Sometimes we talk books on the podcast, like today. I love this question from Aaron Flanagan who writes in to ask: “Hello Pastor John! I know you have spent much of your life studying Romans.” No joke! “Which commentaries have proven most helpful to you — exegetically and devotionally?”
It is true. I spent a large part of my life in Romans. I was thinking about this when I heard the question. A large part of my life has been spent thinking about the book of Romans.
When I was a pastor, I waited almost 20 years to preach on Romans, because I felt like I needed to have a capital of trust in my people if I was going to venture to hold their attention for eight years on one book. I thought, “Oh, no. This is going to be boring.” And so we were in Romans for eight years. I think there are 250 or so sermons there. And the aim of all that attention to Romans has been to think Paul’s thoughts after him and to feel Paul’s passions with him and, in that way, to come into communication with the God who inspired Paul to write what he wrote and feel what he felt and, in that way, to come to appreciate and reverence and admire and rejoice in and celebrate and trust and obey and herald the mind of God as he reveals himself in the book of Romans. So yes, I have and I don’t regret it — and I would encourage anybody to give themselves long and hard to this book.
The first thing I need to say in relation to commentaries — as you might expect me to say — is that it is ten times more important that a reader, pastor, teacher, parent, anybody, look and look and look and look at the book for themselves or the paragraph for themselves before they become dependent on any commentary. If you default to a commentary too quickly, it will deaden your capacity to see things for yourself. The best writers of commentaries would agree with me on that.
If you want to see things and savor things and say things with depth and joy and authenticity and authority and power, you need to see them for yourself. People can tell when you are a second-hander. They really can. A second-hander is a person who depends on other people that see what needs to be seen and savored and said. You are dependent. And they can tell you are dependent. You never have the same sense of wonder and joy and authority and authenticity when delivering what somebody else saw rather than what you saw. So, my first note to strike is a note of warning against the use of commentaries or Piper’s sermons. God forbid online resources as substitutes for staring at the text until you see what glories are there. There is the warning.
“If you don’t own a single commentary on Romans, you are not at a loss.”
Now, here is the answer to the question. What commentaries did I find most useful? Because I did. I consulted commentaries often, though not every Sunday because I didn’t have time some Sundays, and some Sundays it just exploded so much on its own that I didn’t feel like I needed to. But I did regularly. Here they are:
Of all the commentaries on all the books of the New Testament, the one that I come back to most often is Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament. Henry Alford died in the 1870s, I think, and wrote a commentary on all the books of the New Testament based on the Greek. I find him most helpful, not because of his theology, but because of his relentless attention to grammatical and logical detail. He tends to wrestle with the things that I understand least. And that is where I need help. It seems to me that most commentaries are 90% obvious — like you are reading there what you would have seen on your own. It is the 10% we need help with, and Alford regularly is helpful.
Tom Schreiner on Romans was probably the next one of all the modern commentaries that I consulted — or historic for that matter. Tom and I think the same way about tracing the flow of an author’s thought. Therefore, he was regularly addressing the very things I was struggling with when it comes to how to put Paul’s thoughts together in a logical flow.
John Stott on Romans is a popular commentary, not a detailed one based on Greek. But Stott has an amazing gift for seeing patterns and putting thoughts together from the text in an organized way — often an alliterative way. There is a genius and a gifting that he has that proved illuminating over and over again.
4: Cranfield and Moo
C. E. B. Cranfield’s commentary in the ICC series (volume 1; volume 2) in the ICC series). The second volume of Cranfield’s commentary was published the year before I became a pastor — 1979. And I consulted Cranfield repeatedly as one of the more solid, balanced representatives of mainline critical scholarship. He was British. I find that the way the ICC commentary is laid out on the page with the Greek is very, very helpful. And Cranfield’s judgments were in general really worth considering. The evangelical commentary that would be of comparable scope is Douglas Moo. And so Moo is the go-to place of evangelical commentaries, it seems to me, for the fullest grappling with issues from various angles.
The last one I will mention, even though in one sense it stands out as foremost, is John Murray on Romans. Murray was a systematic theologian at Westminster but like Charles Hodge, he wrote an absolutely amazing commentary on Romans. In one sense, I don’t think any commentary has surpassed Murray in theological depth and precision on the book of Romans. The sentences are complex and carefully crafted and they are penetrating in the depth and scope of their theological richness.
“I don’t think any commentary has surpassed [John] Murray in theological depth and precision on the book of Romans. The sentences are complex and carefully crafted and they are penetrating in the depth and scope of their theological richness.”
So, those are the five that I consulted, I think, most often — unless I am forgetting something. I have about 13 others on my shelf, but when you are under pressure as a pastor, you tend to just stick with your most fruitful buddies. Those were the ones that were stacked up on my desk for years and years.
But let me say one more time that if you don’t own a single commentary on Romans, you are not at a loss. You have your Bible, the most precious book in the universe. If you read it carefully and slowly brood over what it says with prayer and humility, the book of Romans will open itself to you gloriously. If you look and look and look at the book, the treasures you will find on your own with God’s help in humility and prayer and a vigorous attention to what is there will be worth every hour.
Amen! I’m so curious now about how many hours of your life have you spent in your life studying directly the text of Romans itself?
I would have to do the arithmetic, Tony. I don’t know. Take eight years and about 250 sermons times maybe an average of ten hours to prepare for each one. And then, goodness, gracious: I wrote a book on Romans, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23. That took a year of focused attention. I have preached scads of other sermons on Romans besides that series. I have taught Sunday school lessons on Romans. I have done blog posts on Romans. I have done Look at the Book’s and Ask Pastor John’s with the help of Romans. So, I would have to go back and do the math, but it is a big hunk of my life.