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Why Studying Romans Is Worth the Work? David G. Peterson on His New Commentary on Romans

One of the exciting parts of launching a translation is seeing its words and phrases become a part of the scholarly conversation around biblical theology. In the past few years, we have been able to watch the development of a new series of commentaries, the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (BTCP) series, which features the Christian Standard Bible text.

The second volume, David G. Peterson’s Commentary on Romans, is now available in stores. To learn more about this volume, we sat down with Dr. Peterson to talk about biblical theology, worship, and what we gain from unpacking the dense arguments of Romans.

How can studying Paul’s letter to the Romans from the perspective of biblical theology help pastors to preach it better?

Biblical theology examines the unfolding plan of God in Scripture and shows how the promises and provisions of God in the OT are fulfilled for us in Christ. When Paul grounds his gospel “in the Holy Scriptures” (1:2), he does not simply “proof text.” Rather, he uses biblical quotations and allusions with reference to their context in the Bible’s storyline as a basis for exposing their significance for Christian believers. A good example of this is his extensive treatment of Gen 15:6 in Romans 4 or his reflection on the gospel implications of Deut 30:12-14 in 10:5-10. Israel’s story is fundamental to Paul’s argument at several points in Romans (2:12–3:20; 7:7-13; 9:1–11:36).

Preachers who follow Paul’s guidelines will help their listeners come to a better understanding of the OT and its contemporary relevance. Such preaching can be a testimony to the faithfulness of God and an encouragement to trust him more consistently. But preachers who follow Paul’s argument closely will also be able to give a biblically informed presentation of some of the great gospel themes in Romans, such as righteousness, justification, sanctification, faith, and obedience. Debates about these themes and their interrelationship have often been driven by dogmatic concerns and presuppositions. Biblical theology gives us the opportunity to approach these disputes in a fresh way and to discover the foundation and framework of the apostle’s thinking.

Some Christians struggle with following Paul’s close argument in Romans. But for believers who persevere and seek to understand how Paul unpacks the gospel, what are some of the significant payoffs?

The opening chapters give a profound view of sin, both in the pagan world (1:18-32) and in the religious context of first-century Judaism (2:1–3:20). This enables the discerning reader to have a greater appreciation of humanity’s need for the gospel and what it can achieve in the lives of those who believe it (3:21-31; 5:1-11; 6:1–8:39). Since faith is the means by which we appropriate the benefits of the gospel, we are greatly helped by Paul’s discussion of this topic in 4:1-25 and his return to this theme in 9:30–10:21. The way in which genuine faith leads to fruitful obedience, love, and perseverance in the face of suffering is expounded in 12:1–15:13.

Many Christians question why so many people harden their hearts against the gospel and wonder about whether there is any hope for them to be saved. Paul discusses these issues with reference to his own people Israel, examining the promises of God in Scripture, and reflecting on the blessings he sees flowing from his ministry of the gospel among the nations (9:1–11:36). Moreover, the opening and closing sections of the letter reveal much about Paul’s missionary strategy and intentions (1:1-17; 15:14-33), suggesting ways in which Christians today can think more creatively about how to advance the gospel in their own context.

Much of the letter is profound theological argumentation. But as you observe, “A surprising amount of Romans is also devoted to explaining the practical consequences of our new life in Christ.” What are some examples of these practical consequences?

The practical consequences of our new life in Christ are signaled from the beginning of Romans (1:1-17) and continue to emerge in the context of Paul’s theological and biblical exposition (e.g. 3:27–4:25; 5:1-11). But 6:12-23 marks a significant turning point in the letter, where the apostle begins to outline the way to resist sin and become “enslaved to righteousness.” His focus on the possibility of moral transformation and newness of life in Christ continues in 7:1–8:1-39, where the ministry of the Holy Spirit comes into view.

Most obviously, 12:1–16:27 is taken up with the practical outworking of this life under grace. Paul has profound things to say about everyday service to God in fellowshipping with believers, dealing with persecution, living as responsible citizens in a pagan society, dealing with problems in the church, and sharing the gospel. Even the list of greetings in the final chapter has important implications for the discerning reader!  

How does Paul, through his interpretation of the OT (in your words), “situate his readers within the unfolding story of God’s engagement with humanity”?

At one level, Paul views all humanity as fallen in Adam and in need of the salvation proclaimed in the gospel (1:18–3:20; 3:23; 5:12-21). At another level, he draws attention to God’s primary choice of Israel to experience his covenant mercies, beginning with the call of Abraham and climaxing with his sending of the promised Messiah (4:1-25; 9:1-13; 11:25-36). Even as he draws attention to this salvation-historical perspective, he is keen to point out God’s stated intention to bless all the nations of the world through Christ and the gospel (3:27–4:25; 9:14–11:12; 15:7-12).

Paul wants Gentile Christians to be clear that they have been grafted into the ‘cultivated olive tree’ of the historic people of faith (11:13-24). They are not to boast over the natural branches that have been broken off because of unbelief, but to reflect on the kindness and severity of God. The apostle wants his Gentile readers to beware of hardening their hearts in arrogance, and he encourages them to be hopeful about God’s continuing mercy being shown to unbelieving Israelites.

All this is related to Paul’s missionary agenda and desire for the Roman Christians to support him in the next stage of his gospel outreach (11:13-16; 15:14–32). So, his situating of them within the unfolding story of God’s engagement with humanity has a missiological aim. But Paul also has an ecclesial aim, as he seeks to deal with division among his readers over certain religious practices and to unite them in service to God and love for one another (14:1–15:13). Foundationally, his eschatology identifies all believers as recipients together of the present benefits of Christ’s saving work and as those who can live in hope of ultimately sharing in the glory of God (3:21-26; 5:1-11; 6:1-25; 8:1-39).

One of the biblical-theological themes you address is worship. How, according to Romans, should the gospel inform a Christian’s understanding of worship?

God’s wrath is revealed from heaven because human beings fail to glorify him as God and give him thanks (1:18-21). Characteristically, they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and “worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator” (1:25). But God has provided “an atoning sacrifice” in the blood of Christ, the benefits of which are received through faith (3:25). As in OT teaching about the sacrificial system, God paradoxically provides the means of saving us from the ultimate expression of his own wrath (5:8-9).

In response to what he has done for us in Christ, we are to present ourselves to him as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (12:1). The sacrifice in question is our “bodies,” meaning ourselves as a totality (cf. 6:13,16, “offer yourselves”). As those who have been brought from death to life, through Jesus’s death and resurrection (6:4-11), we belong to God as a “living sacrifice.” This is further described as (literally) your “understanding service” (12:1), suggesting that the presentation of ourselves to God in Christ is the essence of Christian worship.

The mind is certainly central to Paul’s teaching here, but the focus is not simply on rationality. The service he calls for is obedience motivated by faith in Christ and what he has done for us. Those whose minds are being transformed and renewed by God will no longer be conformed in lifestyle to the values, attitudes, and behavior of “this age” (12:2), which is the pattern of sin outlined in 1:24-32. Acceptable worship is the service rendered by those who truly understand the gospel and want to live out its implications in everyday life. Paul teases out the practical implications in 12:2–15:13, where ministry to others in the body of Christ and praise to God for his saving work are different aspects of this obedient service. In 15:14-21 he describes his own gospel ministry as the priestly service that makes such worship possible (cf. 1:9-12).

The Commentary on Romans is part of the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series, a growing series of commentaries that features the CSB text. The Commentary on Romans is now available—find out more or order your copy.