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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Romans 1

Verse 1

1. The writer 1:1

As in all his epistles, Paul used his Roman rather than his Jewish name, Saul, perhaps because he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Even though he had not yet visited Rome his readers knew Paul’s reputation well. He just needed to give his name to identify himself.

In his relationship to Jesus Christ, Paul was a bond-servant (Greek doulos). Some translators have rendered this word "slave," but Paul was a willing servant of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:7). This term is the equivalent of the Old Testament "servant of the Lord" (e.g., Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Nehemiah, and especially David). Paul shared this status with his readers.

"He regarded himself as the purchased possession of his Lord and Master. The two ideas of property and service are suggested. There was no serfdom or servility, and yet there was an absolute loyalty in the consciousness of absolute possession. The bond-servant owned nothing, and was nothing, apart from his master. His time, his strength, everything belonged altogether to another. There was nothing nobler to St. Paul than to be a slave of the Lord Jesus. He desired to be nothing, to do nothing, to own nothing apart from Him." [Note: Thomas, pp. 38-39.]

The title "apostle" gives Paul’s gift and office in the church. He was Jesus Christ’s special appointee. This status gave him the right not only to preach the gospel but to found, to supervise, and even to discipline churches if necessary. The basis of his authority, the right to his office, was God’s calling (cf. Romans 1:6-7). [Note: See R. D. Culver, "Apostles and the Apostolate in the New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 134:534 (April-June 1977):131-43.]

"’Called’ means designated and set apart by an action of God to some special sphere and manner of being and of consequent activity." [Note: William R. Newell, Romans Verse by Verse, p. 3. Italics removed.]

"Paul never thought of himself as a man who had aspired to an honour; he thought of himself as a man who had been given a task." [Note: Barclay, p. 2.]

The particular extent of his work, the scope of his calling, was quite narrow, namely, to proclaim the gospel (good news) of God. As a Pharisee, Paul had lived a life set apart to observing the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs strictly. Now his calling was to proclaim the gospel (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:12).

"Concentration thus follows consecration and commission." [Note: Thomas, p. 39.]

Verses 1-7

A. Salutation 1:1-7

The salutation, which is the longest salutation in Paul’s epistles, identifies the writer (Romans 1:1), introduces the subject of the letter (Romans 1:2-5), and greets the original readers (Romans 1:6-7). This first sentence (Romans 1:1-7) implicitly sets forth the most fundamental facts of Christianity. In particular, it shows that the main facts of the gospel fulfill Old Testament predictions.

Verses 1-17


This great epistle begins with a broad perspective. It looks at the promise of a Savior in the Old Testament, reviews Paul’s ministry to date, and surveys the religious history of the Gentile world.

"The main body of Romans is a treatise on Paul’s gospel, bracketed by an epistolary opening (Romans 1:1-17) and conclusion (Romans 15:14 to Romans 16:27). These opening and concluding statements have many similarities, not the least of which is the emphasis on the gospel. (Eight of the 11 occurrences in Romans of euangelion ["gospel"] and euangelizomia ["to evangelize"] are in these passages.) Paul’s special relationship to this gospel, a relationship that encompasses the Roman Christians, both opens and closes the strictly ’epistolary’ introductory material in the section (Romans 1:1-5; Romans 1:13-15)." [Note: Ibid., p. 39. See The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p. 439, for a chart comparing Paul’s introductions to his epistles.]

Verse 2

Paul next began to exalt the gospel that God had called him to proclaim. It was a message that God had promised, not just prophesied, in the Old Testament Scriptures. The words "his" and "holy" stress the unique origin of the gospel. God had inspired the Old Testament by speaking through men as He gave His revelation. Paul did not preach an unanticipated gospel but one that God had promised through His prophets (cf. Romans 4:13-25; Romans 9:4; Romans 15:8). This is the reason Paul appealed to the Old Testament so fully in this and other of his epistles. Specifically, Paul’s gospel was not a human invention that tried to make the best of Israel’s rejection of Jesus Christ.

Verses 2-5

2. The subject of the epistle 1:2-5

Verses 3-4

Paul identified the gospel’s theme to exalt it further. The gospel centers on God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who was both human and divine. The phrases "according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3) and "according to the Spirit" (Romans 1:4) probably do not contrast the natures of Christ but His relationships. [Note: James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 24-25; Bruce, p. 69.] He belonged to two realms. As to his human earthly connection, His origin was the highest. He was not just an Israelite (Romans 9:5) but a son of David (Matthew 1:1; Luke 1:32; Acts 13:22-23; 2 Timothy 2:8), which was a messianic qualification (Isaiah 11:1).

Concerning the realm above He was higher than the angels (Hebrews 1:4), the very Son of God (Romans 1:4). The word "power" probably modifies the Son rather than the declaration. Paul probably meant that God declared Jesus to be His powerful Son rather than that God powerfully declared that Jesus was His Son. The point of this passage is the greatness of Jesus, not the wonder of the resurrection.

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse." [Note: C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 41.]

Jesus was always the Son of God, but the Father declared Him to be the Son by resurrecting Him. Jesus did not change in essence-He always was the Son-but in status and function. God appointed the Son to a new and more powerful position in relation to the world at the Resurrection (cf. Matthew 28:18). He is now not only the Messiah but the Lord of all. [Note: See S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "The Jesus That Paul Preached," Bibliotheca Sacra 128:510 (April-June 1971):120-34.]

To what does "the Spirit of holiness" (Romans 1:4) refer? It may be another way of referring to the Holy Spirit. [Note: C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 19; F. Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 80; Bruce, p. 69; John A. Witmer, "Romans," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p. 440.] Nevertheless in view of the parallel expression "according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3) and the fact that Paul could have said "Holy Spirit" if that is what he meant, probably Paul was referring to the holy nature of Jesus. Jesus’ nature was so holy that death could not hold Him. [Note: Everett F. Harrison, "Romans," in Romans-Galatians, vol. 10 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 15; Sanday and Headlam, p. 9; Stifler, p. 25; A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:324.]

Verse 5

Paul probably meant that he had received the special grace (gift) of being an apostle. He introduced the character and scope of what follows in this epistle by linking his apostleship with the resurrected Christ. Jesus’ descent from David and His resurrection proved that He was the Messiah and Lord promised in the Old Testament. Therefore the gospel that Paul preached as an apostle could bring all people, not just Jews, to faith in Him. It did not bring them to obey the Law of Moses. Obeying God by trusting in Jesus Christ is "for His [Christ’s] name’s sake" because it glorifies Him.

"The law lays down what a man must do; the gospel lays down what God has done." [Note: Barclay, p. 3.]

"Some one has truly said that the Gospel is ’good news’ not ’good advice,’ . . ." [Note: Thomas, p. 43.]

Faith is obedience to God because God commands everyone to believe in Christ (cf. John 6:29; Acts 17:30-31). This verse is not teaching that saving faith always results in ongoing obedience to God, though that is normally its effect. [Note: See Robert N. Wilkin, "Obedience to the Faith: Romans 1:5," Grace in Focus 10:6 (November-December 1995):2-4.]

Verses 6-7

Paul assured his readers that they were part of the intent of the gospel. God had not called them to apostleship as God had called him (Romans 1:1), but to sainthood, saint being a common term for believer in the New Testament. It refers more to position than condition when used this way, though the implication of holiness is strong. We are primarily saints even though we sin. [Note: See Robert L. Saucy, "’Sinners’ Who Are Forgiven or ’Saints’ Who Sin?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):400-12.]

"God’s call is not an invitation but a powerful and effective reaching out to claim individuals for himself." [Note: Robert H. Mounce, Romans, p. 63. See also W. W. Klein, "Paul’s Use of Kalein: A Proposal," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984):53-64.]

Romans 1:7 really continues the thought of Romans 1:1, Romans 1:2-6 being somewhat parenthetical. "Grace" and "peace" were common salutations in Greek and Jewish letters respectively in Paul’s day. God’s grace is both His unmerited favor and His divine enablement. It is the basis for any true human peace. The Hebrew concept of peace (Heb. shalom) did not just mean freedom from stress, anxiety, and irritation. It included the fullness of God’s blessing. Paul desired a continually deeper and richer experience of spiritual blessing for his readers. The linking of "Jesus Christ" with the "Father" implies the deity of the Son. [Note: Sanday and Headlam, p. 16.]

The salutation reveals the germ ideas that the writer proceeded to develop later. This feature is also characteristic of Paul’s other epistles. So far Paul said he had a message that was in harmony with the Old Testament. It was from the risen Christ, and it was for all people. Furthermore it should lead people to obey God by exercising faith in Him.

Verses 6-7

Paul assured his readers that they were part of the intent of the gospel. God had not called them to apostleship as God had called him (Romans 1:1), but to sainthood, saint being a common term for believer in the New Testament. It refers more to position than condition when used this way, though the implication of holiness is strong. We are primarily saints even though we sin. [Note: See Robert L. Saucy, "’Sinners’ Who Are Forgiven or ’Saints’ Who Sin?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):400-12.]

"God’s call is not an invitation but a powerful and effective reaching out to claim individuals for himself." [Note: Robert H. Mounce, Romans, p. 63. See also W. W. Klein, "Paul’s Use of Kalein: A Proposal," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984):53-64.]

Romans 1:7 really continues the thought of Romans 1:1, Romans 1:2-6 being somewhat parenthetical. "Grace" and "peace" were common salutations in Greek and Jewish letters respectively in Paul’s day. God’s grace is both His unmerited favor and His divine enablement. It is the basis for any true human peace. The Hebrew concept of peace (Heb. shalom) did not just mean freedom from stress, anxiety, and irritation. It included the fullness of God’s blessing. Paul desired a continually deeper and richer experience of spiritual blessing for his readers. The linking of "Jesus Christ" with the "Father" implies the deity of the Son. [Note: Sanday and Headlam, p. 16.]

The salutation reveals the germ ideas that the writer proceeded to develop later. This feature is also characteristic of Paul’s other epistles. So far Paul said he had a message that was in harmony with the Old Testament. It was from the risen Christ, and it was for all people. Furthermore it should lead people to obey God by exercising faith in Him.

Verses 8-10

Paul felt concern for the welfare of this church. The faith of the Roman church had become well known in the few years since it had come into existence (cf. Ephesians 1:15-16; Colossians 1:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). Typically Paul began by offering commendation to his readers for some praiseworthy trait whenever he could. Here he thanked God for the Romans through Jesus Christ, who had created access to God. He praised the Roman Christians for their obedience to God by trusting in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 1:5). Failure to trust in Christ is really disobedience to God since God now commands everyone to believe in His Son (cf. Acts 17:30-31).

Paul called God as his witness (Romans 1:9) because what he was about to say might be difficult to believe. He claimed to pray for the Romans unceasingly, namely, frequently, but not without stopping. The Greek word translated "unceasingly" (adialeiptos, cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17) denotes that not much time elapsed between his prayers for them. These saints were constantly in his thoughts and prayers. "In my spirit" (NASB) means "with my whole heart" (NIV).

"We are reminded that the real work of the ministry is prayer. Preaching is more a result of the ministry of prayer than it is a ministry itself. A sermon that does not rise from intense and heart-searching prayer has no chance of bearing real fruit." [Note: Mounce, p. 66.]

Verses 8-15

B. Purpose 1:8-15

Having begun with a formal and unusually long greeting compared to his other epistles, Paul next proceeded to address his readers more personally. He had not met the Christians to whom he wrote, so he spent some time getting acquainted and sharing his heart with them.

"One of the first lessons of effective leadership is the importance of setting priorities. Not only must things be done right (management) but the right things must be done (leadership)." [Note: Mounce, p. 65. Cf. Cranfield, 1:78-79.]

Verses 11-13

As Paul had prayed often for the Romans, so he had also planned often to visit them. The phrase "I do not want you to be unaware" always identifies something important that Paul proceeded to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1; 1 Corinthians 12:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). His reason was for fellowship, namely, mutual sharing of things profitable. One obstacle that may have prevented Paul from reaching Rome previously was the imperial edict of A.D. 49 expelling Jews from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2). [Note: See Bruce, p. 16.] Paul mentioned his contribution to the Romans first (Romans 1:11) and theirs to him last (Romans 1:13), and he stressed reciprocity in between (Romans 1:12). The spiritual gift (Romans 1:11) was probably not one specific gift but anything and everything of spiritual benefit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1). In 1 Corinthians 12:1 he mentioned specific gifts (plural). We should also probably interpret the fruit he hoped to obtain (Romans 1:13) broadly rather than specifically as the fruit of his evangelism among them or financial support.

Verses 14-15

Paul’s love for Christian fellowship and his obligation to preach the gospel to all people motivated him to visit Rome (cf. Romans 1:1; Romans 1:5). Having received the grace of God himself, he recognized that this placed him in debt to everyone else. He owed them the opportunity to hear the gospel and to receive God’s grace themselves. Every Christian is indebted to every non-Christian because we have and can give what can impart life to those who are dead in sin, namely, the gospel.

The terms "Greek" and "Barbarian" (Romans 1:14) divide Gentiles by language and culture. In Paul’s day this was a standard way of describing all races and classes within the Gentile world. [Note: J. D. G. Dunn, Romans , 1:33.] The Greek people spoke of anyone who did not speak the Greek language as a barbarian. The Greek word barbaros is onomatopoetic and imitates any rough-sounding, unintelligible language. [Note: J. P. Lange, "The Epistle of Paul to the Romans," in Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, p. 70.] The "wise" and "foolish" distinction divides people intellectually (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Paul was probably thinking primarily of non-Jews since he was the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul did not regard his opportunity to preach the gospel as a burden that he had to bear or as a duty he had to fulfill. Rather he was "eager" to share the good news with everyone (Romans 1:15).

"If one has the finest intellectual and formal preparation for preaching but is lacking in zeal, he cannot hope for much success." [Note: Harrison, p. 18.]

The salutation (Romans 1:1-7) introduced Paul to his readers in a formal tone. However the explanation of his purpose in desiring to visit Rome (Romans 1:8-15) revealed a pastoral heart warm to the readers and the lost, ready to edify the saints and evangelize sinners. Romans 1:8-15 play an integral part in introducing the argument and rhetoric of Romans. [Note: Marty L. Reid, "A Consideration of the Function of Romans 1:8-15 in Light of Greco-Roman Rhetoric," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38:2 (June 1995):181-91.]

Verse 16

Paul’s third basic attitude toward the gospel now comes out. Not only did he feel obligated (Romans 1:14) and eager (Romans 1:15) to proclaim it, but he also felt unashamed to do so. This is an example of the figure of speech called litotes in which one sets forth a positive idea ("I am proud of the gospel") by expressing its negative opposite ("I am not ashamed of the gospel") to stress the positive idea. The reason for Paul’s proud confidence was that the gospel message has tremendous power. The Greek word translated "power" is dunamis, from which the word "dynamite" comes. Consequently some interpreters have concluded that Paul was speaking of the explosive, radical way in which the gospel produces change in individual lives and even in history. However the context shows that the apostle was thinking of its intrinsic ability to effect change.

"The late evangelist Dwight L. Moody commented that the gospel is like a lion. All the preacher has to do is to open the door of the cage and get out of the way!" [Note: Mounce, p. 70.]

God has the power to deliver physically (Exodus 14:13) and spiritually (Psalms 51:12; Psalms 51:14). The basic outcome of salvation is soundness or wholeness. Salvation restores people to what they cannot experience because of sin. Salvation is an umbrella term; it covers all aspects of deliverance. The terms justification, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, and glorification describe different aspects of salvation.

"’The inherent glory of the message of the gospel, as God’s life-giving message to a dying world, so filled Paul’s soul, that like his blessed Master, he "despised the shame."’ So, pray God, may all of us!" [Note: Newell, p. 18. He did not identify the source of his quotation.]

The gospel does not announce that everyone is safe because of what Jesus Christ has done, which is universalism. The gospel is only effective in those who believe it. [Note: See J. Ronald Blue, "Untold Billions: Are They Really Lost?" Bibliotheca Sacra 138:562 (October-December 1981):338-50; and Ramesh P. Richard, "Soteriological Inclusivism and Dispensationalism," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:601 (January-March 1994):85-108.] Believe what? Believe the good news. What is the good news? It is the news that Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the Messiah whom God promised to send) and that He has done everything necessary to save us (cf. 1 John 2:2; 1 John 5:1). Note that Paul mentioned no other condition besides believing the good news in this crucial verse (cf. Romans 4:5). He said nothing about our having to do anything in addition, such as undergoing baptism, joining a church, pledging commitment, etc. The issue is believing good news and trusting Christ. Either a person does or does not do so. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, "The Gospel Message," in Walvoord: A Tribute, pp. 201-17.]

"The only way to a right relationship with God is to take God at His word, and to cast oneself, just as one is, on the mercy and the love of God. It is the way of faith. It is to know that the important thing is, not what we can do for God, but what God has done for us. For Paul the centre of the Christian faith was that we can never earn or deserve the favour of God, nor do we need to. The whole matter is a matter of grace, and all that we can do is to accept in wondering love and gratitude and trust what God has done for us. But that does not free us from obligations or entitle us to do as we like; it means that for ever and for ever we must try to be worthy of the love which does so much for us. But there is a change in life. We are no longer trying to fulfil [sic] the demands of stern and austere and condemnatory law; we are not like criminals before a judge any more; we are lovers who have given all life in love to the one who first loved us." [Note: Barclay, p. xxvi.]

The gospel has a special relevance to the Jew. We could translate "first" (NASB, Gr. protos) as "preeminently" (cf. Romans 2:9-10). This preeminence is due to the fact that God chose the Jews to be the people through whom the gospel would reach the Gentiles (cf. Genesis 12:3). As a people, the Jews have a leading place in God’s plans involving salvation for the rest of humanity (cf. chs. 9-11). Their priority is primarily elective rather than historical or methodological. [Note: See Wayne A. Brindle, "’To the Jew First’: Rhetoric, Strategy, History, or Theology?" Bibliotheca Sacra 159:634 (April-June 2002):221-33.] Because God purposed to use Israel as His primary instrument in bringing blessing to the world (Exodus 19:5-6), He gave the Jews first opportunity to receive His Son. This was true during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 1:11) and following His ascension (Acts 1:8; Acts 3:26). Paul also followed this pattern in his ministry (Acts 13:45-46; Acts 28:25; Acts 28:28). Furthermore, Israel must repent before the messianic kingdom will begin (Zechariah 12:10). [Note: See Stanley D. Toussaint and Jay A. Quine, "No, Not Yet: The Contingency of God’s Promised Kingdom," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007):145-46.] Notwithstanding the Great Commission makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the present age. Jesus Christ has charged Christians with taking the gospel to everyone (Matthew 28:19-20). He has identified no group as that to which we must give priority in evangelism.

"In view of chapters nine to eleven it is hardly admissible to explain this proton as referring merely to the historical fact that the gospel was preached to the Jews before it was preached to the Gentiles, or, while allowing a reference to the special position of the Jews in the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation], to cite Galatians 3:28 and Ephesians 2:14 f as proof that this proton is, in Paul’s view, something now abolished, as Nygren does. [Note: Footnote 3: A. Nygren, Commentary on Romans, p. 3.] Rather must we see it in the light of Paul’s confident statement in 11.29 that ametameleta . . . ta charismata kai he klesis tou theou [the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable]." [Note: Cranfield, 1:91.]

Verses 16-17

C. Theme 1:16-17

If anyone thought Paul had not visited Rome because he doubted the power of his gospel to work in that sophisticated environment, the apostle now clarified his reason. These verses conclude the epistolary introduction and transition into the body of the letter by stating Paul’s theme.

Verse 17

In this verse Paul explained what he meant when he said that when a person believes the gospel he or she is saved (Romans 1:16). What makes the gospel powerful is its content. The salvation that God has provided and offers is in keeping with His righteous character (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

What did Paul mean by "the righteousness of God?" With the exception of 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul used this phrase only in Romans, where it appears eight times (Romans 1:17; Romans 3:5; Romans 3:21-22; Romans 3:25-26; Romans 10:3 [twice]). It could be an attribute of God, either His rectitude or His faithfulness. It could be a status that God gives to people. Or it could be an activity of God, specifically, His saving action.

"For Paul, as in the OT, ’righteousness of God’ is a relational concept. Bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself." [Note: Moo, p. 74. See pages 70-74 for the reasons this is the best conclusion. He also wrote a good excursus on "’Righteousness’ Language in Paul," pp. 79-90.]

The gospel makes the righteousness of God manifest.

What does "from faith to faith" (NASB) mean? Was Paul describing the way God has revealed His righteousness or how people should receive it? The position of this phrase in the sentence favors the first option. The idea might be that God’s righteousness comes from one person who exercises faith to another person who exercises faith. Still, if that is what Paul intended, he should have used the Greek preposition apo that views "from" as a point of departure. Instead he used ek that indicates the basis of something (cf. Romans 3:16; Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16). Probably the phrase refers to how people receive God’s righteousness. The idea seems to be that faith is the method whereby we receive salvation whatever aspect of salvation may be in view and whomever we may be. The NIV interpretation is probably correct: "by faith from first to last." We might say that every aspect of God’s salvation comes to us only by faith. That is true whether we are speaking of justification (past salvation from the penalty of sin), practical sanctification (present salvation from the power of sin), or glorification (future salvation from the presence of sin). Trusting God results in full salvation.

The words of Habakkuk 2:4 support Paul’s statement. Faith is the vehicle that brings the righteousness of God to people. The person who believes the good news that the righteous God has proclaimed becomes righteous himself or herself. The Pharisees, one of which Paul had been, taught that righteousness came through keeping the Mosaic Law scrupulously (cf. Matthew 5:20). The gospel Paul proclaimed, on the other hand, was in harmony with what Habakkuk had revealed (cf. Romans 1:2). Many students of Romans believe that Habakkuk 2:4 is the "text" of Romans, and what follows is exposition of that Scripture text. Thomas suggested the following outline: Romans 1:1 to Romans 3:20: the righteous; Romans 3:21 to Romans 4:25: by faith; and Romans 5:1 to Romans 16:26: shall live. [Note: Thomas, p. 63.]

Romans 1:16-17 are the key verses in Romans because they state the theme of the revelation that follows. Paul’s message was the gospel. He felt no shame declaring it but was eager to proclaim it because it was a message that can deliver everyone who believes it. It is a message of how a righteous God makes people righteous righteously. The theme of the gospel is the righteousness of God, and the theme of Romans is the gospel. [Note: Moo, pp. 22-30, Witmer, p. 437.]

"Here we have the text of the whole Epistle of Romans: First, the words ’the gospel’-so dear to Paul, as will appear. Next, the universal saving power of this gospel is asserted. Then, the secret of the gospel’s power-the revelation of God’s righteousness on the principle of faith. Finally, the accord of all this with the Old Testament Scriptures: ’The righteous shall live by faith.’" [Note: Newell, p. 18.]

This first section of Romans (Romans 1:1-17) introduces the subject of this epistolary treatise by presenting the gospel as a message that harmonizes with Old Testament revelation. It is a message that concerns Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. It is a powerful message since it has the power to save anyone who believes it.

Verse 18

1. The reason for human guilt 1:18

In this verse Paul began to explain why Gentiles need to hear the gospel and experience salvation. Whereas this verse gives one reason, it also serves as a general statement that summarizes human guilt.

God has revealed His wrath as well as His righteousness (Romans 1:17) from heaven in the gospel. [Note: Cranfield, 1:109-10. See René A. López, "Do Believers Experience the Wrath of God?" Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 15:29 (Autumn 2002):45-66.] As Paul would explain, the unfolding of history also reveals God’s hatred toward sin and His judgment of sin. The moral devolution of humanity is not just a natural consequence of man’s sinning but also a result of God’s judgment of sinners. The final judgment of sin will occur in the eschaton (end times), but already God is pouring out His wrath against sin to a lesser degree (cf. Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6). Paul described wrath as revealed from heaven because it comes from God who is in heaven. [Note: G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, p. 219. See the excursus on the wrath of God in Romans in Newell, pp. 40-46.]

"God’s wrath is his divine displeasure with sin. We call it ’wrath’ because it shares certain basic characteristics of human wrath. But because it is God’s wrath it can have none of the sinful qualities of its analogical counterpart." [Note: Mounce, pp. 76-77.]

"Ungodliness" means lack of reverence for God. Man’s neglect of God and rebellion against God are evidences of ungodliness. "Unrighteousness" or "wickedness" (NIV) means injustice toward other human beings. We see it in any attitude or action that is not loving. Together these two words show humankind’s failure to love God and other people as we should, which are our two greatest responsibilities (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37-39). Romans 1:19-27 demonstrate man’s ungodliness, and Romans 1:28-32 show his wickedness. The "truth" refers to truth that people know about God (cf. Romans 1:25). They suppress this truth by their wickedness.

". . . whenever the truth starts to exert itself and makes them feel uneasy in their moral nature, they hold it down, suppress it. Some drown its voice by rushing on into their immoralities; others strangle the disturbing voice by argument and by denial." [Note: Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, pp. 92-93.]

Verses 18-20


Paul began his explanation of the gospel by demonstrating that there is a universal need for it. Every human being needs to trust in Jesus Christ because everyone lacks the righteousness that God requires before He will accept us.

"Paul implicitly acknowledges that Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20 is an interruption in his exposition of the righteousness of God by reprising Romans 1:17 in Romans 3:21 . . . Some think that the ’revelation of God’s wrath’ is a product of the preaching of the gospel, so that Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20 is as much ’gospel’ as is Romans 3:21 to Romans 4:25 . . . But, although Paul clearly considers warning about judgment to come to be related to his preaching of the gospel (Romans 2:16), his generally positive use of ’gospel’ language forbids us from considering God’s wrath and judgment to be part of the gospel.

"We must consider Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20 as a preparation for, rather than as part of, Paul’s exposition of the gospel of God’s righteousness." [Note: Moo, p. 92.]

Verses 18-32

A. The need of all people 1:18-32

Perhaps Paul began by showing all people’s need for God’s righteousness first because he was the apostle to the Gentiles and his Roman readers were primarily Gentiles. His argument in Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:20 moves inward through a series of concentric circles of humanity.

"God never condemns without just cause. Here three bases are stated for His judgment of the pagan world. For suppressing God’s truth (Romans 1:18) For ignoring God’s revelation (Romans 1:19-20) For perverting God’s glory (Romans 1:21-23)" [Note: Witmer, p. 442.]

Verses 19-20

These verses begin a discussion of "natural revelation." Romans 1:19 states the fact of natural revelation, and Romans 1:20 explains the process. [Note: Witmer, p. 442.] Natural revelation describes what everyone knows about God because of what God has revealed concerning Himself in nature. [Note: See Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, ch. 5: "General Revelation and Biblical Hermeneutics," pp. 113-40.] What He has revealed about Himself in Scripture is "special revelation." The creation bears testimony to its Maker, and every human being "hears" this witness (cf. Psalms 19). [Note: See Bruce A. Baker, "Romans 1:18-21 and Presuppositional Apologetics," Bibliotheca Sacra 155:619 (July-September 1998):280-98.]

"Napoleon, on a warship in the Mediterranean on a star-lit night, passed a group of his officers who were mocking at the idea of a God. He stopped, and sweeping his hand toward the stars, said, ’Gentlemen, you must get rid of those first!’" [Note: Newell, p. 29.]

Four things characterize this revelation. First, it is a clear testimony; everyone is aware of it ("it is evident [plain]"). Second, everyone can understand it. We can draw conclusions about the Creator from His creation. "His invisible attributes . . . have been clearly seen" is an oxymoron. Third, this revelation has gone out since the creation of the world in every generation. Fourth, it is a limited revelation in that it does not reveal everything about God (e.g., His love and grace) but only some things (i.e., His power and divine nature).

"This is the only New Testament instance of theiotes, ’divinity’, ’divine nature’ (NIV). If God’s divinity is shown in creation, his full deity or divine essence (theotes) is embodied in Christ (Colossians 2:9)." [Note: Bruce, p. 80.]

Natural revelation makes man responsible to respond to his Creator in worship and submission. [Note: See Ronald E. Mann, "False and True Worship in Romans 1:18-25," Bibliotheca Sacra 157:625 (January-March 2000):26-34.] However it does not give sufficient information for him to experience salvation. That is why everyone needs to hear the gospel.

"Utter uncompromising, abandonment of hope in man is the first preliminary to understanding or preaching the gospel." [Note: Newell, p. 27.]

Paul did not explain exactly how God reveals Himself in nature, and there have been three popular explanations. One is that He left behind clues or "tracks" in creation from which everyone can reason that there is a Creator. Another explanation is that God personally reveals His presence to everyone through the medium of creation. Still another view is that everyone has a vague awareness of God because we recognize that we are finite creatures living in a contingent world. None of these views is demonstrably certain, and all of them have problems. More than one may be true. [Note: For a discussion of them with arguments for the third one, see Richard Alan Young, "The Knowledge of God in Romans 1:18-23: Exegetical and Theological Reflections," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:4 (December 2000):695-707.]

Verses 19-27

2. The ungodliness of mankind 1:19-27

Verses 21-23

Honoring God as God and giving Him thanks (Romans 1:21) are our primary duties to God in view of who He is. When people reject truth, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to recognize and receive truth.

Whenever human wisdom sets itself against God, the result is soon seen in human foolishness." [Note: Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle . . ., p. 69.]

Mythology and idolatry have resulted from man’s need to identify some power greater than himself and his refusal to acknowledge God as that power. Men and women have elevated themselves to God’s position (cf. Daniel 2:38; Daniel 3:1; Daniel 5:23). In our day, humanism has replaced the worship of individual human leaders in most developed countries. Man has descended to the worship of animals as well (cf. Psalms 106:20). This is perhaps more characteristic of third world countries.

"This tragic process of human ’god-making’ continues apace in our own day, and Paul’s words have as much relevance for people who have made money or sex or fame their gods as for those who carved idols out of wood and stone." [Note: Moo, p. 110. For a relevant exposition of Romans 1:21-22, see Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City, pp. 79-123.]

Note the allusions to the creation story in the threefold division of the animal kingdom in Romans 1:23.

Verses 24-25

The false religions that man has devised and to which Paul just referred constitute some of God’s judgment on mankind for turning from Him. False religion is not in any sense good for humankind. It is what man as a whole has chosen, but it is also a judgment from God, and it tends to keep people so distracted that they rarely deal with the true God.

"God’s wrath mentioned in Romans 1 is not an active outpouring of divine displeasure but the removal of restraint that allows sinners to reap the just fruits of their rebellion." [Note: Mounce, p. 80.]

It is active in another sense, however. God gave man over (Romans 1:24; cf. Romans 1:26; Romans 1:28) by turning him over to the punishment his crime earned, as a judge does a prisoner (cf. Hosea 4:17). The third characteristic of man in rebellion against God that Paul identified after ignorance (Romans 1:21) and idolatry (Romans 1:23) is impurity (Romans 1:24). Here Paul evidently had natural forms of moral uncleanness in view, such as adultery and harlotry. He went on in Romans 1:26-27 to describe even worse immorality, namely, unnatural acts such as homosexuality. Natural here means in keeping with how God has designed people, and unnatural refers to behavior that is contrary to how God has made us.

Mankind exchanged the truth of God (Romans 1:25; cf. Romans 1:18) for "the lie" (literally). The lie in view is the contention that we should venerate someone or something in place of the true God (cf. Genesis 3:1-5; Matthew 4:3-10). Paul’s concluding doxology underlined this folly.

Verses 26-27

Because mankind "exchanged" the truth for the lie God allowed him to degrade himself through his passions. The result was that he "exchanged" natural human functions for what is unnatural. In the Greek text the words translated "women" (thelus; Romans 1:26) and "men" (arsen, Romans 1:27) mean "females" and "males." Ironically the homosexuality described in these verses does not characterize females and males of other animal species, only human beings. Homosexuality is a perversion because it uses sex for a purpose contrary to those for which God created and intended it (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 2:24).

"This need not demand the conclusion that every homosexual follows the practice in deliberate rebellion against God’s prescribed order. What is true historically and theologically is in measure true, however, experientially." [Note: Harrison, p. 25.]

AIDS, for example, is probably the consequence of man’s rebellion against God rather than a special judgment from God. The "due penalty" is what man experiences as a result of God giving him over and letting him indulge his sinful desires (cf. Romans 6:23).

"Sin comes from the mind, which perverts the judgment. The effect of retribution is to abandon the mind to that depravity." [Note: Henri Maurier, The Other Covenant, p. 185.]

"Contemporary homosexuals insist that these verses mean that it is perverse for a heterosexual male or female to engage in homosexual relations but it is not perverse for a homosexual male or female to do so since homosexuality is such a person’s natural preference. This is strained exegesis unsupported by the Bible. The only natural sexual relationship the Bible recognizes is a heterosexual one (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6) within marriage." [Note: Witmer, pp. 443-44. See P. Michael Ukleja, "Homosexuality in the New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 140:560 (October-December 1983):350-58.]

"A contextual and exegetical examination of Romans 1:26-27 reveals that attempts by some contemporary writers to do away with Paul’s prohibitions against present-day same-sex relations are false Paul did not impose Jewish customs and rules on his readers; instead he addressed same-sex relations from the trans-cultural perspective of God’s created order. God’s punishment for sin is rooted in a sinful reversal of the created order. Nor was homosexuality simply a sin practiced by idolaters in Paul’s day; it was a distorting consequence of the fall of the human race in the Garden of Eden. Neither did Paul describe homosexual acts by heterosexuals. Instead he wrote that homosexual activity was an exchange of the created order (heterosexuality) for a talionic perversion (homosexuality), which is never presented in Scripture as an acceptable norm for sexuality. Also Hellenistic pederasty does not fully account for the terms and logic of Romans 1:26-27 which refers to adult-adult mutuality. Therefore it is clear that in Romans 1:26-27 Paul condemned homosexuality as a perversion of God’s design for human sexual relations." [Note: David E. Malick, "The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27," Bibliotheca Sacra 150:599 (July-September 1993):340. See also Sherwood A. Cole, "Biology, Homosexuality, and Moral Culpability," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:615 (July-September 1997):355-66.]

Pederasty is a form of sodomy between males, especially as practiced by a man with a boy.

Verses 28-32

3. The wickedness of mankind 1:28-32

The second key word in Romans 1:18, "unrighteousness" (Romans 1:29), reappears at the head of this list of man’s sinful practices. It is a general word describing the evil effects in human relations that man’s suppressing the knowledge of God produces. In the Greek text there is a wordplay that highlights God’s just retribution. As people disapproved of the idea of retaining God in their thinking, so God gave them over to a disapproved mind (Romans 1:28). This letting loose has led to all kinds of illogical and irrational behavior.

"People who have refused to acknowledge God end up with minds that are ’disqualified’ from being able to understand and acknowledge the will of God. The result, of course, is that they do things that are ’not proper.’ As in Romans 1:21, Paul stresses that people who have turned from God are fundamentally unable to think and decide correctly about God and his will. This tragic incapacity is the explanation for the apparently inexplicable failure of people to comprehend, let alone practice, biblical ethical principles. Only the work of the Spirit in ’renewing the mind [nous]’ (Romans 12:2) can overcome this deep-seated blindness and perversity." [Note: Moo, p. 118.]

Unrighteousness (Romans 1:29; wickedness, NIV) is what is contrary to what is right or just. Wickedness (Romans 1:29; evil, NIV) is what is vile and sinister. Greed (Romans 1:29) is the drive to obtain more. Malice (depravity, NIV) describes resident moral evil. "Insolent" focuses on activities, "arrogant" on thoughts, and "boastful" on words. [Note: Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, pp. 93-97.] Most of the rest of these characteristics are self-evident. [Note: See René A. López, "A Study of Pauline Passages with Vice Lists," Bibliotheca Sacra 168:671 (July-September 2011):301-16.]

"Insolent [Romans 1:30]. Greek hybristes, one who behaves with humiliating and unconscionable arrogance to those who are not powerful enough to retaliate." [Note: Bruce, p. 81.]

The final step down in man’s degradation is his promotion of wickedness (Romans 1:32). It is bad to practice these things, but it is even worse to encourage others to practice them.

"Granted that commending evil is not, in the ultimate sense, worse than doing it, it is also true that in a certain respect the person who commits a sin under the influence of strong temptation is less reprehensible than the one who dispassionately agrees with and encourages a sin for which he or she feels no strong attraction him- or herself." [Note: Moo, p. 122.]

This is the longest list of this type in the New Testament. Its purpose is to show the scope of social evils that results when God hands people over to a depraved mind after they refuse to acknowledge Him. See Matthew 15:19; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; and 1 Peter 4:3 for other "vice lists."

Paul’s use of the past tense in Romans 1:18-32 suggests that he was viewing humanity historically. Nevertheless his occasional use of the present tense shows that he observed many of these conditions in his own day. He was viewing humankind as a whole, not that every individual has followed this general pattern of departure from God. One expositor labeled the four stages in man’s tragic devolution that Paul explained as follows: intelligence (Romans 1:18-20), ignorance (Romans 1:21-23), indulgence (Romans 1:24-27), and impenitence (Romans 1:28-32). [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 1:518-19. For another exposition of 1:18-32 see J. Dwight Pentecost, Pattern for Maturity, pp. 52-59. He also offered expositions of 6:11-23 (2); 7:1-14; 8:1-8; 8:1-13; 12:1-21; 14:1-13; 14:13-23; 14:22-15:3; and 15:1-7 in this volume.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Romans 1". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.