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Commentary On Romans by Jean Calvin

Romans 2:17-24

17. Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,

17. Ecce, tu Iudæus cognominaris, et acquiescis in Lege, et gloriaris in Deo,

18. And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;

18. Et nosti voluntatem, et probas eximia, institutus ex Lege;

19. And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness,

19. Confidisque teipsum esse ducem cæcorum, lumen eorum qui sunt in tenebris,

20. An instructer of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.

20. Eruditorem insipientium, doctorem imperitorum, habentem formam cognitionis ac veritatis in Lege:

21. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?

21. Qui igitur doces alterum, teipsum non doces; qui concionaris, non furandum, furaris;

22. Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?

22. Qui dicis, nom moechandum, moecharis; qui detestaris idola, Sacrilegium perpetras;

23. Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?

23. Qui de Lege gloriaris, Deum per Legis transgressionem dehonestas:

24. For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.

24. Nomen enim Dei propter vos probro afficitur inter gentes, quemadmodum scriptum est.

17. Behold, thou art named a Jew, etc. Some old copies read ei de, though indeed; which, were it generally received, would meet my approbation; but as the greater part of the manuscripts is opposed to it, and the sense is not unsuitable, I retain the old reading, especially as it is only a small difference of one letter.

Having now completed what he meant to say of the Gentiles, he returns to the Jews; and that he might, with greater force, beat down their great vanity, he allows them all those privileges, by which they were beyond measure transported and inflated: and then he shows how insufficient they were for the attainment of true glory, yea, how they turned to their reproach. Under the name Jew he includes all the privileges of the nation, which they vainly pretended were derived from the law and the prophets; and so he comprehends all the Israelites, all of whom were then, without any difference, called Jews.

But at what time this name first originated it is uncertain, except that it arose, no doubt, after the dispersion. Josephus, in the eleventh book of his Antiquities, thinks that it was taken from Judas Maccabæus, under whose auspices the liberty and honor of the people, after having for some time fallen, and been almost buried, revived again. Though I allow this opinion to be probable, yet, if there be some to whom it is not satisfactory, I will offer them a conjecture of my own. It seems, indeed, very likely, that after having been degraded and scattered through so many disasters, they were not able to retain any certain distinction as to their tribes; for a census could not have been made at that time, nor did there exist a regular government, which was necessary to preserve an order of this kind; and they dwelt scattered and in disorder; and having been worn out by adversities, they were no doubt less attentive to the records of their kindred. But though you may not grant these things to me, yet it cannot be denied but that a danger of this kind was connected with such disturbed state of things. Whether, then, they meant to provide for the future, or to remedy an evil already received, they all, I think assumed the name of that tribe, in which the purity of religion remained the longest, and which, by a peculiar privilege, excelled all the rest, as from it the Redeemer was expected to come; for it was their refuge in all extremities, to console themselves with the expectation of the Messiah. However this may be, by the name of Jews they avowed themselves to be the heirs of the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham and his seed.

And restest in the law, and gloriest in God, etc. He means not that they rested in attending to the law, as though they applied their minds to the keeping of it; but, on the contrary, he reproves them for not observing the end for which the law had been given; for they had no care for its observance, and were inflated on this account only, -- because they were persuaded that the oracles of God belonged to them. In the same way they gloried in God, not as the Lord commands by his Prophet, -- to humble ourselves, and to seek our glory in him alone, (Jeremiah 9:24,) -- but being without any knowledge of God's goodness, they made him, of whom they were inwardly destitute, peculiarly their own, and assumed to be his people, for the purpose of vain ostentation before men. This, then, was not the glorying of the heart, but the boasting of the tongue.

18. And knowest his will, and approvest things excellent, etc. He now concedes to them the knowledge of the divine will, and the approval of things useful; and this they had attained from the doctrine of the law. But there is a twofold approval, -- one of choice, when we embrace the good we approve; the other of judgment, by which indeed we distinguish good from evil, but by no means strive or desire to follow it. Thus the Jews were so learned in the law that they could pass judgment on the conduct of others, but were not careful to regulate their life according to that judgment. But as Paul reproves their hypocrisy, we may, on the other hand, conclude, that excellent things are then only rightly approved (provided our judgment proceeds from sincerity) when God is attended to; for his will, as it is revealed in the law, is here appointed as the guide and teacher of what is to be justly approved.

19. And believest thyself, etc. More is still granted to them; as though they had not only what was sufficient for themselves, but also that by which they could enrich others. He grants, indeed, that they had such abundance of learning, as that others might have been supplied.

20. I take what follows, having the form of knowledge, as a reason for the preceding; and it may be thus explained, -- |because thou hast the form of knowledge.| For they professed to be the teachers of others, because they seemed to carry in their breasts all the secrets of the law. The word form is put for model (exemplar -- pattern); for Paul has adopted morphosin and not tupon: but he intended, I think, to point out the conspicuous pomp of their teaching, and what is commonly called display; and it certainly appears that they were destitute of that knowledge which they pretended. But Paul, by indirectly ridiculing the perverted use of the law, intimates, on the other hand, that right knowledge must be sought from the law, in order that the truth may have a solid basis.

21. Thou, who then teachest another, teachest not thyself, etc. Though the excellencies (encomia -- commendations) which he has hitherto stated respecting the Jews, were such as might have justly adorned them, provided the higher ornaments were not wanting; yet as they included qualifications of a neutral kind, which may be possessed even by the ungodly and corrupted by abuse, they are by no means sufficient to constitute true glory. And hence Paul, not satisfied with merely reproving and taunting their arrogance in trusting in these things alone, employs them for the purpose of enhancing their disgraceful conduct; for he exposes himself to no ordinary measure of reproach, who not only renders useless the gifts of God, which are otherwise valuable and excellent, but by his wickedness vitiates and contaminates them. And a strange counselor is he, who consults not for his own good, and is wise only for the benefit of others. He shows then that the praise which they appropriated to themselves, turned out to their own disgrace.

Thou who preachest, steal not, etc. He seems to have alluded to a passage in Psalm 50:16, where God says to the wicked,

|Why dost thou declare my statutes, and takest my covenant in thy mouth? And thou hatest reform, and hast cast my words behind thee: when thou seest a thief, thou joinest him, and with adulterers is thy portion.|

And as this reproof was suitable to the Jews in old time, who, relying on the mere knowledge of the law, lived in no way better than if they had no law; so we must take heed, lest it should be turned against us at this day: and indeed it may be well applied to many, who, boasting of some extraordinary knowledge of the gospel, abandon themselves to every kind of uncleanness, as though the gospel were not a rule of life. That we may not then so heedlessly trifle with the Lord, let us remember what sort of judgment impends over such prattlers, (logodoedalis -- word-artificers,) who make a show of God's word by mere garrulity.

22. Thou who abhorrest idols, etc. He fitly compares sacrilege to idolatry, as it is a thing of the same kind; for sacrilege is simply a profanation of the Divine Majesty, a sin not unknown to heathen poets. On this account Ovid (Metamor.3,) calls Lycurgus sacrilegious for despising the rites of Bacchus; and in his Fasti he calls those sacrilegious hands which violated the majesty of Venus. But as the Gentiles ascribed the majesty of their gods to idols, they only thought it a sacrilege when any one plundered what was dedicated to their temples, in which, as they believed, the whole of religion centered. So at this day, where superstition reigns, and not the word of God, they acknowledge no other kind of sacrilege than the stealing of what belongs to churches, as there is no God but in idols, no religion but in pomp and magnificence.

Now we are here warned, first, not to flatter ourselves and to despise others, when we have performed only some portions of the law, -- and, secondly, not to glory in having outward idolatry removed, while we care not to drive away and to eradicate the impiety that lieth hid in our hearts.

23. Thou who gloriest in the law, etc. Though every transgressor dishonors God, (for we are all born for this end -- to serve him in righteousness and holiness;) yet he justly imputes in this respect a special fault to the Jews; for as they avowed God as their Lawgiver, and yet had no care to form their life according to his rule, they clearly proved that the majesty of their God was not so regarded by them, but that they easily despised him. In the same manner do they at this day dishonor Christ, by transgressing the gospel, who prattle idly about its doctrine, while yet they tread it under foot by their unbridled and licentious mode of living.

24. For the name of God, etc. I think this quotation is taken from Ezekiel 36:20, rather than from Isaiah 52:5; for in Isaiah there are no reproofs given to the people, but that chapter in Ezekiel is full of reproofs. But some think that it is a proof from the less to the greater, according to this import, |Since the Prophet upbraided, not without cause, the Jews of his time, that on account of their captivity, the glory and power of God were ridiculed among the Gentiles, as though he could not have preserved the people, whom he had taken under his protection, much more are ye a disgrace and dishonor to God, whose religion, being judged of by your wicked life, is blasphemed.| This view I do not reject, but I prefer a simpler one, such as the following, -- |We see that all the reproaches cast on the people of Israel do fall on the name of God; for as they are counted, and are said to be the people of God, his name is as it were engraven on their foreheads: it must hence be, that God, whose name they assume, is in a manner defamed by men, through their wicked conduct.| It was then a monstrous thing, that they who derived their glory from God should have disgraced his holy name; for it behoved them surely to requite him in a different manner.

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