Before embarking upon our reading of Rom. 1:1–17, it will be helpful to consider three introductory matters: (1) the relationship between the frame and the body of the letter, (2) the distinctive nature of the introductory material in Romans, and (3) the limits and structure of the letter opening.
The opening and concluding verses of Romans (1:1–17; 15:14–16:27) form a frame that encloses the body of the letter (1:18–15:13), in which Paul proclaims his gospel of God’s righteousness. Although readers are rightly interested in the body of the letter because of its teaching on justification by faith, in recent years the frame of the letter has taken on a more significant role in the discussion of Romans (Miller 2000). For while the body of the letter contains the gospel that Paul proclaims, it is in the frame of the letter that the apostle makes his most explicit comments about his personal circumstances and reasons for writing to the Christ-believers at Rome. For example, in the letter opening Paul reveals that although he has been prevented from doing so in the past, he has often desired to visit the Christians at Rome (1:9–15). Then in the letter conclusion, after having presented his audience with an exposition of the gospel he preaches, he returns to the theme of this visit. This time, however, he explains (1) why he has been prevented from visiting Rome in the past; (2) he reveals that after visiting Rome he will inaugurate a mission to Spain; and (3) he discloses that he is about to visit Jerusalem, where he will deliver the gracious gift that his Gentile congregations have designated for the poor among the holy ones in Jerusalem (15:14–33). Moreover, his extensive list of greetings in chapter 16 indicates that he is acquainted with several members of the various house churches at Rome.
According to A. J. M. Wedderburn (1991a, 5), an adequate explanation of Romans must explain the relationship between Paul’s circumstances as related in the frame of the letter (his impending visits to Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain) and the gospel of God’s righteousness that Paul expounds in the body of the letter. In other words, why does Paul provide his audience with such a detailed exposition of his gospel? Is there some relationship between the gospel he proclaims in the letter body and his circumstances and those of the Romans as disclosed in the frame of the letter?
Most contemporary scholars insist that the body of the letter should be read in light of the circumstances of Paul and the Romans as related in the letter frame. The letter frame, then, is not merely an appendage to Romans; it is intimately related to the body of the letter. Paul writes at a time when his missionary activity in the East has ended, and he is about to embark upon a new mission in the West. But if his mission to Spain is to succeed, he will need the assistance of the Romans, who must be persuaded of the gospel he presents in this letter. Consequently, there is an intimate relationship between the letter frame and the letter body inasmuch as the body of the letter proclaims the Pauline gospel of God’s righteousness with a view to Paul’s impending visits to Jerusalem and Rome, and his mission to Spain.
The letter opening of Romans has many distinctive features. First, it presents its audience with the most elaborate greeting of any Pauline letter. Second, it contains an extended section that deals with Paul’s proposed visit to Rome. Third, it concludes with a concise and powerful summary of the gospel that Paul will develop in the body of the letter.
To appreciate the significance of the elaborate letter greeting in Romans, it is helpful to know that the greetings of the non-disputed Pauline Letters follow a standard form: sender to receiver, grace and peace. In most instances, this greeting consists of one or two verses. For example, in 1 Thess. 1:1 Paul associates himself with two cosenders: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.” But in Romans he begins with a careful description of his credentials as a slave and apostle of Christ Jesus without mentioning any cosenders (1:1). Next he summarizes the gospel he preaches (1:2–4) and highlights the apostleship he has received (1:5–6). Finally, he extends the traditional greeting of grace and peace to those at Rome (1:7), but without any reference to the church at Rome. The essential elements of the letter greeting (sender, receiver, grace and peace wish) occur in 1:1 and 1:7, and it would have been sufficient for Paul to limit the greeting to these verses. But since he has never visited Rome, and since the Romans have probably heard conflicting and damaging reports about the gospel he preaches, Paul carefully introduces himself in a formal way, as if he were an ambassador presenting his diplomatic credentials. The only other letter greeting comparable to Romans is Gal. 1:1–5, in which Paul insists upon his apostolic credentials and summarizes the truth of the gospel he preaches because some have challenged his gospel and apostolic credentials. Although Romans is not a polemical letter, Paul finds himself in an analogous situation inasmuch as some at Rome are suspicious of the gospel he preaches.
Like the letter greeting, the thanksgiving of this letter differs from the form of other Pauline thanksgivings, although it should be noted that the form of Paul’s thanksgivings tends to be more flexible than the form of his letter greetings. The purpose of the Pauline thanksgiving is to establish a relationship between Paul and the recipients of the letter and to signal some of the themes he will develop in the rest of the letter. For example, in 1 Cor. 1:3–9 Paul thanks God for the many gifts of speech and knowledge that God has bestowed upon that church, and he prays that God will strengthen its members so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord. By this thanksgiving Paul establishes an initial relationship with the community and highlights some of the issues he will discuss in the letter: the nature of knowledge, the gifts of the Spirit, and the eschatological dimension of the Christian life. In Romans the thanksgiving proper is found in 1:8, but it includes an initial presentation of Paul’s travel plans (1:9–15) and a thematic statement of the gospel he will develop in the body of the letter (1:16–17). Although Paul normally narrates his travel plans at the end of his letters, there is an intimate relationship between his impending visit to Rome and the message he preaches that leads him to announce his travel plans at the beginning of this letter. This is a further indication of the relationship between the letter frame and the body of the letter. Because Paul presents his gospel in light of his coming visits to Jerusalem and Rome, he signals his intention to come to Rome in the opening of the letter, reserving the announcement of his plans to visit Spain until the end of the letter.
Finally, just as the letter greeting and thanksgiving of Romans are distinctive, so is Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1:16–17. No other letter begins with such a powerful statement of the gospel. Nor is any thematic statement so consistently developed throughout the rest of the letter as is this statement. At the outset of this letter, Paul signals that he is writing about the power of the gospel in which God’s saving righteousness is revealed. This break in form is not without purpose. Since the Romans have never seen or heard Paul, he knows that if they are to receive him in the way he hopes they will, he must provide them with a convincing exposition of the gospel he preaches. Consequently, he focuses their attention on the central theme that he will develop in the rest of the letter: God’s saving righteousness. This theme has profound consequences for Paul’s understanding of what it means to be in a right relationship with God, how God has dealt with Israel, how Gentile and Jewish believers ought to interact with each other, and how Christ-believers should relate to one another and conduct themselves in the world. The righteousness of God summarizes the central content of the teaching that Paul presents to the Romans.
Romans 1:1–17 in the Rhetorical Flow
In addition to the issues raised above, we must consider two issues surrounding the limits and structure of the letter opening. How far does the introduction extend? How is it structured?
Although there is general agreement that the greeting of the letter consists of 1:1–7, there is less agreement about the limits and nature of the material that follows. For example, does the introduction include the thematic statement about the righteousness of God (1:16–17), or is it limited to 1:1–15? While most commentators (Byrne, Dunn, Stuhlmacher) include the thematic statement within the introductory material, Joseph Fitzmyer (1993, 253) does not. Even more disputed is how the material in 1:8–17 should be identified. Brendan Byrne (1996) labels it “Thanksgiving and Theme.” James Dunn (1988) titles it “Personal Explanations and Summary Statement of the Letter’s Theme,” and Peter Stuhlmacher (1994) calls it “The Letter’s Introduction and Announcement of Its Theme.” Still others employ the categories of ancient rhetoric to identify the material. Thus Robert Jewett (2007) identifies 1:1–12 as the Exordium, which he subdivides into two pericopes, “The Inauguration of Paul’s Communication with Believers in Rome” (1:1–7), and “Thanksgiving and Causa” (1:8–12), followed by Narratio (1:13–15) and Propositio (1:16–17). While these rhetorical categories are helpful, my structure employs the more traditional categories proper to letter writing. Moreover, I have chosen to include 1:16–17 with the introductory material since these verses are so intimately related to what precedes. In 1:15 Paul announces his eagerness to preach the gospel to those in Rome because he is not ashamed of the gospel, which is the power of God that reveals the righteousness of God (1:16–17).
The letter opening of Romans consists of two units: a greeting (1:1–7) followed by a thanksgiving in which Paul assures the recipients of his long-standing desire to visit and preach the gospel to them (1:8–17). The first unit consists of four subunits: Paul’s self-identification (1:1), a summary of the gospel he preaches (1:2–4), a statement about his apostleship (1:5–6), and a greeting of grace and peace (1:7). The second unit consists of three subunits. In the first, Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving (1:8). In the second, he explains his long-standing desire to visit the recipients of the letter in order to preach the gospel to them (1:9–15). In the third, which is grammatically joined to the second, he explains why he is not ashamed to preach the gospel to them (1:16–17). In the letter opening, then, Paul summarizes the gospel he preaches and announces his intention to visit Rome to preach the gospel of God’s righteousness to them.
1:1–7. There is an intimate relationship between Paul’s understanding of himself and the gospel he preaches. He proclaims the gospel because he is an apostle of Christ Jesus. Consequently, in the opening verse Paul presents himself in two ways. First, he is a slave of Christ Jesus (1:1a). Second, he is an apostle called and set apart for God’s own gospel (1:1b).
By calling himself a slave of Christ Jesus, Paul affirms that his allegiance belongs to the one whose followers he formally persecuted. Although slaves constituted the lowest class of ancient society, Paul is not ashamed to be called Christ’s slave because, as he will explain in chapter 6, those who have been freed from sin are free to be slaves to righteousness, which leads to life. This is why Paul makes use of this off-putting metaphor to describe his relationship to Christ.
Paul is Christ’s slave because he has been called to be an apostle and set apart for “God’s own gospel” (euangelion theou, which I construe as a subjective genitive). While Luke narrates Paul’s call three times (Acts 9, 22, 26), Paul’s own account is sparse in detail (Gal. 1:15–17). His call, however, is central to his understanding of his apostolic identity. While Paul was still in his mother’s womb, God designated him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knows that he has been “set apart” (aphōrismenos; see Gal. 1:15, where he employs the same word) for God’s own gospel. Just as Israel and the prophets had been set apart for service to the all-holy God of Israel, so Paul has been set apart for God’s gospel: God’s own good news about what God has accomplished in the saving death and resurrection of his Son.
Having identified himself as set apart for God’s gospel, Paul describes the gospel in two ways. First, God previously promised this gospel through his prophets in the holy Scriptures (1:2a). Second, the subject of this gospel is Jesus Christ our Lord (1:4b). The continuity between the prophetic promises and the gospel about Jesus Christ is an essential aspect of this letter. Paul will argue that this gospel confirms rather than nullifies the law (3:31), and despite Israel’s disobedience, God has not repudiated his people (11:1). Although the gospel is new and effects a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), it was promised in Israel’s prophetic scriptures. According to Gal. 3:8, God announced the gospel to Abraham.
Making use of what may have been a creedal formula familiar to the Roman Christians (Jewett 2007, 103–8), Paul summarizes the gospel he preaches in two phrases. The gospel is about God’s Son, who was born of David’s seed, according to the flesh (1:3), but then appointed Son of God in power by the Spirit of holiness at the resurrection of the dead (1:4a). In terms of his earthly descent, Jesus was the Davidic Messiah (2 Tim. 2:8). Therefore, although Paul does not develop the theme of Jesus’s messiahship elsewhere, he is aware of it and of Israel’s messianic hopes (Rom. 9:5). The inverted name, “Christ Jesus,” then, can be understood as “Messiah Jesus”—Paul’s way of highlighting Jesus’s messiahship. The second, more developed phrase, speaks of Jesus’s being appointed Son of God in or with power by the Spirit of holiness (i.e., the Holy Spirit) at the resurrection of the dead. Paul is not saying that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection but that God appointed or enthroned Jesus as Son of God with full power at his resurrection. For, although Christ preexisted with God, he entered into the realm of the flesh, where humanity did not recognize him because he did not insist on his godly status (Phil. 2:6–11). It was only at the resurrection, by the power of God’s Spirit, that Jesus was enthroned with the full power that rightly belongs to him as God’s Son. The expression “a Spirit of holiness” does not occur elsewhere in Paul’s writings, an indication that this text may have come from an earlier creedal formula. It is attested in Isa\. 63:10–11, however, and Fitzmyer (1993, 236) points to parallels in the Qumran literature (1QS 4.21; 8.16; 9.3; CD 2.12; 1QH 7.6–7; 9.32). The expression “at the resurrection” (lit., “from the resurrection of the dead”) has the general resurrection of the dead in view and is consonant with Paul’s theology, which understands Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruits of the general resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).
The manner in which Paul concludes this summary of his gospel (“Jesus Christ our Lord”) leads to a discussion of his apostleship. It is through Jesus Christ our Lord that we have received the favor of apostleship to bring about the obedience that consists in faith among all the Gentiles on behalf of his name (1:5). Paul’s apostleship, then, has its origins in the risen Lord, the Son of God, whom Paul proclaims in his gospel. Although he uses the word “apostleship” (apostolēn) only two other times (1 Cor. 9:2; Gal. 2:8), Paul’s apostleship plays a central role in his thought, and he found it necessary to insist upon his apostolic status more than once (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:1). This apostleship, however, is not his own choice but a matter of God’s “grace” or “favor” (charis) inasmuch as God has graciously called Paul in Christ. The purpose of Paul’s apostleship is to bring about the hypakoēn pisteōs among all the Gentiles. This expression can be understood in several ways (Cranfield 1975, 66): as an objective genitive (“obedience to faith”), as a subjective genitive (“the obedience that faith works”), or as a genitive of apposition (“the obedience that consists in faith”). Given the close relationship that Paul establishes between faith and obedience in this letter, the genitive of apposition (“the obedience that consists in faith”) is preferable. More than an intellectual consent to the truth, faith is a total entrusting of oneself to God that results in complete obedience to God. The recipients of Paul’s preaching are the Gentiles, a point he will repeat in 1:14–15 and in 1:15–16.
Paul identifies the Romans as being among the Gentiles whom he is trying to bring to the obedience of faith: Among them are you, who have been called by Jesus Christ (1:6). The precise meaning of this phrase, however, is disputed. Does it suggest that Paul’s audience is exclusively Gentile (Das 2007, 54–64)? Or does it mean that the Roman congregations, composed of both Gentile and Jewish believers, live among the Gentiles (Esler 2003, 111–15)? Whatever the answer, Paul identifies his recipients as “called by Jesus Christ,” just as he was called to be an apostle.
Having identified himself, summarized his gospel, and explained the purpose of his apostleship, Paul finally extends his traditional greeting: To all those in Rome, God’s beloved, called and consecrated, grace and peace be to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord (1:7). Somewhat surprisingly, there is no mention of the church at Rome, although Paul will extend greetings to the church in the house of Prisca and Aquila (16:3–4). This omission may reflect the composition of the Christian community at Rome, which appears to have been made up of a number of house churches. Paul, however, does identify the recipients of the letter in several other ways. They are “beloved of God” (agapētois theou), “called” (klētois), and “consecrated” (hagiois). Just as God set Paul apart for the gospel, so God called and consecrated them for service because they are God’s beloved. It is fitting, then, that Paul extends to them the two blessings that summarize the gift of their new life: charis, the divine favor that God bestows on them; eirēnē, the peace and reconciliation they now enjoy with God because of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
1:8–17. Having greeted and introduced himself to the Romans in a formal manner since most of them have not seen or heard him, Paul undertakes the rhetorical task of establishing an initial bond between himself and his recipients in order to secure their trust and goodwill. He begins with a thanksgiving prayer in 1:8 that quickly takes up the topic of his planned visit to Rome. But rather than immediately announcing that he is coming to Rome, Paul carefully, almost apologetically, explains his long-standing desire to visit them. He will not disclose the full purpose of his visit, however, until chapter 15, after they have heard, through this letter, the gospel he preaches.
The thanksgiving functions like a captatio benevolentiae that enables Paul to gain the goodwill of his audience: First, I thank my God, through Jesus Christ, for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world (1:8). To say that their faith is proclaimed throughout the world is not flattery. Just as the Romans have heard about Paul, so Paul has heard of them, as the list of greetings in chapter 16 reveals. Paul makes a similar statement about the faith of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:8). But whereas he was the founding father of the Thessalonian community, he can make no such claim about the congregations of Christ-believers at Rome. Others have already proclaimed the gospel there, and their work has borne fruit. Paul is not coming “to plant” the gospel or to reprimand the Romans, although he will offer them his advice regarding a delicate situation (14:1-15:13). Their faith is strong, as his statement of confidence in the letter closing affirms (15:14).
Paul assures his audience that, although he has never seen them, he constantly remembers them and prays that he may succeed in visiting them. To reinforce this statement, he calls upon God as his witness (as he does in 2 Cor. 1:23; 11:31; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8) and situates what he says in the wider context of his apostolic ministry: The God whom I worship spiritually by proclaiming the gospel about his Son is my witness how I constantly remember you, always petitioning in my prayers if at last somehow I might, by God’s will, succeed in coming to you (1:9–10). Here Paul uses the kind of cultic language that he will employ in 15:16, where he speaks of serving the gospel in a priestly capacity so that he can present his Gentile converts as a pleasing sacrificial offering to God. Paul’s ministry is a spiritual and priestly task, and he views his proclamation of the gospel as an act of worship, just as he views the moral life of the redeemed as an act of worship (12:1). However, whereas earlier Paul spoke of “God’s own gospel” (a subjective genitive), here he speaks of “the gospel about his Son” (an objective genitive). The Son of God is the content of the gospel of God that Paul preaches. Paul’s continual prayer that he may finally succeed in visiting the Romans indicates that this is a long-standing desire on his part. But to this point, God has not yet allowed this visit.
In 1:11–15 Paul provides the Romans with several reasons why he wants to visit them. This section falls into three parts: why Paul longs to see them (1:11–12); a disclosure of his past attempts to visit them (1:13); and why he is eager to preach the gospel to them (1:14–15).
Paul begins with a clause (a gar explanatory clause) that explains why he constantly prays that he might be able to visit the Romans: For I long to see you that I might impart to you some spiritual gift in order to strengthen you (1:11). But lest they perceive his intended visit as one-sided or heavy-handed, Paul clarifies what he means: that is, to be encouraged by you through our mutual faith, yours and mine (1:12). Although the precise meaning of the “spiritual favor” (charisma pneumatikon) Paul hopes to impart is not clear, his statement about his eagerness to preach the gospel at Rome (1:15) suggests that his proclamation of the gospel will be his spiritual gift to them. The doxology of 16:25–27, which has a complicated textual history, appears to confirm this interpretation: “To the one who is able to strengthen you in accordance with my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ” (16:25). It is by his proclamation of the gospel, then, that Paul will strengthen the Romans. But lest they misunderstand his intentions, he explains what he means: his faith will encourage their faith, and their faith will encourage his faith. Paul makes a similar point in 15:24, where he expresses his hope that he will be able to enjoy their company before being sent forth by them to Spain. Consequently, in addition to strengthening them by the gospel he preaches, Paul hopes to be encouraged by their faith, which has been proclaimed throughout the world.
Next, Paul employs a disclosure formula and explains that he has often attempted to visit the Romans but has been prevented from doing so: I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I have often proposed to come to you so that I might have some fruit even from you as from the rest of the Gentiles, but until now I have been prevented from doing so (1:13). Paul will not reveal until 15:18–24 why he has been prevented from visiting them. Then he will explain that he has been detained because of his missionary work in the East. Paul’s purpose, then, is to strengthen and be encouraged by the community and to reap some “fruit” (karpon) at Rome as well. The metaphor of “fruit” suggests that Paul hopes to gain some converts from among those at Rome who do not yet believe. In 16:5 he employs the related metaphor of the “firstfruit” (aparchē) to speak of Epaenetus as his first convert in Asia.
The mention of the Gentiles in 1:13 leads to Paul’s climatic statement in which he explains why he is coming to Rome: For I am obligated to Greeks and barbarians, to those who are wise and to those who are foolish. This explains my eagerness to preach the gospel even to you who are in Rome (1:14–15). Paul’s desire to visit Rome is rooted in the obligation he has to all the Gentiles, inasmuch as he is the apostle to the Gentiles, a point he will make again in 15:15–16. These neatly balanced verses can be displayed in this way:
|to Greeks||and||to barbarians|
|to those who are wise||and||to those who are foolish|
In this couplet, Paul is speaking of the Gentile world, which he views from two perspectives. On the one hand, some are “Greeks” in the sense that they have been hellenized and so are the beneficiaries of Greek culture. Such people view themselves as wise. On the other hand, some are “barbarians” in the sense that they do not participate in this culture. From the perspective of those who are hellenized, such people are without wisdom; they are foolish. From Paul’s perspective, both groups belong to “the nations,” and so they are part of his missionary field. Inasmuch as he is the apostle to the Gentiles, he is eager to visit Rome and preach the gospel there.
Paul’s statement that he is eager to preach the gospel to those who are at Rome puzzles some commentators since it appears to contradict the missionary principle he states in the closing of the letter: “Thus I have aspired not to preach where Christ is already known, lest I should build on another’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those to whom it has not been proclaimed about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’” (15:20–21). Paul makes a similar statement in 2 Cor. 10:15–16, in a polemical portion of the letter in which he confronts outside missionaries whom he sarcastically calls “superapostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). The tension between Rom. 1:15 and 15:20–21, however, is more apparent than real since the letter closing of Romans indicates that Paul will not settle in Rome to establish his own congregation. He will only pass through Rome, on his way to Spain (15:23–24). Consequently, Paul is not coming to build on the foundation that others have laid but to encourage and be encouraged by the Christ-believers at Rome by preaching the gospel there before traveling to Spain.
Most commentators identify 1:16–17 as the theme of the letter. This thematic statement, however, is an integral part of the letter thanksgiving, intimately related to what precedes it. In 1:14–15 Paul has just said that he is under obligation to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles of every social class, the foolish as well as the wise, and thus he is eager to preach the gospel at Rome. Next, he begins with a clause introduced by gar (for) that explains why he is eager to preach the gospel: For I am not embarrassed by the gospel (1:16a). Following this clause, he uses two other gar explanatory clauses to explain why he is not embarrassed by the gospel. First, for it is God’s own power, resulting in salvation for all who believe (1:16b). Second, for in it God’s righteousness is revealed (1:17a). The train of thought of this thematic statement and its relationship to the material that precedes it can be displayed in this way:
Paul is eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome.
Because he is not embarrassed by the gospel.
Because the gospel is God’s own power resulting in salvation for all.
Because in the gospel God’s own righteousness is revealed.
But why should the gospel be a cause of embarrassment for Paul? Although contemporary Western Christians are no longer scandalized by the gospel, there was good reason for Paul to be ashamed of the gospel since he proclaimed the crucified Christ, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). Paul, however, is not embarrassed by this gospel, which he identifies as the “message about the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), because he knows from personal experience that the gospel is “God’s own power resulting in salvation.”
Believers already experience this power in the gift of the Spirit that God bestows on those who embrace the gospel (Gal. 3:5). But there is also a paradoxical dimension to the power of God that cannot be grasped apart from the cross. For example, Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Fully aware that his proclamation is scandalous to many, Paul writes, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24).
Paul knows that inasmuch as the gospel is “God’s own power” (dynamis theou), it results in salvation for all who believe, for the Jew first and then for the Greek (1:16b). The salvation that Paul has in view is eschatological and cosmic in scope, as chapter 8 will show. It entails nothing less than the general resurrection from the dead and creation’s freedom from its present corruption (8:19–23). In what follows, Paul will show that this salvation is available to all on the basis of faith in what God has accomplished in Christ. But there is a salvation-historical order in God’s work of salvation. Because Israel is and remains God’s chosen people, this salvation belongs to the Jews first and then to the “Greeks,” which should be taken in the broader sense of the Gentiles. Paul will repeat this salvation-historical order in 2:9–10, and throughout this letter he will emphasize the universality of the salvation that God offers in Christ, on the basis of faith, but always with a view to Israel’s enduring role in God’s salvific plan. To summarize, Paul is not embarrassed by the gospel he preaches because God’s salvific power is at work for all in the proclamation of the gospel.
There is another reason why Paul is not embarrassed by the gospel: when the gospel is proclaimed, God’s own righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous one will live by faith” (1:17b). Although I have construed dikaiosynē theou as a subjective genitive (“God’s own righteousness”), it could be taken as a genitive of origin, “the righteousness that comes from God.” If the phrase is taken as a genitive of origin, the focus of the letter is on the gift of righteousness that God communicates to the justified. This reading makes good sense of the letter and has been adopted by some of its most significant commentators (Luther, Nygren, Cranfield). But in recent years, since the seminal essay of Ernst Käsemann (1969b), “‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” commentators have increasingly construed this phrase as a subjective genitive. When the phrase is so understood, the focus is on God’s own righteousness. This righteousness, however, is not to be understood in a legal sense as God’s retributive justice (justitia dei), but as God’s saving justice, God’s covenant loyalty, God’s uprightness and integrity, God’s faithfulness to what it means for God to be God. This dimension of God’s righteousness, which appears in the Psalms and in the book of the prophet Isaiah, can be seen in Isa\. 51:5, 8 LXX, which equates God’s “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) with God’s “salvation” (sōtēria):
My righteousness draws near swiftly,
my salvation will go out, . . .
but my righteousness will be forever,
and my salvation for generations of generations. (Isa\. 51:5, 8 NETS)
The parallel nature of these texts indicates that God’s “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) is God’s “salvation” (sōtēria). Righteousness, then, is not a static quality whereby God exercises justice but a dynamic quality whereby God effects salvation. This interpretation of the righteousness of God puts the emphasis where it ought to be (on God’s saving justice) without neglecting the righteousness that God grants as a free gift. For when the righteousness of God is revealed, those who respond in faith receive the gift of God’s righteousness.
Everything begins and ends with faith. Thus Paul writes that God’s righteousness is revealed “from faith to faith.” Although commentators have interpreted this phrase in a variety of ways, it seems best to take it as Paul’s way of saying that from start to finish, from beginning to end, the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel is related to faith. Or, as Paul will soon say, it is not a matter of doing the works of the law. To confirm what he means, he quotes Hab. 2:4, “The righteous will live by faith.” Once more, Paul confronts us with a number of interpretive decisions. Does he mean that the one who is righteous on the basis of faith will live? Or does he mean that the one who is righteous will live by faith? Although the LXX of Hab. 2:4 reads “But the just shall live by my faith [God’s faithfulness]” (NETS), the Hebrew text reads “The righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity” (NJPS). Neither the Hebrew nor the LXX, however, understands the text as referring to someone who has been justified on the basis of faith. Consequently, although reliable commentators (Nygren 1949, 89–90) have understood the text to mean that the one who is righteous through faith will live, it is more natural to take the phrase with the verb that follows it (“live”) rather than with the noun that precedes it (“righteous”). Accordingly, I interpret the text to mean that the righteous person lives by faith, as Paul will show in his discussion of Abraham in chapter 4.
To summarize, the purpose of Paul’s thanksgiving is to broach the subject of his upcoming visit, which he will discuss in greater detail in the letter closing, and to announce the theme of the gospel that he will proclaim in this letter and when he comes to Rome: the righteousness of God.
Paul sees an intimate relationship between his apostleship and the gospel he proclaims. He preaches the gospel with authority because he knows that he has been called and set apart to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. Having received this grace of apostleship, Paul understands that he must preach the gospel to the Gentiles in order to bring them to the obedience that faith entails. There is a close relationship, then, between Paul’s understanding of himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ and the gospel he preaches. He preaches the gospel because he is an apostle, and the gospel he preaches is rooted in the apostleship he has received. To deny Paul’s gospel is to deny his apostleship, and to deny his apostleship is to call into question the gospel he preaches. Consequently, although the letter opening of Romans raises a number of theological issues, it will be helpful to focus on this single issue. For unless we understand the relationship that Paul draws between his apostleship and the gospel he preaches, we will never comprehend how and why he speaks with such sublime authority and confident assurance in this letter.
Paul is consumed with his apostleship. In Gal. 1:1 he defends himself against those who have called his apostleship into question, insisting that he did not receive this apostleship from or through human beings but through Jesus Christ and God the Father. In 1 Cor. 3:5–4:21, he explains the nature of his apostolic ministry in light of the message of the crucified Christ, whom he proclaims. And in 2 Cor. 2:14–7:4 he provides the Corinthians with a careful presentation of what it means to be a minister of the new covenant, an ambassador of Christ who calls people to reconciliation. When Paul writes to the Romans, then, he addresses them with a profound understanding of himself as someone who has been sent to preach the gospel to the nations. Karl Barth captures the significance of Paul’s apostleship for the gospel he preaches when he begins his Romans commentary in this way: “The man who is now speaking is an emissary, bound to perform his duty; the minister of his King; a servant, not a master. However great and important a man Paul may have been, the essential theme of his mission is not within him but above him—unapproachably distant and unutterably strange” (Barth 1933, 27). Because he understands himself as someone who has been called and set apart, someone who has received the grace of apostleship, Paul speaks as if he were proclaiming his message from a lofty mountaintop where he sees what nobody else sees, and understands what everybody else has misunderstood. How else can the apostle condemn humanity as being under the power of sin? How else can he say that God’s own righteousness has been revealed in Christ? How else can Paul claim to be establishing the law when he says that a person is justified by faith rather than by the works of the law? How else can the apostle reveal the mystery of God’s plan for Gentiles and Jews? In a word, Paul dares to speak as he does because he knows that he is a called apostle with a unique ministry to the Gentiles.
This is not to say that Paul views himself as the only apostle or the most important apostle. In 1 Cor. 15:9–10 he calls himself the least of the apostles, although he claims to have worked harder than all of them. And in his greetings to the Romans, he acknowledges Andronicus and Junia as prominent among the apostles, believers in Christ before he was (16:7). Paul knows of other apostles whose names will never be known to us. And there is no reason to think that he considered his apostleship as different in kind from theirs. But apart from the Twelve, whom Paul sees as a distinct group, he is the apostle we know best. And if we are to understand how he can proclaim the gospel from such a lofty height, we must come to grips with his apostleship. For unless we acknowledge Paul’s apostolic claims, we will always be offended by the assurance and authority with which he speaks about God, Christ, the Spirit, and the human condition apart from God. Put another way, just as we must accept Jesus as God’s messianic Son if we are to embrace his message of the inbreaking kingdom of God, so we must accept Paul’s claim to apostleship if we are to embrace the gospel of God’s righteousness that he preaches.
What Paul preaches can be summed up in single word: euangelion. Paul proclaims the gospel, the good news of what God has accomplished in Christ’s saving death and resurrection. For Paul this gospel is God’s power—not a faint reflection of it, not an imitation of it, not a representation of it, but the very power of God. To proclaim the gospel is to make God’s salvific power present to all who believe, Gentile as well as Jew. The proclamation of the gospel, then, is an urgent task. For unless people hear the gospel, they will not believe; and if they do not believe, they will not be saved. Consequently, Paul preaches the gospel to bring the Gentiles to the obedience that is faith, confident that when the Gentiles believe in the gospel, they will be obedient to God’s will.
The gospel is not a message that Paul or others have devised. When Paul speaks of “my gospel” (2:16) he is not making a claim of authorship, nor is he saying that there is a particular version of the gospel that is distinctively his own. There is only one gospel, the gospel of God, God’s own gospel, and the content of this gospel is Jesus Christ. This is why Paul speaks of the gospel of God’s Son (1:9) or the gospel of Christ (15:19), by which he means the gospel about Jesus Christ. Thus the gospel of God is the gospel about Christ: God’s own good news, which God has entrusted to Paul and other apostolic ministers for the salvation of the world.
For Paul, the proclamation of the gospel is an apocalyptic event because something is revealed: the saving righteousness and covenant loyalty that God manifested in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Apart from the proclamation of the gospel, this saving righteousness is hidden. For how else can one “see” the saving righteousness of God in what the world perceives as a crucified criminal? How else can one see God’s covenant loyalty in the shameful death of a crucified man, apart from the gospel? Thus the preaching of the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The preaching of the gospel discloses God’s eternal purpose for Gentile and Jew. The preaching of the gospel reveals how God has justified and reconciled humanity to himself. The preaching of the gospel assures the reconciled and justified of the salvation that awaits them and the entire cosmos at the resurrection of the dead.
It is little wonder that Paul begins his Letter to the Romans with a summary of his apostolic credentials and the gospel he preaches. For unless the listeners/readers of this letter understand the relationship between Paul’s gospel and his apostleship, they will not accept or comprehend his letter. Romans is written from a lofty mountain, from a higher vantage point, because the one who writes is an apostle of Jesus Christ. He does not preach his own message but the gospel that God has entrusted to him: God’s own gospel about his Son, Jesus Christ. To comprehend the relationship between gospel and apostle is to understand the profound significance of this letter, which challenges every attempt of humanity to assert itself before God. To understand the relationship between gospel and apostle is to comprehend that, as offensive as it may sound to secular ears, Paul speaks God’s word, a word that condemns and saves, a word that exposes and purifies, those who hear it.
Part 1. Romans 1:18–3:20
Gentiles and Jews in the Light of God’s Wrath
The first part of Romans begins with a powerful description of the human predicament apart from God’s saving righteousness. Apart from God’s righteousness, humanity finds itself under God’s wrath, which is God’s just judgment in the face of humanity’s refusal to acknowledge the truth about God. Paul places this description of the human predicament between two thematic statements in which he proclaims the righteousness of God. This results in the following structure:
Paul’s description of the human predicament consists of four movements: the failure of Gentiles to acknowledge God (1:18–32), God’s impartial judgment of Gentiles and Jews (2:1–16), Jewish failure to observe the law (2:17–29), and the enslavement of Gentiles and Jews to the power of sin (3:1–20).
Paul’s purpose in this part of Romans is to show the universal need for the salvation that the gospel brings. To establish his point, he demonstrates that not only the Gentiles but even God’s chosen people have sinned and fallen short of the glory for which God intended them. First, Paul explains that God has delivered the Gentile world to the consequences of its sinfulness (1:18–32). Next, he establishes the utter impartiality of God, who judges Gentiles and Jews on the basis of what they have done rather than on the basis of who they are (2:1–16). Having reminded his audience of God’s impartiality, Paul points to the failure of God’s own people, even though they have had the advantage of the law and circumcision (2:17–29). Finally, in the climax of his argument, Paul explains why the Gentiles (who knew something of God from creation) and the Jews (who had the law and circumcision) have fallen short of God’s glory (3:1–20). The reason is that both find themselves under the power of sin, which frustrates every attempt to do God’s will (3:9). Consequently no one will be justified before God on the basis of doing the works of the law (3:20), for humanity finds itself under a power from which it cannot free itself (3:9).
Romans 1:18–3:20 in Context
Those who read through the first part of Romans will do well to keep the following in mind. First, Paul is describing the human situation from the point of view of the gospel. He sees what others do not see because he views the human predicament from God’s perspective. Second, Paul sees no exit from this predicament apart from Christ, for humanity is under a power that frustrates its attempt to do God’s will. Finally, in this section Paul has both Gentiles and Jews in view. His primary concern is to show that these two peoples, those who have the benefit of the law and circumcision and those who do not, find themselves in the same predicament, a situation from which they cannot extricate themselves.