“This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”1
“It is the most remarkable production of the most remarkable man. It is his heart. It contains his theology, theoretical and practical, for which he lived and died. It gives the clearest and fullest exposition of the doctrines of sin and grace and the best possible solution of the universal dominion of sin and death in the universal redemption by the second Adam.”2
Indeed, the Book of Romans is one of the most profound books in existence; it is certainly one of the most valued parts of the Holy Scriptures. It has been appropriately termed the Cathedral of the Christian faith. Its profound theology and impressive style were reason enough for it to be assigned the first place among the Pauline epistles.
When Paul wrote this epistle to the church in Rome, that congregation must have already been in existence for a number of years, for Paul writes that he had desired to visit them “these many years” (15:23). To him this church was strong enough to help him carry out further missionary activities. They are not called recent converts; they are not treated as having been improperly instructed, but seem to have been an organized and well-grounded congregation (15:14, “filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another”). The epistle deals with no major error in the church; nor does it have to deal with organizational principles. It was a church that was universally famous (1:8), and not merely because it was in Rome.
The Roman church was a group that had a large Jewish element, but was also filled with Gentile converts from paganism, both free as well as slaves. How the church in Rome was started is unclear. The Roman Catholic view is that Peter founded it; another view is that Roman Christians from Pentecost in Jerusalem made their way there. But it may simply be that several Christian families or groups from Pauline churches in the East settled in Rome and grew together. According to the end of the book, there were several congregations meeting in the city. At the outbreak of Neronian persecutions, Tacitus says that the Christians in Rome were “an immense multitude.”
Based on the material from Acts and the Corinthian epistles, the Book of Romans clearly indicates that it was written from Corinth on Paul’s third missionary journey. Paul had never visited Rome; but after fulfilling his mission of mercy to Jerusalem, he hoped to go to Rome en route to Spain (Rom. 15:23-25). At any rate, the date of the book is probably 60 A.D.
The chronological order of the Pauline epistles is about as follows: First and Second Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, Philemon, First Timothy, Titus, and Second Timothy. Romans is placed first among Paul’s letters in the New Testament not only because it is his longest work, but because it also furnishes a massive and basic theological frame-work for the whole collection of the apostle’s writings.
The theme of the book centers on the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16,17). Paul is deeply concerned that his readers understand how a sinner may be received as righteous by a righteous God; and how a justified sinner should live daily to the glory of God.
Most commentators have said that verses sixteen and seventeen of chapter one are a concise summary of the content of the epistle. But C. K. Barrett goes a step further to say that it is not wrong to see in them a summary of Paul’s theology as a whole.3 Perhaps we can be very precise here. Perhaps in the text of Habakkuk 2:4 as it is used in Romans (and elsewhere), we have a pithy expression of the essence of the doctrine of the Word of God—”the just shall live by faith.” We will have to explain what all this means shortly.
The book falls neatly into an introduction (1:1-17), a doctrinal section on justification (1:18—5:11), a doctrinal section on sanctification (5:12—8:39), a parenthetical section on Israel (9:1—11:36), a practical application section (12:1—15:13); and then a conclusion (15:14—16:27). A simple outline of this structure looks like this:
I. Introduction: The Revelation of Righteousness (1:1-17)
A. The Salutation (1:1-7)
B. Personal Items (1:8-13)
C. The Theme (1:14-17)
II. Justification, or the Imputation of Righteousness (1:18—5:11)
A. Condemnation, or the Universal Need of Righteousness (1:18—3:20)
B. Manifestation, or the Universal Provision of Righteousness (3:21-26)
C. Harmonization, or Justification and the Purpose of the Law (3:27-31)
D. Illustration, or Justification and the Old Testament (4:1-25)
E. Exultation, or the Certainty of Salvation (5:1-11)
III. Life in Christ, or Union With and Ultimate Conformation to the Righteous One (5:12—8:39)
A. The Reign of Sin and the Reign of Grace (5:12-21)
B. The New Relationship in Life (6:1-14)
C. The New Principle in Life (6:15-23)
D. The New Freedom in Life (7:1-25)
E. The New Power in Life (8:1-17)
F. The New Hope in Life (8:18-39)
IV. Vindication, or God’s Righteousness in His Relationship with Israel (9:l—11:36)
A. The Consideration of Israel’s Rejection (9:l-29)
B. The Explanation of Israel’s Rejection (9:30—10:21)
C. The Consolation of Israel’s Rejection (11:1-36)
V. Application, or God’s Righteousness at Work (12:1—15:13)
A. Application in the Assembly (12:1-21)
B. Application in the State (13:1-14)
C. Application in Doubtful Things (14:1—15:13)
VI. Conclusion, or Purpose, Plans, and Praise in Connection with the Dissemination of Righteousness (15:14—16:27)
Romans has often been described as an exposition of the Old Testament in view of the Gospel of Christ; this is certainly an accurate description in view of the pattern that emerges. The Gospel of Christ tells how sinful people can find access into the heavenlies through sacrificial atonement. It is clear that this also was the focus of Israel’s sacrificial system. It is little wonder that the book draws upon the pattern of those ancient sacrifices.
There were three main types or groups of sacrifices in ancient Israel’s worship: those that made Expiation or atonement (Sin Offering [Lev. 4], Trespass Offering [Lev. 5], and Whole Burnt Offering [Lev. 1] as well as the great Day of Atonement [Lev. 16]), those that were for Celebration (Peace Offering [Lev. 3] as well as other variations, such as Passover [Exod. 12]), and those that were for Dedication (Meal Offering [Lev. 2] as well offering the first fruit, first born, paying vows, and making other types of dedicatory ritual). But essentially there was the forgiveness and acceptance by God through atoning sacrifices, the celebration of being at peace with God in the fellowship or peace offering, and the dedication to worship and serve God through the dedication or meal offering.
The Book of Romans employs this basic theological pattern of Atonement by God, Peace with God, and Dedication to God, as it weaves a theological argument from the beginning of God’s work until the end. The following overview will show how the argument of the book unfolds:
1. In chapter 1 after giving the introduction and purpose of the book, Paul surveys natural revelation via creation, noting that the creation rejected the Creator for the satisfaction of baser instincts. This section is an exposition on the early part of Genesis.
2. In chapter 2 Paul announces the judgment of God according to truth, explaining that the judgment is by law and that circumcision alone avails nothing. This section is a theological explanation of the law code.
3. The point is that all have sinned—there is none righteous (chapter 3). No one is justified by works. But instead, the righteousness of God comes through CHRIST’S ATONING SACRIFICE, the propitiation in His blood. Here then is the fulfillment of the expiatory sacrifices.
4. But the sacrifice by itself was a ritual; there had to be faith operating or it was of no value. So righteousness was reckoned for faith (3:28—4:25).
5. Once there is justification by faith in the atoning blood, there then follows the celebration of being at peace with God in a new life (chapter 5). This chapter picks up on the idea of Israel’s PEACE OFFERING, announcing that because the atonement has been made, we have peace with God.
6. We are so identified by faith with the sacrifice that we are actually dead in Him—as with Israel’s ritual, the sacrifice that is slain is a substitute for the sinner. And so we are actually dead to sin (chapter 6). Just as a believing Israelite knew that blood of the animal should have been his or her blood that was spilt, that body on the ground his or her dead body, we also reckon the same, that because Christ is our substitute he died in our place. Since we actually died in Christ, we now live in him, and become servants of righteousness.
7. But we are still sinful human creatures; we struggle constantly with sin (7:1-25). Israel repeated her sacrifices, but we do not. Instead, we find emancipation from the law through God’s provision, a provision which is better than repeating the sacrifice again and again.
8. That better provision made for us is the glorious Holy Spirit who leads us into righteousness and bears witness that we are the children of God (chapter 8). If we are in Christ, we are dead to sin; but in the spiritual realities of life it is the Spirit who is alive, delivering us from sin and bondage, through suffering to glory.
9-11. If all this fulfillment in Christ is so much better than the old covenant, what then do we make of the old covenant? In chapters 9, 10, and 11 Paul stops to recall the privileges Israel enjoyed, but how through disobedience she missed the fulfillment of the promises and the Lord turned to the Gentiles for the present time. But Paul affirms that there is a glorious future for the covenant promises.
12. Now, in view of the fact that we have been grafted into the program, and have peace with God through faith in the atoning blood of Christ, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This brings forward Israel’s DEDICATION OFFERING (see also Lev. 2, Ps. 40, and Deut. 26).
The rest of the book (chapters 12-16) lays out the application of our new covenant relationship through Christ—it is the law of love. Chapter 12 discusses the application in the assembly through the spiritual gifts offered in love; chapter 13 broadens the application to submission in love; chapter 14 applies the law of love in doubtful things, focusing on having the mind of Christ.
So the argument of the book builds upon the age-old revelation through the ritual of Israel that provided the sinner with access to God. But now Christ has come and he is the end4_ftn4 of the Law (Rom. 10:4). In other words, the righteousness that the Law required and that the sacrifices pledged has now become a reality “in Christ,” that is, it is available through faith in his atoning blood and worked out in life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Commentaries on the English Text. There are several works that would provide helpful material for the study of the book in the English. Among these I would list: F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series; H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools (a preacher’s reference work); William R. Newell, Romans, Verse by Verse (for good exposition); and James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (a beautiful treatment of the book).
Commentaries on the Greek Text. The following are helpful tools: James Denney, “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament (a theological treatment); E. H. Griffith, “The Epistle to the Romans,” in The Speaker’s Commentary (a classic for tracing the argument); F. Godet, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 volumes (clear; traces Paul’s thought; offers expository help); Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (theological study); Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8 in the Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary Series (good for the critical problems and technical matters); John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary Series; and certainly John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 1947 Eerdmans reprint of the 1540 edition; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC New Series (Edinburgh, 1975, 1979); and William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC (Edinburgh, 1902).
These works, plus many more that could have been listed, can be acquired through book stores, or, if out of print, found through the internet (such as www.abebooks.com). It would be most helpful—although certainly not necessary—to have at least one good commentary on the book, one that you can work with (i.e., if you do not know Greek you will not get everything out of a commentary based on the Greek).
Very importantly, however, Bible students should read through the Book of Romans several times in different English translations. Use a couple that you are not used to, in addition to your favorite translation. These will get you thinking when you see different wording in the text.
1 Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans” (1522), in Works of Martin Luther (1932), Vol. VI, p. 447.
2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910), Vol. I, p. 766.
3 C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 27.
4 As we shall see, the word here (telos) will have more meaning than simply an “end”; it will indicate the intended end, or the goal.