Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Romans

by Various Authors




Balmer H. Kelly, Editor
Donald G. Miller Associate Editors Arnold B. Rhodes
Dwight M. Chalmers, Editor, John Knox Press







Kenneth J. Foreman



A Personal Note to the Reader

Who are you? I wish I knew. The list of writers which you will find on this volume tells you who I am, but who are you? You are a "layman"—but that means simply a person without technical training and special knowledge in this particular field. You have never had seminary training. You are probably not able to read the New Testament in the Greek language in which it was written. You have never done any graduate study in the field of the Bible or religion. Beyond that, you may be almost anybody except a very young teen-ager or a child. You may be a graduate of high school or of college, or even of a graduate school with an M.D. or a Ph.D. to your credit. In any case, you are an interested person or you would not be reading this.

This may be the first commentary on the Bible you ever read. Don’t let that bother you. This is the first one I ever wrote. Some of the greatest saints and most brilliant scholars in the Christian world, past and present, have written better commentaries on Romans than this one is going to be. But let us not part company for that. Just because this commentary was not written by one of the great minds, you can have the consolation of knowing that if I can understand Romans you can understand it. And after all, writing a commentary on a book whose author is dead and gone is a risky business. Over and over again we shall wish we had the author right here for an interview. But that is out of bounds.

One thing is certain: if you are seriously interested in the kind (if thing that interested the man who wrote Romans (and this holds good for books outside the Bible, too), then you will seri­ously try to find out what he said and what he meant. And we shall be finding out, all the way along, that the problems which were of burning interest to Paul are not, in our day, mere buckets of ashes.

Why a Commentary?

Why do you want a commentary at all? You do not ask for one in order to read the morning paper or a letter. Why do you need one for the Bible? What is there about Romans, for ex­ample, that makes it harder to understand than the morning paper or a letter from a friend?

For one thing, the Letter to the Romans now on your desk is not written in the kind of English a newspaper reporter or your writing friend would use. When the Roman Christians read it or heard it read, they found it to be in precisely the ordinary every­day Greek that everyone spoke. But the kind of English used in our standard Bibles today is a kind seldom spoken any more out­side of Church or poetry.

This difficulty can be cleared up by reading Romans in one of the unofficial fresh translations of Paul’s Greek into the language we actually use when writing simple English prose today. Every present-day translation may be in itself a valuable commentary.

But the difficulties are not over when you get the letter into modern English. For this letter was not written yesterday, but nineteen centuries ago. It was not written in any existing nation, but in the Roman Empire. Customs, habits, traditions, business, recreation, culture, art, government—everything was different then. Any kind of writing "reflects the culture" of the times and the place where it was written. To take one single example: in Paul’s day slavery was a universally accepted fact. Today we re­gard slavery, wherever it still exists, as barbaric and unchristian. It was an age that had not known Christianity. Ours is an age that has been familiar with Christianity for centuries. Then, society had never been affected by Christian or Jewish ideals. Today, over much of the world, Christian ideals are taken for granted even by persons who are not Christians.

Then the Church itself was quite different, as we shall see. Not one of the usual features of the Church of today was then in existence. The church at Rome, for instance, had no official creed, no resident pastor, no Sunday school, no special place of meeting, no order of service, no "program." Any of us would find such a church strange if we walked into it. And naturally we feel a certain strangeness about a letter written to it.

There are also difficulties in ancient letters like these of Paul’s which are caused by peculiar varieties of thought and of style. Some sentences are very long and complicated. Since Paul dic­tated most of his letters, one may suspect that some of the dif­ficulties the modern reader has in reading them come from the fact that Paul talked too fast for his secretary.

One more bar to easy understanding of letters which at their first reading were far easier than now is the fact that the reader unfamiliar with them may not know just who wrote them, or to whom they were written, or what circumstances called for each letter. When you open your friend’s letter you know who he is, you have known him for years, you know how he expresses him­self, you can read his mind. But a letter nearly two thousand years old is another matter. When you open your newspaper you know the background, you have been keeping up with what is going on around the world and in your own home and country. But when you open this ancient letter you do not have the same "feel" for ancient Rome or Corinth—lost cities now—that you do for New York, London, or Homeville.

With all such difficulties a commentary is expected to be help­ful. But no number of commentaries can be any substitute for personal digging in the Bible by yourself. The great essentials stand out in the Bible plainly enough.


Who wrote Romans? The Apostle Paul, beyond a doubt. There are books in the Bible whose traditional authors are cer­tainly not the real authors. There are other books whose author­ship has been questioned but which were probably written by their traditional authors. Still other books have never had their authorship seriously questioned. Romans is one of these. Keep this in mind as we study it. Here is a firsthand document right out of the generation that could remember Jesus of Nazareth, a first-class witness to Christian life, problems, and thought in those early years.

Paul is so well known that we need not tell his story here. The Book of Acts and his own letters, which make up a quarter of the New Testament, give us more personal information about him than we have about most figures of ancient history. What we need to bear in mind, reading Romans, is that at the time Paul wrote this letter he was a man in middle life, a man of profound and lasting enthusiasms. He was not a man content to believe and keep silence. He wanted others to believe as he did. Before he became a Christian, he was very fierce against his opponents. They did not have to be opponents; all they had to do to earn his hatred was to believe differently, and he would persecute them to the death when he could. As a Christian he had learned that torture and murder are not weapons of God’s truth, but he still drew very sharp lines and never left doubt about where he stood. By the time he wrote Romans he had become a well-known, perhaps the best-known, missionary to non-Jews, a leader in the Church.

At the time this letter was written, Paul had never been in Rome. Many Bible students think that chapter 16 did not origi­nally belong with Romans but is a misplaced sheet of a letter to Ephesus. (More about this when we come to it.) In any case he no doubt knew people in Rome as you know people in some large faraway city. But one great difference between Romans and the Corinthian Letters is that Romans was written to a strange church, while First and Second Corinthians were written to one of the churches Paul knew best, one he had started himself. This gives Corinthians a friendly, familiar tone, and keeps Romans courteous but a bit on the stiff side.


What kind of church was at Rome? Neither Paul nor Peter had been there at this time. Traveling Christians from different parts of the Empire, mostly from the eastern end of the Mediter­ranean, had come to Rome, had made contact with one another, and were (as we would think) an unorganized but going religious community. They were not monks or nuns; they were not pro­fessional religious people. There were no "ordained" leaders by any title. It was a church without a whole Bible. The Jewish members, to be sure, had the Hebrew Scriptures, which they brought with them from the Synagogue when they became Christians, but probably few would have owned a complete copy. There was no New Testament in existence. Our four Gospels had not yet been written. Paul had written a few letters, but no one at that time labeled them "Bible"; not even Paul himself thought of them as "Scripture."

So this Letter to the Romans would be the first piece of strictly Christian literature the Roman Christians had ever seen. Paul knew this and so took considerable pains with the letter. (Tradi­tion says he sent a copy of it to a church which he knew very well, the church at Ephesus.) This was to be a kind of handbook on Christian faith and life, a handbook all could use.

Paul was aware, of course, that the Christian church at Rome would turn out to be an extremely important one. As a Roman citizen and proud of it, he well knew the influence of a church in the capital city of an empire. He knew that if that church took his letter seriously and studied it and used it, its influence would carry great weight in many places. So he took his time and wrote more pages to these unknown Romans than to any other church at one time.


Why did Paul write this letter? Why he wrote it to the Romans we have just seen. But why did he write it at all? Here we note another difference between Romans and Corinthians. The Corin­thian Letters were written to deal with problems in the church at Corinth, problems about which members of that church had told him. But Paul had not started the Roman church, and had had no letter from Rome. He could well claim to be a pastor of the Corinthian church; but to the Romans he was a distinguished "guest minister" by mail, nothing more.

But if Paul does not speak to the problems of the Roman church as such, he does have some pressing problems in mind, and deals with them with a kind of vigorous sublimity. There were three of these in particular that bothered Paul. They were, in fact, nothing less than perverted, distorted varieties of Chris­tianity, or substitutes for it. Paul had run into them where he had been, and knew they would make their way to Rome sooner or later. If these versions of Christianity, which he recognized as perversions, ever won the mind of the whole Church, Paul knew that would be the end of the true faith. As we go through the letter we shall see how he dealt with these. For the present we shall make a short explanation of each one.

The Judaizers’ "Christianity"

When we refer to the Judaizers’ "Christianity" we use this word because it is familiar, though it had not come into use in Paul’s time. The Judaizers had hounded Paul all over the place.

They had tried in the first place to beat him down at a council of Apostles and other leaders at Jerusalem a few years before this; but the council voted to support Paul. This did not shut off the Judaizers. Wherever he went, they followed. They insisted that his converts were not true Christians. A true Christian, they said, is one who keeps the laws God has set down in his Holy Scrip­ture. All the promises of God in Scripture are made to Jews, and so if one wants to be a Christian, the only way leads through Judaism. (That, of course, is why they were called Judaizers.) What the Judaizers wanted, in effect, was to make the Christian faith a sect of Judaism. If they had succeeded, Christianity today would be—like Sadduceeism, for example—something dead and gone, to be looked up in an encyclopedia.

The Moralizers’ "Christianity"

Paul never mentions the Judaizers or this second group by name. But the problem they pose is always in his mind. The "moralizers"—to give them a name—were people who were about to turn Christianity into a set of rules and regulations. In our own time a French sociologist has defined religion as a "set of scruples." That means, a set of "don’ts," "mustn’ts," "shouldn’ts," and "can’ts." That is just what Christianity would turn into if the moralizers had their way. It would end by being a prison for the free.

Furthermore, the moralizers (and their spiritual successors to­day) added another feature: by carefully doing this and not do­ing that, by keeping the rules and never getting demerits, one earns the favor of God, who gives a man heaven on the strength of his moral report card. On this view, God’s love and grace have a price, and the price is good behavior. One exchanges a mere seventy years of good (well, moderately good) behavior for an eternity of bliss. What a bargain! It sounds simple, too. So Paul has to explain very clearly that God’s favor cannot be bought. It is not for sale, and no man would have the price of it if it were.

Anti-law "Christianity"

"Anti-law Christianity" (a long word for it is "Antinomian­ism") is opposed to law—not as a criminal is opposed to it, but opposed to the whole idea of having law at all. The common criminal is just against laws: the anti-law Christian thinks he doesn’t need any. The anti-law Christian is the opposite of the moralizer. He knows that he cannot reach God by any ladder of good deeds, so he concludes that the Ten Commandments all went out when Jesus came, and love has now taken their place. He will say that if one’s heart is right he may do as he pleases; love covers a multitude of sins, and so on. Christianity, however, would eventually run down, rot, and be rejected by decent people if this notion were generally adopted.

Not all the problems and ideas we encounter on the pages of Romans fit under these three heads. We shall pick up others in plenty as we go on. But these are in the background of most of what Paul has to say.

Yet to speak of this letter as if it were all "problems and ideas" is to misrepresent it. That, in fact, is what too often has been done to it. It has been made a kind of happy hunting ground for theologies. But in fact, the main and central interest of Romans is, in one word, life—life in Christ, life for Christ. The letter comes out of Paul’s genuine, life-changing experience, yet it points not to Paul but to his Lord. Jesus Christ is the center of this book. As Paul lets us see him from first one angle and then another, we begin to realize that there is more to Christianity than we had supposed. The conventional, the churchly, the "pious," vanish like plastic at the touch of a hot bulb; as a present-day translator of the New Testament says, working through the New Testament is like installing electricity in an old house and suddenly coming on a live wire. Wherever men have rediscovered the living light to which this old yet new letter is a witness, life itself has become new.

Origin and Place in the Canon

Where and when was Romans written? For good reasons, which may be found in a Bible dictionary, historians are gen­erally agreed that Romans was written from the city of Corinth, at the time Paul spent three months there just after he had been working in Ephesus for more than two years. This was in the winter or early spring of the year A.D. 5’7-58—only twenty­ five years or so after the Resurrection. When Paul talks of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, he talks of events within the memory of a great many people by no means old. (This date of A.D. 57-58 may be off by two or three years.)

How did Romans come to be a part of the Bible? It came about in the simplest possible way. People who read it, or had it read to them (for many Christians were illiterate), were struck by it. Its truth and force spoke for it convincingly. In short, the Church took this letter to its heart and treasured it. Precisely how it become known in the churches outside of Rome we do not know. There are two ideas on this. The older one is that this letter, like all the others we have from Paul, was hailed as new Bible, so to speak, from the first day it was received and opened. The church receiving it would make copies and circu­late them, and other churches—Corinth among them—would do the same with their letters. Another view, newer and gaining supporters, is that the letters of Paul, while welcomed at the time in the various churches, were gradually neglected and for­gotten for some thirty years or so. Then the Book of Acts came out, a book of which Paul (humanly speaking) is the principal hero. Under that stimulus, some person or persons collected all the writings of Paul that could then be found and published them, as we would say, in one volume. This proposition has one solid piece of evidence in its favor: none of the writings of the New Testament which can be dated before about A.D. 90 shows an acquaintance with Paul’s letters; but every book of the New Testament which can be dated after about A.D. 90 or 95 shows that the writer knew Paul’s letters. This would indicate, some people believe, that many if not all the letters of Paul were published about A.D. 90 in one group.

The Thought of Romans

The following is an attempt to follow the thought of the letter, avoiding formal and traditional language so far as possible. A more formal outline will come later. In this summary, descriptive headings have been used as an aid to understanding.

Personal Preface (1:1-15) Dear Unknown Friends:

Since you have never seen me, let me give you a few words on who I am and why I am writing to you. My name is Paul; my business that of a man whom God has set apart to be a witness to the good news about God. This good news concerns Christ, the Son of God and our supreme Authority. I am, so to speak, his ambassador to all nations, including yourselves, for you to have liven called by God to belong to Jesus Christ. I pray God’s bless­ing on every one of you.

I thank God for you, because the whole world knows of your faith. I have been praying for you; I am anxious to see you. It will do me good to see you, and I hope I can do you good. In fact, I have often intended to visit you but I never could. I am eager to announce the good news to you Romans.

Main Theme and Keynote (1:16-17)

This good news is something I am humbly proud to bring to every man who will open his mind and heart to it—and I mean everybody, whether Jews or Gentiles. This good news is nothing less than God’s making clear to us what had never been clear be­fore, namely, how he has made it possible for men to live with him unashamed and unafraid—how it is possible for God to look on us with approval. The good news is really the secret that all religions have sought and missed—even I myself for years; in a word, what God’s gift is to men of faith, and what the life of faith, beginning with faith and growing toward a more perfect faith, can be.

How the Human Race Has Run to Ruin (1:18-3:20)

The great problem of mankind in general, and of each person In particular, is how to be rightly related to God. If God is against us, we are lost. If God is for us, we don’t care what or who may be against us. But how can God be for us? He is free from the least stain of evil, and we human beings are full of evil; we are rotting with it. All I have to do is walk down the street in Corinth and see sickening evidence of the horrible mess man has made of his own life.

It is not just the notorious criminals who are against God and prefer their own ways to his. The nice people, the best people, the religious people, even religious professionals such as I have been—we are all tarred with the same brush. We are infected with the same disease, and the name of it is "sin." Sin is the name for our running away from God, for our making little tin gods out of our own sleazy selves. Even in the act of despising the criminal classes we show ourselves up for conceited hypocrites.

The holy God cannot possibly be friendly to this sort of thing. He does not need to send people to hell; all he needs to do is just give people up to their own ways, to let them live in the hell they have made for themselves.

Religions all are concerned with this problem, but they have never solved it. The best religion to date, the Jewish, has really got no further than building a ladder to heaven out of "good deeds," that is to say, keeping the Law. But a man can keep the Law very well—I myself have a clean conscience on that score—and yet not really be in harmony with God after all.

All men are sinners—which is another way of saying all men have missed the road to God. Some men aren’t interested in find­ing that road; they would rather pray to a cow, or a ghost, than to God. Others build their own roads, but they go nowhere. One kind of sinner openly despises God, and another kind of sinner despises God in another way, namely, by thinking God’s good favor has a price mark on it, that it can be earned or paid for by something one does.

It won’t work. The whole world is accountable to God, the whole world stands at the bar of his court, before a Judge from whom there is no appeal; and his verdict is "Guilty."

How God’s Prisoner Under Sentence Can Be Set Free (3:21-4:25)

But are there no good people in the world, you will ask. Cer­tainly—as compared with bad people. But the real standard of good is not man but God. You can define sin as coming short of the glory of God. I mean failing to have, and to show, those Godlike qualities that you would expect from those who are made "in the image of God." He made us to be like himself, and when we are not, that is sin. Once admit that, and you have to admit that all men have sinned, for where will you find a man who meas­ures up to the "glory of God"? Furthermore, who can earn the good will, the grace, of God?

Man is in a hopeless case. But God himself has come to man’s rescue. Here is the good news: God’s grace is a gift, and it comes to us in Jesus. If we think of God as standing above an altar, Christ is the sacrifice on that altar. If we think of God on the judge’s bench, Christ takes the place of the condemned man. What Christ was and did and suffered was for us. Calvary, the death of Christ, is the strange open door to God.

For everyone? Yes, for all who will. But some will not. The grace of God, as Christ makes it real for us and in us, is only for those who humbly and simply take it. There is a name for this simple thing, for just accepting God’s gift: the name is faith. Faith is not struggling to come closer to God. Faith is not just another step carved out for the climb up God’s holy mountain. You can’t do it that way. Faith is just opening your heart and letting God give you—himself.

Abraham is the perfect example of what I am talking about. He believed God. It was as simple as that. He trusted God, he obeyed God, he left his life in God’s care. This is faith, just taking joyfully what God gives.

Results and Reflections on the Life of God’s Children (5:1-8:39)

I would not try to put into one figure of speech all that is true about the new relationship between God and man when we turn to him in faith. The life of faith is not merely believing something we did not believe before. It is not anything added to life; it is new life itself, a new kind of life. It is as if we lived in a new world—of peace after wartime, hope after despair—in a life which has no darkness, because it is filled with the light of God’s love. It is being reconciled to a former enemy.

It is like changing families. We used to belong to the family of Adam the first man. Now we belong to the family of Christ the true man. For Christ is the Beginner of a new race of men. Death came to mankind through the first Adam’s sin, but through the new Adam’s obedience we have acquittal and life.

God’s forgiving, transforming love, his loving yet demanding concern for us that we call his grace, actually shines all the brighter because of the sin which it destroys. Some people misunderstand this. They go on to say that if grace is God’s reaction to sin, if it is such a wonderful experience to be forgiven by God, then let’s go on sinning! Not at all. We have been set free—not free for sin, but free from sin. Once we were "our own men" (as we thought!) but were actually slaves to sin. Now we are Waves of God, and the old master has no rights over us.

And yet we do live in two worlds. I sometimes talk as if Christians did not sin at all. But as an honest Christian I know what it IN to have a divided mind. I am still a son of the first Adam, as Wall us of the Second Adam. I approve things I do not do, and I do things I do not approve. My conscience is better educated than my habits. Sometimes I feel like a healthy man with a corpse chained to his back.

So life is a fight, a fight inside me. But after all, I am Christ’s man and I do not belong to sin and death any more. So it is with you and all Christians: Christ lives with you, God’s Spirit lives in you; in short, GOD lives in you. That does not make life easy or simple. It does not discharge you from your own private war. You have to put yourself, your worst self, to death, times without number. But you have the spirit of a son now—God’s son, not his enemy. We are actually children of God now; we do not have to wait for heaven. Yet we live by hope, for heaven is not here yet. We live by a hope only God can make come true. Meanwhile we know that God works in all things for good with those who love him. It is God who chose us, not we who first chose him. God is for us, remember that. He has not let our sins destroy us; he has rescued us, acquitted us, suffered for us, loved us. We have our troubles and tragedies, yes, as long as we live; but nothing—noth­ing—can cut us off from the love of God.

The Problem of the Jews (9:1-11:36)

You might ask me, If all this is so, why are the Jews, your own people, so indifferent to the whole thing? If they are, as you believe, the Number One people of the world when it comes to true religion, why is it that they have not taken to what you call faith? Why can’t you persuade your own people?

This question is not only embarrassing, it is tragic. I affirm before God, I would be willing to be shut out from Christ forever if only my people would come to him! It is not a question of my failure to persuade people. I do not believe I ever "converted" a man who was not called by the Holy Spirit first. But that is the problem. Why has the Holy Spirit not stirred the hearts of the Jews with this good news? Has God turned his back on his ancient people?

Only God knows the answer to such questions. It may be that some of the "Israelites" are not part of the true Israel, which may he much smaller than we think, and that only the true Israel will be saved. It may be that God arbitrarily has mercy on some and deliberately makes other men worse. It may be that in some future time Israel will repent and turn to God in Christ as they refuse to do today. What we can surely say is that one great good has come from the Jews’ stubbornness and un-faith; namely, the non-Jews have had the good news brought to them. Suppose my own people had given me a full welcome instead of trying to kill me? In that case, at least I would not have turned to the Gentiles as soon as I did. We can also be sure that God has not cast off his ancient people. He will save all Israel somehow, even though how he will or can do this is hid in the mystery of God’s all-knowing mind. Though we cannot understand him, let us praise him forever!

Practicing the Life of Faith (12:1-15:13)

Going back to where we were: Please, please don’t turn faith into something sentimental, something "spiritual" and out of this world. Bring the life of faith right into the everyday worka­day world. Consecrate yourselves to the service of God. Remem­ber you are not expected to be a Christian all by yourself. The whole Christian community should be like one living body, which is healthy only when each member of it is vigorous and active. Be active and enthusiastic in all you do. Do whatever act of kind­ness is called for. Don’t let evil get you down; don’t leave a vac­uum in your life for evil to rush in. Drive out evil with good. Be good citizens; government is for the good and against the bad. Stay out of debt, I mean in every sense. The only debt you should have is the obligation to love one another—you will never be able to do for others what they have done for you. Remember, love is the great commandment; in fact, love includes all the command­ments. Don’t get into arguments about details and trifles, such as whether it is right or wrong to eat meat, and whether some days are more sacred than others. In any case avoid doing anything that leads weaker Christians into sin. Faith is the main thing: whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. Christ is our example at all times; live in harmony with one another and with him.

Personal Notes and Benedictions (15:14-16:27)

Of course you know all this, but I have taken the liberty of reminding you before I have the pleasure of seeing you. It is my ambition to tell the good news where no one else has told it, and so I intend to go to Spain soon, and I hope to go by way of Rome and to see you in person.

Give my best wishes to the many Christian people I know in your city. God’s peace be with you all, and to God be the glory forever, through Jesus Christ! Amen.


Personal Preface. Romans 1:1-15

The Keynote: The Righteousness of God. Romans 1:16-17 God’s Wrath and Man’s Sin. Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20

What Sin Is and Does (1:18-32) Sin Is Race-Wide (2:1-29)

Are Jews a Special Case? (3:1-20)

Justification by Faith. Romans 3:21 to Romans 4:25

The True Solution (3:21-31)

The Example of Abraham (4:1-25)

Results of Justification and Reflections on the Life of the Children of God. Romans 5:1 to Romans 8:39

What Christ Has Done for Us (5:1-21) Freedom from Sin (6:1-11)

The Imperatives of Grace (6:12-23)

The Divided Life (7:1-25)

"More Than Conquerors" in Christ (8:1-39)

The Problem of God’s Own People—the Jews. Romans 9:1 to Romans 11:36 The Practical Living of Christians. Romans 12:1-15:x3

The Principle of the Christian Life (12:1-2)

The Practice of the Christian Life (12:3-15:13)

Personal Notes and Benediction. Romans 15:14 to Romans 16:27

Hopes, Prayers, and Realities (15:14-33) Personal Greetings (16:1-23)

To God Be the Glory (16:25-27)