The book of Romans is a monumental work. It was in the reading of the phrase “the just shall live by faith” in 1:17 that stirred the German reformer Martin Luther’s heart against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. He posted his ninety-five theses on the church wall in Wittenberg in 1517 and set the Protestant Reformation in motion.
The theme of Romans is justification by God’s grace through faith, rather than through a priest administering sacraments, circumcision, or obedience to God’s law. Salvation depends on God alone.
Paul did not develop the doctrine of justification by faith, for it was clearly taught by Jesus and throughout the Old and New Testaments. But he did develop it more extensively.
Neither did Paul begin the church in Rome. He had just finished collecting an offering for impoverished Christians in Jerusalem and was on his third missionary journey. He writes from Corinth, and Gaius the Corinthian is hosting him at the time.
Paul writes the book around 57 or 58 AD to prepare them for his first visit. He had planned to visit already but had been prevented. He wanted to strengthen the Roman Christians in their faith and also to win their financial support for a future trip he planned to make to Spain.
The church at Rome was a Gentile church, although some believe mostly Jews comprised it. It is possible the church had been started by Jews who had come to Christ during Pentecost.
Chapters one through eleven deal with doctrines we should believe: the sinfulness of man, forgiveness through Christ, freedom from the grasp of sin, and Israel’s past, present, and future. Chapters twelve through sixteen address our personal responsibilities. The mega themes are sin, salvation, growth, God’s sovereignty, and our service.
Paul’s Addresses His Audience
Writing a letter to someone we know as opposed to someone we’ve never met requires a different opening. Paul begins with his credentials. He was a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, and separated to the Gospel. Although Paul had not founded or visited the church, he had one point of contact with them: he was a servant of Christ as they were.
The Christians in Rome were familiar with the slave or servant idea. The Rome of Paul’s day was populated by some 1.2 million people, half of whom were slaves. The Greek word for servant, doulos, actually means slave, bondman, or man of servile condition and suggests Paul’s consciousness of whom he belonged to and whom he was obligated to serve. It was not a service of bondage.
Like Paul, we do not serve out of drudgery but with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Paul served out of wholehearted obedience because he realized he had been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ. His Master was quite different than the ones the slaves served.
Our redemption also involves surrender. We belong to the one who purchased us with his blood, not money. The more we understand the sacrifice of Christ, the greater will be our desire to serve him faithfully, and the greater will be our realization that we belong to him and owe our very existence to him. When we do not have a high view of Christ’s work on Calvary, the chances are good that our dedication to him will parallel that stance. Weak views of his work on the cross lead to weak experiences of commitment and faith.
Paul was called to be an apostle. Being an apostle wasn’t just something he decided to do. On the Road to Damascus, the risen Lord appeared to Paul, and he had moved from mere religion to a relationship. God then called him as an apostle to the Gentiles. He was not one of the original twelve disciples Jesus chose. In fact, he describes himself as one born out of due time or at the wrong time (1 Corinthians 15:8).
God still calls people into full-time Christian service in offices such as pastors, teachers, missionaries, and other ministry positions. But he also commissions all Christians with work. Failure to realize this leads to complacency and missed opportunities. We do our work as Christians because we have a calling from Almighty God.
Paul says he was separated to the gospel of God. God set him apart and consecrated him to preach the gospel to the lost—particularly the Gentiles. The church ordained him, but his real ordination came from God. Ordination by a governing body means nothing if God has not separated us to the particular ministry.
Paul’s Describes the Gospel
Paul describes this gospel in a threefold manner: it originated with God, it isn’t new, and it fulfills what the prophets from the Old Testament spoke of. The gospel he preaches originated with God, not him or any other human. Something from man has no power to change lives. Only a message that emanates from God can do that. Ritual or heritage will not suffice.
The Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New. One completes the other. This gospel concerns the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He is the sum total as well as the substance of the Gospel. After all, the gospel is good news, and it is the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. The written word is of no value apart from the Living Word. John spoke of this living Word in his gospel (John 1).
Paul expands his reference to Christ and in so doing gives us a passage of great Christological importance (3-4). Christ was born of the seed of David and declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: an essential element of our faith.
The Greek word that is translated “was born” denotes transition—changing from one state of being to another. This is a clear statement of the incarnation of Jesus who went from being the Son of God to a human form yet maintained his divinity. He was the God-man. It was by the resurrection that he was designated the Son of God, yet he did not become such because of the resurrection for he had been that from eternity. Rather, the resurrection proved he was the Son of God and that God accepted his payment for our sins. During his earthly ministry, Jesus fulfilled the office of Messiah. In his risen state, he proved himself to be the Son of God.
Paul Describes His Mission
Christ gave him the mission, and it was his mission to share the gospel with Gentiles at large. There is a rich connection between the words grace and apostleship. It was only by God’s power that Paul had the ability to carry out God’s mission. God’s grace enabled him to do what he had to do every day. This grace also constituted a summons to service.
The above has an intimate bearing on our lives. Christ calls us to carry out a Great Commission, but it is only by depending on his grace and strength that we can even hope to achieve success. Like Paul, we are bound to live for the one who lives in us and died for us. Our real calling is to glorify our Lord and Savior no matter how we earn a living.
Paul Greets His Readers
Paul’s readers have been made the recipients of the blessings of the gospel. He describes his audience as Gentiles, divinely called, beloved of God, and saints. Rome was certainly not a heavenly city. Iniquity and wickedness abounded. Yet, Paul’s audience was the object of God’s love but living in a pagan and sinful environment.
Paul wanted his readers to be aware they were the peculiar property of the One who redeemed them. It is no different for us. We belong to Christ and him to us. Our goal should be to become experientially what we are positionally: saints. The best way to achieve such character is to remember whom we belong to, that it was his grace that bought us, and it is his Spirit working in and through us that will enable us to live for him and carry out his work. The just will live by faith. It is the only way.