Written in Corinth, probably in 57 CE, to a Church which Paul had never yet seen but which he was hoping to visit. The letter was to prepare the ground for such a visit. Paul wrote to give careful exposition of his understanding of the Christian Church in relation to the Jews, with whom God had made a covenant. The Jews were ‘the chosen people’, and many former Jews were by now members of the Church in Rome, which had possibly been presided over by no less a personage than Peter. The leading apostle had perhaps come to Rome shortly before Paul was writing (he was to die under the emperor Nero in 64 CE), so Paul’s mission would be delicate, even though it would seem that in his own mind (Rom. 15: 24) his main plan was to go on beyond Rome and, with Roman help, to proceed to the west. If Paul’s epistle to the Philippians was written from Rome, it provides evidence (Phil. 4: 22) that Christians had already infiltrated into Caesar’s palace itself. The Church had travelled from Jerusalem to the capital of the empire already, and the apostle to the Gentiles had better catch up!

The theme of the epistle is the Salvation offered by God to all humanity through the faith of the gospel. Paul expounds this in three directions: first, as a kind of statesman, in which he examines the present position and future prospects of Judaism; then, as a theologian, he reflects on the bankruptcy of Judaism, and the remedy for it; and finally, as a man of action, he indicates his intentions and plans.

He is aware (Rom. 14–16) that there existed two groups in the Roman Church: Jews who became (Jewish) Christians, and ex-pagans. He wanted the former to realize that Gentile Christians, who did not observe the Jewish Law, represented the heart of the Church. The ex-Jews should worship alongside the Gentiles and sever all their emotional and legal links with the synagogue before Paul arrives. Inevitably then he has a problem: that if Jesus is the Messiah, what is to be affirmed about the revelation given in the OT? If God is now calling the Gentiles, is he not being unfaithful to his promise to the Jews? This is the question addressed by Paul in Rom 9–11. In fact, he claims, the OT itself shows that God chooses people quite freely and irrespective of natural descent or race.

Paul must also of necessity give a full treatment to his views, previously adumbrated to the Galatians, of the Law (Torah). It is at once ‘holy, righteous and good’ (7: 12), yet Christians are discharged from it (7: 6), and they are thus liberated because salvation is through Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. Hitherto righteousness, being right, with God was through membership of God’s covenant and the chosen people with their Torah. In gratitude for such a privilege, and in joy, faithful Jews observed the law with its regulations about food and Sabbaths. It was their response to God’s grace, and was not felt as a burdensome legalism. Into this covenant, circumcision was the divinely prescribed means of entry. By contrast, Paul preached a gospel of faith in the risen Christ and membership by baptism into the new covenant. If justification was to be achieved by the practice of the Law, then Christ had died for nothing. Obedience to the Law is not the decisive criterion of one’s standing with God, and therefore Christians ‘have died to the law’ (7: 4). The criterion of righteousness is faith in Christ, which has taken the place of the Law at the centre of a believing life (10: 4). The Law was not so much bad in itself, therefore (it is ‘holy’), but the human heart had twisted it into badness, notably in the command not to covet.

Paul is aware that his strictures on the Law might lend substance to the charge that he is indifferent to morality. So he spends four chapters (12–15) in relating ‘his gospel’ (Gal. 1: 9) to the duties of everyday life in Church and society, in which the predominant motive must be love; and love’s obligations are even more exacting than those of the Law.

The epistle appears to come to an end with ch. 15, making ch. 16 into an appendix, which has led some commentators to suggest that the epistle was a circular letter, with appropriate greetings added at the end to each recipient Church. For example, the references to Priscilla and Aquila who were in Ephesus at the time of the Corinthian correspondence (Acts 18: 26), and to Epaenetus (16: 5), the first convert in the province of Asia (with its capital at Ephesus), argues a closer relationship of Paul with Christians at Ephesus rather than with those in Rome who were strangers to him (cf. Rom. 16: 17). Perhaps this section was part of that copy of Romans destined for Ephesus, but the evidence for this is insufficient. A similar doxology also occurs at the end of ch. 11.

It was for a long time fashionable among commentators to interpret Romans in the same terms as Martin Luther had done—namely that Paul was opposing the view supposedly held by the Jews that good deeds done as required by the Law gained merit in the sight of God, and so a man was justified by his works. Luther urged that Paul, on the contrary, said that acceptance by God, and being acquitted at the judgement, was in virtue of grace from God and solely by faith on the side of man. Luther had in mind Roman Catholicism and the strenuous discipline of the anxious asceticism of his life as a monk. He felt liberated by reading Romans and Galatians. But in truth Luther’s was not the situation of the 1st cent. Paul’s attack on the Law is not because it induces self-righteousness through accumulating merit, but because it has been displaced in the scheme of salvation by Christ, and for that reason Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat. It is in that sense that Paul can claim that ‘he upholds the law’ (3: 31): the Law places the Jews in the same position as Gentiles—both are guilty before God; and Jews and Gentiles in the Church are one in Christ (3: 21–30), who liberates both from the power of sin (8: 4)—Paul’s doctrine of the Atonement. For he does not assert that God’s wrath (1: 18) against sinful humankind has been appeased by his Son offered instead of us; it is not God who is changed, but believers. There can be absolutely no question of converted Gentiles first submitting to the Law by circumcision before being baptized. Jewish Christians should sever all relations with the synagogue and join in worship and social life with Gentile Christians on Pauline principles (15: 7).

Paul ends the letter with a premonition of failure: the Jews may frustrate his plans; his offering may not be acceptable (15: 31). And according to the Acts the apostle did reach Rome, but in chains (Acts 28: 16).