Thanks to Edgar de Blieck for offering this introduction to Paul’s letter to the Romans.
John Calvin wrote: “When any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.” Pray that God will help you to better understand this letter, and that he will use it to enlighten your reading of the rest of scripture.
What is Romans? I find it helps to think in terms of two big
theological sections, one an argument/narrative and one an
In chapters 1-11 Paul constructs a case. He
argues that Jesus Christ is not only how God saves every sinner he
calls, he is also the only man who ever kept and fulfilled the perfect
- the new and better Adam,
- the object of faith for all to whom faith has ever been given,
- the way, the truth, and the life, and
- the hope of eternal glory.
In other words, Paul shows how Jesus, God’s son, second person in the
trinity, makes jews and gentiles part of God’s family for ever,
overriding ethnic and other difficulties that seemed to destine
sinners forever to remain outside of God’s family. Paul demonstrates
that what Jesus did honours and fulfils the covenant God made so many
years ago with Abraham. Moreover, for Paul, Jesus’ obedience to God’s
will settled the issue once and for all, of what the law was for. We
see Jesus as a substitute, taking our place, atoning for our sins, and
giving his people a righteousness that they do not deserve, can never
earn, and can never lose. We see God’s plan come to fruition, to the
praise of his Glory.
Chapters 12 to 16 are about living-out the Christian life together as
a family of God’s people. The turning point in the letter, which is
really a protracted sermon, is the closing section of chapter 11,
where Paul offers an outburst of praise, in which he voices his utter
amazement at what God has done, is doing and will do.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen.”
There are many other highlights in the book. For example, look out for:
the exploration of what sin is, set in the context of what the truth
is, through the first four chapters;
the explanation of why it is good to do good in chapter 5
the metaphor of childbirth in chapter 8, in which the sufferings of
the present age are understood as being like labour pains – an image
Jesus also used; the affirmation of the permanence and security of
salvation also in that chapter;
the celebration of God’s untouchable sovereignty in chapter 9;
the call to evangelism in chapter 10;
the metaphor of the “ingrafted branch” in chapter 11 – which makes
True Jews of all Christians;
the rhapsody to living in love in chapter 12, and the careful
instructions about Christlikeness through 12-15.
But don’t ignore the last chapter. Yes, it has a lot of names in it,
and it is a dull read. Yet consider how Paul the man is often
portrayed: obtuse, pedantic, irritable. Even with a sympathetic eye,
Paul can often seem like an austere, authoritarian figure, from the
tone of his letters. No other letter Paul wrote gives so many clues
about the quality and extent of his ministry matrix, or his character,
however. His Christian family was extensive and important to him.
Therefore, consider the warmth and love expressed here! It is quite
clear that his way of life and his networks of sociability were deeply
significant in his churchmanship and ministry, and that his very
identity was church to the core. Look at his idea of “what the church
should be”, and think in Paul’s terms about “church”, and our
experience of church must surely transform. Being “in Christ” is what
his life was about, and he lays out why Jesus has created community in
his family. The book of Romans came from Paul’s pen, but we have it
because it is a church document. Paul was no rootless individual.
It is not an easy book to read, but it is worth the effort. I should
persevere with it from beginning to end in one sitting, before
dividing it into sections. At the very least, follow the argument
section through from chapter 1-11 as a unity.
Through that reading, have in mind that Paul is leading up to a
doxology in which he says that “from him and through him and to him
are all things”. I find it helpful to ask, throughout each part of the
argument: “how is this helping Paul reach that conclusion?”
The latter section is also a unity, so read it through as one. It
begins by talking about love as a Church virtue, and explores all
sorts of areas in which love might not be a first response. Paul
considers love to be an active, a sacrificial, and a gregariously
reactive virtue for the whole church. He offers cautions against
various kinds of lovelessness, and advice on how to become a people
growing in love. This is a companion ethic to the standard of love
which Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthian church.
That church had problems with individuals abusing their freedoms, so
he wrote to counsel them in individual maturity. To the Romans, he
wrote about how a community of people taking Christ’s name should be
together. The better known passage, in our individualistic age, is
“love is patient, love is kind”; if we all take what he says
seriously, we will discover how that plays out in our Christian lives