Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans
ROMANS, ix, 3.

" For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."

Before bidding a final adieu to this topic on which I have at such a length detained you, I may take notice of another interesting aspect which it opens to our view. You will observe that the fervency of affection professed by Paul in this passage, is all in behalf of his own countrymen; and yet none more zealous and more indefatigable than he, in the labours of a Christian missionary among the distant climes and countries of the world. What gives more importance to this remark is the tendency in our own day to place these two causes in opposition to each other - as if they were conflicting interests that could not both be befriended by the same heart, or helped forward by one and the same hand.

It might serve as a useful corrective, to look at Paul and at the one comprehensive affection which actuated his bosom - cleaving with utmost tenacity, and with all the devotedness of a thorough patriot, to the families of his own land; and yet carrying him abroad and beyond the limits of a contracted patriotism, among all the families of the earth. The truth is, that home and foreign Christianity, instead of acting upon the heart like two forces in opposite directions, draw both the same way - so that he who has been carried forward to the largest sacrifices in behalf of the one, is the readiest for like sacrifices in behalf of the other - The friends of the near being also, as they have opportunity, the most prompt and liberal in their friendship to the distant enterprise - recognising in man, wherever he is to be found, the same wandering outcast from the light and love of heaven, and the same befitting subject for the offers of a free salvation. We cannot therefore sympathise with those who affect an indifference to the Christianization of the heathen, till the work of Christianization shall have been completed at our own door. Let them be careful, lest there do not lurk within them a like indifference to both - lest the feelings and the principles of all true philanthropy lie asleep in their bosoms; and they, unlike to Paul who found room for the utmost affection towards the spiritual well-being of his own kinsfolk and the utmost activity among the aliens and idolaters of far distant lands, shall be convicted of deep insensibility to the concerns of the soul, of utter blindness to the worth of eternity.

It holds out indeed a marvellous exhibition of our nature, that, with such dread realities as the death and the judgment before us, we should be so unmoved by any fear for ourselves and by any sympathy for our fellow-men - that such should be our heedlessness or our hardihood, that we can drown every gloomy anticipation; and spend whole hours of joyous companionship with those whom yet, according to our own principles, we still deem to be in the abyss of impenitency - that we can view them as on the brink of a precipice whence they are to be engulphed in irreversible wretchedness and woe; and, without so much as a friendly whisper by which to warn them of their state, can thus while away the precious intervening moments in the jest and the song and the various other fascinations of a free and festive society - that even they who wear the semblance of a more declared and ostensible seriousness, can so lend themselves to a deep and ruinous illusion - and be the instruments of cradling into a still profounder infatuation than before, those familiars of their own who are speeding merrily onward to a hopeless and undone eternity. It is not that we are wholly destitute of feeling - for often they are the very men with whom we should not only rejoice when placed beside them at the hospitable board, but with whom we should weep in the hour of their dark and distressful visitation - stretching forth a hand of ready assistance in the midst of their difficulties, and bearing in our bosom a heart of kindest sympathy towards them. What other possible explanation can there be then for a phenomenon so glaring, than that we are destitute of faith? - and did the Saviour now descend to the judgment amongst us, and did the sound of the last trumpet bring the world to a pause, we fear, we fear that, even in this age of goodly profession and of gathering respect for the forms and the doctrines of godliness, there might be room for the question which Christ put to His disciples, "Verily, verily, when the Son of man cometh shall he find faith upon the earth ?"

We now come to a less important matter - the difficulty which occurs in the third verse of this chapter, where Paul says that he could wish himself accursed from Christ for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh. Before however attempting our solution of it, on which by the way we lay no great stress, let us premise one observation on the subject of those occasional puzzles in Scripture, which have often exercised and sometimes even baffled all the ingenuities of criticism. We are aware of the objection that has been founded on them, as if they threw an air of hopeless and impracticable mystery over the pages of inspiration - as if they were utterly at variance with the character which the Bible assumes, and which infidels say it should better have supported, of being a light unto our feet and a lamp unto our path - as if they darkened that road to heaven, of which it is written that a wayfaring man though a fool should not err therein - and as if they made the faith of Christians to rest on the precarious foundation of controversies that never can be settled, of hard and enigmatical sayings that never can be satisfactorily explained or clearly understood - Thus throwing a painful suspicion over the whole record of Christian doctrine; and reducing those who are carried about by every wind of new and fanciful interpretation, to the state of ever learning and yet of never coming to the knowledge of the truth.

Now it might serve to disarm this objection, did we compare the real value of that which is palpable with that which is hidden or obscure in the passage before us. Grant that this imprecation of Paul upon himself does resist all our attempts at explanation, and abide an unsolved mystery in our hands - shall we therefore say of the casket which holds it, that any moral or intellectual treasure it may contain is useless to us, because locked in the concealment of a disguise that is impenetrable? Whatever we may make of the terms by which he expresses his affection, is not the affection itself patent as the light of day? Can the most unlettered reader here mistake the high worth which an apostle sets upon eternity? This at least stands forth most unequivocally, along the course of these few sentences. The sense of one little clause may be under shade, but the sentiment of the whole passage is most broadly and openly manifest. The longing of the apostle’s heart after the salvation of his countrymen - the largeness of the personal surrenders that he would make to obtain it - the impressiveness of all this in the way of excitement and example to ourselves - the entire moral and practical force of the lesson which is thus held forth to us - Of these we have a most fully lucid exhibition - nor are we aware that any critical solution of the difficulty in question, would at all sensibly or materially add to the power of them. Tn other words, within the limit of these verses there is enough of revelation for the conscience, though not enough perhaps for the curiosity of the reader, The spirit of them might be caught by the very simplest of Christ’s disciples, although in the letter of them there may be a something to baffle our profoundest commentators. We have tried to expound some of the obvious instruction wherewith this passage is replete; and if there be not enough in it to satisfy the ambition of that knowledge which puffeth up, there is at least enough in it to light up in every soul the glorious inspiration of that charity which edifieth. There may lie within its confines a yet undeveloped mystery, even as there is a spot in the sun which sensibly impairs not the force or the splendour of that luminary.

And so, in the words of doubtfulness upon which we at present have alighted, there is nothing that can obscure the general character of the whole - nothing to cloud or to enfeeble the expression of its great principle; or that can in any way dim the manifestation of that Christian philanthropy, which so blazed forth in the soul of our devoted apostle, whose heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel was that they might be saved. Now we need not have stopped perhaps for the utterance of such an observation, did it not apply to the whole Bible. It cannot be denied that in this book, there are some things hard to be understood; and that the intellect of man is still kept at bay, by some of its yet unravelled difficulties. And still, notwithstanding, it may be as fit an instrument for the general illumination of our species - as the sun, with all the partial obscurations which lie scattered over its surface, is fit for being the lamp of our world. For, in truth, with all its occasional difficulties - it, in every great lesson which it concerns man to know, shines forth with most unambiguous splendour. Who, for example, can misunderstand the high power and presidency which it throughout ascribes unto God - the subordination in which it places all creatures to their glorious and sovereign Creator - the great moral characteristics of truth and consistency and awful sacredness which it everywhere assigns to Him - His deep antipathy to sin, and the sad ruin which has followed in the train of this plague and destroyer of our species?
And the grand scheme of man’s recovery; and the mission to our world of that great celestial Being who is at once its author and its finisher; and the tidings of a purchased forgiveness in His name; and the offered aids of a Spirit to begin and to perfect that repentance, without which we shall all likewise perish; and the great lessons of faith, and of charity, and of heavenly-mindedness, and of self renunciation, and of crucifixion to the world that now is, and of living in the hope of a better and lovelier world that is beyond it, and of grateful dedication to the Saviour, and of piety to God, and of peace and truth and unbounded kindness among all our fellows, and of long-suffering in the midst of provocation, and of hallowed purity not in speech or in action only but in the secret imaginations of the heart - these, whether in the shape of doctrine or of duty, are all written as with a sun-beam on the page of Revelation: And, let the occasional blots or shadings of a darker cast be what they may - these give an overruling splendour to the whole mass and assemblage of those materials whereof this book is composed. And thus again, like the glorious lamp of heaven, is this Spiritual Sun a light that may enlighten all lands. The prying telescope of the astronomer may find spots upon the one, which nevertheless casts a broad effulgence among the habitations of men. Anti the keener scrutiny of critics or commenators may lead to the view of difficulties in the other, which nevertheless escape the notice of ordinary readers, who find enough of guidance in its general illumination for the business of their souls. And many is the unlettered peasant who rejoices in the light thereof. It has translated him out of darkness; anti he feels surrounded by an element of sufficient transparency, both for the direction of his footsteps and for the irradiation of his hopes. It may not be an alto.gether unclouded luminary, yet a luminary of force and light enough for all people - providing them with a medium of noon-day through which they may walk, and casting a general brightness and beauty over the whole field of their spiritual vision.

And striking indeed is the difference in point of manifestation, between the accomplished theologian who has nothing but the light of erudition to carry him through the Bible, and that simple Christian in whose mind a light has been struck out between the doctrines of Scripture and the depositions of his own conscience - between him who can argue from Greek the doctrine of the atonement, and him who believes it to be true because he discerns it to be the very ailment that is needed by his soul - between the scholar who is convinced by his study of its proofs, and the sinner who is convinced by his feeling of its preciousness. The one sees his Bible to be true by the light of a by-gone history - the other sees it to be true by the light of a present consciousness. To him belongs a deeper scriptural wisdom than all scholarship can bestow - a wisdom grounded on his perception of the internal evidence, as made known by the adaptations of all the doctrine which is without to all the felt necessities of the spirit which is within. That is no visionary evidence which is thus evolved between his readings of the Bible and the responses of his own heart. It is as stable and satisfying, even to the eye of intellect, as the other; and is as much more impressive as the vivacity of sentiment surpasses the coldness of mere speculation.

After these general remarks I shall not take up so much of your time with the critical solutions which have been offered of the difficulty in the letter of the passage, as I have done in attempting to unfold and to impress upon you the undoubted spirit of it. We hold it to be a triumphant vindication of the Bible from the charge now adverted to - that while the letter is occasionally shaded with obscurities, which however by dint of scholarship are gradually clearing away, yet, in the whole spirit of it, all is direct and intelligible and decisive. In other words, there can be no mistake in regard to that which is really of most importance; and if, at times, the curiosity of man should be left unappeased - yet that far higher principle of our nature, even the conscience of man, is never left without the most explicit and satisfying light on all which concerns, either a Christian’s peace with God, or the regeneration of his heart and his walk before Him. Be assured, that it is not he whose curiosity is all alive to the difficulties of Scripture, while his conscience is asleep to the clear and impressive simplicities thereof - who is the most hopeful of its disciples. And I shall therefore count it enough, if you have caught the inspiration of the apostle’s ardour in behalf of human souls, and feel how incumbent it is both to long and to labour for the good of their immortality.

I accordingly do not hold it necessary, to detain you by the solutions which have been given of the difficulty in the verse that is before us. If understood in the strictly literal sense of the English into which it has been rendered, it would be startling enough - for, high and heroic as the virtue of a devoted patriotism is, we could never reconcile our feelings to a sentiment so monstrous, as that of wishing oneself to be eternally danned, were it possible to obtain by this step that others should be eternally saved. We are required to love our neighbours as ourselves, but this were loving them better than ourselves - besides involving in it somewhat like the impiety of a voluntary exile from God and enmity towards Him, and that everlastingly. The common interpretation that is given of this passage, though by no means the unanimous one, is, that the word anathema in the original, and which we read here accursed, was the technical expression applied to that sentence of excommunication by which the members of the Hebrew church were put forth of its communion, and so made outcasts from all those privileges on which the countrymen of the apostle set so high a value. He had become the member of another church that had distinct privileges of its own; and whereof the Jews would naturally imagine that Christians must have same preference, and hold them in the same sort of exclusive regard which themselves felt for the proud distinctions of their own establishment. They would think more particularly of our apostle, that, in renouncing the one, and passing over to the other, he exchanged one set of privileges for what he of course did conceive to be noblerand higher privileges still; and Paul meets this imagination by assuring them, that there is not a privilege belonging to the Christian Society as a visible church upon earth, which he would not give up most willingly if they were only to take up his place, and enter into the fellowship from which himself had been cast out.

It is not that he would give up his final salvation, but that he would give up all which was short of his final salvation - that, for example, he who made himself all things to all men if by any means he might save some, would make every lawful approximation in order to reconcile his countrymen to Christ, even though in doing so he should give such offence to all other Christians, as to bring about his own expulsion from their society. He would consent to all temporal infamy and suffering - rather than that his compatriots the Jews should persevere in their obstinate rejection of the Saviour, and incur that awful destruction which he saw to be approaching. He was addressing himself in fact to men who in a great degree were strangers to the conception of a spiritual economy, or of those its spiritual privileges which had their chief place and fulfilment in eternity. Apart from these altogether, the expression of the text had all the strength which it could possibly have to a Jewish understanding, although Paul’s imprecation upon himself was felt to extend no farther than to the loss of those present distinctions which belonged to him, while in communion with the Christian church, and as a recognised member of the Christian society. It is somewhat in this strain that commentators have attempted to vindicate this effusion of the apostle - though after all it may not be capable of full elucidation.
There might really have been a distempered extravagance in the mind of the apostle upon this subject, even as there seems to have been in Moses, when, pleading for the forgiveness of the children of Israel, he offered himself as an expiation for their sins. "Yet now if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not blot me I pray thee out of the book which thou hast written." The proposal met with rebuke and resistance in the answer that was given to it - " And the Lord said unto Moses, whosoever hath sinned against me him will I blot out of my book."

Before leaving this part of the subject, I may just take notice of an interpretation which I do think the original admits of, although not much insisted on by Scripture critics. The translation really appears more literal, when, instead of being rendered ‘I could wish,’ it is rendered that I did wish that myself were accursed or separated from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. This signification has the further advantage of being historically true. Paul at one time did for the sake of his countrymen, did, for what he conceived to be the honour and the good of his nation, embark in a most resolute opposition to Christ and to His faith, and would gladly have consented to be in a state of everlasting disunion from Him: And this it is quite pertinent to quote now, in proof of the affection which he still retained for the children of Israel. He appeals to the zeal manifested then in their behalf; and assures them that the same spirit, misdirected thought it was at a former part of his life, of fervent and devoted attachment to those of his own nation, still remained with him - although under the guidance of other views, and now directed to other objects. It is analogous to other appeals made by the apostle, when called to make his own vindication. "I have served God with all good conscience unto this day." "This I confess to thee, that so worship I the God of my fathers - believing all the things which are written in the Law and the Prophets. And then in this place, I protest that I have great heaviness of heart, for on your account, I did indeed wish myself separated from that very Christ, whom no I press upon your acceptance."

Go to Lecture 71
Go back to Romans index

Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Interests | Links | Quotes | Photo-Wallet