In this chapter, Paul directed attention primarily to the Gentiles. Before that, he spoke mostly to the Jewish portion of the class and discussed the prejudices they had to override in order to live together in harmony with the Gentile converts to Christ. After speaking to the Jewish element, and sometimes rather strongly, Paul now turned to the Gentiles and said they, too, should not be high-minded. If some of the natural branches of the olive tree had been broken off in order that wild branches could be grafted in, then the wild branches could also be broken off and the natural branches grafted back into the stock of the olive tree. Paul added that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in, and then “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
Paul anticipated the thinking of the listeners, knowing they might have certain problems accepting his reasoning because of their Jewish background. Over and over again he satisfied the doubts and questions of the honest listener. Jews might think that without the Law Covenant, they could be careless and sin and still be under God’s grace and receive forgiveness through Jesus. The danger was in thinking, “If we accept that our sins are forgiven by grace through Jesus, then we can sin again and again and receive forgiveness.” No! “Once in grace, always in grace” follows this same line of thinking, as does the Catholic attitude of confession, sin, confession, etc. Note: Willful sins are involved here, whereas unintentional sins are forgiven.
Paul would probably have addressed this epistle differently if the brethren were new and did not understand about Jesus Christ and know the gospel. Therefore, he was writing not to help beget children of faith in God but to settle the differences that existed among the consecrated in the ecclesia. Hoping to resolve the continuing bickering and irritation between Gentile and Jewish converts, he addressed the situation in an effort to bring peace in the ecclesia, as well as further knowledge. As babes, the brethren needed a deeper understanding of the principles of God and faith as one of the first steps. In later chapters, Paul would go in another direction.
Paul ended on an exalted theme, but the problem was that once he taught this wonderful grace, the tendency was to abuse the privilege and sin willfully with the assumption that forgiveness would follow. Even the consecrated sometimes overemphasize forgiveness to the point of carelessness in their walk and/or their spiritual detriment.
This difficult fifth chapter was designed for the Talmudic Jew.
How did works of the flesh apply to Abraham? The term “pertaining to the flesh” refers to circumcision, which chapter 4 will treat. The topic is justification, but Paul was addressing the Jewish element in the class, who had confidence in the flesh. They used circumcision as an indicator of whether or not one was a true believer, and of course almost all Jews were circumcised after birth as a perfunctory act. However, their making such a point about circumcision cast an inference on Gentiles, who, as a rule, were not circumcised. Gentiles were the uncircumcised in the ecclesia, and Jews, having this mark in their flesh, tried to indicate that to really be in the family, to be a bona fide member, one had to go through this ritual. Paul said, “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). “For we are the circumcision [of the heart], which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh [in the ritual of circumcision]” (Phil. 3:3). The ritual of circumcision is not a true indicator, for it can be done perfunctorily.
Chapters 1-3 are introductory. In chapter 4, Paul would begin to reason by telling what the Old Testament teaches. He would say in effect, “I did not write the Old Testament, for it has existed for hundreds of years. In what purports to be the Word of God is the message that Jesus brought and that I, as an apostle of Jesus, am preaching.” First, however, he wanted to get everyone in a humble frame of mind by putting them on a common level. He reasoned, “After all, who are we and what are we? We are nothing unless God somehow provides a way of escape, and that way of escape is Jesus, whom I will preach.”
In many of these reasonings, a word is frequently used that may not be clear in our English translation of the Greek. For example, Paul said that a Jew “is one inwardly” and that true circumcision is “of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter [only],” yet we have to study the “letter” of the Word in order to get the spirit. A superficial knowledge of Scripture is different from a spiritual understanding of Scripture, but we have to hear the letter to get the spirit.
Many say, “I know that I love God, and I try to please Him,” but then they put the Word aside and try to use their own reasoning as to what God’s will is. They do not desire instruction.
A true spiritual Israelite’s “praise is not of men, but of God.” A natural human desire is to be recognized by fellowman, but how much better it is to receive praise and recognition from God. The praise of men is superficial and can be very misleading. The one who really obeys receives praise from God; outward obedience is only to please men.
Paul knew that the Christians in Rome were going to have certain problems. Since he would not be visiting Rome for a while, he wanted to give advice to this church, which consisted of a mixed element of Jews and Gentiles who met together on a regular basis. What was Paul’s motivation? Realizing that Jews and Gentiles had radically different backgrounds, he wanted to unify them by getting them to appreciate each other’s backgrounds and their one calling. He wanted them to be firm in their faith so that they would not wobble back and forth under the influence of the Judaizing believers, who felt that a Christian had to follow the Law as well as walk in grace and truth by faith. Thus he proceeded to teach the real meaning of the doctrine of justification by faith, and the theme of his Epistle to the Romans is justification by faith in the blood of Christ.