Tag Archives: Paul

Romans Commentary, Romans 3:21-5:21

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

To download the first half of the commentary as a pdf, click here:  Shogren_Romans 1-8 Commentary


III. Salvation in the Gospel of Christ (3:21-5:21)

Paul has moved step by step to reach his goal, “that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (3:19b); he needed, as previously noted, approximately 68 verses to close everyone’s mouth. But now that he has arrived at the solution for the human dilemma, he needs fewer than 10 verses. This disparity reveals what was the mindset among the Roman Christians – no-one doubted that salvation was through Christ; some may have doubted that Christ was indispensable for Jews (in Spain? in Rome?) who were faithful to Torah.

A. Salvation may come through only one channel – Christ’s death, and faith in him (3:21-31)


Paul now reiterates the heart of the gospel that he announced in 1:16-17, that it is only through Christ, and faith in him, that one can experience the righteousness of God, now “revealed” (compare 3:21 with 1:17) in human history. It is testified by the Torah, but comes “apart from the law”, that is, apart from doing what it commands.

The phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” has come under new scrutiny, since Paul’s intention is less clear than the NIV and the other versions make it out to be: it might also be translated “the faith of Jesus Christ”, that is the faith that Jesus had; or even the faith that comes to people from Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, given that the believer’s faith in Christ in this section (3:26), the NIV and the others are to be regarded as correct.


Again, we must keep in mind that Paul is constantly thinking of the Jews – at times arguing that they are no better off so long as they reject Christ, and at times arguing that Jews and Gentiles are equally acceptable before God if only they believe. 3:23 is often used as a proof text that all people need Christ because they are sinners. This does not distort the verse, but it does weaken its meaning by removing it from v. 22b and v. 24. The case that Paul is making is not that all people sin; but rather that all people, who in fact universally sin, are in an equally catastrophic position. The pessimism in v. 23 in particular is often underestimated today, since people make it to say something like “we all make mistakes, therefore we are all sinners”. This is not at all Paul’s point, namely – any and every sin, by anyone in any race, has the end result that they “fall short of the glory of God”. This is probably a reference to a traditional interpretation of Genesis: before the Fall, Adam and Eve were supposedly clothed with God’s visible glory; when they sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Gen 3:7; from the first century AD, the apocryphal Live of Adam and Eve [Apocalypse] 20.1-2 [Charlesworth] captures the reaction of Adam: “‘And at that very moment my eyes were opened and I knew that I was naked of the righteousness with which I had been clothed. And I wept saying, ‘Why have you done this to me, that I have been estranged from my glory with which I was clothed?’”). In that case, Paul is saying “all of us have sinned as ruinously as did the first parents, which led to sin and death” (the themes the apostle will develop in Romans 5). We might paraphrase him as saying that “all have sinned; all who have sinned are sinners; and all sinners are cut off from God”; that is, they are as bad as the apostate Gentiles in 1:18-32. And in the end, believers will once more be “glorified”, in the resurrection (3:2; 6:4; 8:17; 8:18; 8:21; 8:30).


Paul now provides a densely-packed set of verses, putting on dazzling display the special vocabulary of Christian soteriology: justification (which we will examine under v. 26); redemption; sacrifice of atonement (so NIV); faith in his blood. Equal disaster in v. 23 is met by equal relief in v. 24, that all the sinners of v. 23 can one and all come to the same justification. This is through faith, and the redemption found in Christ.

In his theological vocabulary, Paul uses the word “redemption” in two ways. First it is eschatological, the future time at which God through Christ will restore his creation. This includes the resurrection of the saints (Rom 8:23; Eph 4:30; see also Eph 1:13-14), but also the redemption of the whole universe (Rom 8:21). But redemption is also an experience for this age, and it is this present redemption that is Paul’s topic here. In Romans, sin is the master of all humanity (see Rom 7:14-25) and Christ’s death is the price to pay for their deliverance (see also Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:19-20; Gal 1:4; 3:13; Eph 1:7; Col 1:13-14; Tit 2:14). Christ has redeemed his people from sin, from death, and also from Torah.

The next term (in the original hilasmos) is controversial; it is rendered as “sacrifice of atonement” or expiation or something similar by the NEB, NAB, NRSV, REB; it is “propitiation” in other versions (ESV, D-R, KJV, NKJV, NASB). The same word is used again only once – Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2 NIV). Most commentators today take to mean that the sacrifice of Christ was “atonement” directed toward the sins committed by people, that it covered them up. Others take “propitiation” to mean that the sacrifice was designed to turn away wrath (Rom 1:18), that it, that it was directed toward an angry God in order to appease him. To begin with, some reject the idea that God is wrathful, and that could eliminate the idea of propitiation. But this hardly resolves the issue, since many scholars believe that God’s wrath is real but that “atonement” is the better rendering of the verb in v. 25. We accept the traditional view of “propitiation” (as Stott, pp. 121-24). The important point of the word is that Christ’s death on the cross altered forever the relationship that God had with sinners, meaning that we are now regarded as righteous in his eyes through Jesus and his sacrifice of blood (see also Rom 8:3).


Paul touches lightly upon a part of his preaching that one also finds elsewhere – “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul is not saying that sinners in other times and places were allowed to go free; no-one who had written Romans 1 would make that concession. Rather, he now presents Jesus as the Savior to all in human history, and from now on no-one has any excuse.


This is the key verse to understanding Paul’s doctrine of justification as the acquittal of believers in Christ: “so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”. The sentence holds in tension two ideas that, according to normal logic, should be contradictory. First is the truth that God always acts righteously as a judge, that is, he recognizes sin and righteousness for what they are, and unlike human judges he cannot be bribed or misled – “for the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” (Deut 10:17). In the dialogue between Abraham and God over Sodom, Abraham declares, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). In this passage he was not asking God to bend the rules, or even to show mercy to Sodom. Rather he was asking God to spare the city if there were 50 people therein whom God would recognize as already righteous. The Scriptures are filled with such verses about divine justice, for example, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Dan 4:37). And so, one side is that God will not “justify” (the crucial verb dikaioō, see below) the guilty (Exod 23:7).

The other side is that God will declare to be just certain individuals who according to all the evidence have been wicked. The question then becomes, How can God set criminals free and still be a just God? The answer is Christ, says Paul. Just as the Torah had a system of sacrifices for different situations, so Christ is the one sacrifice for all sin. The sinners are not set acceptable because God shows favoritism (see 2:11), but because they have received forgiveness in the cross.

This then is the miracle of “justification”. The corresponding Greek verb dikaioō is related to the words “just” and “justice”. The verb is used in two ways in the Greek Scriptures. First it means “to declare someone to be righteous because in fact he is righteous”. This is its principal forensic or legal meaning in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, thus: “When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting [dikaioō] the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut 25:1). In the New Testament, apart from Luke-Acts and Paul, dikaioō has that same meaning: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:37; see also 1 Cor 4:4; Acts 13:39; Rom 3:4 uses the verb in another way). But the apostle introduces a special, “Pauline” usage of the term, which is found throughout Romans, Galatians, and for example in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Titus 3:7. In this case dikaioō means not that God declares righteous those who really were righteous; but rather that through their faith in Christ, he declared righteous – acquitted – those who were sinners at the time of their act of faith: “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified” (Rom 8:30). God will condemn or justify people on judgment day, but just as the wicked are already feeling the revelation of divine wrath (Rom 1:18), so also believers have already been exonerated in anticipation of the End.

This Reformed viewpoint has always been at odds with the Roman Catholic, which is that justification involves the transformation of the sinner (see the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church §1266); “[the Catholic theologians] think that these two things well agree, – that man is justified by faith through the grace of Christ, – and that he is yet justified by the works, which proceed from spiritual regeneration; for God gratuitously renews us, and we also receive his gift by faith. But Paul takes up a very different principle …” (Calvin, p. 135). Even among Protestants the Reformed viewpoint is less popular today, as some wonder if the Reformers were not interpreting Paul’s writings through their lens of their own debate with Rome in the 16th century. Nevertheless, Paul shows that justification brings about the pardon of sins apart from all sorts of works, be they covenant rituals or attempts at morality. Thus, the view we will take in this commentary is that justification is “forensic”, that is, that it has to do with God’s work as judge in declaring his people free from judgment because they are now identified with Christ, in whom they trust.

The justifying act of God is not simply a mathematical equation, but the establishment of a right, comprehensive, and joyful relationship between him and his people: “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).


Paul now asks three rhetorical questions, which will answer any lingering Jewish objections to his gospel, but also lead the reader to the exposition in Romans 4:

Where is boasting? (vv. 27-28)

Is God the God of the Jews only? (vv. 29-30)

Do we nullify the law by this faith? (v. 31)

There is no room for national or personal boasting in his gospel. One way in which Israel might boast would be to glory in its election by God to receive the covenant. Nevertheless, we must take Paul seriously when he says that some, or many, Israelites were confident of their own performance of the law’s requirements. That is how he remembers his own experience prior to the Damascus Road (Gal 1:13-14) and he contrasts confidence in Torah observance with “boasting” in Christ (Phil 3:3-6). In Romans he argues that synagogue teachers, especially those who fancied themselves to be guides to the blind, were typical candidates for falling into self-justification (see 2:17-20). But if the only way to justification is through faith in a crucified Savior, then all boasting is taken away and believers can boast only in God (Rom 5:11; 1 Cor 1:29, quoting Jer 9:24; Gal 6:14; Eph 2:9).

Vv. 29-30 has a key truth that must be regarded as fundamental to Romans, that God is not the God of the Jews only, but of all nations, Jews and Gentiles. Paul will deal with this in 15:8-12, that it is God’s ultimate goal to have all nations united in singing his praise. Paul taps into the basic creed of Judaism, the Shema confession, that Yahweh Elohenu, Yahweh echad – “Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4). If God is one, then he is the only true God for Gentiles as well as Jews. Of course, as Wilckens points out, the synagogue could retort that anyone could join themselves to Israel if they wished, making God in a sense the God of all who repent – but otherwise God’s power will condemn the wicked nations; but this is not Paul’s point at all: “The gospel, on the contrary, proclaims the one God as he who shows his power, superior to all, for the salvation of all” (Wilckens, p. 307, our own translation). Says Paul: God is the God of the Gentiles if Gentiles seek him through the only path he has laid out, through faith in Christ.

The final question (3:31) is Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. Paul consistently refuses to allow anyone to label him an apostate from Torah; this is why he states that the Torah helps us to prove that the gospel is true. He will also spend time in Romans 7 showing that the Torah fails to make us righteousness, but that the fault lies in us. And he will also show that believers, new creations, actually do fulfill the intent of the law in their thoughts, words, motives, deeds (Romans 12-13). He is also thinking ahead to Romans 4, where he will show that the Torah teaches us that Abraham was saved by faith too, not by circumcision or Torah.

Study Questions:

  1. What substitute “gospels” do you hear today, from television, the internet, books, the pulpit? What criteria will you use to distinguish the false gospels from the one true gospel?
  2. God says that we already may enjoy acquittal from God’s final judgment, even now during our lifetime. How does that truth allow us to walk in God’s ways, free from fear and anxiety?


B. The Heroes of the Old Testament prove Paul’s point (4:1-25)

Already Paul has argued that the Torah is God’s word, and that as such it points forward to salvation in Christ through faith; “the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (3:21) and – in a verse that is unfortunately cut off from 4:1 by a chapter division – “we uphold” or the Torah (3:31). He already used the Old Testament, especially psalms where the author is complaining about his wicked adversaries, to demonstrate that the entire human race is in need of Christ. Now he will ask both of his audiences, the Roman Christians and the fictitious Jewish synagogue (see comments on 2:1), to consider the major hero of the Scriptures, Abraham. Paul is saying that, If you were to ask God how Abraham came to be considered his friend, the answer would not be that he was circumcised, but that he had faith in God.


Paul calls Abraham “our forefather”. While he is thinking of Father Abraham as the ancestor of the children of Israel, “according to the flesh” (as the NIV and other versions correctly retain), in fact he will go on to show that Abraham is the father of all who believe, be they circumcised or not (vv. 11-12). The synagogue said that he was acceptable before God because he did what was required of him: leaving Ur, circumcision, being willing to sacrifice Isaac, and of course, also demonstrating confidence in God’s promise. Paul returns again to “boasting”, the sin of magnifying oneself in the presence of God and others, in the case of the synagogue, because they have the Torah (2:23, also 2:17). Paul calls upon Genesis 15:6 as the key to understanding his relationship before God, since it is the principal statement of Abraham’s faith in the Torah – when God promised him a seed, Abraham believed. This is not to say that faith was counted as a good work, but that it meant that Abraham was given credit for all righteousness – faith is the foundation of any relation with God. Through that faith Abraham was declared to be right with God (see our comments on dikaioō in 3:20). In fact, the just God can declare righteous any believer, even though he is a “ungodly” at that critical moment (v. 5).


As Dunn (p. 1.202) explains, “The subsequent exposition (vv. 4–21) focuses on the meaning of the two verbs used in Gen 15:6”, that is believe (vv. 9-21) and credited or accounted (vv. 4–8).

Paul now brings King David as the other example of a man who was justified and forgiven despite his wickedness. If these two towering heroes of the Old Testament, Abraham and David, could not be justified on the basis of their works, then what hope do the rest of us have? And so, Paul cites Psalm 32:1-2, which is considered one of the psalms he wrote concerning his wickedness with Bathsheba and his forgiveness and reconciliation to God in response to Nathan. The point is that God is willing and able to forgive even gross offenses such as exaggerated sexual sin (Rom 1:24!) and even murder (1:29). Paul sees in the text another example of justification apart from works. This proof text is perhaps not as clear as Genesis 15:6, since after all David is following the path that all Jews did, by repenting of his sin. Nevertheless, whereas Abraham is important since he is the father of all who believe, David is crucial as the ancestor of Jesus according to the flesh (1:3): and if the father can be justified by faith, then the Son can be the Savior of those who likewise have faith to be forgiven.

We must remember that Paul is not giving us an objective textbook description of the Jewish theology of salvation in these verses, but is exaggerating it for effect: Abraham would have reason to boast! (v. 2) David would have earned forgiveness like a paycheck! (v. 4) What he does here, as in 7:14-25 (see our comments there), is reduce to an absurdity the teaching of the synagogue. The synagogue would have expressed itself in more subtle terms: Abraham had faith, but his faith worked together with his works and his fidelity to the covenant; David had faith, which was expressed in his repentance, as stipulated by the Torah. Paul wants to show that both traditional paths terminate in a dead end.


Paul raises another rhetorical question for his Jewish compatriots – “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” (v. 9). From the Jewish rabbis the answer would have been more complicated than simply saying “for the circumcised”. The rite of circumcision is never a mere formality, it is the first step in a commitment to following the whole covenant as a newly-added child of Abraham. And so, a more considered answer might have been: In the first instance, this blessing is only for the circumcised, including the “blessed” proselytes or converts. A minority of rabbis might have allowed that Gentiles who did the best they could would be shown a measure of mercy, but the norm was that Gentiles could not have it both ways.

Paul says that the Gentiles can experience forgiveness and reconciliation with God, without requiring them to become Jews, and without asking an indulgent rabbi for leniency. How might that work? Paul uses the history of Abraham’s experience to demonstrate his point – Genesis 15:6 says that God accounted him as righteous, but when did that happen? Any Jew would know the order of events as told by the Torah: Abram was declared thoroughly right with God in Genesis 15, and only decades later received the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17. The rabbis might respond that Paul’s statement in 4:11 could form the basis for a Judaizing gospel. But for Paul, this glimpse at salvation history opens up a possibility that the one individual on the planet who was even a monotheist, right with God, and walking in righteousness stayed uncircumcised for years; doesn’t that open door to saying that there are Gentile believers in Christ who are right with God through faith in Christ, who thus have an inner or spiritual circumcision, and who in fact obey God more authentically than Jews who reject the gospel? (see 2:27 – “The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker”). Paul used a similar logic with the Galatians (Gal 3:1-6) who were following after a Judaizing gospel, again quoting Genesis 15:6 – didn’t the Galatians receive the Spirit long before they later strayed from the right path and decided to accept circumcision? And if God gave them the Spirit, that meant he had already accepted them solely on the basis of faith – ergo, Gentiles not only didn’t need to become proselytized, it was actually dangerous for them to do so, since “[you] have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4).

In vv. 11-12, Paul now makes explicit what he had merely hinted at in 4:1 – Abraham is the father, the root, of all who believe in the gospel, whether Jewish or Gentile. There is a special note in v. 12 – that Jews are right with God only if they “follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (see also 4:16). That is, there is no “second way” for Israelites who choose to opt out of the gospel of Christ – and this is a major point of Paul in this epistle, that it is imperative that all Jews – be they in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Spain – hear the gospel and be urged to receive it.

We will argue later in the commentary (see 11:17-24) that in the “olive tree” allegory, the “root” is Abraham, and that all who believe in Christ are now genuine descendants of his. If they do not happen to be Jewish, no matter, since Abraham, both lineally and spiritually, is the father of “many nations”. On the other hand, Jews who reject Jesus are not truly children of Abraham (9:6-13).


Jesus is the heir of the promise to Abraham, and through him all believers in Christ will be the “heir of the world” (v. 13). Paul now becomes repetitious, but it is because he is making a case that most other Jews would find feeble: the promise was “not through the law”. Now we are moving even further into the future, across the hundreds of years between Abraham’s justification and the reception of the Torah in the desert. Paul makes a division, a dichotomy, between faith and Torah here, once again breaking with the teaching of the rabbis. They would argue that, of course, we cannot separate Torah and faith – after all the Torah teaches us to trust God, and people without faith in the God of the covenant are apostates; thus, Paul would be absolutely mistaken to say that for people of the Torah “faith means nothing” (v. 14). But in order to prove his point, he utters what is close to sacrilege – that the Torah does not empower people into being better (see Rom 2; Rom 7), but serves mainly to give them punishments for doing wrong. That this was the case was inarguable, since many of the commandments have to do with punishment. Break the Sabbath, and you will be executed (Exod 31:14-15); likewise with sexual offenses and disobedience to one’s parents.

In v. 16 Paul once again narrows his options: one tries to be saved by the Torah, or by faith, but there is no admixture of the two. He now cites another key verse, that Abram receives his new name Abraham, because it means that “I have made you a father of many nations” (from Gen 17:5). The synagogue might have taken the Genesis verse to mean that, Abraham would be the progenitor of many nations, beginning with the descendants of Ishmael. He is also the father of many kings, as Paul shows, David and then Jesus. As Matthew begins, “he genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). What is more, he is “the father of us all” (v. 16).

Paul now reiterates the truth that Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of all who do as he did and believed God (v. 17b); he is the common denominator among all Christians. Abraham’s faith was not some virtuous decision to be a faithful person in his ways – his hope was in the one Creator, the “God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (v. 17b). First, God allowed him and Sarah to have a son even though they were as good as dead and infertile. From them God created new life. Later Abraham offered his son on the altar in faith that God would provide a sacrifice (Gen 22:8). The author of Hebrews comments that “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb 11:19). Paul also points out that God “calls into being things that were not”, but does not give specifics: in another place he says “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor 1:28) to show why God chose people of little repute and power in Corinth to be his people and to shame the wise of this age.


Here in Romans 4 there is no reference to Sarai’s laughter, nor to the scheme whereby they conceived Ishmael. Instead, Paul focuses on how “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (v. 18); “he did not waver through unbelief” (v. 20); “fully persuaded” (v. 21). The picture of Abraham in Genesis is less black and white. Still, if he were to concede that Abraham’s faith was multi-faceted, it would not have helped his opponents either, since they were assuming that Abraham was accepted by God primarily on the basis of his fidelity and good works.

Let us not imagine that it is the measure of one’s faith that is powerful; it is the measure of the power of the truth God that matters. Paul uses the noun dunatos here, which is related to the word dunamis that he used in 1:16 – the gospel is the power of God. If “God had power to do what he had promised” (v. 21b) in patriarchal times, then that same God is the one whose power can saved all who believe now, both Jews and Gentiles.


In vv. 22-24a the apostle shows the neat parallel between Abraham’s experience and that of the Christian. Genesis 15:6 applies to believers in Christ, who are not accounted righteous. Paul has just mentioned God’s power, and he now links the life of Abraham to other gospel words: faith, righteousness, accounted, resurrection, justification. If Abraham believed that God could raise the dead, how much more so can Christians believe in the resurrection, given that Jesus himself has been raised to be their Savior and declared Lord of all. Paul will develop this truth later, in Romans 10:9 – “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.

The reader will benefit by underscoring the first-person plural pronouns in what follows: “but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (vv. 24-25). Far from being a model of how the covenant of how and why circumcision saves, Abraham turns out to be a near letter-perfect pattern of how people come to God in this new age.

Before moving on we should think about James 2:18-26, which bears a close resemblance to Romans 4. Some scholars point out that the parallel is so striking, even to the point of using Genesis 15:6, plus the rhetorical figure of diatribe (arguing with an imaginary opponent), that perhaps both Paul and James were using a form of tradition that was current in Second Temple Judaism. The position we take here is that James was not engaging the epistle to the Romans, but that he was speaking into a very different context than was Paul. Paul wanted to show that Gentiles (and Jews) are saved by faith in the resurrection of the Lord. He assumes for the sake of argument that one’s faith is genuine – after all, that is what everyone would have assumed about the faith of the patriarch Abraham. James, for his part, thinks in terms of a claim to faith that in fact is dead (James 2:17; 2:26) – not ill, not weak, but without all life and therefore devoid of any value (2:20). Our position is that if Paul were dealing with the same set of circumstances, he would have had an answer similar to that of James, and like him be energetically committed to the good works that must follow upon salvation. We should also note that Paul himself complained that people were interpreting his gospel as “Let us do evil that good may result” (Rom 3:8). Galatians 5:6 has a very useful summary of Paul’s approach, that true faith produces works: only “faith working through love” counts for anything. In the same way, says James 2:21, when Abraham worked when he obeyed God and went to sacrifice his son.

Practical Thought: Although the story of Abraham took place four millennia ago, we must follow the apostle’s lead and understand why his example is completely relevant today.

First, we Christians are a part of a very long story. The Latin American church, like the church in many regions, has a collective amnesia with regard to its historical roots. The church where we attend celebrated its 50th anniversary not long ago, but not many congregations have roots that go even that deep. Maybe we belong to a denomination, such as the Methodist, which particularly treasures its history. But for most of us, we have only a vague memory that the pastor came from somewhere a few years ago, and started the congregation where we attend. Romans 4 shows us the great value in coming to an understanding of our relationship to other people of faith, Abraham or David, that they too were people like us who struggled with their faith but were ultimately victorious. In our seminary, we also insist that students study the history of the church, from Pentecost to the present – this even though some students find it distasteful to learn “Catholic” history.

Second, and church history also reminds of us this, we must interpret the Old Testament correctly. Many of the heresies throughout the church had a strange understanding of the role and meaning of the ancient Scriptures. For example, the Sadducees and the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses, and this had a harmful effect on their doctrine. The Gnostics of the 2nd century AD and later rejected completely the Old Testament canon; this meant that the teaching about Abraham in this chapter was irrelevant, as was the teaching about Adam in Romans 5. At the other extreme are those who focus their energy on conforming to the Torah, to the expense of studying the New Testament. For his part, Paul rejected all of those paradigms. He taught that the Scriptures God’s Word, hence “it is not as though God’s word had failed” (9:6), that they foretold the salvation that would come by Christ (1:2); are given for the instruction of all (15:4) and for “endurance and encouragement” (15:5), but that the regulations of Torah were not binding on the Gentile believer.


C. There are now only two peoples among humankind: those in Adam, those in Christ (5:1-21)


In this section, Paul turns from using the rhetorical “we” from early chapters and now speaks of the “us”, himself and the Christians at Rome. This passage must be read in terms of what comes before it (especially Rom 4:22-25).

In v. 1 from the very outset there is a textual variant. Some early manuscripts read “let us have peace with God”, as if this were a goal for which the Christian must seek. Other manuscripts, including those that back the Textus receptus, have a different form of the verb, meaning “we have peace with God” as a settled fact. The reason for the confusion is that both forms of the verb sound identical and thus were confused early in the transmission of the text. “We have peace with God” (NIV, contra D-R) is correct, and indicates that Paul is now beginning to speak in positive, non-polemical terms about the wonders of the Christian life. Abraham came to be the “friend of God” (not mentioned in Genesis, but see 2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; also James 2:23), because God initiated a relationship with him through his faith. And we Christians are, at peace with God (v. 1); reconciled, that is, friends and no longer enemies (v. 10).

The first two benefits are that we have access to God’s grace (v. 2), not simply a once-for-all justification by faith but a way of life in which we can count on God to be receptive and loving to us through Christ. Beyond this the believer can look forward to the eschatological glory which was lost in the fall (see our comments on 3:23) and will be restored at the final resurrection.

God’s plan for his people does not need to wait until Christ’s return, since he equips us to live a full life in the now, even if it is within a context of social ostracization, persecution, poverty. In vv. 3-4 there is the promise that the hardships of Christian life produce a range of virtues: they make tougher people, more centered in the hope that awaits them.

Special Note, persecution. It is conventional wisdom among some Christians that persecution automatically leads to revival, in numerical growth and in greater depth. Some even say that we should pray that persecution come upon our land. Both the Scriptures and church history tell a different story: Paul taught that believers should pray that they have a good, peaceful and predictable environment in which to preach the gospel (see 1 Tim 2:1-4). And history has shown that persecution can cause major damage to the church, for example in Turkey during the Middle Ages; in Spain and France during the Reformation; in Mali, Egypt, South Sudan, Iraq, North Korea today. If we really want revival in our land, then revival is what we should pray for, not tribulation.


A “paradigm shift”, as defined today, is not simply coming up with new answers to an old problem; rather, it involves questioning one’s assumptions and attempting to reframe the questions. Three times in Romans 5 Paul offers sweeping paradigm shifts: in v. 12, he will appeal to Adam as the cause of human sin, and he will also demolish the idea of the “two impulses” or inclinations. But the first new paradigm appears in v. 5, where he appeals to the New Covenant/Spirit as the basis for the Christian life. He had hinted at this new element somewhat abstractly in 2:14-15, that Gentiles could do what the Torah requires – that is, the life of love that is the goal of the Torah (13:10). The new element is the gift of the Spirit in the New Covenant, predicted in the prophets and now brought to fruition in this age. Jesus said that by shedding his blood he was initiating the New Covenant (1 Cor 11:24-25), and Paul self-identifies as a minister of that same covenant (2 Cor 3:6). It is the basis for transformation of believers in this age (1 Thess 4:9-10).

All of this might escape the attention of the Christian reader, who is accustomed to see references to the Spirit and his transforming power everywhere. In Jeremiah this covenant would involve full transformation of God’s people Israel: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33) and the forgiveness of their sins. It is this same New Covenant, Paul agrees, that will bring about the eschatological transformation of “all Israel” in the end of the age: “and this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Rom 11:27). Ezekiel 36:22-28 contains a reference to the gift of God’s Spirit and also the sprinkling of purifying water, the two elements that underlie Jesus’ teaching of the new birth (John 3:5). Another important prediction, now fulfilled on Pentecost, is that the Spirit would fall upon all of God’s people (see Joel 2:28-32). What is lacking from these promises is any indication of the scope and the early arrival of this covenant: that Gentile believers would experience its forgiveness of their sins, the gift of the Spirit, the righteousness guidance of God; and that the gift of the Spirit would be experienced not just in the age to come, but now, during this age. As we mentioned in Romans 4, it is important for Paul to demonstrate that the gift of the Spirit comes before anything else in the Christian walk (see Gal 3:1-6). Galatians 5 and of course Romans 8 are constitutions for the Christian life as a life in the Spirit. And if God himself promised that “I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols” (Ezek 36:25) – the very evils they inevitably fall into (Rom 1:23, 24) – then it becomes ridiculous to argue that they would be better if only they would follow the hundreds of statutes of Torah in order to keep them on the narrow path. Paul will pick up that theme again in 6:15.

Special Note: Modern Judaizers. It is commonplace in Latin America today to hear that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22b). The point seems to be that, if someone wants to find salvation, then he must turn to Judaism as the revelation of God’s mercy. The problem is that the quotation is taken completely out of context. The Samaritan woman wonders aloud whether people should worship in the Jerusalem temple or the Samaritan. Jesus replies, in short, that the Jews know God and the Samaritans do not. But he goes much further: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Although that statement sounds like a conventional theology of worship for us Christians today, in fact it was a revolutionary statement: Yes, go to the Jerusalem temple! says Jesus. But the time is already upon us when temples don’t matter, since the believer can worship truly, exclusively through the Holy Spirit. By the time John wrote his gospel, that new arrangement had been the norm for decades. This is language of the New Covenant, and it shatters the old system of temple worship in favor of God transforming the lives of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus, and serve him wherever in the world they find themselves.


Paul goes on to cheer up his readers by developing what it is like to be reconciled to God. What comfort to know that God revealed his love for them even before they existed, by sending Christ to die “for us” (v. 8), who were “ungodly” and “powerless” (v. 6). In v. 7 it might seem as if he were backtracking, first saying that no-one would die even for a just man, but then conceding that perhaps someone would do so; we take it that Paul is not changing his opinion, but is using a rhetorical device. History is full of people who have followed great leaders into death; the Romans had their own tale in the slave rebellion of Spartacus, who followed their leader to their fate in crucifixion. If Christ died for us while we were sinners, then the believer has hope that God will finish the work he has begun in them, unto the resurrection (Rom 8:30) or redemption of the body (8:23; also 11:26) or until the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Phil 1:6). The salvation Christ has bought is not a cheap or incomplete product, but one which covers every contingency.

In vv. 9-10 he twice uses what is and was a common rhetorical device, “from the greater to the lesser” (in Latin it is called an a fortiori argument; in Hebrew the rabbis called it qal wahomer; see another example in 8:32). He has already named the most difficult part of the gospel in v. 8, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. If people have been saved by Christ’s blood (the hard thing to accomplish), how much more are we saved from his wrath, that is, we are already “justified”. If God reconciled us while we were his enemies (the hard thing), how much more easily are we saved now! And if we are reconciled to God, then we can not only relax, we can positively boast about what God has done (v. 11) – boast about God’s works, not our own.

It was a part of the Judaism of Paul’s day that God’s people suffer during this age, given that the wicked wield power and hate the righteous. As we noted in the introduction, the greater part of the Jewish population in Rome lived in a poor section of the city. Like Christians they too expected that God would vindicate them at the end of the age. One major difference in Christian theology is that their Savior, Christ himself, suffered and died, and that his death and resurrection are the path to the renewal of God’s creation at his return.

Practical Thought: A Christian might live in slum conditions and still be on the path to the most glorious existence in Christ’s kingdom. There is no contradiction between having God as one’s Father (8:14-16) and being forced to live without adequate food, shelter, pure water, education, and other social services. The Christian must balance a life without fear (8:15), a hope for the future (5:2), and with the drive to seek social and economic justice for himself and his fellows.


Beginning in 5:12 Paul offers one more change of paradigm, that one can now divide the whole race, with every nation and tongue, into just two camps. For the synagogue that division would of course be between Israel and the Gentile nations: “We have Abraham as our father” (see John the Baptist’s message in Matt 3:9). Paul will now take them to a new level with a new idea: first, whether you are Jewish by race or Gentile, your common ancestor is Adam; and second, that this genealogy is more determinative than having Abraham as an ancestor. This assertion is of course straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Adam, Seth, Enosh…Serug, Nahor, Terah and Abram (that is, Abraham)” (1 Chron 1:1, 26-27).

There is an ellipsis at the end of v. 12, that is, it is an incomplete sentence, which Paul only continues at v. 18 – “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned – just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people”.

Special Note, Adam. There has been an ongoing discussion since the 19th century over whether Adam really existed, or whether he is a symbol. This is not entirely new; in the 5th century AD, Augustine (see below) believed in Adam but rejected a creation within six literal days. Traditionally, Adam lived thousands of years ago (although not necessarily as late as 4000 BC) and therefore may be regarded as the ancestor of all humankind. This is the view that Paul seems to take. For those who regard the earth as thousands of millions of years old, then death must have existed from the very beginning and Adam – if he was a literal individual – appeared very late in time, and in fact much later than earlier hominids. In that case, some suggest, Adam and Eve were perhaps the first true Homo sapiens, even though the DNA evidence that has come to light in the 21st century raises some objections against this possibility. Others think that they were selected as representatives of all their kind. At any rate, none of these viewpoints is without problems (see especially Stott, pp. 181-85). This is an important question for Romans, since Paul predicates the coming of sin and death upon Adam’s disobedience as recounted in Genesis (see also 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49); and like most of his contemporaries in Judaism refers to Adam without hesitation as to a human being; this contrary to the philosophies current in his day.

5:12 is a key verse in Romans and its meaning has been debated for centuries. First, we can see that Paul is rejecting the paradigm that was all but universal in Judaism, the idea that every human being had two inclinations or impulses (in Hebrew yetser; in Greek diaboulion; the Essenes spoke of having two “spirits”), one good and one evil, and that the individual with his conscience was able to choose between them. For example, the Jewish book Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), which is today a book in the Roman Catholic canon, says the following:

It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sir 15:14-17 NRSV)

It has been the conventional Jewish perspective for over 2000 years that when Adam and Eve sinned, they fell, but that act did not fatally contaminate others. In effect, each of their descendants was free to choose righteousness or evil. Gentiles chose evil, because they did not have the Torah to show them a better way, whereas the Jews went to synagogue and heard the Scriptures, which gave them the motivation and information they needed to serve God. All to say that, the synagogue has never had a doctrine of the Fall in the Christian sense (Paul will deal with the doctrine of the two impulses, we will argue, in Rom 7:14-25)

What does Paul say? First, that because of Adam’s fall, death came to all people (Gen 2:17), but also that death comes to all because they have personally sinned. In the end there is no need to differentiate between whether we experience death because of Adam or because of ourselves; both are true. And Adam’s fall resulted in the condemnation of all, even before they did good or evil (5:18), and through his sin many were made sinners (5:19) – not influenced to be evil, but actually made so. The phrase “because all sinned” in 5:12 and its relation to Adam’s sin is a point for theological argument; we agree with the viewpoint that all have sinned because they sinned in Adam their forefather (see the discussion in Cranfield, pp. 1.274-79).

Paul now brings in the role of the Torah – for long millennia people sinned, without having a written code to tell them was right and wrong. When Paul says that sin was not “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (5:13) he does not mean that they are let off free, but rather that there is no way to keep score when there is no objective standard of righteousness. Still, sin clearly was having its way all the time from Adam to Moses (v. 14), which is plenty of proof that people were condemned.

Paul’s point is to contrast Adam and Christ. Adam sinned and many – all! – died, but Christ brought grace to the many (v. 15). “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification” (v. 16). And in a nice play on words, death “reined” over the race, so Christians “will reign” (v. 17): this is eschatological, it is their participation in Christ’s kingdom when they will be resurrected and reign together with him (see 2 Tim 2:11-12).

As the Savior, Jesus is the perfect obedient man, the one who did what Adam chose not to do, and because of his death and resurrection, he is able to “bring about justification” (v. 18; a better translation than the NIV with its “many will be made righteous” (v. 19).

Special Note: Augustine and Pelagius on Romans 5:12. Christians have never been united as to what Paul meant in 5:12. Around AD 400, a monk named Pelagius came from Britain to Rome. He modeled a strict holy life, and argued that if God told people to obey, then they must be able to do so; this was particularly true of Christians, that in theory at least they should be able to live completely in righteousness. The main damage that Adam caused us was that he gave us a bad example. His opponent was the mighty theologian and pastor Augustine. He argued that Romans 5:12 means that we are born already contaminated by sin; we are subject to death and we have a corrupted nature, the flesh. To put it another way, Pelagius believed that everyone has their own fall into sin; Augustine that simply by being descended by fallen Adam one had already fallen (v. 14). The church condemned Pelagius and upheld Augustine at the Council of Carthage in AD 418.

If Pelagius were alive today he might have expressed his message thus: we fall into sin because of the bad example that our own parents gave us. And if we trace our ancestry back as far as it can go, Adam and Eve were the original dysfunctional parents – because of their wickedness, Cain killed his brother, and sin only multiplied from there. Pelagius would simply urge us to take the first baby steps toward God, and we would find that he is willing to reach out to us. We can we reject what our ancestors have impressed upon us. “You can make the right choices!” might have been his slogan. It is not hard to imagine Pelagius with his own television program, books and DVDs, urging his listeners to reject their past and to make good choices today.

Augustine was a forerunner of the Reformers, since he believed in depravity. His viewpoint developed into the Roman doctrine that when babies are baptized, that grace removes original sin. Another view in the last several centuries is the Arminian one, which teaches that God gives “prevenient grace” to all fallen people, which attracts them to the gospel, and is enough of a push to allow everyone to have saving faith in Christ if they so choose.

The view we take in this commentary is that Augustine was right about the effect of Adam on our nature, but not correct with regard to baptismal grace. Rather, God’s call is the summons of the Spirit to believe, given to those whom God foreknew (8:30).

Paul cannot help but again bring in the Torah at this point, since he is aware that he seemingly skipped over an important chapter in saving history – the Sinai covenant. It was brought in “so that the trespass might increase” (v. 20). This statement is consistent with Paul’s statement earlier, that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (v. 13).

5:21 is one of those “dense” Pauline declarations, whereby he packs a lot of meaning into few words. We are helped by knowing that “eternal life” in this context is the eschatological life of the resurrection (see also 6:23), that is, it is the foil to “death” – through God’s grace we are justified and have the promise of the resurrection – and all of this, and Paul wishes to use his full title in dramatic fashion, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Paul leaves us on a very positive note in Romans 5:21 – and beginning in 6:1 he will take the Romans into the realm of “how will we, in Christ, serve God during this age”?

Study Questions

  1. How have you reacted when suffering comes into your life? Has it helped you to become a better Christian? (5:3-4).
  2. Through the blood of Christ we have become “friends of God”, just like Abraham was; God took the initiative to show love to us (5:8), and now we have peace with him (5:1). What does it mean to be God’s friend?

“Romans Commentary, Romans 3:21-5:21,” Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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