Consider helping today!
by Thomas Coke
GENERAL REFLECTIONS UPON SAINT PAUL'S EPISTLES.
THE Epistles of St. Paul form so important a part of the Holy Scriptures, as to be in themselves almost sufficient, under divine grace, to impart a clear and distinct knowledge of all the truths necessary to salvation, and to form our hearts to devotion. They exhibit more particularly an intimate acquaintance with the books of the Old Testament, and of the mysteries of the ancient dispensation: and the proofs drawn from that sacred source, for the confirmation and illustration of the doctrines of the Gospel, are so very numerous, and are set in so clear a light, that we cannot fail to admire the conformity of the New Testament with the Old, and fully to acknowledge the inspiration of the former, when already satisfied of the divinity of the latter. But the more grandeur and sublimity we see in the proofs and reasonings of St. Paul, the greater difficulty does the understanding sometimes find in keeping pace with him; and the profundity of these matters, great and difficult in themselves, occasions a degree of obscurity, upon a slight perusal of the Epistles of this Apostle, which however clears away by degrees, if we continue to read with attention and in a spirit of faith. This is the remark of St. Peter in his Second General Epistle: Account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction; 2 Peter 3:15; 2 Peter 3:15. It appears from the testimony of St. Peter, that he possessed a high opinion of the deep knowledge of St. Paul; and that what is hard to be understood in his Epistles arises from the nature of the subjects themselves, and not from the manner in which they are treated. Neither are these difficulties found throughout the whole of any one Epistle, so as to render it unintelligible to the understanding of any person who seeks solely for instruction and consolation: they occur only in a few places, where the subject is not susceptible of the same clearness as in all the rest: and here the profundity, rather than the obscurity, ought to humble our conceit of ourselves, and awaken our attention and zeal in the perusal of these incomparable Epistles. According to St. Peter, none but minds full of ignorance or of prejudice, or wholly given up to the world, can fail of edification in reading them. But St. Paul tells us himself, (Titus 1:15.) that unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled, and unbelieving, is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. Even those who envied him, and were jealous of the high esteem in which he was held by all the churches, and who laboured with all their might to lessen his reputation, dared not attack his Epistles, nor attempt, on any pretence of obscurity, to prevent Christians from reading them. They acknowledged them to be weighty and powerful, 2 Corinthians 10:10, two words which convey a high eulogium: the first shews that their subject is grand and important; and the second, that it is handled with a force of understanding and strength of reasoning capable, through grace, of convincing the most obsti
We have fourteen Epistles by this Apostle, including that to the Hebrews, which, though not bearing his name, is certainly his, as we shall shew when we come to that excellent piece. As it is of little importance to the edification of the church, in what order these Epistles are placed in the collection which has been made of them, much less attention has been paid to the order of time in which they were written, than to the arrangement of the subjects which they contain. (See the Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans.) Thus the Epistle to the Romans has always been placed first, on account of its excellence, which has ever caused it most justly to be regarded as one of the noblest productions of inspiration, and most useful to the church of Christ.
THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE ROMANS.
WHILE St. Paul was labouring with indefatigable application and zeal in the conversion of the people in most of the provinces of Asia, and throughout all Greece, the church at Rome became daily celebrated on account of the purity of its faith, and the progress made by the Gospel in that capital of the world. Romans 1:0. His joy at seeing the kingdom of God strengthening itself in a city which then gave laws to the whole earth, and his wish to contribute all his zeal and knowledge tothe same end, had often made St. Paul form a design of going to Rome, thence to visit all Italy, and to pass on into Spain; chap. Romans 15:23-24. But Providence having hitherto prevented him, and he being desirous to give the Romans a testimony of his apostolic zeal, he addressed to them from Corinth, about four years previous to his first imprisonment,this excellent Epistle, in which he has collected together, with the divinest art, the most profound doctrines of the Christian religion.
He treats expressly and at length of our justification before God, and of the calling of the Gentiles, as connected with the rejection of the Jews: subjects high and momentous in themselves, and which required from the Apostles every exertion to place them in a clear point of view, both to confirm Christians in their faith, and, if possible, to withdraw the Jews from their erroneous ideas on those two important points. With regard to the first, it is certain, that the Jews in general, little instructed in the intentionor end of the law, and the meaning of the prophets, knew no other means of being justified before God, than by keepingthe law of Moses. This, then, was the grand error, against which St. Paul had to contend. And, to do this with the greater effect, and at the same time in a most methodical way, he first shews that all men are sinners, and consequently under a curse; this he begins to lay down from the 17th verse of the first chapter; he then proceeds to prove, that the Gentiles are not only sinners, but deserving of God's severest judgments. After which he comes immediately to the Jews, and shews, in the second chapter, and in the third, as far as the 19th verse, that their condition in this respect is very little different from that of the Gentiles; that they are all, like them, sinners, and merit the condemnation which the very law that they have received, and in which they pride themselves, denounces against the guilty. And hence he draws this evident inference, that by the deeds of the law, or by his own righteousness, there shall no flesh be justified; chap. Rom 3:10 so that, either no man can be justified and saved, or there must be some other means of justification besides that of works, or the personal righteousness of sinful man. Now, as we cannot affirm the former position without injuring the mercy of God, and annihilating the covenant which he had made with mankind in Adam through the seed of the woman, we must conclude that God, in his word, has opened a real source of justification and salvation for the faithful. This source is, the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; chap. Romans 3:21-22. And because this righteousness is a spontaneous favour of God towards man, to which thesinner among the Jews has no more right than the sinner among the Gentiles, the Apostle proves that God has imparted it to Jews and Gentiles indifferently, and that both are justified by faith in Christ, the author and principle of that righteousness.
Herein St. Paul taught two things which gave offence to the Jews: first, that the uncircumcised Gentile was justified by the same means as the circumcised Jew; and secondly, that the Jew who was under the yoke of the law could only be justified by grace: but he clears up these difficulties in the following chapter, which is the fourth. The first he explains by the example of Abraham, whose faith was counted to him for righteousness, before he had yet received circumcision; and the second, by the express declaration of David, who makes the blessedness of man in general (and consequently of the Jews, of which he was one) to consist in the grace of God, who has provided a propitiation for their sins, which conceals them from the eyes of his justice; and St. Paul had already said, chap. Rom 3:24-25 that this propitiation set forth by God was Jesus Christ. The remainder of the chapter is employed in establishing the same truth.
The fifth chapter contains an excellent parallel between Christ and Adam, tending to shew that sin and condemnation flow from Adam unto all mankind, and that justification flows equally from Jesus Christ.
The sixth chapter replies to an objection against the doctrine of grace and justification, through faith in a Mediator: the objection is, that we have only to follow our own inclinations, and the vicious bent of our nature, without confining ourselves to practise the duties set forth in the law, since we are not to be justified by fulfilling thelaw.Thisobjectioncontainedsomethingspecious,especiallyformindsprejudiced against the Gospel, and eager to blacken it by the vilest imputations: but the Apostle defends it against this envenomed dart; and throughout this chapter he shews, that justification by faith in Christ, and the sanctification or holy life of the believer, are things inseparable.
But because the Jews had too high an opinion of themselves, and of the importance of the law, and falsely conceived that a man's righteousness was from the law, St. Paul in the seventh chapter opposes these phantoms raised by self-love, and the illusions of the Jews upon the subject of the law of Moses,by shewing throughout this chapter, and to the 16th verse of the following, that our sanctification, as well as justification, proceeds from the Lord Jesus Christ, and is wrought by the Spirit of grace. The rest of the eighth chapter, which is one of the finest and richest in all Holy Writ, is taken up indescribing the happiness and glory to which sanctification joined with justification leads; and here St. Paul concludes the explanation of the first point that he had proposed in this Epistle; which was, justification by faith.
He now comes to the second point, the rejection of the Jews, and the calling of the Gentiles into the peculiar covenant of the Messiah, chap. 9:; and, because the subject was odious to the Jews (Acts 22:22.) and since St. Paul, who was particularly and emphatically called the Apostle of the Gentiles, was supposed by the Jews not to be well-affected towards their nation, he endeavours, from the beginning of this chapter, to do away these unjust suspicions, by the strongest assurances of his zeal for that people; so far indeed, that if it would ensure their salvation, he would subject himself to a curse. But, because the error of the Jews in this matter arose, on the one hand, from an opinion which they entertained, that, as God had once honoured them by his alliance, they had thereby gained a perpetual title, an unalienable right; and on the other, that, as God had in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, Act 14:16 there was no probability that he would hereafter alter his conduct in regard to them;—St. Paul in this chapter treats generally upon election and reprobation, as they relate to nations, and to the peculiar privileges of thedifferentdispensations;shewingbytwowell-knownexamplesinthefamilieseven of the patriarchs, the first of Isaac and Ishmael, the other of Jacob and Esau, that God is free to bestow his gifts and privileges as he pleases.
Towards the end of this chapter, and in the following, he shews the Jews, that their dire misfortune arose from their pride, obstinacy, and wilful blindness in not understanding that the law was not given them fortheir justification, but that its intent was, to lead them to Jesus Christ; nevertheless, on the contrary, they had rejected him, and adhered obstinately to the law: whereas the Gentiles, having no such prejudices, received Christ when he was declared to them, and embraced his Gospel with joy.
The eleventh chapter continues to treat of the fall and rejection of the Jews; but it concludes with assurances, founded upon the oracles of the ancient prophets, that they should one day be recalled into the church.
The twelfth and following chapters are filled with serious and powerful lessons of morality, exhorting Christians to edify one another in their whole life and conduct. For it is St. Paul's method to begin his Epistles with doctrine, and to conclude them with instruction; that we may learn to hold the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, 1 Timothy 3:9.
After what has been said on the design and execution of this Epistle, it will not be difficult to comprehend in what sense we are to take the words law, faith, justification, and some others which often occur in the argument.
The law then is to be generally, though not always, taken for the Mosaic dispensation; and the works of the law are those performed in execution of God's ordinances, whether moral or ceremonial. See the Critical Notes.
Faith is a true and right knowledge of Jesus Christ, a profound sentiment of the soul, embracing him as its Saviour and Redeemer.
As for the term justification, it can be no otherwise understood, in a work treating of culprits, of a law, a tribunal, a judge, an accuser, a surety, a redemption (as these are all treated of), than in the common acceptation of the bar, of pardon, or of discharging a criminal, through special favour, from the punishment that he had merited. And hence, justification and remission of sins, are indiscriminately used in the fourth chapter as synonymous terms, meaning absolutely the same thing in this controversy; and for the same reason St. Paul, in chap. 6: distinguishes justification from sanctification, which he needed not to have done, if justification had meant the same thing as making holy.
INTRODUCTION TO THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS.
THE sum and substance of the Christian religion is contained in the history of the life and death, the doctrine and discourses of our Lord in the four Gospels. The epistolary writings of the Apostles were occasional, being intended to confirm the several churches to which they are addressed, in the rules of Gospel faith and practice wherein they had before been instructed; and are accommodated to the disputes and controversies, errors and false notions, which prevailed among them. The general method observable in these apostolical letters is, first, to discuss the particular point debated in the church, or among the persons to whom they are addressed, and which was the occasion of their being written: and in the next place to give such exhortations to every Christian duty, grace, and virtue, as would be at all times, and in every church, of necessary and absolute importance; paying a particular regard to those graces and virtues, which the disputes that occasioned the Epistle might tempt them to neglect.
The former part of these epistolary writings cannot be properly understood, but by attending carefully to the state of the question there determined: therefore, the errors and vain disputes concerning faith and works, justification and sanctification, election and reprobation, and the like, which have so much vexed and distracted the minds of Christians, have all arisen from one grand mistake, of applying to themselves, or other particular persons, now, certain phrases or passages which plainly referred to the then state and condition, not of particular persons, but of whole churches, whether of Jews or Gentiles.
Of the Epistles, fourteen are written by St. Paul, which are not placed in our Bibles according to the order of time in which they were written, but according to the precedence, or supposed rank of the churches and persons to whom they are addressed. We will here subjoin a brief chronological order, according to Michaelis and some others.
Places where written
In the Year
End of 58
It will be unnecessary to say any thing concerning St. Paul, and the proofs arising to our common Christianity from his wonderful conversion, after what has been offered in the notes on the fore-going book: to which, therefore, we refer our readers, particularly to the notes and inferences on the ninth chapter.
That St. Paul was the author of the celebrated Epistle before us, appears, first, from the inscription; secondly, from his usual salutation at the end; thirdly, from the style and matter, both which are correspondent with the rest of his writings; and fourthly, from the consent of the most early fathers, and the universal church. It was written from Corinth, when St. Paul was setting out for Jerusalem with the supplies which had been collected in Macedonia and at Corinth; that is, in the year 58, which was the fourth of the emperor Nero. Paul had never been at Rome when he wrote this letter; and therefore it cannot turn upon some particular points, to revive the remembrance of what he had more largely taught in person, or to satisfy the scrupulous in some things which he might not have touched upon at all. But we may expect a full account of his Gospel, or those glad tidings of salvation which he preached among the Gentiles, seeing this Epistle was intended to supply the total want of his preaching at Rome.
He understood perfectly well the system of religion that he taught; for he was instructed in it by the immediate revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ; (Galatians 1:11-12.Ephesians 3:3; Ephesians 3:3. 1 Corinthians 11:23.;) and being also endowed with the most eminent gifts of the Holy Spirit, and quite unbiassed by any temporal considerations, we may be sure he has given us the truth, as he received it from our Lord. On the other hand, he was also well acquainted with the sentiments and system of the religion that he opposed; for he was thoroughly skilled in Jewish literature and Jewish controversy; and therefore we may very reasonably suppose that the questions and objections, which in this Epistle he puts into the mouth of the Jew, were really such as had been advanced in opposition to his arguments. He was a great genius and a fine writer, and he seems to have exercised all his talents, as well as the most perfect Christian temper, in drawing up this Epistle. The plan of it is very extensive; and it is surprising to see what a spacious field of knowledge he has comprised, and how many various designs, arguments, explications, instructions, and exhortations he has executed in so small a compass.
This letter was sent to the world's metropolis, where it might be exposed to all sorts of persons, Heathens, Jews, Christians, philosophers, magistrates, and the emperor himself: no doubt the apostle kept this in view while he was writing, and guarded and adapted it accordingly. However, it is plain enough that the Epistle was designed to confute the unbelieving, and instruct the believing Jew; to confirm the Christian, and to convert the idolatrous Gentile. These several designs St. Paul reduces to one scheme, by opposing and arguing with the infidel, or unbelieving Jew, in favour of the Christian, or believing Gentile. Upon this plan, if the unbelieving Jew escaped, and remained unconvinced, yet the Christian Jew would be more inoffensively, and more effectually instructed in the nature of the Gospel, and the kind brotherly regard that he ought to have to the believing Gentile, than if he had directed his discourse plainly and immediately to him. But if his argument should fail, in reference to the believing Jew, yet the believing Gentile would see his interest in the covenant and kingdom of God as solidly established, by a full confutation of the Jewish objections, (which were the only objections that could, with any show of reason, be advanced against it,) as if the Epistle had been written for no other purpose: and thus it is of the greatest use to us at this day.
Both ancients and moderns make heavy complaints of the obscurity of this Epistle, though all agree it is a great and most useful performance: but we shall have a tolerable idea of it, if we observe that it consists of four great parts or divisions. The first division contains the first five chapters; the second, the sixth, seventh, and eighth; the third, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh; the fourth, the last five chapters.
Part I. displays the riches of divine grace, as free to all mankind; Jews and Gentiles were equally sinful and obnoxious to wrath; and therefore there was no way for the Jew to be continued in the kingdom of God, but by grace through faith; and by grace and faith the Gentile might be admitted into it. To reject this way of justification, was to reject the very method in which Abraham himself was justified, or interested in the covenant made with him; in which covenant believing Gentiles were included, as well as believing Jews; and had now as great or greater privileges to glory in. But if the Jew should pertinaciously deny that, he could not deny that all mankind are interested in the grace of God, which removes the consequence of Adam's offence. Through that offence all mankind are subjected to death, and through Christ's obedience unto death, all mankind shall be restored to life at the last day. The resurrection from the dead is therefore a part of the grace of God in the Redeemer; and if all mankind have an interest in this part of the grace of God, why not in the whole of it? If all mankind are subject to death through Adam's one offence, is it not much more reasonable, that through the opposite nobler clause,—the goodness and obedience of the Son of God,—all mankind should be interested in the whole of the grace which God has established upon it. And as for law, or the rule of right action, it was absurd for any part of mankind to expect pardon, or any blessedness upon the ground of that, seeing all mankind had broken it; and it was still more absurd to seek pardon and life by the law of Moses, which condemned those who were under it to death for every transgression.
Part II. Having proved that believing Jews and gentiles were pardoned, and interested in all the blessings and privileges of the Gospel, through mere grace, St. Paul next shews the obligations laid upon them to a life of holiness and piety under the new dispensation; and upon this subject he adapts his discourse to the Gentile Christians, in the 6th chapter; and in the 7th and part of the 8th he turns himself to the Jewish Christians; then from ver. 12 to the end of the 8th chapter he address himself upon the same head to both Christian Jews and Gentiles; particularly giving them right notions of the sufferings to which they were exposed, and by which they might be deterred from the duties required in the Gospel.
Part III. gives right sentiments concerning the rejection of the Jews, which was matter of great moment to the due establishment of the Gentile converts; concerning which see particularly the first note on chap. 9:
Part IV. Is taken up with a variety of practical instructions and exhortations; the grand design and use of all which is, to engage Christians to act in a manner worthy of that Gospel, the excellency whereof he had been illustrating.
It will be of great advantage to the reader, to have this sketch of the Epistle ready in his thoughts: he cannot, however, enter entirely into the spirit of it, unless he enter into the spirit of a Jew in those times, and have some just notion of his utter aversion to the Gentiles; his valuing and raising himself upon his relation to God and to Abraham, upon his law, and pompous worship, circumcision, &c. as if the Jews were the only people in the world who had any manner of right to the favour of God. And it should be well noted, that St. Paul, in this Epistle, disputes with the whole body of the Jews, without respect to any particular sect or party among them, and in opposition to the whole body of the Gentiles: for the grand proposition, or question in debate, is, "Are we Jews better than they Gentiles?" See chap. Romans 3:9; Romans 3:29. In consequence of this, we observe farther, that we cannot have clear conceptions of the argumentative, or controversial part of the Epistle, unless we are clear in this point,—that the justification for which the Apostle argues, is the right which we believing Gentiles have, through the favour and gift of God in Christ, to the blessings, honours, and privileges of his evangelical kingdom in this world: Not so as thereby to have possession of the heavenly and eternal kingdom absolutely secured to us, but so as to be blessed with the assurance of pardon, the promises and hope of the eternal kingdom, and all proper light and means to prepare us for it, if we do not wickedly despise and abuse it. It is this notion of justification alone which corresponds to the above-mentioned general collective notion of Jews and Gentiles, and to the end and design of the Epistle.
We observe once more, that the whole Epistle is to be taken in connection, or considered as one continued discourse, and the sense of every part must be taken from the drift of the whole. Every sentence or verse is not to be regarded as a distinct mathematical proposition or theorem, or as a sentence in the book of Proverbs, whose sense is absolute, and independent of what goes before or comes after; but we must remember that every sentence, especially in the argumentative part, bears relation to, and is dependent upon the whole discourse, and cannot be understood, unless we understand the scope of the whole; and therefore the whole Epistle, or at least the eleven first chapters of it, ought to be read over at once, as the most closely-connected piece.
With respect to the Apostle's manner of writing, it may be proper to take this opportunity to remark, that it is spirited, clear, and perspicuous; for it will not be difficult to understand him, if our minds are unprejudiced, and at liberty to attend to the subject he is upon, and to the current scriptural sense of the words that he uses: for he keeps very strictly to the standard of Scripture phraseology. He takes great care to guard and explain every part of his subject, in which he is particularly cautious and exact; sometimes writing notes upon a sentence liable to exception, and sometimes commenting upon a single word. He was studious of a perspicuous brevity. See chap. Romans 5:13-14. He treats his countrymen the Jews with great caution and tenderness; he had a natural affection for them, and was very desirous of winning them over to the Gospel. He knew their passions and prejudices were very strong for their own constitution; therefore, in his debates with them, he avoids every thing harsh, introduces every kind and endearing sentiment, and is very nice in choosing soft and inoffensive expressions, so far as he honestly could; for he never flatters, or dissembles the truth. His transitions and advances to an ungrateful subject are very dextrous and apposite, as chap. Rom 2:1-17 Romans 8:17. He often carries on a complicated design, and while he is teaching one thing, gives us an opportunity of learning one or two more. So chap. Rom 13:1-8 he teaches the duty of subjects, and at the same time instructs magistrates in their duty, and shews the true grounds of their authority. He is a nervous reasoner, and a close writer, who never loses sight of his subject, and who throws in every colour which may enlighten it. He writes under a deep and lively sense of the truth and importance of the Gospel, as a man who clearly understands it, and in whose heart and affections it reigned far superior to all temporal considerations. But concerning St. Paul's manner of writing, you will see more in the note on 2 Peter 3:16.
We hope that what has gone before will enable our readers to peruse this Epistle with greater profit. However we may subjoin, in the course of the annotations, a more particular detail of the contents of each part of it; while we refer those who are desirous of a more accurate analysis to Taylor's "Key to the Apostolic Writings," and his preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Locke's Synopsis,
Michaelis's Introduction, p. 339. Turretin's Praelections, Calmet, and Doddridge.
the Second Week of Advent