By David Brown
CHAPTER I. 18-32.—SALVATION NEEDED ALIKE BY ALL AND FIRST, BY THE WHOLE GENTILE WORLD.
"by faith" that it becomes ours, so it is revealed "unto faith," that by faith we may embrace it.1 as it is written (Hab. ii. 4), But the righteous shall live by faith. This golden principle of Old Testament theology—given here exactly as in the Hebrew, except that there it is "by his faith"—is thrice quoted in the N. T. (in Gal. iii. Ii; Heb. x. 38; and here), shewing that the Gospel way of 'Life by faith' is so far from subverting or disturbing, only takes up and develops the one way of "life" from the beginning, provided for perishing men.
18. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Each clause of this weighty statement should be carefully marked. (1) "The wrath of God" is 'His holy displeasure and judicial vengeance against sin.' Such language, however distasteful to some ears, is of frequent occurrence in the N. T. (see Matt. iii. 7; John iii. 36; ch. ii. 5, 8, ix. 22; Eph. ii. 3, v. 6; Col. iii. 6; 1 Thess. i. 10; Heb. iii. 11).
is revealed from heaven. How "revealed from heaven"? In the whole visible procedure of God in the moral government of the world, in which He "reveals" or palpably displays His holy displeasure against sin, particularly by His making sin its own punishment, as so awfully depicted in the sequel of this chapter. The lofty jealousy of that Eye which is as a flame of fire rests upon every form of iniquity under the whole heaven, to take vengeance on it. The two forms of it which comprehend all the rest are here specified. First, "against all ungodliness" or impiety, meaning all the irreligiousncss of men—their living, no matter how virtuously, yet without any conscious reference to God, and without any proper feelings towards Him. Next, against all "unrighteousness of men"—against all their deviations from moral rectitude, whether in heart, speech, or behaviour. Now, since no human being can plead guiltless of "all ungodliness" and "all unrighteousness," it follows that every child of Adam, while in his sins, is the object of Heaven's deserved "wrath." Thus all-comprehensive is the apostle's opening statement, embracing Jew and Gentile alike in its dread sweep. From this, however, he now descends to particulars, bringing this twofold charge of guilt, first, against the whole heathen world. This he does under three heads—the progressive degeneracy, the retributive punishment, and the consummated penal debasement of the whole heathen world.
(1.) The progressive degeneracy of the heathen world ( 1 8-23).
18. who hold down the truth in unrighteousness (for this is what the word means) (as in the R. V.).2 "The truth," as we shall presently see, was sufficiently known to them, but it was 'held down' or 'stifled' by their sinful life (compare Prov. xx. 27; Matt. vi. 22, 23; Eph. iv. 17, 18; Tit. i. 15).
19. because that which may be known of God is manifest in them—in the constitution stamped upon man's nature, in which the conviction of a God is deeply rooted, for God hath manifested it unto them. How this manifestation is made is now explained: 20. For the invisible things of him since the creation are clearly seen. There is here an incomparable paradox—oxymoron the grammarians call it—a bold, paradoxical play of words—'the unseeable things of God are clearly seen; the invisibilities of God become visible to human intelligence.' And this has been all along "since the creation of the world." But how? being understood ('perceived,' 'apprehended ') through the things that are made. The apostle does not say that even "the things that are made" will without reflection discover God to men: he says exactly the reverse. And thus is to be explained the brutish ignorance of God that reigns among the more debased and unreflecting heathen, the atheistic speculations in modern times of some subtle metaphysicians, and the negation of all Theism on the part of many enthusiastic students of the mere facts and laws of the material universe; while to the calm, unprejudiced exercise of thought upon the mind which is seen to reign in every department of "the things that are made," God is brightly beheld. even his eternal power and Godhead—rather 'Godhood,' that property of Divineness which belongs to Him who called this creation into being. Two things are thus said to be clearly discovered to the reflecting intelligence by the things which are made—first, that there is an Eternal Power; and, secondly, that this is neither a blind physical 'Force' nor a pantheistic 'spirit of nature,' but a living, conscious Divine Person, whose outgoing energy is beheld in the external universe. And, what is eminently worthy of notice, the outward creation is here represented, not as the parent, but only as the interpreter, of our faith in God. This faith has its primary sources within our own breast (ver. 19); but it becomes an intelligent and articulate conviction only through what we observe around us (ver. 20). And thus are the inner and outer revelations of God just the complement of each other, making up between them one universal and immovable conviction that God is. With this most striking apostolic statement agree the latest conclusions of the most profound speculative students of Theism, so that they are without excuse, rather 'that they may be without excuse,' or to take away all pretext that they had not light enough to guide them to the right object of worship.
21. because that, knowing God—in the sense of ver. 10—they glorified him not as God, neither gave they thanks—they neither yielded to Him the adoration due to Himself, nor rendered to Him the expression of their gratitude for the benefits they received from Him. but became vain3 in their reasonings—their speculations about God. and their senseless (stupid) heart—their whole inner man. was darkened. How instructively is the downward progress of the human soul here traced! When once darkness is suffered to overspread the mind, an impotent stupidity of all the active powers of the soul is the result; and thus the truth which God left with and in men, instead of having free scope to acquire strength and develop itself, came by degrees to be lost, and the still, small voice of conscience, first disregarded, was next thwarted, and at length systematically disobeyed. Wilful resistance of light has a retributive tendency to blind the moral perceptions and weaken the capacity to apprehend and approve of truth and goodness; and thus is the soul prepared to surrender itself, to an indefinite extent, to error and sin. 22. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed ('exchanged ') the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image (unto what was shaped like an image) of corruptible man. They not only exchanged God for man, the incorruptible for the corruptible, but Him who is the essence and fountain of all that is glorious, for an inanimate image, fashioned to the likeness of miserable man. The allusion here is doubtless to the Greek worship, and the apostle may have had in his eye those exquisite chisellings of the human form which lay so profusely beneath and around him as he stood on Mars' hill, and "beheld the objects of their worship" (Acts xvii. 29). But, as if that had not been a deep enough degradation of the living God, there was found 'a lower deep' still, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things—referring now to the Egyptian and Oriental worship. In the face of these plain declarations of the descent of man's religious belief from loftier to ever lower and more debasing conceptions of the Supreme Being, there are expositors of this very Epistle who—believing neither in any Fall from primeval innocence, nor in the noble traces of that innocence which lingered even after the fall and were only by degrees obliterated by wilful violence to the dictates of conscience—maintain that man's religious history has been all along a struggle to rise, from the lowest forms of nature-worship, suited to the childhood of our race, into that which is more rational and spiritual. Pride of wisdom, as it is a convincing evidence of the want of it, so it makes the attainment of it impossible (ver. 22; and see Matt. xi. 25; I Cor. xiii. 18-20). As idolatry, even in its most plausible forms, is the fruit of unworthy views of the Godhead, so its natural effect is to vitiate and debase still further the religious conceptions; nor is there any depth of degradation too low and too revolting for men's ideas of the Godhead to sink to, if only their natural temperament and the circumstances they are placed in be favourable to their unrestrained development. The apostle had Greece and Egypt in his eye when he penned vers. 23-25. But the whole Paganisms of the East at this day attest its accuracy, from the more elaborate idolatry of India and the simpler and more stupid idolatry of China, down to the childish rudiments of nature-worship prevalent among the savage tribes. Alas! Christendom itself furnishes a melancholy illustration of this truth; the constant use of material images in the Church of Rome, and the materialistic and sensuous character of its entire service (to say nothing of the less offensive but stupider service of the Greek Church), debasing the religious ideas of millions of nominal Christians, and lowering the whole character and tone of Christianity as represented within their immense pale.
(2.) The retributive punishment (24, 25).
24. Wherefore God gave them up. This Divine abandonment of men is strikingly traced in three successive downward stages, each of which is marked by the use of the same Greek word "gave (them) up."
First stage of Divine abandonment:—in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should he dishonoured among themselves. 'As they deserted God (says Grotius excellently), God in turn deserted them—not giving them Divine (supernatural) laws, and suffering them to corrupt those which were human; not sending them prophets, and allowing the philosophers to run into absurdities. "He let them do what they pleased, even what was in the last degree vile, that those who had not honoured God might dishonour themselves.' The sense of the dignity and sanctity of the body (it has been well remarked) we may be said to owe to Revelation, for that they exchange the truth of God for a lie. In the O. T. the idols of the heathen are constantly represented as 'vanity' and 'a lie.' and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator. Professing, and at first probably meaning, to worship the Creator, only through or with the help of The creatures, they soon came to lose sight of the Creator in the Creature. Yet, under the same flimsy pretext, the Church of Rome does shamelessly the very thing for which the heathen are here condemned, and with light which the heathen never had! who is blessed for ever. Amen. By this doxology the apostle instinctively relieves his mind of the horror which the penning of such things excited within his breast.
Second stage of Divine abandonment (26, 27):—For this cause God gave them up unto vile (shameless) passions. The expression is very strong, but not so strong as the monstrousness of the thing intended would have warranted, for even their women—that sex whose priceless jewel and fairest ornament is modesty, and which, when that is once lost, not only becomes more shameless than the other sex, but lives henceforth only to drag the other sex down to its own level, did change, etc. 27. and likewise also the men, leaving, etc. The practices here referred to, though too abundantly attested by classic authors, cannot be described and illustrated from them without trenching on things 'which ought not to be even named among us as becometh saints.' 'At the period when the apostle wrote, unnatural lusts broke out (says Tholuck) to the most revolting extent, not at Rome only, but over the whole empire. He who is unacquainted with the historical monuments of that age—especially Petronius, Suetonius, Martial, and Juvenal —can scarcely figure to himself the frightfulness of these excesses.' (See also Grotius, Wetstein, Frilzsche.) Reiche, indeed, throws doubt upon the apostle's accuracy, alleging that the Christian world has been at various times no better in these respects than the heathen. No doubt passages can be produced from ecclesiastical writers, at different periods, in which charges quite as strong as anything in this chapter are, with too much justice, laid at the door of the Christian Church. (See, for example, one from Salvian, in the fifth century, which Thohuck quotes. ) But besides that the very heathen writers themselves (Seneca, for example, de brev. vit. c. 16) expressly blame the vicious character of the heathen deities for much of the immorality which reigned among the people, whereas all vice is utterly alien to Christianity, the worst vices of humanity have since the glorious Reformation (which was but true Christianity" restored, and raised to its legitimate ascendency) almost disappeared from European society. To return, then, to the state of the heathen world: the disclosures lately made by the disinterment of Herculaneum and Pompeii (Roman towns near Naples, overwhelmed by the terrible eruption of Mount Vesuvius, A.D. 79—first discovered in 17 13, and now gradually undergoing disentombment) are such as too fully bear out and illustrate all that the apostle says or hints on the tremendous abominations of even the most civilised nations of the ancient world. Indeed, it was just the most civilised that were plunged the deepest in the mire of pollution, the barbarians being (as will appear from the Germania of Tacitus) comparatively virtuous. Observe how, in the retributive judgment of God, vice is here seen consuming and exhausting itself. When the passions, scourged by violent and continued indulgence in natural vices, became impotent to yield the craved enjoyment, resort was had to artificial stimulants by the practice of unnatural and monstrous vices. How early these were in full career, in the history of the world, the case of Sodom affectingly shews; and because of such abominations, centuries after that, the land of Canaan 'spued out' its old inhabitants. Long before this chapter was penned, the Lesbians and others throughout refined Greece had been luxuriating in such debasements; and as for the Romans, Tacitus, speaking of the emperor Tiberius, tells us that new words had then to be coined to express the newly invented stimulants to jaded passions. No wonder that, thus sick and dying as was this poor Humanity of ours under the highest earthly culture, its many-voiced cry for the balm in Gilead and the Physician there—"Come over and help us"—pierced the hearts of the missionaries of the Cross, and made them "not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ! "
and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due—alluding to the many physical and moral ways in which, under the righteous government of God, vice was made self-avenging.
Third and lowest stage of Divine abandonment:—The consummated penal debasement of the heathen world (28-32).—28. And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge (for the sense of the word "knowledge "here, see on ch. iii. 20), God gave them over to a reprobate mind. The word signifies first, 'disapproved 'on trial (as metals when they are assayed and found worthless); and next, as the result of this, 'rejected,' 'cast away.' to do those things which are not fitting; 29. being filled with4 all unrighteousness, etc. On comparing this the longest list with the other lists of vices which occur in the Epistles of our apostle (1 Cor. vi. 9, 10; Gal. v. 19-21; 1 Tim. i. 9, 10; 2 Tim. iii. 2-4), it will be evident to the Greek reader that the order in which they are placed follows associations sometimes of sound and sometimes of sense. Not without reason, therefore, does Fritzsche recommend the student not to spend his time and ingenuity in arranging into distinct classes words whose meaning, and vices whose characteristics, differ only by a shade from each other. A word or two in explanation of the sense of some of the terms will suffice here. "Unrighteousness," then, as the first word, is a designedly general word. wickedness5—perhaps 'villany 'here; covetousness—which the N. T. invariably classes with some of the worst vices, and the O. T. too (Jer. xxii. 17; Hab. ii. 9, with following verses; Mark vii. 22; Eph. v. 3; Col. iii. 5; 2 Pet. ii. 3), and pointing probably to outrageous manifestations of it: full of envy, murder. The alliteration here of the two Greek words (pthonon, phonon) shews that the sound of the one word suggested the other, strife, deceit, malignity ('rancour,' 'ill-nature'). 30. whisperers,6 backbiters, haters of God. The classical sense of the not very common word here used is 'God-hated,' and so it is rendered in the R. V. in the sense of "abhorred of the Lord" (Prov. xxii. 14), as detestable in character (Ps. lxxiii. 20). But the active sense of the word, adopted in the A. V., though of doubtful classical authority, seems to have been, by a Christian instinct, adopted by the Greek interpreters as more likely to be the apostle's meaning; and certainly it suits the context, whose object is to set forth, by a series of examples, the evil principles, feelings, and practices which reigned in the heathen world. (Compare the Greek of 2 Tim. iii. 4, 'pleasure-lovers rather than God-lovers.') insolent, haughty, etc. 31. without understanding, covenant breakers—another alliteration (asunetous, asunthetous, see on ver. 29), without natural affection, unmerciful.7 32. who knowing ('well knowing') the ordinance of God—the stern law of Divine procedure, to which every man's conscience bears witness, that they who practise such things are worthy of death—"death" in its widest 4cnown sense, namely 'the uttermost of Divine vengeance against sin.' What that is will be variously conceived, of course, according to the light enjoyed. The mythic representations of Tartarus sufficiently shew how the heathen conscience in classic lands pictured to itself the horrors of this future "death." not only do the same—which under the pressure of temptation and in the heat of passion they might do, even while abhorring it and abhorring themselves for doing it, but also have pleasure along with them that practise it. The word conveys more than mere "consent "(as in R. V. )—a feeling of positive approving satisfaction in a person or thing (so in Acts viii. 1). The charge here brought against the heathen world is, that they deliberately set their seal to such actions by encouraging and applauding the doing of them in others. This is the climax of the apostle's charges against the heathen; and certainly, if the things themselves are as black as possible, this settled and unblushing satisfaction at the practice of them on the part of others—apart from all the blinding effects of present passion—must be regarded as the last and lowest stage of human depravity. 'The innate principle of self-love (says South, in a sermon on the last verse of this chapter) very easily and often blinds a man as to any impartial reflection upon himself, yet for the most part leaves his eyes open enough to judge truly of the same thing in his neighbour, and to hate that in others which he allows and cherishes in himself. And, therefore, when it shall come to this, that he approves, embraces, and delights in sin as he observes it even in the person and practice of other men, this shews that the man is wholly transformed from the creature that God first made him; nay, that he has consumed those poor remainders of good that the sin of Adam left him; that he has worn oft the very remote dispositions and possibilities to virtue; and, in a word, has turned grace first, and afterwards nature itself, out of doors.' Yet this knowledge can never be wholly extinguished in the breast of man. So long as reason remaius to them, there is a still, small voice in the worst of men, protesting, in the name *f the Power that implanted it, "that they which do such things are worthy of death."
1) Other interpretations of this clause are unsatisfactory. 'From the faith of the Law to the faith of the Gospel,' 'from the faith of the promising God to the faith of the believing man,' are surely far-fetched interpretations. 'From one degree of faith to another,' or 1 from a weaker to a stronger faith,' though adopted by some excellent interpreters, introduces an element foreign to the whole argument of this Epistle, which has nothing to do with degrees of faith, but only with faith itself, as the appointed way of receiving "the righteousness of God." Others understand the clause thus: 'As it begins, continues, and ends in faith, it is all of faith. '_ But this is to slump into one statement what the apostle studiously makes two. Surely, since the Greek words which the A V. renders "from faith," wherever they occur in this Epistle, mean "by faith"—and are so rendered in the A. V. itself, and in this same verse—they ought to be so rendered here.
2) Compare the use of the same word in Luke iv. 42, "they would have stayed Him" or held Him back; 2 Thess. ii. 6, 7, "ye know what restraineth."
3) The word rendered "became vain" almost always refers to the idolatrous tendencies and practices of men (Jer. ii. 5; 2 Kings xvii. 15; Acts xiv 15).
4) It has been remarked that the use of the Greek dative here (instead of the usual genitive after verbs of "filling") may be designed to convey the idea of engrossment rather than mere fulness. (See 2 Cor. vii. 4, for the same usage of the word.)
5) The A. V. inserts the word "fornication "before this one; but it has no right to be here at all. The best authorities exclude it; so do all critical editors; in fact, after the revelations of vers. 26, 27, it is quite out of place. Probably the next word, from its being so like (in Greek) to this one, suggested it first; and when once there, it might seem natural that it should be there.
6) This word, which the A. V. places last in ver. 29, should begin ver. 30; as the form of the original shews that a new construction of the following words begins here.
7) Before "unmerciful" the A. V. inserts the word "implacable." But the evidence against it is decisive, and it has no doubt come in from 2 Tim. iii. 2, where both words are found together.