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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 17–29
Verses 17–29

In the latter part of the chapter the apostle directs his discourse more closely to the Jews, and shows what sins they were guilty of, notwithstanding their profession and vain pretensions. He had said (Rom. 2:13) that not the hearers but the doers of the law are justified; and he here applies that great truth to the Jews. Observe,

I. He allows their profession (Rom. 2:17-20) and specifies their particular pretensions and privileges in which they prided themselves, that they might see he did not condemn them out of ignorance of what they had to say for themselves; no, he knew the best of their cause.

1. They were a peculiar people, separated and distinguished from all others by their having the written law and the special presence of God among them. (1.) Thou art called a Jew; not so much in parentage as profession. It was a very honourable title. Salvation was of the Jews; and this they were very proud of, to be a people by themselves; and yet many that were so called were the vilest of men. It is no new thing for the worst practices to be shrouded under the best names, for many of the synagogue of Satan to say they are Jews (Rev. 2:9), for a generation of vipers to boast they have Abraham to their father, Matt. 3:7-9. (2.) And restest in the law; that is, they took a pride in this, that they had the law among them, had it in their books, read it in their synagogues. They were mightily puffed up with this privilege, and thought this enough to bring them to heaven, though they did not live, up to the law. To rest in the law, with a rest of complacency and acquiescence, is good; but to rest in it with a rest of pride, and slothfulness, and carnal security, is the ruin of souls. The temple of the Lord, Jer. 7:4. Bethel their confidence, Jer. 48:13. Haughty because of the holy mountain, Zeph. 3:11. It is a dangerous thing to rest in external privileges, and not to improve them. (3.) And makest thy boast of God. See how the best things may be perverted and abused. A believing, humble, thankful glorying in God, is the root and summary of all religion, Ps. 34:2; Isa. 45:15; 1 Cor. 1:31. But a proud vainglorious boasting in God, and in the outward profession of his name, is the root and summary of all hypocrisy. Spiritual pride is of all kinds of pride the most dangerous.

2. They were a knowing people (Rom. 2:18): and knowest his will, to thelemathe will. God’s will is the will, the sovereign, absolute, irresistible will. The world will then, and not till then, be set to rights, when God’s will is the only will, and all other wills are melted into it. They did not only know the truth of God, but the will of God, that which he would have them to do. It is possible for a hypocrite to have a great deal of knowledge in the will of God.—And approvest the things that are more excellentdokimazeis ta diapheronta. Paul prays for it for his friends as a very great attainment, Phil. 1:10. Eis to dokimazein hymas ta diapheronta. Understand it, (1.) Of a good apprehension in the things of God, reading it thus, Thou discernest things that differ, knowest how to distinguish between good and evil, to separate between the precious and the vile (Jer. 15:19), to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, Lev. 11:47. Good and bad lie sometimes so near together that it is not easy to distinguish them; but the Jews, having the touchstone of the law ready at hand, were, or at least thought they were, able to distinguish, to cleave the hair in doubtful cases. A man may be a good casuist and yet a bad Christian—accurate in the notion, but loose and careless in the application. Or, we may, with Deut. Dieu, understand controversies by the ta diapheronta. A man may be well skilled in the controversies of religion, and yet a stranger to the power of godliness. (2.) Of a warm affection to the things of God, as we read it, Approvest the things that are excellent. There are excellences in religion which a hypocrite may approve of: there may be a consent of the practical judgment to the law, that it is good, and yet that consent overpowerd by the lusts of the flesh, and of the mind:—

----Video meliora proboque Deteriora sequor. I see the better, but pursue the worse.and it is common for sinners to make that approbation an excuse which is really a very great aggravation of a sinful course. They got this acquaintance with, and affection to, that which is good, but being instructed out of the law, katechoumenosbeing catechised. The word signifies an early instruction in childhood. It is a great privilege and advantage to be well catechised betimes. It was the custom of the Jews to take a great deal of pains in teaching their children when they were young, and all their lessons were out of the law; it were well if Christians were but as industrious to teach their children out of the gospel. Now this is called (Rom. 2:20), The form of knowledge, and of the truth in the law, that is, the show and appearance of it. Those whose knowledge rests in an empty notion, and does not make an impression on their hearts, have only the form of it, like a picture well drawn and in good colours, but which wants life. A form of knowledge produces but a form of godliness, 2 Tim. 3:5. A form of knowledge may deceive men, but cannot impose upon the piercing eye of the heart-searching God. A form may be the vehicle of the power; but he that takes up with that only is like sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.

3. They were a teaching people, or at least thought themselves so (Rom. 2:19, 20): And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind. Apply it, (1.) To the Jews in general. They thought themselves guides to the poor blind Gentiles that sat in darkness, were very proud of this, that whoever would have the knowledge of God must be beholden to them for it. All other nations must come to school to them, to learn what is good, and what the Lord requires; for they had the lively oracles. (2.) To their rabbis, and doctors, and leading men among them, who were especially those that judged others, Rom. 2:1. These prided themselves much in the possession they had got of Moses’s chair, and the deference which the vulgar paid to their dictates; and the apostle expresses this in several terms, a guide of the blind, a light of those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, the better to set forth their proud conceit of themselves, and contempt of others. This was a string they loved to be harping upon, heaping up titles of honour upon themselves. The best work, when it is prided in, is unacceptable to God. It is good to instruct the foolish, and to teach the babes: but considering our own ignorance, and folly, and inability to make these teachings successful without God, there is nothing in it to be proud of.

II. He aggravates their provocations (Rom. 2:21-24) from two things:—

1. That they sinned against their knowledge and profession, did that themselves which they taught others to avoid: Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? Teaching is a piece of that charity which begins at home, though it must not end there. It was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that they did not do as they taught (Matt. 23:3), but pulled down with their lives what they built up with their preaching; for who will believe those who do not believe themselves? Examples will govern more than rules. The greatest obstructors of the success of the word are those whose bad lives contradict their good doctrine, who in the pulpit preach so well that it is a pity they should ever come out, and out of the pulpit live so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in. He specifies three particular sins that abound among the Jews:—(1.) Stealing. This is charged upon some that declared God’s statutes (Ps. 50:16, 18), When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him. The Pharisees are charged with devouring widows’ houses (Matt. 23:14), and that is the worst of robberies. (2.) Adultery, Rom. 2:22. This is likewise charged upon that sinner (Ps. 50:18), Thou hast been partaker with adulterers. Many of the Jewish rabbin are said to have been notorious for this sin. (3.) Sacrilege-robbing in holy things, which were then by special laws dedicated and devoted to God; and this is charged upon those that professed to abhor idols. So the Jews did remarkably, after their captivity in Babylon; that furnace separated them for ever from the dross of their idolatry, but they dealt very treacherously in the worship of God. It was in the latter days of the Old-Testament church that they were charged with robbing God in tithes and offerings (Mal. 3:8, 9), converting that to their own use, and to the service of their lusts, which was, in a special manner, set apart for God. And this is almost equivalent to idolatry, though this sacrilege was cloaked with the abhorrence of idols. Those will be severely reckoned with another day who, while they condemn sin in others, do the same, or as bad, or worse, themselves.

2. That they dishonoured God by their sin, Rom. 2:23, 24. While God and his law were an honour to them, which they boasted of and prided themselves in, they were a dishonour to God and his law, by giving occasion to those that were without to reflect upon their religion, as if that did countenance and allow of such things, which, as it is their sin who draw such inferences (for the faults of professors are not to be laid upon professions), so it is their sin who give occasion for those inferences, and will greatly aggravate their miscarriages. This was the condemnation in David’s case, that he had given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, 2 Sam. 12:14. And the apostle here refers to the same charge against their forefathers: As it is written, Rom. 2:24. He does not mention the place, because he wrote this to those that were instructed in the law (in labouring to convince, it is some advantage to deal with those that have knowledge and are acquainted with the scripture), but he seems to point at Isa. 52:5; Ezek. 36:22, 23; 2 Sam. 12:14. It is a lamentation that those who were made to be to God for a name and for a praise should be to him a shame and dishonour. The great evil of the sins of professors is the dishonour done to God and religion by their profession. “Blasphemed through you; that is, you give the occasion for it, it is through your folly and carelessness. The reproaches you bring upon yourselves reflect upon your God, and religion is wounded through your sides.” A good caution to professors to walk circumspectly. See 1 Tim. 6:1.

III. He asserts the utter insufficiency of their profession to clear them from the guilt of these provocations (Rom. 2:25-29): Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law; that is, obedient Jews shall not lose the reward of their obedience, but will gain this by their being Jews, that they have a clearer rule of obedience than the Gentiles have. God did not give the law nor appoint circumcision in vain. This must be referred to the state of the Jews before the ceremonial polity was abolished, otherwise circumcision to one that professed faith in Christ was forbidden, Gal. 5:1. But he is here speaking to the Jews, whose Judaism would benefit them, if they would but live up to the rules and laws of it; but if not “thy circumcision is made uncircumcision; that is, thy profession will do thee no good; thou wilt be no more justified than the uncircumcised Gentiles, but more condemned for sinning against greater light.” The uncircumcised are in scripture branded as unclean (Isa. 52:1), as out of the covenant, (Eph. 2:11, 12) and wicked Jews will be dealt with as such. See Jer. 9:25, 26. Further to illustrate this,

1. He shows that the uncircumcised Gentiles, if they live up to the light they have, stand upon the same level with the Jews; if they keep the righteousness of the law (Rom. 2:26), fulfil the law (Rom. 2:27); that is, by submitting sincerely to the conduct of natural light, perform the matter of the law. Some understand it as putting the case of a perfect obedience to the law: “If the Gentiles could perfectly keep the law, they would be justified by it as well as the Jews.” But it seems rather to be meant of such an obedience as some of the Gentiles did attain to. The case of Cornelius will clear it. Though he was a Gentile, and uncircumcised, yet, being a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house (Acts 10:2), he was accepted, Acts 10:4. Doubtless, there were many such instances: and they were the uncircumcision, that kept the righteousness of the law; and of such he says, (1.) That they were accepted with God, as if they had been circumcised. Their uncircumcision was counted for circumcision. Circumcision was indeed to the Jews a commanded duty, but it was not to all the world a necessary condition of justification and salvation. (2.) That their obedience was a great aggravation of the disobedience of the Jews, who had the letter of the law, Rom. 2:27. Judge thee, that is, help to add to thy condemnation, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress. Observe, To carnal professors the law is but the letter; they read it as a bare writing, but are not ruled by it as a law. They did transgress, not only notwithstanding the letter and circumcision, but by it, that is, they thereby hardened themselves in sin. External privileges, if they do not do us good, do us hurt. The obedience of those that enjoy less means, and make a less profession, will help to condemn those that enjoy greater means, and make a greater profession, but do not live up to it.

2. He describes the true circumcision, Rom. 2:28, 29. (1.) It is not that which is outward in the flesh and in the letter. This is not to drive us off from the observance of external institutions (they are good in their place), but from trusting to them and resting in them as sufficient to bring us to heaven, taking up with a name to live, without being alive indeed. He is not a Jew, that is, shall not be accepted of God as the seed of believing Abraham, nor owned as having answered the intention of the law. To be Abraham’s children is to do the works of Abraham, John 8:39, 40. (2.) It is that which is inward, of the heart, and in the spirit. It is the heart that God looks at, the circumcising of the heart that renders us acceptable to him. See Deut. 30:6. This is the circumcision that is not made with hands, Col. 2:11, 12. Casting away the body of sin. So it is in the spirit, in our spirit as the subject, and wrought by God’s Spirit as the author of it. (3.) The praise thereof, though it be not of men, who judge according to outward appearance, yet it is of God, that is, God himself will own and accept and crown this sincerity; for he seeth not as man seeth. Fair pretences and a plausible profession may deceive men: but God cannot be so deceived; he sees through shows to realities. This is alike true of Christianity. He is not a Christian that is one outwardly, nor is that baptism which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Christian that is one inwardly, and baptism is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God.