Thomas Chalmers - Romans Lectures

Lecture Nine

ROMANS, iii, 1 - 9.
"What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God with-out effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged. But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man) God forbid: for then how shall God judge For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? and not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may Come? whose damnation is just. What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin."

You will recollect that by the argument of the foregoing chapter, our apostle, after having demonstrated the universality of Gentile guilt in the sight of God, attempts the same demonstration in reference to the Jews. He proves, that, with the possession of all that which distinguished them outwardly from other nations, they might fully participate in that condemnation to which sin has rendered us all liable; and even affirms as much as may lead us to understand, that the privileges which belonged to them, when neglected and abused, were in fact so many circumstances of aggravation. It was very natural, that, at this point of his argument, he should conceive an objeetion that might arise against it, and, speaking in the person of an adversary, he proposes this objection in the form of a question from him. This question he answers in his own name. And the remonstrance of his imaginary opponent, together with his own reply to it, occupy the first and second verses of the chapter upon which we have entered. Look upon these two verses as the first step and commencement of a dialogue, that is prosecuted onwards to the 9th verse; and you have, in what we have now read, a kind of dramatic interchange of argument, going on between Paul and a hostile reasoner, whom he himself, by an act of imagination, has brought before him. This is a style of argumentation that is quite familiar in controversy. The preacher will sometimes deal with an objection, just in the very terms he would have done, if it were cast in living conversation against him, by one standing before his pulpit; and the writer, when he anticipates a resistance of the same kind to his reasoning will just step forward to encounter it, as he would have done, if an entrance were actually made against him on the lists of authorship. This is the way in which the apostle appears to be engaged in the verses before us; and if you conceive them made up of objections put by an antagonist, and replies to those questions by himself, it will help to clear your understanding of the passage now under our consideration.

You have already heard at length all the elucidation which we mean to offer, on the first question and part of the first answer of this dialogue. After the Jew had been so much assimilated in guilt to the Gentile, as he had been by the apostle in the last chapter, the objection suggests itself, where then is the advantage of having been a Jew? Where is the mighty blessedness which was spoken of by God to the patriarchs, as that which was to signalize their race above all the other descendants of all other families The reply given to this in the second verse is, that the chief advantage lay in their having committed to them the oracles of God. You will recollect the inference that we drew from this answer of the apostle - even, that though the Scriptures laid a heavier responsibility upon those who had them, than upon those who had them not; and though, in virtue of this, the many among the ancient Hebrews were rendered more criminal than they else would have been, and were therefore sunk on that account more deeply into an abyss of condemnation; and though they were only the few who by faith in these Scriptures attained to the heights of celestial blessedness and glory - yet there must have been a clear preponderance of the good that was rendered over the evil that was incurred, seeing it to be affirmed by the inspired author of this argument that there was a clear advantage upon the whole. We will not repeat the applications which we have already made of this apostolic statement, to the object of vindicating a missionary enterprise, by sending the light and education of Christianity abroad - or vindicating the efforts of diffusing more extensively than heretofore the same education at home. But be assured, that it were just as wrong to abstain from doing this which is in itself good, lest evil should come - as it were to do that which is in itself evil, that good may come. Nor, however powerfully they may have operated in retarding the best of causes, is there any thing in the objections to which we there adverted, that ought to keep back our direct and immediate entrance upon the bidden field of "Go and teach all nations" - " Go and preach the Gospel to every creature under heaven."
The apostle we conceive to be still speaking in his own- person, throughout the third and fourth verses. It is to be remarked that "some" in the original signifies a part of the whole, but not necessarily a small part of it. It may be a very great part and majority of the whole - as in that passage of the book of Hebrews, where it is said "some when they had heard did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses." The truth is, that, as far as we historically know of it, all did provoke God upon that occasion, save Joshua and Caleb, and those younger of the people who were still incapable of bearing arms. And in Timothy we read that "some shall depart from the faith" - though the apostle is there speaking of that overwhelming apostacy of the middle ages, which left so faint and feeble a remainder of light to Christendom for many centuries.

And, in like manner, were they the greater number of the Jews, who were only so in the letter, and in the outward circumcision; and were not so in spirit, or in the circumcision of the heart. They were greatly the more considerable part who did not believe; and yet, in the face of this heavy deduction from the good actually rendered to the Jews, could the apostle still stand up in the vindication of those promises which God held forth to their ancestors; of a blessing upon those who should come after them - letting us know, that, though they were the many who aggravated their own condemnation, and the few who by inheriting the privileges inherited a blessing, yet the truth of God here called the faith of God, was not unfulfilled - that whatever comes in the shape of promise or of prophecy from Him, will have its verification - that whatever be the deceitfulness of man, God.will still retain the attribute given to Him by the apostle elsewhere, even that He cannot lie. So that, should it be questioned whether the family of Israel, in consequence of God's dealing with them, had an advantage over all the other families, it will be found in the holy and faithful men of the old dispensation, few as they were; and it will be found on the great day of manifestation, when all the reverses of Jewish history from the first calling forth of Abraham to their last glorious restoration shall have been accomplished - that He will be justified in every utterance He made respecting them, and that He will overcome when He is judged of it.

"God forbid" is in the original simply " Let it not be".

In the fifth verse the apostle again brings forward his objector, and puts into his mouth an arguement. It is our unrighteousness, says he, which hath made room for God's righteousness in its place, which sets it off as it were, and renders it so worthy of acceptation; and, if this be the case, might it not be said that it is not righteous in God to inflict wrath for that which hath redounded so much to the credit and the manifestation of his own attributes. This objection is brought forward in another form in the 7th verse. If God's truth have been rendered more illustrious by my lie, or by my sin, and so He has been the more glorified in consequence - why does He find fault with me, and punish me for sins which advance eventually His honour? Should not we rather sin that God's righteousness may be exalted, and do the instrumental evil that the ultimate good may come out of it? The apostle gives two distinct answers to these questions, after giving us a passing intimation in the 5th verse, that he is not speaking in his own person as an apostle when he brings forward these objections, but only speaking as a man whom he supposes to set himself against the whole of his argument; and tells us also in the 7th verse that the maxim of doing evil that good may come, which he here supposes to be pled by an unbelieving Jew,was also charged, but slanderously charged, upon Christians. The way in which he sets aside the objection in the 5th verse is, that, if admitted, God would be deprived of His power of judging the world - and the objection in the 7th and 8th verses is set aside by the simple affirmation, that if there be any who would do evil that good may come, their condemnation is just.

Before urging these lessons any further, let us offer a paraphrase of these verses.
What is the advantage then possessed by the Jew, it will be said, or what benefit is it to him that he is of the circumcision We answer that the benefit is great many ways - and chiefly that to that people have been committed the revealed scriptures of God. And even though the greater part did not believe, yet still their unbelief puts no disparagement on the veracity of God. Though all men were liars, this would detract nothing from the glory of God's truth; and, however this objection may be pushed, it will be found in the language of the Psalmist that God will be justified in all His sayings and will overcome when He is judged. But to this it may further be said, if God do not suffer in His glory by our guilt - nay if, out of the materials of human sinfulness, He can rear a ministration by which He and all His attributes may be exalted - why should He deal in anger against those, whom He can thus turn into the instruments of His honourl The unrighteousness of man sets off the righteousness of God; and He gets glory to Himself by our doings; and is it therefore a righteous thing in Him to inflict vengeance on account of them.

Such is the sophistry of vice, but it cannot be admitted - else the judgment of God over the world is at an end. And it is further said by those who, in the language of a former chapter, have turned God's truth into a lie - that that hath made God's truth to abound the more unto His own glory - that He has so dealt with them as to bring a larger accession of glory to Himself; and where then is the evil of that which finally serves to illustrate and make brighter than before His characterl Should I be condemned a sinner, for having done that which glorifies God - might not I do the instrumental evil, for the sake of the eventual good ! Such is the morality that has been charged upon us - but falsely so charged - for it is a morality which ought to be reprobated.

In this passage the apostle touches, though but slightly and transiently, on a style of scepticism to which he afterwards adverts at greater length in the 9th chapter of this epistle; and we, in like manner, shall defer the great bulk of our observations about it, till we have arrived at the things hard to be understood which are found therein. But let us also follow the apostle, in that fainter and more temporary notice which he takes of these things on the present occasion - when before completing his proof that both Jews and Gentiles were under sin, he both affirms that God was glorified upon the former in spite of their unrighteousness; and yet deals with that unrighteousness as if it was an offence to Him - that even out of their disobedience an actual honour accrues to Himself; and yet that the vengeance of His wrath is due to that disobedience - that, let the worthlessness of man be what it may, the vindication and the victory will be God's; and yet upon this very element of worthlessness, which serves to illustrate the glories of His character, will He lay the burden of a righteous indignation. There was something in the subtlety of the Jewish doctors of that age, which stood nearly allied with the infidel meta-physics of the present; and which would attempt to darken and to overthrow all moral distinctions, and to dethrone God from that eminence, which, as the Moral Governor of the world, belongs to Him. And it is well that the apostle gives us a specimen of his treatnient of this sophistry, that, when exposed to it ourselves, we may know what is the scriptural way of meeting it, and what are the scriptural grounds on which its influence may be warded away from us.

The truth is, that, in the days of the apostle as well as in our own days, speculative difficulties vere made use of to darken and confound the clearest moral principles; and, then as well as now, did the imaginations of men travel into a region that was beyond them, whence they fetched conceits and suppositions of their own framing, for the purpose of extinguishing the light that was near and round about them. And some there were who took refuge from the conviction of sin, in the mazes of a sophistry, by which they tried to perplex both themselves and others out of the plainest intimations of conscience and common sense. There is no man of a fair and honest understanding, who, if not carried beyond his depth by the subtleties of a science falsely so called, does not yield his immediate consent, and with all the readiness he would to a first principle, to the position that God is the rightful judge of His own creatures; and that it is altogether for Him to place the authority of a law over them, and to punish their violations; and that it is an unrighteous thing in us to set our will in opposition to His will, and a righteous thing in Him to avenge Himself of this disobedience.

These are what any plain man will readily take up with, as being among the certainties of the Divine Government; and not till he bewilders himself by attempting to explain the secrecies of the Divine Government, will the impression of these certainties be at all deafened or effaced from the feelings of his moral nature. Now what the apostle appears to be employed about in this passage, is just to defend our moral nature against an invasion upon the authority of its clearest and most powerful suggestions. The antagonists against whom he here sets himself, feel themselves pursued by his allegations of their guilt; and try to make their escape from a reproachful sense of their own sinfulness; and, for this purpose, would they ambitiously lift up the endeavours of their understanding towards the more high and unsearchable counsels of God. It is very true, that, however sinfully men may conduct themselves, He will get a glory to His own attributes from all His dealings with them. It is very true, that, like as the wrath of man shall be made to praise Him, so shall the worthlessness of man be made to redound to the honour of God's truth and of God's righteousness. Should even all men be liars, the veracity of God will be the more illustrated by its contrast with this surrounding evil, and by the fulfilment upon it of all His denunciations. The holiness of the Divinity will blazen forth as it were into brighter conspicuousness, on the dark ground of human guilt and human turpitude. God manifests the dignity of His character, in His manifested abhorrence against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men. In the last day the glory of His power will be made known, when the Judge cometh in flaming fire to take vengeance on those who disobey Him; and even the very retribution which He deals forth on the heads of the rebellious, will be to Him the trophies of an awful and lofty vindication.

Now the objection reiterated in the various questions of this passage is, that if out of the unrighteousness of man, such a revenue as it were of fame and character shall accrue to the Deity - why should He be offended? Why should He inflict so much severity on the sin, which after all serves to illustrate His own sacredness, and to exalt His own majesty? Why should He lay such a weight of guilt on those, who, it would appear, are to be the instruments of His glory? Is not sin, if not a good thing in itself, at least a good thing in its consequences, when it thus serves to swell the pomp of the Eternal, and throw a brighter radiance around His ways And might not we then do this evil thing that the final and the resulting good may emerge out of it? And might not that sin, which we have been taught to shun as dishonouring to God, be therefore chosen on the very opposite principle, of doing that which will ultimately bring a reversion of honour to His character, and of credit and triumph to all His administrations?

One would have thought, that the obvious answer to all this sophistry, was, that if you take away from God the prerogative ofjudging and condemning and inflicting vengeance, you take away from Him all the ultimate glory which He ever can derive, from the sinfulness of His own creatures - that the very way in which the presence of sin sets forth the sacredness of the Deity, is by the abhorrence that He manifests towards it - that the righteousness of man commendeth the righteousness of God, only by God dealing with this unrighteousness, in the capacity of a judge and of a lawgiver - that if you strip Him of the power of punishment, you strip Him of the power of rendering such a vindication of His attributes, as will make Him venerable and holy in the eyes of His own subjects - that, in fact, there remains no possibility of God fetching any triumph to himself, from the rebelliousness of His creatures, if He cannot proceed in the work of moral government against their rebellion. And thus, if God may not find fault, and if His judicial administration of the world is to be overthrown, there will none of that glory come to Him out of human sinfulness, which the gainsayer of our text pleads in mitigation of human sinfulness.

This Paul might have said. But it is instructive to perceive, that, instead of this, he satisfies himself with simply affirming the first principles of the question. He counts it enough barely to state, that if there was anything in the reasoning of his opponent, then God's right of judging the world would be taken away. He holds this to be a full condemnation of the whole sophistry, that, if it were admitted, how then could God judge the world? With the announcement of what is plain to a man of plain understanding, does he silence an argument which can only proceed from a man of subtle understanding. And in reply to the maxim, let us do evil that good may come, he enters into no depths of jurisprudence or moral argumentation upon the subject; but simply affirms that the condemnation of all who should do so were a righteous condemnation.

It is not for us to enter on the philosophy of any subject, upon which Paul does not enter. But we may at least remark, that this treatment of his adversaries by the apostle is consonant with the soundest maxims of philosophy. We know not a better way of characterizing the spirit of that sound and humble and sober philosophy, which has conducted the human mind to its best acquisitions on the field of natural truth, than simply to say of it, that it ever prefers the certainty of experience, to the visions of a conjectural imagination - that it cautiously keeps within the line which separates the known from the unknown, and would never suffer a suspicion fetched from the latter region, to militate against a plain certainty that stands clearly and obviously before it on the former region. And when it carries its attention from natural to moral science, it never will consent to a principle of sure and authoritative guidance for the heart and conduct of man in the present time, to be subverted by any difficulty drawn from a theme so inaccessible as the unrevealed purposes of God, or from a field of contemplation so remote, as the glories which are eventually to redound to the character of God at the final winding up of His administration. It is not for man to hold at abeyance the prompt decisions of the moral sense, till he make out an adjustment between them and such endless fancies as may be conjured up from the gulphs of misty and metaphysical speculation. Both piety and philosophy lend their concurrence to the truth, that secret things belong to God, and revealed things only belong to us and to our children. He has written, not merely on the book of His revealed testimony, but He has written on the book of our own consciences the lesson, that He is rightfully the governor of the world, and that we are rightfully the subjects of that government. There is a monitor within, who, with a still and a small but neverthelees a powerful voice, tells that if we disobey Him we do wrong. There is a voice of the heart which awards to Him the place of sovereign, and to us the place of servants. If He ought not to judge, and may not impose the penalties of disobedience, this relationship is altogether dissolved. And it is too much for man to fetch, either from the aerial region that is above him, or from the dark and hidden futurity that is before him, a principle which would lay prostrate the authority of conscience, and infuse the baleful elements of darkness and distrust into its clearest intimations.
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