Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor by Patrick Fairbairn: 22. Romans 2:19, 20.

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Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor by Patrick Fairbairn: 22. Romans 2:19, 20.


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Rom_2:19-20.

‘Now we know, that whatsoever things the law saith, it speaks to them who are in the law; in order that every mouth may be stopt, and all the world become liable to punishment with God. 20. Because by works of law shall no flesh be justified before Him; for through the law is the knowledge of sin.’

We have here the more direct and immediate conclusions which the apostle draws from the evidence he had furnished—that mankind at large, Jews as well as Gentiles, are alike under sin. The later and more specific evidence adduced had reference to the Jews; for, in respect to them, proud as they were of their distinctive privileges, and conscious of their superiority to the heathen, the difficulty was greatest in carrying the conviction he was seeking to establish. In their case, therefore, he did not rest satisfied with general charges of shortcoming and transgression, but produced a series of quotations from their own Scriptures, chiefly from the Psalms, but partly also from the prophets. And then he proceeds to draw his conclusion: ‘Now we know (it is a matter on which we are all agreed), that whatsoever things the law saith (λέγει), it speaks (λαλεῖ) to them who are in the law.’ There can, be no reasonable doubt that the apostle here uses the term law as virtually comprehensive of the Old Testament Scriptures; for it is on the ground of certain passages in these Scriptures that the inferential statement is now made; and the attempts of some commentators to take the expression in a narrower sense (Ammon, Van Hengel, Wardlaw, etc.), have a strained and unnatural appearance. Yet there is no reason why we should not (as, with more or less clearness has been indicated by various expositors) regard the expression as indirectly referring also to the law in the stricter sense. For, those Scriptures were the writings of prophetical men, whose primary calling it was to expound and vindicate the law; and hence, in the declarations they set forth respecting men’s relation to the demands of law, they but served as the exponents of its testimony; virtually, it was the law itself speaking through them. Moses, in this respect, might be said to be represented by the prophets, not to stand apart from them. (See at p. 198.) Whatever, then, the law thus says concerning sin and transgression, it speaks or addresses to those who are in it; that is, who stand within its bonds and obligations. The law is regarded as the sphere within which the parties in question lived; and to these, as the parties with whom it had more immediately to do, it utters its testimony—primarily to them, though by no means exclusively; for, as there was nothing arbitrary in its requirements—as, on the contrary, they proceeded on the essential relations between God and man, the testimony admitted of a world-wide application. The argument, indeed, is here à fortiori; if the law could pronounce such charges of guilt on those who had the advantage of its light, and the privileges with which it was associated, how much more might like charges be brought against those who lived beyond its pale! Hence, the apostle makes the next part of his conclusion—the design or bearing of the law’s testimony respecting actual sin quite universal: ‘in order that every mouth may be stopt (Jew as well as Gentile, and Gentile as well as Jew), and all the world become liable to punishment with God.’ Such is the exact force of the expression used here, ὑπόδικος τῷ θεῷ; it denotes one who, on account of misdemeanours, is in an actionable state, liable to be proceeded against with a view to the infliction of deserved penalties, amenable to justice. The general idea is expressed in the epithet guilty of the authorized version, but liable to punishment is preferable, as giving more distinct expression to it; and the liability is to God (as the dative τῷ θεῷ implies); it is He who has a right to exact the penalty; though, to avoid harshness in the translation, we have put, liable to punishment with God.

The language of the apostle here has appeared somewhat too strong to some commentators; they cannot understand how it should be spoken of as the proper aim of the law in its announcements to stop every mouth, as culprits who have nothing to say for themselves in the Divine court of justice, and to bring all in as liable to punishment; therefore they would soften the form of the expression, and render, not in order that such might happen, but so that, as a matter of fact, it has come to be. But this is to impair the natural import of the original (which has the usual telic particle, ἵνα), and is also unnecessary; for, while the apostle sets forth such universal conviction of guilt and liability to punishment as the aim of the law, there is no need for understanding him to mean more than its aim under one particular aspect—not its sole aim, nor even its more immediate and primary aim as a part of Divine revelation, but still an aim in the view of the Lawgiver, and, as the result very clearly shewed, one which, so far as it remained unaccomplished, rendered the work and mission of Christ practically fruitless. Where the law failed to produce conviction of sin and a sense of deserved condemnation, there also failed the requisite preparation for the faith of Christ, and still continues to do so.

In Rom_3:20 we have the ultimate ground or reason of the law’s deliverance upon the guilt of mankind, and their desert of punishment: ‘Because by works of law shall no flesh be justified before Him; for through the law is the knowledge of sin.’ The διότι at the commencement has no other meaning in New Testament Scripture, nor elsewhere, when used as an illative particle, than because, or for this reason. In following Beza and some other authorities for the rendering therefore, our translators have the great body of the more exact interpreters against them—though they have also the support of some men of solid learning (Pareus, Rosenmüller, Schöttgen, and others). But the apostle is not here drawing a conclusion; he is grounding the conclusion he had already drawn: the law has brought in a verdict against all men, and declared them amenable to the awards of Divine justice, because by works of law shall no flesh be justified before God—not in such a way is this great boon, as a matter of fact, attainable. The same sentiment was uttered by the apostle, and almost in the same form of words, in one of his earliest discussions on the subject, and has already been considered. (See on Gal_2:16.) It is substantially, as we there remarked, a re-assertion of the Psalmist’s declaration in Psa_143:2; and it undoubtedly had respect, in its Old as well as New Testament form, to men’s obligations as made known in the revelation of law through Moses. It is of no moment, therefore, whether we put the expression simply, ‘works of law,’ as in the original, without the article, or with the article, ‘works of the law’; for the works meant must be those which are required in the law, with which the apostle’s readers were familiar, and to which, as contained in Old Testament Scripture, he had just been referring. But here, as elsewhere in his discussions on this subject, the apostle has pre-eminent respect to what had the place of pre-eminent importance in the law itself—namely, its grand summary of moral and religious obligation in the two tables. This is clearly enough proved—if any specific proof were needed—by the examples which he has already given of what he means by transgressions of the law (ch. Rom_2:21-24, Rom_3:10-18), and subsequently by the positive characteristics, both general and particular, which he connects with the law (ch. Rom_7:7, Rom_7:12, Rom_7:14, Rom_8:4, Rom_13:8-10). This is the one distinction of any moment; all others seem at once unnatural and superfluous. As so contemplated, the law had nothing in it peculiarly Jewish; it was but the varied application and embodiment of the great principle of love to God and man; and, judged by these, as every man, be he Jew or Gentile, is destined to be judged, no mortal man, we are assured, can stand the test; justification by works of law is a thing impossible. And the reason follows—‘for through the law is the knowledge of sin’ (ἐπίγνωσις, is more than γνῶσις, accurate knowledge and discernment): the disclosures it makes to those who rightly understand and conscientiously apply it, is not their possession of the perfect moral excellence which it enjoins, but a manifold cherishing and exhibition of the sin which it condemns. The standard of duty which it sets up is never by fallen man practically realized; and the more thoughtfully any one looks into the nature of its claims, and becomes acquainted with the ‘exceeding breadth’ of its requirements, the more always does the conviction force itself upon him, that righteousness belongeth not to him, but guilt, and shame, and confusion of face. What is here announced only as a general principle is elsewhere formally taken up by the apostle, and at some length expounded. (See at ch. 7:7, seq.; also Gal_3:19, seq.) But having now distinctly asserted the impossibility of obtaining justification by works of law, he goes on to shew how the grace of God has provided for its being obtained without such works, through the mediation of Christ, in behalf of all who believe on Him; and then returns to present, under other points of view, the different relations and bearings of the law.