The Book’s Theological Themes
When asked to describe the contribution of the letter to the Romans, the first thing that generally comes to mind of many people is theology, especially the Christian understanding of salvation. While that is true, it is important to remember that Romans is not a systematic theology that expresses all aspects of the writer’s knowledge, but a letter written to deal with understanding and misunderstandings in mid-first-century Christianity.
Central to the letter and to Paul’s ministry was the issue of how Jewish the church should be. On the one hand were those Jewish Christians who were apparently having a difficult time letting go of the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament and were under the influence of those Jews who say the law as the means to earn salvation. On the other hand, were those who despised all things Jewish, including the law. Our discussion of the theological themes of Romans will take place within that tension filled framework.
- Unity in Christ and Salvation for all
One of the most important theological terms in Romans is the simple term “all”. Throughout the letter the apostle strives to bring into unity the members of the Roman church who had fractured on the racial line of Jew and Gentile. As we will see more fully in Chapter 2 the idea of “all” undergirds every aspect of Paul’s letter to Rome.
A Second dominating concept that sets the stage for the letter is the fact of sin. Romans 1:18-32 lays out the guilt of the Gentiles while Romans 2 does the same for the Jews. Both groups are under the power of sin (Romans 3:9), because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And since the wages of sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23), the outlook for all humanity is hopeless. People naturally, Paul argues, are not only sinners but slaves to sin (verse 12-16). The only hope for them is to unit with Christ who can set them free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) through his grace (Romans 6:14).
The apostle’s discussion of law in Romans is multifaceted. The major divide on the topic involves those statements that seem to be negative regarding the law and of those that are positive. Heading the negative category is the dictum that “No human being will be justified . . . by works of the law” (Romans 3:20). Closely related is Romans 7:4, in which the death of the sinful self, releases believers from the condemnation and dominion of the law and frees them to join Christ. Thus, they have “died to the law” as a way of redemption.
But believers are not free from the law. Rather, Paul’s theology upholds the law (Romans 3:31), which is holy and just and good and spiritual (Romans 7:12, 14). Thus the law has a place in the lives of believers even though it is inadequate as a means of salvation.
A major function of the law is to point out human sin (Romans 3:20; Romans 4:15; Romans 7:7) and thus, the need of God’s justifying grace. Every human being has some form of law. Scripture reveals it for Jews (and Christians, Romans 2:1-13), whereas those Gentiles who don’t have the revealed law still have a law opened to some extent to their consciences (verse 14, 15). In the end the law will form the standard of judgment (verse 5, 6). Those who hear the law but do not obey it will be found wanting (verse 13). Thus, although the law is not the way of being saved (verse 20), those who are saved and live the transformed life (Romans 12:2) will walk “with (Christ) . . . in Newness of life” as they obey the principles of God’s law (Romans 6:1-8).
The basic principle of the law according to Romans is loving one’s neighbor (Romans 13:8, 10), even if he or she is on the opposite side of racial line dividing Jews and Gentiles. In a very helpful way verses 8 – 10 show how each of the commandments on the second table of the Decalogue flow out of Christ second great love command (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul could have done the same for the first table, but his readers were having no problems in loving God.
His discussion of the law in Romans 13:8-10 demonstrates its spiritual and internal nature. That was important in the culture that focused on outward behavior rather than a person’s inward spiritual status. Romans 7:7 also reflects on the spiritual nature of the law when Paul writes that he really didn’t understand sin until he grasped the meaning of “you shall not covet,” the only commandment of the second table of the Decalogue that is an inward indicator of spiritual health rather than an outward action.In Summary, Romans presents the law as a guide for life, a convector of sin, and a standard of God’s judgement, but not a way to salvation.
Romans sets forth the path to salvation as one of grace. Grace in romans is God’s free gift through Christ for human salvation (Romans 3:24). The apostle often contrasts grace with works as alternative approaches to getting right with God (Romans 3:20-24; Romans 6:14; Romans 11:6). For Paul behind the whole salvation process always lay the initiative of God. No other word expresses his theology so clearly on this point as Grace (charis).
- Justification by Faith.
If grace is god’s free gift for the salvation of sinners, Paul expresses that salvation in many metaphors. Romans 3:24, 25, for example, presents three of them, including redemption (signifying God’s grace-filled purchase of those enslaved in sin), propitiation (a word having to do with the turning away of wrath, or God’s judgement on sin), and justification.
It is justification that forms the centerfold in Romans, providing the theme text for the letter in Romans 1:16, 17 (justification and righteousness are two English translations of the same Greek word) and the primary substance of chapters 3-5.
Paul coined the metaphor of justification to meet the problem of the legal curse of the law with its death penalty (Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23). In Romans 3 justification does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather, “to declare righteous.” The root idea in justification is the declaration of God, the righteous judge, that the man who believes in Christ, sinful though he may be, is viewed as being righteous, because in Christ he has come into a righteous relationship with God. Relationship is the key to understanding justification. The justified man has in Christ entered into a new relationship with God, who now regard such a person as righteous and treats that individual accordingly. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. It is the decree of acquittal from all guilt and issues in freedom from all condemnation and punishment.
And how, we might ask, do sinful humans receive the free gift of grace? Paul is unequivocal on that question. All of God’s salvation gifts of grace are always received by faith (Romans 3:25; confer Romans 1:16, 17). Thus we have the phrases justification by faith and righteousness by faith. At this point a word of caution is important. Faith is not some meritorious work that comes through human effort, but it is another free gift of God that makes it possible for people to accept His other gifts.
- Transforming Living
Readers of Romans who see justification as the high point of Romans miss Paul’s point, Justification never stands alone. To the contrary, it is inextricably linked with transformed or sanctified living. If you have the first you will have the last. And at the end of time people will be judged and eternally justified on the basis of how God’s transforming grace impacted their daily lives (Romans 2:5, 6, 13). We should note that while Romans devotes three chapters (Romans 3-5) to justification, it provides six and one-half chapters (Romans 6-8,-12-15a) to transformed, or sanctified, living. For Paul justification and sanctification from a unit. They are equally important, with the first leading to the second and the second being founded on the first. A Christian according to Romans is a person who is both justified and living the transformed life. Take away either part and we destroy the vision of salvation set forth in Romans.
In Romans being justified, redeemed, and propitiated by grace are not the end of the salvation process. Rather, they stand near the beginning. Thus we find nothing of what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” What we discover is transforming grace (Romans 12:2) that leads Christians to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) and to avoid a life of sin (verses 1-14). At the heart of such sanctified or holy living in Romans is Christ’s greater law of love to our neighbor (Romans 12:9-13) that flows out into a life in harmony with the Decalogue (Romans 13:8-10) and is not judgmental of other people (Romans 14:13).
- Hope and Assurance
Closely tied to hope is Romans’ teaching on assurance. The Holy Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heir, heirs of God who will be glorified with Christ (verse 16:17). The letter’s teaching on hope and assurance climaxes in verses 31-39, in which Paul repeatedly promises Christians that nothing can separate them from the love of that God who is for them. With that thought in mind, perhaps we should see Romans’ teaching on hope and assurances as the apex of the letter’s discussion of salvation.
As a result, hope in romans is not some wishful thinking about the future-but rather a certainty based upon what God has already done for believers in Christ. Thus, hope provides the basis for confident daily Christian living and the knowledge that at the end of time God will make all things right (verses 18-25).
Hope is another of the great words in Romans. Used 13 times, it appears in Romans more than any other New Testament book. Christians worship the God of hope (Romans 15:13), abound in hope (verse 13), rejoice in hope (Romans 5:2; 12:12), and are saved by hope (Romans 8:24).