Paul’s letter to the Romans has been well-served by Reformed and evangelical commentaries.
I asked five of my favorite commentators on the book if they would tackle five questions: from Paul’s purpose in writing the letter to why they love it (including questions about the hardest verse for them to exegete and whether they have changed their mind over the years on Romans 7).
Here are the respondents:
- Douglas Moo is the Kenneth T. Wessner professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of the commentary on Romans in Eerdmans’s New international Commentary on the New Testament series (1st ed., 1996; 2nd ed., 2018).
- Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation and professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the commentary on Romans in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (1st ed., 1998; 2nd ed., 2018).
- David Peterson is emeritus faculty member at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the commentary on Romans in B&H’s Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series (2017).
- Frank Thielman is Presbyterian chair of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He is the author of the commentary on Romans in Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (2018).
- Robert Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is author of the forthcoming commentary on Romans in Crossway’s ESV Expository Commentary series (2021).
1. Why did Paul write this letter to the Roman church?
Paul writes with multiple purposes:
- to secure support for his mission to Spain,
- to unify Roman Christians around his law-free but OT-affirming gospel, and
- to elucidate that gospel in the face of opposition and misunderstanding.
Division existed between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, which explains why Paul focuses on
- the guilt of both Gentiles and Jews,
- the role the law plays in God’s purposes,
- the place of Israel in God’s plan (since many Gentiles were being saved), and
- the matter of clean and unclean foods.
Paul wanted to unify both Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome under his gospel. By embracing his gospel together, the Roman churches would serve as a launching pad for the proposed Pauline mission to Spain.
Although much of Romans is given over to theological exposition and ethical application, the epistolary framework in which this is presented is significant. Three critical issues are raised in Romans 1:1–17 and then developed in the body of the letter: (1) the centrality of the gospel to what God is doing in the world, (2) Jesus Christ and what God has accomplished through him as the focus of the gospel, and (3) Paul’s God-given role in the exposition and propagation of this gospel.
The particular significance of the Roman Christians within this wider movement is revealed when Paul records his gratitude to God for their faith, mentions how he regularly prays for them, and asks that God would make it possible for him to visit them soon.
In the closing sections, he returns to the theme of his commission to preach the gospel to the nations and sets his writing to the Romans within that context (Rom. 15:14–16:27). As well as ministering to them in person, he wants to win their support for the next stage of his ministry by writing to them as he does.
In the body of Romans, Paul expounds his law-free gospel and its implications, while dealing with specifically Jewish issues concerning their heritage as God’s covenant people. At the very least, Paul must have thought it important to equip the Roman Christians for debates with Jews in their city. Moreover, his readers could hardly have supported Paul’s missionary endeavors without being convinced of his stand on the sort of critical issues addressed in the defensive passages. The interweaving of gospel exposition and defense against Jewish arguments in this letter was partly driven by the nature of Paul’s own apostolic ministry and experience, and partly by his knowledge of the context in Rome, which had particular expression in the conflict addressed in Romans 14:1–15:13.
So Paul’s intentions were theological, pastoral, and missional.
I think Paul wrote Romans for a variety of reasons.
First, he was at a critical juncture in his church-planting career. He had nearly finished his work of proclaiming the gospel in the eastern Mediterranean region and was now looking west to Spain. He planned to visit the Christians in Rome on his way to Spain and hoped they would support his church-planting efforts there.
Second, Paul wanted the Roman Christians to pray for the success of his relief mission to Jerusalem, a project that had engaged his attention for several years and that would show the unity of Jewish and non-Jewish believers through their common faith in Christ.
Third, Paul was concerned pastorally about the Romans themselves. They were experiencing disunity over the extent to which Jewish practices carried over into Christianity. They needed to hear the unifying message of the gospel again and to understand the implications of the gospel for the way they treated each other.
Fourth, at a couple of places in Romans Paul hints that some Roman Christians may have misunderstood Paul’s gospel of God’s free grace. Did Paul emphasize God’s grace to the point that he implied believers were free to sin?
For all these reasons, a letter to Rome before his own visit to Rome made sense to Paul.
Among obvious reasons, much discussed among commentators:
- Paul wanted to connect for the sake of his future plans to travel to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28).
- He wanted to further his apostolic and missionary goal of bringing about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5, 16:26)—and in terms of the Roman empire, the city of Rome was the Gentile capital.
- He had a longing to encourage, and be encouraged by, the Roman congregation/s (Rom. 1:11–12).
- He was eager to preach the gospel there and witness its powerful work (Rom. 1:15) as he had in so many other Gentile cities.
Further, there is something to be said for a reading that acknowledges that the letter would be read and taught to the Romans congregation/s by the pastoral leaders there (probably overseeing house churches). Romans 16:17–20 serves as a directive to those leaders summarizing how and why they should administer the substance of Paul’s entire communique. Seen in that light, Paul wrote to stabilize and strengthen pastoral instruction and care of souls.
Finally, it bears mention that if we believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, why Paul wrote Romans (in terms of his intentions and the letter’s effects then and there), while foundational, may not begin to exhaust God’s wider gracious and providential purposes. For example, I can’t imagine Tom Schreiner not mentioning “to glorify God” as a reason Paul wrote Romans. And he would be right (see inferential evidence at Rom. 11:13; 15:6, 9).
2. What do you take to be the central verse or passage or thesis of the Letter to the Romans?
Romans 1:16–17 is as close as we get to this in Romans. “Gospel,” which I take to be the leading theme of the letter, is prominent; and included also are other prominent letter themes:
- God’s provision in the gospel for our ultimate salvation (chaps. 5–8),
- the combination of precedence for Jews with inclusion of Gentiles (chaps. 9–11),
- God’s righteousness unveiled (chaps. 1–4).
I think the thesis is in Romans 1:16–17. The gospel is God’s power unto salvation because in the gospel the saving righteousness of God is revealed for all who believe.
Structurally, Romans 12:1–2 is a turning-point in the argument, as the apostle moves from exposition to exhortation. God’s “mercies” in Christ, which are wonderfully outlined and celebrated in earlier chapters, are the basis for Paul’s appeal to live in a way that is consistent with the gospel. The exhortation to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” restates the pivotal challenge in Romans 6:12–14, using the language of worship. A parallel exhortation about not being conformed to this age, but “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” offers believers the possibility of discerning and doing the will of God in everyday life. These two verses together proclaim a reversal of the downward spiral depicted in Paul’s portrayal of fallen humanity in Romans 1:18-32. Paul’s challenge in Romans 12:1–2 is immediately followed by an exhortation to serve one another in the body of Christ with different gifts and ministries. But the challenge to love is then broadened to include persecutors and unbelieving outsiders. In Romans 15:14–33, Paul uses the language of service to God to describe his own particular calling as apostle to the Gentiles and to invite his readers to share with him in the next stage of his gospel ministry.
In short, Paul proclaims the possibility of a new kind of service to God, because of the sacrificial death of Jesus and its transforming implications (Rom. 3:24–26; 8:1–4).
Paul states his thesis clearly in Romans 1:16–17 where he explains the gospel in terms of the righteousness of God that powerfully saves every individual who believes the gospel. God does this in fulfillment of Scripture and without prejudice toward any particular social group.
Paul sums up the letter’s message in Romans 15:7–13 where he pictures Christ himself directing a multiethnic choir of believers who are filled with the joy and peace that comes from their trust in God.
Commentators are largely agreed that the theme of Romans is found in Romans 1:16–17. The beauty of those verses, in addition to their redemptive truth, is their versatility. The powerful “good news” of which Paul is not ashamed sheds definitive light on any number of issues that world fallenness and the human dilemma pose.
- Do you seek personal salvation? Many thank God for the direction of Romans 10:9–10.
- Does a believer seek a road map for daily living? It’s hard to beat Romans 12:1–2.
- Is the need for grasping the human condition and God’s assessment of it? See Romans 1:18–3:20.
- Is the question how God justifies the ungodly? Romans 3:24–26 covers the mechanics of the atonement, augmented by the equally significant resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 4:25).
- Do we need help with ecclesial identity? Since Christians are children of Abraham through faith, Romans 4 is more important than is often realized.
- Is the need to make sense of the world’s paroxysms and pathologies, including Christian suffering? See Romans 8.
- Are there questions about the abiding importance of Israel, about how the gospel can be true if most of the descendants of Abraham in Paul’s time are rejecting it, or how God can be regarded as faithful to his old covenant promises when the Gentiles have eclipsed the Jews in their embrace of the gospel? See Romans 9–11.
This just scratches the surface of major issues to which Romans speaks authoritatively. Others are Christology, missiology, reconciliation, bibliology, sanctification, eschatology, adiaphora, and more.
All that said, to summarize: the central thesis of Romans lies in the application of Christ’s lordship as the gospel heralds it for all situations in which it is brought to bear.
3. In writing your Romans commentary, what verse or passage was most challenging to exegete?
Romans 11:26—I went back and forth for weeks on “all Israel being saved.”
I would select two passages.
Romans 3:1-8, which is difficult because the discussion is abbreviated so that it is difficult to trace the contours of the argument.
And Romans 7 since good arguments can be made for the “I” being Adam, Israel, or Paul. Further, it is difficult to know whether Romans 7:14–25 refers to a believer or unbeliever.
Probably Romans 7:14, which I would translate “we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin.”
The first part of the sentence is a confessional statement, which implies that his readers share the same view. The first-person singular in the second part also appears to be a representative statement, in which Paul includes himself.
A problem for this view is that Romans 7:14, 23 seem to be incompatible with what is said about the believer’s liberation from captivity to sin in Romans 6:6, 14, 17–18, 22; 8:2. So, most of the early church fathers thought that Paul was describing an unregenerate person, and some modern commentaries argue with Moo that, “Paul is looking back, from his Christian understanding, to the situation of himself, and other Jews like him, living under the law of Moses.”
I argue that Paul speaks as one who belongs to the new era of Christ and the Spirit, but knows that he is still “fleshly,” and caught in the overlap of the ages. He does not argue this way to commend obedience to the law to Christians, but to highlight the need for the radical death to the law outlined in Romans 7:4–6, before moving on to expound the “new way of the Spirit.” Even those who delight in God’s law and desire to keep it find that they cannot adequately obey the law and please God, because of the ongoing power of sin and the flesh.
I have always found Romans 3:5–7 difficult.
- Who is asking the questions here? Is it Paul, or his imaginary interlocutor?
- What is the logic behind the question in Romans 3:7?
- Did Paul actually know people that made this sort of objection to God’s right to condemn the sinner?
Romans 11:26 is probably the verse about which I am the least certain that my interpretation is the best one. No matter which view I adopt, I see merit in other ones.
4. Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7 (and have you always believed what you believe now about the answer to that question)?
I had originally held the erroneous (!) view that it referred to the “normal” Christian.
I now am pretty convinced he is referring to the Jew under the law.
Some think the text isn’t difficult, but I have wrestled with the passage over and over, and I suppose I am not yet finished.
I would argue that
- Paul writes about his own experience, and
- Paul’s experience mirrors the experience of Adam and Israel.
In Romans 7:14–25 the fleshiness of the “I” is featured, and of course unbelievers are dominated by the flesh. But I think Paul also includes believers here in the sense that he considers the intrinsic capacity of the “I,” and such relates to believers since the flesh isn’t absent until the day of redemption.
It is important to distinguish between
- what Paul says about the coming of the law and its effect historically (Rom. 7:7–13), and
- the present-tense description of those who desire to keep the law, but discover that they cannot, because of sin and the flesh (Rom. 7:14–24).
For a long time I held the view that in the first of these paragraphs Paul is simply speaking in the name of Adam or as a representative of humanity in Adam.
Now I would add that he also seems to link Israel’s reception of the law at Sinai with Adam’s disobedience to the command he was given, which brought sin and death into the world. This composite biblical perspective is expressed in the first-person singular, not just for rhetorical vividness, but because of Paul’s “deep sense of personal involvement, his consciousness that in drawing out the general truth he is disclosing the truth about himself” (Cranfield). As noted in my answer to the preceding question, I see Paul in the second of these paragraphs speaking as a representative of those who may seek to keep the law in order to please God, but find themselves hindered by sin and the flesh. While this may have some retrospective reference to his life before Christ, it is also a testimony to his struggle as a Christian and a challenge to pursue “the new way of the Spirit” he outlines in Romans 8.
I have thought for a long time that the key to interpreting Romans 7 is not the identification of the “I” in the chapter, but Paul’s description of the toxic interaction between sinful humanity and the Mosaic law. His purpose is not to tell his own story, or any story, but to explain more fully the negative statements he has made up to this point about the Mosaic law. Paul has said that
- the law brings knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20),
- the law brings wrath (Rom. 4:15),
- sin increases in the presence of the law (Rom. 5:20), and
- the law arouses sinful passions (Rom. 7:5).
If all this is true, how can the law be “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12)?
In Romans 7, Paul explains that the fault lies not with the law but with the inability of human beings to extract themselves from their own tendency to rebel against God. The “I” is a rhetorical device that lends vividness to Paul’s argument by making it personal and individual, but it does not correspond exactly either to Paul himself or to any other person (such as Adam) or group (such as Israel). The interaction between Eve, Adam, and God’s commandment, and between Israel and the Mosaic law, as those interactions are described in Scripture, thoroughly inform Paul’s perspective in Romans 7, but the “I” is not a cypher for any of these people or groups.
Over the years I have been impressed by all the major options. There is textual warrant to varying degrees for each of them. Now in my 60s, I have returned to my original conviction that the core of the chapter (Rom. 7:7–25) describes a dedicated and growing Christian believer.
More particularly, the passage describes both:
- how God’s law (which is spiritual, Rom. 7:14) by the Spirit’s aid, administers the conviction of sin (an emphasis of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones), and
- how grace triumphs over the stubborn sarx (flesh) so that in the midst of our wrestling not against flesh and blood, we can exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25)
Why? See Romans 8:1. But being in Christ Jesus does not relieve believers of, it rather consoles and stabilizes and guides them in, the struggles of Roman 7.
5. Why do you love the book of Romans?
As one who has always been drawn to theology and the “big picture,” I love the way Paul in this letter tackles some of the most pressing theological issues in his day—and in ours: God’s gracious provision in Christ for salvation for all humans, the way salvation history fits together, and the imperative and shape of living out the gospel in daily life.
I love the book of Romans because it clearly sets forth the gospel, reminding us that we are entirely saved by the grace of God and not by our own achievements. Romans reminds us that all the glory goes to God in our salvation and all the glory goes to God in redemptive history. He is working out his wise purposes, and thus we have massive reasons for hope. One of the greatest temptations is to give into despair and discouragement, and Romans shows us the splendor and majesty of God in the saving work of Christ, which is applied to the hearts of God’s people by the Holy Spirit. Romans is also great in that it teaches us that our love for one another can only come from the gospel of Christ. No other ideology, no other strategy will truly bring people together. We will only find unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
I love it because it is such a carefully argued presentation of the gospel in the light of human need, both Jewish and Gentile.
I love it because Paul explains at length the power of the gospel to transform lives and enable a life of loving service to God and to other people.
In particular, the missiological dimension to Romans shows how belief in the gospel and love of neighbor should lead to gospel proclamation and the support of those who on the front line of gospel work.
I love Romans because it is such a clear, hopeful, joyful explanation of (1) who God is, (2) who we are as human beings, and (3) what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. It explains all this in a way that puts the whole Bible together.
At the same time, it is a practical text written to help every believer live a faithful life of service to God and others in the complex and difficult circumstances we face each day.
Calvin in his Romans commentary remarks how easily a question like this becomes a snare. Addressing a question similar to “Why do you love Romans?” namely, “What is the value of this epistle?” he expressed uncertainty—an uncertainty “due only to my fear that since my commendation of it falls far short of its grandeur my remarks may only obscure the epistle.”
But Calvin went on immediately to state why Romans deserves to be loved, and why I am partial to it myself: “among many other notable virtues the epistle has one in particular which is never sufficiently appreciated. It is this—if we have gained a true understanding of this epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.”
In a word, I love Romans because more than any other single document of the Protestant canon, it is Romans that serves as unerring guide to the gospel meaning of the other parts as well as the whole. In concert with the rest of Scripture, it expounds eloquently how grace teaches the convicted human heart to fear, and how grace relieves those same fears, uniting the ungodly with Christ via imputation to them of Christ’s righteousness as the heard word ignites in them saving faith (Rom. 10:17).