Today we begin Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is the longest, most famous, and most theologically rich of all Paul’s letters. We could spend a year or more just walking through this letter. However, since we are going to do it in only four days, we are only going to be able to take a big-picture view of what Paul is saying. Today we will cover chapters 1-4 where Paul expounds everyone’s need for justification by faith.
This letter comes from Paul alone (1:1). He writes to the church in Rome, even though he has not been there himself at this point in time. Paul is sure to point out that the Gospel he preaches, and which he is about to expound, is what was promised by the Old Testament prophets (v. 2) about God’s Son, the greater Son of David (v. 3). His resurrection from the dead proves He is God Himself (v. 4). Note that here the resurrection is attributed to the power of God the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Holiness). Through Christ, grace is given for the purpose of bringing about the obedience that comes through faith in Him, for all nations (v. 5) – for all who are called to belong to Christ (v. 6). In one long run-on sentence, Paul begins this letter by telling the church that they are the ongoing fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of salvation from the Davidic Covenant. Christ continues His gracious work through the obedience of the elect. And it doesn’t matter whether one is a Jew or a Gentile (much more on that below).
Paul expresses his desire to come to the Christians in Rome (vv. 10-13 – see Acts 19:21). He tells them that he has been called to preach the Gospel (v. 9) to all people (v. 14), including them (v. 15). Paul then declares his boldness for the Gospel (see 2 Cor 3). The Gospel message contains God’s saving power, for the Jew and the Greek (v. 16). Note that it is the Jew first and also to the Greek. Paul is following the order of the mission Christ gave His church (see Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8). And why is the saving power of God in the Gospel? It reveals the righteousness (justification) God gives through faith – beginning and ending with faith! – as it is through faith alone that the justified will live (v. 17).
Paul here quotes Habakkuk 2:4. Remember the context of what Paul is quoting. The prophet Habakkuk saw the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon. He wanted to know why God would allow such a thing to happen to His chosen people. Part of God’s answer is that the righteous would live by his faithfulness. Paul is quoting this to show his readers that the plan revealed through the prophets from the beginning was a salvation that included those with faith from all nations. Paul’s whole point in the first quarter of the book is that every person – Jew or Gentile – needs to be justified by faith in Christ to live.
That is why Paul speaks of God’s wrath being revealed against all the unrighteousness (the opposite of the righteousness in verse 17) of all men (v. 18). God has also revealed Himself to all men (vv. 19-20). This is what Paul preached in Athens (see Acts 17:22-31). All men – Jew or Greek – are on equal footing. All men are equally without excuse. That anything at all is reveals God. The creation around us reveals God (see Psalm 19:1-4).
Now, here is where I will get some disagreement. But what I am saying becomes very clear when we consider the entire passage and the entire book as an organic whole. While the “they” of verse 21 does speak of all men in a sense, which is Paul’s point, in the context of his larger argument, Paul is foreshadowing what he is going to explain in chapter 2. The “they” here is a reference to the Jews. Paul is explaining to the Romans that they need to be justified by faith just the Greeks need to be justified by faith just like the Jews need to be justified by faith. The Gospel is equally for all people, and faith is equally necessary for all people.
Follow the argument understanding Paul is speaking about the physical people of God, the Jews. They knew God in a way that no other nation did. But they did not honor God differently than the other nations like they should have (see Isa 29:13, Matthew 15:8, 1 Sam 2:20). Those given the wisdom of God chose to be fools (v. 22) and worshiped false gods (as we saw throughout the entire Old Testament!) (v. 23, 25). So God gave them over to their sin when He forsook them as a nation (v. 24). He left them to their sin when He removed His presence from among them because they first forsook Him (v. 28), and they fell further into sin (vv. 29-31). Verse 32 is the key. This is not every person on earth, because only Israel was given God’s righteous decrees in the Law. Paul makes that clear in the following chapters. They have been turned over to their sins and will be judged because they had the advantage of having the Law. This is Paul’s basis for turning to the Gentiles to preach the Gospel (see Acts 13:46, Acts 18:6 – Paul went to the Jew first then also to the Greek).
I would also give a warning against misusing verses 26-27. While this does refer to homosexual activity, and it does describe that activity up as an especially heinous corruption of the created order, Paul is not speaking about homosexuality as the unpardonable sin. He isn’t speaking about it as a measuring stick for the sin of a person or society. Paul throughout this passage is pulling from the Old Testament to show that Israel/Judah in particular has brought judgment upon herself according to the Law. Paul is invoking Jeremiah 5:21-22, 10:14, Psalm 14:1, 106:20, a host of Proverbs, Deuteronomy 4:16-18, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 to show that Israel earned judgment every bit as much as the rest of the world. He alludes to 1 Kings 8:43, 2 Kings 19:19, and Psalm 100:3 to indict them for failing to be what God called them to be for the sake of the world. The corruption of the created order through homosexuality is part of the “images” that Paul is talking about here. Heterosexuality is rooted in man’s imaging God (see Gen 1:27, 2:18-25). Israel, who was given the Word of God (remember, there was no New Testament when Paul wrote this!), failed to be what His Word called them to be. Therefore, they have no excuse.
Paul continues this same thought in chapter 2. The first three verses (2:1-3) could have easily been spoken by Jesus to the religious elite! The Jews believed that since they were physical sons of Abraham, God would have to save them (see chapter 4 below). And He had been so patient with Israel! But He was patient to give them time to repent (v. 4). But Israel for the most part did not repent, and they will be judged (v. 5). God will render to each person – no matter who – according to their works (v. 6). Those who seek Him will have eternal life (v. 7). But those who do not obey the truth will be judged (v. 8).
Paul now refers back to what he said in 1:16. The Gospel – justification through faith alone – saves everyone, the Jew first and also the Greek. Here he expands on that. There will be judgment for those without faith – the Jew first and also the Greek (v. 9), and glory and honor (God honors those who honor Him – see 1:21) for those saved by faith, the Jew first and also the Greek (v. 10). Paul’s point is that the Jews are not special in any way where God’s salvation is concerned (v. 11). Whether you were given the Law (Israel) or not (the nations) sin is sin, and sin will be judged (v. 12). Just being given the Law (Israel) doesn’t mean anything (v. 13). You have to do the Law (which means faith in Christ – see below and Jas 2:14-26). Which Gentiles – who were not given the Law – can do without the Law (vv. 14-15).
But if the Jews – because they were given the Law – think that just because they have the Law and “know” the Law (vv. 17-20 – see again 1:21) they are required to do anything less than the Gentiles of verse 15, they are sorely mistaken. Again, they were to obey the Law for the sake of the world (v. 24). The physical means nothing (vv. 25-26). Those who were not given the Law (the Gentiles who are spiritually circumcised) will condemn those who were given the Law (v. 28), because (and this is central to the whole letter!) a true Jew – a true Israelite – is one of God’s spiritual people (v. 29). Paul is saying what the prophets said and what the Old Testament foreshadowed from start to finish: the physical people of God are not the true people of God – the spiritual people of God are His true people.
So does the Jew have no advantage? Does circumcision have no advantage (3:1)? Of course there is an advantage! If you are a physical Jews, you have had the Word of God a lot longer than anyone else (v. 2). You have known (should have known) for millennia what God wanted of you! So does that mean that God’s rejection of the physical people points to unfaithfulness in God (v. 3)? Of course not! Paul quotes the Septuagint of Psalm 51:4. God is absolutely just to judge Israel! And if His plan was for Israel’s (when Paul says “our/we/us” here, he is speaking of physical Jews, as the parenthetical makes evident as does verse 9) failure to show forth His righteousness to the world in judging them, does that point to injustice in God (v. 5)? Of course not! If God can’t judge those who have the Law for disobedience, how could He judge those who don’t have it (v. 6)? But if that was God’s plan, why is Israel then condemned (v. 7 – Paul will expound this further in chapters 9-11)? Why isn’t their evil really good if it was God’s will (v. 8)? Those who think this way will be condemned.
So the Jews have the advantage of having the Law. But that is no advantage (v. 9), because everyone – even the Jews who have the Law – are guilty before God. Paul then quotes Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, 10:7, Proverbs 1:16, and Isaiah 59:7-8. The point is that part of the promise of the Scriptures (1:2) is the universal need for the Gospel. Thus, the Law that the Jews were given serves only to show them their sinfulness and need of salvation (vv. 19-20 – see Gal 2:16).
“But now…” How glorious!! Even though the Law – like all the Scriptures – points us to justification by faith alone, now God has manifested that righteousness we need in Jesus Christ – whether Jew or Gentile (vv. 21-22) because we are all on equal footing as sinners before God (v. 23), and we can all only be justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 24-25). This is why God showed patience (2:4). In Jesus Christ, God is both just to punish sin (v. 4), and remains just when He justifies (makes righteous) those who have faith (v. 26). Because obedience to the law (the works of 2:13) is placing one’s faith in Christ (vv. 27-28, 31), regardless of physical lineage (v. 29). All are saved the same way (v. 30). Again, this is so clear, and this needs to be kept in mind as we go through the rest of the letter.
So, Jews and Gentiles are saved the same way: by faith. Jews and Gentiles – whether they have the Law or not – will be judged the same way for lack of faith. There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles to God. Then what was gained by Abraham, the physical ancestor of physical Jews (4:1)? Well, first of all, Abraham was not given the Law, so he could not be justified by works of the Law (v. 2). Second of all, Abraham was like everyone else: he was justified through faith alone (v. 3). Because if we have to work for something, our payment is not considered a gift; it’s what we earned (v. 4). And what have we earned? Death (see chapter 3)! So it isn’t works of the Law that justify (they can’t!), but faith alone (v. 5). This is what was gained by Abraham – salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
Paul then cites Psalm 32:1-2 where David speaks of the blessedness of not getting what we earn. So, if faith was the means of righteousness for Abraham, and if this righteousness was given to him before circumcision (circumcision being an outward sign of inward righteousness), then Abraham is not the physical ancestor of physical Israel. He is the spiritual ancestor of all who are saved through faith (vv. 9-12). He is not the father of those who are only circumcised physically. He is the father of those – circumcised or uncircumcised – who have faith (see Galatians 3-4, especially 3:7).
This means that the promise given to Abraham (see Gen 12, 15, 17) is a promise of faith (v. 13). Note that the promise was that Abraham would be heir of the world. So those who have the Law cannot be the heirs of those promises, because that would nullify faith (v. 14). Remember, the Law only brings a knowledge of sin (v. 15 – see chapter 7). Verse 16 speaks for itself. This is the conclusion of the first quarter of this letter. This is about grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul is saying that is the substance of the promises to Abraham. Abraham, our father in faith, is the father of all who have faith – Jew or Gentile. And Abraham knew it was a promise of faith! That’s why he was not deterred by his physical condition: this was about faith, not the physical (vv. 18-21). And that is why his faith was counted as righteousness (v. 22). And his righteousness by faith is not just about him (v. 23). It’s about us, his spiritual offspring (v. 24). Just as Christ was not limited by the physical in His resurrection, neither is the family of Abraham limited by the physical (v. 24). Jesus was delivered for our (the spiritual people) sin and raised for our justification (v. 25).