New Story of God Bible Commentary Volumes: Genesis and Romans

SGBC GenesisScot McKnight set the bar high with his Sermon on the Mount volume in The Story of God Bible Commentary series.

Now there are two more volumes: Genesis, by Tremper Longman III, and Romans, by Michael F. Bird.

As Tremper Longman III describes in the video below, The Story of God Bible Commentary has three primary focuses:

  1. Listening to the Story
  2. Interpreting the Story
  3. Living the Story



You can read my review of McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount volume here. Also published so far have been Lynn H. Cohick’s Philippians and John Byron’s 1 and 2 Thessalonians. You can find the series landing page here.

NIGTC Romans: A Look Inside

romans nigtc

Does the Church need another commentary on Romans?

Time will tell. But Richard N. Longenecker’s Romans volume in the NIGTC series is about to be released.

Today Eerdmans announced a sneak peek PDF with Table of Contents and Preface, which you can find here.

I like Longenecker’s turn of phrase when he says Romans “has been, in very large measure, the heartland of Christian thought, life, and proclamation.”

He also notes:

Indeed, 2 Pet 3:16 bears eloquent testimony to the church’s mingled attitudes of (1) deep respect for Paul’s letters generally (and Romans in particular), yet also (2) real difficulties in trying to understand them, and (3) a realization of possibilities for serious misinterpretation, when it says of Paul’s letters that they “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In fact, despite all its appearances of being straightforward and clear, no other NT writing presents greater difficulties with respect to “style,” “stance,” and “audience” (to recall Erasmus’s three categories of difficulty) than does Romans.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.

Before and After #NoFilter

A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.

I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.

Before and After

But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.

A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:

Wanna know my secret?  I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.

It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.

Paul’s Before and After

The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This is “Before and After” for the child of God:

Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.

After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.

This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.

Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

What Baptism Is

Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.

In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.

Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”

Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)
Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.

So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.


We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.

Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.

But Bell says:

We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.

All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:

‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’

And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’

To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”

Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.

Remember Your Baptism

This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.

So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.

Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.

May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.

Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.

Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Timothy Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You

Timothy Keller introduces his Romans 1-7 For You:

The books in the For You series are accessible guides, useful for individual reading or for preparing to teach a group or lead a Bible study on a book of the Bible. The book’s product page puts it like this:

Written for people of every age and stage, from enquirers to new believers to pastors and teachers, this flexible resource is for you to:

• READ: As a guide to this wonderful letter, helping you appreciate the great gift of righteousness with God.
• FEED: As a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ as you read and meditate on this portion of God’s word.
• LEAD: As notes to aid you in explaining, illustrating and applying Romans 1–7 as you preach or lead a Bible study.

Whoever you are, and however you use it, this is… Romans 1-7 For You

I used Keller’s Galatians For You when preaching through Galatians this summer, and found it a helpful guide. Like the Galatians volume, Romans 1-7 generally succeeds in its aim to help readers “read, feed, and lead.” Keller presents his exposition of Romans in an accessible way. He says, “Romans is, at its heart, a letter about the gospel.”

From the first chapter the passage-by-passage comments bring the reader into the world of the text. Paul’s self-identification as “a servant of Christ Jesus” in Romans 1:1 means:

He has direct authority from Christ to teach. What he writes is Scripture. What follows is true.

Like many commentators before him, Keller takes Romans 1:16-17 to be “Paul’s nutshell summary of the gospel–his central thesis statement out of which flows the rest of the letter.” Throughout the rest of the book Keller refers to Paul’s gospel and shows how the rest of chapters 1-7 connect to the thesis statement. Keller not only shows a good sense of how the book fits together, but he also brings in other passages for a fairly robust biblical theology. This has helped me to see how Romans fits in with the rest of Scripture.

Romans 1-7 For You_KellerKeller’s writing is simple and engaging. There are some memorable lines, like this one, referring to the Old and New Testaments: “Every page that God wrote before outlines what he has now declared in full color.”

Each section concludes with “Questions for reflection,” which work well on an individual level and could also be employed in a group setting.

The devotional application is strong here, too. Readers rarely will have to wonder how a given text relates to them, and how it is calling them to live in light of it. This was perhaps what I most appreciated about the guide.

In so doing, however, the book does at times seem to go beyond what Paul himself is writing. For example, it wasn’t clear to me how Keller could conclude from Romans 1:16-17: “The gospel message is actually the power of God in verbal, cognitive form.” Though Keller is right, I think, that Paul says the gospel itself is power, I can’t find support in the text for its being explicitly verbal or “cognitive.” There were other times I felt Keller’s efforts at application or biblical theology went farther afield than Paul might have intended.

Though the series assumes no knowledge of biblical languages, there are a few Greek transliterated words and definitions. Unfortunately, three of those words are misspelled, which would make it difficult for someone who didn’t otherwise know Greek to look them up. There are a few other typos in the book, too–nothing egregious, but distracting, nonetheless.

There is a simple glossary at the back, as well as appendices. The appendices are three:

  • A detailed 11-page “Summary of Romans 1-7”
  • “Identifying the Idols of the Heart”
  • A few pages of Keller’s assessment of the “new perspective” on Paul

I’ve written more about Romans, and interacted with a number of Romans commentaries here.

The book’s accessibility, Keller’s obvious love for Jesus, and his emphasis on personal application all commend it, though I’d also suggest using it in tandem with something else (Moo and Stott come to mind, both listed in Keller’s bibliography) for the sake of balance and thoroughness.

Thanks to Cross-Focused Reviews and The Good Book Company for the review copy. You can find Romans 1-7 on Amazon here.

What is Romans Really About? (Revisited)

Romans by Jewett

When I read Romans straight through in one sitting a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see Paul’s emphasis on a community of believers. The justification by faith theme was there, to be sure, but I did not see quite the emphasis on individual and personal justification that I had expected. Of course Paul cares about individual justification, but his larger concern seems to be this: justification by faith in Jesus is available to all people. Because God’s salvation is pan-ethnic, Jew and Gentile should not fight but should celebrate instead their unity–since they both sin and are justified in the same way.

I’ve been encouraged the last couple of years to see a number of commentaries understanding the book in this same way. Robert Jewett describes his journey through Romans as a similar one.

Fortress Press is already a purveyor of some good Romans commentaries and monographs. I write here about Krister Stendahl’s Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Fortress also published the under-noticed Conflict and Identity in Romans by Philip Francis Esler, which I briefly note here. Jewett’s Romans: A Short Commentary is an abridgment of his more than 1,000 page Hermeneia volume on Romans. Kudos to Prof. Jewett and Fortress Press for publishing a shorter, more widely accessible, more affordable version of what has already become a bit of a classic among Romans commentaries.

In the Introduction to this short(er) commentary, Jewett writes:

The most troubling of [the interpretive] challenges was the slowly emerging awareness that the dominant paradigm for interpreting justification by faith as individual forgiveness of sins was not supported by the actual wording of Romans.

He states his case more strongly than I would, but he notes that the letter instead focuses on “honor and shame” and the effort to “bring together believing Jews and non-Jews in one community” (here he cites Halvor Moxnes). “I gradually recognized,” Jewett goes on, “that the central issue was setting the world right by overcoming its perverse systems of honor and shame.” The letter is “a magnificent example of evangelical persuasion.” In order to secure support for his missionary efforts in Spain, Paul would seek

that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that were currently dividing the congregations in Rome. …The gospel offered grace to every group in equal measure, shattering the imperial premise of exceptionalism in virtue and honor.

The bigger brother
The bigger brother (click image for details)

This understanding of Romans is evident throughout the commentary. Though the 18 chapters proceed passage-by-passage, there is a lot of verse-level detail. There isn’t the same amount of text-critical or technical detail that you’d expect from a full-blown Hermeneia volume, but that’s the point. What is still very much present here is a sense of the theological import of each passage, as well as the important historical and literary background details.

Romans: A Short Commentary, like Stendhal’s volume, includes the author’s original translation of Romans at the back of the book. Having reference to the whole text is convenient, though this there is more flipping back and forth required than in Hermeneia, where the text is at the beginning of each commentary passage.

From the very beginning phrase, Jewett is at ease with the letter and draws the reader in with both expertise and readable style. On “Paul, slave of Christ Jesus,” a phrase which “sounds rather degrading to the modern ear,” Jewett notes, “This would have made perfect sense in a letter to Rome, where influential slaves in imperial service proudly bore the title ‘slave of Caesar.'” If there is a “single theme in Romans” (which Jewett seems to accept), it is “the gospel,” with Romans 1:16 “[setting] the tone for the entire letter.” His focus on the communal component of offering “your bodies as a sacrifice” in Romans 12 was fresh and interesting, too.

One unfortunate gap in the volume is exegesis of Romans 16:1-16 and 16:21-23. Though every other verse of Romans is otherwise covered, the commentary moves from “chapter 17” (which goes through 15:33) to “chapter 18” (which begins at 16:17). I can’t imagine this was an intentional oversight, especially given the importance of Romans 16 to Jewett’s read of the letter as a whole.

There is a page or so in the introduction where Jewett talks about those Paul greets and their congregations, but this shorter work does not further comment on the early part of chapter 16. The reader never gets to read Jewett’s elaboration on “the social structure of the Roman congregations,” even though he says elsewhere in this volume that “the actual climax of Paul’s letter runs from 15:14 through 16:24.”

Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?
Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?

The lack of any comment on these key verses is all the more felt by readers as a loss, since not all will find Jewett’s read of the rest of Romans 16 compelling. He says that the “varied endings of Paul’s letter” (16:17-20, 25-27) were “inserted into  Romans” after Paul died. This itself is not so bad (even if I’m not convinced), but part of his motivation for saying so is that these two endings are “anti-Pauline.” The “exhort” and “steer away” of 16:17, he says, are “angry, authoritarian, and discriminatory.” But how? What if Paul is chastising anti-Semites here?

And despite what I think is a convincing link between “obedience of faith to/for all the Gentiles” in 1:5 and 16:26, Jewett says that 16:25-27 is not by Paul. Worse, it has “encouraged the dominance of anti-Semitism in Christian theology,” since in it only Gentiles and not Jews are mentioned. He contrasts that with the opening chapter’s “the Jew first and then to the Greek.” While he makes a good case for the semantic style of this doxology being less like the rest of Romans, I think he over-reads the anti-Jewish element, which I don’t see at all. It comes across as an argument from silence to say that lack of mention of Jewish believers in 16:25-27 means that the writer now is “excluding” them.

So I would go elsewhere for exegesis on chapter 16.

The book is otherwise fairly well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and a nice distillation of Jewett’s massive work in the Hermeneia series. Readers will also note that Jewett is humble enough to offer adjustments of his exegesis from Hermeneia(E.g., “What I overlooked was….”) Readers, then, get even more up-to-date thinking and research from Prof. Jewett.

If you’re studying Romans in depth, you’ll still want to try to take a gander at the larger volume. But this smaller volume will do as an initial entry point into Jewett’s copious research on Paul’s important letter.

Thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy of Romans: A Shorter Commentary. Its publisher’s product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

Teach the Text Commentary Series: Romans, reviewed

First things first: Do we really need another commentary series? This video from Baker Publishing offers an (affirmative) answer, as it introduces the new Teach the Text Commentary Series:

I agree. As I’ve worked through the Romans volume in the Teach the Text (TTT) series, by C. Marvin Pate, I’ve appreciated the way it balances “the best of biblical scholarship” with the actual end product of the sermon in view. TTT has a fantastic accompanying Website.

TTTBaker has summarized the layout of the commentary well here. Each text unit (or passage) is “six pages of focused commentary,” consisting of the following:

“Big Idea” at the head of each passage. This is not to be confused with “big idea” preaching, as this commentary’s “big idea” tends to stay within the world and era of the biblical text.

A “Key Themes” sidebar. This expands a bit on the “big idea” in bullet-point format to draw out key points from a given passage.

“Understanding the Text.” This is the meat of the commentary, and covers literary context, outline and structure, historical background, theology, and interpretation.

“Teaching the Text.” Here Pate offers guidance in how one could preach and/or teach the text, with an eye specifically to application. Pate suggests what sermons/sermon topics come to mind for him in a given passage. More technical or scholarly commentaries tend not to include this step.

“Illustrating the Text.” This feels like the added bonus section. Having a topic in mind is just a first step. Culling from history, literature, art, the social sciences, and more, Pate gives ideas for how the preacher or teacher could help make the sermon or lesson come alive via illustration.

The full-color photographs throughout the text are of high quality, and help connect the reader visually to the ancient world.

From the commentary: Corinth, where Paul wrote Romans
From the commentary: Corinth, where Paul wrote Romans

There are also “Additional Insights” throughout the commentary, that more fully develop themes like “The Backgrounds of Christian Baptism,” “Faith and Law in Paul,” and others.

Pate’s 15-page introduction to Romans covers Paul’s world(s), letters, theology, composition, Romans in history, date and place of writing, recipients, theme, purpose, and genre. He writes:

Paul therefore writes Romans to defend his gospel of the grace of God through Christ by arguing that it is rooted in the Old Testament (Rom. 2-5), providing the disclaimer that it is not antinomian in ethic (God’s grace is not a license to sin [so Rom. 6-8]), and holding out a future for Israel (Rom. 9-11).

Not all will agree with Pate’s view of “Romans as Paul’s official doctrinal statement,” but, then again, many will. I was wishing the introduction had given more attention to Paul’s theme of a justification by faith that is decidedly pan-ethnic. Pate does talk about “the end-time conversion of the nations,” but there is also a sense in which Paul is interested in multiethnic justification (where all are saved by faith, whether Jew or Gentile) now. Fortunately the body of the commentary does address this theme in places (e.g., in Rom. 3:21-26–“So Paul’s point is that God offers justification equitably to all”).

Roman empire map
From the commentary: map of the Roman Empire

Pate is able to interpret from multiple vantage points, synthesizing material across centuries that will benefit preachers in their sermon preparation. He moves from lexical analysis (Greek is transliterated) to 1st century historical background to practical theology in a fairly seamless manner. The illustrations are on point, too. He points out, for example, in Romans 13:13-14, that Augustine’s conversion story included meditation on these verses. The same unit includes an illustration involving Jean Valjean and Les Mis. Movie illustrations and hymn quotations are particularly present throughout, though preachers will also want to use their own, original illustrations, too.

The series claims to be “an essential commentary for pastors.” If and as pastoral budgets permit, I’d echo the sentiment and recommend this series as a worthy bookshelf addition.

More TTT volumes are on the way, including a posthumous Luke volume by the blessed R.T. France. Lord willing, as I continue to preach through Luke, I’ll review France’s volume in the future. A full-color pdf sample of Romans (including the introduction and first passage) is here.

Thanks to Baker Publishing for the review copy of Romans. Its Baker product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

3 More Romans Monographs to Check Out

Abraham by Wordle 2

To add to the three books I mentioned in yesterday’s post, here are three more books about Romans I’ve enjoyed using the last couple months, with sample quotes.

Benjamin Schließer, Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4: Paul’s Concept of Faith in Light of the History of Reception of Genesis 15:6. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.)

The foregoing overview of the interpretation of Gen 15:6 in Jewish theology has yielded a wide array of results and by no means a straightforward line of development in the way how the authors conceived of Abraham’s faith and God’s judgment on it.

Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.) (I reviewed Stendhal here.)

Consequently, Romans is central to our understanding of Paul, not because of its doctrine of justification, but because the doctrine of justification is here in its original and authentic setting: as an argument for the status of Paul’s Gentile converts on the model of Abraham (Romans 4).

Gerhard H. Visscher, Romans 4 and the New Perspective on Paul: Faith Embraces the Promise. (New York: Peter Lang, 2009.) Here is Visscher’s outline of Romans 4:

Rom. 4:3-8: Paul’s First Argument from Genesis 15:6
Rom. 4:9-12: Second Argument from Genesis 15:6: Faith, Circumcision, and Gentiles
Rom. 4:13-22: Third Argument from Genesis 15:6
Rom. 4:23-25: Fourth Argument from Genesis 15:6: “For us also…”

3 Great Off-the-Beaten Path Books about Romans

Abraham by WordleOver the past couple of months I’ve spent a good deal of time in Romans 4. The more I study Paul’s magnum opus, the more amazed I am by all that he packed in and the way he did it.

In my reading and writing on Romans, I’ve come across some great monographs. Here are three, with a sample quote from each. I’ll do three more tomorrow.

Pablo T. Gadenz, Called from the Jews and from the Gentiles: Pauline Ecclesiology in Romans 9-11. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.)

In sum, Christians in the Church, stemming from Jewish and Gentile origins, can rejoice together in the salvation available by faith in Christ to all without distinction. “Rejoice, O nations, with his people!” (Rom 15:10). With humility, they can marvel at God’s plan for Israel, of which the Gentile-Christians in particular are beneficiaries. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom 11:33) (p. 328)

Israel Kamudzandu, ‪Abraham As Spiritual Ancestor: ‪A Postcolonial Zimbabwean Reading of Romans 4. (Leiden: Brill, 2010.)

In Romans 4, Paul elevates Abraham as an ancestor of a new Israel, which includes Jews and Gentiles. …In this new situation, Paul gives a new meaning to the Torah as an integrator of all nations of the world. (p. 98)

Philip Francis EslerConflict and Identity in Romans(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.) I love this assessment. Before reading Esler, this is just how I had begun to understood Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans 4. Though he expresses it more eloquently than I could:

Above all, [the account of Abraham in Romans 4] carries forward Paul’s aim of recategorizing Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers in Rome into the new ingroup identity and does so by mobilizing collective memories to explain how both subgroups claim ancestry from Abraham in the same way—righteousness credited to them through faith. Abraham thus becomes the prototype of the new identity, portrayed by Paul in a manner peculiar to the needs of this communication and in the face of many rival construals of this patriarch that were possible in the ongoing processing of the past to serve the needs of the present. (p. 194)

Three more recommendations tomorrow.

Romans: Not Really about Justification by Faith?

Final AccountRomans…is not a theological tractate on justification by faith. It is not a pastoral letter dealing with the specific problems in Rome, as the Corinthian correspondence is with respect to Corinth. …Romans is Paul’s account of how his mission to the Gentiles was grounded not only in his call to be Apostle to the Gentiles but also in Scripture, the only Scripture the first Christians had, that is, the Old Testament.

–Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans

I didn’t need much convincing of the first sentence above. To be sure, Romans is a “theological tractate on justification by faith,” but it is not merely that. To read Romans as only about justification is to miss much of what Paul was about. But perhaps more on my own views about that later. For now, I offer here a review of Krister Stendahl’s Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Fortress Press, 1995).

Final Account is a collection of Stendahl’s “notes and musings rescued from tapes.” That the five chapters contained here are based on lectures makes for engaging reading. Stendahl goes through Romans in more or less chapter order. Conspicuous is the absence of any treatment of Romans 16. At one point Stendahl speaks of “Romans 1-15” as a “think-piece epistle,” suggesting perhaps that he–along with other scholars–thinks chapter 16 does not really belong in the book.

The “final account” in Stendahl’s title is “Paul’s account of how his mission to the Gentiles fit into God’s total mission to the world, the tikkun, the mending of the creation…and hence particularly the redemption of Israel.” This account ends up being “final,” because Stendahl understands Paul’s execution at Rome as happening before he could write any more letters. Stendahl adds:

Consequently, Romans is central to our understanding of Paul, not because of its doctrine of justification, but because the doctrine of justification is here in its original and authentic setting: as an argument for the status of Paul’s Gentile converts on the model of Abraham (Romans 4).

In chapter 1, “Paul and Israel,” Stendahl notes Israel and its response to the Messiah as a primary concern of Paul: “How could it be that, while his mission to the Gentiles on the specific orders of Messiah grew spectacularly, Israel itself did not respond?” Chapter 2, “A Particular Letter and Sin Universal” covers Romans 1:1-3:20 and 15. Here Stendahl pushes harder against Lutherans who see only justification by faith in Romans, and against Calvinists who see it as just the breeding grounds for “the proper doctrine of predestination.” Instead, he contends, Romans addresses how Gentiles and Jews in that community are to relate to one another. Abraham is a key figure in the issue of Jew-Gentile relations, and “Paul’s Exegetical Find” of Stendahl’s chapter 3 is that Abraham was an uncircumcised Gentile in Genesis 15 when God “reckoned [his faith] to him as righteousness.”

Chapter 4 of Final Account addresses “Missiological Reflections by a Former Zealot,” covering the key section of Romans 9-11. Paul “thinks and feels and worries with his mind” about “his fellow Jews.” He wants them to “come toward salvation.” Stendahl highlights that Paul both identifies with Gentiles in Rome, including them in the salvation story, yet also warns them to not become arrogant–they are, after all, grafted in. Imperialism in missions today, by extension, should be avoided. Chapter 5 covers Romans 12-14: “Intellectual Worship and Respect for Conviction.” Here Stendahl looks at the “ethical admonitions” that Paul gives, which follow on the heels of the “great theological thought” Paul had had about justification.

Final Account by Krister StendahlStendahl is to be lauded for situating justification by faith in a larger context. He compellingly provides evidence that Paul was concerned about the salvation of Israel, the place of the Gentiles, and his mission–and concerned about justification by faith as just a subset of those larger concerns.

On the other hand, Stendahl occasionally goes too far with his thesis:

In any case, Paul is moving West. He has plans to go to Spain, and on the way he hopes to visit Rome. That is clearly the reason for his writing.

It’s a reason for his writing, perhaps even the occasion. But to say that Paul wrote Romans with the sole purpose of explicating his Gentile mission goes too far, in my view. It’s all of the above.

Stendahl quotes Scripture rather loosely at times. He acknowledges as much: “Most of the references to the text are my rather free translations and paraphrases.” And the short book comes with the entirety of Romans 1-16 in the RSV, printed at back. Being able to look up verses handily is a great feature here. But the reader quickly finds that she or he will want to double-check such “free translations” against a relatively literal translation like the RSV.

One can easily, then, seek to corroborate Stendahl’s notion that in chapter 15, “[Paul] stressed with words upon words that he had no interest in telling the Romans anything–how to live, or how to think or what to do.” The “urge” or “appeal” (RSV) of Romans 12:1 and the “I have written to you very boldly” (RSV) of 15:15 are just two of a number of places that make the reader wonder how Stendahl came up with that read of the text. He rightly notes that Rome was not a church planted by Paul, and that he wrote to give a “final account” of his mission to the Gentiles. But this does not preclude Paul’s telling the Romans at times “how to live, or how to think or what to do.”

The reader of Final Account will have to read it with caution. But Stendahl offers a refreshing read of Romans, that at least intends to stay close to the biblical text (even if it doesn’t always). His exploration of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and concern for Israel’s salvation help the student of Paul to more fully appreciate Romans. And his insistence on setting the doctrine of justification by faith in a larger context will be a good challenge to many who so appreciate Paul’s magnum opus.

My thanks to the folks at Fortress Press for the review copy. Find Final Account at Amazon here, or at its product page on the Fortress Press site here.