Invitation to Romans
Author and Date
Paul composed the letter in the winter of AD 56–57 from Corinth, at the end of the Third Missionary Journey, according to his description of his travel intentions in 15:17–32.
The letter’s intended audience was the Rome-based church’s Jewish and Gentile Christians, who seem to be clashing over which group is more spiritually mature and should thus have authority in the church.
Paul stated a few of the reasons that he wrote in the letter itself. He wanted to share a spiritual gift with them, to urge the Jews and Gentiles to unite in the gospel, and to spread the good news throughout the city so that many would come to know Jesus as Lord (1:8–15). In addition, Paul anticipated that a united Roman church would back him in his efforts to bring the gospel to Spain (15:24) and take the place of the church in Antioch as his base of operations. Paul drafted this letter to accomplish this purpose. Some interpreters have argued that Paul was not as concerned about what was going on inside the church in Rome as he was about his own personal situation when he wrote the letter. They contend that Paul is writing the letter to prepare a defense of the message he has been proclaiming throughout his missionary journeys and, maybe more significantly, a defense of the implications of that message when he arrived in Jerusalem. The downside of this view is that it can result in interpretations of the text that view Romans more as a compendium of theological propositions detached from an historical situation than as a letter written to a specific group of people with specific theological and relational struggles that the Apostle must address. Polhill balances these separate purposes well with the following: “One could thus summarize the purposes of Romans around the three destinations on which Paul had his eye: the defense he would need to make in Jerusalem, the need for unity in the church of Rome, and the proposal of a mission to Spain.”
Paul introduced himself in this letter to the church in Rome because he did not plant the congregation there. Therefore, Paul gave an explanation of the message’s meaning and its capacity to transform both individuals and Christian communities.
Paul explains in 1:17 how Jesus Christ, our Lord, called him to spread the gospel throughout the world. So that people would know this letter had come from a dependable friend and not a potentially dangerous foe, he next conveyed the gospel message he had been preaching. The gospel has the potential to rescue anybody who believes because it exposes the power of God to pronounce guilty sinners innocent without compromising his righteous character, Paul said at the end of the introduction to the letter.
Paul beautifully portrayed God’s constancy, grace, and ability to deliver both Jews and Gentiles from their guilt in 1:18–4:25. He achieved this by demonstrating the brazenness of humanity’s idolatry-fueled rebellion against God, as the amazingness of God’s redemptive might is amplified in the presence of the just retribution that sinners are due. In order to illustrate the point that redemption has always depended on faith in God’s promise, he used the examples of Abraham and David to close out the section.
After defining the process by which someone can be deemed righteous in God’s eyes, Paul went on to explain that because of Christ’s death, followers of Jesus now have peace with God, hope in the midst of suffering because nothing can separate them from the love of Christ, freedom from the power of sin because Christ has destroyed sin’s power, and the expectation of eternal life in God’s new creation because God raised Jesus from the dead (5:1–8:39).
Paul debated how God can be faithful to the Jews when the church is predominately made up of Gentiles rather than Jews in Romans 9–11 and came to the conclusion that God’s work to redeem the Gentiles will ultimately provoke the Jews to a jealousy that will result in their salvation.
Paul urged these recipients of kindness to worship God by giving themselves entirely to him and to serve one another out of selfless love (12:1–15:13) as he finished the letter.
To present a comprehensive definition of what the gospel is and does to those who believe it ahead of Paul’s ordeal in Jerusalem, to articulate the essence of gospel unity that the church in Rome must pursue, and to prepare the church at Rome to support his future gospel proclamation in Spain.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.”
— Romans 1:16–17 CSB
I. Salutation: The Gospel Defined (1:1–7)
II. Thanksgiving and Prayer: Sharing a Spiritual Gift (1:8–15)
III. Thesis: The Gospel Displays God’s Power to Save (1:16–17)
IV. The Body (1:18-11:35)
A. The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah Reveals Humanity’s Guilt (1:18–3:20)
1. Idolatry that Destroys Communion with God and Neighbors (1:18–32)
2. Hypocritical Judgment Invites God’s Wrath (2:1–11)
3. Doers of the Law Will Be Justified (2:12–16)
4. Hypocrisy and Hope (2:17–29)
5. What’s With All the Questions (3:1–8)?
6. Just Shut Your Mouth (3:9–20)
B. The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah Justifies the Guilty Who Believe (3:21–4:25)
1. The Facts Changed (3:21–31)
2. Examples of Father Abraham and King David (4:1–8)
3. Check the Timeline (4:9–12)
4. The Promise is from Faith (4:13–25)
C. The Eternal Benefits of Being Justified through Believing the Gospel
1. Peace, Reconciliation, and Eternal Hope (5:1–11)
2. The Gift of New Representation (5:12–21)
3. Under New Management: New King Not the Same as the Old King (6:1–7:6)
4. “I” Just Can’t Do It (7:7–25)
5. No Condemnation! (8:1–11)
6. Adoption as Sons (8:12–17)
7. “There You Go Working Good of All I Have” (8:18–30)
8. No Separation (8:31–39)
D. The Gospel of Jesus Confirms the Promises of God (9:1–11:36)
1. God’s Grace is Just (9:1–29)
2. How Do They Find What They Weren’t Looking For? (9:30–10:21)
3. Who Has Found What They Were Looking For? (11:1–10)
4. Arrogance Looks Ugly on Everyone (11:11–32)
5. A Concluding Doxology (11:33–36)
V. Exhortation and Instruction (12:1–15:13)
A. The Sacrificial Offering of Obedience to God (12:1–21)
B. The Proper Offering to Caesar (13:1–7)
C. The Proper Offering to Others (13:8–10)
D. The Urgency of Obedience (13:11–14)
E. The Weak and the Strong Must Get Along (14:1–15:13)
VI. Conclusion (15:14–16:27)
A. All the Things (15:14–33)
B. All the People (16:1–23)
C. A Final Doxology (16:25–27)
Salutation: The Gospel Defined (1:1–7)
Paul launched his letter to the Romans by describing in some detail the content of the gospel message he proclaimed throughout his travels and explaining the nature of his calling as the apostle to all the Gentiles. Paul likely provided this extended salutation (compare with 1Cor 1:1–3; 2Cor 1:1–2; Eph 1:1–2; Phil 1:1–2; 1Thes 1:1; 2Thes 1:2) to address concerns that members of the Roman church might have about his gospel and the nature of his authority in a church that he did not plant.
1:1a–c The opening line of the letter possesses features that are both similar to and different from the letters that he wrote to churches he established. Paul identified himself as the sole sender of the letter, a feature that differs from all his letters to the churches except for Ephesians. He identifies himself first as a servant (slave) of Messiah (Christ) Jesus, a title that he only uses in the salutations in Philippians and Titus. Using this title serves three purposes. First, while Paul certainly has the status in the early church to speak authoritatively to the Roman church, he takes a posture of humility before the congregation to make them more receptive to the teaching that he will present. Second, Paul is modeling the humility that he will exhort both “the strong” and “the weak” to display in their relationships with one another. Third, Paul uses this title to connect his ministry to the larger story of Scripture as he continues the ministry of the Servant of Yahweh prophesied by Isaiah and now fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.
Paul then explained that he has been “called as an apostle,” a title that he employed in every letter except Philippians and Philemon. On several occasions, Paul employs “apostle” as a title and explains that he has this office “through the will of God” (2Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2Tim 1:1), “not from men nor through a man” (Gal 1:1), “according to the command of God, our Savior and Christ Jesus, our hope” (1Tim 1:1), and “according to faith in the election of God and the knowledge of the truth, which is according to godliness” (Titus 1:1). In 1 Corinthians 1:1, Paul explains that he was “called as an apostle through the will of God” and compares his role in the church with that of the Corinthian believers who are called saints. This comparison allows Paul to address the Corinthian believers with respect while at the same time asserting his continuing authority in a church that he had planted. He employs a similar method in Romans where he describes himself as one who was called an apostle (Rom 1:1). Paul then defines the means through which God called him by employing the participial phrase “having been set apart for (into) the gospel of God,” which connotes that Jesus severed Paul from his past and limited the boundaries of his vocation with the “gospel of God.” Employing the perfect tense of aphorizw allows Paul to give the readers a ringside seat to imagine his Damascus Road conversion and to understand through this transformative event, Jesus gave him the status of an apostle.1
1:1d–4 Paul concludes Romans 1:1 by stating that he had been set apart for the “gospel of God,” a phrase which he only uses here in all his letters. Although we might assume that the Roman church understood Paul’s meaning of this phrase, he will use 1:2–4 to define the background and content of this message that he proclaimed among all the churches he planted. Paul quite likely takes the time to do so because he wants to settle any questions that this church body might have about the accuracy of this message given the disagreements that he had with Jewish Christians who still wanted Gentile Christians to complete their journey of faith by being circumcised and keeping the food laws and the distortions of his message that his opponents propagated (2Pet 3:14–16). The term “gospel” and its meaning in the broader context of the Greco-Roman world will clarify both Paul’s key concept in Romans as well as how this passage’s prepositional phrase, “of God” prepares the reader for the definition that follows.
Believers in the 21st century might assume that the term “gospel” denoted either a book about the life of Jesus or the message about how someone gets saved.2 Although the term “gospel” took on this meaning in the life of the church, these ideas are not within the normal scope of how the terms, euangelion (“gospel”) and euangelizomai (“I proclaim the gospel”) were employed at the time Paul was writing this letter, so we must consider how Paul’s readers would have employed these terms prior to hearing about Jesus and, given what follows in verse 2, how the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), the Bible likely used by most first century readers, employed these terms in order to establish the foundation upon which Paul constructs his definition of the gospel in this passage.3
In verses 2–4, Paul defines his gospel first by claiming that the prophets proclaimed the kingship of the Son in the Scriptures long before he was born into the family of David and enthroned with authority as Messiah (Christ, King) and Lord. The final prepositional phrase in 1:2, (“concerning his son,”) demonstrates that the content of the gospel is primarily focused on the King Jesus and not on some abstract “good news” that focuses solely on how people avoid hell. Paul then connects this message about the Son to one king, David. In his incarnation (“according to the flesh”), God the Son has become a part of David’s family, and his arrival signals the climax of the Old Testament story in general and the fulfillment of specific prophecies about the restoration of God’s reign and his people (2Sam 7:4–17; Isa 11:1–16). In 1:4, Paul explains how the sovereign authority the Son possessed from his eternal, co-equal reign with the Father and the Spirit and from his biological relationship with David is exerted out of his conquering of Satan, sin, and death in his resurrection. Paul concludes this definition of the gospel by exclaiming that the Son is Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. Given that this letter is written to the church in Rome where Caesars would be given or take for themselves the title kurios (Lord), Paul declares that the Christian can give ultimate allegiance only to the true Lord and King, the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
1:5–7 Having established that the core of his gospel preaching focuses on the kingship of Jesus, Paul explains that Jesus is the one who provided grace for his salvation and his commission as an apostle. Paul then summarizes succinctly the purpose, scope, and nature of his apostleship. His purpose is to lead those who believe in Jesus as their Lord to the obedience that comes from faith in King Jesus. His scope extends to all the Gentiles because Jesus is the true king of the universe. His role is to speak the words given to him by the King for the glory of the King.
Even though Paul did not plant this church in Rome, he believes that King Jesus has given him authority to write this letter because they are included within the group, “among all the nations.” Paul uses the adjective “called” seven times in his letters. He uses this term to describe the fact that the recipients of the letter have been called to salvation by Jesus Christ (Rom 1:6; 8:28; 1Cor 1:24) and that this calling to salvation establishes them as “saints” (“holy ones” or “consecrated ones”) (Rom 1:7; 1Cor 1:1), who are called by Jesus Christ. Paul continues this long salutation by stating for the first time that, in addition to being called by Jesus Christ, these saints reside in Rome and are beloved by God the Father. From there, he concludes the greeting with “grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.” Although we might view this conclusion of the salutation as a formulaic ending, Paul is fusing together greetings from Gentile and Jewish letter writing. This fused greeting shows that Jesus provides the favor the Gentiles wanted and never received from their gods as well as the peace with God declared by the OT prophets. For the Jewish reader, Paul provides a basis for believing that God has, through Christ, acted to forgive their sin and rescue them from exile.
Thanksgiving and Prayer: Sharing a Spiritual Gift (1:8–15)
1:8–12 In these verses Paul transitions into the traditional “Thanksgiving and Prayer” section where he articulates how he intercedes for the congregation in his prayers and subtly foreshadows major themes of the letter. Paul begins by thanking God for the church because their faith is being regularly proclaimed throughout the whole world. Even though Claudius sits on a throne in Rome and claims to the lord of the world, these believers possess an enduring faith in the true Lord of the world and his good news announcement being proclaimed to believers throughout the world. To those tempted to bow the knee to Caesar, Paul is inspiring them to carry on in faithfulness to King Jesus. Paul continues by explaining that part of his service to God is praying for them repeatedly and, at the center of his prayers, he continues to petition God to give him the good fortune of reaching Rome. Paul longs to see them (rather than just hear about them) in order that he might encourage and exhort them in the power of the Spirit so that the same Spirit would strengthen the Roman Christians to persevere in the faith.
In 1:12, this section takes what might be an unexpected turn. In most of his letters, even to churches he did not plant, Paul takes a more authoritative posture, but here, likely because he has no genealogical connection to the founding of the church, he explains that their reception of his spiritual gift and their faithfulness to one another will also bring encouragement to him.
1:13–15 In these verses, Paul builds upon this foundation of mutual encouragement by making it clear to the church that he often intended to come to Rome but up until this point was prevented by the Spirit to come. Paul’s travel plans, particularly delays in his plans to come, can hinder how he relates to congregations on occasion. We cannot know exactly why Paul brings up this delay here. Maybe he has some concern that the congregation might be hesitant to follow his leadership because they have been persevering without him for some time now. Maybe those who would oppose Paul taking an active role in helping the Roman Christians work through the challenges they face are using his delay to undermine his claims of concern for the church. Maybe some were saying that Paul was making a power play to take control over the Roman congregation. We cannot know for sure what false motives Paul’s opponents were assigning to him. Thankfully, we can know what is motivating Paul through his Spirit-inspired words. First, the Spirit is now making a way (though historically not one that he would have hoped for or expected) for him to minister to them just as he has among the rest of the Gentiles in the eastern portion of the Empire. Second, the Spirit is sending Paul to produce fruit through his ministry by saving sinners and sanctifying the saints.
Finally, he explains that his calling as the Apostle to the Gentiles creates a debt of service “both to the Greeks and Barbarians and to the wise and foolish.” Paul uses the term Ellēn, “Greek” 13 times in his letters. In every instance except this verse, Paul contrasts the “Greeks” with the “Jews” to destroy this divisive distinction by demonstrating that all people from these groups have the same need for salvation in Christ Jesus and once they are in Christ Jesus are united under his kingship (see Rom 1:16; 2:9; 3:9; 10:12; 1 Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; 12:13; Gal 2:3; 3:28; Col 3:11).
So, why does Paul use this “Greeks and Barbarians” contrast here? The Greeks created the term “barbarian” as a slur to describe the people groups surrounding them because, in the view of the wise Greeks, these cacophonous languages (sounding to the Greeks like “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar”) must indicate a deficiency of intellect. Before Rome became the world power (and maybe even after), the Greeks would have categorized the Romans in this way, but now the Romans are beginning to include themselves with the Greeks, and in the next few centuries will assign this slur to the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and many others. Paul also uses synonymous and antithetical parallelism to make his point.
|Group 1||Group 2|
Given how comparisons between Jews and Greeks indicate conflict between these groups and the use of “wise” to describe the Greeks and “foolish” to describe the Barbarians, inferring that some level of intra-Gentile conflict, grounded in feelings of superiority, existed Roman church makes sense. If those on the “Greeks” side of the squabble thought that Paul was signaling an allegiance with them when the letter was first read in the congregation, their excitement will be short-lived, and the sarcasm of Paul’s praise will become clear when Paul asserts that those who claim to be wise will show themselves to be fools through their worship of the creation rather than the creator (1:21–23). Rather than one group possessing superiority over another, all are foolish apart from the gospel’s transforming power that caused them to believe in Jesus as their king. Since the members of the congregation come under the singular umbrella of his ministry, he is eager to declare the kingly reign of Jesus in Rome.
Thesis: The Gospel Displays God’s Power to Save (1:16–17)
These two verses, which later became the biblical foundation upon which the Reformation was launched, set the stage for the body of the remainder of the letter by serving as the thesis for the body of the letter (1:13–11:36). Paul begins by declaring that he is not ashamed of the gospel and grounds this confidence in the fact that the gospel proclaims the supreme act of God’s power, raising Jesus from the dead and enthroning him in his rightful place as Lord of all creation. Proclaiming this gospel displays God’s power as it fulfills its purpose in bringing salvation to all who believe in Jesus as King. Paul further grounds his confidence in the gospel in the fact that it reveals the righteousness of God, promised in the Scriptures, in its ultimate manifestation. The promise of God, in which Habakkuk hoped, has now been fulfilled.
Paul begins this thesis statement by explaining that he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” Paul employs the term epaischunomai (“I am ashamed”) five times in his letters, and on every occasion its usage is connected to their posture toward their religious beliefs and the subsequent fruit those beliefs produced. Paul uses this term three times in 2 Timothy at a time when his death at the hands of the Romans is about to take place. Dying in this way would be considered a shameful thing and could indicate to those reading his letter that Caesar Nero and his gods, not the Jewish God who had revealed himself ultimately in King Jesus (another criminal executed by Rome whom the Christians believed to the be conqueror of death), reigned supreme. In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul proclaims that he is not ashamed because he knows the one in whom he has believed and has confidence that he will guard him to the judgment day when Jesus’s universal rule would be reveal in its totality. In 2 Timothy 1:8, Paul exhorts Timothy in the strongest possible terms, not to be ashamed of the testimony about Jesus and also not to be ashamed of Paul himself but encourages him to share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God. In these passages, Paul again asserts that believing the gospel will protect him from shame even if the earthly powers do their worst because the true King whom the gospel proclaims will vindicate him in the end. In 2 Timothy 1:16, Paul uses the term a third time to beg the Lord to grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, who cared for him and was not ashamed of Paul’s chains. One more time, Paul demonstrates that believing in Jesus transforms average people into those who would risk their lives to protect and care for Paul. Finally, Paul uses the term differently in Romans 6:21, where shame functions positively in the life of the believer as he judges the folly of is former life, which would have ended in death.
Paul provides the foundation for his confidence in the gospel by asserting that this gospel is the power of God. Declaring the kingship of Jesus displays the power of God that established the king’s reign through his resurrection and extends the king’s reign through his rescue of Jews and Gentiles who believe in him. When Paul explains that the Jews believe first and then the Gentiles, he is first following the historical reality that Luke describes in Acts, but he is also providing a foundation for this later claim that God has been faithful to the Jews even though the demographic makeup of the congregation is predominately Gentile.
Paul supports the validity of his assertion that he is not ashamed of the gospel further by claiming that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God that springs forth out of God’s faithfulness to his promises and results in faith in the king. Paul finally supports this rather bold assertion by referencing Habakkuk 2:4 (“but the righteous one will live out of faith”). The righteousness of God is the holiness of God put into action. When the biblical authors say that God is holy, they are declaring that God differs from everything in the realm he created because he does not carry the stain of sin that has marred creation since the fall. This holiness is also purposeful in that his perfection establishes him as the consecrated one who can offer sacrifice for sinners. He, thus, has the positional and moral authority to judge sin justly and to intervene on behalf of sinners. Beginning in 1:18 Paul will outline the destructive judgment that goes along with rejecting the king’s reign, but here the one who believes in the promise of God now revealed in the kingly reign of Jesus possesses the status of “the righteous one.” The saving righteousness of God provides this legal status now and guarantees that this status will culminate in a final rescue from God’s wrath and ultimate vindication before the world.
In the proclaiming of the gospel, the righteousness of God that rescues the one who believes in the king and banishes the one who rejects him is continually being revealed ek pisteōs eis pistin (literally, “out of faith (faithfulness), into faith”).
|NIV||“righteousness that is by faith from first to last”|
|CSB||“righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith”|
|ESV||“righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith”|
|NASB||“righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith”|
|NET||“righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith”|
Given Paul’s citation of Habakkuk’s claim that the righteous one will live by faith in the promises that God has made to his people (and ultimately in the God of the promise), Paul is establishing the fact that the source of this revealed, rescuing righteousness is the faithful God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Proclaiming the kingship of Jesus reveals God’s saving righteousness and vindicates his faithfulness. So, God’s faithfulness alone provides the foundation for the believers in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, to know that faith in Jesus as King will result in the righteousness of God acting to remove their shame when they face the King Jesus’s judgment rather than to reveal it.
Paul brings this introductory section of the letter full circle by citing one of the numerous prophetic texts that declare the kingly victory of Jesus before his earthly invasion. In Habakkuk 2:4, the prophet exhorted his audience to endure through the Exile by believing that Yahweh would keep his promise to rescue his people on the other side of the Exile (Deut 30:4–6) and in so doing crush the enemies of God’s people (Hab 3:1–15). Even though God has fulfilled these promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus that crushed the ultimate enemies of God’s people (sin and death), Paul is employing this text to support his claim that the saving and judging “righteousness of God” continues to be revealed and does so without any indication of when that revealing will end. In Habakkuk’s time, just as in Paul’s, those who share in God’s righteousness will out of the wellspring of faith. Paul is now reminding the Roman Christians of God’s faithfulness to his promises in the past. This focus on the ongoing revealing of God’s righteousness would be particularly relevant to the current situation of the Roman Christians who were enduring through the initial years of Nero’s reign (AD 54–68). Nero embodied the arrogance of the king Habakkuk describes (Hab 2:1–20), and just as God vindicated the patient endurance of the righteous in Habakkuk’s era (who seemingly were brought to shame in the past by arrogant kings) through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the ongoing reign of Jesus declared in the gospel guarantees that no earthly power, not even Caesar Nero, can bring ultimate shame to the one who lives by faith in Jesus. To put it another way, if the true king has removed their shame, frauds like Nero have no authority to reattach it.
Letter Body (1:18–11:35)
Idolatry That Destroys Communion with God and Neighbors (1:18–32)
Paul then builds off his thesis statement and addresses some likely pressure points between Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church. Many translations will describe this section as “The Guilt of the Gentile World” Although the Jews in Rome would have associated the idolatry described here with the Gentiles, the Scriptures declare that idolatry was at the heart of Israel’s rebellion too. In fact, idolatry is the central reason that God sends Israel into Exile. In 1:18, Paul compares the wrath of God, his judging righteousness, with his saving righteousness in 1:17. Those who reject the saving King proclaimed in the gospel now face the wrath of God. Idolatrous worship is an unrighteous act that produces a cascade of rebellion that causes the truth about the God who has revealed himself in Jesus the Messiah to be suppressed. Sin is never victimless. Sin destroys the sinner, blinds him to the truth, and hides the truth from those in his orbit.
Godlessness and unrighteousness progressively and unendingly seeks to suppress the truth, but their cause is lost because the realities of creation proclaim that God exists. Idolaters seek to suppress the truth about the God who reigns over all creation by worshipping gods who “reign” (but not really) within creation and are constrained by creation. In the Roman Pantheon, Jupiter reigns as the king of the gods, but even with that status, the realm of his reign is limited. In contrast, God’s reign is limitless. So, no created thing can legitimately deny the eternal power and divine nature of God. No one can claim that ignorance excuses idolatry. So, why do we make so many?
In verse 21, Paul explains that, even though people have a knowledge of God through the things that he has made, they do not glorify or give thanks to God as he deserved but rather allowed their own limited thoughts about (or even questions of) God to lead them into perverted thinking and that coincided with their collective foolish heart being darkened. Paul’s singular use of “heart” in this verse is not always clear in English translations. In this verse, Paul used third person plural verbs and plural participles up to the last clause (“therefore, even though they knew God [plural participle], they did glorify or thank him as God, but they were made futile [or, “religiously perverted,”]4 in [or, “by”] their thoughts/questions and their foolish [or, “reckless/perverse] heart was darkened.”—author’s translation). Right thinking about God paves the way for the proper worship of God, which unifies his people for his purposes. Faulty opinions or misguided questions about God, on the other hand, unite people in idolatrous worship that spirals into the ever-increasing rebellion outlined in 1:22–23. Due to the rebels’ assertion that their opinions about God made them wise, God made them to be fools, and he put their foolishness on full display in their idolatrous worship, through which they attempted to transform5 the glory of the immortal God into the kind of glory that is possessed by mortal man, birds, animals, and reptiles. While interpreters (and maybe the Jews in Rome) have often described this section as focusing on the obviously idolatrous worship of the Gentiles, the story of Israel is riddled with this type of rebellion. From the golden calf in Exodus 32 (which was reflective of their practices in Egypt) to the warnings against idolatry in Deuteronomy 29 to the taunt of Isaiah, Israel’s heart is idolatrous to the core (Isa 44:12–20). In fact, Paul is exposes the true unity of the Jews and Gentiles in Rome right from the start. They are unified in their rebellion. They are unified in their futile worship.
In 1:26–32, Paul outlines the destructive downward spiral that idolatrous worship causes through his assertion that God hands these worshippers over to more and more self-destructive rebellion that they will celebrate in themselves and others. First, Paul explains that their idolatrous transfer of God’s glory to created things results in God handing them over to the diverse lusts that come out of their hearts with the purpose that they would repeatedly dishonor themselves by attempting to take glory that belongs to God and giving it to themselves. Such dishonor is particularly displayed through sexual promiscuity, perhaps done in worship of pagan deities. If his readers have not yet caught on to what Paul is saying, he hammers this point home one last time. They exchanged the truth about the eternal God, who is blessed forever, for the lie that is at the heart of every lie, “I (and all the other created things) can be a god like the God who made me.” This lust-filled worship of idols devolves into an idolatrous attack on the creation mandate (Gen 1:28) by exalting a kind of sexual gratification that denies God’s design for sexual fulfillment and assaults his authority as the giver of life. Paul then concludes 1:27 with two participles that describe the means by which men are consumed in their passions, practicing shameful acts with men, and the manner by which they are consumed, receiving the just penalty for their deception. Finally, Paul sums up the downward spiral of this section with “they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God” (CSB). This statement provides the foundation for the final “God handed them over.” Rebellious humanity reaches rock bottom when God gives them over to a corrupt mind, incapable of doing what is right. He then illustrates this inability with three separate but combined lists that move from the general to the very specific. Paul concludes this section of his argument by connecting their continuing rebellion—and approval of the rebellion of others—with what the rebels know, namely that God deserves undivided worship. But still, they will refuse to give him the glory and the thanks he deserves. Rebellious thinking about God always leads to rebellious actions against God.
Hypocritical Judgment Invites God’s Wrath (2:1–11)
2:1–4 In Romans 2:1, Paul turns his gaze to another group that is without excuse, those who judge “the other” hypocritically. While the larger context of Romans in general and chapter two in particular has caused interpreters to intuit that Paul focuses this part of the argument on the hypocrisy of the Jews in how they judge the Gentiles, the interpreter must also pay attention to the fact that Paul universalizes his rebuke for “everyone who judges” another. Paul asserts that they judge themselves because they are guilty of practicing the very same things. Just in case, the Jews in the Roman congregation had missed the underlying rebuke of Israel’s idolatry in chapter one, Paul makes that explicit as he provides support for his claim that “you (everyone who judges) are judging yourselves.” In verse two, Paul switches from the second-person plural to the first-person plural. This switch is significant. He is not in cahoots with the hypocrites. He is, however, in league with all who know the standard by which God will judge. Identifying the group to which Paul is referring when he uses “we” in Romans is a notoriously difficult task. In this instance, he could be referring to himself as a Jew and identifying with the Jewish Christians in the congregation, but the context likely demands that we interpret this “we” as a reference to every believer in the Roman church. This broader conclusion seems warranted because Paul’s assertion here would be an idea unique to the Jewish Christians. God’s judgement falls on all who practice idolatry and display any of the fruit of idolatry, such as described in 1:18–2.
In 2:3–4, Paul poses two questions to those in the Roman church who are judging hypocritically. He begins by asking if they believe fleeing the wrath of God is an option. The obvious answer is “no.” He follows up by asking if they have the audacity to presume upon the riches of God’s gentleness, forbearance, and patience. These questions—which are really Paul’s critique of the present situation in Rome—expose the depths of their hypocrisy. They assume God will continue to lavish his gentleness, forbearance, and longsuffering patience on them, yet they justify withholding these gifts from one another. We might rightly ask how this hypocritical attitude could take hold in a church filled with people who have repented and believed in Christ for salvation. Thankfully, Paul provides the answer. They do not recognize that God’s kindness is still leading them to repentance (Joel 2:12–14).
2:5–11 Although the believers in Rome would undoubtedly respond to Paul’s second question with an emphatic, “No!”, Paul asserts that their actions tell a different tale. They are heaping up the wrath that goes along with having hard and impenitent hearts and not the fruit that corresponds to a circumcised heart, and this reality will be revealed on the day of wrath when the righteous judgment of God will be displayed when he gives “to each one according to his works.” Paul’s harsh warning conveys the gravity of the situation. Their continued, arrogant condemnation of one another has more in common with the rebellion of the Exodus generation (Deut 9:27; 10:12–22, especially 10:16) or rebellious Israel (Jer 4:4; Ezek 3:7) than it does with the obedience of those who are not ashamed of the gospel and are living by faith.
In 2:7–11, Paul constructs two comparisons to describe the reward that God will give “to those who seek (or, are seeking) eternal life” according to patience in good work with the judgement that will be given to the evil doers. Paul begins the first comparison by asserting that the ones who are seeking eternal life live lives characterized by endurance in the good work God has created for them to do. Given Paul’s argument that people are declared righteous by faith alone, his assertion might make us uncomfortable, but we must remember that Paul never describes good work or good works negatively (Rom 13:3; 2Cor 9:8; Eph 2:10; Phil 1:6; Col 1:10; 2Thes 2:17; 1Tim 2:10; 5:10; 2Tim 2:21; 3:17). In the context of the argument, their endurance in the good work is a necessary demonstration of salvation received and not the basis for a salvation earned (2:1–2). God will give these genuine followers glory, and honor, and immortality on the last day. In 2:8, Paul completes the comparison by explaining that wrath and fury will be given to those who are rejecting the truth and obeying unrighteousness.
So, what truth are the hypocrites rejecting? By framing the comparison in his way, Paul is demonstrating that the hypocrites obstinately reject the claim that God judges according to the truth and obey unrighteousness through their partiality. The second contrast further illustrates God’s impartiality with the partiality of the hypocrites as Paul teaches that God will give tribulation and distress to the ones who do evil and glory and honor to the ones who do good. Although this claim might seem controversial to modern believers who might be fearful of a return to works righteousness, Paul was confronting the idea, once again (see 1:17), that priority in God’s big-picture plan to restore his people in his place does not imply that God will show partiality to one group over another at the final judgment. So, in the end, Paul is exhorting both the Jews and the Gentiles in the congregation to emulate the impartiality of God’s judgment because a failure to do so might signify that a person is under God’s judgment.
Finally, why are they rejecting the truth that God judges without hypocrisy? In 2:8, Paul explains that their willingness to tip the scales of justice in favor of one person or group over another is driven by a party spirit. Such a spirit cares more about pursuing power to gain status without regard for the church’s unity instead of pursuing the truth to establish justice with the goal of lasting unity in God’s church.
Doers of the Law Will Be Justified (2:12–16)
Paul builds upon the idea that God does not play favorites as he explains that the work of God’s law is written on the hearts of every human being. He begins by explaining that judgment awaits every sinner, both those who sin without the law and those who sin with it. Paul provides a foundation for this claim in verse 13 when he explains that the ones who merely hear the law are not declared right before God but “the ones who do the law” will be declared right before God. If Paul’s statement that “the ones who do the law will be justified” is viewed outside of the context of his argument, readers could become concerned that Paul is affirming at least the possibility of someone being justified by doing the law. If, however, the interpreter pays close attention to the continued comparisons, he is again emphasizing the Jews are under God’s judgment just like the Gentiles because they have not been faithful to the Mosaic law.
This contrast between “hearing” and “doing” could very well be an allusion to the numerous times Israel is commanded to “listen” in Deuteronomy (7x in the LXX). On five of these occasions (4:1; 5:1; 6:4; 12:28; 27:9), this command to listen carries with it either an implied or explicit command that listening requires obedience to the “statutes and ordinances” (CSB) or words that they are receiving from Yahweh through Moses. On the other two occasions (9:1; 20:3), Moses connects the command to the conquering of Canaan so that Israel will move forward in battle with confidence knowing that God is giving this land to them as an inheritance. Given the emphasis that Paul has placed on idolatry and the conflict between the Jews and Gentiles in the congregation, Deuteronomy 6:4 and 9:1 are likely the specific texts to which Paul is referring. The Shema (Deut 6:4) provides the theological foundation upon which every command of God is based. Israel must listen and obey in light of the fact Yahweh alone is God. He deserves and demands undivided loyalty. In Deuteronomy 9:1, Moses exhorts Israel to listen as he explains that God will go before them as a “consuming fire,” who will defeat their enemies, but, even as he does so, he emphasizes that God is driving out the Gentiles because of their wickedness and to fulfill his promises to the Patriarchs not because of Israel’s righteousness, for they are a “stiff-necked people” (9:6). These allusions to Deuteronomy align with and provide a biblical foundation for the larger argument that Paul is making about the idolatry that characterized the stories of both the Jews and the Gentiles and the sinful party spirit that was dividing the congregation.
Given the strength of the case that Paul has made (and will continue to make) that all people have sinned and deserve God’s judgment, Paul’s assertion that the doers of the law will be justified has puzzled interpreters. Some have argued that these doers of the law is a reference to King Jesus, the doer of the law.
In 2:14–16, Paul further illustrates his previous statement that doing the Mosaic law justifies a person by contending that Gentiles, who do not have the Mosaic law, keep certain commands of it through the nature they possess as humans made in the image of God. When the Gentiles do commands of the law, they are a law for their own communal flourishing. Through their work to create an ordered society, they show “the work of the law,”6 which was given to Moses to establish the ground rules for an unholy people to live in communion with the perfectly holy God and to bring order to relationships in the community with the goal that all would flourish under the kingship of God. Although the covenantal blessing of communion with God provided by the law was given to Israel in a unique way, the elements of the law that define what it means to love your neighbor as yourself are a blessing that God has given to all who bear his image. Their consciences testify to this fact.
When God judges the hidden thoughts and actions of people according to Paul’s gospel through Jesus Christ not according to the law, their thoughts toward one another will either accuse or excuse them. Take notice that the basis for the last judgment is the gospel Paul preaches about the kingship of Jesus inaugurated through his death and resurrection not the Mosaic law. As a result, Paul has stripped away the basis for any argument that the Jewish Christians might be making to elevate themselves over the Gentile Christians in the church. God judges all people based on their faith in Jesus.
Hypocrisy and Hope (2:17–29)
2:17–24 Paul goes on to address the hypocrisy of the Jews toward the Gentiles through and extended series of “ifs” in 2:17–20 through which Paul presents claims that Jewish Christians could make to exalt themselves over the Gentile Christians in Rome. All of the claims in the “ifs” are positive (“If you are called Jews, rely on the law, boast in God, know his will, are approving the better things because you are being instructed from the law, and have persuaded yourselves to be a guide of the blind ones, a light for the ones in darkness, instructor [or, “corrector”] of the foolish, and teacher of the babies because you have the outward form of the knowledge and the truth in the law,” author’s translation). Paul enhances the rhetorical power of his rebuke by constructing the protasis (“ifs”) so that the reader would be expected to assume that they are true even though the apodosis (“thens”) demonstrates that the “ifs” are historically false. The falsehood is demonstrated through a series of questions that reveal the hypocrisy of their boasting. The ones who claim to be teachers clearly have not taught themselves because they are guilty of the same thievery, sexual immorality, and sacrilegious treatment of the Temple that is akin to the idolatry of the Gentiles. Paul hammers home his claim about Jewish hypocrisy by stating bluntly that those who boast in the law make a practice of dishonoring God through their transgression of the law.
He supports this assertion with a quotation from Isaiah 52:5. In Isaiah 52, the prophet comforts those who will read his book in the exile by declaring that God will demonstrate to the world that he alone reigns, will save his people, and in so doing will remove the shame from his name that was caused by his judgment of their idolatry (See also Ezek 36:16–37, esp. 36:16–21). Paul’s citation of this passage that references the exile in the middle of a passage about God saving his people allows him to group any Jewish Christian who would look down upon the Gentile believers with idolatrous Israel. At this point, Paul’s readers must have understood that neither the Gentiles nor the Jews has any reason to think their group was superior to the other.
2:25–29 But, just in case some of the Jews are unconvinced, Paul explains that how someone lives demonstrates that person’s covenant status with God more than circumcision. He explains that circumcision brings benefits if you make a practice of keeping the law, but it becomes uncircumcision (meaning that that their status is equivalent to the Gentiles) if they are transgressors of the law, which Paul argues has consistently been the case throughout their history as a people. Building off this claim, Paul asks if an uncircumcised person keeps the precepts of the law will be thought of by God as one who is part of the “circumcision,” that is part of God’s people. By the way that he constructed the question, Paul is expecting a positive answer.
Before we accuse Paul of advocating for “works righteousness,” let’s remember the purpose of this larger section is to show that neither the Jews nor the Gentiles have any basis to their claims of superiority. Paul has made it very clear that the “if” part of his statement will not be fulfilled in a literal way by either group, but he does want his reader to ponder the significance of guarding and keeping the Law. This act is of such significance that God regards it as the kind of covenant fidelity that corresponds with submission to circumcision.
In 2:27 Paul adds to his claim in the previous verse by explaining that the one who is physically uncircumcised will judge the transgressor of the Law (the Jew) by using the letter of the Law and symbol of circumcision as witnesses against them.7
In 2:28–29, Paul concludes this portion of the argument by explaining that a person’s membership in God’s people (a Jew) is not defined by outward appearance nor is it defined by circumcision in the flesh. Membership in God’s people is defined by something that happens in the person, namely the circumcision of the heart performed by the Spirit and not by the letter. Earlier in the chapter, Paul has alluded to Israel’s exile and here alludes to the prophets’ description of how God will rescue Israel out of the Exile in a way that mirrors and eclipses the deliverance he provided in the Exodus and applies that language to all, both Jews and Gentiles, whose hearts are circumcised by the Spirit (Deut 30:1–6; Jer 16:14–16, 31:31–34; Ezek 36:24–30, 37:1–14; Joel 2:28–32). This circumcision of the heart makes it possible for rebellious sinners who repent and believe to love the Lord with all their heart and soul so that they will live both now and forever.
If Paul’s argument from 1:18–2:29 is read against the backdrop of the division that exists in the church about how followers of Jesus should approach feasts, festivals, and other special days on the Jewish calendar and how they should apply the Mosaic food laws in their day-to-day lives (14:1–15:13), we can begin to see that spiritual pride has infiltrated each group’s theological evaluation of the other. This pride then leads each group to praise members of their tribe as they engage in theological conversations over these matters, and praise from people is intoxicating. Paul wants his readers to understand praise from people is empty and irrelevant. What matters is praise from God. This person receives his praise from God and not from people. So, the person who receives praise from God is obviously not the idol worshiper, but he is also not the one who has been physically circumcised alone because he follows the letter of the Mosaic Law. The one who receives praise from God—the only praise that matters—is the one who heart has been circumcised (transformed) by the Spirit and lives for God in the power of the Spirit.
What’s With All the Questions? (3:1–8)
3:1–4 Paul has shown his readers that God defines his people in terms of those whose hearts have been circumcised and not through the physical act of circumcision. If we think of this letter as a running dialogue between Paul and the recipients of the letter in Rome, the Apostle’s use of a question-answer dialogical style makes sense. At this point in the arguments, both the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman church who were hearing this letter read to them would have had the legitimate question that Paul poses in 3:1, “What then is the advantage of the Jew, or what is the advantage (benefit) of circumcision?” While the preceding argument might lead the reader to believe the answer to the question is “none,” Paul responds in verse 2 by explaining that the Jews had a great advantage, in every way. The first advantage was “that they were entrusted with the words of God.” The hearer might wonder how this could be an advantage to the Jews given the large-scale rebellion that characterizes so much of Israel’s story. Paul responds to the question with a conditional question of his own in 3:3. “If certain/some ones disbelieved (or, were unfaithful), will their disbelief (or, unfaithfulness) nullify the faithfulness of God?” Paul has already made this point as early as 1:18 and more thoroughly in chapter 2. Now he expects his readers to agree that the condition in 3:3 has been fulfilled (or at worst to assume the claim for the sake of argument), and he constructs the following question so that his audience will expect that Paul is answering the question with a “no.” Paul, however, does not simply say “no.” His readers receive an emphatic rejection of the notion that human rebellion can do anything to hinder God’s faithfulness to his promise and to his people. Unlike the pagan gods whose favor could be lost on a whim, the one true, God does not waver in his commitment to his people because of his commitment to his promise. Paul then commands them to “let God be true but every human being a liar.” If any members of the community have been tempting Paul’s hearers to doubt God’s faithfulness to the Jews because of the Gentile majority in the church, Paul commands them to trust God and his faithfulness and to assess all contrary claims as lies. He then supports this claim through a quotation of Psalm 51:4.
The superscription of Psalm 51 explains that David wrote it when Nathan confronted him for taking Bathsheba. In the verses that precede this quotation, David begs God to show him grace that demonstrates his “faithful love” and “abundant compassion” and to remove his guilt because he has recognized his sin is against God. Even as David seeks cleansing from his sin, he knows that God is right and just to judge him. David’s only hope is that God will remain faithful to his promises (2 Sam 7:4–17). So, Paul uses David’s confession that God is shown to be righteous by his words and will conquer when he is judged, presumably by those whom he is judging, to establish biblical support for his claim that God is true and people are liars.8
3:5–8 Paul develops his argument further by expounding on the idea that God’s judgment of sin vindicates the truthfulness of his revealed words and the justice of his judgments by highlighting how the unrighteousness of people amplifies God’s righteousness. Paul repeats his technique of asking a question based upon a conditional clause that is assumed to be true for the sake of his argument (but is also factually true) and then asks the consequent question about the justice of this arrangement from a merely human perspective. The questions proceed as follows: “But, if our unrighteousness exhibits the righteousness of God, what will we say? God, the one judicially inflicts wrath9 is not unrighteous, is he? I am speaking according to man (I am using a human argument [CSB]).” Is God unjust to use the massive rebellion of humanity that Paul has been describing to amplify his righteous status? Paul’s construction of the consequent question demonstrates that the answer to this question is certainly, “No”! While Paul acknowledges that this line of thinking could seem logical according to human wisdom, Paul’s emphatic mē genoito and subsequent question about God judging the world serve to shut down this objection about the justice of God’s plan to judge the world and save his people. If Paul’s emphatic interjection is not enough for his readers, Paul, through another question, concludes 3:6 by explaining that any unrighteousness in God would make him unable to act as the divine judge of the world, a status that he still rightly holds. Given Paul’s comparison of “our” unrighteousness with God’s righteousness and his usage of God’s judgment on the questioner’s group as the foundation for his judgment of the world, the Apostle seems to be addressing a question being asked by the Jews in the Roman congregation (and maybe even in the Church as a whole).
In 3:7, Paul picks up the theme of truth and falsehood from 3:4 and employs another conditional question to present this more emphatic, bordering on irritated, objection.10 Paul’s return to the antithesis between the “truth” and the “lie” and the content of the question itself indicate that this questioner is likely voicing another question that has arisen with Jews in the congregation (and again maybe the Church as a whole) who are wondering how a largely Gentile people is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. The questioner wonders why he is still being judged as a sinner if his lie has become the means through which the truth about God flourishes for his glory, a central theme of what God will do when he ends Israel’s exile and forgives her sin (see Isa 40:5; 42:8; 48:11; Isa 60:1-2; 66:18-19; Ezek 39:21; Hab 2:14). If Paul is presenting the central question of Jewish Christians who still identify with their kinsman who have rejected the gospel, this question foreshadows the argument that Paul makes in chapters 9–11.
In this section, Paul is addressing some questions that Jews in the Roman congregation (at least) are asking about God’s big picture plan to establish his kingdom through saving his people and judging the world. Even though the immediate context of Romans 3:7 indicates that this question came from the Jewish segment of the congregation, we must remember he also used similar language in chapter 1 when he explained that the Gentiles have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idolatrous images and the truth of God for a lie (1:18–25). In a similar way, Paul’s use of “God’s righteousness,” “our unrighteousness,” and “wrath,” points to the question coming from the Jewish segment of the body. Paul’s focus on a future judgment of the world indicates again that these Jewish questions cannot be answered in a vacuum that excludes the Gentiles. So, what is Paul’s purpose in this overlapping language? He is teaching his audience subtly one more time that, even though they want to divide into groups and look down on each other, their sin against God unites them more than their differences divide them. If they doubt this claim, the next section of the letter is going to pulverize their pride so that they can praise God for his perfect plan to establish, create, and complete his worldwide family that includes both Jews and Gentiles. Before moving to that next section of his argument, Paul moves the argument away from those who question God’s judgment of sinners to those who consider encouraging people to sin. In response, Paul asserts that any who make such a claim will face the judgment of God, and, just in case they might have heard that Paul says such things he makes it clear that any claim like that is an outright lie.
Just Shut Your Mouth (3:9–20)
Paul reaches the conclusion of the argument that he has been making since 1:18. All people, both Jews and Gentiles are rebellious sinners. So, even though the Jews had the distinct advantage of possessing the revealed words of God whose instruction provided a path to flourishing in fellowship with God (3:1–2), they were not better off than (or excelling beyond) the Gentiles in their status before God because all the Jews and all the Gentiles are subject to sin (3:9). When Paul says, “Both the Jews and the Greeks, all are under sin,” he is describing sin as a personified power and contrasts it with being under the Kingship of God.
In 3:10-18, Paul anticipates that these believers, whom he has never met, are going to object to this claim that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin and have no advantage over one another in their relational status with God, so he strings together six separate citations from the Old Testament to prove his point.
The first quotation spans 3:10b–12 and comes from Psalm 14:1–3, Psalm 53:1–3, and possibly Ecclesiastes 7:21. Both of these Psalms of David are conveying David’s request that God would intervene and deliver Israel from the attacks of foolish enemies outside of Israel who say in their hearts that there is no God (14:1; 53:1). Although the Jews in the church might object to Paul’s application of this passage to them, the overlapping nature of Jewish and Gentile rebellion that Paul has described through the last two chapters mutes the objection. He chose this text to highlight David’s emphasis on “no one” having a righteous status in the divine court, possessing an understanding of who God is, or seeking God. This disregard for God causes “all” to turn away from God and become depraved. In the end, not even one is doing what is good. Think about how the logical process of this Scripture aligns with the movement of Paul’s argument from 1:18 to here.
In 3:13–14, Paul draws quotations from three separate Psalms (Pss 5:9; 140:3; 10:7).11 They share the common theme of asking God to protect the king and his people from the deadly power of words that deceive and destroy. If the members of the congregation still are not convinced that they are all under sin, they cannot look past their interactions with one another. Even after they have believed in Jesus Christ, neither group is excelling beyond the other in the words they use toward each other.
Paul then quotes Isaiah 59:7–8 in 3:15–17. In Isaiah 59:1–15, the prophet asserts that God has the power to save his people from the exile to which he is sending them but then catalogues in horrifying detail how their sin is separating them from him so he does not listen. Although the Psalms in the previous citations largely focused on sin outside of Israel, the citation of Isaiah here highlights Israel’s rebellion, and when you widen the lens beyond the specific verses that Paul uses in Romans, Isaiah describes the same kind of sins with similar language to what we see Paul referring to in the Psalms. If his readers from the Jews (and maybe even the Gentiles) were not previously convinced that they were both under sin in the same way prior to their salvation in Christ, Isaiah’s prophetic message shuts down any line of argument they had left.
In Romans 3:18, Paul presents his audience with the culminating effect of the sins described through the previous scriptural references by citing the Septuagint’s translation of Psalm 36:1, another Davidic Psalm, which mournfully says, “The fear of God is not before their eyes.” With this final word, Paul asserts that all people, Jews and Gentiles, apart from God intervening to save them, will walk this journey of sin and reach the point where fearing the one, true, and living God, who created them and whom they are offending, is not even on their radar.
To conclude, Paul has masterfully assembled these biblical passages to show that all people, who do not have salvation in Jesus Christ, are under sin. The picture that Paul paints of all people who are under sin is bleak, but in the context that surrounds each of the citations, the authors consistently express their confidence that God is for his people and will rescue them from the evil they have done and from the evil done to them. So even here, where Paul silences every claim that people are not under sin, he is foreshadowing the “but now” of 3:21 that should turn our mourning into dancing.
In 3:19–20, Paul reiterates that the law’s purpose is to shut the mouths of those who are subject to it and to make the whole world subject to God’s judgement. Although Paul would agree that all people are prone to hypocritical pride, he has focused his rebuke on attitude of superiority that the Jews in the congregation have displayed toward their Gentile brothers and sisters. So, in this summary statement, he reminds his audience that the law should not cause the Jewish Christians to blather-on boastfully but rather should cause them to hush-up humbly because their idolatrous transgressions of the law rival those whom they condemn.
Picking up on the theme Paul discussed in 3:5–6, the second purpose of the law is to make the whole world subject to God’s wrath. God’s just judgment of his own people through sending them into exile has the effect of making the whole world (represented by the world powers who conquered them) subject to God’s wrath even without possessing the law because now they will be judged according to the justice that they provide to God’s people as they act as instruments of God’s judgement. Since they treated God’s people unjustly and harshly, they too are now rightly subject to the direct judgment of God.
In 3:20, Paul concludes from the previous verse (and the argument that began in 1:18) by explaining what the law can and cannot do. Some will argue that the “works of the law” only describes the Jewish ritual purity laws, like circumcision and the food laws. Paul’s usage of the phrase here without any contextual markers that point toward those specific laws and his alignment of the phrase with “through the law” at the end of the verse demonstrate that this phrase includes the entirety of the law even if certain contexts emphasize a subset of the whole. The law cannot provide the foundation upon which a claim to be declared right before God in the law court can be made because all people have violated God’s law and stand under his wrath. The law, however, can be the means through which people gain the knowledge of sin that Paul will later demonstrate is necessary for recognizing their need to be declared righteous before God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Facts Changed (3:21–31)
3:21–26 Paul has woven the facts of his case that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, are idolatrous rebels against God into a damning indictment from which there seems to be no escape. All people deserve God’s wrath. Those are the facts. With two words, “but now,” the facts change. Well, the facts themselves do not change. Rather, God himself inserts himself into the story of the world that Paul has been telling, rearranges the puzzle pieces, and generates an outcome that both aligns with his justice and his creational purpose to bless his people with his perfect presence (Gen 1:26–31). Although the law has established the facts of the case and demands that all people be judged, God’s power to save his people has been revealed and has established a new state of affairs for how God’s people live in fellowship with him. This new reality, however, has not burst onto the scene from out of nowhere. When the “Law and the Prophets” (Paul’s way of distinguishing the law from the whole story of the Old Testament) are examined through the lens of this revelation, they have been testifying all along that this “but now” plan has been the plan all along.
Paul asserts in 3:22 that this saving act of God is “for everyone who believes” and provides the basis for this claim by reminding his readers that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. This part of the verse is very straightforward, but the prepositional phrase, “through the faith of Jesus Christ” (KJV), that Paul uses here, in Galatians (2:16; 3:22), and in Philippians (3:9) is highly debated. The two primary options and their main advocates are shown in the table below:
|“faith in Jesus Christ” (objective genitive)||Schreiner, Dunn,|
|“faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (subjective genitive)||Wallace, Hays, Wright|
Many interpreters of this passage argue that Paul uses this phrase to emphasize the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah in living out his kingly mission to establish God’s eternal kingdom through revealing in his earthly ministry what a life of flourishing under God’s reign looks like, living a perfect life, dying in the place of his people, and being resurrected from the dead. Jesus then acts as the agent through whom the righteousness of God comes to all who believe. While some have used this “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” interpretation as a basis for claims that Paul is not primarily concerned with the salvation of the individual and is more concerned with questions surrounding the salvation of peoples (Jew and Gentile), “the faithfulness of Jesus” interpretation does not necessarily lead in that faulty direction, particularly if the similarities of this language to the active and passive obedience of Christ.
Most evangelical interpreters translate this phrase as “faith in Jesus Christ.” This interpretation focuses on the fundamental truth that a person only receives the benefits of God’s saving work through his or her faith. This truth is then reiterated by Paul’s explanation that God’s saving activity is “for everyone who believes.”
Aside from the crooked paths that some have walked down where individual faith in Jesus is diminished, both readings have much to commend them. As I consider this question, my biggest question for the “faith in Jesus Christ” interpretation is the redundancy that is created by “for all who believe.” After examining all of Paul’s uses of this phrase, I do not think that he is using the phrase in the same way on every occasion. On those occasions where Paul uses the specific phrase employed here (Gal 2:16a; 3:22) with an additional verbal phrase or clause emphasizing believing in Jesus Christ, Paul is describing the “the faithfulness of Jesus.” When Paul uses the phrase “faith of Christ” (note the absence of “Jesus”) without a verbal modifier (Gal 2:16b; Rom 3:26; Phil 3:9), Paul is describing “faith in Christ.”12 To conclude, either interpretation is potentially valid as long as neither is used to diminish the absolute necessity of Jesus’s perfect obedience that allows him to die in the place of sinners or of individual faith in Christ.
In 3:23, Paul provides support for his claim that no distinction exists between Jews and Gentiles by explaining that all people sin and are “coming short” of the standard of God’s glory.13 From Genesis 3 onward in the Old Testament this fact is never in dispute. Neither God’s people nor the Gentiles can come too close to God’s glory and live. This idea is not new. The most interesting element of this verse is Paul’s change of tense from “sin” to “coming short.” Paul portrays “sin” as a snapshot of the whole of human life and describes the “coming short” from the perspective of an observer who is watching repeated these repeated misses without concern for when they started or when they will end. Recognizing that our actions, both on a macro- and micro-level, do not make us fit for the presence of our holy God amplifies the gloriousness of the fact that the “all who believe” from out of the “all” who sin are being declared right freely (or justified) in the divine court by God’s grace “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul wants his readers to understand that God justifies through his grace. Faith in Jesus as King (see 1:1–4) could only justify believers because of the grace of God revealed through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (cf. Eph 2:8–9).
Although the Romans should rejoice that they were justified by faith, Paul wants them to understand that God’s grace is the primary means of their justification. Paul employs this redemption language because it conveys the idea of paying the price to rescue slaves and provide them with freedom. For Paul’s Jewish and Gentile audience in Rome—who both likely read the Old Testament in Greek—this rescue from slavery was not indicative of a random ransom of a slave. This language evoked echoes of the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, later picked-up by the prophets to describe the incomprehensible rescue that God was going to do when he rescued his scattered people not just out of one nation but from out of all the nations. Jeremiah was even so bold as to declare explicitly that God’s greatest rescue would no longer be described as “the Exodus” when God intervened to end Israel’s exile. This is the redemption Christ Jesus accomplished.
In 3:25, Paul adds to this description of what Christ Jesus accomplished in his death by describing him as the one “whom God set forward to be the atoning sacrifice through faith in his blood for the public declaration of his righteousness.” Much debate has swirled around the proper translation of the term hilasterion. A sampling of English translations provides the following: “propitiation” (ESV, NASB95, ASV), “expiation” (RSV), “mercy seat” (CSB, NET 2nd ed), or “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV84, NRSV).
The “mercy seat” translation focuses on the location where the sacrificial offering took place on the ark. While this translation is literal, it does not convey specifically what happens when the sacrificial offering was made. The other options seek to explain more explicitly what took place there. “Propitiation” conveys that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ removes the wrath of God against sin. “Expiation” on the other hand focuses on how Jesus’s blood washes away sin. The “sacrifice of atonement” (atoning sacrifice) translation attempts to establish a “both-and” between the propitiation and expiation rather than an “either-or.” I think that this translation best conveys what Paul is teaching in this text. Paul wants his readers to understand that the blood of Jesus is able to bear God’s wrath against their sin and remove that sin from their record because Jesus, in his role as their King, represented them as a perfect sacrificial substitute if they believe he has accomplished all of this for them.
|“propitiation”||ESV, NASB95, ASV||Removal of wrath|
|“expiation”||RSV||How sin is washed away|
|“sacrifice of atonement/ atoning sacrifice”||NIV84, NRSV||Who or what represents sinners|
|“mercy seat”||CSB, NET||Where sin offering took place|
In the third phrase that modifies hilasterion, Paul goes on to explain that God also presented Christ Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. This sacrifice proves his overlooking of sins committed before the coming of Jesus did not compromise God’s righteous perfection. God was not oblivious to human sin. God did not turn a blind eye to sin. His perfect righteousness demanded that justice be executed, but his patience delayed the execution of that justice until Jesus would come to die at the right time for his people (Gal 4:4–7). In the death of Jesus, God’s justice was satisfied. This paragraph then reaches its crescendo as Paul declares God’s purpose in the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus was to uphold his divine justice and to justify the one whose life springs into existence or is defined by faith in Jesus.
3:27–31 Paul builds on the previous paragraph by asking his audience of Jews and Gentiles where the boasting that so characterized his previous descriptions has gone. Rather than allowing them to answer the question incorrectly, he quickly jumps-in and asserts that it is excluded. Boasting is not excluded by a law characterized by works but by a law characterized by faith.
A “law of faith” might not make sense if we think of the law solely as a list of commands that must be kept to merit God’s favor. This assertion makes much more sense when we recognize that the law was not given at Sinai to make Israel God’s people but to define what a flourishing life under God’s reign looks like. From this foundation, the paragraph begins to make sense. If real life were defined by the law or the “works of the law,” the Jews would be receiving preferential treatment, and Paul has made it clear that they are not. Just in case his readers missed this point, Paul reiterates that there is one God, who is God of both the Jews and the Gentiles, and he declares people from both groups right before him through faith in Jesus.
Real life for all Christians begins with being justified by faith in Jesus, and they flourish when their lives are characterized by faith in Jesus. Based upon what he has been arguing, Paul infers that his audience could have the following question, “Are we then nullifying the law through faith?” He responds again with a very emphatic “no,” but then goes on to assert that what he is teaching upholds the law and will defend that claim as he moves forward into chapter 4.
Examples of Father Abraham and King David (4:1–8)
Paul moves quickly to defend his claim that God declaring people righteous through their faith in Jesus actually upholds the law by turning to the stories of Abraham, the forefather of the Jews according to the flesh, and David, the king from whose family line King Jesus came. He begins by asking what Abraham has discovered about the way that God justifies his people. Paul again asks his readers to assume that the “if-part” of his conditional clause is true just for the sake of argument. From there, he explains that if the source of Abraham’s justification was the law, he would have had something to boast about. If this were true, his descendants could have something to boast about if they followed in his footsteps. But just as quickly as he opens this possibility, he shuts it down.
Abraham’s experience does not allow for any boasting before God. So, Paul’s previous argument that the Jews were just as sinful as the Gentiles and had no basis for claiming to be superior to them stands confirmed. If his audience doubted this claim about Abraham, he confirmed it through his quotation of Genesis 15:6, which explains that Abraham believed in God’s promise that offspring from his own body would be as numerous as the stars and that this promise was credited to him for a righteous status before God. Paul then illustrates this idea by comparing how the wages of a worker are considered versus what is received by the one who does not work. “The one who is working” and “the one who is not working” are moved to the beginning of each clause to emphasize their importance in the comparison Paul is making. If someone works, his or her wages are owed to them. They can never be accounted for as a free gift of God’s grace (3:24). The Jew or Gentile who does not work and is believing on the one who justifies the ungodly, however, is justified just like Abraham.
In verse 6, Paul aligns the Scripture’s claim that Abraham’s faith in God was credited for righteousness with his assertion that King David himself pronounces a blessing on the one who is credited with righteousness apart from the law. He supports this claim with a citation of Psalm 32:1–2. Paul uses these three synonymous lines from David’s hymn of praise to God for the forgiveness he received after confessing his sin against God, Bathsheba, and Uriah to support his claim that God justifies the ungodly on the basis of faith. While each line of the poem is repeating essentially the same idea, the final line narrows the focus from the blessing that comes to people in general to the blessing that comes to one believer and states emphatically that the Lord will never “charge” this person “with sin.”
Check the Timeline (4:9–12)
Paul returns to Abraham’s story and reminds his readers that Abraham was declared righteous by God prior to being circumcised, and this ordering of events in God’s plan establishes the circumstances through which Abraham can be the father of both the Jews and the Gentiles. In 4:9 Paul asks if this blessing is for the circumcised (Jews) or if it is also for the uncircumcised (Gentiles).
Paul’s use of circumcision language highlights the way that this ritual is being used to separate the Jews from the Gentiles in the congregation. By this time, the question of whether Gentiles have to be circumcised and keep the food laws to be Christians has largely been answered (Acts 15), but that does not mean the issue does not come up when groups within the congregation start seeking to assert authority or claim superiority. Paul continues by reintroducing the quote from Genesis 15:6 where Abraham is described as being counted as righteous due to his faith in God’s promise. Paul then asks if Abraham was circumcised or uncircumcised when he was declared righteous by God, and the answer is when he was uncircumcised.
Paul goes on to explain that circumcision was given as a mark of the righteousness that came from faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose of this timeline in God’s plan to save his people was so that Abraham would be the father of all the ones who are believing. God also established his timeline to show that Abraham was also the father of the Jews who walk in the footsteps of Abraham when he was still uncircumcised. This telling of Abraham’s story certainly turns its traditional interpretation on its head, but Paul uses this reading to remind his audience that neither group is superior to the other.
The Promise Is from Faith (4:13–25)
In 4:13, Paul sets forward how the promise did not come through the law but came through faith. He illustrates this idea through the lens of a legal inheritance. He explains that if the inheritance comes from the law, the faith through which Abraham was counted righteous is emptied and the promise from God to Abraham is abolished. Paul then provides the foundation upon which he makes this claim by reminding his readers that the law produces wrath and establishes the fact that sin is transgression against God. Given these facts, the inheritance comes from faith because God has purposed to provide this inheritance according to his grace and to be a guaranteed promise to all his seed not just those who are from the law (the Jews) but also those who are from faith of Abraham (Gentiles), who is the father of all.
In these verses, Paul continues to emphasize to his readers, both Jews and Gentiles, that their lineage can be traced back to the same father, and if they share a lineage, neither group can claim superiority to the other. They all became a part of God’s people on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. Paul supports this claim that members of both groups likely would not have received well by supporting it with the promise that God has established Abraham as the father of many nations in Genesis 17:5.
From here Paul delves into Abraham’s journey with the Lord and emphasizes that God’s fulfillment of his promise to make Abraham the father of many nations is a miracle along the lines of raising Jesus the Messiah from the dead or creating the universe out of nothing. This promise had to come on the basis of faith because God was creating life out of the deadness that was the body of Abraham and the barrenness that characterized Sarah. Abraham believed in order that he would become the father of many nations, which aligned with the promise of God to make his descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5).
In 4:19, Paul quite bluntly describes the physical capabilities of Abraham and Sarah to illustrate the miraculous nature of what God does to complete his promise to Abraham. Although this description might seem crass, it underlines the depth of faith that Abraham had in the promise of God. Paul continues in 4:20 to assert that “Abraham did not waver in unbelief” (CSB). One might object to this claim given the fact that he went along with Sarah’s plan for him to have a child with Hagar, but Paul seems to be focusing his attention on when the Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre when he was close to 100-years-old (Gen 18:1–15). So, Paul could rightly say that Abraham “was invigorated in his faith because he gave glory to God and because he was assured that what God promised he is able also to do.”
In 4:23-25, Paul draws out his purpose in recounting the story of Abraham. He explains that the statement “it was credited to him” was not just written in the Scripture on account of Abraham alone but that it was also written on account of us, whom he describes as the ones who “are about to be credited and the ones who are believing on the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Abraham’s story of faith in the promise of God both before and after he was circumcised should demonstrate to his divided ancestors that they are united by a faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. As a result, these divided ancestors are united in a way that transcends the physical and traditional barriers that have separated them.
Paul concludes this section by reminding the Roman believers once again that God handed Jesus over on account of our trespasses and that Jesus was raised on account of our justification. Through the death of Jesus, God acted to punish transgressions against his holiness justly. Through the raising of Jesus from the dead, God established a new era in humanity’s story in which the ones who believe in Jesus could be declared righteous in the divine court and live in communion with God.
Peace, Reconciliation, and Eternal Hope (5:1–11)
5:1–5 In 5:1, Paul embarks on a new phase of his argument and begins to draw out the benefits that come with having been justified by faith in Jesus. In this paragraph, Paul asserts that the justified have peace with God, can boast in the hope of the glory of God, can boast in afflictions, and can know that hope will never disappoint because they have received God’s love. In his discussion of these benefits, Paul begins by establishing the relational harmony between the justified and God, which provides the foundation upon which these other benefits can be received. Prior to justification, these Roman Christians, due to their transgressions, rebelled against God through their various idolatries both explicit and implicit, but now through the Lord Jesus Christ they have received a peace that both transcends the ending of their war against God’s reign but also establishes the relational wholeness in which the justified can flourish. It is also important to recognize the titles that are used of Jesus in 5:1. These titles can only be used by someone who has believed the gospel message that Jesus has established his kingly reign through his death and resurrection and must now be acknowledged as the true Lord of the world, who deserves ultimate loyalty. This new reality will be important as Paul’s argument moves forward in chapters 5–8.
Paul goes on to explain that, through Jesus, the justified live in a state of possessing access not just to God’s saving grace but also to his sustaining grace. In the last part of verse 2, the Apostle presents the second blessing of justification: “We rejoice/boast in the hope of the glory of God.” The justified can continuously rejoice in the hope that they will ultimately dwell in the presence of the God whose glory cannot be approached by sinful people because they have been declared right in the divine court and will receive the outcome of their justification by receiving resurrection bodies that make them fit for God’s presence.
The third blessing, however, seems out of place. Paul says that the justified rejoice in their sufferings because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character (produces) hope.” Paul’s point is that apart from suffering the justified would not be formed into the kind of people who long for God’s kingdom to come. In the hardships, they can more easily recognize that life in God’s new world will be far better than this one.
In verse 5, Paul explains that this hope in which we rejoice is formed in us through sufferings. Although the long journey from sufferings to hope can be heartbreaking and arduous, the justified should never be disappointed because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and remains theirs through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. For the Romans, who undoubtedly faced trials as a direct result of following Jesus, Paul is reminding them that enduring as followers of the true Lord of the world will lead to their ultimate vindication.
5:6–11 In 5:6, Paul returns to his initial point about the justified having peace with God and elaborates on what an amazing work God did to establish a people for himself. He begins by explaining that Christ died for the justified not because they had made themselves strong or because they possessed appealing characteristics. Rather, he died at just the right time in God’s providence while they were still weak (compare Gal 4:4–7). This reality should stun both Paul’s readers and today’s readers because people will rarely lay down their lives even for other good people. It just does not happen, but God’s love is of a completely different sort than ours. God placed his own love in a striking point of view14 in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died in our behalf.”
The justified made no offer of peace to God. They did nothing to make themselves more presentable to God. This peace with God comes to them through the unmerited love and grace of God put on full display in the death of Jesus.
In 5:9–10, through the phrase “how much more,” Paul builds on what God has already accomplished to remind his readers that their hope in Jesus is not disappointing because the salvation that they ultimately receive is even greater than the benefits of justification they possess already. Paul begins by explaining that being justified is not the culmination of the blessing. Even more than having been justified by the blood of Jesus in the present moment, they will be saved from God’s wrath when sin is judged on the final day.
In the second comparison, he highlights the reconciliation that has already been established between God and his people and then asserts that this amazing gift will be far exceeded by the ultimate salvation that believers will have as they partake in the resurrection life that was secured for them in the earthly life that Jesus lived and the resurrection life from which he now reigns.
But wait, there’s more! On top of all the glorious benefits the justified have received and will receive, they can presently and continuously rejoice in God through Jesus Christ because he secured this reconciliation with God that has now been given to them through faith.
The Gift of New Representation (5:12–21)
In this paragraph, Paul compares Adam and Christ. They represent the two distinct groups within humanity. One can either be in Adam and under the reign of sin and death or in Christ and under the reign of grace that will then lead to their eternal reign through and with King Jesus. Before continuing to the exegesis of the paragraph, take note that the overall focus of this paragraph is not on the effects of Adam’s transgression but on the super-abundant blessings that came through the obedience of King Jesus.
5:12–14 After expounding this reconciliation with God that the justified have received through King Jesus, Paul explains the origin story of this clash of kingdoms by returning to the singular act of rebellion performed by the justified person’s previous representative, a figure so old that neither the Jews nor the Gentiles can dispute their ancestral connection to him.
In 5:12, Paul explains that through one man, humanity’s representative, the conspiratorial powers of sin and death, entered the world. The result of their entrance was that physical death spread into all people because people represented by the one man carry his nature and as such the summary description of their actions is sin.
Paul then separates sin from death to describe their separate presence as powers from the time of Adam to the giving of the law (5:13–14). Sin was in the world, but it is not being credited or imputed when there is no law. So, how do we interpret Paul’s statement here? The Apostle has already made it clear in this letter that Gentiles sin without the law, will also perish without the law (2:12–16), and are without excuse (1:18–32). He also asserts in verse 14 that death reigns “even over the ones who did not sin in the likeness of Adam’s transgression” (CSB). Since people are made in the image of God, they possess an innate understanding of God’s law that makes them culpable for sin, even if their sin could not be characterized as transgressing a specific command like Adam did when he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This “lack of a law” does not excuse them from death or God’s punishment, but it could be Paul’s way of explaining that the condemnation is spread generally across all humans rather than to specific accounts as would be the case when specific statutes are being transgressed by specific people. This could then establish a continuum for the severity of God’s judgment based on knowledge of the law, but in the end, wrath is wrath no matter how severe.
Robertson translates the participial phrase at the end of verse 13 as “no law of any kind.”15 From this understanding of the participle, Robertson then ponders what group could God both choose to refrain from assigning to their account and maintain his justice since there was law before the Mosaic law. He concludes that Paul is talking about infants and those with mental impairments who are not cognizant that their actions are sinful, which then paves the way for the grace of God made available in the death and resurrection of Jesus to be lavished upon them.16 Admittedly, this reading is fascinating to me, but it could be more subtle than what Paul is teaching the Romans.
Paul asserts with a strong contrast to his claim at the end of 5:13 that death reigned from Adam to Moses. Defining the timeframe by using two individuals rather than two prohibitions is significant because it allows Paul to describe death’s power over Adam’s sinful children, even if their sin differed in other ways. The name of Adam also allows Paul to move the argument forward by describing Adam as a type of the coming one.
5:15–17 In these verses, Paul compares the judgment that comes through the trespass of Adam with the grace and the gift that comes through Jesus Christ to all who believe in him as their king. Paul begins the comparison in 5:15 by asserting that the gift (charisma) is not like the trespass and proceeds to provide the basis for this claim through another conditional clause followed by a “how much more” comparison. He places the negative example in the “if” clause, which draws upon the previous verses to remind his readers that “the many died in the trespass of the one.” The “how much more” in the “then” clause focuses on how “the grace (charis) of God and the gift (dōrea) abounded in the grace which is from the one man, Jesus Christ, for the many.” This combination of God’s grace and gift should remind us of 3:24 where this language is used in conjunction with being justified.
The grace of God encompasses the whole story of how God works in history to rescue his people. As a result, the gift—the status of being declared right by God—overflowed to the many in the grace which was displayed by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. While “the many” who died in the trespass of the one man are represented by Adam in their humanity, “the many” only receive the grace of God and the gift through faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21–26).
In verse 16, Paul emphasizes once more that the gift is not like the one man’s sin. He does not want them to miss the point. These representatives have two very different things to offer their constituencies. The only thing that comes to those who are represented by the man who sinned is the judgment that leads to condemnation. The free gift (charisma) is available out of many sins because Jesus was handed over on account of trespasses to redeem his people by taking the punishment they deserve upon himself so they could be declared righteous in the divine court. Paul concludes this portion of the argument with another “if, how much more” comparison in which he compares the reign of death with the reign that “the ones who receive the abundance of grace and gift of righteousness” will have through King Jesus.
5:18–19 Paul parallels his contrast of judgment and the gift in 5:16 by contrasting the judgment that came for all people through trespass leading to condemnation with the just status believers have before God, bringing life—both now and into eternity—through one righteous act for all who believe. In this stark contrast, Paul highlights the magnitude of what was accomplished in the death and resurrection of King Jesus by setting it in contrast to the catastrophic effects of the fall of Adam in the Garden. This comparison also foreshadows Paul’s description of how the death and resurrection of Jesus guarantees the restoration of all creation in Romans 8.
Through the disobedience of the one man, the many were designated as sinners. This reality supports Paul’s previous claim about the condemnation that all who are represented by Adam deserve. He then supports his claims concerning the justification of the many that brings life by explaining that through the obedience of the one man, the many will be established as righteous.
Looking back over this final set of comparisons, a pattern emerges. In 5:15, Paul focuses on what was accomplished by these representative figures in the past. In 5:16 and 5:18, Paul explains the present status in the law court of those who are represented by Adam and those who are represented by Jesus. The former are condemned, and the latter are justified. Finally, in 5:17 and 5:19, Paul explains that death reigned and the many were established as sinners because of Adam’s rebellion against God’s rule to highlight the future final declaration of that those represented by King Jesus are justified and their future reign in God’s new world. Just as God’s promise to Abraham has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s purpose to bless those made in his image by dwelling with them in perfect communion (as in Eden) has been secured in the same act.
5:20–21 Paul concludes this section by describing the role the law plays in God’s plan to establish a people for himself. This law is countered by the superabounding grace revealed in Jesus that will always provide the answer for sin, no matter the number. He explains that the law entered the story with the purpose of amplifying the trespass. The nature of the offense is enhanced because the law defines the trespass as being against God. The corresponding portion of the chiasm shows that the law also increased the number of sins as well, potentially foreshadowing the claim in 7:7–8 that the law produced coveting of every kind in “him.” Grace abounds over this ever-increasing sin to replace sin’s reign of death with grace’s reign of eternal life that comes through the saving action of God performed by Jesus, which both maintains God’s justice and enthrones Jesus as King and Lord.
Under New Management: New King Not the Same as the Old King (6:1–7:6)
In this section, Paul addresses the accusation that people who believe the message he proclaims about justification are allowed or even encouraged by the Apostle, to sin. Such sin may seem logical because the increase of sin produces an increase of grace. Today, theologians define this logical, but unbiblical, extension of justification by faith as “antinomianism.” Paul uses the images of baptism, slavery, and marriage to demonstrate that the justified follow their King by pursuing the righteousness God has declared they possess.
6:1–2 In this section, due to his application of 6:3–10 to the “you” in 6:11, Paul is using “we” to describe himself and possibly those who were with him. With this group in mind, he addresses the caricature of his teaching about the lavish nature of God’s grace and its implications for living as a Christian through the question: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace multiplies?” Paul’s opponents are distorting his claim that grace can defeat sin and bring eternal life. Instead, they claim Paul is suggesting that one can keep living in sin because more grace is always better. Paul responds again with the forceful, “may it never be!!” (mē genoito).
Paul’s first response to these false claims begins with a question that sets the stage for what follows. He begins by asking, “How will we who died to (or with respect to) sin still live in it? Paul’s initial question either assumes his readers (or those who are spreading these lies or both) have grasped the proper implications of his argument about present and future justification. These people no longer live under the reign of sin and death, and Paul cannot fathom how his opponents are claiming that he believes the justified will have the desire to live under old masters after they have come under the kingship of Jesus.
6:3–11 In verse 3, Paul paves the way for his first response to this misrepresentation of his teaching about the actions that should characterize the lives of the justified through another question. This question chalks up their error to ignorance, but his use of the present tense could indicate that his opponents are being willfully ignorant. He asks, “Or, are you continuing in ignorance that as many of us who were baptized into Christ, into his death were baptized?”
Although Paul is not giving us a prescription for a complete theology of baptism that explicitly describes the mode or the proper candidates for the ordinance in this passage, he is employing the physical actions that are a part of the act itself to symbolize what takes place in conversion when the Spirit circumcises the heart of the believer and takes residence in him or her. In Baptism, the candidate is obeying the command of Jesus, as part of the process of discipleship, and the act of being under the water symbolizes being brought into the realm where Christ Jesus reigns, particularly by identifying with him in the realm of his death for his or her sin (4:25).17 Based upon this idea, Paul infers that they “were buried with him through baptism into death” in order that they would live in the newness of life that corresponds with the resurrection life that belonged to Christ as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.
Paul provides the basis for this claim about living a new life in 6:5 through another conditional sentence in which his readers are expected to assume that believers exist in the state of being united with Jesus in his death which then guarantees they will also be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection. Paul’s readers can not only assume that this condition has been met for the sake of the argument but can also know that it has been achieved in fact because their “old person was crucified with him in order that the body of sin may be nullified.”
The Apostle defines the meaning of this clause further by explaining that they are no longer living as slaves to sin.18 This description of the sinful body should remind us of the argument that Paul made in the previous chapter about Adam’s trespass. All people are represented by Adam at birth and possess the kind of body that he had, one which at the same time continues to demonstrate that people are made in the image of God but also bears the marks of sin and death. The goal of the Christian is not to escape the body but for this body of sin to be replaced with a resurrection body that can never be enslaved to sin. This body has been secured in an ultimate sense through dying with Jesus, but the justified can still even now live as those who are no longer slaves to sin.
Paul provides the basis for this final claim about freedom from slavery to sin in 6:7 when he asserts that the one who died lives as one who has been acquitted (“freed,” CSB) from the sin with which he was charged in the court. In verses 8–10, Paul is going to mirror much of the grammar from verses 5–7 to emphasize his point that the guarantee of the resurrection provides hope for living in freedom from sin’s power today and to expand that hope by introducing the freedom that Jesus secured from death’s rule as well.
|Romans 6:5–7||Romans 6:8–11|
|If we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, (5a)||If we died with Christ, (8a)|
|we shall also be united (implied by the construction) with him in the likeness of his resurrection; (5b)||we believe that we shall also live with him, (8b)|
|because we know that our old man was crucified (with him) (6a)||because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is not dying ever again, (9a)|
|in order that the sinful body is nullified, in order that we are no longer living as slaves to sin; (6b)||death is no longer ruling over him (9b)|
|For the one who died has been acquitted from sin. (7)||For, he died what he died to sin once for all, and he is living what he is living to God. (10)|
|In this way also, you consider yourselves to be dead on the one hand with respect to sin but living on the other for God in Christ Jesus. (11)|
The parallel between verses 5 and 8 conveys essentially the same information, except for the fact that Paul describes the believer’s status in the likeness of Jesus’s death and resurrection in verse 5 and describes their agency in these actions in verse 8.
The differences in the parallel sections become more pronounced in the comparison between verses 6 and 9, but Paul leverages these differences to great effect. In 6:6, after the initial “because we know,” Paul reiterates what was asserted in verse 5 by explaining that the “old man” and the sinful body are acted upon. The only active voice clause is the second purpose clause in verse 6, which is intended to provide further explanation of what this means for the sinful body to be nullified.
By contrast in verse 9, Paul asserts that death is no longer ruling over Jesus and provides the basis for this claim by stating that Christ is not dying again (literally, “no more”) after being raised from the dead. The Apostle has used this contrast to bring together the co-conspirators, sin and death, to show that the enslaving power that sin had on the justified has been extinguished because death no longer has its grip on the resurrected King Jesus.
The parallel of “the death he died, he died to sin once for all time” (CSB) and “the one who died has been acquitted from sin” should remind us of 3:21–26 where Paul described what Jesus’s death accomplished for those who believe in him.
Finally, Paul advances his argument with the final unparalleled clause in verse 10 in which he declares that the resurrected Jesus is now living for God.
In 6:11, Paul then concludes this first portion of the chapter by bringing his readers back to the question that he asked in 6:2 and applying what he has taught from 6:3 onward by explaining that they should consider themselves to be dead with respect to sin. Sin has no authority over them just as it has no authority over the “we” in the first part of the chapter. Along with that, the believers in Rome are to live their lives for God because just as death no longer reigns over King Jesus and his resurrection life is lived for God, death no longer reigns over them, and their lives should be lived for God because they are “in Christ Jesus.” This phrase “in Christ Jesus” will play a significant role in the rest of this letter as it does in many of Paul’s other letters because being “in Christ Jesus” is the key identity marker for the believer and establishes the intimate relational connection between the believer and Jesus that makes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the guarantee that believers will share in Christ’s resurrection self-evident.
6:12–14 Paul draws together the argument he has just made, using the image of baptism, to make the command that they should no longer allow sin to reign in their mortal (sinful) bodies in order that they would not obey sin’s desires because they are living for God due to being in Christ Jesus. This command makes perfect sense if they have died and been raised with Christ. Allowing sin to have dominion when its authority has been removed is nonsensical. Paul illustrates his previous command with two contrasting commands in 6:13–14.
He first exhorts the Roman Christians to stop presenting the parts of their bodies as “weapons (CSB) of unrighteousness for sin” and continues with the positive command to “present themselves to God as ones who are alive from the dead and your members as weapons of righteousness for God.” In these commands Paul is calling upon them to stop using their bodies for the sinful practices that they did repeatedly prior to believing in Jesus and seemingly are still doing but rather to present their whole lives to God as people who are living because they have been raised from the dead. From the foundation of new life, they must use their bodies as weapons for godly living, demonstrating with whom their allegiances truly lie.
Paul provides further support for this command in 6:14 where he explains that just as death no longer exercises dominion over Jesus (6:9), sin will no longer practice dominion over the justified because they are no longer under the law, which multiplies trespass and sin, but under grace, which removes trespass and sin from their account and destroys their enslaving power.
6:15–23 From this claim about not being under the law but under grace, Paul again creates a question that addresses a distortion of his teaching in which some claim that Paul, echoing 6:1, encourages Christians to sin because they are under grace and not the law. Paul responds again with the forceful, “absolutely not!!” (mē genoito).
Paul responds to this question with another question and poses it to show that he expects his audience to respond positively. He asks them if they understand that people are slaves to the one whom they are obeying, either slaves of sin that leads to death or slaves of obedience that leads to righteousness. From this agreed upon foundation, Paul gives thanks to God for the gracious work that he has done to free them from their slavery to sin. Echoing Deuteronomy 30:1–6, Paul explains that they obeyed from the heart the teaching to which they were handed over and rather than continuing as slaves to sin were enslaved to righteousness. Grace, rather than allowing followers of Jesus to continue in their lifestyles that demonstrated their slavery to sin, frees them to be enslaved to righteousness, the just actions which align with God’s design for human flourishing.
In 6:19, before extending his use of the metaphor, Paul explains to his readers that he is using this example because of their inability to understand something more complex, and, for that, we can extend a huge “thank you” to the Romans. Paul continues in verse 19 with a comparison that picks up the idea of how the members of their body were used prior to believing in Christ and how they are to use them now that they have received God’s grace. Prior to believing in Christ, they presented their members to uncleanness and lawlessness that led to more lawlessness, but now they present their members for righteousness that results in being set apart for service to God.
In verses 20–21, Paul picks up the metaphor of slavery again and explains that when they were slaves of sin, they were free with respect to righteousness. If they were free, then what type of fruit were they having during that time? In response, Paul reminds them that they are now ashamed of those deeds because the end of those deeds is a death that results in God’s judgment.
The contrast to this judgment comes in 6:22 where Paul explains that since they have been freed from the power of sin and been enslaved to God, they have fruit that leads into sanctification, and the end of that journey is eternal life in the presence of God. Paul’s argument has again made it clear that being justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by works does not mean that the justified are freed to pursue lives characterized by sin. Rather, they have been freed from the power and authority of sin and death to pursue the righteous deeds that align with the decree from God in the law court that they are righteous in Christ. Paul concludes this portion of the argument by reminding his readers that while the just payment for sin is death, the fruit of righteousness that leads to sanctification is not paid eternal life as a reward. Eternal life can only be received as a free gift that believers possess because they are “in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
7:1–6 Paul now addresses the relationship that the justified have to the law one more time by drawing an analogy between their present circumstance and the covenant of marriage. He begins by starting this final illustration in the way that he began the first in 6:2, which serves the purpose of indicating to his readers that his portion of the argument is ending. This reference also takes the readers back to his initial point that believers are baptized into the death of Jesus, a point that will be significant for this final illustration, and it also packs a rhetorical punch.
At this point in the argument, Paul has made it clear that the justified died to the power of sin, the reign of death, and the authority of the law. He has also made it clear that this newfound freedom exists to pursue righteousness not lawlessness. If they still do not trust Paul’s teaching, they are practicing willful ignorance of what he is saying because they certainly understand the law from which he has built his argument. He begins by asking an easily agreed upon question about when the law’s authority over a man who is born under the law ends. The answer is, when he dies. To illustrate this point, Paul uses the covenant of marriage as an illustration. He begins with the premise that a married woman is bound to her living husband by the law, but if he dies, she is freed from the law that binds her to the husband. In 7:3, Paul builds on the previous claim by explaining that “if she married another man while her husband is still living, she will be called an adulteress.” If, however, that husband has died, she has been freed from that covenant bond and is able to marry another man without fear of being branded as an adulteress.
After laying this legal groundwork, Paul is now ready to apply it to the situation of the Romans in 7:4. He explains that they have died to the law through the body of Christ in order that they might be united with another, the one who was raised from the dead, in order that they might bear fruit for God. Paul again makes it clear that freedom from the law paves the way for believers to be united with Christ with the purpose of producing fruit for God. He compares their present situation as believers with their past in which their sinful passions, which were enhanced by the law, were working in the parts of their bodies continually to produce death.
Now their situation has radically changed. This language of “new” and “old” was a reminder of what era of salvation history they were inhabiting. The promise to Abraham has been fulfilled. The law has completed its salvation historical purpose. Now that this new hope had emerged in the death and resurrection of King Jesus, the Spirit empowered his followers to serve him in a way that the letter of the law was never able to do.
I Just Can’t Do It (7:7–25)
7:7–12 Paul begins this paragraph by asking a rhetorical question (“Is the law sin?”). Such a question might be inferred from what he just said about believers being freed from the law “so that they might serve in the newness of the Spirit” (CSB). He replies again with the emphatic, “Absolutely not” (CSB), but then quizzically continues by saying “I did not know sin except through the law.”
So, what shall we say about Paul’s argument in this portion of the letter? Before working through the exegesis of this chapter, readers should recognize that Romans 7 is one of the most difficult sections of text in Paul’s epistles, so any exegetical conclusion reached in this discussion is presented as provisional and with humility.
The first challenge of the chapter is identifying the “I” in each section of the chapter. Does the description correspond to Adam receiving commands from God in the garden, Israel receiving the law at Sinai, or Paul’s retrospective view of his personal experience in Judaism prior to believing that Jesus is the Messiah?19 While each one of these interpretations has its own strengths and weaknesses, I think that the most compelling reading of the passage is to understand this passage as Paul’s re-evaluation of his own experience in Judaism considering his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. He constructs his description of that experience to mirror the experience of Adam and Israel.20 This reading of Romans 7:7–13 does not require that Paul was struggling with the realization he did not measure up to the law’s demand while he was on the Road to Damascus. Rather, Paul saw himself as one who was faithfully living out his calling (Gal 1:13–14; Phil 3:2–6).
To illustrate his claim that he would not have known sin if the law did not define it for him, Paul cites the tenth commandment (“Do not covet.”) and asserts that he would not have known what it was to covet if the law did not point it out. Paul was not saying that he had never sinned prior to learning the commands of the law (see 5:12–14). Although the Apostle does not use the term transgression (parabasis), which conveys the idea that someone knows a command and willfully disobeys (Gal 3:19; Rom 2:23; 4:15; 5:14), he does seem to be conveying that concept.
In verse 8, Paul describes sin as a personified power that manipulates the good command of God and uses it as a weapon to produce coveting of every kind. If the interpreter considers this sin against the backdrop of the entire biblical narrative, echoes of Adam’s sin in the Garden, the covetous desire to be like God, or Israel’s desire to be like the other nations by having kings and visible representations of the gods they worship begin to ring out from the text. In Ephesians 5:5, Paul even equates coveting with idolatry.
Interpreters have attempted to discern which group in the congregation Paul was speaking to directly in this description and have proposed the Gentiles, God-fearing Gentiles, and Jews like Paul himself.21 This pursuit seems unnecessary because Paul is not using this personal description of his experience to address any random group of Jews, Gentiles, or God-fearers but rather is specifically addressing the various groups vying for more authority in the congregation. If both groups can see their own pre-Christian experience in Paul’s description of his own, maybe they will begin to recognize they are actually more alike than they want to admit.
In 7:8b–10a, Paul describes a situation in which he was previously alive before sin sprang to life when the commandment came to him. While some think that this situation can only describe Adam’s experience in the Garden, I think that Paul is describing the process that led him to recognize that he had moral responsibility before God. It is almost undoubtedly true that Paul had heard the ten commandments throughout the entirety of his life, but that does not mean he had the moral consciousness to bear the weight of judgment for that sin (compare with the children of the Exodus generation Num 14:11–38).22 As Schreiner notes, “Paul probably reflects on the time in his youth when he became a son of the commandment and took the law upon himself. When the law intruded on his consciousness with the prohibition against coveting, he died (i.e., he experienced separation from God through his transgression).”23 Once Paul’s conscience was awakened to the commandment against coveting, since pounced, enticed, and, ultimately, deceived him into thinking that it was a path to life when it killed him.
Paul, however, goes out of his way to declare that he was the problem, not the law. The law is the revealed will of God. The law is holy. The commandment on coveting (and all the other commandments for that matter) is holy, righteous, and good. Paul employs verse 12 to provide his final answer to the question he asked in verse 7 (Is the law sin?). Thankfully, Paul left the Romans (and us) with more than the emphatic response to the question in verse 7, (“may it never be”), by describing the consecrating, justice providing, and good purpose of the law.24
7:13–25 Romans 7:13 acts as a hinge that connects verses 7–12 with verses 14–25 and could be placed with either unit of the argument. Although most translations place it at the end of the previous paragraph, connecting it with what follows in the chapter helps the interpreter to recognize better how the following verses support the assertion that Paul makes in verse 13. Here Paul asks a pointed question about the law’s ability to produce death and will build the remainder of his argument from that question.25
Paul responds to the question again with a resounding, “may it never be!” and goes on to explain that the problem is not the law but sin, which he continues to describe as a sinister adversary who twists and manipulates the law for its malevolent purposes. Just as the law was never intended to be the ultimate cause of life, that role always belonged to God alone, the law is not the ultimate cause of death; sin is.26
Sin’s plan seems like a masterwork of diabolical genius. It takes the good gift of the law that was intended to bring order to life so that an unholy but chosen people could live in close proximity to a holy God and flourish as they lived out their calling to bring God’s blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3) and then kills them with it by making them believe the gift was the means to life rather than God, the giver of life. While sin’s manipulation of the law proved to be successful in producing death through what is good, the commandment exposed the brazen excess of human sinfulness and ultimately the culprit behind it all, sin itself.27
In 7:14, Paul asserts that the law is spiritual but “I am fleshly because I have been sold under sin.” This clause sparks a debate over the exact identity of the “I” in the rest of chapter 7. Interpreters have proposed several answers to this identity question, each with different nuances in the argument, like a substandard Christian experience, the existential situation of all people, pre-Christian experience, and Christian experience. In the history of interpretation, the two most prominent readings of the passage have focused on whether this was an example of Paul’s pre-Christian or Christian experience.28 Both interpretations have strong arguments in their favor and space will not allow an accounting of them. Before moving forward, consider the following from Tom Schreiner in the second edition of his commentary on Romans in which he publicly changes his position to the experience of a Christian: “The arguments on both sides are remarkably strong, though some arguments are stronger than others. In the first edition of this commentary (1998b), I suggested that the arguments are so finely balanced because Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text.”29
I think Paul is describing the experience of a Christian. One compelling reason to view this passage as the experience of a Christian is that Paul’s argument from 5:1–8:39 seems to outline the blessings that come from being declared right in the divine court on the basis of faith in Jesus. In 7:14, Paul does not say, “I am in the flesh” as opposed to being “in Christ.”30 He is describing the experience of a person who is converted but is still living in a body that is qualitatively different from the redeemed bodies Christians will receive when King Jesus returns (8:23; 1 Cor 15:35–47) and is thus still subject to the attacks levied by sin.
Paul illustrates the “in flesh” and “in Christ” conundrum through the back-and-forth inner monologue in 7:15–20. Essentially, his desires (mind) and actions (what he does) do not align with one another. In some ways, interpreters are prone to place the emphasis on one or the other of these two and, in so doing, guide themselves to seeing a pre-Christian or Christian experience in this passage as a result. If the emphasis is on the desires, the tendency would be toward a Christian experience. If the interpreter emphasizes the actions or the inability to do good, the tendency would be toward a pre-Christian experience.
Paul recognizes that sin will be an ever-present and powerful foe so long as he lives in his Adamic body. He does, however, seem to be encouraged by the fact that he desires to do the right thing, which does show that the law is good, even when he does not do the right thing.
Paul concludes this back-and-forth in 7:21–23 with a summarizing principle that emphasizes the presence of sin’s evil power and unrelenting attack when his mind is directed toward obedience. After acknowledging the numerous defeats in the ongoing journey toward holiness in the Christian life, Paul cries out in frustration over his afflicted state and asks, “who will rescue me from the body of this death?”31 He responds, paving the way for chapter 8, with a word of thanks for Jesus Christ our Lord who will ultimately replace the body of this death with a redeemed body, the mind held captive to the law of sin with a renewed mind freed to serve the law of God.
No Condemnation! (8:1–17)
8:1–11 In Romans 8:1, Paul responds to the desperate question in 7:24 (“who will rescue me from the body of this death?”) by declaring that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). For those who are in Christ Jesus the rightful condemnation for sin against God, eternal death, has been taken away and replaced with resurrection life.
Paul provides support for this claim in 8:2 by contrasting “the law of the Spirit who gives life” with the “law of sin and death.” The “Spirit who gives life” set them free, even though they still live in the “body of this death,” from the power that sin and death possessed to exile them from God. This new reality guarantees that “this death” will have no lasting authority over them because they will receive resurrection bodies unencumbered by “this death” when King Jesus returns in power.
Paul continues the argument by contrasting what the law was unable to accomplish with what God was able to accomplish in Christ. The law was weak because it relied on people with a sinful nature to do what it commanded. But God shows his strength by condemning the sin that permeates the flesh of fallen humans by sending his own Son in the “likeness of sinful flesh.” Jesus comes in flesh though not infested with sin or ruled by sin for the purpose of breaking sin’s stranglehold on those who believe in him.
In verse 4 he explains that God condemned the sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law would be fulfilled. This fulfillment occurs within those who were freed by the life-giving Spirit from their sin-weakened flesh. Paul supports and expands upon this idea in verses 5–8 by applying a “flesh versus Spirit” contrast into the realms of what people spend their time thinking about. The result of thinking guided by the flesh is death. The result of thinking guided by the Spirit is not just life (see 8:2) but also peace. Paul’s addition of “peace” underlines the fact that the Spirit is not just providing eternal life to the believer into the future but is also providing a life of flourishing now. The Christian life is characterized not just by the absence of hostility toward God but also by a restored relationship with God. Such a relationship leads to flourishing as the man or woman God made them to be.
The mindset of the flesh is also hostile to God because it does not allow people to submit themselves to the law and has never had the ability to do so. In verse 8, Paul concludes from the evidence he has just presented that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (CSB). While this might sound eerily like the end of chapter 7, Paul asserts that the Roman Christians are not in the flesh but are dwelling in the Spirit—if the Spirit of God is dwelling in them. Paul draws the contrast in 8:9b by reversing the statement and saying that if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him. Paul’s repeated use of this contrast demonstrates how receiving the Spirit was the clear sign that someone had been converted and that the Spirit’s continuing work made obedience to Christ possible.
In verse 10, Paul moves from the Spirit of Christ to Christ dwelling in the believer. He explains that if Christ is in them, on the one hand their physical body is dead on account of sin but on the other the Spirit is life on account of righteousness. Since these Roman Christians are in Christ, they have been declared right in the divine court and have the guarantee of eternal life.
Finally, in verse 11, Paul describes this eternal life further by bringing God the Father into his argument and describing the Spirit dwelling in them as “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.” This eternal life will take place in a glorified body that can never be harmed by the power of sin and death because the God who raised Jesus from the dead to never die again will do the same for them.
Adoption as Sons (8:12–17)
8:12–17 In this paragraph, Paul draws out the practical implications of being in Christ and filled with his Spirit. People who are in Christ and filled with the Spirit do not live under the authority of the flesh. If, however, the Spirit dwells in you and empowers you to kill the deeds of the body, you will live. These works do not cause them to be declared righteous in Christ, but they do provide evidence of the change that the Spirit has worked in them. This Spirit-empowered obedience also demonstrates that not only are these believers declared right before God, but they also have been adopted as God’s sons.
While verses 14–15 allude to God’s adoption of Israel and subsequent rescue from slavery, Paul explains that the rescue secured in the death and resurrection of King Jesus exceeds the Exodus in every way (Jer 16:16-19). How?
- God rescued those who are in Christ to make these Roman believers his sons.
- The Spirit transforms and empowers these believers to live as courageous, emancipated sons, unlike the Israelites who brought their Egyptian slavery with them on the journey to the Promised Land and romanticized about it as the good old days every time the journey became the least bit bumpy (Exod 16:3).
- The Spirit gives those who are in Jesus Christ the ability to call upon God as their Abba, Father just as he did.
- The Spirit testifies with the spirit of those who are in Christ that not only are they God’s children but that they are also heirs with Christ if they suffer with him.
To conclude the paragraph, Paul emphasizes that the journey to be glorified with Jesus will be filled with suffering that comes from living Spirit-empowered lives in a world that is controlled by fleshly leaders like Caesar Nero, just as Jesus’s journey from Bethlehem to the right hand of God was.
There You Go (8:18–30)
Although the promise of suffering might lead to a spirit of fear, these believers have been adopted as sons and daughters of God and must view their suffering from the perspective of eternal glory. Paul displays this eternal perspective when he asserts that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. At this point, the suffering of Christians in Rome under Caesar Nero has not reached a fever pitch, but this text would likely have provided great comfort when the persecution increased after the city burned.
In 8:19–22, Paul personifies the non-human elements of the created order so that he can amplify the glorious transformation of creation that will accompany the final resurrection. He begins by asserting that “The eager expectation of creation is continually awaiting” for God to reveal the sons of God. This heirs are presently hidden in the obscurity that accompanies their suffering. In verse 20, Paul provides the basis for his claims in the previous verse. The created order bears no responsibility for the futility that accompanied the judgments God handed down against Adam and Eve. Even though the creation was subjugated to futility unwillingly, the judgment took place within the broader context of the hope that God would fix the things broken in the fall. This hope is that “the creation itself will be set free or released from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Just as the created order experienced the catastrophic judgment that accompanied Adam’s rebellion against God, the created order will be radically transformed in a way that corresponds to the resurrection glory received by those who are in Christ. So, the whole creation is continually groaning and suffering in the agony akin to labor pains. Just as a mother endures the agony so she can have the joy of meeting her child, so also the created order endures for the joy of being remade in eternal perfection.
Not only does creation long for God to resurrect the created order, but those who possess the firstfruits of the Spirit are groaning within themselves longing for adoption as sons. Paul employs “adoption” language here in a way that differs from his usage earlier in the chapter, where he states that believers received “the spirit of adoption” and in 9:4, where he employs the term to describe the blessings that the Israelites possessed. He defines this future adoption for the readers as the redemption or rescue of their bodies and, in doing so, provides a clear and definite answer to the question of “who will rescue me from the body of this death.”
In 8:24, Paul explains that they were saved with a hope for the future that goes far beyond the mere avoidance of God’s wrath. The Christian hope is a for a future resurrection that paves the way for dwelling in God’s presence for eternity. This hope, however, must be pursued in faith because hope and sight do not coexist. Paul explains one more time in verse 25 that when believers hope without seeing the thing for which they are longing, they are waiting with patient endurance that shows confidence that God will complete what was accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Son.
In verses 26–27, Paul acknowledges that enduring through difficulties of life in the fallen world with a fixed hope in the resurrection is—maybe more times than most believers would care to admit—overwhelming but emphasizes that believers do not endure in their own strength. The Spirit is continuously helping us in our weakness. Many times, the anguish is so great that believers do not even know what to say when they reach out to God in prayer. In those instances (and likely every instance), the Spirit is interceding “with inexpressible groanings.” Some equate these groanings with speaking in tongues, but it seems that in these instances the Spirit is the one doing the speaking and not the anguished believer. Paul then concludes this portion of the argument by explaining that God the Father understands perfectly what the Spirit is communicating to him because the Spirit is interceding for believers according to God’s will. In other words, the Spirit always speaks in alignment with God’s will.
Paul concludes this portion of the argument in verses 28–30 by emphasizing once again that God is working to empower believers for the journey of endurance until the resurrection for which they are longing is realized. While Romans 8:28 is rightly a verse often memorized by Christians for assurance in difficult times, this reality does not mean the verse is free from interpretive questions.
First, the interpreter must grapple with is what Paul’s original autograph said. Essentially, did the original text state explicitly that God is working all things for the good? Does panta, which can function as either the subject of the verb or as the direct object, serve as the subject, resulting in a translation of “all things work together for the good”? Or did Paul omit using theos again immediately after using the term in the phrase “for the ones who love God” but still intend for his readers to understand that God was the subject of the verb sunergeō?32 In this case, the earliest and best manuscripts are divided, and the textual critic has to use criteria internal to the text to make the best decision he or she can. Since the omission of theos provides the shorter reading and results in a more difficult reading, I think that Paul’s original letter did not include an explicit statement that theos was the subject of the verb. The context, however, points to God still being the subject of sunergeō and panta (“all things”) being the direct object.33
After settling this issue, the second interpretive issue concerns how sunergo should be translated. Should it be translated as “God works all things for the good” or as “God works all things together with us for the good”? Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians 16:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:1 to convey the idea of “working with” or “collaborating.” While Paul could certainly use the verb differently than he does in other contexts—especially when he only uses it three times—the interpreter should consider if the context demands an alternate usage. Paul certainly is emphasizing God’s work to bless his people (“for the good”) and is also asserting that nothing can thwart the accomplishment of those plans, but is he doing so at the expense of the believer’s agency in that process?
In this passage, Paul extols the sovereign work of God to accomplish an ultimate good for his people, due to what King Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection, but he also does not shy away from the responsibility of believers to participate in that process. So, Paul is encouraging these Roman believers that God is working all things for the good with, in, and for those who love him and are called according to his purpose, even in the most existentially horrifying situations that can take place in a fallen world. While this “good” is certainly multi-faceted, it certainly includes the hope that is at the center of Paul’s argument in this section of the letter and is the outcome of godly suffering in 5:3–5.
In 8:29–30, Paul supports his claim that God is continually working with those who love him and are called according to his purpose for the good. He provides this support by describing the good as an established reality from God’s perspective, even if these blessings seem experientially incomplete from our perspective. Paul first defines “the called” as “those he foreknew” and “those he predestined.” Paul seems to be using “foreknew” as a synonym with God choosing his people in this verse, particularly when one considers the linking of “chose” and “predestined” in Ephesians 1:4.34 Believers can know that God is working with them for the good because not only has God chosen them, but he has also predestined them with a purpose. Here, Paul defines that ultimate purpose as being conformed to the image of God’s son, King Jesus. While all believers must recognize they are works in progress from their own present perspective, Paul describes God’s predestining work from a perspective that includes all of life, from birth to final resurrection, and as a completed whole. If God sees believers as ones who are conformed to the image of King Jesus, they can know that God is working with them for their ultimate good.
Paul continues by explaining the purpose of conforming these believers to the image of the Son. God’s great purpose is that Jesus would be the first born among many brothers and sisters (likely referring to 8:14–17 and maybe even the Adam-Christ comparison in 5:12–21).
In verse 30, Paul completes his description of how God views these believers by explaining that God called them, justified them, and glorified them. From a human perspective, each action in this list has a past, present, and future dimension. From God’s perspective, they describe a finished reality. In the end, Paul is calling these believers to look above the day-to-day trials of life that often lead to despair and to view matters from God’s perspective where the guaranteed resurrection of God’s people and God’s creation is full view.
No Separation (8:31–39)
Paul’s continued reflection on God’s work to rescue his people and his creation causes him to break out into a hymn of praise to God for his unending and undefeatable love in which Paul expounds upon the themes of “no condemnation” in verses 31–34 and “no separation” in verses 35–39.35 Paul’s first question in verse 31 (“what, then, will we say to these things?”) transitions the argument toward a conclusion and introduces a call-and-response rhythm illustrated in the table below.
|“If God is for us, who is against us?”||“He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”|
|“How will he not also with him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect?”||“God is the one who justifies.”|
|“Who is the one who condemns?”||“Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.”|
Paul’s first question focuses on the fact that God—above every party offended by the sins these believers have committed, are committing, and will commit—has the right to condemn sinners in the divine court, but rather than condemning them, he is working for their good. So, who can be against them? The expected response might be a simple “no one,” but Paul reveals the depths of God’s “for us” love by explaining that he removed the condemnation that his people rightly deserved by giving up his own Son in their place (Rom 5:6–11).
If God demonstrated such a profound love in the death of his Son, how could anyone bring an accusation against God’s people. How could any pardoned sinner think that God might not complete the work he started in them? So who can accuse them? Satan the Accuser might try, but no one has any standing in the divine court to do so because God has declared them righteous in his court.
The first section of the hymn concludes with an already answered question that takes the reader back to 8:1–2. No one can condemn the one who is in Christ Jesus because he died for their sin, was raised for their justification, and intercedes for them to the Father as the Spirit intercedes for them to the Son.
In 8:35 Paul asks the question that drives the second portion of this hymn, “who will separate us from the love of Christ.” After this initial, thematic question, Paul follows up with a series of options that might cause discouraged believers to think that they have been separated from the love of Christ. He lists suffering, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword. Through his citation of Psalm 44:22 that follows, Paul puts the discouraged believers in Rome in the place of the sons of Korah who lament because they believe that God has forsaken them. If they believe that their situation reflects being separated from the love of God, Paul responds with a resounding, “No” and then declares that they have decisive victory over all these enemies through “the one who loves” them.
In verses 38–39, Paul declares “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing” can overcome the victorious power of the love of God that is theirs in Christ Jesus the Lord.
God’s Grace Is Just (9:1–29)
This new section of the argument mirrors the argument in 1:18–2:29. Whereas in 1:18–32, Paul addresses the Gentiles (primarily) and moves to the Jews in 2:1–21, here he begins by correcting the Jews (9:1–10:21) and concludes with the Gentiles (11:1–32). Paul opens with an emphatic, “I speak the truth in Christ, I am not lying” to make it clear that his ministry to the Gentiles does not mean that he does not care about his fellow Israelites who have rejected the gospel. In actuality, “this situation is great sorrow and unceasing grief for him” (9:2). Paul even goes so far as to declare his willingness to act as a substitute for his people and be separated from Christ if it brought salvation to them.
Before explaining to the Jewish members of the Roman congregation that God has been faithful to his promises (Rom 9:6), he provides the whole congregation with a reminder of the continued faithfulness of God to Israel, even as she rebelled against him continually. They received the adoption prior to the Exodus (Exod 4:22). They saw the glory of God descend on the on the mountain (40:34) and on the Temple (1Kgs 8:11). They received the covenant promises (Gen 15:1–20; 17:1–22) and the law (Rom 4:13–14). Along with this, they had the opportunity to worship God in the Temple and to receive numerous promises (e.g., 2Sam 7:1–17) and to the exiles that God would restore them.
Not only do they have all of these demonstrations of the grace of God to their ancestors to remember, but the Jewish people also have the ancestors whose responsibility to bring the blessing of God to all the families of the earth has now been fulfilled in the true Israelite King, who reigns as “God over all blessed forever” 9:5). This type of history lesson is common among the Old Testament prophets because it removes any doubts their audience might have about God’s faithfulness, and Paul intends for it to do the same for his.
In 9:6, Paul asserts that the present rejection of the gospel message by ethnic Jews is not evidence that God’s promises at long last have failed because not every physical descendant of Israel (Jacob) was a member of the people of God. In fact, this fact has been clear since God fulfilled his promise to Abraham. Isaac was the child of promise, not Ishmael. If that evidence was not enough, Jacob was the child of promise, even though he was the second son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jewish people might be able to undercut the claim that Ishmael had to be the child of promise due to the circumstances of his conception, but Paul emphasized that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau took place before either of them had done good or evil. God’s choice was an act of grace and had nothing to do with works. He supports this claim by referring to Malachi 1:2–3, which states, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”
Before moving on, the interpreter should take note of the comparative idiom that is present in this verse. God was certainly gracious to Esau and provided him with great wealth and other evidences of common grace, but when the love that God had for Esau was compared with the love that God had for Jacob, it looked like hate (Gen 29:31, cf., Luke 14:26; Matt 10:37). This kind of unconditional choice by God leads to the question of whether God’s action is just, and Paul asserts without hesitation that God is certainly in the right because he is the sovereign King of the universe whose every interaction with those whom he has called to himself is one of mercy. When people realize that the only thing rebellious humanity “deserves” from the Lord is punishment, the question that remains is simply whether God’s justice should be muted at all.
In 9:19, Paul approaches this question of justice from another angle because some then wonder how God’s punishment is just if his will cannot be thwarted. Paul responds by claiming that humans, who come from the same dust as the potter’s clay, have just as much right to talk back to God as a lump of clay has to talk back to the potter. What is it to them that God showed great patience with those who were not chosen to be a part of his people? What is it to them if God chose to make Gentiles and a remnant of Jews a part of his family on the basis of faith in King Jesus alone.
How Do They Find What They Weren’t Looking For? (9:30–10:21)
Paul sums up the present situation and transitions into a new phase of the argument in 9:30.36 In the first part of the argument (9:30–10:13), Paul explains that Israel has chosen to follow the way of the law rather than the way of King Jesus. In 10:14–21, he will argue that Israel was responsible for the present demographic distribution in the church because it had heard the message of King Jesus proclaimed.37
Paul begins this section by explaining that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have obtained a righteous status in the divine court based on faith and that Israel pursued the law of righteousness but did not obtain it because the pursuit was driven by works and not by faith. If his readers had any objections to this claim, Paul demonstrates God’s faithfulness by showing that their present experience fulfills what the prophet Isaiah (28:16) said about Israel long ago. Paul continues by reiterating his desire and prayer to God for the salvation of those Jews who have, to this point at least, rejected Jesus. Paul knows that those who have rejected Jesus have done so because they have zeal for God that is misplaced because it does not take into account the power of God to save and declare righteous those who have faith in Jesus. By missing the work of Jesus, they have missed the one who is the goal and culmination of the law’s role, the only one capable of establishing a righteous status before God.
Paul concludes this first portion of the argument by explaining the way of Christ. If a person confesses with his or her mouth that “Jesus if Lord” and believes in his or her her heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, he or she will be saved. Paul explains this idea further through second part of a chiasm, which states, “for with the heart one believes for righteousness and with the mouth one confesses for salvation” (10:10). Paul returns to Isaiah 28:16 again to demonstrate that the person who follows the way of Christ will never be put to shame when God’s final judgment is declared.
In 10:14–21, Paul addresses Israel’s culpability for largely rejecting the gospel about Jesus. The Apostle begins by posing a series of questions which demonstrate that they cannot call upon God unless they have believed, that they will not believe unless someone preaches, and finally that they cannot preach unless they are sent. He then cites Isaiah 52:7, which states, “How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim good news.” (CSB). In the context of Isaiah, this good news is the pronouncement that God has defeated their enemies, has ended their exile, and has established his reign on the earth. The good news is the proclamation of the kingship of Jesus (“the message about Christ,” Rom 10:17) that causes people to be saved. Israel has heard the message. The scriptural citations from the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah make it clear that careful readers of the Old Testament should not be surprised that the present rejection of the gospel message by most Jews is God’s plan for bringing his blessing to all the families of the earth.
Who Has Found What They Are Looking For? (11:1–10)
11:1–10 In light of his argument about Israel’s rejection of King Jesus in the previous two chapters, Paul poses a question that could possibly have been asked by Jewish Christians due to their despondency over being a minority in the church or maybe even by the Gentile Christians in the church who might have an air of superiority due to their majority status: “has God rejected (or cast off) his people?” Whoever asked the question, Paul answered it with an emphatic, “No!” Paul himself is “Exhibit A” that God is saving Israelites who believe in Jesus. In verse 2, Paul alludes to 8:28 to make his claim even more clear. He supports this initial claim by referring to the isolation he felt in 1 Kings 19. This reference seems to indicate that the Paul is addressing the Jewish Christians who are experiencing alienation from their own people. Just as was the case with Elijah, the circumstance is not as dire as they thought it to be. Then as now, God has graciously saved a remnant. Israel as whole did not receive the message and have become hardened to the message, but the elect within this people have heard the message and believed.
Arrogance Looks Ugly on Everyone (11:11–32)
11:11–32 Paul introduces the next section of the argument by considering if Israel has stumbled in such a way that this ethnic people group has fallen in some irretrievable way. He answers again with an emphatic “No!” God’s purpose in this rejection is to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and in so doing, make Israel jealous because God’s affection has been given to another. The irony of this statement should ring in the ears of his Jewish reader/hearers due to the numerous times God was described in the Old Testament as being jealous for the affections of Israel when the nation pursued the idols of other nations.
Paul ends the paragraph with excitement about the blessings for the world that the fullness of Israel coming to faith will bring. The vastness of the blessings have come, counterintuitively, due to its rejection. In verse 13, Paul turns his attention to the Gentiles and explains that part of his role in proclaiming the gospel to them is making his own people jealous and thus have a role in saving some of them. His hope is that not only will their rejection bring reconciliation to the Gentiles but also life from the dead through their acceptance of the message about Jesus.
In 11:17, Paul begins to address the seeming arrogance of the Gentiles in the Roman church by describing them as wild olive tree branches that were grafted into the cultivated olive tree. He exhorts the Gentiles not to boast that they are better than the branches of the original tree and not to boast that they sustain the root because the root of the tree sustains them. Rather than boasting about being grafted into the tree, the Gentiles should be cautious because if God did not spare his own branches, he will not spare them either if they do not continue to stand by faith (5:2).
Paul continues this warning by asking them to consider the kindness and severity of God and exhorts them to remain in the kindness of God by practicing an ongoing faith. Paul’s ultimate hope is that Israel will not remain in its rampant unbelief but will believe in Jesus and be re-grafted into the tree. If the Gentile Christians are assuming it cannot be done, this exhortation is needed even more. Paul continues by explaining to the Gentiles that they need to grasp the mystery he is about to explain so they will not think too highly of themselves. He explains that a partial hardening has taken place until such time as the fullness of the Gentiles is established. In God’s providence, this will lead ultimately to all Israel being saved.
While significant debate exists as to the identity of Israel and how all Israel will be saved, Paul seems to be describing a situation in which Jews will be converted throughout history until such time as Jesus returns. When Christ returns, all the elect within Israel will have been converted. The passage does not seem to describe a mass conversion at the end.
Paul concludes that this rivalry between the Jews and the Gentiles played a positive role in their believing in the gospel. The ethnic Jews are, however, loved by God because of the patriarchs, particularly since God’s gifts and calling (8:28) cannot be revoked. In the end, all of them, Jews and Gentiles, are imprisoned under sin with the goal “that he would have mercy on all.”
A Concluding Doxology (11:33–36)
11:33–36 Recounting the majestic plan of God to save both the Jews and Gentiles causes Paul to burst forth into a hymn of praise to God. Paul extols the “depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” Even as the Spirit has inspired Paul to explain significant elements of God’s plan to save both Jews and Gentiles through faith in King Jesus alone, he is stunned by how little of the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God he understands. Recognizing this reality rightly causes Paul to worship God.
No mere human can trace out the totality of God’s judgments or plumb the depths of his ways. Like the questions of God to Job, Paul poses three questions to which the obvious answer is “no one.” In rapid succession, Paul asks: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became his counselor, or who gave to him and will be repaid by him?” The final clause provides the foundation of the implied answer to the questions. God is the source, agent, and the goal of every thread woven together into the tapestry of his eternal plan to secure the redemption of people made in his image.38 Paul concludes this reflective word of praise with the declaration that glory belongs to God forever!
Exhortation and Instruction (12:1–15:13)
The Sacrificial Offering of Obedience to God (12:1–21)
In this section of the letter, Paul builds on his instruction concerning the theological implications of faith in Jesus as King.
12:1–2 Paul connects the exhortation and instruction that follows to the main body of the letter by using “therefore” at the beginning of the verse. He has corrected how they are to think about what God has accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and now he will explain how their new thinking should lead to a different sort of living. He addresses the whole church body, both the Jews and Gentiles, as “brothers and sisters.” Paul addresses the Romans in this way on eight or nine occasions in the letter (See 1:13; 7:1, 4; 8:12, 29; 9:3; 10:1; 11:25; 12:1; 15:14, 30; 16:17. A textual difficulty exists in Romans 15:30, but every modern English translation includes it.). Although viewing fellow Jews in the first century or fellow Christians as brothers and sisters in the twenty-first century church might feel commonplace, hearing Paul use this language to describe Jews and Gentiles in their church would likely have gotten their attention for the point that Paul was about to make. He even goes so far as to use this exact language, “I am exhorting you, brothers and sisters,” three times in this section of the letter (12:1–15:33). Paul’s choice of verb tense emphasizes the up-close and on-going nature of this exhortation. Even though he has not yet arrived in Rome and did not establish the church, he can exhort them to pursue unity as a church through their shared experience of the compassion of God, which he has extolled for the last eleven chapters.
In fact, being in Christ demands unity. These mercies of God (consider switch from verb to noun and possibility of echo in Isa 63:15 or Zech 12) that they have received establish a circumstance in which presenting their whole selves to God as living sacrifices makes sense. The construction of this exhortation should not have surprised Paul’s readers because it mirrors similar calls to obedience throughout the Scriptures (e.g., Ezek 18:31). Beyond the fact that Yahweh deserved their devotion because he is the one, true God, his gracious, covenantal promises to Abraham and his family and then his rescue of them from slavery in Egypt served as the starting points for calls from the prophets to obey the commands of the Lord.
Paul then provides the content of his exhortation by calling upon them “to present” their bodies as “living sacrifices.” In this context, “present” conveys the idea of “devoting” or “consecrating” their whole selves to God for a sacrificial purpose.39 Paul’s usage here is similar to how Luke described Joseph and Mary “took him up to Jerusalem to offer him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). Paul also used this verb in chapter 6:12–13 commands them to stop devoting the parts of their bodies “as weapons of unrighteousness in service to the power of sin (and death)” but to “present themselves to God as ones who are living from out of the dead” and the parts of their bodies “as weapons of righteousness in service to God.”
Here in Romans 12:1, Paul can call these Roman believers to present their bodies—their whole selves—to God as living sacrifices because they have died and been raised to life in Christ. And it is this Christ who died as the atoning sacrifice for their sin and was raised for their justification (Rom 3:23–24; 4:25). This offering is to be holy and acceptable to God, a reality that is made possible because they have been declared righteous in Christ.
The final interpretive issue of this verse revolves around exactly how the words logikēn and latreian should be translated. Logikēn can mean “rational,” “reasonable,” “spiritual,” or “pertaining to the mind and soul” depending upon the context in which it is used.40 The only other use of this term is in 1 Peter 2:2, where it is used in conjunction with adolon to describe the purity of the milk that these newborn believers are desire so that they grow into salvation. In addition to this passage, latreian occurs four times in the New Testament (Rom 9:4; John 16:2; Heb 9:1, 6). The range of meaning for these usages includes service to God (or in the temple) and is often translated as worship in modern translations, especially in Romans 12:1.
|NASB (1195)||Spiritual||Service of Worship|
|NET (2nd Ed.)||Reasonable||Service|
|NIV (2011)||True and Proper||Worship|
From this small survey of translations, the divide over what Paul is teaching the Romans comes into clear focus. One interpretation of the verse defines the presenting of their bodies as living sacrifices as “spiritual worship,” which often takes on an abstract, metaphorical character, and the other defines this idea in more concrete terms as “reasonable service.” In the context of Romans 12:1–2, the latter seems to convey Paul’s teaching more accurately based on four contextual considerations:
- The Broader Context: Paul exhorts them by means of the mercies of God, which he has described from 1:16–11:36, and these “mercies of God” provide the only circumstances in which such a radical demand could be deemed “rational” or “reasonable.”
- The Near Context: In 12:2, Paul commands the Romans to “be transformed by the renewal of the mind” in order they might “discern” (“prove,” “try,” “examine,” or “scrutinize”) what the will of God is. The act of “renewing the mind” allows the believer to think in a way that does not align with the common sense of this age but is still “rational” in God’s economy.
- The Present Context: Latreian is best translated as “service” not because “worship” is an incorrect translation in the context but because “worship” loses some of its significance in post-Christian cultures, which have come to make a stark divide between the secular and the sacred. Such cultures view worship as a restricted list of actions that occur in life rather than an orientation toward God that engulfs all of life.
- The Intertextual Context: Translating this final portion of 12:1 as “which is your reasonable (or rational) service” has the added benefit of making Paul’s allusion to Deuteronomy 10:12 clearer.41
In 12:2, Paul makes both a negative and positive command to emphasize the change of thinking that must coincide with the Roman believers presenting their whole persons as living sacrifices. This change of mind must characterize their lives if they want to live-out the callings that God has placed on their lives and love their neighbors as themselves (Rom 12–15).
The negative command, “do not be conformed to this age,” opens the verse. The Romans must not continue thinking in ways that align with “this” age. Paul employs aiōn (“age”) four times in statements of blessing or doxology to God the Father or Christ (1:25; 9:5, 11:36, 16:27). These blessings and doxologies declare are to be given “forever” or literally “into the ages.” In contrast, “this age” corresponds to “the present evil age” from which Paul asserted that Christ-followers have been rescued “according to the will of our God and Father” in Galatians (Gal 1:4), “this age” in 1 Corinthians where the wisdom of this world is contrasted with the wisdom for the mature and the wisdom that would have prevented the “rulers of this age” from crucifying the Lord (1 Cor 2:6, 8; 3:18), and in 2 Corinthians where “the gods of this age” are described as blinding the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4). If the Romans are not actively engaged in the process of being transformed by the renewing of their minds, they will be shaped by the thinking and actions that that Paul has sought to correct in the body of the letter. Embracing the truths that he has articulated will cause them to be transformed by the renewing of their minds in order that they might examine the will of God properly.
So, what does Paul mean by “the will of God, the good, the acceptable, the perfect”? Most of the time when Paul uses the phrase, “the will of God,” he is describing the nature of his calling as an apostle (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:4; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1). In this letter, he frames his entire correspondence in 1:10 and 15:32 with his hope of coming to Rome “by God’s will.” When Paul connects the “will of God” to the lives of believers, he focused on the everyday faithfulness that believers demonstrated to the Lord through their actions (Eph 6:6; Col 4:12; 1Thess 4:3; 5:18). In Ephesians 6:6, Paul explained that slaves must obey their masters as they would obey Christ, which he then describes as “doing the will of God from the psychē (lit. ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or ‘heart’ CSB and ESV).” In 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul asserted that the “will of God” for them was their sanctification and then defined that sanctification in terms of abstaining from the sexual immorality that characterized their lives prior to believing in Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul called the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything” (CSB), and then described these actions as “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Finally, in Colossians 4:12, Paul told the church that Epaphras was sending them greeting but went on to explain the way that this faithful servant was struggling for them in prayer in order that they would be established as mature believers and fully assured in everything “by the will of God” or “as God wills” (CSB). In each of these texts, “the will of God” is focused on the maturity of believers that is demonstrated in faithful obedience to King Jesus, even, maybe even especially, in trying circumstances. From this quick survey, discerning the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God is focused on the everyday obedience revealed in Scripture and not on an unknown, nebulous plan that must be figured out.
Finally, these verses establish the foundation upon which the ethical response to the mercies of God outlined in chapters 1–11 will be built in Romans 12–15. In Deuteronomy, Moses set forth the intimate connection that exists between having the proper attitude toward God (reverential awe and love) and joyfully obeying in the way that God has prescribed. Paul did much the same thing in these verses. The parallels between Paul’s exhortation “to present their bodies as living sacrifices” in 12:1 and his explanation of the purpose of the transformed thinking they were to display in 12:2 deepen the connection between these verses and Deuteronomy 10–12. In Deuteronomy, the proper response to the mercy of God revealed in the Exodus was reiterated before Israel began to take the promised land (e.g., Deut 4:32–40).
The mercies of God have ultimately been revealed and fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah in a way that radically eclipses the salvation secured in Egypt (Jer 16:14–15). The Jewish and Gentile believers in the Roman Church need to realize that the whole story of God’s work to redeem a people for himself is one of mercy, one which they need equally. So, rather than engaging in the petty squabbles they seem to be passing off as theological disputes, they must revel in the mercies of God. When this shift of focus occurs, God’s people can then live worshipful lives defined by everyday obedience in which every identity and every resource has been submitted to the one, true Lord of the world, who has united them in himself.42
12:3–8 Now Paul exhorts the Roman Christians “by the grace of God that was given to him” to demonstrate that they have been transformed by the renewing of their minds to think of themselves with humility rather than hubris as people who understand “the measure of faith” that God has distributed to them.
This “measure of faith” is not describing different amounts of saving faith or differing statuses before God. Given the context of the passage, the “measure of faith” is synonymous with the different grace gifts that Paul describes in 12:6. When they think rightly about themselves, these Roman believers can embrace the truth that the church in Rome has many different parts who have been united into one body and have been placed there to fulfill the different functions they have been gifted to fulfill. This unity in Christ means that, even though they are both individuals and in Jewish or Gentile groups, they are members of one another because they are in Christ Jesus.
In 12:6–8, Paul elaborates on the theme of the church having different parts in one body by listing seven different grace gifts that are distributed throughout the group. Paul listed the first four gifts in an “if-then” format that focused on showing everyday faithfulness by performing the duty that corresponds to the gift in a way that aligns with their faith. He addressed the final three gifts in a different way. Rather than focusing on fulfilling the functions of the gift, Paul focused on the attitude with which the gift was exercised. His transition away from using “ifs” to introduce the gifts could also indicate that these gifts should be present in all who have received God’s Spirit. The one with the gift of giving must give with generosity and must guard against stinginess. The one gifted to lead must do so with enthusiastic diligence43 rather than indifferent laziness, and, finally, the one gifted with mercy must perform acts of mercy with cheerfulness rather than the sadness that might overtake one who is continually providing help to those who are being beaten down by the brokenness of the world. If these believers practice these gifts in ways that align with giftedness and with the proper attitude, they will build a unity that reflects the unity they possess in Christ.
12:9–21 In this section of the letter, Paul presented a series of straightforward actions that should characterize the daily lives of these Roman Christians and, frankly, Christians of any era. The significant truth conveyed by these exhortations begins to pack a more potent punch when Paul’s ordering of the exhortations becomes clearer because, rather than giving them a generic “to-do” list, he is providing precise directions for how they can flourish in community together and navigate life in a city that was becoming increasingly hostile to them.
Paul presented the first set of instructions under the statement “Love is without hypocrisy” (12:9–13). In the Greek text, Paul omitted a verb and expected his readers to supply a form of the “to be” verb. Most modern translations treat this sentence as an imperative (“Let love be without hypocrisy”), but the statement would be translated more naturally as an indicative (“Love is without hypocrisy”). This challenge is further complicated by the fact that Paul used participles to illustrate what genuine love in 12:9b–13. Again, most modern translations interpret these verbs as imperatives while Robertson views them as indicatives with an implied “you are” before the participle.44 So, is Paul commanding these Christians to continue a particular kind of behavior, is he describing it as his view of who they are in Christ, or is he exhorting them to demonstrate who they are in Christ Jesus by the way that they love? The context points to the last option. The one who loves without hypocrisy is “abhorring evil” and “is being joined (or, glued) to the good.”
Humanity left to its own devices celebrates evil and mocks the good (Rom 1:28–31). This must not be the way for the believers in Rome. In 12:10, Paul makes a second statement about love. “Love is tender affection45 for one another in (or with) brotherly love.” These followers of Jesus are to possess affection for one another that mimics the love that brothers have for one another. If they have any question about what that concept looks like in day-to-day life, Paul defines it with the command that concludes the verse. They must continually take the lead (or, compete with one another) to give honor to one another rather than strive for status. And such striving is pointless because a status based upon an identity that has been superseded by who they are in Christ is of no lasting value.
Paul continues in 12:11 by stating that “Love is not hesitating in haste (or slow in speed).” Being slow to love is the height of hypocrisy among followers of Jesus who have received the everlasting love from God that belongs to them because they are in Christ Jesus. Paul then illustrates this urgency in the seven rapid-fire commands that follow. He begins with a command to be fervent in spirit. Although pneuma is preceded by an article and is translated by the CSB as “the Spirit,” most modern translations interpret the passage as a command concerning the believer’s spirit, which would align with the commands that follow.
Pay close attention to the logical connection that exists between these commands. The first command presents an action that takes place within a specific realm that establishes the circumstances in which the next action can be performed on an object. “Be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord (1); rejoice in hope; endure suffering (2); continue in prayer; share in the needs of the saints; pursue kindness to strangers (outsiders)” (3). Each of these participles conveys an action that is to take place repeatedly with no end in sight. Notice the concrete nature of real-world actions that accompany these more personal and attitudinal actions. Being fervent in spirit is not commanding the believers to pursue other-worldly experiences for themselves. Being fervent in spirit demands that they serve the Lord. Rejoicing with hope in the final establishment of Jesus’ kingship demands that these believers endure suffering for the cause of Christ. Continuing in prayer demands that they act regularly to meet the needs of the saints and pursue kindness to strangers.
In 12:14–21, Paul gives a series of commands to the Roman believers related to living faithfully when conflicts occur inside and outside the congregation. He begins by exhorting them to bless the ones who are persecuting them and then repeats the idea by commanding them to bless and not curse those who are harming them. While this command likely had more applicability to those who were not a part of the congregation, the turmoil present in the church between the Jews and the Gentiles may be more of a factor here than one might expect at first glance. Whether this command had a primarily internal or external focus, it was a counter-cultural command that could only be pursued if one’s mind had been transformed by Jesus Christ.
Paul continues the positive exhortations in 12:15 where he calls upon the Romans to care for one another in both the joyous and sad times of life. All the exhortations in 12:16–18 draw their imperative punch by their contextual proximity to Paul’s explicit command, “Do not become wise in your own estimation” (CSB). Paul then brackets the negative commands with the twin exhortations to “think the same thing for one another” and to “apply themselves beforehand to thinking about what is good before all people.”
Some will argue that Paul’s focus shifts completely to those outside the church in verse 17, but when Paul exhorts the believers to do everything within their power to live at peace with all people, he is not excluding those inside the congregation. He is making it clear that true, God-given wisdom is neither self-focused nor self-proclaimed. “Transformed” wisdom does not settle for the absence of hostilities. Rather, it is others-focused and characterized by tangible actions that seek to foster wholeness in relationships.
Significant theological divisions within the community must never devolve into the kind of rivalries to which the letter seemingly alludes. As for those outside the church in Rome, Paul recognizes preaching that Jesus is King might cause great offense in the empire’s capital. If that reality causes persecution, so be it, but the believers must not use the injustices done to them as the grounds for returning the favor or an excuse to fight fire with fire. In fact, Paul’s command is just the opposite. Paul both explains and supports this countercultural pursuit of peace by prohibiting his beloved Romans from avenging themselves. Instead, they are to give “the place for wrath” over to God, who declared in Deuteronomy 32:35 that vengeance belongs to him and guarantees that it will be repaid. Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 32:35 is strategic because this song, or “national anthem,”46 from Moses shows God’s kindness to Israel as he defeats the enemies whom he has allowed to enslave them.
God’s faithfulness and justice, however, demand that he will punish any injustice done to them. Since the Romans Christians can be assured that God will rectify the injustice done, they are free to pursue Paul’s command to bless those who persecute them (12:14; compare with Matt 5:11–12, 43-–8) with abandon.
If the Christian response to injustice should be blessing, what should we make of “for by doing this you will heap coals of fire upon his head”? The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that Paul is asserting that the kindness of believers toward those who persecute them will bring make the shamefulness of their actions clear, cause them anguish, and possibly bring them to repentance.47 Schreiner, however, argues that the metaphor is always negative in the Old Testament and that the contrast between verses 19–20 is not related to judgment but to the actions of God and the actions of the people, leading to the conclusion that this metaphor describes God’s judgment.48 Although the motive for doing good to the enemy must be to magnify the believer’s confidence in God and not to increase God’s judgment of them, the stark contrast of attitude and action presented by the persecuted and the persecutor highlights the stark contrast between those who have minds transformed by Jesus Christ and those who do not. This understanding of the metaphor, however, must not keep believers from praying that God will use the kindness of believers to bring their persecutors to repentance.49 If one group of believers is persecuting another, we ought to pray that the threat of God’s judgment would be made clear by the kindness of those who are persecuted, leading to the repentance of the persecutor.
Paul concludes this portion of the argument and begins his transition to chapter 13 with his command that the Romans, “do not conquer by evil actions but conquer evil by doing good.” This final command sums up what Paul says in the previous verses and supports the argument that “coals of fire” metaphor describes God’s judgment through its emphasis on the fact that believers are to conquer evil. The command also prepares the readers to receive Paul’s argument about the posture they should take toward Rome in the verses that follow.
Conventional wisdom says victory can only be won by taking the fight to the oppressors and using their own evil tactics against them. Advocates of this wisdom, even in the church, say that pursuing peace and doing good to your enemy are impractical and ineffective for the present moment. But advocates of agitation forget that Paul gave this command when Rome’s power to oppress was unrestrained, especially in the capital. Transformed wisdom says that the evil powers—like Rome and any other that arises in human history—are conquered by believers who are living lives characterized by such profound goodness. Such a lifestyle ensures that the injustice of the earthly powers, due to God’s common grace, cannot be denied by onlookers. One could even go so far as to say that submission to the governing authorities is its own act of passive resistance because it highlights when the powers act outside of the parameters ordained for them by God.
The Proper Offering to Caesar (13:1–7)
In this paragraph, Paul outlines how Christians are to interact with the governing authorities. Paul’s central assertion is that Christians must submit to the governing authorities not because the authority of the state is ultimate but because God has instituted this entity and has distributed subordinate authority to it. Paul then infers from this assertion that active resistance against the governmental authorities is resisting the ordinance of God50 and doing so will result in judgment by the state and, in the context, possibly from God.
In verse 3 Paul describes this active resistance against the authority as doing evil rather than good (see 12:21). He continues by addressing their desire to live free from fear with regard to the governing authority and asserts that doing good will result in approval from it. This assertion carries weight because the same God who has commanded them to do good their enemies is the one who gave the state any power it possesses and allows it to function as his servant until he establishes his ultimate reign. So, the properly functioning governing authority acts as a servant of God for the good of people.
In 13:4b, Paul returns again to the issue of fearing the authority and explains that if you do evil, fear is the proper response because the government does not carry the sword, which is a metaphor for the government’s authority to execute evil doers, “for no reason” (CSB). Paul reiterates the role of the government as a servant of God but further defines what that means as he describes it as an avenger (see 12:19–20) who enacts God’s wrath against evildoers in this fallen world.
In 12:5 Paul then infers that it is necessary to submit oneself to the authorities not just because of the government’s power to execute God’s wrath but also because of the moral judgment that believers have due to being made in the image of God and being remade in Christ. Paul then builds on this broad principle by stating that believers are to pay their taxes because the governing authorities are ministers of God continually persevering in the tasks given to them by God.51 Paul concludes with the command to give the various entities and officials of the government what they are owed: taxes, tolls, terror, and tribute.
Although the implications of this command to submit to the governing authority is wide ranging, the command is not absolute. Paul is describing a situation where the governing authorities have a grasp of the givenness, the limits, and the purpose of their responsibilities and execute these responsibilities with care. Paul’s own example demonstrates that, when the governing authorities act to restrict his ability to preach the gospel, he will not submit to their demands (Acts 16:16–40; 17:1–8, 22–34). Revelation 13 gives us a picture of what it looks like when the governing authorities seek to usurp God’s authority and establish themselves as gods and an example of what faithfulness looks like in those times of crisis. Giving worship to the state or its kings is out of bounds for a Christian. The resistance described in Revelation is not a violent, military operation. John is describing this resistance as an act in which the believer refuses to bow before the authorities who desire homage that belongs only to the triune God. Finally, those who resist in this manner are not looking to gain a military advantage. They resist to declare that their ultimate allegiance belongs to God and are willing to die at the hands of the state rather than compromise the truth.
The Proper Offering to Others (13:8–10)
Building off the command to give the governmental authorities what they are owed, Paul exhorts the congregation not to make owing anything to anyone a habit. The only thing that they are to owe anyone is love, because loving our neighbor as ourselves fulfills the law. Paul then supports his claim that love fulfills the whole law by referring to four commands from the tablet of the law that regulates how people should rightly interact with one another but then also explains that these commands can be summarized in the single command to love our neighbors as ourselves, even those who are outside of the church.
The Urgency of Obedience (13:11–14)
In the final paragraph of this chapter, Paul exhorts the Romans to live with the urgency that comes from expecting the return of Jesus to take place soon. Focusing on the fact that our final salvation—which is accompanied with the final judgment—is nearer than when someone first believed the message about Jesus should motivate believers to pursue holiness. Paul artfully interweaves the call to wake up from sleep (living with urgency), with the imagery of the night (the present evil age), and the dawning of a new day (the age to come), and then connects the deeds of darkness and putting on the armor of light. He then connects putting on the armor of light with his exhortation to walk with decency like one would in the daytime when everyone could see their actions.
In 13:13b, he defines decency by what it is not. He calls upon them not to participate in the sexual and inebriating overindulgences so common in Roman society. He continues this line of thinking by reiterating that they must avoid the sexual immorality and the unrestrained sexual debauchery that goes beyond heterosexual immorality. He then exhorts them not to live in strife and envy. This exhortation differs from the two previous pairs and is preparing the reader for Paul’s teaching that will follow in chapters 14–15.
In 13:14, Paul provides the Romans with a concluding summary. He commands them to clothe themselves in the Lord Jesus Christ, which in essence conveys that they are to live out their Christian lives from the status that they possess in the resurrection victory of the Lord and in so doing they are to be constantly on guard against providing sustenance to their destructive desires that come from their sinful natures (compare with Col 3:1–17).
The Weak and the Strong Must Get Along (14:1–15:13)
In this portion of the letter Paul addresses the situation in the Roman church that he has been alluding to in various ways throughout the letter. the looming conflict of this letter is the one that exists between the Gentile and Jewish Christians who make up the body. Paul begins by asserting that the Roman Christians should take it upon themselves to accept “those who are weak in faith” by not quarreling over matters of opinion.52
The first area of disagreement that Paul addresses is the matter of what foods someone may eat. The central issue is ultimately not what foods each group is eating but the judgmental attitudes that these groups are showing to brothers and sisters whom God accepted for himself. Paul uses the same verb in verse 1 to describe how believers are to welcome the weak and in verse 3 to describe the welcome that God has given to all believers. In some translations, the contrast can be obscured. If God has accepted these believers with whom they disagree, they have no grounds upon which to judge these who are servants of the Lord. This call to avoid judgment against others does not mean that the matter is unimportant or that their differing views can both be correct, but it does demonstrate that some theological matters are of a sort that they can wait for God to give a final accounting of the matter at the final judgment when he will make all of them able to stand before him. This principle will guide much of Paul’s argument for the rest of this section.
Paul describes the Roman “weak,” most likely Jewish Christians, as those who are vegetarian (14:1), practice the Jewish feast days (14:5–6), and abstain from drinking wine (14:21). What makes this situation different from what Paul condemned in Galatia is that these practices are not being performed as a means of obtaining or maintaining a righteous status before God but as practices that are solely being done as acts of worship to God and as a demonstration of the Lordship of Jesus. So, they must not judge one another in these matters.
Rather than judging one another, they should be setting their minds on not putting obstacles in the path of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are seeking to follow him on the path toward sanctification. If these believers are walking according to love, their desire is going to be setting aside personal preferences so that the consciences of fellow believers, whose faith has not assured them that these practices are acceptable to the Lord, will not be harmed.53 When Paul sets before the believers that their actions seem to indicate that the kingdom of God is about eating and drinking, it becomes obvious that this is not the way, as he contrasts their picture of the kingdom with the correct one that is characterized by “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). So, Paul asserts that they must pursue what creates peace and builds up their fellow believers rather than pursuing what might tear them down. On these issues, what matters most is doing them all in faith, because if the acts of eating, drinking, and worshipping are carried out from any foundation other than faith, those acts become sin (14:23).
Paul begins this final section of practical instruction by exhorting “the strong,” the ones whose consciences are not as easily violated, “to bear the weaknesses of those without strength” (15:1 CSB). He continues by exhorting the strong to follow the example of Christ, who did not please himself for our benefit, by caring for their neighbors more than they care about themselves. The force of this exhortation is strengthened by the fact that Paul identifies himself as a member of the strong in 15:1. In 15:5, Paul’s prayer for these believers is that God would enable them to think with the unity that comes from being aligned with Christ “in order that they would glorify the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, together with one voice” (15:6).
Paul then returns to the language he used to begin this part of his instruction here in 15:7 by calling upon these believers to accept one another for their own good as Christ accepted them and to do this for the glory of God. He continues by reminding them one more time—just in case the Jews or the Gentiles in the congregation might still be wondering if their present situation demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his promises—that Christ served the circumcised in the “maintenance of”54 the truthfulness of God in order that he would verify55 God’s promises to the fathers. Yet the promises Christ accomplished were the promises that the Gentiles would glorify God on account of his mercy. For good measure Paul then supports these claims with quotations from 2 Samuel 22:50, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10 to show that God’s plan to save Israel was always intended to result in the salvation of the Gentiles too. So, Paul’s final prayer for them is that the God who is the source of all hope might fill them with every joy and peace as they continue believing in Jesus in order that they would have superabundant hope that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit.
All the Things (15:14–33)
Paul begins the conclusion of the letter by expressing his confidence in the church’s goodness, knowledge, and ability to teach one another but also acknowledges that he has spoken to them boldly on a few matters because of his responsibility as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (15:16). His goal in this letter and in all his ministry to the Gentiles has been to present the Gentile converts to God as an acceptable offering that has been sanctified by the Holy Spirit (15:16c), and Christ has been faithful to accomplish those purposes through him as he has proclaimed the gospel from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum (15:17–19). All these accomplishments have, however, brought Paul to a new stage in ministry that will require their assistance. He has been called to preach the gospel in places “where Christ has not been named” (15:20, CSB), and Syrian Antioch will no longer be an appropriate launching pad for his missionary endeavors. He is hopeful that the Roman church, which he intends to visit on his way to Spain, will serve as his new base of operations, but, before he begins that journey, he must deliver an offering from the Gentile churches to Macedonia and Achaia to assist the poor in Jerusalem (15:26–27). While Paul is certainly wanting to keep the church informed about his plans so that he can solicit their prayers in support of his work, the secondary benefit of describing the offering is how it serves as an example of the unity between Jews and Gentiles that should characterize the whole church of God.
All the People (16:1–23)
In chapter 16, Paul handles all the remaining matters he wants to include in the letter. He begins by commending Phoebe and encouraging them to accept her and assist her with anything she needs because she has been an outstanding benefactor of many, even and maybe especially, Paul. From there, he spends the next 14 verses sending his greetings to a list of people who have served the Lord, the church, and Paul with faithfulness.
In 16:17, Paul warns the church to be on guard against those in their body who want to cause divisions and construct obstacles that would get in the way of them carrying out what they have been taught. He simply says to, “Turn away from (or “avoid,” CSB) them!” Rather than serving the Lord Christ, they are serving their own appetites. While it might seem like the believers should be able to spot these deceivers easily, their rhetorical abilities can easily lead them astray unless they are diligent to listen with discerning ears. At this point, Paul takes one last opportunity to praise the church. He reiterates what he emphasized in the salutation of the letter (1:8) by reminding them that the report of their obedience has reached all the churches he has been serving. He rejoices over the work that God has been doing in their body but exhorts them to continue being wise about what is good and innocent toward evil. Paul then asserts that God, the giver of peace, will soon crush Satan under their feet. Paul here alludes to Psalm 110:1 and is assuring them that Satan and his specific emissaries who oppose the gospel that Paul preaches will soon be stopped.56 He then prays once more that the Lord Jesus would be with them as they seek to remain faithful in a city that is continuing to grow in its hostility toward them, a reality that is surely being exacerbated by Satan as well. He concludes with a set of greetings from his traveling party to the church, and Tertius, the recording secretary of the letter, sends his own greetings as well.
A Final Doxology (16:25–27)
The final verses of the letter are filled with textual difficulties that must be discussed briefly because the text must be established before it is commented upon. A careful reader will notice that modern translations will omit the text that is designated as 16:24 in earlier translations, like the King James Version. The earliest and most accurate editions of the letter omit this verse entirely. Paul almost certainly did not include this verse in his original autograph of the letter. The text, which is almost an exact replica of the final clause in 16:20, most likely entered the textual tradition because a copyist unintentionally copied a line from the source text twice.
The doxology in 16:25–27 presents a more complex issue, largely because the doxology can be found here, here and after 14:23, after 14:23 alone, after 15:33, and omitted entirely in others. While the manuscript evidence for including 16:25–27 at this point in the letter and only at this point is quite strong, a very important papyrus includes the doxology after 15:33 and other important manuscripts support one or two of the other readings. The variety of landing spots for the doxology cause some textual critics to be hesitant to include the text. In the end, the preponderance of the evidence favors the inclusion of the text in the letter.
In the doxology, Paul declares that God is able to strengthen them when they are measured by the standard set by Paul’s gospel, which is his preaching about Christ, and the revelation of the mystery that had been hidden by the long ages.57 This hidden revelation was now revealed through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God. God did all of these things to prepare the Gentiles to pursue the obedience that springs forth from their faith in King Jesus. In view of all that God has done, Paul gives glory “to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ” forever.
Bird, Michael F. Romans. The Story of God Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
—–. Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.
Harvey, John D. Romans. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2018.
Moo, Douglas J. Romans. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Second Edition. Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. Constantine Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 46–51.
2. This message might include that people have rebelled against God, are under his judgment, and are in need of rescuing righteousness and that Jesus, the God man, came to earth, lived a perfect life, died in the place of sinners, took the full weight of God’s wrath, bodily rose from the dead, rescued those who believe in him from the power of sin and death, and guaranteed resurrection life in the presence of the Father for that same group.
3. For a more in-depth discussion of the Greco-Roman and Septuagintal usage of these terms, see Donny Mathis, “What is the Pauline Gospel?,” The Anderson Journal of Christian Studies, (2014): 51–56 or Donny Mathis, “Gospel,” in The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: B&H, 2003).
4. Mounce Greek Dictionary
5. Mounce Greek Dictionary
6. The phrasing “work of the law” is unique in Paul. He will often use the phrase “works of the law” when he argues that believers are justified by faith alone, but he only uses the phrase, “work of the law,” in this passage.
7. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 583, 1022, 1129.
8. Robertson, 986. Robertson surmises that Paul modifies the verb tense in the LXX to a future tense verb in this passage, possibly to indicate a reference to the final judgment.
9. Mounce, Greek Dictionary.
10. Robertson, 1145.
11. Psalms 5 and 140 both have superscriptions that attribute them to David. Psalm 10 does not have a superscription but was often connected with Psalm 9 including in the LXX. Psalm 9 includes a Davidic superscript.
12. Longenecker, Galatians.
13. Mounce, Dictionary
14. Mounce, 1283.
15. A. T. Robertson, “The Letters of Paul,” Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament, vol. IV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1931 copyright), 358.
17. Robertson, Grammar, 593.
18. Ibid., 1003.
19. Schreiner 357; Michael Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 231–38.
20. Schreiner, 354–66.
21. Bird, 236–38.
22. Schreiner, 361–62.
23. Schreiner, 361.
24. Bird, 240–41.
25. Bird 241; Schreiner, 370.
26. Schreiner, 370; Bird, 238.
27. Robertson, Word Pictures, 368–69; Bird, 241.
28. Schreiner, 377.
29. Ibid., 387. If you would like a detailed, fair explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation of the “I” in 7:14–25, see Schreiner, 377–91. The fact that Schreiner, one of the most prominent Pauline scholars in evangelicalism, if not the world, is still wrestling with what Paul was teaching in this text should give us all a bit of humility about our reading of the passage and should inspire us to continue studying the Scriptures throughout our lives with a willingness to be persuaded that interpretations of passages we have made in the past were wrong.
30. Ibid., 386–89.
31. Robertson, Word Pictures, 370–71.
32. Note here that the participial phrase precedes the verb in the even though it normally follows the verb in English translations.
33. Robertson, Word Pictures, 377.
35. John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 293.
36. Polhill, 294–95.
37. Ibid. Polhill outlines the parts of this section in a very clear fashion.
38. Robertson, Word Pictures, 400–401.
39. Robertson, Word Pictures, vol. 4, 402.
41. Daniel I. Block, “In Spirit and in Truth” in The Gospel According to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 295–96.
42. Block, 295–97.
44. Robertson, Word Pictures; Robertson, Grammar.
47. Robertson, Word Pictures, 406; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 2nd ed., BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 655–56.
48. Schreiner, 656.
50. Mounce, 1088. The term translated here as “the one who sets himself in opposition to” is in the Greek middle voice and conveys the idea that this opposition is for his benefit in some sense. Mounce indicates that when this verb is used in the active voice it conveys the idea “to post in adverse array” in a military formation.
51. Robertson, Word Pictures, 408.
52. Robertson, Word Pictures, 412.
53. Schreiner, 692.
54. Mounce, 1297.
55. Mounce, 1107.
56. Schreiner, 779.
57. Robertson, Grammar, 527, 609.
The text of Romans, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives you permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Holman Bible Publishers, the holder of the copyright to the CSB Bible text, grants permission to include the CSB quotations within this work, in English.In addition, TGC gives you permission to faithfully translate the work into any other language, but you may not translate the English CSB Bible into another language. If you wish to include Bible quotations with the translated work, you will need to obtain permission from a publisher of a Bible translation in the same language. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
1:1 Paul, a servant1 of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David2 according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Longing to Go to Rome
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,3 that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians,4 both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
The Righteous Shall Live by Faith
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,5 as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”6
God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,7 in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.