In his letter to the Romans, Paul gives his most carefully developed exposition of the gospel. He sets out to teach in a progressive and orderly manner the basis of the salvation in Christ that he preached. While Paul intends this presentation of the gospel to be a means of teaching Christian truth in general, he gives it in the form of a letter that he had specific reasons for writing.
Background to the letter
The church in Rome was already well established when Paul wrote this letter to it. (For the origins of the church there see ROME.) At the time of writing, Paul was in Corinth in the south of Greece (Rom 16:23; cf. 1 Cor 1:14), and he sent the letter with a lady from the Corinth region who was travelling to Rome (Rom 16:1-2). Paul had not yet been to Rome (Rom 1:13; 15:22-23), but he had definite plans to pay a visit in the near future. First, however, he was going in the opposite direction, to Jerusalem. He wanted to deliver to the poor Christians in Jerusalem a gift of money that he had been collecting among the Gentile churches of Greece and Asia Minor (Acts 19:21; Rom 15:23-27). Rome was the centre of the Empire. In Paul’s plan the church there had to be firmly established in an understanding of the Christian gospel, so that it could be a centre from which the gospel could spread west. In sending this letter, Paul hoped to strengthen the church and prepare it for further teaching that he would give when he arrived (Rom 1:11-12,15; 15:14-16,29).
From Rome he planned to move into unevangelized areas farther west, till eventually he reached Spain (Rom 15:20,24,28). In former years there had been a strong anti-Jewish feeling in Rome, and on at least one occasion Jews had been expelled from the city (Acts 18:2). But they had now returned, and there were many Jews in the Roman church alongside their Gentile fellow citizens. Paul considered it necessary to speak at times specifically to the Jews (Rom 2:17-19; 3:9; 4:1), at other times specifically to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13-16,28; 15:14-16). He warned against any anti-Jewish feeling among the Gentiles (Rom 11:17-24; 15:27) and encouraged Jews and Gentiles to be tolerant of each other (Rom 14:1-15:5). The gospel is for all people equally, because all are sinners under God’s judgment and they can be saved only by God’s grace (Rom 1:16; 2:9-11; 3:9,23-24; 10:12; 11:32; 15:8- 9). The chief emphasis in Paul’s exposition is that people are put right with God – justified, declared righteous – solely through God’s grace, and they receive this divine blessing by faith (see FAITH; GRACE; JUSTIFICATION). All people are under the power of sin and are unable to save themselves from its penalty, whether through religious ritual, the keeping of the law or personal good works (see GOOD WORKS; LAW; SIN). Even when saved by grace through faith, believers are still dependent on God for victory over sin. Only the Spirit of God within believers can deliver them from the evil power of the sinful human nature, the flesh (see FLESH; HOLY SPIRIT; SANCTIFICATION).
Contents of Romans
Paul introduces himself by speaking of his longing to visit the Roman Christians (1:1-15). He wants to write about the gospel, and the heart of the gospel is God’s act of declaring righteous those who have faith in Jesus Christ (1:16-17). Salvation is entirely the work of God. It cannot be a human work, because human beings are helpless sinners. Pagans, who have rejected the light of God, are sinners (1:18-32), but so are Jews, who claim to know God (2:1-29). All people are sinners (3:1-20), and therefore if God is to declare anyone righteous, it must be entirely by his grace. The basis of God’s gracious salvation is the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the sinner’s behalf (3:21-31). Abraham was justified by faith; his salvation had nothing to do with good works, law-keeping or rituals. Abraham might therefore be called the spiritual father of all who believe (4:1-25).
Believers have confidence because of what God has done for them through Christ (5:1-11); they no longer fear the power of sin, because God’s grace is always sufficient to overcome it (5:12-21). This does not mean that believers may be careless about sin. On the contrary they should live as those who share Christ’s conquest of sin and whose behaviour is characterized by righteousness. They have new life in Christ (6:1-23). Christians are free from the law. They realize that if they try to put themselves back under the law in order to triumph over the sinful human nature, the result will be frustration and despair (7:1-25). Victory comes rather through the indwelling Spirit of the living Christ. The Spirit enables believers to practise the righteousness that the law aimed at but could never produce (8:1-11). The same Spirit gives believers confidence in every aspect of salvation, whether in the present life or in the glorious triumph of the age to come (8:12-39). Paul’s great disappointment is that Israel, the people whom God prepared for this salvation, have on the whole rejected it (9:1-5). As always God has preserved the faithful minority, but the majority have missed out, because they have tried to achieve salvation by keeping the law. Gentiles, by contrast, have accepted it by faith and so are saved (9:6-10:4).
Israelites have no excuse, for the gospel has been plainly preached to them (10:5-21). Although there will always be a minority of Israelites who believe, Paul hopes that the widespread Gentile response to the gospel will stir the unbelieving majority of Israelites to respond likewise. Then the world will enjoy the salvation of God as never before (11:1-36). In gratitude to God for his mercy, believers should live lives of devotion to God. They should contribute to the healthy life of the church and be forgiving to those outside the church who oppose them (12:1-21). Christians should cooperate with the government and show love to everybody (13:1-14). One expression of love is to be considerate of fellow believers who have differing opinions on matters of lesser importance (14:1-15:13). Part of Paul’s reason in writing to the Roman Christians on these matters is that, as God’s apostle to the Gentiles, he has a special responsibility to them. At the same time he stresses that he wants the Gentile Christians to show fellowship towards Jewish Christians (15:14-33). He concludes his letter by sending greetings to many Christians whom he has met in other places over the years and who now live in Rome (16:1-27).