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The Epistle to the Romans

Christian D. von Dehsen, Ph.D.
Carthage College
Kenosha, WI

Nature and Purpose of the Epistle to the Romans

The Epistle to the Romans is the Apostle Paul's only epistle to a church he did not establish himself (1.9–15; 15.20–22). This epistle was probably written from Corinth in the latter half of the 50s. In contrast to Paul's other letters, Romans does not seem to be addressing a specific concern or event. Instead, Paul's comments seem more theologically abstract, giving rise to an interpretive debate about the nature and purpose of the letter.

Romans does not seem to be directed at a specific concern with the church. In comparison to such other epistles as Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Philippians, Romans contains a much more extensive and sober defense of his understanding of God's intent to include the Gentiles in the covenant people through God's gracious act for them in Christ. Thus, Paul concentrates on such important themes as the captivity of all humanity under sin, the righteousness of God, the law (Torah), and the inclusion of the Gentiles while maintaining the historic priority of the Jews in the community of the new covenant.

Nevertheless, it is also possible that Paul has particular circumstances in mind when writing the epistle. From the list of people greeted in 16.1–16 he has likely met a large number of people connected with the Roman church during his journeys and may have some indirect knowledge of the situation there. Moreover, Paul takes great pains to defend the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church (e.g., 3.9–20, 27–31; 4.9–12; 9–11; 15.7–13). The defense may address a new social reality caused by the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, including many Jewish members of the church, under the Edict of Claudius in 49 CE (cf. Acts 18.2). When the Jews returned to the city upon Claudius' death in 54 CE they presumably found a church dominated by a large Gentile faction. Thus, Paul's insistence on the equal inclusion of the Gentiles addresses not only a theological issue, but this new social situation.

In addition, Paul may also be concerned about two other factors reflected in chapter 15. First, he hopes to secure the support of the Romans as he visits them on his way to embark on a new missionary journey to Spain (15.14–24, 28). Thus, the epistle could be understood as a letter of introduction and a defense of his gospel. By this time the Romans would have surely heard of the theological controversies Paul encountered in Jerusalem and in the places noted in the epistles mentioned above. Second, before traveling to Rome Paul must first deliver the collection for the poor to the church at Jerusalem. He expresses a fear that he might encounter opposition there, making the collection unacceptable (15.25–33; cf. 16.17–20). Thus, his argument in Romans may be a rehearsal of the kind of defense he will need to make among the "pillars" (cf. Gal 2.9) at the Jerusalem church.

A combination of these factors may invite the broader explanation that Romans has a two-pronged purpose. For the congregations both in Rome and Jerusalem, Paul must provide a strong explication of the gospel he has preached around the northern Mediterranean shores.

Another interpretive path takes into account that Rome is the capital city of the empire. This approach considers the possibility that Paul is critiquing the emperor cult and Roman law by insisting that there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ. Hence, Paul's chief concern could be that the Roman believers do not resort to the idolatrous claims of the emperor cult, but remain true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Opening and the Thematic Statement: 1.1–17

Romans opens with an extended greeting to the beloved in Rome, emphasizing Paul's claim to divine calling as an apostle to the Gentiles (1.1–7). In 1.8–15, Paul expresses his desire to visit the Romans.

Many scholars believe that 1.16–17 contain the theme of the epistle. Here Paul emphasizes that the gospel is the power of God for Jew and Gentile alike. In 1.17, he asserts that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God through faith, supported by a quotation from Habakkuk 2.4. The phrase "righteousness of God" has divided scholars over whether it refers to God's own righteousness or to that righteousness which God bestows on believers.

The Downward Spiral: The Captivity of All Humanity Under Sin

In 1.18–32 Paul censures the sinfulness of the idolatry of the Gentiles. In striking fashion, this section opens with a statement parallel to that of the gospel's theme: the wrath of God is revealed to those who suppress the truth. In a scathing attack, Paul condemns the Gentiles for their idolatry, worshipping the creature rather than the creator (1.20–22); exchanging the truth about God for a lie (1.25). This fateful exchange moved God to "hand the offenders over" to commensurate judgment, ranging from homoerotic passion to a deprived lifestyle (1.26–32). (In recent decades, Paul's condemnation of homoerotic behavior has come under close scrutiny by scholars who claim that Paul was not attacking committed relationships, but abusive ones.)

From 2.13:8 Paul turns to the sinfulness of the Jews. Here he employs a diatribe style, directly addressing the Jews ("you", 2.1) as having no excuse, since they had the benefits of the covenant, circumcision, and the law, yet they did not remain faithful. Only those who are inwardly (lit., in secret) faithful are the true faithful. Nevertheless, God remains faithful, despite the faithlessness of many Jews.

Paul brings this section to a close with a condemnation of all people being under the power of sin, understood as an external, cosmic force, so that all human beings are condemned and unable to become righteous by works of the law (3.9–20; see "Issues of Interpretation"). He stresses that this downward spiral of humanity is confirmed by appeal to a catena of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures (3.10–18 = Pss 14.1–2; 53.1–2; 5.9; 140.3; 10.7; Isa 59.7–8; Ps 36.1).

God Justifies the Ungodly (3.21–5.21)

Paul opens this section with the phrase "but now" (3.21), signaling that Christ inaugurated a new era in the cosmos characterized by the grace of God, (cf. Gal 3.23, 25), disclosing that God is righteous and makes one righteous based on the faith of Christ (3.26). Thus, Paul can offer the astonishing assertion that God justifies the ungodly (4.5; 5.6).

To substantiate these claims and to apply them to both Jew and Gentile, Paul focuses on the patriarch Abraham (4.1–25). Here Paul expands on his comments to the Galatians (Gal 3.6–18) by emphasizing that God reckoned Abraham righteous on the basis of faith, even before Abraham was circumcised (4.9–12). Thus, Abraham is the ancestor of all who have faith, not only of those who are circumcised and follow the law (4.12–25).

In chapter 5 the Apostle stresses that hope and salvation come through Christ by comparing his effect on humanity with that of Adam (5.12–21; cf. 1 Cor 15.21–23, 45–49). The actions of each has a universal effect on humanity (5.12–14; see also "Reading Through Romans"). Through Adam, sin and death entered the world (Gen 2.17; 3.17–19) and exerted dominion over humanity; through Christ God's grace entered the world as a free gift (5.15–19). Anticipating the link between sin and the law developed in chapter 7, Paul notes that the law brought a multiplication of sin, allowing grace to increase even more (5.20–21).

Baptism and the Law (6.1–8.37)

In diatribe style, Paul addresses the question implied by his comments at the end of chapter 5: should sin increase so that grace increases all the more? Certainly not! (6.1–2, cf. 15). Paul develops this response in terms of baptism, by which one dies to sin and emerges from to water to live in newness of life in anticipation of future union with Christ (6.3–11). Once again, Paul stresses that the baptized are free from the dominion of sin and have been transferred to the dominion of Christ (6.12–14). In 6.15–23, Paul puts this kind of dominion in terms of slavery; a person is either enslaved to sin or to righteousness.

Paul connects sin with the law in chapter 7. Whereas in Galatians, Paul viewed the law harshly (Gal 3.1–24), here Paul, perhaps with his audience in Jerusalem in mind, rehabilitates the law as holy, just, and good, while under the domination of sin to tempt people to disobedience (7.7–13). Just as a woman is no longer bound by law to her husband after his death, believers are no longer bound to sin; they have died to the law in Christ, (7.1–10). Paul closes the chapter with what some commentators believe is a personal reflection, namely that the dominion of sin still attempts to coerce the believer into doing what is wrong, creating an internal struggle (7.14–25).

Chapter 8 closes this section with an extended doxology. By emphasizing the antithesis between the Spirit and the flesh (understood as life conditioned by worldly desires), Paul proclaims that those who belong to Christ (8.9; cf. 1.6; 7.4) are children of God, enjoying an intimate relationship with God (Abba, 8.15). The sufferings of the present will be overshadowed by future glory, so that believers live in the hope that they will not be separated from the love of God (8.18–39).

Jews and Gentiles Together in One Church (9–11)

In Romans 9–11 The Apostle provides his most extensive defense of the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. Paul has to maintain a delicate balance by defending their inclusion while simultaneously respecting the historic priority of the Jews. Moreover he has to avoid the charge that he thinks that God is capricious by reneging on the covenantal promises to Israel. It may be possible that these are also charges Paul expects to face by his examiners in Jerusalem.

After acknowledging the priority of Israel (9.1–5), Paul faces the question about whether God's word has failed. Using another series of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul turns the charge against Israel because of their failure to be faithful to the covenant, emphasizing that the true descendants of Abraham are the children of the promise, not those of the flesh (cf. 4.1–25; Gal 3.15–18). God's election rests on God's mercy, not on human effort. In fact, Israel's failure is that they strove to attain righteousness based on law not faith, so that only a righteous remnant remained (9.6–33). Christ has become the end (or goal) of the law for all who believe (10.1–21).

Paul then confronts the vexing question: Has God abandoned God's people. To address this question, Paul contends that God has preserved a righteous remnant by grace (11.1–10), so that the Gentiles may be included. This inclusion should make Israel jealous, hoping for their eventual reinstatement (11.1–12).

Next Paul turns to the Gentiles to prevent their boasting. Using an agricultural metaphor, he depicts the Gentiles as an alien branch grafted on to an olive tree (11.17–24). Recalling an image from the Exodus story (Exod 7.13, 14, 22; 8.15, 19, 32; 9.7, 12, 34, 35; 10.1, 20, 27; 11.10; 14.8), Paul contends that God hardened Israel until the full number of Gentiles could be received. Ultimately, Paul hopes that all Israel will be saved (11.25–35).

Ethical Concerns (12.1–15.13)

In the final chapters Paul addresses ethical concerns. In chapter 12, Paul returns to an image first deployed to the Corinthians (12.3–8; 1 Cor 12.12–26), identifying the church as the body of Christ and the believers members of that body. This image emphasizes the unity of the body and the compassion believers should have for one another (12.9–21). In chapter 13, Paul instructs the believers to obey the temporal powers since their authority derives from God to punish wrong-doers (13.1–7). Until the end times, believers should care for one another (13.11–14). In chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15 Paul adopts another theme from the Corinthian correspondence, admonishing those with strong faith not to judge those whose faith is weaker (14.1–15.6; cf. 1 Cor 8.1–13; 10.23–33). In 15.7–13 Paul brings his larger argument to a close by using passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to reiterate his defense of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church.

Travel Plans and Final Greetings (15.14–16.27)

As noted above, in 15.14–33, the Apostle expresses his intention to visit Rome on his way to Spain after he has delivered the collection to the church in Jerusalem. In 16.1–16, Paul sends greetings to at least twenty-five people associated with the church at Rome (see Commentary on Romans). This large number may indicate people he has encountered through his missionary work. Striking is the large number of women mentioned, suggesting that they played a major role in the leadership of the church. In fact, Paul opens this section by noting that Phoebe from Cenchreae near Corinth is traveling to Rome, presumably bearing his letter. Other greetings follow in 16.21–24. The letter concludes with a blessing that God continue to strengthen the church.

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