We have seen that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The apostle now proceeds to show the need of such a revelation, and piles proof upon proof, evidence upon evidence, and scripture upon scripture to demonstrate the solemn fact that man has no righteousness of his own, but is both by nature and practice utterly unsuited to a God of infinite holiness whose throne is established on righteousness. This he does in the next section of the epistle, chap 1:18-3:20. In a masterly way he brings the whole world into court and shows that condemnation rests upon all because all have sinned. Man is guilty, hopelessly so, and can do nothing to retrieve his condition. If God has not a righteousness for him his case is ended.
In verses 18 to 32 of the first chapter the case of the barbarian is considered. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness." The first class is the pagan world. The second, those to whom a divine revelation had come. The barbarians and heathen generally are ungodly. They know not the true God and so are "without God in the world." Therefore their behavior is described as ungodliness.
On the other hand, to the Jew had been committed the knowledge of God and a divine code of righteousness. He gloried in this while walking in unrighteousness. He held the truth (as something on which he had a "corner") in unrighteousness. Against both classes the wrath of God is revealed.
The heathen are without excuse. Paganism and idolatry are not steps in human evolution as man advances from slime to divinity. Heathenism is a declension, not an upward reach. The great pagan nations once knew more than they do now. The knowledge of God brought through the flood was disseminated throughout the ancient world. Back of all the great idolatrous systems is pure monotheism. But men could not stand this intimate knowledge of God for it made them uncomfortable in their sins; so a host of lesser deities and divinities were invented as go-betweens, and eventually the knowledge of the true God was entirely lost. But even to-day creation is His constant witness: "That which may be known of God is manifest to them; for God hath showed it to them." This orderly universe with its succession of the seasons and the mathematical accuracy of the movements of the heavenly bodies bears testimony to the Divine Mind. The stars in their courses proclaim the great Creator's power:
"Forever singing as they shine,
The Hand that made us is divine."
So, "the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead." One word in the original is rendered by four words in English: "Things-that-are-made" is Poima,and from this we get our word poem. Creation is God's great epic poem, every part fitted together like the lines and verses of a majestic hymn. In Ephesians 2:10 we find the same word again. "We are His workmanship"—His poem—"created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." This is God's greatest poem: the epic of Redemption.
"'Twas great to call a world from naught;
'Twas greater to redeem."
These two wondrous poems are celebrated in Revelation 4 and 5. In chapter 4 the enthroned and crowned saints worship Christ as Creator. In chapter 5 they adore Him as Redeemer.
Pursuing Paul's argument we note in vers. 21-23 that the barbarous nations are without excuse for their present ignorance and bestial condition, "Because that when they knew God they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts and creeping things." Observe the downward steps on the toboggan-slide of idolatry—God first thought of as an idealized man, then likened to the birds that soar into the heavens, next to the beasts that prowl over the earth, and finally to serpents and other detestable creeping things, whether reptilian or insectivorous. Even the Egyptian worshipped the serpent and the scarabeus, and yet back of all Egyptian mythology is hidden the original revelation of one true and living God! What degradation does this imply on the part of one of the most enlightened nations of antiquity! And others bear similar marks of declension and deterioration.
Because men gave God up He gave them up. Twice in the verses that follow we read, "God gave them up," first to uncleanness and then to vile affections. Once we are told, "God gave them over to a reprobate mind." The vile immoralities depicted here are the natural result of turning from the Holy One. The picture of heathenism in its unspeakable obscenities is not over-drawn, as any one acquainted with the lives of idolatrous people will testify. The awful thing is that all this vileness and filthiness is being reproduced in modern high society where men and women repudiate God. If people change the truth of God into a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, the whole order of nature is violated; for apart from the fear of God there is no power known that will hold the evil desires of the natural heart in check. It is part of the very nature of things that flesh will be manifested in its worst aspects when God gives men up to follow the bent of their unholy lusts.
What a picture of mankind away from Him do we get in the closing verses. Sin and corruption are everywhere triumphant. Righteousness is not to be found when the back is turned on God. Nor are men sensitive about their sins or ashamed of their evil ways, but "knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them."
That the apostle's picture of heathenism is still true the following clipping bears witness: "A Chinese Teacher once told a missionary that the Bible could not be so ancient a book after all, because the first chapter of Romans gave an account of Chinese conduct, such as the missionary could only have written after full acquaintance with the people. The mistake was not an unnatural one, but it is a heathen's testimony to the truth of the Bible."
In the first sixteen verses of the next chapter another class is brought into view: it is the world of culture and refinement. Surely among the educated, the followers of the various philosophic systems, will be found men who lead such righteous lives that they can come into the presence of God claiming His blessing on the ground of their own goodness! Certainly there were those who professed to look with disgust and abhorrence upon the vile lewdness of the ignorant rabble, but were their private lives any holier or any cleaner than those whom they so loudly condemned?
It is now their turn to be summoned into court, so to speak, where the apostle fearlessly arraigns them before the august tribunal of "the righteous Lord, who loveth righteousness." "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things." Philosophy does not preserve its devotee from the indulgence of the flesh. A recognition of the evil is not necessarily power to overcome the evil. Culture does not cleanse the heart nor education alter the nature; and it is against the doer of evil that the judgment of God according to truth will be rendered. To praise virtue while practising vice may enable one to get by with his fellows, but it will not deceive Him who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
Sternly he asks, "Thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" Men are inclined to consider that God is condoning their ways, if "sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily," whereas He waits in long-suffering mercy that men may have opportunity to face their sins and own their guilt, thus finding mercy. Instead of doing this, after the hardness and impenitence of their hearts, men, untouched by divine grace, "treasure up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds."
What a solemn expression is this—"Treasuring up," or storing up, "wrath against the day of wrath!" How apt was the answer of the poor old colored woman who when taunted with the folly of believing in a "lake of fire and brimstone" because "no such an amount of brimstone could be found in one place," exclaimed solemnly, "Ebry-one takes his own brimstone wif' him!" Ah, that is it! Each rebel against God, each sinner against light, each violator of his own conscience, carries his own brimstone with him! He is making his own destiny.
Properly, I believe, we should consider verses 7 to 15 as parenthetical, not merely 13 to 15, as indicated in the Authorized Version. In these verses great principles of judgment are laid down which should forever silence the caviler who would charge God with unrighteousness because some have light and privileges that others do not enjoy.
Judgment will be "according to truth" and "according to deeds." Men will be judged by the light they have had, not by the light they never knew. Eternal life is offered to all who "by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honor and incorruptibility." (Observe it is not immortality, but incorruptibility. The distinction is of great importance, though the two terms are often confounded in the Authorized Version.) If any were so characterized, it would prove that there was a divine work in the soul; but where is the natural man who so lives? Well then, "unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness," there can but be meted out in the day of judgment "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil," whether privileged Jew or ignorant Gentile.
It is not that God will deal in indiscriminate judgment with all men therefore; but light given will be the standard by which they are judged. None can complain, for if one but "follow the gleam" he will find light enough to guide his steps and ensure his salvation. If, by the light of nature, men realize their responsibility to their Creator, He will make Himself responsible to give them further light unto the salvation of their souls.
With Him there is no respect of persons. The greater the privileges, the greater the responsibility. But where privileges are comparatively few, He regards ignorant men with no less interest and tender compassion than He does those whose outward circumstances are seemingly better.
"As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law." No principle could be sounder. Men are held responsible for what they know, or might know if they would. They are not condemned for ignorance unless that ignorance be the result of the wilful rejection of light. "Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil."
The parenthetical verses 13 to 15 emphasize the plain principle already laid down so forcibly. Judgment is according to deeds. To know the law and fail to obey it only increases the condemnation. Doers of the law will be justified, if such there are. But elsewhere we learn that from this standpoint all would be lost, for "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight." The Jew prided himself upon being in possession of the divine oracles and thought this made him superior to the Gentile nations round about. But God has not left Himself without witness; to these nations He has given both the light of conscience and the light of nature. They shew "the work of the law written in their hearts." Observe, it is not that the law is written in their hearts. That is new birth, and is the distinctive blessing of the New Covenant. If the law were written there they would fulfil its righteousness. But the work of the law is quite another thing. "The law worketh wrath." It is a "ministry of condemnation." And Gentile sinners who never heard of the Sinaitic code have a sense of condemnation resting upon them when they live in violation of the dictates of their divinely-implanted conscience which testifies either for or against them—"accusing or else excusing one another." This is experimental proof that they are on the ground of responsibility and that God will be righteous in judging them in that solemn day when the Man Christ Jesus will sit upon the august tribunal of the ages and manifest the secret motives and springs of conduct. This, Paul says is "according to my gospel." He declares that the Crucified will sit upon the throne at the last great assize. "God hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men in that He hath raised Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). With all that the apostle had written concerning the sinfulness and degeneracy of the Gentiles, whether barbarian or highly civilized, the Jew would be in fullest agreement. They were "dogs," outside of the Abrahamic covenant, "aliens to the commonwealth of Israel." Their judgment was just, for they were the enemies of God and His chosen people. But it was otherwise with the Hebrews. They were the elect of Jehovah, the chosen race to whom God had given His holy law and favored with abundant tokens of His special regard. So they reasoned, forgetting that holding correct doctrine does not avail if practical righteousness be overlooked or disregarded.
The apostle suddenly summons the proud worldly Sadducee and the complacent Pharisee into court, and proceeds to arraign them along with the despised Gentiles. Verses 17 to 29 give us the examination of the chosen people.
"Behold," he exclaims, "thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest His will, and approvest the things that are more excellent (or, triest things that differ; see margin), being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law" (vers. 17-20). In these masterly clauses he sums up all their pretensions. And when I say pretensions, I do not mean pretences. These were the things in which they gloried and they were largely true. God had revealed Himself to this people as to no other, but they were wrong in supposing that this exempted them from judgment if they failed to keep His covenant. He had said long before, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:3).
Privilege increases responsibility. It does not, as they seemed to think, set it aside. The knowledge of the divine oracles gave to the Jew a standard of judgment that no others had. Therefore, how much holier should be his life! Were the Israelites then a more righteous people than the nations about them? On the contrary, they failed more miserably than those of less light and fewer privileges.
Incisively the Spirit of God drives home the truth as to their actual state, in four questions calculated to expose the inmost secrets of their hearts and to lay bare the hidden sins of their lives. "Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?" You are so confident that you are fitted to instruct the ignorant, have you heeded the instruction given in the law? No answer!
"Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?" Throughout the ancient world the Jew was looked upon as the arch-thief, using every cunning device known to the money-lender and usurer to part his clients from their wealth. True, driven by desperation, the Gentile voluntarily put himself into the hand of the Jewish pawnbroker, but he knew as he did so that he was dealing with one who had no niceties of pity or compassion for an indigent debtor when the debtor was a hated Gentile dog. The Jew is again speechless.
"Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?" Lechery of the gravest kind was not an uncommon offence in Israel, as the divine records prove and as history bears witness. The evil is in the very nature of man. Out of the heart proceed fornication, lasciviousness, and every unclean thing. In this respect the Jew is as guilty as his Gentile neighbor. He has no reply.
Perhaps the keenest thrust is in the last question of all. "Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?" The word translated "commit