For the first time in our New Testament Book By Book series, we will examine a book that is not a historical account. From Matthew to Acts, what God has revealed to us is a sort of theological biography in which history is recorded. However, after Acts comes Romans. This is not because it picks up where Acts left off, rather the epistles of Paul are ordered from longest to shortest, those addressed to individuals following those addressed to congregations. Thus, Romans is the first epistle to be overviewed in this series.
Date, Occasion, & Background of Romans
Romans is an epistle full of theological depth and practical instruction. Some of the most commonly referenced Bible verses of today are found in this lengthy letter. It is in Romans that we read the famous exclamation, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16 NASB). From the book of Romans we pull familiar phrases like “the wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23), “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”(Rom. 12:2), and “the churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16 KJV). But the book of Romans is more than a collection of sayings for t-shirts, bumper stickers, or catchy sermons.
Like all of the epistles found in the New Testament, Romans was written within a certain historical context. The better we understand this context, the better we can understand the letter. Romans was likely written by Paul from Corinth in AD 58 (Kenyon 3), even though—contrary to the norm—Paul did not plant the church at Rome and he never visited it before the composition of his epistle (cf. Rom. 15:22-25). Romans was written in the historical context of Jews exiled by the Emporer Claudius (cf. Acts 18:1-3) now returning to what had become a mostly-Gentile congregation in the empire’s capital city.
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Paul—the formally trained, zealous Jew turned apostle to the Gentiles—had the burden of seeking to reconcile the conflict that welcomed the returning Jews in the capital city’s congregation. Thus, Romans is filled with themes of humankind’s universal iniquity and the need for all—whether Jew or Gentile—to be reconciled to an impartial God by way of Jesus Christ’s death (see Rom. 2:1-16, 25-29, 3:21-26, 5:18, 9:30-33, 10:9-13).
A Summary of Romans
Romans begins with Paul’s discussion of his debt to the gospel, its power, and the consequences of rejecting it (Rom. 1). In Rom. 2, Paul moves on to discussing the impartiality of God, reminding his readers that both Jews and Gentiles who act wickedly will be condemned by the just God of heaven. In Rom. 3-4 Paul illuminates the fact that justification by faith was always—from the patriarchy to Jesus—God’s plan for mankind. In the first part of Rom. 5, Paul lists the results of that justification while in the latter part of chapter 5 he contrasts the transgression of Adam with the gist of Jesus.
In Rom. 6-8 Paul reminds Christians that they have died to sin by being buried with Christ in baptism. Therefore, Paul contends, they are released from the Law of Moses and are ushered into Jesus’ victory by the Spirit. This discussion of a Christian’s victory over sin by faith leads to Paul morning for his fellow Israelites in Rom. 9. In Rom. 10-11 Paul explains that Christ is the completion of the Law by faith and Jews and Gentiles have the same hope through Him. This leads to Paul’s description of faithful conduct in Rom. 12 and the Christians obligations to the civil authorities and their neighbors in Rom. 13.
In Rom. 14-15:6, Paul shifts gears from civil peace to peace within the brotherhood. Here, Paul addresses how to deal with matters of conscience and how our unity in Christ ought to transcend differing opinions. This gives way to Paul defending his boldness in the Lord and giving encouraging examples of Jews and Gentiles working together for common good in Rom. 15:7-33. Rom. 16 is filled with Paul’s final instructions and greetings to those at Rome.
There are several key themes that are important to take note of in the book of Romans:
– The power of the gospel (Rom. 1:14-17).
– The consequences and manifestations of godlessness (Rom. 1:18-32).
– The impartiality of God (Rom. 2:5-11).
– The universality of sin (Rom. 3:9-18, 23)
– The love of God made manifest (Rom. 5:6-11).
– The crucial role baptism plays in our freedom from sin (Rom. 6:1-7).
– Christian’s release from the Law of Moses (Rom. 7:1-4).
– The importance of the sacrifice of Christ, the aid of the Spirit, and the providence of the Father (Rom. 8).
– The role of confession, faith, hearing, and preaching in salvation (Rom. 10:8-17).
– A list of imperatives for the Christian’s lifestyle (Rom. 12:9-21).
– How Christian’s should view and react to the government (Rom. 13:1-8).
– How Christian’s should handle issues of conscience (Rom. 14-15:6).
Overall, Romans is definitely worth the read. Make sure to have a trusted Bible commentary nearby because some of the themes are difficult to understand. (I certainly do not understand everything in Romans fully!) Some of the most fundamental Christian doctrines and lofty theological concepts can be found in Paul’s longest epistle to a congregation he had not visited prior to writing. From this epistle, we can gain such rich knowledge and encouragement. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33 ESV).
Works Cited / Further Reading
Kenyon, Brian R. Romans. Florida School of Preaching, 2015.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. IVP Academic, 1990.
Winters, Howard. Commentary on Romans: Practical and Explanatory. 1985.