In this commentary, we undertake showing that the Reformed understanding of the Gospel is clearly shown in the Scripture and accords with Catholic tradition before the Council of Trent.
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
In Chapter 1, Paul gives an introduction to what the Gospel is and begins to show why all men are in need of it. It is likely he is doing this so that the Romans may anticipate Paul’s eventual coming and support him in a future missionary trip to Spain where he would presumably teach the same Gospel.
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1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God
The terms “called” and “set apart” are obvious allusions to God’s election of believers. Knowing Paul’s life story is essential: “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me…I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood” (Gal 1:15-16). So, Paul was both predestined and radically changed by an initiative of God. In fact, all Paul knows he ascribes to God’s direct revelation and not what others have told him.
2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh
Christ was foretold in numerous Scriptures. Others have covered this topic, a good short summary can be found here (http://www.gotquestions.org/Old-Testament-Christ.html). Wisdom 2:12-24 is not very well known by Protestants because they do not include it in their Canon, but it also contains a prophecy concerning Christ’s passion. It was certainly one Paul would have been familiar with.
4 who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,
Historic orthodox theology would interpret this verse to mean that Christ was re-declared the Son of God, for He was eternally the Son of God. To disregard how the Church has traditionally interpreted Christ’s Sonship, or any other point of doctrine, is never wise.
Yet, according to Acts 13:32-33 Jesus’ Sonship was especially declared by power of the resurrection itself:
And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today i have begotten You’ (Acts 13:32-33).
Obviously, within this context the term “begotten” is not a reference to the creation of Jesus Christ, for that is an abominable heresy. The Nicene Creed teaches that Christ is “begotten, not made.” Usually, when we think of Christ being “eternally begotten of the Father” our minds race to an interpretation that revolves around Christ’s origins. However, Christ does not have an origin: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Mic 5:2).
So, the term begotten in the second Psalm likewise is not speaking about Christ’s origins, for He does not have an origin: it explicitly prophesies His raising from the dead. Hence, Christ being “begotten” of God is a reference to the Holy Spirit’s declaration of this being the case by His raising of Christ from the dead (Rom 8:11). The resurrection thereby makes it known to the visible world (“declares”) that Christ is indeed the Son of God, that He is of the same substance as God (“begotten,”) and thereby “true God of true God.”
Therefore, we may conclude that Christ’s Sonship is eternal, but it was re-declared in the heavens and thereby forcefully declared on Earth by the power of His resurrection from the dead.
5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,
It is from Jesus Christ, God Himself, that we receive the “grace” of forgiveness for our sins and in Paul’s case “apostleship.” One does not appoint himself an apostle, bishop, deacon or anything else. The Holy Spirit appoints to each member of the Church spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:7,) and sometimes special roles such as Elders/Bishops (Acts 20:28,) for the building up of the body (Eph 4:12).
6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ
The Romans who received Paul’s letter who are among “the called of Jesus Christ” are like Paul in their predestination to salvation.
7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
If nothing else, this verse reaffirms the deity of Christ–the “beloved of God” are given both grace and peace by God.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.
Arminians skip over this verse not realizing that it would be futile to thank God for the Romans’ “faith…being proclaimed throughout the whole world” if God has nothing to do with it.
9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, 10 always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.
Paul prays to God that he may go to Rome some day. He appears to take seriously what James said: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’” (James 4:15). Paul can only accomplish what he aspires to do by the Lord’s granting of it, so it colors his speech and his prayer life.
11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even 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, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Paul anticipates an opportunity for mutual edification. As we are to learn later, Paul at the very least anticipates monetary edification for a missionary trip to Spain (Rom 15:24). In exchange, he will preach the Gospel to the Romans and then the Spanish, so both may be edified spiritually.
Verses 14 and 15 essentially reveal to us the purpose of the letter: Paul is laying out the Gospel he plans on preaching to Rome and then to Spain. It is almost as if Romans is a canvassing letter enlisting the Roman Church’s support for his missionary work.
For this reason, the contents of Romans give us a good view of what Paul preached to anyone he sought to give the Gospel, while other letters (such as 1 and 2 Corinthians) usually address matters specific to certain churches and narrow details therein. This does not make the other Epistles somehow less applicable to our daily lives as all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching (2 Tim 3:16). However, it should not surprise us that Romans exhaustively covers all aspects of the Gospel, because Paul is in a sense giving the Romans an overall view of what the Gospel he preaches really is.
This means, we must pay careful attention: “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed” (Gal 1:9)! We must not deviate from the Gospel we find in Romans, because there is no other Gospel. It is THE Gospel that saves us from damnation and adopts us as God’s very children.
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 to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
The above is the two sentence summary of the whole letter. We may conclude this for two reasons. First, verses 14 and 15 shows a transition where Paul indicates that he is going to begin speaking about the Gospel. Second, verse 18 is a transition into a three chapter long discussion as to why all men are under God’s condemnation and NEED to hear the Gospel. Hence, the middle two verses serve as the summary of what the Gospel exactly is.
So, what is the Gospel in verses 16 and 17? It is the good news that God saves everyone who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. There is no mention of works as an additional requirement needed for salvation or sacraments in maintaining salvation.
The Gospel reveals “the righteousness of God,” but what does that mean? Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Romans succinctly gives us the two possible interpretations:
[T]he sense is that the justice of God, by which he is just in keeping his promises, is revealed in it [in eo], namely, in the man who believes the Gospel, because he believes that God has fulfilled what he promised about sending the Christ. And this is from faith, namely, [the faithfulness] of God who promised: “The Lord is faithful in all his words” (Ps 145:13); to faith, namely of the man who believes.
Or it can refer to the justice of God by which God makes men just. For the justice of men is that by which men presume to make themselves just by their own efforts: Not knowing the justice of God and seeking to establish their own justice, they did not submit to the justice of God (Rom 10:3). This justice [of God] is revealed in the gospel inasmuch as men are justified by faith in the gospel in every age. Hence he adds, from faith to faith, i.e., proceeding from faith in the Old Testament to faith in the New, because in both cases men are made just and are saved by faith in Christ [Heb 11:2], since they believed in his coming with the same faith as we believe that he has come.
God is righteous in his condemnation of unrighteous men who attempt to justify themselves, but His righteousness can save formerly unrighteous men. How? The righteous man is not righteous because he does good, but he is spared from death and and is made to live eternally by faith. This is the meaning of “the righteous man shall live by faith.” As we learn in Rom 4, it is precisely that faith, and not what man does, that God credits as righteousness on the man’s account. So, the faith makes the man righteous, and sustains the man so that he shall continue in God’s good grace.
We may also conclude from the words “shall live by faith” that faith is not words alone: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Righteous men live the faith, not just pay lip service to it. However, as St. Bede writes: “The works mentioned here [James 2:24] are works of faith. No one can have perfect works unless he has faith, but many have perfect faith without works, since they do not always have time to do them” (Concerning the Epistle of Saint James).
So, if any normal amount of time elapses, the faithful produce good works that God has prepared for them (Eph 2:10), but this is not the basis of the righteous man’s salvation. Even a faith with no works to show other than the good work of believing in God Himself before a sudden death is sufficient to save.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
Paul now begins his discussion concerning the human condition. The transition is the obvious contrast between “the righteous shall live…” in verse 17 and “unrighteousness of men” in verse 18. Following Paul’s logic, while righteous men live by faith, unrighteous men “suppress the truth” which is the exact opposite: they purposely deny belief in God.
This is why “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” It is revealed because the purposeful suppression of the truth is a tacit admission “that which is known about God is evident…for God made it evident to them!” These men are not ignorant of God as much as they have purposely refused to believe: “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20). They are purposely refusing the elixir that raises them from the dead, because in their pride they refuse to be exposed as wicked.
From the context, there is no indication that these men are just a specific group of sinful men. It is made clear that what Paul has in view all of those without the Law. Hence, there is a reverse parallelism between verse 16 and verse 18. Salvation comes first to the Jew and then the Gentile for reasons we will detail later. On the flip side of the coin, God’s condemnation in Romans comes first to the Gentile and then to the Jew. Hence, it is important to read all references not specific to the blanket condemnation of the Jews as a blanket condemnation of the gentiles. All men, who do not believe in God, essentially fall in one of these two camps.
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
While the Jews have had God revealed to them via the prophets and the Scripture, the gentiles likewise have had the benefit of revelation. Often called “general revelation,” though available likewise to the Jews, it is less specific. However, it clearly makes known to us that God is powerful, that He exists, and there is a moral element to existence. This is why nature is a means that the “wrath of God is revealed” in verse 18.
Verse 20 is sometimes the rallying cry of “classic apologists” such as R.C. Sproul. Walking in the footsteps of scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas, they believe that the Scripture and matters of religion are entirely consistent with the sciences and philosophy. They believe this because general revelation theoretically can be properly understood by man, and that being the case, it cannot contradict the Scripture (presuming that the Scripture is true, of course.) This school of thought was a purposeful rejection of the “double truth theory” espoused by Muslim theologians such as Ibn Rushd which essentially taught science teaches one thing, theology teaches the other, and we should accept both.
Sproul, Aquinas, and others believe that theological and philosophical enterprises should come to identical conclusions. For this reason, it is should not surprise us that Aquinas often quotes “the philosopher” (i.e. Aristotle) as an authority equal to the Scripture. After all, if Aristotle says something that is logically true, then it must be true or it opens us up to the idea that there are double, possibly contradicting, truths.
It is best not to take verse 20 as proof of the classic apologetic viewpoint, simply because it is not telling us that man can properly understand all things in nature. It simply states that the wrath of God is revealed because man can look at nature and understand that he is morally accountable for his actions. Hence, philosophy and science can contradict theology, not because there are double truths but rather unlike Scripture they are not perfectly encapsulated in words. The Scripture is revealed by God and though it can be misunderstood, it cannot be wrong. Every word of it is true. It is a higher form of truth.
Philosophy and science cannot only be misunderstood, but they can be radically misapplied, as they not codified as true by God but rather extrapolations and interpretations of observations as described by men in men’s words. Hence, there is no possibility for error in revelation, but drastic possibility for error in any man-made interpretive science such as theology, philosophy, or empiricism.
What verse 20’s general revelation does indeed tell us is that God is good, he is out there, and He created everything. These same men, though knowing all of these things, disbelieved in God because the light of God exposed His goodness and their wickedness. In exchange for the truth, they preferred idolatry which obscures both the goodness of God and the wickedness of man.
Indeed, “their foolish heart was darkened.” Did these men blind themselves or were tempted to by Satan (2 Cor 4:4)? Was this a punishment from God for their futile speculations so that He blinded their eyes (John 12:40)? We do not know. What we do know is that they purposely disbelieved in God, though nature made it evident to them that He is real, and so reaped up condemnation upon themselves.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
The short term consequences of this condemnation was a peculiar sort of judgement: the handing them over to lusts of their hearts. Paul reiterates that the reason for the judgement is that though they knew God, they disbelieved in Him preferring to believe in a lie.
Isn’t it clear that it is belief that both saves and condemns us? It is the object of the belief that changes the outcome.
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
The degrading passions surely are among “the lusts of their hearts” in verse 24. However, being that not everyone who disbelieves in God becomes homosexual, it is wise to broaden what “the lusts” may be.
Lust for power, money, status, and other things that do not bring glory to God surely are lusts that God hands over men to as punishment for their disbelief. The sexually perverted lusts in verses 26 and 27 are an additional punishment for continued unbelief. Being that God gives grace to all (Matt 5:45), but not an equal measure to each because not all are saved, we may surmise that God does not punish all equally for their unbelief. Some He totally forgives and makes a vessel of grace. Others He punishes severely. Yet others He punishes ever so more severely. Those mentioned in verses 26 and 27 are of this ilk.
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
It is possible that those “God gave…over to a depraved mind” and are guilty of the slew of sins listed are the homosexuals from verses 26 and 27. If this be the case, it shows that God punishes those who disbelieve in Him by rescinding any sort of grace that would prevent them from sinning, and as a just punishment for their sin punishes them yet more by handing them over to even greater sin, which merits yet more punishment.
However, being that the list offered is general to both heterosexual and homosexual sinners, it makes more sense to conclude that God hands over all of those who disbelieved general revelation in general to these different “lusts” for evil. Hence, homosexuality is one sort of evil lust, and this list includes yet more. Perhaps the most depraved thing of all is “that those who practice such things are worthy of death…give hearty approval to those who practice them.” They both purposefully disbelieve God and approve of wickedness. This is the opposite of those who accept God’s righteousness by believing in Him (Rom 1:17)!
The Catholic Church divides between venial and mortal sins. A key difference between the two is that venial sins are unintentional. Being that everyone who “practices such things are worthy of [DESERVE] death,” and this includes inventing evil (Rom 1:30), we can see that intentionality has nothing to do with the fact that the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23). The moment evil is contrived in the mind, voluntary or not, it has been invented. How long can a Catholic last after leaving confession before he thinks or does something greedy, deceitful, envious, arrogant, unloving, or etcetera? Indeed, all men are guilty of unpardonable sins listed in this passage all the time.
Lastly, verse 32 speaks of the fact that these men “know the ordinance of God.” Being that they are gentiles, they do not know the Law, but because of general revelation, they essentially know that there is a Law. For this reason, we can see that those who are a law onto themselves ultimately do not have another way to salvation by their good works, but rather find themselves condemned: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Rom 11:32). It is with this in mind we move onto the next chapter.