The following material addresses issues of historical importance for Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter is arguably the most important document of the Christian faith; it stands behind virtually all great movements of God in the last 1900 years.
Although there is no dispute about Pauline authorship, it may be helpful to rehearse, in brief, why that is the case.
The ancient writers regularly included Romans in their list of authentic documents. Marcion, the Muratorian fragment, and a steady stream of patristic writers beginning with Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus all assume its Pauline authorship without defense.
“From the postapostolic church to the present, with almost no exception, the Epistle has been credited to Paul. If the claim of the apostle to have written the Galatian and Corinthian letters is accepted, there is no reasonable basis for denying that he wrote Romans, since it echoes much of what is in the earlier writings, yet not slavishly.”1
In other words, once we adopt some letter claiming Paul as its author (on grounds which are unassailable), then we have a standard of comparison. The Corinthian letters and Galatians have been just such benchmarks of authenticity. And Romans fits in with their style and theological viewpoint; further, it poses no historical or other (e.g., ecclesiological) problems for Pauline authorship.
This epistle can be dated with relative certainty. It was written between 56 and 57 CE. Paul states in 15:26-28 that he has just completed the raising of funds for the poor believers in Jerusalem after visiting the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. This corresponds to Acts 20:1-2, identifying the time of composition as the year after Paul left Ephesus on his third missionary journey.
Paul was in Greece when he wrote the letter, most likely in Corinth. This is seen in two incidental comments: (1) Phoebe of neighboring Cenchrea was apparently the letter-bearer (16:1-2) and (2) Gaius, who is Paul’s host (16:23), was a prominent Christian leader at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14).
Romans 1:7, 15 identify this letter as being sent to the Christians at Rome. They were predominantly Gentile believers as is evidenced by Paul’s statements to that effect in 1:5, 12-14 and 11:13. But there was probably a strong Jewish element as well because (1) the heavy use of the OT suggests this and (2) since Paul did not found this church, most likely the Jewish element would be stronger than in one of his congregations.
The occasion and purpose are so intertwined for this epistle that they must be treated as one. Paul expressed his desire to go west all the way to Spain (15:22-24, 28). Since he had already proclaimed the gospel in the major centers in the east, it now seemed good to him to go west. But as was his custom, he needed an “emotional home,” a base of operations. Antioch had provided that in the east and Ephesus had in Asia Minor; Paul was hoping that Rome would in the west. Consequently, he wrote this letter, explaining his gospel carefully and fully, in the hopes that the Roman Christians would embrace him and it completely. Further, since his life had already been in much danger from the Jews (Acts 17:5, 13; 20:3), Paul may have sensed the need to pen his thoughts about the gospel in a systematic way, rather than due to occasional circumstances.3
In sum, Paul’s occasion-purpose for writing Romans is threefold: (1) he was going west and needed to have a base of operations in a church that shared both his vision and his theology; (2) he knew that his life was in danger and wanted to give something of a more balanced, systematic presentation of his gospel, to leave as a memorial; and (3) he detected anti-Semitism arising in the Roman church through the influence of Claudius’ edict (to expel Jews from Rome in AD 49) and wanted to give a theologically-based correction to this attitude.
In light of Rom 15:20, there is no doubt that the church at Rome was not founded by an apostle. This suggests that Peter was not yet in Rome. Most likely, the church came into existence through the converts who returned to Rome form Jerusalem after the feast of Pentecost in 33 CE (Acts 2:10).4 But this church would not have been very well indoctrinated. Mark may well have gone to Rome in the early 50s both to precede Paul’s coming and to shore up any doctrinal holes in the converts.5
As the most systematic of all Paul’s letters, Romans addresses in detail the Pauline kerygma, i.e., the gospel of God. Romans 1:16-17, which concludes the salutation/introduction, best articulates the theme of the whole book: “the righteous revelation of God in the gospel.”
Paul opens his epistle to the Romans with the longest introduction of any of his canonical works (1:1-17). Here he greets the saints (1:1-7) whom he had never met, and expresses both thanks for them (1:8-10) and a deep desire to visit them (1:11-15). The theme of the epistle (dealing with the righteousness of God), at the end of this introduction (1:16-17), serves as a bridge into the body of the book.
The transition is especially seen in comparing vv. 17 and 18: in both something from God is revealed. In v. 17 it is God’s righteousness; in v. 18, in order to establish the need for this righteousness, God’s wrath is revealed. This second section of the epistle (1:18–5:11), whose theme is the imputation of righteousness (i.e., forensic justification) essentially deals with two issues: sinners and salvation. Paul first elaborates on the sinfulness of humanity (1:18–3:20), demonstrating the universal need of righteousness. He begins by picking the most obvious example: the guilt of the Gentiles (1:18-32). The reasons for this guilt are first mentioned: they have suppressed the knowledge of God (1:18-23). The result of such suppression is God’s releasing them to the consequences of their sins (1:24-32). But lest the Jews think that they are any less guilty, Paul addresses their sin (2:1–3:8). In fact, he argues that, if anything, they are more guilty than the Gentiles because they have revelation from God and are his privileged people (3:1-8), yet they are hypocritical about true, internal righteousness (2:17-29). Paul concludes the first half of this major section with proof from scripture that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (3:9-20).
Now that Paul has established the need for righteousness for all people, he demonstrates its provision (3:21–5:11). First, it has been revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, being granted to all who put their trust in him (3:21-26). Second, the terms for bestowal of this righteousness (namely, faith) are the same for all, because God is One (3:27-31). Third, Paul backs up this astounding assertion with proof from the life of Abraham (4:1-25). In essence, Abraham is seen to be father both of the Jews and of the Greeks—that is, he is a type of those who are saved by faith. This is illustrated by evidence that Abraham was not justified by works (4:1-8), nor by circumcision (4:9-12), but exclusively by faith in the promises of God (4:18-25). So too his spiritual offspring are justified by faith rather than by law (4:13-17, 23-25). Thus Abraham is seen to be the universal forefather of all believers, whether Jew or Greek.
Paul transitions the faith of Abraham to our faith in Christ (4:23-25), then concludes the section on justification with the implications of this justification (5:1-11). But the “therefore” in 5:1 reaches back behind the illustration of Abraham. In many ways, 3:21–4:25 is an apologetic with 5:1-11 being the application. Since all are sinners and since there is no partiality with God (3:22-23), both Jews and Gentiles must obtain this righteousness in the same way and the same God must be God of all (3:27-31). This new revelation of God’s righteousness is affirmed by the OT (3:21) and illustrated by Abraham’s example (4:1-25). There is no getting around it: if a man has Christ, he has peace with God right now—and the Law adds nothing to his salvation (5:1-2). Consequently, he exults in the hope of the glory of God (5:1-5). This salvation is truly marvelous, for sinners qua sinners were completely unable to deal with their sin. But Christ came at the right time and died for such (5:6-8). The eschatological result of this will be escape from God’s wrath (5:9-11).
Having established the basis of God’s pleasure in us, viz., the imputation of righteousness (or forensic justification), Paul now discusses the impartation of righteousness, or sanctification (5:12–8:39). This is the third major section of the epistle. In some ways there is a neat trilogy found in these first eight chapters. The apostle first discusses justification which is salvation from the penalty of sin (3:21–5:11). Then he deals with sanctification or salvation from the power of sin (5:12–8:17). Finally, he addresses glorification which is salvation from the presence of sin (8:18-39).6
Paul lays out his views on sanctification using the twin themes of reigning and slavery. He begins by contrasting the reign of grace with the reign of sin (5:12-21). Although many NT students would place 5:12-21 under the second major section (i.e., under “Justification”), “the words ‘just,’ ‘justice’ and ‘faith’ coming from the first part of the quotation [Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17] as given by Paul, are of very frequent occurrence from 1:17 to 5:11, and almost entirely absent thereafter. On the other hand, the terms signifying ‘life’ (and ‘death’) occur regularly in chapters 5:12 to 7:1.”7 Thus the apostle seems to be signaling that he is now picking up a new topic.
In 5:12-21 Paul moves beyond the legal issue of justification. What is essential to get here is that imputed righteousness addresses the condemnation of the law while imparted righteousness addresses the inability of the flesh. That is to say, justification is forensic, stating emphatically that our position before God is one of righteousness. But justification, like the Law, can do nothing against the flesh. That is why Paul now turns to imparted righteousness and gives the basis as our union with Christ. Our union with Christ is more than forensic; it is organic.8 As Adam was our representative in sin, bringing death to all (5:12), so also Christ is our representative in righteousness, bringing life to all (5:18).9
Since believers are in Christ—and therefore they are assured of their salvation, why should they not continue sinning? Paul answers this in the second portion of this section (6:1-23). First, they should not continue (ἐπιμένωμεν, epuimenōmen) in sin because of their union with Christ—union in his death and his life (6:1-14). Second, they should not sin at all (ἁμαρτήσωμεν, hamartēsōmen) because such an act leads to enslavement to sin (6:15-23). This is especially heinous because our release from sin’s slavery means redemption for the service of God (6:22), since we have been bought with a price.
Having established the reasons why we should not sin, Paul now turns to the issue of how not to sin (7:1–8:17). Negatively, neither our flesh nor the Law can do anything for us in this endeavor (7:1-25). Positively, we are sanctified through the ministry of the Spirit (8:1-17).
Chapter seven is notoriously difficult to interpret. Is Paul speaking here (using “I”) in an autobiographical sense? If so, is he speaking about his former life as an unbeliever or his present life as a Christian? (Can both chapters seven and eight be true of him at the same time?). Or is he speaking figuratively—either of believers in general or unbelievers in general?
In my understanding Paul is primarily dealing with the issue of how one deals with the problem of present sin—regardless of whether he is a believer or unbeliever. This is seen in the following way. The most consistent exegesis of this pericope sees the “I” as the same person throughout 7:7-25.10 If so, then he is the unbeliever before the Law was ever given (v. 9: “once I was alive apart from the law”; cf. 5:13)—And therefore not a Jewish unbeliever. But he is also the unbelieving Jew: “We know that the Law is spiritual; I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14). Further, Paul had just gotten done saying that believers are not under the Law (7:5). But he is also the believer (v. 25: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law”; v. 18: “I have the desire to do what is good”; cf. also vv. 21-22; contra 3:12).11 In light of this evidence it seems that Paul is not arguing chronologically in 3:20–8:17 (as if to say, “after salvation, we will deal with sanctification”). Rather, he is dealing with two distinct, though intertwined issues: the imputation of righteousness and the impartation of righteousness. Chapter seven is supremely, then, dealing with the issue of how one fights indwelling sin—and how one attempts to please God. It has its application for all people who attempt to fight sin/please God by subjecting the flesh to external commands, as if this will accomplish anything.
The apostle begins chapter seven, however, with a reminder to believers: we are dead to the Law (7:1-6). Since this is so, we do not have to attempt to please God by knuckling under to its commands. But does this mean that the Law is bad? No, it is simply powerless over sin (7:7-13). The Law may be likened to a sterile spoon dipped into a glass of water with sediment on the bottom (which represents our flesh). When the spoon stirs up the sediment it does not produce sin; rather, it merely reveals it (7:13). But at the same time, it is powerless to clean out the sediment.12
As good as the Law is, the flesh is equally bad (7:14-25). And it, too, is powerless to obey the Law. The point of 7:7-25 is that regardless of who attempts to fight sin—whether he is a believer or unbeliever—if his method is to subject the flesh to the Law he will fail. Focusing on the Law, an objective, cold standard, necessitates subjecting the flesh to it, because the Law is the handmaiden of the flesh. But since believers are dead to the Law, they are able to gain victory over the flesh (7:6, 24-25).13
Now comes the good news: those who are organically connected with Christ are not only not condemned (8:1), but also are set free from the law which could only produce sin and death (8:2). How is this accomplished? By the Spirit of God who enables believers to gain progressive victory over sin (8:1-8), death (8:9-11), and slavery (8:12-17). The Spirit is not an external, objective, cold standard, but a warm, internal witness to our hearts that God is our Father (8:14-17)—proving that we are organically connected to God the Father, not just judiciously excused by God the Judge.14
Finally, Paul concludes this section by discussing the goal of sanctification (8:18-39), which is our future glory—based, as it is, both on forensic justification and organic union with Christ (8:28-30). This glory needs to be kept in mind especially during the present sufferings we face simply because the world is not a perfect place (8:18-27). But lest anyone give up, thinking that his participation in glory is in jeopardy, Paul concludes with a hymn of assurance (8:31-39).
The fourth major section now turns to an issue which would have been in the back of his readers’ minds: If God is so righteous, how could he give Israel so many privileges (including unconditional promises) and then reject his chosen people? Chapters 9–11 deal with this issue (note especially 9:6—“It is not as though God’s word has failed”), the vindication of God’s righteousness in relationship to Israel.
Although Paul’s primary concern is to vindicate God’s righteousness, he prefaces his remarks by expressing his own deep sorrow over Israel’s unrepentant state (9:1-5). Then he details how God has dealt with the nation in the past (9:6-33). In essence, God’s choice was completely sovereign and gracious (9:1-29), as can be seen in Israel’s very history (9:6-13), as well as on the basis of the principle of God’s sovereignty (9:14-29). Further, they have rejected their Messiah by clinging to the Law (9:30-33).
God’s present dealings with Israel, then, can only be interpreted on the basis of the past (10:1-21). Once again, Paul prefaces his remarks by expressing his desire for Israel’s salvation (10:1). For the present time, Jew and Gentile have equal access to God (10:1-13). Yet the nation is still unrepentant even though they repeatedly heard the message (10:14-21).
This still does not answer the question of God’s unconditional covenants with his chosen people. Will Israel persist in their disobedience, or will there come a time when they will repent? Paul answers this in chapter 11. He points out, first, that God’s rejection of the nation is not complete, for God still has his remnant in the nation (11:1-10). Further, the rejection is not final (11:11-32). Indeed, the present “grafting in” of Gentiles not only functions to bring salvation to Gentiles, but also should arouse the jealousy of the Jews, hopefully even spurring them on to seek Christ (11:11-24). Once the number of Gentiles is full, then Israel will turn back to God (11:25-32). For this, all believers should be grateful, since the open window of salvation will not last forever. And God is to be praised for his infinite wisdom in how he deals with both Jews and Gentiles (11:33-36).
What remains to be said about God’s righteousness? Only the very pragmatic matter of how it should be applied by believers (12:1–15:13). First, it should be applied among fellow believers (12:1-21). This is accomplished by a consecration of our lives to God, in light of all that he has done for us (12:1-2). Once we have committed ourselves to him, we can begin to serve others. This service should be done by the employment of spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body (12:3-8), and with an attitude of sincere love—both for believers and unbelievers (12:9-21).
Second, the righteousness of God should be applied in the state (13:1-14). We demonstrate God’s righteousness by submitting even to pagan authorities (13:1-7), and by loving our neighbors (13:8-10). The urgency for such action is due to the fact that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (13:11)—that is, because of our hope of the Lord’s return (13:11-14).
Third, those believers whose faith is strong and who have a good grasp on their death to the Law should not be judgmental on weaker brothers (14:1–15:13). Neither the weak nor strong brother should condemn the other, but instead should recognize the freedom that all have in Christ (14:1-12). But his freedom should not become a stumbling block to the weak: liberty must give way to love (14:13-23). That is to say, one believer’s freedoms should not cause another brother to sin by the latter’s imbibing in something against his conscience (14:23). Ultimately, the strong believer (as well as the weak) should imitate Christ in his selflessness (15:1-13), rather than using liberty as a means to please oneself.
Paul concludes his epistle (15:14–16:27) with a brief explanation of his mission, both in general (15:17-21) and specifically with reference to the Romans (15:22-33), followed by final greetings (16:1-27).
I. Introduction: The Revelation of God’s Righteousness (1:1-17)
A. Salutation (1:1-7)
B. Thanksgiving and Longing (1:8-15)
1. Paul’s Prayer of Thanks for the Romans (1:8-10)
2. Paul’s Desire to Visit the Romans (1:11-15)
C. The Theme of the Epistle (1:16-17)
II. Justification: The Imputation of Righteousness (1:18–5:11)
A. Condemnation: The Universal Need of Righteousness (1:18–3:20)
1. The Guilt of the Gentiles (1:18-32)
a. The Basis of Gentile Guilt (1:18-23)
b. The Results of Gentile Guilt (1:24-32)
2. The Guilt of the Jews (2:1–3:8)
a. The Stubbornness of the Jews (2:1-16)
b. The Hypocrisy of the Jews (2:17-29)
c. The Privilege of the Jews (3:1-8)
3. The Proof of Universal Guilt (3:9-20)
B. Salvation: The Universal Provision of Righteousness (3:21–5:11)
1. Manifestation of the Universal Provision of Righteousness (3:21-26)
2. Unification: The Universal God of Righteousness (3:27-31)
3. Justification of Universal Justification: Proof from the Life of Abraham (4:1-25)
a. Abraham Justified by Faith, not Works (4:1-8)
b. Abraham Justified by Faith, not Circumcision (4:9-12)
c. Abraham’s Seed Justified by Faith, not Law (4:13-17)
d. Abraham Justified by Faith in the Promise (4:18-25)
1) Explanation of the Hope of Abraham (4:18-22)
2) Application: Faith in Christ (4:23-25)
4. Exultation because of the Certainty of Justification (5:1-11)
a. Present: Peace with God (5:1-5)
b. Past: Powerlessness of Sinners (5:6-8)
c. Future: Escape from God’s Wrath (5:9-11)
III. Sanctification: The Impartation of Righteousness (5:12–8:39)
A. The Reign of Grace Vs. the Reign of Sin (5:12-21)
B. The Rationale for Sanctification (6:1-23)
1. Union with Christ (6:1-14)
a. The Divine Reckoning (6:1-10)
b. The Believer’s Reckoning (6:11)
c. The Believer’s Responsibility (6:12-14)
2. Enslavement to Righteousness (6:15-23)
C. The Inability of the Flesh and the Law to Sanctify (7:1-25)
1. The Believer’s Relationship to the Law (7:1-6)
2. The Law is Good but Sterile (7:7-13)
3. The Flesh is Bad and Powerless (7:14-25)
D. The Power of the Spirit to Sanctify (8:1-17)
1. Over Sin (8:1-8)
2. Over Death (8:9-11)
3. Over Slavery (8:12-17)
E. The Goal of Sanctification (8:18-39)
1. Present Sufferings (8:18-27)
2. Future Glory (8:28-30)
3. Hymn of Assurance (8:31-39)
IV. Vindication of God’s Righteousness in His Relationship to Israel (9:1–11:36)
A. God’s Past Dealings with Israel (9:1-33)
1. Preface: Paul’s Deep Sorrow because of Israel’s Great Privileges (9:1-5)
2. The Grace of God’s Election (9:6-29)
a. Seen in Israel’s History (9:6-13)
b. Seen in Principle (9:14-29)
3. The Nation’s Rejection of the Messiah via Legalism (9:30-33)
B. God’s Present Dealings with Israel (10:1-21)
1. Equality with the Gentiles (10:1-13)
2. Obstinance of the Jews (10:14-21)
C. God’s Future Dealings with Israel (11:1-33)
1. The Rejection is not Complete (11:1-10)
2. The Rejection is not Final (11:11-32)
a. The Present “Grafting” of Gentiles (11:11-24)
b. The Future Salvation of Israel (11:25-32)
3. Doxology: In Praise of God’s Wisdom (11:33-36)
V. Application: God’s Righteousness at Work (12:1–15:13)
A. General: In the Assembly (12:1-21)
1. The Consecrated Life (12:1-2)
2. The Use of Spiritual Gifts (12:3-8)
3. The Sincerity of Love (12:9-21)
B. In the State (13:1-14)
1. In Relation to Authorities (13:1-7)
2. In Relation to Neighbors (13:8-10)
3. Because of our Eschatological Hope (13:11-14)
C. Specifics: In Relation to Weak Believers (14:1–15:13)
1. Judging and the Principle of Liberty (14:1-12)
2. Stumbling Blocks and the Principle of Love (14:13-23)
3. Selfishness and the Imitation of Christ (15:1-13)
VI. Conclusion: Paul’s Purpose, Plans, and Praise in Connection with the Dissemination of Righteousness (15:14–16:27)
A. Paul’s Mission Explained (15:14-33)
1. His Reason for Writing (15:14-16)
2. His Work among the Gentiles (15:17-21)
3. His Plan to Visit Rome (15:22-33)
B. Final Greetings (16:1-27)
1. Greetings to Believers in Rome (16:1-16)
2. Warnings about Divisive Brothers (16:17-20)
3. Greetings from Believers with Paul (16:21-24)
4. Final Benediction (16:25-27)
1 E. F. Harrison, Romans in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 3-4.
2 For a fuller treatment which comports with this view to a large extent, see Harrison, Romans, 5-6.
3 If one only had 1-2 Corinthians, he might conclude that Paul was a legalist; if he only had Galatians, he might conclude that Paul was licentious. Romans is the balance between the other Hauptbriefe, and it is so precisely because there was not a hot need for its production.
4 This early date is confirmed by Suetonius’ statement that Claudius’ edict of 49 CE to expel the Jews was because of “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Claudius 25), in which the Latin probably garbled Χριστός. In other words, Jews in Rome were causing problems because of the spread of Christianity to that city by 49 CE.
5 See Mark’s introduction for a fuller elaboration on this hypothesis.
6 In our outline, we have put these last two segments together, for glorification is seen as the goal of sanctification and is very much tied to it in chapter 8.
7 M. Black, Romans (New Century Bible Commentary), 26.
8 This is not to say that 5:12-21 favors the seminal headship view, because the route to our organic union with Christ is still through justification (so 5:18: “the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” [NIV]).
9 One proof that Paul is addressing the inadequacy of the flesh more than the condemnation of the law is the fact that he is contrasting Christ with Adam—one whose act applies even to those “who did not sin by breaking a commandment” (5:14), precisely because “before the law was given, sin was in the world” (5:13).
10 As judicious an exegete as C. E. B. Cranfield is, he stumbles at this point (as do most), by attempting to divorce 7:7-13 from 7:14-25—even though the first person singular is used throughout.
11 The argument that is often used by those who maintain the autobiographical unbeliever view (i.e., Paul before his conversion) is that the present tense verbs are historical presents (so recently, Douglas Moo, Romans [Wycliffe], loc. cit.). But this view is virtually impossible for two reasons: (1) Paul would be the lone exception to his condemnation of mankind in that, as an unbeliever he desired to do good and was a slave to God’s law (7:18, 21-22, 25); and (2) historical presents are always in the third person (see my “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71  177-205).
12 Credit is due to S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., for this illustration.
13 Those who wish to have their cake and eat it, too—namely, by subjecting the believer to the Law though with the aid of the Spirit—seem to contradict the very strong statement in 7:6 (“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the letter”). Paul spends some time on this point because of the Judaizers who insisted that Gentiles be under the Law, too.
14 Paul here seems to be subtly indicating that the new covenant is now operative in believers, for we each know God through his Spirit. Thus the kingdom has been inaugurated in the present age. Further, in 8:16 συμμαρτυρέω is used to describe the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. Although συν- prefixed verbs often carry the connotation of association, this particular verb is merely a strengthened form of μαρτυρέω (so BAGD), indicating that we, not God, are the recipients of his testimony (for further help, see my essay on Romans 8:16 and the Witness of the Spirit).
15 This outline is an adaptation and modification of the works of Matthew Black, A. Feuillet, and especially S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.