As we study the epistle to the Romans, it is helpful to consider the circumstances under which Paul wrote it.
DATE AND PLACE OF COMPOSITION
Paul had labored extensively in the church of Corinth during his second missionary journey. According to Acts 18:1, he was there for a year and six months. On his third missionary journey, after laboring in Ephesus, he returned to Corinth (Acts 20:23) and labored in that area for another three months. During this time he wrote his letter to Rome.
You ask, how do we know this? By examining bits of information given in this letter itself, we come to this conclusion. In Romans 15:23, Paul mentions that he is about to set out for his return to Jerusalem. He had in hand the offerings for the poor in Jerusalem which had been collected from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia (Romans 15:26). It was his intention to travel to Jerusalem with this money and then depart for Rome (Romans 15:24, 28). He probably sent the letter to Rome by the hand of Phoebe, a deaconess from the nearby city of Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). Gaius is mentioned in this letter as one who sent his greetings (Romans 16:23), and according to I Corinthians 1:14 he was in Corinth. Likewise, Erastus sent his greetings (Romans 16:23) and we know he was treasurer in Corinth. From this we conclude that Paul must have been in Corinth at the time of the writing.
Since both I and II Corinthians mention the collection of the alms for the Jerusalem poor as being gathered, and in this letter to the Romans as being completed, the date for the writing of this epistle must have been soon after the writing of I and II Corinthians. This would make it about A.D. 56 or early A.D. 57.
PURPOSE AND CENTRAL MESSAGE
Paul finished his labors in the churches of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. The churches were organized and established in the truth. The word had gone forth from strategic centers, Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth, and spread throughout the region. Certain problems in the local churches had been dealt with and now the apostle set his goals westward to Rome and even Spain. Hence a letter to Rome served a double purpose. It was preparatory for his coming, by it he sought to build up the church thereby setting forth the truth in a concise and precise manner, so that upon his arrival they would already have begun to contemplate the truth. At the same time, Paul may have had forewarning of impending difficulty in Jerusalem. Should he be injured or even killed, a summary of the truth would already have been sent to Rome so that the gospel could go forward, even if need be in his absence.
With this in mind, we can appreciate the epistle of Romans. The Holy Spirit moved Paul to write just such a summary of the gospel for the church of all ages. Rome was destined to become a strategic center for the spread of the gospel. This epistle served to set forth the content of that gospel. Its grand theme of justification by faith, and not by the works of the law is given in detail. This truth extols the sovereignty of God. The Holy Spirit guided Martin Luther to ponder its depths which became the fountain head of the Reformation. Of the epistle, Luther wrote, “It is the true masterpiece of the New Testament, and the very purest Gospel, which is well worthy and deserving that a Christian man should not only learn it by heart, word for word, but also that he should daily deal with it as the daily bread of men’s souls. For it can never be too much or too well read or studied; and the more it is handled the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.” Surely, he spoke from experience, well may we read it and study it with prayerful diligence .
1. The introduction (Rom. 1:1-15). As is generally true in the writing of epistles, Paul identified himself as author, identified the recipient of the letter, and extended salutation and blessing (Rom. 1:1-7). He assured the Roman Christians that the gospel was for them as well as the Jews, he expressed eagerness to bring the gospel to them (Rom. 1:8-15).
2. Paul by the Holy Spirit set forth the great doctrine of justification by faith in detail (Rom. 1:16-11:36). He begins by showing that both Jew and Gentile cannot obtain righteousness before God by the keeping of the law or by works they perform. All are under the curse of sin (Rom. 1:16-3:20). The Gentiles have the general knowledge of God through creation, but even that does not change them. Rather, it leaves them without an excuse to keep on sinning as they do. As a result, God’s wrath comes upon them and He gives them over to a reprobate mind to work all kinds of abominations (Rom. 1:16-32). The same thing applies to the Jews. All are under the curse of sin, so that a Jew cannot certainly judge another Gentile as being worse than he is. The Jews may be outwardly circumcised, have the knowledge of the law, even keep the letter of the law, and still perish. The law cannot save, it can only condemn: “By the deed of the law no flesh is justified.” The only privilege the Jew had over against the Gentile was that he had the Gospel preached to him (Rom. 2:1-3:20).
Righteousness before God is ours only through Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-5:21). The apostle now turns from the misery of sin to salvation in Jesus Christ. He sets forth righteousness in Christ (redemption) which becomes ours by means of faith. That faith is the only way of salvation for both Jew and Gentile. It likewise excludes all boasting, it extols God (Rom. 3:21-31). Paul now cites two examples from the Old Testament that show that the same thing was true then: justification for the Old Testament saint was through faith in Jesus Christ. The first example given is Abraham. He believed God and He counted it to him for righteousness. This means that Abraham believed in the promise of God that directed him to Christ. Abraham demonstrated that by offering his only son, Isaac. God’s promise was yea and amen in Christ Jesus (Rom. 4:1-5, 9-25). The second example is David and his rejoicing in the forgiveness of sin (Rom. 4:6-8). Those who have such like faith receive the blessings of justification, peace with God, the ability to glory in tribulation, to have patience, hope, and experience (Rom. 5:1-6). All of this flows from Jesus Christ. He gave His life as a ransom for the ungodly, the sinner. The benefit is extended to all His people. Even as death resulted from Adam’s transgression, so life flows forth from Christ’s exaltation. Now in Christ, grace reigns through righteousness (Rom. 5:7-21).
This righteousness of God in Christ is a power that influences our life in such a way that we delight in the law of God (Rom. 6:1-8:39).
The apostle carefully spells out for us that faith does not give us the liberty to sin. Rather, our old man is buried with Christ so that we are dead to sin in order that we may now live unto God (Rom. 6:1-23). He uses marriage as an example. We were married to the law, but in Christ we died to the law that now we may be married to Christ (Rom. 7:1-4). This does not eliminate the influence of sin, which still is in our members. Rather than give heed to sin, we now by faith delight in the law according to the inward man. The tension this produces in the child of God is that he is willing to do good, but evil is still present. Even that drives him to Jesus Christ for his refuge (Rom. 7:5-25). In Jesus Christ we rejoice, for we are delivered from the bondage of the law unto the liberty of the children of God. Now there is no condemnation; there is freedom in Jesus Christ. That freedom is not to sin with impunity. No, it is freedom to believe that all things work together for good to them that love God. Even the natural creation has hope, though now it still groans. We have hope, though now we still groan. The Spirit takes our groanings and through Christ makes intercession for us (Rom. 8:1-30). Now the apostle leads us to sing a beautiful doxology of praise that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ. From predestination to glory, God’s love is faithful (Rom. 8:31-39).
God’s righteousness is displayed in the salvation of Israel and of the Gentiles (Rom. 9:1-11:36). Paul asserts his personal desire for the salvation of his brethren, the Jews. He recognizes that they are not all saved (Rom. 9:1-5). As he proceeds to deal with the reason for this, he first sets forth the truth that it is not the fault of the gospel, “as if the word of God hath taken none effect” (Rom. 9:6). Rather, it is because not all who are outwardly Israelites are the true Israel of God. The children of the promise are counted for the seed. These are the elect of God, for, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” God’s sovereignty is the deepest cause of the salvation of true Israel (Rom. 9:7-13). God showed His sovereign mercy to Moses (Rom. 9:14-16) and His sovereign judgment and wrath upon Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17, 18). He anticipated an objection that if God sovereignly determines salvation, how can man be responsible for his fault? He answers that man must not call God to account. The potter hath power over the clay to make vessels of wrath or mercy (Rom. 9:19-24)? He quotes from both Hosea (Hos. 1:10) and Isaiah (Is. 10:22) to show that the elect include both Jews and Gentiles. This explains why Jews perish and Gentiles are saved (Rom. 9:25-33). The apostle now shows that Israel in a great measure rejected the gospel. He, as an apostle, desired their salvation (Rom. 10:1-3). Though they claim to hold the law, they really rejected it, for Christ was the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). He referred to Moses and the prophets to show that they spoke of Christ (Rom. 10:5-13). There is only one Lord, and all who call upon Him are saved. They call because they believe; they believe because they heard Christ; they heard Christ through the preaching of the gospel; they heard the preaching because one was sent out by the church in the name of Christ. Many heard, but did not obey (Rom. 10:14-21). The remnant of the election among the Jews is saved (Rom. 11:1-6). The others not saved were blinded, as Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 29:10. David said the same thing inPsalm 69:22. The purpose of this is that by the hardening of the Jews the Gentiles are brought in. This did not mean that God no longer cared about the Jews. Rather, by including the Gentiles, the Jews according to election were provoked to holy jealousy and turned to Jesus Christ. In this way all Israel is saved (Rom. 11:7-15). He uses the example of the olive tree, Gentiles. Together they make up the one tree, God’s elect people throughout history joined by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 11:16-32). Again he concludes with a doxology of praise to God whose judgments are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33-36)