With regard to the excellency of this Epistle, I know not whether it would be well for me to dwell long on the subject; for I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits: besides, the Epistle itself, at its very beginning, explains itself in a much better way than can be done by any words which I can use. It will then be better for me to pass on to the Argument, or the contents of the Epistle; and it will hence appear beyond all controversy, that besides other excellencies, and those remarkable, this can with truth be said of it, and it is what can never be sufficiently appreciated — that when any one gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.
The whole Epistle is so methodical, that even its very beginning is framed according to the rules of art. As contrivance appears in many parts, which shall be noticed as we proceed, so also especially in the way in which the main argument is deduced: for having begun with the proof of his Apostleship, he then comes to the Gospel with the view of recommending it; and as this necessarily draws with it the subject of faith, he glides into that, being led by the chain of words as by the hand: and thus he enters on the main subject of the whole Epistle justification by faith; in treating which he is engaged to the end of the fifth chapter.
The subject then of these chapters may be stated thus,— man’ only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.
But as men are asleep in their sins, and flatter and delude themselves with a false notion about righteousness, so that they think not that they need the righteousness of faith, except they be cast down from all self-confidence, — and further, as they are inebriated with the sweetness of lusts, and sunk in deep self-security, so that they are not-easily roused to seek righteousness, except they are struck down by the terror of divine judgment, — the Apostle proceeds to do two things — to convince men of iniquity, and to shake off the torpor of those whom he proves guilty.
He firstcondemns all mankind from the beginning of the world for ingratitude, because they recognized not the workman in his extraordinary work: nay, when they were constrained to acknowledge him, they did not duly honor his majesty, but in their vanity profaned and dishonored it. Thus all became guilty of impiety, a wickedness more detestable than any thing else. And that he might more clearly show that all had departed from the Lord, he recounts the filthy and horrible crimes of which men everywhere became guilty: and this is a manifest proof, that they had degenerated from God, since these sins are evidences of divine wrath, which appear not except in the ungodly. And as the Jews and some of the Gentiles, while they covered their inward depravity by the veil of outward holiness, seemed to be in no way chargeable with such crimes, and hence thought themselves exempt from the common sentence of condemnation, the Apostle directs his discourse against this fictitious holiness; and as this mask before men cannot be taken away from saintlings, (sanctulis— petty saints,) he summons them to the tribunal of God, whose eyes no latent evils can escape. Having afterwards divided his subject, he places apart both the Jews and the Gentiles before the tribunal of God. He cuts off from the Gentiles the excuse which they pleaded from ignorance, because conscience was to them a law, and by this they were abundantly convicted as guilty. He chiefly urges on the Jews that from which they took their defense, even the written law; and as they were proved to have transgressed it, they could not free themselves from the charge of iniquity, and a sentence against them had already been pronounced by the mouth of God himself. He at the same time obviates any objection which might have been made by them — that the covenant of God, which was the symbol of holiness, would have been violated, if they were not to be distinguished from others. Here he first shows, that they excelled not others by the right of the covenant, for they had by their unfaithfulness departed from it: and then, that he might not derogate from the perpetuity of the divine promise, he concedes to them some privilege as arising from the covenant; but it proceeded from the mercy of God, and not from their merits. So that with regard to their own qualifications they were on a level with the Gentiles. He then proves by the authority of Scripture, that both Jews and Gentiles were all sinners; and he also slightly refers to the use of the law.
Having wholly deprived all mankind of their confidence in their own virtue and of their boast of righteousness, and laid them prostrate by the severity of God’ judgment, he returns to what he had before laid down as his subject — that we are justified by faith; and he explains what faith is, and how the righteousness of Christ is by it attained by us. To these things he adds at the end of the thirdchapter a remarkable conclusion, with the view of beating down the fierceness of human pride, that it might not dare to raise up itself against the grace of God: and lest the Jews should confine so great a favor of God to their own nation, he also by the way claims it in behalf of the Gentiles.
In the fourthchapter he reasons from example; which he adduces as being evident, and hence not liable to be cavilled at; and it is that of Abraham, who, being the father of the faithful ought to be deemed a pattern and a kind of universal example. Having then proved that he was justified by faith, the Apostle teaches us that we ought to maintain no other way of justification. And here he shows, that it follows from the rule of contraries, that the righteousness of works ceases to exist, since the righteousness of faith is introduced. And he confirms this by the declaration of David, who, by making the blessedness of man to depend on the mercy of God, takes it away from works, as they are incapable of making a man blessed. He then treats more fully what he had before shortly referred to — that the Jews had no reason to raise themselves above the Gentiles, as this felicity is equally common to them both, since Scripture declares that Abraham obtained this righteousness in an uncircumcised state: and here he takes the opportunity of adding some remarks on the use of circumcision. He afterwards subjoins, that the promise of salvation depends on God’ goodness alone: for were it to depend on the law, it could not bring peace to consciences, which it ought to confirm, nor could it attain its own fulfillment. Hence, that it may be sure and certain, we must, in embracing it, regard the truth of God alone, and not ourselves, and follow the example of Abraham, who, turning away from himself, had regard only to the power of God. At the end of the chapter, in order to make a more general application of the adduced example, he introduces several comparisons.
In the fifthchapter, after having touched on the fruit and effects of the righteousness of faith, he is almost wholly taken up with illustrations, in order to make the point clearer. For, deducing an argument from one greater, he shows how much we, who have been redeemed and reconciled to God, ought to expect from his love; which was so abundantly poured forth towards us, when we were sinners and lost, that he gave for us his only-begotten and beloved Son. He afterwards makes comparisons between sin and free righteousness, between Christ and Adam, between death and life, between the law and grace: it hence appears that our evils, however vast they are, are swallowed up by the infinite mercy of God.
He proceeds in the sixthchapter to mention the sanctification which we obtain in Christ. It is indeed natural to our flesh, as soon as it has had some slight knowledge of grace, to indulge quietly in its own vices and lusts, as though it had become free from all danger: but Paul, on the contrary, contends here, that we cannot partake of the righteousness of Christ, except we also lay hold on sanctification. He reasons from baptism, by which we are initiated into a participation of Christ, (per quem in Christi participationem initiamur;) and in it we are buried together with Christ, so that being dead in ourselves, we may through his life be raised to a newness of life. It then follows, that without regeneration no one can put on his righteousness. He hence deduces exhortations as to purity and holiness of life, which must necessarily appear in those who have been removed from the kingdom of sin to the kingdom of righteousness, the sinful indulgence of the flesh, which seeks in Christ a greater liberty in sinning, being cast aside. He makes also a brief mention of the law as being abrogated; and in the abrogation of this the New Testament shines forth eminently; for together with the remission of sins, it contains the promise of the Holy Spirit.
In the seventhchapter he enters on a full discussion on the use of the law, which he had pointed out before as it were by the finger, while he had another subject in hand: he assigns a reason why we are loosed from the law, and that is, because it serves only for condemnation. Lest, however, he should expose the law to reproach, he clears it in the strongest terms from any imputation of this kind; for he shows that through our fault it is that the law, which was given for life, turns to be an occasion of death. He also explains how sin is by it increased. He then proceeds to describe the contest between the Spirit and the flesh, which the children of God find in themselves, as long as they are surrounded by the prison of a mortal body; for they carry with them the relics of lust, by which they are continually prevented from yielding full obedience to the law.
The eighthchapter contains abundance of consolations, in order that the consciences of the faithful, having heard of the disobedience which he had before proved, or rather imperfect obedience, might not be terrified and dejected. But that the ungodly might not hence flatter themselves, he first testifies that this privilege belongs to none but to the regenerated, in whom the Spirit of God lives and prevails. He unfolds then two things — that all who are planted by the Spirit in the Lord Jesus Christ, are beyond the danger or the chance of condemnation, however burdened they may yet be with sins; and, also, that all who remain in the flesh, being without the sanctification of the Spirit, are by no means partakers of this great benefit. He afterwards explains how great is the certainty of our confidence, since the Spirit of God by his own testimony drives away all doubts and fears. He further shows, for the purpose of anticipating objections, that the certainty of eternal life cannot be intercepted or disturbed by present evils, to which we are subject in this life; but that, on the contrary, our salvation is promoted by such trials, and that the value of it, when compared with our present miseries, renders them as nothing. He confirms this by the example of Christ, who, being the first-begotten and holding the highest station in the family of God, is the pattern to which we must all be conformed. And, in the last place, as though all things were made secure, he concludes in a most exulting strain, and boldly triumphs over all the power and artifices of Satan.
But as most were much concerned on seeing the Jews, the first guardians and heirs of the covenant, rejecting Christ, for they hence concluded, that either the covenant was transferred from the posterity of Abraham, who disregarded the fulfilling of the covenant, or that he, who made no better provision for the people of Israel, was not the promised Redeemer — he meets this objection at the beginning of the ninth chapter. Having then spoken of his love towards his own nation, that he might not appear to speak from hatred, and having also duly mentioned those privileges by which they excelled others, he gently glides to the point he had in view, that is, to remove the offence, which arose from their own blindness. And he divides the children of Abraham into two classes, that he might show that not all who descended from him according to the flesh, are to be counted for seed and become partakers of the grace of the covenant; but that, on the contrary, aliens become his children, when they possess his faith. He brings forward Jacob and Esau as examples. He then refers us back here to the election of God, on which the whole matter necessarily depends. Besides, as election rests on the mercy of God alone, it is in vain to seek the cause of it in the worthiness of man. There is, on the other hand, rejection (rejectio), the justice of which is indubitable, and yet there is no higher cause for it than the will of God. Near the end of the chapter, he sets forth the calling of the Gentiles and the rejection of the Jews as proved by the predictions of the Prophets.
Having again begun, in the tenthchapter, by testifying his love towards the Jews, he declares that a vain confidence in their own works was the cause of their ruin; and lest they should pretend the law, he obviates their objection, and says, that we are even by the law itself led as it were by the hand to the righteousness of faith. He adds that this righteousness is through God’ bountiful goodness offered indiscriminately to all nations, but that it is only apprehended by those, whom the Lord through special favor illuminates. And he states, that more from the Gentiles than from the Jews would obtain this benefit, as predicted both by Moses and by Isaiah; the one having plainly prophesied of the calling of the Gentiles, and the other of the hardening of the Jews.
The question still remained, “ there not a difference between the seed of Abraham and other nations according to the covenant of God?” Proceeding to answer this question, he first reminds us, that the work of God is not to be limited to what is seen by our eyes, since the elect often escape our observation; for Elias was formerly mistaken, when he thought that religion had become wholly extinct among the Israelites, when there were still remaining seven thousand; and, further, that we must not be perplexed by the number of unbelievers, who, as we see, hate the gospel. He at length alleges, that the covenant of God continues even to the posterity of Abraham according to the flesh, but to those only whom the Lord by a free election hath predestinated. He then turns to the Gentiles, and speaks to them, lest they should become insolent on account of their adoption, and exult over the Jews as having been rejected since they excel them in nothing, except in the free favor of the Lord, which ought to make them the more humble; and that this has not wholly departed from the seed of Abraham, for the Jews were at length to be provoked to emulation by the faith of the Gentiles, so that God would gather all Israel to himself.
The threechapters which follow are admonitory, but they are various in their contents. The twelfthchapter contains general precepts on Christian life. The thirteenth, for the; most part, speaks of the authority of magistrates. We may hence undoubtedly gather that there were then some unruly persons, who thought Christian liberty could not exist without overturning the civil power. But that Paul might not appear to impose on the Church any duties but those of love, he declares that this obedience is included in what love requires. He afterwards adds those precepts, which he had before mentioned, for the guidance of our conduct. In the nextchapter he gives an exhortation, especially necessary in that age: for as there were those who through obstinate superstition insisted on the observance of Mosaic rites, and could not endure the neglect of them without being most grievously offended; so there were others, who, being convinced of their abrogation, and anxious to pull down superstition, designedly showed their contempt of such things. Both parties offended through being too intemperate; for the superstitious condemned the others as being despisers of God’ law; and the latter in their turn unreasonably ridiculed the simplicity of the former. Therefore the Apostle recommends to both a befitting moderation, deporting the one from superciliousness and insult, and the other from excessive moroseness: and he also prescribes the best way of exercising Christian liberty, by keeping within the boundaries of love and edification; and he faithfully provides for the weak, while he forbids them to do any thing in opposition to conscience.
The fifteenth chapter begins with a repetition of the general argument, as a conclusion of the whole subject — that the strong should use their strength in endeavours to confirm the weak. And as there was a perpetual discord, with regard to the Mosaic ceremonies, between the Jews and the Gentiles, he allays all emulation between them by removing the cause of contention; for he shows, that the salvation of both rested on the mercy of God alone; on which relying, they ought to lay aside all high thoughts of themselves and being thereby connected together in the hope of the same inheritance, they ought mutually to embrace one another. And being anxious, in the last place, to turn aside for the purpose of commending his own apostleship, which secured no small authority to his doctrine, he takes occasion to defend himself, and to deprecate presumption in having assumed with so much confidence the office of teacher among them. He further gives them some hope of his coming to them, which he had mentioned at the beginning, but had hitherto in vain looked for and tried to effect; and he states the reason which at that time hindered him, and that was, because the churches of Macedonia and Achaia had committed to him the care of conveying to Jerusalem those alms which they had given to relieve the wants of the faithful in that city.
The last chapter is almost entirely taken up with salutations, though scattered with some precepts worthy of all attention; and concludes with a remarkable prayer.