The book of Romans is a first century, apostolic fund-raising letter, and the fact that it almost never strikes us this way simply demonstrates how divergent our practices are from the biblical practices. The apostle Paul was seeking to minister in Spain, and he wanted the help of the Roman church. As part of this, he determined to set before them a clear statement of the gospel as he preached it, so that they would know the nature of the ministry they were helping.
“Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company” (Rom. 15:24).
The Background to Romans
The letter to the Romans was likely written from Corinth in early A.D. 57. Although Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), there is no record of him ever visiting Rome before this. The fact that he wanted to establish churches in Spain gave him the perfect opportunity to visit Rome, and to make the acquaintance of the Christians there. He had no desire to usurp the ministry of others, no desire to build on another man’s foundation.
The church in Rome was established in the capital city of the empire, and all the temptations you might expect came with that privilege. Paul was acutely aware of this, and he warns the Roman Christians of these temptations discretely but clearly. But he does so in a way that is woven together with his larger argument. There had been “visitors from Rome”present at Pentecost, and there had likely been a church there very early.
Priscilla and Aquila were part of this early Roman church, and Paul befriended them when the Jews were expelled from Rome under Claudius (c. A.D. 49). Suetonius (70 years later) said that it was because the Jews were constantly rioting at the instigation of a man named Chrestus, a variant Latin spelling of Christus. But if this referred to Christ, it would be odd for the Jews in Rome at the end of Acts not to know anything about this “sect” (Acts 28:22). At any rate, after the death of Claudius in A.D. 54, there was a thriving Jewish community in Rome, and when Paul wrote in 57, he could speak of the faith of the Roman church as a matter of universal knowledge. In short, Rome was a happening place.
An Overview of Romans
Most of Paul’s letters are responding to particular situations on the ground, and Paul is responding to them pastorally. Of necessity, this means that his teaching in the bulk of his letters is generally speaking ad hoc. In this letter, he does not have pastoral responsibility in Rome, and he is not responding to a crisis. Rather, he has the opportunity to go to Spain, and he is setting forth his gospel as clearly as he can. The result is that the book of Romans is far more systematic than most of his other writings.
In taking an overview of the book, we have to pass over a number of nooks and crannies, but we will address those as we proceed through the book. So take this as the broad overview, and remember that the original book did not have chapters and verses. In the first chapter, Paul shows that the nations are trapped in sin. But lest the Jews vaunt themselves, in the second chapter, he shows that they are under sin as well. In the third chapter, he summarizes by showing that Jew and Gentile are both in bondage to sin. Thus far we have a statement of the problem—the problem of universal sin that the gospel addresses.
In chapter four, he gives us an exegetical basis for justification by faith alone, found in the example of Abraham. In chapter five, we have more of a theological statement of the same truth.
Given that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law, Paul turns (in a refutatio) to address a number of objections to his gospel. If we are justified by faith apart from the law, then doesn’t that mean that we get to sin up a storm? In chapter six, Paul answers no. If we are justified by faith apart from the law, then what was the law given for then? Paul answers that question in chapter seven.
In chapter eight, Paul begins his glorious discussion of the relationship of God’s sovereignty to God’s covenant promises and commitments. Chapter eight gives us a discussion of God’s commitment to the entire created order. Chapters nine through eleven describe God’s saving work within the covenant made with the Jews, and how the Gentiles were brought into that.
And then, in accord with his custom, Paul gives the Romans a series of ethical exhortations, all of which line up with the gospel that has been articulated. Chapter twelve addresses body life within the congregation. Chapter thirteen has to do with our relationship to the unbelieving civil order. Chapter fourteen concerns debates about questionable matters. Chapter fifteen addresses the subject of missions (and remember the purpose of the letter). And chapter sixteen largely consists of greetings and a few remaining exhortations.
The Gospel for All Nations
Evangelical Christians are accustomed to think of Romans as a tract outlining the way of individual salvation. This is certainly something that can (and should) be derived from this book, but it is important for us to note that Paul is proclaiming his gospel to the church at Rome, so that they would help him proclaim it to the region of Spain. The tribal nature of man is apparent throughout this entire book. It concerns individuals, of necessity, but we have to begin where Paul begins. “By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name” (Rom. 1:5).
You cannot talk about omelets without including eggs. But you can talk about eggs, and never get to the omelet. You cannot talk about nations without including men and women, boys and girls. But you can talk about men and women, boys and girls, and never get to the nations. This individualization is one of the devices that we use to keep the gospel from getting us into trouble.
As we study this book, we will discover that God’s plan of salvation is far greater than a simple plan to save Smith, if Smith believes. God loves the world, the Jews, the tribes, the cosmos, and fully intends to save all of it . . . and that includes Smith.