Author Archives: Dr Gary Shogren

About Dr Gary Shogren

Gary and his wife Karen Shogren are WorldVenture missionaries to Costa Rica. Gary teaches the New Testament at Seminario ESEPA and is a blogger and author. Karen teaches at ESEPA and also specializes in working with missionary kids. They have four adult children who live in the USA.

Romans Commentary, Romans 1:18-3:20

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

II. The Coming Condemnation of All (1:18-3:20)

Paul’s goal is to prove that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) and that even more fatally, any and all sin is eternally disastrous for Gentile or Jew.

Foremost of course he is addressing the Christians of Rome, whether they are Jewish or not. But on another level, Paul is talking as if he were addressing an imaginary synagogue audience (see our description of “apostrophe” under 2:1). In 1:18-32, he first speaks about Gentile wickedness, in a way that his hypothetical synagogue would have certainly appreciated. It is precisely what the young rabbi Sha’ul would have heard or preached before he encountered Christ. Then, beginning in 2:1, he speaks to that same imaginary audience of Jews about how their own sins are enough to bring down God’s wrath on their heads.

It is human nature that we feel most happy when someone judges the sins of “them” or “Those Others,” especially if we are left in peace with our own behaviors. It is not hard to find a modern parallel:

Once there was a small country church, and two elderly women would always sit together in the first pew. One Sunday, the preacher began his sermon: “Brothers and sisters: we must reject the use of intoxicating beverages!” One of the ladies turned to the other and said, “Amen! Amen!” Later he preached, “We must completely root out all illegal drugs!” Again, she said to her companion, “Amen, Amen!” Finally, the pastor said: “And we must totally abandon the practice of gossip!” The lady slowly turned to the other and whispered, “Well, now he’s just meddling.”

We will begin in 1:18-32 with the sins of Those Others, the Gentiles or non-Jews, and later on the sins of Us, the Jews.

A. God will condemn those who commit stereotypically Gentile sins: idolatry and sexual corruption (1:18-32)

After announcing that the gospel is powerful to save anyone, Paul leaps immediately into why salvation is necessary in the first place; that is, he moves in 1:18 from Solution (the gospel) to Problem (the wrath of God).

In any kind of persuasive speech – by a preacher, politician, or lawyer – it is a common strategy to first seek common ground with the listener, and then to proceed to areas of disagreement. For example, one popular evangelistic program says that we should not start off by saying that God is going to punish sinners, because the person will immediately retort, “Well, I believe in a God of love.” So instead they suggest that we begin with “God is love” and afterward go on to show that “God is righteous and must punish all unrighteousness.”

In the sermons recorded in Acts, Paul used this sort of method, and he certainly does so in Romans 1-3. Neither the synagogue nor the Christians thought that the pagans could escape the punishment of God, and Paul begins with these Gentiles since it will be the easier of the two points. This is an important concept in the letter, for example: “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (14:10, 12). There are two and only two possible outcomes in the final judgment – on the one hand, condemnation; and on the other vindication, which is also known as justification.

The apostle enumerates four broad reasons for the condemnation of the Gentiles – idolatry (vv. 18-25); the result of their “sinful desires”, especially homosexual fornication (vv. 24, 26-28); a list of vices (vv. 29-31); the fact that they approve of others who do evil (v. 32).


The wrath of God is not merely symbolic language, as some have argued; nor is meant to coerce people into behaving better. Paul means to say that there will be eternal condemnation for the wicked, that it is just as real as is salvation, and just as eternal (see 3:5; 9:22; also 6:23). Once again Paul uses the key word all, that is, all “godlessness and wickedness.” Although it might escape the first-time reader, this word “all” will turn out to have a great impact on Jews, who believed that they would be spared from God’s judgment, despite having committed some sins.

Later in this epistle (5:12ff.) Paul will speak of the Fall of Adam and how that event led to death and sin for the whole race. In Romans 1 Paul is focusing on the history of the nations more than the Fall. There is ongoing idolatry and depravity, plus, divine wrath is already being poured out during this age (1:24).

Paul gives some value to what is called “general revelation”, that is, that by looking at God’s creation one might gain some understanding of who God is. Paul returns to the same theme in 10:18, quoting Psalm 19:4, that Israel has had a clear though limited message from the heavens who God is. God has not “written his gospel in the stars”; the best we can say about general revelation is that “…the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness” (Calvin, p. 71; see also Wilckens, pp. 150-154 for a detailed analysis).

1:19-23, 25

The Roman empire was filled with magnificent temples, and much of its capital city was given over to the worship the pagan gods. The military camp in the city was named for Mars, god of war. Besides the traditional gods of Jupiter, Juno, and the rest, Greek, Egyptian and other religions had their adherents. The “emperor cult” was also a feature of religion in Paul’s day, with temples to Julius Caesar and Augustus. All of this is the background of Paul’s condemnation of so many kinds of idols, “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (v. 23); the whole endeavor is a “lie” (v. 25). It is noteworthy that neither did the philosophers of the day believe in the idols as such; their deities were more abstract and sometimes identified with Fate or Providence. Hence some would assent with Paul that God was invisible (1:20); the philosophers in Athens probably agreed with Paul that the one God “does not live in temples built by human hands” (Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, even Socrates practiced the religious rites of his city, up until the very end of his life, as did most of the educated and ruling classes – the Athenian philosophers were “very religious” by this definition of strict adherence to rituals (Acts 17:22). In part they did not want to be the cause of the city’s or the empire’s downfall by displeasing heaven, and in part they regarded religion as a means of controlling the lower classes. Paul’s point in vv. 19-20 is not that everyone should become a theist, a believer in some deity, but that they should worship the true creator God from Genesis (see Rom 5:12-17), that is the God of Israel (9:5), and that true religion includes being grateful to him and walking in holiness.

While Paul does not specifically name the Gentiles here, nevertheless this is the implication of the stereotypical language that he uses. For the Jews of the Second Temple, the root of all Gentile evil was idolatry. One rabbi commented, two centuries later – “Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah” (Midrash Sifre Deuteronomy 54). Thus, the final coming of Yahweh to judge the world would have as its aim the destruction of religious apostasy.

1:24, 26-27

The wrath of God is not just an anxiety for some far-off time; spiritual rebels are already feeling its effects: humans abandoned the true God (vv. 23, 25, 27) and in turn God “gave them over” (v. 24, 26, 28), that is, he abandoned them to their evil practices. The pagans have “sinful desires” and pant after “sexual impurity” (v. 24); in this context it is a synonym of “fornication” and refers to any sort of illicit sexual desire or activity. There is a similar phrase “shameful lusts” in v. 26. That is, in both their minds and behaviors they were apostate from the true Creator.

Special note on sexuality. Whereas in some cultures, sex is linked with romance or child-bearing, many in the Americas view it as a casual activity – highly to be desired, but ultimately with little meaning. Although one might argue that our society is crazy about sex, another way to look at it is that is devalues sex into a biological transaction. “It’s just sex!” is a popular slogan; but far from revealing that people enjoy bodily pleasures too much, it shows they enjoy them too little. Many assume that God, if he exists, is so vast and remote that he could not possible be interested in whether a couple has relations. While this axiom could work in some philosophies, it does not fit into the Christian message: God has given us fair warning that sexual deeds cannot be reduced to what I do with “just my body” – therefore Paul commands, “let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit” (2 Cor 7:1; also 1 Cor 6:19-20).

Vv. 26 and 27 have traditionally been interpreted as a condemnation of all homosexual activity between women and between men (see for example Stott, pp. 76-78, and almost all commentaries); that is the conclusion we will eventually take here. But first, we will begin with some cultural background; then explore the other principal text on this theme, 1 Corinthians 6:9; and then return to Romans 1.

Special Note: Homosexuality in Antiquity. Many or most people of Paul’s day who engaged in homosexual acts would, in modern terms, be categorized as bisexual. Homosexual activity in Greco-Roman society ran the full spectrum from positive consensual relationships to outright exploitation and rape. Young Greek male friends sometimes formed a sexual relationship while awaiting marriage, and there were those who argued that sex with another male was a superior relationship than sex with the “inferior” sex. Also, it was not unusual for a man to engage in sex with weaker males, be they slaves, young boys, or protégées. Even the Greek supreme god Zeus, whose appetite for females was voracious, had an eye for handsome boys: in one instance, he kidnapped Ganymede, and made him his cupbearer and sex object (the word “catamite” is derived from his name).

Paul, we assume, had seen a great deal in his journeys – he encountered people from all walks of life and probably knew that some homosexual relationships were consensual and that some were not.

Paul had also received standard Jewish training. While there are plenty of times when Paul rejects the rabbinic interpretation of the Scriptures, the entire passage of Romans 1:18-32 is not one of them. The rabbis took Leviticus 18:22 (also 20:13), “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman,” as a prohibition of all sex between males. They coined the Hebrew term mishkav zakur (to sexually bed a male) as their regular label for it. The Alexandrian theologian Philo cites that verse and explicitly refers to the vice of “the love of boys”; but he also clearly condemns boys and men who voluntarily, consensually submit to other men – “a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame…[they] are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one” (Particular Laws 3.7 §37 [Yonge]). He would also say, „And it is natural for those who obey the law to consider such [men who commit homosexual acts as] worthy of death, since the law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption…” (Philo, Particular Laws 3.7 §38 [Yonge]). Josephus, who like Paul was from a Pharisaic background, interpreted Leviticus in the same way – Moses forbade “the lying with a male, which was to hunt after unlawful pleasures on account of beauty. To those who were guilty of such insolent behavior, he ordained death for their punishment” (Josephus, Antiquities 3.12.1 §275 [Whiston]). Like the other Jewish interpreters of the Law, Paul regarded the desire for same-sex relations and their practice as an abomination.

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Paul excludes the malakoi and arsenokoitai from the coming kingdom; we will say more about translation issues below. In this text, Paul says nothing there about motivation or what we would call sexual orientation, but only of behaviors. It is very likely that he bases his teaching on Leviticus: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev 18:22). Paul’s word arsenokoitai is uncommon in Greek, but it is an exact literal translation of the Hebrew mishkav zakur. The term malakoi was a common slur against men who acted in an effeminate manner and/or played the female role in a homosexual act. Some authors have argued that malakoi were unwilling participants, for example, slaves or forced prostitutes or boys. The strongest argument against this is: why in the world would Paul say that the malakoi would never enter God’s kingdom, if they were by definition the victims of another’s predation? Victims of the wickedness of others, including sexual lust, are not to blame if circumstances are beyond their control. In his 1 Corinthians commentary, Origen points to that noun malakoi and shows that it may refer to consensual acts: he warns his young adult male students about voluntarily submitting to another man, charging them “to keep your youth pure and not to be defiled with such a womanish defilement.”[1]

One senses in the English Bible translations a delicacy about spelling out what the two terms malakoi and arsenokoitai mean; after all, they are meant to be read out in church. Still, there are better and worse translations. The Message paraphrase is the worst in general usage; it completely flouts the original with vagary: “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex.” The 1984 edition of the NIV rendered it, “nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders.” It is too broad with the latter term, since the original speaks only of males, not all “offenders.” But that edition (along with NAB, NASB, NLT, NRSV) errs further when it makes the malakoi out to be prostitutes, that is, men or boys who have sex with other men as part of an economic transaction. A better translation for malakoi is “men or boys who voluntarily submit themselves sexually to another man” (and thus will not enter the kingdom of God); and for arsenokoitai, “men who sexually use men or boys as they would a woman.” The 2011 edition of the NIV is a great improvement on the 1984; along with many other versions (the ESV for example) it conflates the two words together to form “men who have sex with other men.” It is also clearer than the King James Version. One must mention that neither edition of the NIV, by the way, is a gay Bible, nor was its views on sex influenced, as an urban legend has it, because of a supposed lesbian translator.

Let us return to our text: whereas in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul focuses on behavior, not sexual inclination, in Romans 1 he speaks to both desire and behavior; and in Romans he also addresses lesbian sexuality (v. 26), a theme that appears only in this Bible text (see especially Dunn, pp. 1.64-66).

It has been argued that in Romans 1:26-27 Paul is not condemning loving homosexual relationships, but only those which are linked with idolatry or with those that are caused by lustful and perhaps exploitive passion. Another interpretation is that Paul is condemning only that homosexual activity which goes, literally, “against nature” (v. 26). This argument runs that, wholesome homosexual activity so long as it is natural for the partners: that is, if they are naturally attracted to same-sex, then going against one’s own homosexual inclinations could be thought to be unnatural and wrong. Nevertheless, Paul nowhere speaks positively of homosexual inclination or activity, and he came from a rabbinic culture where Torah was thought to be explicit about the issue.

Paul pointed to homosexual desire and activity in Romans 1, not because that was the only “sexual impurity” (v. 24) he could think of, but because it was so common among Greeks and almost unheard of among Jews – thus for the rabbis it was a litmus test of how depraved the Gentiles had gotten.

Practical Thoughts: The question that faces all readers of the text is, what to do with what Paul says? Those who reject the traditional interpretation (1) Some argue that we have misunderstood Paul, and that he didn’t say anything about loving, positive same-sex relationships. But Paul, in these two places and probably also in 1 Timothy 1:10, shows that he continues in the traditional reading of the Torah, that voluntary homosexual activities are sinful as such. He went out of his way to condemn them, in an environment where his stance went against the tide of Greek culture. (2) Or that Paul simply did not apply consistently other, more fundamental, truths of the gospel, that is the law of love and our equality in Christ; and that if we would only put his erratic attitudes on homosexuality to one side, we would be honoring the spirit of his teaching if not the letter. (3) That Paul was a product of his rabbinical training and that he could not imagine an alternative answer to that issue – today we have other scientific insight that might have given him a different perspective had he lived now instead of then. (For example, studies today hint that genetics and in vitro conditions might influence – but not determine – sexual orientation; I know of no reason why those findings would have shocked Paul or run counter to general biblical teaching.) (4) That one’s hermeneutic is never objective, and therefore if a Bible reader concludes that the text speaks contrary to homosexual behavior, then that is the prejudice that that person brought into the text, that is, that only a person who already rejects gay people would be able to find such teaching in the Bible. (5) That Paul was not an infallibly inspired writer, and therefore we can take or leave his teachings as we think proper.

If one listens closely to the current debate, then there seem to be people who use all five arguments at once, despite the fact that they are inconsistent with each other and thus create a paradox. A more logical approach, in theory, is #5, to simply give up on Paul being 100% right all the time, and thus not taking his thoughts here as authoritative. The difficulty for the evangelical, of course, is that once one switches off some verses, we have given ourselves the authority to reject others which cause us discomfort in some way. Nor does it do us much good to say that, well, only 6-7 of the 31,000 verses of the Bible mention the topic, therefore we can discount it – there are a number of Bible truths that show up only rarely, but are still counted as valid.

From this point, let us ask what a Christian approach to gay and lesbian people would look? First, it must be loving, and also just. Latin American culture, for example, with its emphasis on machismo, can be particularly harsh on homosexual men. In fact, many rapes against males are inflicted by “straight” men, who use sexual violence in order to demonstrate their own virility. This is also a common story in the prison system; and it has been demonstrated that the majority of sexual predation in the United States military is carried out by men against men. The church needs to expose and stand firm against all such unwanted violence, particularly since many Christians view prison rape as just and acceptable. There are many other issues where the church should seek justice for all people regardless of their sexual orientation, for example, in housing and labor rights.

But more importantly, the church also needs to point to the cross of Christ as the solution to all our spiritual issues. Our basic spiritual issue is that God’s judgment is about to fall on sinners. Sexual sin, be it heterosexual or homosexual, along with the list of sins Paul mentions in Romans (e.g. gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant, vv. 29-30) and in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (e.g. greedy, drunkards) require one and the same solution.


In 1:29-31 Paul writes up a so-called vice list. Vice lists and virtue lists were a common figure of speech in that era, whereby the author would compile a list of behaviors and present them with little elaboration, in order to give his readers direction toward holiness and away from wickedness. One example from the Dead Sea Scrolls: “to the spirit of deceit belong greed, sluggishness in the service of justice, wickedness, falsehood, pride, haughtiness of heart, dishonesty, trickery, cruelty, much insincerity, impatience, much foolishness, etc.” (1QS IV, 9-11). Philo wrote one list that contains a whopping 147 elements. We have already mentioned 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; two other vice lists were likewise based were exclusion from the eschatological kingdom (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5). The fruit of the Spirit are presented in the form of a virtue list (Gal 5:22-23).

Paul mentions 20 elements in this list, ranging from breaking the Ten Commandments (“they disobey their parents”) to the mundane (“boasting”). If the greatest commandment of Torah was to love Yahweh with all one’s being (Deut 6:4), then to be a “God-hater” (v. 30) is the greatest form of wickedness. We might add that the “indifferent to God” are no less guilty.

Even people without the Torah have some sense of divine justice and that these behaviors are actionable, but they not only do them but cheer on others who practice them (v. 32).

Special Note: Evolution and Ethics. It has become fashionable to explain every type of human behavior as the legacy of some hypothetical evolutionary past. This sort of argumentation is by definition weak, since one can take just about anything about human nature and imagine some sort of reason why it was needed by an ancient ancestor. Do you get irritable and angry when it’s past your dinner time? Well then, this is because your primate ancestors needed a boost of adrenaline to go out and hunt some animal quickly in order to preserve his progeny. Do men desire more than one mate? It is because they have the primeval drive to breed with many females in order to continue the species through as many children as possible. An article I recently read stated that women gossip because that is how their ancestors built a network of friends and gained information in order to survive: and thus, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the behavior.

Any behavior can in theory be justified, through anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology. But our higher standard of what we should practice and what reject has to be God’s Word – he alone as our creator is able to give us the truth and perspective that we lack.

B. God will in fact condemn all who sin, whether they claim to respect the Law of Moses or no (2:1-3:8)

Up until this point, both the church and the synagogue would have been in general agreement: the Gentiles are not only sinful, but they are astonishingly so. Their judgment is deserved, and God’s wrath will indeed fall on them. But now Paul changes direction and speaks to another group: Israel apart from Christ.

In the city of Rome, where roughly 95% of the population was pagan, where there were idol temples in every neighborhood, where sex and carousing and violence were daily events in the home and on the night-time streets, the Jews could imagine that the people of the covenant were set apart, a colony of God’s people within a metropolis of the lost.

This exceptionalism did not exactly lead Israel to think of itself as “saved by works.” It is a common misconception that, since Christians believe in a gospel by grace alone (hence the slogan, sola gratia), that Israel therefore must have believed in a gospel by works alone (a sort of solis operibus). In fact, Israel has always believed that if anyone is saved, it is by the mercy of God. A better description of Judaism is that God established a covenant with Abraham; and his descendants are God’s people, so long as the males are circumcised, and the individuals keep the Torah. If and when a Jew sinned – and they believed that all sin at some time or another – then the Law even made provisions about how to repent and offer the appropriate sacrifice. For the Jew, then, the central concern was not, “What must I do to be saved?” but rather “What must I avoid so as not to miss out on salvation?”

This theology gave the Isralites much cause to hope. For example, the Testament of Moses was a document supposedly given by Moses to Joshua; in fact, it is more or less contemporary with the New Testament, and has a typically Jewish perspective on the end of the age –

Then his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have an end. For God Most High will surge forth, the Eternal One alone. In full view will he come to work vengeance on the nations. Yea, all their idols will he destroy…Then will you be happy, O Israel! And you will mount up above the necks and the wings of an eagle. Yea, all things will be fulfilled. (T. Moses 10.1, 7-8 [Charlesworth])

When God appears, he will destroy the idolatrous Gentiles (the sort you find in Rom 1:18-32!) and rescue Israel, at least that part of Israel that has not gone apostate.

Paul must have believed something similar as a youth, but he came to reject it. Of his own experience he later would say that, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14). But what happened? When he met Christ on the way to Damascus, his world was turned upside-down, and he realized that he was the greatest of sinners, despite his careful obedience to Torah (1 Tim 1:15).

Paul’s argument here makes sense only if all Israel was already lost without Jesus Christ. Step by step, he begins to prove the “why” of 1:16, by dealing with this point: If the Jews regard themselves as members of the covenant, and if that the covenant is enough to lead them to final salvation in the resurrection, then why does Paul squander precious time and resources by evangelizing them? This is no mere hypothetical question. When Paul finally arrived in Rome (Acts 28:17-28), he immediately set up a meeting with the Jewish leaders in order to explain his gospel to them.


In our Bibles there is a useful division made between 1:32 y 2:1, a “speed bump” in the argument. In 2:1 it appears that he is no longer speaking of Gentiles, given that Gentiles were just said to approve those who excel in sin. Rather, here are people who disapprove of sinners, but ironically they too are wicked: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1); “so when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (2:3).

And who is the “you” (singular, thus the KJV “thou art”) in 2:1 and other verses? Bit by bit, between v. 1 and v. 9, he gives us to understand that he is still thinking of an invisible gathering of Jews, probably dictating in his letter the sort of thing he said in the synagogues. He uses a literary device known as “apostrophe”, a rhetorical device that has been popular for many centuries. With it an author or speaker addresses someone or some group that is not present, using the second person (you, singular or plural) as if they were there with him, and using a sharp tone to denounce them. Someone might use this device in a speech in the UN, for example: “And you terrorists! Know that we will not tolerate your despicable actions!” But when members of the audience turn and glance around, they whisper to one another that there are no terrorists present in the meeting room! No, it’s just that the speaker is using “apostrophe” to make a point.

It does not impress God favorably if an individual condemns sin in another, not when he is doing the same sort of transgressions. God’s forgiveness is not extended to those who are spiritually well-informed or are discerning or who have moral “good taste.” One must do righteous deeds, otherwise that person too will face God’s wrath (2:2, 3, 5). Thus, in light of the coming judgment, he should spend his energies coming to grips with how God’s mercy might lead to his salvation (2:4).

Paul now uses a verse from the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate to a Jewish hearer that he is right in what he says. Psalm 62:12 says that God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” The emphasis is on the verb “do.” What is it that you actually do? The synagogue taught that if Jews did not stray far, then they are safe. Not so, says Paul, not according to the Bible, which says that sin is sin, and that any sin leaves us open for damnation – this will be his conclusion to the matter in 3:23. If the gospel is for the Jews first (2:10; 1:16), then “distress” also is for them first (2:9). He concludes that God has no “favorites” in the world, not at the final judgment, and that apart from the gospel no-one has an advantage (2:11). At this point, some rabbis in Paul’s imaginary audience will certainly begin to murmur, since it is a fundamental of Torah that Israel is indeed God’s chosen people as descendants of Abraham (Gen 18:19) and thus “advantaged”.

In 2:10 the apostle touches on a topic that might strike us as un-Pauline, since it seems to connect salvation to good works: in the eschatological final judgment there will be “glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.” In part this is a hypothetical, since in this section he is proving that 100% of humanity falls short of “does good.” Nevertheless, this is a theme he will pick up at 2:14-15, 29 – that there is a subset of humanity, composed of Jews and Gentiles, who in fact are walking in righteousness, not through their own efforts, but because of the work of God in changing their hearts (so Cranfield, pp. 1.150-53).


Paul now compares the relative states of Jews and Gentiles, giving special attention to lost Jews and righteous Gentiles. First, he reiterates the truth of 1:18-32, that Gentiles without Torah will be condemned apart from the Torah, that is, they will not be held liable for laws that they had never received. The other side of coin, however, is disturbing for the Jews, since “all who sin under the law (or, as has the CEV, “everyone who knows what it says”) will be lost.” In fact, people who are privileged with Torah will be more, not less, liable when judgment comes.

The apostle offers one of the fundamental truths both of the Old and New Covenants – “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (v. 13, emphasis added). He uses the verb “hear” instead of what we might say, “read” the Bible, since most Jews and early Christians received its teaching orally. James has the same principle – “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). And the Lord Jesus taught the same in his Sermon on the Mount – the man who built his house on the rock is the one who does what Jesus says (Matt 7:24-26). Paul is beginning to introduce an element of doubt: “Of course,” he implies, “I affirm that you hear the Torah; what I cannot affirm is that you actually obey the Torah.”

But there is another side: Gentiles who “do by nature things required by the law.” Taken in isolation, this seems either nonsensical or, as we saw in 2:10, purely hypothetical, a “what would happen if”, followed by, “well, I suppose that people might follow a sort of law, even though they don’t have the Torah; but they don’t do so, because they don’t have a righteous nature.” Others think Paul is speaking of Gentiles doing relatively good things, but not consistently (Dunn, p. 1.99; Calvin, pp. 96-97), although that hardly helps Paul to make his point. No, the linchpin here is that Gentile believers in Christ receive a new nature – what Paul will call “being in Christ”, “dying with Christ”, “risen with Christ” later in the epistle. Paul uses language that belongs to the New Covenant (see also our comments on Rom 5:5), especially the key concept that God will write his commandments, not just on stone tablets but on people’s hearts: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). And so Paul is trying to entice the Jewish fictional audience to consider, All Gentiles are wicked, but what would happen if God rewrote their basic nature? Would they not be given salvation on the day of judgment?

Practical Thought. Here is a “Bible church”; let’s drop in. When the service begins, someone reads one of the psalms. They sing choruses that are based on Bible passages. There is a time for people to stand up and share how a certain Bible verse has helped them this week. The children are taken off to Sunday School, where they learn Bible stories, and memorize Bible verses. Meanwhile the pastor goes to the pulpit and announces that he will be speaking on a Bible text. Everyone looks it up in their own Bible, or they can read it off the screen. He explains what the Bible means and how it should affect us. He closes the service with a benediction taken from the Bible. The bulletin proclaims that the church is dedicated to the Bible and therefore is built upon the rock. What is more, “Bible” is part of the church’s name.

Let us admire this church’s single-mindedness, especially given that so many churches use the Bible just to give the occasional embellishment, while the preacher goes off in some random doctrine.

Nevertheless, a congregation is not righteous for having listened to the Bible, but by doing it. If it was true for Israel that they would be condemned despite hearing and teaching the Torah, such will also be the case for people who possess both Testaments in their own language, even more so: all who sin with a knowledge of the Bible, by that same Bible will they be judged. A church full of people who do not practice the Bible is built on the sand and should fear for the coming storm.

It is also true that preachers tend to condemn sins of “The Others”, that is, people who don’t tend to go to that congregation or people who have little recognition inside the church. I have heard many sermons that condemned gay marriage, but very few that treated the likelier sins of the congregation, such as internet porn, domestic violence, incest. I have heard many criticisms of workers who are lazy and talk back to their bosses, but maybe only one or two where the pastor reproaches employers for providing unlivable wages or dangerous working conditions. Churches that avoid uncomfortable topics are not biblical and should beware of God’s judgment just as should non-evangelical groups.


“I hate double-minded people [i.e., hypocrites],” David wrote, “but I love your Law. You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word. Away from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commands of my God!” (119:113-115). How excellent these reflections, Paul might have thought. But how much better if someone really did this, and consistently! He will show that no-one obeys Torah, and he will use the Jewish Scripture itself to prove his point.

Paul now makes explicit, who his fictional audience is – the Jews (v. 17). The Jewish synagogue was a house for prayer and also the reading of the Scriptures (or Tanach) – every week there would be a reading from the Law of Moses (Torah), and then one from the Prophets. The faithful Jews would listen, memorize, and in theory put it into practice. Very well, says Paul, and he lists this ability to access Torah one of the wonderful aspects of being Jewish (3:2; 9:4). But what good is hearing the Law if one does not do it?

Paul heightens the “apostrophe” (see under 2:1) or fictional address to Jews with “you then”, giving some examples of how people claim to respect the Law but do not obey it. He appeals to the synagogues’ optimism, for example, that a good teacher of Torah can enlighten a Gentile and lead him to conversion. Well and good, but what does that do for the teacher if he himself does not live by Torah? The reader might have expected Paul to mention some minor points of the Law, but he moves directly to some major infractions, such as theft (2:21), adultery (2:22), robbing temples (is this vandalizing pagan temples, or holding back tithes, or stealing from the fund for the Jerusalem temple? 2:22 – it is not certain), dishonoring God (2:23).

Greek and Roman writers regularly made fun of Jews and their God: supposedly the Jews kept aloof from others because they hated humanity; helped needy Jews but not Gentiles; mutilated their genitals; refused to eat pork; polluted temples; they were poor and dirty (according to the sharp-tongued Juvenal in his Satires 3, in the following century); they engaged in the occult practice of interpreting dreams (Satires 6); they were too lazy to work every seventh day. Josephus’s writings, in particular his Against Apion, were designed to present and defend the history of Israel against this anti-Jewish feeling.

Since Juvenal would hold little authority with Israelites, Paul now brings in as a witness none other than the prophet Isaiah, in order to prove that Jews cause the name of God to be slandered – “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Isa 52:5). This is from a chapter that for Paul and the early church was messianic, just two verses away from the coming of the gospel, the “good news” of 52:7.

In rabbinic writings too, one encounters the tension between (merely) hearing and doing, that is, at least in theory nobody was in favor of religious hypocrisy. But we must not misunderstand Paul here: his point is not that hypocrisy is evil and that his fellow Israelites need to renounce it and live more sincerely. Rather, he is proving that if sin brings down the judgment of God on Gentiles, then wrath will also fall from heaven when Jewish people sin – and sin they do. In that way Paul rejects completely the paradigm of Second Temple Judaism, as reflected in the Testament of Moses (see above) and announces doom for all who are apart from Christ.


The reader should consult our comments under Romans 11 for further help in these verses. Paul is saying that only those Jews who are spiritually circumcised (see Col 2:11-12) can claim to be true Jews; they have experienced the New Covenant (see our comments on Rom 5:5; Wilckens, pp. 196-198). Gentiles too are spiritually circumcised, as shown in Colossians 2, but Paul does not draw the conclusion here that believing Gentiles are the true Israel.

Paul is posing his own answer to an age-old question that occupies the rabbis to this day: “Who is a Jew?” (the Hebrew expression is Mihu Yehu’di). The traditional answer today is that if one’s mother was Jewish, then you are too, but the topic is a difficult one, given that many Jews are secular, or children of mixed marriages. Some strict rabbis in effect demand that people who always thought of themselves as Jewish must “re-convert” to the faith. The question has become even more relevant since the formation of the Jewish state of Israel, which has the Law of Return enshrined in its constitution, that all Jews have the right to become citizens. That’s fine, but how does one define a Jew?

According to Paul, only a believer in Christ/the Messiah is a true descendant of Abraham, and thus authentically Jewish.

In order to open the door to the gospel, Paul first has to close every other door, every alternate, to belief in Christ. For the Gentile, the gospel is by definition the “gospel” or “good news” (thus the Greek word euangelion, see 1:15-16). But the Gentile cannot begin to appreciate what the gospel means until he hears the “bad news” that God is furious with him or her and will eventually pour out his wrath for their evil thoughts, words, and deeds. And for the Jew who stands to one side, nodding his head about Gentile wickedness, there is a double dose of “bad news” for him, since he should have known better, and the wrath of God is on the schedule for his life as well.


In order to maintain a balance, Paul now goes on to mention the benefits of having been born Jewish; he is anticipating what he will say more broadly in 9:4-5. Here in 3:2 “the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God”, that is the Old Testament Scriptures. One would think that that was enough motivation for them to be living in repentance and faith in God and his Messiah. But Paul is about to demonstrate in Romans 3 that what was meant to be a blessing turns into a curse if Israel disobeys its own Bible. Jesus made the same point – “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).


Paul raises some questions with his imaginary opponent. First, he wonders whether the unfaithfulness of Israel as a whole means that God’s promises to them were false (v. 3). Not at all, since the Bible itself (Ps 51:4 is quoted in v. 4) anticipated this sort of tension between human failure and divine faithfulness. Second, he wants to refute a “slanderous claim” in 3:8, that someone is charging the apostle with being an antinomian, that is, one who imagines that the ideal Christian life consists in sinning in order that God’s mercy is highlighted (see also Acts 21:20-21; 2 Pet 3:14-16 and other instances throughout church history). Paul completely rejects this notion in 6:1ff. among other texts.

Paul’s gospel is that if a Jew sins, then he or she is a sinner and liable to divine wrath (3:5); and if someone wants to argue that he is an exception because he is a descendant from Abraham, then even more is it true that “Their condemnation is just!” (3:8b)

C. Even the Old Testament proves that Jews are equally as guilty as Gentiles (3:9-21)


Paul continues to press home his main point, using words such as “alike”, “all”, “there is no one.” His point is that everyone is fatally sinful apart from the gospel – he starts with “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:9b), then summarizes that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:19b, emphasis added); and adds in the famous verse that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23, emphasis added).


Paul here uses another rhetorical device, a catena, from the Latin, meaning “a chain.” It is a list of verses about one theme, quoted simply and without commentary, to prove a point. In 1:18-32 he did not bother to cite Bible verses to prove that Gentiles were sinners – one needed only to open one’s eyes and take a peek out the window to see the very obvious! But when he wants to prove that Jews are sinners, he takes his imaginary audience to their ultimate authority, the Hebrew Scriptures, in large part the book of Psalms.

In 3:10-18 he starts off with “There is no one righteous, not even one”, quoting Psalm 14:1-3 (Ps 53:1-3 is the same text); then Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 36:1. The student of Romans would do well to look up these verses in their original settings. The language of these verses is as shocking as it is universal – Paul is quoting verses that in the Old Testament were directed toward Jewish people and implying that their sins are equal in wickedness to the sins of Gentiles in the first century AD. In the Isaiah passage, God is specifically condemning the Israelites for their sins, saying that “your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isa 59:2). If that is true for Israel in the days of Isaiah, then isn’t it also true for the days of Paul?

Practical Thought: It is a good lesson for the Christian of today, that we should think and pray about how best to share the gospel with the world. Paul did not quote the Scripture when he was preaching to Gentile groups, since they did not regard it as authoritative (see Acts 14:14-17; 17:22-31); but in the synagogue he went right to the Bible (Acts 13:14-41). A modern example is from the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō in his book Life of Jesus. He recognized that it was very difficult to explain the significance of Jesus in his society. Finally, he decided that the best opening was to emphasis, firstly, that Jesus died for the love of his disciples. He secondly underscored the treachery of the apostles when they abandoned him at Gethsemane, and then that Jesus forgave them when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Even so, Endō says, one way to begin to explain the gospel in Japan is to say, salvation means to experience Christ’s love, and sin means to abandon him.


“Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law” (v. 19a). If you truly believe in the Torah as Paul did (Rom 7:7 – “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law”) – and the faithful Jews must say they certainly did – then you have to believe even those verses that say how wicked you are. Paul has driven them into a corner: either they accept they are sinners, apostate from Torah; or they reject that the Scripture says about them, making them again apostate from Torah. When Paul says that “through the law we become conscious of our sin” (v. 20b) he is thinking concretely of what he has just demonstrated in 3:9-18.

Again, Paul uses the words “everyone”, “no one.” The language of “every mouth may be silenced” has to do with judgment day, but it also has application for people today who want to boast of their spiritual performance (see 3:27).

3:20a opens the door to what Paul will teach in the rest of this section concerning “justification” – “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” Some exegetes take this to mean that no-one should feel confident before a holy God because they observe those particular rituals that set Israel apart from the world, beginning with circumcision (Dunn, pp. 1.153-155); this would mean that Israel erred in being proud of their covenant status before God. Nevertheless, Paul does not make any separation here between the ritual law and the moral law, as do Christians today: when he speaks of the righteousness of God, the scope is its broadest (so Calvin, pp. 132-33; see especially Stott, pp. 109-111). He deals in Romans with every sin from gossip (1:29) all the way to idolatry (1:22-23). When he proves that no-one can obey God’s commands, he goes to one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet” (7:7). We conclude that Paul means in 3:20a that “no-one will be declared righteous on judgment day on the basis that they have obeyed anything that the Torah demands of them”, because everyone “does evil” (2:9).

We will define “justify” (the Greek is dikaioō) in our comments on 3:26.

Additional Notes: Many years ago, we would see the bumper sticker, “Jesus is the Answer!” Later on, another came out: “If Jesus is the Answer – Then What was the Question?” It is the same here: Paul has to invest more space to prove the bad news, in order to show the Jews that they too are in hot water. In Romans 1:18-3:31, Paul dedicated approximately 10 verses to describing the Solution (the good news or euangelion). He then goes on to dictate approximately 68 verses to the Problem, that is, the bad news. Of these 68 verses, 15 have to do with Gentiles, and 53 with Jews. That is, it’s very simple to demonstrate to the Romans that their Solution was Christ (they already were Christians!); it is relatively easy to demonstrate that the Gentiles deserve God’s condemnation; but it is relatively difficult to demonstrate that the non-Christian Jews also deserve condemnation, and what is more, there exists no other way of salvation for them.

In the 1930s, the famous English theologian C. H. Dodd wrote about the (supposedly) bad conscience that plagued Paul, in two articles called “The Mind of Paul: A Psychological Approach.” At the time the theories of Sigmund Freud were very much in play, and so Dodd wanted to interpret Paul’s conversion from that perspective. His idea was that Saul was going around under a mountain of guilt because of his cruel persecution of the Christians. Then, on the road to Damascus, he suffered a crisis, a nervous collapse. So, what are Dodd and some others saying? That he realized that he had a Big Problem, and suddenly he decided that Jesus was the Solution.

But with respect to Paul, the Bible indicates that the reverse was true, as he himself spells out in Philippians 3:7-11: he first of all encountered Christ, and then only later came to understand that, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It is the same impression he gives Galatians 1:11-17, and in Acts as well; only in hindsight did Paul realize that he had been a gross sinner: If Christ died to redeem me, then logically it must also be true that I sinned and was falling far short of God’s glory.

The gospel states that our principal problem in life is that we are cut off from God and thus awaiting his condemnation. The solution is Christ. One alternative message we hear today is the gospel of inner healing: One’s principal problem is that the individual needs to be healed from past hurts, usually from childhood. This trauma scars our relationships with others, with our self, and with God. God is there as the Great Therapist. We should avoid talking about God’s judgment, since that notion is merely a projection of one’s own shame or past hurt. If consistently applied, then there should be no interest in the new birth or the new nature in Christ, since that idea is based on the false and toxic claim that we are fundamentally broken or unlovable. Rather, deliverance and change comes from God’s loving and therapeutic presence, to improve us but not to demand that we repent.

It does the Christian good to remember that Paul’s original audience for this epistle consisted of people who were literal slaves, who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, from a legalistic background, robbed, cheated, abandoned by parents and so forth. Christians then survived what we do today, and often with fewer resources.

Christians indeed may benefit from counseling, but if the counseling model sets aside the Bible agenda for change, either by replacing the true gospel or by diminishing it, we stand in jeopardy of losing clarity in our relationship with the savior, and trading in the power of the Holy Spirit for self-help.

Study Questions:

  1. In this section Paul shows the fatal nature of all sin, whether they are thought of as minor or major. What sins do we attempt excuse, whether in our lives or in the life of the church?
  2. We have said that people invent other “gospels” as a substitute for the one true message of salvation. What new gospels have you encountered, and how did they distract from the saving message of Christ?
  3. Shūsaku Endō worked to make the gospel understandable in Japan. What are some ways we can explain the relevance of the gospel in our culture without compromising its fundamental message?

[1] This untranslated work is available here: Origen, Fragmenta ex commentariis in epistulam i ad Corinthios, ed. C. Jenkins, “Documents: Origen on I Corinthians,” JTS 9 & 10 (1908).

“Romans Commentary, Romans 1:18-3:20,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Romans Commentary, Romans 1:1-17

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

NOTE: Search for Romans Commentary on our Home page to find the other sections. Over the next few months we will publish the rest of this short book and bind them together in one pdf file.

Introduction to the Epistle (1:1-17)

It is the style of Paul in his letters that the introduction is a road map, to show where the apostle is going. A sermon is not like that! The pastor gives some announcements, he asks why the projector isn’t working, he has to change the batteries in his lapel mike, he tells a story, funny in its way, but having nothing to do with his message. And finally, he launches his sermon into the deep.

An epistle has another nature, or to use the technical term, it is in the epistolary genre. In this case, Paul indicates from the first word where he is going to take us. That is why, if we compare Romans 1 with 1 Corinthians 1 or Galatians 1, it will be evident to which epistle belongs which introduction, since they are not interchangeable parts.

Years ago, in a class dedicated to the Pauline letters, the professor told us: The introduction of an epistle is simply a way of saying Hello, there is no substance in it. So we can jump over the first two or four or six verses and move directly to the “body” of the letter. With all due respect to the teacher, this idea is indefensible, and in fact many scholars have written about the introductions to Paul’s epistles, showing that each one has its own agenda and also tone, and that they merit our full attention.

In 1:1-17, Paul drops several clues to show where we are going. One might speak of “foreshadowing”, a literary figure in which something that happens early in the story hints at what will happen later on. One example in Romans: once we arrive at chapter 3, Paul will have proved that the Jews and the gentiles have a desperate need for the gospel. And in that moment, we will see that his references to the Jews and the Gentiles (or Greeks) in 1:16 was no casual observation, but a foreshadowing of a vital part of the message to Rome.

Other foreshadowings in the introduction include:

  • 2 – the Old Testament prophesied the gospel
  • 3 – Jesus Christ is the descendant of David
  • 4 – God declared him Son of God by the resurrection, and the Spirit of God is who gives him life
  • 5, 14-16 – the gospel is for the Jews and for all the nations
  • 5, 8, 12, 16-17 – one receives the gospel by faith

And others too; the reader will gain much by tracing these themes throughout the book.

A. Greetings (1:1-7)

v. 1

Imagine that in a narrow apartment in Rome, you and your companions in the faith are seated shoulder to shoulder. When the time comes, you close their eyes to hear the words written on a scroll, read by Deacon Phoebe of Cenchrea (see Introduction). To recall Genesis 27, The voice is the voice of Phoebe, but the words, these are from the Apostle: “Paul, servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…”

Epistles in the ancient world began with a formula in which the author identifies himself, then greets the recipient and offers some sort of blessing or prayer. A typical letter would thus start off with something general: Paul, to the Romans, may God grant you grace and peace. The fact that Paul takes seven verses to begin his epistle reinforces what we seen above, that he is adding extra material in order that his listeners might know from the very beginning which direction he is taking.

vv. 2-3

For example, he links the gospel of Christ with the Old Testament – the Savior is not some new unexpected figure; the prophets long ago predicted his coming as the Son of David (see 15:12; 1 Cor 15:3). That is one of the titles found in the gospels (for example, Mark 10:48; 12:35-37). It was vitally important to the gospel that Jesus be truly human and not just some spirit taking human form, as was a common motif in pagan mythology. In Romans 4 Paul will show how Abraham and David, two ancestors of Jesus, were accepted by God for their faith, not for obeying the Law, that is, the Torah.

Special Note: The Name of Jesus. Because of teachings that are being widely circulated these years it is necessary to say a few words about the name “Jesus”, which is based on the Greek form of Yeshua, that is Iēsous. One hears bold conspiracy theories, for example, that the name “Jesus” was invented to insult the Messiah, to “paganize” his name.[1]

What are the data? Simply, Yeshua is the Hebrew and also the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua o Hoshua (Joshua) in the Old Testament. The short form found in Matthew 1:21 means “he [that is, Yeshua] will save.” The Lord in general or perhaps always spoke Aramaic (see our comments on 8:15), he knew the Hebrew of the Bible and the synagogue liturgy, and perhaps Greek as well, in order to speak with Gentiles (e.g., Mattt 8:5-13; 15:21-28) or with Pontius Pilate. For that reason, I believe that during his ministry, some would have called him by the Greek form of his name, Iēsous. After his resurrection and exaltation, the apostles went forth proclaiming him, consistently using the Greek form Iēsous. The first sermon of Peter contained that form. There is no evidence of anyone using the form Yeshua in the New Testament or in the history of the early church. And I have searched firsthand the TLG database of all the Greek texts of that period, and clearly, only Jewish males used the name Iēsous, beginning with the references to Joshua in the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint (see for example, the Jewish Christian Jesus Justo in Col 4:11). The reason for the change from the sh in the Hebrew to s in the Greek is that there was no sh sound in Greek. Plus, one would add a final s to the name, because Greek men’s names usually ended with that sound. All this to say that Iēsous is the authentic and ancient Jewish version of Yeshua, and that Jesus in English too is correct and inferior in nothing. Nor is Messiah a cheapened version of the Hebrew Mashiach – the basis for the change of pronunciation in this case is that English does not have a final ch sound, whereas Hebrew does.

v. 4

The Holy Spirit is the one who resurrects and gives new life – this theme will be important in Romans 6 and 8 (also 1 Pet 3:18). When he raised him from the dead, Jesus was either “appointed” or something similar (CSB, NET, NIV) or “declared” the Son of God (see KJV, ESV, NASB, NRSV). The verb is also used in Acts 10:42, that Jesus “he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” Some have taken this to teach a so-called “adoptionist Christology”, that is that Jesus was merely human who only became the Son of God at his resurrection. Although grammatically that is possible, it contradicts other texts: for example, that he was already God’s Son during his earthly ministry (Matt 3:17; 17:5); and that he was “in very nature God” before his incarnation (Phil 2:6). The best way to understand v. 4 is not that he was made Son of God, but that he was visibly revealed as “Son-of-God-in-power”, that is, in the glorious resurrection (Cranfield, p. 62).

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is one of the earliest and briefest of all creeds, and was probably “confessed” by the new converts at their baptism (as shown in 10:9-10). The original Aramaic-speaking church acclaimed Jesus as Lord from the very beginning, as shown in the formula Maranatha (1 Cor 16:22). Paul knew Jesus as Lord directly upon his conversion (Acts 9:10, 17, 27; Gal 1:19). He preached Christ as Lord on his first missionary journey, and he sometimes referred to him simple as “the Lord.” In fact, he quoted the Jewish Scriptures, verses in which references to Yahweh (“Lord” or kurios) in the Greek version, the Septuagint, are applied direction to Jesus. Calling on the name of Yahweh for salvation (Joel 2:32) thus becomes calling on the Lord Jesus (Rom 10:13); and the Day of Yahweh becomes the Day of the Lord Jesus or Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Cor 1:8). A major assumption of Paul’s teaching is that Christ does what God does and deserves the honor God does. It should be noted that the Jews knew that the Messiah would be the Son of God (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), but did not infer from their Scriptures that he would be deity (as teaches Ps 45:6-7; Mic 5:2). That is why, if Christ be not God, then Paul is a blasphemer.

vv. 5-7

Paul’s call to the Gentiles, or “to the nations”, was part of his first encounter with Christ (Acts 22:21; 26:17-18; also Gal 1:16; 2:2; 2:9; Rom 15:12 among others). The modern reader might not realize that the mere possibility of the existence of a “Gentile Christian” was a hot topic of debate in the first century. Paul’s gospel was that all people who believe in Jesus are registered in God’s eyes as children of Abraham, branches of the olive tree of God’s people, and that they are full acceptable without circumcision, Torah observance, Sabbath-keeping (14:5-6), or even the cultural trappings of Judaism. They are equal to a messianic Jewish believer in Jesus, and together they join the “choir” of God’s people in singing praises to him as non-Jews – “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.” (15:11, quoting Ps 117:1). In v. 7a all are beloved and his saints.

v. 7b

Paul will say much in this document about God’s “grace and peace”, which are relationship words to describe that God has taken the initiative to save people by his grace and to establish peaceful relation between him and his former spiritual enemies. As he will sum up later on, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).

It should be noted that in these beginning verses of Romans and also in 1:8-15, Paul takes care to make sure that his entire letter is aligned with the truths of the gospel. A modern preacher might take a lesson from the apostle, since much of preaching today is strong on a gospel of health and success, with a few nuggets about Jesus Christ thrown into the mix. The truth is, that if our message is not Christ in all and above all, then we are not preaching Christ at all.

B. Paul connects personally with the Roman Church (1:8-15)

Another method that Paul uses in his epistles, is that he will spend a few verses in the introduction to connect or re-connect with his readers. Despite the relative ease of communication – only 2 weeks to take a letter from Corinth to Rome! – the Christians he knows there hadn’t seen him for some years, and the rest knew him only second-hand. He mentions that the church has a widespread good reputation, and also that he prays regularly for them (compare 1 Thess 1:2-3; Col 4:2). To pray without ceasing means regular, strenuous prayer, the type found in Psalm 88:1-2 – “Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.”

A century after Paul, Polycarp was another example of a true intercessor: even while he was fleeing persecution he did “nothing else night and day except praying for everyone and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 5.1, Holmes). The apostle thus signaled to the Romans that he was not simply using them for his own ends, but truly sought for them to experience God’s blessings.

Paul wanted to spend time in Rome, even though there was already a church there. This is hardly unusual, since any apostle would want to know how the gospel was growing in the imperial capital. And he wanted to be able to bless them and to be blessed in return (vv. 10-12) and also to make converts while there (v. 13). Paul does not mention that any apostle had gotten to Rome before he did, as runs the Catholic tradition that Peter evangelized Rome some time around the year 42. Nothing in the New Testament nor in the earliest tradition supports this. Yes, the best interpretation of 1 Peter 5:13 is that Peter wrote from spiritual “Babylon”, which was a name applied to Rome in that era; but this would put him in the capital only in the early 60s. It leaves room for the tradition that he and Paul were martyred in Rome under Nero; and in fact, recent excavation in the 21st century under the altar of the Basilica of Saint Paul Without the Walls (“without”, that is, “outside” the city walls), the traditional site of his burial, indicates that Paul’s remains might well be there.

The difficulty that Paul was facing in the year 58 is that he was running out of places where he could do pioneer church-planting among the non-Jews – in a little more than a decade, he had preached the gospel in the entire north-eastern arc of the Mediterranean, and once he evangelized Illyricum (15:19) he could only go further to the north-west or to some other new region. He was certainly not averse to evangelizing non-Greek speakers (v. 14), so there are huge areas to the north he could have gone to. Nonetheless, for some reason we are not told, he planned to go to Spain, where he would work with people who spoke Latin and Greek; from there he could indirectly reach out those who spoke local dialects.

When he says that “I am obligated” to all, he does not simply mean that he would like to feel the blessing of evangelizing them, or that it would be spiritually profitable – rather, he knows that he must take the gospel to them: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).

Practical Thought: It is all too easy to direct our attention to people who have the resources and influence to do things for us or for the church. In that case we feel obligated to help the ministry of Christ along by allotting them more of ourselves and rationalizing that after all it will come back to the rest of the church in tangible blessings. What is more, those with few resources or family or connections might come to be regarded as “charity cases” rather than people to whom we are obligated. It is hardly the first time and place where that has been the case, and not nearly as bad as the situation in imperial Rome. Like Christians before us we must renounce and subvert structures which are after all part of the “pattern of the world” which we must escape (Rom 12:2).

C. Theme of the Epistle: The gospel is powerful to save all; therefore, Paul is bold to preach the saving message (1:16-17)

In some of his letters Paul uses another typical element of letter-writers of his day: the purpose statement (Latin propositio) is the declaration of the theme of the letter helps his readers to understand where he was going in his teaching, for example: “that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor 1:10; also Gal 1:6; 1 Tim 1:3). Like most of these articulations, 1:16 is densely packed with various aspects of the Christian message.

To examine the parts of v. 16 let us begin with “I am not ashamed.” Paul lived in two cultures, the Jewish and the Greco-Roman. In both, the concept of honor and shame was a key paradigm to guide one’s behavior. For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the sin of the young man did not primarily consist in wild living, but in the fact that he brought shame to his father and also to his older brother. This made his brother’s attitude more understandable – if mistaken – and the reconciliation that the father offered the prodigal was that much more overwhelming in its mercy. Paul taught that God had chosen the people of no reputation to bring shame to the wise and powerful (1 Cor 1:26-31). The person who has cause for confidence and reason to boast (1 Cor 1:31) is the one who lives to glorify the Lord Christ – “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (quoting Jer 9:24).

Later in Romans 9:33, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16 y 8:14 as messianic prophecy: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” All who stumble over this stone, because they think the gospel is for fools, will fall, but those with faith will never be “put to shame.” Paul’s confidence has little to do with his ability to speak well or propose a strategic plan – it rests on the fact that God will never let him down.

The next truth of 1:16 is that of the “why.” That is, Paul had good reason to be confident in the gospel, because it is powerful to save. His confidence lies in the fact that the gospel, in the eyes of the world a poor and weak philosophy, is powerful, because Almighty God has chosen to work through it. This text too has a parallel elsewhere – “For the message of 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).

Thousands of Jews were crucified in the first century, but in only one case was a man resurrected and declared to be God’s Son and the Savior (1:4). “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet 1:3), beginning with the new birth and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is why the apostle will not be muzzled – despite the opposition to the gospel, he has seen so many people be transformed, beginning with himself, that he loses any discomfort in sharing the message. He will keep evangelizing, despite the hostility he will inevitably face in Jerusalem, in Rome, and in Spain.

The next element is the “to what end” of this statement, the conclusion that salvation comes through faith. When the Philippian jailor, a non-Jew, wanted to know what he should do to be saved, the simple message was “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” – not get circumcised, not take long years of instruction in Torah observance, not to give up eating pork and shellfish. “Believe” is a verb, it is an action that people take when they come to Christ (1:5; also 1:8). Paul will spend much of Romans teaching what it means to have faith in Christ: in short it means having confidence in the crucified and risen Jesus, to the extent that we leave all other underpinnings, helps, supplement, and Plan Bs behind. For Gentile Christians that means that they will not try to achieve salvation or to retain it, not even by a tiny fraction, through a fruitless attempt to observe the commandments of Torah.

It is no casual reference that the gospel saves “to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. “Everyone” is a key word in this letter (see 2:9, 10, 12; 3:12, 19, 22, 23, etc.), with the surprising element being that people can become believers while remaining non-Jewish. (Paul literally uses the word “Greeks” in 1:16, not gentiles, since most of the gentiles he encountered were saturated in Greek culture and language). To be sure, the gospel went to the Jews first, since the Lord is the Son of David, but it is for the Gentiles too – “The Root of Jesse [father of David, hence ancestor of Jesus] will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.” (Paul quotes Isa 11:10 in Rom 15:12). Paul had a special call to evangelize non-Jews. Nevertheless, he conscientiously preached the gospel first to Jews of each new town, giving them a chance to receive or reject; be it in a town with no formal synagogue (Acts 16:13-15), or with one (Acts 13:14-48; 17:2-4). He continued onward, even when he occasionally was beaten by the synagogue authorities (2 Cor 11:24).

Let us be careful to gain a precise understanding of Paul’s “purpose.” If we put all these elements of Romans 1:16 together, we see that Paul is not affirming three or four separate ideas, but is putting together a case for how the Roman Christians themselves should act. This is what he did for Timothy – and by extension the members of the church where he was ministering – “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” (2 Tim 1:7-8). Hence, we may paraphrase 1:16 in this way – “I, Paul, am not ashamed of the gospel, thus I go on preaching it. And you believers in Rome, are you ashamed of the gospel that you have received and enjoyed? Really no? Then, are you likewise proclaiming it?” And to take it further, “And are you committed to support me in the mission to Spain?

This understanding of 1:16 helps us to interpret the rest of the epistle: Paul is not simply telling them about the gospel of Christ, the message that all of them know and understand more or less. Every reference to sin, to salvation, to God’s call to faith, to justification, to sanctification at the same time serves a parallel purpose: to clarify what the Roman believers can and must tell their relatives, people they meet at work, members of the same household, people in the street.

In 1:17a Paul develops further his point by the revelation of the justice of God. “Is revealed” in 1:17 and 1:18 are grammatically identical verbs, based on the root from which we get “apocalypse”, one of the names of the book of Revelation. They refer to supernatural disclosures from heaven, one a blessing for the believer but one a curse for the unbeliever. John Wesley gives a broad definition of “the righteousness of God” to means “the whole benefit of God through Christ for the salvation of a sinner” (Wesley, p. 496); but it is possible to give further definition to the phrase. Some interpret la righteousness/justice of God to mean the fact that God shows himself to be just when he powerfully intervenes to save his people; it is synonymous with “the power of God that brings salvation” in 1:16 (see Dunn, pp. 40-42). The traditional Protestant view, which we take here, is that it is the righteousness that comes from God, that is, “God makes us right in his sight” (NLT). As said Martin Luther: “For God does not want to save us but by an extraneous righteousness, one that does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from beyond ourselves, which does not originate on earth but comes from heaven.” (cited in Hendriksen, pp. 1:62; see also Stott, pp. 63-64). This means that 1:17a has its parallel in the verb “justify”, the term that is so decisive for this epistle and that we will examine beginning in 2:13, meaning that God as judge will declare a person “just” or “wicked.” In that case, believers experience the justifying grace of God despite the fact that they are not in themselves just.

A strictly literal translation of what follows makes little sense in English, for example, “from faith to faith.” We would have to unpack this further, and would probably say that it is “by faith from first to last” (NIV) or “a way that starts from faith and ends in faith.” (NEB) Paul is expressing in other terms what he has already said, that salvation is by faith – here in 1:17a, it can be only be by faith, and by faith alone.

If 1:16 is the purpose statement of Romans, then 1:17b is Paul’s proof text; in 1:2 he has already promised the reader that the prophets of old had foreseen the gospel, and Romans is unusually rich in texts from the Scriptures. Here he quotes a relatively obscure verse from Habakkuk 2:4 – “The righteous shall live by faith.” It should be noted that Paul is giving the text a meaning that would not have been obvious to other Jews in the first century, nor is it the only way to read the Hebrew, which could be made to say “the righteous person shall live by his faithfulness”, that is, by his faithful observance of what God requires of him (the sect at Qumran used the same text, but had an entirely different interpretation than did Paul or mainstream Judaism). In that case, Jews everywhere might retort that Paul didn’t understand the Scriptures, that he was pulling the verse out of context. Paul approaches the text with the awareness that the Scriptures as a whole prove that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” or the Torah (3:20), that is the “faithfulness” interpretation leads to nowhere. What Paul emphasizes then, is that God will give life – yes, even eternal life in the final resurrection! (6:23) – to the one who trusts in Christ.

Practical Thought: We hardly ever have to worry about whether we are understandable to Jews and Greeks. We do however have to attend to various people groups, be they divided by class, race, language, social structure. Those who believe that they are called to represent Christ to the world must communicate the good news in a holistic way: that is, explaining the gospel plainly and simply, and perhaps modifying the presentation depending on the group. And in a religious atmosphere where jokes and stage theatrics are used to capture a larger audience, we must take care that every word we utter and action we take, whether on the platform or not, be useful to present Christ to the audience and the audience to Christ.

Study Questions

  1. Paul said that he was obligated to all people (1:14-15), that is he did not neglect one part of his audience in order to favor another. Try to evaluate how Christians today might wrongly concentrate on one group or another, and what motivate them to do so.
  2. The gospel is by faith from beginning to end (1:17). What are some of the ways we need to renounce our own efforts and simply trust in God’s salvation?
  3. The gospel is the message that God acts through in power (1:16). Think about how people you know need God’s power to break through their sin in order to transform their lives.

[1] See “Yeshua? Iesous? Jesus? Some other form? Who’s Right?” by Gary Shogren 

“Romans Commentary, Romans 1:1-17,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica