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Romans iii. 1-20

AS the Apostle dictates, there rises before his mind a figure often seen by his eyes, the Rabbinic disputant. Keen, subtle, unscrupulous, at once eagerly in earnest yet ready to use any argument for victory, how often that adversary had crossed his path, in Syria, in Asia Minor, in Macedonia, in Achaia! He is present now to his consciousness, within the quiet house of Gaius; and his questions come thick and fast, following on this urgent appeal to his, alas, almost impenetrable conscience.

"What then is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the profit of circumcision?" "If some did not believe, what of that? Will their faithlessness cancel God's good faith?" "But if our righteousness sets off God's righteousness, would God be unjust, bringing His wrath to bear?"

We group the questions together thus, to make it the clearer that we do enter here, at this opening of the third chapter, upon a brief controversial dialogue; perhaps the almost verbatim record of many a dialogue actually spoken. The Jew, pressed hard with moral proofs of his responsibility, must often have turned thus upon his pursuer, or rather have tried thus to 79 escape from him in the subtleties of a false appeal to the faithfulness of God.

And first he meets the Apostle's stern assertion that circumcision without spiritual reality will not save. He asks, where then is the advantage of Jewish descent? What is the profit, the good, of circumcision? It is a mode of reply not unknown in discussions on Christian ordinances; "What then is the good of belonging to a historic Church at all? What do you give the divine Sacraments to do?" The Apostle answers his questioner at once; Much, in every way; first, because they were entrusted with the Oracles of God. "First," as if there were more to say in detail. Something, at least, of what is here left unsaid is said later, ix. 4, 5, where he recounts the long roll of Israel's spiritual and historical splendours; "the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law-giving, and the worship, and the promises, and the Fathers, and the Christ." Was it nothing to be bound up with things like these, in a bond made at once of blood-relationship, holy memories, and magnificent hopes? Was it nothing to be exhorted to righteousness, fidelity, and love by finding the individual life thus surrounded? But here he places "first" of even these wonderful treasures this, that Israel was "entrusted with the Oracles of God," the Utterances of God, His unique Message to man "through His prophets, in the Holy Scriptures." Yes, here was something which gave to the Jew an "advantage" without which the others would either have had no existence, or no significance. He was the trustee of Revelation. In his care was lodged the Book by which man was to live and die; through which he was to know immeasurably more about God and about himself than he could learn from all other informants put 80 together. He, his people, his Church, were the "witness and keeper of Holy Writ." And therefore to be born of Israel, and ritually entered into the covenant of Israel, was to be born into the light of revelation, and committed to the care of the witnesses and keepers of the light.

To insist upon this immense privilege is altogether to St Paul's purpose here. For it is a privilege which evidently carries an awful responsibility with it. What would be the guilt of the soul, and of the Community, to whom those Oracles were—not given as property, but entrusted—and who did not do the things they said?

Again the message passes on to the Israel of the Christian Church. "What advantage hath the Christian? What profit is there of Baptism?" "Much, in every way; first, because to the Church is entrusted the light of revelation." To be born in it, to be baptized in it, is to be born into the sunshine of revelation, and laid on the heart and care of the Community which witnesses to the genuineness of its Oracles and sees to their preservation and their spread. Great is the talent. Great is the accountability.

But the Rabbinist goes on. For if some did not believe, what of that? Will their faithlessness cancel God's good faith? These Oracles of God promise interminable glories to Israel, to Israel as a community, a body. Shall not that promise hold good for the whole mass, though some (bold euphemism for the faithless multitudes!) have rejected the Promiser? Will not the unbelieving Jew, after all, find his way to life eternal for his company's sake, for his part and lot in the covenant community? "Will God's faith," His good faith, His plighted word, be reduced 81 to empty sounds by the bad Israelite's sin? Away with the thought,2727Μὴ γένοιτο: literally, "Be it not"; "May it not be." Perhaps nothing so well represents the energy of the Greek as the "God forbid" of the Authorized Version. the Apostle answers. Any thing is more possible than that God should lie. Nay (δὲ), let God prove true, and every man prove liar; as it stands written (Psal. li. 4), "That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest overcome when Thou impleadest."2828Ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαι σε: we may render this (as in 1 Cor. vi. 1) "When Thou goest to law." The Hebrew is, literally, "When Thou judgest"; and the Septuagint Greek, used here by St Paul, probably represents this, though by a slight paraphrase. He quotes the Psalmist in that deep utterance of self-accusation, where he takes part against himself, and finds himself guilty "without one plea," and, in the loyalty of the regenerate and now awakened soul, is jealous to vindicate the justice of his condemning God. The whole Scripture contains no more impassioned, yet no more profound and deliberate, utterance of the eternal truth that God is always in the right or He would be no God at all; that it is better, and more reasonable, to doubt anything than to doubt His righteousness, whatever cloud surrounds it, and whatever lightning bursts the cloud.

But again the caviller, intent not on God's glory but on his own position, takes up the word. But if our unrighteousness exhibits, sets off, God's righteousness, if our sin gives occasion to grace to abound, if our guilt lets the generosity of God's Way of Acceptance stand out the more wonderful by contrast—what shall we say? Would God be unjust, bringing His (τὴν) wrath to bear on us, when our pardon would 82 illustrate His free grace? Would He be unjust? Would He not be unjust?

We struggle, in our paraphrase, to bring out the bearing, as it seems to us, of a passage of almost equal grammatical difficulty and argumentative subtlety. The Apostle seems to be "in a strait" between the wish to represent the caviller's thought, and the dread of one really irreverent word. He throws the man's last question into a form which, grammatically, expects a "no" when the drift of the thought would lead us up to a shocking "yes."2929Μὴ ἄδικος; where logically it would rather be οὐκ ἄδικος.—Just above, we explain "God's righteousness" to mean, as commonly in the Epistle, "God's way of acceptance," His reckoning His Righteousness to the sinner. And then at once he passes to his answer. I speak as man, man-wise; as if this question of balanced rights and wrongs were one between man and man, not between man and eternal God. Such talk, even for argument's sake, is impossible for the regenerate soul except under urgent protest. Away with the thought that He would not be righteous, in His punishment of any given sin. Since how shall God judge the world? How, on such conditions, shall we repose on the ultimate fact that He is the universal Judge? If He could not, righteously, punish a deliberate sin because pardon, under certain conditions, illustrates His glory, then He could not punish any sin at all. But He is the Judge; He does bring wrath to bear!

Now he takes up the caviller on his own ground, and goes all lengths upon it, and then flies with abhorrence from it. For if God's truth, in the matter of my lie, has abounded, has come more 83 amply out, to His glory, why am I too3030Κἀγώ: he speaks as claiming, on the caviller's principles, equal indulgence for himself. called to judgment as a sinner? And why not say, as the slander against us goes, and as some assert that we do say, "Let us do the ill that the good may come"? So they assert of us. But their doom is just,—the doom of those who would utter such a maxim, finding shelter for a lie under the throne of God.

No doubt he speaks from a bitter and frequent experience when he takes this particular case, and with a solemn irony claims exemption for himself from the liar's sentence of death. It is plain that the charge of untruth was, for some reason or another, often thrown at St Paul; we see this in the marked urgency with which, from time to time, he asserts his truthfulness; "The things which I say, behold, before God I lie not" (Gal. i. 20); "I speak the truth in Christ and lie not" (below, ix. 1). Perhaps the manifold sympathies of his heart gave innocent occasion sometimes for the charge. The man who could be "all things to all men" (1 Cor. ix. 22), taking with a genuine insight their point of view, and saying things which shewed that he took it, would be very likely to be set down by narrower minds as untruthful. And the very boldness of his teaching might give further occasion, equally innocent; as he asserted at different times, with equal emphasis, opposite sides of truth. But these somewhat subtle excuses for false witness against this great master of holy sincerity would not be necessary where genuine malice was at work. No man is so truthful that he cannot be charged with falsehood; and no charge is so likely to injure even where it only feigns to 84 strike. And of course the mighty paradox of Justification lent itself easily to the distortions, as well as to the contradictions, of sinners. "Let us do evil that good may come" no doubt represented the report which prejudice and bigotry would regularly carry away and spread after every discourse, and every argument, about free Forgiveness. It is so still: "If this is true, we may live as we like; if this is true, then the worst sinner makes the best saint." Things like this have been current sayings since Luther, since Whitefield, and till now. Later in the Epistle we shall see the unwilling evidence which such distortions bear to the nature of the maligned doctrine; but here the allusion is too passing to bring this out.

"Whose doom is just." What a witness is this to the inalienable truthfulness of the Gospel! This brief stern utterance absolutely repudiates all apology for means by end; all seeking of even the good of men by the way of saying the thing that is not. Deep and strong, almost from the first, has been the temptation to the Christian man to think otherwise, until we find whole systems of casuistry developed whose aim seems to be to go as near the edge of untruthfulness as possible, if not beyond it, in religion. But the New Testament sweeps the entire idea of the pious fraud away, with this short thunder-peal, "Their doom is just." It will hear of no holiness that leaves out truthfulness; no word, no deed, no habit, that even with the purest purpose belies the God of reality and veracity.

If we read aright Acts xxiv. 20, 21, with Acts xxiii. 6, we see St Paul himself once, under urgent pressure of circumstances, betrayed into an equivocation, and then, publicly and soon, expressing his regret of conscience. "I am a Pharisee, and a Pharisee's son; 85 about the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question." True, true in fact, but not the whole truth, not the unreserved account of his attitude towards the Pharisee. Therefore, a week later, he confesses, does he not? that in this one thing there was "evil in him, while he stood before the council." Happy the Christian, happy indeed the Christian public man, immersed in management and discussion, whose memory is as clear about truth-telling, and whose conscience is as sensitive!

What then? are we superior?3131Προεχόμεθα: "Do we make excuse for ourselves?" is a rendering for which there are clearer precedents in the use of the verb. But the context seems to us to advocate the above rendering, which is quite possible grammatically. Say not so at all (μηδαμῶς). Thus now he proceeds, taking the word finally from his supposed antagonist. Who are the "we" and with whom are "we" compared? The drift of the argument admits of two replies to this question. "We" may be "we Jews"; as if Paul placed himself in instinctive sympathy, by the side of the compatriot whose cavils he has just combated, and gathered up here into a final assertion all he has said before of the (at least) equal guilt of the Jew beside the Greek. Or "we" may be "we Christians," taken for the moment as men apart from Christ; it may be a repudiation of the thought that he has been speaking from a pedestal, or from a tribunal. As if he said, "Do not think that I, or my friends in Christ, would say to the world, Jewish or Gentile, that we are holier than you. No; we speak not from the bench, but from the bar. Apart from Him who is our peace and life, we are 'in the same condemnation.' It is exactly because we are in it that we turn and say to you, 'Do not ye fear God?'" On 86 the whole, this latter reference seems the truer to the thought and spirit of the whole context.

For we have already charged Jews and Greeks, all of them, with being under sin; with being brought under sin, as the Greek (ὑφ᾽ἁμαρτίαν) bids us more exactly render, giving us the thought that the race has fallen from a good estate into an evil; self-involved in an awful superincumbent ruin. As it stands written, that there is not even one man righteous; there is not a man who understands, not a man who seeks his (τὸν) God. All have left the road; they have turned worthless together. There is not a man who does what is good, there is not, even so many as one. A grave set open is their throat, exhaling the stench of polluted words; with their tongues they have deceived; asps' venom is under their lips;3232ὑπὸ τὰ χείλη: again the Greek (as in verse 9) gives the thought of motion to a position under. The human "aspic" is depicted as bringing its venom up to its mouth, ready there for the stroke of its fangs. (men) whose mouth is brimming with curse and bitterness. Swift are their feet to shed blood; ruin and misery for their victims are in their ways; and the way of peace they never knew. There is no such thing as fear of God before their eyes.

Here is a tesselation of Old Testament oracles. The fragments, hard and dark, come from divers quarries; from the Psalms (v. 9, x. 7, xiv. 1-3, xxxvi. 1, cxl. 3), from the Proverbs (i. 16), from Isaiah (lix. 7). All in the first instance depict and denounce classes of sins and sinners in Israelite society; and we may wonder at first sight how their evidence convicts all men everywhere, and in all time, of condemnable and fatal sin. But we need not only, in submission, own that somehow 87 it must be so, for "it stands written" here; we may see, in part, how it is so. These special charges against certain sorts of human lives stand in the same Book which levels the general charge against the human heart (Jerem. xvii. 9), that it is "deceitful above all things, hopelessly diseased," and incapable of knowing all its own corruption. The crudest surface phenomena of sin are thus never isolated from the dire underlying epidemic of the race of man. The actual evil of men shews the potential evil of man. The tiger-strokes of open wickedness shew the tiger-nature, which is always present, even where its possessor least suspects it. Circumstances infinitely vary, and among them those internal circumstances which we call special tastes and dispositions. But everywhere amidst them all is the human heart, made upright in its creation, self-wrecked into moral wrongness when it turned itself from God. That it is turned from Him, not to Him, appears when its direction is tested by the collision between His claim and its will. And in this aversion from the Holy One, who claims the whole heart, there lies at least the potency of "all unrighteousness."

Long after this, as his glorious rest drew near, St Paul wrote again of the human heart, to "his true son" Titus (iii. 3). He reminds him of the wonder of that saving grace which he so fully unfolds in this Epistle; how, "not according to our works," the "God who loveth man" had saved Titus, and saved Paul. And what had he saved them from? From a state in which they were "disobedient, deceived, the slaves of divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another." What, the loyal and laborious Titus, the chaste, the upright, the unutterably earnest Paul? Is not the picture greatly, lamentably exaggerated, 88 a burst of religious rhetoric? Adolphe Monod3333Adieux, § 1. tells us that he once thought it must be so; he felt himself quite unable to submit to the awful witness. But years moved, and he saw deeper into himself, seeing deeper into the holiness of God; and the truthfulness of that passage grew upon him. Not that its difficulties all vanished, but its truthfulness shone out; "and sure I am," he said from his death-bed, "that when this veil of flesh shall fall I shall recognize in that passage the truest portrait ever painted of my own natural heart."

Robert Browning, in a poem of terrible moral interest and power,3434Gold Hair, a Legend of Pornic. confesses that, amidst a thousand doubts and difficulties, his mind was anchored to faith in Christianity by the fact of its doctrine of Sin:

"I still, to suppose it true, for my part
See reasons and reasons; this, to begin;
'Tis the faith that launched point blank her dart
At the head of a lie; taught Original Sin,
The Corruption of Man's Heart."

Now we know that whatever things the Law says, it speaks them to those in the Law, those within its range, its dominion; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may prove guilty with regard to God. "The Law"; that is to say, here, the Old Testament Revelation. This not only contains the Mosaic and Prophetic moral code, but has it for one grand pervading object, in all its parts, to prepare man for Christ by exposing him to himself, in his shame and need. It shews him in a thousand ways that "he cannot serve the Lord" (Josh. xxiv. 19), on purpose that in that same Lord he may take refuge from both his guilt 89 and his impotency. And this it does for "those in the Law"; that is to say here, primarily, for the Race, the Church, whom it surrounded with its light of holy fire, and whom in this passage the Apostle has in his first thoughts. Yet they, surely, are not alone upon his mind. We have seen already how "the Law" is, after all, only the more full and direct enunciation of "law"; so that the Gentile as well as the Jew has to do with the light, and with the responsibility, of a knowledge of the will of God. While the chain of stern quotations we have just handled lies heaviest on Israel, it yet binds the world. It "shuts every mouth." It drags MAN in guilty before God.

"That every mouth may be stopped." Oh solemn silence, when at last it comes! The harsh or muffled voices of self-defence, of self-assertion, are hushed at length. The man, like one of old, when he saw his righteous self in the light of God, "lays his hand on his mouth" (Job xl. 4). He leaves speech to God, and learns at last to listen. What shall he hear? An eternal repudiation? An objurgation, and then a final and exterminating anathema? No, something far other, and better, and more wonderful. But there must first be silence on man's part, if it is to be heard. "Hear—and your souls shall live."

So the great argument pauses, gathered up into an utterance which at once concentrates what has gone before, and prepares us for a glorious sequel. Shut thy mouth, O man, and listen now:

Because by means of works of law there shall be justified no flesh in His presence; for by means of law comes—moral knowledge (ἐπύγνωσις) of sin.

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