Paul’s Letter to Rome
Bible scholars believe, and the Protestant Reformation confirms that the book of Romans is the most influential document in Christian history. I tend to add Galatians, James, and Hebrews to that list. With this in mind it is important to understand the book itself before we begin to examine its sequential treatment of the plan of salvation.
When Romans was written, and as we saw in our study of Galatians, there was a profound tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians that undergirds every section of Paul’s presentation. How this tension relates to the book of Romans’ and structure and its relevance for twenty-first century Christians is truly amazing.
We will start not with this tension between Jew and Gentile but by discussing the purpose of Romans and its major themes.
Over the course of the next 13 weeks we will draw on all four Gospels, the various letters written by the Apostles and bring our understanding of the Old Testament forward to gain a much better understanding and appreciation of salvation and the gift of grace that has been given to us. Given to us with the idea of making us right with God by grace through faith in the life, death, burial and resurrected Christ, who offers salvation for all who believe in Him.
Why did Paul Write Romans?
Romans has at least three purposes. The first is a practical one. Paul has reached a critical juncture in his ministry. His evangelization thus far had covered the Roman provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia (territories that roughly comprise the modern nation of Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. It was his thought to move the focus of his ministry to Spain.
Before he could go to Spain, the apostle needed to visit two other places. The first was Jerusalem, so that he could deliver the contribution for the poor among the Jewish Christians that he had collected from the Gentile churches (Romans 15:26, 27).
His second stop before Spain would be Rome (verses 24, 28). It was these two stops at Jerusalem and Rome that set the stage for Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
Paul hoped that the Roman Christians would provide a base of support for him in much the same way that Antioch had done during his early evangelization of the East. Thus, his appeal to have them assist him in his mission after he had gotten to know them during his forthcoming visit.
This set the stage for what we call his strategic purpose – namely, that if the Roman church was to provide a solid base, its warring Gentile and Jewish factions would have to pull together. Throughout most of Romans we hear echoes of this controversy, in both its theological and its practical implication. Paul is seen from the beginning to the end as an authentic peacemaker, pouring oil on troubled water, anxious to preserve both truth and peace without sacrificing either to the other. The most extensive treatment of Paul the peacemaker occurs in Romans 14:1-15:13, in which he deals with their bickering and mutual judgmentalism over Jewish issues. But his climatic statement on the topic is that God will have mercy upon all, both Jew and Gentile for the plan of salvation includes all (Romans 11:32; confer Romans 1:17, 17; Romans 3:22, 23.
What is the theological purpose of Romans? Put bluntly, Paul felt the need to establish his theological credentials. As a result, he wrote a letter that set forth his view of the logic of the gospel. That was a crucial task since his battles against certain Jewish Christian legalist as portrayed in the books of Galatians and II Corinthians, had given him a reputation for being against the law and perhaps even anti-Jewish. News travels fast and it appears they had even heard about this in Rome, thus the apostle’s reference to those who slanderously charged him with saying let us do evil that good my result (Romans 3:8, NIV). Paul knew that he must neutralize these rumors and, perhaps, even win over some who were already biased toward him.
It would be like a pastor that was assigned to a new district. Yet when he gets there, he finds that his reputation, whether fair or otherwise had beaten him there. Under those circumstances it would be hard to establish his ministry without first breaking down some of the prejudices that had been built up by some of the members before you even got there.
Paul’s tactic was to write out a rather complete exposition of the gospel he had been preaching for more than twenty years so that both Jewish and Gentile Christians would understand his position before he arrived.
And while he undoubtedly aimed his gospel exposition at the Roman Christians, as indicated by its repeated reference to the tension on the racial front, it may also have had another purpose. Some have suggested that Romans may have been a defense that Paul intended to present to the Jerusalem church that might also be useful in Rome. That possibility takes on credibility when we read of Jewish plots against Paul’s life (see Acts 20:3) and his request that the Roman Christians pray for him that he might “be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31, 32). And if the apostle didn’t live to preach the gospel in the west, we can still view his extensive treatment of salvation in Romans as his “last will and testament, a precious deposit bequeathed to the church and through it to the community of the faithful everywhere.”
The possibility of several reasons for Paul’s extensive treatment of salvation in romans goes a great distance in helping us understand the letter’s format. After all, unlike most of Paul’s letters, which constantly reflected on local circumstances, Romans 1:1-11:36 present a very general argument devoid of such issues. Rather than being responses to specific problems, Romans develops out of the inner logic of Paul’s teaching. Nowhere in these chapters do we find Rome or a specific situation in Rome mentioned. As a result, Romans is more of a “tractate” letter rather than a pastoral letter like most of the others. Tractate letters are broadly pastoral, but their content and tone suggest that they were originally intended to be more than strictly pastoral responses to specific sets of issues arising in a particular place. Rather, they were general theological expositions that could fit many contexts. Such letters as Hebrews and James also belong to the tractate category.
Having said that, we should not make the mistake of viewing Romans 1:1-15; 14:1-16:1-27 have all the earmarks of a pastoral letter. Thus it is perhaps best to see Romans as an expression of the apostle’s pastoral concern that contains a theological tractate nuanced toward the needs of the Roman community running from Romans 1:16 to 11:36. A tractate format for Romans might also explain shorter version of the letter that apparently circulated in the ancient world and that deleted mentions of Rome in Romans 1:7, 15 and did not contain chapter 16 with all of its personal greetings.