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Introduction to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

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General Info

The title of the book comes from its recipients.  Although all Scripture is profitable, as affirmed by Paul himself in his second letter to Timothy (2Ti 3:16), many bible scholars believe Paul’s Letter to the Romans to be his most important epistle.  Indeed, many believe that Romans is the most important book in the entire New Testament.  Perhaps this is a primary reason that it is placed first in order amongst the many epistles in the NT canon even though it was not written first chronologically.  Another factor that may have contributed to the book’s place in the canon was the importance of the City of Rome during biblical times and the centuries that followed.  In addition, the previous book in the canon (the Book of Acts) ended with Paul at Rome, so this made for a nice transition for Paul’s letter to follow.  Finally, the book of Romans contains roughly 100 quotes or paraphrases of OT passages, more than all of his other epistles combined (unless Paul also wrote Hebrews, that contains about the same number of OT citations as Romans).

It is difficult to overestimate the epistle’s influence throughout the history of the Christian church and by extension, the entire western world.  The Book of Romans was a primary source for the formation of doctrines in the early Christian creeds.  It has also greatly influenced and helped form the teachings of some of the most important leaders in Christendom.  St Augustine, who struggled with fleshly sins in his younger day, learned of God’s amazing grace.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, also learned how the Holy Spirit could completely transform a life.

John Calvin took his doctrine of God’s sovereignty primarily from Romans.  Perhaps, Luther’s discovery that “the righteous will live by faith” is the most famous historical account of the book’s influence, a discovery that would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation.  Of his experience, Luther wrote, I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ’The just person lives by faith.’”  I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith.  I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, ie, that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.”  All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.  Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light...  I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate.  This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.  [Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545), translation by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, Stain Anselm Abbey, Project Wittenberg, Concordia Theological Seminary].  Luther believed that all Christians should memorize Romans word for word, and consistently meditate on its great truths.

The Book of Romans also continues to play a major role in evangelistic preaching today.  It’s also difficult to find a gospel tract that doesn’t contain at least one verse from Romans, if not several.  Perhaps the best known Gospel presentation is the “Roman Road to Salvation”, based on Romans 3:23, 5:8, 6:23, and 10:13 (some variations also contain differing combinations of 1:16, 3:10, 5:12, 10:9-10, 10:17 and others).

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Brief Survey

Paul opens the letter by identifying himself, stating his qualifications, and expressing his desire to visit Rome.  He then establishes the need for the Gospel by presenting the bad news that the sinful nature of fallen mankind is universal, permeating both Jews and Gentiles without exception (chapters 1-3).

In chapters 4-8, Paul moves to the Good News (Gospel) by systematically elaborating on the past, present and future aspects of Salvation, all while stressing the righteousness of God.  In chapter 4, he uses the example of Abraham to confirm that a man (or woman) is justified faith alone, not by any merit or works of his own.  This “past” component of salvation (known as “justification”) is a one-time event in which a confessing and repentant sinner is saved from the penalty of sin (death and eternal separation from God) and legally declared righteous before God.  Paul then explains that Jesus reversed the curse brought about by Adam’s original sin, making salvation possible for believers (chapter 5).

In chapters 6 and 7, Paul writes about the “present” component of salvation, a continuing process called “sanctification” in which the believer is being consecrated (set apart) or made holy.  Paul even writes of his own struggles during this process that lasts throughout our earthly lives.  Finally in chapter 8, Paul speaks of the future and final component of salvation (known as “glorification”) in which the believer is saved from the very presence of sin.  This occurs when we get to heaven.

In chapters 9-11, Paul illustrates God’s sovereignty, faithfulness, righteousness and mercy in His present and future dealings with both the Jews and Gentiles.  Despite the temporary hardening of a large portion of the Jews, God is always faithful to preserve a remnant until “all Israel” will be saved in the future.

After Paul concludes the theological portion of his letter, he then turns his attention to the duties and responsibilities of those who have received this great salvation that transforms their lives (chapters 12-15).  Believers should follow God’s will by living in harmony and with love toward other brothers and sisters in Christ, using their spiritual gifts to serve one another.  Christians are also to submit to proper authorities, put aside old behaviors, and deal charitably with weaker brothers (more immature members of the Faith), particularly in with regard to practices related to the OT law.  He then restates his motivation for writing his letter, and asks for prayer that he might visit them soon.

In the final chapter (16), Paul add personal greetings and commendations to his fellow Christian workers, then closes with a benediction.

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Key Verses

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.  Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. (1:1-5)

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith”. (1:16-17)

What shall we conclude then?  Are we any better?  Not at all!  We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.  As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one”...  But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (3:9-12, 21-24)

What does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”...  It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith...  Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all. (4:3,13,16)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! (5:1,6,9)

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (6:4-5)

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (8:1-2)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (8:28)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered”.  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:35-39)

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?   And how can they preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:12-15)

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.  And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.  And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (11:25-27)

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (12:1-2)

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God. (13:1)

I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (15:15-16)

Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-- to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!  Amen. (16:25-27)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Paul identifies himself as the author by opening the letter with, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1).  There is a statement among the greetings in the final chapter that “I Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (16:22), but it’s almost unanimously agreed that Tertius wrote from Paul’s dictation.  Even the usual critics that question Paul’s authorship of most of his other letters (except for 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians) agree that the “Paul” noted in the letter’s first sentence refers to the Apostle Paul  whose persecution of Christians, miraculous conversion, and missionary journeys are chronicled in the Book of Acts.

The letter was probably written from Corinth in late 56 or in 57 AD, near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey (~53-57 AD).  He mentions that he was about to leave for Jerusalem (15:25).  Priscilla and Aquila, whom he first met in Corinth during his second journey, were back in Rome by this time (16:3).  It is also thought that the letter was delivered by Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae (16:1) that was only a few miles from Corinth.

The recipients were “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (1:7).  This greeting is consistent with the belief that the church in Rome probably consisted of several house churches rather than one large centralized church.

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Historical Background

The city of Rome was founded in 753 BC during the time that the Jews were exiled in Babylon, but is not mentioned in the Old Testament.  The Roman Empire became the dominant world power in the first century BC, just about a century before Paul’s ministry.  During Paul’s day, the city had a population of over one million people, boasted of one of the most powerful armies ever assembled, had constructed many magnificent developments such as the Emperor’s palace, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus, and a first-rate road system.  Indeed, all roads led to Rome.  According to tradition, Paul was martyred outside Rome (~64-67 AD) on the Ostian Way during Nero’s reign (54-68 AD).

The circumstances surrounding the founding of the church at Rome is unknown.   We know that visitors from Rome were present during Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Ac 2:10-11; ~30 or 33 AD), and that about three thousand were added to the church that day (Ac 2:41).  Perhaps some of those converted on that day returned to home and founded the Roman church (likely started as a series of home churches).  It’s also a good possibility that one or more of Paul’s converts founded the church.  We know from Paul’s extensive greetings in Romans 16 that he was  personally acquainted with many of those in the Roman church even though he had never visited Rome prior to writing his letter to the Romans.  Many of Paul’s earlier converts from Greece and Asia Minor were now in Rome, including Priscilla and Aquila, who had a church in their home in Rome (Rom 16:3-5).

The Roman historian Suetonius records that the Roman emperor Claudius (41-54) expelled Jews from Rome (confirmed by Acts 18:2) in 49 AD because of the “Chrestos” controversy (a misspelling by Suetonius of “Christos” - Latin for Christ).  By the time of Paul’s letter (~57 AD), many Gentiles had joined the church so that, even after the Jews had been re-admitted to Rome and trickled back into the local church, the Gentile Christians continued to make up the majority of her membership (Rom 1:13).  Paul would not make it to Rome until about three years later, when he arrived as a prisoner and lived in the city under house arrest (Acts 28).

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30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 35 Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road
~ 46-48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 49 Founding of the Church at Rome
~ 49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey
~ 53-57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~57 Paul writes his epistle to the Romans, probably from Corinth
~59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 Paul imprisoned in Rome
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Paul appears to have had several purposes in composing his letter to the church at Rome.  He had longed to visit for awhile, so he wrote to lay the foundations for this visit.  He wanted to educate the Romans regarding salvation and other doctrines so they might greatly aid in evangelizing the metropolitan city.  Since the Romans had conquered much of the mid-eastern world at this time, evangelizing Rome would be just the first step in evangelizing their various territories at large.  We also know that Paul also wished to evangelize Spain (15:23-24).  Thus, Paul evidently wished to use Rome as a type of home base in order to carry the Gospel to western Europe.  Paul may have also written to ease tensions that may have existed between Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.

With regard to Paul’s theology, he did not intend the letter to contain a complete systematic summary of his doctrine.  Yet, the book of Romans is considered by many scholars to be the most important theological document ever written.  Paul, in various detail, touches upon almost all of the central elements of the Christian faith.  He provides the Bible’s fullest treatment on the Sovereignty of God and all phases of Salvation, including justification by faith in Christ alone.  He also scatters teachings about the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) throughout, although the letter lacks the details of his doctrine of Christ (Christology) that we find in Colossians 1 and Philippians 2.  In addition, Paul’s doctrine of the church (Ecclesiology) receives a fuller treatment in throughout Ephesians, and his Eschatology (end times) receives more attention in his two letters to the Thessalonians.

The overarching theme of Romans is righteousness, both the righteousness of God and the righteousness that is imputed from God in the salvation of the believer.  Other related themes and elements of the Faith are the universality of sin, justification by faith in Christ alone, the transforming and assisting work of the Holy Spirit.  Paul also writes about God’s plan for Israel, the original sin of Adam and reversal by Christ, the Lordship of Christ, God’s sovereign election and future plan for Israel, principles of Christian liberty, the love of God, and the believer’s responsibility to government authority, along with other subjects.

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Romans is not only the most challenging of Paul’s epistles to understand, but on several points, one of the most difficult in all of Scriptures.  Even the Apostle Peter, another inspired writer of NT Scripture, admitted that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand (2Pe 3:15-16).  While Paul’s writing on the basics of salvation can be clearly understood, his many fine points of this and other doctrines have been debated for two thousand years.  Indeed, it is estimated that there may have been more commentaries and other discourses written on Romans than on any other NT book.

Still, the large number of volumes written over the centuries has failed to completely settle the various debates surround this epistle.  In fact, we believe that many of the difficulties in Romans will not be completely solved and understood this side of heaven, so we won't even make an attempt in the few paragraphs here.  This should not prevent us however, from continuing to study and respectfully debate these issues.  In fact, we plan to further explore many of these issues in other articles, but at the risk of oversimplification, we'll just mention a few here.

Some have objected to unbelievers being “unjustly” condemned by the natural law (ch 1), but the next two chapters make it clear that none is righteous.  Others have objected to the doctrine of original sin of Adam (ch 5) affecting all his descendants, but Christ has reversed the curse for all believers.  Many have debated the subject of how the original sin nature was transmitted to each new generation.  Augustine’s proposition in the fourth century that the sin nature was transmitted from father to son is the generally accepted answer, and Christ avoided the sin nature by being born of a virgin.

Another disagreement relates to Paul’s inner conflict between his old sinful and new spiritual nature (ch 7).  Some contend that he was speaking of himself before his conversion, or that he was speaking allegorically.  Our position is that, due to the surrounding context and his use of the first person throughout, he was speaking of his own struggles over the years and including the present time.  This should offer us great comfort in that, even Paul still struggled against his old nature more than two decades after his conversion.

Perhaps the most hotly debated topic over the centuries involves the sovereignty of God in election (ch 9).   Actually, the disagreement is not so much over God’s election, but the basis of this election.  God certainly has foreknowledge in election (Ro 8:30), but in the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes that it is also based on God’s election is based on His will and pleasure.  We know that God is all sovereign, but other portions of Scripture indicate that man also has responsibilities.  However, the debate continues (and probably will until Christ’s return), over how to reconcile these two truths.  Another debated topic that arises from chapters 9-11 is God’s future plan for the nation of Israel.  Some contend that the church has replaced Israel in His future plans.  We reject this assertion.  A consistent rendering of the term “Israel” clearly requires an inclusion of the Jews in God’s ultimate plan.

In the book’s “practical” chapters, a question is sometimes raised as to whether Paul is giving general directions for Christian living or addressing specific problems between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  As noted in previous sections above, the consensus is that the latter is most likely.  Also, with regard to Paul’s teaching on the believer’s obedience and responsibility to human government (13:1-7), Christians sometimes disagree on where to draw the line between protest and outright refusal to obey a certain law.

Finally, we briefly mention a debate that arose in the mid-twentieth century.  This controversy has become known as the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), although in reality, it is more of a new perspective on Judaism that would affect how we would interpret Paul’s message of salvation to the Jews.  Throughout history, and especially since the Reformation, it has been interpreted that Paul was fighting against the legalistic requirement of Judaism that individuals must keep the law in order to be saved.  This new perspective contends that Jews believed that they were saved corporately just by being Jews, and that they only obeyed the law to maintain their covenant as God's people.  Thus Paul is seen as fighting not only against corporate salvation of the Jews, but also against exclusion of the Gentiles.

Our position is that we can continue to learn from new discoveries about the culture of first century Judaism, but the NPP carries with it too many additional problems and contrasts with existing Scripture.  Due to it’s leanings toward corporate salvation, or salvation by corporate membership, the NPP has gained some popularity within the modern Roman Catholic Church.  Like many Catholics, NPP advocates also have issues with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Therefore, we hold to the classic interpretation.

Please see our Commentaries Plus on Paul’s Epistles for links to additional articles on some of these challenging topics (several additional writings in progress).

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Paul expounds on theological truths in chapters 1-11.  Then in chapters 12-16, he explains the practical differences that should occur in the lives of individual believers and in the whole church as a result.  In diagramming Romans with topics and subtopics, some would split off chapters 9-11 into a second main topic.  We believe Romans is better interpreted by reading chapters 1-11 as one unit, since chapters 9-11 continue Paul’s analysis of God’s faithfulness to the Jews that he began in chapter 3. 

1:1 – 1:17 Greetings and Introduction
1:18 - 1:32 God’s Wrath against Mankind
2:1 - 2:16 God’s Righteous Judgment against Sinners
2:17 - 3:8 God’s Specific Complaints against the Jews
3:9 - 3:20 Jews and Gentiles Equally Guilty
3:21 - 3:31 Righteousness by Faith Alone
4:1 - 4:25 Old Testament Illustration of Justification by Faith (Abraham)
5:1 - 5:11 Benefits of Saving Faith
5:12 - 5:21 Death through Adam, Life through Christ
6:1 - 7:6 Believer’s Union into Christ’s Death and Resurrection
7:7 - 7:25 Believer’s Struggle with Sin and the Law
8:1 - 8:39 Believer’s Redemption, Deliverance and Freedom
9:1 - 9:29 Sovereignty of God
9:30 - 10:21 Israel’s Unbelief and Rejection
11:1 - 11:32 Israel’s Rejection not Permanent
11:33 - 11:36 Doxology
12:1 - 13:14 Practical Instructions for Righteous Living
14:1 - 14:23 Principles of Christian Liberty
15:1 - 15:13 The Strong and the Weak
15:14 - 15:33 Paul the Minister to the Gentiles
16:1 - 16:27 Paul’s Final Greetings, Instructions and Doxology

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