For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)
Who can forget the Clint Eastwood Western melodrama The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly? As for the “Bad” and the “Ugly,” there was little doubt! But no one was really good. We fallen humans see other humans in relative terms. These relative distinctions in human character seem to have been in the Apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote Romans 5:6-8, contrasting human ideas of sacrificial love with God’s unique, incomprehensible love poured out in the sacrifice of His Son.
Three descriptions of human beings are mentioned: a righteous man, the good man, and sinners, also called ungodly. In the original text, “the good man” is distinguished by the definite article (“the”). At this point I must acknowledge that some prominent commentators, including John Calvin, do not think Paul is making a distinction between “righteous” and “good” in this passage. Calvin puts it this way:
The import of the sentence is this, "Most rare, indeed, is such an example to be found among men, that one dies for a just man, though this may sometimes happen: but let this be granted, yet for an ungodly man none will be found willing to die: this is what Christ has done." Thus it is an illustration, derived from a comparison; for such an example of kindness, as Christ has exhibited towards us, does not exist among men.
The late William Hendriksen elaborated:
The distinction between “a righteous person” and “a good person” should not be pressed, as if the apostle were saying that for a person who is merely “righteous” it would be almost impossible to find someone who would die, but for a “good” person, or benefactor, it might under exceptional conditions be possible to find a substitute who would be willing to offer his life. This is over-interpretation. We should adhere to the one basic point Paul is making, and not obscure the thought by introducing unwarranted distinctions. Room should be left for stylistic variation.
William Hendriksen was an excellent expositor, one to whose commentaries I refer regularly. But if the distinction he rejects is “over-interpretation,” lots of careful, scholarly, and godly commentators over-interpreted it, among whom are the following: A. T. Robertson, Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, John Gill, Albert Barnes, Adam Clarke, Charles Hodge, Robert Haldane, Sanday & Headlam, H. P. Liddon, James Denney (Expositor’s Greek Testament) and others.
I certainly agree with Hendriksen that we must emphasize the “basic point” that Paul is making, that is, that God’s love is unique, all-surpassing, and humanly incomprehensible. Still, Paul makes that point through his typically logical steps, and there are good reasons for believing that Paul is not using the terms synonymously.
First, it seems unlikely that Paul is having second thoughts about what he just wrote, as if he were saying, “Hardly would anyone die for a righteous person, but . . . well, come to think about it, for a good or righteous person someone might dare to die.” James Denney in the Expositor’s Greek Testament on this passage gives sound grammatical and syntactical reasons why this notion is untenable. Paul is building to his point, first noting that for a person who lives righteously, in adherence to moral and ethical standards, as attractive as that kind of life might be, one would hardly lay down one’s life. Yet for one who goes beyond the letter of the law, one who is caring and generous, one who himself sacrifices for the sake of others, someone might give his own life, though even that is rare. God’s love is now set in stark contrast with man’s in that Christ died for “sinners” (v. 8), “the ungodly (v. 6),” and His “enemies” (v. 10)!
The second reason for believing that Paul is making a distinction between “righteous” and “good” in this verse is the cultural and religious context. Paul was a Jew and undoubtedly many of his readers in the Roman church were Jewish. (Later he states, “I speak to those who know the Law,” 7:1.) Jewish religious tradition designated three categories of persons: The righteous (zaddik), the holy or pious (hassid), and the impious or wicked (rasha). John Gill documented these distinctions from Jewish literature. It is reasonable to assume that Paul was using these designations to contrast man’s love with God’s.
Adam Clarke cites a Jewish source for a more refined description of four categories:
First class, Those who say, “what is mine, is my own; and what is thine, is thy own.” These may be considered the just, who render to every man his due; or rather, they who neither give nor take.
The second class is made up of those who say, “what is mine, is thine; and what is thine, is mine.” These are they who accommodate each other, who borrow and lend.
The third class is composed of those who say, “What is mine, is thine; and what is thine, let it be thine.” These are the pious, or good, who give up all for the benefit of their neighbor.
The fourth class are those who say, “What is mine, is mine; and what is thine, shall be mine.” These are the impious, who take all, and give nothing.
Fine distinctions are the hallmark of Jewish religious tradition; generalizations are characteristic of western, particularly modern western thinking. Glossing over the distinctions in Romans 7:6-8 is, well, so American!
The last reason I believe Paul is making a distinction between “righteous” and “good” here has to do with the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. There is a tendency today to minimize the importance of individual words in the original languages of Scripture, putting more emphasis on literary style and “dynamic equivalency” in translation. Some modern evangelical commentators seem to take pride in their iconoclastic pooh-poohing of earlier commentators who took the very words of Scripture more seriously.
Writers of Scripture certainly did have individual styles of writing, but they were superintended by the Holy Spirit in their choice of words (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). That’s what verbal inspiration means. In some contexts of Scripture, two words may indeed be used more or less synonymously, referring to the same person or thing, but even in those instances, each word most likely adds something to the entire picture.
We must not forget that the ultimate author of Holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit.