Reformation Commentary on Scripture

Romans 1-8

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Gwenfair Walters Adams
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , April
     668 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paul’s letter to the Romans is a central New Testament writing, and Romans 1-8 is especially rich. Reformation-era interpreters produced more commentaries on Romans than any other book of the Bible. At least seventy were published between 1500 and 1650. Now, many of the treasures of these works are presented in this volume in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (RCS) series. Editor Gwenfair Walters Adams has done an excellent job in introducing this volume and assembling a wide variety of commentary materials on the various passages of Romans 1-8. Most of the selections here have not been published since the 16th or 17th centuries, and most them are translated into English here for the first time. 

Those represented in Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Romans 1-8 include Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformers; Reformed commentators; Anabaptist and others; Pre-Tridentine Catholic commentators; and Anglicans and Puritans. Traces of the reading and interpretation of Romans by women have also been identified in a variety of genres: hymns, ballads, prayers, and letters. 

The significance of Romans 1-8 is apparent throughout. As Adams notes “for the interpreters in this volume, Romans 1-8 was a prism through which all the colors of the rainbow of doctrine were refracted” (lviii). Great loci in Christian theology emerge from exegetical interpretations of themes in these chapters: Human sin and God’s holiness; Iustitia Dei and justification by faith alone; the Sacraments; Imputation of Christ’s righteousness; Law and Gospel; and Good works and the transformed life. The theological term ordo salutis—the order of salvation—has its origins here (especially in Romans 8:30). Such commentaries, by early church theologians, were used by Reformation commentators, linking their work with interpretations of the patristic era. 

The commentary begins by quoting Luther who, in his “Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans” (1545), wrote “this letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament” (1). The breadth of this perception is seen in the next excerpt, from the Roman Catholic pastor Johann Wild, in “the whole of Christian teaching revolves around this book” (2). 

Luther’s personal turning point is marked by his new understanding of Romans 1:17, and the phrase “the righteousness of God.” Luther “hated that word, ‘justice of God,’” which traditionally meant the “formal or active justice … that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.” The breakthrough came with a new perception: “the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of god, that is, by faith.” This is “a passive justice, namely, that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith.” For Luther, “all at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light” (48).

The “righteousness of God” is “lavish mercy,” according to the Reformed commentator, Johannes Oecolampadius (on Romans 3:22). This mercy “rests on the promises” God made. They are of “salvation through the Son, rather than through our own works, it is rightly called his ‘righteousness’” (162). This salvation is received by faith; this is not “bare faith such as sometimes exists without trust, for it is only trust that lays hold of God’s righteousness and mercy” (162). This is the necessary way of salvation given that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This “glory of God” is what humans have lost by transgression into sin. It is “the integrity, holiness, and perfection that God was to possess in humanity as the royalty above all creatures, formed in the image and glory of God. But all are destitute of, or lack this glory,” wrote Heinrich Bullinger (165). 

The only hope of salvation, according to God’s promises is through Jesus Christ. Jesus was delivered up in his death “that he might meet death on our behalf, even while we were still ungodly,” said Bucer (on Romans 5:1; 264). Christ’s righteousness “is imputed to believers so that they appear righteous in God’s sight,” wrote the Lutheran Niels Hemmingsen (on Romans 5:12; 291). “Faith toward Christ, when the gospel is believed, causes us to be fully convinced that we are so loved by both the Father and the Son that, now that our sins are forgiven, there is no evil that will not be turned away, nor anything good that will not be provided for us” (Bucer, on Romans 5:1; 264).

In this, believers are set free from “the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Lutheran Christoph Corner said “the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us through the offering of Christ’s sacrifice” (on Romans 8:3; 421), and Bullinger wrote: “[t]he law of the Spirit of life, through Christ, has freed us from sin and death” (416). Now, by faith, believers are “engrafted into Christ” (Vermigli; 417). They now “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). “They are not saved by so doing; rather, they are led by the Spirit of God because they are saved by the grace of Christ” (on Romans 8:4; Musculus; 424). 

The Christian life is marked by the Holy Spirit within its believers, and obedience to the Spirit’s leading. Vermigli wrote: “[a]s many of us as belong to Christ ought to measure ourselves by this proper and certain rule: that we perpetually consider how much we have advanced in obedience to the Spirit” (on Romans 8:9; 432). For Zwingli, “man or woman can live by nothing external, but only by the Spirit” (on Romans 8:10; 433). 

This splendidly rich volume concludes with words of Philip Melanchthon, on Romans 8:39, about what he calls “this proper and chief voice of the Gospel”: “God loves us so much he certainly will not cast us away, even though we are weak and are troubled by every kind of affliction … do not let the greatness of the afflictions break you, but in all terrors look upon this comfort, that God certainly loves you” (506).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gwenfair Walters Adams is Associate Professor of Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.


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