The opening word of the letter (1:1), as well as the biographical details recorded in chs. 1; 15; and 16 show that Romans was written by the apostle Paul. The letter was already cited and listed as Paul’s during the second century. Its authenticity has been disputed only rarely and never convincingly. The title of Romans was drawn from the opening section; the book has borne that title from the earliest days of its history (1:1–7).
Paul wrote Romans shortly before his visit to Jerusalem with the gift from the Gentile congregations (15:25; cf. Acts 24:17). Internal indications suggesting that at this time he was a resident of Corinth include the reference to Phoebe, a member of the church at Cenchreae, the port of Corinth (16:1, 2), and the references to Gaius as his host (1 Cor. 1:14) and to Erastus (Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 4:20). The time of writing was probably during his three months in Greece, described in Acts 20:2, 3. While it is not possible to fix a date with certainty, it is known that Gallio (before whom Paul appeared in Acts 18:12) was proconsul (normally a one-year appointment) in Achaia in a.d. 52. Paul was in Corinth for “many days” (Acts 18:18), presumably during the period a.d. 51–53. He then sailed to Ephesus for a brief visit, and went to Caesarea and probably Jerusalem as well as Antioch (Acts 18:22). Returning through Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:23) to Ephesus, he was a resident there for about three years (Acts 19:8, 10) before deciding to go to Jerusalem via Macedonia and Achaia (Acts 19:21). The earliest possible date for the writing of Romans, therefore, is toward the end of a.d. 54; but a later date leaves more leeway for Paul’s many activities, so the letter is best dated sometime between the end of a.d. 55 and the early months of a.d. 57.
That the faith of the Roman Christians was well known (1:8) and that Paul had desired to visit them for some time (1:13) suggest that the Christian faith had been established in the capital of the empire for a considerable period. These facts are supported by the statement of the Roman historian Suetonius that Claudius had expelled the Jews (in a.d. 49) for rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” (evidently a reference to Christ). Visitors from Rome were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10, 11) and may have been the first to bring the good news to the city. Its strategic importance and the large number of Jews living there would have brought the gospel message to Rome as though attracted by a magnet. Though tradition stretching back to Irenaeus holds otherwise, it is certain that the church was not founded by Peter or Paul. It is clear that Paul never visited the church before writing the letter (1:8–13), and the absence of any reference to Peter or the other apostles suggests that the Roman church had not experienced direct apostolic ministry at the time Paul wrote.
Both Jews and Gentiles were members of the church in Rome, and 1:13 indicates a predominance of Gentiles, as possibly does the warning to Gentile Christians not to be proud (11:13–24). The conflict between weak and strong in 14:1—15:13 may have arisen in a similar context. It is even possible that the several house churches in which the Christians met reflected these divisions (cf. 16:5, 14, 15).
Paul perceived his ministry to be at a turning point when Romans was written. He believed that he had fulfilled his ministry in the eastern Mediterranean (15:17–23) and that the time was ripe to move west and evangelize and plant churches in Spain (15:24). He hoped to visit the Roman Christians on the way, fulfilling his longtime ambition, and perhaps gaining their assistance as a supporting church (15:24).
In light of this, it was essential for him to present his apostolic credentials (note “my gospel” in 2:16 and 16:25), so that they might recognize the authenticity of his ministry. Paul may also have thought it necessary to defend his ministry from the false insinuations of rumor-mongers (3:8).
At the time of writing his epistle to the Romans, Paul was also deeply concerned that the Christian church should be a fellowship of Jews and Gentiles together in the one body of Christ. This is clear from the importance he attaches to the Gentile love-gift to the Jerusalem church. It also surfaces throughout Romans in the theme of the unifying of Jew and Gentile—in sin because of Adam, and then in salvation through grace in Christ. The saving righteousness of the gospel is needed by both, since all have sinned; it may be received by both, since it comes by grace alone through faith alone. The accomplishment of this saving righteousness in history is the clue to God’s ultimate purposes for both; and the saving transformation accompanying this saving righteousness is to come to expression in the lives of both—personally, communally, and socially—in the body of Christ as the new people of God. The opportunity for writing while in Corinth, the pressing burden of his visit to Jerusalem, and the prospect of visiting Rome before preaching the gospel at the limits of the then-known world, all motivated him to write this letter.
While the book of Romans is a letter and generally follows the standard epistolary conventions of the first century (See Introduction to the Epistles), it also differs in some important ways from other ancient letters and from the other NT letters. Like other letters of the first century, the epistle to the Romans contains an opening (1:1–17), a body (1:18—15:13), and a conclusion (15:14—16:27). Romans, however, unlike most other letters of Paul’s day, is an exceptionally long letter. Its length is not characteristic of most first-century letters, which were much shorter. More importantly, Romans is a distinctive type of epistle. Scholars who have examined ancient Greco-Roman epistolary conventions have distinguished several kinds of letters such as letters of friendship, letters of exhortation, and letters of recommendation. A comparison of Romans to the other Pauline epistles reveals that Romans has unique features that identify it as a specific type of letter. Romans is very similar to ancient “letter essays,” in which an author inserted a lengthy instructional “essay” within a conventional epistolary framework.
One of the most striking features of Romans is its use of rhetorical questions (e.g. 3:8; 6:1; 7:7; 9:14). Rhetorical questions have the effect of drawing the reader into the author’s argument, articulating a mistaken conclusion from a previous assertion and thereby introducing the apostle’s clarification and correction. They are therefore an effective communicative device in engaging Paul’s readership, allowing them to “listen in,” as it were, to Paul’s presentation of the gospel in person and his interchanges with theological opponents. In 7:7–25, Paul employs another memorable rhetorical device when he speaks in the first person to describe the relationship between human beings and the law of God.
Perhaps one of the most prominent literary features of Romans is its extensive citations of, references to, and allusions to the OT. The manner of Paul’s engagement of the OT in Romans is also diverse. Sometimes Paul quotes the OT in large blocks (3:10–18; 15:9–12). Sometimes Paul’s argument is driven by OT citations (chs. 9–11). Sometimes, Paul interprets an extended OT narrative (4:9–25). Both the diversity and extent of Paul’s engagement of the OT helps to show how the gospel “uphold[s] the law” (3:31), and how the old covenant prophets promised the saving mission of God’s Son that is now proclaimed in the gospel (1:1–4; 3:21–26; 16:25, 26).
Romans is Paul’s fullest, grandest, most comprehensive statement of the gospel. Its compressed declarations of vast truths are like coiled springs—once loosed, they leap through the mind and heart to fill one’s horizon and shape one’s life. John Chrysostom, the fourth century’s greatest preacher, had Romans read aloud to him once a week. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, three supremely significant contributors to the Christian heritage, all came to assured faith through the impact of Romans. All of the Reformers saw Romans as the God-given key to understanding all Scripture, since here Paul brings together all the Bible’s greatest themes—sin, law, judgment, human destiny, faith, works, grace, justification, sanctification, election, the plan of salvation, the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit, the Christian hope, the nature and life of the church, the place of Jew and non-Jew in the purposes of God, the philosophy of church and world history, the meaning and message of the OT, the duties of Christian citizenship, the nature and purpose of Christian liberty, and the principles of personal godliness and morality. From the vantage point given by Romans, the whole landscape of the Bible is open to view, and the relation of the parts to the whole becomes plain. The study of Romans is vitally necessary for the spiritual health and insight of the Christian.
Romans gives us not only the most comprehensive statement of Paul’s gospel in the NT, but also a compendium of the Bible’s leading themes. In his “dedicatory epistle” to his commentary on the book of Romans, John Calvin says, “When any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.” Of all the books in the NT, Romans comes the closest to offering a systematic theology. It is Paul’s most comprehensive outline of Christian doctrine.
Romans is concerned to set forth the righteousness of God in the gospel (1:16, 17). It is a righteousness that we lack (1:18—3:20), but it is a righteousness that God is pleased to accomplish and to give in Christ (3:21–26.). This righteousness of God accomplishes the singular need of humanity, to move from being under the wrath of God (1:18) to having peace with God (5:1). Only justification by faith alone in Christ alone accomplishes this.
Throughout the epistle, Paul explains this gospel in which the righteousness of God is revealed. Central to the gospel are the doctrines of justification by faith alone and substitutionary atonement. We are justified “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24, 25). This propitiation is necessary because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” (1:18), and if man is to be reconciled to God this wrath must be removed. Jesus is the substitutionary sacrifice who bears this wrath in our place and removes it from us. God put forward Christ as an atonement “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). To the one who has faith in Jesus, God imputes the righteousness of Christ, and on the grounds of this imputed righteousness, the believer is declared righteous; he is justified by faith alone (3:21—4:25). Having been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the believer has peace with God and is reconciled to Him. The righteousness that God is pleased to impute to us is ours in union with the crucified and risen second Adam, Christ (5:12–20). Believers are not only justified by faith alone; they are also sanctified, and Paul elaborates carefully on this theological theme. It is in union with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit that we put sin to death and strive for holy living in soul and body (chs. 6; 8). We are now “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Nothing in heaven or earth can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
The place of Israel in the purpose and plan of God is a significant theological theme addressed by Paul in chs. 9–11. Because Israel has rejected Christ, some have concluded that perhaps God’s promises to Israel have failed. Paul proceeds to defend God’s integrity, explaining that even under the old covenant, not all who were descended from Israel belonged to Israel (9:6). God is sovereign and has mercy on whom He will have mercy (9:15). Yet Paul continues to pray for Israel’s salvation (10:1). In ch. 11, he explains that God has not rejected His people, for even at the present time, a remnant of Jews is being saved (11:1–10). He also teaches that the current state of Israel in which the nation as a whole has stumbled while only a remnant is being saved, will be reversed by a future work of grace in which God will turn the heart of Israel to their Messiah (11:11–32).
In chs. 12–15, Paul addresses the implications of the gospel for the life of Christians in the world and in the church. Because what Paul has said in chs. 1–11 is true, Christians are to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). We are not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (12:2). Those who are believers in Christ are to behave in a way that is distinct from the behavior of the world, abhorring what is evil, blessing those who persecute them, and living in harmony with one another (12:9–21). Christians are to submit to governing authorities (13:1–7). We are to make no provision for the flesh (13:14). We are not to pass judgment on one another (14:1–12), and we are to remove all stumbling blocks from our brother’s path (14:13). With one voice, believers are to “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).
Romans is replete with OT quotations, references, and allusions. It also provides something of a survey of the promise of the gospel revealed in the OT (16:25–27). Though we all fell in Adam and were reckoned sinners in him (5:12–21), God promised to crush Satan under the feet of Eve’s offspring, and—in Him—of believers (16:20, cf. Gen 3:15). God proclaimed and Abraham believed the message of justification by faith alone (ch. 4). Paul insists that the gospel does not destroy but establishes the Mosaic law (3:31). Jesus is the promised descendant of David (1:4, cf. 2 Sam. 7). Jesus is the One to whom all the prophets look (1:2; 15:12). Romans documents the fulfillment, in Christ, of all that God had been promising His people Israel for centuries and that in Christ, Gentiles receive the blessing that was to come through the line of Abraham (ch. 4; cf. Gen. 12:1–3).
Romans offers a full presentation of the person and work of Christ. He is both divine (9:5) and human (1:3, 4). He died and rose again for His people (3:21–26; 4:25). The Spirit of the exalted Christ indwells each believer (8:9–11) and applies the benefits that Christ secured for His people through His obedience and death. Christ’s example shapes the way that the church should order its life together (15:1–7). We eagerly await the outcome of our redemption wherein we will be fully conformed to the image of Christ, in order that He may be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29).
As noted in “Characteristics and Themes,” Romans has figured significantly in the lives and ministries of some of the church’s greatest preachers and theologians. It was particularly important at the time of the Reformation. Against the church of Rome’s insistence that the believer needed a sacramental system and good works in order to be justified, the Reformers proclaimed, with Paul, that the sinner is justified by faith alone. They further insisted, with Paul, that justification by faith alone is never a license to sin, but mandates a holy life. Reformed believers in particular have pointed to ch. 9 as a passage that is important for our understanding of divine sovereignty, election and reprobation, and human responsibility.
1:1 Paul. Ancient letters began with the general formula, “A to B sends greetings.” Using his Roman name, Paul fills out this formula with Christian significance both in his self-description (vv. 1–6) and in the style of his greeting (vv. 7, 8).
servant. Someone totally at the disposal of a master (text note).
apostle. An official messenger of the gospel. See note on 2 Cor. 1:1.
gospel of God. The gospel is the message of the good news of salvation in Jesus; it is the message “of” God, meaning God is both the source and theme of the gospel. Here and elsewhere, Paul’s Trinitarianism surfaces (1:3, 4; 5:1–5; 8:3, 4, 9–11, 16, 17; 14:17, 18; 15:16, 30). The following verses spell out Paul’s understanding of the gospel.
1:2 which he promised beforehand. The gospel was announced in promise form in the biblically recorded preaching of the prophets, in which the apostolic presentation of the gospel is rooted (3:21; 16:25–27).
1:3, 4 A description of the two stages (humiliation and exaltation) of the Savior’s ministry, rather than of His two natures (humanity and deity). Although He is the Son of God, He is “descended from David” in order to share our weakness, but was transformed by the “Spirit of holiness” at the resurrection, and was brought into a new epoch of His personal human existence (1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 13:4).
1:5, 6 Paul sees Christ as the author of his salvation and also of his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles (11:13, 14; Acts 9:15; Eph. 3:8).
1:5 obedience of faith. Indicating both the obedience that is the necessary fruit of faith and the fact that faith implies obedient submission to the call of God (16:26).
1:7 Rome. Capital of the empire. We have no certain knowledge of the founding of the Roman church, although visitors from Rome were among those who heard the gospel preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10).
loved by God and called to be saints. The terms used in the greeting of professing Christians will prove to be keynotes of the letter itself, as God’s calling, love, grace, and peace are explained at length.
1:8 I thank my God. Gratitude for God’s work of grace in others was a constant feature of Paul’s life (1 Cor. 1:4; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:3; Philem. 4).
in all the world. News had spread to the entire empire of the presence of Christians in its capital city.
1:9 I mention you. Paul’s constant prayerfulness is an expression of his wholehearted service and desire for spiritual usefulness. He prays in full submission to God’s will (vv. 9–12; cf. Eph. 1:15; Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2 Tim. 1:3).
1:11 spiritual gift. Here the term is not used in the way Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 12:1; Paul has in view rather the benefit that flows from exercising functional gifts in ministry to others.
1:12 mutually encouraged. Christian ministry is for the mutual strengthening of the whole body of Christ (Eph. 4:15, 16).
1:13 often intended. No record of these many occasions exists, but see Acts 19:21; 23:11 for Paul’s sense of being driven by God toward Rome.
prevented. Probably by other, regular responsibilities. See Acts 16:6, 7 for interruptions in Paul’s plans caused either by the inward counsel of the Holy Spirit or by prophetic utterance.
among the rest of the Gentiles. This suggests that Paul thought of the Roman church as predominantly although not exclusively Gentile (cf. 11:13).
1:14 under obligation. Paul’s planning (v. 13) and his expectation (v. 14) are rooted in a sense of divine obligation (1 Cor. 9:16, 17). He has been given the gospel for all Gentiles (11:13, 14): not just Greek speakers (“Greeks”) who considered themselves cultured, but also non Greek-speakers (“barbarians”) whom the Greeks and Romans scorned as primitive in speech. Cf. Eph. 3:1–8.
1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel. Although the gospel is folly to the cultured and the cross appears weak in contrast to Rome’s power, Paul sees his message as divine wisdom and power (1 Cor. 1:22–25, 30).
power. The life-giving, life-transforming impact of the gospel message through the Holy Spirit is essential because of humanity’s bondage to sin and Satan; its culpability before God’s justice (1:18—3:20); and its utter spiritual inability on account of sin (5:6; 8:5–9; cf. Eph. 2:1–3).
believes. Salvation is unmerited, but it is not universally enjoyed. It is received only through faith in Christ.
to the Jew first. This was true in terms of the history of redemption (2:9, 10; John 4:22; cf. Mark 7:24–30), but it was also the pattern of Paul’s missionary outreach. Hence, in visiting the cities of the Roman world, he began by expounding Scripture in the synagogues where possible, and he preached Christ as the fulfillment of the OT promises (Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 17; 18:4, 19, 26; 19:8). Throughout Romans, Paul is careful to uphold the validity of the God-given privileges of His own people (3:1, 2; 9:4, 5; 11:24).
1:17 righteousness of God. This is a key phrase in Romans (3:21; 5:19; 10:3), regularly explained in the letter as “righteousness . . . through (or of) faith” (3:22; cf. 9:30; 10:6). It refers to the righteousness of Christ that is reckoned, accounted, or imputed to the one who believes. This imputation of righteousness to sinners who believe is fully consistent with the personal righteousness of God (cf. 3:25, 26). As a just and righteous judge (2:5–16), God on the merit of the obedience and death of His Son alone justifies, or declares righteous, sinners through true faith in Christ and not through anything that they have done, are doing, or will do (3:21–26; 5:10). Luther’s reading of this verse had a decisive impact on his understanding of justification.
from faith for faith. The righteousness of justification is received exclusively through faith, not works, so it comes to all those with faith, whatever their race.
as it is written. Hab. 2:4 provides the biblical basis for and the summary of what follows, indicating that the way of justification by faith alone was already known in the OT.
shall live. The whole of the Christian life, from beginning to end, is lived in trust and dependence on the God who graciously justifies the sinner.
1:18 wrath. The divine Judge’s righteous retribution and personal revulsion evoked by moral evil.
is revealed. God’s judgment is not limited to the future; His antagonism to sin is already shown in the world. Its effects are visible even now. The revelation of God’s mercy (v. 17) is comprehensible only against the backdrop of the revelation of God’s righteous anger.
ungodliness and unrighteousness. The order may be significant, since moral decay follows theological rebellion. Or Paul may be using the two words together to express one idea: wicked ungodliness.
suppress the truth. It is not that the truth is sought but cannot be found, but rather that, confronted with the truth (which is “clearly perceived,” v. 20), fallen humanity seeks to hinder and obstruct its influence, and is therefore “without excuse” (v. 20). The “excuse” in view is an appeal to ignorance.
1:19 what can be known about God. Paul stresses the reality and universality of divine revelation, which is perpetual (“since the creation,” v. 20) and perspicuous (“clearly perceived,” v. 20). Divine invisibility, eternity, and power are all expressed in and through the created order (see theological note “Divine Revelation” on p. 850). The invisible God is revealed through the visible medium of creation and providence. This revelation is manifest; it is not obscured but is clearly seen.
1:21 knew God. Here Paul stresses that humanity not only has the opportunity to know God through general revelation, but that the revelation yields real knowledge. Human beings’ ungodliness is their refusal to acknowledge, approve of, or delight in what they cognitively know to be true. Although at a deep level they cannot avoid awareness of their personal Creator, people refuse to honor Him as God or give thanks to Him. The consequence of rejecting God is that their minds and hearts have grown dark. A refusal to honor God leads all intellectual pursuits to frustration.
1:22, 23 Claiming to be wise, they became fools . . . exchanged the glory of the immortal God. Intellectual arrogance before God displays a reversed sense of values; the worship of God is exchanged for devotion to man-made and man-reflecting idols. The indelible, God-given instinct to worship is perverted by being centered on the wrong object (v. 25).
1:24 God gave them up. Judgment involves the removal of divine restraints on both sinful actions and on their consequences (vv. 26, 28).
1:25 worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. Exchanging God’s truth for the lie that blurs the absolute distinction between the Creator, who alone deserves worship, and every product of His creative power and wisdom—whether individual creatures or the universe as a whole—is the source of all deluded thought and depraved practice that obscure and defy the distinctions by which He has ordered His creatures’ natures and relationships (vv. 26, 27).
1:26, 27 God judges fallen man’s perversion of the divinely ingrained instinct to worship by giving sinful human beings over to the perversion of other instincts from their proper functions. Scripture views all homosexual actions in this light (Lev. 18:22; 21:13). The consequence is degradation of the body (v. 24), domination by lust, the disintegration of what is truly “natural” (i.e., in accordance with human nature as created by God; v. 26), and bondage to uncontrollable passions (v. 27).
1:27 receiving in themselves the due penalty. Even in a morally fallen world, God’s moral order stands: the harvest reaped is related to the crop sown (Gal. 6:7, 8).
1:28 did not see fit . . . God gave them up. Sin brings a disdain for God and what is pleasing to Him. It puts one in jeopardy of abandonment by God to a debased mind and a spirit of licentiousness (vv. 29–31). In Greek, “did not see fit” and “debased” have the same root: they did not “approve” acknowledging God, so He consigned them to a mindset that He did not “approve.”
1:32 know God’s righteous decree. Paul sees as evidence of the guilt and bondage of sin that the knowledge of divine judgment no longer acts as a restraint, but it becomes a spur to further rebellion in the form of encouraging others to sin. This text confirms that God’s revelation in nature communicates His moral character and a sense of moral duty in humanity.
2:1–16 In what follows, Paul turns to an imaginary representative of a real and identifiable group of people. Although he specifically mentions Jews only at v. 17, he probably has them in mind already. They agree with his statement about God’s wrath against ungodly and unrighteous people, but assume that they stand outside of that wrath-deserving circle (hence his stern warning in v. 5). But the nature of this presumption, if not its specific form, is not limited to Jews but applies to God’s people in every age. In this context, Paul sets forth the principles of the divine judgment all must face. It is based on truth (v. 2) and marked by righteousness (v. 5). It is according to works (v. 6), impartial in nature (v. 11), and executed through Christ (v. 16). Such judgment will bring agonizing ruin to all sinners (vv. 8, 9).
2:1 no excuse. Paul unmasks those who will agree with his exposition of divine wrath on sin (1:18–32) but assume they are immune to it.
practice the very same things. Their judgment of others is therefore in effect a self-condemnation (v. 3).
2:2 rightly falls. A link with 1:18. God’s just judgment is based on the reality of the individual’s response or non-response to Him, not on other considerations (such as a mere knowledge of God’s law or verbal agreement with its standards, vv. 17–24).
2:4 presume. They refuse to acknowledge that the kindness of God is intended to produce sorrow for sin and a turning away from it. They despise this purpose of divine generosity, and thereby show disdain for God Himself. They assume that His patience implicitly condones their persistence in disobedience. See theological note “The Goodness of God” on p. 991.
2:5 storing up wrath. Religious presumption comes from a hard heart, since continued resistance to God’s purposes in showing grace is a refusal of God’s will and increases guilt while protesting innocence. Thus, for example, towns that witnessed Jesus’ gracious miracles but remained unbelieving compounded their culpability (Matt. 11:20–24). Wrath is stored up, pointing forward to proportionate punishment in hell.
2:6–10 The ground of judgment will be what people have been or done (v. 6). Paul is not here denying what he elsewhere emphasizes: that salvation is a gift, not a reward (5:15, 17; 6:23). Divine judgment is based on every aspect of a person’s relationship to God. Only those who receive grace do in fact seek “glory and honor and immortality” (v. 7). Others are “self-seeking” (v. 8), not God-honoring. Paul teaches that while salvation is by grace, judgment is according to works (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12–15). Apart from the obedient works of Christ, imputed to believers by grace through faith, there is only one verdict possible to “the Jew first and also the Greek” (v. 9), and that guilty verdict warrants the punishment of “wrath and fury . . . tribulation and distress.”
2:11 no partiality. Neither the divine judgment of condemnation nor right standing with God is on the basis of ethnic background, or of any natural or self-generated distinctions within humanity (9:6–13; Gal. 6:15). The truth that God does not show partiality was revealed in the OT (Deut. 10:17) and came to clearer expression in the New as the gospel was conveyed to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34, 35).
2:12–16 The Jews were ready to appeal to the law of Moses, which they had and the Gentiles did not. The implication was that in this connection God does show “partiality” (v. 11). The role of the law is a major theme in Romans (3:27–31; 4:13–15; 5:13–15; 6:14, 15; 7:1–25; 13:8–10). Here in his first discussion of it, Paul shows that what pleases God is not knowledge of the law but obedience to God’s will revealed in it. Therefore, “God shows no partiality” (v. 11).
2:12 all who have sinned. This category includes everyone, as is made clear in 3:19, 20, 23.
law. The law of Moses, summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17; Deut. 5:1–22). The Mosaic law already reveals God’s condemnation of sin, but the cause of sin lies in our hearts, that is, deeply rooted in our natures, and not in the law (7:13). The “the work of the law” (v. 15) refers to the moral commandments of God accessible to the conscience of every person. The knowledge of the “work of the law” resides in the heart, because mankind was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 27). Since God judges people in accordance with standards known to them, a defense based on ignorance of the Mosaic law is irrelevant and illegitimate. It is not the degree of revelation received, but response to the revelation itself, however received, that will prove critical on the day when God will judge (v. 16).
2:14 by nature do what the law requires. No one can be justified on the basis of personal righteousness, but the universal presence of moral standards across human societies, and the common sense of obligation to such standards, indicate humanity’s universal moral constitution and sense of accountability to God, a legacy of our creation in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 27; 9:6). This is evidenced by the fact that “their conscience also bears witness” (v. 15). Thus Paul rebuked Corinthian Christians for trespassing divine boundaries that even pagans observed (1 Cor. 5:1).
2:16 my gospel. The gospel Paul preaches. In this gospel, the bad news of the judgment to come precedes the good news of grace.
by Christ Jesus. All judgment has been placed in His hand (Matt. 7:21–23; 25:31–33; John 5:22; 2 Cor. 5:10). Such judgment will be infallible, penetrating to “the thoughts and intentions of the heart”; nothing will be concealed from the Judge (Heb. 4:12, 13). Nor will anyone say that it is unfair for the human to be judged by the divine, since the agent of judgment will be the incarnate Christ, Himself a man (cf. Acts 17:31).
2:17–29 Paul now turns directly to the Jewish claim to special privilege, dealing in more detail with the possession of the law (vv. 17–24) and circumcision (vv. 25–29). In connection with the law, he presses home the claim of v. 1 that the Jews were guilty of the sins for which they condemned others. In connection with circumcision, he argues that the sign without the reality signified (cleansing of the heart) is spiritually meaningless.
2:17–20 Paul lists the privileges of which the Jews boasted. Paul agrees that the Jews’ reception of God’s Word was an expression of His special grace (3:1, 2; 9:4, 5). But they erred by thinking that such blessings made them superior to others.
2:21–23 The responsibilities that accompany privilege have not been fulfilled. Paul specifies the commandments against adultery, sacrilege, and theft (Ex. 20:4, 5, 14, 15).
2:25 circumcision . . . of value. Paul’s argument in ch. 2 now moves to a climax. Condemnation results from failure to obey revelation of whatever kind. Jews have transgressed the Mosaic law in particular, emptying circumcision of its real significance. Paul recognizes the privilege of Jewishness (9:4, 5) and of circumcision in particular (3:1, 2; 4:11). But physical circumcision is a sign of sanctification and renewal of life (v. 25; Deut. 30:6). The reality, not the sign, is the vital thing and may be possessed without regard to one’s Jewish ethnicity (vv. 26, 27).
2:29 a Jew is one. The work of the Spirit, resulting in a God-centered life, makes one a member of God’s covenant people in the fullest and most proper sense of the word. The possession of “circumcision” (v. 28) and the “written code” (v. 27) are incapable of doing this. As Paul will show, his conclusion might shock the Jews he addresses, but it is rooted in the teaching of the OT itself (Jer. 9:25, 26; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; cf. Rom. 9:6).
3:1 Paul’s statement that there is no favoritism with God (2:11), and his arguments regarding possession of the law (17–24) and circumcision (25–29), do not mean that there is no “advantage” in being a Jew, only that disobedience nullifies that advantage.
3:2 the oracles of God. The phrase refers to the OT and reveals the apostolic conviction, learned from Jesus Himself, that the inspiration of those Scriptures extends to their words (Matt. 4:4; John 10:35).
3:3, 4 The response of unbelief does not nullify the faithfulness of God to the promises in His Word. He keeps them (9:6, 7; 2 Tim. 2:13), as the OT (Ps. 51:4) underlines. Paul later addresses the problem of the Jews’ unbelief in the gospel at length (ch. 9–11).
3:5–8 Two related questions are presented here. The first question voices an objection. If people’s unrighteousness is an occasion for the righteousness of God to act, does that not make it unrighteous of God to execute His wrath upon unrighteousness? Paul’s answer is brief. It is a “given” that God is going to judge the world and that His judgment will be just. In the second question, Paul is reducing the objection to an absurd conclusion. If God somehow accepts the unrighteousness that is an occasion for His mercy, should He not welcome even more acts of unrighteousness from us? This conclusion is foolish (6:1, 2, 15). God’s good ends do not justify mankind’s evil means (cf. Gen. 50:20).
3:5 I speak in a human way. Although it is only expressed as a possibility in a discussion, the suggestion that God could be unjust reflects a sinful mind-set and calls for an immediate correction.
3:6 The justice of God will be displayed in the last judgment. Obviously, sinners will be unable to excuse themselves by saying that their transgressions make the display of God’s righteousness in judgment—a good thing—necessary. God’s justification of sinners does not undo the elementary truth that He will judge the world in righteousness, and He does not justify His people merely through the passing over of our sins. Atonement is required, and this perfect atonement was made by Christ Jesus for His people (vv. 21–26).
3:8 slanderously charge us. Foolish as the false conclusion is, it seems that Paul was accused of teaching it. A similar, but not identical issue, is discussed in 5:20—6:1.
3:9 Are we Jews any better off. Despite the privilege of receiving God’s oracles, Jews have joined Gentiles in rebellion against God and in liability to His condemnation (2:9; cf. 3:22, 23; Eph. 2:1–3).
3:10–18 as it is written. This is the common NT wording when appeal is made to the authority of Scripture (1:17; 3:3). Here Paul compiles a series of OT passages (Pss. 14:1–3; 5:9; 36:1; 140:3; 10:7; Prov. 1:16; Is. 59:7, 8) that, taken together, stress universal human sinfulness and the depravity and condemnation of all mankind.
3:18 no fear of God. In the OT, the essence of a proper attitude to God is “fear,” or devout reverence, the absence of which is practical atheism.
3:19 the law. Here “law” is a reference to the OT Scriptures in general, since Paul’s quotes come from Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah (cf. 1 Cor. 14:21, John 10:34).
The apostle Paul declared that he was determined to know nothing save Christ and Him crucified. This was the apostle’s way of emphasizing the extreme importance of the cross to Christianity. The doctrine of the atonement is central to all Christian theology. Luther called Christianity a theology of the cross. The figure of a cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. The concept of atonement reaches back to the Old Testament where God set up a system by which the people of Israel could make atonement for their sins. To atone is to make amends, to set things right.
Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that all human beings are sinners. As our sins are against an infinite, holy God who cannot even look upon sin, atonement must be made in order for us to have fellowship with God. Because sin touches even our best acts, we are incapable of making a sufficient sacrifice. Even our sacrifices are tainted and would require a further sacrifice to cover that blemish, ad infinitum. We have no gift valuable enough, no work righteous enough to atone for our own sins. We are debtors who cannot pay their debts.
In receiving the wrath of the Father on the cross, Christ was able to make atonement for His people. Christ carried, or bore, the punishment for the sins of human beings. He atoned for them by accepting the just punishment due for those sins. The Old Testament covenant pronounced a curse upon any person who broke the law of God. On the cross, Jesus not only took that curse upon Himself, but He became “a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He was forsaken by the Father and experienced the full measure of hell on the cross.
Orthodox Christianity has insisted that the Atonement involves substitution and satisfaction. In taking God’s curse upon Himself, Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s holy justice. He received God’s wrath for us, saving us from the wrath that is to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
A key phrase in the Bible regarding the Atonement is the phrase, “on behalf of.” Jesus did not die for Himself, but for us. His suffering was vicarious; He was our substitute. He took our place in fulfilling the role of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
While the Father’s wrath is real, it should be noted that the atonement Christ made was not a case of the Son’s working against the Father’s will. It is not as if Christ were snatching His people out of the Father’s hand. The Son did not persuade the Father to save those whom the Father was loath to save. On the contrary, both Father and Son willed the salvation of the elect and worked together to bring it to pass. As the apostle Paul wrote, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
says. A further indication that Paul sees Scripture as the living voice of God.
under the law. As in 2:12, the reference is to those who possess the OT revelation, i.e., the Jews in particular. As Gentiles stand condemned by the “work of the law written on their hearts” (2:15) through general revelation (1:21, 32), so the Jews’ possession of the law imparted through Moses renders them accountable also, without excuse or defense for their transgression of it.
every mouth . . . stopped . . . held accountable. No sinner, whether Jew or Gentile, has grounds for appeal; none can claim to be free from guilt before God. All are lost.
3:20 through the law comes knowledge of sin. See theological note “The Threefold Use of the Law” on p. 273. While the Jews appeal to their possession of the law as proof of their privileged position before God, Paul has now demonstrated that any Jew’s sin is unveiled and condemned, not hidden and condoned, by the law (note Paul’s self-description in 7:7-11). At the last judgment, all argument with a perfectly just and omniscient judge will be futile.
3:21–31 Having shown the need of both Jew and Gentile for the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel (1:16), Paul now explains how it is provided in Christ (vv. 21–26), and draws out two of the implications of this provision (vv. 27–31).
3:21 But now. Because the law of Moses, seen as demand, cannot save, God’s righteousness that brings salvation comes “apart from the law.” Yet the gospel is not contrary to the law of Moses (1:2). The gospel was already proclaimed in both “the Law and the Prophets” (1:1, 2; 4:1–25; 16:25–27) But “now” (the time filled with redemptive significance because of the coming of Christ, v. 26) God’s righteousness comes to historical realization through Christ and His work.
apart from the law. Righteousness with God is not achieved by our acts of obedience to the law. Nevertheless, Paul insists that the gospel is not contrary to the law, but upholds it through the obedience of Christ (v. 31) and fulfills it through the Spirit’s renewal of believers (6:15; 8:3, 4; 13:8, 10).
3:22 through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. The righteousness of God must be received now that it “has been manifested” (v. 21). Believing, for Paul, involves knowledge of the gospel’s content, mental assent to its testimony about Christ (10:14), and trust and reliance on Him as Savior and Lord, which manifests itself in obedience (1:5). The righteousness of God is exclusively for those who have faith and inclusive of all who have faith (“there is no distinction: for all have sinned”), whether Jew or Gentile (3:22, 23).
3:23 fall short of the glory of God. See theological note “Human Depravity” on p. 889. A poignant description of the consequence of sin. Made in the image of the glorious God (Gen. 1:26, 27), humanity has exchanged God’s glory for idolatry (1:23) and distorted the divine image (1:25 note). Now people are morally and spiritually ugly and depraved. Grace renews and restores humanity’s lost glory in believers (5:2; 8:18; 1 Cor. 15:42-49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24; Phil. 3:20, 21; Col. 3:10).
3:24 justified. In Scripture, justification is the opposite of condemnation (e.g., Prov. 17:15). It is the declaration of the believing sinner to be just—i.e., righteous—and it comes about by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Christ, the “gift of righteousness,” as 5:17 terms it (cf. Phil. 3:9). Christ’s righteousness is now legally considered to be the possession of the sinner. Justification is final and irreversible (8:1, 33, 34). It is grounded in Christ’s lifelong obedience, in which He fulfilled the precepts of God’s law for us, and in His death on the cross, where He bore the penalty of God’s judgment against us. Believers are united by faith alone to Christ in His resurrection, which vindicated His own flawless obedience to God’s law (1 Tim. 3:16): He “was raised for our justification” (4:25). Therefore, believers now share the same righteous status as the risen Christ Himself, with whom they are united now and forever (2 Cor. 5:21).
by his grace as a gift. Paul’s repetition of the same idea in different words emphasizes the divine initiative and mercy in freely granting salvation.
redemption. Freedom gained through the payment of a price; here specifically, release from the former condition of bondage in the guilt of sin (Eph. 1:7). This is accomplished through Christ’s death, the ransom price for believers’ salvation (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:15).
3:25 whom God put forward as a propitiation. Christ died as a propitiatory sacrifice that satisfies the divine judgment against sinners and assuages the Father’s wrath against them, bringing about forgiveness and justification.
Martin Luther recognized that the Gk. word here translated as “propitiation” (hilastērion) is also used in the Septuagint in Ex. 25:22, where it is translated into English as “the mercy seat.” In speaking to His people, God said of the mercy seat, “There I will meet with you.” Rom. 3:25 showed Luther that Christ is our mercy seat. God meets us at the cross.
by faith. The emphasis of v. 22 is repeated and thereby underscored. “By” indicates the means of our being linked to the righteousness of Christ. Faith is the instrument, not the ground or basis, of justification. The ground is Christ’s perfectly obedient life and propitiating death.
3:26 to show his righteousness. God’s judicial righteousness is demonstrated in the gospel. Under the Mosaic sacrificial system, forgiveness was offered through (but not on the basis of) animal sacrifice. As the NT recognizes (Heb. 9:11–15; 10:1–4), such sacrifices cannot substitute for the sins of humans. The real significance of the OT sacrifices was found in the way they pointed forward to Christ, through whom God would deal with human sin in an appropriate and final way. In view of what He would later do, God could righteously pass over “former sins” (v. 25)—for example, justifying Abraham (4:1–5) and David (4:6–8) when they believed His promises about the Redeemer to come. The work of Christ reveals both the justice of God (He does punish sin in the person of His own Son; 8:32), and the righteousness of God’s way of salvation by “faith in Jesus” (v. 26). In dealing with Christ as sin-bearer and the human person as sinner, God does not compromise His own holiness, nor the necessity of sin’s being atoned for. Yet He graciously provides a salvation that mankind is incapable of obtaining. In this respect, Paul sees the cross as the manifestation of the glorious wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23, 24).
3:27 what becomes of our boasting. The point made in 2:17, 23 resurfaces (cf. 3:19). Since Jew and Gentile alike are under wrath for their sin; and since the law of God does not excuse or save Jews, but rather reveals their condemnation; and since the gospel exposes a person’s unrighteousness while revealing God’s righteousness, no one, not even a Jew, has grounds for boasting (4:2, 3). Indeed, boasting “is excluded,” since justification is through faith alone (vv. 27, 28, 30), not because of human achievement.
3:28 justified by faith. See theological note “Justification by Faith” on p. 2078.
3:30 God is one. Salvation does not come by the possession of the law. This implies that salvation is available to others as well as Jews. Paul confirms this truth in the face of Jewish opposition by appeal to the fundamental confession of OT religion, that God is one (Deut. 6:4). This principle was implied already in the OT prophets’ composite lawsuits against the nations for their sins and against the Jews for theirs (e.g., Amos 1; 2). Paul stresses that justification comes to Jew (“the circumcised”) and to Gentile (“the uncircumcised”) in the same way—by faith alone.
3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith. See theological note “Antinomianism” on p. 2272. Paul is rejecting the law as the way of justification. But since the law as moral demand was not given to sinners in order to justify them (vv. 19, 20), the principle of justification by grace through faith cannot be a contradiction of the law. As Paul later demonstrates, the gospel upholds and promotes the law as the way in which the justified must walk (13:8-10) and can now begin to walk through the Spirit’s power (8:3, 4).