Romans (Interpretation Bible Commentary) by Paul J. Achtemeier

While others collect seashells, I collect interpretations. And I seem to have a growing collection of interpretations on Romans. And today’s book offers a different definition of righteousness, a different understanding of election and more.

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 a commentary on Romans from the Interpretation Bible Commentary series written by Paul J. Achtemeier. 256 pages, published by Westminster John Knox Press in 1986. It was a free Logos book for October. So it’s no longer free but you can continue listening to know what the book is about and hopefully learn a few things on the way.


Paul J. Achtemeier passed away in January 28 2013. Elmhurst College, where he studied and later taught, published an obituary. I’ll read an excerpt:

Achtemeier earned his bachelor of divinity and doctor of theology degrees at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He spent more than four decades teaching at colleges and seminaries in the United States and Europe, including Elmhurst, Lancaster Theological Seminary and the Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies of the World Council of Churches in Switzerland. For 24 years, he was a professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, where he retired in 1997 as Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation.

Clearly a distinguished and learned scholar. He was a prolific writer having written 18 books and numerous scholarly journals. For the purpose of today’s review, he is both the author of the commentary on Romans and also the New Testament Editor for the entire series, “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”.

I can’t comment on the entire series but this commentary on Romans certainly is aimed at the teacher. At the end of every chapter, Achtemeier signals the teacher or preacher. He offers guidance for the Sunday school class or the pulpit.

“This is what the passage says, this is not what the passage says, here are some other useful Bible passages, you can connect them in this way, here are some questions to ask the people, here is how you can encourage, warn, guide and lead them to Christ.”

For pastors who plan around the lectionary, you will like how he relates the passage to Lent, Advent, Pentecost and so on.

God’s Lordship and The Problem…

The book is divided into four parts, each part broken down into many chapters to cover all 16 chapters of Romans. The four parts are:

  1. God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Past: Grace and Wrath
  2. God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Present: Grace and Law
  3. God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Future: Israel and God’s Gracious Plan
  4. God’s Lordship and the Problem of the Daily Living: Grace and the Structures of Life

That’s the outline of the book, now the outline of today’s review. The bulk of today’s review will be on two major criticisms. The list is long but I have narrowed down to the two issues that run through the whole book. Then I will spend some time to talk about it’s redeeming features and conclude with how you can benefit from this book.

So let’s move on to the first of my criticism.

Righteousness Is Not God Declaring You Are Just

When it comes to Romans, the key is to understand what does “righteousness” mean. 500 years ago, Roman Catholic Europe was turned upside down because faithful Bible students discovered that “the righteous shall live by faith” did not mean it is do-gooders who are saved.

Rather, the righteousness of God described here refers to the righteousness that Christ imputed to us. This is the Great Exchange, we gave Jesus our sins and he gave us his righteousness, and so we live by faith.

Knowing the history of the Reformation, we should be alert when anyone offers a different definition of “righteousness”. Not because it’s wrong. We don’t know whether it’s wrong until we study it. We should be alert because we are approaching a non-trivial definition that affects not only our interpretation of Romans but also the framework of our faith.

The Reformation gave us a definition of righteousness which is sometimes described as forensic or legal. When God sees us, he sees Jesus, thus God declares us to be just.

Achtemeier writes:

The difficulty with such an understanding of “righteousness” is that God appears to regard us as something we are not, that is, sinless. Some have wanted to say God regards us “as if” we had no sin, but then God’s judgment is based on an untruth, hardly what one would expect from a just and impartial God. The second problem lies in the fact that Paul can say God is “righteous,” and one must then wonder who is in a position to pass judgment on God and say that he has conformed to some legal norm. If this is juridical terminology, who has brought God into court to try him, to see whether he can “justify” himself and can then pronounce him righteous?

My quick answers to the two problems:

No matter how you define righteousness, a Christian understanding of God will always show a just God forgiving sinners who don’t deserve grace and mercy. We sin but Jesus paid the price. God rewards Jesus for his obedience until death. Why should I gain from His reward?

In Psalm 51:7, David pleads, “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Is this not alluding to a purity, a sinlessness, that only God can provide, and that through Jesus Christ?

Next problem: “If righteousness is juridicial terminology, who has brought God into court to try him?”

The idea of bringing God to court horrifies us but we should not let that image play on our piety and frame the argument in error. Listen to Hebrews 6:13:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself,

If God can swear by himself, is it really so wrong for God to declare himself righteousness?

Righteousness Is A Relationship

Since Achtemeier rejects righteousness in a legal sense, what is his definition? He refers to how righteousness is regularly used in the Old Testament to refer to the covenant. So he defines:

To be “just” or “righteous” is to uphold the covenant; to be “unrighteous” is to act in such a way that the covenant is broken. In that context, righteousness is used to describe a relationship. What upholds the relationship is “righteous”; what destroys the relationship is “unrighteous.”

He backs this up with scholarly support. There is some merit to seeing righteousness as a relationship. But in supporting this definition, does he go too far to utterly reject another? He writes:

All of this means “righteousness” is not a “quality” or a conformity to some legal norm. Rather, it is a positive relationship to God growing out of his power to restore through Jesus Christ his gracious lordship over us, a lordship which our idolatrous rebellion had turned into a wrathful lordship.

This is my first encounter with this righteousness is a relationship definition. And I foresee, for the coming years, when this review is long forgotten, I will test this definition against Scripture. But I wonder, clearly our covenantal relationship with God is linked to righteousness but is it the definition?

When I say I am righteous at home, righteous in marriage, righteous with my wife, there is little tone or shade of a covenantal relationship. When I say I am righteous, it sounds like a boast. I have not done anything wrong. Nobody hears me and thinks, “He is righteous in the marriage means his relationship with his wife is good.” Having said that, I accept that it is possible that the Bible defines righteousness in a technical way that refers to relationships but look forward to see how Achtemeier defends it.

And so we reach an especially juicy passage, Romans 5:16-17:

And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

What is this free gift? I understood the free gift to be Christ’s righteousness which is mine by faith. I am now gloriously clothed in the royal robes of Christ.

What is this free gift to Achtemeier? Is the free gift an unbroken relationship? But there must be a basis for the restored relationship, right? Of course, that is faith in Christ. Yes, that is the basis, but what has changed? How has faith in Christ changed the relationship. God is still holy. I am still… sinful?

Perhaps the next verse in Romans will shed some light. Romans 5:18 says:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

I can understand act of righteousness to mean a good act, a sinless act but I don’t know how to read act of righteousness as an act of an unbroken relationship. Maybe that’s not how Achtemeier interprets it and I am making a fool of myself. Let’s just hear from Achtemeier.

Except he doesn’t go into it. This is not a verse-by-verse commentary. Exposition is written as essays covering large swathe of verses. Achtemeier has a chapter on Romans 5:12-21, he titles it, “Adam and Christ: Disobedience and Obedience”.

The focus of the essay is on the contrast between Adam and Christ. He has already explained righteousness-as-a-relationship in earlier chapters and he refers eager readers to various scholarly works. So maybe he thinks he doesn’t need to expound on Romans 5 anymore. I think he is badly mistaken. Surely he knows that this is a passage to counter his definition and is worthy of a defence. What is the free gift? What is the act of righteousness? I wish Achtemeier had explained.

At the risk of sounding harsh, he seems to take the easy verses which amply support his definition but he avoids the hard verses that complicate his interpretation.

Predestination, Election, Hardening, So Maddening

Let’s move away from righteousness and go to my second critique which is in Part Three of his book, which covers Romans 9-11. This is a battleground for many faithful Christians which is why we should expect commentators to give their best effort in exposition.

Who is Romans 9-11 dealing with? Is it peoples, specifically Israel, or individuals? The question is whether this is corporate election or individual election. If the verses refers to individual election, then they strongly support a view that God determines who will be saved.

This is a big, big, question. Too big to take on in this book review podcast. I promise you, I will give you good resources to tackle this topic before the episode ends. Because I will not be tackling the topic directly, instead I will demonstrate the frustrating way Achtemeier deals with it.

In his commentary on Romans 9:14-29, he writes:

Paul knows, to be sure, of the danger which exists if one resists God’s gracious offer of mercy to us rebellious creatures. If we reject that offer of mercy, we run the risk that God will honor our choice. But nowhere does Paul hint that such refusal is willed, let alone predetermined, by God. Were it so, the apostolic office would be a sham; and the proclamation of God’s gracious act in Jesus of Nazareth and its call to trust in the One whom Jesus called “Father” would be a snare and a delusion.

Later he writes:

The passage is therefore about the enlargement of God’s mercy to include gentiles, not about the narrow and predetermined fate of each individual.

Achtemeier writes as if it is obvious that the first half (the enlargement of God’s mercy to include gentiles) negates the second (predeterminism of each individual) but it is possible that the first half encompasses the second.

I don’t know anybody who would deny that Romans teaches that God’s mercy is now extended to the Gentiles. So bring all the heavy guns you want, I am already a believer. The question is whether the verses can be interpreted as, what Achtemeier calls, predeterminism.

And I look for the argument that nullifies predeterminism. I only see repetition of assertions, telling us how terrible it would be if it were true. But there is no death blow to predeterminism, only indignation. Worse, he shoots himself in the foot.

A few chapters later, he comments on Romans 11:1-12. Let me read Romans 11:7-8 first and then Achtemeier’s comment. This is Romans 11:7-8.

Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”

Isn’t hardening people to reject salvation a form of predeterminism? Knowing his views on that, what do you expect Achtemeier to say? He writes:

God is in control. He hardens whom he will. Israel has been hardened. What other conclusion is there than that God has hardened them? No other, and Paul is ready to concede that point (v. 8). Indeed, how could he not concede it, since Scripture itself, to which Paul so readily attributes authority in these matters, says that very thing. God has hardened a part of Israel (vv. 8–9). He has dimmed their eyes and stopped up their ears, and the inevitable result is that they have missed the import of God’s act in Christ.

Nowhere does he explain how God, who he concedes, has personally, actively, hardened individuals within Israel, is the same God, who he claims, does not predetermine any individual’s fate?

He never explains! Instead, he goes on about the impact of the hardening, so that Israel might be jealous; the purpose of the hardening, so that they might be saved. That’s what Paul wrote but, come on, surely anyone can see there is a knot to be untangled here.

I am not saying that God’s hardening of Israel is a slam dunk. I have heard good explanations for this. What I am saying is Achtemeier seems oblivious to the need to defend his interpretation for crucial verses in Romans.

This commentary does not do enough to prepare the preacher for what happens after he comes down from the pulpit. What is he going to say when someone asks, “Pastor, if God does not predetermine any individual’s fate, then why does the Bible say God hardened parts of Israel?”

There are answers to that question but they are not found in this book.

It’s Not All Bad (Not Exactly A Rousing Recommendation)

I know I have spent a lot of time on the criticisms but I think it reveals the main doctrinal contention and also his approach to some of the tough questions.

But the book is not all bad.

When Achtemeier expounds on verses that deal with who we are and who we should be, he is very good.

In Romans 2, there is a danger that Paul’s harsh criticism of the Jews would lead to smugness in us. Achtemeier rightly warns us of this.

In Romans 13, on Christians and the government, he poses the problem of evil government, and rebellious citizens. He explains the role of government according to Scripture and honestly, humbly, states that it is not so clear cut at what point the Christian is to refuse to obey the government.

And I just want to say again, his instructor’s guide at the end of every chapter is helpful.

Not Recommended

You can sense that I won’t be making a strong recommendation for this commentary. I had a hard time reading this book, and not just because I had to figure out in my head his and my theological positions. It’s tough going because asserts something and I have to read and re-read a whole essay to see whether he addresses my concerns and I find that he fails to defend when he should.

This should not be your main commentary for Romans. If you only have money for one or two or three commentaries, I would recommend Douglas Moo or Thomas Schreiner.

But if you are flushed with cash and there is space in your bookshelf, physical or digital, then Paul J. Achtemeier’s commentary on Romans gives an alternative perspective on key doctrines. The problem is even if you hold his positions, he does not make a good case for them.

That’s the end of my review on Achtemeier’s commentary but I did promise resources for the corporate vs. individual election question. So here goes.

In another commentary, “Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written” by Andrew David Naselli, which I reviewed in Episode 55, Naselli had even less space to discuss the debate, so he left it as a footnote. But what a great footnote!

Naselli recommends readers to read this exchange between Thomas Schreiner and Brian Abasciano. Schreiner wrote a paper titled, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation?” Abasciano writes a paper titled, “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner”. Schreiner then writes, “Corporate and Individual Election in Romans 9: A Response to Brian Abasciano”. I read all three papers, I enjoyed the back and forth and if anyone wants to do a deep dive into the topic, this is the gold standard for that vigorous debate.


This is a Reading and Reader’s review of a commentary on Romans written by Paul J. Achtemeier from the Interpretation Bible Commentary series. 256 pages, published by Westminster John Knox Press in 1986. I struggled to finish the book which explains why today’s review is not in time for people to grab it as a free book from Logos. It was free in October. Now it’s November. If you missed it, just make sure you don’t miss the November deal.

Thank you for listening. Bye bye.

Book List

Romans, Interpretation Bible Commentary, by Paul J. Achtemeier. Amazon. Logos.