Date: c. A.D. 58
The Book of Romans is one of the most important, carefully-put-together, and theological books in the New Testament. The apostle Paul was evidently thinking about the great city of the ancient world, Rome, and although he had never been there he wanted to explain the nature of the Christian movement to them. He wrote in sweeping terms, covering the span of history and thought from Adam to the end of the age.
Theological Themes in the Epistle of Romans
Paul believed that God created the world and the first human beings as a kind of representative for all humanity. From Adam came the human race–but, alas, not as perfect, but imperfect, subject to sin and death. Sin and death are also our own choices, showing that we are truly our father’s children. This fact has made the world a difficult place in which to live. Some people have sunk to extraordinary depths, giving up worship of God for worship of animals, snakes, or idols. No doubt Paul was reflecting on what he saw in many cities through which he had traveled, where such things were common. Not only had some individuals debased worship, they also debased human relationships, giving in to violent and unnameable passions toward one another. Essentially Paul saw this as unthankful to God, who made us for glory and virtue. We prefer our degraded abuse of one another and of creation rather than the glory of God. Not every one has fallen that low, but all are sinful nonetheless. Paul summed this up by saying, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
In spite of our desperate situation, God has not abandoned us. Two things stand out. First, God can still be known by sinful human beings; God still speaks to us. There is evidence of God to be seen in creation, as well as a law written within our hearts that speaks to us of higher things. Second, God has done the seemingly impossible for us; he has made salvation available in Christ. Jesus died for us, who did not deserve it, so that we might be brought back to God–and all without compromise on God’s part. To benefit by this salvation offered to us, all we need to do is accept it. Paul thus says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (1:16). To the one who does not “work” (for salvation) but who believes what God has done in Christ, his or her faith is accepted as righteousness (4:5). If we confess that Jesus is our Lord, believing that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (10:9-10). Paul believed this strongly because earlier, when he was practicing his Jewish religion, he had tried to earn his salvation but had failed. Martin Luther later found out the same thing when he tried to earn salvation by following monastic rules. Rules, whether Jewish, pagan, or Christian, don’t save; only God saves.
Paul followed those insights with a lengthy discussion on the benefits of the Christian life and how to live it. The benefits are beautifully described in Chapter 8 in detail. Let two points suffice to summarize the whole. First, God never ceases to love us. Nothing in all the creation can separate us from the ruler of creation (8:37-39). Second, God is able to work good for us in all things (8:28). It is not possible to explain exactly how God can do this, but because he is God, he can, and we become aware that he does this as we trust him. There is also a discussion of how to work out our Christian life in practical ways (Chapters 12-15).
An important part of the Epistle of Romans is Paul’s discussion of Israel and the church (Chapters 9-11). He was trying to show that God was at work all through history, but especially in Israel. That brought up the problem of why God seemed to set certain people aside. Paul showed that this is only an apparent dilemma. In actual fact, only the believers in Israel were really Israel, and the believers in Jesus now continue as the spiritual Israel. But that did not mean that Israel as a nation was set aside utterly. In some mysterious way, when God’s dealings with the Gentiles are over, all Israel will be saved (11:25-26).
The Epistle of Romans is a theological and practical guide for the believer. To learn its secrets is to learn the essence of being a Christian.
Outline for the Epistle of Romans
- Greeting Romans 1:1-7
- All the world is sinful Romans 1:8-3:20
- The fact of salvation Romans 3:21-5:21
- Salvation applied Romans 6:1-8:39
- Israel and the church Romans 9:1-11:36
- Guidelines for the believer Romans 12:1-15:33
- Closing greetings Romans 16:1-27