In Romans 1–3, the Apostle Paul set forth a compelling argument explaining the need that all people have for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. After greeting the Roman Saints (see Romans 1:1–15), Paul stated the theme of his Epistle to the Romans: The gospel of Jesus Christ will bring salvation to everyone who lives by faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 1:16–17). Paul discussed the effects of living in a fallen world and described the plight of sinfulness that faces all humankind. All accountable people sin, and without the Atonement they stand condemned before God (see Romans 1:18–3:20). Gentiles were accountable for their sins because they had rejected evidence of the Creator manifest through His creations (see Romans 1:18–32). Jews stood condemned because they had failed to keep the law of Moses perfectly (see Romans 2:1–3:20). Following this description of the true condition of people’s souls, Paul introduced the solution God had provided, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through faithful acceptance of the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be justified, obtain remission of sins, and receive salvation (see Romans 3:21–31).
Ancient letters typically began by stating the identity of the sender and the recipients, followed by the sender’s greeting and an expression of thanks. This pattern can be seen at the beginning of many New Testament epistles, including in Romans 1:1–8. The word epistle comes from the Greek word epistole, meaning a message or communication—in this case, a written communication (see Romans 16:22).
Paul described himself to the Roman Saints as being “separated unto the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1), meaning that he had been set apart to preach the gospel. In Romans 1:1–2 and throughout the Epistle to the Romans, Paul emphasized that the gospel message was not of his own creation but was taught “in the holy scriptures,” meaning the scriptures of the Old Testament. He quoted Habakkuk 2:4 when he stated, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). He seems to have drawn from Psalm 14:3 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 when he wrote, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). And he used the language of Psalm 143:2 when he wrote, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20). For a list of more Old Testament passages quoted by Paul, see “Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament” in the Bible Dictionary.
Paul declared that he was “ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome” (Romans 1:15) and then introduced what many have called the theme of the Epistle to the Romans—the gospel of Jesus Christ will bring salvation to everyone who lives by faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 1:16–17). Much of the content of the rest of the epistle relates to key terms and ideas found in these two verses:
Gospel. The word gospel is the English translation of the Greek euangellion, meaning “good news.” Paul preached the message of the gospel, which is “God’s plan of salvation, made possible through the atonement of Jesus Christ” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Gospel”; scriptures.lds.org).
Salvation. Paul taught that salvation meant both resurrection (see Romans 6:5; 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:22) and forgiveness of sins (see Romans 3:25; 4:7–8). Salvation means “to be saved from both physical and spiritual death. All people will be saved from physical death by the grace of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each individual can also be saved from spiritual death as well by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Salvation”; scriptures.lds.org).
Faith and believeth. “Believeth” (verse 16) and “faith” (verse 17) are translations of the Greek verb pisteuō and the related noun pistis. These terms can mean both “faith” and “faithfulness.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was not just mental agreement with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God, but wholehearted acceptance of Jesus Christ and trust in Him as the One who offered Himself in Atonement for our sins. This deep trust leads to a life of faithfulness, manifested by repenting of sins, being baptized, and trying to live as Jesus Christ taught (see Acts 16:30–33; Romans 6:1–11; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). “Faith in Jesus Christ … is manifested in a life of obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel and service to Christ” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Salvation”; scriptures.lds.org).
Jew and Greek (Gentile). The Jews were the surviving members of God’s covenant people, Israel, to whom He had revealed the law of Moses over one thousand years before Christ. Paul used both the terms Greek and Gentile to refer to people who were not born into the house of Israel.
Righteousness and just. These and other related terms in Romans (justify, justification, righteous) are translations of the Greek word dikaiosune, a legal term that refers to uprightness, justice, and that which is right. God’s work of justification means that He sets right all that is wrong, including restoring people to a right relationship with Him. To be justified by God means “to be pardoned from punishment for sin and declared guiltless. A person is justified by the Savior’s grace through faith in him. This faith is shown by repentance and obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Jesus Christ’s atonement enables mankind to repent and be justified or pardoned from punishment they otherwise would receive” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Justification, Justify”; scriptures.lds.org; see also Romans 3:21–28; 4:6–8; 5:10, 19).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles noted that one way we can show that we are not ashamed of the gospel is to share it with others:
“Each of us has many opportunities to proclaim our belief to friends and neighbors, fellow workers, and casual acquaintances. I hope we will take these opportunities to express our love for our Savior, our witness of his divine mission, and our determination to serve him.
“If we do all of this, we can say, like the Apostle Paul, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.’ (Rom. 1:16.)” (“Witnesses of Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 32).
Paul taught that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). He then described the sins of humanity that cause the wrath of God to be revealed (see Romans 1:18–32). The “wrath” of God is not hostility toward mankind; rather, it is rejection of sin. Because God is perfectly righteous, He cannot condone sin in any degree: “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31; see also John 3:36; Alma 42:22). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “Deity manifests wrath as one of his attributes. … Inherent in it is the purpose and intent of meting out a just punishment upon those whose acts have caused it to be aroused. The wrath of God does not fall upon the righteous, but upon the wicked” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 851). The Joseph Smith Translation clarifies that God’s wrath is directed toward those “who love not the truth, but remain in unrighteousness” (Joseph Smith Translation, Romans 1:18 [in Romans 1:18, footnote b]).
In the phrase “that which may be known of God is manifest in them” (Romans 1:19), the Greek word translated as in means “among.” Paul’s words can be understood to mean that knowledge of God is manifest among all people through His creations (see also Psalm 19:1–4; Alma 30:44; D&C 88:45–47; Moses 6:63). Or, as confirmed in the Joseph Smith Translation of Romans 1:20, “God hath revealed unto them the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, which are clearly seen; things which are not seen being understood by the things that are made, through his eternal power.” Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught this same truth: “The Creation itself testifies of a Creator. We cannot disregard the divine in the Creation. Without our grateful awareness of God’s hand in the Creation, we would be just as oblivious to our provider as are goldfish swimming in a bowl” (“The Creation,” Ensign, May 2000, 85).
Paul wrote that when people refused to worship the Creator, they often turned to the worship of images of men and beasts (see Romans 1:21–23). In the Greco-Roman world in which Paul ministered, idol worship and its accompanying mythologies formed an integral part of ancient religion and culture. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “Man once knew God by revelation; but this knowledge was lost because of disobedience. Then man, by foolish reason, created his own gods” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1965–73], 2:218).
Paul identified various sexual sins that were common among Gentiles in the ancient Greco-Roman world—sins Paul termed “not convenient,” meaning not fitting or correct (see Romans 1:24–28). Paul taught that because of people’s immorality, “God gave them up [abandoned or delivered them] unto vile affections” and “to a reprobate mind [depraved thinking]” (Romans 1:26, 28; see also verse 24). They then “[received] in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet” (Romans 1:27). When people commit sexual sins, they separate themselves from God, and God allows them to experience the consequences of their sins. This does not show a lack of love on God’s part; rather, He is allowing the natural consequences of sinful behavior to occur (see John 15:10; D&C 95:12).
Paul taught that those who worshipped idols and indulged in sexual sins were worshipping and serving “the creature” (created things) more than “the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The first commandment God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai was “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Elder Russell M. Nelson taught that if we allow other people or even our own physical appetites to take higher priority than God in our lives, we will reap destruction: “If we break God’s first commandment, we cannot escape retribution. If we allow any other person or cause to come before allegiance to him, we will reap a bitter harvest. Paul foresaw ‘destruction’ for those ‘whose God is their belly’ [Philippians 3:19]. … Any who choose to serve ‘the creature more than the Creator’ [Romans 1:25] deprive themselves of spiritual reward. Thus, our priorities should be honestly evaluated in terms of that first commandment” (“Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods,” Ensign, May 1996, 15).
In New Testament times, many Gentiles condoned and even celebrated homosexual relations. As Paul wrote to the Roman Saints, he reaffirmed the clear biblical teaching that engaging in homosexual relations is sinful (see Romans 1:26–27; see also Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:9–10). In 1991, the First Presidency affirmed the position of the Church on these matters: “The Lord’s law of moral conduct is abstinence outside of lawful marriage and fidelity within marriage. Sexual relations are proper only between husband and wife appropriately expressed within the bonds of marriage. Any other sexual contact, including fornication, adultery, and homosexual and lesbian behavior, is sinful” (First Presidency letter, Nov. 14, 1991).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks further explained the Church’s teachings regarding homosexual behavior:
“The distinction between feelings or inclinations on the one hand, and behavior on the other hand, is very clear. It’s no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression. The sin is in yielding to temptation. …
“We urge persons with same-gender attractions to control those and to refrain from acting upon them, which is a sin, just as we urge persons with heterosexual attractions to refrain from acting upon them until they have the opportunity for a marriage recognized by God as well as by the law of the land. That is the way to happiness and eternal life. God has given us no commandment that He will not give us the strength and power to observe. That is the Plan of Salvation for His children, and it is our duty to proclaim that plan, to teach its truth, and to praise God for the mission of His Son Jesus Christ. It is Christ’s atonement that makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and His resurrection that gives us the assurance of immortality and the life to come” (“Interview with Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Lance B. Wickman: ‘Same-Gender Attraction,’” mormonnewsroom.org).
These verses are an example of a “diatribe,” an ancient rhetorical style in which authors would state their readers’ possible objections and then respond to them. Some of the diatribes in Paul’s epistles may reflect real conversations Paul had experienced during his years of teaching the gospel. In Romans 2:1–3, the rhetorical dialogue proceeds as follows: Verse 1—Paul, having just taught about humanity’s sins (see Romans 1:18–32), now turns to an imaginary listener and declares the man to be guilty of judging others of sins the man has committed himself. Verse 2—The man protests that it is only just that God would condemn people who had committed such sins. Verse 3—Paul replies that if it is right for God to condemn people for their sins, then the man, who has also sinned, cannot expect to escape the judgment of God.
In the verses that follow, Paul applied this logic to all his readers, Gentile and Jew, and then presented another dialogue, recorded in Romans 2:17–24. Paul addressed a representative Jewish man, acknowledged his status as a possessor of God’s law (hinting at the man’s pride), and then confronted him with examples of his own disobedience. Further examples of rhetorical diatribe can be seen in Romans 3:1–9, 27–31; 6:1–7:25; 9:14–33; 11:1–15.
Romans 2:12 is where Paul first mentioned “the law” in his Epistle to the Romans. Here “the law” refers to the law of Moses—the commandments and ceremonies God gave to ancient Israel through Moses. Those “in the law” were the Jews, while those “without law” were the Gentiles. Some Jews believed that God would condemn Gentiles but judge Jews favorably because they were His chosen people and possessed His law. Paul emphasized that “there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11); God’s judgment of Jews and Gentiles is impartial (see Romans 2:5–11). Since both Gentiles and Jews were guilty of sin, without the Atonement of Christ they would all perish. But since the Jews had sinned against the law, they would also “be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12; see also 2 Nephi 9:27). The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) taught, “God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 405).
Paul recognized that some Gentiles intuitively lived moral lives—doing “by nature the things contained in the law” (Romans 2:14). These Gentiles were following the Light of Christ, which is “an influence for good in the lives of all people (John 1:9; D&C 84:46–47)” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Light, Light of Christ”; scriptures.lds.org). Though they did not have the law of Moses, Paul said they had “the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15). For more insight on the idea of God’s law being written in our hearts, see the commentary for 2 Corinthians 3:3.
Paul reminded the Roman Saints that circumcision, which had been required by the law of Moses, was no longer required of God’s people, for the Savior’s earthly mission and atoning sacrifice had fulfilled the law of Moses. Any outward ordinance—whether circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant or baptism and the sacrament in the gospel covenant—has meaning only if it is done with sincerity and real intent (see Romans 2:25–29; Moroni 7:6). Elder Dallin H. Oaks quoted from Romans 2 to teach about the importance of becoming what God wants us to become:
“In the second chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul teaches that God will ‘judge the secrets of men’ (Romans 2:16). His judgment will be ‘according to truth’ (Romans 2:2). In describing that judgment, Paul contrasted the position of those Jews who preached the law and then did not practice it with Gentiles who did not have the law but whose actions ‘shew the work of the law written in their hearts’ (Romans 2:15). He concluded his example with this teaching:
“‘For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
“‘But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.’ (Romans 2:28–29.)
“To paraphrase, a person is a true Latter-day Saint if he (or she) is so inwardly, if his conversion is that of the heart, in the spirit, whose praise is not from men for outward acts but from God for the inward desires of his heart.
“… The issue is not what we have done but what we have become. And what we have become is the result of more than our actions. It is also the result of our attitudes, our motives, and our desires” (Pure in Heart , 138–39).
As recorded in Romans 3:3–8, Paul posed a series of rhetorical questions and provided some brief answers on subjects to which he would return later in the epistle. These preliminary questions prepared Paul’s readers for more complete answers to come.
Romans 3:3–4. Question: If some of God’s chosen people were unfaithful, does this nullify God’s faithfulness? Answer: “God forbid!” Or, translated differently, “may it not be!” or “absolutely not!” Even if everyone lies, God is always honest and true to His word. (Paul addressed the problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness in more depth in Romans 9–11.)
Romans 3:5–6. Question: If our sin makes God’s righteousness even more clear for people to see, isn’t it unfair for God to punish us? Answer: Absolutely not! If God were unjust, He could not judge the world.
Romans 3:7–8. Question: How can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights His truthfulness and brings Him glory? Why shouldn’t I say (as some people slanderously reported Paul as saying), “Let us do evil, that good may come”? Answer: The people who are saying such things are rightly condemned. (In Romans 6, Paul returned to the false idea that the gospel condoned sin; for more insight, see the commentary for Romans 6:1–11.)
Paul’s statement that “by the deeds of the law [of Moses] there shall no flesh be justified” (Romans 3:20) might lead some to wonder: If salvation could not come by the law, then why did God give the law? Paul provided part of the answer: “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (see also Romans 3:19; 7:7). The commandments and the law help people become conscious of their own sinfulness and, thus, their need for the Atonement. For more insight on the purposes and limitations of the law of Moses, see the commentaries for Romans 7:5–14; 8:3–4 and for Galatians 3:19–25.
Paul’s statement that no person can be justified by the deeds of the law also helps us understand the need for the Savior’s Atonement. While theoretically one way to be justified (made guiltless) would be never to do wrong, no one can really attain justification in this way, for everyone has sinned (see Romans 3:9, 23). Only Jesus Christ has perfectly kept God’s law (see Romans 3:9–20). It is only through the Atonement of Christ that anyone can be justified (see Romans 3:21–31).
In Romans 3:22, the sense of the Greek phrase translated as “by faith of Jesus Christ” is ambiguous; it can mean that we receive salvation “by our faith in Jesus Christ” or “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The latter meaning teaches that because of the Savior’s faithfulness in suffering and dying in atonement for our sins, we can place our faith in Him and receive salvation. Both our faith in Jesus Christ and His faithfulness in atoning for us are essential elements of our salvation.
Salvation by grace is a doctrine on which Paul elaborated later in the Epistle to the Romans (see Romans 4:4–16; 5:1–21; 6:1–16; 11:1–6) and in other epistles (see Ephesians 2:8–10; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:11–14; 3:3–8).
Grace is a “divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ. It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by His atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (Bible Dictionary, “Grace”).
In the Joseph Smith Translation of Romans 3:24, the word freely is replaced with the word only: “being justified only by his grace” (in Romans 3:24, footnote a).
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles testified of the absolute necessity of divine grace in order to be justified:
“Just as death would doom us and render our agency meaningless but for the redemption of Christ, even so, without His grace, our sins and bad choices would leave us forever lost. There would be no way of fully recovering from our mistakes, and being unclean, we could never live again in the presence of the ‘Man of Holiness’ (Moses 6:57; see also 3 Nephi 27:19).
“We cannot look to the law to save us when we have broken the law (see 2 Nephi 2:5). We need a Savior, a Mediator who can overcome the effects of our sins and errors so that they are not necessarily fatal. It is because of the Atonement of Christ that we can recover from bad choices and be justified under the law as if we had not sinned” (“Moral Agency,” Ensign, June 2009, 50).
The Greek word translated as redemption means liberation through payment of a ransom. It was a term widely used in the ancient Greco-Roman world to refer to the process of paying for slaves in order to set them free. In the New Testament other forms of this word are often translated redeem (see Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18) or ransom (see Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). Through the Atonement, Jesus Christ suffered and gave His life to purchase our freedom from the “slavery” of death and sin.
A propitiation is an atoning sacrifice, a means of making amends for sins and thus reconciling a broken relationship. Under the law of Moses, individuals who had committed sins offered animal sacrifice to make reparation for their sins and reestablish a right relationship with God. Because of His love for us, God reversed this order in the Atonement of Jesus Christ—instead of the sinners (us) offering a sacrifice to appease the One offended, propitiation was offered by the One who was sinned against. God the Father offered the reconciliation offering—His Son—as an atoning sacrifice for the remission of all our sins, upon the condition of our repentance (see also 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
Paul taught that God provided the way of salvation through Jesus Christ “that [God] might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Through the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, our sins can be forgiven without violating justice. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma taught this same truth: “The plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).
In Romans 3 and in Galatians, the word works does not appear to refer to righteous deeds or efforts to obey God. Instead, in these passages, works refers specifically to performances of the law of Moses (see Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16). Furthermore, the context of Romans and Galatians indicates that these “deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28) refer not to the law’s universal commandments (like the commandments not to kill or commit adultery), but to distinctively Jewish observances like circumcision, dietary regulations, and special feast days—parts of the law that were not required of Gentile Saints (see Acts 15:1–11, 19–20).
Paul had encountered some Jewish Christians who were teaching the false doctrine that Gentile Christians would not be saved unless they were circumcised (see Acts 15:1–2; Galatians 5:2). Though this ordinance was one of many performances of the law that God gave to ancient Israel, those performances were not the means of obtaining forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness was available only through the Atonement of Christ (see Romans 3:24–25). Thus, the way of salvation for all, both Jew and Gentile, was through faith in Christ and commitment to His gospel (see Romans 3:29–30).
Paul’s use of the phrase “the law of faith” (Romans 3:27) shows that even though salvation does not come by the law of Moses, individuals must follow laws in order to be saved. Faith in Christ is the law of faith, a way of life that does not “make void the law,” but rather, through faith, “we establish the law” (Romans 3:31; compare Matthew 5:17; Romans 8:2). Faith leads to repentance and striving to live as Jesus Christ taught. For more information about how faith in Christ includes obedience, see the commentary for Romans 6:1–11.