Introduction to the Letter to the Romans

Introduction to the Letter to the Romans

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On April 17 2023, J.D. Walt will lead the Wake-Up Call through The Letter to the Romans with daily readings, prayers, and community reflections opportunities. Join the thousands of others who get the Wake-Up Call in their inboxes every day.

1. Who wrote the Letter to the Romans? When was the Letter to the Romans written?

The Letter to the Romans was written by the apostle Paul (1:1) with the help of a scribe named Tertius (16:22). Paul clarifies that he didn’t establish the church at Rome but he takes the liberty to address concerns there and to call on their support for ministry, signifying his apostleship must have been respected universally across the early church (although there are communities that were challenging his authority at certain points—see 2 Corinthians). Most date this writing to the year AD 57 during his third missionary journey, since he was taking an offering for the Jerusalem church (15:23–28) which he delivered in that year (see also 1 Cor. 16:1–7).

2. Why did Paul write the Letter to the Romans?

The occasion for Paul’s writing the letter to the Romans is multifaceted. Based on the evidence, it is best to conclude the apostle wrote the letter for several reasons rather than a singular one. There were personal and missional motivations which included Paul’s aspiration to solicit support for his mission to Spain and to have Rome serve as a base for these westward journeys (1:13; 15:24–29). The deaconess Phoebe also had a proposed visit to Rome (16:1–2) and Paul was advocating for her reception there. Finally, he desired to visit them in order to impart a spiritual gift, likely that of teaching and preaching (1:11) which would result in encouragement, correction as needed, and ultimately, Christian maturation.

This leads to his pastoral reasons for writing the letter: there were theological and corporate concerns he wanted to address that were creating divisions among the church at Rome. Sometime between the years AD 41–54 Jews were expelled from Rome following the edict of emperor Claudius (see Acts 18:2 as well as Romans historians Suetonius, Cassius Deo). As a result, Gentile Christians likely considered God’s Jewish people to be under divine judgment. We can observe, based on the arguments Paul lays out throughout the letter, that this inspired pride in their own spiritual and ethnic status. So Paul seeks to answer questions like, What is the place of Gentiles in the story of Israel? and How is a person (or people) made right with God? in order to unite the fracturing community (16:17–19).

3. What themes are addressed in the Letter to the Romans?

Many themes are addressed in Romans and yet they all serve the larger concern for how people are reconciled to God and how salvation affects people’s relationships with one another. Many consider its thesis to be found in 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (NIV)

The question of the primary concern, or thesis, thus holds the themes of theology proper (matters pertaining to God and salvation) with ecclesiology (the nature of the church) together and integrates them. Since all people are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, ethnic identity markers or lack thereof bear no significance on one’s standing before God. Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing since “none is righteous” (3:9–20) and are one in Christ (3:21–4:25). But the Gentiles specifically had to be reminded that God had not cast his people, the Jews, aside (chapters 14–15). One will notice here a more mature, long-standing argument that Paul made earlier to the Galatian and Corinthian communities.

As Paul writes his letter, other themes are developed to serve the larger theme of salvation. Among them are: 1) The universality of sin and unrighteouness, including our own participation in sin under our representative Adam; 2) the righteousness and faithfulness of God despite our sin and the failure of the Mosaic Law to achieve righteousness; 3) Faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the means of salvation, effected by the Spirit of God; 4) The Christian life as one marked by worship, transformation, and love as enabled by the Spirit of God; 5) The relationship between Jews and Gentiles as well as the long term status of ethnic Israel.

All of these themes are interwoven throughout the letter and emerge as they serve Paul’s argument that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ, are together the people of God, and are saved on the same basis—by grace through faith in Jesus, and enlivened through the power of the Holy Spirit.

4. How is the Letter to the Romans arranged, theologically and literarily?

Romans is a rhetorical letter, meaning Paul has carefully constructed it as an argument to persuade the Roman community of gospel truth. Salutations that are common for letters are at the beginning and end of the work (these are epistolary conventions), and even here Paul begins working in support for his thesis. He highlights the Jewishness of Jesus the Messiah (1:3), and exhorts the house churches not to separate based on ethnicity (16:17). As noted earlier, the thesis, or propositio in ancient rhetoric, is found in 1:16–17.

The ensuing chapters 1–8 argue that Gentiles have no reason for boasting, as they knew about God but chose not to worship him. Nor do the Jews have any reason to boast, as the Mosaic Law was not effectual in saving them—therefore, all have sinned and need God’s grace. Romans 9–11 especially, and on throughout chapter 14,  are generally seen as a refutation of objections to Paul’s thesis. It answers the question, If people are justified by faith, has God abandoned his people Israel? Included in this section (chapters 12–15) are some practical applications, while the end of chapter 15 and on into 16 include personal notes about his missionary aspirations as well as greetings to specific house churches.

Others further divide the theological themes to demarcate: 1) The universality of human sinfulness (1:16–4); 2) The solution provided by the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (5–8); 3) The faithfulness of God toward his people Israel (9–11); and 4) the outworking of what salvation looks like when effected by Christ and the Spirit, apart from the Law (12–15). In between these sections may be transitional notes and confessions which summarize what was previously argued.

5. What are some of the unique features or themes of the Letter to the Romans?

Absent themes. Several themes which feature prominently in other works of Paul are absent from the Letter to the Romans. There is no mention of the Eucharist (or Communion/Lord’s Supper), nor any discussion of the end times proper (eschatology). Furthermore, the divinity of Jesus and his resurrection do not feature prominently in Paul’s argument, though both are mentioned and offer a basis for atonement, justification, and the new life (1:4; 6:5; 9:5; 10:9–13). In light of the fact that the pauline authorship of this letter is not doubted by critical scholars, this demonstrates that Paul can adapt his gospel presentation to suit the needs of the audience. This is confirmed in the narratives of Acts which reveal Paul was apt to refer to philosophers, poets, and regional religious customs in order to communicate the gospel to distinct people groups. This comports well with this work being a situation-oriented letter rather than an abstract, systematic presentation of the gospel.

Sanctification. Romans 7:7–25, which features the voice of a person afflicted by his inability to not sin, has been one of the most commented on passage of Scripture. Doubtless it is due to its resonance with many Christians’ struggle with sin throughout the ages. However, interpreting this as the normative Christian experience, or even as a representation of a person “in Christ” is not necessarily supported by the context. Several scholars have pointed out that it likely makes use of the device of personification, or impersonation, in which Paul writes using the voice of another person living apart from Christ. The misinterpretation of this particular passage may lead hosts of Christians and even entire denominations to frame theological systems that accept defeat to sin, rather than the actual Christian life—empowered by the Spirit and marked by new creation—which is described in chapter 8.

Predestination. Some theological traditions view Romans 9–11 to be an impenetrable argument in support of Augustinian or Calvinist predestination. However, when understood in the larger context of the book, these chapters are correctly viewed as describing the purpose of collective Israel as an instrument in God’s history of salvation—not necessarily as a demarcation of which individuals are saved and which are damned eternally. In this instance, we would also do well not to conflate the term salvation with election.

Intertextuality. This refers to the way an author echoes or alludes to other texts, either in the Old or New Testaments, without necessarily quoting them directly. In Romans Paul makes use of other arguments and phrases which he has used in charged ways in the past (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians), but here presents them in a more irenic way, since he did not establish the church. Among these are ideas like: 1) salvation by faith, 2) freedom from death, sin, and the Law; 3) our adoption as children of God; 4) there being no distinction between the Jew and the Greek. He extensively references the stories of the Old Testament Scriptures, especially those of Adam and Abraham, as well as assumes the entire covenantal and narrative thought world of the Old Testament Scripture.

6. What has been the impact of the Letter to the Romans historically?

Many consider the Letter of Romans to be the most influential document in the history of the world. This marvelous letter inspired countless ordinary saints to turn away from their old life and fix their eyes on Jesus the Messiah.

Among these saints, notable figures include Augustine—once debilitated by sexual vices—who recounts in his conversion hearing a voice tell him to “Take up and read.” Upon opening a nearby Bible, he read Romans 13:13–14 in which Paul urged the Roman Christians to reject immorality and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This Augustine did and set out to be one of the most formidable intellectuals of the Western world. He drew on Romans substantially in his writing of Confessions and City of God.

Martin Luther claimed of Romans, “This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel.” He credits this letter with the breakthrough he experienced that taught him not to trust in his own merits for salvation but to receive the righteousness of God by faith, thereby renewing his spiritual life and propelling the Protestant Reformation forward.

Two centuries later, John Wesley attended a reading of Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” and was so touched by the truth therein that he credited the event as an evangelical conversion and a felt assurance of his salvation in Jesus Christ. This event helped birth the Methodist movement and foment the First Great Awakening, which included many social reforms.

In the twentieth century, major theologians like Karl Barth credited his engagement of Romans with catalyzing his abandonment of theological liberalism. In the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. drew on passages from Romans to inform his writing on freedom and liberty, including the persistence of God’s faithfulness in light of evil and suffering (Rom. 8:31–39). It also likely influenced the writing of the hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.

7. Why does the Letter to the Romans matter?

This letter matters primarily because it lays out how people can be reconciled to God. Our solution lies not inward but in the objective acts of God in Christ Jesus on our behalf. This is a freeing act of grace that leaves no room for human striving or achievement.

However, Romans also posits an optimistic vision of the Christian life as one lived in the Spirit in which people are transformed and adopted into the family of God. Both the penalty and the power of sin are broken, and people can be welcomed into a beautiful union with God in Jesus. Romans also offers a vision for authentic unity in a world that is fractured by culture, politics, and the darkening effects of sin in our world.

The significance of the Letter to the Romans is not just for the Christian faith but its long term impact on the Roman empire, the history of medieval civilization, as well as the Reformation and Enlightenment, whose histories are intertwined. Indeed, understanding our current world would prove difficult without knowing Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Are you interested in going deeper into the Letter to the Romans with the help of a Bible commentary? We recommend the following: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington; Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary by Michael J. Gorman; Romans: A New Covenant Commentary by Craig Keener; Paul for Everyone: Romans (Part 1 & 2) by N. T. Wright.

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