While I was serving on mission in Brazil a few years ago, I wrote a devotional commentary on Romans 1 – 7 which I thought I would share here. It is not meant to be an academic commentary but rather was birthed out of my personal study and reflection while serving at Casa Semear, a project of ABBA Brazil that works with children and youth in the slums (favelas) of Sao Paulo. These were initally just written for my own devotional use, but I figured that others may derrive some blessing from it as well. So, I pray that the Lord uses it to encourage someone else.
This first entry into this devotional commentary will be a little longer since I’ve included a short introduction to the letter to the Romans here before the main commentary to help give some context. Future entries will jump straight into the text and commentary.
Introduction to Romans
The Epistle to the Romans is one of the greatest Christian writings. Many great men of God have been immensely affected by this book. Augustine of Hippo, for example, was converted through reading a passage from this letter, and thus with him began a period of the greatest importance for the church. Martin Luther’s spiritual experience was shaped by his coming to grips with what Paul says in this epistle. The Reformation may be regarded as the unleashing of new spiritual life as a result of a renewed understanding of the teaching of Romans. Again, John Wesley’s conversion was triggered by hearing Luther’s Preface to Romans. This letter is epic!
The Founding of the Church in Rome
Paul did not found the church in Rome. In 1:13 he said that he had often planned to visit them but up until that time had been prevented from coming to them. Though there are some who speculate, there is no evidence that Peter had been in Rome prior to his martyrdom several years later. Only later tradition refers to Peter as the founder and first bishop of the Roman church. If Peter had founded the church at Rome, it seems odd that Paul did not refer to him in some way in his letter.
Some have suggested that Christianity was carried to Rome by Jewish visitors present in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:10, 14). The assumption is that many of them were converted and were among the three thousand who were baptized that day (Acts 2:41). So the church at Rome was founded by believers, both Jewish and Gentile, who for a variety of reasons travelled back and forth to the capital city or who had taken up residence there. Accordingly, the earliest Christian community in Rome would have been Jewish in character. Most Christians there were either freed men, women or slaves. As many as 60 percent of them were of slave origin. In this respect, the Roman Christian community differed from other Pauline congregations. It may also be why Paul incorporates various uses of the idea of slavery in this letter.
Broad agreement exists that this corresponds to the period near the close of Paul’s third missionary journey. We know that Paul had ministered in Ephesus for two to three years (Acts 19:8, 10). From there he travelled through Macedonia and Achaia (19:21; 20:1), arriving in Greece, “where he stayed three months” (20:3). It was at this time that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. These considerations have led the vast majority of scholars to accept Corinth as the city from which Paul wrote to the believers in Rome. Perhaps this is why there is some overlap in ideas between the letters to Corinth and Rome. Romans apparently was written between a.d. 54 and 58.
Structure of the Letter
Of all the undoubted Epistles of our apostle, this is the most elaborate, and at the same time the most glowing. It has just as much in common with a theological treatise as is consistent with the freedom and warmth of a real letter. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is not easily classified. The opening and closing sections of the letter resemble those of an occasional personal letter. The opening identifies the sender and recipients, includes a greeting, and is followed by a thanksgiving section. The closing section relates the apostle’s present situation and future plans and includes a request for support, before concluding with greetings, a warning, and a doxology. However, the body of the letter is not at all like a personal letter. It constitutes an extended theological treatise, one that expounds and defends the gospel, and is followed by a long ethical section spelling out important practical implications of the Gospel. Romans, then, does not fit easily into any of the single categories suggested and is best read as a letter that utilizes various forms.
In Romans, Paul employs a number of rhetorical devices. For example, in chapter 2 he uses diatribe (in which an author engages a hypothetical dialogue partner), in chapter 3 internal dialogue (whereby an author poses and responds to his/her own questions), and in chapter 7 speech-incharacter (a device by which an author adopts a particular persona to articulate the experience of particular persons). He makes use of creedal statements, hymns and benedictions, Scripture quotations, syllogisms, and midrashic arguments. He makes extensive use also of well-known stylistic features, including parallelism, anaphora (repetition of initial words or syllables), homoioteleuton (similar-sounding endings), and chiasm (repetition of words or ideas in reverse sequence). This letter is a wealth of gems waiting to be found and it is no wonder that some consider it Paul’s Magnum Opus.
Purpose and Message
Paul wrote Romans by way of preparation for his projected visit there in the capital city. He was hopeful that Rome would serve as a base for his mission to Spain somewhat as Syria Antioch had for his first two missionary journeys. It also would have been helpful for them to provide him material support as well (“assist me on my journey there,” Rom 15:24).
However, such a purpose does not seem sufficient to explain the long theological and ethical sections of the letter (1:16–11:36; 12:1–15:13). Essentially, Paul’s thesis is that the power of God is revealed through the Gospel for all who have faith. In succeeding sections of the letter he argues the case for this thesis, defends it against possible objections, and spells out some of its ethical implications. What was Paul’s purpose? We could answer, at one level, that his purpose was to explain and defend his Gospel of justification by grace through faith for Jews and Gentiles without distinction.
Its first great topic is what may be termed the legal relation of man to God as a violator of His holy law, whether as merely written on the heart, as in the case of the heathen, or, as in the case of the Chosen People, as further known by external revelation. It next treats that legal relation as wholly reversed through believing connection with the Lord Jesus Christ. Its third and last great topic is the new life which accompanies this change of relation, embracing at once a blessedness and a consecration to God which, rudimentally complete already, will open, in the future world, into the bliss of immediate and stainless fellowship with God.
Why the long letter, Paul?
From previous experience, Paul knew that his enemies were skilled in twisting his message. Galatians (which was written earlier) is proof of that. So important were his plans for taking the Gospel to the far reaches of the western empire that he could not afford to have his message jeopardized in the very place that he intended to use as a base of operations. So he wrote a rather full and complete presentation of the message he had been preaching. The result is the Book of Romans—a magnificent presentation of the Good News that God has provided a righteousness based not on what we can do for ourselves but on what God has already done for us in sending his Son as a sacrifice for sin. Paul’s purpose was to set forth in a systematic fashion the doctrine of justification by faith and its implications for Christian living. The Gospel had to be kept free from legalism; equally important was that it did not fall into the opposite error of antinomianism.
What follows here is my devotional commentary. The Scripture text is taken from the ESV with my commentary below.
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 1: Paul uses the term δοῦλος (doulos) for himself, translated slave/servant. This was an important concept for the apostles and early believers. It was core to their understanding of their new identity in Christ. We are slaves of Christ—this idea will be expanded later in Romans. κλητὸς (klētos) is used 3 times in verses 1-7 referring to God’s calling/election of His saints.
In verses 1-2, κλητὸς (klētos) combines with ἀφωρισμένος [PfPPar] (aphōrismenos) meaning “set apart”, the Perfect aspect of the verb speaking to a state of being in which the believer is now situated as “set apart” and the Passive voice showing that it was something done to the believer, not something they did for themselves. Also combined with it is the term προεπηγγείλατο [AoMInd] (proepēngeilato) translated “promised beforehand” strengthens and expands on the sense of this predestination or calling. (See also v. 6 & 7)
Paul’s primary audience of Romans are these who are the called, elect, saved by grace and belong to Jesus. It is interesting that he addresses this letter which has much to say about salvation, justification and the Gospel to those who are already saved! I think it shows the power of the Gospel, and that we never grow weary of this great message of our salvation.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Verses 8-12: describe Paul’s deep longing for them and desire to bless them with χάρισμα πνευματικὸν (charisma pneumatikon)—spiritual grace. He defines what this is in verse 12 as συμπαρακληθῆναι (symparaklēthēnai)—literally, “to exhort together” by each other’s faith. Part of this blessing that he wishes is the fellowship and mutual enjoyment and encouragement of those joined together in the faith. How often have we been mutually encouraged by the faith of other believers around us!? Even when in a foreign country, I’m refreshed by the fellowship of believers who may not share my ethnicity, language, culture, hobbies or any other superficial identity marker, but they share with me in One Lord, one faith, one baptism and one hope!
Verses 13-15: He even desires to preach the Gospel among these believers to reap some harvest. Perhaps new converts? Could it be that even among this community of faith, there were still those unconverted in the congregation? Or, is it that the Gospel proclamation is always profitable. I would be inclined to think yes to both, and this is why Paul proclaims it unashamedly. The Gospel is always profitable – both to Christians and the unconverted because we all need regular reminders to look away from self and any other thing and turn our gaze toward Christ!
Verse 16: It is the power of God unto salvation to παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι (panti tō psiteuonti)—literally, “all the believing ones.” This is similar to the same phrase we find in John 3:16. The Gospel is the power unto salvation only to this group who are the “believing ones”. Sometimes the English translation of this phrase doesn’t quite capture this. The Gospel is not just the potential to save, but it actually saves! For God so loved the world, that He gave the Son, that “the ones believing “ would not perish but have eternal life. This substantive participle in the Greek shows us that salvation is to those who are believing (present tense) and continue to believe. Christ’s atonement doesn’t just open up potential but actually saves! It accomplishes God’s purpose to save His elect.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
Verse 18: Note the connecting word “for” that links this section to the previous. Paul’s eagerness to proclaim the Gospel is due to the “wrath of God” being revealed. Paul knows God’s judgment is certainly coming and already here. Men, because of or by their unrighteousness, actively suppress the truth. It implies something which is takes conscious effort. It is the rebellion of a heart and mind set against God. They must have the truth in order to suppress it and this suppression is not a lack of knowledge but rather because of their unrighteousness. Moral unrighteousness makes us hate the truth.
Verse 20: The invisible qualities, that is, God’s “eternal power” and θειότης (theiotēs)—divinity or divine nature—are clearly seen through creation (Ps. 19:1) because God shows it to them! This is why they are without excuse—ἀναπολογήτους (anapologētous)—literally, without an apologetic or defence. God has made it plain to them through creation. With the amount of information and apologetic arguments there are today with regards to intelligent design, scientific discovery, philosophic arguments, etc—truly we are without excuse, even as every generation past has been. This passage tells us clearly that all people have a knowledge of God and of the truth, but due to their unrighteousness, they suppress it.
Verse 21-22: This active denial and suppression of truth results in futile thinking— ἐματαιώθησαν (emataiōthēsan). Their faculties of reason become futile and erroneously applied. Paul says they became aimless in their διαλογισμός (dialogismois)—back and forth reasoning that is self-based and confused. This contributes to reinforcing their wrong views with others in discussion to remain in their initial prejudice and darkened hearts. This is some deep self-deception and is described in further detail in verses 23-31. Men claim to be wise, crafting their own theories to satisfy their desires for autonomy and freedom to sin, but become fools in reality. This is the state of every rebellious sinner apart from God’s grace. This is why we see brilliant minds who are unable to rightly discern God’s truth. We must first love truth to know truth and Jesus Christ is the Truth. The mind in opposition to Christ is, by default, in opposition to truth.
23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Verse 23-28: Here a three-fold exchange happens resulting in 3 “giving ups“ which each follow one another occur:
- Glory for Images (v.23)—this results in them being given up to “lusts of their hearts” and “dishonouring of their bodies” (v.24-25).
- Truth for Lies (v.25)—this results in dishonourable passions (v.26) which result in sexual perversion, which is also the third exchange.
- Natural relations (26-27)—exchanging the natural relations for those which are contrary to nature. Also, because they didn’t see it fit to acknowledge God, it results in a “debased mind” (v.28). Literally, a mind which is ἀδόκιμον (adokimon) meaning “unapproved, or failing to pass the test.”
This is a description of humanity’s TOTAL DEPRAVITY.
People apart from the grace of God are depraved in body, passions, desires and mind. This is why they do what ought not to be done. This is why they cannot turn to God—why they will not turn to God, and why the wrath of God is over them. It is total depravity not because of an inate inability but rather an unwillingness because their nature is sinful. This sinful nature of brokenness touches every aspect of their being – mind, soul, affections, actions – and that is why it is called total depravity. However, it does not mean that people are as depraved as they possibly can be in every area. Only that sin has corrupted every area of life. This is why God’s wrath is a totally just condemnation over all of humanity, which by nature rebels consciously and willingly against submission to its Creator. This is evidenced in how we exchange God’s truth for our own self-deception. We’re totally lost and in need of salvation which we cannot attain for ourselves.
29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Verses 29-32: Describe what this total depravity looks like. It describes unredeemed humanity as filled with “all manner” of wickedness. Is this not what we see in our world today? Though men may not be as evil as they could be, due to the restraining common grace of God, there is within them the potential for unimaginable evil. Every now and then, God’s restraining hand withdraws just enough for us to see the depths of depravity that humanity is capable of – one only need look to the atrocities of the Nazis, the killing fields in Cambodia, Stallin’s Russia and countless other tyrants. Paul makes quite a heavy list of evils here including:
- πλεονεξίᾳ (pleonexia)—covetousness—derived from pleíōn, “numerically more” and éxō, “have” – the desire to have more (things), i.e. lusting for a greater number of temporal things.
- Φθόνου (phthonou)—envy—jealous envy that negatively energizes someone with an embittered mind. It conveys “displeasure at another’s good; . . . without longing to raise oneself to the level of him whom he envies, but only to depress the envied to his own level” (R. Trench, 90)
- Δόλος (dolos)—deceit—figuratively using a bait to allure or hook or snare people implying treachery to exploit the naïve.
- ὑπερήφανος (hyperēphanous)—arrogant or haughty—from hypér, “beyond, over” and phaínō, “shine forth”—properly, over-shine, trying to be more than what God directs.
- ἄστοργος (astorgos)—heartless—a compound of negative prefix “a” and “storgé”, meaning family affection. Without natural affection.
Verse 32: These people do not just do these things, but endorse and encourage those who do them also—praising evil as good. We see this increasingly in our societies as good is called evil and evil, good. Those who are involved in the debaucheries described in Romans 1 seek to have others not just tolerate, but also affirm and celebrate their sins and give hearty approval. We see the truth of Romans 1 lived out every day in our world before our very eyes!
Paul’s introduction shows us that this glorious Gospel has been God’s plan all along (v. 1-6), to save those whom He has called, even Paul—to apostleship—to bring about “obedience of the faith” for the sake of His Name. This includes us who believe! We are saved to the glory and praise of His Name. We also see that Paul’s letter is primarily addressed to believers, and thus has a specific purpose and message for us to understand.
Furthermore, we see Paul’s longing for the church in Rome and his affections for them: praying fervently for them and expressing his deep desire to come to them. Do we have such affections for the saints? His desire is to strengthen and bless them, and this is one of the reasons why he writes this book of Romans. Romans is Paul’s big treatise on justification and salvation by grace through faith. It speaks of the timelessness of the Gospel message, for it is the very “power of God unto salvation”—and thus we never tire of its message nor does it lose its freshness!
Learning from Paul
We should note then how Paul starts off this epic letter on the Gospel with God’s righteous wrath against ungodliness. Christians can sometimes revel wrongly in the strong descriptions and indictments contained in verses 18-32 in a sort of “better than thou” attitude. We can also squirm from talking about God’s wrath at all. Yet this is not what Paul does. Two things must be kept in mind:
Firstly, we all were as such. We were no better than those who Paul describes as “suppressing the truth”, “futile in their thinking” and “filled with all manner of unrighteousness.” This was us before the grace of God came into our lives and made spiritually dead and blind sinners alive in Christ, granting us the gift of true repentance. It is a sort of argument akin to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11,
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Therefore there is no place for pride or boasting in the Christian’s attitude reading this. Quite the opposite!
Secondly, Paul’s words are driven by what he has said prior—that it was out of his great affections for the Roman believers, and also his desire to “reap some harvest” that he writes. Motives are important. Talking about God’s wrath is not just important, it is necessary and essential to the Gospel. Grace cannot be appreciated without wrath—for what then are we being saved from? So then, we too like Paul, should not shrink back in exposing the dangers of sin. This is ultimately motivated by love and a desire to impart grace to people. There is a certain gracious gentle strength to Paul’s uncompromising preaching of the Gospel—both of wrath and grace—which we can learn from.
Preaching the Gospel
Paul firstly begins by making sure it is clear that we are all without excuse. God has made it clear that He exists. His handiwork bares His name. However, men willingly, consciously and actively suppress the truth in order to allow for their own sinful desires and pursuits. Part of the wrath of God against such unrighteousness is this blindness to their own blindness. People become as those whom Jesus criticized in Matthew 15:14, “Leave them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” The most dreadful judgment of God over a person’s life is to leave them blind to their own sin, because one day that sin will lead them into the Pit. This is both just, but also a cause for us to lament over such persons—oh that they would repent! Truly if there is any love in our hearts for the lost we would not rejoice at such a pronouncement but beg the Lord for mercy over them.
With the current LGBTQ issues in today’s culture, it is easy to see the relevance of this first chapter. It is almost impossible to miss the parallels in verses 24-28 with those in a homosexual lifestyle. The phrase ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν meaning “men with men” (v.27) making it explicitly clear what Paul is referring to. Paul makes explicit reference to both male and female homosexual acts—as if to make absolutely certain there is no confusion. He is not necessarily talking about orientation as we speak of it today, as that is a modern invention, though that may be implied by his reference to the desires. He references the actions. This puts it beyond the shadow of doubt that a practicing lifestyle is being clearly called sin.
He uses the phrase παρὰ φύσιν (para physin) meaning “contrary to inner nature or the underlying constitution or make-up of someone” to describe these who commit homosexual acts. Paul says they κατεργαζόμενοι (katergazomenoi)—literally, “work down to the end-point,” to this ἀσχημοσύνην (asxēmosýnē)—shamelessness. The word literally means without sxḗma, “form”—or properly, deformity (improperly fashioned); (figuratively) improper behaviour that fails to fulfill the needed purpose (lacking what is fitting or proper). As a result, they receive in themselves the recompense which is fitting for their error. This sin is against themselves, against their own bodies. That is, they have made treacherous exchanges and have thus been given over to their sinful passions—so much so that they are unable to even think and reason properly. Instead they twist and scheme to find a way to justify their depravity instead of turn to the only One who can save them. This is tragicly sad. This is why it is imperative for the Christian to lovingly point out the dangers of such a lifestyle in hopes that God would grant eyes to see and repent.
The downward spiral of verse 24-28 leads us to the end result of all sinners (apart from God’s grace) with a total inability both to see their need, and also to call out for the help they so desperately need. Their sins compound on themselves, leading lower and lower to more debased levels of depravity and rebellion—so much to the end that they give approval and encourage others in their shamelessness. Thus, God’s wrath and judgment is just. Nothing short of the miraculous breaking in of God’s light in their lives can open blinded eyes to the glory of the Gospel. Ironically, it is this very Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation and is the only hope for the sinner. Men know nothing of free will until they have been made free by God.
But lest we become haughty, it should leave us humbled that we should be ransomed from a lot such as these. We were all those rebels at some point. The Christian is no better of his own than any one of these described, and had we been left to our own devises, we would have been the same. The reach of total depravity is to ALL of humanity, myself included. May our attitude and prayer be like Paul’s—in love, to uncompromisingly declare the sinfulness of sin, the holiness of God, the depravity of man, and the graciousness of our Saviour Christ.
Oh Lord that You would be merciful, both to us and the unsaved!—that we would realize our utter hopelessness and sinfulness before your great justice and righteous judgment. Would you once again bring alive to us the message of your Gospel, that we were called from a world of sinners totally set against You, not because of any merit in ourselves, but only by Your grace to the glory of Your Name. Would we pray for our fellow believers and long also to impart grace to all. Would you renew a passion for Your Gospel, and may we never be ashamed of its message. Who is sufficient to bring such a message? We need your help to have courage to be faithful heralds.
Give us a burden for the lost, to see them as they are, to mourn for their hopeless estate and lament over persons created in Your image who are headed to an eternity apart from your grace. May these weighty words in Romans 1 produce in us a passion to see people saved and lives ransomed. Would you grant repentance—eyes to see and ears to hear—to those who are apart from your grace. Would you rescue sinners bent on self-destruction, and would you be so gracious as to use us in the work of Your redemption. We thank You for Your faithfulness, mercy and grace over our lives. May we live lives worthy of the Gospel through which we were called.
 Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2012), 2-3.
 Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, 25-26.
 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 222.  Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 11-12.  Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 12.  Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, 26.  Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 6-7.  Robert Jamieson, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 222.  Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, 31.