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 full commentary as a pdf, click here Shogren_Commentary on Romans

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 is the theme of 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 and,  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 NIV, NEB, NAB, NRSV, REB; it is “propitiation” in other versions (D-R, KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV). 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 it 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. Of course, some reject from the outset 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 of the equation 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. Sinners are not made 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, “justify”, 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). But the apostle introduces a special, “Pauline” usage of the term, which is found throughout Romans (with the exception of Rom 3:4), 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 selection by God to receive the covenant. In addition, 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), that is, “of all” regardless of their nationality. 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 righteous, 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 live 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 faith 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 – 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 subtler shades: 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 “those who are 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 (that is what most modern rabbis teach), but the norm then 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 petitioning 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 remained 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 decided to accept circumcision, thus straying from the right path? 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 stipulate 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 restricts the options to two: either one tries to be saved by the Torah, or one comes to God 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 was also the father of many kings, starting with David. But as Christians now know, Abraham is the father of another king, Jesus: “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1, and of course Rom 1:3-4). What is more, Abraham 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”; 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); he was “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 true 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 now 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 that 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, 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 the seminary where we teach, 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 accepted only 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 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” (an idea 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 tarry 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 if we want revival, then 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 might result in 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 most fundamental questions. 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 casual 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, 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 is wondering 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 and rejects the old paradigm entirely: “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 with the joys of being 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 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 (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. And 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 services. The Christian must balance a life of fearlessness (8:15), hopefulness (5:2), and still 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 line would of course be drawn 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 was created thousands of years ago (although not necessarily in 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 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 God selected the pair as representatives of all their kind. 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 an individual human being; this contrary to the philosophies current in his day and ours.

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. This doctrine still shows up in cartoons today: when the person has to make a decision, a good angel appears on one shoulder and speaks good counsel to him, and an evil angel on the other shoulder gives wicked advice. 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 their offspring. 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; meanwhile 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 Romans 7:14-25.

What is Paul’s approach? 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 message is based on the contrast of 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 logically they have the means 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 from fallen Adam, everyone 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 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 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 better life choices.

Augustine was a forerunner both of Roman Catholic doctrine and that of the Reformers. On the Roman side, he taught that when babies are baptized, that grace removes original sin. On the Reformed side, the Augustinian view of total depravity forms the basis for the doctrine of election

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 than baptism, we each depend on 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).

v. 21 is one of those “dense” Pauline declarations, whereby he packs much 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 came 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

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