, and for his Lord alone. But also, more explicitly here, he warns us against that subtle tendency of man’s heart to substitute, in religion, the outward for the inward, the mechanical for the spiritual, the symbol for the thing. Who can read this passage without reflections on the privileges, and on the seals of membership, of the Christian Church? Who may not take from it a warning not to put in the wrong place the sacred gifts, as sacred as they can be, because divine, of Order, and of Sacrament? Here is a great Hebrew doctor dealing with that primary Sacrament of the Elder Church of which such high and urgent things are said in the Hebrew Scriptures; a rite of which even mediaeval theologians have asserted that it was the Sacrament of the same grace as that which is the grace of Baptism now. But when he has to consider the case of one who has received the physical ordinance apart from the right attitude of soul, he speaks of the ordinance in terms which a hasty reader might think slighting. He does not slight it. He says it "profits," and he is going soon to say more to that purpose. For him it is nothing less than God’s own Seal on God’s own Word, assuring the individual, as with a literal touch divine, that all is true for him, as he claims grace in humble faith. But then he contemplates the case of one who, by no contempt but by force of circumstance, has. never received the holy seal, yet believes, and loves, and obeys. And he lays it down that the Lord of the Covenant will honour that man’s, humble claim as surely as if he brought the covenant document ready sealed in his hand. Not that even for him the seal, if it may be had, will be nothing; it will assuredly be divine still, and will be sought as God’s own gift, His seal ex post facto. But the principle remains that the ritual seal and the spiritual reality are separable; and that the greater thing, the thing of absolute and ultimate necessity between the soul and God, is the spiritual reality; and that where that is present there God accepts.

It was the temptation of Israel of old to put Circumcision in the place of faith, love, and holiness, instead of in its right place, as the divine imperial seal upon the covenant of grace, the covenant to be claimed and used by faith. It is the temptation of some Christians now to put the sacred order of the Church, and particularly its divine Sacraments, the holy Bath and the holy Meal, in the place of spiritual regeneration, and spiritual communion, rather than in their right place as divine imperial seals, on the covenant which guarantees both to faith. For us, as for our elder brethren, this paragraph of the great argument is therefore altogether to the purpose. "Faith is greater than water," says even Peter Lombard, the Magister of the mediaeval Schools. So it is. And the thought is in perfect unison with St. Paul’s principle of reasoning here. Let it be ours 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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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/romans-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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