Book Reviews

Book Review: Romans (ZECNT), Frank Thielman

If any book has a flood of commentaries, it is the letter of Romans. Frank Thielman, the Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, has written a brand new commentary on Romans which he hopes will simply “play the role of a footman, opening the door to Romans and then quickly stepping out of the way so that others might ‘enter’ the letter itself, sit at the feet of the apostle Paul, and in the apostle’s voice hear the voice of God” (14). 

His Introduction is 23 pages long. He covers life in Rome in the mid-first century, Christianity in Rome during this time, the setting of Romans in Paul’s ministry, and Paul’s purpose in writing Romans. Thielman shows that life in Rome was generally very difficult. It was a “zero-sum game” where one man’s success “depleted the amount of luck available to everyone else, and so working to damage a neighbor’s success could aid one’s own survival” (25). He even notes a tombstone which basically praises the person’s death by stating they are no longer behind on their rent (for their lodgings are free and permanent), they no longer are suffering from arthritis or lack of food, and they are no longer in debt! Thielman says Paul wrote Romans in Greece in the winter months of AD 56-57.

Commentary Set-Up

The Literary Context shows how, say, Romans 8:1–17 fits within the letter of Romans. A Progress Bar (the look of which I still think is hokey) with an outline is added at the end of this section. The Main Idea is a short and simple paragraph on the whole passage. The Translation and Graphical Layout is Thielman’s translation of the Greek text represented in a sentence phrasing diagram to show how each clause relates to the others. (See my review of the Grant Osborne’s Matthew volume for an example of the Graphical Layout). 

The Structure explains Paul’s flow of thought, dividing Romans 8:1-17 into three parts: vv. 1-8, 9-11, and 12-17. 

The Exegetical Outline gives a detailed outline for the chapter.

In The Explanation of the Text, Thielman examines words, ideas, rhetoric, the social context, and/or biblical theology.

The highlight for many pastors and teachers will be the Theology in Application section. Here Thielman discusses what the theology of 8:1-17 means for the church today, giving insightful thoughts on how we are to live today. He writes that this section “describes the change that comes to the person God has freed from the sort of slavery to sin Paul depicted in 7:7-25” (393). Thielman lists four ways God has reoriented Christians’ lives by giving them his Spirit and elaborates on each point. I will give a brief sentence summary of what he says:

  1. The Fulfillment of the Law: The Spirit enables believers to love others in the way both the OT and Jesus commanded (see Rom 8:4).
  2. A New Alliance with the Spirit: Having the Spirit within them, believers are no longer at enmity with God. They have a new mindset. In fact, “Christians walk according to the Spirit because they take the Spirit’s side in the Spirit-flesh conflict and now think the way the Spirit wants them to think” (394).
  3. Hope for a Better Self and a Better World: However, our lives are not completely free from sin. As we wrestle against sin, we are to look to the future and can “take comfort that the world is not now what it will always be” (394). There will one day be a new creation free from sin and unrighteousness.
  4. Acceptance from a Loving and Faithful Father: Believers have been adopted by God, and he has given “them the status of highly privileged children within it” (395). No matter what conditions believers live under, they are “honored members of God’s family” (395).

The commentary ends with a Theology of Romans, focusing around God and his character, how humanity relates to God, and how God sent Jesus christ to save the world.


Though there is much to say, here are brief comments on a few of Thielman’s interpretations.

  • Romans 1:17: Paul has three ideas in mind when he speaks of the righteousness of God:
    • God is righteous, and his saving power is available to all through the gospel. He is the righteous judge, and he treats all alike.
    • Just as God’s wrath is actively revealed (Rom 1:18), God’s righteousness is a powerful, saving activity.
    • The phrase “can refer to a positive verdict that god renders in a judicial sense and therefore to a righteous status he gives people. He declares people to be righteous, and so they receive “righteousness”… from him as a gift (3:21-22, 25-26; cf. 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9)” (82).
  • Romans 2:14–16: The “doers of the law” are gentiles who occasionally do keep God’s law even though they don’t know it. The essence of the law is within them, and it impresses itself upon gentiles through their consciences. Paul’s words of the works of the law being “written in their hearts” only resembles, but does not allude to, Jeremiah 31. 
  • Romans 5:12: Adam’s trespass brought sin and death to all humanity, something which Christ’s death and resurrection has reversed. Thielman understands that sin and death passed to all people “with the result that” all sinned (283). “Death is the consequence of sin,” both for Adam and for all people (283). All humanity did sin with Adam in some way. 
  • Romans 7:7–25: These verses serve as an apology (or a defense) for the law. It is not responsible for sin, but it can not save any from sin and to righteousness. The law is “spiritual,” and the “fleshly” person is at fault for giving in to sin. Who is the “I”? Paul adopts the “persona” of an unbeliever. 
  • Romans 8:29: Just as Paul speaks of conformity to the death of Christ in Philippians 3:10 and the future resurrection in Philippians 3:21, Paul follows a similar pattern here. Believers were once “slaves to decay” but have been delivered into the “brotherhood of God’s Son,” adopted into God’s family (8:12-17) once and for all (411).
  • Romans 8:30: Thielman understands these he also glorified to refer to the certainty of the believer’s future glorification. Though her book came out after this commentary, I think Haley Jacobs offers a better analysis to the present and future benefits of glorification for believers.
  • Romans 9:18-20 God doesn’t make people sin. Rather, in verse 18, he “further hardens resistant hearts” (458). Yet even still, “no one stands in the way of what God has decided should happen” (v. 19, see p. 458). God does not create certain people just so he can later destroy them (462). Rather, he has “confirmed already rebellious people in their rebellion, thus setting them in order for his purpose of displaying his wrath and power” (462). 
  • Romans 10:3: Paul is not speaking of Israel’s own righteousness that they possessed apart from gentiles. They tried to attain their own righteousness through the law apart from God’s way of justifying people.


Thielman also has many In Depth sections where he takes a deeper look at a particular topic.

  • Paul’s Understanding of the “Conscience” (Romans 2:15; p139)
  • Jesus as the Biblical “Mercy Seat” (Romans 3:25; p209)
  • Adam’s Sin in Early Jewish Thought (Romans 5:12-21; p284)
  • Are “Height” and “Depth” in 8:39 Astrological Terms? (p428)
  • The Origins of Paul’s Understanding of Israel’s Stumbling (Romans 9:32-33; p482)
  • Are “Be Conformed” and “Be Transformed” Synonymous (Romans 12:2; p569)
  • Paul’s Ministry to the Poor among the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25; p691)
  • Prisca, Aquila, and the Church in Their Roman House (Romans 16:3; p713)


As biblical scholarship progresses, commentaries are (actually) needed. One does not need to buy them all, and we can be thankful that there are scholars who can devote their lives to wrestling with the text and distilling it down to others. Thielman has added another solid, thick, and helpful commentary to the list of many good volumes to choose from. His incisive thoughts on the main ideas, structures, and meanings of Paul’s long letter will benefit you as you seek to know Christ in Romans. And there is application to boot! 


  • Series: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
  • Author: Frank Thielman
  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan Academic (December 4, 2018)
  • Read a sample

Buy it on Amazon!

Explore Thielman’s Commentary

Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255


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