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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Romans 2

 

 

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Verse 1

1. Therefore—Inasmuch as, according to the above previous verse, the most depraved know their guilt.

O man—Whether Jew or Gentile, including all of mankind who impenitently claim exemption from condemnation because there lies a worse class below them.

Whosoever thou art—Whether heathen philosopher or Jewish rabbi.

That judgest— That usest thy knowledge in condemning others rather than in repenting for thyself. Wrongly doest thou assume the judgment seat rather than the criminal box.

Doest the same things—In nature if not in degree. The apostle relies upon the response of every man’s conscience for the proof of this charge. Dividing human sins into sins of unlawful love and unlawful hate, every lustful thought indulged is as truly, though not as deeply, damning as self-abuse, and every malicious purpose is of the nature, though not of the degree, of murder.


Verse 2

2. We—All intuitively agree in this, whether the extremely depraved, the moderately depraved, or the sanctified.

Is according to truth—And, therefore, is not to be turned by evasive pleas.


Verses 2-10

(b.) Moral Ruin of the Better Glasses of Heathen, Romans 2:2-10.

The apostle’s demonstration of the ruin thus far is drawn mainly from the extremes of open human debasement. It may be replied that there is a large upper moral class who condemn these extremes, and live decent and virtuous lives. In rejoinder the apostle charges that this class though better in degree is as bad in kind, and that its only hope is not in condemning the extreme vice of others, but in repentance for their own.


Verse 3

3. Judgest… thou—One of the most striking proofs of the reality of a human conscience, and of its real acuteness in breasts apparently most depraved and obtuse, is not its power of self-condemnation, but its keenness in the condemnation of others. The most reckless and unconscientious wretch will be critically and delicately sharp in analyzing and severely condemning the aberration of some good man. Paul, therefore, shows singular skill in turning the analysis of these moral critics to a keen practice upon their own cases. Shalt escape—On account of the moderate amount of thy viciousness. Doubtless a less deep penalty awaits a less deep guilt. But no degree of guilt can escape by self-excuse or self-disregard; the only outlet is by confessed ruin, human repentance, and divine mercy. To that repentance Paul did not press the abandoned dregs of chapter i as being out of hearing and perhaps hopeless; but to that repentance he now presses this class, whose great danger is a denial of their own ruin, and a consequent impenitent persistence in it. They are near enough to listen, they are delicate enough to judge, and the very work to which the apostle rightly applies himself is to reveal to them their danger.


Verse 4

4. Riches of his goodness—These men abase the goodness of God by holding that it will not condemn such goodness as they possess. Paul admits the copious affluence of God’s goodness. But that goodness is amply displayed, and will be fully exhausted, in the exercise of God’s forbearance and long-suffering with their persistent decent sinfulness.

Goodness and forbearance and long-suffering—Form a beautiful climax.

Leadeth—Not drags, but attracts. (See note on John 6:44.) Leads those who follow with willing steps.


Verse 5

5. Hardness—Unsusceptibility to divine impressions, from the fact that the conscience, though alive to others’ sins, is dead as to his own.

Treasurest—As God has a riches of goodness, so the sinner may accumulate treasures of wrath.

Day of wrath—(See note on Romans 2:16.)

Revelation—Literally, an uncovering. While the sinner is accumulating the judgment is covered, but the day will remove the concealment and disclose the reality.


Verse 6

6. Every man—Of the human race at the one day of judgment.

According to his deeds—Rightly considered all true faith is a graciously acceptable work, and all true works are acceptable acts of faith. Works not of faith are dead works and sin, and no works truly at all. In form faith and works are permanently distinct; in essence they are one. Hence the two doctrines that salvation is of faith alone, and yet that we are rewarded according to our works, are not two doctrines only but also one. Those works by which man can never be justified are faithless doings and no true works at all.

But how can faith be attributed to the heathen included by Paul in the present passage? We reply that no one can understand Paul’s idea of faith who has not well studied the eleventh chapter of his Epistle to the Hebrews. Of the illustrious ancient heroes of the faith there commemorated, perhaps not one fully understood Christ as the atoning object of saving faith. Yet they had a true faith in that of which Christ is the reality and impersonation. Faith, in its essential temper, is that elevation of soul by which it aspires to the good, the true, and the divine; and the soul who possesses it tends upward to glory, honour, and immortality, while the soul that possesses it not tends downwardly to animalism, scepticism, and eternal death. To that aspiring faith God is a sought necessity, and Christ, when rightly presented is the one supremely lovely; so lovely, indeed, that even when the aspiring but dimly seeing soul catches but a glimpse of Him it feels a divine attraction. (See our work on “The Will,” pp. 349-351.) And so at the present time of scepticism and rebuke, Christ, even to the sceptical, is a strangely fascinating problem, which they cannot banish from their thoughts. (See note Romans 4:24.)


Verse 7

7. Patient continuance in well doing—When it is said that faith or well doing will save a man, it is not meant that one act of faith or of well doing will save a man for ever. Whether it is added or not the proviso is always implied that there be no apostasy, but a patient continuance in well doing. If there be not this, then all this past righteousness goes for nothing. (Ezekiel 33:13. See our work on “The Will,” pp. 306-8.)

Glory and honour and immortality—To incite this “O man” to a holy ambition to rise from his impenitent wickedness, the apostle offers these three divine prizes, of which the earthly correspondent objects are but vain shadows.

Glory—The divine splendour in the heavenly abode in which the blessed resident is surrounded.

Honour—The plaudit “well done,” and the renown of having well fought the battle of life.

Immortality—By the two previous blessings the happy candidate is encompassed, but this third impregnates his very essence and person with endless youth, vigour, and beauty.

Eternal life—This noun is the objective of the verb render; the previous three nouns, of the verb seek.


Verse 8

8. Contentious—Who, instead of consenting to seek, (Romans 2:7,) raise factious cavils against the proposal.

Not obey the truth—Refuse to comply with the requirements of the true law of God as the result of their contentiousness.

Indignation and wrath—are rendered. These are the dispositions of the Divine mind toward them. (See note on Romans 1:18.) A period should be placed here, and Romans 2:9-10 form an independent sentence.


Verse 9

9. Tribulation and anguish—Nominatives to shall be, understood. As indignation and wrath are tempers in the Divine mind, so tribulation and anguish are the results produced in the persons of the guilty.

Jew first— Priority of offer, not superiority of reward or penalty. From this paragraph it is plain that in the system under Christ the Head men are born into a scene of probation. That is, our human system is a system of free agents upon whose will and determination it depends whether they attain eternal bliss or eternal woe.

This presupposes in man a free responsible will, with the full power in the given moral alternatives to decide either way. He decides for right with the full power of deciding for the wrong instead, and is therefore praiseworthy. Or he decides for wrong, while in possession of the power for having instead decided for right, and is therefore responsible and condemnable. If he does not possess this alternative power of choice for either way, but must choose but one sole way, (without any power of choosing otherwise,) then he is an intellectual machine, and is irresponsible; that is, unless he has flung away his power, in which case he is still responsible. Since man is not a free being, and there is no true responsible probation, unless his will is thus free, we may add that he is not free in the following cases:

1. If while God professes to hold him free in a real probation He determines and decrees beforehand which way man shall choose. There is no probation where man’s action is thus previously fixed. That probation may be a fine piece of machinery, like a panorama, or an orrery, or the solar system itself, but it is no free probationary government.

2. If such be, by the nature of things, the force of motives on the human will as to fix with absolute necessity the determinations of a man’s will, just as the springs fix the strokes of a clock-hammer, without adequate power to strike any otherwise, then man is only a spiritual and bodily machine, and is no more responsible than a clock, and there is no true probation.

3. If the will of man by its own intrinsic nature always acts by fixed laws of so called invariable certainty, precisely according to the measure of motive force, man is not a free being. True and free certainty is the will-be, the future of an event apart from any fixed law. A future event that will be is certain, whether it is certain according to a fixed law, or whether it is a free certainty apart from and without such regulative law. If the will of man is under a certainty previously and eternal, fixed by law, it is not free. If that law be that he shall act according to the precise force of motives and no otherwise, then he is not free, and there is no true probation.

In these three cases, then—namely, where either man’s actions are previously determined, decreed, or fore-ordained by Omnipotence; or where man’s actions are fixed by the necessitating force of presented motives; or where by its own intrinsic nature man’s will always acts with invariable law in accordance with force of motive—in all these three cases there is no divine government, but only a vast machinery! There is no merit, no demerit. There is no desert of reward or penalty. The judgment day is no just reality. All is fatalism. And since God’s own will is also bound by similar laws, so God is subject to the same universal eternal fatalism! Such is not the system of the New Testament.

Dr. Hodge, indeed, argues: “Surely there is such a thing as being made willing without being forced. There is a middle ground between moral suasion and coercion. God supersedes the necessity of forcing, by making us willing in the day of his power.” Our reply is: In the sinner’s act of acceptance of God’s saving grace, we promptly deny any “make-willing” on the part of God which excludes man’s power of not-willing or refusing. God demands a free acceptance. He does not make a farce of our probation by first requiring our free will-ing, and then imposing upon us a “make-willing.” The free will-ing and the “make-willing” are incompatible.

From all this it moreover follows that if man be created, or if he be born into existence, without the power (either by nature or by supernatural provision) to do right and please God, he is not responsible or justly punishable. And if through his whole existence he never had power to will good, Divine Justice can never condemn him for any evil willing.

If for the fall of Adam, or any reason whatever, the whole human race is born unable to do good, it cannot, then, be damned for not doing good. To select or elect a part from this incapable whole, and oblige it to do good by power, is to make machines of that part. To leave the rest in incapacity for good, and then reprobate, that is, damn them for their evil, would be an infinite injustice, which it is an awful thing to charge upon a righteous God.


Verse 11

11. Respect of persons—When a judge on the bench decides not according to the strict merits of the case, but with an eye to the rank or other quality of one of the parties, he shows respect not to justice but to the person. Under God as judge there is no such injustice. The strict demerit of sin and merit of holiness guide the decision.


Verses 11-17

(c.) The cause of heathen considered as fulfilling the law, Romans 2:11-17.

The apostle now proceeds to show more fully that the awards of happiness or punishment described in Romans 2:5-10 are as truly available for heathen as for Jew. Blessedness may be attained by either in his own dispensation, whether of the law written on the tables of stone or by the law written on the heart.


Verse 12

12. For—Paul shows this strict impartiality of God in dealing with Gentile as with Jew. In the present verse he declares that unrepented sin, whether without or with the written law, equally incurs perdition.


Verse 13

13. Hearers of the law—No possessing, or hearing, or learning the law avails to the Jew without obedience to it.


Verse 14

14. By nature—By natural conscience. Yet even in heathen dispensations nature is not alone and unaided. Paul’s own doctrine is, that the glorious headship of Christ is as wide as the inglorious headship of Adam. Through a universal though unknown Saviour is dispensed a universal Spirit, a universal drawing of the Father. Do…

things… in the law—The apostle does not affirm but assume the fact that the law is sometimes truly fulfilled by the Gentiles.

A law unto themselves—They are their own regulators. That law may not perfectly coincide with the written law nor with the absolute law; but it is a law to them, and available in their behalf. Nor under a heathen dispensation any more than under a Jewish, must an obedience be absolute in order to be accepted. As we have shown above, there may be a virtual Christian faith and acceptance where there is no known Christ—a faith that secures pardon for shortcomings in keeping the law. Aristotle is quoted by Wetstein as saying (Nic. Romans 4:14) that the enlightened man will “so carry himself as being a law unto himself.” Another Greek writer says: “So will I be a law to the multitude, not the majority to me.” Philo says of Moses that he was “a living and rational law.” (Notes on Luke 12:47-48; Luke 12:57.)


Verse 15

15. Work of the law… hearts—The work of the law may mean either the practice which the law enjoins, or the operation of the law itself. The former makes the clearer sense. The work of the law is the deed or duty marked out by the law. The written law or decalogue is mostly prohibitory; the unwritten law of the heart is positive, enjoining a course and a work. The heart is, as it were, a tablet; and as the non-work was written on the tablet of stone, so the positive work is written on the tablet of the heart.

In the human consciousness a just philosophy finds a standard of right and wrong, a moral sense, which affirms the right and disaffirms its opposite.

Their conscience also—Three elements are found here in man’s moral nature: First, a law written on the heart, that is, the natural sense, idea, standard, or rule of right and wrong. Second, the conscience, bearing witness; that is, the moral consciousness testifying whether our volitions or actions, or even our emotions and mental states, agree or disagree with this standard or rule. Third, the accusations, excusations, or commendations, moral judgment, pronouncing the subject condemnable or otherwise. These three elements are at the present day usually comprehended under the complex term conscience.

By the English translation the thoughts are made to accuse or excuse one another; that is, thoughts to accuse thoughts. And this makes the better sense. The moral thought does accuse the wicked thought, feeling, or volition. But commentators generally understand it of thoughts accusing the men themselves.

The existence and power of this conscience is often beautifully and forcibly attested by later classic writers. The Greek historian Polybius says: “No witness is so fearful, no accuser is so terrible, as the conscience dwelling in every individual soul.” The Roman poet Juvenal says: “Do you expect those to escape whom the mind, conscious of direful crime, holds confounded? By night and by day they carry the witness within their own breasts.”


Verse 16

16. In the day—The parenthesis including Romans 2:13-15, and so connecting this verse with Romans 2:12, makes the sense clear. But it is the whole doctrine of retribution (6-15) which is to be consummated in that day.

Secrets of men—All the hidden thoughts, words, and deeds which constitute their moral history and character. Wickedness can be concealed in the breast, or in the darkness; but the dread day of Christ will uncover it.


Verse 17

17. Behold—This is a spirited and direct address, as is the first appeal to the moralized Gentile in Romans 2:1. But the best authorities decide that the true reading is, “But if than art called a Jew.” The consequent corresponding to this if is nowhere affirmatively stated, but is conveyed in the necessary reply of the questions following.

Restest in—Reposest or reliest upon.

Boast of God—The very word Jew had assumed a religious signification, implying a believer in the one Supreme God, a monotheist in noble distinction from the polytheists. To his own view it was a divine appellation.


Verses 17-20

2. Condition of the Jewish Race, Romans 2:17 to Romans 3:20.

The case of the Jew (17-24) with the written law is essentially parallel with that of the Gentile with the unwritten law, 12-15. Yet the apostle treats with a more careful deference. By a series of interrogations, more delicate yet more forcible than affirmations, he exhibits the wide discrepancies between their boasting of the law and their persistent breaking it. Gradually and carefully he approaches the conclusion that the case of the Jew is no better at best than that of the Gentile.


Verses 17-29

(a.) The Jew, under the law, breaking the law, Romans 2:17-29.

With great skill the apostle prefaces his attack by calling over the roll of the Jew’s titles to honour, 17-20; but he exalts him only to plunge him down more deeply, 21-24.


Verse 18

18. Approvest… more excellent—That is, after due testing thou decidest the true superiority.


Verse 19

19. Guide—As a Jew.

Of the blind—Of the blind pagans to a seeing of the true God.

A light—As the Messiah was to be a light to the Gentiles.


Verse 20

20. Babes—The neophytes and fresh novices in divine truth.

The form— An outline figure or form. Sometimes it is opposed to the reality; but here it means the true form of doctrine in opposition to the false.


Verse 21

21. Steal—Thefts, robberies, and murders were the order of the day at the time of Paul’s writing.


Verses 21-23

21-23. As if the representatives of the Jewish race were before him, the apostle questions them touching the conformity of their practice to their pretences. To sustain their case as needing no Saviour their conformity must be perfect. But is it so? Theft, adultery, and sacrilege are fearlessly imputed to their race.


Verse 22

22. Commit adultery—The most celebrated rabbies, such as R. Akiba, Meir, Eleasar, and others, are accused in the Talmud of adultery.

Commit sacrilege—Literally, pillage temples. But as the Jews had but one temple, and their reverence for that was most profound, some difficulty has been felt how to make the charge good. Yet as the temple was frequently enriched with the most splendid gifts of wealthy devotees, such a crime might have been many times committed without being recorded in history. Grotius in fact mentions the notable embezzlement of a large sum of money belonging to the temple by four Jews just before Paul’s writing this epistle.


Verse 23

23. Dishonourest thou God—This verse embraces the sum total of all the previous questions as well as of all similar ones that they justly suggest. The entire charge is, that the Jew dishonours God, by breaking the law entrusted to him by God; whereas it was his true mission by a beautiful obedience to spread the glory of God abroad through the earth.


Verse 24

24. God is blasphemed—So that the people who were selected as God’s peculiar people to spread the honour of his name had reversed their mission and spread its dishonour.

As it is written—Unwelcome charges the apostle in self-defence clothes in Scripture language, language which, though not intended for the present case, is capable of such application.

His mind seems to have blended the thought of Ezekiel 36:22, with the phraseology of Isaiah 52:5.

In approaching his offensive conclusion Paul takes great care not to disparage the divine ritual, nor lower the divine mission of Israel. But he avails himself of the very superiority of the ritual and the mission to show the failure of the race.


Verse 25

25. For—What the connexion indicated by the for is not immediately clear; but it doubtless refers to an intermediate thought which the apostle knows from experience to be in the mind of the Jew. In bar to the charges of 21-24, you Jews cannot plead your circumcision, for—

Made uncircumcision—The popular creed was, None circumcised are damned. Yet the more spiritual doctors, indignant at the thought that the outrages of many of their race should be supposable cancelled by the mere rite, taught a better doctrine. Thus one writer makes the Almighty say to the Jews, “It is the proselytes who are the circumcised, you are uncircumcised.” Again, R. Beuchias said, “Let not heretics, apostates, and the impious of Israel say, ‘Since we are circumcised we shall not go down to hell.’ For God will send his angel and restore their foreskins, so that they may go down to hell uncircumcised.”


Verse 26

26. Therefore—At this verse the apostle has succeeded in placing the pious Gentile on a level with the pious Jew. In the next verse he is made the superior of the defective Jew.


Verse 27

27. By the letter and circumcisionBy here has the force of in possession of. The letter is the law. Possessing the law and circumcision the Jew is still a transgressor.


Verse 28

28. Not a Jew… outwardly—A universal condemnation upon those, Christian or Jew, who make an idolatry of ritualism.


Verse 29

29. Of the heart—Circumcision is a symbol of purification. It shadows the cutting and severing all sensuality from the spiritual man. Hence even the Old Testament speaks of a circumcision of the heart, Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4. Purification, indicated in the Old Testament under the severe rite of cutting off, is signified in the New by the gentle rite of baptism.

A Jewish writer soon after the Christian era says: “The Christian taunts us, saying, ‘Your women not being circumcised, are Gentiles.’ But they are ignorant that faith lies not in circumcision, but in the heart. Whoever rightly believes not, circumcision cannot make a Jew; whoso rightly believes, uncircumcision does not prevent from being Jew.” Perhaps this Rabbi had read St. Paul to advantage. One of the tracts of the Talmud says, “The Jew sits in the interior of the heart.”

Not of men—Who set great estimate on material matters.

Of God—Who is himself Spirit, and looks for purity in the finite spirit.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Romans 2:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/romans-2.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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