The editors of the New Geneva Study Bible describe the book of Romans as
Paul’s fullest, grandest, most comprehensive statement of the gospel. Its compressed declarations of vast truths are like coiled springs—once loosed, they leap through mind and heart to fill one’s horizon and shape one’s life. John Chrysostom, the fifth century’s greatest preacher, had Romans read aloud to him once a week. Augustine, Luther, and Wesley, three supremely significant contributors to the Christian heritage, all came to assured faith through the impact of Romans. All the Reformers saw Romans as the God-given key to understanding all Scripture, since here Paul brings together all the Bible’s greatest themes. . . . From the vantage point given by Romans, the whole landscape of the Bible is open to view, and the relation of the parts to the whole becomes plain. The study of Romans is vitally necessary for the spiritual health and insight of the Christian.1New Geneva Study Bible, ed. R. C. Sproul and Moises Silva (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1764-65.
Romans has been called a constitution and manifesto for believers, containing the essence and essentials of the Christian life. Though personal in tone, it is a well-developed presentation of grace-filled, God-exalting theology that beckons the mind to stretch, the heart to soar, and the soul to sing.
Background of Romans
Paul did not establish the church in Rome, nor had he visited it by the time of his letter, though he was well aware of its growth and impact (Romans 1:8-13). Perhaps the church at Rome began shortly after Pentecost (Acts 2), as Roman Jews returned from Jerusalem to their city with the fire of the gospel still burning in their hearts. The good news then spread to Rome’s vast Gentile population.
Concurrent with the Roman church’s growth was the success of Paul’s missionary efforts to the east. By the time Paul wrote to the Romans, he had been evangelizing, planting churches, and training leaders from Judea to Macedonia for about 10 years. The time had come for him to take the gospel to new territories.
So he set his sights on Spain. From the city of Corinth, he planned to deliver a monetary gift to the church in Jerusalem, given by the Gentile churches in Achaia and Macedonia. Then he would sail from Jerusalem to Spain, stopping at Rome, the capital of the empire, to encourage the Christians there in their walk with Christ.
In Corinth, probably in the winter of AD 57, Paul dictated a letter to his personal scribe, Tertius, telling the Roman Christians about his plans. But this letter is no mere itinerary. Paul saw his correspondence as an opportunity to ground the Romans in the essentials of the faith, for the church there had no definitive statement of Christian truth. They needed a “constitution” to go by, not just so they could learn, but so they could be a light to the rest of the empire.
Survey of Romans
The letter unfolds in a logical fashion as Paul argued his case that God provides for us what God requires of us—perfect righteousness. Through faith in Christ alone, a “righteousness from God” is granted to sinners, which removes God’s holy wrath toward us and brings us into loving relationship with Him forever.
Introduction (Romans 1:1-17)
Paul opened his letter by identifying himself as “a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Now there’s a man who knew himself, his God, and his mission, which was to preach the gospel—for the gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:16).
Next Paul introduced his main theme, the “righteousness of God” (1:17), which he developed throughout the letter. The term righteousness, which appears 35 times in this book, was defined by Paul as inward and outward conformity to God’s law. And no one, he contended, can attain righteousness apart from divine intervention. The righteousness we need in order to please God must come from God Himself.
The Bad News: We’re All Guilty (Romans 1:18-3:20)
Why must righteousness be a gift from God? Because all humanity is unrighteous, corrupted by sin and unable to live according to God’s perfect standards.
Though some people live better lives than others, at least from a human perspective, everyone is guilty before God—we’ve all missed the mark: “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). The whole of sinful humanity is in the crosshairs of God’s judgment.
Pretty bleak picture, isn’t it? If we stopped here, we would be doomed to despair and destruction. But there’s more to the story.
The Good News: God Has Given Us His Righteousness (Romans 3:21-5:21)
How could sinful people possibly appease the wrath of God? We can’t. So God Himself provided the way, through the death of His Son on the cross. Though we all have “sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we can be “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24).
Just what does “justification” mean? Does it mean that, by accepting Christ’s offer of salvation, we are made instantly righteous? No. It means we are declared righteous. We can enjoy a relationship with God as though we were righteous, even though we will spend all our years on earth working to get our day-to-day lives to catch up with our position.
Righteousness without works? Paul anticipated that his Jewish readers might struggle with this idea. Rituals, after all, played a major part in Jewish religion. Some of the Jews coming to Christ wanted to maintain that certain rites, such as circumcision, were a necessary component of salvation.
Yet Jewish history is filled with examples of justification by faith alone, and Paul was quick to bring them to light. First, Abraham, the father of the Jews, whose belief was “credited to him as righteousness” before he was circumcised (4:3). And next, David, whose sins were not credited to his account, though they certainly warranted God’s wrath (4:7-9).
In 2 Corinthians, Paul put it this way: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
That is truly good news! For Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised alike.
Just as Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death to humanity, Christ’s obedience brings righteousness and life (Romans 5:18-19).
More Good News: We Don’t Have to Live as We Used To (Romans 6-8)
Staying one step ahead of his readers, Paul anticipated the inevitable question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1).
In other words, since we’re justified and will remain so even if we sin, can’t we just live however we want? “May it never be!” exclaimed Paul. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2).
Salvation doesn’t free us to sin; it frees us not to sin (6:2-11). As believers in Christ, we are united with Christ Himself and His strength. Sin no longer has a claim on our lives. We’re “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).
The daily process of living this new life in Christ is called “sanctification” (6:22). Whereas justification is God’s declaration of righteousness, sanctification is our development in righteousness. Justification has to do with our position in Christ. Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ.
As growing Christians, we no longer live under the law, which showed us our sin and condemned us. Instead we live in the Spirit, who frees us to love and serve Christ.
Old habits die hard, though, as we all know. Even though we’re new creatures in Christ and will one day be perfect, we retain the vestiges of our old, sinful nature in this life (Romans 7). This war of the two natures is a struggle for the Christian who truly wants to grow.
But even in the midst of the struggle, the Spirit who dwells within us gives assurance that we are children of God who will one day stand in His presence (8:16-18). We will one day be free from all sin and suffering (8:23-25). The Spirit even helps us pray when we can’t find the words (8:26-27).
The Spirit is our source of strength but also a sign of our security in Christ. Security that God works for our good (8:28). Security that we were chosen by God and will one day see Him face-to-face (8:29-30). Security that God is for us and not against us (8:31). And security that nothing, either in heaven or on earth, can separate us from the love of God (8:38-39).
The Future of Israel (Romans 9-11)
Not everyone, however, has that sense of security; not everyone is saved. And that grieved Paul, especially because many of the unsaved were fellow Jews. How could it be that God’s covenant people of old could be so resistant to the gospel?
Paul explained that Israel’s rejection of God is both a matter of God’s sovereign choice (Romans 9) and Israel’s stubbornness and self-righteousness (Romans 10).
Does that mean God has given up on Israel? Paul’s vivid depiction of an olive tree in chapter 11 assures us that He hasn’t. Though unbelieving Jews have been “cut off ” from the olive tree (the community of the redeemed) and believing Gentiles have been grafted in, “all Israel” will one day be saved and grafted back in (11:26).
This divine plan caused Paul to praise God for His “unfathomable” ways (11:33). Though we can’t always explain why God does things the way He does them, we can trust that He is God. And His plans, like His person, are perfect.
How, Then, Are We to Live? (Romans 12:1-15:13)
Having laid out the truth of what Christ has done for us, Paul, in his usual style, turned his attention to how life changes for those who are in Christ.
In light of the “mercies of God” (Romans 1-11), Paul urged us to “present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship” (12:1).
What does this mean? It means that the Christian life is a sacrificial offering of gratitude to the God who has set us free to serve Him.
How do we serve Him? Rather than being “conformed” to the world, we’re to be “transformed by the renewing of” our minds (12:2). And rather than dwelling on our own importance, we’re to consider the value of others (12:3-8). We’re to live in a way that serves and benefits others and that combats evil with good (12:9-21).
The realm of civil government also takes on new meaning for the Christian. We’re to pray for our leaders, submit to them, and live exemplary lives under their reign (Romans 13).
Life in Christ also brings freedom from external standards of righteousness. Though we’re all to be sensitive to and respect the convictions held by others, righteousness isn’t defined by our participation or abstinence. “The kingdom of God,” said Paul, “is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).
Pleasing ourselves isn’t the goal of the Christian life (15:1). We’re to follow the example of Christ and work for the good of our neighbor, “accept[ing] one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15:7).
The Christian life is a different life. And all the resources we need to live it are found in Christ Himself.
Conclusion (Romans 15:14-16:27)
With the lesson now complete, Paul finished his letter on a more personal note. Commentator John Stott captured the essence of Paul’s heartfelt conclusion.
The apostle seems to be experiencing a twinge of apprehension about how his letter will be received. If so, the rest of it will disarm and reassure them. He writes very personally (maintaining an “I-you” directness throughout), affectionately (“my brothers,” 15:14) and candidly. He opens his heart to them about the past, present and future of his ministry, he asks humbly for their prayers, and he sends them many greetings. In these ways he gives us insight into the out-working of God’s providence in his life and work.2John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), 377.
Paul closed his letter in a way we would expect from a man who simply couldn’t get over the grace and the greatness of God.
“To the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 16:27).
We don’t know for sure whether Paul ever made it to Spain. But he did eventually travel to Rome—as a prisoner—and ministered there under house arrest for two years (Acts 28:16-31). His second journey to Rome ended in martyrdom in AD 68. The Emperor Nero’s execution order ended the apostle’s life, but it couldn’t silence his voice.
And it never will.