“There is no telling what may happen when people begin to study the Epistle to the Romans,”1 says the noted scholar F. F. Bruce in the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Romans. We must surely agree with the sense of expectation expressed by Bruce when we take a moment to reflect on the impact this book has had on men of the past.
Augustine sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius, desperately wanting to start a new life, yet reluctant to break with the old. This professor of rhetoric at Milan for two years, prompted by the words sung by a neighborhood child, took up the scroll at his friend’s side and began to read these words:
Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof (Romans 13:13b-14).
“No further would I read,” he tells us, “nor had I any need; instantly, at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”2
Augustinian monk and Professor of Sacred Theology in the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, began to expound this great epistle to his students.
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” he wrote, “and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God’ … Night and day I pondered until … I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”3
In a somewhat indirect way, the Book of Romans was the turning point for John Wesley.
In the evening of 24 May 1738, John Wesley ‘went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.’4
Lest all of these ‘conversions’ seem to come from the long ago and the far away, let me share with you the story of a young man who visited Believers Chapel in the midst of a series in the Book of Romans. At the end of the lesson, the person sitting next to this young man began a casual conversation. “Tell me,” the person asked, “how long have you been a Christian?” To which the young man responded, “About five minutes.”
If I began the series on ‘suffering’ with apprehension and ‘fear and trembling,’ I commence this study in Romans with anticipation and eagerness, wondering what great things God will do in each of our lives as this book becomes a part of our understanding and experience.
It is hardly possible to stress too vigorously the importance of the Book of Romans.
Coleridge referred to Romans as, “The profoundest piece of writing in existence.” Luther said it was, “The chief book of the New Testament. … It deserves to be known by heart, word for word, by every Christian.” According to C. A. Fox, “Chrysostom used to have it read over to him twice every week by his own express order. … Unquestionably the fullest, deepest compendium of all sacred foundation truths.”5
If Romans is the most significant book of the New Testament, how can we justify a mere 17 lessons in its study? It is my conviction that every Christian should know the argument of this epistle like the back of his hand. If you are to understand any book of the Bible you must be able to think your way through the book chapter by chapter. Although an intense and prolonged study of Romans would expose you to many of the rich details of the book, it would tend to be counter-productive in grasping the argument of the apostle. Our plan, then, is to dwell upon the development of Paul’s argument through the epistle, with the hope that having a framework for future study, you will go on to search the depths of this great presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So far as we know, Paul had never set foot in Rome until after this epistle had been written. If this is the case a word of introduction was certainly necessary for this letter to be received as it was and is, the Word of God. In the first seven verses, Paul described his relationship to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while in verses 8-15 he pursued his relationship with the Romans to whom he wrote. In verses 16-17, Paul introduced the theme of the epistle, the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the revelation of the righteousness of God.
As even a casual reading of the account of the conversion of Saul will reveal, Paul was not an apostle of Jesus Christ by his own initiative. Rather, he was an apostle by divine appointment. He was ‘called’ (v. 1) and ‘set apart’ (v. 1). As he wrote in Galatians 1, he was set apart while yet unborn (1:15).
The Gospel which Paul preached was not one of his own making. It was the message which was in fulfillment of all that the Old Testament prophets had promised (v. 2). It was, then, consistent with all that true Judaism believed and anticipated. It was not a revelation of something entirely new and unexpected, but a realization of that which had been promised.
The object of the Gospel was the person, Jesus Christ, Who came as the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the sin-bearer of the sins of the world (vv. 3-4). The incontestable proof of His authenticity was His resurrection from the dead. The resurrection was not, as some have maintained, an incidental and unnecessary addition to the Gospel; it was the foundation stone. Our Lord Jesus staked His entire ministry and reputation on this event, as His enemies knew all too well (cf. Matthew 27:62-66).
The scope of the Gospel which Paul preached was universal (vv. 5-7). The Jews wanted to keep the Gospel in their own little corner of the world. They wished to make it exclusively Jewish. If they could not succeed in doing so, at least they would insist that in order to be saved men must in effect become Jewish proselytes to Judaism (cf. Galatians, Acts 15:1ff.). Paul’s primary calling was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (v. 5). Paul’s concern for the salvation of the Gentiles explains, in part, his interest in writing to the Roman saints.
Since Paul had not yet visited Rome, it was necessary for him to pave the way for this epistle by expanding on his relationship to his readers. Although he had not yet set foot in Rome, he had a deep and abiding concern and interest in the spiritual well-being of these Romans.
Paul’s concern for the Romans was indicated by his prayer life (vv. 8-10). Paul greatly rejoiced in the fact that the faith of the Romans was being broadcast throughout the world. Although he did not know many of them personally, he did know of them, even by name, and unceasingly prayed for their growth, and for the privilege of visiting them.
Paul’s concern for the Romans was evident in his desire to be with them (vv. 11-12). As Paul wrote elsewhere, he may have been absent in body, but not in spirit (1 Thes. 2:17). As a minister of the Gospel, Paul greatly desired to go to Rome and be instrumental in the salvation of some. In addition, he would have been enabled to encourage and build up the saints. This was not to say that Paul’s visit would be one-sided and that he would not be blessed in turn, for they would also greatly encourage him.
Why, then, had Paul not yet visited this city? Not because he had no desire to do so, and not because he had not attempted to visit these saints. The only reason was that thus far God had prevented him from carrying out his intentions (vv. 13-15). As we know from later events in the life of Paul, God did intend for Paul to visit Rome, but in a way which we would never have expected. He went to Rome with all expenses paid as a guest of the Roman empire.
If in verses 1-15 Paul introduced himself to the Romans, in verses 16-17 he introduced the theme of his epistle. We might summarize this theme in this fashion—the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the Righteousness of God Revealed.
In verse 15 Paul expressed an eagerness to preach the Gospel—an eagerness all too frequently lacking in Christians today. What was it that made the apostle tick? What was the driving force behind Paul’s desire to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Paul has already stated that one reason is that he has been called by God to this task (v. 1). But in addition to this, there are two good reasons given in verses 16 and 17 which should motivate any Christian to share the Gospel with others.
(1) The Gospel Is the Revelation to Men of God’s Provision for Salvation (v. 16). In verse 16 Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” We are compelled to preach the gospel to men simply because it is the means by which men come to a knowledge of salvation. Later in this epistle, Paul wrote: “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard. And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). The only way men can come to salvation is by hearing the Gospel proclaimed. In addition, the Gospel itself is powerful to save. It is not our persuasiveness that saves men; it is the Gospel itself that is powerful. Proclaiming the Gospel is like letting a lion out of its cage. Once the lion is out, he needs no help from us. We as Christians are not called upon to defend the Gospel so much as we are to declare it. When it is turned loose, it will take care of itself.
(2) The Gospel Is the Revelation to Men of God’s Righteousness (v. 17). Every committed evangelical should be quick to admit that the proclamation of the Gospel is essential for the salvation of men, but all too few seem to comprehend that the proclamation of the Gospel is also the presentation of the righteousness of God. The Gospel declares men to be sinners under the wrath and condemnation of a righteous and holy God. God’s ultimate purpose is not so much to save men as it is to demonstrate and declare His righteousness, not only to men, but to the angelic hosts (cf. Eph. 3:8-10). If the proclamation of the Gospel declares the righteousness of God to men, God’s ultimate purpose in the world is realized. We can therefore proclaim the Gospel with confidence, knowing first of all that it is the Gospel itself which has the power to save men, and not we ourselves, and second, that God is glorified in our proclamation even when men reject our message.
There are two very significant applications to what Paul has written in verses 16 and 17. The first is that whenever we distort the Gospel of Jesus Christ we also diminish the righteousness of God as revealed in the Gospel. The tone of the Gospel today is nothing like what is revealed in Scripture. The modern ‘gospel’ portrays God as being more lonely and in need of our companionship than righteously angered by our sin. Man is not represented as a rebel under the wrath of God and destined for eternal torment, but rather as one who could use a little assistance in making his life more fulfilling and satisfying. In this kind of gospel, we defame the righteousness of God, rather than declare it.
The second implication I would draw from what Paul has said is that failing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with men not only withholds from them the only way of salvation, it also withholds from God the glory due to His name through the proclamation of His Gospel. When we keep silent with the Gospel we are robbing men of the opportunity to hear God’s provision of salvation, and we are robbing God of the glory due to His name through the preaching of the Gospel.
We are told that a good teacher begins by telling you what he is going to say, then he tells you, and finally he reviews by repeating what he has said. Before we begin to analyze the various parts of Romans, I want to preview the book with a survey of the argument of the entire work. It is possible, believe it or not, to summarize the message of Romans with five words: Condemnation (chapters 1-3a), Justification (chapters 3b-5), Sanctification (chapters 6-8), Dispensation (chapters 9-11), Application (chapters 12-16).
Someone has said that it is harder to get a person lost than it is to get him saved. There is a certain amount of truth in this statement, and it helps us to grasp why the apostle begins the book on a rather negative note. Man is brought to the realization that he is utterly and completely lost and destined to eternal condemnation due to his sin. The ‘righteousness’ which man offers to God as the work of his own hands is unacceptable to God. Whether it be the pagan in the jungles of Africa or the sophisticated Jewish priest, striving to keep the Law of the Old Testament, every man is in rebellion against God, and demonstrates his rebellion by rejecting the revelation which God has given to man of Himself.
The pagan. has rejected the revelation of the power and divine nature of God in creation. Instead of worshipping the Creator, he has chosen to worship the creation. Not only has this man twisted the revelation of God in creation, he has also corrupted and perverted the use of God’s creation. All of this is ample evidence which justifies the condemnation of God (Romans 1:18-32).
More enlightened sinners also fall under the wrath of God. They are quick to condemn others, yet they do not live up to the standards which they hold for the conduct of those they condemn. Worst of all is the self-righteous Jew who prides himself because of his possession of the Law, yet who fails to live according to its requirements (Romans 2).
Paul’s conclusion is summarized in chapter 3: “As it is written, There is none righteous, not even one. … Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:10, 20).
If man’s righteousness served only to condemn him before God, God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ saves men from the wrath of God. What men could never do to please God, God provided in Jesus Christ. He satisfied all the requirements of the Law. He bore the penalty and punishment for man’s sins. He provided a righteousness acceptable to God. “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe …” (Romans 3:21, 22a).
The principle of ‘justification by faith’ expounded by Paul in the third chapter is not in any way inconsistent with the teaching of the Old Testament. To demonstrate this, Paul, in the fourth chapter, used the example of Abraham to prove that even in the old dispensation men were saved, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith. Justification by faith is not only consistent with the past, it is persistent in the future. In chapter 5, Paul argues that God’s love in seeking us out for salvation while we were still His enemies assures us of the perseverance of our salvation now that we are His children.
The doctrine of justification states that we are saved from the penalty of our sins. The doctrine of sanctification goes further in assuring us that we are also saved from the power of our sin nature. This means that God has not only provided a remedy for past sins, but has also made it possible to live a life which is pleasing to Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In chapter 6 Paul urged the Christian to live a godly life on the basis of his position in Christ. Since we have died to sin in Jesus Christ, we should no longer live in sin. Since we have been raised to newness of life in Christ, we should live righteously before men and before God.
Chapter 7 presents the real ‘fly in the ointment.’ Although we know that we should live righteously, we simply cannot do it. What we know we should do, we don’t. What we desperately want to avoid, those things we somehow seem to do. The problem is that the flesh is weak and incapable of producing righteousness. The flesh is subject to the stronger power of sin which still dwells in the Christian. In order to live a life pleasing to God, there must be a new source of power.
That power is not inherent in man. Just as a man or woman can do nothing to earn their salvation, so they can not produce righteousness in their lives, even as Christians. The solution to the dilemma is the provision of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. God has provided the Holy Spirit to produce in the life of the Christian practical righteousness:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
This Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly wonderful, but how does it relate to the Old Testament, to the Jews, to all of the prophecies concerning Israel yet unfilled? Has God given up on Israel? The answer to these questions is found in chapters 9-11.
In chapter 9 Paul began to answer the question from the divine perspective. God has always operated by the principle of election. The reason why so many Jews have not turned to faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah is because God has not chosen them. They trusted in the fact that they were the physical descendants of Abraham, but the history of the nation reveals that this has never been the basis for God’s choosing. God has chosen a small remnant, and to this remnant He will fulfill His promises.
While God had not chosen all Israelites for salvation, neither had these unbelieving Jews chosen to trust in Christ as their Messiah. They sought to establish their own righteousness before God rather than to accept the righteousness which God had provided in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:3, 4). While chapter 9 asserted that only those who were chosen could believe, chapter 10 assures us that all who call upon the name of the Lord for salvation shall be saved (v. 13).
While chapter 9 views the problem of Israel’s rejection from the standpoint of election and chapter 10 from the viewpoint of human rejection, chapter 11 draws the whole thing together by stressing the purpose of God in Israel’s rejection. God intended that the Jews would reject Messiah in order to save multitudes of Gentiles. But the salvation of the Gentiles will in turn provoke the Jews to jealousy which will incline them back to their Messiah. God is not through with Israel, but will in days to come restore them to their former place and will fulfill all the promises He made to them through the prophets. The rejection of the Jews has brought about the acceptance of the Gentiles; and the acceptance of the Gentiles will, in the providence of God, turn the Jews back to their Messiah. God is working all things together for our good and His glory!
The theological foundation has been laid. Now the apostle moves to the practical outworking of righteousness in the life of the Christian. The initial response of the Christian to the grace of God should be the dedication of himself to God as a living sacrifice. The only reasonable act of worship is that which begins with the sacrifice of self in devoted service to God. Since every Christian has a different capacity for service due to differing spiritual gifts, the Christian must first of all exercise his renewed mind in the contemplation of the capacities for service which God has given and then devote himself to those ministries.
Beyond our commitment of self-sacrifice and service in the area of our gifts, we also have responsibilities to the body of our Lord in general. We are exhorted to love one another, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Not only are we responsible to ‘one another’ we have an obligation to those who are our enemies. To these we are obliged to avoid retaliation and to do good to those who oppose us (Romans 12:17-21).
Our obligation is one that I view in concentric circles of responsibility. The center of our obligation is to God, in self-sacrifice and service. The ripple effect extends to the exercise of our gifts, the service of the brethren, even kindness to the lowly and our enemies. Beyond this there is the sphere of responsibility which we have to society and human institutions. We are obliged to express our submission to God by being obedient to the government which God has ordained. In addition to legal obligations, such as obeying the laws of the land and paying our taxes, we have moral obligations as well. Even when the state may legalize immorality, it is the obligation of the Christian to abstain from the evils of drunkenness, sensuality and lust (Romans 13:8-14).
The righteousness of God is to be exhibited in the lives of the saints in all of these areas previously mentioned, in personal service to God, in the exercise of our spiritual gifts, in ministry to one another, in kindness to all men, in obedience to the state and in keeping the moral law. In addition to these ‘clear cut’ responsibilities, the Christian is to demonstrate righteousness in what might be called the ‘gray’ areas of life—that is in the areas of dispute between Christians. How, for example, should a Christian respond to another brother who feels strongly that it is wrong to eat meat, or to one who feels it is wrong to drink wine? How should we relate to a believer who has strong convictions which we think have no biblical basis? Paul’s answer in chapter 14 and the first six verses of chapter 15 is that we should accept the ‘Weaker brother’ and conduct ourselves in such a way as to build him up and encourage him rather than to criticize, condemn and change him. The law of love dictates that we should avoid the exercise of any right which will cause another brother to stumble in his faith.
The final chapters of the book have been referred to as an epilogue. In the remaining verses of chapter 15, Paul speaks first with respect to the biblical basis for his ministry to the Gentiles (vv. 7-21) and then in regard to his plans for future ministry (vv. 22-33).
Chapter 16 is dominated by a wealth of personal greetings, revealing the intimate knowledge of the apostle with the needs of individuals in the body at Rome. Paul’s ministry was not primarily one directed to the masses, but to men and women individually. This conclusion reminds us of the great importance of people-to-people ministry.
We are conditioned to think of the Gospel in terms of ‘the gospels’ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but in my estimation, there is no statement of the Gospel more clearly and logically presented by the apostle Paul than in the Book of Romans. I hope you desire to study this book as much as I do to teach it. I pray that you will never be the same for having done so.