Author

Paul (Rom 1:1)

Recipient

Believers in Rome (Rom 1:7). We may infer from Paul’s writing that they are mostly Gentiles (cf. Rom 1:13; 11:13). (The “Jew” that Paul addresses in 2:17, etc., can be viewed as an interlocutor for rhetorical purposes rather than the believers Paul was writing to.)

Date

Probably A.D. 56 to 57

Purpose/Occasion

In both the opening and closing of the letter, Paul writes to the believers in Rome about his plans to come to them to strengthen them and preach the gospel there (Rom 1:9–15; 15:22–24, 28–29). Besides making his plans known to the believers, Paul devotes the greater part of the letter to a detailed exposition of the gospel. In 15:15–16 Paul explains that he has written very boldly to them as a reminder because of his calling as a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God. It is apparent that he believed that there was a need for him to expound the content of the gospel and remind the believers in Rome of how they are to live out the message of the gospel.

Unique Characteristics

  1. The most comprehensive exposition of the gospel among Paul’s epistles.
  2. Tightly organized presentation that includes powerful rhetorical devices.
  3. A great number of Old Testament Scripture quotations.

Central Verse

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Rom1:16–17)

Survey

Similar to Ephesians, the main body of the letter to the Romans may be viewed as consisting of two major sections, namely exposition and application. This broad division helps us grasp the structure of the letter, but neither section is limited to one element or the other.

  1. Exposition (1:18–11:36): A thorough study reveals a clear progression in this part of the letter from sin to justification to sanctification to glory. Through tightly-knit arguments Paul develops the central idea of how God reveals His righteousness through Jesus Christ in the life of believers. 
  2. Application (12:1–15:13): Integral to the expositions of the first section are the practical exhortations of the second section. With concrete examples related to a Christian’s daily living Paul shows how we are to present our bodies as a sacrifice to God in view of God’s mercy.

Themes

Gospel

Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as a servant of Christ Jesus set apart for the gospel of God (1:1). He believes that he is under an obligation to all nations to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to them, and for that very reason he is eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome (1:14–15). In the final section, he intimates to his readers that he has written very boldly on some points because of his role as a minister of the gospel of God (15:15–16). Evidently, Paul’s calling as a minister of the gospel underlies the reason for his letter and motivates him to go everywhere where Christ had not been named (15:18–21).

Paul launches his lengthy discourse by explaining why he is not ashamed of the gospel—it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (1:16). The entire exposition from chapter 1 to chapter 11 is essentially a systematic presentation of the message of the gospel. The subsequent exhortations on Christian living (chapters 12 to 15) may also be viewed as practical guidelines on how to live out the message of the gospel.

As Paul turns his attention to the salvation of his fellow Jews in the climactic section of Romans, Paul points out that the message of the gospel has been in fact taught in the Scriptures by Moses and Isaiah. It is the word of faith that is in one’s mouth and in his heart (10:8). It is the good tiding proclaimed by God’s messengers (10:15). But the gospel has fallen on deaf ears (10:16–21). The Jews’ rejection of the gospel, ironically, opened the way of salvation for the Gentiles. Hence, Paul writes, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake” (11:28). Nevertheless, even Israel’s disobedience turns out to serve God’s sovereign purpose, for the gospel was brought to the Gentiles because of their rejection. But God has not rejected His people. When the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel will ultimately be saved. The preaching, rejection, and acceptance of the gospel are in fact all part of God’s grand scheme to have mercy on all (11:30–32).

Righteousness

God’s righteousness, as seen in OT Scripture, is a quality of God that encompasses God’s justice as well as His faithfulness in delivering His people. According to Paul, God’s righteousness is now revealed in the gospel, which is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes (1:17). As Paul demonstrates throughout Romans, God has carried out both His justice and His love through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The revelation of God’s righteousness begins with the revelation of His wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18). The gospel makes known to us the sinfulness of mankind and its deadly consequences. The Gentiles do not acknowledge God but choose to worship created things. As a result, God gave them up to their dishonorable passions and further acts of unrighteousness (1:21–32). The Jews, who know and even teach the law of God, also practice unrighteousness and store up wrath on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (2:1–5, 17–23). God’s righteousness is seen in holding man accountable for his unrighteousness. Through the gospel, both Jews and Gentiles are condemned as sinners (3:9). Only when man recognizes his sin will he turn to God for mercy.

Despite man’s knowledge of what is good and his effort to do what is good, he cannot become righteous before God based on his works. This inability is vividly illustrated in Paul’s self-portrayal of the wretched man who struggles to do right but has been taken captive by sin (7:7–25). But the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law through faith in Jesus Christ forall who believe (3:21–22). Israel, who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness, failed to reach that law because they pursued it as if it were based on works. The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, on the contrary, have attained righteousness by faith (9:30–32).

The word “justify,” which is literally “make one righteous,” refers to the imputation of God’s righteousness upon man. Paul demonstrates extensively that justification is a gift of God through the redemption of Jesus Christ and is not earned by works of the law (3:21–5:21; 10:1–13). By Christ’s act of righteousness we have received justification and life, and by His obedience we are made righteous (5:18–19). This justification we receive through Jesus Christ results in peace with God, deliverance from wrath, and eternal life (5:1, 9, 21).

But justification does not end at a person’s conversion. Believers of Jesus Christ are to live righteously before God. In one of the most elaborate passages on baptism, Paul reminds us that our old self was crucified with Christ and we were buried with Him through baptism. Having been thus freed from sin, we are to consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:1–11). Whereas we used to present our members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, we are now to present our members to God as instruments of righteousness (6:13). Moreover, we are to live according to the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the body. By submitting to the Spirit of Christ who lives in us, we are able to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law and be true sons of God (8:1–15).

Law

Nowhere does Paul speak of the law as something negative. Rather, he acknowledges that the law is holy (7:12). Even after he has argued that no one may boast by the law, he concludes, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). Yet Paul shows that while the law of God is good and noble, man has failed to do the law and is therefore condemned by the law (2:1–25). While the law is spiritual, we are of the flesh, sold under sin (7:14). Consequently man is utterly helpless in doing the good that he knows he ought to do. For this reason, we cannot be justified by the works of the law. On the contrary, by the law we are made aware of our sins and are all held accountable before God (3:19–20).

Paul delves into the issue of the law even more fully in chapter 7, where he shows man’s wretchedness as a result of sin’s taking advantage of the law. The law itself is not sin, but sin seizes an opportunity through the commandment and produces in us all kinds of sinful desires. Sin deceives us and kills us through the law even though the law itself is holy, righteous, and good (7:7–14). As slaves sold to sin, we are utterly powerless to live up to the law of God. Although we serve the law of God with our mind, with our flesh we serve the law of sin (7:15–25).

Using the analogy of the woman who is released from the law of marriage upon her husband’s death, Paul explains that we have likewise died to the law through the body of Christ and now belong to Christ who has been raised from the dead (7:1–6). This means that sin can no longer exercise control over us through the law. Mankind has hope because Jesus Christ is able to deliver us from the body of death (7:24–25). The righteous requirements of the law can now be fulfilled in us who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (8:1–8). “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (8:3). Hence, Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (10:4). Whereas man has failed to attain righteousness despite his feeble attempts to keep the law, God accomplished His righteousness in believers through the incarnation and death of His Son. By faith in Christ our Savior and by walking in His Spirit, we may stand justified before God.

Grace, Faith, and Works

Because the law is unable to bring us righteousness, God accomplished His righteousness through a different means—He sent His own Son in the likeness of sin and death (8:3). By Christ’s obedience and His atoning death, we may be justified freely (3:21–24). In this sense, our justification is a gift. It is granted to us apart from works. This is called the grace of God, which is to be received by faith (3:24–25). It is by faith that we have obtained access into God’s grace (5:2).

Paul cites Abraham as the prime example of justification by faith rather than by works. Abraham had no reason to boast because he was justified by faith, not by works. As the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:2–3). He who works deserves his wages, but the one who does not work but receives righteousness by faith cannot boast about his justification since it was given to him by grace as a gift (4:5). The grace given to Abraham was a blessing that would come upon not only the circumcised but all who walk in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham. The supporting argument Paul gives is that Abraham was justified by faith even before he was circumcised (4:9–12). On the basis of faith, Abraham is the father of us all. Just as he was justified for his unwavering faith in God, we are likewise justified through believing in the God who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord (4:16–25).

Paul further elaborates on the nature of grace. God’s grace toward us is so immense because we are utterly undeserving of it. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (5:6). Barely anyone would die for a good or righteous person, but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (5:7–8). With the resonating phrase “much more,” Paul reminds us of the exceeding abundance of this grace. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (5:10). Whereas the trespass of one man resulted in condemnation and death, the abundant grace of Jesus Christ resulted in justification and life (5:16–17). “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20). The exceeding greatness of God’s grace is summed up in this statement: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).

Glory

Man’s sinful state may be viewed as falling short of the glory of God (3:23). In his deliberate ignorance of God, the Gentile sinner did not give God the honor due Him (1:21) but exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal creatures (1:23). On the other hand, the Jewish sinner who boasts in the law of God has also dishonored God by breaking the law, and the name of God has been blasphemed as a result (2:23–24). Both Gentiles and Jews alike, those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth will suffer God’s fury on Judgment Day. But to those who, by patience in well-doing, seek glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life as well as glory, honor, and peace (2:6–11).

Thus, redemption is the reversal from falling short of God’s glory to ultimately receiving His glory. Having been reconciled with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we now have obtained access to God’s grace by faith, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (5:1–2). As children of God, we eagerly long for the glory that is to be revealed in us (8:18). In fact, the creation itself is waiting anxiously to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (8:21). Even we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (8:23). As we wait and endure, we have the Spirit who helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us (8:26–28). He strengthens our conviction in God’s sovereign power toward those He loves, namely His elect. The glorification of the elect is for certain. For those whom He foreknew, He predestined, and those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified (8:28–30).

God’s marvelous workings in His salvation of both the Jews and the Gentiles manifest the depth of the riches of His wisdom and knowledge. Hence, when contemplating God’s unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways, Paul could not but glorify God (11:33–36). Not only does Paul glorify God, the Gentiles who receive God’s mercy shall also glorify God (15:8–9). In the closing doxology, Paul once again extols God, who has revealed the mystery of God’s salvation to all nations: “to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!” (16:25–27).

Election

Israel’s failure to reach God’s righteousness by means of the works of the law inevitably leads to the question of Israel’s place in God’s salvation. So Paul devotes three entire chapters to the crucial topic of God’s election of Israel (chapters 9–11). Citing God’s election of Isaac, Paul first demonstrates that not all who descended from Israel belong to Israel, but only the children of the promise are counted as offspring (9:6–9). The point, then, is that one who is a Jew by physical descent is not necessarily guaranteed to be chosen by God.

Then the issue of God’s sovereign choice comes to the fore, as illustrated by God’s choosing of Jacob. God’s election is not based on one’s works but according to His own will (9:10-13). As the potter has total freedom to do what he wishes to the clay, God will have mercy on whomever He wills (9:14–23). By God’s sovereign purpose He has called not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles (9:24–26). Israel has stumbled because they have not pursued God’s righteousness by faith, whereas Gentiles have attained it (9:27–10:21).

Despite Israel’s rejection of the gospel, God has not rejected them. God has preserved a remnant among them, namely believers of Christ, while the rest were hardened (11:1–10). As a result, salvation has come to the Gentiles (11:11–24). Nevertheless, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, their hardening will end and deliverance will come to the whole house of Israel (11:25–32). All this is according to God’s sovereign purpose to have mercy on all (11:33–36).

New Life

God’s grace of salvation does not pertain only to the hope of eternal life. It also calls us to a life of obedience to God. Lest the grace of justification be mistaken as an opportunity to indulge in sin, Paul asks rhetorically, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1–2). We were buried with Christ by baptism into death in order that we may walk in newness of life (6:4). Our old self was crucified with Christ so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (6:6). Thus, we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). This transformed perspective translates itself into concrete choices and actions. Whereas we once obeyed the passions of our mortal body, we are now to present our members to God as instruments for righteousness (6:12–13).

Living the new Christian life is not a matter of determination alone. It is God who has set us free in Christ Jesus by the Spirit of life (8:1–3). Anyone who submits to the Spirit of Christ within and walks according to the Spirit is able to meet the righteous requirements of the law (8:4–7). If Christ is indeed in us and we let His Spirit exercise dominion in us, God will give life to our mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in us (8:9–11). God has given us His Spirit for this very purpose—to set His children free and to lead them to the ultimate glorious freedom (8:12–25). If we are led by the Spirit and endure our present sufferings, we are true children of God. While striving to obey the Spirit, we may experience moments of weakness. But we have the Spirit to help us and intercede on our behalf (8:26–28).
In the second major portion of Romans, Paul provides specific examples of how we are to live as new creations in Christ. He calls this new lifestyle a presentation of our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. It begins with a transformation through the renewing of our mind (12:1–2). The new Christian life pertains to various aspects of daily living and church life. These include making use of our God-given gifts to serve one another (12:3–8), doing good to our enemies and living in peace (12:14–21), submission to authorities (13:1–7), and bearing with the weak (14:1–15:7).

Modern Relevance

Romans is essentially the preaching of the gospel in writing. Anyone who wishes to call on the Lord and be saved must heed the good news expounded in this letter. It spells out for us why we are in need of salvation and how God accomplished salvation through Jesus Christ. It also gives us a comprehensive view of what it means to be a believer of Jesus Christ. It further directs our hope to the glorious future in store for believers. The many practical applications on how to be dead to sin and alive to God are just as relevant to us today as they were to the believers of those days. They are apt reminders of how we are to live out the gospel and let God’s saving power transform us into the likeness of our Savior.