Martin Luther said of the Epistle to the Romans:
This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written” by Andrew David Naselli. 232 pages, published by Crossway in August 2022. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD22.49 and in Logos for USD23.99.
I got a review copy from the publisher for free. Crossway has no input on this review.
Andrew or Andy Naselli is, to quote his website:
the associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament for Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Since 2010, he has written or edited on average a book a year. Most of his books are on theology as you would expect from a professor of systematic theology.
I want to highlight a book here that gives some perspective on today’s book. In 2012, Naselli wrote “From Typology to Doxology: Paul’s Use of Isaiah and Job in Romans 11:34-35”. This a 214 page book on two verses in Romans. Two verses in Romans. This book came from a dissertation. That dissertation came from a paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society. That paper came from D.A. Carson’s PhD Seminar where each student was asked to write a paper on the use of the OT in a NT passage. Naselli could choose any passage and he chose Romans 11:34-35 because those two verses were attached to his favourite verse in the Bible: Romans 11:36, which:
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
So we know that Naselli loves Romans.
We know that he can write 200 pages on two Roman verses.
There are 433 verses in 16 chapters in Romans. Can Naselli write on the whole letter and be concise? That is a bigger challenge than you might think.
The Challenge to be Concise
Just to shed light on the challenge, let me share with you the longest book I have ever read, or more precisely the longest audio book I have ever listened to.
Some years ago, I got a free audio book voucher. I could pick any book I wanted from the catalog. Wanting to get the biggest bang for my buck, I picked the longest book. I didn’t know at the time that John Piper’s Romans was not a book but a compilation of his sermon series on Romans; all 8 years, all 225 sermons.
Before I listened to his sermons, Romans was impenetrable to me. I knew it was important, I just could not figure out what Paul was saying. After completing Piper’s expository series, I was most satisfied in the beautiful truth I now hold so dear in my heart. That sermon series has been a life-changing experience.
So much so that I wanted more.
Soon after, I bought Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones Romans set, his sermon series spanning 12 years set into 14 volumes. I started it but didn’t finish. It sits on my shelf as my retirement project.
In Naselli’s book, he frequently refers to top Roman scholars, Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner. He even describes his own book as Moo-lite or Schreiner-lite. Now, since he said that, you might as well read Moo or Schreiner right? Why go for lite when you can go for the original?
You go for lite, when the original is too heavy.
Douglas Moo’s book from the New International Commentary on the New Testament weighs in at 1184 pages. Tom Schreiner’s from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament weighs in at 944 pages.
What’s my point here?
Great preachers John Piper and Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw Romans as so substantial that they dedicated 8 and 12 years respectively of their lives to preach from it. Top Roman scholars, Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner wrote around a 1000 pages on this one letter.
So when Naselli says his book is a concise guide, it is against this backdrop: the Epistle to the Romans has so much to offer to the Christian.
Can a one page summary do it justice?
Can a 200 page guide?
Can Andrew Naselli capture in his little book what makes Romans great?
Let’s find out.
In the preface, Naselli tells us that there are six ways to use this book. Those ways include reading this book with, on the side, a bible, or more than one bible, or with other bible resources; I recommend his Phrase Diagram book which I will speak more on later.
In the introduction, Naselli answers questions like “How Important is Romans?”, “Who wrote it?”, “Where did he write it?”, “When?”, “To Whom?”, “Why?” and so on. If you are new to Romans, this gives you the motivation and the broader context to Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Before we get to the main content of the book, we have a three-page outline. Here, we get our first hint of Naselli’s love for outlines. His book is an outline of outlines, as you will soon see.
Let me list the 7 chapter headings:
- Introduction (1:1-17)
- The Universal Need for God’s Righteousness (1:18-3:20)
- The Means of Obtaining God’s Righteousness (3:21-4:25)
- Benefits of Obtaining God’s Righteousness (5:1-8:39)
- The Vindication of God’s Righteousness (9:1-11:36)
- Living in Light of God’s Righteousness (12:1-15:13)
- Conclusion (15:14-16:27)
This book could be titled, “The Righteous God Righteously Righteouses the Unrighteous” except Naselli has taken that clever title for another essay.
Near the end of book, we have Recommended Resources on Romans, which includes resources: Intermediate/Advanced and Introductory. There is a Study Guide which has questions for the individual or the bible study group. And a chapter titled, “Acknowledgments”, which is the only chapter that reveals Naselli’s personal life. The book closes with the General Index and Scripture Index.
I said that this book is an outline of outlines. Now, I’ll explain why.
Let’s look at chapter one. The chapter title reads “Introduction (1:1-17)”. Chapter begins with:
Paul introduces the letter with a greeting (1:1-7), a thanksgiving (1:8-15), and the letter’s theme (1:16-17).
Naselli gives us an outline of his chapter. There are three parts.
Now let us read the paragraph that follows:
1:1-7 The letter’s opening introduces Paul as the author and the Christians in Rome as the addressees. Several themes bookend the letter: the gospel, the Son, the Old Testament, Paul, the obedience of faith, and the nations (see 16:25–27).
So here, we see that Naselli breaks down verse 1-7 into three smaller parts. And in the three subsections that follow, he rapidly unpacks verse 1-3a, verse 3b-4 and verse 5-7. Boom. Boom. Boom.
But the pace changes when he reaches verses 16 and 17. He writes three pages, half the entire chapter to expound on Romans 1:16-17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
He does so because these two verses are key to understand the rest of the book.
And that is Naselli’s method. He takes a chunk. Then he breaks it down. He breaks it down until we get to easily digestible chunks. When he reaches a difficult to digest chunk or an important chunk, he spends time on it.
You Need the Bible
If you are a guy who has ever thought, “Can someone please slowly explain to me what is the book of Romans about? Slowly, step by step. I don’t want to hear your opinion. What I want is to see for myself how the verses progress, how they come together. I want to see how the argument flows.”
If you are that guy, then this book is for you.
Naselli takes the chunks that he broke down for us and shows how they come together. In fact, he insists that you follow the flow of arguments. He does this at the expense of making his book more readable. For example, let me read his commentary on three verses, 6:6-8.
6:7 This sentence supports the previous one(6:6) as a parenthetical statement. When we died with Christ, God set us free from sin’s power.
6:8 This sentence continues the argument in 6:6. We are identified with Christ. If we died with Christ, we will also live with him.
6:9 This sentence supports the previous one (6:8). Since Christ rose from the dead, he “will never die again” (unlike how Lazarus died again after Jesus raised him) because “death no longer has dominion [i.e., any power] over him.”
In order for me to even understand what he wrote, I need the Bible. He forces me to open up Romans to read those sentences and see the flow for myself.
This means that if you are going on a trip, and you are looking for a book to read on the plane or on the beach, if you are looking for something edifying to read as you kick back and relax, this is not the book for you. Kicking back and relax is not how Naselli wants you to read this book.
Naselli wants you to lean forward with pen, coloured pencils, highlighters, with a Bible in hand, more Bibles the better! He wants you to trace Paul’s argument. Naselli’s concise guide to Romans is for the serious adventurer not the Instagram tourist.
But, if I dare say so myself, there is another book better than the Bible. Oooh… heresy. Listen as I finish my sentence, there is another book better than the Bible to read alongside Naselli’s book and that is his companion book: “Tracing the Argument of Romans: A Phrase Diagram of the Greatest Letter Ever Written”. In his blog, Naselli writes:
Each book can stand on its own, but I designed the book with Logos to supplement the book with Crossway.
A phrase diagram is in simple terms diagrams of the text indented to outline or break down the clauses, where the text is coloured, highlighted, boxed and marked with arrows, so that we can see the relationship of the clauses. Or to trace the argument of the passage. In Naselli’s words:
It’s the most respectful and fruitful way I know of to take God’s word seriously.
So if you read Naselli’s concise guide to Romans, you must have, at minimum, the Bible next to you. Ideally, you would have the Romans book on the left part of your screen and the Phrase Diagram book on the right, so that you can closely follow Paul’s arguments.
Following Paul’s argument is the most important goal for Naselli. The way he has written this book, his priority is not to make the case for his views (he does) or to make you understand the minute details of various interpretations (for that he points you to scholars in the footnotes). His primary goal is to make you see the outline, the argument, of Romans.
Once you get that, you can fill the rest of the details from the scholars.
Douglas Moo, a distinguished scholar on Romans, endorsed this book. He wrote:
“Naselli’s book on Romans gives believers a brief and accessible overview of Paul’s great letter to the church in Rome. While written for a general audience, this book is rooted in a broad acquaintance with the many issues in recent interpretation of the letter.”
I would qualify what Moo means by general audience. His general audience is a tad different from my general audience.
Naselli has a long list of books he has written and edited for an academic, scholarly audience. So relatively speaking, in contrast, this concise guide on Romans is for a general audience. Relatively speaking. In contrast.
You see, the general audience in my circle do not read books with some Greek words. This book doesn’t require you to have knowledge of Greek but Naselli does think it important to explain some of them.
This book has tables that clearly lay out: Faith vs Works in Romans 4 and James 2, Adam vs. Christ in Romans 5:12-21, Flesh vs. Spirit in Romans 8:5-13 and there are ten more tables where that came from.
And let’s talk about the footnotes. There are some pages where the footnotes cover half the page. They often cite academic works from Moo, Schreiner, Carson, Beale, Hodge and Murray, to name a few.
In one footnote, Naselli writes: “I am condensing and paraphrasing Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image.” In another, he writes: “This paragraph condenses and updates Moo and Naselli’s work” and he cites the publication.
All this means is readers are getting the best scholarly answer to the question posed in the text. And there are many questions to be found in Romans.
For example, in Romans 9 is Paul speaking about corporate or individual salvation? This has giant implications on how one reads the rest of the letter.
Naselli doesn’t go into the details. Understandably so. He can’t write a concise guide that is also comprehensive. But he suggests that if I want to know more on this question, I should read three articles:
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation”.
- Brian J. Abasciano, “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner”.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Corporate and Individual Election in Romans 9: A Response to Brian Abasciano”.
So I did. I put down Naselli’s book and downloaded those articles from the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society. And had a really good time reading the exchanges between Schreiner and Abasciano, which I would never have known existed if not for Naselli.
So one way to think of this concise guide is Naselli curates the best and most thoughtful resources on the questions that come up as we read Romans.
What I Unexpectedly Gained
And that’s the weird thing about this book. I gained lots of new things but not so much about Romans. I love Romans. You can’t listen to 8 years worth of Piper sermons and not love how Paul’s argument flow. And since then, I have read for myself, studied and argued with others about Romans so I am somewhat familiar with the various questions.
If you are new to Romans, Naselli’s book will guide you to glorious treasures.
As for me, let me outline for you what I gained from Naselli’s book:
- Martyn Lloyd Jones sermon series on Romans. As I read Naselli’s book, I was dissatisfied because I have been spoilt by Piper. When it comes to Romans, I want expository exultation. Naselli reminded me of the thrill of discovery. Because of this book, I downloaded the Martyn Lloyd Jones app to listen to his sermon series on Romans on my work commute.
- Memorising Romans. In his acknowledgements, Naselli thanked his youth leaders in high school for encouraging him to memorize Romans. I once tried to memorise Romans. (Piper makes you try things you normally would not do.) Naselli has spurred me to make the attempt once again.
- Biblearc. I didn’t know this tool existed. As soon as Naselli introduced it in his books, the phrase diagrams and all, I went to the website, subscribed and I’m using it for my next sermon. Once I’ve familiarised myself with it, I plan to introduce and teach it to others.
In conclusion, Naselli’s concise guide to Romans is a great book if you are looking for someone to break down Romans into easily digestible chunks. He shows you how they come together and points you to in-depth answers to the questions that invariably come up.
This is not a book to kick back and read. You need to lean forward as the book guides you to study Romans. And as you read it, I hope you will gain, as I did, a great appreciation of the great truths Paul writes in the greatest letter ever written.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written” by Andrew David Naselli. 232 pages, published by Crossway in August 2022. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD22.49 and in Logos for USD23.99. I got the review copy from Crossway. They had no input on the review.
Let’s see whether you can follow this line of argument. You have friends. Friends tell friends of good things. Reading and Readers is a good thing. Therefore, you should tell your friends of Reading and Readers, the podcast where I review Christian books for you. I hope you enjoyed this book review. Thank you for listening.