I.1. Romans 1:18-32. Judgement on the Gentile World.
Before we read this passage certain points should be plain to our minds.
1. By sin St. Paul means essentially wilfulness — wilful disobedience. There is such a thing as an inheritance of moral weakness or perversity which passes to men without their fault and without their knowledge. This, the real existence of which hardly any one can deny, is what is called original sin; and later on we shall find St. Paul speaking of it. But it is not what is most properly called sin. God is absolutely equitable. 'Sin is not reckoned' as sin in His sight, apart from knowledge and will. Sin, most properly speaking, begins and ends where wilful disobedience begins and ends. St. Paul on this matter is completely at one with St. John when he makes sin and lawlessness identical as realities in the world. 'Sin is lawlessness.' And we cannot even make a beginning of advance along St. Paul's line of thought till we recognize the real existence of sin as something different in kind from ignorance or weakness or lack of development, and as an incomparably greater evil than those. Sin is the created will setting itself against the divine will. It is, as a state or an act, the refusal of God. And the recognition of the awful existence of this refusal of God is the main clue to understanding the miseries of the present world.
2. Sin therefore, involving as it does wilful disobedience, can only be spoken of as prevalent over the heathen world because, not merely one chosen race, but all men in general have had the opportunity of the knowledge of God. St. Paul indeed elsewhere modifies the general assertion of the fact which he makes in this place, by broadly recognizing that there are states of human existence which are low in their moral standard, but are rendered comparatively guiltless by the absence of moral knowledge — states of life where sin exists but is not reckoned as sin. For 'sin,' he says, 'is not reckoned' as sin where there is no enlightening law and no consequent condemnation of conscience. But in this passage, looking at humanity in general, he asserts, like the author of the Book of Wisdom or the perhaps contemporary Jewish author of the Apocalypse of Baruch, that all men have had the opportunity of knowing God from His works in nature, and that their present state is the result of a wilful refusal of Him. They are 'without excuse.' The sources of the natural knowledge of God are indeed twofold, for there is the moral conscience, individual and social, of which St. Paul speaks later; but here it is the evidence of nature alone of which St. Paul speaks: the witness of the creatures to 'the invisible things' or attributes of their creator, that is to say, to His power and (generally) His divinity.
3. Assuming then the opportunity of the knowledge of God as lying behind human records, St. Paul traces the history of sin. It had its roots in the refusal of the human will to recognize God and give Him the homage of gratitude and service due to Him. Men 'held down the truth in unrighteousness,' that is, restrained it from having free course in their hearts and in the world because of the painful moral obligations which it involves. Knowing God, they refused to acknowledge Him with thankfulness or 'give Him the glory.' Rather they would themselves 'be as gods.' They 'refused to have God in their knowledge.' Then from this root in the rebel will sin passed to the obscuring of the understanding, as is shown in the ridiculous aberrations of idolatry. 'They became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,' the nations in their worship showed themselves fools. Idolatry had long ago appeared simply ridiculous to Isaiah: he pointed the finger of scorn at the idolaters. 'They know not,' he cried, 'neither do they consider: the Lord has shut their eyes that they cannot see, and their hearts that they cannot understand. And none calls to mind, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of the wood in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree? He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart has turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?' Isaiah's language and thought had been elaborated and developed in the Book of Wisdom, and St. Paul appropriates it. To mistake creatures for the Creator, or to think of the glorious and spiritual God as if He were in the form of the corruptible body of man or beast or bird or reptile — so St. Paul alludes to the man worship of Greece and the animal worship of Egypt — is simple blindness and folly; blindness and folly in which St. Paul sees the just punishment of the rebellious will in the region of the intellect. But it has another punishment in the region of the appetites or passions. As men deliberately 'repudiated' the knowledge and obedience of God, God 'repudiated' men in penal retribution. He gave them up to become vile in their own eyes and to find out their impotence to control their own lusts. They ran riot even in all sorts of unnatural and lawless ways, so that the world became full of sins of all kinds; sins against God and sins against man; antisocial sins of all sorts, the sins which destroy the state and friendship and commerce and the home: and at the last the very ideal of righteousness had come to be lost. St. Paul, we notice, makes the lowest moral stage of all to consist, not in merely doing these wicked things, but in abandoning all distaste for them — consenting unrestrainedly to those who do them; and this profoundly true remark explains the moral impotence of much that is from other points of view excellent in Greek literature.
4. For the punishment of all this sin St. Paul is not content to look to the 'day of judgement,' though that is to be the final and characteristic expression of divine wrath, and that 'day of wrath' he still probably anticipated in the more immediate future; but he sees already in the actual world of human society as he knows it the manifold evidence of the divine wrath here and now. Men are receiving in themselves the fitting reward of their perversity. Their life has found its own punishment. The divine wrath is actually disclosed in the facts of experience. 'Look,' St. Paul seems to say, 'at the way men are living, and ask yourselves if there is any interpretation but one of the facts you see. There is but one conclusion possible. God has condemned and is showing His wrath on the human nature which He made.' Just in the same way in an earlier epistle St. Paul speaks of the Jews, even before the destruction of Jerusalem, as already judged, already the subject of the divine wrath. And God's method of judgement is this. The punishment lies in the natural consequences of the lawless actions. The wages of sin is also its fruit. And further, this punishment of sin involves the increased liability to sin again. One sin 'gives us over' to another, as one good action facilitates another. This idea was familiar to Jewish teachers. Among the 'sayings of the Fathers' we find, 'Every fulfilment of duty is rewarded by another, and every transgression is punished by another.' St. Paul, in fact, in this chapter, may be said to be concentrating for the Christian Church all that is best and deepest in the moral philosophy of Judaism.
Now we are in a position to read the first section of St. Paul's argument without perhaps finding any single idea to the interpretation of which we have not a clue.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Why God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonoured among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
For this cause God gave them up to vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due.
And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they which practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.
1. Perhaps the first question which arises in our minds when reading this passage is, whether St. Paul's general account of the heathen world is not unjustifiably severe. Does he not paint it too black? In fact, the account he gives coincides with the account given by other Jews of the Gentile world as in their experience they found it; and this, we must remember, means the Gentile world of the great cities of the empire. They thought, as they moved about the world and saw what they could not but see, that God had abandoned the Gentiles because they refused to acknowledge His law. There was sin enough in Israel, but it was remediable. The sin of the Gentiles was irremediable. God had abandoned them. This last idea is of course one entirely alien to St. Paul's mind. To him all God's judgements, at least in this world, have one intention — to awaken men to recognize the truth and to stir them to conversion, 'that he may have mercy upon all.' But otherwise St. Paul's view of the Gentile world, as he experienced it in the cities of mixed Greek and Asiatic population of the Roman Empire, and especially in the notoriously wicked Corinth where he was writing, was the ordinary Jewish view. And a contemporary Stoic philosopher, who wrote at Ephesus under the name of Heracleitus, gives a picture of society in that city fully as black.
At the same time, if we are to be fair, we must recognize that the account, while true, is not complete. The Gentile life was not without its 'salt.' There was a great deal of virtue, both domestic and philosophical, in the empire — more perhaps in the country, of which St. Paul knew little, than in the towns. And the existence of this salt he acknowledges when, in the second chapter of this epistle, he speaks of Gentiles which have no revealed law but do by nature the things of law, being a law to themselves, and having the effect of the law written in their hearts, and a witnessing conscience, individual and social, to help them: and again, when he intimates that there is an uncircumcision which puts the circumcision to shame by keeping the law. But it is not St. Paul's way to exactly correlate the different aspects of his subject as a modern writer would do. He is a prophet and preacher, not a formally systematic writer. It is enough for him that the sin which he is describing is a reality: that its tendencies are what he describes them to be: that, whatever other counter tendency there may be, sin is so dominant in the world that its results are as he represents them, and that the conscience and experience of those to whom he writes will respond to his indictment.
Nor, if we give its metaphorical meaning to 'idolatry,' is there a word which St. Paul says in this chapter which would not be true of our modern civilization in London or Paris or New York. With us indeed Christianity has been sufficiently vigorous to provide a counteracting force, of infinitely stronger power than existed in the Roman world, to resist corruption. The agencies of divine strength and recovery, the centres of health and light, are infinitely more numerous, stronger, more constant, more progressive. But the world of sin is still what it was: and always there lies upon it the same stamp of the divine condemnation. We look around on the life of our city, with its selfish and disgusting lusts, with its drunkenness, with its enervating luxury, with its selfish wealth, with its reckless and immoral gambling, with its dishonest commerce, with its grasping avarice so neglectful of the lives of those whom it makes its instruments: we look round, I say, not on the whole life, but on the sinful life of our city, and we see what human nature is plainly meant not to be, either in its characteristics or in its miserable issues. And by the interval between what we see life to be and what we know it was meant to be, we can measure the reality of the divine judgement. The facts press upon us the truth which St. Paul would teach. The sinful life is a condemned life. Here is an actual disclosure of the wrath of God upon all unrighteousness and sin.
2. But what will 'science' say to St. Paul's account of human degeneracy and degradation? Does not St. Paul seem to talk, as moralists in general have been disposed to talk, as if the course of the world's history had been a downward course? and is not this the religious view? and is it not directly opposed to the scientific view of a gradual process of development and advance? This is a very common form of question to suggest itself to our minds. And the answer to it appears to be this: — The biblical view of the world is not by any means that as a whole it has gone from bad to worse. It recognizes periods and areas of degradation, and suggests periods and areas of stagnation. And this is what anthropology and history equally suggest. But its main concern is with the history of one particular line of human advancement under divine guidance through Abraham and Moses and prophets and kings, through Christ and His Church: an advancement which is to be finally world-wide, and even more than world-wide, in its effects. Other lines of progress in civilization and knowledge the Bible recognizes but is not largely concerned with. But it is in its general effect thoroughly in accord with science, which suggests not general and equable advance over the whole region of humanity, but advance in special departments along the line of select races, continually impeded in its progress by counter tendencies, by periods and areas of degradation, and still more of stagnation. Science, indeed, utters no word of promise at all as to the ultimate result of all this evolution. It is faith, of whatsoever sort, not science, that can make us optimistic as to the issue of human history.
But no doubt the Bible does throughout postulate the existence of sin; and it claims that sin everywhere, and from the first, has been a cause of degradation in the individual and the race. Now here is the real point at issue in the relations of religion and science. The main question is not about human origins or a primaeval fall. It is simply on the comparatively easy field of actual human existence. Is human freedom — freedom within limits to choose and act — a reality? Can man therefore misuse this freedom to do what he need not have done and ought not to have done? And has he, in fact, constantly been doing morally wrong things, wilfully and knowingly, which he need not have done? Does, therefore, the area of human history present at every stage a result or product which human wilfulness and lawlessness, that is, sin, has contributed to spoil and to degrade below its natural level? Now it is this — the real existence of countless human actions which need not have been and ought not to have been — which contemporary science, with a necessitarian bias, is largely occupied in denying. Granted the reality within limits — limits which have no doubt often been grossly exaggerated, but granted the reality within due limits — of human freedom, and therefore the possibility and reality of actual sin and guilt and degradation which need not have been, I do not believe there remains any serious conflict in the moral region between religion and science. The conflict, I say, is continually being taken back into the region of original sin or the original fall. But this is a quite secondary area of debate, in which I believe there can be no serious disagreement, if there is agreement in the primary area of actual human sin. The universal moral consciousness and common sense of man bears witness to the fact that we can do and do do what we ought and need not. It recognizes, moreover, the moral truth of St. Paul's idea that this lawlessness of the will has its perverting effects on the intelligence and on the passions. The human conscience then responds to St. Paul's account of the origin and history of human sin, and of its fruits both in the individual and in society. And if psychological science is inclined to deny the very existence of any faculty of free choice such as makes sin possible, it will be found on examination to be going very far beyond what it can prove. For the reality of guilt and sin, and the degradation which results from it, we have the human consciousness; against it we have no positive evidence: nothing in fact but the habitual unwillingness of specialist science, physical or theological, to recognize its limits.
3. St. Paul finds the root of sin in the refusal of man in general to recognize God. He asserts that they might have known Him, or rather did know Him, but declined to act on that knowledge. Now it is noticeable that he does not ascribe this knowledge of God, which he declares to have been possible to man everywhere, to an original revelation, nor even in this place to the moral conscience, but to the evidence of nature. In this, as in his ridicule of idolatry, he is in accordance, not only with Jewish thought, but with contemporary Greek philosophy. The argument from design had become habitual in the schools, having been stated first of all with transparent simplicity by Xenophon in his account of the reasoning of Socrates. St. Paul then finds in this instinctive inference from nature up to nature's God, 'a testimony of the soul naturally Christian.' He is able, at Lystra and Athens, to assume that men will respond to it.
It is another question, into which St. Paul does not specifically enter, how far back in human history the appreciation of this reasoning goes. But it is worth noticing that among our contemporary investigators of the history of religion, some at least of the most acute have been coming back to what we may call a modified form of the doctrine of an original monotheism. They think that even savage religions generally bear traces, that are plainly independent, of a belief in one great and mostly good God; and that there is no evidence that this higher belief was developed out of the lower belief in manifold spirits of more ambiguous characters. They see no reason to suppose that the higher belief has been gradually arrived at within any period into which the human mind can penetrate with its investigations or its well-grounded conjectures. Humanity appears to them to have been haunted from its origins with this belief in the one God; and they regard all the higher religious movements as attempts not so much to arrive at, as to retain hold on, a belief which is continually in danger of being overlaid and forgotten. It does not appear that anthropological science is at all likely to disprove such a view which on the other hand has a great deal of evidence to justify it. At least, the evidences of deterioration in the history of religion are manifold and conspicuous. The lowest view of God and man is not by any means always the oldest. And the recognition of such facts is quite consonant with the doctrine of the evolution of religion in its more reasonable forms.
Meanwhile, every one is in sufficient harmony with St. Paul's argument who recognizes the universal facts of sin and guilt and needless moral deterioration among men; and who recognizes also that the secret of sin is the wilful refusal on men's part to know God as they might have known Him, and obey Him as they might have obeyed Him.
4. Besides these difficult questions, we should mark what is both plain and instructive, that St. Paul regards man as necessarily living either above himself or below himself. Man's true nature is to be in dependence upon God. Therein is his true liberty and dignity of sonship. When he tries to be independent, to be his own master simply, he loses the true principle of self-government and becomes the victim of his own passions. God 'gave men up,' handed them over as slaves to dishonouring passions. This theory of human nature is intimately bound up with all St. Paul's teaching about grace and redemption, and we shall hear more of it.
5. We shall do well to notice, finally, one consequence which follows from recognizing that the lowest stage of moral degradation lies, not merely in doing what is wrong, but in having ceased to disapprove of it. That is to say, the lowest moral stage carries with it a complete loss of ideal, or absence of the standard of right and wrong; and this lowest stage is anticipated before it is reached. It follows, therefore, and we must not forget it, that the actual conscience of the individual, or of the society, at any particular moment affords no adequate standard of right and wrong. The moral conscience, like the intelligence in general, requires enlightenment. It supplies no trustworthy information, except so far as we are at pains to keep it enlightened. More than this, its capacity to keep us admonished depends on our habitually observing its injunctions. To disobey conscience is to dull it, and finally to make it obdurate and insensitive. The absence of conscientious objection to a particular course of action may therefore be due either to our having neglected to enlighten our conscience or to having refused to obey it. The duty of an individual to himself is not only to obey his conscience, but also take pains to enlighten it. And the duty of the individual to society is to make continual efforts to keep the corporate conscience up to standard.
 1 John iii. 4. The Greek phrase implies exactly that all sin is lawlessness, and all lawlessness is sin.
 Rom. v. 13, 14.
 Cf. Wisd. xiii. 1-9: 'For verily all men by nature were but vain who had no perception of God, and from the good things that are seen they gained not power to know him that is, neither by giving heed to the works did they recognize the artificer.... For from the greatness of the beauty even of created things in like proportion does man form the image of their first maker.... But again even they are not to be excused. For if they had power to know so much ... how is it that they did not sooner find the Sovereign Lord of these his works?' Apoc. Bar. liv. 17, 18: 'From time to time you have rejected the understanding of the Most High. For his works have not taught you, nor has the skill of his creation which is at all times persuaded you.'
 Isa. xliv. 18-20.
 Wisd. xi. 15; xiii, xiv, xv. St. Paul's debt to the Book of Wisdom is apparent (1) in the kinds of idols he mentions; (2) in the way in which the thought of idolatry leads on to that of uncleanness and sexual immorality; and (3) in the idea of retribution by the natural law of results.
 1 Thess. ii. 16.
 Butler's Analogy, part i. ch. 2.
 Pirqé Aboth, iv. 2 (cited by S. and H.).
 S. and H. p. 49.
 He implies, as Dr. Farrar points out, 1 Cor. v. 9-10, that pure society did not exist in Corinth.
 See my Ephesians, pp. 91, 92, 255.
 Rom. ii. 13-15.
 Rom. ii. 26.
 See also app. note E on physical science and the fall.
 Cf. F. B. Jevons, Introd. to the Attention. of Religion (Methuen), pp. 394, 395: 'Everywhere it is the many who lapse: the few who hold right on. The progressive peoples of the earth are in a minority.' 'Though evolution is universal, progress is exceptional.'
 Cf. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (Romanes Lecture, 1893, Macmillan), p. 36: 'The theory of evolution encourages no millennial anticipations. If, for millions of years, our globe has taken the upward road, yet, some time, the summit will be reached, and the downward route will be commenced.'
 The allusion is to (1) Jevons (op. cit. cap. xxv), who seems to think some 'amorphous' form of monotheism may very probably lie behind totemism. He strongly repudiates the notion that the lower form is necessarily the older. (2) Andrew Lang, Making of Religion (Longmans, 1898), chaps. ix and xv. Cp. also Orr's Christian view of God and the World (Elliot, 1893), pp. 212 ff., and notes E, F, G.
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I A Practical Exposition by Charles Gore D.D. Reprinted in 1900. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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To the Romans, vol I - C. Gore
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