Introduction to Romans
Introduction to Romans
In his letter to the Roman church, Paul lays out his argument for unifying Jews and non-Jews in Christ—and in the process, instructs his readers on how to restore their relationship with God. As Paul explains, we only find unity with God and with one another through God’s Son, Jesus. Christ represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, going all the way back to Abraham. Paul proclaims that Christ is the very righteousness of God and the means for us sinners to become righteous—to be saved.
The book of Romans dates to the end of Paul’s third missionary journey; he most likely wrote this letter from the Greek city of Corinth in the mid-50s AD (Acts 19:21; 20:3). Gaius, whom Paul mentions is his host (Rom 16:23), is likely the same Gaius mentioned as a resident of Corinth in another of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 1:14).
Paul had not met the Christians at Rome (Rom 1:13), but the circumstances he mentions in the letter provide clues about his reasons for writing. Paul wanted to take the gospel to Spain, and he thought that Rome might make a good launching point for a westward mission (15:22–24)—much like Antioch had been his home base in the east. In addition, Paul deeply desired to promote unity between believers in Jesus who were Jewish and those who were not Jewish (called “Gentiles” or “Greeks”; see, for example, 1:16). The Roman church probably was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. Paul wanted to communicate to these Christians that the gospel includes everyone.
Romans is structured as an ancient letter, with an opening (1:1–17), a body (1:18–15:13), and a closing (15:14–16:27). The two main parts of the letter’s body include a section focusing on what God has done in Christ (1:18–11:36) and a section instructing Christians how to live the truths set forth in the first part (12:1–15:13).
In the first section, Paul’s discussion focuses on four major points. First, everyone—including Jews and Gentiles—is under God’s judgment (1:18–3:20). Second, Christ has become the living revelation of God’s righteousness, so that everyone who believes—both Jews and Gentiles—can be made right and brought into God’s family (3:21–5:21). Third, God’s righteousness gives us hope in our battle against sin (6:1–8:39). Finally, despite many Jews’ rejection of Christ, the people of Israel nevertheless have a role to play in God’s redemption of the world (9:1–11:36).
In the section on Christian ethics, Paul aims to help the Roman believers put their faith into practice, particularly when it comes to living together as the diverse yet unified Church (12:1–15:13). For Paul, Christians ought to have their entire lives—in terms of both belief and action—centered first and foremost on Christ. The good news of Jesus’ saving act is meant to be transformative, and this good news should be unapologetically proclaimed.
• The gospel and God’s righteous judgment (1:1–3:20)
• The gift of God’s righteousness (3:21–5:21)
• The power of God’s righteousness (6:1–8:39)
• God’s righteousness toward Israel (9:1–11:36)
• Righteousness in relationships (12:1–15:13)
• Paul’s ministry and personal greetings (15:14–16:27)
Romans’ major themes—righteousness and salvation—ring forth most clearly in Romans 1:16–17, Paul’s declaration of the power of the gospel. Here, Paul proclaims that the good news of Jesus opens God’s salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. Further, this salvation fulfills the Old Testament promises God made to the people of Israel—showing God’s faithfulness to His covenant. Paul shows us that in Jesus we clearly see God’s power to save all who believe. In Christ, our righteous God unites Jews and Gentiles alike into one people of God. All cultures, races, and people can come to God for salvation. Christ’s righteousness is enough for any and all of us to be saved.
Paul explains that all have all sinned and face the consequence of death (3:23; 5:12; 6:23). But God has provided the salvation we need through the death and resurrection of His Son (6:5–11; 8:1–4), and nothing can separate us from His love (8:38–39). Despite our wrongdoings against God and other people, Jesus saves each of us who believe. While our sin previously stood in the way, Jesus makes a way for us to have a relationship with God again. Jesus makes a way for us to be unified in His name. We are empowered to collectively and boldly proclaim—and live—the good news of Jesus.
Human sin and God’s anger
God’s anger against humankind
God is invisible, but his work is clearly seen in creation. Humankind has turned away from the truth about God and instead worships images of his creatures. Men and women have spurned a holy relationship with God and looked for satisfaction in perverted sex. This is particularly true of the Gentiles.
People still have consciences and know what is right, but they encourage one another to abandon all self-control. Now the human race is hostile to God, ignorant of his ways and depraved in its behaviour. Instead of being the living image of God, humans are now the most corrupt animals on earth.
God is angry at this state of affairs. But he has given human beings free will, and he allows their choice even if it means they go from bad to worse.
A word with the Jews
While Gentiles have plunged into idolatry and perversion, the Jews have known better. They can look at the Gentiles and condemn them as godless.
But have the Jews actually lived according to God’s law, or have they merely listened to it? Merely listening isn’t enough. The Jews have been stubborn towards God and need to repent. One day God’s searchlight will also turn on them. Indeed, God will judge them first.
God will judge everyone by whatever light they have: the light of the law (in the case of the Jews) and the light of conscience (in the case of the Gentiles who do not have the law).
Paul intensifies his attack on self-righteous Jews. They are proud of the law, but they break it like everyone else. They are proud of circumcision—but it means nothing without obedience to God. In God’s sight, true circumcision is an attitude of heart.
Having demolished Jewish self-confidence, Paul now gets the Jews to count their blessings.
For one thing, the Jews have access to God’s word. For another, they are part of God’s plan to save not just the Jews, but the whole world. Even their failures can show how God acts in justice and mercy.
No one is righteous
Paul concludes, using quotations from the Old Testament, that both Jews and Gentiles are in the same situation. All have sinned. For Jews, the law has merely shown them the full extent of their sin. If they think otherwise, they are adding pride and self-deception to their long list of failings.
The gospel answer
But now Paul comes to the good news. Forgiveness and peace with God are freely available through Jesus Christ.
Right with God through faith in Christ
Paul declares that it is possible to be right with God in a way that is quite different from keeping the Jewish law. It sounds scandalous, but the Old Testament always knew of it.
This righteousness is open to all. Just as Jews and Gentiles are together in sin, so they can be together in salvation.
The means by which human sin can be forgiven is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A sacrifice is the payment of an innocent life for a guilty life. Animals and birds are killed in the temple so that the lives of their owners can be spared. But all these sacrifices are inadequate and have to be constantly repeated. Now Jesus has become the perfect sacrifice—not an animal, bird or human hero, but the Son of God. His perfect life has been freely offered for the sins of the whole world and for all time. His righteousness has been credited to us.
Paul says that through the sacrifice of Jesus we are ‘justified’. Our punishment has been borne by Christ, and now it is as if we had never sinned. The sacrifice of Jesus is an ‘atonement’—bringing God and human beings together and making peace.