Years ago a friend of mine was preaching through the Book of Romans. He had reached the middle of the book, Romans 6-8, on the Sunday when a visitor attended the service. As the service came to a close, a woman sitting nearby turned to the young man and engaged him in conversation. After learning a little about him, the woman asked, “How long have you been a Christian?” The young man thought for a moment, looked down at his watch and said, “About ten minutes.” The Book of Romans was, for this man, a life-changing study.
The study of the Book of Romans has often proven to be a life-changing exercise. Throughout the history of the church, lives have been radically transformed through the impact of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Augustine, in 386, was sitting in the garden of a friend, weeping, as he considered making a radical change in his life. The words of a young neighborhood child singing a tune reached his ears, words which invited him to “Take up and read.” He took up the scroll nearby, a scroll which contained these words from Paul’s Roman epistle: “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 fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:13b-14).
Augustine later wrote about his response to these words from the pen of the apostle Paul: “No further would I read, 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 (Confessions, viii. 29).1 The impact which Romans would have on Augustine, and the impact which Augustine would have on the world, can still be seen.
Many years later, in November of 1515, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, began to expound the Book of Romans to his students. The more he studied the Epistle, the more he recognized that the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith was central and crucial to the argument of the Epistle. But he found himself struggling to understand it. He describes his struggle with this Epistle and his dramatic conversion when the message came clear to his mind, heart, and soul:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God,’ because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous … 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.2
Over two-hundred years later, John Wesley was transformed by this same Epistle. As he wrote in his journal, he:
… 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 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.3
Again, in the early twentieth century, Karl Barth, pastor of Safenwil in Canton Aargau, Switzerland, published an exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Once again, Paul’s words had a powerful impact upon Barth, and his exposition, we are told, fell “like a bombshell on the theologian’s playground.”4
While not all have experienced the dramatic changes which the Book of Romans has produced in the lives of some, biblical scholars are virtually unanimous on the towering significance and contribution of this Epistle:
Luther, in his preface to the Roman letter, wrote:
‘This Epistle is the chief book of the New Testament, the purest gospel. It deserves not only to be known word for word by every Christian, but to be the subject of his meditation day by day, the daily bread of his soul … The more time one spends in it, the more precious it becomes and the better it appears.’ He spoke of it as ‘a light and way into the whole Scriptures, …’ Calvin said of it ‘when any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scriptures.’ Coleridge pronounced Romans ‘the most profound work ever written!’ Meyer considered it ‘the greatest and richest of all the apostolic works.’ Godet referred to it as ‘the cathedral of the Christian faith.’ … Gordon H. Clark recently wrote of Romans that it is ‘the most profound of all the epistles, and perhaps the most important book in the Bible …’ Hamilton, in his recent commentary on Romans, calls it ‘the greatest book in the Bible.’5
Just what is it about this book of the Bible which makes it stand out and have such impact? At the conclusion of this lesson, I would like to suggest several possibilities, some or all of which may provide the answer to this question. Our answers must come from the text of Romans itself, and thus we shall press on to our study with great anticipation.
The purpose of this first lesson will be to get a “lay of the land,” to survey the territory of this text as a whole in order to obtain some sense of its nature, its argument, and its areas of emphasis. We will begin by attempting to learn as much as we can about the church in Rome and to determine Paul’s relationship to these saints. We will then briefly trace the argument of the book through the entire book. On the basis of this study, we shall seek to discern and identify at the conclusion of this lesson what makes Romans unique, that which sets it apart from the other 65 books of the Bible which has enabled Romans to dramatically impact so many lives down through the ages.
After our survey in this lesson of the Book of Romans as a whole, we will look at Romans section by section. We will seek to identify the major sections of this Epistle and to study each of these, devoting one lesson to each major section. Finally, we will undertake a chapter by chapter, verse by verse study of the book.
As we begin this study of Romans, I would challenge you to do three things. First, pray that God would use this book in your life, in a powerful way, as He has done in the lives of countless others before you. Expect God to speak to you, and pray that He will. Second, set some specific goals for your own study. Determine when and how you will study Romans during the week. Establish a goal for how many times you will read the book clear through, and when during the week you will commit yourself to this reading. Also, purchase those study helps which will assist you in your study. Third, follow through with your study of the Book of Romans. Let these lessons be the starting point and the stimulus for an intensive study of your own. I am convinced that those whose lives were transformed were those who worked hard at studying Romans. Do not expect God to transform your life apart from your own diligent search of these Scriptures. May these words of wisdom be your motto as you begin your study:
My son, if you will receive my sayings, And treasure my commandments within you, Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, And discover the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:1-5).
We are told that Jews and Jewish proselytes from Rome were present at Pentecost (Acts 2:10), but no one actually knows when the church of Rome was founded or by whom. It would seem clear that the Holy Spirit did not want us to focus on men as the founders of this church. It is a great encouragement to me that this church may have been founded by the testimony of ordinary Christians, rather than celebrities like Paul. Such was the case with the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-21) and probably with a number of other churches as well.
We do know that at the time of Paul’s writing, there was a church in Rome made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It was a church that seems to have been spiritually prospering. Paul commended this church for its reputation:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world (Romans 1:8).
From secular history, we know that in Rome the Jews were not well thought of nor kindly treated at various times. Claudius, for example, expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) which was not the only time this happened.6 It would be only a few years after this Epistle to the Romans was written that Rome would be destroyed by fire and that Christians would serve as scapegoats for this atrocity. Soon would come the day when Christians would be fed to the lions at Rome. This may have set the scene for the martyrdom of both Peter and Paul, as well as many others.
Paul had wanted to visit Rome and the saints there, but up to this point in time he had not been able to do so:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far) in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome (Romans 1:8-15, emphasis mine).
For this reason I have often been hindered from coming to you; but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. And I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ (Romans 15:22-29, emphasis mine).
Paul had nothing to do with the founding of the church in Rome nor had he yet been to Rome at the time of the writing of his Epistle to the Romans. He had heard reports about the faith of the Romans (1:8). He had made the Roman church a matter of persistent prayer. He looked forward to the day when he could visit the church in Rome to minister to these saints, as well as to be encouraged by their faith. His Epistle to the Romans was apparently written because of his delay in reaching Rome and perhaps in preparation for his coming. It is most interesting that one of Paul’s longest and most fully developed books was written to those whom he did not know personally.
If Paul had not been to Rome and did not personally know many of the Roman saints, he did have a fair knowledge of this church. In Acts 18 Paul’s path crossed that of Priscilla and Aquila who had just come to Corinth from Rome:
After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them (Acts 18:1-2).
Paul must have gained a great deal of information from Aquila and Priscilla about the church in Rome. Paul’s concern for the saints at Rome would likely have grown because of his contact with this couple. If those named in Romans 16:3-16 are all saints living in Rome, Paul knew a great deal about the individual saints in Rome. Paul’s desire to visit these Roman saints continued to grow. When he was at Ephesus, he expressed his intention of going through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem and from there to Rome (Acts 19:21).
Paul eventually reached Rome but not in the way he might have expected. He arrived as the “guest” of the Roman government, as a prisoner who was appealing his case to Caesar as a Roman citizen. Upon his arrival, he was warmly greeted by the brethren and encouraged, as he had hoped:
… and thus we came to Rome. And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet us; and when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:14b-15; compare Romans 1:11-12).
Paul’s first visit to Rome lasted, it seems, for two full years (Acts 28:30). While Paul was not free to travel about Rome, he was free to have visitors at his rented quarters, and so he was able to minister to all who came to him (28:30).
The time and place of the writing of Romans is a matter which is generally agreed upon and which has a fair degree of certainty. Paul’s comments in Romans 1:8-15 and 15:22-29, when compared to the events of Acts 18:1-2 and 20:3, 6, 18, definitely point to a time late in 57 or early 58 A.D. The place of writing seems quite clearly to be Corinth.
How Paul’s Epistle to the Romans must have warmed the hearts of these saints and paved the way for his reception when he reached Rome. Paul’s epistle had a lasting effect on the Roman church and on saints beyond Rome. Not only this epistle but also others were circulated among the saints:
The copy which was taken to Rome was certainly treasured in the church of that city, and survived the persecution of AD 64. About AD 96 Clement, ‘foreign secretary’ of the Roman church, shows himself well acquainted with the Epistle to the Romans; he echoes its language time and again in the letter which he sent in that year on behalf of the Roman church to the church in Corinth. The way in which he echoes its language suggests that he knew it by heart; it could well be that the Epistle was read regularly at meetings of the Roman church from the time of its reception onwards … From the beginning of the second century Paul’s letters circulated as a collection—the corpus Paulinum—and not singly.7
The predominant theme of the Book of Romans is the righteousness of God. We will survey the subject of God’s righteousness by tracking this theme through the Epistle. Since later study will consider the text on a verse-by-verse basis, we will pass by all but the main thrust of each section. We will also briefly deal with the introduction (1:1-14) and the conclusion (16:1-27) of the Epistle.
While the first 15 verses of chapter 1 have much to say about Paul’s relationship to the saints in Rome, they have even more to say about his relationship to the gospel. Paul was saved and set apart for the gospel (1:1). In particular, he was given the privilege and responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. Among the Gentiles reached by the gospel, the saints of Rome are included. The gospel transformed their lives in a way that resulted in the report of their faith in distant places (1:8). Their common faith in the gospel, in fact, is the bond which unites Paul and the saints in Rome. For this reason he had long wished to visit them but had been prevented from going to them. He still looks forward to the time when he will see them face to face, there to proclaim the gospel and to fellowship with these saints.
Romans 1:16-17 introduces the theme of the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is directly linked with the gospel. If the gospel was Paul’s calling, the joyful experience of his readers, it was also the revelation of God’s righteousness. In these two introductory verses, Paul asserts his confidence in the gospel and gives us two reasons for his boldness in proclaiming it. First, the gospel is the “power of God for the salvation” of both Jews and Gentiles. Second, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The rest of the Epistle, as I understand it, is Paul’s explanation of this fundamental truth: THE GOSPEL REVEALS THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD.
We shall now set out to see how Paul develops this fundamental truth.
In the following verses, I believe Paul is laying out the gospel in a very orderly, sequential way. In essence, Paul is setting before us a theology of the gospel in a way that demonstrates the righteousness of God. He begins with man’s sin, moves to God’s solution, and then expands the gospel to its logical and necessary goal—sanctification: the living out of God’s righteousness through the lives of those who believe in the gospel.
Paul’s purpose in this section is not only to demonstrate man’s sin, and thus his need for a righteousness that is of God, but to show us that man’s sin actually demonstrates God’s righteousness. This is precisely what Paul concludes in chapter 3:
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? … (Romans 3:5a).
Paul’s point is made with two major thrusts. The first is given in 1:18-32; the second follows the first in 2:1-8. The first thrust seems to be directed toward those who might be considered the “heathen,” the pagans. A self-righteous Jew would certainly think of the sinners described in chapter 1 as Gentiles. We might call the first category of sinners “self-indulgent sinners.” The second group of sinners I would call “self-righteous sinners.”
The “self-indulgent sinners” of chapter 1 are those on and through whom the wrath of God is presently being revealed (1:18). The wrath or judgment which they are said to be experiencing is the result of their being “given over” (1:24, 26, 28) by God. These sinners have rejected the natural revelation of God, that which can be known about God through His creation. The result of this rejection of the revelation of God through nature is being turned over to that which is unnatural.
The “self-righteous sinners” of chapter 2 are those whose judgment is viewed as future (2:5). The sinners of chapter 1 seem to have lives of chaos and disorder as the present consequence of their sin. The sinners of chapter 2 seem to be living quite well. They are not aware of their sinfulness. They actually feel righteous. They misinterpret God’s present kindness, thinking it is their reward for righteous living. They do not understand that it is the result of God’s long-suffering. He is delaying judgment to give opportunity for repentance (2:5). The “self-righteous sinner” occupies himself with judging others (2:1). He certainly believes in sin, but not in his own.
God’s righteousness, Paul contends, is demonstrated by His judgment of sinners, sinners of either kind—the self-indulgent or the self-righteous. God’s righteousness is seen not only in the fact that He judges sinners, but also in that He judges them impartially. This principle of impartiality is put forward in 2:9-11 and is played out in the remainder of this section.
The righteousness of God requires His wrath to be expressed toward unrighteousness. This Paul has maintained. But now he sets out to show how God’s wrath is expressed impartially, toward all sinners, both Jew and Gentile. The Jews prided themselves in their privileged position and in their possession of the Law, but they failed to practice it. In the remaining verses of chapter 2, Paul shows that possession of the Law (symbolized by circumcision) was of no value unless the Law was also practiced. In fact, there is even greater condemnation for those who have the greater revelation of the Law and yet fail to meet its demands. The hypocrisy of claiming to uphold the Law, while actually rejecting it, is exposed and condemned. The Jew, therefore, cannot attain righteousness by means of law-keeping. He, like the pagans he condemns, is only revealed to be a sinner by the Law. The outward symbol of circumcision was of no value to the Jew apart from possessing a true righteousness, a righteousness which law-keeping could not achieve.
If God’s righteousness is seen by the fact that God condemns man’s unrighteousness, Paul also teaches that God’s righteousness is revealed by the way that He judges unrighteousness. God condemns sinners without partiality. He has no “favorites” whose sin He overlooks, nor are there those whom He dislikes whose condemnation is contrived. He judges men impartially and righteously in that He judges men on the basis of the revelation given to them. Thus, Jews are judged by the Law they possess, while others are judged only on the basis of natural revelation (chapter 1).
Paul has rejected the basis on which the Jew found himself superior to the Gentile. Neither the Gentile, without the Law, nor the Jew, with the Law, could achieve his own righteousness. The truth of God revealed in nature and the truth of God revealed in the Law both served to demonstrate God’s righteousness and man’s unrighteousness. Paul’s teaching to this point raises three questions which he asks and answers before coming to the conclusion of his first major point.
The first question concerned the benefit of being a Jew. If the possession of the Law did not make the Jew better than anyone else, “then what advantage has the Jew?” (Romans 3:1). Paul’s answer was that while being a Jew did not make one pious (righteous), it did give one the great privilege of being entrusted with God’s Word.
The second question follows the first. Does man’s unbelief, man’s unfaithfulness to God, reflect on God’s faithfulness to man? If the revelation of God in nature and in the Law has not made any man righteous, but has only proven man to be unrighteous, what does this say about God? Has God failed? Not at all! Man’s failure has demonstrated the righteousness of God. Furthermore, as the next section will demonstrate, man’s failure has not frustrated God’s purposes but has fulfilled them, paving the way for God to demonstrate His righteousness by providing a righteousness the Law could never produce.
Finally, does the unrighteousness of man suggest unrighteousness on God’s part? Can God be righteous when He has created men who are sinners, and when He has provided a revelation which only seems to produce unrighteousness rather than righteousness? Has God’s purpose of revealing His own righteousness by demonstrating man’s unrighteousness backfired, so that God is made to look evil? Such a question hardly deserves an answer, and so Paul merely states that the condemnation of such people is just (3:8).
Having spoken to these three concerns, Paul now draws the first section of his argument in Romans to a close. In Romans 3:9 he concludes that Jews are no better than Gentiles and that both are unrighteous, guilty before God. He then, in verses 10-18, draws together a series of quotations from the Old Testament which describe man’s fallen, sinful condition, a condition which is universal and which is true of Jew and Gentile alike.
The point of this section is now summarized in 3:19-20. The Law was given to those under the Law, not to make them superior to those who did not have the Law, nor to make them righteous, but to demonstrate their unrighteousness. The Law reveals man’s need of righteousness; it does not provide men with righteousness. The Law is not the solution, the cure. The Law is to salvation what an x-ray is to a cure. The Law and the x-ray both reveal the problem and the need for a cure, but they do not produce the cure in and of themselves. The Law reveals man’s problem: He is unrighteous, under the wrath of a righteous God. Man’s unrighteousness demonstrates God’s righteousness. How, then, is man ever to obtain righteousness? In the next section, Paul shows how the gospel not only reveals man’s unrighteousness, but it reveals God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ.
If God was shown by Paul to be righteous by His response to the unrighteousness (sin) of men in judgment (1:18–3:20), He is now shown to be righteous by His response to man’s sin in providing salvation (3:21–5:21). Just as God is just in judging men impartially, He is also just in saving men impartially. In this section, God’s righteousness is revealed by the gospel, since the gospel is the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, apart from man’s works, and in spite of man’s unrighteousness.
Because the Law could not produce righteousness, but could only expose man’s unrighteousness, God provided a righteousness for men that is not dependent upon man, but has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. This righteousness is described initially in Romans 3:21-31. The righteousness God has provided is that which Jesus Christ accomplished, a righteousness based upon His person and His work. If God is to save men in a way that demonstrates His righteousness, He must first deal justly with man’s unrighteousness. He cannot bestow righteousness upon unrighteous men without first removing their unrighteousness. This He accomplished by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. He bore the wrath of God which God’s righteousness required. And then, having satisfied God’s righteous wrath (a process known as propitiation, see 3:25), He bestows His righteousness on those who believe in Jesus Christ by faith. This righteousness is that which men receive as a free gift, as a gift of grace, and not as the result of human effort or Law-keeping. Since this righteousness is independent of man’s works, and since it is offered to both Jews and Gentiles alike, men have nothing to boast about when they are declared righteous. In saving men in this way, the righteousness of God is revealed, just as in His condemnation of men.
The Law should not be seen as something worthless, as something which only condemns men, and thus to be rejected and despised. In chapter 4 Paul seeks to show how in the Old Testament, as in the New, righteousness came through faith and not through Law-keeping. Paul chose Abraham as an example of Old Testament “justification by faith.” Abraham was a man who lived and who was declared righteous before the Law was even given to men. He could not be saved by Law-keeping, because the Law had not yet been given. He was saved by faith, faith in the promise of God. His faith, not his works, was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham was not the exception to salvation by faith, but an example of Old Testament salvation by faith. David also is pointed out as one who believed that his righteousness was in spite of his sin, and due to God’s forgiveness by grace through faith (Romans 4:6-8).
Circumcision was, with the coming of the Law, to become a necessary part of the Mosaic Covenant. The self-righteous Jew, who thought his righteousness was the result of Law-keeping, saw circumcision as a meritorious act. The rite of circumcision was a testimony to one’s submission to the Law and an evidence of one’s commitment to keep the Law. If righteousness were the result of works in the Old Testament, then surely Abraham’s salvation would be linked to his circumcision. But since his righteousness (like that of every other Old Testament saint) was obtained through faith, the conversion of Abraham is declared as having taken place a number of years before he was circumcised and apart from any works. Abraham was reckoned to be righteous because he believed in the promise of God, the promise of a son, through whom the awaited Messiah would come. Abraham was saved by faith, just like a New Testament saint. The only difference is that Abraham believed in God’s promise that Messiah would come, while New Testament saints believe that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has come.
Abraham is shown to be the “father of faith,” not just for the Jews, but for all who believe God’s promise and provision of salvation. Circumcision for Abraham was the fruit of his faith, not the root of it. Righteousness, living according to the standards of God’s righteousness, as revealed in the Law, is the result of faith and not the result of works. Works are the result of righteousness, not the cause.
Furthermore, Abraham’s faith, like ours today, was a “resurrection faith” (3:19-25). Abraham knew that although God promised him and Sarah a son, this was physically impossible at their age in life. They were too old to bear a son. Abraham realized that when it came to child-bearing he and Sarah were “as good as dead.” God would have to virtually “raise the dead” to provide them with the son He promised. And so He did. Thus, Abraham’s faith was in the promise of a God who was able to “raise the dead”; it was a resurrection faith. Abraham’s “resurrection faith” will face its ultimate test on Mount Moriah, when God tests him by instructing him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22; see also Hebrews 11:17-19).
And so Paul has shown us that the gospel has not really changed from the Old Testament to the New. This is why both Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way, by the same gospel. This is why both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith, apart from Law-keeping. The Law only condemns; it only shows how far short of God’s righteousness men fall. But faith rests in the person and in the promises of God. Faith believes God and receives the forgiveness of sins and the gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ. The gospel which Paul preached, and which the Roman saints had received, offered the same righteousness (the righteousness of Christ) through the same means (faith), apart from works.
Saving faith and its resulting righteousness is not a “fair weather faith.” The salvation which God provides is permanent, lasting. It proves even more certain in the trials and adversities of life (5:2-5). The more we see God’s grace preserving us through trials, the more confident we become of the certainty of our ultimate victory. But more than this, we are assured of the permanence of our salvation because of the way God provided our righteousness. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins, to make us righteous, while we were still sinners. If God did this for us while we were still His enemies (the greater work), then surely He will now keep us and preserve us from His wrath now that we are forgiven and are His children (5:8-10). If we are saved by sharing in the death of Christ, think of what will result from our sharing in His life!
Paul concludes this section with a second “greater than” argument. The work of Jesus Christ is “greater than” the work of Adam. Adam’s sin had great and terrible repercussions. Adam’s sin made all men sinners, and resulted in man’s separation from God. Man’s universal unrighteousness was described in chapters 1 and 2 as the result of man’s rejection of the truth. Now, in the final verses of chapter 5, man’s unrighteousness is taken back to its original source—the sin of Adam.
Who is the greater of the two, Adam or Christ? Christ is the greater of the two, far greater. If this is so, then we can be assured that the results of Christ’s righteousness overcome and overshadow the results of Adam’s unrighteousness. If Adam’s act resulted in sin and death for all his descendants, for the human race, then Christ’s work results in life and peace for all those who are in Him, all who are, by faith, His children. If tragedy was the result of Adam’s act, triumph is surely to be the result of Christ’s work. Thus, the salvation which God has provided for men is not only good; it is permanent, lasting, and sure.
If Adam’s sin was multiplied, as it were, through the human race, so righteousness was multiplied even more, through Jesus Christ. Paul derives from this a universal principle of God’s economy: The grace of God always exceeds man’s sin. There are some serious potential abuses of this truth, however, and Paul will take this up in the next section.
In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul very clearly indicates not only what we have been saved from (Ephesians 2:1-3), but also what we have been saved for (Ephesians 2:10). While our efforts to produce good works can never save us, when God provided salvation, He provided us with a salvation that results in good works. In Romans 6-8 Paul takes up his argument at the point of salvation, showing that salvation requires righteousness, which is beyond our own capabilities, but that God has given us provision for righteous living.
In the briefest of terms, Romans 6 instructs us that righteousness is a requirement for the Christian. Romans chapter 7 teaches us that while righteousness is required, it is nevertheless humanly impossible, due to the weakness of our flesh and the power of sin. In Romans 8, Paul explores the divine provision for righteousness—the Holy Spirit, by whose power Christians can fulfill the righteousness which the Law commanded and which God still requires. Let us now survey these three chapters with a bit more detail.
Paul ended chapter 5 with an important principle: WHERE SIN ABOUNDS, GRACE ABOUNDS ALL THE MORE (Romans 5:20).
In the context, this principle applies particularly to the sin of Adam and to the grace of God in Christ. But it is also a universal truth. God’s grace is greater than all our sin. We even have a hymn with words to this effect: “Grace that is greater than all my sin …”
Chapter 6 begins with the question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” If grace outruns sin, then why not continue in sin so that grace can increase in greater measure? Once we have been saved, our sins forgiven, and heaven has become a certain hope, why not continue to live as we once did? Paul has a very definite answer to this question.
Salvation occurs when men are identified with the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is accomplished by Spirit baptism and then is symbolized by water baptism. Paul shows that continuing in sin is living in a way utterly inconsistent with Christ’s work, a work in which we have become participants. If Christ died to sin and we died in Him, how can we now go on living in sin? If Christ was raised from the dead, to live a new and glorified life, and we were joined to Him, how can we avoid the conclusion that our lives too must be transformed?
Our union with Jesus Christ at the time of our conversion requires that sin be rejected and renounced and that righteousness be served. Our lives should reflect a “deadness to sin” and an “aliveness to righteousness.” A decision is called for by Paul, a decision to cease presenting our bodies as instruments for accomplishing sin and to present our bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. We are the slaves of that to which we give ourselves. We will either become slaves of righteousness or slaves of sin. Paul urges us to become slaves of righteousness.
There is a problem, however, which Paul describes in chapter 7. Positionally speaking, our death to sin in Christ freed us from the bondage of the Law, so that we may serve God by the prompting of the Spirit, rather than by the demands of the Law. But our positional change leads to some very practical problems. Now, in Christ, we have the desire to do what is right but no power to accomplish it. Sin still gets the best of us. We do what we hate (sin), and we cannot do what we love (righteousness). The Law is not the problem, for we agree with what the Law requires and forbids. The problem is with our flesh, which cannot overcome the greater power of sin. The righteousness for which we were saved, and which we are obligated to perform, we are unable to achieve.
Man’s inability has a divine solution, expounded by Paul in chapter 8. God has provided His children, those whom He has saved, with the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who walk in the Spirit are able to overcome the power of sin and to practice that righteousness which God requires through the Law (see Romans 8:4). This same Spirit, who now indwells and empowers every Christian, is the Spirit who raised the dead body of Jesus Christ to life. He can and will raise our “dead” bodies to life as well, not only in the physical sense, but in giving us the ability to live righteously. Just as Abraham and Sarah were “dead” so far as producing a child, but were “made alive” to do so (Romans 4:19), so we who are “dead” with respect to living righteously are “made alive” to do so by His Spirit.
The provision of the Holy Spirit should not be understood in such a way as to suppose that perfect righteousness will be experienced in this present, evil world. Our righteousness will not be complete until we are in heaven. We will continue to fail and to fall short of all that God requires. The shed blood of Christ provides for our forgiveness in such cases. But the world in which we live is imperfect as well. It too awaits the day of its complete restoration and perfection, a day which is referred to here as “the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19). Until that day, there will be suffering and groaning, in the saints as well as in the creation. The Holy Spirit is God’s provision for our present inadequacies, helping us in our time of weakness, interceding for us with God, even when we are not able to express our groanings with words.
All along in Romans Paul has been dealing with both Jews and Gentiles. God shows no partiality toward the Jews, whether this has to do with His condemnation of sin or with His provision of salvation. Impartiality does not mean that one deals with everyone alike in every respect, however. For example, we may be impartial or just in dealing with our children, but we need not treat every child in exactly the same way. Each child should be dealt with as an individual. God is impartial in condemning sin, but He deals differently with those He condemns. Those who have not received the revelation of God’s righteousness in the Law are judged apart from the Law and only in accordance with what has been revealed to them. Those who have received the Law are judged by its standards (Romans 1 and 2). Throughout history God has always dealt impartially with men, but He has also distinguished between the Jews and the Gentiles. This matter of God’s dealings with the Jews and the Gentiles is now taken up, to show that in distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles, God has been impartial; thus the righteousness of God is revealed by His dealings with men in history. These dealings of God with men in history are summed up in chapters 9-11.
There is a very evident problem. God had made certain promises of salvation to the Jews in the Old Testament. The nation Israel had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and now the gospel was being proclaimed to the Gentiles as well. The churches, such as the church in Rome, had some Jewish Christians and (usually) many more Gentile saints. While God deals impartially with Jews and Gentiles, and He both condemns and saves them justly, are there not some unfulfilled promises to Israel which should be fulfilled? And why is it that God started His program of salvation and blessing through the nation Israel only to set them aside? This seems to be the problem which Paul is addressing in Romans 9-11.
In verses 1-5 of chapter 9 Paul begins by revealing his own heart with respect to the Jews. What he is about to say, he will say as a Jew. He is not anti-Semitic, and he loves His people so much that he wishes he could suffer God’s condemnation in their place. He desperately yearns for their salvation. These are a privileged people, but the restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises to this nation will not be fulfilled until later in history, as Paul is about to demonstrate.
In chapter 9 Paul defends the righteousness of God by expounding the doctrine of election. In proportion to the Jewish population, only a few Jewish saints could be found. This seemed to puzzle the Jews, because they thought that the promised blessings of God would be poured out on all the descendants of Israel (Jacob). In fact, they seemed to think that being the physical seed of Abraham assured them of these blessings (see Matthew 3:9; Romans 4:10-17).
What Paul sets out to show us is that God’s blessings were never promised to the Jews, based solely upon their physical descent from Abraham, or from Jacob (Israel). Thus, he sets out the principle in verse 6, “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.” Through the principle and process of election, God continued to restrict His blessings to some of the descendants of Israel, but not to all. In verses 7-13 Paul gave the specific example of God’s sovereign choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau, both sons of Isaac. God set Jacob over Esau, in spite of the fact that Esau was born first. God’s choice was not based upon the works of either child; it was a sovereign choice.
Does God’s election disturb some? Are we troubled that at God’s sovereign discretion some are chosen to be the objects of His favor while others are the objects of His wrath? Does divine election seem unfair, unjust, unrighteous? It is exactly the opposite. Election is precisely that means of God’s blessing some which demonstrates His righteousness.
Think back with me for a moment to recall the principle Paul has already laid down, the principle of rewards, which is the basis for divine condemnation:
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no impartiality with God (Romans 2:9-11).
God’s standard of justice is that all who do good will receive glory and honor and peace, while all who do evil receive tribulation and distress.
By verse 20 of chapter 3 Paul has concluded that there is none who does good, and that all men (Jew and Greek alike) do that which is evil. This means that the justice of God requires that all men be punished, and that none deserve God’s blessings of glory, honor, and peace.
At this point in Romans we see that God’s mercy joins forces with His justice, so that salvation is provided, in a way that satisfies both God’s mercy and His righteousness. Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, died for sinners, bearing the Father’s wrath toward sinners. God has therefore maintained His righteousness by following through with the wrath that sin requires. He has also provided His blessings through a righteousness which He provides, in Jesus Christ. God is therefore righteous both in the saving of some and in the condemning of others.
But on what basis is the decision made? How is it determined who will receive God’s blessings and who will receive His wrath? There are two answers to this question, provided in Romans 9 and 10. In Romans 9 Paul tells us that God chooses those whom He will bless, and those who will continue on the path to their own judgment. The basis of this choice is crucial, for the righteousness of God is at issue.
God cannot choose to bless men on the basis of their “goodness” or on the basis of the good works that they will do, for we have already seen that all mankind is sinful, unrighteous, and falls under divine condemnation. Men will be blessed on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, not on the basis of their own works. For God’s blessings to be bestowed righteously, the objects of His blessings must not, in some way, be shown favoritism. Thus it is that God’s blessings have always been bestowed on some, on the basis of God’s sovereign, unconditioned choice, by His sovereign election.
God did not choose to bless every descendant of Israel because this would be favoritism toward the Israelites. It would be unfair. God has chosen to allow some to suffer the consequences of their unrighteousness—to become “vessels of His wrath.” He has chosen others to be the objects of His blessings—to become “vessels of His mercy.” All men could have been righteously condemned, because all sinned. No one should have been blessed, for none merited God’s blessings. But God chose to pluck some from the wrath and destruction their sins required and to bestow His blessings upon them, based upon the death of Jesus for their sins, and His righteousness. To have the choice rest only with God is the only basis on which God’s blessings and cursings could be righteously imparted.
Thus, from eternity past it was not God’s purpose to save every physical descendant of Abraham, or Isaac, or Israel. It was His intention to save some. It was also His intention to save some of the Gentiles as well. This was foretold by the prophet Hosea (Romans 9:25-26). Not all Israel was to be saved, nor needed to be, but only a remnant, through which the promises of God could be preserved and fulfilled. Isaiah spoke of this remnant (Romans 9:27-29). Thus, from the beginning God planned to save some Jews and some Gentiles, based upon His sovereign choice. God is just in judging some sinners, and He is both merciful and just in saving and blessing other sinners. And God is just in saving and rejecting both Jews and Gentiles so that He shows no partiality.
On what basis are some saved and others condemned? The first answer, of Romans 9, is that the basis is the sovereign choice of God—divine election. The second answer, found in chapter 10, is human responsibility: men are condemned because they reject God’s revelation and His provision and choose to persist in striving on their own. Why are some men blessed? Because God chose them for blessing. Why are some men blessed? Because God’s offer of blessing was offered them, and they accepted it, by faith. Why are some men condemned to eternal suffering? Because God chose to allow them to suffer the consequences of their own choices and not to override their condemnation with salvation and blessing.
Thus, while Romans 9 emphasizes the sovereignty of God, Romans 10 emphasizes the responsibility of men. Men are not responsible to seek out God’s righteousness, for it has been prophesied in the Old Testament and has been revealed to them in the person of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:6-8). Men do not need to seek for the righteousness of God, but only to accept it, by faith (Romans 10:9-10). And men are also under obligation to proclaim this offer of righteousness to others, so that they can hear the gospel and choose to accept or reject it (Romans 10:13-15).
The Jews, like the Gentiles, did not all accept this salvation. And this rejection of the Jews should not have come as a surprise, for their rejection was prophesied in the Old Testament, along with the salvation of a number of the Gentiles. What the Roman Christians saw happening around them was exactly what God had said would happen (Romans 10:18-21).
God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament are still valid and will eventually be fulfilled, because His election and calling are irreversible (Romans 11:29). God has not utterly forsaken His people. What He has done is to devise a plan whereby both Jews and Gentiles would be offered the blessings of God, and some would enter into them. God always preserved a remnant of His people Israel, through whom His promises could be fulfilled. There was always a remnant of the righteous, even when it seemed otherwise (Romans 11:2-6). Just as He saved some for blessing, He hardened others for condemnation. This hardening of Jewish hearts was also foretold (Romans 11:8-10). This hardening has opened the door for Gentile evangelism. After God has saved those He has chosen from among the Gentiles, He will turn back to His people to bless them.
The method God is using is incredible. God purposed to use the unbelief of Israel to accomplish His plan. This led to the crucifixion of Jesus and His atoning work on Calvary. It opened the door for the gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles. The Gentiles, however, should not become arrogant about the blessings God has showered upon them, for they are unmerited blessings. At this present time, God is using the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles, and the pouring out of His blessings on those Gentiles who are saved, to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Eventually, God will cause the hearts of His people to turn back to Him, so that the Jews will experience the blessings He has promised.
Paul cannot move on until he has, as it were, fallen before God in worship, adoration, and praise, for the wisdom of His all-encompassing plan. Who would have ever thought of this plan? Who would have believed it, unless we were told? Truly God is not only righteous, loving, and merciful; He is also infinitely wise!
We will very briefly survey this last section of Paul’s argument here, for we will consider it in detail later in our series. The righteousness which men lacked in chapters 1-3a, which God imputed to believers in chapters 3b-5, and which He has required and empowered in chapters 6-8, is now described in more practical terms. The righteousness of God is to be reflected (partially and imperfectly) in His children. The broad forms this righteousness should take are outlined by Paul in chapters 12-15.
Paul begins by taking up the sacrificial imagery and terminology of the Old Testament. The Christian’s righteousness should not be viewed as a reluctant compliance with what God has demanded, but as a grateful response to all that God has bestowed upon us in His mercy. Gratitude is the basis of the service of which Paul speaks here.
Rather than presenting animals and other items as a sacrifice, we are to present ourselves (much like Paul called us to do in Romans 6). We are to serve God by setting aside those attitudes and practices of the world in which we live, and to be renewed in our minds with the knowledge of that which is the will of God, which is both good and pleasing to Him (Romans 12:1-2).
The first area of sacrificial service is in using the spiritual gifts and enablements which God has given us for service. Every gift is to be employed in a way that will serve God and benefit others. The pitfalls of exercising our gifts are also suggested (12:3-8). Chapter 12 ends with more general principles which are to guide us in our conduct and in our relationships with others (12:9-21).
In chapter 13 Paul turns to the Christian’s practical righteousness in relationship to the government which God has placed in authority over him (13:1-7). The Christian is to regard the authority of government as having come from God, and thus one should obey government as unto the Lord unless there are very exceptional circumstances. In verses 8-10 conduct is described in terms of fulfilling one of the two major commands of the Old Testament—to love your neighbor as yourself. The final verses (11-14) speak of the Christian’s conduct in the light of the Lord’s return.
In Romans 14:1–15:3 Paul lays down principles for relating to one another as Christians when we see things differently, based upon our maturity or upon different convictions. We are to live in accordance with our own convictions and not impose these on others. We are not to exercise our rights in ways that would cause another to stumble. We are to strive to strengthen others, not to hinder them. We are to use our strength to serve the weak rather than to benefit ourselves.
Chapter 15 closes in much the same way Paul began this Epistle. Whatever Paul had to say to us individually about the “strong” and the “weak” must have had a more collective element as well. He moves therefore into a discussion about the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles. Christians are to accept one another and not fall into disunity and divisiveness. If God shows no partiality, then we too must avoid racial prejudice and tensions.
As Paul began by speaking of his ministry as an apostle, and of his calling to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles, so he ends by telling of the ministry God has given him in preaching the gospel to Gentiles (15:15-21). His final words speak, once again, of his desire to come to visit them, and then to press on to other places which have not yet heard the good news.
In many ways Paul has concluded his argument in chapter 15. Chapter 16 is primarily Paul’s closing of this letter with personal words of greeting and with final words of exhortation. While Paul may not yet have reached Rome, he knew of many of the saints there by name. His concern for the saints in this city was far from minimal.
As we conclude this survey of the Book of Romans, I want to return to a question which we raised at the beginning: What is it about the Book of Romans which helps us understand its great impact on the lives of men and women throughout the past two thousand years? Let me suggest several factors for your consideration.
Jesus cautioned the Pharisees about “straining gnats and swallowing camels.” How often we find ourselves preoccupied with the minutia of life, and even of Scriptures, rather than with the most important matters. Romans is a book that deals with the major themes and doctrines of the Word of God and which does not focus on others. Perhaps no other book of the Bible is so all-encompassing in its outlook and approach:
James I. Packer of England states:
there is one book in the New Testament which links up with almost everything that the Bible contains: that is the Epistle to the Romans, … In Romans, Paul brings together and sets out in systematic relation all the great themes of the Bible—sin, law, judgment, faith, works, grace, justification, sanctification, election, the plan of salvation, the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit, the Christian hope, the nature and life of the Church, the place of Jew and Gentile in the purpose of God, the philosophy of the Church and of world history, the meaning and message of the Old Testament, the duties of Christian citizenship, the principles of personal piety and ethics. From the vantage-point given by Romans, the whole landscape of the Bible is open to view, and the broad relation of the parts to the whole becomes plain. The study of Romans is the fittest starting-point for biblical interpretation and theology.’8
In other epistles, the message is often more problem-centered. The author will address his readers in the light of current events. This is both necessary and important. But when we study the texts which take this approach, we may have to go through several steps to uncover the basic underlying principle. Only then can we begin to make application to ourselves. In Romans, Paul deals with the principles, and he does not begin with the particulars.
This may take you by surprise, but there is a sense in which the most “practical” texts of Scripture may be those which seem less practical and less edifying than those more “applicationally oriented.” In the light of Romans and Paul’s teaching on the Law, let us beware of wanting some kind of “rule book” approach to the Christian walk. Too often we want God’s Word (or preachers) to tell us precisely what to do and how to do it. Romans is not that kind of book, and it is because of this, in part, that it has had such an impact on men and women down through the ages.
Under the Law, men were told what to do, and then were encouraged to meditate on the Law to discern the underlying principles. In the New Testament, we are given the principles as guidelines, and then called upon to meditate upon them in order to determine what it is we are to do. This means, for one thing, that while all Christians should avoid immorality, some Christians might conclude that they should conduct themselves differently than others. This is especially applicable in the areas of spiritual gifts (for example, Paul and Barnabas, Acts 15:36-41) and of personal convictions (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10).
Christians can become so entangled in the particulars of Christianity that they lose sight of the great principles. So it was, for example, just before the Reformation. When the principles of “sola scriptura” (the Scriptures alone are our source of authority) and “justification by faith” were once again discovered in the Book of Romans, men’s lives and Christianity as a whole were radically impacted.
Not only do we find in Romans the exposition of the great doctrines of the faith, but we find the eternal purposes of God. We tend to become locked in on our own times, our own problems, our own sense of needs, and we lose sight of the big picture. It is the “big picture” which Romans constantly expounds and explains. Thus, in Romans we are told of God’s eternal purposes (Romans 9-11), of Adam’s fall (Romans 5), and of the restoration of the earth (Romans 8). It is not our task and calling to seek to persuade God to adjust His program and purposes to suit our needs, but our calling is to conform our attitudes and actions to His revealed will (see Romans 12:1-2ff.).
Thus, Romans is a “great” book, because it deals with “great” matters. Two of these “great matters” will follow.
One of the “great themes” which the Book of Romans expounds and emphasizes is that of the gospel. Paul’s introduction and conclusion are dominated by the theme of the gospel. Everything in between them is an exposition of the gospel. There is no other book of the Bible which so fully expounds the gospel as Romans. If you would understand the gospel, go to Romans.
Have you believed this gospel? Do you recognize that you are among the “all” who are judged to be sinners, and who are destined for God’s wrath? Do you know that Jesus Christ died so that your punishment would be His, and so that His righteousness could be yours? Have you ceased trying to earn your own righteousness and received His righteousness by faith? That is the offer of the gospel, but it is an offer that you must receive.
Surely the gospel is the most vitally important message a non-Christian can ever hear. But why (in Romans 1:15) does Paul say he desires to preach the gospel to his audience in Rome, when they are already believers? I think there are a number of reasons.
(1) The gospel is never understood as fully by the Christian as it could and should be. We can never hear the gospel too often. We can never understand it too well.
(2) The gospel is constantly being distorted. In our own sin, we are inclined to distort it, both in its application to ourselves, and in our representation of it to others. The gospel as defined in Romans is a standard, against which we must constantly measure our own concept of the gospel. Romans is the perfect standard; ours is the imperfect.
(3) The gospel is not only that truth by which we are saved and that truth by which others are saved as we bear witness, it is also that truth which is the standard for our daily lives. Paul said to the Colossians, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6).
Why is the gospel so important? Paul has already told us, at the beginning of his epistle. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation,” and it “reveals the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:16-17). No wonder the gospel is so prominent in the Book of Romans.
How often we make man the center of our “universe,” wanting to put God into orbit around us, waiting for Him to meet our needs and to make us happy and comfortable. It is God who is to be central and preeminent, not men. It is we who are to orient our lives to Him. When you read through the Book of Romans, you will be constantly reminded that it is God who is most prominently displayed here.
The character of God, in many of its facets, is displayed in Romans, such that Paul will pause to praise and adore Him for who He is (see Romans 8:31-39 and especially 11:33-36). There are many of the attributes of God described in this great Epistle, but none greater or more prominent than that of God’s righteousness. I would like to suggest that the righteousness of God is that attribute of God’s character which makes His other attributes all the more glorious. Think of a God who is all-powerful, but who is not righteous and just. It is a horrifying thought. Power without righteousness is terrifying. Think of a God who is “loving” but who is not also righteous. This would be mere sentimentalism, something like the favoritism of Jacob toward Rachel and her two sons. A love rooted in justice is a marvelous thing. Think too of a merciful God, who was not also righteous …
The righteousness of God. What a marvelous truth. What comfort! What discomfort! May we see more and more of God’s righteousness in Romans, in the church, and in our own lives, to the praise of the glory of His grace.
6 “… four Jews of Rome, led by one who professed to teach the Jewish faith to interested Gentiles, persuaded a noble Roman lady, a convert to Judaism, to make a munificent contribution to the temple at Jerusalem, but appropriated it for their own uses. When the matter came to light, the Emperor Tiberius expelled all resident Jews from Rome.” Bruce, p. 93.
“In AD 57, the year in which Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Aulus Plautius (who added the province of Britain to the Roman Empire in AD 43), was tried and acquitted by a domestic court on a charge of embracing a ‘foreign superstition’, which could have been Christianity. But in the eyes of the majority of Romans who knew anything about it, Christianity was simply another disgusting Oriental superstition, the sort of thing that the satirist Juvenal had in mind sixty years later when he complained of the way in which the sewage of the Orontes was discharging itself into the Tiber.” Bruce, p. 16.
8 James I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 106f., as cited by David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, Romans: An Interpretive Outline (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), p. 1.