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On RJ Grunewald’s “Reading Romans with Luther.”
I usually chuckle when preachers begin their sermons with the sentiment that their selected text is their “favorite” in the whole Bible. I chuckle because not only do I do the same thing but I also know that this is usually just a quick way to introduce the text without really introducing it. But I have to say that when it comes to the Book of Romans, it really is my favorite. In the past few years, Paul’s letter to the Romans has really become the fondest book of the Bible for me, and I’m not alone in that opinion. In fact, Samuel Coleridge is quoted as saying that Romans is “the most profound writing that exists” and “the premier example of epistolary writing” — not of just the Pauline letters or of just the New Testament — “but also in all of ancient literature.”1
It’s no secret that this book is of utmost significance, not only because of its vast spiritual richness but also when you consider its historical value. The book itself is often dubbed as the trigger of the Protestant Reformation, as it was Martin Luther’s meticulous study and survey of the book that ignited the most sweeping religious reform movement the Christian world has ever seen. Luther even went on to say:
The Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.2
Indeed, there’s no sweeter gospel than that which is expounded and expressed in the Book of Romans. And with this momentous gospel comes the equally momentous task of interpreting and applying it to our modern context. This is what RJ aims to do in Reading Romans with Luther — that is, make the rich and inexhaustible truth of Romans available and accessible to the common Christian. I was privileged to be a part of the launch team for this work, reading the finished book a few weeks before it was actually released. After the success of RJ’s condensation of Luther’s commentary on Galatians, turning to Romans was not only natural, it was necessary considering the immense importance of the apostle Paul’s letter. But the manner in which RJ approaches this commentary is fresh and exciting, as he doesn’t just regurgitate Luther’s original words but provides keen insight into Luther’s comments and their biblical bases.
Luther’s commentary on Romans remains the premier theological investigation of the book. And as with most things Luther wrote, his commentary on Romans is a timeless work that ought to be referenced and celebrated by Christians of all ages. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. This is primarily due to the style and manner in which Luther presents his thoughts. We don’t read or write the way we used to in Luther’s era and, therefore, many of his comments go misread or misunderstood. This is where Reading Romans with Luther more than amicably steps in to she’d a bright light on this crucial book.
The importance of Romans and its commentary can’t be overstated. In it we find the most profound gospel truths ever recorded. We read of justification by faith alone; the radical, unfathomable grace of the Father; Jesus as the second Adam; freedom from the law; the unconditional love of God in Christ, etc., just to name a few. Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, diagnoses the reader in expert fashion, exposing him for the sinner estranged from God he actually is. But he doesn’t leave the reader there — he follows up this diagnosis with the deliverance of God through his Son. “The Law exposes the sinner so that the Gospel might expose the Savior.”3 Throughout Romans, as in the rest of Scripture, we are pointed away from ourselves and back to our only hope, the alien righteousness of Christ.
Our unrighteousness is covered by a righteousness we could never find for ourselves; it’s foreign to us yet given freely to us.4
Praise God for this foreign righteousness, this otherworldly grace that rescues and redeems those who are lost. God’s Word will bury you with the news of your own spiritual bankruptcy. But that’s actually good news, because only the buried can be dug up. Only the dead can be raised to newness of life. God’s Words of law and gospel expose and exonerate those that are racked with guilt and shame. He speaks words of peace and pardon to the weary and oppressed.
But more than just a law/gospel book, Reading Romans with Luther is a compact systematic theology book, one that anyone can pick up, read, and apprehend. Its depth isn’t found in its extensiveness and exhaustiveness, but in the richness of Luther’s astute commentary. Couple that with RJ’s profound appreciation for not only Luther but for Scripture as a whole and the themes covered, and what you have is a vital work that seeks to continue bringing lofty theology down to earth.
Roy Zuck and John Walvoord, Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2002), 435.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xiii.
RJ Grunewald, Reading Romans with Luther (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2017), 43.