The Purpose and Impact of Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Paul’s epistle to the Romans lays the foundations of the Christian life.  It helps us understand who God is, who we are, and the nature of our relationship to God.  It deals with the human condition, with God’s unmerited love for humanity, and with his special relationship with Jews.  It constitutes the underpinnings for Christian life, answering the question, “How are we to live?” 

Studying Romans can pay rich rewards because if we learn who God is, and who we are in relation to God, we will know how to live in a truly authentic, fulfilling way.  We will experience fulfillment in life, and will be able to make a difference in the lives of others around us as we enjoy God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. 

Romans can seem daunting.  Many are put off from it because of its reputation as the most “theological” of Paul’s writings, and perhaps more so than any other in the Bible.  Paul sometimes deals with images and issues not immediately apparent to people of our time, and we may feel we are missing an interpretive key.  Furthermore, Paul’s tone can be off-putting, since he is trying to challenge wrong ideas.  According to Martin Luther, in his Lectures on Romans, Paul’s purpose is: pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eye), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).


Paul gives us the second-to-the-last word, condemning human pride and all efforts to make one’s self right in God’s eyes and bring meaning to life apart from God, before he gives the last word: the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Paul is counter-intuitive, and his words of judgment can make us squirm.  If we are not at least a little familiar with the themes of Old Testament faith, we will not fully sympathize with Paul’s concerns.  Investigating the letter’s background and context does much to further understanding.  For example, chapter nine of the book of Acts tells the story of Paul’s conversion.  Becoming familiar with Paul’s other letters can help, as well.  These include 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.  If we remember the Holy Spirit’s purpose in moving Paul to write this letter—not to impress with artful prose, but to speak what we need to hear—we will better receive it as God intends. 

It is recommended to read the letter in one setting.  This can be done in less than an hour, and it will help put together the pieces of more analytic study.  Without the overall movement in view, one can get lost in details, as rich as they are in significance.  Pray, whenever you begin to read, that God would open up the book’s meaning for you.  Invite the Holy Spirit to be your teacher throughout your study.  Lastly, you can use this guide as a journal.  Write down any questions that occur to you in addition to the prepared questions at the end of each weekly lesson, and record observations as you progress.  This way you will notice more and remember what you learn.


Romans has dramatically affected some great figures of the church throughout the ages, and has much to say to us today too.  Perhaps the most well-known figure was the renowned fourth-century Latin father Augustine of Hippo.  He famously found faith and freedom from sin when he read Romans.  In his youth, he was captivated by lust and wild in lifestyle.  A teacher of rhetoric in Italy and his native North Africa, he struggled mightily in his own spirit, gripped by a desire to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ, but unable to abandon self-will.  Individuals came into his life to encourage him on his spiritual pilgrimage, but for all the progress Augustine made toward God, he still anguished over what he most wanted to give himself to.  Finally, at thirty-two years old, retreating to a friend’s garden, he dissolved into tears.  He wrote later in his autobiographical Confessions that he heard a child’s voice over a wall chanting, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”  He saw no children nearby, and took this to be the voice of God.  He turned to an open Bible, and his eyes landed on the passage from Romans that read, “Not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (13:12-13).


Augustine surrendered, finally, and committed himself to Jesus Christ.  He would become one of the greatest defenders of the faith and most significant minds of the church in any age.

He was not alone by any means in his experience with Romans; almost every influential Christian thinker has dealt with the book.  Origen, Aquinas, Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin are among many who have written commentaries on Romans.  The book has helped shape the contours of Christian thought.  John Chrysostom, Augustine’s contemporary who was considered to be a superior expositor, had Romans read to him twice a week for many years.  Luther came to grasp justification by faith alone from Romans 3-4.  Calvin formulated his understanding of predestination from Romans 9-11.  John Wesley shaped his notions of sanctification from Romans 6 and 8.  Theologian Karl Barth learned of the importance of the righteousness of God from Romans 1 and 2.  Through his intense study, he came into a new depth of personal faith in Christ and repudiated the legacy of nineteenth century Protestant liberalism.  Swiss Reformed scholar F. L. Godet wrote, “The Reformation was certainly the work of the epistle to the Romans and that to the Galatians, and it is probable that every great spiritual renovation in the church will always be linked, both in cause and in effect, to a deeper knowledge of this book.”  The letter to the Romans has shaped Christian theology like no other book except the Gospels.

Both Lutherans and Calvinist Reformers saw Romans as a key to interpreting Scripture, because it draws together many strands in its exposition of election in chapters nine to eleven.  In Romans, Paul brings together all of the Bible’s greatest themes: sin, Law, judgment, salvation, faith, works, grace, justification, sanctification, election, the place of Jew and Gentile in God’s purposes, the work of Christ and of the Spirit, the Christian hope, the nature of life in the church, the meaning of the Old Testament, the duties of citizenship, and guidelines for personal holiness.  The book presents God as utterly sovereign and always reaching out in unmerited grace to express his love in Christ and to work out his purpose in the world.  As Paul quotes Isaiah, “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.  And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26b-27). 

Perhaps most important, though, is the difference Romans has made in countless lives of ordinary followers of Jesus.  Repeatedly, believers have found encouragement, direction, and a model for faith in the pages of Paul’s timeless letter to the Roman church. 


Overview of the Epistle

 After his typical greeting and introduction (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, or 1 and 2 Timothy 1:1), Paul declares the subject of the letter to be “the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son” (Rom. 1:1-3a).  The purpose of this gospel, Paul writes, is “to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5).  As in each of his letters, he includes a prayer for God’s grace for the community, and he gives thanks for his readers.  He then states the effect of the gospel in verse seventeen—the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation for all who believe.”  Then, he launches into an argument, running all the way to 3:20, that humanity is completely corrupt and lost.  Whether attempting to live under the Law or to run from it, all people stand condemned apart from God’s grace.  From 3:21 to the end of chapter eight, Paul reveals the solution to the human crisis.  Chapter eight discusses the believer’s status and freedom with Christ.   Justification—what God has done to make us right with himself through Christ’s sacrifice and the agency of human faith—is thereby brought together with holiness—God’s intention for human wholeness.  Salvation is not only relief from the future judgment of God, but also significant deliverance in this life.  In chapter five and once more in chapter eight, we see blessings for the justified sinner in this life. 

Yet as important as justification is in Paul’s thinking, it is only one aspect of salvation, which brings “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  The larger issue is how God demonstrates his righteousness, or covenant faithfulness in bringing both Jew and Gentile into his family through faith in Jesus.  In chapters nine through eleven, the apostle considers how that salvation is possible in light of the special promises and covenant with the Jews, showing God’s eternal plan unfolding in history.  No longer is salvation defined according to a particular race, but is available to people from every tribe and nation.

From chapters twelve through sixteen, Paul deals with the practical issues of life as a child of God and a member of the church, the “body of Christ.”  The death and resurrection of Jesus makes possible a new status and a new life for all who believe in him.  Paul concludes with a string of personal messages and greetings.  The key argument for the letter runs through 1:16; 3:22-23, 28; 4:3-5:1, 18; 9:31-32, and 10:3-4, 6-9.

Style, Date, and Occasion

 As in his other letters, Paul’s style can be rough.  He has no artifice and little polish.  He can begin a sentence, “therefore just as sin entered the world through one man…” and absent-mindedly drift off without concluding his sentence (5:12), unless perhaps that was the result of a secretarial oversight.  He can use a simile that seems not to support the point he is making (7:2-3).  Like other first-century writers he can be exasperatingly circular (6:5-10).  Nevertheless, this does not need to vex Paul’s readers.  Indeed, Calvin thought God chose to communicate through Paul so that we would not be captivated by the art of the writer but by the message of the God who inspired him.  Calvin writes in The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, “The singular providence of God has passed on to us these profound mysteries in the garb of a poor style, so that our faith might not depend on the power of human eloquence, but on the efficacy of the spirit alone.”  The book pulsates with power, immediacy, and with bracing spiritual insight. 

Romans is Paul’s most complete and most theologically rich statement of the gospel message.  In all his other letters, Paul is addressing pressing church problems: performing remedial work, writing to a church under a threat, plugging a leak, stopping a conflict, or confronting false teaching.  Romans is different.  Here Paul seems proactive, more distant from controversy, able to examine core issues at length.  He certainly has a purpose for writing the Roman Christians, but it is primarily related to his missional motivation and his having completed a major phase of his ministry.  Consequently, he offers a sustained exposition of the Christian faith that is universal and timeless in its implications.

Romans is not a complete treatise on Christian doctrine and ethics.  For instance, Paul only touches briefly on baptism (6:1-11), so we must assume this was not an issue of controversy for the congregation in Rome.  Similarly, he does not discuss the Lord’s Supper.   He apparently assumed the community was instructed in these common rites of initiation and nurture in the church.  Because this is not a systematic theology but a letter to a living community, Paul does not address every possible subject, but trusted the Roman believers already had a basic foundation of understanding. 

Paul probably wrote Romans shortly before his visit to Jerusalem with a gift from the Gentile congregations (15:25; Acts 24:17).  The letter hints that he was staying in Corinth at the time: he commends Phoebe, a member of the church at Cenchrea, the port of Corinth (16:1, 2), and refers to Erastus, an important public official in Corinth (16:23; cf. Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 4:20).  Acts chapters eighteen through twenty tell of a couple sojourns in Corinth; after one time there Paul sailed to Ephesus for a brief visit, and then traveled to Caesarea, probably on to Jerusalem as planned, and to Antioch (Acts 18:22).  Returning to Ephesus, he stayed there for about three years (Acts 19:8, 10) before heading for Jerusalem via Macedonia and Achaia (Acts 19:21). 

Another event helps us put Romans into context and appreciate Paul’s purpose.  Writing about Emperor Claudius around A.D. 120, Roman historian Suetonius describes his expulsion of the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49.  He states in Life of Claudius, “Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”  “Chrestus” was the popular spelling of Christ.  Whether the Jews in question were followers of Jesus or their opponents, authorities assumed Jews were disturbing the peace.  Like the riots Luke described in Acts 19, people’s resentment of the preaching of the gospel and the condemnation of idols could cause public disturbance.  Suetonius apparently misunderstood the accounts he read, and believed Jesus to be a ringleader of a revolt.  Civil disorder was a danger Claudius dared not tolerate, and he expelled from the city those he considered to be the cause of the problem.  This meant from A.D. 49 until his edict was revoked at his death in 54, the Roman Christian church was strictly Gentile. 

Given this timeline, the earliest Paul could have written Romans is towards the end of A.D. 54, since he addresses both Jews and Gentiles living in Rome.  By that time many Roman Jewish Christians would have started to return home, and the question of Jewish-Gentile relationships would have been quite pertinent for the Roman church.  Naturally, there would have been cultural tensions over worship style and sharing together at the table.  Still, the witness of the Roman church was crucial for the larger mission of the Christian movement.  Even with the demands of travel, the needs of many churches, and the pressures of opposition, Paul made it a priority to frame his letter to the Romans.  To account for his comings and goings, the best guess is that Paul wrote from Corinth during his third missionary journey sometime between the end of A.D. 55 and the early months of A.D. 57.

Paul had never been to the capital of the Empire (1:8-13), and the absence of any reference to Peter or other apostles suggests that the Roman church had not experienced direct apostolic ministry.  Pilgrims from Rome as well as many other countries had been present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, and may have been the first to bring the gospel to back to their city.  Paul knew about the Roman Christians (1:8) and had wanted to visit for some time (1:13) in order to encourage them and to gain their support for his work (15:24).  His reference to “other Gentiles” (1:13) and his warning against pride (11:13-24) suggest there was a majority of Gentiles in the Roman church.  It is possible that there were divisions in the house churches in which the Christians met (cf. 16:5, 14, 15). 

For Paul, an offering for Jewish believers revealed an issue far more urgent than insuring polite fellowship in the church.  The offering was more than an act of charity, but a vindication of the gospel message and a tangible demonstration that Jew and Gentile belonged to one another.  Both are unified through sin in Adam, and through grace in Christ.  Both need the saving righteousness of the gospel promised to Abraham and realized in Christ.  God’s purpose in history is to work out this saving righteousness in both Jew and Gentile by grace through faith. Unity in Christ through diversity is, then, a picture of God’s righteous reign. 

Paul knew that the validity of his gospel hung on God’s fulfillment in Jesus of his covenant with Israel.  This fulfillment would find expression in a new community no longer bound by ethnicity.  To demonstrate Jesus was the Savior not just for Israel but for the world, there must be a community of both Jews and Gentiles who worshiped and engaged in mission together.  This is why Paul did not hesitate to ask Gentile Christians to participate in a gift for the mother church in Jerusalem or for the further work of evangelizing the West. 

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had come to a turning point in ministry: “now there is no more place for me to work in these regions…so after I have completed this task [of delivering a “contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem”], I will go to Spain” (15:23, 28).  He had completed his work in the eastern Mediterranean (15:17-23) and felt it was time to make an evangelistic foray into Spain.  Paul had the opportunity to write in Corinth; he carried a burden to visit Jerusalem; and the hope of visiting Rome.  He cared deeply about all the churches of Christ, and saw strategic importance to this one in the heart of the empire (1:9, 15; 15:24).  In a society that worshipped power but was helpless to end slavery, class hatred, and moral degeneration, Paul knew the church could witness to the power of God to save lost humanity.  These reasons inspired him to compose this letter, which Tertius wrote down and Phoebe delivered.

Through the great movements of guilt (1:18-3:20), grace (3:21-11:36), and gratitude (12:1-16:27), the apostle moves from indicative to imperative, from creed to conduct.  The letter can be divided into two main sections; the first eleven chapters are doctrinal.  They concern the plan of salvation, justification by faith and sanctification through the Holy Spirit.  Chapters twelve through sixteen are practical and ethical, marked by exhortations concerning Christian duties.  All of it is tied together by God’s righteousness, his wonderful covenant faithfulness through the whole history of salvation.


Romans as a Model for Discipleship

Paul’s great letter shows his intense concern for reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  Bridging the cultural divide, he transcended merely local concerns and wrote a book that uniquely speaks to all generations a message of salvation for all.  Further, he writes with a sense of urgency now that “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:11-12).  Paul also strives to demonstrate that his gospel fulfills all the covenant promises of God, so his work is comprehensive. 

Romans leaves no question that Christian faith is a matter of whole-life discipleship.  In no way can the authentic believer be satisfied with lip service, or with the glib assurance of future salvation that changes little for life today.  He opens the letter with a reference to the goal of his ministry, “to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:6).  He speaks of God’s wrath toward evildoers and continually lifts up the righteousness of God as our hope and our model for living.  The goal of our “death to sin” and life in Christ is that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  Paul uses the terms “new life,” “one body in Christ,” “new Israel,” and “new humanity”—all analogous terms that suggest God’s covenant faithfulness in saving and transforming sinful human beings.  Paul’s discussion of God’s design for Israel in chapters nine through eleven fits this pattern of transformation of both Jew and Gentile as an expression of his covenant faithfulness.  Moreover the image of walking in a certain way is a Scriptural turn of phrase for discipleship, from Samuel’s pledge to “instruct you in the good and right way” (1 Sam. 12:23), to the Psalmist’s assurance that the Lord instructs the humble in “his way,” to the use of “the way” to describe the church (Acts 9:2).  Christians are those who follow in Jesus’ way; God’s purpose in election is to conform men and women to the likeness of his Son (8:29).  It is appropriate for those no longer enslaved to sin, those who live “in Christ,” to use Paul’s language, to see in Romans a model for discipleship.  Through this letter, the apostle serves as an ideal tutor for the Christian life.  The church needs to hear Paul’s themes of repentance, reconciliation, the universality of the gospel, fulfillment, the radical nature of life in Christ, and serving God in light of Christ’s return. 


The Structure of the Study Guide—a Core Course on the Christian Faith

This Bible study is organic in nature rather than systematic, i.e. it is patterned around a particular book of Scripture, Romans, and as such, whatever structure it has, is borrowed from a letter to a living congregation of Christians.  The major movements of the letter may be portrayed as universal human idolatry and need, redemption, and life in the community of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Said simply, the focus of Romans moves from guilt, to grace, and finally, to gratitude.  This is the pattern of the study. 

This study guide has no pretensions of being a definitive work for use in a church.  It is offered, rather, as an addition or a supplement to other studies for those who wish to go deeper in one book of Scripture or to learn how this seminal Christian thinker, the Apostle Paul, believed the broad sweep of the Christian life might be addressed.  The guide can serve as a helpful follow up to Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials, for those wanting a more theological second stage of discipleship.

 The activities suggested for further learning at the end of each week are intended not as an afterthought, but rather as an important part of translating Scripture knowledge into action.  Churches can benefit by standardizing such curriculum for use in as many venues as possible so that its members will be learning together as a congregation. 

Romans, with its practical concern of building up a diverse church to reflect God’s new family in Christ, is a source to help believers conceptualize major themes of the Christian faith.  Paul wrote with urgency, as he believed the time was near and “we are closer to our salvation than when we first believed.”  He wanted the church to model reconciliation to the world and to manifest the fullness of life in the Spirit, with each member utilizing his or her own gifts for the benefit of all.  A study that delves into Paul’s letter helps formulate the mind of Christ in his people, and can be a part of a comprehensive program of developing disciples who can themselves make disciples. 


How to Use this Study

 I see Romans as a core course in the Christian faith.  Given the timeless applicability of Scripture, it can serve as an introduction to the Christian life and also as a refresher course for those who have studied the Bible extensively.  Some groups like to alternate between biblical studies and more systematic, thematic ones.  This study guide follows the scriptural contours and does not try to force Paul’s thought into a strict mold.  Romans is not systematic theology, but it is thoughtful and far-reaching in scope, always with the end of helping Christians grow to spiritual maturity.  As such, it is perhaps more than appropriate as a starting point for growth in discipleship. 

The book of Romans is a natural curriculum that engages its reader with essential issues of the faith, from salvation to justification to glorification.  The following study guide takes an expositional in approach while endeavoring to make major aspects of Christian doctrine relevant for individual believers.  Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are in the New International Version (NIV).

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